This article illustrates the birth background, brief history and development directions of the research field on energy absorption. After the Second World War, required by the engineering needs in protective structures and vehicles’ crashworthiness, coupled with the endogenous driving forces from the theory of plasticity and structural impact dynamics, the energy absorption of structures and materials sprouted as an emerging research field in the 1960s, then its aim and scope were well defined in the early 1970s. With the support of journals and conference platforms, studies in this new field ushered in the first wave of upsurge in the 1980s, focusing on the energy absorbing mechanisms of tubes and thin-walled elements. With the rise of cellular materials such as honeycombs, foams and lattices, the research and development of these materials related to energy absorption stimulated the second wave in the 2000s. During this period, not only the energy absorbing mechanisms of various cellular materials were modelled and revealed, but also the theoretical studies were quickly combined with the applications in electric vehicle battery packs and new-type protective structures, among others. Biologically inspired concepts are serving as a source of inspiration for the design and development of novel metamaterials. Additive manufacturing, structural intelligence, environmental protection and energy saving are more and more deeply integrated into the principles, design and optimization of energy absorption systems.