A Bad Skier’s Revenge
HOWARD HEAD IS KNOWN TODAY FOR REVOLUTIONIZING TWO SPORTS. He didn’t set out to do this; it grew out of his enthusiasm for skiing and tennis as recreation, which led him to use his natural inventive talent to try to make them better. When a reporter asked Head how he invented, he said: “I invent when it’s something I really want. The need has to grow in your gut. People who go around trying to invent something generally fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem.”
In 1947 the 32-year-old Head was thinking only about his first ski vacation, on Mount Mansfield, in Stowe, Vermont. On the way back, he and his friends discussed their adventures on the mountain. Head, an engineer at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company, had enjoyed the experience but felt “humiliated and disgusted at how badly I skied.”
Then, like many first-time skiers before and after, he blamed “those long, clumsy hickory skis.” Unlike most first-time skiers, however, he had an idea about how to improve them. “If wood were the best material,” he said, “they’d still be making airplanes out of wood.”
Skiing was not an easy sport. Though the numbers were growing, there were probably fewer than 10,000 skiers in the United States right after World War II. For thousands of years up to Head’s day, skis had remained basically unchanged. Heavy and unwieldy, they were long, flat runners carved out of solid wood—preferably hickory—which curved up at the tip and were fastened to shoes. They were about 10 feet long, three inches wide, and approximately one inch thick and weighed between 4½ and 5½ pounds.
An arch, or camber, was built in to distribute the skier’s weight to the entire ski and not just under the foot. No matter how well the skis were sealed, water would often seep into the wood, which resulted in warping and loss of camber. Every few runs, wooden skis needed to be waxed to keep them from sticking to the snow. Their edges quickly grew ragged with turning on hard ice or snow.
Laminated skis, made from multiple layers of wood bonded together, were first tried in the 1890s. They were lighter than solid wood ones, and they became popular in the late 1930s, when strong waterproof glues were developed. These glues could permanently bond together the “canes,” thin layers of wood running the length of the ski. This technique, called “split cane,” or Splitkein in Norwegian, allowed the skis to be shaped while being glued. Manufacturers proudly advertised the number of laminations in their skis, and the general belief was that the more laminations, the better the skier. By 1951, 90 percent of all new skis were laminated. But the skis were far from perfect. Like their solid-wood predecessors, they were extremely long and terribly heavy by modern standards, requiring a great deal of muscle to turn them.
Despite their solidity, even the best ones broke easily. In the early 1950s a friend of mine purchased a pair of top-of-the-line Northland skis. A splashy decal declared that his new beauties featured 24 laminations. On his second or third run he fell, and one of the new skis headed downhill until it hit a tree. My friend was visibly upset when he found the ski in two pieces.
Head was not alone in thinking that metal could be used to make a better ski. A number of steel and aluminum skis were introduced over the years, among them the 1942 All Magnesium, the 1947 Alu-60 (designed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company), the TEY True-Flex, the Dow Metal Air Ski, and an English ski, the Gomme.
Although metal skis were more durable than wood and could go extremely fast, they were impossible to move in very cold snow, which froze onto the bare surface, and they would vibrate or bounce against hard snow, making them difficult to control (because wood is a natural damper, skis made out of it did not vibrate as much). And a collision could easily twist the metal skis into strange shapes. Skiers soon came to dismiss them as “tin cans.”
If Head was aware of these failures, they didn’t seem to faze him. Upon returning to his home in Baltimore, he began to sketch designs. He adapted a concept used in the aircraft industry called metalsandwich construction. The ski he envisioned would consist of a plastic honeycomb center in an aluminum-alloy shell.
After spending almost three years on it and nearly going broke, he created a ski that would change the sport forever. But as he toiled in that hot, grimy workshop in the summer of 1947, he might have been reflecting on how differently he had once imagined his future career.
The youngest of four children, Howard Head was born on July 31, 1914, in Philadelphia. His father was a dentist and his mother held a master’s degree in mathematics. He wanted to become a writer, like his older sister, the novelist Hannah Lees, and when he entered Harvard, in 1932, he enrolled in literature and writing classes. Low grades soon had him on the verge of flunking out. He took an aptitude test, and the results revealed strong engineering skills. Switching his major to engineering sciences, he graduated with honors in 1936.
Unwilling to give up his dream of being an author, Head went to work as a screenwriter for a newsreel company but soon was fired because he spent more time fixing the film splicers than writing. After three more short-term writing jobs, including a stint as a copy boy for the Philadelphia Record , he gave up. “I always wanted to be a newspaper writer,” he said. “I had no talent, but I wouldn’t admit it to myself.”
In 1939 he was hired as a riveter at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Baltimore. A year later he was promoted to rivet-gang boss, and when World War II began to heat up, he was moved into Martin’s engineering department.
The young engineer soon became involved in the design of the B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine bomber that went on to distinguish itself in both the European and Pacific theaters. It was during these years at Martin that Head became familiar with the materials and technology that he would later bring to sports.
An innovative design, the B-26’s aluminum skin was a sandwich of an aluminum alloy called 75st, which was stronger than cold-rolled steel of the same thickness, wrapped around a honeycomb structure. Skin sections were joined with butted seams instead of overlapping ones, to increase the airplane’s top speed. The Marauder was the first World War liera aircraft to use four-blade propellers and the first combat plane to use plastic on a large scale. Martin was pioneering the use of plastics to replace metal.
While still employed at Martin after the war, Head conducted additional stress tests on 75st and compared his data with those of hickory, which he found in an engineering handbook. “It looked like I could build a ski with the strength of wood, but with half the weight,” he recalled. He didn’t quit his job at Martin, but with $6,000 he had saved up from poker winnings, he rented a corner of an electrical-appliance shop in Baltimore and started working on a prototype. Helping him in the shop were three mechanics he worked with at Martin; after finishing their shifts at the airplane factory, they would moonlight for Head on evenings and weekends.
His most difficult challenge was bonding the three layers because the adhesive he was using—a thermo-setting glue used to manufacture shoes—required a combination of pressure and heat. (Simply putting the skis in a press would not have worked, since that would have squeezed out too much of the glue.) To create the needed uniform 15 pounds per square inch of pressure, Head devised a rubber bag into which he put the ski “sandwich.” Air was pumped out of the bag through a tube attached to an old refrigerator compressor, creating equal pressure in all directions. The pressure helped the glue set.
In a coffin-shaped iron tank, two camp burners heated up oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rubber bag was dumped in. It was “tough work, dangerous and messy as blazes,” Head recalled. “The smoke and smells were terrible… . Anybody passing by our shop at night must have thought we appeared to be more like alchemists of the Middle Ages than men of the twentieth century trying to build a modern ski.”
SIX MONTHS LATER HE HAD PRO duced six pairs of skis, and he quit his job. He took the skis to Stowe to have them tested. “When I got there,” he said, “I went into the lodge and found a group of ski instructors sitting in front of the fire.” In those postwar days ski instructors were for the most part Europeans, and extremely macho. One can only imagine what they thought of the tall, thin engineer and his new ski, but his enthusiasm won them over, and a group of them agreed to meet him at the Mount Mansfield Ski School the following day. The next morning, when one of the instructors flexed Head’s ski to get a feel for it, it broke. The other men strapped on the remaining skis, and one by one, they too were soon in pieces. “Every time one of them broke,” Head said, “something inside me snapped with it.”
The instructors left, laughing and shaking their heads, but one, Neil Robinson, stayed behind. He told Head that during the few minutes before the skis came apart, he had “felt something.” If Head wanted to go ahead with his venture, Robinson said he would be willing to test future skis.
When Head returned to Baltimore, he took a hickory ski and conducted his own stress test on it. He was amazed to discover that hickory’s strength was two times what was stated in the engineering handbook. He had designed his ski so it was too weak! He replaced the fragile honeycomb with a marine-fir plywood core. During the next two years he and his crew built 40 different prototypes. Many years later he recalled, “If I had known then that it would take 40 versions before the ski was any good, I might have given it up. But, fortunately, you get trapped into thinking the next design will be it.” He would send his latest pair to Robinson, who would ski on them until they failed. Robinson would then send them back to Baltimore along with his remarks. Head would take the skis apart, looking for the flaws, and make the necessary adjustments.
On a trip to Aspen, Head approached another ski instructor, Steve Knowlton, to try out his latest version. Knowlton swiftly glided down the slope on the metal skis until he came to a patch of icy snow, whereupon he started to slide sideways and then slowed to a stop. Walking over to Head with a foot of snow caked to the bottom of each ski, Knowlton nodded at the skis’ polished surface and said, “You see that outhouse over there? You can take these skis and nail them to the wall and guys can use them when they shave! That’s all these skis are good for!” In his next version Head bonded a thin layer of phenolic plastic to the bottoms. Unlike bare metal, the plastic could be waxed; this latest version slid easily over all kinds of snow.
Finding a way to give the ski good edges would prove more complicated. Many wood skis at the time were rimmed with metal, not only to prolong the life of the ski but also to give it a clean, sharp corner with which to bite into the snow during turns. Head’s engineering instinct recoiled from such a clumsy solution. He decided on a one-piece construction, which had the added benefit of strengthening the entire ski. Since the metal sandwich was fairly thin, the edge would not have to stretch too far, yet it would function as what he called a “working sinew” of the ski itself. Aluminum proving too soft, he chose a high-carbon spring-steel edge, bonding and inlaying it on the bottom layer of the ski.
BY THE SPRING OF 1950 HE HAD arrived at his “final” design, which weighed as much as a wood ski. By then his own money and the money he had borrowed from friends had long since run out. For a year and a half he had not been paying his men, and according to one acquaintance, “Howard was living in a $20-a-month basement apartment and washing his dishes in the bathtub.” Head said, “Either this ski was the right one, or I would simply have to close down the business and go out and get a job.”
Since it was late in the season, the only place to test the skis was Tuckerman Ravine, which is located on the southeastern side of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Head wondered: How fast would they go? If he planned to sell a lot of skis, they would have to be used by the world’s best skiers.
“Howard asked me to take them to the top,” Clif Taylor said, “and let them run.” Taylor was a veteran of the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division and an instructor at the Aspen Ski School. As Head watched the instructor slowly climb toward the rim, he would later say, “I was thinking to myself, my entire future is up on that mountain.” Taylor carved his way down at 60 mph, stopped in front of Head in a shower of snow, and exclaimed, “They’re great, Mr. Head. Just great.”
“When I saw Clif coming at me,” Head said, “that fast and that surely, I knew deep inside that I had it.” Head applied for a patent a year later; it was granted in 1954.
As he had discovered, “lightness is not what makes a ski better. In trying to build a lighter ski, I accidentally created a ski that was stiffer in torsion, one that would turn and track more easily. That was the magic difference.” Head’s metal ski resisted twisting approximately three times as well as a wood one. When a skier bends into a turn, the tips and tails of a wood ski bend away from the curve of the turn and the skier loses edge control. A Head ski can be maneuvered through a turn because it maintains a straight edge, enabling the skier to keep contact with the snow as the tip steers through the turn like the prow of a ship. The result was a ski that was faster in all kinds of snow, much more durable than any wooden ski, and softer in flex, so skiers of modest skill found it easier to handle.
Now that he had a ski that worked, Head had to sell it. In 1950 he shipped his skis to shops on trial consignment and barnstormed across the country, hawking them out of the back of his station wagon in the parking lots of ski areas. The tall, balding ski maker was soon a familiar sight from New England to the Rockies.
Instructors quickly found that they could make extra money selling Head skis. Even Steve Knowlton gave in, and instead of using them for men’s-room mirrors, he started selling Head skis at the Aspen Ski School.
Head named his ski the Standard. When he found that the polished aluminum skin gave off distracting reflections and was prone to scratching, he added black plastic tops and sidewalls. Although Standards were expensive—$85 a pair, when the best wooden skis could be bought for $45—they caught on quickly, especially since they came with a novel one-year warranty. Head’s “cheaters,” as they were soon called, opened up the sport of skiing to an entirely new group of enthusiasts, especially women, who had found the heavy wood skis almost impossible to turn.
During the 1950-51 ski season, Head and two employees managed to produce 300 pairs of skis—and lost money. The next year he made 1,100 pairs and broke even. A year later he made his first profit, $1,200. He kept production costs to a minimum by doing most of the work himself. He continued to experiment and make improvements. He developed skis for specific uses, such as slalom or deep powder, and skis for the beginner as well as for the serious skier. He awarded dealerships selectively, and he impressed on his salesmen that Heads were a quality product. “Head skis are bought, not sold,” he told them.
Competitive skiers were much slower to adopt the metal skis, so he began working on a competition model. In 1956 he developed the first damping system for skis, inserting a neoprene layer in the top aluminum sheet. This had the effect of reducing chattering at racing speeds as well as enabling the ski to “snake” over bumps. In 1961 he introduced his Competition line incorporating this feature.
In 1963 Switzerland’s Joos Minsch startled the world of ski racing when he won the pre-Olympic downhill at Innsbruck on a pair of Heads. The next year Head skis carried Jean Saubert from the U.S. to two medals, a silver and a bronze, at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Two years later a third of all skiers in the top 10 of every major international race were on Head Competition skis, winning a total of 18 gold medals and 15 each of silver and bronze. In 1967 Head introduced the 360, an all-purpose recreational version of the Competition. The 360 would go on to become one of the bestselling skis in history. I had a pair, and for its time it was one hell of a ski.
By 1966 the Head Ski Company, with more than 500 employees and a factory in Timonium, Maryland, was grossing $25 million a year on the sale of nearly 300,000 pairs of skis in 17 countries, making it the largest manufacturer of recreational skis in the world. But Head could sometimes get in the way of progress. During the early 1960s a small group of designers began adapting fiberglass to skis. Fiberglass had the advantage of being extremely good at damping. It absorbed shock better, which allowed the ski to follow the terrain. The first true fiberglass ski, the Toni Sailer (named for a prominent Austrian skier), was introduced in the early 1960s, and other manufacturers were soon producing their own.
Ian Ferguson, a top salesman and manager at the Head Ski Company, remembers how stubborn Head was regarding the new material. “Fiberglass skis were beginning to catch on with ski racers and instructors,” Ferguson said. “We told Howard that he should explore fiberglass, but he kept fighting us. He’d say, ‘Fiberglass is a flash in the pan. It will be gone tomorrow.’ The problem was pride of authorship. Howard had invented the aluminum ski, and his ego was very much invested in it.”
HEAD COULD ALSO BE A POOR MAN ager. “If something went wrong,” he recalled, “my instincts told me to fix it myself, whether it meant rewriting ads or greasing machines.” A new management team was brought in, and although he was still chairman of the board, Head was no longer in charge of the day-to-day operations that so engaged his interest. In 1969 he sold the company to AMF, a manufacturer of leisure equipment, for $16 million. At the age of 55, he could retire content, knowing that he had reinvigorated the sport of skiing as well as touching off a major industry to serve all those new skiers. Since 1947, when he first hit the slopes at Stowe, the number of skiers in the United States had multiplied 400-fold to four million. From the time Head offered his Standards until the time he sold his company, ski manufacturing enjoyed 15 percent growth every year.
Edward Scott, the inventor of the aluminum-alloy ski pole, said of Head, “Howard brought stability and responsibility to a raffish, casual, irresponsible industry, peopled by hucksters and opportunists. By making a durable product that lasted for years and was disarmingly easy to ski on, Howard literally put America on skis.”
Among the activities that Head took up in his newfound leisure time was tennis. He built a court on his property in Baltimore and soon discovered that his tennis was as bad as his skiing. After endless lessons his frustrated instructor told him, “I hate to keep taking your money. If you practice with the machine, there is the slim possibility that you might improve.”
The ball machine Head bought was made by Prince Manufacturing Inc., in Princeton, New Jersey. Head described the machine as an “ingenious piece of design, but so full of bugs it was almost useless.” Instead of working on his backhand, Head took the machine apart and came up with a list of refinements that he believed would improve its performance.
He called Prince, and when they found out he was Howard Head, they agreed to meet. He ended up buying a controlling interest in Prince, and within a few years, after incorporating his improvements, the Prince ball machine had more than half the market.
Although Head now had a ball machine that worked, he was still a weekend hacker. Again he blamed his equipment, complaining that the racket twisted in his hand, sending the ball off in unexpected directions. He went down to his workshop and began to tinker. First he added weights to the top of the racket. He hung it upside down, spun it, and timed the revolutions. He was looking for an increase in its polar moment of inertia, or resistance to twisting, but the weights didn’t help. When he tried to play with the racket, it broke.
The solution, he said, came to him in the middle of the night: “Make it bigger!” A law of physics dictates that the wider an object is, the more resistant it is to twisting. For example, spinning ice skaters can come out of a spin simply by extending their arms out to increase their polar moment of inertia. This law also dictates that the polar moment of inertia increases as the square of the width. If Head widened the racket just one inch to either side, making it 20 percent wider, he would increase its resistance to twist up to 40 percent.
Before he went further, he checked with the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association about the rules governing the size or shape of a tennis racket. He was elated to find that there were none. The rules stated only that the racket is “the implement used to strike the ball.”
Tennis rackets had remained almost unchanged since they first appeared in the eighteenth century. Wood limited the dimensions of a racket face to about 8½ inches wide and 10 inches long because bigger rackets were too heavy and prone to breaking. Head went back to his workshop and began to fashion an oversized racket from high-alloy aluminum. For aesthetic reasons, he also increased the length of the racket by 3 inches. After a series of prototypes, the first Prince was introduced in 1974.
Drawing on his earlier experience with skiing, Head knew his racket would never be a big success unless the pros used it—and won. He put a Prince in 14-yearold Pam Shriver’s hand, and she took the oversized racket out on the junior circuit.
Critics jeered that the new racket looked like a snowshoe or spaghetti strainer, but they stopped laughing in 1978, when Shriver became the youngest player ever to reach the finals of the U.S. Open. By 1982 oversized rackets were the hottest items on the Wimbledon courts.
Head also won a major coup when he was granted a patent for the racket in 1976. “When I first applied for the patent,” he said, “the inspectors—who act as both judge and jury—refused the application, claiming that my idea was no more than an obvious extension of the state of the art in tennis-racket design.” The Patent Office turned him down twice more, but that didn’t stop him. He once said, “The idea for an invention is only 5 percent of the job. Making it practical is 95 percent. You have to have a perfectionist streak, and you have to let that streak run until the product works.” Now Head applied his perfectionism to the task of finding out what made his racket so special and proving it to the patent examiners.
More determined than ever, he set up a Prince ball machine in a lab to shoot tennis balls at a standard racket clamped to a vise. The balls were coated in chalk dust to mark the place they hit the racket. High-speed cameras set for 400 frames a second recorded the racket’s coefficient of restitution, the ratio between the speed at which the ball hit the racket and the speed at which it bounced off. He knew that the highest coefficient for a standard racket was .57; in other words, the ball bounced back at 57 percent of the speed with which it hit the racket. But his experiments showed that the area where he could get this maximum return, called the “center of percussion” or “sweet spot,” was not at the center of the racket, as he had supposed, but down near the handle.
Next he tested the Prince and found that the center of the racket produced a coefficient in the low .50s—not bad, but less than the standard racket’s .57. As he aimed the shots farther down, however, the coefficients began to go up: .55, .58, .62, .67! He discovered that the sweet spot on the Prince was near the handle, as on a standard racket, but the coefficient was much higher, and the spot was almost four times larger than the standard racket’s. Head recalled: “We were startled to discover that the best place to hit the ball was in that three-inch area of added length, an area that doesn’t even exist on conventional rackets. It’s about two-thirds of the way up from where you grip the racket—the throat of the standard racket.”
Besides clarifying the physics behind racket design, Head’s discovery helped him persuade the examiners to grant him a patent. “When I demonstrated the development of the sweet spot to them in engineering terms,” he said, “they had to concede that it was a totally unexpected outcome resulting in an invention.” By luck, in his efforts to reduce twisting, he had stumbled onto an important discovery that changed how the game was played.
HEAD’S TIMING COULD NOT HAVE been better. The Prince appeared just as the sport of tennis was beginning to boom. By 1976 the company had 50,000 orders for the racket, and four years later the Prince was the fastest-growing tennis racket in the world.
As had happened with the Head ski before it, people who played with Princes were accused of cheating. And just like the Head ski, the Prince took hold among recreational players before it began appearing on the professional tour in large numbers. For weekend players, the Prince simply carried them to the next level, but for professionals, the Prince changed the game itself. As longer, fluid strokes were replaced by shorter, choppier ones, power became the essence of professional tennis.
In 1982 Head sold his interest in Prince to Chesebrough-Pond’s for $62 million. He retired again, this time permanently, splitting his time between Baltimore and a condominium in Vail, Colorado. He never did achieve the high level of play he aspired to when he reinvented the tennis racket, and Pam Shriver believed he was quite frustrated about that fact.
Although his inventions wrought massive changes in two sports and earned him a fortune, Head’s personal life was less successful. He was married four times and had one daughter. His single-minded attention to his work was legendary, and associates would sometimes describe him as “the boring engineer who knows everything.” But he wanted to change that.
In an interview a few years before his second retirement, he declared, “I’m giving up the thing world and heading into the people world. In part, my devotion to the creative side was due to my isolation from people. If anyone ever thought of me, they’d use the adjectives prickly and arrogant . The drug of creativeness is so powerful that a person can go on and on until he dies old and lonely. I have no interest in doing that.”
He got a little help in the people world when he met a vivacious Vail resident, Martha Fritzlen, who liked to ski as much as he did. They were married in 1984. The skier and filmmaker Warren Miller described their relationship: “It was as if his lifelong habit of running and inventing was no longer necessary. He had found what he had been looking for all his life.”
Howard Head became well known for his philanthropy. In 1991 Baltimore’s Center Stage dedicated the Head Theatre, named for the inventor and his wife, as a tribute to their years of support. He also contributed to the Baltimore Museum of Industry (which has a permanent Head / Prince exhibit as part of its Maryland Milestones Wall), the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Walters Art Museum, Johns Hopkins University, the National Aquarium, and many other institutions. Eager to make a contribution to Vail, he provided funding for the Howard Head Sports Medicine Center; today it is one of the world’s leading clinics for sports-related injuries.
During the late 1980s Head’s health began to fail, and on March 3, 1991, he died of complications after heart surgery. His skis and tennis rackets had brought those games’ equipment into the twentieth century, and most would consider them his greatest inventions. But he thought a harder challenge was reinventing himself.
Reflecting on his business success, he once told an interviewer, “There is a part of the male human being that has to be satisfied by the creative and productive part of his life drive. But this is not the whole part. There are lots of parts that have to do with living and people and having fun, and liking yourself and all that stuff, and those are quite unrelated to the business success. I am quite satisfied with the business success, but there is a lot more to living than that.”