Samuel Alderson, who died February 11 at age 90, developed the first crash test dummies as well as a host of other unique anthropomorphic products, including the first electric prosthetic arm, skeleton-based, human-shaped "phantoms" used to measure exposure to radiation, and "sinjuries," gruesome mock injuries for battlefield simulations.
The dummies were initially designed for Air Force tests of ejection seats, and then were pressed into service for testing escape systems for astronauts. The idea of using the dummies to research automobile safety came later, Alderson maintained, spurred in part by Ralph Nader's 1965 expose "Unsafe at Any Speed." Prior to that, impact tests were conducted with animals, including chimpanzees, bears, and anesthetized pigs, as well as with cadavers.
The first dummy, "Sierra Sam," which Alderson produced in concert with another company, opened the gate to a lengthy development process of creating more realistic joints, flesh, organs, and other bodily components. Electronics were added for sensing and recording impacts. New models were developed for special purposes like testing side and rear impacts, and some were specially hardened for "ejection testing." Alderson's last patent, granted in 1981, was for an "anthropomorphic dummy" that included improvements to the spine assembly, elastically compressible shoulder assembly, and "resilient energy-absorbing coating overlaying the humerus."
"Dummies will soon reach the point where you can't tell a human from a dummy," Alderson once told the Wall Street Journal. As if to prove his point, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a series of safety ads featuring walking, talking crash-test dummies. Their popularity made Mr. Alderson something of a celebrity, "the elder statesman of dummy makers," the Los Angeles Times observed in 1985.
"It was very strange growing up," said Alderson's son, Jeremy, describing the family's Stamford, Conn., home as cluttered with skeletons, mock body parts, and gaping "sinjuries." "I had to explain the category of what he did for a living. He'd always say, 'It's an oddball business.'"
Alderson grew up in California, where his Romanian-immigrant father ran a custom sheet-metal and sign shop. Alderson graduated from high school at 15 after winning science contests, and received a scholarship to Reed College. His education was interrupted when the donor lost his fortune in the Depression. Alderson continued his education at Caltech and Columbia, with periodic interruptions to help out at his father's shop. Eventually, he did graduate work at Berkeley under Ernest O. Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer, before leaving to do wartime research on periscopes and antisubmarine warfare at Pearl Harbor. In an online corporate autobiography, he states that he was "a co-group leader in a project to develop a source for electromagnetic separation of U-235," but he and his colleague on the project "decided that it would cost over one billion 1940 dollars and would not be completed in time to contribute to victory in World War II."
He also worked on missile guidance systems that utilized miniaturized motors. In his spare time and with the blessing of Surgeon General Norman Thomas Kirk, Alderson began tinkering with an electric prosthetic arm, with the idea that veteran rehabilitation would be a postwar priority.
In 1946, working for IBM, where founder Thomas Watson had taken on the project as a public service, Alderson produced a prototype that he demonstrated for the press. Featuring fingers capable of lifting 40 pounds and a hand made to look human with a cosmetic glove, the device had "all uses but punching," the Washington Post optimistically headlined. There were bugs, however, and five years later Alderson told the Times that success was "still a long way off." The arm Alderson patented in 1953 was manipulated with wires attached to the little toe. He eventually abandoned the project as unworkable.
In 1952, he founded Alderson Research Laboratories, with headquarters on East 102nd Street, to produce another arm-based product: mechanical manipulators for handling radioactive materials from a safe distance. His work with anthropomorphic technology made him the logical choice when the Air Force was looking for a contractor to produce test dummies for ejection seats and parachutes. Alderson denied recurrent rumors that scattered dummies dropped from balloons at high altitude were the source of reports of alien bodies supposedly sighted at Roswell, N.M.
In the late 1950s, the company began producing phantoms - real human bones plus plastic, rubber, and other materials to simulate flesh and organs - for use in radiation and space research. They are still used to calibrate medical devices such as X-ray machines and CAT scanners.
One such mannequin was dubbed Remab (Radiation-Equivalent Man, Absorption); another, which emitted gamma rays, was Remcal (Radiation-Equivalent Man, Calibration).The company also produced phantom beagles, fake heads for dental training, and a CPR doll Alderson called "Joe Blow." Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alderson Research Laboratories was once cited for its high proportion of disabled workers, Alderson's son said.
In 1973, after suffering several business setbacks, Alderson moved to Beverly Hills and set up a rival to his old company, which he named Humanoid Systems (later, Humanetics). Soon, he had won large contracts with Ford and General Motors, selling dummies for $20,000 apiece.
Alderson sold his crash-test dummy business in 1987 but continued to produce phantoms at a new company, Radiology Support Devices (motto: "Bridging the gap between physician and physicist").
Possessed of a superb constitution, Alderson took his own body to work until last fall, his son said.
Born October 21, 1914, in Chicago; died February 11 of natural causes at his home in Marina del Rey, Calif.; married four times, he is survived by two sons from his second marriage, to Betty Wier, William and Jeremy, and four grandchildren.