Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

Frederick Winslow Taylor:  A Product of His Environment

    On August 21st 1911, the House of Representatives passed Resolution 90, authorizing a Special Committee to Investigate the Taylor and Other Systems of Shop Management. A relatively small strike had broken out at the government arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts in response to new management procedures implemented in anticipation of gearing up for war and, by the following January, had culminated in a full-blown congressional investigation (Kanigel 1997, 458). At the center of the controversy stood Frederick Winslow Taylor, the first efficiency expert and management guru. The Watertown Arsenal, like many government operated production facilities, had acquired a reputation as a model of inefficiency. Procedures advocated by Taylor the previous year, in his The Principles of Scientific Management, had been rapidly implemented in an effort in increase efficiency. Taylor claimed that the "time studies had been introduced to the foundry with insufficient groundwork; that was the problem" (Kanigel 1997, 450). Regardless of who was to blame, the strike focused national attention on Frederick Taylor’s system and made him famous. Organized labor considered Taylor "a soulless slave driver, out to destroy the workingman’s health and rob him of his manhood. To the bosses, he was an eccentric and a radical, raising the wages of common laborers by a third, paying college boys to click stopwatches" (Kanigel 1997, 1). Taylor himself viewed these hearings as a judgement and potential vindication of his entire life’s work (Hunt 1924, 6-8).

    The hearings quickly turned ugly as Taylor mobilized his resources in an attempt to orchestrate the proceedings as if they were one of his machine shops. The Chairman, Congressman William Wilson, was a former union organizer from the coal mines of central Pennsylvania, eager to make a name for himself (Kanigel 1997, 1). From the very first question that Tuesday morning, the fight was on. Taylor, as he always had done, tried to position himself as one of the workers. Fred Taylor touted his rise from a patternmaker’s apprentice to the pinnacle of American industry in a Bounderby-like or Horatio Alger-like fashion. He asserted that rising from within the ranks qualified him to speak on behalf of the workers. Taylor claimed that his system of Scientific Management was rooted in fairness and the respect for his fellow workers that he acquired while one of them. He suggested that his early years in the pattern and machine shops were the defining element in all his subsequent achievements (Kanigel 1997, 450-484). In reality, his privileged background, well connected family, and enlightened upbringing were significantly more instrumental in shaping his system of scientific management than he acknowledged. In fact, aspects of his differential rate, time studies, tool experiments, and application of scientific methods to modern factory management can be traced to specific events and experiences in his life that were made possible only by abundant wealth.

    Fred Taylor learned the distinctions of class from the Philadelphia Quaker aristocracy that he was born into in 1856. The exclusive Germantown community where young Fred spent his formative years exposed him to several powerful men, accustomed to making decisions for others to follow. Which, for Fred, seemed perfectly natural; they were more qualified (Nelson 1980, 21-29). His father, "a lawyer by training, …a gentleman by birth; he didn’t spent his life pouring over legal briefs. Instead, he studied the languages and history that were his love, and served on the board of a school for retarded children" (Kanigel 1997, 29). The Taylors had, for generations, been wealthy and educated. They viewed themselves as cultured and civilized, epitomes of rational and enlightened liberal thinkers. Slavery and worker abuses appalled them. Still, there was an atmosphere of elitism. A sense of justice and fair play was encouraged in the Taylor household, but proper image and appearance was demanded. Still, Fred was always getting into fights. He "knew to avoid conflict, yet some part of him glorified in it" (Kanigel 1997, 67). He led raids on nearby cherry trees, not for the cherries, "but for the unholy joy of getting the ladies to come out and scold" (Kanigel 1997, 67). Fred and his brother, Win, had quite a reputation and blame often pointed to "those Taylor boys." Biographer Robert Kanigel described Taylor as "pugnacious--a warlike bravado, a looking-for-trouble insouciance …forever making mischief" (1997, 66).

    Fred Taylor learned the effectiveness of money as a tool to influence the behavior of others from his father. After the Civil War, travel to Europe had become popular among America’s upper class. Naturally, when Fred was twelve, Mr. Taylor took the family on a three-year "Grand Tour," filled with all the pleasures that accompany money and high society. One particular experience made quite an impression on young Fred. They were stranded at Finsterminz, high in the Alps. The bridge leading out of the pass had washed out and repairs efforts were somewhat half-hearted. Fred’s father had an itinerary to keep and with a little bravado and twelve guldens was able to get their carriage across the next afternoon (Kanigel 1997, 24).

While in Europe, the adolescent Taylor kept a detailed journal. Kanigel describes it as "no work of youthful genius" (1997, 58). Yet, it provides much insight into young Fred’s environment. It is filled with tales of riding velocipedes in Lucerne, visits to the Crystal Palace, the "turning" or gymnastics that was just becoming fashionable, details of his bird egg collection, and a fascination with finding the one best cricket bat (Kanigel 1997, 57-61). The narrative reveals almost no acknowledgement of peasants and a particular dislike of Germans. One incident from the journal is described in Kanigel’s book:

"Fred and Win were walking down the street when they saw a slodier coming their way. In Bismark’s Germany, soldiers took civilian deference as a given; surely these boys would step aside. But the brothers didn’t. Instead, discreetly locking arms and bracing themselves, they kept walking and plowed into the soldier, sending him sprawling. The soldier rose, dusted himself off, pulled out his card, and presented it to the two boys. A duel? Fred put on a show of examining it, then shrugged his shoulders, tore it up, scattered the pieces to the wind, and sauntered off with his brother, leaving the enraged soldier standing there, nonplussed" (1997, 67).

    Back from Europe, at age sixteen, Fred moved to Exeter, New Hampshire, and enrolled at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy. Taylor’s time at Exeter was highlighted by his outstanding athletic career and membership in the debating society. There are also the incidents of cheating on an exam and reading a book during church (Nelson 1980, 25). Much of Fred’s interest involved mechanical invention. In addition to athletic equipment, he designed a bobsled brake and special beds to overcome his troubles with nightmares and insomnia. Over time, Fred "gradually realized that his chief interest lay in mathematics and its applications" (Nelson 1980, 25).

    Fred Taylor learned to use time as a management tool while attending school at the Exeter Academy. Bull Wentworth, Fred’s mathematics instructor, made a particular impression. Fred marveled at his ability to create an examination that took exactly the allotted time to complete. Wentworth would time how long it took for half to students complete a problem. He then developed a ratio of his own ability to that of his average student that allowed him to estimate quite accurately (Kanigel 1997, 215). The curriculum, heavily leaden with Greek and Latin, was extremely demanding; however, Fred Taylor was meticulous in his study habits. He applied himself diligently to his studies and managed to earn high marks (Kanigel 1997, 83).

    Although Fred’s career path through Harvard had already been mapped out, during his last year at Exeter, waning health and deteriorating eyesight prompted Fred’s parents to counsel considering a less demanding vocation, like engineering. Fred took the Harvard entrance examination and passed with honors, then unexpectedly left Exeter without completing his final semester. After several leisurely months recuperating at his parent’s house, Fred decided not to go back to school, although he did acquire an engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology a few years later. Instead, at he age of eighteen, Fred got a job as a patternmaker’s apprentice at the Ferrell & Jones in Philadelphia, later renamed Enterprise Hydraulic Works. (Haber 1964, 5).

    Fred Taylor continued to be exposed to the power of money. Though he would prove himself to be a hard-worker and a fast learner, Taylor was not an ordinary laborer. Still, it was not particularly unusual for a rich kid to get a job in a factory. "Many children of the well-to-do found the work centered morality of the second half of the nineteenth century menacing. Riches and ease, it was believed, arrested the development of character" (Haber 1964, 6). These folks learned a trade, not for subsistence, but as preparation and training for loftier positions latter in life. It has often been suggested that Taylor’s apprenticeship at Enterprise Hydraulic Works and his engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology were arranged through his father’s connections. After all, the pattern shop did provide the least physically demanding work available and Fred Taylor was able to secure a prestigious engineering degree without ever showing up for class (Nelson 1980, 34). According to Samuel Haber:

"It must be noted that Taylor’s rise did not strictly follow the rules of Ragged Dick. When young Taylor left the shop after a day’s work he went home to Germantown, one of the most exclusive sections of Philadelphia. He was probably the only laborer in America with a membership in the local cricket club. Because he could work for little or no money, he moved quickly through his apprenticeships" (1964, 8).

    These were the years that Taylor would later refer to as the time when he became one of the workers. He certainly tried hard to be accepted as "one of the boys," cheerfully performing tasks that others of his station might have avoided. He even made a conscious effort to use common and vulgar language because he believed the men would understand better. Kanigel remarks that his violent outbursts "would indeed exhaust the resources of the English language—and the German, too, for the benefit of some of the men" (1997, 227). Taylor’s own words in Shop Management:

"Certain men are both thick-skinned and coarse-grained, and these individuals are apt to mistake a mild manner and a kindly way of saying things for timidity or weakness. With such men the severity both of workd and manner should be gradually increased until either the desired result has been attained or the possibilities of the English language have been exhausted" (qtd. in Kanigel 1997, 373).

    Taylor may have looked and sounded like a common worker, but he didn’t share the same perspective. He came to believe that if workers wasted time, "soldiering" he called it, management bore the responsibility. The workers, after all, had a perfectly understandable reason for not being more productive; when production went up, piece rates usually went down. Taylor understood the workers’ concern for preserving their standard of living; nonetheless, he was convinced that meaningful improvements in the lot of common workers could only be attained through increases in efficiency and production.

    Frederick Taylor learned that the scientific method and advances in machine technology hold the key to increases in efficiency and progress from the society in which he lived. World War I had yet to destroy the confidence in man’s capacity for progress, so prevalent at the end of the Nineteenth Century. While still an apprentice patternmaker, Taylor’s fluency in German and French presented him with a rare opportunity to work at the great Centennial Exposition of 1876. So, he took six months off to work at the fair. Why not? He was working for free anyway (Haber 1964, 8). Besides, the great Corliss steam engine would be on display. "Edison was at the fair with his quadruplex telegraph. Alexander Bell was showing off his new telephone" (Kanigel 1997, 126). Surprisingly, his apprentice job was still waiting for him when he returned, something most of his contemporaries would have failed to find. A couple of years later, in 1878, when Taylor accepted a journeyman machinist position at the Midvale Steel Company in Philadelphia, "A spirit of rational inquiry hung heavily in the air… and nowhere more than Midvale Steel" (Kanigel 1997, 175).

    Soon after joining Midvale Steel, Taylor witnessed the firing of the man who for years formulated the steel based on experience and alchemist-like rules of thumb. In his place was hired a man trained in the science of metallurgy. The impact of scientific method was everywhere. Fred Taylor was very much in fashion and quickly rose from machinist to chief engineer (Kanigel 1997, 170-80). He had found his calling, a vehicle that would propel him into a position of stature, worthy of the Taylor name.

    When Frederick Taylor, the manager, needed to know the maximum capacity of the machines, he turned to the scientific method. He requested permission to perform tests on the various cutting tools at varying speeds and angles. These initial experiments were largely inconclusive; however, Taylor was able to collected valuable empirical data that he used later at Bethlehem Steel. He also employed scientific principles in the design of a new steam hammer that would not beat itself out of service (Kanigel 1997, 170-80). He designed a better tennis racket and won a world tennis championship while working at Midvale. He also designed a golf putter that is now prohibited by the PGA (Kanigel 1997, 65). Perhaps the best example of the changes brought about by Taylor’s scientific method is his recommendation that the belting woven throughout the early factories be thickened. Cost cutting efforts had resulted in thinner belts. Taylor’s detailed studies demonstrated that the loss from increased downtime from the thinner belts far outweighed any savings (Kanigel 1997, 201-2).

    When Frederick Taylor, the manager, needed to know the maximum capacity of a man, he reflected on Wentworth’s methods. Taylor believed that careful observation of work would reveal wasted effort and motion, as well as other impediments to efficiency. His solution was the time study. Traditional wisdom held that unproductive workers, such as clerks, draftsmen, and managers, should be kept to a minimum. Taylor advocated just the opposite (Nelson 1980, 41-4).

    When confronted with the necessity to change the behavior of the workers, he knew what to do; pay them. Taylor wanted to test his calculation that a man should be able to load 45 tons of pig iron in one day, more than three times what the men had been loading. The men resisted and Taylor’s solution was the differential rate system. He proposed that a substantially higher piece rate be paid when his target levels of production were achieved and, in return for following his instructions explicitly, he would promise not to cut the piece rate pay. Still, most of the men were reluctant to accept his Faustian proposal. Someone had to be first. After several failed attempts, Taylor finally found a man willing to work precisely how and as hard as he dictated. Under Taylor’s direction, Noll loaded 45 Ĺ tons. Taylor also conducted studies on shovels and found that a shovel capable of holding 21 pounds, regardless of mass, allowed for more efficient handling of dirt and materials. This success left a lasting impression on both, the workers and his bosses at Midvale (Nelson 1980, 94-8).

    By 1894, Taylor was gaining a reputation for getting more done faster. Long time connections helped land a position as a senior manager at Bethlehem Steel. While at Bethlelem, he and Mausel White heated select cutting tools beyond the temperature known to make them brittle and unusable. They had no indication that the steel quality would improve, but the scientific method required that they test empirically the full range of temperature. The result was the first high speed tempered steel cutting tools. These tools quadrupled lathe cutting speeds and earned Taylor another fortune (Kanigel 1997, 313-334).

    Throughout his later life, Taylor engaged independent consulting work. As he continued to develop his system of scientific management, the objective was always to separate thinking from doing. Taylor’s system attempted to replace skill and rules of thumb with simple procedures that any idiot could follow. Throughout his career, he prescribed tables and charts that dictated procedures predetermined by management. He often referred to the capabilities of a "first class man" and readily admitted that some types of men are better suited to one type of work while other types are better suited for different work (Kanigel 1997, 373). While managing the start-up of the first large paper mills in America to use wood as raw material, he devised a rack of sample test tubes for workers to visually compare the pulp against, rather than expect them to perform chemical tests. The goal was to remove decision-making from the workers and foremen and place it in the hands of the more qualified managers (Kanigel 1997, 243-61).

    Frederick Winslow Taylor’s aspirations and achievements are completely in line with his times. The environment surrounding his life shaped and defined his acquired attitudes, skills, and values. Coupled with his ever-present preoccupation with identifying the biggest, boldest, and best of everything, Frederick Winslow Taylor was determined to leave his mark on the world. His system of Scientific Management would indeed weave its way through the very fabric of the modern world. He was an innovator and a scientist in the field of business management. He was arrogant and aristocratic. He was a thorn in the sides of many powerful men. He was a man pursuing purely personal career goals. As Kanigel concludes, "[Taylor] was alive to the power of scientific method, doggedly in search of experimental truth; but he was not above shading facts or omitting inconvenient details" (Kanigel 1997, 275). But he was never a common laborer.


Works Cited

Haber, Samuel. Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era 1890-1920. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1964.

Hunt, Edward Eyre, ed. Scientific Management since Taylor: A Collection of Authoritative Papers. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1924.

Kanigel, Robert. The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. New York: Viking Press. 1997.

Nelson, Daniel. Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. 1980.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishing. 1911.



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