Alphonse Chapanis (1917-2002)

Father of Ergonomics

By Dan Horn, Ph.D.
University of Michigan

Alphonse Chapanis, Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, died October 4, 2002 at age 85 after complications from knee surgery [New York Times Obituary]. He will be sorely missed.


During his 50+ year career, Chapanis helped found the field of ergonomics (also called "human factors"). His contributions included:

Chapanis was also president of the Society of Engineering Psychologists and the Human Factors Society (Now the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society). The HFES award for the outstanding student paper at its annual conference also bears his name.

In addition to his work at Johns Hopkins, he also worked for the US Army and Bell Labs, and worked as a consultant for companies such as IBM (where he introduced the concept of of human factors to Big Blue).

The Professor Was A Spy

In his Autobiography, "The Chapanis Chronicles," he revealed that some of his trips behind the iron curtain were paid for by an unnamed US government intelligence agency. In addition to his professional activities on his trips to the USSR, he was asked to write classified reports "about certain individuals, organizations, and conditions I observed or encountered during my travels." (Chapanis, 1999, p.226)

In fact, his spy work ironically caused him to lose his SECRET clearance and some consulting work because he could not explain to another government agency why he had taken so many trips behind the iron curtain (Chapanis, 1999).

Parting Words

At the end of his career, Chapanis wrote a memior which ended with these words:

"...[T]here is one thing I have never regretted - and that is my choice of profession. Human factors has always been challenging, frustrating at times, rewarding at others, but never dull. I can honestly say in retrospect that I have had a full life - an exciting life - and that I have enjoyed telling people about human factors, educating students and others to take over where I have had to leave off, and grappling with problems of trying to make our material world safer, more comfortable, and easier to cope with. In fact, there is only one thing I truly regret -

I'm sorry I've come to the end."

Recommended Reading

Chapanis, A. (1951). Color blindness. Scientific American, 184, 48-53.

Chapanis, A. (1965). Words, words, words. Human Factors, 7, 1-17.

Chapanis, A. (1967). The relevance of laboratory studies to practical situations. Ergonomics, 10, 557-577.

Chapanis, A. (1970). Relevance of physiological and psychological critera to man-machine systems. Ergonomics, 13, 337-346.

Chapanis, A. (1984). Taming and civilizing computers. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 426, 202-218.

Chapanis, A. (1996). Human Factors in Engineering Design. New York, NY: Wiley.

Chapanis, A. (1999). The Chapanis Chronicles: 50 Years of Human Factors Research, Education, and Design. Santa Barbara, CA: Agean. [Web Page]

Last Modified: 2002-October-15
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