How Torpedoes Inspired The Production Of Airbags

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Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort.

Like plenty of other safety innovations, the automobile industry took quite a while to adopt the idea of an airbag system to be deployed upon collision. It was an expensive tool to create when it came around in the 1950s, and there simply wasn’t much interest—an airbag wasn’t flashy, and it certainly wasn’t something drivers wanted to see.

Pennsylvania man John Hetrick—a victim of a hard impact behind the wheel himself—knew that drivers needed to see an airbag in some cases, even if the automobile industry took a while to catch on. Hetrick ran his own car into a ditch over a decade prior to seat belts becoming a mandatory feature in new vehicles, and the abruptness of the impact led him to wonder whether or not a deployable cushion could help to protect drivers and passengers in collisions.


But the cushion idea came with setbacks, some appearing before design work even began. A collision at any speed tends to be a rapid sequence of events, and Hetrick had to find a way for the cushions to inflate in a fraction of a second.

A solution came in the form of a memory from his time serving in World War II, according to the book American Inventions: A History of Curious, Extraordinary, and Just Plain Useful Patents. As a member of the Navy, Hetrick recalled working in a torpedo-maintenance shop when one of the torpedoes accidentally switched on.


The image Hetrick saw next would be the basis for his design—the compressed air that powered the torpedo shot out upon its activation, inflating a canvas that covered it while sitting in the shop. From American Inventions:

The canvas “shot up into the air, quicker than you could blink an eye,” he later recalled. He wrote to car makers and insurance companies when trying to market his new invention. Only one letter was answered: the company replied that they were not interested because people wanted “fancy radios and fancy cars ... ”


Among those who didn’t respond to Hetrick about his 1953 patent for a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles” were Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, according to History. The change in mindset came alongside Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which called attention to numerous issues within the industry and the “gap between existing design and attainable safety.”

Others then began to pay attention. Seat belts became standard in new cars the very decade Nader’s book came out, but airbags didn’t make the cut that time around—instead, they had to settle for slowly gaining interest. According to History, Ford and General Motors began to install them in the 1970s. Models improved from the original that Hetrick dreamt up, but the airbags were far from perfect at that time.


In some cases, airbags for the driver and passenger didn’t have the best results. Airbag designs originally came a full-grown adult in mind, leaving children and those of smaller stature vulnerable to the force with which airbags deployed. The issue stuck around for decades. From The New York Times:

In the 1990s, 175 people died in this manner, more than 100 of them children, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Terrible as that toll was, it lay in the balance against nearly 6,400 lives said to have been saved by air bags in that decade.


The innovations kept coming, and airbags became a U.S. standard in both new cars and trucks by 1998. According to History, researchers estimate airbags to reduce risk of fatality in head-on collisions by 30 percent. It doesn’t seem like much, but any percentage in favor of not dying can be considered a good one.

But the days of airbag drama remain, with Takata’s exploding airbags leading to an unprecedented recall after multiple deaths and injuries occurred. Airbags still have a long way to go, if some other safety innovation doesn’t present a better alternative first.


If you have suggestions for future innovations to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.