“Machines and People” - The evolution of industrial ergonomics in the mid-twentieth century.

  • Roland Edwards

Student thesis: Phd


The severe balance of payments crisis of 1947 threatened the Labour administration’s ability to fund the totality of its post-war reconstruction programmes. The government’s solution was to call for an increase in individual and collective industrial productivity to boost exports and increase income. One of their initiatives was the launch of an industrial human science research programme. The expectation was that this would yield information and techniques which would increase human efficiency and, hence, productivity, on the shop floor and in management. The human science research programme, which comprised both ergonomics and human relations studies, was of low financial value and produced knowledge and techniques that were capable of supporting an array of non-human science technologies. This thesis examines the derivation and management of the human science research programme and how this contributed to the emergence, growth and shaping of ergonomics, the study of the worker in their working environment. By tracing the development and growth of the human science research programme, I show how the learned society for ergonomics, the Ergonomics Research Society (ERS), played a marginal role in promoting the science. Instead, it was the actions of engineers in academia, and organisations such as the Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR), Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), that were responsible for the institutionalisation and professionalisation of ergonomics in the middle years of the twentieth century. This study also throws new light on the management of a low-value research programme during this period by showing how the level of responsibility was delegated down from central government to committees which comprised academics, industrialists and union officials only. I argue that this resulted in a flexible and agile research programme which addressed important issues of productivity and shaped the science of ergonomics.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJeff Hughes (Supervisor) & Carsten Timmermann (Supervisor)


  • Ergonomics
  • Human Science Research
  • institutionalisation of science
  • DSIR
  • TUC.

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