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Gilbreth, Frank Bunker (1868 -1924) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections

Name: Gilbreth, Frank Bunker (1868 -1924)


Historical Note:

Frank Bunker Gilbreth was born July 7, 1868 to John and Martha (Bunker) Gilbreth of Fairfield, Maine. The youngest of three children, Frank enjoyed a quiet childhood until his father's sudden death from pneumonia in 1871. For financial reasons, his mother was forced to move Frank and his sisters, Anne and Mary, to Boston where Martha opened a boardinghouse. Martha successfully managed the boarding house and along with a small income from her sister Caroline's artwork, was able to support the family and put her two daughters through college. After passing the MIT entrance exams in the summer of 1885, Frank decided to forgo higher education and entered the construction trade as a bricklayer's assistant. Frank noted that the bricklayers with whom he trained all had different approaches to bricklaying and he soon devised a method which eliminated unnecessary motions and greatly increased productivity. Frank quickly worked his way up within the company and was soon able to support his mother and aunt. In 1895, he started his own contracting firm, Frank Gilbreth and Company. The company became famous for finishing projects early and under budget. In 1902, Frank's firm finished building a laboratory for MIT in eleven weeks, a feat which so impressed a young engineering student that he begged the president of the university to arrange a meeting. The student was Andrey Potter (who later became the dean of engineering at Purdue University) and he and Frank Gilbreth became lifelong friends.

The marriage of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth began one of the most famous partnerships in engineering history. Lillian immediately became a full partner in Frank's business, working with him first from home but soon joining him on job sites, at business meetings, and participating in industrial conferences. Frank relied on Lillian tremendously and affectionately referred to her as "Boss." They collaborated on papers, speeches, lectures, and co-authored four books. In 1907, Frank met Frederick Winslow Taylor, the developer of time study, and became a disciple of the Taylor System. The Gilbreths became deeply involved in scientific management research and Frank was instrumental in the creation of the Taylor Society. In 1912, the Gilbreths left construction and focused their attention on scientific management consulting. They broke with Taylor in 1914 and formed their own form of scientific management which focused on the human element as well as the technical. In 1915, Lillian received her doctorate in psychology and incorporated her training into the family business. She saw the need to improve worker satisfaction which would in turn improve overall job performance and worker efficiency. Frank designed his systems to ease worker fatigue and increase productivity by studying each movement a worker made in a process he called micromotion study. The Gilbreths used still photographs and film strips to study worker movement in order to devise the "One Best Way" to perform a task. The Gilbreths also saw the need to improve the physical comfort of the worker and their innovations in office furniture design were ahead of their time and led the way to the study of ergonomics.

The Gilbreths work in time management and efficiency carried over into their personal lives. Early on, Frank and Lillian agreed to have twelve children, six boys and six girls, a feat which they accomplished in seventeen years. The children Anne, Mary (died at the age of six from diphtheria), Ernestine, Martha, Frank Jr., Bill, Lillian, Fred, Dan, John, Bob, and Jane soon became willing participants in their parents studies. The older children were assigned younger siblings to care for and all had daily housekeeping tasks, including the toddlers, who were given table legs to dust. Often Frank would recruit the children for help with his research including his motion studies on typing and surgery. The Gilbreths success raising a large family in which both parents worked full time was a testimony to their achievements in management and efficiency and their love for one another. After Frank's sudden death from a heart attack in 1924, Lillian not only carried on with their work but also managed to put every child through college. Lillian retired in 1968 and died January 2, 1972.

Note Author: Joanne Mendes





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