In 1940, I was looking for work. The war in Europe increased the demand for American products but jobs were still hard to get. Finally, I landed a job at Dictograph, a machine shop in Long Island.

For months on end, I drilled a hole through the head of steel bolts. The bolts were labeled “Secret,” but that was a joke. What secret could there be about a bolt? By coincidence, I did see the end-use of that bolt. On my next job at Emerson Radio, I saw the same bolt was used to attach a label to radar equipment that was, indeed, secret.

Eventually, the bolt order was filled at the machine shop. Then I was given telephone handsets to drill. They were molded of some plastic material. The technique was different from drilling steel. The molded material was delicate, easily fractured. I had to feel my way with the drill to avoid hairline cracks that would spread later. So I was careful. Working all day without a break, I produced about 2,000 handsets.

We had a big, bossy male foreman who did not know how to speak to the young women in his department. If he had something to say to me, he would read out the number on my badge. “Number twenty-one thousand two-hundred five, come here!” That got on my nerves. The work itself was monotonous. A robot could do it and today robots do such jobs. Calling me by my number just emphasized that I was not a person, just a tool. One day I blew my top and told him as I jabbed at my badge, “I have a name. Call me by my name, not my number!” So you could say the foreman and I did not get along.

The foreman decided that 2,000 headsets were not enough. He told me that I would have to produce more or else. Dictograph was a union shop so he did not spell out the “or else.” But I was doing a good job, my very best. Didn’t that foreman know that this was delicate work that could not be rushed?

I was angry. The juices began to flow in my body and I threw all caution to the winds. Grab the headset, bear down and bring the drill down, put the headset in the box. Get a new headset, bring the drill down and repeat. The angrier I got the faster I worked. By the end of the day I had drilled 5,000!

The next day word reached me that the headsets had cracked. They never told me how many so I assumed it was all 5,000. I felt vindicated although I hated to see the waste. The foreman never said another word to me. He moved me to another job and I was out of his department. But I bet he never rushed another drill press operator doing a delicate job.

— Beatrice Lumpkin (