Although team sports tend to attract the attention of a wider array of American spectators, there are many sports enthusiasts who enjoy the competitive spirit of individual sports. According to a 2017 report on sports participation published by the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), although only 4.3 percent of the total U.S. population played tennis, 14 percent of U.S. citizens participating in any sport played tennis. Alpine skiing and snowboarding are fairly popular winter sports attracting 8 percent and 7.6 percent of the U.S. sports participating population, respectively.
The economic impacts of the popularity of either of these seasonal sports are not negligible. A 2015 State of the Industry report published by the Tennis Industry Association (TIA) pegged the total tennis economy at $5.73 billion in 2014. This represents a slight increase from the tennis industry’s economic totals since 2011. Skiing and snowboarding are also multi-billion dollar businesses with outerwear, hand wear, snow boots and other equipment seeing increased sales levels in recent years according to a 2015 snow sports fact sheet distributed by Snowsports Industries America (SIA). The SIA fact sheet reported that the total snow sports market sales reached $4.5 billion during the 2014-15 season, a 2 percent increase from the previous year.
None of these individual sports would likely enjoy such followings, especially among amateur enthusiasts, if it were not for the work of an aerospace engineer who decided to bring his innovative creativity to the world of sporting goods. Among the 2017 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame was Howard Head, the inventor of both the laminate ski as well as the oversized tennis racket. Sunday, September 10th, marked the 42nd anniversary of the filing date for one of two patents for which Head has been inducted, affording us an opportunity to look back at the innovative contributions to sports from an engineer who just couldn’t stand his own poor athleticism.
Head Invents a Solution to His Own Poor Skiing Skills
Born July 1914 in Philadelphia, Howard Head pursued an education in engineering sciences at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1936. According to his 1991 obituary in The New York Times, Head moved to Baltimore upon graduating from Harvard and worked as an engineer for aircraft manufacturer Glenn L. Martin Company. The company was an important U.S. military contractor during World War II and Head contributed to the design of aircraft used by the U.S. and other members of the Allied Forces.
A skiing trip during the spring of 1947 offered Head his first opportunity to turn his engineering prowess to the sporting world, which he did in a way that evidences his strong personality. On the train ride back to Maryland after the week-long ski excursion, Head and his friends discussed their performance on the ski slope. Head’s own performance was ripe for ridicule; an amateur, Head reportedly had poor balance and fell numerous times while trying to ski. Unwilling to accept his amateur status as the main reason why he couldn’t stay upright, he did the same thing that any self-respecting individual does when trying to save face in front of friends: he blamed his equipment. His balance problems had more to do with the heavy, clumsy hickory wood skis than his own inability, he reasoned, and on the train ride back home he claimed to his friends that he could craft a better ski out of materials used for aircraft construction. Interestingly, Head once claimed in an interview that, had he been an experienced skier, he likely would have accepted the “gospel” that skis could only be made out of wood.
Faced with this obstacle, Head started experimenting with materials such as aluminum, plywood and honeycomb plastic to serve in the production of a composite, laminate ski. Eventually, Head would quit his job at Glenn L. Martin and struck out on his own, supported by $6,000 in poker winnings, and within a year created a series of seven prototypes, each of which broke when he exhibited them to a group of skiing instructors around Christmas 1948.
Head went back into development and came up with a few dozen prototypes over the next two years, all of which were failures until he developed the Head Standard ski in 1950. This ski addressed the fragility issues of Head’s previous prototypes, resulting in a composite ski which had three times the flexibility of conventional wooden skis of the period and was easier to turn while gliding on top of snow.
Head’s advancement in innovative ski design is reflected in U.S. Patent No. 2694580, titled Composite Wood and Metal Ski Having Plastic Running Surface and issued on November 16th, 1954. It claimed a laminated ski having upper and lower facing sheets with a core material disposed between them comprised of a pair of strips of hard material, each strip having one face secured to the bottom edge of the lower facing sheet, and a coating on the bottom of the lower facing sheet covering a substantial portion of the other strip faces but leaving some faces exposed; the coated surface serves as the ski’s running surface while the exposed faces on the ski’s corners present sharp biting edges. The resulting ski had excellent resistance to wear while exhibiting improved directional stability.
Head Improves His Tennis Game with an Oversized Racket
Howard Head ended up being not just a great inventor but a successful businessman too. Head would continue to improve his composite ski design through the 1950s, including damping features to decrease stability issues experienced when driving over small hills at high speeds, and worked to turn ski instructors and professional skiers into clients. By 1966, the Head Company had more than 500 employees and was selling 300,000 pairs of skis each year in 17 countries, grossing annual sales of $25 million. Head Skis were prominent during the 1964 and 1968 Winter Olympics. In 1969, Head sold his ski company to AMF for a reported $16 million. Head himself earned $4.5 million from the sale.
Enjoying the fruits of his labor, Head purchased a large home in a suburb of Baltimore and took on a new sports hobby: tennis. Once again, Head found that his newest athletic pursuit was one for which he was not well suited and, even after $5,000 worth of tennis lessons, was ordered by his tennis instructor to purchase a ball machine for daily practice. The ball machine did not make Head a better tennis player but it did afford him an opportunity to network with the management at Prince, the company that manufactured the ball machine he purchased. Head’s interest in engineering and design increased much faster than his tennis skills and he contacted Prince to discuss what he thought were inefficiencies in the ball machine’s design. Head eventually purchased a 25 percent interest in Prince and took on a pair of roles at the company, chief design engineer and chairman of the board.
But even owning a substantial stake in a tennis company could make Head a better tennis player with the small rackets of the day. Once again, Head reasoned that his tennis problems were not born of his own technical inability but because of the small size of the racket’s “sweet spot” which increased the chances that the racket would twist upon making contact with the ball. Head’s knowledge of physics, especially the polar moment of inertia, led him to believe that a small increase to the width of the racket itself would greatly increase the size of the racket’s sweet spot.
Head protected his development of a wider tennis racket having improved playing characteristics by filing for U.S. Patent No. 3999756, entitled Tennis Racket and issued in December 1976; September 10th is the anniversary date on which the patent application for the ‘756 patent was filed. It claimed a tennis racket with a frame having a head attached to a handle grip with an overall length from 26 to 28 inches, a weight of 12 to 15 ounces and a strung surface on the head ranging from 85 to 130 square inches, the maximum width of the racket ranging from 9½ to 11½ inches. The increased size over conventional tennis rackets of the time, which typically had a strung surface of 70 square inches, caused the sweet spot of the oversized racket to be better aligned with the geometric center of the racket’s strung surface.
As with Head’s laminate ski, there were many purists in the tennis world who felt that the innovative hardware offered an unfair advantage to competitors. By 1980, however, 700,000 tennis players were using Head’s tennis racket, manufactured by Prince, just four years after it was introduced to the market. Luckily for Head, the U.S. Tennis Association at that time did not have official rules governing racket size in tournament play and the Head racket. The 1978 US Open provided a great deal of notoriety for Prince and Head’s racket when unseeded American female tennis player Pam Shriver used a Prince racket to reach the final against Chris Evert.
By 1980, Head was ready to leave the world of invention behind him. A Sports Illustrated profile on Head published in September 1980 reflects this, leaving us left to wonder whether we could have enjoyed a better snorkeling mask had Head decided to continue innovating. The sporting good innovations of Howard Head continue to reverberate in the activities of Dutch-based sports and clothing company Head N.V., a company which continues to develop equipment for the tennis and snow sports sectors.