The Most Influential Man of the 20th Century

Published on F&O March 15, 2014

A few miles northwest of Boston, on the north bank of the Charles River, lies the suburb of Watertown. It was once known for its Armory, where, among other things, cannon were manufactured for coastal defense. Other American armories are better known — Harpers Ferry in Virginia, for instance, figured in John Brown’s raid just before the Civil War broke out.


Frederick Winslow Taylor (Wikimedia Commons)

One day, I went out of Boston to find the Watertown Armory. I should have found it right away, as the highway borders its grounds for a few blocks, but I didn’t. It was only when I drove down another street, also bordering the site, that I realized that this old government facility had, with only a small exception, been converted into a shopping mall (appropriately named the Arsenal Mall), and condos. Only a portion of the original buildings still housed military activities.

I had gone looking for the Armory because, in the summer of 1911, it had gained a brief measure of celebrity. The working people in the Armory, all federal government employees, had walked off the job for the best part of a week. There was no violence and the strike was only notable because United States government employees were not known for their propensity to walk off the job.

The strike was a protest over the presence of time-study people brought in by the Armory management. Many military leaders had been impressed by the work of Frederick W. Taylor and his associates in increasing productivity and production in foundries, factories and other businesses and institutions. Shortly after Taylor’s people came into the Waterville Armory, the workers walked out. The strike prompted a Congressional investigation into Taylor’s Scientific Management movement, and brought him to attention of people far beyond those who had used him as a consultant on shop productivity problems. He died in 1916, but he became the most influential person (in my view) of the 20th century.

We all live in a Taylorite milieu, though we don’t know it.

In the 1970s, the playwright and political activist Barbara Garson spent months interviewing workers in tuna‑processing plants and automobile factories, and working as a keypuncher herself. “Today,” she wrote darkly in All the Livelong Day, referring to Taylor’s (anecdote of a) pig iron handler named Schmidt, “we type, assemble and even talk under routines like those worked out for Schmidt … Since Frederick Taylor’s day, the division of labour has continued in its soul‑destroying direction. Some large categories of work seem difficult at first to reduce to small job modules, but gradually stenographers are replaced by tapes, secretaries are relegated to the typing pool, and look what McDonald’s has done to the highly individualized jobs of waiters and short order cooks.”

As Garson’s language suggests, and as we shall see, dark clouds have all along threatened Taylorism’s sunlit vision. But they little interfered with its spread. It was as if, early in the century, a concentrated gas of an immense potency, until then trapped within a corked vial, had suddenly been released, and had ever since been wafting across the world.

Me and Fred

I first met Fred Taylor in 1965, even though he had been dead almost 50 years. I was a married graduate student with kids and was fortunate to get on at the GM Corvair plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, that summer. In the morning I would attend classes, and at 3 p.m. I’d show up for the second shift at the plant. It was a rough schedule, but the money was good.

My job was to help unload boxcars. The new guys, like me, got the afternoon shift because, even though the sun was going down and it became cooler in the plant, those boxcars had sat all day in the sun and inside they remained very hot. The foreman assigned us to different cars: there were “2 hour cars,” “4-hour cars,” and the occasional “8 hour car,” depending on the difficulty in getting the contents out of a given boxcar.

It did not take too long to get used to the rhythm of unloading cars. You had to get used to the heat that came rolling out as the doors were opened. Then you had to carefully unblock the parts and carry out the heavy wood ‘breaker bars’ before the parts (hot metal) could be taken out. I was especially careful with the breaker bars because one was dropped and broke my brother’s foot when he was on a similar job a few years earlier.

One day the foreman assigned me to a team and the car was noted as a “1 hour and 48 minute car.” Not two hours. The experienced guys on the shift stayed away from there — the new guys got these particular cars, whenever they arrived.

We started in on the car and found it no more difficult than others, except that the foreman came along at certain points and told us to rest then and there for no more than 10 minutes. Then it was up again and back to work. In 1 hour and 48 minutes, we were done — and we were not happy. The work was not overly tiring, in comparison to the other cars, but we had lost all control of our time. We had to work at a constant rate in order to finish on time, and we had to stop and rest even when we didn’t want to stop. On the other cars, we would often work hard and fast just so we could have a bigger break at the end, but not with these cars. After 1 hour and 48 minutes, we were put to work for 12 minutes sweeping up the area. We found out afterwards that these cars had been “time-and-motion studied” by Taylor’s intellectual descendants.

The Rise of Scientific Management

Until the 1880s, workplaces tended to be relatively small in terms of physical size and employment. The modern corporation existed primarily in the form of railroads. The physical layouts of the companies tended to be poorly lit, dirty, cluttered and disorganized. Hiring and training tended to be in the hands of foremen, while skilled and semi-skilled workers carried production knowledge around in their heads. One of Taylor’s first moves as a young factory manager was to organize his facility in a rational manner: clean, light it up, and pick up debris from the floor. The various workstations were rationally placed and from all this, productivity increased.

By 1883, Taylor’s made another leap. Once he had satisfied himself about the reality of true interchangeability of physical parts, he next began to ask himself whether the idea might not be extended to manufacturing tasks and organization.

Could people be made ‘interchangeable’?

The labour forces in various large industries were increasingly being made up of foreign immigrants and domestic migrants, all looking for a better life. The key problem relating to them was a productivity one: how to absorb these labourers quickly and get good production from them. The first task was one of the simplification of jobs, thereby taking them out of the control of skilled workers, who required lengthy apprenticeships, and making it possible to employ many more people to do these jobs. This had been done earlier in the process of moving textile production from home spinning and weaving into early 1800s British and American factories, but the existence of truly interchangeable parts meant it could now be extended into all kinds of production in the 1880s and beyond.

Simplifying jobs meant that they could be learned quickly by immigrants and farm-boys. Productivity then depended upon properly relating the simple tasks to each other so that the final product was made. What was proper came from the systematic study of this relationship, just as what was simple came from the logical breakdown of production activities into their component parts. Proper engineering could develop systems that eliminated the need for skilled labour.

In 1912, in The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor expounded and expanded his ideas. The book, coming after the Watertown Arsenal strike, is still in print. The strike was followed by the publicity of a Congressional inquiry, which only led to his book being a hit with people trying to manage public and private organizations, though it was condemned by the very mass labour unions it had helped indirectly to create by eliminating the old crafts.

A Mental Revolution

Taylor’s appearance before the Congressional committee summed up his approach. It was about changing the organizational culture— changing the world — and not just about measurement. He was a revolutionary: “I want to clear the deck,” he said at one point, and “sweep away a good deal of rubbish first by pointing out what scientific management is not.” He then commenced this astonishing litany:

Scientific management is not an efficiency device, not a device of any kind for securing efficiency; nor is it any group of efficiency devices. It is not a new system of figuring costs; it is not a new scheme of paying men; it is not a piecework system; it is not a bonus system; it is not a premium system; it is no scheme for paying men; it is not holding a stop watch on a man and writing things down about him; it is not time study; it is not motion study, nor an analysis of the movements of men; it is not the printing and ruling and unloading of a ton or two of blanks on a set of men and saying, “Here’s your system; go use it.” It is not divided foremanship or functional foremanship; it is not any of the devices which the average man calls to mind when scientific management is spoken of.These were merely tools, “adjuncts.” Scientific management was more, demanding “a complete mental revolution” on the part of workers and management. “And without this complete mental revolution on both sides scientific management does not exist.”“A mental revolution”. All through his testimony, he’d repeat the phrase. This revolution would–indeed, must – “produce results which are magnificent for both sides.” In the past, workingmen and manage­ment worried about “the proper division of the surplus resulting from their joint efforts,” each side looking to maximize its take and viewing the other as its enemy. But under scientific management that would change.

In Taylor’s words:

“In the past the prevailing idea has been well expressed in the saying that “Captains of industry are born, not made”; and the theory has been that if one could get the right man, methods could be safely left to him. In the future it will be appreciated that our leaders must be trained right as well as born right, and that no great man can (with the old system of personal management) hope to compete with a number of ordinary men who have been properly organized so as efficiently to cooperate.

In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first. This in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed. On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men; and under systematic management the best man rises to the top more certainly and more rapidly than ever before.”

Taylor died in 1916, aged 59. He was found in his hospital room, said the novelist John dos Passos, with his watch in his hand. He knew the revolution was at hand:

“The same principles of scientific management can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions and our government departments.”

Taylor saw a world that was focused on the consumer. The mission of industry was to give the world all it needs. A history of scarcity and want was to be replaced by a future full of prosperity and general well-being.

The Spread of the Revolution

In May 1908, the first dean of Harvard’s graduate school of business, Edwin F. Gay, visited Taylor, and was soon introducing “industrial organization” to the curriculum. Taylor and his associate Carl Barth, among others, regularly lectured there. Penn State’s was among the first engineering programs to absorb Taylorist ideas, through Hugo Diemer, a Taylor devotee formerly at the University of Kansas; by 1909 he had begun the United States’ first true industrial engineering department. From the 1910s to at least the 1940s a large percentage of business students and a smaller but not inconsiderable number of engi­neering students were exposed to the tenets of scientific management, whether they realized it or not.

In his 1994 book Post‑Capitalist Society, management guru Peter Drucker reasserted his view that Taylor, not Karl Marx, warranted a place in the trinity of makers of the modern world, along with Darwin and Freud. Even America’s victory in World War II, he said, could properly be credited to Taylor’s influence. After Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States because he reasoned that, lacking a merchant marine, modern destroyers, and a good optics industry, America could scarcely wage war at all — much less wage it in Europe. Hitler was right, said Drucker. America did lack those things:

But by applying Taylor’s Scientific Management, U.S. industry trained totally unskilled workers, many of them former sharecroppers raised in a pre‑industrial environment, and converted them in sixty to ninety days into first‑rate welders and ship‑builders. Equally, the United States trained the same kind of people within a few months to turn out precision optics of better quality than the Germans ever did.

(One of those hurriedly built ships, identical to hundreds of others churned out during the war, was the 7,176‑ton SS Frederick W. Taylor, launched in South Portland, Maine, in 1942.)

This application of research and science to human work behaviour is so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice it today. It has led to a system that produces and distributes more goods and services to everyone than has ever been seen before. Without Taylor’s application of experimental research to the problems of production in the late 1800s, Henry Ford could not have created his version of the assembly line, Ray Croc could not have developed McDonald’s systems, Ray Walton could not have developed Wal-Mart’s logistics — and so on.

Taylor’s importance to the 20th century lay in the organization of what could be called the ‘shop floor.’ Until the growth of computerized automation, and whether in offices or factories — or hamburger stands — his approach to work has dominated the lives of most Americans and others in industrialized and industrializing countries. Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and Dilbert all parodies Scientific Management and its offshoot, the assembly line, from the beginning of the 20th Century until its end.

A critical facet of Taylor’s work that is still with us is the application of measurement to human behaviour. Taylor was looking for optimal work methods and this led him into the measurement of human motions. This was developed to its extreme by his followers, especially Frank Gilbreath, the father character in the film, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and his reversed-eponymous ‘therbligs.’ Today, Taylor is been seen as the ‘father’ of ergonomics and has even been associated with the Google focus on measuring search choices.

Finally, there is no critical review of Taylorism here. His ideas have been extended so far and into so many configurations that to discuss a vision from a century ago is, dare I say it, academic. We live in the revolution that Taylor symbolizes, we are used to its stresses, and we really wouldn’t know how to live any other way. Does a fish know it’s wet?

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT

Further reading:
Robert Kanigel. The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997.)
Wikipedia page for Frederick Winslow Taylor

CORRECTION, July 19, 2014: The suburb near Boston is Watertown. An earlier version of the column had an incorrect name.


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