Abstract: Technology versus Technocracy in the Progressive Office in the United States, 1917-1931

Thomas Haigh


My paper examines the relationship of new technologies to the reorganization of clerical work in large, service-sector offices in the early twentieth century. It focuses on the relationship of the then-booming office machine industry with the newly established scientific office management movement. This movement, centered on the National Office Management Association and its founder William Henry Leffingwell, sought to elevate the office manager to a top-level position, while asserting control over administrative matters by reorganizing clerical work according to the doctrines of Taylorism. They claimed technical expertise to justify wresting responsibility over important areas of management from general managers. In practice, and contrary to the impression given by previous work on this topic, the installation of office technology was far more often a substitute for the fundamental reorganization of office work demanded by the systematizers than a sign that this had been completed. Few firms granted high status to office managers, and few implemented the key principles of scientific office management. New technology was an alternative and public way of demonstrating efficiency, particularly when overseen by a sales team trained to mimic business consultants.