Microcosm of technological culture: a foundry closes in California

The Mercury News / LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group

Every now and then, something happens that epitomizes an era. When the first railroad to cross the North American continent was completed with a gold spike, that single event symbolized not only a success for the railroad industry, but opened a new chapter in American history. So many meanings are packed into today’s subject that I won’t have space to explore them all, but I’ll try.

In 1919, a metals foundry called the Kearney Pattern Works began operations in what was then the small town of San Jose, California. Back then, the state was largely agricultural, and the castings the foundry made were used by farm-product manufacturers, canneries, and the water and power utility industries. During and after World War II, Kearney no doubt participated in the huge defense-plant buildup that transformed a sleepy agricultural economy into one of the nation’s economic powerhouses. Corporations such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard (now HP) became clients. In my own career as an RF and microwave engineer, I became familiar with some of HP’s products that used heavy aluminum castings for electrical stability, and it is entirely possible that those castings were poured in the shops of Kearney Pattern Works.

Metal casting is an ancient art mentioned in the Bible. My university is one of the few in the US that has an active foundry-education program, complete with a small working foundry, where once or twice a semester you can see the soul-stirring pouring of nearly white-hot glowing iron into moulds. For many people who grew up in the middle or latter part of the twentieth century, foundries symbolized the essence of industry.

We still have foundries, but increasingly, at least in my branch of engineering, the word means silicon foundry—a place where silicon chips are fabricated. And even those are mostly offshore now. After a century of operation, the Kearney Pattern Works is shutting down and the land will be sold to Google, which is planning a 245-acre complex employing 20,000 people in downtown San Jose. I know nothing about the details of Google’s plans for their complex, but I’d be willing to bet any reasonable amount of money that if you walk in and observe what most of those people will be doing once the facility is up and running, they will be in clean, well-lit, air-conditioned offices sitting at computer monitors.

Is that a bad thing? The city of San Jose doesn’t think so. Jim Wagner, 71, is the principal owner of the foundry and grandson of the founder Al Kearney. He says the city has been pressuring him and other heavy-industry firms to leave the downtown area, but the expenses of moving would have been prohibitive. So the alternative is simply to close the doors and sell the property to Google, which is probably one of the few private entities in the world that can afford to buy more than 200 acres of prime real estate at the southern end of Silicon Valley.

Foundry work is hot, dirty, and dangerous. But foundry workers didn’t need a college education, or even much high school learning, at least at the lower levels of the firm. During the Great Migration of blacks from the rural south to the industrial north, many found work in foundries and other muscle-intensive industries, which often paid well and allowed even uneducated people to afford decent housing and living standards for their families. The hollowing out of these industries over the last four or five decades has contributed to the deterioration of many Northern cities and the inner-city areas of many other parts of the country as well.

If this were Cuba, the foundry would still be operating, because the government wouldn’t let it fail. Socialism tends to freeze industries at a given moment and make them independent of actual economic conditions in the rest of the world. But the bad result of this is that state-controlled industries tend to make stuff that nobody wants, and can’t make stuff that people do want. The free-enterprise approach of letting innovation, success, and failure happen more or less as the market demands seems to keep companies on their toes to change with the technological and social environments they must operate in.

It was Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) who came up with the phrase “creative destruction” to characterize the way technological innovation makes whole industries obsolete when new ones come along. If everyone just accepts this process as a price of a free economy, progress continues. But inevitably, companies that decide to do only one kind of thing end up taking the risk that someday, no one will want that kind of thing anymore. And something like this has happened to Kearney.

When the timing of a firm’s demise coincides with the end of one’s career, as it has in Jim Wagner’s case, creative destruction isn’t so bad. But the reporter who wrote the story didn’t mention any younger employees who will have to find work elsewhere. Maybe there weren’t a lot of younger workers—even at its peak, Kearney employed only about 35 people, and many of those left years ago.

There are many contrasts between what Kearney has done at their location for the last century and what Google plans to do there for the next century, but another contrast is size. Kearney was a small, privately-owned firm. Google is—well, Google: a nearly ubiquitous but oddly anonymous presence in the lives of people all around the world, whose doings are often opaque, secretive, and hugely influential. In a foundry, what you saw was what you got: the moulds, the sand used in the moulds, the hot metal, the smoke, the finished product. What Google is doing at this moment, how they make their billions, and what goes on inside their shadowy corporate universe is known largely only to Google employees.

Modern industrial societies have accepted disruptive technological changes as the cost of enjoying the benefits of those same changes. And while almost nobody will miss the smoke or mess or dirt of the Kearney foundry, it’s possible that some of its employees will wish it was still in business. And maybe some of their children and grandchildren will get jobs at Google. But they will probably have to spend a good part of their lives in school first, and even then, they might not make the grade.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store. 


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