History of Technology and Work



Now, one of the first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type . . . He is so stupid that the word 'percentage' has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful.


                Taylor, F.W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper.


The Industrial Revolution



According to Rutherford and Ahlgren (1990), the term "Industrial Revolution" refers not to a discrete event or series of events. Rather, the Industrial Revolution was a shift in how society was organized.  This shift entailed moving from a  rural handicraft economy to an urban, manufacturing  one. Ahearn (1994) argues that the difference between the Industrial Revolution and previous economic expansions was that, in the late 18th century, European societies were sufficiently advanced and able “to overcome the negative (Malthusian) forces associated with an acceleration in population growth, that had been a break in previous centuries.”


The first changes that occurred were in the British textile industry in the nineteenth century.  Before this time, textiles (or clothes) were made in the home, either on a piecework basis for a manufacturer or by self-employed seamstresses or tailors.  Fabric was made in the home, using techniques that had not changed substantially since the Middle Ages (Francis, 1986).  In home-based textile manufacture, the machines that were used were small and generally either hand-powered or powered by the wind or running water.  The new textile industry used a series of inventions that transformed the methods of making textiles.   "Machinery replaced some human  crafts; coal replaced humans and animals as the source of power to run machines; and the centralized factory system replaced the distributed, home-centered system of production" (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990, p. 151).


Causes of the Industrial Revolution


The most common explanation for the cause of the Industrial Revolution was that certain technologies (the steam engine and textile technologies in particular) created a fundamental change in the way work was done.  Recently, there have been other rationales given for the cause of  the Industrial Revolution.  Three of the more well-known rationales are discussed separately.



                The Steam Engine and Other Technologies.  The traditional, and probably most popular, view of the cause of the Industrial Revolution was that these changes took place because of one fundamental invention that many historians attribute as the foremost cause of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine developed by James Watt.  The steam engine allowed the transformation of fuel into mechanical work. In a steam engine, fuel (usually wood or coal at this time) is burned; the heat that this fuel produces is used to turn water into steam; this steam is used to drive wheels in the engine.  Steam engines were first used in coal and ore mines to pump water out of them. After James Watt improved the design of the steam engine, this type of engine quickly was applied to other industries--to power railroad locomotives, ships, and later the first automobiles.


Mumford (1986) identifies an older technology, the clock, rather  than the steam engine as the "key" machine of the modern industrial age.  He emphasizes the clock because of its uniqueness among other machines of its day.  It was a new type of power machine, "in which the source of power and the transmission were of such a nature as to ensure the even flow of energy throughout the works and to make possible regular production and a standardized product" (p. 326). He also notes that the clock served as a model for many other types of mechanical products. 


However, the most significant difference between the clock and other machines was in its effect on society.  With the clock, time became divided into regulated units instead of remaining dependent on events or the day.  Before the clock, people worked, ate, and slept according to the patterns of the sun and moon.  After the clock, the day was presided over by a monitor from the time of rising to the hour of rest.  Through the clock, "time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments" (p. 328).


As the clock became more widely used, abstract time became the new medium of existence.  It brought with it a mechanical efficiency through coordination.  This efficiency was a desirable trait in society and its effect on our society is overwhelming today.


                Capitalistic causes of the Industrial Revolution.  Marglin (1974), in his article entitled “What do bosses do?” proposed that the traditional view of the cause of the Industrial Revolution was wrong because it said the steam engine and other technologies gave us the new manufacturing systems (specifically capitalism).  Instead, Marglin suggest that it was the capitalist who gave us the steam engine.  Marglin bases his reasoning on the cotton industry in Lancashire, England which was the seat of the industrial revolution and the birthplace of large-scale factory production.  The textiles industry was the major growth sector in the first years of the Industrial Revolution in England.  Before the onset of widespread factory production, weaving and spinning were done in a craft- and home-based environment.  Merchants would travel around on a regular basis giving out raw materials and collecting the finished goods.  As the demand for cotton goods grew, which Marglin attributes to economic growth caused by advances in agricultural techniques and extended foreign trade, cotton production shifted from the homes to mills that were set up in rapidly urbanized towns (Francis, 1986).


The reason this shift occurred was not the development of new technologies but because of the desire for the merchants to have more control over their workers. When the work was done at home, the merchants could not force the home-workers to work hard enough to meet the increased demand for cotton.  As the workers were paid a piece-work rate, they tended to produce as much work as was needed by them to maintain their lifestyle--they had no motivation to increase their earnings.  Marglin calls this a “leisure preference.”  Even when the piece rates were lowered to stimulate output, workers simply shifted to another merchant or took another job.


Therefore, consolidating the workers into centralized mills gave the merchants more control over their production.  It also allowed the merchants to change the working time from an individualized, self-paced day to a standard, fourteen hours a day for six days a week.  Marglin proposes that these centralized factories then created a demand for improved, labor-saving machines.  These new technologies, when developed, then enhanced the efficiency of the factory production system. 


Consequently, Marglin states that, because of the desire of the capitalist merchant to force higher output from his workers, a pattern of work organization emerged in the early cotton industry that had the following characteristics: intensive work in factory settings, individuals performing fragmented tasks, and the transformation of skilled work to unskilled.  It is because of these changes in the work environment that machine technology changed its focus, from small-scale, cottage-based technology to technology that was suitable for use in factories rather than workshops.


“The evidence is that the discovery of basic principles of machine design, their application to large- or small-scale industrial production and the creation of efficient managerial techniques were all independent of the creation of the factory system by nineteenth-century capitalists.  The most basic principles of machine design, for example, were discovered by Renaissance and Baroque instrument makers, military engineers, and scientists. Their application to such industries as spinning and weaving in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often resulted in inventions suited to the circumstances of petty producers: The new machines required little capital and a family-sized labor force, and hence were well suited to the perpetuation of cottage industry” (Sabel, 1982, p. 39).


                The cultural origins of the Industrial Revolution.  Jacob (1988) proposes another way of looking at the cause of the Industrial Revolution that is derived from comparing the different industrial societies in Europe at the time of the Industrial Revolution.  Jacob notes that, by the 1790s, industrialization had begun in certain places but not others.  She attributes these differences in industrialization to the different cultures of the countries.  Particularly, she notes the different levels of scientific knowledge in these different countries. In order to mechanize, she notes, men must be able to think mechanically.  This ability to think mechanically was more common in British leaders who had access to capital, cheap labor, and steam power.  In other countries that were advanced, particularly the Netherlands and France, the evidence suggest that similar men with power and resources did not have the knowledge to mechanize.


Most of the differences in the cultures of these countries were related to the role of science and the dissemination of practical scientific knowledge.  In England, the new “pure” science of Newton was transparently linked with applied science--in fact, the distinction between these two areas probably did not exist as it does today.  The scientists of the period in history prior to industrialization disseminated their knowledge widely throughout England to audiences that could be either genteel and educated or commercial and practical.   The knowledge was spread through various means including the famous Boyle lectures that were given in Anglican churches; courses given in coffeehouses, taverns, and publishers’ shops; and the development of scientific societies (including the Royal Society of London and the Derby Philosophical Society, among others) (Jacob, 1988).


“What had begun in the London coffeehouses and taverns during the early 1700s, and then been spread by itinerant lecturers and philosophical societies, had finally produced a new kind of entrepreneurial and philosophical gentlemen. This industrialist championed a particular type of science, which had to be applied mechanically in order to be understood and which as a result had within its power the capacity to transform both nature and society...By the end of the century it was simply assumed that the mechanization of manufacturing, and hence of labor, required a working knowledge of  Newtonian science...With those, manufacturers could mechanize their factories through the application of steam power” (Jacob, 1988, pp. 167-168.


Social consequences of the Industrial Revolution


According to Rutherford and Ahlgren (1990), beyond the work-related consequences of the Industrial Revolution, there were social consequences.  The cost of these new machines required larger amounts of capital in order to start a business. Thereby, these machines were only accessible to people with large amounts of money.  As a result, those who had money to invest became the owners of the production while most of society became the workers.  These new factories allowed the deskilling (reduction in the skill needed) of work because relatively untrained workers were able to use the new machines--they replaced skilled workers from the craft-based industries. These new factories, in turn, were accompanied by the growth of large and complex industries; these new industries required more workers; thereby causing a movement of people from the farms to the cities. 


From its start in England, the Industrial Revolution spread throughout Western Europe and across the Atlantic to North America.  Because of these changes, the 19th century was marked by the most dramatic changes in the relationship of workers to their work.  In one hundred years, work had gone from being a home- and craft-based environment to a machine-oriented, lower skilled, factory-based environment.  These changes in work during the 19th century provided the impetus for the political and social upheavals which would follow. The tension produced by this division of wealth created a polarization between the worker and the owner--this tension resulted in political change ranging from unions to the growth of communism.


Karl Marx believed that this separation (between the owners and the workers who do not possess the means of production) was the pivotal difference between the modern industrial society and the preceding medieval one.  According to Marx, in the Middle Ages, peasants owned their own tools and had farming rights over the field they worked.  Craftsmen also had their own tools and workshops.  This situation changed with the advent of modern industry. 


"Modern industry, emerging from the industrial revolution, gave birth to factories that required enormous sums of capital and created a large class of free workers with nothing  but their own labor to sell.  This is the separation between capital and labor that Marx refers to.


Society was radically transformed as a result.  Free workers in search of a job congregated in the cities, where they formed a group with little consciousness of belonging to a larger society of fellow citizens.  The system of large families whose members were bound one to another by their commonly held rights to a means of  production and their commitment to making use of these broke down, and members were dispersed into the smallest family unit" (Sakaiya, 1991, pp. 268-269).


The Industrial Revolution transformed not only the workplace but also the rest of society.  Until the 19th century mass production, only a few in society could afford goods--these consumers were in the upper classes.  After the mass production of goods, prices for consumables went down and most could afford manufactured goods.  This may not seem significant until you realize the extent of this change.  For the first time, there were millions of people who could afford to buy ready-made clothes, household goods, bicycles, etc.  (Weber, 1989).  Also, the city was becoming safer and more comfortable to live, when compared to the city of Dickens’ times. This was the age of public transportation including the beginning of trains, omnibuses, and subways--This allowed workers to more easily leave the city to visit the countryside which was only a short ride away.   Overall, there was a democratization of goods, services, and facilities which made them available to all.


Along with the expanded social opportunities which were a result of the Industrial Revolution, industrialization brought negative changes to the cities.  Foremost among these negative aspects was the increase in pollution.  As the Industrial Revolution depended on coal for its life blood, this same coal produced terrible levels of air pollution along with an increase in respiratory illnesses.  Charles Dickens, in Hard Times, called these cities a “blur of soot and smoke, a dark formless smoking jungle.”


Industrialization of American Society


Mechanization, as seen in Western society, is the result of a rationalistic view of the world.  After the development of factories during the Industrial Revolution, the nineteenth-century factory remained essentially a job shop, with various machines placed randomly about in corners and on different floors, their individual motions controlled by a large wheel, often placed in the basement.  Steam power, available since the invention of the steam engine by James Watt, was "transmitted vertically through the factory building from the basement to the top floor: primary belting transferred motion to secondary shafts, which in turn transmitted power via pulleys to individual machines" (Hirchhorn, 1984, p. 10).  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the widening of the railroad network, the accelerated growth of metropolitan areas, and, in America, the mechanizing of many complicated crafts, the influence of mechanization was already reaching deeper into life (Giedion, 1948).


The Industrial Revolution spanned the industrialization of society with its three major aspects: the division of labor, specialization, and mechanization.  Each of these three factors helped to create the modern industrial society with the vision of mass production and the assembly line.  The Industrial Revolution transplanted from England to the Untied States caused what was, by the 1850s, known as the "American system of manufacturing" (Woodbury, 1972).


In the United States, the first factory system appeared in Waltham and Lowell in the 1810s and 1820s in the textile industry.  The factory system then spread to the chemical and metallurgical industries in the 1840s and to all market-oriented industries by the 1860s and 1870s (Nelson, 1980).  This American model of manufacturing, which included mass manufacture by power-driven machinery and interchangeable parts, was dominated by machine processes. Machine processes dictated the nature and organization of production, although there was no uniformity in production layout or methods between different industries.  For example, in the textile industry, machines almost immediately created a sequential manufacturing process that was characteristic of that industry.  In iron manufacturing, however, a standard factory layout, because of the new machines, took a long time to develop and there was little uniformity in factory organization until the end of the 19th century. 


The mechanization movement, which began in the Industrial Revolution, had a significant impact on how people worked.  The next great change in the organization of work occurred as a result of the development of scientific management and the assembly line.


Scientific Management


Frederick Taylor is the person who is most often associated with the system labeled scientific management, and indeed, he was the originator of this set of concepts.  However, there were others in the field of scientific management who had as much if not greater effect on the workplace.  According to Sullivan (1987), Taylor's work not only represented the beginning of the managerial era in industrial production but also signaled the end of the craft era in the United States.


According to Hirschhorn (1984), Taylor's work highlights the relationship between rationalization in general and labor-control methods in particular.  In Taylor's (1911) book, The Principles of Scientific Management, he discussed what he called a struggle for control of production between management and labor.  To control production, he developed methods for the measure and design of machining methods as part of a general plan for increasing the planning functions of management.  Taylor's fundamental concept and guiding principle was to design a production system that would involve both men and machines and that would be as efficient as a well-designed, well-oiled machine (Hughes, 1989).  Time studies were used to allow management to take control of the operations, thereby controlling production methods, and, by default, production.  This system required that management should take a more active role in the factory and, through engineers and salaried foremen, take greater control over operations.   Skilled craftsmen and foremen had to give up their power (Hirschhorn, 1984).


Taylor developed his principles of management while a machinist and foreman at the Midvale Steel Company of Philadelphia.  Taylor was bothered by, what was called as the time, "worker soldiering." (Worker soldiering refers to the practice of purposely stalling or slowing down work by the workers.)  Taylor believed that the objective of workers when they stalled was to keep "their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done" (cited in Hughes, 1989, p. 190).


Taylor began his assault on "worker soldiering" by doing time studies of workers while they were undertaking their production activity.  Taylor timed the workers' actions with a stopwatch.  However, he did not time the entire job; instead, he broke down complex sequences of motions into what he labeled the elementary ones.  He then timed the elementary actions as were performed by the workers he considered to be efficient in their movements.  Having timed and analyzed the movements, he combined these elementary motions into a new set of complex motions that he insisted should be used by all workers.  These calculations determined the piecework rate with bonuses paid for better rates and penalties taken for slower work.  As Carl Barth, a disciple of Taylor noted in his testimony to the U.S. Commission of Industrial Relations,


    "My dream is that the time will come when every drill press will be speeded just so, and every planer, every lathe the world over will be harmonized just like musical pitches are the same all over the world...so that we can standardize and say that for drilling a 1-inch hole the world over will be done with the same speed...That dream will come true, some time" (Barth, 1914, p. 889).


Taylor did not limit his method to the worker--he organized the redesign of the entire factory by removing control over operations from foremen and placing this control in a centralized planning department to be staffed with engineers.  The planning department prepared detailed instructions about the machines and methods to be used and how long the job should take.  Using sets of instruction cards (route slips) and reports, the planning department was able to produce a overall picture of the flow of parts in the plant--this activity was the beginning of formalized routing and scheduling in the factory.


Althought Taylor designed Scientific Management to resolve problems in the workplace, the effects of Scientific Management spread from the factory to everyday life.  We will discuss the results of “Taylorism” in four different sections that are listed below.


                Effects of Scientific Management


The immediate result of scientific management, according to Drucker (1967b) was a drastic cut in the cost of manufactured goods (1/10 to 1/20 of the previous manufactured cost).  This allowed goods to be purchased by more people.  Also, scientific management allowed the raising of wages (even while the cost of the product was dropping).  This movement also caused a shift in the factories from unskilled laborer, usually paid at a subsistence wage, to machine operator, who was more highly paid.


A full version of Taylorism spread only slowly through the factory.  As late as 1914 Robert Hoxie (cited in Hirschhorn, 1984) wrote that "no single shop was found which could be said to represent fully and faithfully the Taylor system as presented in the treatise on shop management."   Taylor had  lasting influence through his development of  traditional manufacturing practices.  In machine shops, for example, owners began to devise routing slips, inventory tracking methods, and an entire range of techniques for organizing production.  These new techniques were inspired by the work of Taylor and the principles of scientific management.


Taylor’s role in the history of industrial management is complex and still debated today.  In industrial circles, he represented the transition from 19th century to 20th century manufacturing techniques.  He was one of the first industrial managers who perceived “the interrelated character of the new manufacturing systems and the need for a disciplined, comprehension change if the manufacturer and the industrial sector were to attain the optimum results” (Nelson, 1980, p. 199). Few plants introduced his complete system but thousands of plants introduced elements of scientific management: time study methods; new machine tool practices; methods for managing tools, materials, machines, supervisors, and workers; and formal planning departments. 


Scientific management became more widespread after World War I as professional managers moved into high management positions.  The formation of bureaucratic organizations with middle management positions changed the role of the shop foreman and reduced his power.  By the 1920s, big business executives were promoting the new factory management system and, by the late 1920s, the nation’s most prominent labor leaders had become exponents of this “humanized” scientific management.  Perhaps the most important legacy of Taylor and scientific management is the discipline that grew out of this field: industrial engineering.  Industrial engineers today are still taught the methods of scientific management including time and motion studies, job-tasks analysis, wage-incentive determination,  and detailed production planning. With respect to the field of operation research and management,


“Taylor’s work had importance in ways directly germane to operations research. His contributions, great as they were intrinsically, were even more valuable in revealing the merit of creating elements of organization whose object was not the performance of operations, but their analysis: It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this first basic step: the formation of organizations for research on operations...his work led to better decisions than those which were possible, and in most cases, necessary before” (George, 1968, pp. 151-152).


                Reaction to “Taylorism”  Taylor's methods and his views of the worker met with resistance from labor.  Taylor believed that the success of his methods depended on management controlling and replacing the craft knowledge held by workers with a systematized method of production. However, workers did not accept Taylor's methods readily.  In fact, as Taylor himself wrote, his attempt to redesign the work process "immediately started a war...which as time went on grew more and more bitter" (cited in Lasch, 1987, p. 80).


Despite the fact that Taylor's complete system was never fully implemented, he still had the most effect on the relations between management and labor in manufacturing organizations.  Taylorism changed the relations between management and labor by changing the position of labor in the firm.  Unorganized and unskilled workers bore much of the brunt of the advance of scientific management in the factory (Haber, 1964).  The new system demanded that workers produced at higher speeds and with increased subordination to management.    Skilled labor was replaced by cheap, easily trained and replaceable workers who came predominately from the so-called new immigrants (Ramirez, 1978).  This deskilled labor was then disposable to management. 


"The state of the labor market therefore gave businessmen and efficiency experts the necessary maneuvering space to introduce new methods of work and production and new wage structures and to select the workers who were most readily willing to adapt to them or, to put it in the common business jargon of the time, to perform 'the weeding out of the less efficient workmen.' In addition, welfare experts and personnel managers could more freely put into operation programs designed to adjust their work force, stabilize their labor relations, and boost the productivity of their enterprises" (Ramirez, 1978, p. 133).


In addition to the response from workers to Taylor’s methods, his goals and methods drew criticism from politicians, industrialists , and humanists.  Dos Passos, a prominent American writer of this period, recognized that Taylor’s methods led to the deskilling of work.  Also, he questioned the value that Taylor placed on abundance and the need for it in American society.  “more steel rails more bicycles more spools of thread more armorplate for battleships more bedpans more barbed wire more needles more lightningrods more ballbearings more dollarbills (Dos Passos, 1936, p. 24).


Other critics of Taylor differed with his view that the interests of workers were identical to those of managers.  These critics held Taylor responsible for a subjugation of workers to a kind of industrial slavery. 


                “Taylorism” and Organized Labor.  In manufacturing, the efficiency movement caused an increase in output per unit of labor, between 1907 and 1915, of 33 percent a year, compared to an annual average increase of 9.9 percent between 1900 and 1907 (Ramirez, 1978).  In addition, this "process of rationalization" of the workplace had an anti-working class character.  Through the scientific management methods, workers were treated as machines, devalued, and paid less money for their efforts.  A consequence of this treatment of workers was the rise of the unions and increased strikes and unrest among workers.  One of the most famous strikes was against U.S. Steel in 1909, when more than 3,500 unorganized, mass production workers revolted against the inhuman working conditions produced by that company's efficiency drive which included a new mass production line and a piece rate system that resulted in speed-ups and a reduction in take home pay for most workers.


Interestingly, later, the principles of scientific management were accepted by organized labor who considered Taylor's principles a means for protecting jobs and controlling members (Sullivan, 1987).   Using these principles, increased specialization in production enabled the unions to emphasize job control and worker rights in the shop floor.  "This mass production model of shop-floor control depends on two key assumptions: a job is a precisely defined series of tasks; and seniority is the criterion for the allocation of jobs" (Sullivan, 1987, p. 96). As industrial unions took root across the United States, wage and job security provisions were established through collective bargaining by using sharply defined job tasks.


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