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The FBG Chronicles – 1

In researching material for the book, I often come across fascinating side stories that I have to condense to as little as a sentence, if not something as small as an anchor date or other minor datum. It seems a waste to let these little vignettes vanish back into the archives, so I think I'm going to start doing short writeups of the best.

Typewriting Efficiency

Anyone who's read Cheaper by the Dozen will remember the chapter on speed typewriting, in which Dad brings home a white typewriter and offers prizes to whichever child learns to type the fastest. There's an element of truth in this story, but as with so much in the charming family lore books, the intersection of their version, truth and completeness isn't a large one.

Frank and Lillian did indeed work with typewriter companies, primarily Remington, just before WWI. One outcome was a highly-trained typist who won a national speed championship that year, and then three out of the following four years, a PR coup for Remington.

That wasn't the end, though. The Gilbreths continued to work on office workplace efficiency for several years, first for basic jobs like type-writers (the person, not the tool) and then adapting the tasks for disabled soldiers with one arm, or a pair of manipulator hooks, or the like. But it's astonishing to see how much of modern ergonomics Frank Gilbreth anticipated and helped develop, as in this article from an October 1917 Popular Science Monthly:

Not just all the proper efficiencies of how to sit at a keyboard desk, but the “modern” innovation of a standing desk... with a simple ability to switch between sitting and standing!

Pretty cool, eh?

White by Design

Oh, by the way... in Cheaper the typewriter is white, and the reason why is reduced (in typical family-lore fashion) to a mysterious comment by Dad that "It photographs better... and anyone who sees a white typewriter wants to type on it. Don't ask me why. It's psychology.”

Now, I could spend all day unpacking that statement, but here's the cheat sheet version:

  1. Yes, white photographed a little better, especially under office conditions. But that's secondary.
  2. Of course it was psychology, and...
  3. No, Frank was not the person to ask about that... just maybe Mom was.
  4. But it was white for another carefully chosen efficiency reason: the Gilbreths had found that high contrast in the work area, such as white paper in a black typewriter, created greater fatigue. They recommended that Remington paint its typewriters white to reduce fatigue. (They also recommended that factory machinery and surroundings be all one light color like gray, no matter how easy black walls etc. were to keep looking clean.)

And there you have it.