Early on in the ship building industry workers would cover their hats with pitch (tar), and set them in the sun to cure. This was common practice for dock workers who were in constant danger of being hit on the head by objects being dropped from the deck of ships. There were also occasional items falling from the beaks of sea birds, who would pick up just about any item then drop it realizing that the object was inedible.
Management professor Peter Drucker credited writer Franz Kafka with developing the first civilian hard hat when he was employed at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (1912), but this is not supported by any document from his employer.
In the United States, the E.D. Bullard Company was a mining equipment firm in California, created by Edward Dickinson Bullard in 1898, who was in the industrial safety business for 20 years. The company sold protective hats, but they were only made of leather. His son, E. W. Bullard, arrived home from World War I with a steel helmet, which provided him with an idea to improve industrial safety. In 1919 Bullard patented a "Hard-Boiled Hat", made of steamed canvas, glue and black paint. That same year the U.S. Navy commissioned Bullard to create a shipyard protective cap, which began the widespread use of hard hats. Not long after, Bullard developed an internal suspension that would provide a more effective hat. These early designs bore a resemblance to the military M1917 "Brodie" helmet, which served as their inspiration.
In 1933 construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco California. This was the second construction site in history where construction workers were required to wear hard hats (the first being the Hoover Dam project in 1931, as mandated by Six Companies, Inc), by order of Joseph Strauss, the project chief engineer. He wanted the workplace to be as safe as possible; hence, he installed safety nets and required hard hats while on the job site. Strauss also asked Bullard to create a hard hat to protect workers who performed sandblasting. Bullard produced a design that covered the worker's face, provided a window for vision and a supply of fresh air via a hose connected to the air compressor.
Aluminum became a standard for hard hats around 1938, except in electrical applications.
Fiberglass came into use in the 1940s.
Men wearing hard hats at the site of a Texas oil well in 1940.
Thermoplastics took over in the 1950s, because they were easy to mold and shape with heat and cost less to manufacture. Today, most hard hats are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or advanced engineering resins, such as Ultem.
In 1997 ANSI allowed the development of a ventilated hard hat to keep wearers cooler. To it could be added accessories like face shields, sun visors, earmuffs, and perspiration-absorbing cloths which line the hats. Today, attachments include radios, walkie-talkies, pagers, and cameras.
Bert Bitting and Jerry Kellerer, steam shovel operators working on deeping the Genesee River. c.1916. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone Collection]