Science Behaving Badly II.

Mayo, on the side: the Economy and the Hawthorne Works Experiments.
By Richard Flavin

     As the alphabet followed religion (Diringer 1962; p. 148), so too has science followed the railroad and nation-building.  From the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 to the building of Indianapolis, Indiana’s Union Station in 1853, rail technology assisted in the growth of many countries (Belgium 1835, France, Germany & Russia 1837, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Italy 1839, Poland 1844, Australia 1848, India 1851, and Egypt 1852).  The Illinois Central Railroad extended to Dunleith, Illinois in 1855 and crossed the Mississippi River between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa in 1856.  Charles Darwin benefitting from a variety of transportation methods (correspondence mentions a disappointing 1839 experience with the railroad; see Darwin 1987; #489) and advanced the modern scientific method with his work in evolutionary theory (Darwin 1859).  In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act and also a bill creating the Department of Agriculture, whose first scientist and chemist, Charles M. Wetherill, set up a laboratory to research various food items and substances related to farming.  Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 and on March 3, 1863 created the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art."  As America continued to define herself, the young nation understood that science would have a place of importance and the state of Illinois, later to be known as the “Land of Lincoln,” typified that approach (e.g. the establishment of the University of Chicago in 1890 and the hosting of the World’s Fair in 1893).


Fig. 1. 1865 photograph of  President Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Car.

     Against the western border of Chicago, the town of Cicero, Illinois was incorporated in 1849 and eventually became an important railroad nexus.  After a period of expansion and development, the individual railway stations (or ‘stops’) gave rise to breakaway villages and towns (Stickney, Oak Park, Berwyn, etc.).  Other early Cicero railway stations became neighborhoods, such as the Hawthorne stop, which subsequently lent its name to a racetrack, a hotel and in 1904, A. T. & T.’s Western Electric Company telephone equipment manufacturing plant, known as the Hawthorne Works. [Fig. 2.]


Fig. 2. 1923 photograph of theWestern Electric Plant building at 500-504 S. Clinton St., Cicero, IL.

     American industry was already setting global standards with the endeavors of Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller, the first billionaire, and George Westinghouse, Jr.’s fundamental contributions to railway safety with his Westinghouse Air Brake Company in 1869 and the later Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in 1884.  Further standards were established by Thomas A. Edison with his Edison General Electric Company in 1890, which merged with Lynn, Massachusetts’ Charles A. Coffin of the Thomson-Houston Company to form the General Electric Company in 1892. [Fig. 3.]  Alexander G. Bell’s A. T. & T. was doing fine, as well.


Fig. 3. Western Electric advertisement from The Literary Digest, Oct. 16, 1915.

     After Germany signed an armistice in a railroad carriage parked in Compiègne, France to end the Great War of 1914-1918 (WWI), Presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge conducted a symphony of economic policies (many now regarded as delusional and wrong) and produced an apparently invincible stock market.  As the greatest manufacturer of light bulbs in the world, General Electric sought improvement (profit) when it approached the National Research Council of the NAS to find the optimum level of lighting for increased labor efficiency (less cost).  The NAS recommended studying conditions at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, a successful peer and competitor of General Electric. [Fig. 4.]  Scientists, psychologists and other investigators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were contracted to run a series of illumination level experiments beginning in 1924, the same year as Alphonse Gabriel “Scarface” Capone took over the Cicero, Illinois local government.


Fig. 4. Advertisement for the General Electric Co. from a mid-1904 issue of The Four-Track News.

     Prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment began on January 16, 1920 and the employees of the Hawthorne Works were particularly impacted.  In areas of the country where an above average wage was earned by industry and manufacturing workers, opportunities arose for the expenditure of discretionary income (e.g. amusement, recreation, gambling, prostitution and, later, alcohol consumption).  The town of Cicero had approximately 20,000 permanent residents when the experiments began, though the local economy was primarily driven by the 34,000 men and 11,000 women (Dietz 1925; p. 103) that worked at the Hawthorne Works.  There was money to be made and lost in Cicero and the so-called “Dry Era Gang Chief,” Al Capone, made millions. [Fig. 5.]


Fig. 5. Cover of Time Magazine for March 24, 1930 featuring Al Capone.

     After two and a half years, the experiments came to an end in 1927 with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the NAS recalling the investigators and withdrawing their funding.  General Electric apparently didn’t care enough about the experiments or results to continue.  As Hawthorne Works was a standard-setting manufacturing environment with a quality control team which is said to have numbered nearly 5000, management extended its understandable pride in their performance and attention to detail and invited Harvard University to undertake further tests, studies and experiments starting in late 1927 (passim Pennock 1930; Mayo 1930a).  The problems and tentative results generated by the first experiments were not written up by Prof. Clair E. Turner of M. I. T.’s Department of Biology and Public Health or Dr. Vannevar Bush, Dean of Engineering and Vice President of M. I. T.  Rather, they were later sketched out by Prof. George Elton Mayo [Fig. 6.] of the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration and others (Beyer et al. 1929; Mayo 1930b) and met with initial acceptance and approval (e.g. McCabe 1930; Stone 1930; Todd 1930).  As new experiments began, so too, on Thursday, October 24, 1929, did the Great Depression.  And, with their above average wages, the Hawthorne Works employees performed better under any imposing conditions of the experiments despite (or because of) the unemployment and hunger that much of the rest of the country was experiencing. [Fig. 7.]


Fig. 6. Prof. G. E. Mayo, ca. 1935, and Fig. 7.  Production line at Hawthorne during the 1920s.

     Yet, the behavior experiments that examined how fatigue, monotony and supervision affected productivity (profit), academic careers were extended (Mayo 1933; Park 1934), data was interpreted to demonstrate a variety of alleged insights (Whitehead 1938; Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939), and ultimately offered as a hallmark of modern investigation (Hart 1943).  On the surface it appeared the workers performed better regardless of any imposed changes by investigators, a perceived result termed the “Hawthorne Effect.”  None of the published papers or reviews specifically considers the unique economy of Cicero, Illinois in the “Roaring Twenties” and the Great Depression of the early and middle ‘30s. [Fig. 8.]


Fig. 8. One of Capone's soup kitchens during the Great Depression.

     The American economy, already in a depression, got much worse in 1937 and unemployment rose from 14.3% in 1937 to 19.0% in 1938.  The Hawthorne Works experiments ended in 1937 as both workers and investigators readied for the next war.  It was even argued that information gathered from the Hawthorne Works experiments could defend “the Future of America” against communism (Viteles 1941).  Mussolini’s trains were running on time and Hitler and Hirohito were practicing nation-building by destroying other nations.  Science, of course, came along for the ride.  Then, as science is inherently self-correcting, a closer look was given the problems, results and basic data of the Hawthorne Works experiments and a re-thinking of the methodology and interpretations began (Bendix & Fisher 1949).

     Since the ‘50s, critical reappraisals of Mayo’s work at Hawthorne have regularly appeared (e.g. Landsberger 1958; Sonnenfeld 1985; Adair et al. 1989; Gillespie 1991).  ‘Something’ happened at Hawthorne, though we still seem to debate what that was.

     General Electric and the NAS instigated the experiments, but soon withdrew and showed no further interest.  Western Electric management was justifiably proud of their Hawthorne Works facility and it was their Plant Superintendent of Inspection (Pennock 1930) who wooed Harvard to study their manufacturing system and management-employee relationships.  While not unprecedented among various industries, labor-friendly environments were common enough in the face of rumors of anarchy, union strife and sweat-shop conditions which certainly existed elsewhere.  With the publishing of papers and reviews about the Hawthorne Works experiments, a general impression of respectability and trust in behavioral science was had by many.  Indeed, as the Hawthorne Works set an industry-leading standard for production and employee satisfaction, industrial relations research was considered achievable, beneficial and Hawthorne Works was touted as a model series of studies.

     Today, as the illusion of the “Hawthorne Effect” is becoming better understood, the dynamic produced by discussion between employees and management, an aside in Mayo’s interpretations, is believed to be an essential component in labor relations.  A “kinder, gentler” workplace is encouraged, due in part to the Hawthorne Works experiments, yet self-esteem levels shouldn’t replace economic interests as an essential factor.  It is, after all, all about the money (profit).


Fig. 9.  Google satillite image of Cicero, IL retrieved 4-6-07.

     Western Electric closed the Hawthorne Works plant in 1983 and the land is now occupied by the Hawthorne Shopping Center, accessible by the CTA subway at the Cicero station, one block away from the shops. [Fig. 9]

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  Donald Sharpe and Cam-Loi Huynh.  The Review of Educational Research.  59, 2: 215-228.
Bendix, Reinhard and Lloyd H. Fisher.  1949.  “The Perspectives of Elton Mayo.”  The Review of Economics and Statistics.  31, 4: 312-319.  See
  also: Homans, George C.  1949.  “The Perspectives of Elton Mayo: Some Corrections.”  The Review of Economics and Statistics.  31, 4: 319-321.
Beyer, Otto S. Jr. et al.  1929.  Wertheim Lectures on Industrial Relations, 1928.   With Joseph H. Willits, John P. Frey, William M. Leiserson, John
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