- Historic Sites
Frederick Winslow Taylor
The Messiah of Time and Motion
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
Public fascination with scientific management was heightened by its association with a new religion of efficiency. While Taylor himself was concerned almost exclusively with efficiency in industry, bookstores were soon filled with books explaining how to apply the principles of scientific management to one’s personal life. Some of these inspirational works were written by ex-ministers, and some by established producers of success literature, like Elbert Hubbard and Orison Swett Harden, who knew a good thing in the success line when they saw it. Churchmen spoke of making worship more efficient. “People,” one minister explained, “like to be tied up to progressive, wide awake, and going concerns.” A proposal was made to introduce efficiency into higher education by encouraging professors to establish central banks of standardized lecture notes. Books appeared with titles like The New Housekeeping and Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home . One writer suggested setting up a chain of housekeeping experiment stations to develop and test “principles of domestic engineering.”
Meanwhile, demand was rising for the services of engineers trained by Taylor. By 1914, scientific management, while it could not be described as widespread, was being practiced to some degree in eighty industries, including naval construction, printing, and mining, and the manufacture of typewriters, locomotives, clothing, glass, shoes, soap, and textiles. To Taylor’s gratification, moreover, his belief that scientific management was as good for the workers as it was for their bosses was shared by many progressives like Brandeis and the young socialist writer Walter Lippmann. In their eyes, scientific management beautifully exemplified the kind of benevolent expertise with which they hoped to bring about social harmony and material progress without overthrowing the capitalist order.
Yet for all the attention his ideas were finally receiving, Taylor’s last years were not happy ones. More and more often he fell prey to the conviction that he was being martyred on the altar of ingratitude and greed. The perpetrators of his martyrdom, as he saw it, included false prophets of scientific management—”a crowd of industrial patent medicine men,” as they were described by Professor Robert F. Hoxie of the University of Chicago—who promised instant salvation to manufacturers afflicted by low output and low profits.
Taylor was less hurt, however, by the corruption of his ideas, and by the eagerness with which business men were buying worthless nostrums instead of the genuine article, than he was by the hostility of organized labor. Addressing his fellow workers in 1911 on the evils of scientific management, President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor wrote sarcastically, “So there you are, wage-workers in general, mere machines.… Hence, why should you not be standardized and your motion-power brought up to the highest possible perfection in all respects, including speed? Not only your length, breadth, and thickness as a machine, but your grade of hardness, malleability, tractability … can be ascertained, registered, and then employed as desirable. Science would thus get the most out of you before you are sent to the junkpile.”
Taylor publicly denounced Gompers as one of the country’s “most blatant demagogues.” But he could not so scornfully dismiss objections of intelligent workmen like A. J. Portenar, a union printer (and the author of a book about labor) who had visited Boxly, and who thoughtfully set forth his criticism of scientific management in a letter to Taylor that he composed directly on a linotype. In reply, Taylor noted plaintively that the time and money he had devoted to the cause had been spent “entirely with the idea of getting better wages for the workmen—of developing the workmen coming under our system to make them all higher class men—to better educate them—to help them live better lives, and, above all, to be more happy and contented.”
Such protestations of good intentions did not disarm Taylor’s labor critics. They not only shared Gompers’ revulsion at the prospect of men being turned into robots by the Circe’s wand of Taylorism, but attacked scientific management on other grounds as well. They scoffed at the claim that work standards derived from stopwatch studies were scientific. In practice, they argued, such standards reflected the time-study man’s entirely subjective estimate—or his boss’s estimate—of how hard a man should be expected to work. Time-and-motion studies could thus be used as justification for driving workers to exhaustion, and there was little comfort to be had from Taylor’s protests that any manager who improperly speeded up his workers was a traitor to scientific management. Skilled workers, who made up the bulk of union members at the time, were further alarmed by the prospect that, as jobs became Taylorized—that is, split up among several workers, each performing a relatively simple and rigidly specified task-traditional skills would lose their market value. Taylor himself conceded the truth of this argument. No machine-shop boss should be satisfied, he wrote, “until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller calibre and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system.”