- Historic Sites
Frederick Winslow Taylor
The Messiah of Time and Motion
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
Union men also derided Taylor’s assertion that the bonuses offered to workers for meeting the new goals set by their scientific managers were scientifically determined. The only fixed rule governing the size of such bonuses, they suggested, was that however much a worker might benefit from scientific management, his employer should benefit even more. This point was neatly made by the socialist Upton Sinclair in a letter to The American Magazine , which had carried Taylor’s account of the prodigies performed under his tutelage by Bethlehem’s pig-iron handlers. “[Taylor] tells how workingmen were loading twelve and a half tons… and he induced them to load forty-seven tons instead,” Sinclair wrote. “They had formerly been getting $1.15; he paid them $1.85.… I shall not soon forget the picture which he gave us of the poor old laborer who was trying to build his pitiful little home after hours, and who was induced to give 362 [sic] per cent more service for 61 per cent more pay.” Taylor was provoked into answering in words that betrayed—indeed, proclaimed—the condescension, often tinged with contempt, that underlay his attitude toward workingmen. Citing “a long series of experiments,” about which he gave no details, he wrote that it had been established that when men of the caliber of pig-iron loaders were given much more than a 60 per cent bonus “many of them will work irregularly and tend to become more or less shiftless, extravagant and dissipated. Our experiments showed, in other words, that for their own best interest it does not do for most men to get rich too fast.”
In 1912 Taylor testified at length before a congressional committee looking into scientific management. The investigation had been authorized after a group of molders employed at the army’s arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts, had walked off the job rather than submit to the “humiliating” and “un-American” ordeal of being timed with a stop watch. The committee chairman, a former miners’ union official, allowed union representatives to question all witnesses, and when it came Taylor’s turn to face them, he blew up. “At the close of his testimony,” his biographer, Copley, writes, “he was deliberately baited by his labor-leader opponents. Two of them went at him at the same time with insults and sneers. Insofar as the plan was to make him lose his temper, to destroy his self-control, it was a success. With flushed face, he hurled denunciations at his opponents and made accusations which in the nature of things he could not prove. For a time it appeared as if blows would be struck.” Exactly what was said is unknown, since the interchange was stricken from the record. According to Copley’s account, “Taylor’s friends who were there present viewed the scene with emotions such as one might experience upon seeing a magnificent stag worried and brought low by a pack of wolves.”
Over the next three years Taylor’s friends had more and more reason to worry about his state of mind. “While he gave many signs of a mellowing nature,” Copley writes, “there at the same time were symptoms of increasing nervous instability. Men who had business relations with him could not be sure in what mood they would find him. He who all along had been an inspiration now sometimes depressed people, giving them a sense of fearful strain.” For comfort Taylor turned repeatedly to an uplifting essay called “The Dreamers,” by a writer named Herbert Kaufman, which read, in part, “They are the architects of greatness.… They are the chosen few—the Blazers of the Way—who never wear Doubt’s bandage on their eyes—who starve and chill and hurt, but hold to courage and to hope.” In the late winter of 1915 Taylor caught pneumonia, and on March 21, one day after his fifty-ninth birthday, he died. He was buried on a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River, and his grave was marked with a stone inscribed “Frederick W. Taylor, Father of Scientific Management.”
In one way time has vindicated Taylor. His ideas are now taken as much for granted, by most planners and organizers of factory and office work, as the idea of the division of labor that so powerfully influenced the Industrial Revolution. If Taylor had not invented scientific management, it would have been invented by someone else. The engineering principles that had been applied with such success to the design of industrial machines were certain to be applied, sooner or later, to the men who operated them.
But Taylor’s vision of an era in which managers and the managed would work together in harmony and mutual respect was not to be fulfilled. Nor could it have been fulfilled, since Taylor, for all his obviously genuine protestations of concern for the workingman, looked at the world of work through the eyes of the employer. As Braverman argues convincingly in Labor and Monopoly Capital , Taylor did not develop a science of work, but something quite different: a science of management that would enable employers to get the most possible work out of their employees.
It is true that factory workers, partly through the power of the unions that Taylor so hated and mistrusted, have secured a share of the fruits of their increased productivity. But there have been unmistakable signs—absenteeism, carelessness, sabotage, wildcat strikes—of a mounting conviction that the price exacted from them for their relative prosperity has been much too steep. The recent experiments in job enlargement, offering workers more variety and autonomy on the job, mark a recognition that applying Taylorism in its undiluted form may not, after all, be the best way to maximize profits.