Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
ALLEN K. BREED
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 B.S. 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 1961, Breed founded another company, Breed Corp., in
order to develop safety and arming devices under contract
to the US military. Like Jacob Rabinow, Breed later applied
to a broader realm the expertise in fuzes and timing and sensor
technology that he gained from military work. 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
Breed Technologies, Inc.) to refine and market his safety
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 (#5,071,161) is just one of over two dozen auto safety
inventions that Breed has co-patented over the years. Today,
Breed continues to oversee the improvement of auto safety
mechanics and design, including the successful introduction
of side-impact air bags.
Meanwhile, Breed's company has expanded its scope to include
seat belt, steering and other automotive safety technology.
Once located in Lakeland, Florida, Breed Technologies is now
known as Key Safety Systems, Inc. with headquarters in Detroit,
Mich. It does research, manufacturing and consulting work
worldwide, and its products are now used in over 400 models
Breed himself has 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. And besides being admirable for his business
success, Allen Breed, like William Bolander, who won the inaugural
Lemelson-MIT Prize for his inventions in automotive safety,
has applied his innovative instincts to a truly good cause.
[Updated: March 2004]