Contraptions And Contrivances: Figure Skating's Oddest Inventions

"The most curious things amongst these models are those of various machines for enabling the unpractised hand to throw lines to people in danger. These ingenius contrivances - whether they survived the test of trial does not appear - consist mostly of a line wound round a stick, to which are attached wheels or a ball, so that it may be rolled in the direction required; but it does not appear what would happen if the ice were not quite smooth." - excerpt from an unattributed article in Charles Dickens' weekly journal "All The Year Round" referring to the life-saving apparatuses in the possession of the Royal Humane Society in England for saving drowning skaters.

Victorian skating 'safety frame'

When we think about innovations like improvements to skate design, the Zamboni and jumping harnesses, we can clearly see how inventions can change the course of skating history. 

It is hard to imagine what figure skating would look like today without computerized judging or internet streams of skating competitions. Yet, for every success story in this world like the cell phone or the television, there's a Smell-O-Vision, a mechanical horse brush, a shoe umbrella or a lipstick stencil. 

Skating has plenty of its own odd inventions that proved to be colossal flops. Today on Skate Guard, we will explore a handful of the most epic ones!


Photo courtesy Wellcome Library

One imaginative Victorian era British skater was so concerned about the idea of taking a tumble on the ice that he conceived the idea of a crinoline cage called 'The Skater's Friend' that would prevent injuries. The unattributed engraving found in the Wellcome Library's collection reads, "'Some good account at last.' - Amateur skater. 'Entirely my own idea, Harry. - Ease, elegance and safety combined, - I call it the skater's friend." The engraving was later published in "Punch" magazine on January 7, 1860. The 'Skater's Friend' never caught on, and in 1919, George Woolliscroft Rhead frowned upon the engraving in his book "Chats On Costume" thusly: "Unkind Mr. Punch! Must we, then, measure the value of everything in this world by its bare utility? The crinoline will endure as a sweet solace to senses tired by the ennui of this dull earth. The memory of it will outlive the ages."


Right: William H. Bishop, a.k.a. Frank Swift

William H. Bishop, a rather unscrupulous theatrical and minstrel show producer who skated under the alias Frank Swift, was one of America's best-known skaters after Jackson Haines left for Europe. He had a bit of a dubious history in the sport - to put it mildly. In the January 7, 1893 edition of "Harper's Weekly", champion skater George Dawson Phillips wrote a column describing an act of deception on the famed skater's part: "Proficient judges are sometimes misled, as in the contest of 1867, when Frank Swift, the old time champion, almost succeeded in getting the best of them. He was only able to make the one-foot 8's with his left foot, and in order to throw the judges off, he first skated the figure facing them, and turning around a few times, he started with his back to them, but on the same foot. The deception was not noticed at first but when Mr. E.B. Cook, one of the judges, asked him to repeat the figure, it was discovered that he could not use his left foot." He couldn't have pissed Cook off that much though, because the next year when Swift and 'noted skating critic' Marvin R. Clark penned "The Skater's Textbook", Cook wrote a glowing forward. Back in those days, many of the fancy skating contests were blatantly rigged, with the skaters bringing their own 'judges' and everyone involved getting a piece of the pie. 

William H. Bishop and Marvin R. Clark's "The Skater's Textbook" didn't just provide instruction on  signature grapevines and scuds. It also suggested a 'cure-all remedy' for skating induced aches that was rather unorthodox at best.

Swift and Clark weren't the only ones peddling patent medicine to skaters during the Victorian era. Dalley's Magical Pain Extractor was a salve invented by a New York merchant named Henry Dalley, Sr. It didn't catch on, but after his death in 1852, a druggist named Cornelius V. Clickener (who later became the first mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey) took over Dalley's business and advertised the heck out of his ointment in newspapers, booklets and trade cards - one of which pictured a happy skater pushing a woman on a sledge across the ice. 

Trade card for Dalley's Magical Pain Extractor, circa 1875. Photo courtesy Library Of Congress.

The salve claimed to cure "burns, scalds, cuts, chafes, sore nipples, corns, bites, bunions, strains, poison, chilblains, biles, ulcers, fever sores, felons, ear ache, piles, sore eyes, gout, swellings, rheumatism, scald head, salt rheum, baldness, erysipelas, ringworm, barber's itch, small pox, measles, rash, &c." It was also used to 'treat' everything from poison oak to cancer and claimed to "take out all pain in ten minutes". What (no doubt) questionable and even dangerous ingredients were in this magical salve are a mystery, but it was rubbed on many a skater's 'weak ankles' and chilblains back in the day.


In 1953, forty year old Hollywood would-be inventor named Charles E. Smith was picked up three miles off the Los Angeles harbour breakwater by the Coast Guard. "The Madera Tribune", on April 13, 1953, reported that "that was about three miles further than he had gotten earlier this month when he tried to make it in a plastic ball that became water-logged when only three feet off the beach. Smith's latest contraption consisted of a revolving barrel supported by four airplane gas tanks and aluminum tubing. He explained his idea was to stand on the barrel wearing roller skates and skate his way to the island. The roller skates didn't work, so Smith tried it in his stocking feet. Five hours later the contraption collapsed and the Coast Guard pulled Smith out of the water. Smith, not downhearted, said he would try something new." God bless his pointy head, that one!


Mr. Hawkins' 'rink protector' for roller skaters were an epic fail to say the least. Bouncing... chandelier... lawsuit. Need one say more?

Clipping from the May 6, 1885 issue of "The Evening Star"


From the comical to the calamitous is the story of an eighteen year old from Lawrenceburg, Indiana named Warren Mitchell. Following the death of his father Robert, the Gilded Age Midwesterner was left in the precarious situation of  his mother and siblings.An avid skater, Mitchell recognized the life-saving (and money-making) potential of a device to save people from drowning when they fell through the ice while skating. 

Life-saving equipment for skaters was nothing new. Skating clubs in Philadelphia, England and Scotland made ice safety apparatus - everything from ropes to ladders to axes and boats - an absolute priority. Sadly, Mitchell's invention almost killed him... and many believed it did. 

An erroneous dispatch led to this article being published in newspapers from New York to California on February 22, 1907: "Warren Mitchell, a young inventor, lost his life today while testing an apparatus which he had invented for preventing loss of life from skating on thin ice. The device consisted of a light framework to be fastened about the skater's body and extending three feet on each side. Mitchell took his contrivance to Tanner's Creek this morning, and while skating his foot came in contact with an obstruction and he was thrown headlong upon the ice. The ice gave way, and the upper part of his body went under water. The device about his waist hampered him so that could not raise himself up, and when taken from the water he was dead." Fortunately, local accounts of Mitchell's accident improved his condition from dead to alive. "The Elwood Daily Record" corrected the dispatch's error, noting that Mitchell instead "struck an obstruction and was precipitated headfirst through the ice, softened by the recent rains, and his invention held him fast beneath the water. He would have assuredly drowned, but his plight was discovered by Ray Myers, who rescued him at the risk of his own life. Mitchell is in a precarious condition." 

The young skating inventor recovered, got a job as a labourer for J.C. Wright & Son in Aurora, Indiana, married and was drafted into the U.S. army during The Great War. His fate during or after the war is a mystery... but we do know one thing - his apparatus is quite likely at the bottom of Tanner's Creek where it belongs.


Back in 1907 in Billings, Montana, a doctor named Jeremiah Wight decided to open to a 'hygienic skating pond'. Wight was full of ridiculous ideas that never would have worked including - according to the "Los Angeles Herald" on January 4, 1907 - "a hot-water system circulating through the ice sheet... [so if] a skater breaks through he will find himself in hot water and all danger of pneumonia will be eliminated" and "a skate that generates a current of electricity as it slides over the ice. Wires convey the current to foot warmers in the shoes, and girls can skate for hours without having their toes frostbitten." Because what's safer than mixing electricity and water, right? I suppose I shouldn't snicker too much at Wight's latter idea. Julius Czaja of Syracuse, New York actually patented a heating apparatus where electric batteries mounted on ice skates warmed the feet and increased "the lubricating water film caused by the combination of pressure and fiction". Czaja's heating apparatus was featured in "Popular Mechanics" magazine in April 1964. In case you didn't guess, both Wight and Czaja's inventions didn't make it any further off the ground than a death spiral.


Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

Patented in February of 1952 by Detroit's Elizabeth Paster, Hotbugs were without a doubt one of the most unusual fads in skating fashion of the fifties and early sixties. Made of lambskin and scrap pieces of fur, Hotbugs were muffs for skates that were 'supposed to keep your toes warm'. They came in three colours (black, red and blue), had little plastic googly eyes and were fastened on with a hook.

Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

Hotbugs inspired several copycats, including Hans Altinger's Skate-Mufs, which were manufactured out of Woodside, New York.

Barbara Ann Scott modelling Hotbugs in 1959

How something so silly ever become popular? Simple. Barbara Ann Scott appeared in print ads for the Lowell B. Worley company that distributed them.

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