Go back far enough in history and you’ll find that the most basic common conveniences today started out as a revolutionary modern concept. Items used in everyday life today are so taken for granted it never occurs to us that said gadgets and contraptions didn’t exist not that long ago, and most certainly did not become commonplace overnight. The evolution of motorcycles and related accessories are rife with examples of this – you don’t have to look back that far to find that riding gear was rudimentary at best or nonexistent all together.
100 years ago (a nanosecond in the grand scheme of things) we lived in a mechanized society much like we do today. There were elevators, telephones, airplanes, cars, trucks, and, of course, motorcycles. Yet purpose built products developed specifically for motorcycle enthusiasts didn’t exist at all. Boardtrack racers wore protective gear cobbled together from a variety of other sports and industries, but it just didn’t occur to the vast majority of recreational riders that they should wear anything other than aviation goggles and gloves and a tweed cap when operating a motorcycle. It would take a famed war hero and camel jockey turned throttle jockey to start changing people’s minds, specifically about protecting their brains.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was a complex, cunning, quirky, and charismatic Welshman who gained international fame for his exploits during World War 1. An amalgamation of bookish archeologist, brilliant military tactician, closet saboteur, and inadvertent humanitarian, T.E. Lawrence played an instrumental role in uniting Arab factions against the Ottoman Empire during the Palestine Campaign. Often outnumbered and operating independently from his own military and chain of command, the impact of his successes wouldn’t fully be recognized until after the war ended. His legacy and influence continued for generations to come, particularly in the motion picture industry.
Lawrence of Arabia is an epic 1962 biopic of his service during the war, and many modern filmmakers cite it as the inspiration for their careers in cinema. It’s easy to spot subsequent fictional characters that can be considered derivative of the real man – from Indiana Jones to James Bond to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, who ran unchecked with his band of guerillas.
The real Lawrence of Arabia was every bit as exciting as his screen adaptation if not more so. He immersed himself in local cultures and altered his appearance to help his influence with tribal leaders and achieve his objectives using local guerilla forces – tactics that are still employed today by Special Forces, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes, he rode the shit out of a camel.
But what T.E. Lawrence really loved to ride didn’t have four legs, it had two wheels. Upon returning to England after the war he purchased a Brough Superior Motorcycle (the KTM of the day I’m assuming), eventually owning up to seven of the high performance bikes.
On a spring morning in 1935 T.E. set off for a ride on his SS100, crested a dip in the road where two boys were playing, swerved to avoid hitting them, went over the bars, and landed on his head. He languished in the hospital for 6 days before finally succumbing to his injuries.
One of the physicians attending to T.E. was neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns. Cairns was a brilliant physician that had served in the army medical corps during the war and watched numerous military motorcycle dispatch riders die from head injuries. This led the good doctor to come up with a revolutionary concept – that people who ride motorcycles should wear helmets, particularly the dispatches who were forced to maneuver their bikes over a variety of terrain.
T.E. Lawrence’s crash had a big impact (pun intended) throughout the world and was the tipping point that motivated Doctor Cairns into action, who then began to work with companies to design motorcycle specific helmets and push the government to require their use for both military and civilian riders.
Eighty years later the debate on whether or not helmets should be worn is no longer in question, and it’s hard to fathom that it ever was. The only thing that remains in question in regards to helmets are how to further advance the design to reduce the amount of force that’s transferred through upon impact. Even the helmet standard controversy seems to be over these days, with companies like 6d leading the charge with design and material innovations.
I know there are holdouts (mainly in the Sons of Anarchy biker crowd) that still savor the freedom of riding with no helmet and stand tall on the soapbox that riding itself is inherently dangerous. But the majority of fatalities on motorcycles come from head injuries, and the majority of head injuries come from low speed crashes. This was the reason many cynical medical professionals (my favorite kind) began referring to bikes as donorcycles, because the brain ceased to function but the other internal organs remained farm fresh and could be doled out to patients in need.
For those few riders who dismiss helmets as non-essential gear, I say thank you. Doctor Cairns was able to significantly advance motorcycle safety after the death of T.E.Lawrence and subsequently save countless lives, but he couldn’t do much for the overall evolution of the gene pool – we’ll leave that up to Darwin and natural selection.