Frederick Winslow Taylor
and the "Taylorization" of America

The story of Frederick Winslow Taylor's rise, fall and phoenix-like rise again is a fascinating tale of conflicting ideologies, labor-management disputes and strikes, Congressional investigations and, ultimately, great human drama. "What Taylor did was come in and analyze the smallest pieces of work, tease them apart and break them down into fractions of a minute," says Robert Kanigel, author of The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, the book on which the program is based. "He would determine how much a man can do in the course of, not just a day, not in eight or ten hours, but what he can do in a fraction of a minute."

When Taylor started his first job in 1878, workers learned their professions in much the same way they had in the Middle Ages: through years of apprenticeship. Taylor's scientific management system turned that system upside down, breaking down every trade and profession into smaller elements that anyone could learn in a single day.

Taylor himself was an enigmatic figure. The son of a privileged family, he was expected to attend Harvard and take his place in the leisurely upper class. However, Taylor eschewed that path and learned a trade by becoming a working-class machinist. Yet he could not abide by the status quo and began working on ways to induce workers to be more productive - ultimately developing his scientific shop management system and alienating most workers.

In 1880, at the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Taylor began his first experiments. Although he developed a reputation as an unyielding controller in the workplace, yet he was constantly late for meetings and had a penchant for cross-dressing. He claimed his shop management system would bring greater happiness to workers' lives and professed great respect for laborers yet repeatedly said he did not want them to think on the job. And he believed that any worker who disagreed with his system was simply ignorant.

But by 1910 Taylor's ideas had taken hold of America and he became a household name. Housewives adopted his scientific management principles, rearranging their kitchens to "save steps" and to be more efficient. Scholars and labor experts featured in Stopwatch indicate that Taylorism was applied to many social activities, including the management homes, farms, businesses, churches, philanthropic institutions and government. Trotsky, Lenin and Mussolini all embraced Taylor's theories, and US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis hailed him as brilliant.

But a workers' strike in Watertown, Massachusetts, and a subsequent Congressional investigation into Taylor's management system put his ideas to a severe test. Labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers viewed Taylor as the devil incarnate, and author Upton Sinclair publicly criticized him. Bitter and angry after enduring the long Congressional investigation process, Taylor finally withdrew from the public arena, retiring to his home to conduct other studies, including one that literally involved watching grass grow. When he died of complications from a cold at age 59, he was working on a project to grow the perfect putting-green grass.

Though Taylor himself died a broken and discouraged man, labor leaders could not stem the tide of "Taylorism" or the efficiency movement. From auto-production plants that plan each task workers perform to fire fighting companies that use Taylor's theories to reduce their response time, Taylorism permeates the modern workplace. Even fast-food restaurants use his theories, where signs tell workers how much time they should need to put a hamburger on a bun.

"Taylor may have died in ignominy," says producer Michael Schwarz, "but he probably had the last laugh, because his ideas about efficiency have come to define the way we live today, not just at work but in our personal lives as well."

Stopwatch: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the "Taylorization" of America is a co-production of Kikim Media and Quest Productions and is presented by KQED. Producers are Bill Jersey and Michael Schwarz. Associate Producer is Mark Page. The documentary is based on the book, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, by Robert Kanigel. Funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Other Resources


The One Best Way:
Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

Robert Kanigel (Viking Press 1997)

The Principles of Scientific Management
Frederick Winslow Taylor (Inst. of Industrial Engineers 1998)

Frederick W. Taylor :
The Father of Scientific Management - Myth and Reality

Charles Wrege, Ronald Greenwood (Irwin Professional Pub 1991)
(out of print)

Frederick Taylor & the Public Administration Community:
A Re-Evaluation

Hindy Lauer Schachter (State Univ. of New York Press 1989)
(hard to find)


Frederick Winslow Taylor Collection
Information about the collection at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Frederick Winslow Taylor:
The Principles of Scientific Management

Student paper provided by Eric Eldred.

Frederick Winslow Taylor
Biography by Mary Ellen Papesh.


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