Man for the first time flew into the great blue yonder in 1903 but the first vehicle capable of effectively traveling over snow wasn’t built until 1914 by O. M. Erickson and Art Olsen. Their creation was made out of a modified Indian motorcycle and featured side-by-side seating and a set of sled runners fore and aft. Named the “motor-bob”, it lacked the tracks of a true snowmobile but was otherwise similar to the modern version of the snowmobile and it stands as one of the earliest examples of a personal motorized snow vehicle.
Over the next decade, numerous people had some other wild ideas for allowing man to effectively travel over snow, including equipping early Model T Fords with tractor treads and skis.
In 1924 by a man named Carl Eliason built what is considered to be the first true “snowmobile”. The machine consisted of a 2.5 HP engine set upon a wooden toboggan and while a true dinosaur by today’s standards, Eliason’s creation continued to paved the way for what has eventually evolved to become the modern day snowmobile.
As time past, several other snow machine prototypes attempted to expand and improve upon Eliason’s original design but it wasn’t until 1959 that the Ski-Doo company forever changed the history of the snowmobile. Ski-Doo patented endless track technology and was soon joined by several other companies, including Polaris and Arctic Cat who further worked to innovate snowmobile design. Sleds from these companies were soon rolling off the assembly lines with upgraded suspension systems, slide rails, more powerful engines and a laundry list of other advancements.
Snowmobiles during the 1950-60 weren’t regulated and local, state and federal governments sought to put restrictions on sleds. The largest complaint from the public was that sleds were just too loud. To answer these complaints and make sleds more “public” friendly, sled makers poured resources into reducing the sound output. Exhaust systems were improved and hoods sealed. This, of course, led to higher under hood operating temperatures which prompted the creation of liquid-cooled engines.
Eventually, more and more people began to purchase sleds, with a staggering 500,000 sold annually in the early 1970s. This shear volume of sleds created an entire culture of snowmobile riding enthusiasts who kick started the creation of thousands of miles of groomed trail that previously did not exist. The creation of this extensive trail system, lead to the possibility of longer rides, further prompting snowmobile companies to improve track suspensions systems and replace leaf springs with more back pleasing options. Early snowmobiles also used rubber tracks, but as snowmobile riders began logging more and more miles per year, tracks needed to be more resistant to wear and are now made from a Kevlar composite.
Snowmobiles continued to evolve throughout the 1980s and 1990 with the advent of fuel injections engines and electronic reverse, both of which added much more comfort and convenience to the sport. Many credit Jim Hollander, the creator of heated hand warmers in 1981, with inventing the biggest advancement in snowmobile history since the continuous track. Since the mid-2000s two stroke engines have been mostly replaced in new models by quieter and more environmentally friendly four-stroke engines.
Currently, snowmobiling is a $22 billion business in the United States and $6 billion in Canada with about 130,000 snowmobiles sold annually. The snowmobile industry employs more than 90,000 people, with jobs related to manufacturing, dealerships and tourism. In 1997 the University of Maine and the Maine Snowmobile Association conducted a study showing the economic impact of snowmobiling in Maine to be $225 million with snowmobilers on average spending about $4,000 per year on snowmobile recreation.
Overall, snowmobiles certainly have come a long way in roughly 100 years and even today snowmobile companies still continue to innovate, allowing snowmobile to continue to evolve with today’s performance engines providing more power, increased fuel economy and cleaner emissions. While most snowmobiles today are powered by either a four or two-stroke internal combustion engine, engineers are currently exploring the feasibility of battery-powered snowmobiles. It is certainly difficult to predict specifically what other new advancements will be made in the future to continue to allow the snowmobile to evolve and become even better adapted to its environment but it is exciting to watch it continue to evolve!