On 10 June, amidst centuries’ worth of scientific implements at the Museum of the History of Science, Michael Weatherburn gave the fifth Byrne Bussey Marconi Lecture. Titled ‘Time and Emotion Study: Anne Shaw, Metropolitan Vickers, and Work Experiments on the Twentieth Century British Factory Floor,’ the presentation, which drew on research in the Bodleian’s Marconi Archives, began with an image familiar to many in the audience: a poster for the 1959 film ‘I’m Alright Jack.’ The Boulting Brothers comedy, starring Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael, and Terry Thomas, was the most popular film of 1959. It was not the film’s popularity, however, that made it relevant to Weatherburn’s research, but the issue at the centre of its satirical plot: in the film, a national strike is prompted by a single time and motion study.
These efficiency studies were the subject of Weatherburn’s lecture, which introduced his audience to a new way of understanding twentieth century British labour and business history. Most existing work by labour historians, said Weatherburn, focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain. He also noted that historians of business stress that crucial changes made to the analysis and organization of work on the factory floor were completed by World War One.
His research shifts the focus to the twentieth century, particularly during WWII when, he noted, Britain was in fact at its most industrialized, either before or since. While the typical narrative of postwar British industry is one of the ‘British management failure’, Weatherburn challenged that assumption, asking if there was indeed such a failure by interrogating the terms of judgment; in fact a great deal of effort was put into management – but, as Weatherburn asked, was it successful on its own terms while doing little to improve output?
Time and motion studies were at the centre of Weatherburn’s presentation. He explored their use by companies such as Metropolitan Vickers, drawing on the records of the electrical company contained in the Marconi Archives. Weatherburn also highlighted the role played by individuals like Anne Shaw in the development and adoption of time and motion studies. He explained that Shaw was a protégé of Lillian Gilbreth who, along with her husband Frank, was a pioneer of motion studies in the United States. Their work analysis films can be seen here. (The Gilbreths are perhaps most popularly known as the subjects of the 1948 book and 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen).
In his presentation, Weatherburn spanned the pre-WWI and post-WWII decades, and focused not only on management strategies but on worker responses. He explained the Labour government’s decision to continue efficiency studies after WWII, pointing to the creation of the British Institute of Management and asking whether it is fair to say, as many have, that the post-war Labour government failed to intervene (or intervened unsuccessfully) in attempts to increase British industrial efficiency. Perhaps, Weatherburn suggested, Labour succeeded on some of its own terms; it is towards those terms, and away from normative standards of success, that Weatherburn shifted analysis.
Weatherburn’s research was funded by the Byrne Bussey Marconi fund, and relates to his doctoral research, which aims in part to ‘reframe the history and historiography of management, particularly in relation to British industry.’ Read more about Weatherburn’s research here.
– from Nora Wilkinson (Harvard University)