Human: A Non-Linear Servo-Mechanism Weighing Only 150 Pounds that Can Be Produced Cheaply by Unskilled Labor

Arthur C. Clarke? Albert Scott Crossfield? George T. Hauty? S. Fred Singer?

spacewalk07Dear Quote Investigator: In the early days of the space-age researchers and administrators were considering replacing human pilots and astronauts with computers. The argument against this form of automation was presented with a single humorous sentence that emphasized the advantages of humans. Are you familiar with this quotation? Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: In May 1954 “The New York Times” published an article titled “Test Pilot Faces Robot Challenge” which reported on suggestions made by scientists within the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance that test pilots should be replaced by machines. A set of pilots spoke in opposition to this proposal during a meeting of a NATO advisory group.

Albert Scott Crossfield was a prominent American test pilot who had achieved speed records while flying experimental aircraft. He delivered a compact comical summary of human uniqueness in the form of an interrogative. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

“Where can you find another non-linear servo-mechanism weighing only 150 pounds and having great adaptability, that can be produced so cheaply by completely unskilled labor?” Mr. Crossfield” inquired.

The passage above was the earliest instance located by QI. Interestingly, it did not contain the word “computer”. Also, the words were spoken as a rebuttal to the idea of replacing aircraft pilots and not astronauts. Many variant expressions have evolved over time. QI believes that earlier instances may exist.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1956 a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina printed an article about ballistic missiles which included a partial version of the statement; the word “computer” was used when referring to a human pilot: 3

One of the critical problems in ballistic missile type of bombing is guidance. All sorts of intricate, highly complex mechanisms are being built today to guide these monsters on their way. Not a single system, no matter how massive, will be able to replace what the engineer humorously calls “a non-linear computer” — a pilot.

In May 1958 a story in “Time” magazine discussed the potential medical dangers that human bodies would face during space travel: 4

With all these pressing medical problems to be solved, why does man feel himself impelled toward, the dark unfathom’d caves of outer space? For one thing, despite his physical and emotional inadequacies, he is still a space-saving, weight-saving gadget compared with any electronic brain yet constructed. A cynical explanation favored in cybernetic circles: “Nowhere else can you obtain a self-maintaining computer with built-in judgment, which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor and by people who like their work so well.”

In 1958 the summer issue of a journal produced by the U.S. Air Force called “Air University Quarterly Review” published an article by George T. Hauty about human performance in spacecraft. The author argued that an electronic substitute for humans was impractical; for example, he believed that the mass of an adequately capable system would be “at least a thousand times that of man”. He gave other arguments: 5

Finally, since an electronic synthesization of these functions will not possess man’s ruggedness and environmental tolerances, sufficient reliability will not be obtained. It is these and several other comparative characteristics which doubtless gave rise to the appropriate observation that “nowhere else can you obtain a self-maintaining computer with built-in judgment which can be mass produced by unskilled labor.”

A version of the statement also appeared in the realm of fiction. In March 1960 a short story titled “Moon Pilot” by Robert Buckner in “The Saturday Evening Post” included a scene during which a senator challenged a general: 6

“There’ll be an awful howl from the public if we send a man to the moon and he doesn’t come back—especially from his relatives. I wish there were some other way to explore the universe first.”

General Vannemann looked around from Charlie to the lesser VIP. “If you know what it is, senator, we wish you’d tell us.” He waited, but got no answer; then he asked, “Where else can we find a self-maintaining computer with built-in judgment, which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor and by people who like their work so well?”

In February 1962 “Popular Mechanics” printed a remark by a physicist named S. Fred Singer about the activities humans would conduct in space: 7

“Instrumentation systems which will be built up to perform vital space functions will become so complicated and expensive that we will need men in the very inglorious role of a maintenance and repair man for complex television and communication satellites, or to the complex astronomical observatories in space,” says Dr. S. F. Singer, University of Maryland physicist.

After all, he said, man is “the only non-linear, 150-pound servomechanical system which can be mass produced by unskilled labor.”

In March 1962 a column by the powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr. attributed to Albert Scott Crossfield a slightly different version of the comment he made in 1954: 8

“Where else would you get a non-linear computer weighing only 160 pounds, having a billion binary decision elements, that can be mass-produced by unskilled labor?”

In 1965 a columnist in an Ohio newspaper stated that a famous science fiction author had employed the primary punchline of the expression: 9

Arthur C. Clarke, British physicist, mathematician and all-around scientist in literature who is a more popular writer of entertainment, information, and philosophy than C.P. Snow, is disposed to make such observations as, “The difference between machines and human beings is that human beings can be reproduced by unskilled labor.”

In 1965 S. Fred Singer published an article “The Case for Man in Space” in a magazine called “The Reporter”. He employed the expression again, but he changed “servomechanical system” to “computer system”: 10

Maybe it proves a recent axiom: “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computing system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Albert Scott Crossfield can be credited with the remark he made in 1954. It is possible that earlier simpler versions of the complicated statement exist, but QI has not found them at this time. Later statements in this family were probably derived directly or indirectly from the 1954 remark.

Image Notes: NASA image of astronaut Ed White taken on June 3, 1965 during a spacewalk conducted as part of the Gemini 4 mission. NASA picture of the display for the Guidance and Navigation computer onboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

(Great thanks to Tim Hopper, Vivek Haldar, and Tim Triche Jr. whose tweets together with an inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1954 May 6, New York Times, Test Pilot Faces Robot Challenge: U. S., British, French Fliers Reply in NATO Air Group to Machine Proposal by Thomas F. Brady, Quote Page 11, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1954 May 6, Seattle Daily Times, Supersonic Pilots Resent Idea of Yielding to Robots (New York Times News Service), Quote Page 15, Column 5, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1956 March 11, Charleston News and Courier, Reds May Model Their Rocket Bomber Plane on German Plans by Dr. L. M. Levitt (Director of Fels Planetarium), Quote Page 8C, Column 3, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1958 May 26, Time, Volume 71, Issue 21, Outward Bound, Time Inc., New York. (Academic Search Premier EBSCO)
  5. 1958 Summer, The United States Air Force: Air University Quarterly Review, Volume 10, Number 2, Human Performance in the Space Travel Environment by George T. Hauty, Start Page 89, Quote Page 89, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1960 March 19, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 232, Issue 38, Start Page 24, Quote Page 115, Column 2, Moon Pilot by Robert Buckner (Short story), Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Academic Search Premier EBSCO)
  7. 1962 February, Popular Mechanics, Volume 117, Number 2, Spacemen Will Be Mechanics not Dashing Adventurers, Quote Page 214, Column 2, Popular Mechanics Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1962 March 18, The Boston Sunday Advertiser (Boston Record), Vital Issues of Security by William Randolph Hearst Jr., Start Page 1, Quote Page 24, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (The original text misspelled “binary” as “biniary”) (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1965 January 1, News-Journal, Your America by Clark Kinnaird, Quote Page 27, Column 1, Mansfield, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1965 June 17, The Reporter: The Magazine of Facts and Ideas, Published and Edited by Max Ascoli, Volume 32, Number 12, The Case for Man in Space by S. Fred Singer, Start Page 25, Quote Page 28, The Reporter Magazine Company, New York. (Verified on paper)