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Speedy Fred’s Revolution

As Kanigel tells us, however, there was a great deal about the famous “Schmidt” experiments that Taylor later chose to conceal. Noll/”Schmidt” was not exactly the moron that Taylor made him out to be. Kanigel has discovered that, by 1899, he had bought a bit of land and, apparently by himself, was building a house before and after work. Taylor’s piece-rate incentives, meanwhile, were not nearly as compelling as he implied; nor were his calculations particularly scientific. In fact, Noll was only one of ten Bethlehem laborers whom Taylor recruited for his pig-iron study. Taylor assembled the ten into a gang and had them perform their jobs as quickly as they could, with the result that they loaded sixteen and a half tons in fourteen minutes, which worked out to seventy-one tons per man per day. But Taylor, as Kanigel writes, was only getting started:

Timings of individual men, some probably by Taylor, stopwatch in hand, followed. He recalled, “It took me about a day and a half to be sure what these people could do”—which he set at seventy-five, not seventy-one, tons per day. Of course, the men were drained; these industrial marathoners had had to sprint for their pay….

Yet somehow, this wildly artificial figure became the basis for fixing piece rates. Through reasoning entirely opaque a century later, Taylor lopped off 40 percent, to allow for rest and unavoidable delay, and set forty-five tons per day as each man’s daily stint.

Of the ten recruits, only Noll managed to meet the new forty-five-ton requirement (which was, Kanigel notes, at least double and perhaps closer to triple what laborers had been able to achieve throughout history). The other nine laborers quit rather than put up with Taylor’s backbreaking regimen, refusing even the offer of higher pay. Noll, Taylor’s “high-priced man,” was literally the last laborer left standing.

Taylor’s techniques, owing much to guesswork and coercion and very little to science, were applied throughout the steelworks, and he was able to claim that he had cut in half the cost of handling materials in the Bethlehem yards, impressing his employers. But Taylor always made at least as many enemies as he did friends. Bethlehem workers who had been displaced or forced to speed up by his time studies naturally despised him. And even Taylor’s superiors found him an imperious and volcanic man who would let nothing stand in the way of his crusade against inefficiency. When company officials balked at a proposed new bonus plan which would have raised the pay of the more productive foremen, Taylor found himself in a showdown that led to his dismissal in May 1901. Soon thereafter, a new set of owners eliminated Taylor’s management reforms, with no detrimental effects on the company. In the first major test of its great promise, the Taylor system failed miserably.

Taylor retired to suburban Chestnut Hill, near Germantown, where he bought and refurbished a banker’s large estate and devoted himself to perfecting new methods for planting boxwoods. When a gruesome murder-suicide orphaned a niece and two nephews of Louise’s, Taylor adopted the children and, by all accounts, was an affectionate father. 5 Yet Taylor’s idea of parental affection included a great deal of regimentation, including such carefully computed punishments as fifty or one hundred paces around the driveway (the number of paces varying according the severity of the child’s infraction). Taylor’s idea of retirement included conducting new labor experiments at home, while pursuing a punishing schedule of professional lectures and informal group discussions to publicize his ideas among industrialists and his fellow engineers. His demands on himself and his family were so intense that his wife became a nervous wreck. (“One could not live with a nature like Fred’s without it dominating one’s whole life,” she later admitted.) But the implacable Taylor was determined to recover from his setback at Bethlehem, and to convert the entire nation to his science of work. In 1910, after nearly a decade of proselytizing, he finally received the big break he was looking for—not from a manufacturer or an engineer, but from the progressive lawyer Louis Brandeis.


Brandeis came across Taylor’s ideas while he was investigating the nation’s railroads, prompted by an effort by the largest northeastern rail companies to get the Interstate Commerce Commission to approve higher freight rates. Fighting the proposal on behalf of his clients the New York Merchants Association and the Boston Chamber of Commerce, Brandeis became convinced that the railroad magnates were gouging the public in order to make up for their own wastefulness. Having already read some of Taylor’s articles on efficiency, he consulted with him and, in November 1910, while arguing his case before the ICC (successfully, as it turned out), Brandeis declared that Taylor’s principles proved that increased rates were uncalled for, and that the railroad companies could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually by following scientific management techniques. In an instant, Frederick Winslow Taylor became a national celebrity, the prophet of a dazzling industrial utopia that seemed within human grasp.

For several reasons, Taylor appealed especially strongly to middle-class reformers like Brandeis. Since the 1880s, American industry had been continually shaken by bitter labor turmoil; Taylorism seemed to promise a fair and permanent solution, balancing the need for greater output with the promise of higher wages. That solution, moreover, derived from what the public was told were thoroughly objective discoveries about the nature of work, made by a scientist who was beholden to neither capital nor labor. Then, too, the overseers of the new scientific industrial order would be supposedly disinterested experts, drawn from the growing ranks of the nation’s professional middle class—that is, people much like Taylor’s reform-minded admirers.

By blending the prestige of science with the appeal of orderly business practices, Taylorism offered a textbook example of what the historian Daniel Rodgers has called the “rhetoric of social efficiency,” the tone that uplifted many Progressive-era reformers. 6 “There have been times in recent years when it seemed as though our civilization were being throttled by things, by property, by the very weight of industrial mechanism,” the liberal Chicago journalist Ray Stannard Baker wrote enthusiastically, “and it is no small matter when a man arises who can show us new ways of commanding our environment.”

Trade unionists, however, saw Taylorism as an unmitigated horror which degraded human labor and paid off pliable workers with what one union official called “blood money.” Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (and never one lightly to spurn proposed wage increases), ferociously attacked the system of “Dr. Taylor” as a demented, cold-blooded effort to make “every man merely a cog or a nut or a pin in a big machine.” Rank-and-file workers resisted furiously whenever the intrusive “time-motion” men showed up on the shop-floor. Nationwide, the number of strikes rose, caused chiefly by labor’s demands for greater control over work rules. And in 1911, after the introduction of Taylorism prompted workers at the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts to walk off the job, Taylor himself was summoned to testify before a special subcommittee of the House Labor Committee.

Kanigel nicely describes the drama of Taylor’s testimony before the subcommittee and of his confrontation with the Labor Committee’s chairman, William B. Wilson. A former coal miner from Pennsylvania who would later serve as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of Labor, Wilson was a forceful and eloquent critic of Taylorism, and he questioned Taylor closely. When Taylor testified that, under his system, workers immediately earned wages 30 to 100 percent higher than they had before, Wilson demanded to know what became of all those workers who had lost their jobs under his system and had no wages at all. When Taylor claimed that his work-pace schedules were based on “accurate, careful scientific investigations,” Wilson asked whether those schedules were established by men hand-picked by management who were working solely in management’s interests. By the time Wilson had finished mocking Taylor’s scientific pretensions, the witness was reduced to mouthing feeble assurances that scientific management worked because workers and managers were friends, and if “bad” use was made of his principles that was not really scientific management at all.

In the long run, however, Taylor and not Wilson proved the victor. Although the committee’s final report supported many of Taylor’s critics, it made no substantial recommendations and offered rhetorical support for the general logic of standardization and specialization. In the 1920s, a greatly weakened labor movement, reeling under the pressures of industry’s concerted campaign for an open shop, reluctantly acceded to the widespread introduction of revised Taylorist management schemes that included payments according to each worker’s output.

When union power revived in the 1930s, labor secured the right to collective bargaining and won concessions over wages and hours, but control over the organization and pacing of work was left securely in the hands of management. That momentous New Deal compromise remained intact until the late 1970s and 1980s, when American employers, responding to foreign competition, reneged on their part of the bargain, and initiated aggressive anti-union efforts backed by systematic downsizing and the hiring of relatively inexpensive part-time workers in thoroughly Taylorized jobs.

Nor did Taylorism affect only industrial labor. To be sure, some of the more outlandish schemes inspired by Taylorism’s popularity (the scientific management of household work, for example) have fared poorly over the years. But countless other developments—the imposition of strict lesson plans on public school teachers to end wasted time in the classroom, the bureaucratization and bottom-line mania of the health care system, the efficiency craze in government offices, the “outsourcing” of innumerable white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs—reflect Taylor’s logic. And Taylor’s legacy has so greatly altered our political and intellectual assumptions that it is hard to find among liberals or conservatives, in either political party, a modern-day equivalent of William B. Wilson.

To be sure, most of the disquieting developments of our own time would have occurred at some point, with or without Taylor. And without the “humanizing” revisions of scientific management by Taylor’s disciples, Carl Bartch, Morris Cooke, and the Gilbreths, Taylor’s innovations might now dwell in utter obscurity, as a false start in the early history of modern industrial management. Nevertheless, it was Taylor who put the stamp of science and progress on the degradation of work—and made it seem both inevitable and desirable. And so today we are told that nothing can be done to stem the tide of globalization; that layoffs and corporate flight are the price the nation must pay for enhanced productivity; that in future most American workers will have to live more or less permanently insecure about their jobs.

Taylor would have been confused by how thoroughly his ideas have affected modern life, even though so few of his specific techniques have survived. He was, after all, a tyrannical perfectionist who truly believed that he and he alone knew “the one best way” to run a factory. Time was not left him, however, to witness how his methods would change the country. Only four years after he became a famous man, and with his system only beginning to penetrate America’s factories, Taylor’s health began to fail. In March 1915, he suffered his final breakdown. Dos Passos’s description of what happened next is confirmed by Kanigel, and it remains a grimly fitting envoi to Speedy Fred:

Pneumonia developed; the nightnurse heard him winding his watch;
on the morning of his fiftyninth birthday, when the nurse went into
his room to look at him at fourthirty,he was dead with the watch in his hand.

  1. 5

    There was also a third orphaned nephew, older than the other two, who went to live with less affluent relatives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and who resented his siblings’ more comfortable adoptive surroundings. He grew up to become the poet Conrad Aiken—one of the more interesting of Kanigel’s revelations.

  2. 6

    Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Pursuit of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History, 10 (1982), pp. 126-127.

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