- Samuel W. Alderson, inventor of the crash-test dummy, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame today.
- Alderson pioneered test dummies in 1949 and introduced the first one specifically designed for the auto industry in 1968.
- Almost 330,000 lives have been saved by automotive safety devices developed with crash-test dummies, experts say.
WASHINGTON — Samuel W. Alderson, inventor of the crash-test dummy, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame today, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Since 1899 more than 20 million people have been killed in car accidents, but that number would've been even higher if not for Alderson. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that seatbelts and other automotive safety devices have saved almost 330,000 lives, and much of the development work on that equipment involved the use of crash-test dummies.
In addition to their life-saving work, crash-test dummies have become part of the popular culture.
Beginning in 1985, NHTSA promoted highway safety through a series of public service television spots starring actors dressed up as talking crash-test dummies Vince and Larry. The campaign, which ran through 1998, used slapstick humor to remind people to buckle up. In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation donated the crash-test dummy costumes to the Smithsonian Institution, where they are now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of America History here.
The dummies were credited with getting 84 percent of Americans to wear their seatbelts.
Before dummies, cadavers were often used in testing to measure the effects of crashes on the human body. They still continue to be used by some university researchers.
In addition to the "yuck factor," there were other problems with the cadaver approach. Cadavers come in different sizes, shapes, and density, making it difficult to do repetitive comparison testing. They're also expensive and can only be used once.
Alderson analyzed a variety of existing information, including cadaver-testing data, to build his first crash test dummy, "Sierra Stan," in 1949. Stan was originally made to test aircraft ejection seats, but Alderson Research Laboratories supplied dummies for many other purposes as well, including NASA's tests of lunar landing modules.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 put pressure on automakers to build safer cars and also created a huge market for better crash-test dummies. Alderson responded by introducing his "VIP" in 1968. The first dummy designed specifically for automotive testing, it was a huge improvement on existing models, with a flexible spine and articulated joints designed to mimic the human body.
Since that time, increasingly sophisticated dummies have been used to determine the effectiveness of seat belts, airbags and every other type of safety device. The latest generation of dummies can record hundreds of separate movements and employ a variety of sensors to gather every possible scrap of data from each crash. They now include child-sized crash-test dummies.
Before his death in 2005 at the age of 90, Alderson went on to build test dummies for medical research and numerous other applications, but his contributions to automobile safety remain his most enduring legacy.
Edmunds says: As Vince and Larry would say: "You could learn a lot from a dummy." Kudos to Alderson for his pioneering work.