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Head skis (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Howard Head, an aircraft engineer, first tried skiing in 1947. He loved it, but didn't ski as well as he liked. He said later "I didn't blame any lack of athletic ability for my bad skiing, but rather blamed the skis." Since Head was skiing in 1947 he had a legitimate complaint.

The most important aspect of a ski is its shape: the front and rear tips are raised to keep them from getting caught, and the ski itself is curved and arched so the ski can turn easily. In 1947, when Head first went down the slope, the skis were made of wood, so they lost their shape quickly, leaving the skier with little control. Because of this Head felt a ski should be made of metal. "If wood were the best material," he reasoned, "they'd still be making airplanes out of wood."

So Head put his expertise as an aircraft engineer to work. He invested two hundred and fifty dollars in a band saw and spent his spare time designing skis. He used a wooden core, then covered it on top and bottom with aluminum. It took Head six months to make his first ski, partly because to set the glue used to bond the metal and wood, he had to boil the ski in oil. This first ski started him on a quest that lasted three years.

In 1951, he entered the metal ski business full time, starting his company with six thousand dollars of poker winnings. So good was Head's metal ski that the public soon dubbed it the cheater because even beginning skiers could carve through turns with little effort. It turned the sport from one for very skilled athletes to one able to be mastered by thousands. Yet the public was slow to accept Head's skis.

To market them he tried to get professional skiers to use them in competition. Still, few paid much attention until in 1961 an unknown on the Swiss ski team won an Olympic race on a pair of Head metal skis. With additional praises from racers worldwide, the Head Ski Company soon dominated the market. Skis, though, weren't the only way Head revolutionized sports.

In 1970, at age 60, Head sold his company and retired. He took up tennis, but just like his skiing in 1947 he was unhappy with his performance: His off-center hits frustrated him, and he hated the the way his racket twisted in his hands.

So, six years into his retirement Head redesigned the tennis racket. He created one called The Prince Classic, an oversized racket with a large sweet spot that gave more control and power. Just like his skis Howard Head's new tennis racket became a standard for the industry. So important were both these achievements that Head's first metal skis and his Prince Classic racket are now permanently displayed at the Smithsonian.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises