Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, April 1945


V. Grey

Modern Welding and the Welder


From Fourth International, vol.6 No.4, April 1945, pp.111-115.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


I. A Dialectical Process!

When I was a school kid, there was a sentence in Brigham and McFarland’s big geography book that held real charm for me. I read it again and again, and unconsciously memorized it:

“A man can stand within the shortest distance of the hottest bonfire, but he seeks the shade of a tree to escape the heat which has traveled 93 million miles.”

On entering the factory workshop I was confronted by a far more amazing example of the same phenomenon. I saw a man guide a six thousand degree flame – a temperature comparable to that of the sun itself estimated at 11,000°F – across a piece of metal with a little three thousand degree pool of molten iron under the flame, that cooled each moment, as the flame traveled on, to a solid red heat of 1,200 degrees, and then more slowly to “normal.” And all this time, if he was working on sheet metal, he used his bare hands, bracing himself with one hand on the metal only a few inches from this terrific heat. This seeming paradox need only to be clearly stated to be grasped. The quantity of heat is one thing while its quality is something else again. For example, a cupful of boiling water will make hardly more than a dent in a 25 pound cake of ice. But place this ice in a tub of lukewarm water and it will quickly disappear.

Welding is a miracle of modern industry. But it remains a miracle only if you look at it as it appears by itself, formally that is, without looking at its origin and development. The present welding process is the result of a long, contradictory growth. In its own self it is contradiction strikingly exemplified. It shows every minute of the day in the shop how quantitative changes lead to qualitative changes. All processes in nature and society reveal this same basic law, and have their own dialectic. In welding this law is manifested more clearly and more rapidly.

The welder sees, in the space of a moment or two, a change take place from hard steel to molten steel, back to hard steel again. He sees that a certain amount of heat will change steel to a condition opposite to its “normal” hard state, and a certain degree of cooling will reestablish the first condition. However, he soon learns that too much heat will burn the liquid mass, making it as useless a commodity as burnt soup. Also that under certain conditions with heavier metals (casting, brazing work, etc.) the metal is ruined if it cools too rapidly. It will then crystallize, become brittle and useless.

The furnace man sees the above changes, too. But not with the hair-raising rapidity that they appear to the welder. Moreover, the welder sees still another change peculiar to his own craft take place. As the metal melts and hardens again, he sees a three way fusion. The two metal pieces and his filler rod are constantly becoming one.

And not just in the sense that boards nailed together become one piece – e.g. a box. To the welder the two steel “boards” really do become a single piece of steel. Let him but make a mistake – welding the wrong pieces – and the swing of a sledgehammer soon proves that there has been a qualitative change, but not the one desired.

A welder quickly learns the dialectic interconnection of cold and heat. He may rest his hand on the cold steel a few inches from his weld. Presently, the burning goes into his hand, and he takes it quickly away. The weld heats the rest of the metal by itself cooling. For a long time it has been known that nothing can heat without something else cooling, and vice versa. But here the welder sees and feels a startling example of this. It becomes clear that heating and cooling are polar opposites, inseparably bound to each other.

Let us review briefly the historical setting of the welder and his craft. Welding by fire heat, that is, forging, has been known to man as long as written history, and perhaps earlier. Swords and shields were beaten out by ancient hammers at the forge. Thousands of years ago the smiths learned, for instance, how to beat the hand guard onto the sword after both were heated to a “straw” or white heat.

Century after century, through “natural production,” slave society, feudalism and modern times, this method continued. Long after the birth of modern industry, after steel-making itself had surrendered to science and mass production, welding, as we know it now, was still unknown.

Large foundries occasionally poured molten iron into the holes of an imperfect casting, hoping to make a good fusion. But it was hit-or-miss, and pretty expensive too. Clumsy firewelding methods along the lines of the blacksmiths were tried. The capitalist approaches new industry as an extension of the old. Thus, the first autos look like buggies with bicycle wheels. The modern forms usually come into being as a surprise to the capitalistic “modernist.”

Of course, soldering, with copper and lead, had been used for some time. But this was mainly in the fine jewel work, pipe repair, etc. And no small flame was dreamed of that would melt metals so hard as iron (lead melts at 600°F; iron and steel at 2,200° to 2,700°F.)

Torch welding, that sine qua non of the aircraft industry, was first introduced in England in 1888. It was first put to practical use a little later in Belgium. But it was still nearly a generation before either electric or gas welding came into general use in mass production.

First of all, the process itself ran into obstacles. The first torch used hydrogen gas for fuel – and oxygen to speed or intensify, neutralize the flame. These two gases were often obtained by breaking up the water molecule into its component hydrogen and oxygen, by an electrical process. Now just as water insists on changing into steam at a certain point, so oxygen and hydrogen will, at a certain temperature, combine again to form steam.

You might think from this that the obstacle was that the welded piece would be sprayed by water instead of fire. But it wasn’t that. There is still another qualitative change involved. The steam formed at the nozzle becomes superheated in the flame itself, and thereupon decomposes once again into oxygen and hydrogen. And instead of a blended flame of the two, there is “induced the presence of free oxygen,” which oxidizes the metal – rusts it. This rust gets into the weld itself and weakens it. This can only be overcome by a large amount of hydrogen – four or five volumes to one of oxygen, which is very wasteful. This problem was soon solved with the invention of acetylene gas – a gas composed of carbon and hydrogen.

The temperature of the flame at the tip caused by combustion of the carbon with the oxygen is so high (6,600°F) that it is impossible for water in the for of steam to exist. Steam dissociates between 2,000-4,000°F. (Modern Welding, V.W. Page.)

And here oxygen does another intricate somersault to come up waving the handkerchief in hydrogen’s face, just as smooth as you please.

The oxygen which would combine with the hydrogen and form water, if the temperature was sufficiently low, assists in the combustion of the carbon of the acetylene. The hydrogen passes away and does not combine with the oxygen of the air until it has left the high temperature zone of the welding flame. (Idem)

Acetylene Torch

Besides melting and fusing metals, the acetylene torch has another use that both acetylene and electric welders as well as special operators, called “burners,” employ. It can be used to cut the thickest steel plate there is. Up to several inches of thickness can be cut as smoothly as the best buzz-saw cuts wood – and nearly as fast.

With the acetylene torch a plate is heated red hot at the beginning of the place to cut. Then a more forceful jet of oxygen is played through the torch nozzle, and part of the red hot metal is blown away. As the operator moves the torch from one point to another, this becomes a simultaneously repeated and continuous operation. And the steel is perfectly cut along the line of the flame’s track.

How is this done? Everyone knows that in the course of time, steel crumbles away into rust It does this by uniting with the oxygen in the air. But when steel is red hot, and a stream of pure oxygen is directed on it, it unites with the air (rusts) thousands of times faster than ordinarily, and falls away into a sort of molten dust.

Thus one of nature’s dialectics becomes a new dialectic in the hand of man, speeding up nature a thousand fold, yielding a qualitatively different – and to man, superior – result. However, it is only fair to add in defense of nature that our conception of the “natural” rate of oxidation, or even the “natural” state of iron, is limited to this particular geological epoch on this particular planet, and on a particular part of the planet (its outer crust).

Electric arc welding, something like the lightning whose flash it resembles, owes its existence to the interaction between positive and negative electricity – and more especially, in the need of the negative, under certain conditions, to reach out through space itself to find the positive.

But where lightning forms an arc a mile or two long, extending from a negatively charged rain cloud to a temporary positive charge in the earth, the end of the electric welding rod is just an eighth of an inch, more or less, from its work, and takes infinitely less electrons and ions to make it travel. The analogy with lightning must not of course be taken too far. There are great differences in the composition of the welder’s arc flame and the lightning. But the relationship of positive and negative is the same. The arc flame is one of the hottest produced by man 6,400-7,300°F and the resulting work makes the magic forge of Vulcan look feeble by comparison.

The arc welder touches the welding rod to the steel he wants to weld, and instantaneously, as it seems, there is formed a little pool of molten metal. In the time it takes to blink, the steel heats up to around 2700°F. The old time blacksmiths learned that the iron must first become red hot – then straw-colored, then white, before it reached the dazzling melting point. Where did these changes disappear to? The cherry-red, the strawcolor and the white hot metal? Are there perhaps 2700 parts to a blink? Here the swift quantitative change in heat itself represents a qualitative departure from the “normal.” And the only way the iron proves to the welder that it really is iron, is by going through this color series in reverse, when the weld is cooling. (A slower process than heating, in arc welding.)

And, of course, while heat is performing these amazing feats, the metal, too, is revealing its contradictory nature. Mild steel, on passing beyond 2,600°F becomes a liquid. Steel, the symbol of toughness, is then softer than butter. It has turned into its opposite. It contains within itself the possibility of changing into its opposite – like everything in the universe. The welding operation only hastens and directs the process.

The discovery of arc welding is often credited to Dr. Elihu Thompson, an American inventor of the last century. But his special merit was the “resistance system” and the resistance method of welding, which uses the positive and negative current in direct attachment to the metal. The metal heats up as a “short circuit” does, and fuses together. But no flaming arc is used. Spot welding is a good example of this type.

Nicholas de Berardos and Stanislas Olzemanski of Petrograd, discovered the carbon electrode in 1885. They found that by running a positive charge of electricity through a stick of carbon at a low voltage and a high amperage, and a negative charge through the work from the same circuit, an operator could maintain an arc of great heat intensity. In this process the operator would have the insulated holder with the carbon stick in one hand, and a filler rod in the other, which he played into the arc where the heat would melt both it and the parent metal into a good fusion. This method, discovered in the country of the Czars flourished greatest in the countries of the capitalists, England and the United States, particularly from 1890 to 1915.

Slavianov, another Russian, perfected the use of an uncoated metallic bar electrode, which made its own arc and supplied the filler material simultaneously. It was at one and the same time the tool and the raw material. And it was probably the first known “bare rod welding.”

It remained for a citizen of Gothenberg, Sweden, Oscar Kjelberg, to finish paving the road for modern arc welding. He invented the “coated electrode” in 1907. This was easier and faster to work with. And in a sense it brought the same qualitative improvement over the bare rod that acetylene gas did over hydrogen. It eliminated the element of super-rapid rusting during the process, which weakens the weld.

Molten steel, when exposed to the air, oxidizes very quickly. The problem was somehow to find a way of keeping the air away from the cooling metal. The solution was to put the “air” on the rod itself, much in the same way cold steel is protected from rust by painting “rust” over it. That is, prepared oxides “slag” – are coated over the rod, and melting as the rod melted, the pool of molten steel is constantly covered with this slag which, being lighter, always stays on top. The whole weld soon cools, and the welder chips off the slag, revealing a strong new weld, completely free from rust.

Each of these successive improvements was, of course, also a simplification. And though the basis for modern welding was well founded by 1907, still further improvements were made from year to year. At this stage welding was mainly conceived as a method of repair. And it wasn’t even used as a general repair medium in this country until around the time of the First World War. So at that time the operator often was the owner of his own welding machine or repair shop. He trundled a whole acetylene generating apparatus around with his oxygen tank, instead of the easily portable modern equipment which is taken to the tops of the highest buildings and the shores of deep harbors for under-water burning and electric welding!

Mass production did not summon the welder from the repair shop, or his apparatus from its more intricate and fussy stage until around 1920, and even then only as a curtain-raiser of what was to come. But with improvements and streamlining, with better adaptations for intensifying labor, welding finally became part and parcel of the factory itself, not just the repair shop.

So there is a change in the character of the work. This change was brought on by the change in the character of the process that does the work (the welding process itself) as well as by the desire of each capitalist to increase labor productivity ahead of his competitors.

II. The Dialectic Recognizes the Welder

Welding entered the factory alongside of the Taylor and Bedaux systems, alongside the assembly line and the conveyor belt system. No longer is it alone in the repair shop, the property and tool of the same individual. It is now used by thousands. It has become part of mass production.

And yet, according to Professor Bardtke, author of theoretical books on welding, less than forty years ago, some European are welders looked upon it as a secret trade. They tried to imitate the guild masters of the middle ages. With such a technique, with such a bizarre craft, they thought this could be done. But in vain!

Modern industry, which really gave birth to this infant prodigy, would not let it play for long in the puddles of the past. It might have been a “little accident,” with any one of a dozen penniless inventors its probable father. But it is closely cherished from the womb from which it sprung, and called to order by its legal father, Capital. It must live in the family of Capital, and obey Capital’s rules. It must be a machine, not merely a skill. It must grow into a big machine. It must work only in association with other machines. And it, too, must take the name of Capital.

As the welding process developed, however, and its effectiveness increased, the worker’s understanding of the process decreased. This is an absolute law, under capitalism. The more complex the machine, the simpler the labor process attached to it.

Less than a decade ago, a man would go to the Coyne school, or some other training place, plunk down a couple of hundred dollars and spend a minimum of six weeks full time learning a little of the theory and practice of the trade. Today a school girl can learn enough about welding in a couple of evenings to be an aircraft welder, and often in a week or so of spare time be able to take the Navy test to be a ship welder.

Not long ago the welder was a craftsman, something like an old time machinist who carried more tools than the modern machine-shop worker ever sees. He had tools for every possible operation he might have to do. A set of his own copper tips for acetylene welding, two or three kinds of goggles, all kinds of leather protective clothing for are welding, hammers, chisels, his own hood, etc. – to say nothing of his most prized possession, an understanding of heats and metals, and how to weld them. Very often be owned his own repair shop. And he was something of a mechanic as well. He could weld and repair anything from a bicycle fender to a brass chain. And naturally a dozen repairs or so were his quota for the day.

Today, one detail operation – the same weld, on the same kind of metal, making the same kind of joint over and over, thousands of times, is the rule, while all-around welding is the exception. In manufacturing light ammunition boxes, (for example, the machine-gun type) the ends may be touched for a moment with torch or rod, and a man is expected to make seventy-five to a hundred per hour.

The attention to detail, the sense of craft superiority, the conscientiousness, the slow pace, and even arrogant attitude, have gone. Today they all are replaced with a slam-bang, give-it-a-blast-and-to-hell-with-it attitude. The welder is now a mass production worker.

And yet, in 1920, a handbook on welding by V.W. Page contained the following words: “It is intended to drive home the very important fact that the welder and not the equipment, is the most important factor in the welding process.” How surprised and pleased this author, and the employers to whom he said this, must be today – now that this proposition is reversed.

Modern industry created the skill. And modern industry then destroyed it. The possibility for its destruction existed at the time of its creation. Even as it was coming into being, it began passing away. Employing the best contributions of industrial technique, it needed a master of technique at the beginning. But the swift development of improvements, etc., soon brought the machine to the factory, leaving the expert far behind in his little shop.

Now the man, like the machine, corresponds to the needs of Capital. Speed, not skill, is the measure of his ability. In the matter of keeping his job, or in making more money by piecework, it is entirely a question of how many and how much he does. The maintenance welder in the same shop, who knows the trade inside out and fixes anything from a half inch pipe to a 50 ton press, usually makes no more money than the rest. If he tried to put on the airs that welders used to, he’d be laughed out of the locker room.

On the auto assembly lines (where welding was long ago reduced to simple labor) the worker can have no consciousness of welding even in the sense of watching to see if the two pieces are fused together, much less watching the process of heating and cooling with the fascination of an eager student. No, he has no time! All he is conscious of is reach, strain and sweat – a sudden are or gas flash – hold it a second, reach over to the other side, or underneath-do it again and again. Then the belt brings the next body, he repeats the process and multiplies by the thousand. At the end of the day he feels exactly like any other production line worker – worn out.

The modern welder has neither time, energy, nor curiosity to be interested in what he does. The owner of industry has him by the back of the neck, shoving his head into the work, using up his eyes and muscles and ruining his lungs too fast for him to use his brain. The young girl who stands on one leg all day long as she operates the spot welder with the other, the piece worker who burns fifty pounds of rods a day – how can they know what they are doing – or want to know? They care no more about it than for the vagaries of the moon, or the swing of Pleiades.

“Within the Capitalist system,” wrote Karl Marx, “all methods for raising the social productiveness of labor are brought about at the cost of the individual laborer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into the means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers. They mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work, and turn it into a hated toil.”

Marx never heard of electric or acetylene welding. But the above words of his state the law of the welder’s development – or degeneration – so clearly, that not a syllable need be altered. With the greatly increased concentration of capital the law set down by Marx is only more rapid and more relentless in its self-enforcement.

The Last Five Years

The death knell pealed out for the skilled welders’ monopoly in the United States only five years ago. Capitalism, in its death agony, producing far more for destruction than it ever could for consumption, required added millions of “skilled” workers. To fight a total war, the so-called “defense” schools were started. Soon everybody and his sister became welders.

The old-timers had vague apprehensions when they saw youths of every description coming into the trade by the thousands. “Well,” they consoled themselves, “there’s work for everybody now. But after the war no company’s going to hire a woman welder. They’re not good enough,” etc. Be that as it may, women are often proving superior to men in detail work, especially acetylene welding. And there is no reason to suppose the corporations will go back to the archaic days of the all-around welder. Everything points the other way.

“But what’s the difference how simple or complex the work is? It’s still good pay, isn’t it? Welders are still among the highest paid workers, aren’t they?” This extremely superficial attitude is our “old friend, common sense” speaking. Even in the shipyards where the welder usually gets the highest pay checks, the real wages have been systematically decreased. And decreased proportionately more than real wages of most unskilled industrial labor. Here is a case of a thing being “high” and “low” at the same time.

The ship welders in most parts of the country got $1.12 to $1.25 an hour before the war, and 45 to 50 dollars for a forty hour week. Anyone who remembers the tough conditions of the thirties will readily agree that this income made many a bank clerk green with envy. Today there has been no real increase over this. Not even the meager fifteen percent of the Little Steel formula! Even on the assumption that prices have only gone up fifteen percent – the real wages have been lowered.

Of course, ship welders make 75 to 100 dollars a week. Of course. But how? By working twenty to thirty hours overtime. Then the “take home wages,” that drooling phrase of the Capitalist – are increased. True, there is far more overtime in ship building than in an average trade today. But the life-blood of the worker has been drained out that much more for Capital – and the worker’s use to himself and future use to the capitalist is impaired. He will be ready for the doctors and the scrap heap earlier than ordinarily.

Most medical authorities used to agree on this. But now in the age of the corporation doctor things have changed a little, and they toss the worker a horse pill, with sugar, salt and vitamins in it. And this is supposed to nourish the body, and revitalize it, eliminating the need for any serious medical care for deterioration, etc. While it may look this way on the surface for an 11 or even a 12 hour day, nevertheless a quantitative change goes on under the surface. Lengthen the day a little more 16 hours, say – and a qualitative change is visible. Lengthen it to 24 hours a day, and we will be the first to admit that soon neither doctors nor vitamin pills will be needed at all!

Ship welding is harder to rationalize than auto or aircraft welding. So the ship welder still feels – even today – that he is a “welder” to the extent that he has some consciousness of what he’s doing. The smallest ship – even a “tug” – is quite a project, and what with iron workers, fitters and helpers pulling the plates together to fit, the welder can take his time. He can watch a gang work, and step in to “tack” a joint together when the fitter beckons to him. This “take-it-easy” arrangement for the tackwelder is naturally copied by the “production welder” on the same job, who welds up the seams after the plates are tacked together. But while ships haven’t been hung up on a conveyor belt yet, they still have succumbed to production line methods to a great extent during this war. The Kaiser yards have turned out a freighter in two and a half days. This is a tremendous increase over the production in the last war.

How is it done? A good half of the shipbuilding isn’t done at the drydock at all, any more. Whole sides and sections of the ship are built in “yards” that may be miles inland. Some of the smaller parts for the Kaiser ships, for instance, are made thousands of miles away. While it is wasteful to transport ship parts across the dry land of a continent, and the large parts across states, it is also a measure of the speed-up in building when you consider that they make a bigger profit this way than formerly.

In the “yards” where they make these parts, and even sections, of ships, the welder has the same experience as his brother of the factory. Only because the welding is more steady the capitalist finds a little different method for keeping the worker’s nose to the grindstone.

A Popular Method

For example, here is one popular method; all the machines are placed together in a long row, or several rows. The welder may be out of sight, inside a hatch, a “forepeak,” or otherwise covered up, doing some kind of cramped work. But he leaves a sign on the machine he’s using, a sign on which his clock number is painted. And it’s a very simple matter for the foreman to go up and down the line of machines, look at the indicators and see who’s “laying down” on the job.

The old time welder would turn over in his grave at this – that is, if he were already in his grave. So fast has this process unfolded that like as not, the “old timer” is among the very boys and girls so spied on and exploited.

Even in the ship yard proper, things by no means are at a standstill. A couple of summers ago, for example, the Sunday rotogravures ran a picture of West Coast welders working on deck seams. And they had huge beach umbrellas to protect them from the California sun. This Babylonian luxury, unheard of for a workingman, must have shocked the Puritan soul of the Capitalist. But not for long! A machine has now been developed which will weld flat surface seams automatically, and of course without benefit of umbrella.

However, the bloated capitalist is not entirely complacent as he surveys the handiwork of his system. True, wages are lower, labor more productive and intensive and – profits higher. But as the skilled labor becomes unskilled, it becomes harder and harder to play off the skilled against the unskilled. It is harder to kid one section of workers that they are an aristocracy when the strain in their muscles and the figures on their paychecks repeatedly disprove it. The worker turns into his opposite in more ways than one.

“Motion is the mode of existence of matter” said Engels. Welding is just one spectacular confirmation of this proposition. And a reflection of this takes place in the brain of the welding operator. A reflection that is clear and conscious to the extent that he is able to grasp and understand the process, and its many sides.

These mental reflections in their turn – the attitudes of the worker – have been influenced by the interaction of the welding process and the dynamic development of that process. Twenty years ago, the welder was the master of the process understanding it to one degree or another. Now, with one change after another increasing the scope of welding, the process has mastered him.

Skilled labor has been transformed into its opposite, unskilled. The craftsman has become the worker. But this worker is still not the end result of a process. Other qualitative changes are brewing. For this individual who wields man-made lightning and holds the heat of a miniature sun within his arm’s radius, is no brother to the ox nor is he a chemical reaction like the compounds he works with.

The dialectic of history affects him, but not automatically. For he brings into history the element of consciousness which in its interaction with these forces of change has also a dialectic of its own. He resists the change at first, at times takes reactionary attitudes, holdovers from the aristocratic past. He may cling to ideas of craft superiority with the lingering hope of a better future than the rest. But consciousness will absorb this lesson, too.

This explains the reactionary strikes some of the welders have engaged in – against Negroes, etc., and their outlived “welders associations.” But already, and even in the last strongholds of the craftsman, we see men and women, white and colored, working side-by-side, organized into industrial unions.

We may conclude that even these negative attitudes will be negated – not simply crossed out – but transformed into their opposite. A series of swift quantitative changes in the events of the future will lead to an equally abrupt qualitative change in thought and action. At present these thoughts resemble the negative electrons of the sky, gathering vapor around themselves to help make the storm.

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated on 6.9.2008