The Human Factor in the Machine Age: Taylorism, Industrial Psychology, and Labour Management, c.1921-47.

Michael Weatherburn, Imperial College

Talk to be delivered to Imperial College Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine , 8 March 2012.

Seminar and Learning Centre, 4-6pm. The room will be signposted.

What makes workers human? How can this knowledge be used to make workers more productive? These questions were addressed with great interest in the inter-war period by an increasing number and variety of industrial experts. Rationalisation in the 1920s, depression in the 30s, war and nationalisation in the 40s intensified this process.

I will recast F.W. Taylor and his associates, who have long been demonised for treating the worker like a ‘greedy robot’ (Rose, 1975). In fact, a historical examination of the Taylor system in the 1920s reveals a closer connection to labour management, vocational selection, cost accountancy, and administrative reform than the standard accounts of stopwatch-wielding scientific management fanatics would have us believe. These are the elements of Taylor’s work which were clipped onto already developing industrial trends in Britain, such as piece work, premium bonus systems, and time study.

This paper addresses how the National Institute for Industrial Psychology (NIIP) and the Institute of Labour Management (ILM; formerly Welfare Work) sought to capture authority of what makes workers human, and how this knowledge could be used to increase productivity. Like Taylor, Charles Myers’ NIIP sought to study individual workers to work out how they could be better motivated. In contrast to both Taylor and Myers, the ILM believed that workers were intrinsically social beings and therefore that the work group was of utmost importance. How these contradictory views played themselves out in practice, and how they both influenced the subsequent world of industrial work in Britain, will be explored.