Morgan Pritchett
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A Crash Course in the History of Air Bags

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air bags deployed in steering wheel and passenger front side of a vehicle
Learn more about this life-saving feature
Photo: Adam Bartlett via CC

Saying that the road to developing an effective, reliable, and safe air bag was a bumpy one is an understatement. While the idea for air bags was first conceived in the early 1950s, they were not widely used until the 1970s. From a father attempting to protect his family to an engineer with a breakthrough scientific discovery, the air bag’s history is filled with many interesting tidbits.

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An experience-driven idea

The idea of an air bag was first thought of in 1952, after John W. Hetrick, a retired industrial engineering technician, experienced a car accident with his family. Hetrick used his background as a member of the United States Navy to create a design based on his experience with compressed air from torpedoes. His air bag was the first to receive a patent on Aug. 18, 1953 — a mere three months before Walter Linderer, a German inventor, received his patent for an “inflatable cushion” to protect drivers in accidents.

Inspiration for the future

It was these two early air bag designs that inspired others in the automotive industry to produce this new safety feature. While many carmakers began experimenting with their own versions of air bags, none actually included them in their vehicle designs until the early 1970s. There were still some significant problems with the concept — many engineers saw the potential for secondary injuries that air bags could cause when passengers came in contact with them.

close up photo of black car dashboard with air bag written across
Most vehicles come with a comprehensive suite of air bags
Photo: Tony Webster via CC

A scientific discovery

To fix the possible air bag injury issue, Allen K. Breed, a New Jersey mechanical engineer, came up with a solution — a reliable, $5 crash sensor. This breakthrough technology used a small explosion of sodium azide (the white powder that comes out of air bags) instead of compressed air, making it slightly safer than previous designs. It was Breed’s sensor that allowed carmakers to begin producing effective air bags, equipping their vehicles with them to help keep passengers safe.

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Now, air bags are an expected standard feature. Some carmakers even have inflatable seatbelts that use air bag technology. These powerful bags of air have come a long way since the 1950s — and it looks like they will only keep on evolving.