In the beginning there were no cycle helmets
When the first cyclists began weaving in and out of horse-drawn cabs and carts on the streets of France in the 19th century, they were completely unprotected. However, it would take many years before cycling enthusiasts worldwide made the serious realisation that something needed to be done to protect their heads in accidents. This is the history of the cycle helmet, from pith helmets to Hövding.
The history of the cycle helmet is naturally closely linked to the history of the bicycle. The first prototype of what we would now classify as a bicycle emerged in the early 19th century as a ‘running machine’, on which the rider sat on a saddle and ran with their feet on the ground. Development continued gradually in the years that followed, resulting ultimately in a relatively advanced machine with pedals and a chain. The cycling helmet began its own developmental journey at the same time. But let us start from the beginning.
A toy for riding around the park
In the late 18th century, a number of attempts were made to create a bicycle-like vehicle, but its development only advanced in earnest when technical enthusiast Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn launched his Laufmaschine in 1817. The running machine was mainly made of wood, had metal wheels and was designed a little like the balance bikes used by children today. Unfortunately, it was best suited to allowing wealthy young dandies glide around city parks on full display. Outside the carefully manicured parks, the roads were so poor that it was simply impossible to ‘cycle’ on them, and the running machine enjoyed only a brief history. However, as cities grew, the road network became more forgiving and bicycles were able to take the next step in their development.
Height difference paved the way for the cycle helmet
The velocipede was invented in France in the 1860s. It is not known for certain who invented it, but this early bicycle did have pedals on its front wheel. The velocipede also had metal wheels, and riders soon realised that bumping along on cobbled streets on hard metal rings was not very comfortable. This paved the way for a new bicycle design, the high-wheelers. With rubber-lined wheels and a large front wheel, they made for much more comfortable cycling. The only problem was that there was a (fairly obvious) disadvantage built into the design itself. The drop.
The riders soon realised that bumping along on cobbled streets on hard metal rings was not very comfortable
The first cycle helmet wasn’t actually a cycle helmet
Many of the cycling clubs that emerged in the 1880s began to notice the risk of injury from falling from the high-wheelers (it was enough to drive into a stone for both bicycle and rider to be thrown violently forwards). So they started to use helmets. And for want of anything else, they used what they already had, their old pith helmets. The helmets were primarily designed as sun protection but the pith they were made of also made them shock-absorbent. In a fall from a high bicycle, the helmet broke and had to be discarded, but it was better than a serious head injury.
Down on the ground again, the need for protection grows
In 1885, Englishman John Kemp Starley launched his safety bicycle. It was driven by pedals with a chain and two equal-sized wheels, which reduced the risk of accident. The safety bicycle established the principle of how a bike is built, and the rest is history, as they say. The manufacture and use of cycles shot up. However, this also meant that the accident rate increased, contrary to John Kemp Starley’s intentions.
The birth of cycling as a sport
In the years that followed, cycling developed, speeds increased and enthusiasts began to organise competitions. Competitive cyclists realised that they needed to protect their heads and started to design helmets made of leather straps and padded ‘sausages’ stuffed with horsehair. They experimented with many different solutions, but it would not be until the 1970s that a really effective cycle helmet reached the market. Not surprisingly, this was in the USA.
Competitive cyclists realised that they needed to protect their heads.
The oil crisis got the wheels turning
The USA in the 1970s was in throes of the oil crisis, but it was also enjoying increased prosperity and there was dawning awareness of the importance of health and the environment. Bikes sold like hot cakes as the Americans adapted their behaviour to the prevailing situation, and the period came to be known as the bike boom. However, just as when the safety bicycle became popular in the late 19th century, the growing number of cyclists meant a growing number of accidents. This was noticed in turn by the company Bell, which was then best known for making helmets for motor sport.
The invention that was right from the very start
Bell had previously developed solutions for motor sport helmets based on a glass fibre shell and padding of EPS (expanded polystyrene). This technology was now transferred to the world of cycling. The glass fibre shell was replaced with hard plastic and the cycle helmet they created was called the Bell Biker. What Bell did not know then was that, in a single stroke, they had created a solution that is still the basic structure of most cycle helmets. Bell also laid the foundations for the performance and quality rules that apply to cycle helmets today by developing their own test methods (you can read here about how Hövding’s tests are conducted).
In many fall accidents, the head does not strike the surface perpendicularly. It does so at an angle, giving rise to rotational force on the brain.
Sweden shows the way in cycle safety
Bell’s helmet design conquered the world in the 80s and 90s and manufacture of the new type of cycle helmet also began in Sweden. The basic design of EPS and an enveloping plastic enclosure underwent only marginal changes, but around the start of the 21st century, developments took a big step forward when a Swedish research initiative resulted in MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System). What the researchers noticed was that, in many fall accidents, the head does not strike the surface perpendicularly. It does so at an angle, giving rise to rotational force on the brain. The solution was to create a flexible zone between the inner and outer layers of the helmet, permitting them to move independently of each other and thus absorbing the harmful rotational energy. MIPS is now standard in many cycle helmets and in other sports helmets of various kinds.
The cycle helmet that changed the approach to cycle helmets
While MIPS was being developed, two students in another part of Sweden, Malmö, were also thinking about cycle safety but from a different point of view. The founders of what would become Hövding, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, asked themselves whether there was a way of designing a cycle helmet that neither looked nor felt like a standard cycle helmet. The idea of an airbag for cyclists was born in 2005, and Hövding would soon redefine what a cycle helmet is. You can read about Hövding’s story here, from the concept to the future.