Howard Head





Few people can claim a role in the development of one revolutionary sports product. American engineer and inventor Howard Head was the impetus behind two separate and groundbreaking sports equipment designs—the metal laminate alpine ski, and the oversized Prince tennis racquet. His contributions to the world of sport earned Head fame as "the patron saint of the average athlete."

Head graduated from Harvard as an aviation engineer in 1936. He first attempted to downhill ski for recreation in 1947. Head found skiing very difficult, a problem he attributed the heavy wooden skis standard in the sport, as opposed to his own lack of skiing ability. Relying on his aviation training, Head believed that a much lighter and user-friendly ski could be designed. Head became so attracted to the prospect of designing a better and more effective downhill ski that he left his employment as an aviation engineer to devote all of his efforts to this task. Head commenced his research into a better ski design, with his prototypical efforts resulting in a ski constructed in the shape of a metal "sandwich," with a plastic honeycomb separating the two ski surfaces. The initial efforts by Head to produce a useful ski proved unsuccessful, as the model skis were prone to break too readily, and the aluminum surface tended to freeze during use, causing snow to collect on the surface. Head undertook a lengthy period of trial and error testing, funded in a large part by his success as a poker player.

Head perfected his ski design by first adding a coating of plastic laminate to create a friction-reduced surface between the ski and the snow, a surface that wax could also be applied to. The edges of the ski were made from a fine one-piece steel component. The Head Ski Co. was formed in 1948 and, by 1950, the first commercially marketed Head ski, the "Head Standard" was sold in the United States. Users of the Head skis found them to be flexible, highly responsive when the skier executed a turn, and generally easier to use than the skis made with traditional wood construction techniques. By 1955, Head skis were the leading brand sold in both Europe and the United States.

In 1955, Head added features to reduce the vibration created by high speed downhill skiing. Polyethylene and neoprene rubber were added to the top layer of the ski to absorb these downhill forces and to reduce high-speed vibration in the ski. Head skis became a popular choice among elite skiers of this era. Jean Claude Killy, the French world champion, began to use Head skis in 1960.

The success of the Head ski company prompted numerous imitators. Head Ski Co. was sold to the American manufacturing concern AMF in 1971.

In the late 1960s, Howard Head had played tennis on an occasional, recreational basis. As with his frustrations experienced in downhill skiing, Head believed that tennis racquets were too difficult to use. In particular, Head theorized that the conventional racquet's sweet spot was too small. The sweet spot is the name for the area on the face of the racquet where the ball is struck most efficiently. The efficiency of the sweet spot is due to a higher coefficient of restitution, defined as the amount of the energy initially carried by an object that is returned to the object when it collides with a second object, such as a tennis racquet. Head believed that an expanded sweet spot would make the return of the ball much easier and more effective, especially for the average player.

Head formed a tennis division at Head Sports Co. in 1968. Head personally patented an oversized metal racquet, with over four times the total hitting area of a conventional racquet, and a sweet spot that was twice the size of that found in typical racquets. Head moved to Prince Tennis Racquets in 1971 as its chairman, where he led the rise of the Prince racquet to a place of prominence in the world tennis market. Head secured patents on numerous oversized racquets designs, thereby extracting permission for use fees from many rival tennis manufacturers who wished to enter the expanding oversized racquet market.

In 1978, American Pam Shriver, playing with an oversized Prince graphite racquet, was the youngest ever United States Open tennis finalist. In addition to the sweet spot technology developed by Head, the oversized Prince racquets were constructed to provide the player with a defined moment of inertia, a characteristic that reduced the amount by which the racquet turned in the player's hand upon impact with the ball as a shot was delivered.

Both the Head ski and the Prince oversized tennis racquet have made an enduring impact upon their respective sports. Upon Head's death in 1991, the papers, correspondence, patent documents, and related memorabilia of Howard Head were provided to the Smithsonian Institute.

SEE ALSO Skiing, Alpine; Tennis; Tennis serve mechanics.