The story of the airbag. Who really invented it?

The history of the development of various technologies over the centuries can be very surprising. It has happened more than once at different stages of the development that a similar or even identical, innovative project appeared simultaneously in two (or more) places in the world.

„Eureka” – the unity of time 

Two sociologists, William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, published an article entitled “Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution”. In the paper, the authors list 148 inventions and scientific discoveries that appeared simultaneously but independently, by at least two inventors. The notion that great ideas simultaneously appear out of thin air is a fascinating proposition. But
which cosmic forces need to align in order for several inventors to reach a common understanding at a particular time in history? To prove this, we can find some interesting examples.

And so, for instance, there are at least six inventors of the thermometer. On the other hand, photography has at least four protoplasts, and color photography – two. The inkjet printer was created almost simultaneously by Canon and Hewlett-Packard. The Japanese and Americans filed their patent applications within a month and it was in 1977. The famous light bulb, the invention of which is attributed to Thomas Edison, was created by at least 20 others. But it is Edison that is credited as its inventor. There is another interesting fact about Edison. The legacy of the laboratories established and administered by him is more than 1,000 patents. 
Another quite famous story is that Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both applied for telephone patens the same day, on February 14, 1876. And this was hardly unique.

A Short History of the Airbag

Did you know the story of the airbag was the same? Today it is widely used and found in almost every car. However, there are probably few people who have wondered how it was created. So just a few words about it.

In the early 1950s, an accident during a Sunday afternoon trip to the Pennsylvania countryside inspired John W. Hetrick, a retired industrial engineering technician, to design one of the most important advances in automobile safety. As he was involved in the accident with his daughter and wife, then and there Hetrick designed the system to reduce injuries during emergency braking and frontal collisions. After many months of work, he received a patent in 1953 for what he called a „safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles”. At almost the same time, a very similar idea was being developed in distant Germany. The German inventor Walter Linderer also received a patent in 1953 for an „inflatable cushion” to protect drivers in accidents. The cushions he invented were to fill up with compressed air when the bumper came into imminent contact with an obstacle. After both designs of airbags were reserved by these inventors, the further development of the airbags was taken over by the well-known car manufacturers, GM and Ford. There was a lot to work to be done, as these were only prototypes. They determined that for an airbag to be effective a sensor would have to detect a collision accurately and reliably, and the airbags would have to inflate within milliseconds. The last problem was to eliminate the damage generated by the device itself.
Work on the model that was to be launched lasted almost 10 years. It wasn’t until 1960 that an American mechanic and engineer Allen K. Breed invented his first sensor and safety system. This was the world’s first electromechanical automotive air bag system of its kind. A harmless gas inflated the air bag within the blink of an eye – or less than 1/20th of a second.

Over the time the material of the air bag was replaced. It was also ensured that the air bags deflate quickly after a collision. 
 Ford built an experimental fleet of cars with airbags. These were cars that met the needs of the government in the first place. In 1973, Oldsmobile Toronado was the first car with a passenger airbag intended for sale to the public. General Motors later offered an option to the general public of driver side airbags in full-sized Oldsmobile’s and Buick’s in 1975 and 1976 respectively. At that time, it was not a standard, but rather alternatives to the commonly known seat belts. Europe, in a sense, slept through the whole decade of the 1970s and it was the Americans who were very active at that time. Therefore, it was a great surprise that a new solution appeared in Germany. In 1981, airbags were an available option on the Mercedes-Benz W126. Others followed this path and equipping cars with both which became the standard.
The designers did not stop there. They were perfecting and developing and seeking better solutions. And so, after another 15 years, the side airbags were installed in the door trim panel. The Swedish Volvo pioneered the solution, proving that the pursuit of perfection in passenger protection is the motto of the brand and makes it the safest in the world. 
Today it is hard to imagine a car without airbags. Brands outperform each other in terms of quality, quantity and distribution. Everything is aimed at the safety of the driver and passengers. The history of airbags is amazing, especially when we consider that such enormous progress has been made in just 50 years. And certainly, the designers have not yet said the last word.