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History of helmets

History of helmets
8 months ago No comments

Some industries tend to be moving forward with the speed of light. Just think about the massive difference between the 1982 Commodore 64 computer and the powerful smartphone sitting in your pocket right now. Or a little bit closer to our industry; try making a comparison between a 1960s American Muscle car with a big naturally aspirated V8 and the fully electric Tesla Model S with autopilot and everything! They are literally worlds apart. The motorcycle industry moves at a much slower pace though, and we riders like to think that’s a good thing. And it is! Sometimes at least. It’s hard not to like a retro-inspired Triumph Bonneville T120, or even a pure and simple Royal Enfield for that matter. But at the same time, if your pockets are deep enough, it’s very possible to get yourself a bike with rocket science like technology such as electronic suspension, launch control, wheelie control and cornering ABS.

More or less the same goes for motorcycle gear and equipment actually! On the one hand we’re seeing more and more products inspired by the golden ages of motorcycling. On the other, these days we’re quite lucky to see plenty of technological innovations (not rarely coming straight from MotoGP or Formula 1) making their way to end consumer products. Let’s get into a little history lesson for our first ChromeBurner blog post. The subject of conversation for this month: helmets.

FROM CANVAS TO FIBERGLASS HELMETS

The first motorcycle was sold in 1894. As you may expect, back then no one worried about safety and helmets didn’t exist. As time passed, motorcycles got faster and people started getting involved in racing their two-wheeled machines. With increased speed came an increased risk of getting injured and in 1914, British physician Dr. Eric Gardner invented the basic principle of a motorcycle helmet. It existed of a fortified piece of canvas shell to cover the top of the head. It may seem silly now, but the seed had been planted! As a welcome bonus, Dr. Gardner got the organization of the Isle of Man TT to make head protection mandatory the very same year. Finally motorcycle racers started caring about safety, if even just a little bit.

Things stood still for quite some time though until the year of 1941, when the British Army ordered all military riders to wear a helmet when heading out on their bikes. These helmets were constructed from rubber and cork, a significant upgrade from the canvas shell, this time even providing some form of impact protection and energy absorption.

Fast forward another couple of years to the 1950s, when things really took a flight. In 1953, Professor C.F. Lombard from the University of Southern California developed and patented the first helmet that properly absorbed impact. This helmet consisted of three layers: the outer shell was constructed from hard fiberglass, with an impact-absorbing foam layer underneath and a padded inner liner to provide the wearer with some comfort and a proper fit. In essence, all modern-day helmets are still constructed like this. Only one year later the founder of Bell Helmets, Roy Richter, developed the Bell 500. He took the main principles of Lombard’s design and created a helmet that covered the back of the head and wrapped around the ears: the open face helmet was born. This new piece of technology came at a price though: at around $200 this helmet was about as much as an average month’s salary! In 1957, the Snell Memorial Foundation was launched for the purpose of independent helmet safety testing, making sure manufacturers who liked to get into the game adhered to a certain standard.

The original Bell Star full face helmet

It took another 10 years for the next great leap in motorcycle safety was made: in 1967, Bell launched their Star helmet. This is the first full face helmet as we know it, with full coverage of the head and a face shield to provide better vision and protection. Until then, riders still had to rely on a pair of goggles to protect stuff from hitting their eyes. Shortly after, the Bell Star II featured a flip up face shield and things really started looking like the helmets we see on the streets right now.



DIVERSIFICATION IN SHAPE, PURPOSE AND MATERIALS

Riding a motorcycle has always been (and will always be) a bit of a lifestyle thing. Us riders don’t just want to be safe on two wheels, we also want to look cool. Plus: every rider has their own list of demands for their most important piece of motorcycle gear! As more manufacturers were getting into the mix, we started seeing more and more different kinds of helmets.

Apart from the open face and full face helmets invented by Bell, we can now get our hands on modular helmets, replica helmets, motocross helmets, jet helmets and all kinds of cross-breed products. It seems as if the sky is the limit and helmet manufacturers are all trying to offer something new to the market every year. How about the Scorpion Exo-Combat that looks like a proper full face helmet, but is in fact a light weight jet helmet with a semi solid, removable chin piece? Or how about the Nolan N70-2 series, offering no less than 6 different helmet configurations? Some helmets like the Shoei Ex-Zero are based on an open face helmet (in this case the Shoei J.O) and get a solid chin bar to turn it into a full face helmet. Don’t even get us started on the complex modular helmets like the Shark Evo-One 2, ROOF Boxer series and the brand new Scorpion Exo-Tech where the chin bar flips up all the way to the back, leaving you with the option to keep the face shield down and use the helmet as if it were a jet helmet!

Material wise, we’ve come a long way as well. From canvas to fiberglass, to polycarbonate, fiberglass, carbon fiber, aramid fibers, Kevlar fibers and all kinds of material mixtures with fancy names like Thermodynamical Composite Technology, AIM , Premium Integrated Matrix and our personal favorite; S.T.R.O.N.G. fiber. All jokes aside, we consider this as a prime example of a market that is finally appreciating the importance of trying to develop their products to be the very best in the market and beating the competition. Because in the end, this will always result in safer, lighter and more comfortable helmets for riders! Not quite convinced yet? Try and imagine what your ride would be like, riding with a canvas or rubber helmet on your noggin… We bet you don’t want to trade your current helmet for one of those!

Posted in: Helmets and gear