Bicycle Helmets Through the Ages

Bicycle related head injuries inevitably started with the invention of the Laufmaschine (German for "running machine") by German Baron Karl von Drais in 1817. The introduction of the pedal in the early 1860s by Frenchman Pierrie Michaux not only accelerated bicycles but probably the rate of head related injuries too. These injuries steadily increased in severity over the years and early cycling clubs contributed this largely to the rate at which roads were being paved, which saw the birth of the cycling helmet, albeit not in the form that we have become familiar with. The first cycling helmets were made from pith, the soft heartwood of the Sola plant. Fortunately times moved on quickly from there and by the early 1900’s racing cyclists started using helmets made from padded leather strips. The leather helmet evolved from a simple leather ring surrounding the head of the cyclist to a ring supplemented by a number of leather strips arranged front to back over the cyclist’s head. Unsurprisingly these helmets proved to be ineffective and often rotted from sweat.

Head injuries continued to prove problematic and in 1970 new safety standards were introduced in the US. None of the bicycle helmets on the market at the time could meet these new standards and so legislation started driving the innovation of the modern helmet as we know it. Bell Bicycles Inc. was one of the drivers of helmet technology and produced the Bell Biker™, the first expanded polystyrene (EPS) based cycling helmet. Their US patent no. 3,925,821 issued in 1975 for an air cooled helmet comprising a hard shell with a shock resistant liner made from EPS. However, the roots of the technology underpinning the Bell Biker™ can be traced back two decades to the automotive racing helmet described in US patent no 2,763,005 issued to Bell Auto Parts Inc. in 1956.

Safety regulations continued driving innovation, which saw brands such as Giro and Pro-Tec bringing fresh competition to the market with products based around EPS foam bicycle helmets. The desire of cyclists for improved performance eventually led to lighter all EPS foam helmets in which the outer shell was replaced by a cloth covering. These lighter helmets proved to be the helmets of choice, especially amongst bicycle racers chasing performance margins. However, these helmets were known to fail catastrophically on first impact, which led Pro-Tec to introduce an all EPS helmet with internal reinforcing, the first of its kind.

Through the advancements in the world of plastics, outer shells made from thin, tough plastics such as PET made a return in the 1990’s. These advancements saw the development of new moulding techniques, which allowed helmet manufacturers to produce more aesthetically appealing designs without sacrificing protection. In addition to contributing to better-looking helmets, the smooth outer shells had a significant advantage of allowing the helmet to skid more easily on a tar or paved surface in the event of a crash, which generally prevents the rider’s neck from being jerked as a result of helmet snagging. However, cyclists put far greater expectations on modern day helmets, which are expected to reduce the G-forces imparted on the brain during impact through the use of energy management systems. The term “energy management” typically describes any mechanism used to dissipate energy resulting from an impact so that the cyclist’s head is stopped over a slightly longer period than would otherwise be the case if no helmet were worn. Most commonly, energy management is achieved through the use of crushable and deformable materials in the same manner that motor vehicles these days crumble at the sight of impact. Not even the old trusted EPS foam could escape the innovation resulting from the need for improved energy management. Smith Optics, Inc produced the first helmet using their patented Koroyd™ material in which the liner includes bundles of Koroyd™ straws that are surrounded by an EPS foam outer as described in US patent publication no. 2015/0047110. The straws deform on impact, thereby dissipating the energy of the impact through the liner.

The rate of technological advancement in the field of medical devices has caused researchers to be far more specific about the effects of different types of impact to the cyclist’s head. For example, in recent years research has turned to addressing the damage caused to a cyclist’s brain resulting from rotational motion inside the skull due to angled impacts. MIPS was quick to react and introduced their Brain Protection System (BPS), which is found in many helmets on the market today. Their BPS technology employs a low friction layer between the foam liner of the helmet and the cyclist’s head. Upon impact, the low friction layer allows the helmet to slide effectively relative to the cyclist’s head to reduce the effect of the rotational motion on the brain by absorbing and redirecting the rotational energy and forces caused by the impact. In 2017, POC launched their competing technology called SPIN. However, instead of using a low friction layer, the SPIN technology employs a number of silicon filled pads which allow a cyclist’s head to move relative to the helmet. The similarity between these two competing technologies led to a brief patent infringement dispute wherein MIPS accused POC of infringing German patent no. 2 440 082. They however decided quickly to settle the matter and rather work together in developing safer helmets that can compete in the market against companies of the likes of Trek Bicycle Corporation.

Trek Bicycle Corporation, under the Bontrager brand, have recently introduced a new helmet construction technology known as WaveCel. WaveCel is a collapsible cellular material which is designed to flex, crumple and glide during an impact to absorb the force of both linear and angular impacts to the helmet and dissipate the energy effectively. The WaveCel material is situated beneath a substantially thinner EPS foam outer and replaces most of the EPS foam normally found in a helmet, much like the Koroyd™ liner used by Smith Optics Inc. However, unlike the Koroyd™ liner, the WaveCel material is claimed to be able to absorb both linear and angular impacts and, in so doing, combines the effectiveness of both MIPS and POC SPIN technology with that of the Koroyd™ liner. MIPS have, as recently as March this year, questioned Bontrager’s safety claims around the WaveCel technology. From their press release it is evident that a key driver of technology in the drive to create the safest possible helmet is scientific research and, in particular, collaborative research. Johan Thiel, CEO of MIPS, is quoted as saying “If together, we can make cycling safer for riders, then we will have honoured our mission to make the safest helmets possible”.

Innovation is driven by diverse factors and the advancement in bicycle helmets is not limited to technologies aimed at mitigating the risk of injury on impact. With the rapid rise of the fourth industrial revolution it comes as no surprise that the Internet of Things has gotten hold of the bicycle helmet. Specialized has recently introduced their ANGi crash detection sensor that is mounted on the helmet and is capable of detecting forces experienced in a crash. The sensor is connected to the rider’s smartphone where an alarm is triggered which will, in the event that the rider does not disable a countdown timer, send out emergency messages to pre-programmed contacts along with the rider’s coordinates. Combined with features such as live tracking, ANGi is a helmet safety feature which gives peace of mind to the rider’s family and friends when out on a ride.

Through the diverse drivers of innovation, the bicycle helmet has developed in leaps and bounds since the introduction of the Laufmaschine. Regardless of whether innovation is born from enforced safety regulations or the never-ending race for improved performance, it is clear that innovation does not happen in isolation. The cycling helmet is an example of a product that benefitted from collaboration between many industries and inventors.

A slightly edited version was first published in the Business Law & Tax Review.

Date published: 11 June 2019
Author: James Gerber and Herman van Schalkwyk

Tags: patent bicycle helmets