Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr.

Frank Bunker Gilbreth (July 7, 1868 – June 14, 1924) was an American engineer, consultant, and author known as an early advocate of scientific management and a pioneer of time and motion study, and is perhaps best known as the father and central figure of Cheaper by the Dozen.

Frank Bunker Gilbreth
Frank Bunker Gilbreth
Born(1868-07-07)July 7, 1868
DiedJune 14, 1924(1924-06-14) (aged 55)
Known fortime-motion study
Spouse(s)Lillian Moller Gilbreth (m. Oct. 19, 1904)

Both he and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth were industrial engineers and efficiency experts who contributed to the study of industrial engineering in fields such as motion study and human factors.


Early life and education

Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine, on July 7, 1868. He was the third child and only son of John Hiram Gilbreth and Martha Bunker Gilbreth. His mother had been a schoolteacher. His father owned a hardware store and was a stockbreeder. When Gilbreth was three and a half years old his father died suddenly from pneumonia.[1]:75

After his father's death his mother moved the family to Andover, Massachusetts, to find better schools for her children. The substantial estate left by her husband was managed by her husband's family. By the fall of 1878 the money had been lost or stolen and Martha Gilbreth had to find a way to make a living. She moved the family to Boston where there were good public schools. She opened a boarding house since the salary of a schoolteacher would not support the family.[1]:76–77

Gilbreth was not a good student. He attended Rice Grammar School, but his mother was concerned enough to teach him at home for a year. He attended Boston's English High School, and his grades improved when he became interested in his science and math classes. He took the entrance examinations for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but wanted his mother to be able to give up the boarding house. He decided to go to work rather than to college.[1]:77–78

Widden Construction Company

Renton Widden, Gilbreth's old Sunday School teacher, hired him for his building company. He was to start as a laborer, learn the various building trades, and work his way up in the firm. In July 1885 at age 17 he started as a bricklayer's helper.[1]:78 As he learned bricklaying he noticed the many variations in the bricklayers' methods and efficiency. This began his interest in finding "the one best way" of executing any task. He quickly learned every part of building work and contracting, and advanced rapidly. He took night school classes to learn mechanical drawing.[2] After five years he was a superintendent, which allowed his mother to give up her boarding house.[1]:79

Using his observations of workmen laying brick, Gilbreth developed a multilevel scaffold that kept the bricks within easy reach of the bricklayer.[3] He began patenting his innovations with this "Vertical Scaffold". He developed and patented the "Gilbreth Waterproof Cellar".[1]:79 He began to make innovations in concrete construction.[3] He also joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). After ten years and at age 27 he was the chief superintendent.[4] When Widden was unwilling to make him a partner, he resigned to start his own company.[1]:79

Further career

Gilbreth then became a building contractor, then an inventor with several patents, and finally a management engineer. He eventually became an occasional lecturer at Purdue University, which houses his papers.

Gilbreth discovered his vocation as a young building contractor when he sought ways to make bricklaying faster and easier. This grew into a collaboration with his wife, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who studied the work habits of manufacturing and clerical employees in all sorts of industries to find ways to increase output and make their jobs easier. He and Lillian founded a management consulting firm, Gilbreth, Inc., focusing on such endeavors.

They were involved in the development of the design for the Simmons Hardware Company's Sioux City Warehouse. The architects had specified that hundreds of 20-foot (6.1 m) hardened concrete piles were to be driven in to allow the soft ground to take the weight of two million bricks required to construct the building. The "Time and Motion" approach could be applied to the bricklaying and the transportation. The building was also required to support efficient input and output of deliveries via its own railroad switching facilities.[5]

Gilbreth, one of the founders of industrial engineering, used "cost-plus-a-fixed sum" contracts in his building contracting business. He described this method in an article in Industrial Magazine in 1907, comparing it to fixed price and guaranteed maximum price methods.


Gilbreth married Lillian Evelyn Moller on October 19, 1904, in Oakland, California; they had 12 children. Their names were Anne Moller Gilbreth Barney (1905-1987), Mary Elizabeth Gilbreth (1906–1912), Ernestine Moller Gilbreth Carey (1908-2006), Martha Bunker Gilbreth Tallman (1909-1968), Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. (1911-2001), William Moller Gilbreth (1912-1990), Lillian Gilbreth Johnson (1914-2001), Frederick Moller Gilbreth (1916-2015), Daniel Bunker Gilbreth (1917-2006), John Moller Gilbreth (1919-2002), Robert Moller Gilbreth (1920-2007), and Jane Moller Gilbreth Heppes (1922-2006); there was also a stillborn daughter (1915) who was not named.


Gilbreth died of a heart attack on June 14, 1924, at age 55. He was at the Lackawanna railway station in Montclair, New Jersey, talking with his wife by telephone. Lillian outlived him by 48 years.[6][7]


Motion studies

Gilbreth served in the U.S. Army during World War I. His assignment was to find quicker and more efficient means of assembling and disassembling small arms. According to Claude George (1968), Gilbreth reduced all motions of the hand into some combination of 17 basic motions. These included grasp, transport loaded, and hold. Gilbreth named the motions therbligs — "Gilbreth" spelled backwards with letters th transposed to their original order. He used a motion picture camera that was calibrated in fractions of minutes to time the smallest of motions in workers.

Their emphasis on the "one best way" and therbligs predates the development of continuous quality improvement (CQI),[8] and the late 20th century understanding that repeated motions can lead to workers experiencing repetitive motion injuries.

Gilbreth was the first to propose the position of "caddy" (Gilbreth's term) to a surgeon, who handed surgical instruments to the surgeon as needed. Gilbreth also devised the standard techniques used by armies around the world to teach recruits how to rapidly disassemble and reassemble their weapons even when blindfolded or in total darkness.

Scientific management

The work of the Gilbreths is often associated with that of Frederick Winslow Taylor, yet there was a substantial philosophical difference between the Gilbreths and Taylor. The symbol of Taylorism was the stopwatch; Taylor was concerned primarily with reducing process times. The Gilbreths, in contrast, sought to make processes more efficient by reducing the motions involved. They saw their approach as more concerned with workers' welfare than Taylorism, which workers themselves often perceived as concerned mainly with profit. This difference led to a personal rift between Taylor and the Gilbreths which, after Taylor's death, turned into a feud between the Gilbreths and Taylor's followers. After Frank's death, Lillian Gilbreth took steps to heal the rift;[9] however, some friction remains over questions of history and intellectual property.[10]

Fatigue study

In conducting their Motion Study method to work, they found that the key to improving work efficiency was in reducing unnecessary motions. Not only were some motions unnecessary, but they caused employee fatigue. Their efforts to reduce fatigue included reduced motions, tool redesign, parts placement, and bench and seating height, for which they began to develop workplace standards. The Gilbreths' work broke ground for contemporary understanding of ergonomics.[11]


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth often used their large family (and Frank himself) as guinea pigs in experiments. Their family exploits are lovingly detailed in the 1948 book Cheaper by the Dozen, written by son Frank Jr. and daughter Ernestine (Ernestine Gilbreth Carey). The book inspired two films of the same name. The first, in 1950, starred Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.[12] The second, in 2003, starred comedians Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt,[13] and bears no resemblance to the book, except that it features a family with twelve children, and the wife's maiden name is Gilbreth. A 1952 sequel titled Belles on Their Toes chronicled the adventures of the Gilbreth family after Frank's 1924 death. A later biography of his parents, Time Out For Happiness, was written by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. alone in 1962.[12]

The award for lifetime achievement by the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE) is named in Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's honor.

Selected publications

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth wrote in collaboration, but Lillian's name was not included on the title page until after she earned her PhD.[1]:165

  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1909). Bricklaying System. The M.C. Clark Publishing Co.
  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1911). Motion Study: A Method for Increasing the Efficiency of the Workman. Introduction by Robert Thurston Kent. D. Van Nostrand Company.
  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1912). Primer of Scientific Management. D. Van Nostrand Company.
  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth; Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1916). Fatigue Study, the Elimination of Humanity's Greatest Unnecessary Waste: A First Step in Motion Study. Sturgis & Walton Company.
  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth; L. M. Gilbreth (1917). Applied Motion Study: A Collection of Papers on the Efficient Method to Industrial Preparedness. Sturgis & Walton Company.


  1. Jane Lancaster (2004), Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a Life Beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen", Northeastern University Press, ISBN 978-1-55553-612-1, Wikidata Q28474683
  2. Ford, Daniel N. (1995). "Frank Gilbert, 1868-1924, American engineer" (PDF). In Emily J. McMurray; Jane Kelly Kosek; Roger M. Valade (eds.). Notable Twentieth-century Scientists: F-K. Gale Research. pp. 759–760. ISBN 978-0-8103-9183-3.
  3. Urwick, L.F.; E.F.L. Brech (2003) [1949]. "Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1868-1924)". In Michael C. Wood; John Cunningham Wood (eds.). Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management. Taylor & Francis. pp. 49–64. ISBN 978-0-415-30946-2.
  4. Sheldrake, John (2003). "The Gilbreths and motion study". Management Theory (2nd ed.). Thompson Learning. pp. 27–34. ISBN 1-86152-963-5.
  5. "Simmons Hardware Company Warehouse - National Register of Historic Places Registration Form". National Park Service. 28 February 2008. Retrieved 9 May 2016.
  6. "Maj. Frank B. Gilbreth". The Washington Post. June 15, 1924. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  7. "Maj. Gilbreth Stricken With Heart Attack at Railway Station After Talking to His Wife". The Washington Post. June 15, 1924. Retrieved 2008-07-08. Frank B. Gilbreth, 56 years old, known mechanical engineer and author, died of heart ... Gilbreth was born at Fairfield, Maine on July 7, 1868 and educated at Boston. ...
  8. George (1968, p. 98)
  9. Price, Brian (1992). "Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and the Motion Study Controversy, 1907-1930". In Daniel Nelson (ed.). A Mental Revolution: Scientific Management Since Taylor. Ohio State University Press. pp. 58–76. ISBN 978-0-8142-0567-9.
  10. The Gilbreth Network at
  11. The Gilbreth Network at
  12. Saxon, Wolfgang (20 February 2001). "Frank Gilbreth Jr., 89, Author Of 'Cheaper by the Dozen'". The New York Times.
  13. Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) on IMDb

Further reading

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