Q: Who invented the airbag?
A: Newport, PA resident John Hetrick is credited with inventing the automotive airbag.
Why does this matter to us at Gunn-Mowery, you ask? Well not only is Newport a nearby town, but John Hetrick is our employee, Larry Hetrick’s, uncle! Yes, Larry Hetrick has worked at Gunn-Mowery since 2001 as our Operations Manager.
His Uncle John, designed his safety-cushion air bag in 1952 after narrowly escaping a head-on crash. Hetrick, his wife Jeannette, and their daughter Joan, then 6, were driving on a dirt road on the south side of the Juniata River between Newport and Millerstown. As they rounded a curve, their car swerved to avoid hitting a large rock and they went off the road. After this terrifying experience, Hetrick went right to work with his design, had it finished in a week and applied immediately for a patent. Although he had no formal education beyond Newport High School, Hetrick was an amateur inventor. He also had experience overhauling steam-ejected torpedoes while in the Navy during World War II and later was an air craft hydraulics mechanic at Olmsted Air Force Base in Middletown, PA.
Hetrick’s design was judged original and workable by the U.S. Patent Office. He received Patent No. 2,649,311 in 1953 but automakers were not interested in the idea. They told him that safety didn’t sell. They intended to put their dollars into such things as better radios, fashionable upholstery and tail fins that flourished at the time.
Hetrick’s patent and legal protection expired after 10 years and unfortunately, he did not benefit financially. Although, when asked how he felt about it he said he had “feelings of satisfaction” and the prospect that many lives will be spared pleased him. (If only John knew that The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the combination of an airbag plus a lap/shoulder belt reduces the risk of serious head injury among drivers by 85 percent compared with a 60 percent reduction for belts alone.)
Like the flying machine diagrammed by Leonardo da Vinci, the air bag Hetrick patented wasn’t developed because the world just wasn’t ready for it yet.
Below is the only known footage of John Hetrick talking about his invention. This is a segment from the long running PBS show NOVA from 1999. His daughter Joan (Hetrick) Wingert loaned Old Sled Works in Duncannon the VHS tape, who then shared it on Facebook.