The first efficiency expert

March 26, 1998|By Richard Reeves

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- On an October night in 1957, I stood on a bluff here over the Hudson River with a hundred classmates at Stevens Institute of Technology, all of us looking up at a tiny speck moving across the sky. It was Sputnik, the first satellite rocketed into orbit -- rocketed by the Soviet Union.

We were kids, engineering students, and it was being made clear that our job was to catch up, to build rockets and to put up bigger and better satellites than the communists could. It was hard to miss that message, since many of us were in college on tuition grants and loans from the Department of Defense.

The United States was terrified by the idea that the communists would use the satellites to rain bombs on us from space. But we prevailed, though I had little to do with it. Like many other 1960 mechanical engineering graduates, I drifted away from science and technology, mainly because technology was moving faster than we could. Without knowing it we were obsolescent already, our mastery of slide-rules, steam tables and vacuum tubes about to become irrelevant in a world of lasers, transistors and chips.

I thought back on all that reading a new book on the most important American you never heard of: Frederick Winslow Taylor, Stevens class of 1883. Taylor, in the opinion of Peter Drucker and others, was one of the triumvirate of men who shaped the modern world, the other two being Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

Taylor was the first efficiency expert, the man with a stopwatch who invented time-motion study, the father of both mass production and productivity. Among the men who studied him intensely and intently were Henry Ford and V.I. Lenin. He was one of the most controversial men of two centuries because of the dehumanizing aspects of his work -- and because his work worked.

''The One Best Way'' by Robert Kanigel, part of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation technology book series, tells that story. It is a surprising book, not because it is good, which it certainly is, but because it was written at all. Science and research and technology rule our days, change our lives, but rarely intrude in our history. I checked the three encyclopedias in the house -- beginning with the Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia because Viking published the Kanigel book -- and there was no mention of Taylor at all.

He was a man both admired and hated after his seminal book ''The Principles of Scientific Management'' was published around the world in 1911. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has said that the organization of the world itself can be seen as pre-Taylor and post-Taylor.

''A slave driver,'' Taylor was called in labor union campaigns complaining that he was responsible for transforming skilled mechanics into common laborers -- which he was. He showed that no matter what material was being shoveled, light dust or rocks, more material would be moved if shovels were designed to load exactly 21 1/2 pounds. ''You have told us the effect on the pile,'' said a congressman to Taylor in 1912, ''but what about the effect on the man?''

That happened during the hearings of The House Committee to Investigate the Taylor and Other Methods of Shop Management. Science and technology may change the world in a moment -- no air conditioning, no Sunbelt -- but they are seen as lesser disciplines than writing poetry or political speeches. Dangerous disciplines at that -- witness the fear and hostility toward exploration of both genetics and space.

Knowledge, talent and skill can be used for good or evil. But the technology is as neutral as any other producer of inanimate objects. There are dangerous side effects to drugs, but research and development in pharmaceuticals is perhaps the most important factor in improving the quality of human life in the 20th century.

Writers and historians almost universally favor art over science. But they are the same at fundamental levels; they diverge only when humans use them to make things that never were before.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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