The history of chemicals and the football helmet

Author: Ivan Lerner


Helmets of all sorts have been used by man since the beginning of time, but it was 20th century US football that brought plastics into the mix

A MUTATED reinvention of the Roman gladiators' arena, Canadian and US-style football has always been a rough-and-tumble game, a view that can be reinforced by the presence of the helmet as a required part of the player's uniform: it's a piece of headgear that is usually only routinely found in danger zones, whether combat or construction.

Like the helmets of other occupations over time, or the game of football itself, the football helmet has evolved: first made of leather, now manufactured from polycarbonate (PC), its abilities have grown with our technological advances. Of course, some might consider it ironic that as pads and equipment make the players "safer," they also encourage the opposing players to hit harder.

Football is derived from that bare-knuckled brawl that calls itself rugby, which got its start at the famed Rugby School in England when, in 1823 supposedly, a student playing European football (soccer) picked up the ball and ran with it, changing the rules and creating a new game in the process.

According to the National Football League (NFL), in the US, soccer was first played in 1869, in a game between Rutgers and Princeton universities using the rules of the London Football Association. The introduction of one English game brought its hyperactive little brother, and American college students found they preferred rugby to soccer. But just as that possibly mythological boy at the Rugby School did, US players changed rules as they went along.

In 1876, the first rules for football were written, but they were further codified in 1879 by Walter Camp, then a student, and later a coach at Yale University. Camp eventually edited every American football rulebook until his death in 1925, and the NFL refers to him as "the father of American football."

Needless to say, it's a sport where many men - and to this day it is a predominantly male sport - get injured routinely, and in either 1893 or 1896, either Joseph Reeves of the US Naval Academy or George Barclay of Lafayette College, respectively, wore the first helmet, a leather strap contraption called a "head harness." And it was initially constructed to specifically protect the ears.

Around 1915, adaptations were made to add ear holes to improve communication along with some other changes, and the device now looked more dashing, like an aviator's leather flight helmet. More importantly though, was the introduction of a suspension system to elevate the helmet from the top of the head, preventing the player's skull from getting the brunt of any collision.

While colleges made wearing a helmet mandatory in 1939, it wasn't until 1943 that the NFL did the same.

But the plastic football helmet, introduced and patented in 1939, is considered the major change in the development of the helmet. Created by sporting goods ­manufacturer John Riddell and his son, John Jr., the plastic helmet was a single shell more durable and stronger than leather models. Additionally, the strap was moved to the chin from the neck near the Adam's apple, and the suspension system in the helmet was improved, giving the head even more protection.

A former high school teacher and football coach, Riddell had previously invented the removable cleat for athletic shoes and the first latex rubber seamless molded basketball.

Riddell's helmets were worn for the first time by some players in the Chicago College All-Star Game of 1939, says the NFL.

When World War Two (WWII) began, football was not considered an essential industry, and plastic became scarce, slowing down Riddell's football plans. But the war also wound up giving the company business as well: Before formal hostilities began, General George Patton had his tank crews wear Riddell helmets during training maneuvers, and Patton was seriously campaigning for the helmet to be used in actual combat, but the problems of incorporating the required military communications gear stopped that idea.

But in his history of the pre-WWII US Marine Corps, historian Henry Shaw, Jr. notes that, when the military was switching from their flatter "doughboy" helmets to the more familiar "soup-pot" design of the 1940s, "At the suggestion of Patton, the [helmet] liner's suspension system was patterned after a design by Riddell that was used in contemporary football helmets."

So Riddell wound up supplying suspension liners to the Pentagon. US Army Major Harold Sydenham had developed the steel shell for the new M1 helmet, and in 1940, Riddell Jr. and the major created the liner's prototype in Sydenham's kitchen. They used Vinylite, a plastic that could be molded in hot water, and the US military wound up using that liner shape well into the 1980s.

Vinylite was a combination of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate resins that was initially developed by the Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corp.

NFL historian Beau Riffenburgh notes that the first collegiate team to use plastic helmets was the US Military Academy in 1944, and wonders if that was because they were privy to information other colleges were not.

After the war, and despite John Riddell's death in 1945, his company resumed its efforts with football helmets. But even though the war was over, there were still some kinks to be ironed out, especially with the brittleness of the plastic. In 1948, Fred Naumetz of the Los Angeles Rams split nine helmets in one season - something that caused the NFL to ban plastic helmets for a while. Interestingly, that same year, Naumetz's teammate Fred Gehrke became the first person to paint their team's logo on a football helmet, now a common practice.

In 1949, with the influence of Chicago Bears owner/coach George Halas - who co-designed a brand of low-cut football shoes with Riddell in the 1930s - the plastic helmet was approved and made the official NFL headgear. With plastic helmets instead of leather, colors could also be baked right in, and Gehrke's individual efforts were easily replicated throughout the league. Nowadays, a color finish is injection molded at the same time the shell is produced, with decals added later by the teams.

Helmet manufacturing has never been a crowded field. Roughly 25 years ago, there were about six producers. Now there are three: Riddell, Schutt Sports Group and Adams USA.

Riddell is the largest - and most famous - helmet manufacturer, with an exclusive licensing agreement with the NFL. According to the company, 83% of NFL players are wearing Riddell helmets - about 1,400 players out of roughly 1,600 - as are 62% of Division-I college football players.

Although Riddell is considered the official helmet of the NFL, there is no league mandate forcing players to choose that specific brand.

"Without question, we protect more NFL and Division-I college football players than any helmet on the market," said Dan Arment, president of Riddell at an October press conference. "Football players insist on Riddell's unique innovations that focus on performance and protection. That's evident in the usage statistics. Couple those stats with the fact that these players have a choice on what they wear while on the field, and it speaks volumes about their conscious decision to demand... Riddell helmets."

Schutt and Adams USA, meanwhile, are mainly suppliers to student markets.

Although privately owned, Riddell's revenues are estimated at $75m-100m (€53m-71m). The first plastic helmets made were the Riddell Tenite II, with a shell made from cellulose acetate butyrate provided by the Tennessee Eastman Corp, the predecessor to today's Eastman Chemical. Produced from 1946 to 1953, the Tenite IIs were made in three pieces then joined via solvents.

In 1954, the company began producing the Riddell Kralite, made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), first supplied by US Rubber (later, Uniroyal), and then in 1955 by Marbon Corp. (which later became Borg-Warner, then bought by GE Plastics in 1988). That year also saw the company manufacture a one-piece helmet, also ABS. In 1957, the webbing of the liner was changed from cotton to a cotton-nylon blend.

In the mid-1960s, Riddell began adding its vinyl and foam Aero-Cell cushions to the inside of the helmet.

Meanwhile, "The superior rigidity of the plastic helmet made the universality of the face mask possible," notes Riffenburgh. "The hole drilled for the bolt holding the mask would not expand the way it would if it was drilled through leather. And the sides of the plastic helmet would not collapse, driving the nut into the wearer's face."

In the early 1960s, the company experimented with the with a one-piece PC shell, but put that project on hold until 1969 due to its brittleness. That year, the company's standard material ABS was replaced with Kra-Lite II, a PC alloy.

By the mid-1980s, a Kra-Lite II helmet would have a variety of inflatable or liquid-filled cushions, as well as energy-absorbing foam pads. Currently, it takes about one minute to injection mold a football helmet.

In 2002, the company unveiled its Riddell Revolution helmet, specifically designed to prevent concussions, and shortly afterwards Schutt introduced its own anticoncussion helmet, the DNA Pro+, also made from PC.

"The reinvention of the conventional helmet began with a focus on the head's center of gravity and increasing protection where it was needed the most," said Thad Ide, Riddell's vice president of research and development at a press conference in 2006.

But these were the first innovations to the football helmet in about 25 years. Can there be any more improvements to the helmet? Perhaps: in 2007, US manufacturer Xenith developed a helmet, the X1, that replaced the traditional foam or urethane pads with a series of air-filled thermoplastic shock absorbers. As of November, the helmet was getting high marks from the handful of players using it at the University of North Carolina, but the helmet is still considered to be under testing.

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