Original documents throw new light on Frederick W. Taylor

Journal of Management History (Archive)

ISSN: 1355-252X

Article publication date: 1 December 2000


Wrege, C.D. (2000), "Original documents throw new light on Frederick W. Taylor", Journal of Management History (Archive), Vol. 6 No. 8. https://doi.org/10.1108/jmh_arc.2000.15806haf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Original documents throw new light on Frederick W. Taylor

Original documents throw new light on Frederick W. Taylor

Sanford E. Thompson – Frederick W. Taylor letters, 1900-1902

Charles D. WregeAcademy of Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

In 1977, after a seven-year search, I discovered hundreds of original letters and reports prepared by Sanford E. Thompson for Frederick W. Taylor during the period 1890-1915. These original materials were stored in the basement of the home of Thompson's daughter, Marion Beckwith, in Wellsley, Massachusetts.

The papers included three letter-copying books, each 500 pages long, containing carbon copies of letters by Thompson on thin onion skin paper. These books were numbers 8, 9, and 10 and covered the years 1900-1903. Unfortunately, many of the pages had been exposed to water, causing the carbon to run and making the letters unreadable. However, the bulk of the letters are clear, except in cases where the carbon from a letter had been transferred to the back of the page with a preceding letter. In these cases, the letters are discernible through the onion skin, but the original letter is still readable.

The letters reproduced here reflect events in Taylor's life generally unknown to management scholars. The 1902 letters cover the period when Taylor was recovering from a nervous breakdown after he was fired from Bethlehem Steel in 1901. This illness made it necessary for Taylor only to work one or two hours a day, as he testified on Bement 1906 in the Bethlehem Steel v. Niles-Bement (1906) patent suite.

The work performed by Thompson for Taylor was done under a yearly contract which required Thompson to devote his entire time "to the work of gathering information for writing a book, books, articles or series of articles for publication, and to recording and tabulating such information, and in assisting Taylor in writing said articles or book. The subject matter of said articles or book being the time required for doing various kinds of work." Other contracts during the years 1896-1914 were apparently similar with changes reflecting the changing interests of Thompson and Taylor regarding the subject of the books to be written. These changes reflected an increased interest by both men in such topics as concrete, bricklaying, carpentry, etc.

The topics in the letters reproduced here cover the efforts of Taylor and Thompson to publish a number of books on the subject of the time required to perform work, primarily in the construction industry, piece rates for yard work in industry and the manufacture of "watch books" to secretly study the operations performed by workers.

These letters illustrate the value of original documents over published articles or books. The reader is able to gain valuable insight into the thinking of these two men on particular topics over a number of years. The material reproduced is described below:

From Letter Book 8 (January, 1900-December, 1901)

Page 112. Thompson to Taylor, July 5, 1900. Letter concerns purchasing a safe to hold the various manuscripts concerning the research Thompson is doing for Taylor

Page 117. Thompson to Taylor, July 13, 1900. Letter concerns selling an article on the Thompson experiments concerning the compression of broken stone. Thompson mentions a contract providing for "dividing the proceeds" from the sale of such an article.

Page 130. Thompson to F. J. Whilton, August 2, 1900. Letter concerns a stop-watch for a "watch book." This was a small notebook designed to conceal a stop-watch for secretly observing workers. A sketch of an early "watch book" is seen in a letter from Thompson to Taylor on February 21, 1896, reproduced as page 130A.

Page 243. Thompson's bill to Taylor for work performed for Taylor during December, 1900: $213.64.

Page 271. Thompson to George H. Parker, January 23, 1901. Letter concerns the work performed by horses, including the average load in pounds a horse could haul. This information was considered both for the books planned by Taylor and Thompson and the work required in the future when Taylor planned to build his estate, "Boxly."

Page 299-300. Letter to Taylor, February 23, 1901. Letter concerns Thompson's notes on carpentry and an editorial in The Engineering News (December 27, 1900) on "Social Engineering" he believed would interest Taylor.

Page 336. Letter to Taylor, April 13, 1901. Thompson refers to observations on piece work with miscellaneous labor (derived from Bethlehem Steel).

Letter Book 9 (December, 1901-December, 1902)

Page 8. Thompson to Taylor, December 14, 1901. Letter concerns recommendation for Henry L. Gantt to the Western Electric Company and Thompson's "report on Bethlehem Yard Piece-Work." Mention is also made of Taylor's scrapbooks which are now in the Taylor collection at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Page 30. Thompson to Mr Wilfred Bancroft of The William Sellers Company, January 14, 1902. Letter concerns cost of watch books and mentions a sample "note sheet," a copy of which is attached along with the copy of this letter. Thompson states that the book will have to be made to fit the particular watch Bancroft wishes to use. A sample of Thompson's note sheet appears on page 30A.

Page 51. Thompson to Taylor, January 20, 1902. Letter mentions Taylor's revisions to the report on yard piecework at Bethlehem Steel (no copy is known to exist of the report). Thompson also adds a note regarding the "Sawyer matter" and that he is ordering plans for house design with three different styles. This was the origin of plans by Taylor and Thompson to build homes using Taylor methods. The "Sawyer" mentioned is A. W. Sawyer, a Boston builder.

Page 90. Thompson to Taylor, March 4, 1902. Letter concerns Thompson's tables on brickwork which Thompson prepared for a book on "Brickwork" to be published by Taylor and Thompson. The book was never published.

Pages 256-257. Thompson to Taylor, August 18, 1902. Letter concerns the need to start publishing books on some of the subjects they were investigating (bricklaying, concrete, lathing, etc.) due to a publication of a similar nature by H. F. Gillette. Thompson also discusses methods of publishing, stating they could not determine the method of publishing ("whether on a percentage basis or outright ownership, until we have conferred further with publishers").

Pages 296-697. Thompson to Taylor, September 22, 1902. Letter concerns the tables in Thompson's manuscript on Bethlehem piecework. He mentions the tables of dates and the movement of pig iron derived from Taylor's scrapbooks and mentions the time for shoveling. Finally, he mentions the completed manuscript on bricklaying, which he apparently left with Taylor while Taylor was staying at his mother-in-law's home in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Page 298. Thompson to Carl G. Barth, September 26, 1902. Letter is the one mentioned on page 296 of the letter to Taylor on September 22, 1902.

Page 407. Thompson to Taylor, December 5, 1902. Letter concerns plans for publishing the manuscripts on "Earthwork", articles on slating and carpentry, "Yard Labor in Industrial Plants" and "Bricklaying."

Page 408. Thompson to John Wiley and Sons, December 5, 1902. Letter concerns book publishing plans including the subject of concrete construction. Two books: Concrete, Plain and Reinforced and Concrete Costs, were published by Wiley in 1905 and 1912.

Page 454-459. Thompson to Taylor, December 22, 1902. This six-page letter is a report to Taylor on Thompson's visit to New York on December 19, 1902, to talk with several publishers (Engineering News, Engineering Magazine, Architects and Builders, and Carpentry and Building. On page 457 is a list of the books which Thompson apparently believed (after talking with Mr Baker of Engineering News) he and Taylor would publish.

The drive to publish a number of books suggests that the claim of Barley and Kunda (1992) that "American managerial discourse has been elaborated in consecutive waves" which they identified as normative control versus rational control, is questionable. The surges mentioned by these authors may merely be the desire (similar to that of Thompson and Taylor) of individuals to publish books of a specific nature because such books might tap a popular market.


Barley, S. And Kinda, G. (1992), "Design and devotion: surges of rational and normative ideologies of control in managerial discourse", Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 33, p. 365.

Bethlehem Steel Versus Niles-Bement Pond Patent Suit (1906), case 4641, National Archives, Northeast Region, p. 54.