Like any modern industry, the field of crash testing has been built on the shoulders of giants. And though early crash test dummies were a far cry from the high-tech ones we have today, they were instrumental in developing the standards of testing that make our cars increasingly safe.

Take a look at a few selections from the history of the crash test dummy to see how they went from humans to mannequins to humanlike mannequins. Here are some of the big names:

Colonel John Paul Stapp — the crash test pioneer

The first crash test dummies may have been the best, most responsive, most lifelike dummies in history — because they were actual people. Colonel Stapp, an Air Force flight surgeon in the 1950s, noticed that more fighter pilots were dying in car crashes than in plane crashes.

So what did he do? He began a crash test study program, of course. To test the efficacy of seat belts, he put dummies into salvage cars and crashed them into wood or concrete barriers (sound familiar?). Humans also volunteered for these tests, withstanding up to 28 Gs (28 times the pull of gravity) or 4,800 pounds of force.

From his findings with real humans and real dummies, Stapp recommended several innovative features in car safety: doors with safety locks (so they wouldn’t fly open in a crash), improved bumper design, and dashboards with energy-absorbing padding.

While his insight was crucial to developing safety tests and procedures for the automotive industry, having human volunteers proved unfeasible, so they switched to the inanimate crash test dummies still in use today.

Sierra Sam — the first dummy crash test dummy

Believe it or not, before crash test dummies were invented, cadavers, chimpanzees, hogs, and other animals were often used in crash tests.

This usage was problematic — for obvious reasons. Thankfully, dummies (aka anthropomorphic test devices) were developed in the late 1940s, and Sierra Sam was the very first one of them.

Like Stapp’s volunteers, Sierra Sam was used by the Air Force, where he had the lucky job of testing ejection seats. Good ole Sam may not have been testing car crashes, but he was certainly a big step in the right direction.

Hybrid I — the best of both worlds

Built by GM in 1971 as a compromise between 2 dummy models that didn’t quite make the grade — one from Alderson Research Laboratories and the other from Sierra Engineering (of Sierra Sam fame) — Hybrid I was the first in a series of modern crash test dummies. It proved to be durable and more capable of producing standardized results, but it still lacked the sophistication of modern dummies and couldn’t completely replicate how real humans are affected in a crash.

Hybrid III — the old-school “smart” dummy

The most popular dummy model currently used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in frontal crashes is the HYBRID III, a direct descendant of Hybrid I. Originally built in the 1970s, the Hybrid III is 5’9” and 173 pounds (about the size of the average adult male).

But there’s nothing average about this dummy. His upper torso has 6 high-strength steel ribs that can simulate human chest deflection (think of it as bones breaking). His lower torso has a rubber lumbar spine that curves just like ours when we sit.

THOR — the new guy

Though Hybrid III is pretty advanced, the NHTSA is always looking to propel crash testing forward. For the past few years, the administration has been working on a sophisticated new model called THOR. (Cool name, right?) This one can better replicate actual human movement and is packed with a whole bevy of sensors to gather detailed information about what happens to our bodies in a crash.

THOR has yet to be named the official NHTSA crash test dummy because it’s still technically in development. But the dummy is increasingly being used in crash tests and is steadily improving one high-tech limb at a time.

Check in next week to learn more about exactly how THOR works and what we can learn from him.

Crash safety

When it comes to buying a car, crash test results aren’t everything. The way a car handles a crash depends a lot on the respective sizes of the vehicles in the collision. Find out how car size affects crash safety.

Related links

How crash tests actually work  

Discover the virtual side of crash testing


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about Devin

Devin spent his time at Esurance making our car insurance info exciting and approachable (who knew subrogation had a softer side?). You can often find Devin reading up on Irish poetry or putting together a magazine article on the nuances of collaborative content in the digital age.