little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped
Engineer's family was 'cheaper by the
By Paul Niemann
Send a link to a friend
[October 30, 2008]
People often ask me how I come up with the
ideas for these stories. There are several main sources that I turn
to, but in order to keep this column's mystique intact (assuming
that there is some mystique), I'm not ready to reveal my secret.
But I'll make an exception with this story. The idea for this one
came from Mom. The subject of today's story is a lady I had never
heard of until my mom told me of her a couple of years ago. Yup, we
operate pretty fast here at Invention Mysteries. It only took two
years to get to this story.
The engineer was Lillian
Gilbreth, and her family was the subject of not one but -- count 'em
-- two movies. Actually, they were the subject of just one movie,
but that movie was made twice, once in 1950 and again in 2003; the
later version starred Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.
Born in 1878 in Oakland, Calif., Lillian earned her college
degree during a time when very few women went to college. She topped
that by going back to earn her master's degree. Lillian and her
husband, Frank, worked together in their consulting business.
Oh, did I mention that she was also the mother of 12 kids? Things
were already looking good for this hardworking couple when Frank
received an invitation to speak at two major international
conferences in the summer of 1924 -- one in London and the other in
Prague. These conferences were certain to boost his reputation and
grow his business even more.
Then tragedy struck. At the train station on the way to the boat
that would have taken him to Europe, he suddenly collapsed and died
of heart failure. Lillian was now faced with raising her 12 children
on her own. It was Lillian who would give Frank's speeches in London
She was one of the first people to study ergonomics, which in
layman's terms means that she figured out how to make things work
better for the people who use them. An example of ergonomics would
be to configure the right height for your keyboard so you don't get
carpal tunnel syndrome. Or adjusting the height of your chair so
you're not slouched over at your desk. Lillian's work made both the
workplace and the home more efficient.
[to top of second column]
You would expect that as a mother of 12 children (born in a span
of 17 years) she would spend a lot of time in the kitchen. She
worked as an industrial engineer for General Electric, where she
patented inventions such as an electric food mixer, the refrigerator
doors with shelves on the inside and the trash can with the
foot-pedal that opens the lid.
Her major contributions weren't limited to her inventions,
though. With her husband, she helped establish incentive wage plans.
She even influenced which topics would be taught at engineering
schools. Speaking of schools, most business students study the
results of Lillian and Frank's work to this day, more than 30 years
after her death.
Lillian built a successful consulting career by developing "time
and motion studies," which helped workers perform their tasks more
efficiently and safely. She fit the workplace to the worker,
interviewing thousands of people in order to find out how to help
them do their work better. She was also one of the first scientists
to discover the effects of stress and lack of sleep on workers. This
was probably the result of raising 12 children.
And how did the children turn out?
Just fine; in fact, all 12 of them went to college like their
mother did. Oddly enough, that is something that their dad never
did, despite all of his success.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008