This article focuses on engineering professionals, who started to see themselves as agents of change for the better with the start of the 20th century. A machine-tool boom ensued during the early years of the 20th century, as mechanical engineers brought their inventive skills to bear on precision machinery that cut and ground metal, pressed steel, and automated assembly tasks. At a time when engineering analysis was an imperfect science, Frederick Taylor performed exhaustive tests on engine lathes and diligently recorded data on stresses and other capacities. Taylor promoted the establishment of central planning departments to administer the standards and schedule workloads. The principle of scientific management systematized production, in the process radically changing the relationship between employer and employee. Today, ASME impresses upon engineers the need to embrace their sense of public worth, and understand that their work contributes to the greater social good.
When the Wright brothers flew their first airplane at Kitty Hawk in December 1903, newspapers paid little attention to what would become a world-shrinking technical innovation.
In the same year in Toledo, Ohio, nobody paid much attention, either, to Michael J. Owens, as he worked to perfect an apparatus that pumped glass into a mold to form a bottle with a narrow neck. Yet, the Owens automatic bottle machine, while not as awe-inspiring as a powered flyer, stands as a totem of industrial activity and progress in the years immediately following the turn of the century, when mechanical engineers created factory tools for the efficient production of goods enjoyed by a growing population.
As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Mechanical Engineering will run articles each month highlighting key influences in the Society’s development. This, the third in our series, explores developments in the early 20th century, when the engineering profession grew, both in numbers and in its awareness of its contributions to the public welfare.
John Varrasi is a senior writer in the Public Information Department of ASME in New York.
By 1900, the beginning of ASME’s third decade in existence, there were 40,000 engineers in America, compared to just 7,000 in 1880. Many worked in the fledgling power industry, which needed a skilled labor force to design, and maintain complex machinery in the electric generating plants. Others found jobs in mining, oil and gas production, and railroads.
The demand for engineers also was strong at factories. Manufacturing at the time was completing a shift from the industrial craftsmanship that characterized earlier decades, to a capital-intensive enterprise focused on churning out products to the marketplace. The owners of the manufacturing shops cared little about the aesthetics of a sewing machine or vacuum cleaner; their primary focus was on developing economies of scale and the best means of generating high volume and low unit costs.
And so these factory owners hired engineers to design machine systems ensuring the efficient production of components and products. A machine-tool boom ensued during the early years of the 20th century, as mechanical engineers brought their inventive skills to bear on precision machinery that cut and ground metal, pressed steel, and automated assembly tasks. (A machine-tool inventor and industrialist, James Hart-ness, who later became governor of Vermont, was president of ASME in 1914.)
Soon, the German mechanic Herman Doehler and others introduced die-casting to the American factory, which accelerated the production of parts. Die-casting was embraced by the automobile pioneer Henry Ford, who took manufacturing efficiency to an even higher level through the application of rapid assembly techniques, sequencing, and quality control.
Ford was perhaps the most famous figure in business and industry to emerge in the first decade of the 20th century, and the most successful among the many automobile manufacturers of the period who attempted to build a low-cost, reliable car for the developing mass market. The automotive innovator who tinkered with machinery and designed racing cars in his younger years established the Ford Motor Co. in 1903, when he was 40.
By 1906, Ford began high-volume automobile manufacturing, expanding his Detroit factory and bringing in machinists and technical experts knowledgeable in special-purpose tooling, interchangeable parts, and other areas supporting his vision of a rational, organized, and structured production operation. Ford introduced the Model N in 1906 and, two years later, rolled out the Model T, which sold for $825.
Henry Ford won plaudits for the Model T, dubbed “the first car for the masses.” His legacy is a company that has become an enduring corporate symbol, but at the time of FordJ death in April 1947, his reputation had been tarnished by the blatantly anti-Semitic views published in a Dearborn, Mich., periodical that he controlled, as well as by the deterioration of working conditions in his plants.
Another famous—and controversial—figure of the period was Frederick Winslow Taylor. Born in 1856 in Germantown, Pa., Taylor worked in steel and paper mills, where he saw both the good and bad in operations and methodology.
At a time when engineering analysis was an imperfect science, Taylor performed exhaustive tests on engine lathes and diligently recorded data on stresses and other capacities. In 1900, Taylor and an associate, Maunsel White, discovered the relationship between heat treatment of lathes and the increased cutting ability of the tool. Word of the technical breakthrough spread quickly, and the Taylor-White process was 'adopted worldwide.
By the time he became the 25th president of ASME in 1906, Frederick Taylor was championing his principle of scientific management. Claiming to have discovered a system that promoted industrial harmony and efficiency, Taylor and his disciples applied detailed analysis of factory labor to determine precise standards for employee output and performance. To take it further, Taylor promoted the establishment of central planning departments to administer the standards and schedule workloads. The principle of scientific management systematized production, in the process radically changing the relationship between employer and employee.
Initially, Taylor’s viewpoints were well received at ASME. Many members considered the principle of scientific management to be consistent with the Society’s own standardization activities, which were beginning to play a role in factory operations and production efficiencies. Furthermore, engineers who learned Taylor’s program found lucrative work as consultants to manufacturing industries.
Engineers had an inspiring function in society—to meet human needs through the application of science.
However, scientific management proved to have less than universal appeal at ASME. Taylor’s strategy of corporate bureaucratic control over the employee alienated many members, many of whom worked in factories rather than managed them. In addition, Taylor’s attempt to inject scientific management into the organizational structure of ASME—his thrust was to shift power and responsibilities away from the secretary to committees made up of members—failed to muster support and consensus.
By the time Taylor’s term as president concluded in 1907, the Society’s membership had swelled to more than 3,300 engineers, from about 1,100 in 1890. ASME was increasing its publishing activities and forming new committees and sections aligned with emerging business and technology trends in the industrializing nation. One such unit was the Gas Power Section, created in 1907 to serve the interests of engineers working with the internal combustion engine. ASME was financially sound and excited about its new home in the Engineering Societies Building in New York City, a gift of Andrew Carnegie.
While growing into a large organization with a broad reach, ASME was also at a crossroads. Increasingly, the Society had to deal with divergent viewpoints and opinions regarding the role of the organization in a changing profession. No longer an elitist group of industry leaders and shop owners, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was adding members in the broader mechanical engineering community and, in the process, was growing an identity crisis.
Enter Morris L. Cooke. The Philadelphian, a major player in an early 20th-century reform movement to regulate electrical utility rates for the benefit of American consumers, instilled in ASME members the notion of the engineer’s social responsibility. Engineers, Cooke believed, had an inspiring function in society—namely, to meet human needs and, moreover, to liberate mankind through the application of science. Using ASME as a vehicle for his progressive viewpoints, Cooke in 1908 and 1909 published articles on the engineer’s role in social change, waste management, and public policy.
Cooke engaged in a running battle with the electric power industry on several fronts. He bluntly criticized individual utility companies, which he believed were meddling with the professional engineering societies and influencing decision-making. The Society censured Cooke for this, but not before he managed to leave an indelible imprint on ASME.
Morris Cooke provided a young and somewhat unfocused organization with a vision that would continue for decades.
Today, ASME impresses upon engineers the need to embrace their sense of public worth, and understand that their work contributes to the greater social good. The Society’s mission, in part to help engineers contribute to the well-being of humankind, began to take shape in the era of the Model T and remains an abiding organizational value at this present time, ASME’s 125th anniversary.