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Who was Hugh DeHaven?

Hugh Robertson DeHaven was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 3, 1895. He grew up in a creative environment.

His father, also named Hugh DeHaven, operated DeHaven Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn, a hardware specialty company. His father had several inventions. One was metal box straps, made as a part of his business. Others were pail hooks and clutch nails (metal strips with punched areas that form nails as a part of a strip so the strip could simply be pounded in place to fasten together two wooden pieces).

Clutch Nails

Metalstrips with punched areas that form nails as a part of a strip so the strip could simply be pounded in place to fasten together two wooden pieces).

Young Hugh attended private schools: Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts (1906-1909) and Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania (1909-1914. He continued studies in college, first at Cornell University (1914-1915) studying mechanical engineering and then Columbia University (1915-1916).

In 1917 as the United States entered WWI, DeHaven sought to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps, but was rejected. He then joined the Royal Flying Corps Canada at Toronto. While training as a pilot, he survived a plane crash. In flight DeHaven collided with another plane in mid-air.

From his later crash injury research work, he became known as the “father of crash survivability” and the “father of crashworthiness.” He was inducted into the Safety and Health Hall of Fame International in 1990.

He married Constance Beardsley Eldridge, who died in 1970. Hugh Robertson DeHaven died on February 13, 1980 in Lyme, Connecticut at the age of 85 after becoming terminally ill. The cause of death was noted as suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

After leaving the Canadian military, he became a freelance inventor and researcher. He patented a method that gained widespread use for binding newspapers for shipment. Between 1924 and 1933 DeHaven filed seven patent applications for the design of a self-sharpening, single-edge safety razor. His De Haven Razor Corporation marketed several different models. He left the company in 1933. By 1933 at age 38, he retired.

Some sources include DeHaven as holding a Ph.D. degree. However, preparation of this article could not establish when and from what school he obtained this academic achievement.

How DeHaven Became Interested in Crashes

During recovery from the plane crash of 1917, he sought to understand why he alone survived that crash and his cockpit was the only one that remained intact. That was the beginning of his thinking that led to much of his later research. He had suffered a ruptured pancreas and damaged other internal organs. After looking over the wreckage, he realized that the buckle of his seat belt had caused those injuries.

Other experiences influenced his life’s work. For example, he had lost a sibling in a fire. After his early retirement, he witnessed a near fatal automobile accident during which a dashboard knob pierced the drivers head.

In 1936 he started a series of basic experiments in his kitchen. He dropped raw eggs from a height of 10 feet onto foam rubber sheets. He gradually increased the thickness of the foam sheets to determine how thick the total layer must be before an egg would not break.

By the end of WWII he had researched kinds of foam and their thickness required to prevent eggs from breaking when dropped from 100 feet.

He spent much of his life studying vehicle and aircraft crashes, the impacts on the human body and associated injuries. He applied the resulting knowledge to developing ways to prevent injuries from crashes.

DeHaven’s Research at Cornell University

DeHaven’s research at Cornell can be summarized quite simply with his quote: “People knew more about protecting eggs in transit than they did about protecting human heads.” (At the time many people received fresh eggs from farmers who shipped them directly via railroad freight services using special “egg crates.”)

In 1939 he recommended the use of helmets and seat belts in airplanes.

His research on crash injuries began at Cornell University Medical College (CUMC) in 1942. He was a Research Associate in the Department of Physiology of CUMC and Director of the Crash Injury Research (CIR) Program. An early research effort he started was the Aviation Safety and Research Facility at Cornell.

DeHaven created a high speed sled on a roof of CUMC for studying high deceleration effects on human subjects.

In 1942 he published his analysis of survival from falls of 50 to 150 feet, recognized today as a classic on injuries. By 1942 his work with aviation led to redesigns for cockpits and seats in aircraft. (First published as: Hugh DeHaven, “Mechanical analysis of survival in falls from heights of fifty to one hundred and fifty feet,” War Medicine, Volume 2, pages 586-598, 1942 and currently available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1730592/pdf/v006p00062b.pdf or at https://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/6/1/62.3)

Car Crash

Car Crash

In 1947 he demonstrated his observations of eggs being protected by foam layers to the Cornell University Medical College.

By that time he had completed other observations and analysis. He made use of the often published detail of automobile crashes included in newspapers and other publications. He compiled clippings of accidents and studied the accounts in which occupants survived. His analysis focused on the impact mechanics. His analysis sought to estimate the number of g’s (the equivalent multiple of the force of gravity) a victim encountered during impact with some part of the vehicle. Ultimately, he estimated that the human body could survive impacts as high as 200 g’s.

His crash research established that a head injury can occur at 15 mph when the head impacts a solid object or surface and determined that with proper padding, higher speed impacts would not produce a head injury.

During WWII DeHaven conducted primitive medical investigation on impact injuries. He interviewed patients at Bellevue Hospital in New York City who had suffered head injuries. Some were skeptical of his work, but eventually he attracted attention in the aviation industry. One civil aviation pioneer, William Piper, who built private planes, used DeHaven as a consultant for cockpit instruments and potential physical injuries.

By 1950, DeHaven focused his research and injury analysis on automobiles and highway injuries. In 1952 he began working with the Indiana State Police on highway crash trauma. With the 1952 conference he organized at the Cornell Medical College for representatives of automakers and safety researchers, the term “crashworthiness” became part of the automotive design lexicon. The conference led to a year-long effort by Indiana state troopers who collected detailed crash data and photographs that they sent to Cornell for study. The study results showed that unpadded interiors and protruding knobs created injury threats to automobile occupants. The crash analysis protocols from this study remain in use today.

DeHaven strongly promoted the use of seatbelts and other protections in automobiles and aircraft to protect occupants.

DeHaven’s Seat Belt Patents

One of DeHaven’s inventions was the inertial reel, which locks a seat belt in a retractor when a passenger gets thrown forward.

DeHaven's Seat Belt Patent Design

DeHaven’s Seat Belt Patent Design

In 1951 Roger Griswold, a research colleague, and DeHaven patented their CIR-Griswold Restraint (Patent #2710649), a three-point safety belt with a middle buckle. It covered both a shoulder and the lap that distributed the impact in a crash over the chest, pelvis and shoulder. Griswold had worked on seatbelt concepts for the new United States Army Air Corps in 1945.

In 1959 the Swedish automaker, Volvo, was the first auto manufacturer to introduce the three point seat belt in production cars.

Some claim that Volvo’s first chief safety engineer, Nils Bohlin, who previously worked on airplane safety for Saab, obtained the first patent for a three-point seat belt. However, he obtained a United States patent (#3043625) for his design in July 10, 1962, about eleven years after the DeHaven and Griswold patent.

With the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, seat belts became mandatory in U.S. autos beginning in 1968.

DeHaven’s Influence on Others

The crash injury research and occupant protection in aircraft and automobiles advocated by Hugh DeHaven influenced the research of many others focused on vehicle safety.

He undoubtedly stimulated the work of the United States Army Air Corp and later the U.S. Air Force immediately after WWII at Aero Medical Center of Wright Air Development Center. Their research sought to resolve human tolerance to deceleration, and other aviator issues requiring advanced protection as aircraft reached new altitudes and speeds. A military officer and medical officer named John Paul Stapp, led the deceleration work as it began in 1947. He was a contemporary of Hugh DeHaven during DeHaven’s later years of research. Colonel Stapp advanced the work on occupant protection, especially for pilots. In 1967 Col. Stapp began research work for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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