Catching a Glimpse of America’s Industrial Past

Catching a Glimpse of America’s Industrial Past

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You know how a truly addicted golfer will be mysteriously driven to practice his swing in strange places like station platforms and wedding receptions. He will whip an imaginary club at an imaginary ball, carefully keeping his spine and pelvis in alignment, then will rotate his whole body in a graceful follow-through. It's a little spooky.

The other day I was browsing through the terrific Engineering and Industry Collections at the National Museum of American History when I stumbled upon some of the time-motion studies of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the pioneer efficiency experts.

The museum has made large photographic prints of the 2,250 glass plate images the couple created between 1910 and 1924. There are men moving car chassis in production lines; women assembling items from a pile of parts on a table; one-armed men operating typewriters; a man on crutches making umbrellas; men laying brick, mixing cement; a shoe clerk assisting a female customer; a dentist with a patient surrounded by the sort of grim vintage dental apparatus I haven't seen since I was a kid.

Many of the photographs have timer clocks in the background. In some, lights are attached to the people's hands so that their movements describe a pattern in a time exposure. Out of this work came the Gilbreths' great contribution to the Industrial Age: the reduction of wasted motion and fatigue in the factory and office.

And then I found a picture of a golfer who was a subject in one of their studies. He stands in a darkened room, hardly more than a blob himself, but with lights on his head, hands and arms. His golf swing appears as a tangled, incredibly complicated white line in the gloom, a spaghetti dinner of light.

Clearly, Gilbreth was a golf obsessive who just couldn't resist trying out his time-motion techniques in search of the perfect swing. I knew that he and his brilliant wife, Lillian, who later applied efficiency techniques to work in the home, and their many children had been immortalized in the book and film Cheaper by the Dozen. I should have figured he would be a golf nut.

"Actually, today's carpal tunnel research and the field of ergonomics have grown out of their pioneering work in time-motion studies," says Peter Liebhold, a museum specialist who is compiling a history about work. "They felt that all work was made up of a combination of basic motions," he explains. "Using these building blocks of movements, they sought to break jobs down to such an elemental state that they could compare the motions of a golfer with the motions of a drill press operator."

I doubt if anyone ever did any scientific studies of pressers at the factory where I worked back in the 1940s. I had a summer job at the Clarence Williams bicycle-wheel factory in Utica, New York. We put in 40 hours for about $25 a week less withholding. Our pay came in a little brown envelope, in cash. The entire factory operated off a single shaft that ran the length of the rickety, old wooden building. Punch presses, roller presses, paint sprayers, all the machines, were attached to the overhead shaft by leather loops, and when we started up in the morning and after lunch, the shaft had to be put into gear gradually, in little hits, until it got up to speed.

The guy at the next roller to mine — we pressed two-inch-wide steel hoops into bicycle-wheel frames in several stages — was named Yost, a big, red-faced man in suspenders and a high-button undershirt. Every day he would finish his sandwich, tap the crumbs out of his lunch bag and put it over his head — and lean back in his chair and take a nap. That was a good summer.

But they are gone now. Clarence Williams, Yost, the factory, and even the hillside where it perched. It's part of a freeway.


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