Gilbreth Stopwatch

Using custom stopwatches, specialized timers, and still and moving pictures, Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian created a system for analyzing human motion in time. Their main clients were industrial managers, who sought to increase worker output while saving time and money. Their study subjects were workers, whose job satisfaction the Gilbreths hoped to increase as they decreased wasted motions.
The Gilbreths did not invent stopwatch studies. Instead, in their system of motion study, watches were secondary, in direct reaction to worker resistance to earlier stopwatch studies conducted in industrial workplaces by management reformer Frederick Winslow Taylor beginning in the 1880s.
Taylor's approach came to be known as Taylorism or "scientific management" and included numerous measures to make industry more productive and cost-efficient. As a small part of this program, he advocated the stopwatch as the "scientific," objective arbiter of work, a means of measuring, controlling, and standardizing the amount of time a worker spent at a task. The popularity of stopwatch studies rose among industrial managers, and Taylor's work inspired generations of industrial engineers, who used stopwatches in their research well into the 1960s.
But as stopwatch studies spread at the beginning of the 20th century, craft unions mounted bitter campaigns against them in open revolt against the new techniques aimed at speeding up their work and controlling their time. The stopwatch became an object of contention between managers and workers, the single most visible manifestation of the new management systems.
In the short span of Taylor's lifetime, the stopwatch became the symbol of everything hated and revered about scientific management. Although the stopwatch no longer provokes the passions it once did, scientific management's compelling emphasis on standardization, order, and efficiency and its obsession with time persists in our own age.
Object Name
stop watch, pocket
Gilbreth stop watch
associated date
Gilbreth, Lillian Moller
Gilbreth, Frank Bunker
Physical Description
nickel-plated copper alloy (case material)
glass (face material)
overall: 2 1/4 in; x 5.715 cm
ID Number
accession number
serial number
catalog number
Industry & Manufacturing
National Treasures exhibit
American Enterprise
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanisms
National Treasures exhibit
American Enterprise
American Enterprise
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Related Publication
Kendrick, Kathleen M. and Peter C. Liebhold. Smithsonian Treasures of American History
Publication title
Treasures of American History online exhibition
Publication author
National Museum of American History
Publication URL

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