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The Zamboni machine has become one of many people's favorite parts of Ice Hockey. Technically this device is called an ice resurfacer, but everyone just calls it a "Zamboni" after the inventer.

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Frank Zamboni invented the machine over the period from 1942 to 1949 to help with the time-consuming task of resurfacing his ice rink.

I'm curious what came before this. The wikipedia page mentions ice being manually scraped and watered before, but also stresses how time-consuming this was. Presumably he could afford this as a business owner, but it was still enough of a hardship to motivate the hard work to develop the machine.

If it was really that bad, did a lot of people just not bother? Did hockey games not resurface at halftime (or ever?) If so, how was it typically done? Was there an earlier period where nobody bothered, but just let skaters deal with the ruts? I'd imagine a lot of skating was done on frozen lakes that would have been remote from unfrozen supplies of water.

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  • 5
    This question posted today in honor of Frank Zamboni's 112th birthday.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 16, 2013 at 15:56
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    The questions should commemorate an average 34% productivity drop around the globe as people play today's Zamboni Google Doodle game
    – DVK
    Jan 16, 2013 at 16:53
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    I always have to smile when I see how grownups e.g. from Switzerland and Scotland achieve the (I think) same effect when they engage in curling (watch the brooms e.g. from 5'45" :)
    – Drux
    Jan 16, 2013 at 17:10

3 Answers 3

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There were several strategies for dealing with the problem of ice resurfacing before Frank Zamboni came along.

Just Let the Ice Get Bad: Before 1910, hockey games were played in two 30-minute halves. ESPN says "By the end of each half, the ice was full of ruts and covered in snow, and the game slowed to a walk." So eventually they switched to three 20-minute periods, allowing an extra opportunity to clean the ice, even though this severely slowed down the pace of the game. Even today, NHL hockey has longer stoppages of play than other professional sports, with two 18-minute intermissions as compared to a 12 minute halftime in NFL football and a 15 minute halftime in NBA basketball and FIFA Football. (I won't try to quantify how much downtime baseball has.)

Cheap Labor: To resurface a rank, you need to clear the snow. This could be done by handing out a lot of shovels. For example, at the UND Barn, "Young fans (in exchange for game admission) prepared for resurfacing by shoveling shavings and snow off the ice from the preceding period's action." Even in our post-Zamboni world, many NHL teams use teams of young women, so poorly paid that they can't afford winter clothes, to clean the ice between periods.

Other Contraptions: Tractors with ice scrapers were used in some rinks. After shavings were cleared, Zamboni (and presumably other low-budget rink operators) used what was basically a wheelbarrow and a hose to flood the ice. The more mechanically-minded managed to come up with better flooders. Returning to UND:

. . . a between-period entertainment (for those who weren't forced by the cold into the warming rooms) was watching him artfully resurface the ice with a pre-Zamboni apparatus he had cobbled together and which was pulled across the ice. It consisted of two barrels, one welded on top of the other, pipes, and valves that directed hot water to the ice through a canvas strip at the bottom rear of the Rube Goldberg contraption ("My barrel flooding outfit," Purpur called it).

Here's a Canadian Parks and Rec department hand flooder:

enter image description here

Zamboni first tried to outfit tractors with mechanical sleds, before realizing that he could combine the shaving, cleaning, and flooding machines into one by building off of war-surplus jeep chassis:

enter image description here

Clearly Zamboni's invention was effective enough that now nearly all rinks employ one. But there was enough amateur mechanical ingenuity in the first half of the century that I wouldn't be surprised if there were rink managers other than Zamboni and Purpur who were experimenting with their own shoestring resurfacers.

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  • Question answered today in honor of Zamboni's 114th birthday
    – two sheds
    Jan 16, 2015 at 14:00
  • Mops and warm water would repair quite a bit of damage from skates...then spot treat the rest?
    – Oldcat
    Jan 16, 2015 at 18:23
  • @Oldcat: They preferred squeegees to mops, I think to get the ice as level as possible. And maybe mops were prone to freeze? I've never tried to mop ice so I'm not exactly sure what would happen.
    – two sheds
    Jan 16, 2015 at 18:29
  • If you left it sit, maybe but ice isn't that cold to instafreeze a warm mop. But a squeegee would be better.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 16, 2015 at 18:35
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John Ceburn West, the late 19th century inventor of the Alligator http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alligator_boat, the steam warping tug, also patented an invention that would carefully apply a layer of ice to roads.

It was very much like the modern Zamboni machine, with the minor variation of being horse-drawn and coal-fired.

It was never a success. Perhaps people disliked ice-covered roads?

But in much of Canada and in some of the northerly states, until the 1930's, when snow-plowing began to be common, in the rural countryside the only way for farmers in the winter to go to town was via sleigh or sledge or cutter, for which ice-covered roads were advantageous. Jingle Bells!

(I'm on road at the moment, hopefully not ice-covered, but will post details on the patent of West's invention shortly.)

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    This may be interesting, but... it doesn't even attempt to answer the question...
    – o0'.
    Jan 17, 2013 at 8:27
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    Hmm ... but wasn't the Alligator boat's purpose to travel across both land and water (and ice?), whereas the Zamboni machine is for smoothing the surface of ice e.g. before ice hockey games?
    – Drux
    Jan 17, 2013 at 9:22
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In the British Ice Hockey League ca. 1948 at the end of the period a staggered line of white-dust jacketed men with wide brooms swept the ice - in step - marching really, until they had the surface cleared of loose ice which could be shovelled up by another work detail, then the waterers followed with squeegees. It was a rhythmic and almost hypnotic evolution, probably the men were all ex-service. I can't remember if it was done to music but have no recollection so it was probably silent! All part of the spectacle. Zambonis were a pale substitute.

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  • So I take it this was being done regularly and in a reasonable amount of time by substituting a lot of manpower for that one device. Something like 15-30 people?
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 26 at 15:37

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