The next time you’re sitting in the locker room lacing up your hockey skates, take a moment to consider that the modern combination of composite, plastic, and steel that propels you around the ice represents the end result of more than 5,000 years of evolution, experimentation, and technical advances. Humans’ desire to move across ice is ancient: The earliest ice skates appeared in northern Europe during the Bronze Age, at about the same time humankind was discovering the written word, and centuries before the pyramids of Egypt were built.
The Earliest Ice Skates: Dem Bones
Anthropologists believe the earliest ice skates were developed in southern Finland in about 3,000 BCE as a way for hunters to travel long distances without using too much energy. These ancient people used large leg bones of cattle or deer, which they shaped into ‘blades’ to wear on the bottoms of their feet. Holes were drilled in each end, through which they threaded strips of animal hide, allowing hunters to tie the blades tightly to their feet. The bones were flat on the bottom, which meant the wearer could not push off with each foot the way we do today. Instead, skaters propelled themselves by keeping their legs stiff and pushing with a long pole held between the legs. This may seem labor-intensive, but it was certainly easier than trying to walk on slippery ice. And since animal bones contain fat, the bone blades were self-lubricating, which reduced friction. Although turning was difficult, it was possible to build up a pretty good head of steam traveling in a straight line.
Bone skate blades spread throughout Europe over the centuries and continued to be used into the 20th century in some places because they were so inexpensive and the materials so easy to find. Scandinavian researchers found that they could fashion a usable pair of blades from bones in about a half-hour, suggesting that even if a traveler wasn’t already carrying bone blades, they could make them on the fly if necessary.
Next Steps in Ice Skating Technology
If there’s one thing the history of technology tells us, it’s that humans are always looking for ways to improve their tools. A skate dated to about 200 CE features a folded strip of copper attached to the bottom of a leather shoe, which would have reduced friction even further. But this design does not seem to have spread widely. Bone continued as the blade of choice for centuries.
From about 1300 to 1850, Europe experienced what is called the “Little Ice Age,” leading to longer, colder winters. This made ice skating an increasingly popular pastime, which in turn fueled innovations in skate design. In the 1400s, the Dutch created a wooden blade with a flat strip of iron along the bottom. These iron-bottom blades created much more friction against the ice, which meant they didn’t glide as well as bone. But a skater with iron blades could do away with the push pole, and instead push off with each foot, a first step toward the development of the modern skating technique we practice today.
The first double-edge blade was also a Dutch invention, appearing around 1500. Suddenly, it was possible to propel oneself with one’s legs and glide after each stride, making ice skating far less laborious and allowing skaters to go much faster.
Skate blades were still tied to the skater’s shoes or boots until 1848, when a Pennsylvanian named E.V. Bushnell invented an all-metal blade that clamped directly to the boot, which revolutionized the sport by allowing sharper, faster turns and even jumps. (Englishman “Captain” Robert Jones, who wrote Treatise on Skating in 1772, had advocated for screwing the blades directly to the boot. But this practice was not widely accepted, probably because most folks didn’t want to dedicate a pair of boots to skating.) The boot clamp was followed in 1863 by the Acme Club skate—patented by Starr Manufacturing of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia—which featured a self-fastening skate blade with a mechanical lever.
As people spent more time on the ice, they began to develop games to pass the time. Most games involved a stick and a ball and were simply versions of existing field games, such as field hockey, hurling, and golf. As the rules of ice hockey became established by the late 1800s, so did the need for sturdier skates. In 1914, the closed-toe blade—made from one piece of steel, enabling skates to be lighter and stronger—was invented by John E. Strauss, a blade maker from St. Paul, Minnesota.
During the early 20th century, several skate manufacturers sprang up in Canada. CCM, a bicycle and automobile manufacturer in Toronto, began producing ice skates made from metal scraps in their facility in 1905. After making a pair of hockey skates for a neighbor, a shoemaker named George Tackaberry from Brandon, Manitoba, launched the Tackaberry brand in 1906. (CCM purchased the company in 1937 after the founder’s death, and thus was created the CCM Tacks line of hockey skates.) In 1927, the Bauer Company opened in Kitchener, Ontario. The Bauer family, who owned the Western Shoe Company, made the first skate boots with permanently attached blades, which came from Starr Manufacturing (of 1863’s self-fastening-blade Acme Club skate fame). This model, launched in 1933, was marketed under the name Bauer Supreme, which is still in use today.
In Part II, we will cover the numerous innovations in hockey skates over the past century.