Football helmets are seen on high school, college, and professional gridirons every Fall and Winter, providing a measure of protection to the athletes as they play. Over time there have been continuous innovations to the football helmet to increase the protection that is provided, with modern helmets working hard to reduce concussions on the field. Radio technologies are included in some helmets now as well, but the initial football helmet was believed to have been invented in 1896 by a man named George Barclay.
The First Football Helmets Were Not What You’d See Today
Calling the first football helmets a “helmet” is a generous description. At best, there were basically a head harness and were made of leather. The straps would fit tightly around the head and this would provide a small measure of protection. Sometimes the credit for this invention is also given to Joseph Reeves because he had a similar protective device created for him after an injury so that he could play in the Army-Navy football game of 1893.
After the initial invention, padding was added to the leather helmets so they could alleviate the force of impacts to a greater extent. This didn’t occur regularly until 1915, however, but the ear holes were added at this time so that on-field communication could be improved. What has existed since the invention, however, was the painting and decals that we see on helmets as it was an easy way for teams to show pride.
It wasn’t until 1939, however, that football helmets were made a mandatory piece of equipment by the NCAA committee for college football. The National Football League took another 4 years to implement a mandatory policy of wearing helmets.
What About the Modern Football Helmet?
The first plastic football helmets, the forerunners of what we’d think of today as a helmet, were created in 1940 by John Riddell and his son. The helmet was single molded so that it was stronger, more durable, and cheaper. As an added bonus, it wouldn’t rot when exposed to consistently damp temperatures either. Colors could be baked into the plastic to distinguish teams, but these initial helmets had a couple problems.
First was the fact that these helmets were very brittle under a head-on impact. They could break and cause injuries and that made them fall out of favor quickly. The second issue was that the face mask tended to pop loose from the bar holes after a hard impact. If George Halas, the father of the Chicago Bears, hadn’t stepped in to support the agency, Riddell would not have seen his football helmet ever succeed. Instead it was approved for play in 1949.
The football helmet will still likely continue to evolve as technology improves and more medical awareness of how to prevent head injuries is discovered. Although football helmets can’t protect a player from all head injuries as of yet, they do an excellent job of providing a measure of first-line protection when contact with the head is made.
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