History of Snowboarding

Lisa Marie Mercer
snowboarder

Many people associate Jake Burton with the history of snowboarding, but the sport's origins actually date back to 1929.

Earliest Origins of Snowboarding

The sled was one of the earliest inspirations for the snowboard. In 1929, a man named M.J. Burchett used a clothesline and a set of horse reins to attach a piece of plywood to his feet, thereby creating a sled that could be used from a standing position. The idea never caught on, but in 1963, a California middle school kid named Tom Sims created what he called a ski board for his shop class. Sims probably didn't realize that in 1980, he would sign a deal with a company called Vision Sports, and Sims Snowboards would be a major competitor to Burton.

Then, in 1969, Sherman Poppen, a chemical gases engineer from Muskegon, Michigan invented a device called the "snurfer." The snurfer was supposed to be a toy for his daughter. Poppen had no idea that he would be starting a new snow-sliding craze.

The A-B-C of Snowboarding website, which features a picture of the Snurfer, describes the device as a cross between a "plywood sled and a skateboard deck." He composed the board by attaching two children's skis together. Poppen attached a rope to the front of the deck to help the rider stay in control, and placed steel tacks on the upper part of the board to hold the rider's feet in place. When Poppen discovered that adults were interested in "snurfing," he organized impromptu snurfing competitions. Jake Burton Carpenter attended one of these events.

The growing popularity of the Snurfer inspired Poppen to patent his idea. He contacted a friend who was an employee of the Brunswick Bowling and Billiards Corporation. Brunswick obtained the license for the Snurfer and sold it at hardware stores for ten dollars. It never occurred to them to sell the device to sporting good stores. The economic failure of the Snurfer, according to the Funding Universe history of Burton Snowboards, has been discussed at Harvard Business School and used as a perfect example of the wrong way to market athletic equipment.

Snowboarding in the 1970s

Meanwhile, a surfer named Dimitrije Milovich was fooling around with cafeteria trays in upstate New York. He experimented with adding steel edges, which failed to function in deep powder, laminating glass and adding nylon straps. Milovich combined ski and surfboard technology, and through trial and error, created a product called the "Winterstick." Newsweek and Playboy Magazine wrote stories on the product in 1975. Milovich seemed destined for success, but the company was bankrupt by 1980.

Tom Sims re-entered the scene in 1977. He expanded on his middle-school creation by adding carpet to the top sheet of a piece of wood and aluminum siding to the bottom. Sims called his creation the "Flying Yellow Banana."

The Modern History of Snowboarding

Jake Carpenter Burton graduated New York University in 1977 with a degree in economics and took a job with a Manhattan investment bank. When he received an inheritance from his grandmother, Burton decided that it was time to move on. He moved to Stratton Mountain Vermont. This was a literal turning point in the history of snowboarding. He revolutionized the Snurfer by adding bindings. He attended snurfing competitions, beat the other competitors and wowed them with his new creation.

Burton worked nights as a bartender at Stratton Mountain, but spent his days developing his snowboard at a woodworking shop that just happened to belong to the director of the Stratton Mountain Ski School. As he worked out the glitches, the snowboard gained popularity.

In 1982 Suicide Six Resort in Pomfret, Vermont become the first ski resort to allow snowboarding. Other resorts were not so easy to convince. Snowboarders, which were mostly young kids and teenagers, were perceived as unruly and out of control, but as the sport gained popularity, resort managers discovered that prohibiting snowboarders was bad for business. Upscale resorts such as Aspen, Colorado and Taos, New Mexico gradually did away with their anti-snowboarding rules. Today, only a few ski resorts, such as Mad River Glen in Vermont and Deer Valley and Alta in Utah are the few remaining ski areas where snowboarding is prohibited.

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History of Snowboarding