Humans have been building structures out of ceramic brick for five thousand years, and for four thousand nine hundred of those years the method had hardly changed: throw a bunch of bricks at the foot of a bricklayer and then watch as he bends over, picks one up, places it, and then proceeds to do that another 600 to 1000 times over the course of his eleven hour workday. For millennia it continued to be done that way, for no other reason than that was How It Was Done. It wasn’t until 1891 that somebody had the seemingly obvious idea of designing scaffolding that places the bricks at chest-level, thus removing all of the unnecessary stooping that ruined bricklayers’ backs and quartered their efficiency.
The person who had that idea was Frank Gilbreth, a bricklayer turned construction magnate turned engineer who made it his life goal to use scientific studies of job motions to design work environments which reduced stress and strain on laborers. It was not, however, until he married Lillian Moller in 1904 that he recognized that improving the worker’s physical workspace was only half of the story. Frank Gilbreth understood, as nobody else did, the physical hardships of a task, but it was his wife who brought the psychology of industrial work into prominence. Together, they gave America’s booming industrial scene the semblance of a soul by giving the physical and mental well-being of workers equal weight with profit and plant efficiency.
There was nothing in the first 26 years of Lillian Moller’s life which suggested she would some day come to be known as the First Lady of Engineering. She was born to a wealthy family in the burgeoning city of Oakland, California in 1878. Her mother was prone to illness, and her older sister was a beauty, the darling of the family. And so Lillian grew up thinking that, since she wasn’t pretty enough to be adored the way her older sister was, the only way to gain her parents’ affection was through study. She curled up into a defensive ball of shy self-deprecation and hit the books, excelling in English, languages, and history, and was all set to go to the University of California when her father said that, as she was expected to be a help around the house and lady of refinement, he hardly thought college was appropriate for her.
And that might well have been the end of it, another promising mind cut off from education after high school for no other reason than the propriety of the thing. Fortunately, she talked her father round to her point of view in a rare display of self-assertion and studied English and Psychology in college, writing her master’s thesis on Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair. She was set to continue on to her PhD when she ran smack into a young construction booster named Frank Gilbreth.
Depending on who you ask, Frank Gilbreth was either a domineering bully who expected the world to wait on his pleasures and bend to his will, or a charming go-getter with stars in his eyes and the world’s woes on his shoulders. By the same token, his marriage to Lillian was either a beautiful partnership of mutual support and surprise, or a one-sided act of domination that worked out well in the end only because Lillian was too allergic to conflict to defy Frank’s will.
Frank was a dynamo, who grew up with a mother and aunt who made it their mission to see that his homelife was as undisturbed and tranquil as possible, attending to his every need, and instilling in him the expectation that such subservient care was the stuff of normalcy. He dashed off a dozen ideas a day for improving the way America and Industry did business, and got so drunk on his own inspiration that he tended to expect that anything he set his mind to do was possible and undersell the difficulties he faced. When he and Lillian married, he informed her that he wanted a dozen children, and so they had a dozen children. He told her that the children were to be raised according to his principles of efficiency, and so they were. And he told her that he wanted her to be his partner in engineering, and so she started learning that trade from the ground up instead of continuing her work in English Literature. As he expected the impossible from himself, so he expected it from her as well, and thus the cripplingly shy girl who grew up believing that her purpose was to live a life of retired and unassuming academia was challenged to learn engineering, edit Frank’s articles and books, raise a dozen children according to his stringent but progressive system, and accompany him on consultations with titans of industry. It was a schedule that gave her no rest for decades as she sought to prove herself equal to the plans he made for her. The result of that forced march was that, by the time Frank died, Lillian was herself recognized as an expert in the new field of Scientific Management, and as the originator of that field’s psychological approach.
Frank’s plan was that she would get a PhD in psychology, concentrating on its application to industry, while he showed the advantages of his motion theory work at a nearby factory, a task which would also generate additional data for Lillian to include in her study.
There was nothing in the first 26 years of Lillian Moller’s life which suggested she would some day come to be known as the First Lady of Engineering.
I am now going to tell you the name of the factory where Frank set up his ideal work plant and Lillian carried out her first studies, but you have to promise to be mature about it. Anybody caught tittering is going to have stay after class and clean the erasers.
It was the New England Butt Company.
Here Frank used motion pictures to break down the essential motions of each job and to find ways of cutting those motions down to their bare necessities, sometimes speeding up work by ten times as a result while actually lessening worker fatigue substantially. He invented plant flow charts to track products through their various stages and to determine how best to lay out the factory to avoid backtracking and personnel strain. Meanwhile, it was Lillian’s job to study how industrial processes affected people mentally.
It was revolutionary work. Just two decades previously, the only studies done on industrial workers had taken as their starting point that problems with production were problems with worker motivation, that low numbers came from lazy workers. It was the insight of Frank Gilbreth and a few others in the early history of management that poor output was, more likely than not, the result of poor management and organization, of not thinking rigorously about how individual jobs were to be done and how they should flow from one to the next. But those studies, as much of an improvement as they were, still felt that, once you’d found the One Best Way to do a job, the work was done. What Lillian Gilbreth found was that lining out a series of One Best Ways to do work, even if they made the work easier to do, could still result in workers who were unhappier than if you left them alone under the old inefficient system.
A popular example of her approach is large laundry centers, where women worked hunched over their ironing boards in close quarters, and had to, at the end of each load, haul their completed piles over to another room for further processing. Using Gilbreth motion study and workplace layout methods, a way was found so that the women could do their work from a more comfortable position, with better light, and with a better system for moving finished work out of the way that didn’t require them to haul it out themselves.
And the workers hated it.
Yes, they were in a more comfortable position, but to do that the stations had to be separated off from each other, which meant the workers were robbed of the consolation of being able to talk to each other during the work. Yes, they didn’t have to inefficiently move piles of finished clothes all over the place, but that also robbed them of the time when they mentally reset themselves between loads. Those trips let them approach a new pile of laundry with a fresh mental slate, something that Gilbreth’s efficient delivery system didn’t. Lillian, therefore, had to study how different types of jobs impacted workers mentally, and had to coordinate with Frank on ways of designing factories that kept his motion design improvements but that didn’t hurt emotional well-being in the process.
From there, Lillian worked on studying how different types of jobs affect different types of people, and on developing methods of putting people into work that they were temperamentally suited for, instead of throwing people into jobs they couldn’t perform well at and then punishing them when they didn’t. After Frank’s death, she continued for decades in developing, against the wishes of reluctant industries that thought of the Gilbreth methods as “pretty but impractical,” the methods of motion analysis and psychological study, and of extending them into new areas. She designed layouts for homes that made kitchens at last sensible, and suggested farm practices that would cut substantially down on transport waste and agricultural worker fatigue.
During the Second World War, when the soldiers were overseas and American industry was faced with the challenge of increasing production with a workforce conjured from America’s women, disabled, and elderly, who could not be readily replaced if injured, Lillian Gilbreth, though in her late sixties, sped from one end of the country to another, visiting factories and finding new ways to motivate workers to change their methods, to reduce fatigue and therefore injuries, and to compel owners and unions to see the mutual benefit that could be obtained by adopting scientific management principles. The field that had been considered outlandish, eccentric, and too pricey to be of value during Frank Gilbreth’s life was now a vital tool in the drive to make America ready for war, and Lillian Gilbreth was proud to play her role, not only in improving the lives of workers, but in finding ways to allow veterans who had suffered losses of limbs to perform jobs they had been excluded from before.
The woman who had started her academic career as a student of Ben Jonson ended it as a professor of Management (a position created more or less expressly for her) at Purdue University, a silver-haired woman who nonetheless could regularly be seen at the gymnasium leading teams of workers in their morning exercises, and putting not a few to shame with her stamina. She advised presidents and was universally recognized as the world’s authority on industrial psychology, all while financing college educations for her eleven surviving children from the fees she drew as an industrial consultant. The times were not always easy as a woman in engineering. She had twice been turned away from meetings to which she had been expressly invited because they were being held at clubs that refused entrance to women. Her early articles were rejected because publishers would not even consider printing engineering pieces written by a woman. But, pushed by the manic drive to succeed that Frank Gilbreth beat into everybody he came into contact with, she weathered those storms and became the most renowned woman engineer of her age, and a person to whom everybody who has ever been given an adequate chair, a set of tools in a sensible location, and proper lighting while on a job suited to their abilities owes not a little thanks.
FURTHER READING: Edna Yost’s Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Partners in Life (1949) is the first important Gilbreth biography, written by the Ur-Historian of women in science, Edna Yost. Before Yost, the study of women in science as a historical field was simply not a thing. Her books, American Women in Science (1943), American Women of Nursing (1947), and Women of Modern Science (1966) are the foundational works for anybody with an interest in studying women in science, and feature not only a fascinating array of scientists, but a writing style that is fresh and engaging still. Of course, they are a bit harder to come by, and Partners for a Life was written a full 20 years before Gilbreth’s death, so if you’re looking for something more modern and complete, you’ll probably want Making Time by Jane Lancaster (2004). The Cheaper by the Dozen films (one with Myrna Loy, the other with Steve Martin) are also based on books by the Gilbreth children about their experience growing up under Frank’s system.
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