Harrington Emerson Papers, 1848-1931

1541

Collection Overview

Title:
Harrington Emerson papers
Dates (Inclusive):
1848-1931
Creator:
Emerson, Harrington
Abstract:
Harrington Emerson (1853-1931) was one of America's pioneers in industrial engineering and management and organizational theory. His major contributions include installing his management methods at many industrial firms.
Abstract:
This collection contains correspondence, published and unpublished writings, reports, office records, memorabilia, and 250 photographs and post cards of China, Japan, Poland, and Mexico.
Collection Number:
1541
Size:
17 Cubic feet
Location:
For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the  library catalog.
Repository:
Special Collections Library. Pennsylvania State University.
Languages:
English

Biographical or Historical Note

Harrington Emerson (1853-1931) was one of America's pioneers in industrial engineering and management and organizational 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 popularizer 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 archeology, he attended engineering classes in the Royal Bavarian Polytechnique 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 troubleshooter 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 Emersons 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 foundation for his later work as an industrial efficiency consultant. Emerson joined William Jennings Bryan's election campaign for U.S. President. The two had become acquainted during Emerson's years on the University of Nebraska faculty. Both had been active in the Democratic Party and in Nebraska state politics. In 1888, Emerson and Bryan canvassed Nebraska as stump speakers on behalf of the Democratic Party. Although a supporter of Grover Cleveland during the 1880s, Emerson became a silver currency advocate and ardently supported Bryan when the latter declared his candidacy. Emerson organized political rallies, directed campaign activities, and solicited campaign funds from relatives, friends, and business associates. Bryan's defeat in 1896 dashed Emerson's hopes for obtaining patronage and a fortune from a silver-based monetary system.

Shortly after the campaign, Emerson began mechanical engineering work, devoting exclusive attention to the application of electric and diesel power to marine navigation. He obtained a position with the General Electric Storage Battery Company of New York in 1897 to pursue this line of investigation. At the company's request, Emerson moved to Seattle, Washington and experimented with the navigation of electric powered ocean vessels. Attracted by the lure of the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1897, Emerson and several business associates undertook a variety of speculative projects in the Alaskan Territory. These ventures included operating a shuttle steamer between Seattle and the Alaskan gold fields, managing a postal route between Juneau and Skagway, and seeking investors to lease mining properties in Alaska. One of Emerson's most ambitious projects involved the proposed construction of a trans-Pacific telegraphic cable from Seattle to the Philippines via Alaska. Each of these projects floundered, resulting in financial and legal complications for Emerson and his business partners.

Emerson took up industrial consulting work to defray the debts incurred from his Alaskan projects. After a successful tenure as a general manager of a small Pennsylvania glass factory in 1900, Emerson resolved to take up efficiency engineering as a profession. Through meetings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, he became personally acquainted with the pioneering work of Frederick W. Taylor, the founder of scientific management, ans assimilated much of the methodology for standardizing work and remunerating workers in accordance with productivity.

Emerson's most notable consulting assignment was the reorganization of the machine and locomotive repair shops of the sprawling Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Three years in duration (1904-1907), this work involved the first successful application of scientific management to a large railroad system. Engineering and railroad periodicals gave much attention to the system of shop betterment which he installed. Emerson also developed and implemented a bonus pay system which was widely accepted in a number of industries. As a result of his successful work for the Atchison, Topeka, Emerson began to attract an industrial clientele. During his tenure as a Standard Practice Engineer for the American Locomotive Company, Emerson also founded the Emerson Company. This company hired out associate consulting engineers to other firms on a contract basis. Emerson associates were entrusted with the tasks of standardizing work 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: Efficiency as a Basis for Operation and Wages (1909); The Twelve Principles of Efficiency (1912); and Colonel Schoonmaker and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad (1913).

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 railroads to the Interstate Commerce Commission for a rate increase. Emerson testified that the railroads wasted one million dollars daily by not applying efficiency methods. His brief against the railroads won wide acclaim and marked the growth in public awareness of scientific management. In the wake of the Freight Case, Emerson became known as the High Priest of Efficiency. He spoke more frequently about his effficiency ideas to businessmen, civil organizations, and management and engineering students. In 1912, Emerson helped to found the New York Efficiency Society which promoted and disseminated the ideals of reform through scientific management.

In addition to business success. Emerson emjoyed growing stature in the engineering profession. He was identified as one of the pioneers of modern management and industrial engineering, along with Taylor, H. L. Gantt, and Frank Gilbreth. Emerson joined these and other progressive engineers in founding the Society of Industrial Engineers in 1917.

Emerson also participated in the engineering profession's defense of scientific management against public misconception and antagonism from labor organizations. He testified in 1912 before a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the impact of scientific management on labor. He also submitted a statement in 1914 to the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, later undergoing cross-examination as well. Emerson prepared lectures and pamphlets which stressed efficiency and patriotism in production for World War I.

In 1919 Emerson reorganized the Emerson Company into the Emerson Engineers and continued the consulting work for American manufacturing firms that his company had done before and during World War I. Disagreements among Emerson and his partners in the Emerson Engineers, however, resulted in his being removed from the firm in 1925.

Emerson spent most of his time from 1919 to 1931 on special projects, many of them in foreign countries. The overseas work concerned the development of transportation, industry, and communication. Between 1921 and 1928, he advised government leaders and transportation ministries in China, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Emerson drafted and submitted plans and proposals for financing these projects at a minimum expense to the host country. Using his contacts with influential industrialists and financiers, he served as a liaison between American companies seeking investment opportunities and those countries lacking engineering and financial resources for industrial development. Through the decade of the 1920s, Emerson publicized the potential for promoting efficiency on a global scale. He was particularly optimistic that the Soviet Union's bureaucratic and centralized state offered a uniquely fertile ground for applying scientific management and efficiency principles in a systematic fashion. Emerson also took part in important 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.

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Collection Overview

The Harrington Emerson Papers document the personal life and career of an early industrial engineer, developer of scientific management, and leader of the efficiency movement in the United States during the early twentieth century. Most of the papers cover the years from 1895 to 1931, though a small quantity date from earlier years. Materials in the collection include Emerson's personal, family, and business correspondence; the published and unpublished writings of Emerson and other authors; scientific management consulting reports; business records of Emerson's firms; newspaper and magazine clippings; and photographs and memorabilia. This material touches on the theory and practice of scientific management, the ideas of the efficiency movement and their propagation, and professional engineering associations.

Documents on Emerson's early life are relatively scarce in the collection, though information can be found in his typescript autobiography and in some of the letters to his relatives. Fuller coverage of Emerson's work and ideas begins in the 1890s. A letter copy book is particularly valuable for roughly twelve months in 1895-1896, containing over seven hundred pages of correspondence on Emerson's work on behalf of British investors, his activities in the Pacific Northwest and his participation in the 1896 U.S. presidential election campaign.

The Emerson Papers have many letters of Harrington Emerson's relatives in both his immediate and extended families. The most important are those of his son, Raffe Emerson; his brother, Samuel D. I. Emerson; his father, Edwin Emerson, Sr.; and his wife Mary C. Emerson. The letters from each of these relatives largely concern a single subject or phase of Emerson's career, though the Samuel Emerson correspondence is of more general interest. Most of Emerson's family correspondence provides important documentation of his various business ventures and professional dealings, since many members of his family were also collaborators or business partners with Emerson.

The period from 1903 to 1918 is the most thoroughly covered of Emerson's entire life. Family and business correspondence, records of Emerson's firms, consulting reports and publications by Emerson companies, published and unpublished writings all trace the development of Emerson's thinking on many facets of industrial management and efficiency and his growing involvement as a consultant, expert, and leading public figure in the efficiency movement. The consulting reports reveal the methods Emerson used to investigate operations of clients' firms and the management of his own consulting company. The emergence of efficiency as his guiding principle comes out repeatedly in his own writings. Thre are also numerous newspaper and magazine clippings of articles on scientific management. This material, some of it written by leading authorities and contemporaries of Emerson are valuable for understanding the milieu in which he developed his own ideas. Emerson's important testimony in the Eastern Freight Rate Case before the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission and his presentation to the United States Commission on Industrial Relations--both providing definitive statements on his philosophy of efficiency and defenses of scientific management against the criticism of trade unions--are among the most important documents in the collection.

The period of Emerson's greatest public recognition and highest stature in scientific management circles also emerges in his letters to associates, clients, and family members. Some of these letters are important for understanding his methodology and business procedures; for example, the correspondence of E. E. Arison, W. Edgecomb, Alonzo Flack (associate engineers), and Samuel D. I. Emerson. Other important correspondents for these matters are C. E. Knoeppel, Edward Rumley, Arthur Thompson, and A. J. Thomlinson. One of Emerson's most important corporate clients, Daniel Willard, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, also became a friend and correspondent. The Willard-Emerson correspondence touches on many subjects, including Emerson's work in the post-World War I period.

Letters, speeches, newspaper and magazine clippings, and programs from conferences and professional meetings document Emerson's role in the engineering profession and in the emergence of specializations within the engineering field. This material refers to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American section of Les Societe des Ingenieurs de France, and the Society of Industrial Engineers, among others. In addition to this material, there are clippings and letters about the most important figures in the development of scientific management (Taylor, Gantt, Gilbreth, etc.) in which the critical views and ideas as well as the respective parts played by individuals in this field can be found.

Emerson's work in foreign countries from the 1920s to 1931 is represented in the Papers by correspondence, proposals, legal agreements, consulting reports, telegrams, expense accounts, clippings, and essays. They explain Emerson's ideas and plans for applying his efficiency methods to these countries' economies and his relations with government officials. More broadly, the material concerns economic development and the role of transportation infrastructure in development. Japan, Mexico, Peru, China, Soviet Union, and Poland are covered, though the most extensive documentation is on China, Mexico, and Peru.

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Collection Arrangement

The Harrington Emerson Papers are arranged into six series reflecting document type or phase of Emerson's career: General Correspondence; Emerson Family Correspondence; Projects; Published and Unpublished Writing; Emerson Companies Records; and Photographs. The collection has been reorganized and does not reflect the order in which they had been filed by Emerson's office. Divisions between the groups were derived from the nature of the papers themselves and from the subjects they document.

The series in the Emerson Papers broadly overlap both in correspondents and subjects documented. Papers reflecting Emerson's activities after 1900 are distributed through several of the series. More importantly, there is extensive carry-over in subjects from one series to another. Matters discussed in the General Correspondence are also the focus of documents in the Emerson Companies Records and of typescript essays in Published and Unpublished Writing. The most important of these overlaps have been noted wherever possible in the series descriptions below.

General Correspondence is arranged by correspondents surnames, place names, or organization names. Much of this correspondence concerns the efforts of Emerson, his associates, and Emerson's companies to solicit industrial efficiency consulting work. This correspondence supplements material in the Emerson Companies Records series, Consulting Reports subseries. Particularly important correspondence is in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad files, the Bryan-Brandeis letters, the files on professional engineering organizations, and the biographical information on Emerson in the E. D. Barnes file.

The Emerson Family Correspondence series is subdivided into Family Correspondence, Raffe Emerson Correspondence, and Harrington Emerson Personal Papers. Letters in the first two subseries are on personal, family, and business matters. The news of family and friends combines with information on family investments, the Emerson companies' management, and Emerson's work in foreign countries. Letters in the Edwin Emerson, Sr., Sidney Brooks, and Raffe Emerson files are particularly valuable in revealing the mixture of family and personal affairs with business concerns. The third subseries has a largely miscellaneous assortment of Emerson's own investment records, photographs, memorabilia, and date books. Among these materials, however, are the very important submissions Emerson made before the Interstate Commerce Commission in the Eastern Freight Rate Case and before the United States Industrial Commission.

The Projects series is arranged into two different periods of Emerson's career: the period of promotional and entrepreneurial activities in the West and Pacific Northwest; and the period of advisory work for foreign governments. For the earlier period there is correspondence, essays, and pamphlets. This part of the collection also has the letter copybook containing Emerson's correspondence on his dealings with British investors and his involvement with the 1896 presidential election campaign. In addition, it has Emerson's patent applications. Material in the later period includes telegrams, proposals, agreements, and correspondence with experts and government representatives from foreign countries. Especially important early period materials are found within the Edwin Emerson, Sr. file. Please note that supplementary information regarding the later period can be found in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, A. Naval, Albert Salinas, Walter Polakov, and Dr. Eugene Szezpesi files in the General Correspondence series and in the Mary C. Emerson and Raffe Emerson files in the Emerson Family Correspondence series.

The Published and Unpublished Writings series includes essays, speeches, articles, autobiographical notes, clippings, and manuscripts both by Emerson and other authors. This material deals largely with scientific management, Emerson's life and ideas on efficiency, and specific topics within these general areas. Thee are notes and partial or unfinished reports from Emerson's consulting assignments and clippings of published writings by other experts on scientific management. Speeches and essays by Emerson, as well as feature articles about his work, complement materials in the Projects Series and the Emerson Company Records Series.

The Emerson Companies Records series has business and financial records, publications, memoranda, correspondence, and consulting reports by and concerning the several companies that Emerson created. This series contains three subseries: Office Records, Emerson Companies Consulting Reports, and Emerson Institute.

Office Records include lists of clients, expenses, account statements, publications, staff bulletins, and inter-office memoranda, 1904-1931. It provides extensive information on the engineers who were associated with Emerson, but additional correspondence with these individuals is in the General Correspondence Series (see files for E. E. Arison, W. Edgecomb, Alonzo Flack, C. E. Knoeppel, and Walter Power). Emerson's ouster from his company in 1925 can also be followed through his correspondence with Samuel D. I. Emerson in the Emerson Family Correspondence Series.

Emerson Companies Consulting Reports subseries has sixty consulting reports by the Emerson Company, 1900-1925. The files here include some correspondence with clients concerning Emerson's methods and conduct of investigations. There is much related materials in the General Correspondence Series on Emerson's preliminary contacts with companies for which he later carried out consulting work. Highlights in the consulting reports include the bound reports and files for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Emerson's earliest investigations for the Appert Glass Company and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, and the information on employees' living and working conditions in the reports for the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railroad and the American Radiator Company.

Emerson Institute subseries contains the records of the Emerson Institute and documents Emerson's educational and promotional activity in the efficiency movement, 1913 and 1921-1931. There are lesson books for the Home Course of Study in Personal Efficiency, promotional literature, legal agreements, Institute correspondence, and business accounts. A 1916 typescript and letter to Charles E. Partridge reveal the beginnings of this part of Emerson's work. Related correspondence can be found in the Raffe Emerson Corespondence subseries of the Emerson Family Correspondence series.

The Photograph series inclues undated photographs, negatives, and postcards.

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Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research.

Copyright Notice

Copyright is retained by the creators of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], Harrington Emerson Papers (1541), Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

Processing Information

Processed by Special Collections staff.

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Controlled Access Headings

Genre(s)

  • Photographic

Personal Name(s)

  • Emerson, Harrington

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Collection Inventory

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