Automotive Engineer is the magazine of the EAEC

Automotive Engineer

John Hetrick inventor of the airbag

Since their invention in 1952 airbags have saved thousands of lives

James Scoltock in Milestones.

Life saver: The technology made its debut in 1981 when the S-class entered the market

A car accident in 1952 involving John Hetrick, his wife and young daughter was the catalyst for the industrial engineer to develop a system to protect drivers and passengers – the airbag. 

The family had been driving around the Pennsylvania countryside when a large rock in the road caused Hetrick to veer into a ditch. With no restraint systems, Hetrick and his wife were forced to hold their daughter back, stopping her from hitting the dashboard and saving her life.

In those days drivers were unprotected in accidents, and impacts could result in serious injuries. Those who did survive often had badly mutilated faces, which doctors darkly nicknamed “steering wheel faces”.

Hetrick’s idea was based on work he completed on torpedoes which had an inflatable canvas cover. In his 1953 patent he says: “This invention has reference to an inflatable cushion assembly adapted to be mounted in the passenger compartment of a vehicle, and arranged to be inflated responsive to sudden slowing of the forward motion of the vehicle.”

The technology was simple, consisting of an air accumulator, inflatable cushion and a release valve. 

Hetrick wanted his technology to be mounted on the steering wheel, in the glove compartment, and a third cushion to be placed on the instrument panel. The challenge was making the system work efficiently and safely.

While initial interest was enthusiastic, the practicalities of installing airbags meant that the technology wasn’t used on a production vehicle for nearly 30 years after his patent was granted.

Exploded view: Hetrick’s work paved the way for airbag technology