Thursday, May 12, 2016
The Unlikely Birth of the Beloved Zamboni
Written by Matt Blitz
How war surplus parts and California sun led to the iconic ice hockey contraption.
The boxy four-wheeled contraption is not particularly graceful. It does one job, night after night, intermission after intermission. Yet the Zamboni machine, that overgrown ice tractor that resurfaces a rink between figure skating routines or ice hockey periods, always elicits pure joy from onlookers.
"It's particularly mesmerizing to children," Richard Zamboni, the son of the machine's inventor and president of Frank J. Zamboni & Co, Inc, tells Popular Mechanics. "But the adults seem to enjoy watching the operators, likely putting themselves in the position of the driver and imagining if they could a better job."
Richard's father, Frank Zamboni, debuted his "Model A" Zamboni in 1949 at his Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount, California. As the world's first ice resurfacing machine, the Zamboni made a hard task simpler—before this mechanical marvel, up to four workers and a tractor were needed to shave, scoop, and spray the ice in a 90-minute process. Nearly seventy years later, the Zamboni has become so much more than just a machine. It's a star.
Frank Zamboni's invention was inspired by his mechanical engineering and ice-making background. Born in 1901 to European immigrant parents, Frank grew up fixing tractors on his family's Idaho farm. While his formal education ended early, he kept tinkering with and fixing farm equipment. "While my father never got past the ninth grade in formal schooling, he always had an inquisitive mind in solving problems," Richard Zamboni says. "Whether it was electrical, mechanical, or business-related, he had the unique ability to get to the heart of issues."
When Frank was 19, his family sold the farm and moved to a small sun-drenched Southern California town about 15 miles south of Los Angeles. There, he went to electrical engineering school and started a company with his brothers called, appropriately, the Zamboni Bros. Co. In 1928, he earned his first patent for the "adjustable reactor resistance"— an electrical resistor that prevented the core from chattering while making or breaking a magnetic circuit. Zamboni, who died in 1988 at the age of 88, would be awarded 15 patents over his lifetime, including his 1974 patent for "water removal machine for artificial turf"—also known as the Astro Zamboni Machine, a contraption that could suck up and pump water off Astro Turf at a rate of about 400 gallons per minute.
In the late 1920s, the Zamboni brothers opened an ice-making plant, from which they sold ice wholesale to produce companies shipping their products out of the area via rail. This would be a good business for the Zambonis for years, but eventually, of course, refrigerators became more affordable and commercially available, killing the much less efficient process of making ice. Seeing their profits melt away, the brothers pivoted into a new ice-based business.
At first glance, opening and operating a skating rink in Southern California seems like an odd choice. But in the 1940s, the Zamboni hometown of Paramount was a dairy farming community with a large Dutch population for whom skating (especially speed skating) was a way of life. Catering to the demand, the Zamboni brothers built the Paramount Iceland Skating Rink, which at the time was one of the largest ice skating rinks in America. It's still operating today. Originally open-air, the rink had problems staying frozen in the SoCal sun and wind, requiring constant attention from a large crew that needed an hour and a half to resurface the ice. Although a roof was added, the problem persisted. So Frank Zamboni got to work figuring out an easier, more efficient way to clean his ice.
The result was the "Model A Ice Resurfacer #1," Frank's first successful prototype. Using an array of discarded and surplus parts, Zamboni built the machine that would become his life's work. Starting with two old Dodge front ends, he added a Jeep engine and transmission purchased from war surplus. He then tacked on a tractor seat, the chassis from an oil derrick, a hydraulic cylinder procured from the landing gear of a Douglas A-26 bomber, razor-sharp blades to shave the ice, a paddle and chain system, a giant wooden box to catch the ice shavings, and a towel for spreading new water onto the ice. When it appeared in 1949, the Model A was an enormous, top-heavy, bizarrely complicated contraption. But it worked. The first Zamboni machine turned ice resurfacing into a ten-minute, one-person task. Most importantly, it created a perfect sheet of ice.
The Zamboni machine worked so well that Frank made a second one and sold it to nearby Pasadena Winter Garden. Soon thereafter he sold his improved "Model B" to famed film actress and Norwegian Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie for her "Hollywood on Ice Review" tour. The Ice Capades bought a Model B as well, taking it on the 1952 22-city North America tour. That same year, the Zamboni made its NHL debut during a Bruins game at the Boston Garden, forever solidifying the link between hockey and the machine.
Today there's a Zamboni machine in every big ice rink; attend a hockey game and you'll see one lay down a clean sheet of ice between periods. The company continues to evolve, now making a whole range of diverse products, from top-of-the-line electric Zambonis to portable Zamboni Edgers. The name "Zamboni" has become so synonymous with ice resurfacing machines that the company has the same problem as the people behind Kleenex or Dumpster—the name is so familiar that people forget it's a brand name and not a generic term, much to Richard's chagrin. "It's good to be well-known, but it's not good to be considered generic."
Frank always tinkered with the invention that bears his name, but, as Richard tells PM, the Zamboni is still basically the same machine it was in 1949. "You still have the same four basic processes: shave the ice, collect the shavings, wash the ice surface, and lay down clean water to make a new sheet of ice."
And though it was born for a simple, practical purpose, the Zamboni has become a rock star in its own right. There's just something charismatic about this machine, which has inspired Zamboni race leagues, Zamboni toys, Zamboni novelty bumper stickers, and Zamboni weddings. There's a Zamboni rock band and a Zamboni song that has, unsurprisingly, shown up in hockey movies Mighty Ducks 2 and Mystery, Alaska. There's even a slow-paced Zamboni chase scene in Marvel's new Deadpool movie.
Why have these machines become so popular with the public? This remains a mystery to many, including the people who operate them for a living. Tom Miracle has been the Zamboni driver at Amalie Arena, home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, for nearly 20 years. He says he feels lucky to drive a Zamboni because "it's everybody's dream... you just don't know how it does what's it doing until you drive it." As for exactly why, he doesn't know.
"As long as I've been around hockey, everyone loves the Zamboni," Miracles says with a laugh. "Everyone wants to watch it, wave to it... people throw it kisses... I don't understand why. Honestly."
Frank Zamboni himself never understood the phenomenon, either. "I don't understand it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "I was just trying to find a better way of doing something."
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