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The beginnings of the snowmobile

A modern snowmobile in action.   | Photo Credit: dMz/pixabay

Do you live in a place that has a snowy climate? Or have you made a trip to such a place for a winter holiday? If you answered yes to either of the questions, then chances are that you have played with snow, making your own snowman or throwing snowballs at others. While those activities are inarguably fun, you would also know that travelling by foot in deep snow is no easy task.

If the majority of us with two reliable legs find it hard to tread our way through snow, you can imagine how difficult it would be for those with disabilities to their feet. And yet, it was this disability that prompted American Carl J E Eliason to work on an invention for travelling in the snow.

Difficulties posed by snow

The beginning of the 20th Century saw vast improvements in the way people travelled. Apart from automobiles, which quickly became an important part of people's lives, airplanes too made their way, shortening distances like never before. But even the best of automobiles were of limited use in places where the winter saw heavy snowfall, making it difficult to get from one point to another.

Eliason poses with his motor toboggan.

Eliason poses with his motor toboggan.   | Photo Credit: Eliason-snowmobile

Eliason, who lived in Sayner, Wisconsin, the U.S., was far too used to these. Raised in such climes, Eliason loved to hunt, fish and trap – just like every other young outdoors men of the locality. But owing to his foot disability, Eliason often found himself lagging behind others, unable to keep up with his friends during the treks through the snow.

This prompted Eliason to try and come up with a vehicle that would enable him, and others, to overcome the challenges of snow travel. He began by working with a Model T Ford – one of the most popular automobiles of the time – and adapting it to skis, but it neither worked in the deep snows and unploughed roads, nor was it easy to handle in the woods.

Two years of tweaking

He began work on what he called the motor toboggan in the winter of 1924 and it took him the better part of two years to realise what he saw as the most practical means of travelling in the snow. Eliason's invention was made up of a wooden toboggan that was fitted with two skis and steered by ropes. Pushed along by an endless steel-cleated track with slide rails and powered by an outboard motor, the motor toboggan was the precursor to the modern snowmobile.

Patent drawing of Eliason’s motor toboggan.

Patent drawing of Eliason’s motor toboggan.   | Photo Credit: US1650334/Google patents

Eliason applied for a patent for a “Vehicle for snow travel” in March 1927 and received it on November 22 the same year. Even though Eliason wasn't the first to conceive a motorised vehicle for travelling in snow, his motor toboggan was easily the most reliable from a rider's perspective and also the first such vehicle that went on to be mass-produced.

Challenge to opportunity

Eliason didn't stop there as he continued to redesign and improve his machine in the decades that followed. He chose better motors and materials and constantly strove for better performance while personally supervising the assembly of each unit that he sold.

The challenges of winter soon became opportunities as these vehicles enabled travel like never before. The enhanced mobility between certain remote villages and towns, even during severe snowfall, meant that communication too improved manifold. What’s more, travelling this way was so easy and enjoyable that the experience even turned out to be a kind of recreational activity.

Eliason's motor toboggan remained ahead of its time, so much so that the bulk of the design and fabrication of early snowmobiles replicated many of its features. This, in a roundabout sort of way, implies that most of the current snowmobiles can be traced back to the motor toboggan.

As for Eliason himself, he surely did make the most of his invention. As long as there was snow to go about, he was always ahead of the game. While the rest huffed and puffed on foot, he would ride his motor toboggan and get to the destination in the woods at least an hour before his hunting mates.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 7:54:09 AM |

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