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Historical Figures In Engineering: Lillian Gilbreth

  • by: Aimee Treasure
  • On: 15, May 2019
2 min read

Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth was an American psychologist and engineer, and was one of the first female engineers to earn a Ph.D. She was the first industrial/organisational psychologist, and greatly contributed to the field of industrial engineering. Called ‘the first lady of engineering,’ her work would go on to change the field, and change lives around the world.

Born in 1878, she was home schooled until the age of nine. She graduated from university in 1900 with a degree in English Literature. She then went on to get a master’s degree, and a Ph.D. in applied psychology.

Lillian Gilbreth’s Industrial Psychology and Engineering Work

Gilbreth was the first person to recognise to importance of psychology in the world of engineering. Married in 1904, she and her husband ran Gilbreth, Incorporated, an engineering and consulting firm.

She was instrumental in realising that poor productivity in factories and workshops was more likely to be as a result of bad management or poor organisation than the fault of ‘lazy’ workers. After her husband’s death in 1924, she took over the business, looking to take on new clients.

She began filming engineer’s workstations, which enabled her to make changes to them to allow for increased efficiency and less fatigue for the workers. Her study into fatigue was a forerunner to the field of ergonomics, and she was on of the first to recognise the impact of lack of sleep on workers. She began placing more and more importance on worker’s mental wellbeing, not just the efficiency of the workplace.

Lillian studied how different types of jobs affect different types of people, realising that different people have different skills, psychologies, and aptitudes for certain roles. She would go on to develop systems to assign people to the jobs they would be best at, improving the efficiency of the company as a whole.

After she gained fame for improving efficiency, she began training at universities, including Purdue where she would eventually become a full professor. She was the first female professor at Purdue’s engineering school, and taught there until her retirement in 1948.

Engineering Consultancy and Social Work

However, she never stopped consulting, and during the Great Depression she was asked by President Hoover to address unemployment. She helped launch the ‘Share The Work’ programme, which created more job opportunities for the unemployed from already existing jobs.

She later consulted with General Electric, and her inventions include the shelf in fridge doors, and the foot-pedal bin. She interviewed over 4,000 women to improve the designs for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen fixtures. This focus on detail and quality informed all of her decisions and designs, making improvements that could only be made thanks to her unique approach.

Over her lifetime, she received many awards and accolades. She was the first female member of the Society of Industrial Engineers, the first woman to receive the Hoover Medal for distinguished public service by an engineer, and was the first female psychologist to have a United States postage stamp issued in her honour.

Her work impacted the lives of millions of people, improved workplace conditions, and made things easier for all of us in our everyday lives.

Learn new skills engineers will need in 2020, or read about how engineering impacts every area of modern life.

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