Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 831

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 831


This is the grave of Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Born in 1856 in Philadelphia, Taylor grew up in a wealthy Quaker family. His father was a real estate and banking guy and his mother came from old money and had worked with Lucretia Mott on reform causes. They traveled in Europe and he was educated at Phillips Exeter. He was on his way to Harvard in 1874 when he threw his family a curveball. He was having eye problems and intensive study in dark rooms was not really what the doctor ordered. So he took time off and got a factory job. He certainly didn’t need to work and he really didn’t need to work as an apprentice in a factory. But this stuff fascinated him and Taylor was already developing into an odd guy. He became an apprentice patternmaker and machinist at a hydraulic works for awhile. He left that early to be part of a team of manufacturers representing New England interests at the Centennial Exposition in 1876. He then went back into the factories, finishing his four-year apprenticeship and then becoming a laborer in the machine shop at Midvale Steel Works.

While Taylor was cosplaying as a working class guy, he was using his connections in his family to rise quickly at Midvale. He became a foreman and then remained in that job in his machine shop while rising rapidly into management, all the way to chief engineer of the works. This was a combination of him being genuinely very smart and well-educated and also being rich with a father looking out for his odd son.

What drove Taylor crazy–I mean, he could not really deal with this at all–was the idea that workers could control the conditions of their own labor. This was the critical issue of late 19th century–wages, hours, politics, all of these were of lesser importance than controlling the condition of your work. These skilled laborers were not working as hard and efficiently as they could. Taylor saw so much lost profit. Workers saw dignity and living a good life. Taylor determined to fix this “problem.”

Taylor then took his skills to a large paper company based in Philadelphia but operating in Maine and Wisconsin and applied his time management techniques to those mills. In 1893, Taylor opened his own consultancy firm based in Philadelphia. He officially presented his management techniques to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1895.

Taylor did have other things going on outside of this obsession, including winning the 1881 Men’s Doubles title at the U.S. National Championships in tennis, which is the precursor to the U.S. Open. He also finished 4th in Men’s Golf at the 1900 Olympics. But other than tennis and golf, his life was pretty much efficiency at the workplace.

Taylor’s invention of scientific management is a pretty world-changing event on the road from the inefficient artisanal 19th century to the efficient productivity of the 20th century. Eventually, his followers would apply a more humane version of his methods to the entire economy. So you would see, for instance, his acolytes such as Morris Cooke work closely with both labor unions and government to use efficiency ideology to promote big dams and electrification. But Taylor, he was not a subtle man. His stopwatches became a symbol of the attack on the individuality of the worker controlling his work. He had absolutely no respect for workers. For Taylor, they were dumb beasts who didn’t understand anything on his level. He wrote:

The labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.

So they had to be forced to make changes to their work. He stated:

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with the management alone.

In fact, Taylor wasn’t actually very good at any of this, largely because he was so rigid and hated. He worked at Bethlehem Steel from 1898-1901 and was successful to a point, but wasn’t just hated by the workers but by the other managers. He didn’t care though, because he was now also very rich, having patented a tungsten-cutting steel technique that vastly improved steel production. It was here that he engaged in his experiments with “Schmidt,” a name Taylor gave to a workers named Henry Noll who became his toy. Applying his methods, he taught Schmidt how to increase his workload from handling 12 tons of pig iron a day to 47 tons. His contempt for Schmidt was so obvious in his writings. He was just a dumb worker, a machine no better than a robot and in fact worse because you had to pay and feed him.

To Taylor, the ultimate goal here was to create some sort of unity between labor and capital that would get rid of all unions because they would no longer be necessary. This was ridiculous on the face of it; workers hated him and his name became something to spit upon. But this was Taylor in a nutshell. He constantly stated that there were no strikes under the system of scientific management. But this just wasn’t true. For example, workers at the Watertown Arsenal outside of Boston struck in 1911 over the implementation of Taylorism. This was the same year that he published his treatise The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor sent one of his men up there, the workers revolted, the military didn’t care, and so the workers went out of strike.

This led to to such an outrage that Taylor was hauled before Congress in 1913. When asked by Rep. William Wilson, a former official of the United Mine Workers and future Secretary of Labor under Woodrow Wilson, about his method, Taylor said “the ordinary pig-iron man is not suited for shoveling coal because he is too stupid. But a first-class man who could lift a shovel weighing twenty one and a half pounds cold move a pile of coal lickety-split.” Wilson responded, “but what about the effects on a man who wasn’t first-class? Taylor dismissed the concern: “Scientific management has no place for a bird that can sing and won’t sing.” Wilson was furious: “We are not dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are part of society and for whose benefit society is organized.”

In 1906, Taylor was named president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Nothing if not a frothing fanatic, he then tried to implement his system of industrial engineering to the ASME offices, leading to the same outrage and resistance as the blue-collar jobs he tried to change! In fact, Taylor became so personally hated that when he submitted Principles of Scientific Management to the ASME for publication, they rejected it, mostly out of hatred for the man, so he had to self-publish it.

Still, Taylor’s influence was immense. From Henry Ford to Vladimir Lenin, business and government leaders saw turning workers into robots as the ticket to producing for the industrial age.

Taylor spent his later life continuing to promote his scientific management techniques. He even became a professor at Dartmouth for a time. But he died young, at the age of 59 in 1915 after catching pneumonia.

Frederick Winslow Taylor is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Thanks!!! This was off my January trip to the South. I got my first dose of vaccine on Friday and immediately began planning a new grave trip to the Midwest soon, so if you want to make that happen, please do. If you would like this series to visit other former presidents of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Henry Thurston is down the street from me here in Providence and Elmer Sperry is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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