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Anthropometry – A Brief History

Dec 2nd, 2019

Have you ever been shopping for clothes and wondered why you were a “small” and not a “medium”? How about the size of your seat cushion or the legroom in an airplane? Many products and services today are designed and optimized based on human body measurements. This data is collected using anthropometry – the study of measuring the human body and form – and has been a tool of physical anthropologists for centuries. Anthropometric data collected from individuals around the world help scientists identify physical variations among humans and populations. Since we know that people come in all shapes and sizes, understanding this variability is key to making sure that everyone is considered and accounted for. 

Unfortunately, at earlier points in history the application of anthropometry has been less than inclusive and has veered towards the pseudo-scientific.  Skull and brain measurements were incorrectly extrapolated to predict mental traits in the now-debunked field of phrenology. Facial characteristics were used to assess an individual’s character and even used as evidence for criminal intent. In its most shameful moments, physical anthropology and anthropometry have been used as a basis for scientific racism and a foundation to harm the most vulnerable among us (a field known as Eugenics.) Thankfully over time the pseudoscientific aspects have been discredited, and anthropometry has moved to more legitimate and useful applications. 

One of the first major consumers of modern anthropometry was the military. Ever since the US civil war, American soldiers have had their measurements taken to help assess physical fitness. After World War I, the first US anthropometric study for the purpose of clothing sizing was conducted on over 100,000 people. After World War II, the use of anthropometry started to expand into other fields such as engineering and workplace design. One of the reasons behind this expansion involved an issue with the B-17 bomber and its gunner turrets. When the planes would return to base, the airmen operating the turrets on the planes had a very high mortality rate, partially because they were barely protected by glass and partially because they would be targeted specifically by enemy aircraft. The gunner station required a small individual, and as the war went on, the Army Air Corps began having difficulty finding small men who could fit inside the turret. Thus, it was determined that there needed to be a study on the body size distribution of airmen, and that the gunner turret needed to be redesigned based on the available personnel.  The success of that survey helped convince the military to regularly conduct anthropometric surveys of its service members.  

In 1950, Anthropology Research Project, Inc (the precursor to Anthrotech) got its start as a joint research venture between the Air Force and Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. One of the very first projects for the company was that survey of airmen.  Early research also included cadaver studies that would eventually assist in the development of crash test dummies. Interestingly enough, the Fels Longitudinal Study, the world’s longest longitudinal human growth study, was also being conducted in Yellow Springs at time same time. With both ARP and Fels, Yellow Springs was an early epicenter of human anthropometry research.     

Anthrotech has been involved in many historically significant research projects over the subsequent years. In 1988, the company conducted an anthropometric survey of almost 9000 army personnel (ANSUR) that produced one of the most respected and widely used databases of anthropometric data. In 2012, that database was updated with a new survey of almost 12,000 soldiers (ANSUR 2) to reflect a more modern and diverse workplace. Aside from the changes in the population, one of the major differences between how the two surveys were conducted was the addition of 3D scanning. Traditional tape measure and caliper-based measurements present in ANSUR were supplemented with 3D scans of soldiers’ heads, bodies, and feet. This new technology gave researchers an opportunity to collect body measurements after the fact, and to analyze the human shape in ways that which would have been impossible decades ago.  Although not perfect, 3D scanning will continue to grow in importance in the field on anthropometry. However, the need for traditionally based measurements to complement and validate 3D based measurements will persist.  

Today, the influences of anthropometry can be felt everywhere. Government agencies such as NIOSH or FAA use anthropometry to help make sure that workplaces are safe. Tech companies use anthropometry to develop new and robust wearable devices. Clothing manufacturers use anthropometry to develop sizing patterns, serving both the comfort of their customers while at the same time reducing waste. Anthropometry helps us to account for the differences between us, and as long as we remain diverse, anthropometry will only become more relevant to our day to day lives. 

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