Friday, January 30, 2009

Howard Head and his “cheater” ski

When skis turned to heavy metal


Howard Head—a towering figure, both physically and mentally—was an inventor who revolutionized not just one sport, but two. His oversize Prince racquet, with its expanded sweet spot, dramatically escalated the ability of everyday tennis players in the 1970s. Head's invention of a new kind of ski in the 1950s dramatically improved the recreational skier's ability to turn.

Before Head, skis for 6,000 years had been made of wood. Wooden skis were subject to moisture and stress, and warped. They were torsionally weak—that is, they twisted too easily, so that they didn't hold a turn well. It was also difficult to manufacture a pair in which the two skis were matched in flex. Unlike metal or plastic, wood couldn't be controlled so as to be uniform in production. That wasn't the only problem. Steel edges were screwed onto wood skis in short lengths that often fell off if you hit a rock.

Head solved these problems not by inventing the metal ski (it had already been invented), but by combining aluminum alloy sheets, a continuous steel edge, plywood cores, phenolic running surfaces, topskins and sidewalls, and most especially the flexible adhesives needed to hold them all together. Making such disparate materials hold together demanded enormous perseverance. Head shucked off the notion that he was a brilliant, creative genius.

"Inventing is only about 10 percent of it," he snorted. "The rest is sheer dogged persistence."

By the 1950-51 ski season, Head was able to fabricate 300 pairs of what he called the Head Standard. Standard indeed! If you wanted a pair you could get them in only one color—black—and in only three lengths—6 feet nine inches, 7 feet, and 7 feet three inches (from 205 to 220 centimeters). They sold for $85 a pair, an unheard-of price at the time—more than a week's salary for most skiers.


The skis were so easy to turn, compared to wood, that sneering experts called them "cheaters," believing they threatened to make skiing too easy. But recreational skiers rushed to buy them. By the mid-1950s, the Head Standard was America's most popular-selling ski, and for the first time an American-made ski was widely sold in Europe.

By 1963, the Swiss Ski Team began to win speed events on Heads. But Austria's Karl Schranz had already won World Championship gold and silver medals on epoxy fiberglass skis. Head was repeatedly warned that fiberglass was the ski-making material of the future, but he resisted. In the end, fiberglass's superior performance defeated metal, as metal had once defeated wood. Fiberglass allowed a ski's designer to vary torsional flex independently of longitudinal flex.

Head sold his company in the late 1960s, and retired to his home in Baltimore, where he dabbled with the idea of making a better tennis racquet. He understood that skill in tennis is governed by the quality of the contact between the racquet strings and the ball, just as in skiing the turn is governed by the interaction between the snow surface and the ski's curvilinear edge. How the edge interacts with the snow depends on the ski's properties of flexing and twisting. Almost 60 years ago, Howard Head brilliantly altered that equation, to the everlasting benefit of skiers.


John Fry is the author of the award-winning "Story of Modern Skiing," a history of the sport since 1945.

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