Why did Spalding change Curtiss' design for the pneumatic head harness? One likely explanation was that Curtiss's design was too costly to mass produce. Curtiss' head harness consisted of a multi-chamber celluloid air bladder on top of a curved inner crown. While the technology to construct his helmet existed in 1902, it would have been a labor intensive and time consuming process. Instead, Spalding's No. 70 utilized a simpler, single ring, tire-shaped rubber bladder built into flat crown. Even this modified design was expensive. In 1903, the No. 70 sold for $5.00; 1.1% of the average annual worker's salary of $440. Purchasing a pneumatic head harness would be equivalent to spending $510.00 on a helmet today. If it had manufactured Curtiss's design, Spalding would have to price the head harness beyond the means of most players to cover manufacturing costs.
A Dramatic Failure
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Spalding Chicago Head Harness, 1902
Spalding No. 50, 1903
Curtiss Prototype, 1902
The No. 70 Pneumatic Head Harness was one of the greatest sporting goods flops in A.G. Spalding & Brothers history. The helmet was ill-fitting, lacked good ventilation, afforded little protection to the sides of the head, and, to top it all off, the air bladder was known to burst after a few blows. Designed primarily to protect the wearer's opponents from acute injury, the force of a blow to the fully inflated bladder would be transferred directly to the head and neck of the wearer without significant energy dissipation. By 1904, the No. 70 was abandoned by Spalding in favor of better padded flattop head harnesses.
A Missed Opportunity
Unfortunately for the evolution of football protective equipment, Curtiss' innovative technology was sacrificed in its application to the No. 70. Manufacturing and materials limitations at the turn of the century led to the production of an ill-conceived alternative. A study of Curtiss' patent illustration reveals that many of his ideas were not dissimilar from the latest technologies employed in today's state of the art football helmets. Before the introduction of plastics, Curtiss's design combined the most durable and light weight materials commercially available. The multi-chamber air bladder system, while designed to protect the wearer's opponents, would have served to dissipate the energy of a blow before transferring it to the padded inner crown and the wearer's head. By utilizing the Chicago head harness' three strap design, Curtiss' head harness would have provided for custom fitting to the wearer's head, one of the key recommendations today for reducing concussion related unconsciousness.
Multi-component Impact Energy Management
Adjustable Straps for Proper Fit
Air Bladder Technology
Flexible Helmet Shell
Side Impact Protection
Over the next 70 years a string of inventors patented pneumatic inflation systems for use in football helmets. Curiously, Curtiss' 1903 patent wasn't cited in any of these patent applications despite the fact that each utilized technology similar to that which he originally conceived. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1970's that such a system would be incorporated into a mass produced helmet, the Riddell Microfit, which was based on a patent awarded to Gerald Morgan in 1971.
Julian Curtiss' Legacy
When Julian Curtiss died in 1944 at the age of eighty-five, his three-page obituary lauded him as the "Foremost Pioneer and Promoter of American Golf," and noted his impacts on the sports of crew and basketball. Not surprisingly, there was no mention that Curtiss was a U.S. Patent holder. Perhaps his other accomplishments were far more noteworthy, or perhaps the unfortunate failure of the No. 70 was an embarassment to Curtiss. We will never know.
Photos of Spalding's No. 70 Pneumatic Head Harness
Pneumatic cushioning of the top of the head, forehead, temples and the base of the skull so constructed that the energy from a blow is transferred toward the walls of the helmet to absorb shock.
Joseph A. Mulvey - "Athletic Helmet"
Patent No. 2,150,290
October 30, 1937
Cecil Cushman - "Pneumatic Helmet"
Patent No. 2,618,780
November 25, 1952
Fred R. Dunning - "Inflatable Padding for Football Helmet or the Like"
Patent No. 3,761,959
October 2, 1973
Gerald E. Morgan - "Energy Absorbing and Sizing Means for Helmets"
Patent No. 3,609,764
October 5, 1971
Edward J. Ford - "Pneumatic Headgear"
Patent No. 1,833,708
November 24, 1931
Design of a helmet equipped with pneumatic cushioning devices for protecting the head of the player against shocks and impacts.
An inflated or pneumatic helmet where the force of any blow is directed against the outer side of the helmet is distributed to an extent over the entire head instead of only in the vicinity of the blow.
Helmet containing multiple fluid filled chambers, the fluid within which displace upon impact, as well as air filled chambers that are inflated to achieve a proper fit.
Multiple bag-like inflatable pads attached to the interior surface of a helmet adapted for positioning around the head of the wearer to provide a snug custom like fit.
Richard C. Schneider - "Impact Absorbing Protective Headgear"
Patent No. 3,462,763
August 26, 1969
A protective headgear assembly constructed specifically on the basis of an anatomical knowledge of the skull and brain to reduce brain damage due to head injuries.
Had Spalding stuck with and developed the patented design, Curtiss' legacy could have included "Foremost Pioneer of Football Helmet Safety," and today's helmet technology may be even more advanced as a result of his work. In the least, he should be remembered as a man whose ideas were 100 years ahead of their time.
"Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game."
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
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Notable Patents for Pneumatic Headgear for Football Players
An Invention 100-Years Ahead of its Time
April 12, 2015
Curtiss' Pneumatic Head Harness: