Alex Kroman

A Clockwork Universe and the Strike at Watertown Arsenal

12 Apr 2010


In 1908 Frederick Taylor (years before publishing his famous book “The Principles of Scientific Management”) began studying workers at an arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Frederick Taylor

Taylor was born in 1856 into an aristocratic family in Philadelphia. After graduating from Philip Exeter Academy he rejected university and instead chose to apprentice in a machine shop. Taylor believed in Isaac Newton’s idea of the clockwork universe. In Newton’s mind the world was a giant clock that was wound up by god at the beginning of time. As the clock ticked the universe unfolded in a predictable pattern according to the laws of physics. If we could understand the design of the clock, we could understand and predict the future. During his work as an engineer Taylor became convinced that he could replace the “rules of thumb” followed by most factory workers with a simple and repeatable processes that would always achieve the same result. Once the process was in place and wound up it would run indefinitely like the clockwork universe. In 1893 Taylor left the machine shop to become a consultant and on his way he stopped at the Watertown Arsenal.

Watertown Arsenal

Watertown Arsenal was built in 1816 to hold ordinance for the US Army and found itself at the center of a national scandal during the Civil War when the commander used government money to build himself a lavish mansion on the grounds. After a congressional investigation he was exiled to an arsenal in a western frontier town but managed to build an even grander mansion just a few years later.

Slide Rules and Stop Watches


Frederick Taylor came to Watertown with a stop watch and slide rule to measure the way workers performed tasks on the factory floor. Why was it taking a worker fifty-three minutes to make a gun when Taylor was certain it could be done in twenty-four? He watched the workers and diagramed the way they moved about the floor. He wrote up a report that described how the guns could be made in twenty-four minutes and hired managers who would stand on the floor with stopwatches making sure Taylor’s plans were carried out.

The Strike At Watertown

In 1911 the workers at Watertown arsenal went on strike and Taylor’s methods were heavily criticized across the country. One of the workers wrote “This we believe to be the limit of our endurance. It is humiliating to us, who have always tried to give the government the best that was in us. This method is un-American”. Taylor had designed the perfect system for making guns but the system was shutting down.


The strike at Watertown turned into a congressional hearing on the practices that Taylor was starting to spread. A few months later Taylor was brought in front of the committee to testify. Taylor explained his science around shoveling coal to the chairman of the committee William Wilson. Taylor explained that “the ordinary pig-iron man is not suited for shoveling coal because he is too stupid. But a first-class man who could lift a shovel weighing twenty one and a half pounds cold move a pile of coal lickety-split”. Wilson responded “but what about the effects on a man who wasn’t first-class?” Taylor replied that “Scientific management has no place for a bird that can sing and won’t sing”. “We are not…”, the chairman responded, “dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are part of society and for whose benefit society is organized”.

A Ban on Stopwatches

Watertown Arsenal was biased and unscientific. The committee barred management scientific to be used in government facilities and dismantled the system that Taylor put in place at Watertown Arsenal. Taylor had created a system that increased productivity but ignored the people doing the work. At Ford people were working so hard they couldn’t get out of bed the next day. Hatred between managers and workers grew and frequent strikes began canceling out any productivity gains. A few months later the House of Representatives created a law that banned the use of stopwatches in factories.

Despite these setbacks the idea of a perfectly repeatable clockwork universe resonated with the business world and Taylor’s ideas spread at the time the world was looking for a way to shift from a system of craft production to mass production. Harvard created the first business school in 1908 and Taylor’s teachings set the curriculum for the next fifty years. Despite events such as Watertown suggesting there must be a better way to manage people this new class of professional managers winded the clock and watched as it slowly ticked down.