Skip to main content

“vell, Den, I Vas A High-priced Man”

May 2024
2min read

In 1898 Taylor was hired as a consultant by Bethlehem Steel. At the time several gangs of laborers were employed by the company to pick up ninety-two-pound iron pigs, carry them up a ramp, and deposit them in railroad cars. In the course of a ten-hour day each man was expected to load 304 pigs, weighing twelve and a half tons. After a series of experiments, Taylor concluded that a reasonably strong man—”a man of the type of the ox, ” as he put it—should be able to load not twelve and a half tons a day, but forty-seven tons. Taylor proposed to raise by 62 per cent the wages of any man reaching this goal.

There remained the task of persuading the loaders to go along with Taylor’s plans, which included paying them by the piece—that is, by the ton—instead of by the day. In time Taylor succeeded in getting some loaders to meet the new standard, and his often-repeated and colorful account of how he brought this to pass, using as his bellwether a laborer whom he called Schmidt, is part of the folklore of scientific management.

Here, slightly abridged, is the account Taylor gave in one of his books of how, in the case of Schmidt the loader, science triumphed over suspicion and stupidity. As it happens, recent research by historians Charles D. Wrage ofRutgers and the late Amadeo G. Perroni of the University of Alberta has established that this story is mainly fiction. But it remains a document of extraordinary interest, not for what it tells us about management science, but for what it reveals about Taylor’s attitudes toward work and workingmen.

S.K.

He [Schmidt] was a little Pennsylvania Dutchman who had been observed to trot back home for a mile or so after his work in the evening, about as fresh as when he came trotting down to work in the morning. We found that upon wages of $1.15 a day he had succeeded in buying a small plot of ground, and was engaged in putting up the walls of a little house for himself in the morning before starting to work and at night after leaving.… This man we will call Schmidt.

The task before us … narrowed itself down to getting Schmidt to handle forty-seven tons of pig iron per day and making him glad to do it. This was done as follows. Schmidt was … talked to somewhat in this way:

“Schmidt, are you a high-priced man?”

“Veil, I don’t know vat you mean.”

“Oh, come now, you answer my questions. … What I want to find out is whether you want to earn $1.85 a day or whether you are satisfied with $1.15, just the same as all these cheap fellows are getting.”

“Did I vant $1.85 a day? Vas dot a high-priced man? Veil, yes, I vas a high-priced man.”

“Oh, you’re aggravating me. Of course you want $1.85 a day—everyone wants it!… Now come over here. You see that pile of pig iron?”

“Yes.”

“You see that car?”

“Yes.”

“Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will load that pig iron on that car tomorrow for $1.85. Now do wake up and answer my question. Tell me whether you are a high-priced man or not.…”

“Veil, dot’s all right. I could load dot pig iron on the car tomorrow for $1.85, and I get it every day, don’t I?”

“Certainly you do—certainly you do.”

“Veil, den, I vas a high-priced man.”

“Now hold on, hold on. … You have seen this man here before, haven’t you?”

“No, I never saw him.”

“Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will do exactly as this man tells you tomorrow, from morning till night. When he tells you to pick up a pig and walk, you pick it up and you walk, and when he tells you to sit down and rest, you sit down. You do that right straight through the day. And what’s more, no back talk.… Now you come on to work here tomorrow morning and I’ll know before night whether you are really a high-priced man or not.…”

Schmidt started to work, and all day long, and at regular intervals, was told [what he was to do] by the man who stood over him with a watch … and at half-past five in the afternoon [he] had his forty-seven and one-half tons loaded on the car. And he practically never failed to work at this pace and do the task that was set for him during the three years that the writer was at Bethlehem.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate