Today's Tidbit... Getting Pumped Up for Pneumatic Football Pads
An 1898 newspaper article described recent advances in football gear: a helmet with a hard shell and pneumatic thigh pads. Previously, football players wore head harnesses that resembled wrestling headgear. They protected the ears and portions of the head but lacked a protective shell covering the top of the skull.
Reports of true helmets or headgear with hard leather shells offering mechanical protection began appearing in 1896, but the 1898 article indicated the helmet:
…completely protects the head and ears. The crown is made of tough sole leather filled with air holes and lined with soft felt. It has stout earlaps of leather, with holes in them so that the wearer can hear the signals...
'The Sporting World,' North Adams Transcript (MA), November 11, 1898.
More important for our purposes was the article mentioning canvas-covered pneumatic thigh pads, which were one inch thick and protected the thighs against hard blows and resulting "cholly horses." Although pneumatic pads were touted during the period as a solution to football's toll on players, they never took off, likely due to problems keeping the pads inflated.
Pneumatic football helmets also hit the market, and while they did not last long on this side of the water, they showed up in France a few years later to protect motorcyclists' heads.
The only successful pneumatic application for years was small inflated rings placed under the shoulder and other pads after players sustained injuries to those body parts.
Pneumatics blew up again in the early 1950s with a patent filed by Cecil Cushman, the football coach at the University of Redlands, who is best known for inventing the strap-on kicking toe that saw wide use until soccer-style kickers came along.
Cushman’s design called for an outer shell of leather, plastic, or fiber, with an inner layer of inflated plastic that softened and distributed the force of blows to the head. Cushman's design did not gain traction in the short term. Still, it was an idea whose time came in the 1970s when Riddell and Schutt introduced helmets with inflatable bladders that offered greater protection and allowed the lining to conform to the shape of each player's head.
Inflatable bladders are widely used in helmets and shoulder pads today, so the idea to use pneumatic pads early in the game’s history was sound, but it took decades of materials and engineering advances to make them viable.
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