Today helmets are everywhere, of course, but it hasn’t always been that way. Just as other headgear (think football) and the bike itself have evolved, so to has the bike helmet. How did the industry and the dome protector evolve from simple strips of leather to the engineering wonders we have today? Now we’re here to give a brief rundown of the history of the bike helmet from as far back at the 1860’s!
The first attempts at creating a protective head covering for cyclists were simple and rudimentary. The earliest helmets were little more than leather caps – they offered minimal protection but were a start in the right direction. These were known as "pork pie" helmets due to their distinctive shape. They were typically made of leather and lined with cork or other padding materials, and while they could potentially soften a minor blow, they were not designed to withstand high-impact collisions.
When cycling first got started, much like other sports, safety was not of paramount concern. In the 1870s and 1880s, the years of the penny-farthing, riders wore a suit and tie and perhaps a bowler hat. Not much protection.
After the invention of the chain and gears, the advent of the so-called “safety-bike,” riders / racers wore a thin cap with a short bill. This offered no more protection than a dress hat, but it did provide a little shade for the eyes and was not as easily dislodged by a gust of wind.
As the popularity of cycling grew, so did the demand for better, safer bike helmets. Over time, the design of bike helmets has evolved to include additional safety features, such as adjustable straps, a more rigid exterior shell, and ventilation systems.
In recent years, technological advancements have created even more advanced bike helmets, with features such as moisture-wicking padding and reflective materials for increased visibility. The continuous evolution of bike helmet design is a testament to the importance of always striving to make cycling safer and more accessible for everyone.
The 1970s marked a significant era in the evolution of bicycle helmets. With an ever-increasing number of cyclists worldwide, there was a heightened need for safer, more effective head protection. This decade saw the birth of what we can refer to as modern bike helmets and brought about considerable changes in helmet design and construction.
The '70s also witnessed an essential leap in helmet technology. Scientists and manufacturers started experimenting with foam-based materials that could absorb and distribute impact energy more efficiently. Expanded polystyrene (EPS), a type of foam known for its excellent shock-absorbing properties, started to gain popularity. This led to the creation of the first foam-shell helmets, a marked improvement over their 'hairnet' predecessors.
Another key development of the 1970s was the increased public awareness about cycling safety. Several high-profile accidents involving cyclists sparked conversations about the necessity of wearing helmets, leading to a growing number of cyclists donning head protection. Manufacturers responded to this rising demand with an array of new helmet designs, giving birth to the booming bicycle helmet industry.
During this era, the color and aesthetic of helmets also started to gain attention. Manufacturers began experimenting with different colors and finishes, transforming helmets from purely protective gear into a fashion statement.
The 1980s were a pivotal period in the history of bike helmets, characterized by a greater emphasis on safety and the introduction of regulatory standards. As bike helmets began to gain more acceptance among the general public, it became apparent that there was a need for formal standards and regulations to ensure their effectiveness and safety.
One of the key players in the standardization of bike helmets was the Snell Memorial Foundation. Founded in 1957 in memory of racing car driver Pete Snell, who tragically lost his life due to an inadequate racing helmet, the foundation had initially focused on improving standards for auto racing helmets.
In the early 1980s, they turned their attention towards bike helmets, developing rigorous tests to assess a helmet's ability to withstand impacts and protect the wearer's head. In 1984, they released the first safety standard for bike helmets, B-85. This comprehensive standard incorporated dynamic impact testing and assessed factors such as the helmet's retention system and coverage area.
It was also around this time that Bell began using a nylon strap and D-ring combination as a means of securing the helmet to the rider’s head. Since this closure method is a bit clunky and takes two hands to operate, it was soon replaced by plastic buckles that are still the primary retention system today.
In the early '90s, the cycling world began to see a shift away from the "hairnet" style helmets of the 1970s and '80s. These offered some degree of protection, but they were by no means optimized for high-impact crashes. As the understanding of traumatic brain injuries advanced, so did the demand for more effective helmets.
Hard-shell helmets, made from tougher outer materials like polycarbonate or ABS plastic, began to gain popularity. These helmets featured a layer of dense, impact-absorbing EPS foam inside a robust outer shell, providing a significant increase in protection compared to their predecessors. This construction helped to distribute the force of an impact over a larger area, reducing the risk of serious injury.
Apart from the advances in shell construction in the 90’s, there were other points of focus for helmet manufacturers. One was the use of inner retention systems in-mold construction, a manufacturing technique that further revolutionized helmet design. In this process, the outer shell and the inner foam layer are formed simultaneously, resulting in a strong, lightweight structure with no gaps or weaknesses. In-mold helmets were lighter and more comfortable than earlier hard-shell designs, while still offering excellent protection.
As hard-shell and in-mold helmets became the norm, manufacturers started to focus more on improving helmet ventilation and aerodynamics. The design of helmets also became more streamlined in the '90s, with manufacturers recognizing the importance of aerodynamics for racing cyclists. This resulted in sleeker, more aerodynamic shapes that not only helped to reduce air resistance but also added to the aesthetic appeal of helmets.
As technology continues to advance, the future of bike helmets looks promising. One area of innovation is the development of smart helmets, which integrate features such as built-in lights, turn signals, and even communication systems. These smart helmets enhance visibility and provide additional safety measures for cyclists. Furthermore, ongoing research aims to create helmets with improved ventilation systems, lightweight materials, and even sensors that can detect impacts and automatically notify emergency services.
Introduction of New Technologies
A significant milestone was the introduction of the Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS). MIPS, developed by biomechanical specialists from Sweden, added a low-friction layer to the helmet. This layer allowed the helmet to slide relative to the head during an angled impact, reducing rotational forces and the potential for brain injuries. Many helmet manufacturers adopted this groundbreaking technology, recognizing its potential to further enhance helmet safety.
The Rise of Smart Helmets
The 2000s also saw the emergence of "smart" helmets, equipped with features that extended far beyond basic protection. Innovations included built-in LED lights for increased visibility, integrated speakers for music and phone calls, rearview cameras, and even collision detection systems that could alert emergency contacts in case of an accident. Some helmets incorporated GPS and heart-rate monitors, making them not just a safety tool, but an essential part of a cyclist's gear.
Potential Future Innovations in Helmet Technology
As we look towards the future, the potential for further innovation in helmet technology is vast. Helmet designs are becoming even more refined and focused on specific cycling disciplines, from urban commuting to downhill mountain biking. Advancements in materials science could lead to helmets that are even lighter and stronger, with better impact absorption.
Emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may also find their way into helmet design. Imagine a helmet that provides real-time traffic updates, navigation prompts, or even biometric data directly into your field of vision. Such features could enhance safety and convenience for cyclists, fundamentally changing the way we ride.
In the 1980s, concerns regarding helmet safety standards grew, leading to the establishment of organizations like the Snell Memorial Foundation and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). These organizations set safety standards for bike helmets, ensuring they meet specific criteria for impact resistance, strap strength, and other essential factors. Compliance with these standards became an important aspect for manufacturers, guaranteeing that consumers receive helmets that meet the required safety levels.
Almost every bike helmet that’s on the market today has to pass safety standards. Standards in the United States include ISO, EN, CPSC, ASTM, and UL. For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on ISO, EN, CPSC, ASTM and UL.
These standards require that a bicycle helmet is able to fit well in a wide variety of rider types and sizes. A helmet must meet the minimum safety standards in order to get a CE certification, or to be sold to the public. In order for a helmet to pass standards set by a product safety organization, it must pass several tests.
Many helmets are made from materials that are supposed to withstand the impact of a crash and still hold the shape of the head. This is meant to make the helmet lighter.
The history of bike helmets is a fascinating chronicle of innovation, shifting attitudes, and our continuous commitment to safety. From the rudimentary leather caps of the late 19th century to today's high-tech smart helmets, each evolution in helmet design has marked a significant step forward in protecting cyclists worldwide.
As we look towards the future, we can only imagine the advancements that lie ahead. With emerging technologies and materials science, we may see helmets that are even more lightweight, more protective, and equipped with features that we can't even envision today.
In closing, it's important to remember that while technology and design can enhance safety, the onus is still on each rider to wear a helmet every time they cycle. The simple act of donning a helmet can save lives and prevent injuries, a truth that has remained unchanged throughout the history of bike helmets. Here's to many more years of innovation and safe cycling!