Taylor, Frederick W.

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Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), who believed that his system of scientific management provided the foundations for a scientific ethics, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on March 20. His early education took place in private schools in Pennsylvania, Europe, and New Hampshire, and he was accepted for admission into Harvard University. But fascinated by the relationship among science, technology, and ethics, he decided on an apprenticeship at a steel company in Philadelphia, where, from 1878 to 1884, he advanced from common laborer to a supervisory mechanical engineer. In the process he became familiar with soldiering, when workers, to protect jobs and keep piece-rates high, increased output while bosses were watching and decreased it otherwise. An ardent believer in the Puritan work ethic, Taylor was troubled by this inefficient and unethical behavior, and came to believe that he had a solution not only for the Midvale Steel Company but for institutions throughout the world. He pursued this vision until his death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 21.

Taylor's Studies

Taylor began by systematically studying machinery and human beings to discover precisely how much a diligent worker, using the best machines and procedures, could produce in a day. For example, his empirical analysis of metal-cutting machinery allowed him to more than double the machine's speed, and by analyzing the machinist's procedures into elementary motions, and timing them with a stop watch, he was able to minimize wasteful motions and optimize beneficial ones. This led to a belief that all tasks, from the lowliest to the highest, could be made more efficient, and the resulting increase in productivity would optimize everyone's compensation and job satisfaction. He argued that a "single best way" existed for accomplishing every task, and that his scientific analysis of human technology interventions achieved an ethical goal: the resolution of the age-old conflict between labor and management.

After Taylor left Midvale in 1890, he spread the gospel of scientific management while occupying a series of positions from Maine to Wisconsin. He lived at a time when many Americans believed science and technology had the solution to many problems of humanity, but also during a time when bitter strikes sometimes resulted in the deaths of workers. Labor leaders and politicians criticized Taylor's claim that his system would end owner-worker hostility and render unions and strikes unnecessary. They pointed out that workers could not be treated in the same way as machines, and that several creative ways existed for accomplishing tasks rather than Taylor's one best way. Others questioned Taylor's yoking of productivity and morality. Taylor emphasized that wise work produced ethical workers, whereas others insisted that human morality motivated hard work.

During the final decades of Taylor's life, his obsession with efficiency deepened. Managers as well as laborers often resented his despotic attempts to change traditional methods of work and management. To those who said that scientific management was antidemocratic, he insisted that his techniques energized workers, promoted their self-reliance, increased their wages, and shortened their work week. To those who said that scientific management was unethical, he emphasized that his methods enhanced fellow feeling among workers and between workers and managers because he promoted true justice by encouraging the maximum efficiency and prosperity of all those involved in his system. But labor leaders and some politicians saw scientific management simply as a tool for maximizing production and profits to the neglect of the emotional and physical health of the workers. For them, Taylor's methods debilitated workers and increased accidents.

Taylor's Influence

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Taylor's ideas continued to generate both critics and advocates. In 1911 Taylor's disciples founded the Society to Promote the Science of Management (called, after his death, the Taylor Society) and he himself published The Principles of Scientific Management. In 1912 Taylor's system was debated at a Congressional hearing during which he defended his system as a force for good, but some committee members felt that he did not grasp the deep asymmetry between labor and management. Nevertheless, in its report the committee found some things to praise in scientific management—for example, standardization.

In the years after Taylor's death, Taylorism spread around the world. Taylor's disciples preached the gospel of efficiency to a wider audience than just businessmen—including housewives, teachers, even clergy. Like Taylor, his disciples viewed his doctrines as a means of transforming society, because the pivotal point differentiating civilized from uncivilized societies was productivity. Some of Taylor's disciples criticized their master—for example, Frank Gilbreth advocated replacing stopwatch studies with "micromotion" analyses in which each minute of a worker's activities was filmed and divided into a hundred units. Even Vladimir Lenin was influenced and thought Taylorism compatible with communism.

However, humanists such as Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) felt that Taylor's system got it backward: Humans come before and transcend systems. Some even saw Taylorism as deeply unethical, because its mechanistic treatment of workers was both an illusion and a delusion. During the twentieth century scientific management evolved and diversified, and it was no longer a unified and consistent body of thought. Although Taylor's goals of establishing social and economic justice and ending class conflict have not been achieved, his ideas, transformed and diversified, continue to influence various ideologies of science, technology, and ethics.


SEE ALSO Management.


Copley, Frank Barkley. (1923). Frederick W. Taylor: Father of Scientific Management, 2 volumes. New York: Harper. For many years this was the standard biography, but it tends to be hagiographical.

Haber, Samuel. (1964). Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era, 1890–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. An analysis of how some Taylor disciples created reform programs "without an appeal to conscience."

Kanigel, Robert. (1997). The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. New York: Viking. The best critical biography of scientific management's founder.

Nadworny, Milton J. (1955). Scientific Management and the Unions, 1900–1922. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Historical study that emphasizes industrial relations, industrial management, and syndicalism in the United States.

Nelson, Daniel. (1980). Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. A chronological account of an "unlikely revolutionary" that stresses Taylor's interaction with contemporary businesses and his relationship to workers.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. (1947 [1911]). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harp. Taylor's best and most influential account of his ideas.

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Taylor, Frederick W.