The History of Human Factors and Ergonomics

By David Meister | Go to book overview
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In the past, many people, knowing my interest in history and the fact that I had studied for an advanced degree in this subject, have suggested that I write the history of HFE. I always resisted the idea because my concept of history was too narrow--history was, I conceived, mainly chronological events, and I did not see many of these in HFE (although there are).

History is events, but it is also much more. In a scientific discipline like HFE, events play a subordinate role to concepts. The most fascinating aspect of HFE is its intellectual character, which has been largely ignored in the one or two histories of the discipline I and a few others have written ( Meister, 1995b, 1996c; Meister & O'Brien, 1996; Moroney, 1995). That is because an intellectual history is not immediately obvious; it must be teased out from the reminiscences of its professionals from their published writings--from the monthly Bulletins of the Society, which they established to support their work organizationally.

The present work is largely a history of ideas. Looking back over 45 years of HFE professional work, I find that this was an early interest of mine. There are two overarching themes in the intellectual history of HFE. The first is the need to transform technology, physical phenomena (equipment characteristics), into their behavioral (human performance) equivalents and to translate behavioral principles into technology (equipment characteristics). One might say that this is the modern equivalent of the mind--body problem that bedeviled the philosophers of the 17th and later centuries.

What was then only a philosophical conceit is now in the 20th century a major practical concern. The body is now the technology that arguably encases and drives us unmercifully. The mind is the corpus of behavioral principles that HFE seeks to apply to technology to ameliorate the rigors of an excessively mechanistic civilization. This may seem like old wine in new bottles, but the wine is still very potent.

The second theme, hovering bashfully behind the first, is the omnipresence of technology. What makes a history of HFE important in the general intellectual and cultural history of the 20th century (and presumably subsequent centuries) is the tremendous importance of technology. One does not need to be a historian of science to recognize the overwhelming growth of technology in our times. By any index, technology is growing exponentially. Hence, any discipline that seeks to influence the effect of that technology is almost as important as the technology itself.


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