Skating on Thin Ice… And Blades: How Equipment Transforms Sports
The Winter Olympics. Two weeks of television showing “all forms of sliding,” as my roommate says: on ice, on snow, on skis, on boards…
Despite the hectic Winterthur schedule, we refused to miss said sliding and found the games at night an inspiration to work harder during the day. We did not miss a minute of the action. We watched the United States compete at the highest level with gold-medal performances from Shaun White, the US Women’s Hockey team, and the US Curling Team. We watched as competitors accomplished unfathomable achievements; Mirari Nagasu, the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics and Nathan Chen, who became the first person to land five quads in one program. Yet, as Winterthur students we were nearly as excited about the commentator asides as we were about Chloe Kim’s near-gold medal and near-perfect score in the snowboarding half-pipe. Did anyone else notice that the Olympic commentators extensively discussed the materiality of the sports? Nearly every event featured a short about the history of the sport, the materiality of the equipment, and the relationship between achievements and advances in equipment technology.
One particular interview with Dave Cruikshank, former Olympic speed skater, captured my attention. Dan began with “a pile of skates” and discussed the differences in boot and blade combinations worn by figure skaters, short distance speed skaters, long distance speed skaters, and hockey players. The stiffness of the boot, the width of the blade, and additional features such as the toe-pick in figure skates and the clamp technology of speed skates accommodate the differences of movement across each sport. While toe-picks allow figure skaters to dig in and create the force needed to accomplish jumps and spins, the clamp technology in speed skates allows for a longer stride and more natural gait, extending the forward productivity of the competitor. While it is true that Dan briefly and shamelessly promoted his new hockey boot technology, he also got me (and hopefully others) interested in learning more. When did these changes come about? How did they alter the trajectory of the sport? How did the trajectory spur new technologies? I can’t possibly to go into all of this in one blog, so I’ll focus on some things I learned about figure skates – hopefully you will find your path to considering these questions across all kinds of skates and even all kinds of sports!
“The Difference Between Speedskates, Hockey Skates, and Figure Skates” with Dan Cruikshank.
As early as 3000 BC simple bone-blade skates with leather straps were made in Scandinavian countries to minimize physical output when travelling great distances – particularly across frozen lakes. However, ice skates as we know them likely were not developed until the 14th century when the Dutch started using flat, wooden platforms with iron blades as skates. However, poles were needed to propel the skater forward until around 1500 when the Dutch invented a metal, double-edged blade which allowed the skater to glide forward on their own. By the late 17th century speed skating had become both a transportation method and recreational sport in Holland. 
For the next two hundred years, skating equipment saw few major changes, though as the pursuit moved from Holland to England and France figure skating developed among the elite classes. However, the focus of early figure skating was on decorum and creative precise figures, or carvings, rather than artistic skating.
It was not until the nineteenth century, when the sport reached a height in popularity in the United States, that skating developed into the artistic pursuit we know today. In the period from 1840 to 1890, ice skating was touted as a recreational and community-based activity, uniquely for both men and women. As a result of its immense popularity, the period experienced a plethora of new patents in skate and ice technologies ranging from removable blades for easy transport to boots converting from roller skates to ice skates and back again.
In 1848, Philadelphian E.V. Bushnell invented the first full steel clamp, and in 1865 Jackson Haines developed the first all-metal, two-plate blade for tighter turns and the one-piece boot. Haines also became the first to add the toe pick to the figure skate which allowed him to generate the necessary momentum for a controlled, upward lift. Haines’ skates allowed him to pioneer jumps, spirals, curves, and spins. His integration of new movements with dance elements had never been seen before. While at first his style was considered pretentious and showy, in the following decades it redefined the development of figure skating, finally separating it fully from a transportation method or recreational activity to an artistic medium.
Skates in this period also changed, no longer having a simple flat bottom with leather straps to attach them to the user’s shoes. Instead, late-nineteenth-century skates become a complete entity of their own, composed of a unique leather boot and blade which one would have to change out of their walking shoes to wear. Finally, in 1914 John Strauss developed the first closed toe blade made from a single piece of steel. The lighter, stronger blades allowed skaters to become increasingly daring with their jumps, spins, and combos.
While the history of figure skating is far more complex and continues well beyond 1914, I will leave you here with a cliffhanger. Instead, stop and think about questions you may still have. How did women shape the trajectory of the sport, and in what ways did the sport allow women to gain a particular element of power and agency? How did artificial ice and indoor rinks arise and in what ways did they remove economic barriers to practicing figure skating year-round?
I am no expert in the history of figure skating, but I do stand testament to the fact that this year’s Olympics was certainly inspiring – even in some of the most unexpected ways. I never expected to find myself wondering: How did toe picks revolutionize figure skating? And will Nathan Chen’s accomplishment of landing five quads in one program change the judging of the sport and the technology of the classic figuring skating boot? What questions can we ask of sports equipment materiality and the shape of American culture? How do our understandings of human anatomy and concerns for public health impact sporting equipment past and present?
This year’s competition saw unfathomable highs and unexpected lows; from the near-perfect performances of Evengia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, to the terrifying crash and unimaginable revival of Nathan Chen. This moment in the history of figure skating, embodied by the performances in Pyeong Chang, will certainly inspire new jumps which dare to defy physics and may require the help of some new gear. Perhaps this will be the topic of a future Winterthur blog… or thesis?
 Steve Milton, Skate: 100 Years of Figure Skating (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1996),
 James R. Hines, Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 11-30.
 Luna Lambert, The American Skating Mania: American Skating in the Nineteenth Century, Exhibition Catalogue, National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., December 1978 through February 1979.
 Milton, 20-23.
-Hines, James R. Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
-Lambert, Luna. The American Skating Mania: American Skating in the Nineteenth Century. Exhibition Catalogue, National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. December 1978 through February 1979.
-Milton, Steve. Skate: 100 Years of Figure Skating. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1996.
-Shulman, Carole. The Complete Book of Figure Skating. Champaign: Illinois, Human Kinetics, 2000.
-Vandervell, H.E. and T. Maxwell Witham. A System of Figure Skating: Being the Theory and Practice of the Art Developed in England. London: Horace Cox, 1874.
By Rebecca Duffy, WPAMC Class of 2018