Samuel Alderson, 90; Inventor of Dummies Used to Test Car Safety

Times Staff Writer

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

Alderson died Friday at his home in Marina del Rey of complications associated with myelofibrosis, said his son Jeremy.

The mechanically inclined Alderson, who grew up puttering in his father’s custom sheet-metal shop, built the first automobile test dummy at his Alderson Research Labs in 1960. But the idea caught on, he said, only when Ralph Nader’s consumer protection book “Unsafe at Any Speed” was published five years later.


Reacting to consumer outrage engendered by Nader’s book, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began buying Alderson’s dummies to test seat belts, air bags and other devices designed to minimize deaths and injuries in car crashes. Various dummies, including the Vince and Larry models popular in television advertising, were standardized over the years as Alderson and his colleagues improved the technology.

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

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

When Alderson 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 (NASA).

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 said 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 ensure that the spacecraft and its systems provide maximum safety for the return of Apollo explorers.”

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

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

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

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