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A Brief History of Cotton Wool


A week is a long time in politics, thus the 6,916 weeks (and counting...) since Karl Benz invented the first motor car (back in the care free days of 1885) is truly an age.

Spanning three centuries, a number of generations, and the global discovery of World Wars, Penicillin, Kylie Minogue and Facebook. Oh, and we went to the Moon, broke the Sound Barrier, invented the Transistor, eliminated many forms of infant death, curtailed the spread of many other forms of death, and with ever increasing zeal have henceforth proceeded to wrap what remains in cotton wool.

Cotton grave cloths have been found in Huaca Prieta in Peru believed to date back a far as 2500BC. Certainly the Egyptians were using cotton by 700BC, and the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily around 711AD helped introduce cotton to Northern Italy and then the rest of Europe.

Handy stuff it was too. Clothing many, and placing coats and blankets around others. A valid and welcome protective layer.

All was well with the world, and cotton, until 1937 when Joseph A. Voss invented a machine capable of generating cotton pads and cotton balls, introducing them to the mass market, outside of the application of gold leaf, for the first time. It was here, after many thousands of great uses, and a fine role in the comforting and warming of humanity, that cotton got all over protective, and it has been an increasingly rapid, torrid, slide into the coddling, stifling, arms of the nanny state ever since.

Certainly medical uses for cotton were both fine and effective, cosmetic uses, while not as selfless, were at least beneficial to those using them and those gazing lovingly upon them.

No, it was when the wrapping of delicate items in cotton wool was wholeheartedly embraced by the nanny state for the safe keeping of any item they cared to name, that cotton's glowing CV gained a huge and troublesome blot upon it.

Ralph Nader was a Master Cotton Wrapper who blazed a soft fluffy trail of safety for many to follow. Truth is Ralph did many fine things that countless people alive today can say a hearty thanks for. In 1965 his master work, "Unsafe at any speed", forced the motor manufacturers to admit to a need for designed-in safety that has since become a money-spinning, life-saving passion for all marques. At the time Ralph's ground-breaking safety focus was sorely needed, and was echoed in work by Bernie, Max, and Sir Jackie on the tracks of the world. Saving lives by making people accountable for shocking compromises in the design of road cars, race cars, and in road and track design. We all owe them, and unsung others, a debt of thanks for the huge numbers of lives saved, and the remarkable safe environment in which we race and travel today. And yet... and yet some have missed the point of reasonable risk, and acceptable safety.

So dear reader, let us pick and choose some statistics over the years for a few minutes of amusement and reflection, and maybe, just maybe, it will give us a small glimpse of the societal pressures driving some of the more teeth grinding decisions of both the FIA and Liberty in recent years...

For Australia, peak mortality was reached around 1860, when it stood at 2,000 per 100,000, being 2%. At birth males could expect to live to an average age of 43, and females 46. Ouch.

By 1900, not long after Mr. Benz gifted us the motor vehicle, these figures had improved to an age of 54 for men, and 58 for women. This vast improvement mainly being down to huge improvements in the mortality rate for the under-fives.

It was a similar story around the globe.

World War One killed millions, and yet fostered medical advances, and was followed by a horrific Flu pandemic (the Spanish Flu) that is believed to have infected 500 million globally, and killed between 50 and 100 million of these poor souls. Being 5% of the world population at that time. Cotton wound dressings, and cotton clothes were in full use around the world aiding humanity in many a dark hour.

In the same time span, the motor car had reduced travel deaths, previously due to horses, by a magnificent margin, and was well on the way to eliminating manure from cities (a significant evil back then and responsible for illnesses across the developed world). The car was being championed as both a life-saver, and a freedom machine for the masses.

Cotton meanwhile continued to be used in ever-more refined clothing, and increasingly sterile field-dressings, but was yet to be sold in handy ball form.

Motor racing was still in its days of innocence with European races being held on the open road... while they were still open to the public.

Statistics continued to generally bother no one. And then in 1937 Cotton wool balls were finally gifted to the world just in time to be of great aid during World War Two. Another horror tale in the history of human development.

So we arrive at 1950 with cotton supporting many aspects of life in both the hands of the seamstress and the nurse. Cotton wool balls were turning into both cotton pads and cotton buds, much to the delight of a consumer society that was increasingly buying rather than making the items they wore or had around the house.

Those that survived World War Two were filled with both relief and a zest for living that were met in fine measure by increasing global travel, rock and roll music, and cars. Lots and lots of cars.

So this largely statistic unworried generation witnessed the birth of the Formula One World Championship untroubled by a Nannie State obsessed with speed limits, speed humps, crumple zones, and run off areas.

The Cold War was in full swing. The British submarine HMS Truculent collides with a Swedish oil tanker in the Thames Estuary killing 64 people. Rationing is still in force in Britain. Albert Einstein warns Nuclear War would result in mutually assured destruction (MAD). (Didn't Billy Joel have a big hit with this? – Ed)

The first VW microbus is produced in Wolfsburg, Germany.

And Formula One delivers its first season. Nino Farina wins the first F1 World Championship in a supercharged Alfa Romeo 158. He won the opening race of the season at Silverstone, in front of King George the VI. The next race, Monaco, was won by his team mate Juan Manuel Fangio. Between them they would win all races that season with the exception of the Indy 500 (won by Johnnie Parsons) in which the Europeans rarely raced. Juan finishing second in the championship to Nino. (Who says pole lock-outs, fast laps, and a winning clean sweep are a modern phenomenon...?).

At each round of this first championship the track was surrounded in the most part by fans who had either endured world war first hand, or at the side of emotionally exhausted parents. All of whom would view accidental death as just that; "an accident, these things happen." Being separated from racing cars by knee high bales of hay or a simple rope was safety enough for this generation.

For five years the Formula One World Championship raced in simple delight for both the drivers, and the public. A few deaths here and there, but for now no one was really counting. And race coverage was mostly the printed word in newspapers around the planet.

And then a Mercedes crashed. And the media was there to record it. A truly horrid crash that reduced even war veterans to tears.

Le Mans 1955 and poor Pierre Levegh lost control of his Mercedes 300 SLR. A car that had recently propelled Stirling Moss to a record setting Mille Miglia win.

At extreme speed, and lacking the disk brakes of the more technically advanced Jaguar D-types in the race, Levegh lost control and flew into the crowd. When the smoke cleared Levegh was dead, as were eighty-three spectators. And the media recorded it first-hand. Around 180 other spectators suffered injury. A major enquiry was launched and the track design was blamed. At the end of the season Mercedes withdrew from racing until 1989, and the world started to pay increasing attention to both 'accidental' deaths, and safety standards.

In 1955 global life expectancy at birth had risen to 48 years. While higher in developed countries that's still a low number. Cotton sales were booming as the Baby Boom that would peak in the early 1960's started to gain momentum.

1960 and Formula One saw the first generational change with Fangio, and others, hanging up their helmets in the late 1950s.

Jack Brabham racing for Cooper won his second championship, while Lotus won its first grand prix at Monaco and Harry Schell (Silverstone), Chris Bristow, and Alan Stacey (both Spa) all lost their lives racing. Cotton was about to clothe the Woodstock generation, and personal safety was becoming a concept of concern.

1960 saw the infant death rate in America fall from 29.2 per 100,000 in 1950, to 26.0. A figure reflected around the developed world.

1965 saw a gentlemen by the name of Jackie Stewart take his first F1 start at the South African GP, and his first win later that year at Monza.

1966 and at Spa Stewart had a horrid crash where he was trapped in the car for over twenty minutes. This coupled with the death of racing friends turned Stewart into a crusader for improved safety. Hard to believe now, but one of his first missions was the mandatory use of seat belts in racing cars, and then full face helmets...! Not using either today strikes one as madness, and yet Stewart had to campaign to have them introduced!

1970 and the American infant death rate is down to 20.0 per 100,000 and Stewart is racing towards being a triple World Champion. His final Championship win came in 1973 with Elf Team Terrell by which time he had seen too many pass away while at the wheel of racing cars.

1980 and now the American infant death rate is down to 12.6 per 100,000. 55% lower than in 1950! The media was now ever present in sport, it was no longer the pursuit of the monied to pursue out of public sight. Tracks were becoming safer, race cars were becoming safer, and thanks to the pioneering work of Nader, road cars were far safer and the public was becoming less accepting of the concept of "Accidental death".



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1. Posted by sagosac, 04/07/2018 9:36

"Thank you very much, Sir Max ! As soon as a safety issue perceptible, counter-action ought to be undertaken; otherwise there was no need to invent seat-belts, nor making their usage a mandatory. Otherwise, there would be (just) one area without evolution, with evo being the basic source code of our genome. No one wants to see blood (anymore).
Concerned I am by the tracks: killing Tamburello after it killed a true heroe, was not necessary as there was enough space for mounting a big, thick wall of tyres, or multiple layers of fences (see downhill skiing).
Now we have tarmac deserts as tracks, with painted track limits and curbs broad as a car.
I think when track limits become negotiable, all the sense of and for racing disappeared.

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2. Posted by Max Noble, 31/03/2018 0:24

"@Spindoctor and @Uffen - indeed, it is the shifting view of what is “safe enough” that changes over time driven by thinking and issues away from the track. The FIA and Liberty simply reflect those values back to us. I’ve no doubt the Halo is not the last safety device ever... and yes if we become a totally risk averse society many activities would simply be banned as too dangerous!

@Tombstone - Goodwood is a specialist event with, for the most part, single cars running Hill sprints. If you corporatise it and assemble 20 car mass starts you’d have safety fences and massive run off areas before you could say “forced induction!”"

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3. Posted by Uffen, 24/03/2018 18:00

"If society is to be serious, really serious, about ending danger, then many activities will have to end. Haven't every era of drivers said, in effect, "this is safe enough"? Even those of the JYS era said, "yes" because even JYS stayed in it and worked from the inside. So, is F1 now, "safe enough"? Once life is no longer threatened then physical harm is the target. So, the halo is not enough (witness Bianchi and Massa). What is next?"

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4. Posted by Tombstone, 21/03/2018 15:54

""As those first hardy fans gathered behind hay-bails in the 1950s to watch brave drivers knowingly confront potential death each and every race, the risk tolerance of them all was extreme. Today we would faint at the foolhardiness of such reckless risk taking."

Not many fainters at Goodwood over the years..."

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5. Posted by Spindoctor, 20/03/2018 22:52

"@Max Noble Thank you for another thoughtful\thought-provoking piece.

As the token leftist around this site, i'd take issue with your constant reference to the "nanny state", though perhaps I missed your dry Aussie irony? As you later exemplify to perfection a lot of what the Right-whinge Press in UK (owned by the Dirty Digger) characterise as "Health & Safety gorne mad" is actually just common-sense.
To piggy-back your medical analogy; non-treatment of childish maladies leading to death was acceptable (indeed inevitable) in an era before such cures were available, but criminally negligent when they are. With the exception of cults and religious extremists no sane people today eschew Polio vaccinations, or smallpox jabs.
Similarly when Dick Van Dyke merrily forced kids up chimmineys people knew it wasn't a great idea, I suspect those kids would quite like to have been wrapped in a bit of cotton wool, literal or metaphorical. But it took struggle, and not a little technology to make chimney-sweeping using kids illegal.

By extension, now we can make Racing safer, we are duty-bound to do so.
If you don't accept this, where do we go?
Syllogistically some will argue that "Racing was better in 19XX let's make today's racing better and return to Cooper Climaxes, Vanwalls, open cockpits and cotton overalls".
On a slightly different tack and to open a different wound in the corpse of F1 "Racing was better with V8\10\12's lets..." To ladle on the apposite cliche: "you can't swim in the same river twice", and genies, once liberated are a bit reluctant to return whence they came. As the voice-over used to say when Lee Majors was re-assembled: "Gentlemen ...We have the technology...""

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6. Posted by Max Noble, 19/03/2018 10:37

"@Cricketpo - I believe we are broadly aligned on this one. “An element” of danger needs to remain to impress us the fans, and to give the drivers the rush they love. Yet as you rightly point out a race ending calamity with no serious injury is all we should ever ask where the driver lives to drive another day.

And I’m serious when I say after a few minutes watching footage I did not even see the Halo as an independent itemof irritation, rather simply as part of the”package as a whole”. It’s rather like getting irritated by the slightly irregular shape and profile of the third element of the front wing... it’s all just part of the package.

Keep some spice... where a race ending calamity is perfectly possible, with only the most modest of injuries to worry about... that is just fine. "

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7. Posted by cricketpo, 18/03/2018 13:41

"Thanks @MaxNoble for the informative article. After a re read I am still not entirely sure which side of the safety debate you are falling on. Maybe it is my short attention span!
I think there may a PhD out there for someone who wants to chart the attitudes to risk and death since WWII and the reasons for that change.
Racing drivers, BASE jumpers and all other participants of dangerous sports need to be protected for their own safety. In my opinion the cotton wool should allow for action and consequence. In terms of F1, drivers should be able to make mistakes and misjudgments just not die or kill as a consequence. Actions must be allowed to have a consequence just not a fatal one. i would rather "and that was the end of my race" as opposed to "my sympathies for the family"
Halo or not to halo? drivers will have to suck it and see. However I remember seeing how close someones rear wheel got to Alonso's chin after a rather rowdy start at Spa one year. I will refrain from blaming the driver lest i become embroiled in a conspiracy theory"

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8. Posted by Max Noble, 17/03/2018 6:33

"@RobertC - re-reading I think I’ve sucumbed to a mild outbreak of vague writing... if you read the paragraph near the end about Vettel and 2010 you’ll note I call it the 64th F1 season... which would give 1947 as the commencement year. So it is rather a case of me being clear, as it is not in other sections of the article. Well spotted!

...and I blush at the “Millennia” over sight... my thanks for the correction! Glad you enjoyed it!"

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9. Posted by RobertC, 17/03/2018 1:16

"A carefully thought out article, but Max, you've succumbed to the "Formula One started in 1950" lobby. Formula One started in 1947, when races were run to the 1.5-litre supercharged, 4.5-litre unsupercharged formula for the first time. The FIA World Championship for drivers began in 1950.
There were Grand Prix formulae going right back to 1906, it's just that they weren't labelled Formula One (with the option of Formula A as a name to begin with) until 1947.
Other than that, and that you can't have a new millennia, it's a new millennium, well done. "

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10. Posted by Uffen, 16/03/2018 14:29

"Thanks, Max, a well considered reply. The extreme sports may go for safety behind the scenes but motorsports fans are well aware that a broken neck or life-altering concussion are just around the corner. You mention MS as asking for safety (and rightly so) but look at what happened during an innocent day of skiing.
Yes, they manage risk but so do movie stunt men and they're being replaced by computer trickery.
It is a thin line to walk. "

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11. Posted by Max Noble, 16/03/2018 3:52

"@Uffen - good question!
In summary I believe the Halo is a sigh of the times. Increasingly the younger generation do not see safety as optional. Indeed they demand to be kept safe no matter how daft their actions...

The Red Bull sports, BASE jumping, free climbing, cliff diving etc. are all undertaken in a highly risk adverse environment. They might appear free wheeling and care free... but they are anything but. The risks are very carefully evaluated and mitigated... short of actually not performing the sport!

The balance of reviewing risk, mitigating what we can, and then judging the residual risk as either acceptable or unacceptable is always falling toward lower and lower residual risk.

The HANS device in F1 is no longer questioned. Yet when it was released it took Michael Schumacher to state “...I’ll take every safety device you’ve got thank you!” Before wide spread acceptance went ahead.

The FIA and Liberty, like us all, live in a society with increasing expectations of personal safety at all times in all circumstances.

The red bull extreme sports (and “alternative” cultural releases like branding, piercings, and tattoos) are actually very safe and well risk managed... as long as you are comfortable with the residual risk.

I do not ride a motorbike, because I do not accept the residual risk of a third party lunching me. Many people are happy to accept the risks.

The red bull extreme sports are a highly professional set up that appear edgy and alternate when in fact the are well managed risk environments populated by elite sports people.

It is very safe to live vicariously by watching these extreme sports and buying the merchandise!

...those watching do not see the behind the scenes risk mitigation, and mostly do not consider that aspect.

Most of the younger generation do not see cars as cool, rather as a tool for relocation.

The FIA and Liberty are trying to manage the risk of serious injury or death... as they know it would take far, far less than the horror of Le Mans 1955 to trigger a global ban. "

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12. Posted by Max Noble, 16/03/2018 0:38

"@DBCooper - this is my last Comms on this topic (you are most welcome to comment on others in the future). As the author of the piece I know my own mind and I know the intent of the paragraph in question. I respect that your opinion is different and what you read, clearly, differs from the message intended. I shall work harder in future to ensure the message conveyed is the one that was intended.

...and just BTW... I’m Australian not British. "

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13. Posted by Uffen, 15/03/2018 20:09

"Nice article, Max. I must say that I was certain of your views on safety until I got to the closing line about going overboard with cotton balls. Are you saying that F1 is now "safe enough" or that "no more cotton" is needed? Are we losing sight? F1 cars still have open wheels, for example.

The public may be less accepting of "accidental death" but activities like the Red Bull extreme sports are gaining popularity. Is this just a shift from auto sport to something that has less history to frown at? "

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14. Posted by DBCooper, 15/03/2018 19:12

""Le Mans 1955 and poor Pierre Levegh lost control of his Mercedes 300 SLR. A car that had recently propelled Stirling Moss to a record setting Mille Miglia win.

At extreme speed, and lacking the disk brakes of the more technically advanced Jaguar D-types in the race, Levegh lost control and flew into the crowd. "

Read it again please and say you didn't assign a root cause."

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15. Posted by ZJAY, 15/03/2018 12:47

"Actually an exquisite piece of journalism. Have been waiting for your next contribution for a while. Certainly worth the wait, thank you. How about a piece on the history of sensitivities and Crystal Balls?"

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