Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems.
Grace Hopper, Developer of the COBOL computer language, 1987
‘Human Factors’ is one of those nebulous expressions that is frequently used in everyday life, and in this sense defining it is not easy. Human factors are omnipresent in that we are all aware of the influence of humans in whatever we do or attempt to do and, when taken literally, the term conveys little precise meaning to the reader or listener. However, for one group of psychologists, this term has a very specific definition and meaning. It refers to the area of work concerned with the interaction of humans with machines, and the many implications arising from this. To differentiate the more general meaning of human factors, i.e. ‘aspects relating to the nature of people’ (Edwards and Edwards, 1990:7), the term will be given capital letters when referring to the discipline.
The origins of Human Factors are often quoted as residing in a study of shovel design carried out in the late 1890s. The study was conducted by the Quaker engineer Frederick W. Taylor, who is primarily remembered for his principles of scientific management (see biographies by Kakar, 1970; Nelson, 1980; Zalesnik, 1966). In 1878 Taylor began work as a foreman at Bethlehem Steel Works in the US eventually becoming promoted to chief engineer. During this time, he had begun to take a keen interest in the best way to do a job in order to ensure the workers’ productivity (see Taylor, 1911). Taylor studied the actions of the workers, their use of equipment and their rest periods, and related this to levels of productivity. He began by collecting baseline data, i.e. information about the workers, their tools and the materials (iron ore and steel) to be moved. Anywhere between 400 and 600 full-time workers brought their own shovels to work and used them to shift different types of material. Shovel loads varied from 3.5 pounds for coal to 38 pounds for iron ore—pounds being the imperial measure in use