News your connection to The Boston Globe

Samuel Alderson, inventor of crash-test dummies; at 90

LOS ANGELES -- Samuel W. Alderson, a multifaceted inventor who created crash-test dummies like those used in automobile safety tests, has died. He was 90.

Mr. Alderson died Feb. 11 at his home in Marina del Rey of complications associated with myelofibrosis, according to his son, Jeremy.

The mechanically inclined Mr. Alderson, who grew up puttering around his father's custom sheet metal shop, built the first automobile test dummy at his Alderson Research Labs in 1960.

But the idea never caught on, he said, until Ralph Nader's consumer protection book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," was published five years later.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took sharp notice of consumer outrage over auto safety engendered by Nader's book. The agency soon began buying Mr. Alderson's dummies to test seat belts, air bags, and other devices designed to minimize death and injury in car crashes.

Various dummies, including the Vince and Larry models popular in television advertising, were standardized over the years as Mr. Alderson and his colleagues improved the technology.

In 1973, Mr. Alderson left his original company and formed a competitor, Humanoid Systems, and the two companies dominated the crash-test dummy market until they merged in 1990 to become First Technology Safety Systems.

Mr. Alderson was the last surviving founder, his son said, of the Stapp Car Crash Conference, an early organization fostering automobile safety research.

When Mr. Alderson first created Alderson Research Labs in 1952, nobody was thinking about testing the survivability of car crashes.

His customers were the military and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

He first landed a contract to make anthropomorphic dummies for use in testing jet ejection seats and parachutes and later for the Apollo nose cone's planned water landing.

"The manlike test dummies duplicate not only the shape, size, and weight of future astronauts," a Times story noted in 1964, "but their motions as well, and their skulls, necks, stomachs, and chests contain a variety of instruments to record landing forces."

The drop tests, the article continued, were "designed to insure that the spacecraft and its systems provide maximum safety for the return of Apollo explorers."

In the 1950s Mr. Alderson was also under contract to develop "phantoms" or dummies that could measure radiation doses, originally during nuclear testing. Based on that experience, he formed another company which he managed until shortly before his death, Radiology Support Devices, to supply the healthcare industry.

Born in Cleveland, Mr. Alderson moved to Southern California with his family as a toddler. Because of limited money during the Depression, he studied intermittently at Reed College, the California Institute of Technology, Columbia, and the University of California at Berkeley.

During World War II, he helped develop an optical coating to enhance vision of submarine periscopes at dawn and dusk, helped devise electronic equipment to aid planes in dropping depth charges on U-boats, and worked on missile guidance systems.

Married four times, Mr. Alderson leaves two sons from his second marriage to Betty Weir, William of St. Augustine, Fla., and Jeremy of Hector, N.Y; and four grandchildren.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives