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The History and Origin of Respirators and How to Choose the Right Respirator

The History and Origin of Respirators and How to Choose the Right Respirator

Today’s respirators are incredible pieces of technology that can filter out pretty much as few or as many particles as you could ever want to to keep your lungs breathing free and clear. Each type of respirator filters out undesirable things from the air by means of filters made from activated carbon, resins, interwoven fibers or other materials, depending on what needs to be filtered. Most interestingly, the respirator is an incredibly old idea, but one that wasn’t really been perfect until relatively recently.

Plague doctor maskThe respirator was first conceptualized more than 2000 years ago by Pliny the Elder to protect miners from toxic dust and involved using an animal bladder. It’s also reported that the world’s first supervillain, Leonardo Da Vinci, had also suggested something akin to a respirator to filter out a poison gas weapon he had invented, though at the time of this writing, the proof of this mask is elusive. Given his other inventions, it wouldn’t be surprising. Even more surprising there wasn’t a lot of progress, besides the plague doctor whose mask originated due to poor understanding of disease and was useful more for odors than contaminants. Not much changed until the 1700’s and 1800’s when scientific knowledge increased.

Fireman respiratorThis later era brought, among other things, better materials, inventors started using rubber and began sealing off the airways with airtight seals thus protecting the wearer. Alexander von Humboldt is reported to have invented such a device in 1799 and in 1848 Lewis P. Haslett invented a “lung protector” protecting against “injurious substances” and was like a gas mask in how it worked, but like a respirator in that it only blocked solids like dust as the filters were porous, wet fabric. The biggest breakthrough, however, occurred when a chemist by the name of John Stenhouse discovered that various forms of charcoal could capture and hold gas, thus pioneering the activated charcoal filter, an important breakthrough as the carbon in the charcoal collects the impurities being filtered. Others followed him by using other chemicals and materials in the filtration process for different results. There were a number of improvements on Stenhouse’s design, most notably Hutson Hurd’s cup-shaped design which was adopted widely by firemen. Hurd’s cup-shaped respirator was somewhat contemporaneous with African-American inventor Garrett Morgan’s safety hood (1914) and was also used widely by fire departments in the northern United States and by the military during World War I. Further advances were made in filtration of toxins and gasses by John Scott Haldane who helped to develop the first gas mask, by way of experimenting on himself and his family, leading to a mask that could protect against chlorine gas attacks during the war.

Aperture Science Hazards signWhile these achievements were all very important and helped lay the foundations for today’s respirators, the tale of respirators takes a strange turn in the mid-20th century. It seems that for some reason, perhaps due to their shape, some tout the origin of the modern respirator as a failed 3M project involving a new type of non-woven, molded brassiere. A myth perhaps given further traction because of the similar shape and more recently with the advent of the emergency bra – a bra that can serve as an emergency respirator when no other options exist. As humorous and innovative as this story would seem to be, it seems that the 3M respirator did not actually originate with surplus bras Macguyvered into respirators, but instead 3M’s non-woven fabric process was intended to be used for a variety of different articles such as brassiere cups, shoe uppers, shoulder pads, respirators and more. Although 3M didn’t create breath masks from bras directly, they did end up developing the best respirators and are probably the largest manufacturer of breathing PPE in the world.

As they grew to be the largest and most well-known respirator manufacturer in the world, 3M has come up with many different kinds of respirator for just about any situation, having built on all of the technology developed before. Since there are so many to choose from, it’s important to use the right one for the job. It’s actually pretty straightforward to choose the right one as the rating on a given respirator tells you pretty much all you need to know. The N means “not oil proof,” the R is oil resistant and the P is oil proof, both within a given time of 8 hours. The umber (ie, the 95 of N95) signifies what percentage of given particles the filter removes. When choosing the correct breather, you need to consider whether you need to filter out particles, chemicals or both. Chemical filters will block vapors, but not particles like dust and vice versa. It goes without saying that the most protective mask will filter both.

A good quick reference guide can get you by in a pinch for some of the mask types.

Modern respiratorThe N95 typically filters dust, pollution, germs and allergens, but not gases or oil-based substances. There are also vented and non-vented variants, the non-vented being primarily for keeping a sickness to oneself. The N99 respirator filters out more, again things that are not oil-based, however they are harder to breath while wearing and cost a bit more. The P100 is the most stringent, blocking out 99.9% of oil or non-oil-based particles and the N100 does more or less the same but is not good for oil-based particles. With the field of nanotechnology creating new materials and tools it will be interesting to see what else comes.

Although the concept originated long ago it took thousands of years to develop the necessary materials to create respirators that truly were able to protect their wearers. It’s amazing how something so simple in concept in actuality took an incredibly long time to implement. Early attempts at protecting the lungs are really great for their time, and innovative ideas causing one to wonder how different the world would be had today’s filtration been available back then.  

We’d love to hear from you on Facebook or Instagram if you’ve had a close call where a respirator save your bacon. They’re amazing pieces of technology, and we would love to hear your stories!

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