You might not expect the United States Patent and Trademark Office to be as excited about the Winter Olympics as it is. But this month, office is releasing historic patents that reveal how winter sports emerged. So, who invented the snowboard?
The USPTO’s Winter Games Intellectual Protection madness will continue until the Olympics end later this month. But in the meantime, I went digging through its archives for other patents involving winter sports — and begged the USPTO’s Paul Fucito to send us a few more.
It turns out that the Winter Games are an interesting mix of old and new: A patchwork of ancient tools — like skis — and hyper-modern, emerging technologies — like parabolic skis. Here’s what we found.
Snowboarding is one of the newest sports in the games — many point to this patent for a “mono-ski“, awarded to Robert Weber in 1973, as the first registered board:
However, there’s some dispute about that — in the form a fascinating 1939 patent from two Illinois swedes named Burgeson, filed long before the advent of modern snowboard. It’s now widely considered the first snowboard patent:
“Little did I know growing up that my dad’s invention would take off and become an Olympic sport with such a following,” his son recently commented.
The Hockey Stick
The first hockey sticks, of course, were made by hand. But in the early 1900s, things were changing. The Hespeler stick company, of Ontario, was credited with inventing the two-piece stick, which was far easier to make in mass quantities. Here’s their patent application, from 1924:
Plenty of entrepreneurs rushed to file patents for mass-manufactured sticks too. This goalie variation from Ontario inventor Z.A. Smith, from 1922:
There were also ideas that didn’t catch — like this 1915 patent for a hockey stick with a hidden function. Its handle hid a detachable rope that could be thrown to players who broke through the ice.
The birth of the bobsled is hard to pinpoint — after all, the sleds used today are evolved from the simpler, old-fashioned sleds that have been around for centuries. J.H. Kirk’s patent for a bobsled, from 1884, was filed a decade after the sport emerged:
Skis are ancient inventions — they’ve been used in cold climates since we first figured out how to tie bark to our feet to move over deep snow packs. But our modern idea of skiing as a sport? That emerged in the late 19th century. For example slalom — or slalåm — was first raced in 1905, in Sweden.
Skis themselves are the subjects of huge amounts of engineering these days — which we won’t broach here. But contemporary skis were pioneered by Elan, which invented the “deep sidecut” ski — aka parabolic skis — and patented several designs for in the late 1980s:
What about the ice skaters? A patent for a ice resurfacing machine — aka a Zamboni — was awarded to the eponymous Frank was awarded the patent in 1953. By the 1960s, Zamboni had invented a model using an auto chassis.
And as for the skates — well, they go back much, much further. Our contemporary idea of ice skating dates back to the turn of the century — here’s O.W. Everett’s 1901 patent for a skate that could be affixed to a boot:
Curling doesn’t require as much new technology, but here’s a curious patent for warm-weather curling that the USPTO was able to unearth. “The game is one requiring much skill, and is very popular in localities where ice can be obtained,” wrote Massachusetts inventor Joseph Hamilton in his 1894 patent for a device for playing the game of curling in warmer climes:
“Said game [is] well understood,” said Hamilton, who presumably had never pondered curling on a metaphysical level.
What about the snow itself — or, more specifically, preventing the lack of it? The history of snow makers is surprisingly long, dating back to the late 1920s. For example, the USPTO sent along this perplexing design — for a method of and apparatus for making carbon-dioxide snow — from 1926:
But it’s Wayne Pierce, a Connecticut inventor, who is widely cited as the inventor of the contemporary snow maker — or, at the very least, the first entrepreneur to patent one. He and his co-inventors tested their first model in 1952 at the Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, the first ski hill to do so.
His 1954 design called for an elaborate embedded system of pipes running through the topography:
This patent for a Method for making and distributing snow, awarded to a Michigan man in 1974, is a little closer to the tech we use today: Its pivoting fan blows snow from a small water tube in the back:
The Ski Lift
Though there are purists who would argue lifts aren’t part of the true sport, they’re a technological necessity for the games. The first modern chairlifts sprang up across American resorts in the late 1930s, though our Alpine counterparts had used older variations since the 18th century. George V. Dondero, of San Francisco, was awarded a patent for a “ski towing device” in 1939:
New York inventor Alexander Mellvaine applied for this patent in 1949 — it was the first to propose a fixed foot rest, which meant an attendant didn’t need to help passengers as much as they would with earlier models:
The USPTO points out this design for a torch, which was patented in 1893, just three years before the first modern games. While it’s not specific to winter — or even the Olympics — it’s an unusually beautiful drawing for a patent. Its inventor — Connecticut man Frederick Rockwell — described them as “deconstructable pyrotechnicolor illuminating torches:”