- Historic Sites
Frederick Winslow Taylor
The Messiah of Time and Motion
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
But most factory managers and industrial engineers, in Russia and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe as well as in the noncommunist world, are inclined to look on such experiments as softheaded do-goodism. By and large, Taylor’s truth is still mighty and prevails. Indeed, as Peter Drucker, a leading student of business management, has suggested, scientific management “may well be the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since the Federalist Papers.”
Frederick Taylor was born in Germantown, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, in 1856, and very early in life displayed two closely related traits that were strongly to mark his career. According to his admiring biographer, Frank Barkley Copley, these were “a passion for improving and reforming things,” and “a divine discontent with anything short of the one best way .” “Even a game of croquet was a source of study and careful analysis with Fred,” a boyhood friend recalled years later, adding that, on cross-country tramps, Taylor “was constantly experimenting with his legs” to discover the most efficient method of walking.
Taylor grew up in easy circumstances, his father having come into enough money as a young man so that he could give up the practice of law and devote himself to reading poetry and the classics, and performing good works. In his teens young Fred Taylor traveled in Europe with his family for three years, during which he briefly attended schools in Germany and France. Later he went to Exeter, where he captained the baseball team and, in his senior year, ranked first in his class. He had planned to go to Harvard and, eventually, to become a lawyer. Instead, for reasons that are obscure—Taylor himself used to speak unconvincingly of a need to rest his eyes after too much night study at Exeter—he went to work as an apprentice pattern-maker and machinist in a small Philadelphia pump factory. He stayed there four years, leading a double life as a machine-shop hand by day and a proper Philadelphian by night. He belonged to the Young America Cricket Club, sang in a choral society, acted in amateur theatricals—he was particularly admired for his skill in impersonating young women—and went to dances where he discharged his debt to Philadelphia society by choosing half (but no more) of his partners from a group of wallflowers whose names he had listed for himself in advance.
In 1878, having completed his apprenticeship, he took a job with another Philadelphia firm, the Midvale Steel Company, where he rose, over the next six years, from lathe-hand to machineshop foreman, master mechanic, and chief works engineer. He had not been at Midvale long before he was seized with an urge to improve and reform things there. To fit himself better for the task he persuaded Stevens Institute, in Hoboken, New Jersey, to let him take its regular course in mechanical engineering on a home-study basis. Since he was working six and sometimes seven days a week at Midvale, he had to do most of his studying at night or early in the morning. For a while he got up at 2:00 A.M. , studied until 5:00, and then napped for half an hour to freshen himself for his day at Midvale, which began at six-thirty. But for most of the astonishingly short time that it took him to earn his engineering degree—he got it in two and a half years—he studied each evening from nine until midnight, and then cooled himself out mentally by taking a half hour’s run through the streets of Germantown. “Sometimes,” Copley writes, “he would be seen stopping under a street lamp to consult a paper or a blank-book; apparently even he who runs may study.”
Taylor got his degree from Stevens in 1883, and it was around this time that he began timing jobs with a stop watch. His aim was to get a fair day’s work out of the men in Midvale’s machine shop, who he was convinced could easily double or triple their daily output but chose instead to “soldier” on the job—thereby, in Taylor’s view, sinning not only against their bosses, but against themselves and society at large. Taylor recognized, however, that it was not easy to persuade men to produce more when experience had taught them that, if they did, the piece rates governing the amount of their wages would sooner or later be cut, and they would end up doing more work for the same pay.