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This day in tech: Inventor of the crash-test dummy, dies - Feb 11, 2005
2005: Samuel Alderson, inventor of the automotive crash-test dummy, dies. His creation saved countless lives ? and amused millions along the way.
Alderson graduated from high school at age 15, but the realities of the Great Depression repeatedly interrupted his college education: He needed to help his father run the family?s sheet-metal business in Southern California. As a result, he studied at various times at Reed, Caltech, Columbia and the University of California at Berkeley. Alderson returned to Berkeley and started work on a Ph.D. in physics under J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence, but left without finishing his dissertation.
Alderson worked on servomotors for missile-guidance systems during World War II. He founded Alderson Research Labs in 1952 and built dummies for the military to test jet-ejection seats and parachutes. He also engineered one for NASA to test the safety of the Apollo lunar-command-module splashdown.
The dummies matched the size, shape and weight of pilots and astronauts, had joints to mimic human biomechanics, and contained scientific instruments to measure acceleration and impact forces. Alderson tried adapting one to test automobile safety in 1960, but was a few years ahead of his time.
Ralph Nader?s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed and the subsequent National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 created a market for a high-quality automobile-test dummy. Automobile engineers had for decades tested their cars using cadavers, but the research results were unsatisfactory: The stiffs were, well, stiff. Also, no two cadavers were alike, and after a couple of tests they degraded rapidly (to say the least). That made it difficult to generate consistent and reproducible results.
Alderson?s first auto-test dummy to go into production was the VIP model in 1968. It featured a steel ribcage, articulated joints and a flexible spine. Engineers at General Motors combined elements of Alderson?s dummies with those from rival Sierra Engineering to create a dynasty of Hybrid dummies. Today?s Hybrids include men, women, children and infants.
The dummies are used to test seat belts, air bags and other safety features. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates those devices have saved more than 300,000 lives since 1960.
Alderson?s obituary in The New York Times listed his surviving family and went on to note: ?His cultural legacy includes Vince and Larry, the ubiquitous dummy stars of highway safety advertisements in the 1980s and ?90s; the television cartoon Incredible Crash Dummies and the pop group Crash Test Dummies.? The dummies also spawned toys and a videogame.
In case you?re wondering, Alderson, like the inventor of the three-point seat belt, died of natural causes. He was 90 and suffering from myelofibrosis and pneumonia.
Source: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times
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