The History of the Snowmobile

The following is reprinted from the book Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader.

It’s easy to forget that until very recently in history, families who lived in cold-weather areas were snowbound on their land throughout the long winters. One man dedicated his life to changing that.

AN INVENTIVE KID

Fourteen-year-old Joseph-Armand Bombardier was driving his father crazy by constantly tinkering with everything around the house. Young Armand took apart and then rebuilt clocks, toy trains, and even the engine on the family car. It became so maddening that his father bought him a seemingly irreparable Ford Model-T engine just to keep him busy in the garage for a while.

Growing up in the remote town of Valcourt, Quebec, in the 1920s meant long winters and impassable roads. If you needed to travel to the next town -or to a hospital- your only option was a horse-drawn sled. Joseph got the broken down Model-T engine running again, and he had grand plans for it. After working for more than a year in his father’s workshop, on New Year’s Eve 1921, he emerged driving a very loud contraption. It consisted of an engine mounted on wooden skis, with an airplane propellor on the back. And it drove right over the snow.

Dad was impressed, but he had other plans for Joseph: As was the tradition with Catholic families in Quebec, the oldest boy was expected to become a priest. So Joseph went to seminary school.

SNOWBOUND

Bombardier was only one of hundreds of inventors attempting to use an engine to power a vehicle through snow.

* In 1909 Russian inventor Igor Sikorsky invented the Aerosani, which also ran on skis and was powered by a propellor. If the snow was too deep, however, the prop couldn't pull the vehicle’s massive weight. (Sikorsky would later be integral to the invention of the helicopter.)

* About the same time, a French military engineer named Adolphe Kégresse invented a system that converted a regular car or truck into a snow-worthy half-track vehicle (wheels on the front, “caterpillar” tracks in the back). All that resulted was a car that didn’t get stuck as easily -not even an all-snow vehicle.

* In 1918 Ray H. Muscott of Waters, Michigan, was issued a patent for a rear-tracked, front ski vehicle that was used my mail carriers in the Midwest. But like the Aerosani, Muscott’s vehicle only worked in dry snow. Quebec, like much of the rest of Canada, has wet, deep snow, and no one could come up with a vehicle that could get through it.

GOING INTO BUSINESS

And that’s all Bombardier could think about while he was at seminary. So at 17, he convinced his father to let him drop out and become an apprentice at a garage in Valcourt. After a couple of years of learning everything he could about mechanics, in 1926 he made another request to his father: a loan so he could open his own shop. Seeing his son’s potential, dad agreed. Young Bombardier quickly earned a reputation around town as a genius who could fix anything from cars to power tools to agricultural pumps. If he needed a tool that didn’t exist, he’d build it himself. He even dammed the creek next to the shop and built a turbine to power it. Bombardier was a pretty good businessman, too: he was able to pay his father back in just three years.

As he entered adulthood, the soft-spoken, bespectacled inventor steadily grew his business. He married Yvonne Labrecque and the two started a family. At night and on Sundays, Bombardier would retreat to his workshop to tinker with snowmobile designs. He tried making a lighter engine so the vehicle wouldn’t sink, but it kept overheating. And despite ridicule from both friends and competitors, Bombardier kept redesigning the track, engine, and sleigh, emptying his bank account in winter only to refill it the following spring and summer.

A wooden early prototype. (Image credit: Boombardier)

And that’s the way it went for the next eight years …until tragedy struck. In the winter of 1934, Bombardier’s two-year-old son’s appendix burst. The boy would die if he didn’t get to the hospital, which was 30 miles away. But with the roads snowed in and no working prototype of his snowmobile in the garage, there was nothing that Joseph and Yvonne could do, and their son did die.

BACK ON TRACK

Devastated by the loss, Bombardier knew he could help prevent other families from suffering the same fate. So he went back into his workshop and redoubled his efforts. And less than a year later, he’d done it: he’d devised and sprocket-and-track system that finally worked. It consisted of a rubber-and-cotton track that wrapped around toothed wheels in the back, and steerable skis in the front -just like a modern snowmobile, only much bigger and louder, and far less streamlined. After receiving a patent, Bombardier expanded his garage into a year-round production plant, creating much-needed jobs in the little town of Valcourt. Under the banner L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée (Snowmobile Bombardier Limited), the inventor was ready for the big time.

(Image credit: Boombardier)

His first step: advertise. Driving his seven-passenger model -the B7- Bombardier easily made his way through the deep snows of the Quebec winter, always making sure he parked in front of newspaper offices. Sure enough, word of a working snow machine got out and initial sales enabled him to build a new production facility in 1940, when he introduced the 12-passenger B12. Unlike its predecessors, the wheels were solid instead of spoked, which stopped snow from accumulating and slowing down the vehicle. These early snowmobiles were used to deliver freight, take kids to school, and provide emergency services, giving people security and freedom in the winter months like they’d never had before.



BOMBS AWAY

When Canada entered World War II, the government decreed that only people who absolutely needed a snowmobile could buy one. Instead of panicking, Bombardier went into his workshop and within a few weeks built the prototype for the B11, designed especially for military use. Bombardier’s armored transport vehicles proved indispensable in snowy battlefields during World War II, solidifying his reputation as both a genius inventor and a savvy industrialist. But he was still more than a decade away from the invention that would make the greatest impact on society: the personal snowmobile.

Because of the technological limitations of the times, smaller engines couldn’t power their way through deep snow without overheating. But by the mid-1950s, engine technology had caught up and Bombardier was able to combine a smaller engine with a continuous track system designed by his eldest son, Germain. In 1958 the company unveiled the two-person Ski Dog -so named because Bombardier envisioned it taking place of the sled dogs that wintertime hunters had relied on for centuries. But a printer’s error christened the new snowmobile with an unexpected new name: “Ski-Doo.”

JUST DOO IT

1962 Ski-Doo (Image credit: asplundhlr50)

Thanks in part to the fun name, people viewed the Ski-Doo in a way Bombardier hadn’t- as a recreational vehicle. But he was reluctant to market it as such, thinking a whimsical name might limit sales. Still, there was no denying it: A new winter sport had been born. Costing $900 each, 8,210 Ski-Doos were sold the first year. And although sales steadily increased, Bombardier didn’t push the Ski-Doos as hard as he could have, keeping the company’s focus on the all-terrain vehicles used by miners and the forestry service, two things for which he felt there would always be market.

But whether he realized it or not, Bombardier had opened up a whole new world for winter sports enthusiasts. Sadly, he wouldn’t live to see the Ski-Doo’s incredible success. On February 18, 1964, he died of cancer at age 56.

WINTER LEGACY

Today, Bombardier is a national hero in Canada. His offspring have kept the company going. Under the name Bombardier Recreational Products, they branched out with Sea-Doos for the water and a whole array of other outdoor recreational machines. Snowmobiles are still used by the military, of course, as well by search-and-rescue teams and by indigenous hunters in Canada. But their biggest use by far is for fun, as evidenced by the 3,000 snowmobiling clubs that exist around the world. In the United States and Canada, enthusiasts spend more than $28 billion on snowmobiles and related equipment every year. And a recent focus on environmental concerns aims to make them greener, cleaner, and quieter than ever.

If you’re ever in Quebec, it’s worth stopping by the Bombardier Museum to see his original garage, where many of his prototypes and custom-built tools still reside. And if the roads are impassable, you can always hop on a snowmobile to get there- and you’ll know exactly who to thank for it.

____________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader. The Bathroom Readers' Institute has sailed the seas of science, history, pop culture, humor, and more to bring you Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader. Our all-new 21st edition is overflowing with over 500 pages of material that is sure to keep you fully absorbed.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute has published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute.


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