Making Ice Nice Since 1949: A Brief History of the Zamboni

A fan takes part in the virtual Zamboni ride.
A fan takes part in the virtual Zamboni ride.
Elsa, Getty Images

The technical name for the funny looking machine that refurbishes the ice at hockey and figure skating rinks is an ice resurfacer, but you probably know it better as a Zamboni. Here are a few points you may not have known about the leading brand in the industry for more than 60 years.

Who invented the Zamboni?

Frank Zamboni, the son of Italian immigrants, invented the first ice resurfacing machine in Paramount, California, in 1949. Zamboni initially wanted to name his company the Paramount Engineering Company, but the name was taken, so he used his family name instead.

To fully appreciate Zamboni's genius, it's worth delving a little bit into his past. After working together at an auto repair shop in Southern California, Frank and his younger brother opened an electric service business that specialized in building and installing large refrigeration units for the dairy industry. The Zambonis expanded their business to meet the demands of the produce industry by building a plant that produced block ice, which was used to keep perishable goods from spoiling while in transport. When the demand for block ice began to wane as refrigeration technology improved, the brothers used their ice-making expertise to capitalize on the growing popularity of figure skating by opening the Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount in 1939.

What was the inspiration for the Zamboni?

Maintaining the quality of an ice surface that could accommodate up to 800 skaters was a labor-intensive and time-consuming task. Iceland Skating Rink workers walking behind a scraper being pulled by a tractor scooped up the shavings, sprayed the ice with water, and squeegeed the surface. According to the Zamboni website, the process took more than an hour. There had to be a better solution, Frank Zamboni thought. He was right.

What did the first models look like?

Most of Zamboni's early prototypes were built of war surplus parts. Zamboni applied for a patent for his Model A resurfacer, which was built and tested in Paramount and included a hydraulic chamber from a Douglas bomber, in 1949. The look of the machine hasn't changed all that much in 61 years.

How does a Zamboni work?

As the machine moves over the ice, its sharp blade shaves a thin layer from the surface. A rotating horizontal auger collects the shavings and funnels them to a rotating vertical auger, which moves them into a large bin called the snow collection tank. Water is released from the back of the machine to clean the ice before it is collected by a squeegee, vacuumed, filtered, and returned to the wash-water tank. Clean water from a separate tank is sprayed out of holes in the back of the machine and smoothed over with a towel.

How did the Zamboni become popular?

A big breakthrough for Zamboni occurred in 1950, when figure skater Sonja Henie ordered two machines for her traveling tour. Arthur Wirtz, the owner of Chicago Stadium and the man responsible for presenting Henie's tour, reportedly told Frank Zamboni that he was concerned with the novelty of the machine. "People will stay in the stands and watch it and not go down to the concession stands," Wirtz said. Charlie Brown would agree. The Peanuts character said a Zamboni clearing the ice is one of the three things in life that people like to stare at, along with a crackling fire and a flowing stream. (Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was born in Minneapolis and included many references to Zambonis in his cartoons.)

The Boston Bruins became the first NHL team to use a Zamboni in 1954 and other teams eventually followed suit. In 1960, Zamboni supplied six ice-resurfacing machines to the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.

What other machines did Zamboni invent?

In the early 1970s, stadiums throughout the country began installing AstroTurf in place of natural grass. While the synthetic surface required minimal upkeep, rain would collect on the surface, rendering it unplayable. The manufacturers of AstroTurf approached Zamboni in hopes that he could design a machine that would alleviate this problem. The result was the Astro Zamboni machine, which removed rain water from AstroTurf and prevented unnecessary rain delays. Zamboni developed two more machines for use on AstroTurf, one that helped roll and unroll the surface and another that removed paint from it.

How many machines has Zamboni built?

Zamboni has manufactured about 10,000 machines. Today, the company's two factories produce about 200 Zambonis a year.

Who else manufactures ice-resurfacing machines?

While most of Zamboni's competitors have been flushed away over the years, the Resurfice Corporation in Ontario, which has been operated by the Schlupp family for more than 40 years, continues to produce its Olympia model. The company boasts a handful of NHL clients and provided electric ice resurfacers for the 2010 Winter Olympics, providing national attention that the company would probably like to forget. The electric machines failed to properly clean the ice during the men's 500-meter speedskating event, causing a lengthy delay. According to a 2009 article in the New York Times, the Schlupps are used to hearing their machines referred to as Zambonis, while the Zamboni family is wary that the familiarity of the name will lead to the company losing its trademark protection.

Are there any famous Zamboni drivers?

Al Sobotka, who has driven the Zamboni and cleaned up octopuses at Detroit Red Wings games for more than 30 years, is one of the more famous Zamboni drivers. In 1999, the Zamboni company sponsored a Zamboni Driver of the Year contest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the machine. Jimmy Macneil, who drove the Zamboni at the arena in Wayne Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ontario, won the contest and the right to drive the Zamboni at the All-Star Game in Toronto. "It's a thrill right up there with getting married and having children," said Macneil, who drove Zambonis through the streets of Canada in the four months leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics to raise money for the Canadian Hockey Association's grass-roots programs.

Have there been any Zamboni accidents?

Yes, including the one that killed Carla's husband, Eddie LeBec, on the sitcom Cheers. In 2008, a Calgary man almost lost his leg after it got trapped in a Zamboni as he was stepping down from the machine. It took firefighters half an hour to free the man's leg before he was transported to the hospital in serious but stable condition. According to the Zamboni website, Frank Zamboni crashed into the highway median while driving a Model C machine he was delivering to Berkeley Iceland. And while they managed to avoid a crash, two employees of a Boise ice skating rink were fired after driving a Zamboni through a Burger King drive-through in 2006.

How Seiichi Miyake and Tactile Paving Changed the World for Visually Impaired People

iStock.com/RonBailey
iStock.com/RonBailey

More than 140 years after Louis Braille invented the Braille reading system, Seiichi Miyake came up with a different system based on touch that allows visually impaired people to navigate public spaces. Today, tactile paving is used by major cities and transportation services around the world. Miyake was so influential that he's the subject of the Google Doodle for March 18, the 52nd anniversary of tactile paving's debut.

The Japanese inventor designed the influential system with a specific person in mind. His friend was losing his vision, so in 1965, Miyake used his own money to build special mats with raised shapes that lead blind and visually impaired people away from danger and toward safety. Pavement with round bumps was meant to signal nearby danger, such as a street crossing or the edge of a train platform, while a stretch of pavement with straight bars was meant to guide them to safe areas. The tactile design allowed pedestrians to detect the features with canes, guide dogs, or their feet.

Originally called Tenji blocks, the tactile pavement was first installed outside the Okayama School for the Blind in Okayama, Japan in 1967. They quickly spread to larger cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, and within a decade, Miyake's system was mandatory in all Japanese rail stations.

Seiichi Miyake died in 1982 at age 56, but the popularity of his invention has only grown since his death. In the 1990s, the U.S., the UK, and Canada embraced tactile pavement in their cities. Miyake's initial design has been built upon throughout the years; there are now pill-shaped bumps to indicate changes in direction and raised lines running perpendicular to foot traffic to signal upcoming steps. And even though they're often thought of as tools for blind people, the bright colors used in tactile pavement also make them more visible to pedestrians with visual impairments.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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