The History of Experimental Design

Experimental design is the gold standard of research design, and the best approach for assessing cause and effect. The design, which relies on random assignment and repeated measurements for its rigor, has its roots in agricultural experiments of the early twentieth century and is now commonplace in a variety of scientific and industrial settings.

  1. Identification

    • Sir Ronald Fisher, a British statistician, first developed the elements of experimental design while at Rothamsted, Britain's oldest agricultural experiment station, in the 1920s. In 1935, Fisher published "Design of Experiments," a book that articulated the features of experimental research design that are still used today.


    • Elements of experimental design, as outlined by Fisher, include comparison of an experimental group, which receives the treatment or intervention, and a baseline control group. Other features include random assignment of subjects to treatment and control groups to control for any differences between the groups that could bias the results. Finally, experimental design requires multiple measures to estimate the level of variation in measurements.

    World War II and Experimental Design

    • Experimental design expanded beyond its agricultural experiment roots during World War II, as the procedure became a method for assessing and improving the performance of weapons systems, such as long range artillery.

    Industrial Applications

    • British statistician George Box, who trained as a chemist, helped extend the use of experimental design to the chemical industry. Box worked in the chemical industry in Britain before coming to the University of Wisconsin, where he spent the remainder of his career.

      Experimental design as a method of quality control came to Japanese industry in the 1950s, thanks to the influence of statistician W. Edwards Deming. Japanese products were cheap and of poor quality in the years immediately following World War II. Japanese management adopted experiments and statistical quality control as methods for improving the quality of products, which ushered in a new era for Japanese industry.

    Clinical Trials

    • In the 1960s, randomized experiments became the standard for approval of new medications and medical procedures. Prior to that time, approval of medical devices and drugs relied on anecdotal data, in which a physician would examine a handful of patients and write a paper. This approach introduced bias, for which randomized clinical trials controlled.


    • Since its beginnings in agriculture, experimental design has applications across many sectors of industry. From the chemical industry, the design extended to automobile manufacturing, semiconductors, and even nuclear technology, among others.

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