5 Insane Jobs People Had to Do Before Modern Technology

Before this wondrous age of iPhones, wireless Internet, and teledildonics, the jobs that are now accomplished by sexy, tireless machines were once filled by soft and meaty human beings. Sure, some obscure part of your brain might remember that distant and fantastical time when humans once sewed garments and assembled cars, but you probably had no idea about ...

#5. Human Radar

Wolfgang Moroder

During World War I, before radar technology was invented, nations had a hell of a problem on their hands. Because planes had been invented, bombing raids could blast your city into a crater on any given morning before you even got to your coffee. The inconsiderate bastards. Detecting incoming aircraft before they started dropping bombs was obviously extremely important. The solution they came up with was this:

via Museum of Retro Technology
A fashion war crime, according to the Treaty of Versailles.

Trained personnel were equipped with these goofy-looking robo-Dumbo ears to literally listen for the engines of incoming aircraft. The idea was that sound from the aircraft would bounce off the comically oversized "sound mirrors" and amplify enough that it could be picked up by human ears. Apparently it worked, because nations all over the world used variations on the same concept. The above image was a Dutch design, while in Germany they were using these steampunk Mouseketeer hats:

via Museum of Retro Technology
"M-I-C-K-E-Y L-A-W-S-U-I-T!"

And the British, apparently the only nation that even tried not to look ridiculous, came up with these:

via Museum of Retro Technology
Useful as well for hearing people laugh at you from far away.

This "acoustic radar" technology did have its limitations -- it worked only on slow-moving aircraft, and there was often difficulty distinguishing between planes and boats -- but it was better than nothing. The concept naturally went out of vogue when radar was invented and military personnel decided that they wanted their dignity back. But just because it's funny, here's a Czech fellow suited up in his country's design of choice:

via Museum of Retro Technology
"Step right, up! Hit one dish and watch the man twirl!"

#4. Log Drivers


Back in the early to mid-1800s, lumberjacking was an even more ridiculously manly job than it is today, owing to the fact that there weren't any trucks or trains to cart all those tree trunks away from the forest to the sawmill. It's true that they had horses and oxen, but how long do you think the poor beasts would last if you had them pulling multi-ton logs across the county nonstop? That's just inhumane. Better to give that job to humans. (Hey, "human" is like 83 percent of the word "humane"!) Lumberjacks frequently employed the services of log drivers, or "river pigs," as they were affectionately known.

via Bangor Daily News
Call one a river pig and he'd playfully hit you with his stick.

See, even the heaviest logs can be floated along a river, and that was by far the easiest way to get them from A to B. But seeing as wood has a lousy sense of direction, it tends to run aground when left to its own devices. The log driver's job was to literally ride the logs along the river like an even more poverty stricken Huckleberry Finn.

Some rode ahead to clear a path, some had to stay back and find lost logs that had drifted away from the herd, and others were tasked with clearing up jams. The one thing they all had in common: balancing on some wood with a big pole and looking really awkward in the middle of a river.

Minnesota Historical Society
And when the log started spinnin', it was time to start swimmin'.

That actually sounds pretty fun. People do that for recreation today, but with an inner tube instead of a log. But no, being a "river pig" was not a cakewalk: Working from dawn to dusk, the log drivers fought off pneumonia and broken limbs to herd logs like cattle along miles of river. Because logs don't usually make for the most seaworthy vessels, the workers faced the ever-present threat of falling into the water and having an impenetrable log tomb seal over their heads. Because it was so dangerous, log drivers were generally paid up to $2 a day, which was almost twice the wages of normal lumberjacks. It's odd, then, that we remember the old-timey lumberjack and not his aquatic cousin. But we suppose "I'm a river pig and I'm OK" just isn't as catchy.

#3. Professional Newspaper Readers

Burgert Brothers. Burgert's Studio

Before automation, cigars, like most products, were made one way: individually, by hand, in a South American sweatshop. Some are still made that way, of course, but now you pay a premium for that kind of artisanal exploitation. Back in the early 20th century, cigar factory workers could entertain themselves only through the power of conversation. The problem is that there is a finite amount of conversation topics in existence before one inevitably has to fall back on the dreaded "Sports, huh?" Needless to say, the job got boring very quickly.

 Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System
Lung disease was a blessing because at least it livened things up.

In an attempt to keep the workers from truly understanding what Sartre meant by "hell is other people," the profession of "lector" came into being. Originating in Cuba, the job of the lector was to read aloud ... and that was it. Before the invention of television and radio, lectors would take a seat at the front of the factory and, with a loud and clear voice, read the daily newspaper, or a novel, or some erotic Edith Roosevelt fan fiction, to the factory workers.

Soon lectors branched out and began popping up all over U.S. cigar factories. While you might assume that such an incredibly easy job would earn below whatever passed for minimum wage in the early 20th century, the factory itself didn't pay them at all. The workers, desperate for the entertainment that only their beloved lector could provide, chipped in for his salary out of their own wages. With so many workers passing the hat, lectors wound up earning up to a luxurious $75 a week (compared to $20 a week for a factory worker).

Lewis Hine
$90 if they could do different voices.

After inflation, lectors today would be earning six figures a year to read the New York Times, if not for the fact that commercial radio soon made the job obsolete. They say that video killed the radio star, but they never stop to think about the corpses hidden in radio's basement.

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