Science history: Going back in time

Frederick Winslow Taylor welcomes you to the rat race. Jeff Glorfeld reports.

The precise measurement of time captured the minds of “natural philosophers” in the 1600s.

Sharon Lapkin

Time, it seems, is all around us.

There’s the information conveyed by the device on your wrist, the numbers displayed on your smartphone, the figures on any of the many fixtures in the car, around the home or workplace. It’s everywhere.

Although the precise measurement of time wasn’t a concern for the average person until more than a century later, in the mid-1600s it captivated the minds of some of the leading scientists - natural philosophers, as they were known.

Frederick Winslow Taylor


At the forefront of these timely developments were Christiaan Huygens, of the Netherlands, and Britain’s seemingly ubiquitous Robert Hooke.

Their interest was two-fold: they were keen astronomers; and were interested in the determination of longitude as an aid to navigation, both of which required an accurate reckoning of time to achieve desired results.

A study guide titled “Robert Hooke, Hooke's Law & the Watch Spring”, written by Shusaku Horibe from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, explains that “the determination of longitude was a major problem by the mid-seventeenth century … One needed a clock able to keep accurate time on long voyages at sea … The development of portable and jerk-resistant watches that could be taken on ships and could keep accurate time for extended periods was an obvious economic concern.”

To address this, Huygens came to London in 1661 with designs for a new pendulum-based clock, which greatly improved accuracy. Hooke was able to contribute improvements.

Hooke, meanwhile, proposed a timepiece “regulated by a coiled spring rather than a pendulum”, claiming he’d “first come up with the idea of using the oscillation of spring for a watch in 1658, but had kept it a secret”, Horibe says.

In 1675, when Huygens announced that he’d invented a new compact watch using a balance spring, Hooke “protested vigorously” that he deserved the claim to priority, but the Royal Society supported the Dutch scientist’s claim.

Timekeeping then took on new significance with the coming of the Industrial Revolution: James Watt’s improved steam engine in 1769, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1794 and Elias Howe’s sewing machine in 1846, to name some of the key revolutionary drivers.

Take accurate timekeeping, add an increasingly industrialised economy, and the next development must be the management consultant.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in the United States on 20 March, 1856, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although born into a well-to-do family, he quit university and took a series jobs as a factory worker, eventually training to become a mechanical engineer.

In 1911 he published his best-known book, The Principles of Scientific Management, which The New York Times in 1915 said contributed to his being known as the “originator of the modern scientific management movement”.

An article reprinted by the British Library, written by renowned twentieth century business commentator Peter Drucker from his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, calls Taylor “the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study”.

“In the book,” says an article published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Taylor “developed a system, sometimes called production or task management, for approaching jobs objectively and measuring workflow efficiency and productivity before these concepts had names”.

The ASME says Taylor “introduced the idea of ‘time and motion’ studies by observing a job and breaking it down into individual tasks. His ideas had tremendous immediate effect and were quite controversial.”

In many ways, the British Library article concludes, “Taylor’s philosophy lies in direct opposition to today’s best practice. The most common criticism of Taylor is that his approach is too mechanistic - treating people like machines rather than human beings, with the result being a one-size-fits-all approach to people management and training that fails to recognise the complexity of human motivations.”

Taylor contracted pneumonia and died in Philadelphia on 21 March 1915.

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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