Mass-Producing the Moment

“O mamma, come into the drawing-room; there is a man in there playing the piano with his hands!”

Quoted by John Philip Sousa in “The Menace of Mechanical Music”

AMONG THE NEWER FORMS of leveling in America, none was more remarkable than the changed meaning of the moment. The “fleeting moment” was the poet’s cliché because nothing was more obvious than that the instant now was never to be recaptured. Or, as John Donne put it:

Go, and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the Devil’s foot.

Teach me to hear mermaids singing.

The unrepeatability of the moment was the very meaning of life—and of death. It was another name for man’s mortality. For only God was omnipresent. He could be everywhere and anywhere at once, He was not confined by space or by times, nor was He restrained by weather or the seasons. Only God could see all events as if they still happened, or happened all at one time. Only God could see the moving forms and hear the voices of the dead. Now man could do all these things.

In earlier times man had discovered himself by what he could not do. “Art,” said Goethe, “lies in limitation.” What new meanings could Americans discover in life when they had broken ancient bounds? History had been man’s effort to accommodate himself to what he could not do. American history in the twentieth century would, more than ever before, test man’s ability to accommodate himself to all the new things he could do.


Time Becomes Fungible: Packaging the Unit of Work

“LOST TIME,” said Poor Richard’s Almanac, “is never found again.” The work ethic was based on the notion that each working moment was unique and irrecoverable. There were morning hours and evening hours, and there was something different about the labor of each man. Each brought his own shovel to the coal yard, and shoveled in his own peculiar way, and any one man’s shoveling was apt to be very different from another’s. And somehow it seemed that this was not only right and proper, but inevitable. Man was the only measure of man. Life was a series of unrelivable, unrepeatable episodes. Time was a procession of unique moments—each was now and never again. The past was what had gone beyond recall.

In twentieth-century America even this old truism would cease to be true. For time became “fungible,” a series of closely measured, interchangeable units. Time was no longer a stream and had become a production line.

CLOCKS AND WATCHES were scarce in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. If every unit of time was vague and imprecise, then, of course, a unit of work could not be measured by the time it required. The contours of the work unit were necessarily uncertain so long as work hours were bounded by daylight and darkness.

Punctuality was not one of the virtues which Benjamin Franklin listed for his self-perfection. And this was not surprising, since in his day, watches were carried only by the wealthy few. Others could not know the exact time unless they were near a clock. Travelers could not leave or depart on a precise, preannounced schedule. Washington or Jefferson or Adams judged whether a guest was late simply by whether he arrived after he was expected. The delightful clocks with sonorous chimes in the plazas of European towns (which wrist-watched Americans now find quaint and charming) in their day were built to be a public utility. They were symptoms, too, of the fact that a common citizen could not afford his personal timepiece. Well into the nineteenth century a watch was an heirloom, to be worn pompously at the end of a heavy gold chain. The watch which Mrs. Abraham Lincoln wore on her wrist at her husband’s inauguration was considered a curious piece of jewelry. The expression “wrist-watch” did not enter English until nearly 1900. Widespread use of the wristwatch, and the universal awareness of horological time, did not come until after such watches had been worn by servicemen in the Boer War (1899–1902) to synchronize the movements of their army units. Only when Americans could afford to buy watches and clocks and had found ways to make them in unprecedented numbers did they begin to wear wristwatches and to measure their lives in minutes.

“Efficiency,” an American gospel in the twentieth century, meant packaging work into units of time. In a nation where labor was often scarce and always costly, efficiency was measured less by “quality” or “competency” than by the speed with which an acceptable job was accomplished. Time entered into every calculation. An effective America was a speedy America. Time became a series of homogeneous—precisely measured and precisely repeatable—units. The working day was no longer measured by daylight, and electric lights kept factories going “round the clock.” Refrigeration and central heating and air conditioning had begun to abolish nature’s seasons. One unit of work time became more like another.

And there were special American incentives to mark off and record standard work-time units. Mass production was standardized production. Patterns for making parts of uniform shape and size were only a beginning. The American System of Manufacturing had required progress in the measurement of all kinds of units and in the making of units to a standard. Henry Ford added the techniques of flowing production. And after Ford, mass production also meant assembly-line production, which required removing all uncertainty about the duration of each task. Now the job was brought to the man. In order to keep up production it was essential that each man’s task be timed so that the line could be kept flowing and not a moment would be wasted. The speed of the assembly line, which now meant the speed of production, depended on the speed with which the slowest task could be done. All this meant timing.

FREDERICK W. TAYLOR, the Apostle of the American Gospel of Efficiency, was the first man to proclaim these truths with dogmatic clarity. His life and character embodied the dilemmas of modern America. On the one hand he preached an almost inhuman obsession with things, a single-minded concern for efficiency—for producing more and better and cheaper things. “In the past,” Taylor wrote in The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, “the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” Yet, on the other hand, he preached a sentimental, sometimes passionate concern for the fulfillment of each individual man and for a loving harmony among men. He was troubled to see men stunted by what William James called “the habit of inferiority to your full self.” To Taylor, an inefficient man was like “a bird that can sing and won’t sing.” Taylor therefore showed a tireless experimental patience in finding a more economic way to make ball bearings for bicycles, but he expressed irritable impatience with the individual man who felt sentimentally attached to the particular shovel that he had handled for years. Was there, somehow, a necessary contradiction between the fulfillment of a man’s individuality and the fulfillment of his productive possibilities? In America, where man’s productive energies were unleashed as never before, the question would be tested.

Taylor’s mother and father were birthright Quakers. His mother, a passionate abolitionist, had accompanied Lucretia Mott to London in 1842 as a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Convention. Until the end of his life Taylor dressed plainly, in the Quaker tradition. An enthusiastic English admirer compared him to Jesus. “He went up to men—hundreds of men a day, that he saw humdrumming along, despising themselves and despising their work and expecting nothing of themselves and nothing of anyone else and asked them to put their lives in His hands and let Him show what could be done with them. This is Frederick Taylor’s profession.” Yet when the young Upton Sinclair objected to his system, Taylor did not shrink from describing the ideal pig-iron handler as “merely a man more or less of the type of the ox, heavy both mentally and physically.”

Taylor seemed untroubled by these contradictions of purpose and feelings, for he possessed an evangelical belief in the healing, harmonizing power of efficiency. His panacea was the greater production and diffusion of things. “The one element more than any other,” Taylor observed, “which differentiates civilized from uncivilized countries—prosperous from poverty-stricken peoples—is that the average man in the one is five or six times as productive as the other.” This was his gospel:

Scientific management involves a complete mental revolution on the part of the workingman…. And it involves the equally complete mental revolution on the part of those on the management’s side…. in the past a great part of the thought and interest … has been centered on what may be called the proper division of the surplus resulting from their joint efforts…. The great revolution that takes place … under scientific management is that both sides take their eyes off the division of the surplus as the all-important matter, and together turn their attention toward increasing the size of the surplus until this surplus becomes so large that it is unnecessary to quarrel over how it shall be divided.

Taylor therefore opposed labor unions. Had they not been made superfluous by his God, a harmonious and efficient God, the God of Productivity?

In his own daily life, Taylor was very early obsessed by efficiency. He measured his stride and counted his steps to find the most economical way to walk to his job. He invented his own spoon-handled tennis racket and then proved its efficiency in 1881 when he and his partner won the national doubles championship. Later in life, after he had turned to golf, he designed his own putter and tried to grow a better grass for fairways and greens. In an age of high-button shoes, he regularly wore slip-on’s with elastic sides, to save the time wasted on buttons. He loved sports, and did not use tea or coffee or tobacco because they interfered with his athletic efficiency.

His parents sent him to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for Harvard Law School. He did graduate at the top of his Exeter class, but only at the cost of a physical breakdown which led him to give up a legal career. When his doctor prescribed manual labor, he became an apprentice machinist, starting as a common laborer in the Midvale Steel Company in Philadelphia. At the same time he studied mechanical engineering at night and passed the examinations for a degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1883. He had discovered his vocation as an engineer: before he was thirty he had been made chief engineer of the plant and had already begun the career of invention that eventually secured him a hundred patents. These included the design for the largest steam hammer ever built in the United States. If he had accomplished nothing else, he would be remembered for his discovery of an alloy and heat treatment that resulted in “high-speed steel.” When made of this steel, cutting tools in lathes would not soften at red heat, they lasted longer and cut metal twice as fast as before, and doubled the productive capacity of machine shops all over the world.

But Taylor’s most important (and unpatentable) invention was a new system for organizing all factories. What Taylor called the principles of scientific management in 1911 aimed to reshape the very concept of work. Taylor’s essential idea was to do for the work unit what Eli Whitney, and his predecessors and successors, had done for the material unit in the American system of manufacturing. Taylor broke down every operation in a factory into the simplest tasks, then timed each to find the most economical way of performing it.

Time was Taylor’s ruling dimension, the stopwatch his essential tool. When Taylor went to work for the Bethlehem Steel Company in 1898, he undertook a series of experiments “to find out how quickly the various kinds of work that went into the shop ought to be done.” Taylor’s prescription for a proper time study was:

First. Find, say 10 to 15 different men (preferably in as many separate establishments and different parts of the country) who are especially skillful in doing the particular work to be analyzed.

Second. Study the exact series of elementary operations or motions which each of these men uses in doing the work which is being investigated, as well as the implements each man uses.

Third. Study with a stop watch the time required to make each of these elementary movements and then select the quickest way of doing each element of work.

Fourth. Eliminate all false movements, slow movements, and useless movements.

Fifth. After doing away with all unnecessary movements, collect into one series the quickest and best movements, as well as the best implements.

This new method, involving that series of motions which can be made quickest and best, is then substituted in place of the 10 or 15 inferior series which were formerly in use.

Taylor and his staff spent five months gathering this kind of data at Bethlehem on the best way of shoveling.

The “science of shoveling” (the butt of his opponents’ jokes), which was the result of Taylor’s research, became his classic example of the promise of scientific management. In 1912, before a special committee of the House of Representatives, he suggested that if he actually could make a science of shoveling, there was nothing in the world he could not make a science of. Taylor recounted his experience at the Bethlehem Steel plant. On his arrival there he had found that each laborer brought his own shovel to the yard and used the same shovel to move all sorts of material. “We would see a first-class shoveler go from shoveling rice coal with a load of 3½ pounds to the shovel to handling ore from the Messaba Range, with 38 pounds to the shovel. Now, is 3½ pounds the proper shovel load or is 38 pounds the proper shovel load? They cannot both be right. Under scientific management the answer to this question is not a matter of anyone’s opinion; it is a question for accurate, careful, scientific investigation.”

After gathering data on the tonnage of each kind of material handled at Bethlehem by each man each day, Taylor had designed his own shovels and supplied them to the men. He then noted the result as he changed the length of the handle. He found, for example, that by cutting off the handle so that the shoveler picked up 34 (instead of 38) pounds in each shovel-load of ore, he could increase the shoveler’s daily handling from a total of 25 to 35 tons. Taylor continued to cut off the shovel handle until he found that at 21½ pounds per load, the men were doing their largest day’s work. By pursuing this kind of study, he found that the best results in the plant as a whole were obtained when there were fifteen different kinds of shovels, each one for moving a different kind of material—ranging from small flat shovels for handling ore up to immense scoops for handling rice coal, and forks for handling coke. And he had also defined the proper technique for the use of each of these tools:

There is one right way of forcing the shovel into material of this sort, and many wrong ways. Now, the way to shovel refractory stuff is to press the forearm hard against the upper part of the right leg just below the thigh, like this [indicating], take the end of the shovel in your right hand and when you push the shovel into the pile, instead of using the muscular effort of the arms, which is tiresome, throw the weight of your body on the shovel like this [indicating]; that pushes your shovel in the pile with hardly any exertion and without tiring the arms in the least. Nine out of ten workmen who try to push a shovel in a pile of that sort will use the strength of their arms, which involves more than twice the necessary exertion.

Taylor sent his team about the plant instructing the laborers in the science of shoveling.

After three and a half years, as a result of Taylor’s new science, 140 men were doing the work formerly done by 600. The cost of handling material was cut in half, and the shovelers still employed were receiving a 60 percent increase in wages.

WHAT TAYLOR DID for shoveling, he and his disciples were soon attempting to accomplish for all the other operations in hundreds of factories over the nation. Under the name of “scientific management,” time-study men were breaking down jobs into their components, timing each component, and designing the best way to do each one. Factory work had been atomized into precisely separated and precisely timed tasks. “The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.” Taylor’s disciples went still further in atomizing the factory’s operation, in describing elementary human movements, and in measuring split seconds. At Bethlehem, H. L. Gantt invented new tools to help the worker do the task precisely as instructed, and developed new techniques for instructing the worker on the job how to do it the one right way.

One of the most energetic of those who joined in Taylor’s work was Frank Gilbreth, whose elaborate efforts to organize an efficient household with his numerous children made him the hero of the best-selling book and the popular movie Cheaper by the Dozen(1948). Gilbreth, who had worked as a bricklayer, collaborated with his wife in a three-year time-and-motion study of bricklaying. Gilbreth then reported to Taylor his shocking discoveries of waste: “My God … that is nothing short of barbarous. Think of it! Here I am a man weighing over 250 pounds, and every time I stoop down to pick up a brick I lower 250 pounds of weight down two feet so as to pick up a brick weighing 4 pounds, and then raise my 250 pounds of weight up again, and all of this to lift up a brick weighing 4 pounds. Think of this waste of effort. It is monstrous.” Gilbreth and his wife spent a year and a half trying to cut out that motion. When they had finished they had perfected a method for laying bricks which required only five motions per brick, in place of the previous eighteen motions. Out of this the Gilbreths developed their own new science of “motion economy.” It included, among others, the principle that two hands should not be idle at the same instant except during rest periods, that motions of the arms should be in opposite and symmetrical directions. Each elementary motion they called a therblig (Gilbreth spelled backwards). After Frank Gilbreth’s death, Lillian Gilbreth wrote several books showing how these notions could be applied to running a household.

“Scientific management” became a synonym for good housekeeping in the industrial world. The unlikely popularizer of the phrase and of the idea was “the people’s lawyer” and champion of labor, Louis D. Brandeis. In late 1910, when the Interstate Commerce Commission held public hearings on the application by the Eastern railroads for an increase in their freight rates, Brandeis appeared for the shippers to oppose the increase. He had read Taylor’s Shop Management, which had been published in 1903, and he had met Taylor, whom he found to be “a really great man—great not only in mental capacity, but in character.” Brandeis won his case against the rate increase by showing that the railroads were poorly managed and that simply by a more efficient, a more “scientific” management, they could actually profit more than by their requested raise in rates. Brandeis supported his case by a dramatic procession of the managers and owners of companies that were already using Taylor’s system. Newspaper accounts of the hearings became advertisements for what Brandeis repeatedly praised as the system of “scientific management.” Until this time Taylor himself had been undecided on the best name for his system; he had thought of calling it “functional management” or “task management.” It was Brandeis’ rhetorical flair and the success of Brandeis’ argument that decided Taylor when he published his Principles in 1911, to adopt “scientific management”—not merely a name but a slogan!

Taylor’s concept of time study and his notion of the elementary task were soon incorporated in the calculations both of manufacturers and of labor unions. By mid-century, General Motors, in its contracts with its workers, had divided the hour into six-minute periods, had fragmented the work to fit the periods, and the worker was being paid by the number of tenths of an hour that he worked. The United States Steel Corporation contract with the C.I.O. on May 8, 1946, defined a “fair day’s work” as “that amount of work that can be produced by a qualified employee when working at a normal pace … a normal pace is equivalent to a man walking, without load, on smooth, level ground at a rate of three miles per hour.” In their wage-rationalization program the next year, they described 1,150 jobs within 152 classifications. The Aluminum Company of America spent three and a half years and a half-million dollars developing a formula to rationalize and classify 56,000 jobs.

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, European visitors had noted the initiative and intelligence and freedom from routine which they said helped explain the higher American standard of living. But now Taylor warned American workers against the old-fashioned virtue of “initiative.” The workman who was required to do his job in the one “right” way, he said, was no more being inhibited than was the surgeon who was instructed in the one best way to perform an appendectomy. Most of what passed for “initiative,” Taylor insisted, was really nothing but waste: the futile rule-of-thumb efforts of the ignorant to reinvent old ways. If the worker was paid by the tenth of an hour for performing his task precisely as prescribed, then he would have no need and little opportunity for initiative. And the fractioning of work by the new calculus of scientific management would make the meaning and the value of the factory-worker’s exertions harder than ever for the worker himself to understand.

Those rule-of-thumb ways of doing things which were anathema to Taylor had at least given a man on the job the feeling that he was doing what he should. To abolish the rule of thumb in factory work would excise a part of every worker’s emotional investment and personal satisfaction. Could a worker now fail to feel that he was doing somebody else’s job, or a job dictated by the machine? Rule of thumb was personal rule. Scientific management, which made the worker into a labor unit and judged his effectiveness by his ability to keep the technology flowing, had made the worker himself into an interchangeable part.

Scientific management had its effect, too, not only on how anything was produced but also on what. Items to be manufactured were designed and selected for production according to how quickly and economically they could be produced. In place of the naïve consumer, the “scientific” system now made its own demands. Was this a price for the limitless productivity which the American system of manufacturing promised? Was this the end of America’s brilliant new techniques for “conserving” human resources?

The full pathos and the subtle contradictions in the new American effort to make the most of men could not long remain hidden. It was revealed in a famous experiment by Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Chicago in the 1930’s. For thirteen weeks six girls employed in assembling telephones were studied. Every possible variable was noted and calculated: the heat and the light in the workroom, the amount of sleep they had the night before, or two nights before. For the purposes of the study, one variable at a time was changed and the results noted, but no individual variable proved to be the controlling factor. Regardless of what the experimenters changed in the work situation, the productivity of these six girls rose and continued to rise. Mayo’s shrewd conclusion was that the real explanation was the experiment itself—the show of concern for the particular workers, together with the esprit it gave them as a working team. A moral of Mayo’s study, of course, was that no physical improvement in scientific management could overwhelm the feelings that living men and women had about their work and their relation to it.

Before long this discovery itself became the basis of another new doctrine in the quest for greater productivity. If workers produced more when they felt that the employer was interested in them as individuals, then the most efficient means must be found for giving workers the impression that the employer was interested. And here was another step in what the sociologist Daniel Bell calls the movement “from authority to manipulation as a means of exercising dominion.” Scientific management brought in its wake as a catalyst, or perhaps even as an antidote, a “science of human relations,” with the novel profession of personnel management. But this science, too, while ostensibly designed to take fuller account of man’s humanity, was destined (in Elton Mayo’s phrase) to become “a new method of human control.”

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