"There are three troubles, from the point of view of less ambitious sportsmen, with the sport of skiing. First, it has to be practiced far from the places where most people live. Second, there is all that elegant equipment to buy and carry around. Third, distance and money aside, snow is a fickle substance, good for skiing one day, impossible the next. This year one man and a wild idea challenged all three with a gadget calculated to pull the most lethargic non-but would-be skier right out of his armchair.
The idea is a perpetual, mechanical ski hill. The man is Ray Hall, a ski instructor until the idea hit him. The perpetual, mechanical hill (called Ski-Dek) was built on the floor of the Klockner Steel Products Co. in Rockaway, N.J. and tested there. The cost was borne by Cyril Farny, a Wurlitzer Organ dealer who dabbles in inventions. He has had enough flops (an electric window closer was one) and enough successes to be philosophical about taking the risks.
"You never know when you'll hit the big one," said Farny, standing beside the machine in the dim light of the Klockner mill while the din of a work day went on all about. As welders busily spurted blue-and-white flames at various objects in the shop and half a dozen skiers zipped about on the machine's slope, Farny explained the principle of Ski-Dek. Instead of having a skier run downhill, using up the mountain at a fast clip, the mountain is moved past the skier. The structure of the machine is that of an inclined plane, 18 feet high at the upper end, sloping downward for 40 feet to a landing strip four feet off the floor at the lower end. The slope itself is a platform 25 by 40 feet covered by an upward-moving rug. The rug is driven by two rollers, one at each end of the platform; in appearance it is like a conveyer belt, or a stepless escalator. As a matter of physics, any skier moving downward on the belt can keep skiing as long as he doesn't go downward faster than the belt moves upward. By the same token, if he doesn't ski downward faster than the rug moves up, then he will slowly be carried to the top. Like Alice in Wonderland, he has to keep moving to stay in the same place.
If this sounds wild, the sensation of skiing Ski-Dek is at first wilder. Hall, who is a young 36, throws the switch to let the machine build up speed before he invites a skier to step on and ride to the top to begin his run. As the skier sidesteps from the platform at the low end to the rapidly escalating rug, nine chances out of 10 he will sit down suddenly and find himself being carried to the top scrambling to find his feet. This delights Hall, who dances below, saying, "Hey boy, how's that? Some machine, hey?" Farny, who is older and less playful, runs for the switch, shouting, "What are you doing? Get him up. Let him get up," and shuts the machine down before the skier is unceremoniously delivered in one ridiculous position or another to the upper end.
Once up, the skier faces an even more confusing test: learning the technique of skiing down. He pushes off from the top platform and makes headway down the rug until, just as in real skiing, he makes a turn. The skis bite into the rug and effectively slow him down to a velocity equal to the rug's but in the opposite direction. At this point the skier's eye suddenly tells him he is motionless with respect to the windows and machinery of the Klockner steel works. At the same time his kinesthetic sense tells him his skis are still traveling over the surface as in a normal turn on snow. Einstein would understand the relativity involved but the skier's mind does not. The two contrary sensations tangle in the brain and the skier does what he has learned to do in case of confusion: he falls down. Then, however, instead of coming to a safe stop as he would in the outdoor form of the sport, he finds himself once again being carried, willy-nilly, upward—ascending like Elijah to heaven.
It isn't just the untried skier who takes the unwilling upward trip. Practically every skier new to the machine—top instructors, national ski champions, a number of ski writers—including this one—assorted beginners and intermediates have all been thrown by the machine on their first try to find themselves looking ruefully up at the steel roof beams in Klockner's.
But every skier who has spent an hour on the machine has come away trying to buy a piece of the company ($25,000 a block of stock). After about half an hour, the sense of strangeness wears off and the rest is pure delight. The machine is like a drug: no skier wants to get off and stop. There are no potholes to dodge, no fallen branches, no ice, no bare spots, no wet snow.
The rug, in fact, is softer than snow. There can be collisions, but only if the rug is crowded. Even then, since the skiers all have to move at about the same speed to stay on the rug, a collision isn't serious.
Most skiers begin learning on the rug with small 2½-foot skis, the Shortee Wedeln invented by Clifton Taylor (or copies of same), because the friction of the rug is higher than that of snow. But a good skier can soon work up to skiing on seven-foot skis with the skill he has outside.
While the Klockner pilot model was being tested by skiers, Hall was busily building a smaller machine. The first of these compact (16 by 30) machines went to the National Winter Sports Show in New York, where it helped draw 6,000 spectators a day, twice as many as the previous New York winter show. Hall and Farny took on several franchise holders on a tentative basis. The franchise men sooner or later will put up a squad of the machines in various cities throughout the country—the world's first ski-o-dromes. "If skiers want wind in their face, ice-cold drafts and all those discomforts," said Hall, "we'll just add them, that's all." The Ski-Dek motor (a 20-horsepower electric) is practically soundless, but Hall, who is sure he can invent anything, says he can construct an attachment that will whistle like a February gale.
Hall is a kind of surprise genius. His skiing friends think of him as a personable if excitable man, but actually he is meditative and inventive in everything he does. Construction innovations utilized in the Ski-Dek eventually will have wide application in industry; and Hail had previously designed a special beamless roof for houses consisting of curved plywood panels. Actually, he might not have come up with the perpetual ski hill except that one day after he had dismissed his ski class at Aspen, Colo., he took a ski run for fun and inadvertently tried to pass his upper shin on one side of a small tree and his ankle on the other. In the hospital, during the time it took the doctors to replace a section of powdered shin-bone with a piece of steel, Hall let his meditations run wild.
The wild idea
"I had always wondered why it was that skiing only reached a very small part of the people who could enjoy it," he recalls. "I started thinking about how to get skiing into the cities a long time ago and how to ski in a small space. In the hospital, by heck, I had this idea. You never know what you'll come up with if you break your leg."
Shortly after he got back on his feet, Hall was introduced to Farny through Farny's son Dave, a fellow instructor. Hall and the elder Farny started talking inventions, and Hall gave him a rough sketch of the ski machine. Farny invited the young man to his home in New Jersey to build the device.
Hall first built a small 5-by-12 model to test skiing surfaces and ski bottoms. He tried surfaces of canvas, wool, plastic beads, brush bristles and nylon cloth, settling at last on a specially made nylon rug of Allied Chemicals' Caprolan fiber. The nylon pile was oily enough to help lubricate the passage of the skis and deep enough to hold the ski in a turn. Then, to make the ski slide easily over the rug, Hall turned to the slipperiest plastic known: Teflon. Even then he found he had to use an additional substance, a chalklike powder which he spreads on the rug, to get the skis moving fast.
The sliding problems solved, Hall told Farny he was ready to build a big one. Farny put up the money and hired space and workmen from Klockner's. Hall, who never bothered to finish college, found himself directing graduate engineers, some of them unsympathetic. They insisted that Hall could not build the machine in such and such a manner. Hall went ahead and built it in such and such a manner anyway. At the end of the sixth week, the machine rolled. Hall hopped on and made the first automatic ski descent on record.
The world's first indoor ski races have already been held at Klockner's—with certain variations from classic racing procedure. The first race was held between Clif Taylor and Hall for the world indoor 50-pole championship. (The poles of outdoor racing are represented by oncoming dots on the rug.) Taylor won: 50 poles in 35 seconds. This writer and Hall then raced off for the world indoor simultaneous title: first man to the bottom of the machine through identical race courses set side by side. Hall came out a clear winner, but he had been practicing at night.
Arthur Murray may go
"Races like this will replace bowling on TV," said Hall, "and when they get tired of one kind of racing, we'll invent another. After that we'll replace Arthur Murray on TV with some ski dancing that I'm going to invent. You know, a couple sliding down arm in arm over the slope, doing waltzes, spins and everything."
The possibilities are many and perhaps appalling. The next step would likely be a ski follies with chorines doing precision kick-turns. Or ski musicals: Girl of Obergurgl, and My Fair Schusser.
The machine may turn all scheduled B pictures about skiing into C pictures, with daredevil sequences filmed in the studio. It can be made to simulate almost any kind of natural—as well as unnatural—form of the sport. Hall has plans for building irregularities in the rug—mounds, hollows, rises, even ruts—to imitate actual conditions. He hasn't quite figured how to fake deep powder snow yet, but give him time.
More importantly, Ski-Dek is an instructor's godsend. "I've taught people to ski on this thing without putting my boots on," said Hall. He rigs a practice bar from the side of the machine to teach beginners. The novice hangs on to the bar and makes the appropriate moves as the rug whirls by under his skis. The teacher can stand an arm's length away and put his hand gently on the pupil's offending, out-of-position anatomical part and move it back into line. To bend the pupil's knees, he merely presses down on the top of his head.
Happily confident of success, Hall and Farny are forging ahead protected by a welter of solid patents. It, seems certain that Ski-Dek could bring thousands of city people into skiing almost immediately.
"It's sure going to make skiing different," said Hall, proud but somewhat dazed. "Now that I've proved you can ski without snow, it really has me scared. It's so big I might make $5 million."