Football Helmet Technology

A leather helmet worn by Gerald Ford while playing football for Michigan in the 1930's. From Wikimedia Commons.

As the parent of a high school football player who suffered a minor concussion two years ago and a huge football fan, it’s both reassuring and fascinating to observe the advancements being made in helmet technology. Most of us have heard recent stories about how concussions have caused significant health problems for retired professional football players. Most recently, repetitive concussions and concussion related injuries have been blamed for the suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson. Seau and Duerson both shot themselves in the chest, with Duerson leaving a note behind indicating that he wanted his brain donated for the study of football related brain injuries. The Seau family recently announced that they would allow researchers to examine the brain of Junior Seau for the same reason. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the plight of two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim McMahon is outlined in heart wrenching detail. A 2007 brain scan revealed that McMahon was experiencing early-onset dementia as a result of at least four documented concussions throughout his career, including the head first body slam that ended his season in 1986 (the photo of this injury in the article is stomach turning). As a result, McMahon has been experiencing both short-term and long-term memory loss, and he’s now experiencing acute, intense headaches that drop him to his knees in a cold sweat.

But while it’s great to know that improvements are being made in helmet safety, can anything be done to separate the game from its gladiator mentality? Most football fans know that the greatest respect is given to players who propel themselves all over the field with reckless abandon. Any talk of changing this aspect of football culture is viewed as outright blasphemy. Many have found solace in the fact that coaches all over the country are focusing on tackling techniques that prevent helmet-to-helmet injuries.  Is technique an important part of the overall problem? According to Tim Gray, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska, an average defensive back’s speed combined with his mass can produce around 1600 pounds of force during a tackle. With that amount of force, bad technique can mean not only potential brain injuries, but possibly life-threatening overloads to the spine. The 2012 Annual Survey of Football Injury Research reports that helmet-to-helmet tackling and blocking techniques were the direct cause of 36 deaths and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968. The total elimination of fatalities wasn’t reported until 1990. In response to these deaths in the 1960s, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was founded. Clearly, there should be a continued focus on safe techniques in addition to advancements in helmet technology.

In terms of measuring helmets for their ability to reduce concussion, that task has been undertaken by Virginia Tech since 2011. Virginia Tech researchers have produced a ranking for helmets utilizing the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system. This ranking involves performing 120 impacts on helmets, and data collected from impacts experienced by players. Most disturbing about the 2011 ratings was that one of the lowest-rated helmets was being used by most players in the NFL. Now, the lowest three rated helmets from the 2011 rankings are off the market.

One example of emerging helmet technology is a helmet designed by Troy Fodemski, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs, CO. Fodemski, an electrical engineer, has designed a response system in helmets that would release dozens of tiny airbags sequentially to cushion blows to the head. Fodemski’s start-up company, Concussion Mitigation Technologies, LLC, has patented its technology that it says will measure hits, compare data, and administer pressure to the tiny airbags in response to the movement of the brain upon impact. Then there’s a product called the Thermocrown, from a startup company called Thermopraxis and renowned helmet producer Schutt Sports. The Thermocrown is a fitted device inside the helmet that, after a hard hit, receives an injection of cooling gas to lower the head’s temperature to minimize damage. It is essentially an ice pack that can be initiated by training staff in seconds.

Obviously, there would be a number of obstacles leading to implementation and use of these products on the football field, but the concepts are rather exciting. Let’s hope that with continued analysis of helmets on the market and the advancements of new, innovative helmet technology, we can see fewer instances of permanent and lingering brain and spinal injuries.

Sivowitch Law of Firsts

Eliot Sivowitch

Elliot Sivowitch in the electricity collections, around 1970. Photo courtesy of Hal Wallace, NMAH.

The invention process is seldom straightforward. People always seem to want to know who invented something first, but we don’t often have such definitive answers. Elliot Sivowitch, one of my very favorite colleagues at the Museum, summed up the messiness of invention in his typically witty “Sivowitch Law of Firsts”:



Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third. Someone will appear on the scene who was more first than you thought was first in the first place. [1]

With great sadness, we learned today of Elliot’s passing. Hal Wallace, curator of the Museum’s electricity collections, wrote:

Elliot first came to work at the U.S. National Museum in 1959. He left to work at the Library of Congress for a year and returned to the Smithsonian in 1961, retiring in 2000. Elliot spent his career in the Electricity Collections as our expert on radio and television history. Since retirement he had continued in an emeritus capacity, working with researchers, answering public inquiries, and assisting museum staff in identifying and cataloging objects. During his long career he helped move the collections to the new National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH) and brought in many significant additions of radio and television material. That our radio technology holdings and archives are among the finest in the world is due in no small measure to Elliot’s expertise.

Elliot earned a Master of Arts in history from Syracuse University in 1957 with his thesis, “A History of Radio Spectrum Allocation in the United States: 1912-1926.” He participated in exhibitions both large and small over the years: Information Age, Person To Person, Patent Controversies in the History of Radio, and Transistors at Fifty to name just a few. He influenced the work of a host of fellows and visiting scholars during his five decades of service to the museum. An amateur radio operator (K3RJA), he was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian HAM station, NN3SI. An excellent violinist, Elliot used that talent to give demonstrations of acoustical science to visitors. He was a member of the Audio Engineering Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Elliot’s friendly nature was as welcome as his expertise was invaluable.

I first met Elliot in the 1980s, about a dozen years before I came to the Smithsonian. I was doing research on the early history of television and remember very well how generous he was with his time and knowledge. Over the years, I learned to turn to Elliot not only when I needed help with research, but also when I just needed a good laugh. Elliot had the best giggle on earth—a surprising contrast to his deep radio-announcer’s voice. I already miss that giggle, and the amazing brain and kind soul behind it.

[1] Quoted in Ira Flatow, They All Laughed: From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives (New York: Harper, 1993), p. xv.

NPR Announces “What’s Your Big Idea?” Video Contest

Did you know that high school students have come up with all of the following ideas?

  • how to turn yard waste into hydrogen fuel
  • a new navigation system for traveling through space
  • a new way to detect cancer early
  • how to make medical tests using radiation less dangerous

It’s no news to us here at the Lemelson Center that you people have big and great ideas. NPR thinks along the same lines and is challenging thinkers ages 13 to 25 to share their bright ideas through video.

Videos will be shared on NPR’s YouTube channel and Facebook page and the very best idea will be shared with a leader in the most relevant field of science.

Find out more at NPR.

Going Solo: Reconsidering The Role Of The Lone Inventor

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on CIO Network, a blog belonging to Forbes. It was written by Lemelson historian Eric Hintz.

Everyone knows the legend of the Silicon Valley inventor, creating amazing things while tinkering in the garage. But not everyone is a believer.

At a recent conference in Washginton, Eric D. Isaacs, the director of the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, gave a talk on “How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.” In his talk, and in an opinion piece published online at Slate, Isaacs argued that “we can’t allow romantic myths about creative loners to overshadow the reality that America’s knowledge enterprise depends on the work of robust teams of highly trained experts, enabled by a world-class scientific infrastructure and supported consistently by public funds.” In other words, we shouldn’t bet on lone inventors like Thomas Edison, Mark Zuckerberg, and Iron Man’s Tony Stark; instead, we should support teams of highly-trained Ph.D.s (like Isaacs) working at big corporate and government R&D labs (like Argonne, the lab he directs).

Drawing on historical examples, Isaacs correctly points out the dozens of technicians Thomas Edison employed at his famed Menlo Park workshop and how nominally independent inventors William Hewlett and David Packard actually relied heavily on institutional support from R&D labs at Stanford University and Litton Industries to launch their startup from a garage in Palo Alto. But he is in danger of replacing one pernicious myth with another – i.e. the fantasy of a corporate or government R&D lab as a self-contained source of scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Implicit in Isaacs’s argument is a linear model of innovation, in which pure scientific research (R) leads directly to the development (D) of marketable new technologies, all occurring within the confines of the lab’s ivory tower. Sometimes this self-contained, linear model works out, but often it doesn’t. For example, in the 1930s, researchers at Du Pont’s famed Experimental Station were given carte blanche to study the chemistry of polymers, and those pure scientific investigations eventually resulted in new synthetic materials like neoprene and nylon. While Du Pont’s R&D staff developed nylon from start to finish, the idea for neoprene actually originated with a lone inventor – Father Julius Nieuwland, an ordained Catholic priest and chemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame. After acquiring the patent rights from the university, Du Pont’s scientists worked in collaboration with Nieuwland to turn his prototypes into a saleable product. So while it’s true that sophisticated R&D labs have given us transistors, lasers and futuristic materials, they do not have a monopoly on innovation. In fact, good ideas and expertise often flow across the permeable walls of the ivory tower – from lone inventors into a firm’s R&D labs.

This was true in the 1930s, and it is still true today. Accordingly, many R&D stalwarts have begun re-organizing themselves to mitigate insularism and take advantage of lone inventors and other external sources of innovation. For example, about a decade ago, Procter & Gamble found itself struggling with low R&D productivity – only 35% of the new products developed through its in-house labs were meeting financial objectives. Meanwhile, P&G realized that many of its best products emerged when designers made unexpected connections across its business units or when it sourced new ideas from outside the company. In response, P&G restructured its approach to innovation and set a strategic goal of acquiring 50% of its product ideas from outside the firm. In other words, half of all new products would originate from within P&G’s own labs, while the other half would come through them as the firm improved, scaled, and marketed nearly turnkey inventions acquired from lone inventors and small startups. The strategy, called “Connect + Develop,” has launched several successful products (like Olay Regenerist skin care creams and the Swiffer Duster) while helping P&G double its innovation success rate, even as it streamlined its R&D spending from 4.8% to 3.4% of sales.

Similarly, government agencies and their laboratories have embraced new strategies to cultivate lone inventors and other external sources of innovation. For example, in 2003, NASA inaugurated its “Centennial Challenges,” a series of competitions designed to stimulate space-related innovations by offering cash prizes to individual inventors and small startups. From 2007 to 2009, lone inventor Peter Homer won two separate challenges and $450,000 for developing a next-generation spacesuit glove, assembled in his dining room with a sewing machine. In 2010, Congress re-authorized the America Competes Act, which gave all government agencies broad authority to enact these kinds of crowd-sourcing initiatives, and established a prize clearinghouse website at Notably, the Department of Energy, which oversees Isaacs and the Argonne National Laboratory, has sponsored eight challenges on the site with prizes ranging from $5,000 to $15,000,000.

In his Slate piece, Isaacs asks and answers his own question:

“Where are the best scientific ideas created and developed?

  • a) A garage
  • b) A basement workshop
  • c) A dorm room
  • d) A kitchen
  • e) A full-scale laboratory equipped with the latest technology and staffed with highly trained professional researchers.

It might not be romantic, but the answer is e).” 

Instead, I propose a new answer to Isaac’s quiz: f) all of the above. In framing his argument, Isaacs oversimplifies things by presenting the strategic options as a binary, “either/or” choice between lone inventors and sophisticated R&D labs. But we should not embrace one source of innovations at the expense of another. Instead, history and recent practice suggest that our best prospects for innovation will come when we leverage the strengths of both lone inventors and R&D labs, working together.

Let us know what you think – where are the best ideas created?

Lemelson-MIT Prize Winner Announced

Dr. Stephen Quake.

Today, the Lemelson-MIT Program (a sister program of ours through the Lemelson Foundation) announced that physicist and entrepreneur Dr. Stephen Quake has been awarded the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, an annual prize that honors an outstanding mid-career inventor who is dedicated to improving our world through technological invention.

From the press release:

Dr. Stephen Quake, one of the world’s most prolific inventors, was announced today as recipient of the 2012 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. An adventurer at heart, Quake relishes in the adrenaline that comes from mountain biking and ski mountaineering. It is that same rush he gets from exploring the unknown that drives him to consistently push scientific limits. Quake is being recognized for his revolutionary work in drug discovery, genome analysis and personalized medicine. He will accept the prestigious award and present his accomplishments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the Lemelson-MIT Program’s sixth-annual EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit, June 20 – 23.

Raised in an entrepreneurial household with a father who worked in the computer industry, Quake was captivated by technology and its infinite applications at an early age. Quake found academic success in his high school science and math courses, and went on to earn degrees in physics and mathematics from Stanford University and Oxford University. Today, the professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Stanford and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has more than 80 patents and four companies to his name.
“Steve is a scientific pioneer with a compelling vision of future possibilities,” said Gajus Worthington, president and CEO of Fluidigm Corporation, a company he co-founded with Quake. “He translates discoveries into inventions leading to new companies that are making significant advancements in human health.”

Read more about Dr. Stephen Quake…