Linebaugh, Taylor and Roddick for engineers

This is a set of brief notes which I issued to engineering students on a now defunct degree, as part of a class on the social context of engineering. This is converted from a LaTeX file which accounts for the lack of direct links to references.

Chips and ships …

At the end of the eighteenth century, workers in the naval shipyards of London were paid, if they were lucky, twice a year. Their wages were subject to various deductions for on-site services (the resident surgeon was paid from the men’s wages) and for disciplinary offences (football, cricket, absence from roll calls). Furthermore, wages were often not paid at all—in 1767, wages were fifteen months behind—and since sacked workers did not receive their back pay, there was little incentive to strike (The material on the London shipyards is taken from Linebaugh, 2003).

In view of the inadequate remuneration scheme, other forms of pay were used. The most important was `chips’ or offcuts of wood from the timber used to manufacture ships. Since 1634, workers had had the right to remove chips from the dockyards. The exact form of this right varied over time with different quantities and sizes of wood being considered fair game, but by the end of the eighteenth century, a legitimate chip was a piece of wood less than three feet in length. Pieces of wood of this size served as fuel and formed the basis of the local architecture: stairs, for example, were slightly less than three feet wide. It was accepted that between one third and one half of dockyard workers income came from chips.

For the Royal Navy, the owner of the shipyards, this form of payment was a waste of wood which `should’ have been leaving the yards in the form of ships. In 1795, Samuel Bentham, brother of the philosopher Jeremy, became Inspector-General of the Naval Works and began reforming the practices of the yards. He began by dividing up work according to the operations involved, ignoring the trade divisions which operated in the yards. He developed a new method of joining wood which had the advantage of making a stronger joint and which, as important, required less labour and could be implemented using specially designed machines. Machines could also be used to make treenails, which joined pieces of wood, again reducing the number of men required and eliminating the opportunity for making chips.

By making such changes, including the introduction of steam-powered machinery, Bentham was able to alter the system of employment in the yards. The number of types of workman was reduced and each type was graded according to behaviour and diligence. With the aid of various repressive measures (blacklisting, mass sackings, artillery used against rioting shipwrights), Bentham was able to force the introduction of twenty-four hour working and piece work. In 1801, `chip money’ was introduced and the custom of gathering chips was ended: from now on, wages would be purely monetary.

Bentham’s aims were not purely industrial. He and his brother had told a parliamentary inquiry considering a bill to `introduce Good Morals among the lower Orders of the People’ that this could only be done by limiting their incomes: `Few Servants after they live a Short Time in London and get a Taste for its amusements and Consequently a Desire to possess Money to gratify their new wants but are corrupted by the ready means they find of obtaining it at these Iron Shops.’

Bentham’s aim, in reducing workers’ incomes and in changing their work practices, was to increase his control over employees. The attached article will tell you about Frederick Winslow Taylor who invented the time-and-motion study one hundred years ago. In Shop management, Taylor gave his principles of managing production:

  1. A LARGE DAILY TASK: Each man in the establishment, high or low, should daily have a clearly defined task laid out before him. This task should not in the least degree be vague nor indefinite, but should be circumscribed carefully and completely, and should not be easy to accomplish.
  2. STANDARD CONDITIONS: Each man’s task should call for a full day’s work, and at the same time the workman should be given such standardized conditions and appliances as will enable him to accomplish his task with certainty.
  3. HIGH PAY FOR SUCCESS: He should be sure of large pay when he accomplishes his task.
  4. LOSS IN CASE OF FAILURE: When he fails he should be sure that sooner or later he will be the loser by it.

The standardization of production quickly became part of what is now known in many countries as `Taylorism’ or `Fordism’. Perhaps unsurprizingly, Taylor’s ideas entered political thought: Mussolini and Lenin were both fans. While his reputation has suffered as his methods are seen as deskilling workers, much of his approach survives.

In 2001, the 35-hour week became law in France. In 1999, one commentator (Bulard, 1999) was pointing out that: It is starting to look as if the real purpose of the 35-hour week is to institutionalise atypical working arrangements and non-standard working hours. Under the title of `flexibility’, working practices which were recognized as inhuman a century ago are being reintroduced: under a `zero-hour contract’ an employee has no guarantee of how many hours work they will have nor of when they will have to work those hours. They may well have no work at all in a given week and thus no wages. `Flexible’ and `lean’ production take on a different hue when they are seen from the point of view of the employees who do the producing. Taylor’s view of the responsibilities of a worker is still dominant: Every day, year in and year out, each man should ask himself over and over again two questions. First, “What is the name of the man I am now working for?” And having answered this definitely, then, “What does this man want me to do, right now?” Not, “What ought I to do in the interests of the company I am working for?” Not, “What are the duties of the position I am filling?” Not, “What did I agree to do when I came here? Not, “What should I do for my own best interest?” but plainly and simply, “What does this man want me to do?”

The desire for control over employees has not disappeared. The Independent of the 11th of October 2003 reported that workers at an engineering factory had won the right not to wear red tags during tea-breaks. Before the abolition of the system, manual workers (and only manual workers) had to wear the tags to show that they had permission to take a break.

The most recent large industrial dispute in this country centred on questions of Taylorism and deskilling (Red Pepper, 2002): Ask the employers what they mean by modernisation and they say `flexibility’—ie, changing the shift system and allowing more overtime. Evidence of the benefits of either have yet to be produced. In fact, the councils’ so-called modernisation agenda is a recipe for job cuts, increased hours, deskilling and breaking the ability of the FBU to protect working conditions for its members.

The evidence in many industries (the fire service, the NHS, the railways) is that the Taylorist approach of subjugating the worker to the (perceived) needs of the employer benefits no-one but a limited number of senior managers: the employee loses but so does the user of the service.

One of the most common ways of increasing sales is to sell us our own good intentions. The best known peddler of happy thoughts is probably the Body Shop. The Body Shop has acquired a reputation for its ethical approach to business, including fair trade and respect for human rights. Its attitude to its own employees is rather different: I said in my first book—Body and soul—when management are bastards that’s when you deeply need a union but when you have progressive thinking, when you include a way of listening to your workers and we have very, very creative ways of doing that where the workers could come directly to the board, directly to myself, where the line management didn’t have to represent them, I think it worked really well. Anita Roddick, Talking point, BBC News

In other words, I’m such a nice person my employees will never have anything to complain about.

Further reading

  • Bulard, Martine, What price the 35-hour week?, Le monde diplomatique (English edition), September 1999, [link dead].
  • Haight, Alan Day, Burnout, chronic fatigue, and Prozac in the professions: the iron law of salaries, Review of Radical Political Economics, 33(2):189–202, 2001. How to exploit people through insecurity.
  • Kanigel, Robert, The one best way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the enigma of efficiency, Viking, New York, 1997, a biography of Taylor and of his ideas.
  • `Know your enemy’, Red Pepper, December, 2002,
  • Linebaugh, Peter, The London hanged: Crime and civil society in the eighteenth century, Verso, London, 2003. This is a classic book on London society as the industrial revolution began to bite. In particular, you should read chapter eleven, `Ships and chips: Technological repression and origin of wage’.
  • McSpotlight
    `What’s wrong with the Body Shop’.

  • Roddick, Anita The Body Shop’s founder explains why she’s so nice her workers don’t need human rights.
  • Thompson, E. P., The making of the English working class, Penguin, London, 1980, still probably the best history of how the working class in this country was formed and the struggles that accompanied its formation.
  • Thompson, E. P., Time work-discipline, and industrial capitalism, Past and present, 38:56–97, why workers don’t like watches.
  • Taylor, F. W., The principles of scientific management and Shop management, online at Taylor from the horse’s mouth.


One Comment on “Linebaugh, Taylor and Roddick for engineers”

  1. […] the past, I used to give a lecture to engineering students which included Peter Linebaugh’s chapter on the Deptford shipyards from The London Hanged, […]

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