The first seatbelt was designed by the revered British aviation innovator George Cayley for use in one of his ground-breaking flying machines. It says a lot about Cayley’s genius that his mid-19th century seatbelt was designed for aeronautical use and predated the invention of the motor car by several decades.
But, as significant as Cayley’s seatbelt undoubtedly was, it’s tempting to regard it as an incidental feature of his glider design rather than a singular, defining invention. If we’re telling the story of the modern seatbelt, it’s worth fast-forwarding to the dawn of automotive technology.
The first seatbelt patent was granted to a New Yorker named Edward J. Claghorn on 10 February 1885, but it feels like a bit of a stretch to declare Claghorn the inventor of the seatbelt, at least not as we know it today. His invention was essentially a safety harness that was designed to keep tourists in the seats of New York taxis. The patent described Claghorn’s safety-belt as being “designed to be applied to the person, and provided with hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object.”
While Claghorn’s belt certainly deserves a mention, later innovations were more important to the evolution of seatbelt design and legislation.
The retractable seatbelt
The seatbelt remained a relatively unpopular concept throughout the first half of the 20th century. As uncomfortable as the notion of driving without a seatbelt might seem today, it’s possible to see why seatbelt adoption was so limited for such a long time. Until the 1950s, they were uncomfortable to wear and didn’t do a very good job of protecting people.
After decades of shockingly limited automobile safety, it took a doctor, C. Hunter Shelden, to raise the alarm and campaign for improved safety features in cars. In the late 1940s, Dr. Shelden noted that a large proportion of the head injuries at his Pasadena neurological practice were at least partly attributable to poorly designed early seatbelts.
As a result, he took it upon himself to develop a range of automobile safety measures including retractable seatbelts, recessed steering wheels, roll bars, airbags and elevated headrests to prevent whiplash.
Shelden’s pioneering work was instrumental in raising automobile safety standards in the United States, and in 1966 the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which required all automobiles to comply with certain safety standards, was enacted. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed two bills requiring safety belts to be fitted in all passenger vehicles.
Bohlin’s three-point seatbelt
The invention of the three-point seatbelt by the Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin was a truly transformative moment in the history of automotive safety. In 1959, when Bohlin designed the revolutionary V-type belt, safety regulations were still very limited. Many cars weren’t even fitted with a traditional two-point seatbelt and even if they were, it was clear that the existing design, which only crossed the lap, was far from satisfactory. In fact, in some cases, it caused serious internal injuries.
Volvo’s president, Gunnar Engell, was personally motivated to address the shortcomings of the two-point design when a relative was killed in a car accident and it emerged that the deficiencies of the seatbelt contributed to their fatal injuries. Engell poached Bohlin from rival Swedish firm Saab and tasked him with developing an improved seatbelt design as a matter of urgency. Bohlin’s seatbelt was game-changing: not only did the V-type design secure the upper body, but it was also far more comfortable to wear and easier to buckle up.
Volvo has always defined itself as an automaker that prioritises safety. Indeed, in 1927 its founders defined the company’s core principle: “Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain, safety.” The Swedish company lived up to this admirable ideal by making Bohlin’s three-point seatbelt patent immediately available, for free, to any automaker who wished to use it.
Volvo’s proud claim that “few people have saved as many lives as Nils Bohlin” is no exaggeration. His invention was universally adopted across the motor industry and it remains the standard and most effective car seatbelt design more than 60 years after its invention.