Leadership Minute

    Mark Twain: The Progress of a Moral Purpose

M orals were on the mind of Mark Twain in 1906. In a speech given in March of that year to a group assembled at Columbia University, he declared in his irreverent style, “It's my opinion that every one I know has morals, though I wouldn't like to ask. I know I have. But I'd rather teach them than practice them any day. Give them to others—that's my motto.”

Later that summer he considered whether or not he should be good. In a series of photographs, he created a parody on scientific management and of the time and motion studies in vogue at that time, documenting “The Progess of a Moral Purpose.”

In Albert Bigelow Paine's biography of Mark Twain, he relates the story of how the series of pictures came to be while Twain was vacationing in Dublin, New Hampshire
It was just before one of his departures that I made another set of pictures of him, this time on the colonnaded veranda, where his figure had become so familiar. He had determined to have his hair cut when he reached New York, and I was anxious to get the pictures before this happened. When the proofs came—seven of them—he arranged them as a series to illustrate what he called "The Progress of a Moral Purpose." He ordered a number of sets of this series, and he wrote a legend on each photograph, numbering them from 1 to 7, laying each set in a sheet of letter-paper which formed a sort of wrapper, on which was written:

This series of 7 photographs registers with scientific precision, stage by stage, the progress of a moral purpose through the mind of the human race's Oldest Friend.

He added a personal inscription, and sent one to each of his more intimate friends. One of the pictures amused him more than the others, because during the exposure a little kitten, unnoticed, had walked into it, and paused near his foot. He had never outgrown his love for cats, and he had rented this kitten and two others for the summer from a neighbor. He didn't wish to own them, he said, for then he would have to leave them behind uncared for, so he preferred to rent them and pay sufficiently to insure their subsequent care.

His series of photographs humorously points out what often goes through the minds of man when considering any kind of self-improvement. How often have we toyed with the idea only to conclude, “Why bother? I’m good enough as I am.”

Twain Photo Study
Click on image above to view close-up of each photograph.

No. 1   Shall I learn to be good? ....... I will sit here and think it over.
No. 2   There do seem to be so many diffi .....
No. 3   And yet I should really try ....
No. 4   .... and just put my whole heart in it ....
No. 5   .... But then I couldn't break the Sab ....
No. 6   .... and there's so many other privileges that .... perhaps ....leadership now
No. 7   Oh, never mind, I reckon I'm good enough just as I am.


In his introductory note, Twain records that the series of photographs registers the mental development of his moral purpose "with scientific precision, stage by stage." Twain's annotated photographs are a parody of two popular ideas of his day. The influence of both are still with us today.

The Horse in Motion, by Eadweard James Muybridge

Woman Jumping from Stone to Stone Across a Brook, by Eadweard James Muybridge

In the spring of 1872, Eadweard James Muybridge begins to photograph horses to settle a debate by scientifically determining whether or not all feet leave the ground at one time during the gallop. The debate settled, Muybridge begins to make ten of thousands of images of other animals and people to study anatomical motion. From 1880 he lectured in America and Europe, projecting his results in motion on the screen with his Zoopraxiscope projector. He was the most significant contributor to the early study of human and animal locomotion and had an enormous influence on the world of art. His work in pioneering the use of sequence photography led to the science of chronophotography and stimulated many inventors, notably Thomas Edison, to work which led to the introduction of cinematography in the 1890s. Frederick Winslow Taylor

Concurrently, Frederick Winslow Taylor was formalizing the principles of scientific management. One feature of this management method was the use of stop-watch timing as the basis of observations. Taylor broke the timings down into elements and it was he who coined the term time study.

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