ABS is an automated system that uses the principles of threshold braking and cadence braking which were once practised by skilful drivers with earlier non-ABS braking systems. ABS operates at a very much faster rate and more effectively than most drivers could manage. Although ABS generally offers improved vehicle control and decreases stopping distances on dry and slippery surfaces, on loose gravel or snow-covered surfaces, ABS may significantly increase braking distance, while still improving steering control. Since ABS was introduced in production vehicles, such systems have become increasingly sophisticated and effective. Modern versions may only prevent wheel lock under braking, but may also alter the front-to-rear brake bias. This latter function, depending on its specific capabilities and implementation, is known variously as electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control system, emergency brake assist, or electronic stability control (ESC).
In 1920 the French automobile and aircraft pioneer Gabriel Voisin experimented with systems that modulated the hydraulic braking pressure on his aircraft brakes to reduce the risk of tire slippage. These systems use a flywheel and valve attached to a hydraulic line that feeds the brake cylinders. The flywheel is attached to a drum that runs at the same speed as the wheel. In normal braking, the drum and flywheel should spin at the same speed. However, when a wheel slows down, then the drum would do the same, leaving the flywheel spinning at a faster rate. This causes the valve to open, allowing a small amount of brake fluid to bypass the master cylinder into a local reservoir, lowering the pressure on the cylinder and releasing the brakes. The use of the drum and flywheel meant the valve only opened when the wheel was turning. In testing, a 30% improvement in braking performance was noted, because the pilots immediately applied full brakes instead of slowly increasing pressure in order to find the skid point. An additional benefit was the elimination of burned or burst tires.
The first patented system was created by German engineer Karl Wessel in 1928. Wessel, however, never developed a working product and neither did Robert Bosch who produced a similar patent eight years later.
By the early 1950s, the Dunlop Maxaret anti-skid system was in widespread aviation use in the UK, with aircraft such as the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor, Vickers Viscount, Vickers Valiant, English Electric Lightning, de Havilland Comet 2c, de Havilland Sea Vixen, and later aircraft, such as the Vickers VC10, Hawker Siddeley Trident, Hawker Siddeley 125, Hawker Siddeley HS 748 and derived British Aerospace ATP, and BAC One-Eleven being fitted with Maxaret as standard. Maxaret, while reducing braking distances by up to 30% in icy or wet conditions, also increased tire life, and had the additional advantage of allowing take-offs and landings in conditions that would preclude flying at all in non-Maxaret equipped aircraft.