Every modern helmet has this history to thank.
Motorcycle evolution over time is fascinating to dive into. The more historic footage and photos you see, the more questions come up—and that’s just on the motorcycle side. What about helmets and gear?
As you might expect after giving it a bit of thought, motorcycle helmets have mostly evolved in response to what we’ve collectively learned from crashes over time. Way back at the beginning, as the first motorcyclists clambered aboard their motorized bicycles and learned to deal with greater speeds than they’d previously known, they wore flat caps. After all, they reasoned, the caps worked well enough on bicycles to keep your hair from blowing around. Why shouldn’t they work on these new motorized bicycles? I mean, they only went a little bit faster.
Of course, hindsight is everything. From a modern viewpoint, it’s easy to look back and say that was a terrible idea. If you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you do anything about it? It took a sad combination of things to get helmets as we know them properly evolving. First, Britain developed its very first dedicated race course at Brooklands. Second, motorcycle racers suffered devastating injuries while on track. A physician named Dr. Eric Gardner took what he observed and built the very first helmets, which were made out of canvas and shellac. They might seem primitive compared to today’s materials, but he had to start somewhere.
Both European road racers and American board track racers started sporting state-of-the-art helmet technology fairly early on. However, it took the death of British national hero T.E. Lawrence, who flew over the handlebars of his motorcycle and died a few days later, to begin to get the general public on board with wearing helmets.
By 1941, the British Army made helmets mandatory for its dispatch riders—and pretty soon, aviation-led analyses of how pilots injured their heads in crashes led to swift helmet advancements. That’s when shock-absorbing foam first entered the picture. What was good for aviation was also good for motorcyclists—and racecar drivers, as it turned out.
Sadly, in 1956, amateur sports car racer Pete Snell died in a crash after his shock-absorbing helmet failed to protect him from sustaining massive head injuries. In the wake of his death, some friends worked to establish the Snell Foundation—and the start of the rigorous safety testing standards we know today. Other standards followed around the world—and while they don’t often agree, it’s generally a positive thing that multiple organizations continue to advance helmet safety.
Sources: YouTube, Snell Foundation