What do Pilots, Bell Labs, the Cold War and Psychology all have in common?

Last week, we wrote about the mystery of the B17 Bombers that could survive air raids, but could not seem to land. That is, until the intervention of not one, but two Psychologists — Paul Fitts and Alphonse Chapanis.

Now designers may have heard of Fitts from a little thing known as ‘Fitts’ Law’. For the non-designers reading this, Fitts’ Law states that the time it takes a user to move a pointer from A to B, is a function of the distance between A and B and the size of B. In simpler terms, the smaller the target and greater the distance, the more time it takes to hit the Bulls Eye. While this concept may seem fairly obvious to us right now, it played a major role in human-computer interaction when first established by Fitts in 1954 and is still taught in design schools today.

Chapanis on the other hand, goes unnoticed. So what can we say about this man to convince you to stay for the rest of the article? How about, he—

  1. Was an Aviation Psychologist who conducted studies on night vision and depth perception of pilots
  2. Redesigned cockpits to what they are today
  3. Wrote the first ever book on ergonomics
  4. Worked with Bell Labs (yes, those Bell Labs) on the keypad we use today
  5. Was a “consultant” for US during the Cold War
  6. Gave some stunning insights about whether we really need video during Zoom meetings

…and oh, did we mention that this is just from 1942–1954? He lived till October 2002. That’s another 50 years we haven’t even given you a taste of yet.

Did it work?

Well then, let’s get right into it!


Born in 1917, Yale Graduate Alphonse Chapanis was commissioned to the US Army Air Corps’ Aero Medical Lab in Dayton, Ohio, where he trained to become an Aviation Psychologist alongside none other than Paul Fitts. The two of them worked side-by-side to discover several discrepancies in the design of cockpits, starting with the startling discovery that the switches that descended the wheels and that released wing flaps — two widely different functions — were so close to each other, that they led to disastrous results i.e. the death of pilots and crew onboard the B17 Bombers, during World War II. The “accidents” were declared ‘design errors’ and subsequent interventions changed the course of world aviation.

Off this revelation, Chapanis introduced ‘Shape Coding’ — a system ensuring all knobs and levers were different shapes and sizes, so that there would be little to no room for confusion for pilots reaching for their controls. To this degree, he suggested putting a wheel at the end of the lever for the Landing Gear, ensuring it was easily distinguishable

(to read more about this, check out our previous story: https://medium.com/swlh/the-flying-fortress-fatal-flaw-694523359eb)

From 1942 to 1946, he conducted research studies such as on displays suitable for night flying, pilot black-out under high g-forces, vision loss due to anoxia and depth perception, in addition to general aircraft design.


In 1946, Chapanis left the Army Air Corps, accepting a position at Johns Hopkins University’s Systems Research Field Laboratory, where he teamed up Research Psychologists Wendell Garner and Clifford T. Morgan, to lecture on Men and Machines: An Introduction to Human Engineering at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1949, they published their lectures in what is today considered to be the first book on Ergonomics, Applied Experimental Psychology: Human Factors in Engineering Design.

By the 1950s, Chapanis became one of the most prominent in a field that was variously called engineering psychology, human engineering, human factors psychology, ergonomics or simply human factors in design.

Cold War

During the Cold War, Chapanis spent a year travelling around Europe and reporting his observations of foreign research, to the US military. In his autobiography, ‘The Chapanis Chronicles: 50 Years of Human Factors Research, Education, and Design’, he disclosed that some of his trips to the USSR were funded by an unnamed US Government agency. He found that Communists used physiological factors — as opposed to America’s behavioural factors — for machine design and subsequently wrote reports on certain individuals, organizations and conditions he observed or encountered during his travels, even reporting on the Soviet Space program. Ironically, this covert work caused him to lose on some consulting jobs as he was unable to reveal to other agencies the reason behind his visiting the USSR so often during this time.

The Telephone Keypad

One of the more well-known contributions made by Chapanis came from his time spent at Bell Laboratories in 1953-54. Bell Labs wanted to move from their present rotating dials, to push buttons.

Rotary Dial Telephones

The question therefore, was what should the keypad look like? Ascending, descending, rows, circular…the possibilities were vast. Finally, Chapanis and his lab assistant Mary C. Lutz designed a study in ‘population stereotypes’.

In ergonomics, population stereotypes is a method used to understand the behaviour of the majority population for a specific task. E.g. In India, if you were to ask someone to increase the speed of the fan, they would automatically turn the regulator to the right, whether there were any instructions on the knobs or not, because they inherently know that turning it left indicates reducing the speed.

Wanting to find out where people expected to find number and letters on keys, Chapanis and Lutz tested 300 people — 150 males and 150 females — divided into three age groups and self-proclaimed to be either naive or sophisticated users of keysets. They were then asked to put numbers and letters where they felt they should they should be — they tested six different configurations of keysets.

On testing these different arrangements, they discovered that a 3×3 display with the “0” off to the side was a preferable design. This was interestingly in contrast to the Calculator’s design, which had the numbers in descending order (and still does today).

“For all six different configurations of keysets, subjects showed an overwhelming preference for numbering arrangements in which numerals increase from left to right and from top to bottom,” Chapanis recalled. “The most preferred configuration is the one you will now find on all push-button telephones.”

When it finally came time to abandon the rotary dial and adopt the push-button keypad in 1963, it was Chapanis’ research that cleared the way — the decision to combine psychological research combined with industrial design gave what today seems to be the most obvious keypad design.

Teleconference and Videoconferencing

From 1971 to 1977, Chapanis and his colleagues conducted a series of a series of studies comparing the efficiency of human-human interaction when using any 10 communication modalities — typewriting, handwriting, video, voice and combinations of the same.

Studying each form of communication and the time taken to solve a problem, they found that the most important component in a team solving a problem quickly, was voice.

As can be seen in the graph above, while voice by itself was not the fastest method, adding it to the equation significantly decreased the time taken, sometimes solving problems three to four times faster than when using only hardcopy methods like typing or handwriting.

What was really interesting though, was that their studies found that adding a video component did not really add value to the interaction — in fact, early studies by Chapanis found that the addition of video actually impaired communication, possibly because of the consciousness of being on camera, but it did not largely change the outcome of solving problems.

Remember that next time someone asks you to turn on your video during a Zoom meeting!


In 1983, Alphonse Chapanis retired from Johns Hopkins. But that wasn’t the end of his story. He kickstarted a 36 year consulting relationship with IBM, introducing human factors and ergonomics “…to literally thousands of IBM engineers and managers.” He worked as a consultant in the industry to worked to make work environments, systems and new technologies simpler, safer and more efficient.

In his autobiography, he touched on the attitude of executives and described a meeting with Lynn A. Townsend, the chairman of Chrysler in a now popular anecdote —

“I was looking at a sporty model that had a steering column with a sharply pointed tip extending an inch or two beyond the steering wheel. Townsend asked me what I thought about it. My exact, or very nearly exact, words were: ‘Townsend, do you know what you’ve designed here? You’ve designed a spear aimed at the driver’s heart. ‘I also remember distinctly his cynical reply,

“Doc, it’ll sell.”

Safe to say, we’ve been digging for some time now and just cannot seem to find this model.


Alphonse Chapanis was a man whose contributions to research and design have largely flown under the radar for years. There is much that we have not even touched upon in this profile, like his work in commercial shipping operations or oil exploration techniques. He was a big advocate for safety and his paper “Words, Words, Words” is an eye opener on the importance of language in accurately relaying the message of design. He wrote and co-wrote journal articles, books, chapters of books, won awards and set up Associations. A prolific speaker, Chapanis often lectured in the native language of his international hosts, making him a popular visiting American scientist.

History will remember him kindly and it’s on us to ensure his legacy outlives him.

Alphonse Chapanis, 1917–2002