Summer Research: Julia Irwin & the Gilbreth Archives

06 Sep, 2021

Summer Research: Julia Irwin & the Gilbreth Archives

Julia Irwin received a BCNM 2021 Summer Research Award. Read about her great work researching and writing about the archives of industrial psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth and her husband Frank B. Gilbreth.

This summer, thanks to the support of the BCNM Summer Fellowship, I visited the archives of industrial psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth and her husband Frank B. Gilbreth, who together produced hundreds of industrial films and advanced experimental film exhibition practices to train factory laborers and military troops in the 1910s. I have been researching and writing about the Gilbreths for the past year and a half, having presented on this subject at both the Yale Film & Media Graduate Conference (2020) and SCMS (2021), but this summer’s trip to Purdue University, which houses the archives, was necessary as I develop this work into the first chapter of my dissertation.

My research preceding the archival visit has focused on two aspects of the Gilbreth body of work. The first engages in contemporary discourse in film studies regarding the relation of the duo’s motion pictures to the industrial film genre and to early twentieth-century industrialization more generally. I have argued that the Gilbreth visual media artifacts must be read in accordance with what I call an ergonomic imaginary—historically specific conceptualizations of the human body’s physiological and psychological dimensions and the Gilbreths’ detailed training programs for establishing harmony between a worker’s interiority and factory environments. The Gilbreth method sought to standardize manufacturing operations and increase output by instituting experimental methods for measuring and regulating a body’s contingent factors, especially fatigue and pleasure. These practices anticipate current psychometric and biometric data analytics deployed by tech companies, employers, and law enforcement institutions. My second line of research looks at how Lillian Gilbreth translated concepts developed by William James, regarding the relationship between sensory experience and habit formation, into applied industrial practices for “installing” management’s most preferred methods in the muscle memory of every laborer. Both studies speak to the Gilbreths’ treatment of visual media not so much as representational but processual, not just as the basis for sensory phenomena but as a stimulator for precisely calibrated motor action. Films and other photographic material served to coordinate individual embodied experience with the workings of an industrialized social body. The Gilbreths, Lillian Gilbreth in particular, can be thought of as the progenitors of an interactive media theory that very much applies to our new media environment today, which, according to media studies scholars, compels habituated, predictable behaviors that ensure the continual production and marketization of data.

My visit to the archives provided not only ample citational material to extend these lines of inquiry, but it also introduced me to additional currents running through the Gilbreths’ work in the 1910s. For example, I discovered a specific year-long period in which Lillian and Frank took on a contract that tested their theories on the ground under extreme, high stakes conditions. This consulting project offers a rich case study which can structure my chapter. Additionally, I began to see how all the Gilbreths’ different experimental media practices (which included interactive film exhibition practices, long exposure photography, the use of film strips as measurement devices and the basis for statistical charts, among many others) were connected to one another, and how they each correlated to a specific sense and cognitive training objective. Relatedly, the Gilbreth documents frequently refer to these visual representational materials as “data,” and their efforts to condition workers’ vision were really exercises in getting them to see and feel their own motions as data, cultivating the human visual system as an apparatus for commodified pattern recognition.