Allen K. Breed is an inventor, entrepreneur, and pioneer in one of the most significant advances in automotive safety of recent times, the airbag.
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 1957.
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 systems.
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 airbag.
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 airbags.
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 of cars.
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.