INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH Baltimore author Robert Kanigel works over the most complex matters, just like his latest biography subject, Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of efficient living.


Robert Kanigel knows you can never really be sure how things happened. Memory tends to edit and improve life's important encounters as they recede in time.

That's why he asked an old girlfriend a few years ago if indeed his change of direction occurred as he remembered it. Did he come to her 27 years ago and declare definitively, purposefully, maybe even melodramatically: "I'm going to be a writer?"

"That's the way it was," she said, or words to that effect.

Kanigel explains how he was walking along 25th Street that day in 1970, his mind a turbulence of ideas about the explosive Sixties, "those years when the world was turned upside down."

He felt he had a lot to say and was trying to find a way to say it. When he looked up he saw a sign announcing the offices of Baltimore's then counterculture newspaper, Harry. On impulse he went in and unloaded all his teeming thoughts upon the editor.

He walked out with an assignment. Three essays followed, all published by Harry.

"They were terrible. Pretentious," Kanigel says. He remembers that clearly enough. But as bad as they were, he knew, "this was what I had to be doing."

That was the beginning. Since then the Brooklyn-born mechanical engineer has emerged as the Baltimore writer of big books on complicated subjects. Serious books.

His most recent tome is a 675-pager titled "The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency." It is probably the most thorough and detailed biography ever written on an obscure man who changed life for most Americans, and the world beyond as well.

Taylor was the first time-and-motion study man. But he was more than that. He was the Muhammad Ali of time-and-motion men. He invented a system known in its heyday as "scientific management."

It's a system much of the world still lives with. It has been so deeply woven into the tapestry of modern civilization that hardly anybody notices it anymore. But it still governs.

Even today Taylor is worshiped in Japan, where efficiency of production was central to the country's post-war economic success. During a visit to that country, Taylor's son Robert was pressed by executives at Toshiba for some personal item of his father's, a pen or picture. Taylor is still studied by students of management and its history -- its gurus, apostles and true believers in the centrality of it in nearly all endeavors.

Among leaders of labor Taylor's name is despised, for he was the man who took the soul out of work, stripped it of its need for individual initiative, and replaced it with what was seen as a robotic industrial slavery. Taylor made efficiency more than a cardinal American value; he made it an obsession.

Kanigel's approach to this prophet with the formulas for getting things done is even-handed. He doesn't seem to like his subject all that much. But he knows that without Taylor's ideas about dividing the labor of many hands and machines, all the products and consumer goods that make life comfortable and provide at least the opportunity for leisure would not be available. Taylor looked closely at how things were made back at the end of the last century -- a wagon wheel, a motor, a lamp -- and found new ways to make them cheaper, and thus available.

Taylor's legacy

Taylorism, Kanigel points out, long ago spread from the factory into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Historians, he writes, credit Taylor for encouraging the "emergence of modern time consciousness, leisure's transformation from genuinely free time to organized recreation," and other unhealthy developments.

His techniques of efficiency have become absorbed utterly. The inflexible, not-a-wasted-motion routine of a McDonald's restaurant is a residue of Taylorism.

"Quality time," a euphemistic formulation invented by hurried career couples, Kanigel points out, "is the notion of efficiency applied to child rearing."

1% Taylor, long gone, is everywhere.

Kanigel is 51 now. He lives in Rodgers Forge, an old suburb immediately north of Baltimore encrusted with obedient vegetation flourishing beneath a population of old trees. It is a neighborhood, he says, that resembles the one he grew up in in the Flatfields section of Brooklyn. He shares his brick house with his attractive wife of 16 years, Judy, and his 13-year-old son, David. The house is one of those strong, tight dwellings, all in a row and so emblematic of Baltimore, which even today shame the newer structures in the sprawling suburbs beyond.

He has become acquainted with success. He received a grant worth $125,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation before he even started writing "The One Best Way."

"Nobody ever gave me that kind of money," he said. "It made my life a lot easier."

The book, which came out May 21, took him five years. It is being marketed as an offering in the Sloan Foundation technology book series. So far reviews have been favorable.

One or two have complained of an excess of detail, to which Kanigel responds: "I became interested in industrial machine shops. I wanted to bring a tactile quality to my book. I wanted people to feel it."

An earlier book, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," published six years ago, made clear that Kanigel had the inclination and ability to master tough, uncommon topics. A biography of the late Indian mathematician, Ramanujan, it showcased Kanigel's writerly skill. It was no small feat to undertake a subject as abstruse as higher mathematics, to write lucidly and convincingly on it and on the short life of a Brahmin genius far removed in time, and to capture the romance of his story.

Early indicators

Kanigel's first book, "Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty," about mentoring in science, indicated the direction he was taking.

His upbringing, perhaps, was not what nudged him onto his current course. But it probably prepared him for it. His father owned and ran a small electroplating factory in a loft across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Kanigel does not remember being particularly mechanically minded in those days: he was no tinkerer; his interest in mechanical things seemed more intellectual than practical.

He would visit his father occasionally in the shop, and scour the lower regions of Manhattan with him for used machinery. Father and son would have "involved discussions, long talks about science, about labor relations, trouble he was having in the shop, about everything," Kanigel recalls.

"What I remember more than the particular topics is the forceful energy he put into everything we were talking about. This was when I was about 10 or 11 up to 16. These were very important to me. It was about the time I read the Dos Passos book."

It was in John Dos Passos' panoramic trilogy, "U.S.A," where Kanigel first encountered Frederick Winslow Taylor in the author's description of the man obsessed with production: "[It] went to his head and thrilled his sleepless nerves like liquor or women on a Saturday night."

With this kind of background, and encouraged by a natural inclination toward science and mathematics, Kanigel followed the expected course, and before long realized he had made a mistake.

"I think I fooled myself," he says. "I always liked physical things -- textures, steels, wood, that kind of thing. I convinced myself I was interested in engineering."

It turned out he wasn't; he worked at it here in Baltimore for about three years. Looking back, he says, "I think I was more interested in pure science on one hand, and grubby things, like how things work, on the other."

Today he seems firmly set on course for his life's work, though he is not entirely certain the trend line he has established will continue uninterrupted.

"After the Taylor book I realized the common thread here might be called the 'driven men trilogy,' " he said. "The common element in all these books is that they are driven people. Who knows what my psychiatrist would say about that?"

The workaholic

Possibly that writing such books is an appropriate enterprise for a man who describes himself as follows:

"I would have to call myself a workaholic. People who know me say I'm driven by work. The whole issue of my life is finding a balance between work and leisure."

His work, then, is about work, or people driven by work. In this way it is a reflection of himself, and of his quest to find the balance he speaks of. At least it will be if he carries out his next project, which is about the other weight on the balance: leisure.

Tentatively, it will be a history of tourism at some single place, and through the centuries. It is obvious he has thought about it a lot.

"Imagine setting a video camera at the gate of Nice, say 2,000 years ago," he says. "The man on the other side of the camera would be interviewing everybody who comes to visit. Periodically he turns the lens on the city, to see how it affects the people, how the town changes over the years."

Asked why he chose Nice, a spa in southern France, Kanigel says: "The place was a technical choice. Some locales I thought of were Strasbourg, Bath, Cannes, Annapolis -- if I couldn't get the advance.

"I needed a place far enough along [old enough] so you could see the pathology of tourism. I couldn't pick a big place, like Paris or Florence. They are so weighted with history it would overpower the story."

He did want a locale where the language was French. He has had a long association with the language. He studied it in high school; he resumed private lessons in the late Sixties as he contemplated emigrating to Quebec to avoid the Vietnam War. He lived in Paris for a while.

Relaxed now

As he talks about his next project, Kanigel sits, quite comfortable and utterly undriven, on a sofa in his living room. He wears a soft, pale green shirt, blue shorts, sandals; his hair rises almost straight up over his high, round forehead, then waves gently to the side. He has a mild inquisitive face and smile, a nose slightly crooked, like it wasn't put on exactly right. He weighs the coffee remaining in his cup with an elevator-like motion. He's happy with the work he's done, he says. Which is probably why he brings up the subject of failure.

He's up in an instant, pulling this 100,000-word typescript in a black binder from a book case. It is titled "City Sunrise." He wrote it in the 1970s, while living in California. It is a book celebrating life in the city, a subject Americans have never felt particularly festive about.

It took him 2 1/2 years to finish and nobody wanted it.

"It was a crushing disappointment," he recalls. But he thinks he understands why it failed. "There was no tension in it," he says. "Basically, it was just somebody standing there saying 'Rah! Rah!' for city life."

Certainly not the most efficient approach to getting published. But such efforts make subsequent successes all the sweeter. The published books all nicely stacked in a separate bookshelf across the room are proof of failure's defeat.

'One Best Way'

What: Appearance, book signing by author Robert Kanigel

Where: Bibelot Woodholme bookstore, 1819 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

When: 7: 30 p.m. tonight

' Call: 410-653-6933

Pub Date: 6/12/97

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