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APA Monitor: Psychology’s First Forays into Film

The May issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology is now online. Included in this month’s Time Capsule section is a piece from AHP’s own Arlie Belliveau on the early uses of film in psychology. In particular, Belliveau describes the work of husband and wife team of engineer Frank Gilbreth and industrial psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth (both pictured above), who worked in the field of scientific management. The Gilbreths created what were called micromotion films, which aimed to record the minute details of the motions required to perform the highly repetitive work done within factories. (You can view one of their micromotion films online here.) As Belliveau describes,

The first instance of this form of micromotion study occurred in 1912 at the NEBC factory. The Gilbreths set up their camera in a second-floor laboratory in which the walls and floorboards were painted white with a black grid overlay to optimize light reflection and provide a reference to scale. Individual braiding machines and pieces of office equipment were brought upstairs to be filmed under the natural lights of the windows. Factory workers were enlisted to participate as the stars and experts of the films. Each factory task was filmed, and then viewed frame by frame, breaking each motion sequence into individual parts called “Therbligs” (an anagram of “Gilbreths”). The micromotion team (made up of the Gilbreths and cooperating workers) then evaluated the work process to find ways to make it safer, simpler, faster and more ergonomically correct. They developed and filmed these new procedures and used those films to retrain the factory workers.

….Workers reportedly loved seeing themselves projected onto the big screen, and the Gilbreths set up an exhibition room to periodically screen the films. Lillian believed that these screenings improved morale and output while promoting a unification phenomenon she called “happiness minutes.” Happiness minutes were the total amount of time each day that workers felt satisfied with their jobs. Lillian believed this to be an essential element of efficiency, although they only gauged employee happiness through subjective methods (such as their suggestion box system and general impressions obtained from talking to the workers), and never conducted formal psychological surveys. With this in mind, she and Frank adapted later films taken at the Ball Brothers Mason Jar factory in 1918 to include shots of workers smiling at the camera with their names and even nicknames written at the bottom of the screen.

Read the full article, “Psychology’s First Forays into Film,” online here.

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