Motorcycle helmet: history and evolution

Motorcycle helmet

Motorcycle helmet: history and evolution

The motorcycle helmet nowadays is the one accessory that us bikers cannot do without. Although it represents one of the most fundamental tools riders have in their arsenal, helmets have struggled quite a bit before establishing their importance in terms of safety.

Let’s see how motorcycle safety has changed over the years.

The first motorcycle helmet

The first thing we need to make very clear is that the motorcycle helmet was not born when the motorcycle was born.

The very first motorcycle in history was created in 1867 by Sylvester Howard Roper, he installed a steam engine into the frame of a wooden bicycle. Then, in 1885, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhem Maybach used a combustion engine on a bicycle frame for the first time and called their creature “Reitwagen”.

That’s how everything started, and brands like Indian, Harley-Davidson, Triumph, Ducati, BMW, etc were born. As the brands started to obtain higher performances and speed records, the first bad injuries started to appear.

In 1914, Eric Gardner, a British physicist – due to the severe injuries he had to deal with – developed the idea of creating something to protect the head of the riders.

Gardner managed to make helmets mandatory for racers during the 1914 isle of Man’s TT.

These first helmets were made of leather and did not much more than protecting riders from the cold.
After the races, nobody was really impressed, and the use of helmets did not become popular by everyday riders.

The motorcycle helmet and its establishment

In 1935 – as it always happens – things started to change for the motorcycle helmet because of the death of the Lawrence of Arabia. Army officer T.E Lawrence was a national hero: his accomplishments turned him into a celebrity in Great Britain.

His accident highlighted the risk of riding without wearing proper protective gear.

Hugh Cairns – the doctor that attended him – studied the injuries sustained by Lawrence and discovered a match with brain lesions found in other accident where no protective helmet was worn.

The study of the doctor had such an impact that, in 1941, the helmet became mandatory for all British Army riders. This made them the first official organization to make the motorcycle helmet mandatory during World War II.

In 1953, Charles F. Lombard – member of the research unit of the United States Air Force – patented the first motorcycle helmet to have a structure similar to the one we are used today: his helmet had a rigid outer shell and an internal padding.

The first brands

Although wearing a motorcycle helmet was not mandatory, after World War IIthe first specialised manufacturers started their businesses. A pioneer, in Europe, was the company AGV. Founded in 1947 by Gino Valenza in Amisano, the company was at first specialized in motorcycle seats and then moved to accessories such as helmets.

By 1954 the Italian brand had already manufactured the first motorcycle helmet made of fibre. The use of this material represented a great evolution in terms of resistance and weight.

Just two years later, AGV revolutionised the motorcycle helmet industry by making the very first motorcycle jet helmet, with a wraparound design. It was very far from what there was half egg-shaped helmet riders were used to at the time.

In the same period, some of the best-known brands were born: the American Bell, and the Japanese Arai and Shoei.

Homologation and mandatory use

By the 50’s motorcycles’ popularity was sky-high. This success called for the creation of safety and standards organisms specialized in motorcycles and everything revolving around it.

In 1957 the non-profit organisation, the Snell Memorial Foundation, was fuounded, an entity that interpreted and set the standards for motorcycle safety in the United States. In fact, the Snell certification is currently one of the most demanding that a motorcycle helmet can have.

In 1961, Australia was the first country to make the use of the motorcycle helmet mandatory.

In 1966, the American National Safety Standard of Motorcycle Helmets announced one of the commonest safety standards for all motorcycle helmets; the first example of homologation.

In spite of being one of the key countries in the awareness of the media and scientific importance of the use of the helmet, the United Kingdom did not make them obligatory until 1973, Italy did not make it mandatory until 1986, whereas in Spain this did not happen until very late, in 1992.

Evolution in shape and materials

The companies involved in the evolution of the motorcycle helmet have always used the tracks as their testing ground. Everything that gets tested on track eventually comes to the road. About that: in 1967 Giacomo Agostini and AGV revolutionised history of motorcycle helmet by using a full-face motorcycle helmet in an official race for the first time.

Also, in that period, off-road helmets were born: until then, riders used to race using road helmets. They started using visors to protect themselves against stones and dirt to eventually evolve into today’s full face off-road helmets, which were commercialised for the first time by Bell.

Evolution happened also in the materials, with companies moving to special composites like carbon fibre. In the ’80s Shoei made the first multi-fibre helmet (carbon fiber and Kevlar): the GRV helmet wore by 500cc champions like Rainey and Gardner.

Today’s standards

Today, the main motorcycle manufacturers offer motorcycle helmets developed in laboratories with the latest technologies. Nowadays companies also pay particular attention to comfort as well.

A top motorcycle helmet today can be made using carbon fibre and/or Kevlar composites, these materials are very lightweight and offer a very high impact resistance.

These standards are granted by various homologations tests that each motorcycle helmet must pass, such as the ECE 22.05 in Europe or the DOT standard in the United States.

Also, as of 2019, professional riders must wear motorcycle helmets that pass the FIM homologation from the International Motorcycling Federation.

Today’s standards are really high, and technologies allow companies to produce helmets that are more and more safe and comfortable for us riders to use. The future I waiting for us and thanks to all the high-tech gadgets we have at our disposal, I am curious to see what the next motorcycle helmets will look like.

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