In 1830, the Iron Man arose in its terrible beauty from the inventor’s bench, stronger and quicker than any mortal. Almost before he was out of his cradle, he strangled men. By the power of his mighty, mechanical arm, he crushed their resistance, until they became docile subjects of his rule. This was no Frankenstein’s creature, however; no fiction, but rather reality. The Iron Man — or the self-acting mule, to give it its proper name — was what factory workers called the device that could take yarn after it was drawn and twisted and wind it at the correct tension into the shape of a cone. Before its day, this work was done by human mule-spinners; their job had been a skilled one and in consequence highly paid. However, the spinners had fomented industrial unrest in the 1820s, and by 1830 Richard Roberts’s invention had turned these troublemakers out of work, substituting them with the self-acting mule and its semi-skilled operators. The new employees were expendable and so could not strike for higher wages.
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