Automotive air bags

Allen K. Breed is an inventor, entrepreneur, and pioneer in one of the most significant advances in automotive safety of recent times, the air bag. After earning a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University in the years following World War II, Breed first worked in product design for RCA. After rising to a managerial post there and directing a joint venture with Gruen Watch Company, he founded his first company, Waltham Engineering, in 1957.

In 1961, Breed founded another company, Breed Corp., in order to develop safety and arming devices under contract with the U.S. military. Like Jacob Rabinow, Breed later applied his expertise in fuzes, timing, and sensor technology that he gained from military work to a broader realm. Specifically, Breed envisioned a beneficent application for sensor-triggers and controlled explosions in the realm of automobile safety.

Breed invented his first sensor and safety system in 1968.  This was the world's first electromechanical automotive air bag system of its kind. Even then, the air bag was not, in theory, entirely new to the automotive industry, but it took some time to gain broad acceptance. Breed was still well ahead of the game when, in 1987, he founded Breed Automotive (now Key Safety Systems) to refine and market his safety systems.

The principles on which air bags operate are fairly well known. The keys to their success are reliable crash sensors (which detect an impact either violent or in combination with drastic deceleration), instantaneous triggering and deployment of the cushion, and the prevention of "secondary injuries" – i.e., injuries from the passenger's contact with the air bag.

Air bags have not proved completely successful in meeting this last challenge, but already in 1991, Breed co-patented an air bag that vents air as it inflates, reducing the risk of secondary injuries by reducing the inflated bag's rigidity. This device, patent #5,071,161, is just one of over two dozen auto safety inventions that Breed co-patented over the years. Breed continued to oversee the improvement of auto safety mechanics and design, including the successful introduction of side-impact air bags.

Breed's company had expanded its scope to include seat belt, steering, and other automotive safety technology. The company, now named Key Safety Systems, is a worldwide leader in the design, development, and manufacturing of automobile safety components. Key Safety Systems products are now used in over 300 models of cars.

Breed earned a number of honors for his work. In 1998, he was included in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 500.  In 1996, he was inducted into the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame.  In 1995, he was elected National Entrepreneur of the Year. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich. in 1999 in recognition of his invention of an air bag set off by an electromechanical sensor, a forerunner of the electronic sensors that are popular today. Breed died on December 13, 2000 at the age of 72.