Time Capsule

Industrial psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth, PhD, and her husband, scientific manager Frank Bunker Gilbreth, are popularly known as the main characters from the 1948 autobiographical book "Cheaper by the Dozen." Psychologists know the couple for their work on motion study, fatigue and ergonomics and for Lillian's work as a pioneering woman psychologist.

What many people don't realize is that the Gilbreths were also among psychology's first filmmakers, producing more than 250,000 feet of silent, black-and-white 35mm films from 1912 to 1924. The Gilbreths filmed not only to record and replay their methods for studying efficiency in the workplace, but also to gain the curiosity and (sometimes hesitant) cooperation of workers. They capitalized on people's interest in motion pictures to construct a productive laboratory space outside of academia.

The Gilbreths created what they called micromotion films. These moving images recorded the time and motions required to perform repetitive factory tasks. Their purpose was to provide replicable and reliable measurements for scientific study, in the hopes of developing faster, safer and more efficient methods. In their 12 years of filmmaking, the Gilbreths produced micromotion films for the New England Butt Co. (NEBC, a wire-braiding company), Pierce-Arrow Motors, Johns Hopkins Hospital, General Electric, Remington Gold, Ball Brothers Mason Jars, Pears and Lever Soaps, the New York Giants baseball team and the U.S. armed forces. Not all of these jobs were intended for scientific scrutiny. In fact, the Gilbreths staged publicity stunts in which they filmed athletes and doctors. These films were not designed for use as precise measurements, but instead were slanted in the hopes of convincing laborers that micromotion films could help people from all stations in life, not just the lower classes. This was a matter to which the Gilbreths attended throughout their careers, and one that set them apart from their contemporaries.

Initially, Frank Gilbreth was a devoted follower of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the man who engineered the American efficiency movement. Taylor took controversial stopwatch time measurements in his efforts to organize factory workflow, increase speed and precision, regulate purchasing, and set quotas. Gilbreth added the unique twist of taking before, during and after photographs of his projects. He used the still shots to attract potential employers and to train new employees.

When labor unions objected to Taylor's methods—arguing that speeded procedures were unsafe, and that the times set for each task were unverifiable and unattainable—Gilbreth realized that he could adapt his photographs into films that might convince skeptics of efficiency study's validity. If the skeptics themselves were the subjects of the films, and if a clock were clearly visible in the frame of each shot, then (in theory) workers would be able to confirm the accuracy and safety of any timed methods. Although Taylor disapproved (arguing that his new competitor was unqualified for such work), this idea became the basis of the Gilbreths' first set of micromotion study films, which they promoted as the "good exception" (to Taylor) in scientific management.

Precision and speed weren't the Gilbreths' only goals. They were also interested in broader aspects of the psychology of work. While Frank was a self-taught industrialist and the company's primary promoter and technician, Lillian was the company's authority on industrial psychology (then called "industrial management"). She trained at the University of California, Berkeley, but finished her doctoral degree in 1913 at Brown University. Studying the work of Edward Thorndike, Hugo Münsterberg and John Dewey, Lillian believed that the key to efficiency lay in worker satisfaction, good training and understanding habit formation. She wanted to increase worker safety and happiness, while limiting boredom and frustration.

When asked by skeptical employees what they would do about the "soul killing, grinding monotony" that characterized turn-of-the-century manufacturing work, the Gilbreths wrote, "The monotony of housework, or farming, or different kinds of industrial work in the plant lies not in the fact that the work is habitual, but that it is uninteresting. The problem is not to break up habits, but to supply interests." The Gilbreths created factory libraries and suggestion box systems (with monthly prizes for the best ideas) to encourage employee interest, but the use of micromotion films quickly became their primary tool.

The first instance of this form of micromotion study occurred in 1912 at the NEBC factory. The Gilbreths set up their camera in a second-floor laboratory in which the walls and floorboards were painted white with a black grid overlay to optimize light reflection and provide a reference to scale. Individual braiding machines and pieces of office equipment were brought upstairs to be filmed under the natural lights of the windows. Factory workers were enlisted to participate as the stars and experts of the films. Each factory task was filmed, and then viewed frame by frame, breaking each motion sequence into individual parts called "Therbligs" (an anagram of "Gilbreths"). The micromotion team (made up of the Gilbreths and cooperating workers) then evaluated the work process to find ways to make it safer, simpler, faster and more ergonomically correct. They developed and filmed these new procedures and used those films to retrain the factory workers.

Films taken at the NEBC demonstrate the workers' initial curiosity in micromotion study. For instance, some of the female office workers would dress up for their performances. Others would find ways to make surprise appearances in the films. In a study of one- and two-handed methods for sorting bolts, an inquisitive manager strays into the shot. While the worker diligently performs the task, the manager strolls about supervising—apparently oblivious to the fact that he is being filmed. Suddenly, becoming aware of his circumstances, he glances over as if surprised to see the camera there. Smiling, he nods his approval and departs the scene. The employee performing in the study never deviates from his task.

Workers reportedly loved seeing themselves projected onto the big screen, and the Gilbreths set up an exhibition room to periodically screen the films. Lillian believed that these screenings improved morale and output while promoting a unification phenomenon she called "happiness minutes." Happiness minutes were the total amount of time each day that workers felt satisfied with their jobs. Lillian believed this to be an essential element of efficiency, although they only gauged employee happiness through subjective methods (such as their suggestion box system and general impressions obtained from talking to the workers), and never conducted formal psychological surveys. With this in mind, she and Frank adapted later films taken at the Ball Brothers Mason Jar factory in 1918 to include shots of workers smiling at the camera with their names and even nicknames written at the bottom of the screen.

After her husband's death in 1924, Lillian went on to apply her efficiency methods to cooking and housework, which she had little experience with herself. She advised homemakers to imagine that their eyes were motion picture cameras and to use them to take motion studies of their work each day. Being mindful of one's actions, she argued, could increase interest in one's chores while reducing the fatigue and monotony associated with housework.

America's preoccupation with cinema facilitated the Gilbreths' career applying psychology to industry and homemaking, and our continued interest in film is what keeps their project fascinating even today.

Arlie R. Belliveau is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University where she specializes in psychologists' early use of film. Katharine Milar, PhD, of Earlham College is historical editor of "Time Capsule."

Suggested reading

  • Gilbreth, F.B., & Gilbreth, L.M. (1917). Applied Motion Study. A Collection of Papers on the Efficient Method to Industrial Preparedness. New York: Sturgis & Walton Company.
  • Gilbreth, F.B. Jr., & Carey, E.G. (1948). Cheaper by the Dozen. N.Y.: Thomas Crowell.
  • Lancaster, J. (2004). Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth, A Life Beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen." Boston, M.A.: Northeastern University Press.
  • Sammond, N. (2006). Picture this: Lillian Gilbreth's industrial cinema for the home. Camera Obscura 63. 21(3), 103–131. Duke University Press. DOI 10.1215/02705346-2006-013.