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Early Testing of Helmets and Protective Cups
Every so often, an image circulates the internet showing a man wearing a helmet as he flies headfirst into a wall. The picture, which appears to be from the first decades of the 20th Century, is purportedly a test of a football helmet's efficacy. But as Phaedrus, the 1st century Roman poet, noted, "Things are not always as they seem."
The photo fooled me. What else could the image show other than a man demonstrating the protective value of a helmet he invented? I suppose it could have been a coach or equipment manager proving to school officials the effectiveness of the equipment their team would wear during the upcoming season. Still, I never doubted the man in the picture wore a football helmet.
The image made the rounds again during the last few weeks, so I decided it was time to identify the man seen flying into the wall and confirm why he took his short flight. A simple reverse image search quickly answered my questions. The flying man image is from an article in the April 6, 1912 issue of Flight, a British publication devoted to aeronautics. The man bonking his head against the wall is W. T. Warren, an Englishman, and pilot-in-training when planes closely resembled those flown by the Wright Brothers. Planes did not yet have fuselages or cockpits, and they crashed frequently. Warren, it turns out, was not concerned with protecting the heads of American football players; he was concerned with English pilots' noggins. Warren's Flight article describes his helmet design, his tests, and documents it all with two images.
While the Flight article debunks the claim that the guy-flying-into-the-wall was testing a football helmet, it led me to wonder about another supposed test of a football helmet's effectiveness. The second test appears in a 1932 Pathe newsreel that purports to show an inventor testing a football helmet the old-fashioned way. Go ahead and spend the next 56 seconds watching members of a football team kicking the helmeted inventor in the head, hitting him with a bat, and watching him run headfirst into a stone wall, twice.
It turns out the demonstration featuring the Fordham football team is authentic, but the inventor, Foulproof Taylor, was recognized as a bit of a kook even at the time. James Philip "Foulproof" Taylor was a one-time boxer and singer/actor from Brooklyn, injured when struck in the groin while rehearsing an opera. To avoid a repeat performance, Taylor created a protective cup padded with rubber bars, which addressed his problem and allowed the fat lady to sing.
Foulproof gained his nickname and moment of fame when he successfully applied his invention to boxing. Until 1930, boxing rules held that hitting below the belt was a foul so severe the offender lost the match. Some boxers were the recipients of low blows while others feigned their effect. Either way, bouts ending prematurely were highly unpopular to paying and betting audiences. (Bouts ended by foul meant all bets were off.) As they say, the situation came to a head on June 12, 1930 during the Yankee Stadium world heavyweight bout between Max Schmeling and Jack Sharkey, when the judges ruled Sharkey delivered a low blow. The foul ended the match, leaving the heavyweight title to Schmeling.
The uproar resulting from the world championship being awarded by foul opened the door to Taylor and his protective device. Taylor had extolled his device's virtues for several years, but only after Schmeling's title did boxing officials accept his invitation to demonstrate its effectiveness. His demo proved successful and a little over one month later, the world lightweight championship bout was fought at Yankee Stadium under rules requiring the fighters to wear Taylor's device, while also eliminating the foul for a low blow.
Successfully applied in that match, Taylor promoted its use until the no foul rule became universal. Perhaps his top promotion occurred in an arena packed with 15,000 boxing fans in Philadelphia when the 130-pound Taylor entered the ring with a 210-pound former boxer. His opponent punched Taylor in the area of his body best equipped to test the device, knocking Taylor to the mat. Foulproof Taylor slowly rose, and the two repeated the sequence twenty more times before exiting the ring.
In the years after his invention changed boxing, Foulproof tinkered with football equipment -as seen in the video- and tried baseball in 1938 when Mickey Cochrane's beaning and skull fracture led to one of baseball's many calls to introduce batting helmets. Only his protective cup was a commercial success –Joe Louis used one- and Taylor continued demonstrating his devices at every opportunity, absorbing an estimated 30,000 punches or kicks to the groin and blows to the head over the years.
The tale of Foulproof Taylor closes with the story of him seeking an agreement with a company to manufacture and sell his shin guards for use by soccer teams in England. During a U.S. tour, the Tottenham Spurs came through New York City, so Taylor met with their coaches at Yankee Stadium. To demonstrate the shin guard's effectiveness, he invited a Spurs coach to hit him in the shin with a hammer. Not familiar with Taylor or his equipment, the coach reluctantly swung the hammer, hitting Taylor in the shin, after which Taylor's howling echoed through Yankee Stadium. It seems Taylor had not told the coach he was wearing the shin guard on only one leg.
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