You are probably thinking of a certain Swedish automaker now. But no, it wasn't Volvo. The history of the seat belt goes back much further. It starts in a car and plays on airplanes. Many pioneers are involved until it begins its triumphal march around the world. And yes, Sweden plays a key role in this.
There are many pioneers
The first seat belt in a car was reported in a Baker torpedo in 1902. The first patents were filed a year later in France for Louis Renault and Gustave-Désiré Leveau. The French aviator Célestin Adolphe Pégoud was a pioneer in aviation. In 1913, he was the second person to fly a continuous loop. That made him a legend, he became famous all over Europe and henceforth referred to as a flying ace.
Pégoud was a star, and because there was no Instagram or Facebook at the time, postcards were printed that immortalized his loops. They also existed in Germany, on the other side of the Rhine. 100 years ago idols knew no boundaries.
Pégoud used a seat belt on his plane. He kept him in the open pulpit during the loop. The first documented use of a seat belt took place in an airplane by Célestin Pégoud.
Unfortunately, his life did not last long. The First World War was approaching, and Pégoud was shot down with his plane on August 1, 31 at the age of 1915 by a German aviator, whom a French pilot took from the sky 26 days later as revenge.
And it was celebrated for it. A sad and senseless spiral of violence and death - which we will hopefully never see again between Germany and France.
The seat belt is invented, it is patented. But it is seldom used and many people still die in traffic. It will take many decades and more pioneers to achieve a breakthrough.
Change of times. A few decades later in Sweden. Meanwhile the 2nd World War has also been overcome. The economy is running smoothly again and the Vattenfall Group is expanding. New power plants are being built everywhere, but the boom also brings problems.
Vattenfall keeps statistics on the health of its employees. That worries. In 1953 and 54, it shows a sharp increase in traffic accidents.
At that time, the company had 1.500 company cars and its employees had around 15.000 private cars. The employer feels obliged to the employees and their health. You don't want to accept the increasing number of accidents. You want to do something. Vattenfall contacts car manufacturers and talks about the development of a seat belt.
The manufacturers refuse. That is too risky, drivers could be frightened by the seat belt. You might consider driving a car dangerous. Volvo is one of the companies that refuse.
But in Sweden they are not satisfied with the rejection. From now on you take matters into your own hands. Vattenfall hires Bengt Odelgard and Per Olof-Weman. The two engineers are to advance the development of a seat belt for the energy supplier. They check the systems available on the market and rate them as insufficient.
Seat belts are also being considered in North America. The engineers establish contacts in the USA and exchange ideas with colleagues about ongoing developments there.
Vattenfall is setting up its own test facilities in Sweden. Cars are made to fall on the floor from a great height - equipped with dolls - and collisions are carried out. As a result, a 2-point seat belt comes onto the market, which is gradually being installed in all company cars in the group from 1956 onwards as the “Vattenfall system”.
Another pioneer in Sweden is MHF. A non-profit organization founded in 1926 that still exists today with around 15.000 members. She has made the safety of Swedish roads a priority and pursues the goal with vigor.
MHF has also given some thought and in the 50s it sells retrofit kits for all types of cars that it developed itself. With success and the seat belt is slowly gaining a majority.
Things are changing in Gothenburg too. In 1956, Gunnar Engellau took over the post at Volvo. He is acquainted with the doctor Stig Lindgren from Falun. He is the medical advisor to the car safety group at Vattenfall. Lindgren demonstrates the seat belt to Engellau, apparently with success.
Attitudes in Gothenburg are starting to change.
From now on everything goes very quickly. As early as 1958, some Volvo models were fitted with “System Vattenfall” seat belts as standard. From 1959 onwards, all Volvos have a three-point seat belt on board as standard, which is based on Vattenfall's development work.
The seat belt makes its way around the world, saving many lives. Thanks to many pioneers.
Pictures: Volvo Cars (2) MHF (1) Vattenfall (4)