Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2686
FRANK AND LILLIAN MOLLER GILBRETH

by Andrew Boyd

Today, cheaper by the dozen. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

He ran a construction firm. She had a Ph.D. in psychology. And together they made history.

Frank Gilbreth graduated from high school in 1885 and began his career as a bricklayer’s apprentice. He quickly rose through the ranks and then left to start his own business.

Frank Gilbreth portrait

Lillian Moller received a Masters in literature from Berkeley in 1902 (her degree in psychology would come many years later). Shortly after leaving Berkeley, she met and married Frank.

Lillian Moller portrait

Frank’s construction firm had a leading edge reputation built on innovation. It was the era when Frederick Taylor’s scientific management was gaining momentum, and when the Gilbreths met Taylor, they saw their future. Lillian joined Frank in forming a management consulting business, a business where Frank affectionately referred to her as “Boss.”

The Gilbreths, and Frank in particular, focused their attention on motion studies — detailed investigations of how workers move. In his most famous study, Frank examined the motions of bricklayers, classifying movements and showing how they could be reduced from as many as eighteen to as few as four and a half. The Gilbreths claimed that such studies not only increased the efficiency of workers, but also reduced fatigue. Workers' mental and physical condition were a predominant theme in Lillian’s writing and consulting.

Laying Brick Without Disturbing the Line

The couple led successful professional and personal lives. Lillian gave birth to twelve children — a remarkable feat considering her prodigious professional activity. The best-selling book Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of the Gilbreth children, describes life in the Gilbreth household. It was made into a successful Hollywood film in 1950.

Twenty years after marrying Lillian, having made his mark on the business landscape, Frank died of a heart attack. Lillian, now a single parent with a large family, continued to prove she had the stamina of the Energizer bunny.

She successfully continued the consulting business she and Frank had started, doing work with companies like Johnson and Johnson, Macy’s, and Sears. In 1926, she became the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and later became the society’s first female recipient of the distinguished Hoover Medal. She took a teaching position at Purdue, where at age fifty-seven she became the university’s first female engineering professor. She was a highly regarded speaker, giving talks at the nation’s top universities and throughout the world. She volunteered for the Girl Scouts. And this list of achievements only scratches the surface.

Lillian Gilbreth died in 1972 at the age of ninety-four — fulfilled, happy, and presumably exhausted.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

For a related episode, see TAYLORISM.

Encyclopedia of World Biography on Frank Gilbreth. From the Web site: http://www.bookrags.com/biography/frank-gilbreth/. Accessed February 8, 2011.

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Biography. From a special collections Web site of Purdue University: http://www.lib.purdue.edu/spcol/manuscripts/fblg/. Accessed February 8, 2011.

F. B. Gilbreth. Bricklaying System. New York: M. C. Clark Publishing, 1909.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth: Mother of Modern Management. From the Women in Science Web site of the San Diego Supercomputer Center: http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/gilbreth.html. Accessed February 8, 2011.

Notable Twentieth Century Scientists. E. J. McMurray, J. K. Kosek, and R. M. Valade, eds. Detroit: Gale, 1995. See also: https://ceprofs.civil.tamu.edu/dford/DNF%20Profesional/LGilbrethNTCS95.pdf. Accessed February 8, 2011.

B. Price. 1989. “Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and the Manufacture and Marketing of Motion Study, 1908-1924.” Business and Economic History, second edition, vol. 18. See also: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/TheGilbreths.pdf. Accessed February 8, 2011.

The pictures of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth are taken from Wikipedia. The bricklaying figure is taken from Frank Gilbreth’s Bricklaying System, for which the copyright has expired.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.