This story is over 5 years old.


RIP Frank Gilbreth Sr., Father of the Flowchart, Twelve Kids

A dozen facts about Gilbreth, who, alongside his equally-brilliant spouse, produced more than just offspring.
A bow-tied Frank Gilbreth Sr. in 1916, via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Frank Gilbreth Sr. died 89 years ago today. If you’ve heard of him it’s most likely on account of his prolific procreation—Gilbreth and his wife Lillian had 12 children. Two of them, Frank Jr. and Ernestine, published a memoir of the family in 1948 called, “Cheaper By The Dozen,” which shares a title, but nothing else, with that Hilary Duff movie. In his honor, this article presents a dozen facts about Gilbreth, who, alongside his equally-brilliant spouse, produced more than just offspring.

2. Gilbreth lived from July 7, 1868 until June 14, 1924. He died after talking to his wife on the phone in a train station in New Jersey. Live fast, have lots of kids and die in your fifties. Those were the days, huh? I wonder how long the gap will be between my last text message and when I expire.

This isn't even all of the Gilbreths, via.

3. Frank Gilbreth Sr. was as potent in mind as he was in seed. He started as a bricklayer, found semi-fame as a workflow expert, and invented the flow-chart, all without a formal college education.

4. At the end of the 19th century, science took on the question of workplace efficiency. One man, Frederick Winslow Taylor, is called the father of scientific management. Taylor believed that through empirical observation, he could eliminate “goldbricking,” allowing management to get more productivity for less money. The stereotypical image of Taylorism is a man with a stopwatch, measuring each action of worker in a factory, but Taylor also advocated for workers taking a lot of little rest breaks throughout the day. This wasn’t to be kind exactly; Taylor’s end goal was always more productivity, and he sometimes comes off as downright contemptuous of factory workers. He compares their intelligence to that of barnyard animals, for example.

5. The Gilbreth husband-and-wife duo came up in a Taylorism world. Their workplace suggestions might not seem all that humanizing from the 21st century perspective—when we are well-aware of things like repetitive stress disorder—but the Gilbreths’ method was a study in the worker’s movements while they worked, and never got into measuring the time. The Gilbreths were into simplicity—doing everything with fewer steps would logically be the fastest way.


6. The Gilbreths identified and labeled 18 movements and decisions that a worker does into “therbligs,” a word that’s just their last name backwards (with the “th” taken as a single letter).

7. With a task broken into therbligs, you could look at delays, when and why they happen, and try to eliminate them. Frank Sr. gives the example of shaving in Cheaper by the Dozen:

The 18 therbligs, via Wikimedia Commons.

8. To better document and present a process, in 1924 the Gilbreths came up with the “flow process chart,” where specific shapes indicate specific actions. As they described it, the process chart “presents [data], in simple, easily understood, compact form,” and it was a useful tool for improving efficiency in “production, selling, accounting and finance.”

9. Though the Gilbreths would’ve had no way to predict it, the flow process chart actually ended up being extremely useful in early computer programming, as a way to clearly blueprint data flow and the sequence of operations.

Flowchart from an IBM manual on flowcharting, 1969, via Ernst-Abbe-Fachhochschule Jena.

10. While it fell out of favor with computer programmers, the ancestor to Gilbreth’s flowchart haunts our memes and magazines to this day. I bet its funnier if you had to make flowcharts at some point.

11. In a Gilbreth giveth, Gilbreth taketh symmetry, he suggested that surgeons have someone hand them their instruments. He also pioneered methods still used by militaries for stripping down weapons in the rain or complete dark.

12. His middle name was Bunker. Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr.