Professor of Everything

(reprinted from the Graduate: University of Toronto Alumni, volume VIII/No. 3, January/February 1981)

When John Senders was thrown out of Ohio's Antioch University in his freshman Year, he went to work in a paint factory then went on to a career that would include designing control panels for U.S. moon shots, laying the groundwork for an international library data system and contributing to the scientific understanding of accidents -from car crashes to Three Mile Island.

Well, he did go back to university in the interim -this time to Harvard. But he came out with only a bachelor's degree (in psychology) and without distinguished marks because he'd juggled a full-time job with his full-time degree program, leaving little time for sleep, let alone for study.

Now, 32 years later, John Senders, BA, is a tenured professor of industrial engineering at the University of Toronto. As he says: "Only in a university that's strong enough to do what it damn well wants is it possible for a person with a BA to be hired as a full professor."

If Senders' career seems to have taken quantum leaps, it's because that's how his mind works, pulling apparently disparate elements together into a coherent and illuminating whole.

"He's an original thinker," says Dr. Edward Llewellyn Thomas, an associate dean in the Faculty of Medicine. "He sees relationships that aren’t obvious."

The two men met about 20 years ago when they were working in aerospace research. Both have had unusually varied professional lives -with the doctor starting out as an engineer, then switching to medicine along with writing science fiction novels. And both men enjoy a good argument. "John's an intelligent adversary and a forceful speaker. He's also knowledgeable, vigorous and enthusiastic."
Senders' professional expertise is in a field that's relatively new in the context of scholarly investigation. In England, it's known as "ergonomics"; in North America, as "human factors".

With the industrial revolution of the late 19th century came an awareness that scientific study of "work" could help people do things faster, more efficiently and with greater safety. The rapid development of sophisticated technology spurred by the Second World War brought an even greater need for professionals who could design equipment that provided for human limitations of the operator.

"John Senders has played a major role in laying a basis for our understanding of the man/machine interface in a complex technological system where the operator is under considerable mental workload," says psychology professor Neville Moray of the University of Stirling in Scotland. I "He's provided a lot of data on how people direct their limited attention over time."

Moray was on the faculty at the University of Sheffield in England when he first met Senders at a human factors conference in Holland. They subsequently collaborated on a project at Brandeis University in 1968 and came together again at U of T where Senders was a visiting professor in 1973 and Moray taught psychology from 1970 to 1974.

At the end of his year as a visiting professor, Senders was invited to join the Department of Industrial Engineering. A meeting was duly held to determine whether or not he should be given tenure -that controversial academic version of job security.

The main obstacle was not that he only had a BA but that, at 55, he was old for tenure. "Just how productive is he likely to be?" asked one skeptic. "Your only concern should be that he might run you all ragged," retorted a colleague.

Senders now teaches a third year engineering course in the analysis of man/machine systems, a fourth year course on human performance in man/machine systems and four graduate courses, dealing variously with the performance of human operators in complex systems, the design of work places, systems safety engineering and systems design and development.

While his output is considerable, he's no workaholic. There's variety in what he does and he does it with an exuberance that makes it more like play than work. When he's not teaching (an activity he loves as a performer loves an audience), he might be off giving a paper and sampling gastronomic goodies in Europe, or flying down to Washington to serve as a U.S. government consultant, or testifying in court as an expert witness on human error.

But home is a little fishing village in Maine.

Senders and his second wife, Ann Crichton-Harris, happened upon Columbia Falls (pop. 350) one day five years ago when they took a "wrong turn" on their way to Boston. As soon as they saw the shingled New England house, built on a slight rise overlooking the bay, they wanted to make it their own -and that meant far more than juSt buying it. An attractive house to begin with, it's now a• showplace, with its "old" addition, its antique furniture and its landscaped gardens.

Down the street is the former hardware store they bought and converted into an office, complete with computer terminal that keeps Senders in touch with colleagues around the world. .

Last year he and several others, including Moray, experimented with a computer journal as a way of beating the cost of paper and publishing. The community of "subscribers", with terminals throughout the U.S. and Canada, could plug into a large central computer where the "papers" were stored. It didn't work.

"We ran into frustrations with the hard and software we were given," says Moray. "It's one of the few ventures that hasn't turned out for John. Normally, he has the golden touch."

To keep occupied during their summers in Columbia Falls, he and Ann have an antique shop, several rental properties, a 33-acre woodlot and a share in a woodstove company. For a year of so, they were also part-owners of a short-order restaurant.

Concerned that John might become lonely for his academic friends, Ann convinced him Columbia Falls would be a marvelous setting for a scientific conference with a clambake as the finale. Within eight months, and without funding from government or university, the idea had become a reality and 25 scientists, from as far away as England and the west coast, had gathered to give papers on human error. Senders hopes the conference will become an annual event.

Meanwhile he's absorbed in a scheme to build a hydroelectric generator with requisite "ladder" for fish going upstream to spawn.

The actual construction is unlikely to be as complicated as the process of acquiring a federal permit. Present regulations and procedures seem to assume that every project must be on the scale of the Hoover dam. Only recently has the U.S. government begun devising application forms for small hydro developments.

"Learning our way through the paper maze was quite a feat," says Senders. "There were 16 agencies involved. It was ridiculous! Doing things their way would have meant' spending $92,000 on lawyers’ fees alone and who knows how long the whole thing would have taken."

The solution was to apply Senders' Law which states that "when dealing with a sufficiently large organization, you can always get things done if you're prepared NOT to go by the book".
The complex problems that intimidate lesser souls provide the challenge Senders craves.

"My father used to say that a person growing up in a technological world should be able to go naked into the woods and come out with a working radio. That made a great impression on me.

"You can learn any job by doing it. Unless, of course, you're afraid to make mistakes. Then you'll never do anything; you're frozen. You have to act, assess, then correct anything you're doing wrong."

Sometimes, says his wife, it seems as if he can do literally anything. He used to fly small planes until he let his pilot's licence lapse. He once made a found-object sculpture for the garden -a bird, with sheep shears for a bill, a scythe for a body and a sickle blade for wings.

He concocts stupendous birthday surprises and always finds the perfect piece of poetry for any occasion dramatically recited in the resonant bass voice he often exercises by singing all his favourite Gilbert and Sullivan and Tom Lehrer songs.

A gregarious man, he loves to give dinner parties and is a superb cook.

"Even when we're not entertaining, John does 90 per cent ofthe cooking," says Ann. "He likes to do the s hopping, too, so he can discuss the appropriate cut of meat with the butcher. I tend just to pick up a packet of something."

Senders grew up with four older sisters -all bright, articulate, and highly competitive. Games such as Scrabble, backgammon and chess were an integral part of family life and everyone was a demon for winning. Senders still has that compulsion and he's anything but modest about his triumphs.

"He's enormously arrogant, which can annoy people terribly," says Gregory Baum, the outspoken Roman Catholic theologian.

The two men met when Senders' first wife took a course from Baum. They've subsequently developed a wary friendship, based largely on their mutual fondness for good argument.

"John has a brilliant scientific mind -combining analytical genius with an extraordinary imagination but he infuriates me because he's insensitive to the role ofmeaning and values in the constitution of society.

"We're on totally different wave lengths. His interest in psychology is purely empirical. For example, he would examine a painting in terms of how the eye covers it. His emphasis tends towards the physiological whereas I'm interested in how a painting challenges me, leads me to new self-perception, opens me up to new understanding.

"We have our political differences, too. John wants the government to leave him alone as much as possible so he can live a fulfilling life. He accepts the existing system in which the smart ones do well. I'm a socialist; I dream of a system where people who aren't so smart can do well.

"Yet while his political views represent self-interest, in reality he's wonderfully warm-hearted, generous and affectionate." Even Senders' closest friends and staunchest admirers admit that he alienates a lot of people with his strongly stated opinions and his contemptuous irritation at incompetence.

"Students either love him or hate him," says Tim Maryon, who worked as Senders' research assistant after graduating from the industrial engineering program. "I could listen to him for hours; his lectures incorporate such an extraordinarily broad range of knowledge.

"But those in the lower half of the class were not so enthralled. No one could breeze through without doing a significant amount of work; his tests are demanding, and when he's angry, he's formidable. It's a shame, though, that some people never see past his abrasiveness."

Senders isn't nearly as abrasive as he used to be, says Neville Moray. "Since Ann came into his life, he's almost unrecognizable.

"He's always been a superb scientist, but with a lot of blind spots in other directions. He's a technologist’s technologist; definitely limited on the arts and humanities side. But now, thanks to Ann, he's begun to loosen up and is more open to ideas he once held in contempt. She brings out his human side, a side that used to be buried under all the pragmatism."

A not-so-practical side of the man is his impatience with reinforcing his scholarly reputation by sitting down and writing up his findings for scholarly journals. Much of his work comes out in the form of contract reports, often not seen for some time by his academic colleagues.

"Few people have more than two or three original ideas in a lifetime," says Tim Maryon. "John's ideas seem unlimited. But he hasn't the time or inclination to plod along doing the methodical stuff. That's why he doesn't mind in the least if someone else takes one of his ideas, expands it, takes out a patent and makes a profit. While someone else can do the donkey work, there's no substitute for his inspiration."

Senders wants to make enough money to afford the big house and good wine essential to his expansive brand of hospitality but he's not interested in amassing a fortune.

"When the power of the intellect gives people mastery over their environment, they don't need the power of wealth."

After leaving his first job, at the paint factory, Senders joined an electronics firm as a production manager and, to offset the monotony of those duties, he began to dabble in circuit design. By the time he left the company, he was chief electronics engineer.

During the same period, he married his first wife, who was then working on her PhD in psychology at Harvard. Curious about what she was doing, he enrolled as an undergraduate, after having placed third in the entrance exam. Within a few years, he was running a large research program on human perceptual motor skills.

The abrupt end to his first days at university had been the result of his refusal to take a required course in basic mathematics.

Said young Senders to the Antioch officials: "I've known the stuff since I was seven. I'm buggered if I'll waste time taking a course in it now."

His father duly received a letter informing him that the college rarely expelled a student before completion of the freshman year, however, in his son's case they were making an exception.

"Well, John," said his father, "people will always make exceptions for you."

Memorial contributions may be made to The University of Toronto's “John W. Senders Award for Medical Innovation”.  Donations may be made by calling Kristin Philpott at 416-946-7827, or at

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John W. Senders