23: Edwin Layton’s Revolt of the Engineers

Revolt of the Engineers lives in the depths of library storage, which is unfortunate because it’s a rather interesting study of a failed social movement among early 20th-century engineers.  Also, it was written in 1971, and the political and ideological struggles of that era seem clearly to have influenced Layton’s thinking.  And maybe it’s just me, but I find reading about a social movement from one era through the eyes of another to be rather illuminating.

Layton argues that professionalization and progressive organizing efforts among engineers in the early 20th century may not have led to large, lasting social change either within the profession or in American society, but the engineers’ efforts were still an important cross-pollination between technology and culture.

To support this claim, Layton traces a chronological history of the rise and fall of different professional engineering organizations and their relationship to the broader social reform movement in turn-of-the-century America.  One of his more entertaining examples is the career of Henry Gantt, whose appropriately-named Gantt charts are still in use today, at least among my undergrad Civil Engineering students.

Henry Gantt was a talented follower of Frederick Taylor, the guy who devised all those time and motion studies to make Ford’s assembly lines faster and more efficient.  (Harry Bravermann and Tim Cresswell both do cool – and very different – treatments of Taylor and his impact.)  Like Taylor, Gantt thought scientific management was the best thing ever, and he developed his Gantt chart as a visual project management tool to help users maintain top-down scientific control over an entire process.  Also like Taylor, Gantt thought that scientific management principles could and should be applied in areas beyond the confines of business, especially government and education.  But Gantt, who liked to carefully chart out arms production and ship production processes in his office during WWI, went a step further.  With the right visualization tools (heh) and a firm commitment to scientific management principles, Gantt thought that engineers could potentially plan not just individual industries but the whole economy, from defense production, education, and government to automobile manufacturing, city development, and social services.  And because scientific management efficiently allocated resources and talent, letting the engineers run society would be perfectly efficiently and perfectly just.  Democracy and scientific management would finally become synonymous!

Now, the problem with this scheme, as Layton points out, is that it’s not a democracy but a technocracy, where the engineers in their central planning offices get to design sociotechnical systems, but all citizens can do is conform to them.  Incidentally, this kind of thinking also plagued engineering’s professional societies, where infighting over power and prestige kept engineers from making any serious progress toward social goals.  Layton concludes here, with the decline of a movement that could have had a huge impact on society, particularly during the Great Depression. 

Yet I think that if self-serving politics hindered engineers from effecting large-scale social reform or a mass seizure of political power, they helped them spread scientific management ideas in more conservative arenas like business, and manufacturing in particular.  Here, stripped of its revolutionary potential, scientific management could be used to further exploit the labor of assembly-line and sweatshop workers by speeding the pace of production and thus lowering per-unit labor costs.  Layton doesn’t dwell on this particular legacy, but his frustration with his subjects’ deflation of their movement is clear.  The implications for the time in which he was writing seem pretty clear, too.

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3 thoughts on “23: Edwin Layton’s Revolt of the Engineers

  1. Abuelo Mat

    On the whole, engineering societies of the 20th Century and early 21st Century have been conservative in most respects. They have struggled and been internally conflicted over the degree to which they should become involved in advocating for changes in public policies and programs. That has limited their effectiveness in policy circles despite their large numbers and entreaties of engineering society leadership. Having said that, when opportunities arise to concurrently support policy changes and enhance their own disciplines and livelihoods, these societies have stepped up to promote change. Two cases in point: initiatives during the 1970s to more tightly regulate environmental pollution (and concurrent funding for cleanup efforts) and initiatives to fund renewable energy production and energy conservation research & development as well as the adoption of energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.

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  2. kirstenatx

    Hey Mat! I had no idea you were reading this. 🙂 thank you so much for your comment! This book was written about engineers at the turn of the last century so he doesn't get into environmentalism much, but he does talk about the conservation movement in addition to scientific management. I can't quite tell from your comment – do you think what he says about engineers at the turn of the century still applies?

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  3. Barbara

    The study of engineering develops conservative, reliable measuring and analytical tools similar to accounting and medicine. The discipline required to grasp all these tools probably does not foster much in the way of social reform or change. But, having said that, engineering skills have brought forth advancement in manufacturing processes and in business–which ultimately have affected social change.

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