Otto's Night Watch: 'Perils of So-Called Automation' Flashback Friday
Here’s the next installment in our continuing series of republished “Otto’s Night Watch” columns written by Otto Boutin, which appeared monthly several decades ago in Printing Impressions. In this week’s short story, Old Man Jackson lets his son use what he learned in college to bring more automation into the composing room. But automation just for the sake of automation, including new requirements that bogged down workers with unnecessary paperwork and procedures, brought productivity to a halt.
Generation Gap Comes to Printing Management
Old Man Jackson did not believe in spoiling his only son. He insisted that the boy start at the bottom of the newspaper business and work his way up, in the great American tradition.
“Stonehead,” the old man said, “your college degree is not enough. You’ve got to spend at least a month in every department so that you’d know what the newspaper business is all about.”
“And then I become vice president?” Stonehead asked.
“Then you become vice president.”
And so Stonehead Jackson spent a month on the delivery trucks, a month in the pressroom and now was in the composing room.
The first thing he did was to zero in on the machinists.
“Those guys are standing around, doing nothing,” he complained to his father.
“Let them stand,” the old man replied tolerantly, “as long as the machines are running.”
“How do you know they’re running all the time?”
“I trust my machinists. They’re good men. They keep the machines going.”
"You’ve got an old-fashioned attitude, Pop. I’ll show you what I learned in college. First, we’ll need a control room. I’ll have it built in that corner. We can throw out a few type cabinets.”
The old man shook his gray head. Then he remembered that a son begotten by himself couldn’t be all bad.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m glad you’re showing an interest in the business.”
One wall of the control room was devoted to a panel of 60 lights, one for each typesetting machine. When the machine was running, the light showed green. When it stopped it showed red.
“See, Pop,” Stonehead said when the project was finished. “You just look at the panel and you can tell which machine is running and which one is not.”
“All I see is red lights. Forty-five of them. Why aren’t the machines running?”
“They’re being fixed.”
“But why does it take so long? Last week I hired five extra machinists and I still have for 45 red lights on the panel. I’ve got to see what’s going on.”
The old man walked between the rows of typesetting machines. Operators and monitors were standing around, reading newspapers and lighting cigarettes, while machinists were scribbling into large tabs of ruled forms.
“Hey, Curly!” the old man shouted at one of the machinists. “Why aren’t you fixing this distributor shop? You’ve let the gate open.”
“I’ve lost my ball point,” said Curly.
“Here’s a pencil.”
“Thanks, sir, but a pencil won’t help. The report has to be made out in quadrip … quadrip … four different sheets. And the top sheet has to be made out with a red ball point. I’ve got to find one so I can make out the report.”
“What kind of report?”
“I have to explain why the distributor stopped. I have to specify the number of the channel entrance, the condition of the teeth and ears of the mat, the font number …”
“Hurry!” said the old man. “Get the red ball point.” And he kept walking down the aisles between the idle machines.
One of the younger machinists, eager to make a good impression, came up to him.
“Sir,” he asked, “how do you spell helical?”
“What the hell’s helical?”
“A helical pinion gear, sir. I found how to spell pinion all by myself. I had to stand in line at the dictionary for 20 minutes. May I offer a suggestion, sir, for the benefit of the company?”
“Purchase a dozen or more dictionaries, sir. So the machinists don’t have to stand in line.”
“Why don’t you use the parts catalog?”
“We never get a chance to see it, sir. The foreman has it all the time. He’s trying to memorize the big words.”
The boss stopped at an open machine, studying the splash of metal on the floor. In the old days he had fixed many a back squirt himself, in less than five minutes.
“What’s holding it up?” he asked, touching the molds. “The machine’s cold already. You must have had it open for a half hour.”
A machinist was fussing around with micrometers, thermometers, screw drivers, hammers, and the inevitable ball point pen.
“New system,” said the machinist, wrinkling his forehead. “We have to give the reason for the back squirt. It may be due to high temperature or low temperature. The molds may be worn or the disc may be warped. The lockup may be off its feet. Or maybe the damn machine just feels like having a back squirt today. But I’ve got to fill out the form.”
Through the corner of his eye, the old boss saw Stash sneaking away from a broken-down linotype.
“What about this cracked cam, Stash?” he shouted. “You’re an expert on replacing cams.”
“Not any more, boss. I can fix the — thing, but I can’t spell it. I don’t even know what to call it. I just call it a ringarounder. I’ve been fixing ringarounders for 30 — years, but I still don’t know how to spell them.”
“Goddamit, Stash, fix the — ringarounder and the hell with the spelling.”
“That’s easy to say, boss. But last week a good machinist got fired because he made a mistake in spelling. And I’m on probation. Your son gave me just one more chance.”
“Probation? What did you do?”
“In making out a report, I put the carbon paper in backward.”
Old Man Jackson reached into his pocket for a couple of aspirins. And he took a pill for his high blood pressure. Indignantly he walked into his son’s office.
Stonehead was sprawled out in a contour chair in front of the red-lit panel. On his lap was a gorgeous brunette, revealing a lot of leg.
“You didn’t expect me to handle all that paperwork myself, did you, Pop? I watch the panel and she files the reports. Then we’ll need a computer to tabulate the results so that we could draw a projection into the future maintenance problems. For instance, we’ll be able to predict that on November 27th at 2:34 pm we’ll need new brushes on the motor of Number 42. We’ll also need an assistant who can run the computer."
The old man kept staring at Suzie, who fluttered her fingers at him.
“The first day on the job and you’re on his lap already?” he asked.
Suzie stood up, brushed her miniskirt and extended her long-nailed fingers to Old Man Jackson.
“I’m happy to meet you, sir,” she said graciously. “Your son and I are not exactly strangers. Stonehead was my roommate in college.”