The Gilbreth Family

When you tour the Steam Plant, two names that pop up almost immediately are Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. You might already know them as the adult stars of the semi-autobiographical novels Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles On Their Toes, written by their children Frank and Ernestine.

Frank and Lillian at work (self-portrait)

Frank was also an efficiency expert and industrial management pioneer, meaning he studied ways to build structures more quickly, safely, and durably. He identified eighteen actions – called “therbligs” (“Gilbreth” spelled backwards) – that could be combined to complete virtually any specific task with maximum efficiency. Frank and Lillian’s twelve children were often used as initial test subjects, and as the kids grew older they were even financially rewarded for incorporating these skills into their everyday chores. As Ernest wrote:

Dad took moving pictures of us children washing dishes, so that he could figure out how we could reduce our motions and thus hurry through the task. Irregular jobs, such as painting the back porch or removing a stump from the front lawn, were awarded on a low-bid basis. Each child who wanted extra pocket money submitted a sealed bid saying what he would do the job for. The lowest bidder got the contract.

The children were encouraged – some of them might say pressured – into 24/7 efficiency. They even listened to French language records while brushing their teeth!

Lilian with some of her children. (source: Gilbreth Archive, Purdue University)

Frank and Lillian were a particularly cool twentieth century couple because they both went to college (Lillian earned her doctorate too, in Industrial Psychology), and once they started a family they shared work both inside and outside the home. In the Gilbreth household, it wasn’t uncommon for Frank to stay home with the kids while Lillian travelled for a lecture.

When the Steam Plant commissioned Frank to help build the plant, he and Lillian were already married and had just started their family. (Their second-oldest, Mary, died at a young age, making the phrase “cheaper by the dozen” particularly poignant.) At first, Frank planned to build the plant out of brick, as that was his initial claim to fame, but after the San Francisco earthquake destroyed multiple steel-enforced brick buildings, they switched their plan to reinforced concrete. And now, over one hundred years later, the Plant stands.

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