Next time you reach into the fridge or use your electric can opener, thank today’s Wednesday Woman: Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972). An industrial psychologist, engineer and mother of 12, she was dubbed the original superwoman and described as a genius in the art of living.
The first woman allowed to speak at her University of California graduation, she went on to obtain her master’s and doctorate degrees in psychology.
Along with her husband, who had a construction management background, she worked tirelessly to find the “one best way” to perform even the most mundane tasks — like washing dishes or brushing your teeth — for maximum efficiency and productivity. When her husband died suddenly, Gilbreth was left to raise 11 children under the age of 19.
Gilbreth’s inventions include the foot-pedal trash can, electric mixer, refrigerator shelves and electric can opener.
White House position
She rose to the challenge, teaching at Bryn Mawr, Purdue University, Newark College of Engineering, Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin, and writing four books. President Hoover invited her to join his Emergency Committee for Unemployment during the Great Depression; she consulted for the government during World War II; and served as advisor to at least five U.S. presidents on civil defense and women’s issues.
Her many inventions to make everyday life easier include the foot-pedal trash can, electric mixer, refrigerator shelves (including the egg keeper and butter tray) and electric can opener.
National Academy of Engineering
During her work with General Electric she interviewed over 4,000 women to find the proper height for stoves, sinks and other kitchen fixtures and designed the L-shaped kitchen. Over her lifetime, Gilbreth received many honors. She was the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the first woman elected into the National Academy of Engineering, and was issued the very first membership in the Society of Women Engineers.
Lillian Gilbreth worked into her 80s and died at the age of 92.