Preventive Maintenance: Who Said It First?

Karl Burnett

Preventive Maintenance: Who Said It First?

Maintenance does not mean the same thing to all people. Operations managers, maintenance supervisors and reliability engineers can be heard struggling to come to a common understanding.

Historical definitions of maintenance are quite different. According to some sources, “maintenance” was originally defined as the crime of unlawful abuse of legal procedures and attempts to influence courts. The other historical definition was providing money for operating or living expenses. As a term applied to machinery, maintenance is only around 150 years old. "Preventive maintenance" as a literal phrase is even more recent. So, who invented this phrase?

Preventive Maintenance

An established routine of periodically inspecting equipment, noticing small issues and fixing them before they turn into major problems.
Source: reliableplant.com

 The earliest example I have located is from a Telephony journal entry from July 1909, which reads:

“Two of the chief causes [of energy lost from transmission lines] are trees and broken insulators and ties. In an article published in Telephony April 3, 1909, Mr. H.P. Fairman outlines other causes, but classes them as possible causes for trouble and treated their elimination as preventative maintenance.”

Confusingly, Mr. Fairman did not have an author credit in the April 3 edition. He did have an article in the March 27 edition, volume 17, titled “Handling a Sleet Storm,” and again in the May 8 edition, titled “Little Things and How to Find Them.” The May 8 article is about defect elimination or preventing big problems by resolving small ones. However, Fairman did not use the exact term “preventive maintenance.” At this point, the earliest use of the term might have to be credited to the editors of Telephony, H.B. McMeal and Franklin H. Reed.

The next example also comes from Telephony on June 10, 1911. It reads:

“A recently developed specialty manufactured by the company is the Addie fuse tester, which is a great help in maintenance work. A troubleman can test a whole bank of fuses in a moment, and it is so easy that he will never neglect to go over a can and see that everything is perfect before he leaves it. This is the kind of preventive maintenance which is a real saver of money.”

This is a product placement and is not used in the context of a larger discussion about maintenance.

In the June of 1914, an American trade publication called The Highway Contractor noted that:

“Where unsatisfactory service has been given by bituminous roads in New York, the causes are to be found under one or more of the following heads:… absence of maintenance, especially preventive maintenance.”

This is one of the earliest uses of the term, making road contractors early adopters of this terminology.

Three months later, in the August of 1914, New York’s Engineering Record published an editorial titled “Preventive Maintenance.” They discussed the differences between repair, early intervention and preventive maintenance. This is far from an accidental combination of words and was a mature discussion about preventive maintenance.

The editors used two examples of successful maintenance systems: transatlantic steamships and the Manhattan Elevated Railroad. They recommended that similar preventive methods be adopted in road maintenance. This is an early example of one industry’s maintenance system learning from other industries.

Of course, the concept of preventing deterioration before things get bad is quite old. Works about road maintenance written before 1914 show that the concept and practice of preventive maintenance, if not the exact phrase, had been in existence for at least a century before these 1914 publications.

For example, in April 1904, in the Electrical Age journal, an engineer named A.C. Cormack published the results of a long study of several thousand motor failure modes and causes. One of the most common causes, accounting for 22-34% of failures, was “Maintenance – Defective Attention.” In other words, a lack of preventive maintenance. However, Cormack does not use the phrase we use today. Cormack’s results had also been previously published in 1903 in another journal — Page’s Magazine.

In the same volume of Page’s Magazine, Fredrick W. Taylor, one of the founders of Scientific Management, summarizes parts of his seminal work, “Shop Management.” A key sentence describes the benefit of using a planning system.

“In maintaining methods and appliances, notices should be placed in the ‘tickler’ in advance, to come out at proper intervals throughout the year for the inspection of each element of the system, and the inspection and overhauling of all standards, as well as the examination and repairs at stated intervals of parts of machines, boilers, engines, belts, etc., likely to wear out or give trouble, thus preventing breakdowns and delays.”

(Note: A “tickler” is a large notebook with a pocket for each day of the year.)

Taylor was describing a preventive maintenance system; he just didn’t use the phrase we use today.

Google’s Ngram shows that the word “efficiency” had a large increase in the frequency of use between 1905 and 1930, due in part to the dominance of the scientific management movement promoted by Taylor and his peers. These movements lead to today’s lean and six-sigma methods and, indeed, the entire field of industrial engineering. 

Meanwhile, the phrase “preventive maintenance” enjoyed occasional use by maintenance specialists until 1938, when it became a common term.

Today, new phrases such as “maintenance reliability” and “reliability engineering” are becoming more popular at the expense of “preventive maintenance.”

Author's Note

A word of caution is needed regarding Google Books, HathiTrust and database publication dates. For example, Google Books will return search hits from a journal called Mechanical World and Engineering Record, volume 133, in 1881 for “preventive maintenance.” However, volume 133 covered the year 1953, which better matches the modern font style presented in the Google snippet. This journal has not been digitized yet, so it is difficult to examine in detail. Errors in recording the original publication year in Google Books and HathiTrust are common. Therefore, all examples contained in this article are from fully digitized sources where the journal title page and complete article are available.

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About the Author

Karl Burnett writes the History of Maintenance Management article series at  Read More