Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr
(The Short Form)
Please note that this is a temporary page.
There's been a sudden and somewhat unexpected — but entirely welcome — surge of public and literary interest in Frank Gilbreth, so I thought it would be useful to create a one-page introduction to the man, his work and his legacies. Here it is.
In the overall spectrum of Gilbreth projects on my desk, I don't intend to focus on Frank Sr any more than is his due among the many other fascinating aspects of the Gilbreth family. My philosophy is “to each its own in sufficient measure” and, to quote a late friend, each topic has its point at which “having nothing further to say, I will say nothing further” — a maxim far too many writers fail to heed.
Eventually the biographical pages and essays here will fill out a complete portrait of every person relevant to the story, this exceptional man included. But the dozens of biographical sketches and ’pedia entries currently out there don't always get it right, or complete, so I'd like to pause and drive one anchor in the shifting sands of the internet to help guide public interest and an accurate dialogue.
I present Mr. Frank Bunker Gilbreth:
- Born 7 July 1868, Fairfield, Maine, son of a successful hardware merchant and livestock breeder. His father, who died when Frank was just 3, had eight siblings; his mother had fourteen.
- Died 14 June 1924, Montclair, New Jersey, at age 55y 11m, of heart failure. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Hudson River.
- His formal education ended with graduation from Boston's English High School, then a trade- and mechanically-oriented school for Boston's best who were not headed to Harvard. (The Harvard crowd went to the older and more formally preparatory Latin High School.)
- He qualified for entry to MIT in 1885, but turned down the opportunity in favor of a practical education.
- He went to work as a bricklayer's assistant days before his 17th birthday. He would work for builders Whidden & Company for almost exactly ten years, rising from assistant laborer to site superintendent (one level below partner).
- In his ten years as an employee in the construction field, he learned and “made journeyman’s wages” in some fifty trades, continuing his practical education well into the time he was at rising levels of management.
- He was awarded an honorary Ph.D. in 1920. He never mentioned it outside a brief period of celebration in the household.
- Testing in the 1920s placed his IQ in the 99th percentile.
- He would be looked down on for most of his career for not having a university degree, especially an engineering or technical one. The records are filled with backhanded praise that he could accomplish so much “without formal training.”
- On April Fools Day 1895, he left Whidden and founded his own contracting company. Over the next fifteen years, “Frank B. Gilbreth, General Contractor” would build some ninety large-scale commercial and industrial projects across the U.S. Many of these buildings, dams and other projects still stand and are still in use.
- He was an innovator in first brick and then reinforced concrete construction, and built several “first of the kind” concrete buildings as that technology came into use.
- He held thirteen patents in construction methods and engineering, and one in motion studies.
- He continually innovated in both contract and payroll methods, championing the “cost plus fixed sum” contract model in its earliest days and finding ways to motivate his workers through bonus systems.
- Married Lillian Evelyn Moller, 19 Oct 1904.
- Born “Lillie,” she was the daughter of two extremely wealthy California families that began with four German immigrant grandparents who arrived in the U.S. with modest resources.
- She received her Bachelor's from the University of California (now UC Berkeley) in 1900, her Master's in 1902, and a delayed Ph.D. from Brown in 1915.
- They had twelve children in seventeen years, six girls and six boys, eleven of whom survived to adulthood.
- All eleven graduated from college.
- All married successfully. (One was widowed and remarried; one divorced after 25 years.)
- All had children (mostly two or three; one had five).
- Five of the six boys served in WWII. (The youngest was 4F for health reasons.)
- Most lived into their 80s or beyond. Two nearly reached 100. The last of ‘the Dozen’ died in 2015.
- Served briefly in WWI as a Major of Engineers. His service of just over a month was cut short by severe illness that lasted several months. He was left with heart damage that would contribute to his death six years later.
- Was fascinated — obsessed — with labor efficiency from his first days as an apprentice and spent much of his construction career finding ways to boost efficiency, speed up work and reduce worker fatigue. This obsession with efficiency drove nearly every business and professional effort for his entire life.
- Rightfully considered the founder and original developer of “motion studies,” which analyze labor motions and reduce them to the fewest, fastest and least-fatiguing set that will accomplish each task. Speed and efficiency are more consequences of motion study than primary goals.
- Wrote (with Lillian's extensive but uncredited help) three seminal books on construction management and techniques that distilled and focused on his decades of efficient methods for labor, site management and accounting.
- Became an ardent supporter of time-studies founder Frederick Taylor in 1908. The long relationship would be largely one-sided and detrimental to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's careers.
- Although he regarded Taylor as one of the great men of the age and contributed endless support and effort to the growing ‘Taylorism’ movement, the attitude was not reciprocated. Taylor never fully trusted or admired Gilbreth. Taylor's close circle of supporters, all men with engineering degrees, actively counseled against giving “the bricklayer” too much respect or authority. (Taylor's own education was little different from Gilbreth's — largely practical learning as a machinist, with a correspondence-school engineering degree and an honorary doctorate, from which he was styled as “Dr. Taylor” for the rest of his life.)
- Taylor had a long history of “working with” colleagues whose work he appropriated as joint authorship or as a whole. In 1908, at the beginning of their relationship, he suggested that he and Frank co-write a book on bricklaying (something Taylor had no experience with). Gilbreth declined and wrote the still-authoritative Bricklaying System under his own name.
- In 1910, Frank Gilbreth was the driving force behind creation of a society to promote Taylor's notions of scientific management. He wanted to name it the Taylor Society; at Taylor's request it was given a more general name until after his death a few years later.
- In 1914, after Taylor published a long and complex explanation of “the Taylor Method” in a magazine, Frank Gilbreth took on the job of a mass reply to the thousands of questions that it provoked. In more or less one pass, he wrote (again with Lillian's help) a long Q&A book explaining and supporting Taylor's ideas.
- Frank Gilbreth made several attempts at implementing Taylor's methods on his job sites and, later, in client companies. The results were mixed and Gilbreth was repeatedly accused of mixing in his own methods (which was true) and attempting to appropriate credit for Taylor's (which was not).
- Taylor came to increasingly resent Gilbreth's attempts to expand his ideas and include his years of motion study findings in the time-study-driven Taylor System. The result was that within a few years, both Taylor and his supporters were freely using “motion study” as if it had always been an integral part of Taylor's research and program — a claim that was transparently false.
- The two men eventually broke and the schism between Gilbreth's motion-study-based methods and Taylor's already despised time-study methods became deep. Although the Gilbreths were respectful towards Taylor in a 1911 book outlining motion study principles, it was an open break by the time of Taylor's death in 1915, and hostile by 1921. The relationship between the factions was never fully repaired despite Lillian's effort after Frank's death in 1924. “Taylorism” is still debated as both a labor management practice and an early form of scientific management, but widely regarded as organized exploitation that put “time” — speed efficiency — over all regard for the worker.
- Despite lifetime achievements that outshone nearly all Taylor supporters and, arguably, Taylor himself, the Taylor Society's obituary for Frank Gilbreth noted only one achievement, his “greatest” — helping to found the Taylor Society.
- Frank spent some thirteen years as an efficiency expert and management consultant, first relying on Taylor's system and methods before he and Lillian evolved their own, more worker-considerate system. This era of his life and career has come to nearly eclipse all his other achievements.
- A number of important and productive contracts were broken prematurely by Frank's death in 1924. It took Lillian several years to rebuild the practice under her own name, even with her full slate of degrees and a decade of recognition as Frank's “assistant.”
- After his death, Lillian Gilbreth continued her career as an efficiency expert and industrial psychologist for more than forty years, blending Frank's motion studies and quest for efficiency with the rising understanding of scientific management and a keen insight into both worker and management psychology. She would acquire more than twenty honorary doctorates and the title “First Lady of Engineering” by the time of her retirement in the 1960s. She died in 1972, just short of her 94th birthday, survived by eleven children and a legacy of immense influence on both the industrial world and everyday life. She, too was cremated, her ashes scattered off Nantucket Island.
I am available for media and research assistance
in understanding the life and work of Frank Gilbreth.