Frederick Winslow Taylor, the Patron Saint of the Shovel


Photos (Corbis), Illustration by Gluekit

Around the turn of the 20th century, an American engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor had a nutty idea about increasing industrial productivity. While most foremen simply yelled at laborers to motivate them, Taylor realized the problem wasn’t the workers; it was the process. Through a bit of scientific study, Taylor was certain he could make any factory’s existing workforce more efficient.


Taylor’s innovative approach to management is best illustrated in his study of the Bethlehem Steel Company. After some research, Taylor concluded that the efficiency of the whole operation could be greatly enhanced if each man had a better shovel. At the time, the tools used in the factory were one size fits all. A man who had to break through dense, heavy substances, such as iron ore, would end up with back-breakingly heavy loads each time he dug in. By the end of the day, these workers were so exhausted that they could barely move.

On the other hand, workers who had to scoop light materials, such as ash, were stuck with identical shovels. A full scoop was so light that, as Taylor put it, “it was manifestly impossible to even approximate a day’s work” no matter how furiously the workers hoisted their tools. By Taylor’s reckoning, the optimal weight of a loaded shovel should be around 21 pounds; a man could swing that weight all day without becoming exhausted later in his shift.

Calling a Spade a Spade

Instead of giving everyone the same shovel regardless of task, Taylor offered workers eight specialized shovels that would fit various jobs. Sure enough, the men with the custom shovels got more work done. In fact, the tools nearly quadrupled the productivity of each shoveling laborer, improving the average worker’s daily output from 16 to 59 tons!

Taylor wasn’t just efficient in the workplace—his expertise extended to the tennis court. In 1881, he used a spoon-shaped racket of his own design to become half of the winning men’s doubles team at the United States National Championship, the forerunner of the U.S. Open.

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