Object Histories is regular series looking at the evolution of the essential equipment that has shaped a world of adventure.
Skiing can be a dangerous pastime. Despite requiring extensive training, skill, persistence and determination to master, even professionals skiers – who have often been carving up the slopes since they could walk – are not spared injury. The frequency and severity of these injuries, however, is nothing compared to those of the past.
Despite archaeologists having found basic examples of skiing equipment dating back to 5000BC in Russia, broken legs caused by binding the foot to the ski meant that serious injuries were almost inevitable. That was until the pioneering innovations of competitive Nordic skier Hjalmar Petterson Hvam.
In 1937, Hvam was celebrating winning the second edition of the Golden Rose Ski Classic, the oldest ski race in America, when, like many of his era, he broke his leg. While he was recovering in hospital, Hvam, who trained as a mechanical draftsman, made the initial sketches for the Saf-Ski. The concept of a binding that would release before it caused serious injury had existed for some time, but it was Hvam’s design that innovatively allowed the foot to be fixed to the ski during normal maneuvers but release in the event of a fall.
The Saf-Ski was launched in 1939 to great commercial success but by 1948 Hvam’s design was superseded by a new binding developed by Jean Beyl that, instead of releasing the boot in response to lateral movement, would swivel the binding and return it to the centre of the ski. A revolutionary design, this binding wasn’t repilcated by brands for another two decades, but would be the inspiration for the clip-in pedals that revolutionised cycling in the 1980s.
Hvam and Beyl’s designs were the foundation for the various iterations that followed: Hannes Marker’s ‘Duplex’ toe in 1952, Mitch Cubberley’s step-in heel in 1955, and, in the 1960’s, the innovations of rocket scientist Robert Lusser, such as the anti-friction pad, that ensured that the boot did not catch on the ski when it released, and a heel-release system.
Today, the modern ski binding borrows from all of these early developments and lower leg injuries have been reduced to an almost insignificant level, down by 95% since 1970. Although skiing will never be an injury-free sport – and the rate of injuries has plateaued in the last decade – it would be a lot less safe, and enjoyable, without the essential innovations of Hvam, Beyl and the binding pioneers of the 1950s and ’60s.