If you compare football headgear from the late 1800s to the helmets we see today, it’s clear that things have changed. The basic form is still there, but modern helmets are full of features that have been added or modified over the years. Today, I’ll be talking about a few big innovations in helmet technology.
It’s easy to see that the material we use to make helmets has changed significantly. Originally, helmets would be made of leather, often moleskin. Evidence shows leather helmets being used as far back as 1896, though use of helmets wasn’t widespread until the 1920s. Plastic helmets were in development by 1939, around the same time when college football organizations in the United States began requiring use of helmets on the field. The NFL adopted mandatory helmet use in 1943, and actually banned plastic helmets in 1948 because the hard plastic was seen as dangerous, though this was repealed a year later and plastic helmets were near-universal by 1950. In the mid-60s, only around three decades after leather helmets were introduced to the NFL, leather helmets had completely disappeared in favor of plastic.
Nowadays, you’ll almost never see a football helmet without a visor and face mask, but both innovations are fairly recent. Before the 1980s it would have been uncommon to see a helmet with either. Visors haven’t changed much since they became popular, aside from changes in rules relating to tinted visors. Face masks have gone through a number of changes, with materials changing from plastic to lightweight metal with an impact-resistant coating, and a shift in design from one-bar to multibar masks.
Helmets have certainly changed, but innovation certainly hasn’t ended; new helmet and helmet component designs are constantly under development to fit the growing need for on-field safety measures.