You want to know where your snowmobile came from. No, not just the manufacturer, but the history of sleds in general. How did society and technology evolve to such a point where you can freely ride your snowmobile on the trail today? When did the snowmobile come into being?
The snowmobile was invented in 1935, but ideas and patents for vehicles that were the precursor to the modern-day snowmobile had been around since at least the 1800s in parts of the world like the United States and Canada.
Today, we’ll dive into the fascinating history of the snowmobile’s invention. From more on the precursors to the snowmobile, the inventor of the first officially recognized snowmobile, to early versions of vehicles you couldn’t believe were considered sleds, you’ll learn a lot ahead. Keep reading!
When Was the Snowmobile Invented?
Cars were already on the road in the 1880s, but it wouldn’t be for several decades more that recognizable snowmobiles would follow.
As we mentioned, what is considered to be the first official snowmobile was tested in 1935, but lots of snowmobile precursors existed far earlier than that.
To fairly tell the story of the snowmobile’s history, we have to take it back to Wisconsin in the 1900s and even earlier.
Wisconsin is a frigidly cold state. According to the National Weather Service, on average, northeast and central Wisconsin receive 40 to 50 inches of snow a year. In the state’s Snowbelt region, the snowfall increases to 100 to 125 inches a year.
Thus, Wisconsinites need a way to get around in the wintry weather. Creative residents in the late 1800s began toying with all sorts of vehicles that could ride on snow. These weren’t snowmobiles, but rather, snow buggies and sled propellers.
The first sled propeller, created by Brule, Wisconsin residents William B. Follis and William J. Culman was submitted for patent approval in late 1895. By 1926, snow buggies were racing at the Three Lakes in Wisconsin.
Over in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1905, the American Motor Sleigh came into existence. This vehicle with a pronged wheel and one-cylinder engine had runners instead of wheels. It didn’t last long, but it was another snowmobile precursor nonetheless.
In 1911 in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, a young man, only 24 at the time, named Harold J. Kalenze had made a vehicle known as the Vehicle Propeller. A snowmobile the Vehicle Propeller was not, but it set even more of the early groundwork for what would become the snowmobile in just a few short decades.
Four years after Kalenze’s invention came to light, in Waters, Michigan, a man named Ray H. Muscott tried to patent a similar invention. He called it the traineau automobile or motor sleigh and sought to get the patent in Canada.
By 1916, Muscott received a US-based patent for a snow-vehicle that has many of the features still used in snowmobiles today. These include front skis and rear tracks.
Who Invented the Snowmobile?
The father of the snowmobile is without a doubt Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who began assembling and testing more modern-looking snowmobiles in 1935.
Bombardier was born on April 16th, 1907 in Valcourt, Quebec, Canada and died on February 18th, 1964. He’s the founder of the eponymous Bombardier Inc., a Canadian rail and business jet manufacturer. The company later changed its name to Bombardier Recreational Products.
The passion for mechanics was something Bombardier had carried with him for most of his life. By the age of 19, he was running his own garage, offering car repair services. As the weather got cold, Bombardier began to tinker with ideas that would become the snowmobile.
What really inspired Bombardier to push forward on the snowmobile creation was the death of his son. In Quebec, secondary roads were never cleaned after a snowstorm, leaving residents to do so themselves. Bombardier’s son had peritonitis and couldn’t get medical treatment in time because of a blizzard, so Bombardier sought to create a solution to such a problem.
Of course, he did have some help.
Igor Sikorsky, a helicopter pioneer from Russia, had created a vehicle called the Aerosani between 1909 and 1910. It used skis and a propeller to operate, and the Aerosani even appeared in World War II. It wasn’t really a snowmobile, but it did popularize vehicles on tracks.
Around that same period, Adolphe Kegresse of France produced the Kegresse track, a continuous caterpillar track with a belt. This happened between 1906 and 1916. Bombardier made his own version of the caterpillar track that was more adept to handling humid snow and dry snow alike.
His track featured a cotton and rubber track that covered his snowmobile’s back wheels as well as rubber toothed wheels. Bombardier was no stranger to metal tracks, so making the switch to rubber wasn’t necessarily challenging.
He called his snowmobile the B-7, which went into production in 1937. This sled could fit seven passengers, so it was by no means small, and the sled’s track was considered revolutionary for the day. The B-7 was followed up by the B-12 in 1942, which had room for 12 people!
What Were Early Snowmobiles Like?
Joseph-Armand Bombardier may be the inventor of the first officially recognized snowmobile, but it wasn’t until Polaris was founded in 1954 that more modern sled models began rolling out. Here’s what all the snowmobile precursors were like until that point.
The motor-bob dates back to 1914, when Aberdeen, South Dakota residents and coworkers Art Olsen and O.M. Erickson made the vehicle. The motor-bob consisted of an Indian motorcycle with an aft, sled-runner fores, seating, and a cowl cover. The Indian Motorcycle brand was founded in 1901 and went defunct in 1953.
The motor-bob is noteworthy not because it had tracks, as it didn’t, but because of its resemblance to more modern sleds.
Ford Model T Snowmobiles
The Ford Model T is one of the most renowned historic cars, produced between 1908 and 1927. It was priced more affordably than other vehicles at the time, so more people owned it. That includes Wisconsinites, who took the Model T, attached skis at the front and rear tractor treads in the back, and began using the resulting vehicle as some form of snowmobile.
Pictures of the creation do exist online; here’s one for you. In today’s terms, this Ford Model T snowmobile looks pretty ridiculous, but at the time, those who modified the car must have felt very inventive!
Early Bombardier Snowmobiles
Bombardier is known for being the father of the snowmobile, but that doesn’t mean his first versions of snowmobiles were necessarily recognizable as the sleds we know and love today. Check out this image to see what we mean.
That was an early Bombardier snowmobile. It looks more like a submarine than a sled, but it was efficient for its time, even if it wouldn’t be today by leaps and bounds.
Early Polaris Snowmobiles
Then came Polaris, a brand founded in 1954 by Roseau, Minnesota’s David Johnson and Allen and Edgar Hetteen. You know and love Polaris snowmobiles today, but the first models were weighty, around 1,000 pounds. They could also go 20 miles per hour at their fastest! These are nothing like the sled available nowadays.
How Did We Get to Today’s Modern Snowmobiles?
So how did we go from Joseph-Armand Bombardier’s breakthrough yet outdated-looking snowmobile into the sleds of the 20th and 21st centuries? That’s mostly the work of Polaris, at least to start.
Before branding itself as Polaris, the three founders called their company Hetteen Hoist & Derrick Co. Once the founders tasted success with their early snowmobile models, they rebranded. By 1957, Polaris sold its first snowmobile for commercial use. It was known as the Polaris Sno Traveler.
That was followed by Bombardier’s open-cockpit sled in 1960, which was sold under the Ski-Doo brand. From the 1970s onward, snowmobiles became the “it” vehicle, and many new brands popped up that made sleds. At one point during that decade, you had more than 100 different snowmobile manufacturers out there to choose from.
Many didn’t last, but two million snowmobiles were bought by a voracious public from only 1970 through 1973. That’s not too shabby! Snowmobile innovation continued in the decades to follow, bringing us to today’s sleek modern sleds.
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The snowmobile has a history dating back to the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, patents for somewhat similar vehicles were out there, but it wasn’t until Joseph-Armand Bombardier created the first version of the snowmobile in 1935 that snowmobile innovation really took off.
Now that you know more about the history of the snowmobile, you can appreciate your sled and dream about what the future can bring!