Howard Head in the 1950s © Howard Head Papers, Smithsonian

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In 1947, Howard Head went skiing in Vermont, but it didn’t go well. The aeronautical engineer declared himself “humiliated and disgusted” at his performance on the slopes, casting blame on his tools: those “long, heavy, clumsy hickory skis”.

The skis were not much different from those in use since the ninth century: two long, thin wooden planks with removable grips. They were roughly streamlined in shape, but were heavy to lug up a mountain and inclined to break.

So Head — who would later become even more famous for his oversized tennis racquets — invented his own. In 1949, after two years of experimenting with designs, he perfected a laminated “sandwich ski” with plywood in the middle and aluminium on either side held together with flexible glue and coated in a layer of plastic.

The beauty of the Head Standard ski was that it could bend without splintering and was half the weight of its wooden counterparts. Its flexibility made taking corners on the slopes so easy that they were nicknamed “The Cheater”. On Head Standards, novice skiers could pass as experts.

In 1950, 350 pairs were made, and were an instant sellout. Even though they were priced at $85 — more than twice as much as a wooden pair — production doubled every year throughout the 1960s until glass fibre came along and ski technology changed again.

The skis are now collectors’ items. The most famous pair was donated by Head himself and is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Photograph: Howard Head Papers, Smithsonian

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