Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs) are a unique and valuable group of active materials. NiTi, the most popular SMA, has a power density orders of magnitude greater than any other known material, making it valuable in the medical and transportation industries where weight and space are at a premium. In the nearly half-century since its discovery, the adoption of NiTi has been slowed primarily by the engineering difficulties associated with its use: strong thermal coupling, material level instabilities, and rapid shakedown of material properties during cycling. Material properties change drastically with minute changes in alloy composition, so it is common to require a variety of experiments to fully characterize a new SMA material, all of which must be performed and interpreted with specialized techniques. This thesis collects many of these techniques into a series of characterization experiments, documenting several new phenomena in the process. First, three different alloys of NiTi wire are characterized through differential scanning calorimetry, isothermal tension, and constant load thermal cycling experiments. New techniques are presented for ER measurement and temperature control of SMA wires and temperature measurement of SMA tubes. It is shown that the shakedown of material properties with thermal cycling is not only dependent on the applied load and number of cycles, but has a large association with the direction of phase transformation. Several of these techniques are then applied to a systematic characterization of NiTi tubes in tension, compression, and bending. Particular attention is given to the nucleation and propagation of transformation fronts in tensile specimens. Compression experiments show dramatic asymmetry in the uniaxial response, with compression characterized by a lower transformation strain, higher transformation stress, and uniform transformations (no fronts). A very simple SMA actuator model is introduced. After identifying the relevant non-dimensional parameters, an analytical solution to the governing equations is developed, the first of its kind. The power of the analytical solution is exercised in a series of design studies examining spring sizing, power requirements, response time, and energy efficiency.