Work is something we would generally like to delegate. That’s what we did with animals, we got them to help us increase our abilities in the agricultural arena. Horses and mules were used to turn grinding mills and help with irrigation according to a variety of mechanical solutions over the centuries.
More sophisticated mechanical systems show up intermittently from the 1300’s on as the craft of clock making becomes popular. As one would expect, man’s tendency to innovate leads to many mechanical marvels of the early industrial revolution. Early mechanisms to produce textiles instead of people making their own.
All this changed when James Watt “tweaked” Newcomen’s steam engine and made it significantly more efficient. Newcomen’s system worked for pumping air into the coal mines, but the thermal balance was poor. Suddenly, mechanical power was virtually unlimited. The new means of power was insensitive to location, with heat and water, anything was possible. Soon the steam locomotive would make transportation across great distances comparatively quick and effortless.
Ironically, steam is still a major power source. Coal fire, natural gas and nuclear power plants that generate our electricity all make steam to power the generators. This is because of the discovery of electric motors as a superior way to create mechanical power. Electric motors are commonly available with efficiencies of 80-97% making them the dominant source of mechanical power in the last 100 years.
The next major innovation in work was the “assembly line” method. Also called mass production, it is an organizing principle of finite tasks that are ordered in sequence to permit the assembly of complex systems. Automobiles, or course, are the source. We would not have the ubiquitous automobile if not for Ford’s invention of the assembly line.
With the rise of electricity as a power source, there have to be controls. So the emergence of the electric relay and an expanding series of innovations to create ever more complex control systems to create early form of electric automation. Unlike the mechanical automation of the past, which was capable of performing only one task, electric automation, relay logic, was capable of doing a range of tasks.
Electrically powered and controlled systems would prove to be the ideal combination for increased productivity required for the expanding auto industry. While electrically controlled systems eliminate wear and perform reliably, they lacked one important attribute; programmability. In the late 1960’s we enter the age of the programmable controller, and automation as we now know it, is born.