Harrington Emerson (1853 - 1931)

Harrington Emerson’s Twelve Principles of Efficiency

Biography of Harrington Emerson

Harrington Emerson (1853-1931) was one of America's pioneers in industrial engineering and management and organisational theory. His major contributions were to install his management methods at many industrial firms and to promote the ideas of scientific management and efficiency to a mass audience. One of the most erudite and cosmopolitan personalities associated with the scientific management movement, Emerson established a modestly successful consulting business as an "efficiency engineer", an author of books on industrial efficiency, and a promoter and populariser of the movement. Nearly two hundred companies adopted various features of the Emerson Efficiency system, which included production routing procedures, standardized working conditions and tasks, time and motion studies, and a bonus plan which raised workers' wages in accordance with greater efficiency and productivity. In conjunction with his consulting work, Harrington Emerson evolved an elaborate philosophy of efficiency and disseminated his ideas in books and periodicals. As a writer and lecturer, he broadened the public understanding of scientific management and defined a larger social role for engineers beyond the solution of technical problems.

Emerson was born on August 2, 1853 in Trenton, New Jersey. The eldest of six children reared by Edwin and Mary Louisa Emerson, he descended from Anglo-Irish political and religious dissenters on his father's side of the family. His mother's forebears were prominent Pennsylvania Quakers, long active in Bucks County society and politics.

Emerson's maternal grandfather, Samuel Delucenna Ingham, had served two years as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in Andrew Jackson's first administration before amassing a fortune as the founder and owner of the Hazleton Coal and Railroad Company.

Following Ingham's death in 1860, the Emerson family inherited a substantial trust fund. The inheritance enabled Edwin, a Princeton-educated clergyman and academician, to pursue full-time academic study and to direct the educational development of his children.

Harrington Emerson received a continental European education. From 1862 to 1876 he studied under tutors and attended private schools in England, France, Italy, and Greece. In addition to learning languages and archaeology, he attended engineering classes in the Royal Bavarian Poly-Technic from 1872 to 1875. Emerson returned to the U.S. in 1876 and acquired a position as Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Nebraska. His secular and progressive educational ideas clashed with the religious fundamentalism of the University regents, and he was dismissed from the faculty in 1882.

Emerson embarked upon a career as a frontier banker, land speculator, tax agent and trouble-shooter for the Union Pacific and Burlington and Missouri railroads. His work took place during the settlement of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. Emerson established his own private loan company in 1883 and in partnership with his brother Samuel formed a land company which invested in future town sites in western Nebraska. As emigration agent for the Union Pacific Railroad, surveyor with the Lincoln Land Company, and land agent for the Burlington and Missouri Railroad in Keith County, Nebraska, Emerson gained invaluable knowledge of choice lands. The Emerson’s invested $70,000 in the project before drought and crop failures dropped crop prices and interrupted mortgage payments. As a result, Emerson lost his first fortune. Undaunted, Emerson joined the Reliance Trust Company of Sioux City, Iowa which underwrote farm mortgages and tax liens on Colorado farm properties. He served as liaison between the company's western offices and eastern financiers who floated the concern. The company failed during the Panic of 1893.

During the next two years Emerson divided his time between representing an English investment syndicate in America and campaigning in the presidential election of 1896.

Emerson investigated over one hundred mining and manufacturing concerns throughout North America and Mexico in an attempt to obtain English capital for developing American industries. Despite his failure to underwrite the financing of a single large company, his investigations brought him broad knowledge of industrial conditions and created a foundatik procedures and applying the Emerson bonus plan for client companies.

Between 1907 and 1910, the Emerson Company achieved modest success. The company consulted over 200 corporations, submitting reports for which they were paid twenty-five million dollars. Emerson efficiency methods were applied to department stores, hospitals, colleges, and municipal governments. Between 1911 and 1920 Emerson's firm averaged annual earnings of over $100,000.00.

Emerson occupied himself with soliciting business and managing the financial affairs of the company, leaving the consulting work to his associates.

Branch offices were established in New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Attempting to promote his company and to distinguish his methods from those of Taylor, Emerson published three books:

The 1910 Eastern Freight Case brought much wider public attention to Emerson's ideas than ever before. Emerson served as Louis D. Brandeis's star witness in the appeal of major eastern trunk railroadportant projects in the United States during the 1920s. He was one of eighteen prominent engineers chosen by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1921 to serve on a committee investigating the elimination of waste in industry. Emerson's responsibility for this project was to study problems in the railroad and coal industries, but due to project financial problems, his report was not published.

Emerson saw himself in this period as an efficiency educator. In 1924, he re-wrote and marketed an earlier version of a correspondence course in human engineering. Under the aegis of the Emerson Institute, Emerson's home study course in personal efficiency had a nationwide subscription of 40,000 in 1925. Despite the fact that the Institute became insolvent in 1928, Emerson planned to have his course translated and marketed in the Soviet Union and Poland.

In the final years of his life, Emerson turned his attention to writing his memoirs, overseeing his family's investments in Japanese securities, and considering solutions to unemployment in the initial phases of the 1930s depression. He continued his entrepreneurial pursuits by dabbling in Florida land purchases and by developing plans for a high speed monorail. As an elder statesman of the efficiency movement, he felt troubled by the evidence that his reputation had been overshadowed by that of Taylor.

Up to his death in May, 1931, he documented his contributions to scientific management and industrial engineering in his manuscript autobiography, in essays, and in personal letters.

Emerson was married twice: in the 1870s to Florence Brooks and in 1895 to Mary Crawford Supple. His son Raffe was born in 1880. Emerson and Mary Supple had three daughters: Louise, Isabel, and Margaret.