Historically, dockworkers covered their hats with tar and let that harden to offer some protection against falling objects. But hard hats as we know them today developed slowly.
Wikipedia credits writer Franz Kafka with designing the first industrial hard hat during his stint at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, but if there’s hard evidence of that to be found, we don’t have it. Instead, steel battle helmets used in World War I inspired industries to use a similar principle to protect workers.
In 1919, a World War I veteran named E. W. Bullard patented the first “hard-boiled hat.” Instead of tar, Bullard steamed heavy canvas and painted it black to create a protective hat. He later expanded his design to include an internal suspension for added protection.
Bullard’s safety device was institutionalized by FDR’s New Deal.
Hard hats were first required on-site during construction of the Hoover Dam (with the Golden Gate Bridge following suit soon after). The improvement in safety standards came not a moment too soon. During the dam’s construction, workers called “high scalers” rappelled down the sides of the surrounding canyon and dynamited or chipped away sections of rock to smooth the canyon down to bedrock—which sounds like both a nightmare and a great reason to develop hard hats.
Laura Steadham Smith is a graduate student at Florida State University. She's part of our College Weekend extravaganza.