While the motion study work of the Gilbreths is commonly linked with Frederick Taylor's time studies and grouped within the various "laws and principles" of scientific management, in actuality there is much difference between the two. The components of what originated as the "Taylor system" and later became scientific management, changed how workers were paid, introduced a new division of labor, and expanded and strengthened the role of management. The use of stop watches to measure and set the proper times for tasks was important, but only as part of the overall system. The Gilbreths' motion studies were more focused on how a task was done, and how best to eliminate unneeded, fatiguing steps in any process.

But within that singular focus was a wide range of expression. The Gilbreths' studied physicians and the way in which operations, and operating room procedures were organized. Although the results offered by Frank Gilbreth at a meeting of the American Medical Association in 1915 were ignored by the medical hieracrchy, they resurfaced in the late 1930's, as the AMA embraced the value of motion study. [6] The Gilbreths' recommendations about the organization of instruments laid out in regular and consistent patterns and the standardization of techniques for surgeries were eventually accepted by the medical practice.


In the aftermath of World War I the Gilbreths' studied ways in which amputees could be re-integrated into the work force. Lillian Gilbreth would return to this during the 1950's when she helped analyze the movements of mothers and housewives disabled by polio and other diseases, with the goal of making them as self-sufficient as possible.


But the Gilbreths' primary focus was work, and workers. Reorganizing systematic work drew upon Frank Gilbreth's experience as a mason; it was also the most reliable source of income. Most manufacturers were interested in increasing profits while also keeping their workers happy, and the Gilbreths' system was designed to do both things.

Frank Gilbreth's early work in motion study consisted of re-organizing the typical work flow for bricklaying, and focused on eliminating unneeded movements. His solutions were simple but revolutionary to a trade that had changed little over 4,000 years; he brought the bricks closer to the mason, helped reduce the amount of bending and lifting required to lay and brick, and used a moveable scaffold to allow steady progress on the construction of brick buildings.

As the Gilbreths expanded the scope of their motion study from the trade of bricklaying to the manufacturing process as a whole, so did the influence of Lillian Gilbreth expand within their work. Her training in the nascent field of industrial psychology informed much of the Gilbreths' recognition of the role of the worker in any work reorganization. Unlike Taylor, who held an antagonistic and patronizing view of the laborer of the day, both Gilbreths were more sympathetic to their concerns. Frank Gilbreth had belonged to a union and was disposed to consider that the cooperation of the worker was necessary if any "scientific" reorganization was to succeed. It is in large measure due to Lillian's influence and training that the Gilbreths' form of scientific management always had a more developed view of the worker, and his or her interests, than Taylor's simplistic view of a worker as driven solely by pay.


Frank Gilbreth's early motion study technique, used during his analysis of bricklaying, relied on a visual study of the work, laid out in detailed pictures and notes. Very soon, however, Gilbreth was using photography as a documenting tool to aid his visual memory. From there he began to use a stereoscope camera to record the differing positions of workers as they completed a task. It was only a short step from sequences of stereoscopic images to using motion picture film and cameras to record the entire sequence of a work activity.


The Gilbreths' only complete installation of scientific management, at the New England Butt Company during 1913-14, relied heavily on the use of cameras to record work process in order to eliminate unnecessary and inefficient movement. The resulting "micro-motion" films, as Frank Gilbreth dubbed them, served two purposes. One was as the visual record of how work had been done, and the Gilbreths and their team studied these films in order to make improvements.

The micro-motion films also served the purpose of training workers; after instituting new procedures for work practices, the Gilbreths would then film a number of workers performing the same task. They would winnow these films down to the best workers, or select individual clips representing a particularly "best way" to perform one step in the work process. These films would be screened both for workers and management, and narrated by Frank Gilbreth, went a ways towards securing the cooperation of the workers.


One can only imagine the effect of the Gilbreth operation on a group of workers in a factory during the second decade of the twentieth century. Motion picture technology, though widespread, and available as cheap entertainment, is certainly not known for taking as its subject common laborers and their tasks. But there, appearing on the factory floor, are motion picture cameras, and technicians, and Frank Gilbreth, director. Compared to Frederick Taylor's solitary man with a stopwatch, the Gilbreths' enterprise seems more like a circus. If both systems were designed to return the same result - more efficient work in less time - the Gilbreth system had the advantage of treating the worker far differently. Peter Leibhold, project specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, theorizes that the effect of all this was to make the worker feel like a "star."


The Gilbreths also used procedures Marey had devised for tracing the path of movements of the body. For work done at the Hermann, Aukam Company, where lace handkerchiefs were manufactured, the Gilbreths attached tiny lights to workers hands, much as Marey had done to analyze the gait and stride of the disabled. The resulting "cyclographs" and "chronocyclographs" were individual stereo images of particular steps in the work process, taken with a long exposure. The cyclographs were taken by a still camera in a completely dark room, tracking the movement of the light bulb as a single line . The chronocyclographs were more elaborate. In a specially designed laboratory, with a luminous background, the Gilbreths regulated the current of electricity powering the light. The resulting image showed the movement as a series of dots or dashes of lights. In a further refinement, the Gilbreths exposed each negative twice; first by inserting a transparent screen along the plane of where the work would take pace, and then after its removal, filmed the worker performing the activity. [7]


The photographs were used to construct wire models of the path of movement - workers would then be trained with the wire models, attempting to follow the path of hand movement of more skilled workers.

In all this work the Gilbreths' are following, consciously or not, the path set by E.J. Marey, and there is some uncertainty about how much the Gilbreths' knew of Marey's work. Like the great patent battles over ownership of motion picture recording and projection techniques, who came to own the copyright for a device was not necessarily the original inventor. Gilbreth patented the chronophotograph process, using methods and devices remarkably similar to what Marey had devised, but not patented. [8] And as we know, Marey's work also built upon those who preceded him. Perhaps the difference between them lay in Marey's acknowledgment of the contribution of others before him. It was Frank Gilbreth's lot to be squeezed between the accomplishments of two better known, more influential men - Frederick W. Taylor and Etienne Jules Marey. As such, Gilbreth needed to claim as much ownership as he could.

Marey, Taylor and Gilbreth form a particularly fascinating conjunction between science and the body. Each man sought to find in science certain answers that had in the past been supplied by recourse to mystical and religious beliefs, in the case of Marey, or the "rule of thumb" for Taylor and Gilbreth. Marey battled against the "superstitious" beliefs of vitalism, seeking to find, through positivistic scientific measures the objective underlying laws of natural movement. Taylor and Gilbreth sought to substitute objective "laws and principles" of motion and movement for traditional management techniques, which they believed could help solve the "labor problem", at least in a way advantageous to the factory owners who had the wherewithal to hire "management" consultants.

But if the scientific territory that underlies Marey's research is firmer and more stable than the shaky terrain of "laws" that Taylor and Gilbreth sought to define, it's still reasonable to question Marey's naive faith in the uses that his data would be applied. Marey belonged to a time when scientific progress, although controversial, retained a utopian patina, reflecting a vision of a future world in which unified laws of science would eliminate the negative effects of irrationality and superstition.

Like the other good scientists of France, Germany and Britain, who struggled to gain and maintain state support, Marey's responsibility to science ended at the point of discovery, at the elucidation of principles and theorems. But it was in the sphere of political men that the results of scientific discoveries were most clearly felt. The soldiers of August 1914, struggling against each other in the countryside of Belgium and France, were propelled in part by the faith their politicians and generals had in the scientific training they received. It may be too asking too much of men like Marey, and his contemporaries, to have applied a social conscience to their field of study. In this latter part of the twentieth century, it is impossible not to ask our current men, and women of science, the same question. Both the virtual, and real, humans of the present and future require no less.