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Henry R. TowneIndustrial Engineering

An Address Delivered by
Henry R. Towne, M.E.

At the Purdue University
Friday, February 24th, 1905

Reprinted by
The Yale &Towne Mfg. Company
of New York and Stamford, Conn.

for the use of students in its Works.


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As an engineer by training and practice, and as a manufacturer having upwards of thirty-five years of practical experience in industrial management in many phases, I avail myself with pleasure of this opportunity of meeting this large body of students who are preparing themselves for active work in the world, and of submitting for your consideration some suggestions concerning your future work, especially in the field with which I am most familiar and in which some of you, I feel sure, will find your best opportunities, and which will form the topic of my argument, namely, Industrial Engineering.

The dollar is the final term in almost every equation which arises in the practice of engineering in any or all of its branches, except qualifiedly as to military and naval engineering, where in some cases cost may be ignored. In other words, the true function of the Engineer is, or should be, not only to determine how physical problems may be solved, but also how they may be solved most economically. For example a railroad may have to be carried over a gorge or arroya. Obviously it does not need an Engineer to point out that this may be done by filling the chasm with earth, but only a Bridge Engineer is competent to determine whether it is cheaper to do this or to bridge it, and to design the bridge which will safely and most cheaply serve, the cost of which should be compared with that of an earth fill. Therefore, the Engineer is, by the nature of his vocation, an economist. His function is not only to design, but also so to design as to ensure the best economical result. He who designs an unsafe structure or an inoperative machine is a bad Engineer; he who designs them so that they are safe and operative, but needlessly expensive, is a poor Engineer, and, it may be remarked, usually earns poor pay; he who designs good work, which can be executed at fair cost, is a sound and usually a successful Engineer; he who does the best work at lowest cost sooner or later stands at the top of his profession, and usually has the reward which this implies.

I wonder how many of you know what the word “Engineer” means. Its root traces through old English and medieval Latin to the old Roman verb genere, to beget or create, from which root come also genus, genitive, and genius. An Engineer is a creator, or should be, and it is to this high interpretation of the title that he who calls himself an Engineer should aspire. Thus, the Engineer is one who, in the world of physics and applied sciences, begets new things, or adapts old things to new and better uses; above all, one who, in that field, attains new results in the best way and at lowest cost.

Modern engineering probably began in military work; the planning of fortifications or of bridges and roads for military purposes. As civilization and the sciences advanced other and larger fields began to open, where the Engineer was needed by the State or by private interests in work unrelated to military affairs, and the men who undertook such work were called civil engineers, to distinguish them from the earlier and more familiar military engineers. And it so happens that in England, and in fact in all countries, I believe, except the United States, the term Civil Engineer indicates any Engineer who is engaged in civil as distinguished from military or naval work. In this country, on the contrary, and rather unfortunately, I think, it is limited by common usage to those whose work is chiefly statical, such as railroad, highway, harbor, and bridge construction, and the terms Mechanical Engineer, Electrical Engineer, Mining Engineer, etc., are applied to those who practice in the branches of engineering thus implied. Many things are fundamental and common to engineering of all kinds, but each division of the profession has its special field in which, to a certain extent, it is distinct and apart from the others, and this fact is increasingly becoming apparent by reason of the growing tendency of our time, not only in engineering but in all the professions, towards specializing. Modern science has become so vast that the mind of no man can grasp all of it thoroughly and understandingly. Therefore, the best work implies specializing, and this is true in engineering as in other fields. Underlying engineering of every kind are certain qualities, conditions, and opportunities to which I shall direct your attention, and concerning which I shall offer some suggestions.

Early engineering practice was largely consultive; the Engineer, like the architect or the lawyer, was consulted by clients who desired his professional advice concerning some pending project or undertaking, but in its present practice engineering has become largely administrative. Consultive practice, like other professional work, involves waiting for clients. Administrative practice may involve “hunting for a job” (unless the place seeks the man, as often young graduates even find that it does), but when this is found puts further advance largely in the hands of the individual himself. Therefore, practice in the administrative field usually offers quicker advance and larger opportunity, and hence usually, also higher reward. The choice between these is partly temperamental and partly a matter of opportunity, but increasingly the young Engineer is finding his best opportunities in industrial practice.

Industrial management in these later years has become a vast field for the exercise of talents of the highest order, has developed wonderfully, and, in fact, constitutes a well defined science, although as yet it is almost without any text books or other literature. This latter fact is regrettable, and I predict will be remedied before long by incorporating into engineering courses in technical schools (as has been done already in several cases) instruction in the essential principles of industrial management, and its related art industrial accounting. So long as present conditions exist, however, the necessity will continue for those of you who turn to industrial management as a field for the exercise of your technical skill, to acquire the rudiments of that science through actual practice, precisely as in earlier days the rudiments of the technical work of the Engineer could only be so acquired.

Industrial engineering may be limited strictly to the technical field; that is, may relate solely to the work of design. It is far more common, however, for it to include, sooner or later, both technical and administrative work; that is, responsibility both for the design and character of the product, and for the economy of its production. Now, these two lines of responsibility may be separate. One man may be responsible for design, and another for execution, and perfect harmony between them may produce a perfect result, but this is exceptional. The ideal condition is where, the dual capacity existing, these two functions are united in one person. This combination is rare; it gives large opportunity and commands high value. It is rare partly because of average mental limitations, but much more because of one-sided training and opportunity.

The choice, as I have said before, between industrial work on its technical or its administrative side, is largely one of temperament, but it is a choice which should be exercised, not evaded, and which, if possible, should be exercised now rather than later by you young men who are preparing to enter into the active work of the world. A young man standing, as each of you does, on the threshold of his active life, should know what he wants to do. He should be conscious of what he is intended for, of what he is capable of doing best, and, if his tastes and abilities run in a certain direction, as is usually the case, he should set his heart on doing what that implies, and aim to reach a position where he will have the opportunity of doing it, and so of utilizing his abilities and knowledge. Love of power is common; ability to use it is rare. Only those who have both should seek it and the heavy responsibilities which go with it. But those who know that they have both should seek opportunity to exercise that gift as any other gift. A man's best chance of success lies in finding out early what he is best fitted to do, in preparing for the work this implies, and then in seeking opportunity to use his talent. Do not drift. Do not wait for chance to settle this vital question in your lives. Aim to settle it for yourselves. Try to determine now what it is that you want to do and what you can best do; then set to work to find or make the opportunity. The great poet has said

“There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough hew them how we will,”

but in the choice and practice of a vocation that “divinity” is chiefly ourselves.

Now, in the hope that what I can say to you in this brief hour may be of some little help to some of you in making this momentous choice, I will try to point out, briefly, what constitutes industrial engineering, and to set forth the opportunities it offers, as I have seen them through a somewhat extended experience, believing that thereby I may enable you to appreciate (as some of you perhaps have not yet done) how broad are the boundaries of this field and how great the opportunities it offers.

And at this point I am tempted to take a few minutes to read to you from an article which I chanced upon on my way here, and which is so germane to what I am trying to explain, that I think the time will be well spent. What I shall read is from an article in this month's Review of Reviews, by the Hon. John Barrett, our Consul at Panama. His subject is “The Panama Canal,” and he is discussing, first, the question of the Engineer who should conduct that great work. In a few lines he expresses a great deal of good common sense and a great deal which should appeal to you. He says:

“A chief engineer,in the ordinary use of the term, is a man who looks after the technical side of a work of this character. In truth, technical knowledge is only one quality of the many that the chief engineer of such a mighty undertaking must possess. Invoking a broader definition of engineering as that skill or profession which controls and adapts the forces of nature for the benefit of mankind, we find that the chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal must be a man of large experience, not only in technical construction, but in the management and direction of men and machinery, and in the meeting and mastering of all the many problems that confront him on every side…He may possess the technical skill which will enable him to design on paper every detail of the canal so that he will impress the world with its beauty and precision and with his own capability, but if he is ignorant in the direction of the complex system of labor, in the preparation and management of the intricate subdivisions of transportation, construction, excavation, mining, dredging and finance, he will not answer the requirements of chief engineer on this isthmus.

“The organization of men and the use of them to supreme advantage are among the chief considerations…If the qualities required in a chief engineer were to be summed up in terms to be appreciated by those of us who are not engineers but still are keenly interested in the practical success of the canal, it could be said that, estimating his total knowledge and experience as 100 per cent., about 25 per cent. should be classed as technical, 25 per cent. as executive, 25 per cent. as administrative and organizing ability, and 25 per cent. as diplomacy and knowledge of human nature.”

Now, that statement by a layman is wonderfully true, and is true not only as to the great position to which it directly relates, perhaps the greatest engineering position and the one offering the greatest engineering opportunities the world has ever seen, but is equally true in administrative engineering of all kinds, and especially of industrial engineering, In that broadest field of practice the most successful Engineer is he who, in addition to his technical knowledge, brings to his work executive skill and the ability not only to plan but to execute the work entrusted to him.

To a graduate of a technical school like this, should he ask my advice as to which branch of the engineering profession to follow, the consultive or the industrial, I would say, in the first place, you should consider your own natural preference and the opportunities which are open to you. But to help you further, let me repeat that a consultive practice in engineering resembles that in medicine, law, or architecture, in that you must wait for your client to come to you. When you have opportunity you can aim to do such good work as will make sure that if he again needs your services he will come to you, and probably will send others to you. In the field of industrial engineering, on the contrary, you may, to use the homely phrase “hunt your own job.” You can seek your work and if you do not like the first job you find, you can seek another, and, within reasonable limits, can keep changing (although too frequent change is undesirable) until you find that you are fairly in the right place, or at the foot of the right ladder where you can begin to climb. Be sure, however, that you are on the right ladder, or, if you find you are on the wrong one, that you get off of it before you have climbed so high as to make this difficult or dangerous. And, therefore, my advice, if asked, would be to give preference to industrial engineering, if you can find or make a fair opportunity to start in this field, provided, always, that your temperament and your judgment both incline you in this direction.

Let me tell you what I understand to be implied by the term Industrial Engineering. The phrase is not entirely new, but it has not yet acquired sufficient currency to make it entirely familiar. Industrial Engineering is the practice of one or more branches of engineering in connection with some organized establishment of a productive character, in which are conducted the operations required in the production of some article, or series of articles, of commerce or consumption. Nearly all industrial work of this kind, especially if it be conducted on a large scale, involves technical, physical, and engineering questions, varying with the kind of industry but usually of wide scope. For instance, in steam engine building it is primarily a question of thermodynamics and steam engineering, but it involves equally the question of the selection and right use of machines, tools, and methods of production. So likewise in electrical work, the textile industries, and all the range of our manifold industries. On its technical side each has its special and distinctive features; but on its administrative side each involves certain fundamental elements which are common to all. The technical work may be in charge of a technical man, responsible for that work only. The administrative work may be in charge of another man, not fortunate enough to have had a technical training, but a good administrator. If these two work in harmony a good result should follow. But a better result in every way will be reached where these two functions are combined in one person; where one master mind knows both the technical side of the work and how to select and direct the men who shall attend to its details, and who also has the ability and the training needed to qualify him to direct and control the work of administration. The union of these two functions in the one individual constitutes the best kind of material with which to fill leading positions, the kind of material the captains of industry are always looking for. If any of you feel, either now or at any later day, that you possess this dual capacity, a technical training such as you are getting here and the ability to organize and direct the work of other men, seek a position in which you can exercise the talent God has given you, for it is a great one. Seek it bravely. Do not fear to accept responsibility, but rather seek it, because therein should lie your best opportunity. Therefore, seek responsibility up to the limit of your preparedness and your conscious ability. Do not hesitate if you are confronted with a responsibility beyond that preparedness and ability frankly to say so. But equally do not hesitate to seek and to accept responsibility up to the full limit of your conscious powers. Do this, and you will make the best use of the power that is in you, and such use as sooner or later will surely be recognized by those with whom you are working and those to whom you are responsible.

Now, what constitutes the administrative work of industrial engineering? What does it imply and involve? The man who is responsible for the daily operation and, still more, for the vitality and growth of a large industrial plant, must be a many-sided Engineer. He has to consider the planning and, construction of new buildings. He may have an architect to assist in this, but the buildings which he requires are in a certain sense machines, designed to meet certain conditions and produce certain results with which the architect is not familiar, with which the manager himself should be more familiar than anyone else, and which, therefore, he pre-eminently should be qualified to plan. He has also to deal with the question of power and its distribution, with steam engines and boilers, with electric generation and transmission, with shafting and belting, in many cases with pumping and the use of compressed air for many purposes, in all cases with heating, ventilating, plumbing and sanitation, and in large plants with questions of internal transportation. In my own practice, which has not been exceptional nor as wide in scope as that of many others, all of these questions and many more have entered directly and continuously. Is it not clear that such a man must be manysided, and that any or all of the information you are absorbing in these splendid technical courses which you have the privilege of attending here is liable to come into play, and to do good service to any one of you who may chance in future years to find himself in a position of the kind I have attempted to outline?

It is the man who, in a position of this kind, combines with an extended scope of technical knowledge good administrative powers, who can select the right men for the various positions to be filled, who can inspire them with ambition and the right spirit in their work, who can coordinate their work so as to produce the best final result, and who throughout can understand and direct the technical operations, who can appreciate quickly and surely whether or not they are properly performed, and who combines in one personality these two functions of technical knowledge and executive ability-it is this man who, as I have said before, has open to him unlimited opportunities in the field of industrial engineering.

Let him start at the bottom of the ladder. He must do so in order to get proper training in the administrative part of his work, for as yet technical schools (with perhaps a few partial exceptions) are not prepared to train him in that direction as, in my belief, they will be later. Let him start at the bottom of the ladder, but make sure that he is on the right ladder. To be a good subordinate is a necessary qualification to becoming a good leader. Deeds proverbially are better than words, and the captains of industry are ever looking for capable lieutenants. Industrial organization has much in common with military organization. A large industrial works is like an army of volunteer troops. A man may enlist as a private, but every private, as under Napoleon, carries a potential marshal's baton in his knapsack. This is pre-eminently an era of young men. Today men in the thirties are finding and filling positions equal in importance and responsibility to those which a generation ago would only have been filled by men over forty, and, more probably, past fifty years of age. Young men have greater opportunities today than ever before; and greater, I believe, in this field of industrial engineering than in any other. It is this fact, which to me is so salient, which I wish to impress on you, in the hope that I may turn some of you at least, during the next few months, to the consideration of the question whether, if this is not already your chosen field, it is the best field for your future activities and, therefore, the one which you should choose.

In one of its phases industrial engineering has recently become a specialized vocation, which in passing I will touch on because it may appeal to some of you. We have today, not many, but a few very prominent examples of a new type of engineers who call themselves productive or production engineers-men who in a consulting practice offer their services to existing industries for the purpose of studying them and then modernizing them by the introduction of the latest improvements, not only in processes but even more in methods of management. One of the earliest apostles of this new cult, and one of its most original leaders, is Mr. Fred W. Taylor of Philadelphia, whose work in investigating the possibilities of the use of high speed steels is familiar to all engineers in the metal industries, and is of the greatest interest and value. But Mr. Taylor has equally distinguished himself by developing new methods for the compensation of labor in industrial work, which are quite as revolutionary as the increased output of machine tools which has followed from the introduction of high speed steels. In each case it is a demonstrated fact that he has obtained an increased production two, two and one-half, or even three times greater than what was previously accomplished under the best conditions and practice. Entering into the same field of work is the firm of Dodge & Day of Philadelphia, Mr. Gunn of New York, and others whom I might name. I mention these facts in passing to call attention to a new line of practice in the field of consulting engineering which is attractive and, I believe, highly remunerative.

One of the essential elements in industrial management and engineering is industrial accounting. It is a common. mistake to look upon the accountant in an industrial organization as of little importance, and his work as simply requiring ordinary intelligence, with little or no special training. Even if true as to routine commercial accounting, which usually deals only with the keeping of salesbooks, journals and ledgers, this view is radically erroneous as to industrial accounting, the ultimate purpose of which is to determine correctly the cost of products, and to furnish information which will guide the management definitely and reliably in determining where economies should be sought and how to obtain them. Taken in this sense industrial accounting is a science, and a somewhat complex one-a science which has enlisted in recent years the time and thought of brilliant and able men, who have brought it to a high stage of development and whose work to some extent is accessible for the guidance of others. Unfortunately, this broad field of work, although already highly developed and possessing a vast fund of accumulated experience, is as yet almost without any literature or other available record of its achievements, so that the work of industrial accounting which is required in each industry must be planned, devised and directed by those responsible for it without their being able to avail themselves largely of the similar, and even closely identical, work which may previously have been done by others. No one is competent to do the best work in industrial accounting, especially in planning and organizing it, who has not at least a fair knowledge and understanding of the technical facts relating to the product concerned and the methods of its production.

As I said at the beginning, the dollar is the final term in every engineering equation, and cost is a part, and a vital part, of the work of the Engineer, the final end of which should be the attainment of the best result in the most economical manner. But when the Engineer has to deal with the complex organism of a great industry, employing hundreds or, as is more frequently the case now, thousands of operatives, and utilizing the applied sciences in a vast number of their various developments, he cannot obtain the accurate knowledge he needs and should have of what he is doing, or trying to do, save through the medium of an accurate and highly organized system of accounting, nor can such system be planned by any ordinary mercantile accountant, unfamiliar with industrial questions and manufacturing operations. A good accountant, lacking this experience, can often assist greatly in conducting the purely accounting part of the work, but must be guided and directed by a mind which grasps all of the factors involved, as he cannot grasp them from lack of technical knowledge, and which sees clearly, through this tangle and maze of crossing and conflicting conditions, the essential elements in the problems and the final result to be reached. Therefore, industrial accounting is basic in its value to the industrial Engineer, and those of you who adopt the latter field of practice will sooner or later realize this fact and be thankful if at any time you have the opportunity, and avail of it, to acquire at least the rudiments of knowledge of industrial accounting.

It is a trite saying that “figures cannot lie,” to which a modern wit has added “but some liars can figure.” There is always danger in industrial accounting that the figures presented to a man who has not the technical knowledge, training, and experience to interpret them rightly, may lead him on to the wrong track and into greater errors than those he is trying to remedy, and thus to a large extent frustrate his best plans and efforts for the improvement and development of the work under his charge. The worst competitor a manufacturer can have is a man who does not know what his product really costs him to produce, but the manufacturer is in still worse plight who lacks that knowledge himself.

Cost of product, to use a favorite metaphor of mine, is a three-legged stool. One leg is labor, another material, and the third the indirect expense account of conducting the business. The stool will not stand on two legs. In some industries with which I am familiar the lengths of these three legs are about even. While their lengths may vary slightly it is more commonly the case that the general expense account is a larger factor of cost than either labor or material. It is not difficult to determine the cost of labor in a given product in a well organized establishment with a good accounting system, and it should be possible to determine the cost of material with almost absolute accuracy. But the third element of cost, the indirect expense of conducting the business, which includes thousands and often tens of thousands of kinds and items of expenditure, ramifying through every detail of the business, is always most difficult of exact determination, and only ascertainable by means of a well organized accounting system. For this there is needed skill and ingenuity in planning the accounting system, and thorough knowledge of the product and of the processes by which it is produced. All of these are absolutely essential to the attainment of any reasonable degree of accuracy. What is commonly designated as “business management” is the final factor in the success of nearly every business in the field of industrial production. In some it is dominating. For example, I am told that in the industry of sugar refining the cost of refining raw sugar in well equipped modern refineries, is less than one-eighth of a cent a pound, while the fluctuation, both in the price of raw sugar and of the refined product, may be one, two, or even three cents a pound in the course of a year or two. In other words the entire cost of manufacture is insignificant in comparison with the market fluctuations in the value of raw material and of the finished product. In such a case success depends chiefly on business management. Undoubtedly that is an extreme example, but in nearly all industrial undertakings the factor of business management is of vital importance; its influence is always great, and often is controlling. A good Engineer ought also to be a good business man. If he is not, it is a question if he can ever, in the fullest sense of the word, be a good Engineer. Both require common sense, and habits of clear thinking and thoroughness. The man who proposes to practice engineering, especially industrial engineering, with the responsibilities which it involves, not only for his own work but in planning and directing the work of others, should be, or should try to be, a good business man.

Therefore, my message to you young men, who soon will graduate and go out into the world to take up your permanent work, is that you should think over these matters now rather than later, and that each of you should determine, carefully, honestly, and fairly, his own capacities, abilities, tendencies, and failings should try to sum them up fairly and to determine correctly what he is best capable of doing. Then, having made that decision and being sure that it is right, he should try to find or create opportunities for himself in the field thus implied. As I said before, do not drift; do not wait; do not rely upon friends or parents or pull. Do your own pulling. Determine what you want to do, and then try to do it. Try to find, and if you cannot find, try to create, the opportunity. In industrial engineering you will have greater opportunity to make your own openings, to create your own chances for development and promotion, than in any other field of engineering practice which I know of, because in that field you will be less dependent than in others upon the recognition or caprice of other men. You will be in positions where you will have a better chance than elsewhere to show what you are capable of doing, to seek responsibility, and to serve under men who not only are ready to recognize ability when it shows itself, but are on the watch for it, looking for men fit to fill more responsible positions than they already have.

Now, what are the qualities which will best conduce to success in this field? First of all, and in any vocation, the quality which I place above all others, and which perhaps covers more than any other, is summed up in the one word, thoroughness. Thoroughness covers more good qualities than any other word in the English language in relation to the work to be done in this world. Therefore, whatever your duties and wherever your work may lie, be thorough. If later you become a unit in one of the great industrial organizations, or even in a small one, or if, as may chance to some of you, and there is no more delightful field of development if it lies within you to succeed and you have the opportunity, you chance to be one of those who, starting in a small way, build up and create an industry of their own, in any or all of these fields be diligent. Work always as though the business belonged to you and you were working for yourself. Always be willing to do any work which those over you may call for. Go further, and seek to do more without waiting to be asked to do it. It is the men who have this inclination who get ahead. It is they who see opportunity more quickly than others, and who thus make opportunity by volunteering to do things they have not been asked to do, and sometimes even by insisting on doing work the need of which has not previously been perceived. By taking chances of this kind, by volunteering, by doing things outside of and possibly above the limited field of work which may have been assigned to you, you can make opportunity. Whether it comes to you by your own making or by the action of others, grasp it every time. Have courage. Do not fear responsibility to the full limit of your powers, nor fear even to test these reasonably beyond your conscious ability. On the other hand, never hesitate frankly to decline a responsibility for which you know you are unqualified.

The industrial Engineer should know every detail of his work. The criticism is sometimes made of a man that he is immersed too much in details, and unfortunately the criticism is often justified. If so justified, however, it is because the man, having a knowledge of the importance of detail, has not also a proper sense of proportion and an equal appreciation of the importance of letting go of detail at the right time. Grasp detail first; shed it afterwards. Master every detail of the work you are responsible for until you understand how it should be done and why. Then shed that detail as fast as you can on your subordinates. Aim always that you shall know at least as much, if not more, about the work than any subordinate; that no one under you shall long or permanently know more that is important about it than you. Get as big men under you as you can, but try always to be bigger yourself, and if that implies fresh study and fresh work, do it. Through all your work, and especially if you are called to executive positions, stand squarely for what is right; for integrity, straightforwardness, and honest dealing. You will find temptations enough to do otherwise in any walk of life. Resist them, and you will have not only the satisfaction of doing right but will find also that this pays best. The man who is honest, upright, and straightforward commands the confidence of his employers and wins the respect of his assistants and subordinates. He will lose both in the end if he travels on the other path.

As a final word, take up the work you select, whatever it may be, with courage, bravely and cheerily. Work is one of God's best gifts, a fact which you will realize more and more as you engage in the higher kinds of work and can share the intellectual enjoyment which they afford, above all, the delight which comes to the man who has the power, character, and mental equipment to do great things, from the exercise and employment of that power. The man who combines in himself the ability to do great things in engineering, both in the technical and administrative fields, has a talent of high order which should afford him pleasure and enjoyment in its exercise, and which should win for him, in appreciation and compensation, a prize higher than any other ordinarily open to the Engineer.

If anything which I have been able to say or suggest to you this afternoon shall help any one of you in the selection of his future vocation, and in pursuing it intelligently, bravely, and successfully, I will be well repaid for the time devoted to making this visit to you and your alma mater.

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Obituary, Henry R. Towne
Made in Stamford, A History of Stamford as a Manufacturing Center
Business and Industry in Stamford