As technology such as artificial intelligence and robots continue to replace workers and perform their jobs more efficiently, there is growing concern that people will soon be completely replaced by automated processes. In reality, automation and new tools have been replacing human-operated jobs for hundreds of years.
From knocker ups to log drivers and switchboard operators, there is a time and place for every job until it’s no longer needed. You might still find a few of these positions in the wild but they are mostly ceremonial or used as gimmicks in modern times.
Wait until you read about the illegal work that “hush shopkeepers” were tasked with completing in plain sight of police.
Other than the occasional breakdown, elevators are easy to operate with the push of a button but that wasn’t always the case. Until automatic elevators came around in the 1950s, they were almost always controlled by an elevator operator. Elevator operators were responsible for controlling the doors, choosing elevator speeds and ensuring the elevator was not over capacity during busy times of the day. Some fancy hotels and buildings in metro areas still provide for this job but it’s obsolete in terms of actual need. In this photo, an elevator operator takes a sheep and goose for a ride in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
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In the 1950s you would be hard-pressed to find a house that wasn’t getting milk delivered by the local milkman. Sometimes they would even deliver eggs and butter. As the years progressed, home refrigeration continued to grow in popularity and milk delivery became a thing of the past. This job isn’t completely gone with Oberweis still offering the service in select parts of the United States. Just keep in mind that milk delivery in modern times comes at a premium.
Once a popular job, the Linotype Operator was responsible for setting a hot metal typesetting system used in the production of newspapers in the late 1880s. After phototypesetting was created in the early 1960s the job was quickly replaced. These days, the newspaper is produced on computers and sent to digital newspaper printers where production is quickly completed. This was actually a very large industry utilized all around the world until modern technology swooped in and left thousands of people unemployed.
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When we think of computers today the thought of laptops, desktops, tablets, and smartphones come to mind. The first use of the term “computer” actually referred to women who gathered in rooms and crunched numbers by hand. These women used their smarts to complete various tasks, never relying on calculators or other forms of completion. The computer job was eventually replaced by electronic devices which were given the same name as the job they replaced — that had to sting a little bit. The women on the left in this photo, taken in 1955, is NASA/NACA human computer, Amy Ruhlin.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Billy Boy was responsible for making tea for men who were hard at work. They were considered apprentices and spent their days making sure construction and other workers were well hydrated as they toiled outdoors for many hours. These days interns still fetch coffee and tea but usually, it’s from the company break room or a quick run through the Starbucks drive-thru. I’m not sure what they were apprenticing for but it sounds like boring work.
Bowling Alley Pinsetter Or Pin Boys
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Here’s another job that was replaced thanks to modern automation. Before pins could be reset through machinery, the pinsetter or pin boys would wait in the background and manually prepare pins after they were struck down by a bowler. In 1936, inventor Gottfried Schmidt created the mechanical pinsetter and this job quickly disappeared. Today, a single technician is often responsible for making sure the mechanical pinsetter is operating properly on a daily basis. This photo was captured at the Arcade Bowling Alley in Trenton, New Jersey in 1910.
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Switchboard operators were responsible for connecting long-distance calls through the use of a manual system. Eventually, a digital exchange was implemented, making the need for switchboard operators obsolete. The final switchboard operator position was terminated in August 1975 when the city of El Paso, Illinois became the last locality in the contiguous United States to convert from manual switching to a digital exchange.
The town crier was responsible for screaming important news from street corners and the profession dates all the way back to the 18th century. These individuals had bold voices and were not afraid to express themselves in public. Eventually, the daily newspaper was born, followed by radio, TV, and the internet. We still have town criers in the form of internet trolls who scream at random people all day long on Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, it’s mostly fake news or Russian bots spreading the news these days.
This might sound like a superhero from a Marvel comic book and in their own right ice men did serve an important function. Before the advent of modern freezer units, these men would hand-saw individual ice blocks from lakes and rivers. That ice was used to store food throughout the cold winter months. The job started in the 1800s, involved long hours and a lot of heavy lifting. This is another job that was once against removed thanks to modern technology.
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Before electric clock-winders were invested there was an entire profession based on the maintenance and care of keeping time. These individuals would wind each clock to ensure they continued to tick and tock for varying lengths of time. Electronic clock-winders eventually proved to require less maintenance and needed fewer repairs. Clock repair technicians still exist today but they mostly wind clocks that are kept as collector’s items.
The Fuller or Walker was responsible for cleaning cloth to remove oil and dirt before the textile process was completed. They would hand wash every piece of material before sending it along to a factory where it could be bound together to create clothing and other items that required fabric. The job originally entailed walking on and using your feet to remove chemicals, as seen in this depiction from 1770. The job was eventually replaced with automated tools that work more quickly and didn’t require any type of possible human error. Automation wins yet again!
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These savvy workers existed during prohibition in the United States. Their main job was to sell liquor on the down low to anyone who they trusted. They received the name because they had to be quiet about selling illegal substances. Eventually, prohibition ended and hush shopkeepers no longer needed to be quiet about the sale of liquor. This is an interesting entry because the shopkeeper job still existed after prohibition ended but the function of the workers changed very quickly.
Want to be hated by a large number of people for simply doing your job? Perhaps a knocker-up would have been your perfect job. The job was invented in 1847 with people being hired to shoot peas through a pea shooter or knock on windows with long poles. Basically, the knocker-up was a human alarm clock. After the alarm clock was born this job quickly fell by the wayside. You might have ensured some people didn’t lose their job for oversleeping but you weren’t making any lifelong friendships with their neighbors.
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In the 1800s and into the early 1900s, the lamplighter was responsible for making sure oil powered street lamps were lit at night. There are a few lamplighters located in areas where the practice is still used, more for nostalgic purposes than anything else. The job was very important as transportation continued to towards gas-powered vehicles but it quickly died out thanks to alternate and direct current technology which was rapidly adopted.
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Here’s an interesting job that dated back to the 1920s. The lector was a person hired by a company to read news and literature out loud to employees. Instead of turning on some music at the office they would simply provide entertainment as people worked. While this would probably be considered a huge distraction these days, it couldn’t have been much worse than Facebook or YouTube. The lector was often found at businesses where people wouldn’t be distracted by their constant talking.
The log driver job existed until the 1970s when it was replaced with technological advances that were much safer. These men were responsible for literally standing on logs as they moved them down the river. Deaths were common as workers fell between logs and couldn’t be rescued from drowning. Looking at old photos of this job it looked like a fun way to make a living but in reality, it was hard work with long hours and incredibly hazardous conditions.
Lungs workers were responsible for fanning the fire in alchemist shops. Employed from the 14th to 16th century, their name was a bit ironic since they often ended up with blackened lungs because of their work. Eventually, better practices were put in place to eliminate this job. Lungs had to work around a lot of toxic chemicals, many of which had not been fully studied to determine the long-term effects they would have on the people handling them.
Humankind has gone through a lot of strange periods of scientific discovery and that includes a time when people would measure the shape of your head to determine your level of intelligence. Called the “only true science of mind,” the practice was eventually proven to be nothing but a lark and in 1967 the job of phrenologist was replaced with… well… common sense? It’s amazing to think that for a brief period in human history, school children were characterized by the shape of their head and not the work they produced.
This job was popular during the Victorian Era. As the name suggests, men would travel around urban areas and capture rats. The animals would then be sold to dog owners so they could feed their pets. Sometimes, buyers would purchase the rats so they could find ways to entertain themselves. Eventually, the job was discarded as better food practices came to light and people stopped messing with rats for sport. Our history is strange and twisted at times.
In the 18th and 19th century, medical students needed to learn their craft. They didn’t have licensed cadavers at the time so a resurrectionist would dig up bodies for medical students. We’re not sure exactly why this job went away but it probably had something to do with ethics and the fact that the practice was just morbid in general. These days you can’t just dig up a corpse and sell it for a profit – what a shock! This was stinky work but someone had to do it for many shockingly disgusting years.