[Ads-l] Anecdote: Why not get a thousand men and give them teaspoons with which to dig up the dirt?

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 19 20:51:06 UTC 2023

The recent news about advanced AI systems like GPT4 and MidJourney
have reinvigorated philosophical questions about automation versus the
preservation of jobs.

I decided to perform further research on a well-known didactic
pro-automation anecdote in economics about replacing workers using
shovels with earth-moving equipment. In modern times a version of this
tale has been attributed to economist Milton Friedman.

Now I have located an early instance set in Philadelphia with Irish
workers in 1901.

Details for several versions of the tale are available on the Quote
Investigator website. The updated version of the webpage should be
visible within 24 hours.


[ref] 1901 September 20, The Chicago Daily Tribune, They Saw the
Point, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)

[Begin excerpt]
An incident which struck me at the time as quite amusing occurred not
long since on North Broad street. A steam shovel at work had attracted
a large number of spectators, including two Irishmen, who, judging by
their appearance, were toilers temporarily out of employment.

As the big shovel at one lick scooped up a whole cartload of dirt and
dumped it upon a gondola car, one of the Irishmen remarked: "What a
shame, to think of them digging up dirt in that way!"

"What do ye mane?" asked his companion.

"Well," said the other, "that machine is taking the bread out of the
mouths of a hundred laborers who could do the work with their picks
and shovels." "Right you are, Barney," said the other fellow.

Just then a man who had been looking on and who had overheard the
conversation remarked: "See here, you fellows. If that digging would
give work to a hundred men with shovels and picks, why not get a
thousand men and give them teaspoons with which to dig up the dirt?"
The Irishmen, to their credit, saw the force of the remark and the
humor of the situation and joined heartily in the laugh that followed,
and one of them added: "I guess you’re right, Captain. The scoop's the
thing after all." —Philadelphia Public Ledger.
[End excerpt]

Garson O’Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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