The International Ergonomics Association defines “ergonomics” as:
Ergonomics… is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.
In simpler terms, ergonomics is the study and design of equipment and devices to better fit the human body and its movement.
Basic ergonomics has existed since the first ancestors of modern man began creating primitive tools to make tasks easier. Archaeological evidence from as far back as some of the earliest Egyptian dynasties, and other, more concrete findings from 5th Century BCE Greece, have shown that tools, household equipment, and other manmade devices illustrated sophisticated (for their time) ergonomic principles. Shortly after the Industrial Revolution, factory machinery and equipment started being built with design considerations closer to what we think of today as “ergonomics.” Most of those designs, however, were created to increase the speed and efficiency of production, rather than to create comfort and/or ease of use for the workers involved.
Ergonomics in the modern sense began to become more widespread during World War II. Military equipment, machinery, and weaponry — specifically airplanes — was becoming increasingly complex. The design of airplane cockpits included highly sophisticated controls, but as these controls had little to no logical organization, even the best-trained pilots often crashed fully-functional planes. As a result, cockpit interiors were redesigned to include more easily differential controls and more logical control placement, grouping similar functions together.
After the innovations of World War II, ergonomics continued to flourish, as its principles were further applied to evolving technologies. The Space Race lead to what could be called “hypothetical ergonomics,” as scientists tried to predict the effects of weightlessness and extreme g-forces on human functions. Perhaps the most significant development in modern ergonomics was in the field of human-computer interaction, brought on by the explosion of computer usage in the workplace and, soon after, the home.
The science of modern ergonomics includes the work of industrial engineers, occupational medical physicians, safety engineers, and many others studying both “cognitive ergonomics” (human behavior, decision making processes, perception relative to design, etc.) and “industrial ergonomics” (physical aspects of the workplace, human physical abilities, etc.).
Nearly every aspect of modern life now includes some level of ergonomic design. Automobile interiors, kitchen appliances, office chairs and desks, and other frequently used devices are designed ergonomically. Even the machines and tools used to build and assemble those devices are superbly ergonomic. By maximizing efficiency and, more importantly, user comfort and safety, ergonomics continues to make life easier.