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These Dummies Gave Us a Crash Course on Auto Safety

Many of your car’s safety features owe a lot to these inanimate people

A Hybrid III model crash test dummy. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Crash test dummies have been an essential part of car safety testing for almost 50 years. Although they’ve also become a bit of a cultural icon and they’re easily recognized, you may not know how they came to be.

Samuel W. Alderson, born on October 21, 1914, is credited with developing the first crash test dummy. Today, these “long-suffering, curiously beautiful human surrogates” are all direct descendants of his original design, writes Margalit Fox for The New York Times. 

Before crash test dummies, writes APS News, testing of safety features was done using cadavers, live volunteers and live animals. “Those tests, while controversial, provided the anatomical models needed to design the first crash test dummies–and also led to design changes in vehicles that have saved thousands of lives,” APS News writes.

But there were problems with using such subjects. Every live human (and cadaver) was different from the next, which made replicable testing hard. A test dummy “could be mass-produced, tested, and re-tested,” APS News writes.  

That’s where Alderson came in. The technologist, who had previously worked for IBM on a project to develop a prosthetic arm that was powered by a tiny motor, left the computer maker to start his own firm. In the early 1950s, he won a contract to develop a human-like dummy for testing ejection seats in jet aircraft. Ejection seats, which were developed along with extra-fast jets, are notoriously hard on the spine. The dummy was “fairly primitive, with no pelvic structure and little spinal articulation,” Fox writes, but it got the auto industry's attention.

In the 1960s, the auto industry was looking at these dummies as potential replacements for their miscellany of living and dead beings that tested cars. Alderson started manufacturing the first crash test dummy specifically made for use in testing automobiles in 1968. “It featured a steel ribcage, articulated joints and a flexible spine,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired. It was the size and shape of an average man.

The dummy has gone through some changes since then: In the early 1970s, a design called the Hybrid I was developed by General Motors engineers using Alderson’s original dummy, and its successors are still used today. Because every passenger in the car isn’t an average-sized American male from the 1960s, there are now also a whole family of crash-test dummies–even a crash-test dog. In 2014, a dummy modelled after an obese person also went on the market.

Computing has progressed a lot since the time that Alderson spent working at IBM, which means that car safety testing has moved beyond the dummy and into the digital realm. “A dummy is a pretty simplified version of a human,” transportation research scientist Jingwen Hu told Jack Stewart at the BBC. A digital human model “can simulate the bones, tissues and internal organs throughout the body.” It can also allow for testing on more kinds of people.

But even though they’re relatively simple, the dummies still perform an essential function in car safety testing. And we owe a big part of their design to Samuel Alderson.

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