Technological progress has a long-running tendency to make entire professions unnecessary. Your history teacher in high school probably tried hard to point out one of the most well known examples: the Luddites. These English textile artisans didn't take well to contemporary industrial automation and famously went on a rampage to smash every piece of labor-saving machinery they could lay their hands on. But the Luddites were far from the only ones who lost their jobs. We've collected a list of weird and fascinating professions that went out more quietly.
1. Factory Lector
Many of us manage the boredom of repetitive tasks and chores by listening to music, podcasts or even turning on the good old radio. But early industrial workers lacked all the glorious gadgetry of our day. Instead, they sometimes pooled money to hire Lectors to read out loud. That's a pretty clever way to get some entertainment.
2. Bowling Alley Pinsetter
Before the arrival of automation, bowling alleys couldn’t have done without human pinsetters. Their job was to pick up fallen bowling pins and put them back in order for the next bowl. They’d also return the balls to the players. This low-paid job, mainly favoured by teenage boys, had its perks, too: the pinsetter was allowed to bowl for free and got a small bonus for every game he set. The boys were replaced by automatic pinsetters in the late 1950. Should have gone on strike!
3. Knocker Upper
Who needs an alarm clock? Not you, because you have one in your phone. But people alive during the dawn of industrialization didn't even have the option to buy a generic alarm, plastic alarm clock. Yet, they had to wake up and drag themselves to work on time. So, of course, they subscribed to the services and a knocker-upper. These guys were essentially human alarm clocks who walked around town and used sticks, clubs or pebbles to knock on clients’ windows and doors.
4. Ice Cutter
Ice cutters, made famous by the handsome Kristoff in Disney’s blockbuster Frozen, used to collect ice from lake and river surfaces. The huge blocks they cut with chainsaws and axes were stored in ice-houses, exported in huge ships or sold to help people store food all year round. Commercial ice trade boomed until pollution concerns and typhoid deaths created a pressing demand for new refrigeration technology. By the turn of the 20th century, most ice cutters were jobless. Kristoff was clearly lucky to meet his princess.
5. Enemy Aircraft Listener
Before the invention of the radar, troops tried out a wide variety of listening devices to detect when enemy planes were getting dangerously close. The rather disturbing looking equipment included, for example, acoustic horns, sound mirrors and war tubas. There’s no real proof of aircraft listeners’ success, but they were an essential part of the army until radars took over in the 1930’s.
6. Rat Catcher
As the name suggests, rat catchers were employed from Medieval times to the 20th century to trap and kill urban rats. This helped prevent and control disease, most crucially the Black Plague, responsible for killing a third of the European population. Maybe due to low wages, however, some rat catchers in Europe were known to raise rats as well as catching them. This helped them to deliver more dead rats to the city and make more money. The downside of the job was its risky nature: the rodents not only had vicious teeth but also carried the hideous diseases the rat catchers were helping to eradicate. While we still have pest control, the work is now considerably less hands-on.
7. Lamp Lighter
Some visibility is essential for safety, and before electricity someone had to walk around to fire up street lamps. Unlike rat catchers crawling around in sewers, which everyone would prefer not to think about, lamp lighters are still used as a quaint touristy curiosity in some places.
How do you get fresh produce in an industrial city before electricity and affordable fridges? Well, you could have some dude deliver some to your doorstep. In places like India, milkmen are still commonplace. In the western world, milkmen have become rare, but not quite extinct. By 2005, 0.4% of consumers still enjoyed delivered milk.
You heard it here first: Doesn’t the whole concept of a milkman sound like something hipsters would enjoy? Especially if you could control your milkman with an app?
9. Log driver
Timber in huge quantities is essential for civilization. And until relatively recently, this essential thing was harvested and transported by rugged men who risked their life virtually ever day “at the office”. Log driving often occurred in the spring floods after a winter of harvesting near waterways. Drivers drove large chunks of timber downstream. Sometimes, when jams started forming, they had to be dispersed with dynamite, rapidly. If jams couldn’t be avoided, they could take weeks to clear up.
10. Switchboard operator
Early telephony systems relied on phone lines being physically plugged back and forth on a wall of switches. Someone would sit at this huge wall to receive requests for calls and route them, and essentially listen to entire phone call. Automating phone systems with direct dial began as early as the 1920’s, to save labor costs and ensure some privacy. But phone operators remained essential in corporate phone environments with extensions for decades, until the 60s and 70s. Sometimes receptionists and secretaries still perform some tasks similar to phone operation, providing information on whom to reconnect to.
"Body snatcher" isn't necessarily the most flattering of job titles, but it was sometimes used for a class of 19th professionals who dug up corpses from graves. “Resurrectionist” may sound like something out of a bad horror movie, but that wasn’t a problem back then, so it stuck as the official title. These resurrectionists delivered cadavers to universities for use in... science and stuff.
12. Powder Monkey
The Western world was a conflict torn place during the 16th to 19th centuries, and sailing ships were central to the mindless, bloody war machine of the day. These ships delivered death and suffering with cannons. And the cannons of the day had to be stuffed with gunpowder after every fired round. A "Powder Monkey" sounds like something you'd find in the Silicon Valley Job Title Generator, but back in the day they were small and nimble individuals who kept running powder from the ship's hold during battles.
Needless to say these are just a fraction of the jobs, which technology has disrupted to death. Every year more and more fall by the wayside. Some like the milkman, we’re sad to wave goodbye to. Others (yes we’re looking at you resurrectionist) we get less nostalgic about. But, whatever your view on past professions, there’s one thing we can all agree on. This is a never-ending trend. So, be sure to enjoy your job while you still can.
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