Who Invented the Snowmaking Machine?

Woman in Snow
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By definition, snow is "crystallized ice particles having the physical integrity and the strength to maintain their shape.” It’s normally created by Mother Nature, but when Mother Nature doesn’t deliver and commercial ski resorts or movie makers need snow, that's when snowmaking machines step in.

The First Machine-Made Snow

A low-temperature laboratory in Canada was studying the effects of rime icing on the intake of a jet engine in the 1940s.

Lead by Dr. Ray Ringer, the researchers were spraying water into the air just before the engine intake in a wind tunnel, trying to reproduce natural conditions. They didn’t create any rime ice, but they did make snow. They had to repeatedly shut down the engine and the wind tunnel to shovel it out.

They weren’t interested in inventing a snowmaking machine, however, so no patents were filed by the laboratory researchers. This research, published in scientific journals, was nonetheless made prior to any other claim to snowmaking technology.

The First Snowmaking Machine

Wayne Pierce was in the ski manufacturing business in the 1940s, along with two partners, Art Hunt and Dave Richey. Together, they formed the Tey Manufacturing Company of Milford, Connecticut in 1947 and sold a new ski design. The ALU-60 was an aluminum ski with a hollow interior and three layers of metal bonded together. Two years later, in 1949, Mother Nature got stingy, and the company was hit hard by a slump in ski sales due to a dry, snowless winter.

Wayne Pierce came up with a solution on March 14, 1950. "I know how to make snow!" he announced when he arrived at work on that March morning. He had the idea that if you could blow droplets of water through freezing air, the water would turn into frozen hexagonal crystals -- aka snowflakes. Using a paint spray compressor, a nozzle and some garden hose, Pierce and his partners created a machine that made snow.

The company was granted a basic-process patent in 1954 and installed a few of their snowmaking machines, but they didn’t take their snowmaking business far. Maybe they were more interested in skis than in something to ski on. The three partners sold their company and the snowmaking machine's patent rights to the Emhart Corporation in 1956.

Snowmakers Catch On

Meanwhile, Joe and Phil Tropeano owned the Larchmont Irrigation Company in Boston. The brothers had once worked with the Tey Manufacturing Company, helping with the installation of their snowmaking machines. They bought the Tey patent and began making and developing their own snowmaking equipment from Pierce's design. 

The idea of making snow and the means by which to make it caught on. Larchmont and the Tropeano brothers began suing other makers of snowmaking equipment in the 1960s as more and more hit the market. The Tey patent was contested in court and overthrown on the basis that the Canadian research led by Dr. Ray Ringer predated the patent granted to Wayne Pierce.

A New Type of Snowmaking Machine

Next came Alden Hanson. He filed a patent for a new type of snowmaking machine in 1958, the fan snowmaker. The earlier Tey patent was a compressed air-and-water machine.

It had its drawbacks, including noise and energy demands. The hoses would occasionally freeze up, and it wasn’t unheard for the lines to blow apart. Hanson designed a snowmaking machine using a fan, particulate water and the optional use of a nucleating agent such as particles of dirt. He was granted a patent for his machine in 1961, and this is considered the pioneer patent for all fan snowmaking machines today. 

The Wollin Patent

On June 11, 1969, a trio of inventors from Lamont Labs at Columbia University named Erikson, Wollin and Zaunier filed a patent for yet another snowmaking machine. This one would become known as the Wollin patent. It was for a specially developed rotating fan blade that was impacted with water from the rear, resulting in mechanically atomized water leaving the front.

The water froze and became snow.

The inventors created Snow Machines International, manufacturers of the snowmaking machine based on this Wollin patent. They promptly signed licensing agreements with the Hanson patent holder to prevent an infringement dispute with that patent. As part of the licensing agreement, SMI was subject to inspection by a Hanson representative. The representative turned out to be Jim VanderKelen, who had been the attorney for the Hanson patent. VanderKelen bought 50 percent of SMI in the fall of 1974, then he bought the remaining 50 percent a year later. He renamed the company Snow Machines Incorporated.

The Boyne Snowmaker

A patent was filed for the Boyne Snowmaker in 1974, a ducted fan which isolated the nucleator to the outside of the duct and away from the bulk water nozzles. The nozzles were positioned above the centerline and on the downstream edge of the duct. SMI was the licensed manufacturer of the Boyne Snowmaker.

The Lake Michigan Nucleator

Along with Bill Riskey, Jim VanderKelen filed a patent in 1978 for a machine that would come to be known as the Lake Michigan nucleator. It surrounded the existing nucleator, which required a small amount of air and water, with a water jacket. The Lake Michigan nucleator exhibited none of the freezing problems that earlier fan snowmakers sometimes suffered. VanderKelen received a patent for his Silent Storm Snowmaker, a multiple speed fan with a new style propeller blade, in 1992.