Flashback to early ‘personal mobility’ device — the snowmobile

In a region that hasn’t had a substantial snowstorm since 2016, the idea of commuting — or even recreating — with a snowmobile seems like a long shot.

A major snowstorm will eventually happen in the nation’s capital, but D.C.’s personal mobility fleets include scooters and bicycles —  neither of which are designed to operate well in snow.

What about a snowmobile for getting around?

Rini Paiva, executive vice president for selection and recognition with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, says Ski-Doo snowmobile inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier is being inducted in May.

“In a lot of ways, it does seem that Bombardier was a personal mobility leader,” Paiva said.

Bombardier was born in 1907 in Quebec, Canada.

“He wanted to create machines that could travel easily over the snow,” Paiva said. “But back in, oh, say, the 1930s, motors were heavy.”

That posed a challenge, since a vehicle needed to be light enough to glide over snow.

“He had some skis on the front of the machine to help maneuver the vehicle, as he drove around,” Paiva said. For propulsion, he added a rubber-covered sprocket — similar to a tank — to pull the continuous track.

At about the same time, inventor Carl Eliason, in Sayner, Wisconsin got a 1927 patent for his Eliason Motor Toboggan.

By 1937, Bombardier obtained his first patent in Canada, and built vehicles of various sizes for different tasks.

“Back then, they had a little bit of a look of an automobile, but with skis attached to the front,” Paiva said.

One larger model had the capacity of 18 adults or 25 children, and were used as school buses.

“Kids had to find a way to get to school” in Canada, Paiva said. “You can’t not send your kids to school, just because of the weather.”

By 1957, Bombardier focused on developing a smaller and faster snowmobile. Originally called the Ski-Dog, the Ski-Doo snowmobile went into production in late 1959.

He filed a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in June 1960, which was granted in March 1962.

Bombardier died Feb. 18, 1964.

Editor’s note: Adds details about Carl Eliason’s motor toboggan.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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