From the world’s first skis to the invention of the snowplow to today’s high-tech snow recreation areas, the history of snow is one where revolutionary ideas emerge from innovative minds to make the world better, safer and more efficient.
10,000 B.C. – Before the wheel, there were skis
Predating the invention of the wheel, the first skis date back to the Paleolithic era when hunters and gatherers need skis not for fun, but as means of mobility and survival.
3,000 B.C – Oxen bones make snow shoveling possible
The first-known shovels are made from the shoulder blades of oxen.
1611 – Scientist makes first description of a snowflake
Johannes Kepler, German scientist and astronomer, writes an essay accurately describing the snowflake shape as a “six-cornered” crystal.
Each snowflake may be unique, but its formation is not. A snowflake forms as a six-sided crystal, gaining its unique shape as it drops through the altitudes.
1700s – Cities don’t plow, they pack it down
Snow actually improves transportation in an age of horse-drawn vehicles. After snowfall, horse carts remove their wheels and attach ski-like runners. Many cities flatten snow with a wide wheel weighed down with rocks and pulled by oxen.
1862 – First snowplow pushes cities into a new era
In Milwaukee, the first official snowplow is attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses. This deed initiates widespread snow removal efforts in cities and creates a basis for municipal responsibility for snow removal.
1880s – It starts going downhill during the Gilded Age
In the 1880s, the masses discover the rush of speeding down a mountain has more appeal than skiing across level terrain. Cross-country skiing is overtaken by the increasingly popular downhill skiing.
1885 – First snowflake smiles for the camera
William “Snowflake” Bentley photographs first snowflake on January 15, 1885. He accomplishes it by attaching a camera to a microscope and manipulating the frozen subjects with a severed turkey wing.
1888 – 50-foot drifts affect city infrastructure design
The Great Blizzard of 1888 buries the East Coast, immobilizing fire stations and causing flooding and power outages. With above-ground infrastructure and transportation systems greatly affected, the blizzard is credited for causing many cities to bury electrical utilities below ground.
Early 1900s – Snowfall connected to surface water
Snow surveying in the United States is ushered in by Dr. James E. Church, who correlated snowmelts to water levels at a local lake. This discovery is important because it helps predict and prevent dangerous flooding and water waste during spring thaws.
1915 – First ski area opens its hills
Knowing there is money to be made in winter sports, the first official recreational ski area in the United States — Howelsen Hill Ski Area in Colorado — opens its hills.
1925 – Snowblower invented, backs everywhere rejoice
The first practical snow blower is invented by Arthur Sicard.
1936 – Chairlift elevates downhill skiing
The chairlift is invented, making snowy slopes more fun and appealing for many.
1940 – Salt hits the road bouncing
Detroit becomes the first city in the world to apply salt to its roads in 1940. Why Detroit? They have a massive underground salt mine beneath the city.
1950 – First snow cannons aim for grassy hills
To this day, the part-art, part-science feat of snowmaking continues to extend the winter recreation season and make enterprises like Spirit Mountain Winter Recreation Area
more attractive to snow sports enthusiasts.
1950s – Glycol makes winter air travel safer
Snow and ice removal from airplanes becomes more strategic as the traditional method, scraping by hand, is replaced by deicing solutions consisting of hot water and glycol.
1959 – Space race sends eyes into the sky
Satellite technology allows forecasters to make more accurate weather predictions, making snow removal efforts more precise and allowing for road pretreatment.
1965 – The "Snurfer" is invented
Sherman Poppen, credited for inventing the first modern snowboard, modifies a water ski for his children and calls it a “Snurfer.”
2014 – Out of salt? Use cheese brine
During a long winter season with much snowfall, rock salt supplies are exhausted forcing practitioners to get creative and use other applications like beet juice and cheese brine. Also, the term “sneckdown” is invented by a community of planners seeing snowpaths as guides to plan smarter cities.
Today, high tech snowplows equipped with the latest GPS technology can run complex and strategic routes to clear your city and county roads quickly. Winter recreation is now a 12-billion-dollar industry.
2030 – Solar-paneled roads melt snow on the spot
Roads are paved with solar panels made of glass that can withstand 250,000 pounds. The panels light up to provide real-time traffic information and melt snow on contact.
The design of a snowflake has gone unchanged throughout history. But how we measure it, move it and play in it has changed significantly. If the past is an indicator, the future of snow will be filled with innovative people who continue to build on past success while forging new and better paths for the world to follow.