Food Service Employees Replaced by Automation! (In 1902.)

There’s a lot being written these days (including by me) about workers being replaced by robots and automation. While that’s true, it’s not a new phenomenon. 

Back in 1902, the first “automat” opened in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart introducing chrome-and-glass coin-operated machines, which brought high-tech, inexpensive eating to a low-tech era, according to this Smithsonian article. This eliminated the need for waitresses and cashiers but increased the number of behind-the-scenes cooks and food prep workers. The concept was successful, and eventually Horn & Hardart was the largest restaurant chain in the world, serving 800,000 people a day. (They were eventually replaced by Burger Kings, but that’s a different story.)

Today, automation is also being aimed at replacing food preparation employees. Benefits include less contamination, a more uniform product (perfect burgers every time), better reliability (no sick or vacation days) and lower cost. On the flip side are concerns about higher unemployment as the minimum-wage workers being replaced might have nowhere to go.

Of course, this has been an overblown concern for the last 150 years as technologies such as the steam engine and electricity have constantly replaced employees like farmers, weavers and miners. But the innovation those technologies unleashed produced entire new industries that hired many more employees than those replaced initially and raised the standard of living to levels never seen before in human history.

Today we see technology spawning new industries like self-driving cars, drone manufacturers, and countless online apps, games and services employing millions of people. It’s clear to me that this cycle will continue. Technology is not to be feared, but is something to be optimistic about for the future in terms of employment, higher standards of living – and lots of cool stuff!

Frank Kenna III
August 23, 2017

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