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A (Very) Brief History of Human Factors Design

Rick Zimmerman is an architect with over 50 years education, training, and experience in ergonomics, human dynamics and human factors design

Human Factors Design begins with humans

Leonardo's notebook sketch of the male figure.

Leonardo's notebook sketch of the male figure.

A (Very) Brief History

For millenia, mankind has consciously manipulated aspects of the natural and built environments to suit the dimensions, needs, abilities, and limitations of the human body. The cubit, an Ancient unit of length used nearly 50 centuries ago in Egypt, was the approximate length of a human forearm, from elbow to fingertip. Another Ancient unit of measure, the hand, was variably considered to be the breadth of a man’s palm, or the breadth of all four fingers and thumb, or the breadth of a clenched fist, and it thus varied from about 3 inches to 4 inches. It was eventually standardized at 4 inches by royal statute in the United Kingdom in 1540, and is used still today to measure the heights of horses. Throughout centuries, the foot as a unit of length has been incorporated into many cultural and national measurement systems, and has always been considered roughly equivalent to the length of an adult male foot. Unsurprisingly, therefore, considering variation in stature across human populations, the foot unit of length could vary by as much as 30% from place to place. The foot has been precisely set at 12 inches or 0.3048 meters in length only since 1959.

Other less familiar measurements based on the human body included the digit (the length of a human middle finger), the pace (one full stride from heel to heel), the span (width of a spread human hand from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the smallest ‘pinky’ finger), the fathom (the distance between the fingertips of a man’s outspread arms), the league (by one definition, the distance one could walk in one hour), and the shaftment (the width of the palm plus outstretched thumb).

In earlier, simpler times, humans could likely limit their understanding of human factors to such measures as the cubit, hand, foot or pace. After all, portals, stairs, ramps, beds, battlements, tools, and weapons could all be feasibly constructed from such basic measurements. But as societies, commerce, travel, and human interaction expanded and became more complex, ever more discrete and sophisticated measurements or ‘factors’ were required. Advances of industry and science could only be founded upon increasingly numerous methods, types, and degrees of precise measurement.

When Non-Human Factors become Human Factors

There are also numerous situations in which non-human factors by necessity became human factors. Perhaps one of the earliest and simplest examples is that of the saddle. The saddle developed not only to allow a rider to safely, securely, and realtively easily mount, ride, and control a steed, but also to suit a particular animal’s size and form, and to afford the animal relative long-term comfort. Similarly, in various Eastern cultures, the more elaborate howdah (or houdah) was developed as a relatively comfortable carriage that suited the backs, strengths, and dispositions of domesticated camels and elephants.

Early Roman roads and rutways — those parallel grooves in terrain and roadbed that received and guided the wheels of passing chariots and wagons — were designed to match the optimal span of axles of human-use vehicles pulled by a yoked pair of draft animals, at a uniform wheel spacing of precisely 4’-8.5”. Through ensuing centuries, many road and rail widths throughout Continental Europe and England conformed to that same dimension, so that they too could readily accommodate the same or similar vehicles drawn by paired horses or oxen. Eventually, the first horse-drawn railway carts and even our modern railroad track spacings would follow suit.

During the industrial revolution, weaving, milling and a host of other fabricating and manufacturing machines were designed to suit men’s (and women’s, and children’s) dimensions and use, while also facilitating the efficient and speedy handling and manipulation of materials and products. The modern drill press and table saw must not only suit the laboring drillman and woodworker, but also the raw materials and the processes central to their use.

With the more recent development of the automobile and airplane, cabin and cockpit design evolved to increasingly suit human comfort, convenience, and safety, while also aiding efficient, reliable operation of the vehicle. The heated postured driver’s seat of an average American car today offers ready reach of steering wheel, door and window and seat and thermal and sound system controls, plus a conveniently located, sized, and styled video display, and perhaps multiple cup-holders as well.

As each new and expanding technology extensively pervades our day-to-day environments, ever more non-human factors and human factors must meet on common ground. The features and designs of our computer screens, monitors, televisions, phones, and gaming systems increasingly include essential and highly sophisticated keyboard, touch-screen, video, audio, and haptic elements. The fields of prosthetics and robotics promise to further eradicate the dividing line between what is a technological non-human factor and what is a biological human factor.

Safety is key

But here (and in successive articles) I will be limiting my discussion of human factors design to the fields of architecture, construction, safety, and maintenance, as experienced by the vast majority of people on a daily basis. My aim is to address safety — and how to insure it — in our broad and ever-expanding built environments.

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