Science history: Going back in time
Frederick Winslow Taylor welcomes you to the rat race. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
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.
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.