The Invention of the Airbag


2016 has been a rough year for the humble airbag. Car companies brag about how many airbags their cars have for a reason: since their widespread introduction, airbags have saves countless lives in car accidents. But unlike the other safety innovations that protect drivers, airbags are a  unique concept.

Seatbelts keep us from moving in the event of an accident, safety-glass keeps us from being bombarded with glass in the event of an accident, but explosive pillows hiding in our steering wheels? That’s the kind of invention that deserves some attention.

Like the invention of the modern traffic light, the invention of the airbag had its genesis in a car accident. John W. Hetrick, a United States Navy engineer, was going for a Sunday drive with his wife and seven-year-old daughter when he had to veer off the road to avoid hitting a deer. Hetrick and his wife both stretched out their arms reflexively to prevent their daughter from hitting the dashboard, and on the way home, Hetrick couldn’t help but think about ways to make cars safer for their passengers.

“During the ride home I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident,” Hetrick wrote. “I asked myself, ‘Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?’ As soon as I got home that night I sat down at the kitchen table and drew some sketches. Each evening for the following two weeks, I’d add or subtract something from the sketches.”

During his time as a naval engineer, he had repaired a torpedo with a canvas cover. When the compressed air from the torpedo was expelled, the canvas inflated. What if, Hetrick thought, a container could inflate in the event of a car crash to cushion the vehicle’s occupants?

Hetrick developed a “safety cushion” very similar to today’s airbags, and although he was awarded a patent for his invention in 1952, his cushion was not suitable for commercial sale. As Ford and General Motors discovered when they started experimenting with airbags in the late 50s: airbags need to deploy within 40 milliseconds of an accident, and airbags can cause secondary injuries due to their rigidity when inflated.

So while Hetrick never made money off of his invention, he inspired the American automotive industry to work on perfecting his original idea. One man’s obsession paved the way for the saving of countless lives, and it might never had happened if a deer hadn’t run into traffic.

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