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Speedy Fred’s Revolution

The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

by Robert Kanigel
Viking, 675 pp., $34.95

1.

Eighty-two years after his death in 1915, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the industrial engineer whose invention of “scientific management” promised to revolutionize American industry, is largely forgotten. Celebrated during his lifetime for his dramatic schemes to improve efficiency and increase productivity, Taylor was once linked with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford as one of the great American industrial innovators. But today, even among the few who remember his work, it is difficult to find anyone who would endorse it.

Still, if Taylor is no longer intellectually fashionable, Robert Kanigel contends in his biography, his doctrine still pervades much of American culture—so much so, he observes, that “we no longer realize it’s there.”

Taylor bequeathed a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute, of standardized factories, machines, women, and men. He helped instill in us the fierce, unholy obsession with time, order, productivity, and efficiency that marks our age. Foreign visitors to America often remark on the rushed, breathless quality of our lives. Taylor—whose life, from 1856 to 1915, almost exactly coincided with the Industrial Revolution at its height—helped make us that way.

At first glance, this assessment, however qualified, seems excessive. In fact, only a handful of American firms actually adopted Taylor’s draconian schemes in their entirety (according to one optimistic estimate in 1915, about 1 percent of all industrial workers labored under the full-fledged Taylor system). Most managers found Taylor’s proposals for intensive productivity studies and minutely detailed work instructions far too complicated to implement. Moreover, workers’ fierce objections to Taylorism as a degrading intrusion on their work lives increased managers’ wariness about introducing Taylor’s methods to their factories and offices. Only by the 1920s, when Taylor’s followers began to modify his theories by paying closer attention to workers’ morale, while also recognizing trade unions (which Taylor regarded as spiteful and wasteful), did both labor and management broadly adopt Taylor’s methods.

Nevertheless Kanigel is correct in observing that the crucial element of Taylor’s system—the aggressive effort by management to gain control over technical knowledge connected with work—still dominates American labor relations. Even in modern firms which rely on “post-industrial” methods of shared decision-making and flexible work arrangements (to increase workers’ satisfaction and, thereby, company profits), Taylor’s basic division of responsibility between expert managers and worker-drones survives.

Taylor’s philosophy, as Taylor developed it in the machine shops of the late nineteenth century, originally consisted of a few basic principles about eliminating wasteful industrial procedures and increasing productivity. Every shop-floor task, Taylor instructed, should be divided into its fundamental parts and redesigned—in accordance with Taylor’s famous studies of how time and motion were used—to maximize efficiency and ease of imitation. Wages should be linked to output, and high productivity rewarded as an incentive. Above all, production should be administered exclusively by “efficiency experts,” a new professional group who would determine the “one best way” to run their employers’ factories. Thus, as a result of what Taylor described as “a deliberate gathering in by management,” most of the technical knowledge that had traditionally been the monopoly of highly skilled workers—who, equipped with that knowledge, were able to establish their own working pace—would now be taken over by their employers’ agents, the efficiency engineers.1 Taylor’s aim was to revolutionize labor relations by giving employers complete authority over production—an elusive goal of factory owners since the dawn of the industrial era.

As Kanigel also shows in The One Best Way, the appeal of Taylor’s “science” reached well outside the world of industrial management. After 1910, when popular magazines were featuring stories about Taylor and his ideas, “scientific management” techniques were introduced into retail stores, offices, even in housewives’ kitchens, where “home efficiency” experts calibrated cutting and chopping vegetables down to the nearest millisecond, and bid housewives to labor at the optimal time-saving pace.

What began as a blueprint for rearranging authority in the workplace turned into a design for modern living itself, and Taylor’s followers were promising a new millennium of social engineering and economic improvement. Their spirit is captured in the unremittingly chipper family memoir of 1948, Cheaper by the Dozen, by the son and daughter of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, two of Taylor’s most ardent disciples:

Our house at Montclair, New Jersey, was a sort of school for scientific management and the elimination of wasted motions—or “motion study” as Dad and Mother named it.

Dad took moving pictures of us children washing dishes, so that he could figure out how we could reduce our motions and thus hurry through the task. Irregular jobs, such as painting the back porch or removing a stump from the front lawn, were awarded on a low-bid basis….

Dad installed process and work charts in the bathrooms. Every child old enough to write—and Dad expected his offspring to start writing at a tender age—was required to initial the charts in the morning after he had brushed his teeth, taken a bath, combed his hair, and made his bed…. Mother wanted to have a place on the chart for saying prayers, but Dad said as far as he was concerned prayers were voluntary.

Taylor himself was not shy about proclaiming that his principles, if followed faithfully, would indeed usher in a “complete mental revolution” which would eventually end both material scarcity and the age-old antagonism between workers and bosses. “In the past, the man has been first,” he prophesied in 1911. “In the future, the System must be first.” In only slightly more measured terms, his many admirers, who included Mussolini and Lenin, Gramsci and Herbert Hoover, were drawn to the Taylor System by its promise to eliminate waste, release technical ingenuity, and help produce abundance for the masses.2

After 1920, as thousands of American firms adopted refined versions of Taylor’s efficiency methods, a younger generation of political idealists fell under the system’s spell, seeing in it a model for social harmony through economic planning, far beyond anything that Taylor had him-self envisioned. Several of these, including Rexford Tugwell, went on to join the early New Deal as advisers, where they pressed for the creation of some sort of huge centralized federal economic planning board that, they contended, could eliminate national economic uncertainty and instability.3 Their grand, and vague, proposals gained little support amid the more cautious, piecemeal experimentalism of the New Deal, but after Pearl Harbor many of Taylor’s ideas of industrial reform inspired the nation’s remarkable military mobilization.

Looking back on Taylorism’s social impact from the vantage point of the 1950s, the corporate management expert Peter Drucker called Taylor’s work the greatest American contribution to Western thought since the Federalist Papers; and Drucker went on to list Taylor (and not Karl Marx) with Darwin and Freud as the three most consequential thinkers of the modern era. At the time, Drucker’s estimation of Taylor’s importance seemed grossly exaggerated. After Marxism’s demise, it seems far less so.

Perhaps because he was so busy propagating his ideas, Taylor rejected suggestions from his disciples that he write his life story. He did, however, preserve his correspondence and his papers, and, with the encouragement of his widow, a detailed, and thoroughly celebratory, two-volume biography by Frank Barkley Copley appeared in 1923, eight years after Taylor’s death. Since then, numerous assessments of Taylor (including John Dos Passos’s brilliant and scathing sketch of “Speedy Fred Taylor” in the final volume of U.S.A.) have relied heavily on Copley’s study for its facts and descriptions, if not for its interpretations.

Although it uses numerous fresh primary and secondary sources and contains some interesting revelations, The One Best Way does not alter the facts of Copley’s basic narrative. Kanigel does, however, provide vivid accounts of the industrial settings that Taylor encountered, and explains how Taylor set about transforming them. Based on these descriptions, Kanigel offers intelligent and original observations about the psychological as well as the sociological dimensions of Taylor’s efforts. Kanigel presents an imaginative and credible account of a strange, obsessive, and appalling man—and of the way that man’s ideas touched a nerve among many American liberals of the Progressive era.

2.

Were it not for a twist of fate during his late adolescence, Taylor might never have set foot inside a factory, or written a word about work. Born in 1856 in comfortable Germantown, Pennsylvania, the second son of an affluent Quaker lawyer, he enjoyed a privileged childhood. His father was rich enough not to have to work, and the family was able to travel widely, including a three-year sojourn in various European spas and capitals. Young Fred stayed in the best hotels and dined at the best restaurants; back home, he grew up among cultivated relatives and family friends. At age sixteen, he enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy, with the full expectation that he would go on to study law at Harvard, as his father had done.

He was, it seems, an irritable boy, plagued by headaches and insomnia. (To combat recurrent nightmares, he rigged up a bedside contraption that prodded him with sticks if he rolled over to lie on his back—the source, he believed, of his difficulty.) He was fond of tinkering, sports, and practical jokes, and although his native intellectual gifts were not particularly distinguished, he had sufficient discipline and curiosity to get good grades. During his years abroad he kept a journal, and Kanigel has ransacked it for clues to Taylor’s personality. Some of Kanigel’s claims sound forced (as when he sees the teenager’s journal entries describing the quality of various European hotels and the price of cricket bats as foreshadowing his later obsession with discovering the most efficient method of cutting steel). Yet the passages that Kanigel recovers from the journal and elsewhere about young Fred’s obsessive habits, his compulsive efforts to excel, and his fascination with order lead to the irresistible conclusion that, even as a boy, Taylor was a perfectionist to an abnormal degree.

Early in 1874, during his second year at Exeter, Taylor suffered a physical collapse brought on by intense headaches and painful eye trouble. Within six months, Taylor recovered well enough to pass the Harvard entrance examinations, but he feared that his eyesight could not withstand the heavy bouts of reading in Harvard’s prescribed classical curriculum. Despite his parents’ misgivings, he decided not to go to college but took a job as an apprentice patternmaker at Ferrell & Jones, a small pumpmaking company in Philadelphia that was owned by a family friend.

It was the most important decision in Taylor’s life, and it has intrigued students of Taylor and Taylorism ever since. Some writers have described it as a melodrama, in which young Taylor battled adversity and found his own way to glory. Other writers have interpreted his illness as either faked or psychosomatic, and have described his decision to become a workingman as a rebellion against his father.

Kanigel concedes that Taylor, during his illness, was “a confused young man,” but he offers a more prosaic and persuasive explanation. Almost certainly, Kanigel believes, Taylor’s physical and psychological torments were aggravated by a severe astigmatism that was not diagnosed until many years later. There is considerable evidence to confirm that Taylor was genuinely disappointed by his inability to follow his father’s career. That the young Taylor had taken a lively interest in scientific and technical matters years before his breakdown makes his choice of an engineering career seem not nearly the act of rebellion that the more melodramatic accounts have suggested. Taylor was simply redirecting his determination to make the most of his limited abilities.

Nor was it odd, in 1874, for a young man of Taylor’s social background to enter into an industrial apprenticeship. At the time, only a handful of American schools offered degree programs in mechanical engineering, and few professional engineers had any sort of university training. Moreover, as Taylor himself later wrote, in Philadelphia it had long been “customary for many young men whose parents are well-to-do” to get their start in engineering and industry by learning the ropes on the shop floor. Or, as Kanigel remarks, “Taylor’s apprenticeship had something in common with an executive training program.”

In 1878, after completing his four-year stint at Ferrell & Jones, Taylor moved on to the machine shop at the Midvale Steel Company in Philadelphia, a large, expanding, and innovative steelmaker, where he worked in quick succession as a laborer, shop clerk, and machinist before being named the machine shop’s foreman. At every point along the way, he later claimed, he got along extremely well with his fellow workers—so well, in fact, that for a long time, he was able to conceal from them that he was a gentleman’s son. Even when, as a foreman, he became tyrannical with his men and made them angry, Taylor believed that he retained their friendship and respect. By living intimately with ordinary toilers, he said, he learned to value their company, to understand their vernacular, and to recognize their virtues and vices. To underscore his working-class affinities, he would sometimes litter his speech with shop-floor profanity, most memorably (and, though he meant to be serious, hilariously) during a series of highly publicized lectures on scientific management he delivered at Harvard late in his career. In one lecture, he observed that “the working man and the college professor have fundamentally the same feeling, the same motives, the same ambitions.”

Yet if Taylor tried to act like one of the boys, he never truly became one of them. When the day was over and the workers went back to their humble neighborhoods, he returned to his parents’ comfortable household, where he would dine with their well-connected friends, including the owners of Midvale Steel. There is no evidence that he ever visited his coworkers at home or met their families. He closely observed working people, but only as factory mates or employees; and he would always think about workers in those terms.

There was, moreover, much about working-class life that exasperated the refined young machinist. A confirmed teetotaler (he abstained from coffee and tea as well as tobacco and alcohol), Taylor had no use for saloons and no sympathy for workingmen who wasted their wages there. He also disapproved of certain shop-floor conventions, above all the skilled workers’ habitual refusal to work at their maximum capacity—a practice he described as “soldiering.”4 Working under the piece-rate system prevailing in American industry, Midvale’s machinists ostensibly earned more money the more they produced. If they produced too much, however, the boss would cut the rate in order to save on labor costs. Under the circumstances, it made perfect sense for the men to “soldier,” that is, to perform just enough work that would qualify for the highest rate.

Taylor later observed that men have a “natural instinct and tendency” to take things easy. But at Midvale, he saw skilled workers systematically restricting their output and putting pressure on their colleagues to do the same. He saw men who believed that, as the actual producers of goods, they and not their employers should determine how much and how fast they worked. (“Mustn’t give the boss more than his money’s worth,” in Dos Passos’s phrase.) Because these workers had technical knowledge and dexterity, which the employers lacked, they could enforce their own work rules with virtual impunity. But Taylor could only comprehend these arrangements as wasteful malingering.

So long as Taylor was an ordinary machinist, he went along quietly with the practice of soldiering. After being named a gang boss at Midvale, however, he was determined to get his men to work harder, convinced that they were slacking off. “Charm,” Kanigel notes, “wasn’t in his repertoire,” and so Taylor threatened and cajoled and humiliated the men under him, earning their hatred as “a tyrant” and “a nigger driver.” For nearly two years, he battled hard, winning his employers’ endorsement of his proposals but creating a pervasive atmosphere of resentment on the shop floor. Sometime around the fall of 1880, in search of more effective and less arbitrary disciplinary tools, he asked one of Midvale’s owners, William Sellers, for permission to conduct experiments that would impartially determine the maximum capacity of the firm’s metal-cutting machines. Sellers was a former president of Philadelphia’s distinguished scientific organization, the Franklin Institute, and an experimenter himself, and he backed Taylor’s project. Taylor originally thought that his experiments would take six months. He would wind up experimenting for more than twenty years at Midvale and elsewhere on a wide range of industrial procedures.

3.

Taylor was hardly the first person to contend that systematizing industrial work procedures could advance productivity and add to the sum of human happiness. In England in the first half of the nineteenth century, Charles Babbage had insisted that proper regulation of what he called the “domestic economy” of factory labor was as important to an enterprise’s success as the introduction of machines. In Europe during the 1880s and 1890s, mounting concern about the exhausting effects of factory production on workers spurred the emergence of a full-fledged “science of work,” whose devotees conducted various experiments to determine which work procedures would best conserve human energy. In America entrepreneur- technicians like Sellers—and many anonymous foremen and mechanics—had long been improving factory operations and work procedures in more practical and piecemeal ways, such as Sellers’s introduction of a standardized screw thread design which allowed the bolts from one shop to match those from any other. And although Kanigel says little directly on the matter, Taylor must have been well aware of at least some of these attempts to marry factory production to science.

Taylor’s innovations, however, were at once more meticulous than earlier efforts had been and more grandiose, commensurate with the burgeoning growth of America’s industry at the end of the nineteenth century. Determined to check the ruinous effects of cutthroat competition and to stabilize prices, the nation’s chief industrialists had begun reorganizing their enterprises into large integrated corporations, which concentrated production into huge plants, along the lines of Andrew Carnegie’s massive Homestead Works, the largest steelmaking plant in the world. The high costs of building and maintaining the new plants and their expensive equipment required that the operations be run at full capacity; and that requirement in turn impelled employers to exert more efficient control over the process of production and greatly to expand their markets in order to absorb the increased volume of goods.

Only by reorganizing the entire enterprise, from providing raw materials to selling the finished products, could the new business empires survive. Although Taylor began modestly, by revamping a single firm’s machine shop, he quickly advanced to speculating about a more systematic overhaul of factory labor itself, along the lines which the new industrial order, with its emphasis on high productivity, demanded. He would improve the quality of the plant’s machines, to allow production to proceed around the clock. He would scrap the old piece rate in favor of a new differential rate that would reward those workers who produced the most. He would divide the work of skilled labor into carefully timed operations that would put an end to soldiering and give management the upper hand in raising levels of production.

Taylor’s innovations also coincided with the growing professionalism among America’s engineers. In 1881, at the suggestion of the president of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken (yet another family friend), Taylor enrolled in Stevens’s mechanical engineering program; and though he rarely turned up in class, he received his degree two years later. In 1884, he joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (of which he would, in later years, be named president), and he began attending the group’s biannual conventions, which gave him important contacts and outlets for publicizing his ideas.

Obsessed as he was by his new vocation, Taylor did not abandon either his roots or his lifelong passion for sports. In September 1881, at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island, he and a Germantown friend teamed up to win the United States Open tennis doubles championship. In 1884, he married Louise Spooner, an eminently respectable Germantown girl whom he had known all his life. But always, his work at Midvale took precedence. By the late 1880s, his experiments had progressed to the point where he was able to print up cards detailing each and every step in a machinist’s job and how it ought to be performed. According to Taylor’s calculations, Midvale’s employers could substitute relatively unskilled and inexpensive workers for skilled workers, improve productivity five to six fold, raise wages (marginally), and increase profits (enormously).

In 1890, Taylor resigned from Midvale and moved with Louise to central Maine, expecting to make a fortune from his investment in a new branch of a papermaking concern founded by some well-connected Washington officials. He tried, with indifferent results, to adapt his Midvale improvisations with piece work and differential rates to pulp processing, but the Panic of 1893 ruined the paper company, and the next several years were an unsettled period in Taylor’s life. After returning to Germantown, he set himself up as a freelance managerial consultant—the first such consultant in American history—and he advised such firms as the William Camp & Sons shipbuilders of Philadelphia (which described itself as “the greatest naval arsenal in the Western Hemisphere”) on how to improve their metal-cutting procedures. Only in 1898, however, did he land a job that matched his expanding ambitions—a commission from the Bethlehem Iron Company (soon to become Bethlehem Steel) to help boost the firm’s productivity.

At Bethlehem, Taylor encountered Henry Noll, an indefatigable pig-iron loader who (under the pseudonym that Taylor later gave him, “Schmidt”) would eventually become a living emblem of scientific management. As Taylor later explained in countless speeches, he had been looking for a specific type of workman—“a man of the mentally sluggish type…a man so stupid that he was unfitted to do [even] most kinds of laboring work”—and Noll, who was athletic and, by reputation, slow-witted, seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Taylor had resolved to prove that, with his scientific methods (and by paying slightly higher wages), he could persuade the dullest of men to perform labor far beyond their supposed capacities. And so he did, he later proclaimed, by inducing Noll to increase his pig-iron load from thirteen to forty-five tons a day while giving him a wage hike from $1.15 to $1.70 a day. In all, Taylor exulted, he had shown that he could more than triple a common laborer’s output, in exchange for a pay raise of just over 30 percent—which, in turn, meant reducing labor cost per ton by more than half.

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.

4.

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. 1

    Taylor’s testimony in 1911 before a subcommittee of the House Labor Committee (reprinted in full in Scientific Management, Harper and Brothers, 1947), offers a crisp summary of his ideas.

  2. 2

    Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (Harper and Brothers, 1911), p. 7. Lenin claimed that what he called Taylor’s “progressive” ideas about work could be divorced from capitalism, and put to use in making socialist Russia’s sluggish workers more productive (Lenin, “The Urgent Problems of the Soviet Rule,” Pravda, April 28, 1918, quoted in Frank Barkley Copley, Frederick W. Taylor: Father of Scientific Management, Harper and Brothers, 1923, in two volumes, Vol. I, pp. xxi-xxii.) Lenin then adapted Taylorist techniques, including differential piece rates, to Soviet industry, under the auspices of the Central Labor Institute.

  3. 3

    It should be noted that many New Dealers who, unlike Tugwell, had close ties to the labor movement regarded the Taylor system as dehumanizing, and fought its spread in government and industry.

  4. 4

    According to Kanigel, the term is American and nautical, and it dates back to the early nineteenth century. Customarily, soldiers being transported by ship were exempted from performing seamen’s chores—hence, among sailors, shirking became known as “soldiering.”

  5. 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.

  6. 6

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

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