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Industrial America Went the Way of the Dinosaur and For The Same Reasons

Packard Plant – flickr creative commons

WWII built or rebuilt industrial America. Big plants and factories were needed to manufacture the essentials of war. Aircraft and tanks and ships and guns and electronics and vehicles of all sorts. After the war with the help of government contracts and consumer demand, these big plants and factories still hummed with activity.

Steel plants turned out the steel that was needed for nearly everything. Cars and trucks and buses and even radios and television sets and stereos and washers and dryers. They all used steel and the steel plants hummed with activity day and night. Employing thousands, if not millions of people for nearly every aspect of manufacturing required people to perform some task. Someone to operate the lifts and belts and mills for the automobile engines and transmissions. Someone to wire chassis or assemblies for the electronics. Even when RCA introduced the printed circuit, someone had to make the circuit boards and somebody else to put the parts on them and still somebody else to put the boards on and off the flow solder apparatus.

And there were engineers and draftsmen and technicians to design all of this by hand.

Meanwhile the Europeans and Japanese and Koreans and all were rebuilding from the ravages of war. Building new smaller, more efficient plants. Using the newest technology. Beginning to use transistors in their products. Learning how best to manufacture them and improve on them. Using new techniques to  assemble transistor radios. Make the printed circuit boards. Changing and modifying them year after year to improve them and make them more reliable. For they knew they had to do this if they wanted any chance to compete with American products.

Most Americans lived pretty well. Even blue collar workers, thanks to the unions and the fact that there were more jobs than people. But this would not last.

While American auto makers ere building big cars for the baby boomer families with a lot of children, Volkswagen began importing cars built for the baby boomer children themselves. Small, inexpensive, thrifty and easy to work on. Soon other European manufacturers did as well. And then the Japanese.

And the American manufacturing firms like RCA, GE and Raytheon were using the same techniques to make transistors as they did vacuum tubes — each one perfectly functional. The Japanese were busy trying to build them hundreds at a time. At first the fall out rate was high, but with analysis of the fall out and why, changing the technique and going back again, the fall out rate dropped. As did the cost per item. Making Japanese transistors, and then integrated circuits much less expensive than American counter parts. The American companies began shipping their transistor manufacturing overseas to the updated, more efficient Japanese plants or got out of the business all together.

European manufactures had much smaller plants and their business model very different than American manufacturing, producing smaller quantities of more expensive  cars and electronics targeted not to the lower class consumer, but to those who could afford it.  Or to those who wanted smaller, more sporty cars that could handle the European roads.

Japanese cars and electronics began to show up. Smaller and better made, though not so much at first. It wasn’t long before they out sold American products.

It was not just the price and performance though that did in American industry but capitalism and the size of industry itself that helped to bring about it’s demise. American industry with it’s huge plants became like the dinosaur of long past. Just too large to change fast enough to catch up. For RCA to compete with the new Sony sets would have meant a complete restructuring of the manufacturing process and even rebuilding of a number of it’s facilities.  Costing millions of dollars and digging into it’s profits, a situation the capitalistic investors would not tolerate. All they cared about was a return on their investment.  A situation that was to hit a number of car companies as well. And this can be seen in this picture of the old Packard Plant in Detroit.

American Motors and RCA went out of business or were broken up and sold off. Like the dinosaur, their shear size and weight condemning them to eventual extinction.

Electronics firms began to ship their production to over seas facilities more equipped to handle the emerging technology of the time.  Lest the capitalists force them to shut.

Others simply closed up shop.

Maybe, just maybe, had some of these business been cooperatively owned and cooperatively run without the hindrance and financial demands of capitalistic investors, they might have been able to change, adapt, evolve and survive. We will never know.

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