Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Remembering Henry Noll aka Schmidt

[gary daily col. 32 September 1, 2002]

“In the past, the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”
Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1911To the public his name was Schmidt. In 1911 he was the most famous common laborer in the world.

Although mechanization entered the factory workplace prior to the Civil War, the work of the common laborer was still strictly muscle work. Large and heavy lumps of goods and materials were jostled about, huffed into warehouses, and sweated onto wagons and trains. Schmidt set a standard for this kind of work. In doing so he played a major role in making all work a part of “the system.”

In his magnificent book The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel J. Boorstin argues that “Efficiency” which begets higher productivity is what American industry in the twentieth century was all about. Frederick Winslow Taylor formulated theories for packaging work into efficient units of time in the quest for higher productivity. Taylor always put an emphasis on that most magic of twentieth century religions, “science.” The laborer Schmidt was held up to the world as one of Taylor’s marvelous converts, a model scientific and efficient unit.

In 1899, Taylor rounded up a dozen workers in the Bethlehem Iron and Steel yard, showed them a pile of “pigs” (gray iron bars weighing ninety-two pounds each), took out his stop watch and ordered these laborers to work as hard as they could picking up the heavy bars and carrying them up a ramp into a railroad car. They loaded one car, 16 1/2 tons total, in fourteen minutes. Extrapolating from this forced-march demonstration, Taylor calculated an optimum of 71 tons per day for each laborer. Normally these hand-picked workers might load a car in 54 minutes; a ten hour day’s work came to around 24 tons per man. Many at Bethlehem loaded less than this each day. All were paid $1.15 per day.

After Taylor had this raw calculation of 71 tons per day in hand, in a very non-scientific way, and without comment in his final report, he upped this figure to 75 tons! Now he was ready for the next step, a piece rate pay schedule. For reasons never explained, and again departing from anything resembling the rigors of science, Taylor set 45 tons per day as the standard stint of work for what he termed the “high priced man.” Laborers reaching this level would be paid the munificent sum of $1.70 for the day’s work. The pay for what now was arbitrarily designated a “normal day’s work” of 24 tons would receive $1.15. Those able to wrestle only 13 tons of iron from pile to rail car (and previously this was the historical average in the yard), would be paid fifty cents for their day’s work.

Ten men defied orders to work under this system. On Taylor’s authority they were discharged.

Robert Kangiel’s definitive biography of Taylor, The One Best Way, describes what happened next. Seven men were specially recruited to work under the Taylor pay system. They worked individually, no longer as a gang. One man, Schmidt, loaded 45 3/4 tons of iron. The others all fell short of the “high priced man” standard Taylor had set through his “scientific” investigations. They quit. Over the next ninety days loaders would come and go. Some lasted a few days, some not even a day.

Kangiel quotes from the report issued on this scientific experiment in “Efficiency”:

“We found that [Gruen] was not fitted for such heavy work.”

“Roth on this day loaded 43 tons, earning $1.63, but after this day did not return”

“Koch and Howarth [claimed] that they could not earn a fair day’s wages at this work.”

In the end, a total of forty workers took part in Taylor’s peculiar scientific study of work rates and pay levels. Only Schmidt stayed on to work the next day and the next and the next. And only Schmidt, joined by two others later in this experiment, qualified as a “high priced man.”

Today Taylor is lionized in management texts assigned in schools of business. An example at random: Ricky W. Griffin’s Management (7th edition), a course text currently assigned in a Indiana State University course, includes a picture of the stern scientist of management with this caption:

“Frederick Winslow Taylor was a pioneer in the field of labor efficiency. He introduced numerous innovations in how jobs were designed and how workers were trained to perform them. These innovations resulted in higher quality products and improved employee morale. Taylor also formulated the basic ideas of scientific management.”

Kangiel’s research found “Schmidt” to be the scientific stage name Taylor hung on a worker whose real name was Henry Noll. In his The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor describes Noll as “a man of the mentally sluggish type . . . his mental make-up [resembling] the ox rather than any other type.”

Henry Noll the man, not Taylor’s management science unit, was twenty-eight years old at the time he was running slabs of iron from pile to box car in Taylor’s experiment. He was a jogger. Every day he ran a mile or so to and from work. Native born of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, he could read and write. Noll was a volunteer fireman. It was said of him that he was trustworthy and a good saver. He looked to the future. In 1960 a small one-and-a-half story clapboard house with a failing foundation in Martin’s Lane, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was torn down. Henry Noll had purchased the land this house stood on in 1899. He built this sturdy house alone on time he managed to squeeze from his long and arduous days of work.

Congratulations and happy Labor Day to the workers of America.

You know who you are even if the Frederick Winslow Taylors of the world do not.

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