Professor Paul M. Fitts

During graduation week in April, the Psychology Department held its annual Awards Banquet to celebrate the many achievements of our faculty members, administrative staff, and graduate students for the 2015-16 academic year.  In addition, this auspicious occasion served to honor the scientific contributions and scholarly legacy of Paul M. Fitts, after whom the awards banquet has been named. 

Professor Fitts was among the leading U of M faculty members who, during the two decades after World War II, helped to greatly enhance Michigan’s reputation as a premier US public university, with arguably the best full-service Psychology Department in the whole world.  A native of Martin, Tennessee – born in 1912 – Fitts earned bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in Psychology from, respectively, the University of Tennessee, Brown University, and University of Rochester.  Soon after his formal education during the Great Depression had been completed, momentous international events – including the attack on Pearl Harbor – led him to enter the US military.  From 1942 through 1946, he rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel and participated in spearheading the Army Air Forces’ Aviation Psychology Program.  On the basis of his and others’ pioneering efforts, the first major Air Force initiative in Human Factors engineering was established at Wright-Patterson Air Field near Dayton, Ohio.

Fitts’s scientific investigations have contributed especially to the design of modern aircraft cockpits, significantly reducing pilot errors and fatal plane crashes.  For example, he carefully explored the mental and physical aspects of ‘stimulus-response compatibility’, which provide important principles for arranging flight instruments and control devices to facilitate safe efficient cockpit operations.  His seminal research in Human-Performance Theory also discovered a fundamental new quantitative regularity of human behavior, which has become known as Fitts’ Law.  Specifically, Fitts found that the time (MT) people take to move their fingers, hands, or other body parts rapidly and accurately from an initial starting point (e.g., some place on a touch screen) to another target location (e.g., an icon elsewhere on the screen) may be calculated precisely from an algebraic equation: MT = A + B*log(D/W), depending on the target’s width (W) and distance (D) from the starting point.  This discovery has played a crucial role in engineers’ plans for many sorts of standard human-machine interfaces.

Following the initial phases of his career as an Air Force officer, Civil Service researcher, and faculty member at the Ohio State University, Professor Fitts joined the faculty of UM in 1958.  Together with two other faculty members, Professors Arthur Melton and Ward Edwards, Fitts established the Michigan Human Performance Center.  The HPC, a subunit of our Psychology Department, soon became internationally renowned for its cutting-edge basic and applied research on human perception, learning, memory, judgment, decision-making, and action.  Furthermore, through Fitts’s mentorship, numerous U of M doctoral students have gone on to their own eminent careers, including Michael I. Posner, who received the US National Medal of Science, and Edward E. Smith, who was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.  For these and many other outstanding contributions, numerous national honors and awards came to Fitts as well.

Poignantly, however, after seven enormously productive and unforgettable years on the U of M Psychology Faculty, Paul Fitts died unexpectedly at the age of 52 years in May, 1965.  To commemorate his time here with us, the Fitts family has established a memorial fund whose proceeds are used to fund a continuing (1969-present) Fitts Memorial Lecture Series and the Paul M. Fitts Psychology Awards Banquet.  At this year’s banquet, the 2016 Fitts Lecture was presented by Prof. Susan Gelman, who spoke about “The essential child: What children can teach us about the human mind”.  In attendance, together with hundreds of Psychology Department personnel, were some members of the Fitts family: Mrs. Paul Fitts, Susan Fitts-Salaniuk (Prof. Fitts’s daughter), and her husband, Colonel Eugene Salaniuk.  We are grateful for their abiding interest in and support of our great department to which Paul Fitts contributed so much.

From left to right: Colonel Eugene Salaniuk, Mrs. Paul Fitts, Susan Fitts-Salaniuk (Prof. Fitts’ daughter), Professor Susan Gelman (the 2016 Fitts Lecturer), Professor Patricia Reuter-Lorenz (Psychology Department Chair), and Professor Thad Polk (Psychology Department Associate Chair)

Paul M. Fitts (right) aboard a cargo aircraft during an airborne experiment in the late 1940s while serving as an Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Paul M. Fitts (left), Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton OH in the late 1940s