Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Reid Reaction Tester

Dear readers

As promised, I would bounce back with some interesting posts for you to read.  I thought I would showcase an instrument that I find particularly fascinating and will feature in my doctoral thesis.  I hope you find this interesting and I would like to hear your points of view.

The Reid Reaction Tester can be described as one of the earliest attempts at neuropsychiatric screening in the Royal Air Force.  This device, introduced in the 1920s, helped to ascertain if potential flying candidates possessed the aptitude for piloting an aircraft. What is particularly interesting to me regarding the introduction of this machine was that neuropsychiatrists were not part of the medical service at this time but psychological theories were prevalent within the RAF and its medical service.  Mental scientists and eugenicists had been researching the link between intelligence, coordination and performance from the nineteenth century, and the RAF was adopting a similar theory in their selection process.  Some military historians may question why I believe that this is a medical device and not just a military selection tool.  My answer to that is simple:  it is testing the brain and mental capacity of the candidate.  The Reid machine tested the co-ordination of the brain, hands and feet of potential aviators but why was this introduced? 

Training a pilot for service flying cost thousands of pounds and was very time-consuming.  After the man had a successful interview, he was subject to a medical examination which ascertained physical fitness but apart from that, there was no way of knowing if the man would become a good pilot – if he possessed ‘the right stuff’.  It was believed that by measuring his abilities before training, the Reid Reaction Tester would sort the wheat from the chaff, thus saving time, money, and lives.  This very argument appeared again during the Second World War when RAF neuropsychiatrist Robert Gillespie attempted to reform the selection process using scientific methods.  Popular periodical Flight Magazine stated that in 80% of cases, the apparatus indicated that the man would become a good pilot, and this was proven during training.

The apparatus could be described as a ‘flight simulator’. The candidate sat in a mock cockpit and operated the control of the aircraft.  Inside the cockpit were three sets of small electric lamps:  port side coloured red and starboard green.  The examiner would turn on a set of lights and the pilot would have to manoeuvre the controls of the aircraft to turn these lights out as quickly as possible.  The responses of the pilot were recorded on a machine mounted on the mock fuselage, and the time taken to execute a particular command was measured by the length of the line recorded by the stylo.  To illustrate this further, if you have ever been for an eye examination, many of you will have experienced the peripheral vision test.  You sit in a dark room with a joystick in front of you and you have to hit the button as quickly as possible when the red light flashes up on the screen.  Practically the same idea!  The image below is from the Royal Air Force Museum’s collection and shows the recording apparatus:

 As I learn more about this fascinating device, I will enlighten you further!  I am interested in hearing your views or if you know anything more about this instrument.  

I hope you are all having a wonderful week!


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