Obituary: Professor Elwyn Edwards

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The Independent Online
Elwyn Edwards, ergonomist, aviation psychologist: born Liverpool 11 April 1932; Lecturer and Reader in Psychology, Loughborough University 1960-76; Professor of Applied Psychology, Aston University 1976-84; Director of Human Technology 1984-93; married 1958 Mary O'Neill (one son, one daughter); died Birmingham 15 November 1993.

ELWYN EDWARDS, the ergonomist and aviation psychologist, was a lucid teacher and a systematic research worker and, what was rare but has now become highly fashionable, he always practised his trade in the real world.

Ergonomics was almost unknown when Edwards first entered the field . It is still associated with the design of chairs, car dashboards and user-friendliness of computer work stations. Ergonomics is about representing people in their interactions with the physical world and, more particularly, with engineered systems. Apart from expertise in the complexities of people, an ergonomist has to be able to understand varieties of technology in order to be able to communicate with designers and users.

Edwards was able to do this in aviation; he was a qualified pilot, a Liveryman of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a member of the Royal Institute of Navigation. He developed this interest while doing his National Service as an RAF Pilot Officer and training as a navigator with the Royal Canadian Air Force. For many years he directed an annual short course for aviation personnel on 'Human Factors in Transport Aircraft Operations'. This was based on his experience as a consultant to airlines, aircraft manufacturers and avionics companies. He also acted as a specialist witness in inquiries and court cases, as to why a particular aircraft accident or incident had occurred.

His expertise was not confined to the flight deck. To the aeronautical engineer, the aircraft is primarily a flying machine, beautifully designed to travel safely through the air; to the ergonomist, it is a set of hardware and software provided for a team of people, the crew, carrying another set of people, the passengers, managed by a third set, the operators. Edwards and his wife, Mary, recently produced a book The Aircraft Cabin (1990) which deals comprehensively with the design and management issues relating to the passengers, the crew and the


In Britain we have a serious and, for the future, damaging attitude of almost total neglect of our technologists. Our way of life is entirely dependent on their efforts and achievements, but so long as they do their work well, we can ignore them and they remain unknown outside their particular sphere. Edwards and his circle of aviation technologists are in this category. Given the potential hazard of leaving the ground behind, commercial flying is now an extraordinarily safe business.

Elwyn Edwards was a very complex person. At work, he appeared to be totally logical, knowledgeable, incisive and devoted to the problem in hand. He deplored any untidiness of thinking or writing or action from others, and if necessary corrected them, but always politely.

He was not an organisation man, perhaps because he did not fully appreciate that colleagues at any level did not always have the same succinctness of mind and integrity of purpose. On the other hand he was a Celt, and when he was not at work there was a mystic within him, who sometimes gained precedence over the logician. His favourite music was German and choral. He was a solitary individual, needing only his wife and family and a few close friends. He enjoyed interacting with technology and controlling it; he flew aeroplanes, drove fast cars and rode motorbikes.

Apart from leaving his family, probably his main regret would be that ergonomics, computers, process control and aviation will go on developing but he won't be keeping abreast of changes. In our present culture that may make him sound dull, but he wasn't, he was a fascinating person and a good friend.

(Photograph omitted)