Haber, Samuel Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era 1890-1920
University of Chicago, 1964,
From the introduction and Page 74
We are often told that Americans love efficiency. In fact, we are told this so often that some serious students of American character have come to see such statements as commonplaces deadening our understanding of America and Americans rather than enlivening it. Yet if we give these commonplaces specificity, if we look closely at Americans professing the love of efficiency (and to a lesser extent acting upon it), we may come away from such study with a better understanding of our country and our ways.
The progressive era is almost made to order for the study of Americans in love with efficiency. For the progressive era gave rise to an efficiency craze—a secular Great Awakening, an outpouring of ideas and emotions in which a gospel of efficiency was preached without embarrassment to businessmen, workers, doctors, housewives, and teachers, and yes, preached even to preachers. Men as disparate as William Jennings Bryan and Walter Lippmann discoursed enthusiastically on efficiency. Efficient and good came closer to meaning the same thing in these years than in any other period of American history.
If we sift through the vast literature of efficiency that the progressive era produced, we can discover at least four principal ways in which the word efficiency was used. First of all, it described a personal attribute. An efficient person was an effective person, and that characterization brought with it a long shadow of latent associations and predispositions; a turning toward hard work and away from feeling, toward discipline and away from sympathy, toward masculinity and away from femininity. Second, the word signified the energy output-input ratio of a machine. This was a more recent use than that describing a trait of character. (However, mechanical efficiency may have added coloring to personal efficiency; the machine does, but does not feel.) The concept of mechanical efficiency developed out of the application of the laws of thermodynamics to the technology of the steam engine in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and soon it became a central concept of engineering.
The machine whose efficiency the engineer calculated, however, was often owned by a business enterprise interested in profit. Commercial efficiency, the output-input ratio of dollars, was a third meaning common to the progressive era, and a meaning which engineers who were concerned with the delicate adjustment of material means to ends could not ignore. Finally, efficiency not only signified a personal quality, a relationship between materials, and a relationship between investment and revenue, but, most important, it signified a relationship between men. Efficiency meant social harmony and the leadership of the “competent.” Progressives often called this social efficiency. And it is this meaning that has particular importance for the understanding of the progressive era.... The efficiency craze, which began with the Easter Rate Case in 1910, receded by 1915 and disappeared with America’s entry into the war. Efficiency as morality, the most widespread and easily acceptable form, was quickest to evaporate. Efficiency as a series of profit-making stunts was soon discredited. Efficiency as a technique of industrial management and as a form of social control found a small but steadfast following and had more lasting effects.