The Technological Boom

The whole concept of protective clothing expanded exponentially during the second half of the twentieth century. The explosion of technological advances during this time made possible forms of protective clothing that had previously existed only in the minds of writers of science fiction. As in the case of armor, new hazards inspired new protective clothing designs. And new designs often changed the behavior of their wearers.

For example, early firefighters stood at a distance from flames wearing their everyday clothing while throwing buckets of water on burning structures. Even in larger cities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where water was pumped through hoses, no real physical protection was provided by the ornate uniforms issued, and thus firefighters moved no closer to the fire. The rubber jackets and, later, the cotton duck bunker coats that were worn in the first half of the twentieth century kept firefighters dry and warm in the constant spray of water from hoses, but also moved them no closer to the fire.

Flame and high-heat resistant aramid fibers such as Nomex and Kevlar developed in the 1960s combined with portable breathing devices to allow firefighters to actually enter burning buildings. Aluminizing the surface of

Chicago Rubber Bunker Fire Coat
Bio-safety level 4 hazmat suits. Two people wear hazardous materials (hazmat) protection suits, capable of protecting a human being from the most dangerous biological pathogens. Special gas masks filter out airborn germ particles. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

these materials in fully enclosed ensembles called proximity suits made it possible for firefighters to move still closer to the flames. Further developments in protective materials resulted in entry suits, in which firefighters could actually walk into the flames.

Thus, there is a cycle in the evolution of protective clothing that is much like one in the medical world. As organisms develop a resistance to medicines designed to defeat them, they venture forward and new medicines need to be developed. As protective clothing removes each threat, individuals venture further into danger and require newer, more powerful forms of protection.

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