• History

This Is How the First Zamboni Machine Was Invented

5 minute read

Correction appended, 2:08 p.m.

After a Great Depression and a world war, Americans were ready to have some fun. Postwar innovators delivered, with new or improved products that made it easier, and cheaper, for people to play.

The first commercial ski lift, for example, debuted in Sun Valley in 1936, when a railroad engineer working at the resort adapted a technology he had seen at work on banana plantations. After the war, the first double-chair went to work, and by the 1950s, chairlifts were ubiquitous, allowing operators to move more people up the mountain than the primitive rope tows ever could.

In bowling, the pinsetter went through a similar evolution. Before the war, a bowler and engineer named Gottfried Schmidt, with the help of a few friends, had built a crude prototype in a turkey coop. Schmitt continued to work on his invention when he joined AMF—still an important name in bowling—but the firm took a break for war duty and didn’t produce one it was ready to show the public until 1946. A two-ton behemoth, it proved unreliable and never reached the market. By 1952, after many more trials and errors, the first recognizably modern and efficient pinsetter was hard at work.

Without needing to wait for humans to set pins, games went faster and more pleasantly. That was better for bowlers and also improved the economics of running an alley. Both factors were critical to the bowling boom of the 1950s; by the end of the decade, 10 million people a week were bowling, and 9 out of 10 alleys were using automatic pinsetters. Of course the boom turned into a bubble, which burst, but that is a different story.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

Another postwar innovation was the golf cart. There were a few efforts putt-putting around in the 1930s, but these went nowhere commercially. Things changed in the early 1950s when reliable and quiet versions entered the market. Initially, these served a specific need, helping the old or injured; at some courses, a physicians’ note was required to rent one. That changed quickly when course operators realized that carts made for faster games. That meant more golfers on the course, and more greens fees, as well as new revenues in the form of rentals. Now about two-thirds of all rounds use a cart.

Then there is the eponymous Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine—another tale of persistence and ingenuity. Beginning in the 1920s, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Zamboni made a nice living producing block ice for the food industry. But as refrigeration improved, the ice market melted away. So in 1940 they opened a skating rink, the Paramount Iceland, about a dozen miles from Los Angeles. Maintaining a quality surface was almost impossible. Resurfacing was expensive and time-consuming, requiring several workers to shave the ice, haul the scrapings away, squeegee the surface, and then spray water and wait for it to freeze. Skaters either moved through sludge on bad ice, or waited. And waited. The process took about 90 minutes.

Frank Zamboni, who never graduated from high school but was an inspired tinkerer—he got his first patent, for an electrical resister, in 1928—figured there had to be a better way. Beginning in 1942, he experimented with idea after idea, using different configurations of water, heat, chassis, storage, and engines.

In 1949, he cracked the code. This was the Model A. Built on a Jeep platform, a wooden box held the snow shavings; water dropped from a tank to wash the ice and was pumped back into the bucket. Then another layer of water was laid down for a fresh, clean surface. The vehicle looked ungainly, but it worked, resurfacing the rink with a clean sheet in 15 minutes.

Get a book from our History collection with your paid subscription to TIME. Click here for more details.

Restored by the company in 1998, the Model A still works, though it mostly enjoys a well-deserved retirement at the Paramount rink. The second Zamboni machine, the Model B, was created in 1950, at the request of figure skater Sonja Henie, who saw the Model A and had to have one for herself. The machine earned a patent in 1953 and began its long, if lumbering, march across American ice. A Zamboni machine was first used in an NHL game in 1954, and one scraped the ice at the Olympics for the first time at Squaw Valley in 1960.

Growth was slow at first; only 32 machines were built through 1956. As with the other inventions, though, there emerged a symbiosis between the product—good, clean ice—and the times, as many municipalities and schools began to build rinks. More than 10,000 have been sold.

But the Zamboni ice-resurfacer is more than another example of ingenuity. It is a cultural touchstone. There is the rock song, “I Want to Drive the Zamboni,” by the Gear Daddies, and the machine has been featured in television shows ranging from CSI to David Letterman. There are license plate frames that read, “My other car is a Zamboni,” and a Zamboni token in a hockey-themed version of Monopoly. The late Charles Schultz, an avid hockey player, had two of them at his home rink, and the machines made several appearances in his Peanuts comic strip. Snoopy drove one. Charlie Brown, as usual, got it exactly right when he mused: “There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice.”

Adapted excerpt from A History of American Sports in 100 Objects by Cait Murphy. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the title of the book from which it is excerpted. It is A History of American Sports in 100 Objects.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com