A Pioneer in Safety and Design, Dr. Rockwell’s Human Side Recognized through Endowment

Posted: September 13, 2022
Dr. Tom Rockwell
Dr. Tom Rockwell

Dr. Tom Rockwell understood Human Factors better than anyone. 

He remains a legend at The Ohio State University where he was a professor and pioneer in Human Factors Engineering. Dr. Rockwell knew that, in order to be successful in your career and personal life, you have to understand humans and how they respond. 

“He loved Human Factors,” says his son Chris Rockwell, ISE ’90, and a member of the ISE Advisory Board. “He loved the human side of engineering.” 

Dr. Rockwell, who passed away Christmas morning 2015, intertwined his teachings in the classroom and in his home, which often served as a welcome center for faculty and students, especially during holiday meals for those far away from their own countries. He taught his students how to be competitive in the classroom, in their careers and even, on occasion, on the racquetball court. 

He was Ohio State’s first Human Factors professor and responsible for encouraging other longtime faculty members to join him at the University, including Distinguished University Professor Bill Marras and Faculty Emeritus Phil Smith. 

“He loved problem-solving and collecting data,” Chris says of his father. “Some of his design standards are still being used today. He was proud of his accomplishments. He was greatly competent and confident in his work, but he was most proud of his students. We’re proud of who he was.” 

Dr. Rockwell’s prominent automotive safety and design research included the effects of alcohol on how drivers sample the roadway and the configuration of vehicle taillights. “One of the things he identified was driver distraction,” Chris says, adding that he determined every distraction is equal to 2-2.5 seconds. It’s a measurement still considered the norm. 

Chris Rockwell

Chris, along with his family colleagues and friends, have established the Dr. Thomas H. Rockwell Sr. Endowment Fund to be used for industrial and systems engineering graduate student development opportunities. 

“This is about the impact my dad had,” Chris explains. He knows better than most how his father greatly influenced the field of Human Factors, but also how Dr. Rockwell encouraged other activities, such as networking and traveling to conferences, which helped shape his students to become more well-rounded professionals. “That’s what he tried to build,” his son says. “He believed students needed an opportunity beyond the classroom.” 

Dr. Rockwell believed that by providing these types of enrichment opportunities, Ohio State would be able to attract and retain top talent. 

“The University was a huge part of our lives growing up,” Chris says. “I grew up with many of the faculty. The Department was very integral to my upbringing. I’m very proud of that.” 

On Saturday mornings, his father would take him and his siblings to work with him. Afterwards, they might go over to what was then Larkins Hall where they would play racquetball or go swimming. “Then we would go to the ‘Shoe and watch a football game,” Chris says. “It was part of who we were.” 

Though his father was retired by the time Chris attended Ohio State, he was still involved with the ISE Department. Rather than feeling overshadowed by his father’s presence, Chris said he found his experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Enrolling at Ohio State “wasn’t even a question,” he says. “It was a great opportunity.” 

Chris’ brother Tom also is an OSU ISE graduate. By the time they reached college age, both Chris and Tom had been doing ISE projects for years. As teenagers, Tom worked on a legibility study for railroads and Chris did a video analysis of eye glance behavior. 

“Our science fairs were legendary,” Chris remembers. “While my friends were making baking soda volcanoes, I was doing a project on contrast ratio and reading error for fonts.” 

He says his father instilled a passion in him, which Chris has used to build a market research consultancy, Lextant, which is described as a human experience firm that works with the world’s leading brands. He says, “It’s all because of dad.” 

While Chris recognizes that his father was “tough in the classroom,” he says he was “fair and caring.” Chris describes his father as a man of faith who had “very much a servant’s heart.” 

“My dad was strong, but he was humble,” his son says. “He was driven by curiosity. He had a love of his wife, his family and the desire to improve the world.” 

Chris says he still hears from people who tell him how much of an impact his father had on them. “He always felt fortunate to be at Ohio State and I think Ohio State felt fortunate to have him.” 


To learn more about the Dr. Thomas H. Rockwell Sr. Endowment Fund (#646151), contact Senior Director of Development Courtney Ross at 614-688-2784 or ross.697@osu.edu

Story by Nancy Richison

Category: Faculty