Car Seats

Baby Car Seat Invention and History

Ashley Davis

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The First Car Seat Invented:

The first baby car seat invented with the safety features expected in modern car seats was designed in 1962 by Jean Ames, a British journalist. This seat introduced the concept of rear-facing orientation and utilized a 3-point harness along with the vehicle’s seatbelt for securing the child. While various forms of car seats had been designed as early as the 1930s, they primarily focused on restraining the child or improving visibility for the child outside the car, rather than on safety during a collision. Ames’s design marked a pivotal shift towards prioritizing crash protection for young passengers in vehicles.

The car seat invented by Jean Ames ranks as one of the most consequential safety product innovations, leading to a marked enhancement in safety for child passengers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that car seats lower the risk of fatal outcomes for infants (under 1 year) by 71% and for toddlers (1 to 4 years old) by 54% in passenger vehicles. These substantial reductions underscore the vital role car seats serve in safeguarding the lives of young children during car accidents.

The history of car seats will make you appreciate the evolution of car safety regulations in the 20th Century to the present. CDC studies show that car seats can reduce the risk of injury during a crash by up to 82% but this wasn’t always the case. Regulations have finally caught up with the pace of innovations, albeit slowly.

Baby Safety Before Car Seats

Before the invention of modern car seats, ensuring baby safety during car rides was a challenge and approached with considerably less rigor than today. In the early 20th century, it was common practice for a mother or another passenger to hold the baby in their lap. Alternatives included placing a bassinet or cradle on the seat or the vehicle’s floor, allowing infants some level of comfort but minimal safety. As children grew, they might sit directly on the seat, often boosted by a pillow or cushion to improve their visibility outside the vehicle.

Innovative yet rudimentary solutions were marketed, such as the Waltham Manufacturing Company’s detachable child’s seat in 1925, designed for visibility and comfort rather than safety. Other products like the Lull-A-Baby Car Hammock and the Gordon Motor Crib offered solutions for infant comfort and parental convenience, highlighting the period’s focus on comfort over explicit safety measures.

Below is the advertisement with an image (bottom right) of the detachable car seat;

advertisement on detachable car seat in 1925

As you can see from the image above, the child seat is more of a bassinet than a seat but it was doing the job of keeping little ones in a comfortable sleep surface and letting the mom drive instead of lap holding.

Before the advent of modern infant car seats, there were alternative options aside from lap carry or detachable seats such as the Lull-A-Baby Car Hammock and the Gordon Motor Crib. These products claimed to be the epitome of safety and comfort, with the Motor Crib even relieving driving mothers from the burden of weary arms. In the motor industrial boom of the 1920s, moms worked in auto industries and the advertisement pitching a relief solution to their weary arms was on point.

Below is an image of Lull-A-Baby Car Hammock used before car seats;

Lull-a-baby-car-hammock used before car seats

Prior to modern-day baby car seat parents used extremely unsafe booster car seats similar to the one shown below to elevate the kids when in the car. The main problem the parents were facing and wanted to solve with the booster seat was that little kids were too low to be seen by the parents and booster seats helped elevate them to a level that they can be engaged or be supervised effectively.

I found the following strap. Not sure if it was truly ever used as a restraint system.

before car seats were invented - use of straps in the car

Though very unsafe, I also found some information on homemade armchair car seats. Such and many other vintage car seats are unsafe;

Unsafe armchair vintage car seats used before modern-day car seats
Unsafe armchair vintage car seats used before modern-day car seats

5 Reasons Why the 1930s Car Seat was Unsafe;

The first car seat, introduced in the 1930s, was unsafe primarily due to its design and purpose, which focused more on convenience and visibility for the child rather than safety. Here are the key reasons why it was considered unsafe:

  1. Lack of Secure Attachment: The earliest car seats did not securely attach to the vehicle. They were often hooked over the back of a seat or merely rested on the car seat, without any mechanism to anchor them in place during a crash or sudden stop.
  2. Basic Restraint Systems: The restraint system, if present, was rudimentary at best. Early models featured simple lap belts that did not adequately secure the child in the seat, increasing the risk of injury in an accident.
  3. Structural Integrity: The materials and construction of the first car seats were not designed to withstand the impact of a car crash. They could easily collapse or fold up, posing a significant risk to the child.
  4. Design Focused on Convenience, Not Safety: The primary aim was to keep the child elevated for a better view or to free up the hands of the adult passenger, not to protect the child in the event of an accident. Safety considerations were secondary or entirely overlooked.
  5. Absence of Safety Standards and Regulations: At the time, there were no specific safety standards or regulations governing the design and manufacture of car seats. This lack of oversight meant that safety was not a guaranteed consideration in the design process.

The first car seat designed for child passengers, credited to the Bunny Bear Company in 1933, laid the foundation for the evolution of child safety in vehicles. Prior attempts, like the “Detached Child Seat” by the Gordon Motor Crib Company in 1925, resembled more of a bassinet than a true car seat, underscoring the nascent stage of child passenger safety at the time. The Bunny Bear Company’s design, simplistic in nature, featured a canvas seat that attached to the back of an adult seat with drawstrings or metal hooks, reminiscent of swing set seats.

This early version served more as a booster seat, constructed from metal and leather, and positioned typically in the front seat with a simple belt to restrain the child. However, its major flaw lay in the absence of a secure attachment to the vehicle; in a crash, the seat would fold up, severely compromising the child’s safety.

The Bunny Bear seat featured a basic three-point lap belt but unfortunately lacked a secure mechanism to keep the seat firmly in place. In the event of a collision, the seat would simply fold up, posing a significant safety concern.

Below is an image of the first baby car seat in the 1930s depicting a woman driving a Model T and a sleeping baby;

car-seat-history-1970s

3-Point Harness Introduced in 1940s

The 1940s brought about a more sophisticated but still unsafe design that improved upon the Bunny Bear’s original concept and was still rudimentary at best. This iteration included a metal frame that could attach to the car’s front seat, elevating the child for a better view outside.

This advancement, though ahead of its time, especially given the absence of 3-point seat belts in vehicles of that era, still fell short of providing comprehensive safety measures necessary to protect young passengers effectively.

Below is an image of the1940s car seat;

1940s car seat

Considering that cars in the 1940s lacked 3-point seat belts, this booster seat system represented a significant safety advancement ahead of its time. It wasn’t until 1959 that a 3-point seat belt, specifically a lap shoulder belt, became available in cars.

1950s Car Seats:

I couldn’t find any major developments in the baby car seat industry in the 1950s except for the development of the initial designs of a 5-point car seat restraint system and the introduction of seat belts.

When Ford initially introduced seat belts in 1956, the response from customers was dishearteningly low. The “take rate,” which represents the percentage of customers who opted to purchase these safety features, failed to meet expectations. Consequently, Ford made the difficult decision to discontinue these options.

In 1958, Leonard Rivkin, an aerospace engineer, was driving with his family, including his son Bart Rivkin in the back seat. Their car was struck from behind, causing Bart, who was not wearing any safety restraints, to soar from the backseat. He landed on the front floor and found himself looking up at his mother, who was standing over him.

This 1958 accident set Rivkin to find a solution that would keep children passengers in the backseat during accidents:

1960s Car Seat: The First Modern Safe Car Seat Invented

Through the early 1960s one could buy devices like “The Tiny World Sit-N-Stand Carseat,” which allowed kids to stand up and stretch their legs mid-voyage. Other car seats consisted of plastic seats, with hooks to loosely anchor them, and some featured a steering wheel a kid could spin just like a driving parent. Suffice to say none of these car seats were safe — nor were they created with safety in mind.

Below is the Tiny World Sit-N-Stand Carseat by Ford;

Child's Sit-N-Stand Car Seat, 1965 -
Child’s Sit-N-Stand Car Seat, 1965 – Source: Henry Ford Museum Website

Leonard Rivkin pioneered the design of an iron-framed booster seat, incorporating a five-point harness system that remains the standard in almost all car seat models today.

I was able to find the original patent filed by Mr. Rivkin in 1962.

Below is an image of the seat design;

Snapshot showing Rivkin patent drawings of 5-point harness seat in 1962
Snapshot showing Rivkin patent drawings of 5-point harness seat in 1962

You can see 5 images that were part of Rivkin’s innovation on this 1-page PDF.

Leonard Rivkin 1962 invention safety baby car seat
Leonard Rivkin 1962 invention safety baby car seat

It is important to note that Rivkin’s invention did mention that his booster seat innovation should be mounted in the backseat. Not sure if he had any safety basis for his recommendation but the same year across the Atlantic, another inventor was working on rear-facing concept.

In 1962, British journalist Jean Ames revolutionized car seat safety by inventing a car seat design that had key safety features to properly secure the baby to the car using the 3-point harness and vehicle’s seatbelt. Ms. Ames’ car seat is regarded as the first car seat invented eclipsing those designed earlier as they had minimal safety features.

This first car seat introduced the concept of placing kids exclusively in the back seats and facing the rear. . See Jean and Fredrick Ames’ patent here.

Please note that Jean’s initial patent was filed in November 1961, however, her work began to gain popularity in 1962.

Jeenay Car Seat 1965:

Two years later inn 1965, Jean submitted two patents in London’s Intellectual Property Office(IPO). One was for a 5-strap safety harness, akin to the modern-day models, crafted from “British Nylon” to provide effective restraint without causing harm. The other patent featured a tamper-proof, parachute-style center quick-release buckle pin.

The versatility of this car seat, serving as both a high chair and providing a cozy foam pad, proved to be a significant selling point.

In 1964, a Swedish professor named Bertil Aldman became aware of the protective benefits of rear-facing car seats after watching an American TV program that depicted the positioning of astronauts in the Gemini space capsule.

He observed that the astronauts inside the Gemini capsule were positioned on their backs during launch and this position enabled their bodies to effectively endure the intense forces of rocket acceleration.

Aldman was intrigued by this and he worked with Thomas Turbell they designed the first first rear-facing car seat and were instrumental in the development of the Sweden’s T-standard. The car seat standards developed by the Swedes back then are considered to be some of the most stringent. Rear-facing seating is mandatory until at least the age of 4, and these regulations have remained unchanged for many years.

Below is Aldman’s rear-facing seat;

car-seat-history-aldman-rear-facing-first seat developed

Ford’s Tot Guard:

In the United States, Ford was the first manufacturer to offer a car seat. Called the “Astro-Guard,” the $30 bucket seat kept kids stationary via a harness anchored at four points. But it offered little protection for children’s vulnerable heads and necks. Ford tweaked its design and by 1965 became the first manufacturer to offer a relatively safe car seat, known as the Tot-Guard.

The Ford Tot-Guard had an unconventional shell that would cover the child while riding and provide upper body protection in the event of a crash.

tot-guard-infant-car-seat-history
Ford’s Tot Guard Seat

In 1967, auto manufacturers who had been observing the slow rise of baby car seats introduced the first car seats specifically designed for crash protection. No seat before 1968 had been tested for crash protection.

General Motor’s Love Seat:

This basic seat featured a plastic shell that provided support and restraint to the upper body. General Motors’ rear-facing infant “Love Seats” followed in 1967. These featured different size options for infants and children and were made from polypropylene and padded with urethane foam.

In 1967 General Motors Love Seat, developed a rear-facing car seat that would later pass the safety car seat laws that started in 1978. See the seat here

General Motor's First baby car seat also called love
GM’s Love Seat

Both GM and Ford’s offerings passed the federal government’s first crash test, performed in 1971. But when Consumer Reports followed with their first test of car seats in 1972, both failed. There were other one-offs, like the short-lived and very troubling “Steel Travel Platform,” sold in 1969, which was just a vinyl pad upon which kids could freely play in the back of a moving car.

1970s Car Seats:

Established in 1971, Action for Child Transportation Safety aimed to advocate for child passenger safety.

The Bobby Mac car seat in 1971 was the first car seat that could be used rear-facing or forward-facing. A convertible seat! Bobby Mac borrowed some of its design ideas from earlier invention from Jean, Rivkin and Tot Guard. For example, it borrowed Tot Guard’s design which featured a fold-down shell design that provided both restraint and protection for the occupant’s torso.

Bobby Mac’s convertible seats also came with either 3-point invented by Jean or 5-point harnesses invented by Rivkin, and many of them. Its seat belt would be positioned across this shell to ensure the baby’s secure placement in the car seat throughout the journey.

In 1971, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) introduced the first federal safety standard focused on child safety seats. This standard, known as FMVSS 213, mandated the use of vehicle seat belts to secure safety seats but did not initially include any provisions regarding crash test performance.

Consumer Reports’ First Crash Test Results(1972)

In 1972, Consumer Reports released crash test results for 15 car seats available in the market. The findings revealed that 70% of the seats, although meeting the standard, were alarmingly inadequate in terms of safety. This revelation prompted automotive and car seat manufacturers to enhance their products, even in the absence of a national standard to adhere to.

Car seats that dominated in 1970s included GM’s Love Seat, Ford’s Tot Guard and a few other brands such as Britax Romer Seat. Below is a 1970s car seat by Britax Romer;

1970s Car Seat by Britax Romer
1970s Car Seat by Britax Romer(source)

By the end of the 1970s, Tennessee State became the first and only state to mandate the use of safety car seats. This significant legislation was passed in 1978, setting a precedent for prioritizing the safety of passengers on the road.

In 1978, NHTSA initiated car crash simulations to replicate the impact of a 35 mph collision. As a result, manufacturers promptly implemented significantly safer designs.

1980s Car Seats:

The 1971 FMVSS 213 regulation lacked any provisions for evaluating the crash performance of car seats. Subsequently, in 1981, FMVSS 213 was amended to include specific requirements for safety seats to pass rigorous 30 mph crash tests.

Century 4200 T-Shield in 1984 was the first seat to pass this test, after which other brands swiftly followed suit. Even so, a study by NHTSA in 1983 revealed that only 10% of car seats sold met the new standard. See Century seat here.

1985: When Car Seats Became Mandatory:

Although the use of child safety seats was mandated by NHTSA in 1971, states were not obligated to adopt this requirement. It wasn’t until 1978 that Tennessee became the first state to enforce safety seat usage for young children. By 1985, every state in the country had made it mandatory to use baby car seats.

Over the years, there has been a gradual increase in the minimum age at which children are permitted to transition from child safety seats to seat belts. By 2003, as many as 44 states had implemented regulations requiring children to remain in safety seats until their fourth birthday(source).

1990s Car Seats:

1990:  FAA proposal requires airlines to permit the use of approved CRS during take-off and landing.  NHTSA adopts a minimal test as part of FMVSS 213.

A more stringent version of FMVSS 213-80, Child Restraint Systems, becomes effective on 1/1/81; includes rear-facing infant restraints, car beds, and forward-facing restraints for children under 50 lb..; required frontal crash test at 30 mph, buckle release force (so children could not release the harness), special labeling and instruction criteria.

1996: Incorrect Use of CRS

In a 1996 Study by the NHTSA, it was discovered that only 81.6% of children were using child restrain system(CRS) and it was even better for target weight children (under 60 pounds or 27 kg) with overall use rate at 87.2%.

However, correct use of CRS was only 20.5% for all target children combined. The most commonly misused CRS items are the locking clip, harness retainer clip, and harness strap.

Below is a snapshot from the Study with statistics of various CRS misuse;

Statistics on car seat misuse
Statistics on car seat misuse

Safety experts have been diligently working to identify strategies for mitigating misuse, particularly concerning locking clip issues. Locking clip misue was 72% in the NHTSA study.

In 1996, a requirement for locking seatbelts was introduced to address the widespread misuse of the locking clip, which was incorrectly utilized by nearly three-quarters of parents. You may have noticed that old vehicles made prior to 1996 lack a seatbelt locking mechanisms and car seat installation is not easy.

Since 1996, it has been mandatory for all vehicles in the United States to be equipped with manually lockable seatbelts. This requirement was implemented to simplify the process of installing car seats, providing enhanced convenience and usability.

To further enhance the proper utilization of CRS, NHTSA launched a training program in 1997 for child passenger safety technicians. These individuals are equipped to educate and inspect car seats within their communities.You can now connect with a car seat technician online or can take the $95 course too.

To address the challenging issue of attaching CRS to the crotchplate, NHTSA introduced the ISOFIX system in 1997. ISOFIX became the first vehicle anchor system for car seats. Its purpose was to simplify the installation process and ensure the safety of more children in their seats.

To also ensure safe installation of rear-car seats NHTSA launched LATCH in 2002. LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is the modern anchor system found in all passenger vehicles in the US. In Canada, it is known as UAS, or Universal Anchorage System. This lower anchor system allows for the quick and safe installation of a rear-facing car seat. When transitioning to forward-facing, the top tether is attached to the back LATCH anchor. These systems are mandatory in every vehicle, ensuring the safety and security of children during travel.

Baby Car Seat History Timeline

The table shows the evolution of baby car seats from the 1930s to the present.

Year/PeriodHistory Highlight
1933Bunny Bear Company developed the first child car seat without any safety considerations
1940s A bulky child vest was used before baby car seats.
1962The first car safety seat released by Englishman named Jean Ames. The same year, an American named Len Rivkin designed a metal-framed seat with a safety buckle.
1965 to 1967GM develops Love Seat
1968Tot Guard released by Ford
1970s  Bobby Mac convertible seat is a hit with parent, dread-facing or forward-facing
1971  The first federal standards for car seat safety require a three-point child harness as well as a safety belt to attach the car seat to the vehicle.
1980s  Crash testing for car seats is required. Car seats gradually become sturdier and more protective.
1997  ISofix, a precursor to today’s LATCH (Lower, Anchors & Tethers for Children) system, is the first attempt at an anchor system for securing child car seats.
2002  LATCH is mandated by lawWashington and California pass the first booster seat laws for children over 40 pounds.
2000s  Car seat technology takes a huge leap forward. Infant car seats, 3-in-1 car seats, and travel system car seats all debut in the U.S.

FAQs

What is the history of car seat covers?

The history of seat covers followed the evolution of cars themselves. As automobiles have advanced, their styles have changed considerably. Not only have the mechanics of the seat changed, but so did their shape and style. Rather than bench seats that are little more than thin foam on top of the wood, we now have sophisticated seats that are made to hug your body and offer multiple points of support.

Who invented baby car seats

Two inventors, Leonard Rivkin and Jean Ames, each independently invented car seat designs that utilized the vehicle’s seat belt. Jean Ames, a British innovator, created a rear-facing seat that bears resemblance to modern designs. Leonard Rivkin, an American aerospace engineer invented the 5-point harness. The contributions of the two inventors formed the initial prototype for the modern rear-facing car seat.

While some experts attribute the development of the car seat to Bunny Bear Company, it is important to note that their initial design did not meet the safety standards established for modern-day car seats. These early car seats were primarily meant to restrain a child in the vehicle, and I personally do not consider the inventors of the 1933 car seat as the pioneers of modern car safety.

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