Captain Luther H. Smith

Capt. Luther H. Smith

Luther H. Smith was born in Des Moines, September 27, 1920, and grew up in a loving family with eight siblings. He knew he loved flying from a very young age. When he was 11 years old, he and his brother found $5 in a field. He convinced his brother to use their newfound fortune to pay a pilot to take them on a flight. After this, he would walk 5 miles to and from the airport where he would do odd jobs for anyone who needed it, and hope that they would take him on a flight in appreciation. 

In 1938, Smith enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he studied mechanical engineering. The United States had not yet joined World War II, but at that point it was clear that a large number of pilots would be needed in the near future. As a result, Civilian Pilot Training Programs were established on campuses across the country in 1939. Smith knew that at that point, the U.S. military did not allow African Americans to serve as pilots, but he was determined to be prepared. He joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program and earned his pilot’s license in 1940. He was on of the first Black Americans do to so. 

After joining WWII, the military changed their tune, and allowed Black men to serve as pilots, and in 1942, Smith would enlist in the Army Air Corps in September 1942 and become one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He served in the 332nd Fighter Group of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. Smith joined the war effort in Europe in January of 1944, based out of Italy. By October of that year, he had flown 133 missions.

Smith and his brother Howard on a military base in Italy, 1944.

On October 13, 1944, Smith’s plane, a P-47 Mustang, was hit during an escort mission over Yugoslavia. He would later say of that day “I flew 133 missions. On the last one, I didn’t make it back. It was Friday the 13th. It was my lucky day – I’m still alive.” He was able to bail out of the plane, but fell through trees, and landed on a branch, fracturing his hip. he was captured as a Prisoner of War and taken to a military hospital. Soon after, he was moved to Stalag XVIII-A, a prisoner of war camp in southern Austria. He would remain a POW for seven months, and was liberated in early May of 1945. At the time of his rescue, he weight only 70 pounds. He returned to the States, where his recovery and rehabilitation would take an additional 2 years and require 18 surgeries. He would be left with lifelong health issues. In 1947, Smith retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of Captain. He was the recipient of many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, the Prisoner of War Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Purple Heart, and the WWII Victory Medal. 

Smith returned to Iowa City and completed his Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering in 1950. He moved to Schenectady, NY to take a job with General Electric, where he would also be active in the local chapter of the NAACP. He later accepted a position with the company that moved him and his wife to Philadelphia, PA where he earned a Masters degree in Metallurgical Engineering from Penn State. Smith would work for GE for 37 years. He held two U.S. Patents on dynamic sealing devices in aircraft, regularly published technical papers, and worked on projects with the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and U.S. Navy Submarine Command.

In 2000, he began speaking publicly about his time in the war, including about the impact of racial inequality in the military. He accompanied president Bill Clinton on a trip to Europe to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. In 2006, Tuskegee University awarded him with an honorary doctorate. He was part of the Architect-Engineer Evaluation Jury for the National World War II Memorial in Washington. In 2007 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as part of the Tuskegee Airmen. Captain Smith passed away in 2009 at the age of 89 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Works Cited:

American Air Museum in Britain. (n.d.). Luther H Smith | American Air Museum in Britain.

CAF Rise Above. (2018, October 17). Luther H. Smith.

Iowa Aviation Museum. (n.d.). Luther H. Smith – Iowa Aviation Museum.

Saylor, T. (2005, February 18). Oral History Project World War II Years, 1941–1946 – Luther Smith, Jr. DigitalCommons@CSP.

University of Iowa College of Engineering. (n.d.). Luther H. Smith. College of Engineering – The University of Iowa.

University of Iowa Libraries. (n.d.). UI Collection Guides -Civilian Pilot Training Program Records, 1942–1944.

Archibald A. Alexander

Archibald Alexander

Archibald (Archie) Alphonse Alexander was born in Ottumwa in 1888, one of eight children. His father provided for his family, working as a custodian. When Alexander was 11, his family moved to a small farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. His father was promoted to head custodian for the Des Moines National Bank, and the extra income allowed Alexander and his siblings to attend school. Alexander graduated from Oak Park High School at the age of 17. Although there were not sufficient funds to support him, Alexander was determined to be a college graduate, specifically, an engineer. He started in higher education at Highland Park College in Des Moines. His freshman year had gone well, but when it came time to prepare for his sophomore year, Alexander learned that the school had banned Black students, on account to students from the South leaving due to the classes being integrated. Alexander decided to move to Iowa City and start at the University of Iowa at 20. 

Alexander, who had been a standout athlete in high school, brought his skills to Iowa City, joining the University of Iowa Football Team and started for the first three years of his career. From a biography on Alexander from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Alexander was “considered a giant of a man at 6 feet 2 inches and 180 pounds, at a time when the average college football player was 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 135 pounds, Archie was popular with both fans and teammates who nicknamed him ‘Alexander the Great,’ both for his size and his athletic prowess” (Weingardt, 2009). Alexander also made an impact in the classroom. While his professors were supportive, the dean at the time was skeptical of Alexander’s future success, as he had never seen a successful Black engineer.

Alexander graduated in 4 years at the age of 24 in 1912, earning a BA in Civil Engineering, a varsity letter in football, and working multiple jobs to support himself. He was the first Black graduate from the College of Engineering. He moved back to Des Moines where he joined the Marsh Engineering Company. The founder, James B. Marsh had made his name by designing the Marsh Rainbow Arch Bridge. His time with Marsh’s company have a major impact on his career, which would focus on bridge building. In 1914, Alexander struck out on his own and founded A.A. Alexander, Inc., where he intended to only work on bridge building. At the beginning, winning contracts proved difficult, as many people were not open to working with a firm run by Black man, especially if other firms also bid. As a result, for the first few years A.A. Alexander, Inc. would design build only small bridge projects where they were the only bidders. Alexander was able to build his reputation, and eventually started winning larger projects. 

A few years into his business, Alexander was joined in business by George F. Higbee in a unique but effective interracial partnership. (This Higbee is not to be confused with Frederic Goodson Higbee, Professor and Head of Engineering Drawing, whose portrait hangs in the library here). Alexander would again be the sole proprietor of his company after Higbee was killed in a construction accident in the early 1920’s. During this time, he expanded the firm’s portfolio, building tunnels and power plants. Current students and members of the Iowa City community can see Alexander’s work in the University of Iowa Power Plant, completed in the mid 1920’s. This project also included steam tunnels that traveled under the Iowa River, providing steam and heat to the new west campus, including the Hospital and Field House.

University of Iowa Power Plant, designed by A. Alexander, soon after construction in 1927 (from Iowa Digital Library)

Alexander’s time working in Iowa City would further impact his life when he was joined in business by Maurice Repass. Repass had graduated one year after Alexander and been a member of the football team. Alexander and Repass would take on several large projects across the country, from Michigan, Nebraska, the Tuskegee Institute and even Washington, DC. One of their most recognizable projects is the Kutz Bridge, completed in 1943. If you have ever visited DC to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, or looked out over the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, you have likely seen Kutz Bridge.

Kutz Memorial Bridge at the DC Tidal Basin


A lifelong Republican, Alexander worked his whole life to improve the lives people of color. In Des Moines he helped to found the local chapter of the NAACP in 1944. He also served on the boards of Howard University and the Tuskegee Institute, both historically Black institutes. He and his wife Audra often vacationed in the Caribbean, and after his backing of Eisenhower’s successful presidential campaign, he was tapped to be the Governor of the United States Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, his work there was not well received, and his time in the Virgin Islands lasted a little over a year. He would pass away in Des Moines on January 4, 1958 at the age of 70, leaving behind a legacy of hard work. Upon his wife’s death, the Archie A. Alexander Memorial Scholarship was established at the University of Iowa. 

Works Cited

Jones, J. (2019, June 28). Archibald Alphonso Alexander: African American Design and Construction Genius. Black Then.

Landis, L. (2021, March 4). Iowa History Month: Archie Alexander built equality across the nation. Des Moines Register.

University of Iowa College of Engineering. (n.d.). Archibald A. Alexander. College of Engineering – The University of Iowa.

Weingardt, R. G. (2009). Archibald Alphonso Alexander. Leadership and Management in Engineering, 9(4), 207–211.

Dr. Philip G. Hubbard

Dr. Philip G. Hubbard

Philip G. Hubbard was born in Macon, Missouri, but moved to the Des Moines area when he was four years old. According to his book My Iowa Journey, his mother gave up her career as a teacher to move north so that Philip and his three brothers could attend unsegregated schools. While the schools were unsegregated for students, African American teachers were not allowed, so she instead found a job as an elevator operator. Hubbard’s mother was a major influence in his life, and she used her background in education to prepare him for school.

When he graduated from North High School in Des Moines, Hubbard considered several career paths, but ultimately chose engineering because it offered opportunities for advancement and could be finished in four years – which was all that Hubbard could afford. In addition, as a teenager he met University of Iowa College of Engineering alumnus Archie Alexander, who was living proof that an African American engineer could be successful. 

Hubbard arrived in Iowa City in 1940 with $252.50 in savings and took on a job shining shoes in the basement of the Jefferson Hotel, where he would study between customers. College life provided new opportunities, but racism did keep him from enjoying all of them. For example, he had to find his own lodgings, as he was not to live in the dormitories. In his book, Hubbard notes that he was lucky at the College of Engineering. While his friends in other departments experienced racism within their colleges, Hubbard felt welcomed and supported, especially by Dean Francis M. Dawson, who helped him secure a work study position at the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR).

Hubbard had no background in chemistry, as it was not offered at his high school. Seeking a challenge, he decided to major in chemical engineering. After a rough start, he would come to distinguish himself, winning the junior prize in chemistry and joining several honorary societies and fraternities. In May of 1943, Hubbard, who had joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army, was called up to report to Camp Dodge for active duty. As part of his service he was sent to Penn State where he took on study of electrical engineering. In 1944, Hubbard graduated with honors with a certificate in electrical engineering. In 1945 Dean Dawson arranged for him to leave the army and return to the University of Iowa to do military research. Hubbard received his degree in electrical engineering in January 1946. He would continue to work at IIHR, and earned his Masters in mechanics and hydraulics in 1949 and a Ph.D. in engineering in 1954. 

Hubbard joined the faculty of University of Iowa, becoming an assistant professor of mechanics and hydraulics and continuing his work at IIHR as a research engineer. In 1959, he was promoted to full professor, becoming the first fully tenured African American professor at the University. During this time of growth in his career, Hubbard was working towards equality within the college and his field. In his memoir, he recalls being invited to speak at a conference in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1951. After initially accepting the invitation, Hubbard had to turn it down, as the hotel had strict segregation rules. While Hubbard would have been allowed to speak, he would have had to take the service elevator to the room to present his speech then leave immediately after. Hubbard turned down this opportunity, noting that this situation was “unacceptable.”

In 1966, Hubbard was chosen to serve as Dean of Academic Affairs, which made him the first African American Dean at any of Iowa’s state universities. In 1971, he would achieve another first when he was named as Vice President of Student Services, which made him the first vice president at any Big Ten university. He used these positions to advocate for minority students, establishing Opportunity at Iowa to help retain minority students and faculty. He would retire from the university in 1990, having worked there for 43 years. In 1991, the field next to the Iowa Memorial Union previously known as Union Field was renamed Hubbard Field in his honor. 

Hubbard passed away at the age of 80 on January 10, 2002. If you want to learn more about Hubbard’s life in his own words, you can read his book online through the Iowa Digital Library.


Works Cited

Hubbard, P. G., & Stone, A. E. (1999). My Iowa Journey: The Life Story of the University of Iowa’s First Tenured African American Professor (1st ed.). University Of Iowa Press.

Philip G. Hubbard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa. Accessed February 10, 2022.

University of Iowa College of Engineering. (n.d.). Philip G. Hubbard. College of Engineering – The University of Iowa.

Dr. Lilia A. Abron

Dr. Lilia Abron

Dr. Lilia A. Abron was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 8, 1945 and grew up in the segregated South. She followed in her parents’ footsteps, attending LeMoyne College. Her college career did not begin well, with Abron losing her scholarship after her grades slipped and she lost her scholarship. During her sophomore year, she found her passion and switched to a chemistry major. She would go on to graduate from LeMoyne in 1966 with distinction. Her mentors at LeMoyne suggested that she study engineering, which led Abron to Washington University in St. Louis. There, she would earn her M.S. in sanitary engineering. She entered the professional field, working in sanitary departments in Kansas City and Chicago. 

Dr. Abron graduated from the University of Iowa in 1972, becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. She spent a few years in academia, but after finding it didn’t fit her career goals, she moved on and established PEER Consultants, earning her another first – the first African-American to establish an engineering consultant firm focused on environmental issues. PEER focuses on developing long-term and sustainable solutions for environmental issues.

Abron was inducted into the College of Engineering’s “Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy” in 19996 and received the University of Iowa Hancher-Finkbine Alumni Medallion in 1999. She is also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and has served on the board of several charitable organizations.



American Council of Engineering Companies. (2021, February 17). Black History Month Profile: Lilia Abron, Shattering Glass Ceilings.

PEER Consultants. (n.d.). Our Story. PEER Consultants, P.C.

The History Makers. (n.d.). Lilia Abron’s Biography.

Williams, R. (2022, January 5). Black Women in STEM: Dr. Lilia A. Abron. Owlcation.

Fall in Love at the Engineering Library!

This week is the beginning of February, which means love is in the air! However, it is still winter, so going out to find love may be more difficult than expected. Instead, find love in a book all month long here at the Engineering Library with Blind Date with a Book.

How it works:

  1. Come to the Engineering Library and find the Blind Date with a Book shelf (we’ll point it out to you if you can’t find it!)
  2. Browse the wrapped books and pick one out based on the notes on the outside
  3. Bring the book to the counter and check out like normal. Check out periods are the same as they are for all of our library materials. (Check out this page for more information on our loan policies)
  4. Take the book home, unwrap it, and enjoy!
  5. Fill out the short survey on the bookmark and return the book and bookmark to us

We have a mix of fiction and non-fiction books available to take home. Blind Dates are available all month on a first-come-first-serve basis. Come in and fall in love!

Special thanks to Rita Sonksen, English and American Lit Librarian, who helped with fiction book selection.

George Nissen and the Trampoline

George Nissen was born in Blairstown, Iowa in 1914 and moved to Cedar Rapids as a child. It was at the local YMCA that he would learn both tumbling and diving. In 1930, 16 year-old Nissen attended a circus performance where he saw acrobats falling onto safety nets, finishing their descents with somersaults. Nissen considered the opportunities for gymnasts like him using a similar apparatus. Over the next few years, he would create a few prototypes using materials he could find, including iron from the local scrapyard and his own bed. 

Nissen posing on his trampoline

Nissen brought his athletic and academic skills to Iowa City as a student here at the University. He graduated in 1937 with a degree in Business Studies. During his time at school, he was an active member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, a three-time NCAA gymnastics champion, and participated in the annual Dolphin Shows – aquatic showcases that featured divers and acrobatics. Upon graduation, Nissen and two of his friends joined forces as a traveling acrobatic group, utilizing the Nissen’s trampoline as part of their act. The Three Leonardo’s, as they were known, ended their touring when Nissen joined the Navy to fight in World War II. 

Nissen would receive the patent for his “Tumbling Device” on March 6, 1945, for which he would later register the trademark “trampoline,” inspired by “el trampolin,” Spanish for “diving board.” He then got to work using the knowledge from his Business Studies degree to market his invention. Some of his first buyers were the United States Military and NASA, who used it as a tool to train pilots and astronauts to quickly adapt to changing orientations. Working with Scott Carpenter, a pilot who would later become an astronaut, Nissen created a game called “Spaceball.” Check out this short video to see this fun sport that combines elements of volleyball, basketball, tumbling, and other sports. 

Nissen’s first trampoline patent, US 2,370,990

The trampoline’s popularity would soon explode, and soon they were both exercise and play equipment. In the 1960’s, trampoline parks began to spring up, similar to those that have gained popularity in the past few years. However, these quickly gained a reputation for being dangerous, which Nissen blamed on poor training of the users, staff, and owners, and discouraged this kind of use. In 1962 the International Gymnastics Federation recognized trampolining as an official sport, but it wouldn’t be until the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 that it would become an Olympic sport. Nissen, 86, was present to see the sport he had created bounce onto the largest stage imaginable, and was even invited to jump on the Olympic trampoline. 

Nissen passed away in 2010 at the age of 96. He had spent his entire life advocating for his invention and building a company rooted in passion. Today trampolines are as popular as ever, both in the backyard and the gym. 

Works Cited

Covington, A. (2021, July 30). The Bizarre and Utterly American History of Trampolining – the Olympics Most Airborne Sport. Esquire.

George Nissen. (n.d.). Lemelson-MIT.

Hevesi, D. (2010, April 13). George Nissen, Father of the Trampoline, Dies at 96. The New York Times.

Kindy, D. (2020, March 5). How the Trampoline Came to Be. Smithsonian Magazine.

Time Machine: George Nissen, trampoline inventor. (2016, September 10). The Gazette.

University of Iowa. (1937). University of Iowa Hawkeye Yearbook, 1937. Student Publications, Inc.

Welcome Back, Engineers!

We’re diving back into classes, so make some plans to dive into library events too! Here’s a sneak peek of what we’re up to this semester:

Each month

Research Scholars Workshops: Join us for monthly webinars on advanced research topics. Keep an eye on our website and social media so you don’t miss your chance to sign up. 


Blind Date with a Book:  Take a break and cozy up with a surprise book from the Engineering library. Offerings will include a wide variety of books, from fun fiction to short novels. Come in and check one out for a fun surprise!


Pi Day: Pi is an important number, so we like to celebrate it here in the Engineering Library! The official Pi day is March 14 (3.14), which is during Spring Break, so we’ll be celebrating on a different day. Keep an eye on our social media channels to make sure you don’t miss it! 


Research Week: The week of the Research Fair, we will have several events here in the library. These will include workshops, and a chance to meet or become a living book! 

These are only a few of the events we’ll be doing this semester. As always, keep an eye on our social media for the most up-to-date information. You can find us at @uienglib on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Snowflake Photography

Snowflakes are tiny works of art, and the science of snowflake photography gives us a unique insight to that world. The man who developed snowflake photography was Wilson Alwyn Bentley, known in his later years as Snowflake Bentley. Born in 1865 in Jericho, Vermont, Bentley’s research of snow and weather patterns started as a teenager, studying snowflakes under a microscope on his parents’ farm. He drew sketch after sketch of his snowflakes, but when he stumbled upon information of microscope photography, he convinced his father, who was practical to a fault, to purchase a camera with the appropriate equipment for his next endeavor. 

Snowflake Bentley photographing snow crystals. He worked quickly in a cold room or outside to keep the snowflakes from melting before he could get the photomicrograph.

It would take Bentley more than a year to find success. The ice crystals would melt quickly, and the photo developing process took a lot of time and effort, especially considering that Bentley was a newcomer to photography. After much trial and error, Bentley had success on February 15, 1885 when he got his first clear image, also known as a photomicrograph. He is quoted as saying “The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshiping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.” Because of his lack of education, Bentley felt his contributions were unworthy of note. Eventually, he met a local professor, who convinced him to submit his first article “A Study of Snow Crystals,” which was published in 1898 in Popular Scientific Monthly.  This opened to floodgates, and soon he was publishing articles and traveling the country to give presentations. 

Even living in snowy New England, he couldn’t work with snowflakes year-round. He eventually expanded his studies to include other precipitation, including rainfall, mist, and dew, but snow remained his passion. In 1931, he published his life’s work Snow Crystals. This book included almost 2,500 photomicrographs of snowflakes. If you’re interested in seeing Bentley’s work, you can see some of his photomicrographs through the Smithsonian’s online collections, or you find a copy of Snow Crystals at the Science Library. Later that year, Bentley caught pneumonia and passed away at home on December 23rd, 1931. 

A photomicrograph taken by Bentley

Bentley created his photomicrographs by capturing the snowflakes on white velvet, then scratching the emulsion off the plate to create the back background. This allowed Bentley to edit out non-symmetrical parts, which contributed to the myth that all snowflakes are completely symmetrical. Our current technology allows for more accurate images of snowflakes. With a willingness to stand outside and a DSLR camera (which you can check out from our tool library), and a macro lens, you too can take your own stunning snowflake photographs! If you follow photographer Craig Goodwin’s advice, the process of snowflake photography hasn’t changed much from Bentley’s time. If you want to read more about Goodwin’s process, you can find his blog post here. If you’re not a photographer, or aren’t interested in sitting outside to catch snowflakes, you can see some great flakes in The Art of the Snowflake: a photograph album by Kenneth Libbrecht, available here at the Engineering Library.  

A snowflake photograph by Kenneth Libbrecht.


Works Cited

Goodwin, C. (2019, March 2). How to Photograph Snowflakes (and Blow Your Mind). Craig Goodwin Photography.

Jericho Historical Society. (n.d.). Snowflake Bentley. Snowflake Bentley.

Jones, P. A. (2017, December 23). Wilson A. Bentley: The Man Who Photographed Snowflakes. Mental Floss.

Smithsonian Institution. (2021, December 20). How do you photograph a single snowflake?

Snow Engineering

Now that we have entered the snowy time in the year, we might as well embrace the snow. Although we may not see snow as a positive thing, there are many cultures that take advantage of its unique properties. The Inuit peoples of North America and Greenland use snow to create igloos, also spelled “iglu.” This form of shelter is also sometimes known as an aputiak. These temporary buildings are built entirely of snow, and are usually used as hunting lodges.


Inuit Village, Oopungnewing, near Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in the Mid-19th century


While a structure made out of snow may seem like a chilly prospect, but they Inuit hunters could stay in their igloos for entire winters quite comfortably. Not only does the igloo block cold wind, the densely packed snow acts as an insulator to keep those inside warm. In fact, the longer an igloo is used, the more durable it becomes! As people move around inside the structure, the snow melts but refreezes as temperatures drop, creating thin layers of ice. In fact, a well built igloo can support the weight of an entire person. 

But how are igloos built? The main component needed is packed snow. Most snow that falls from the sky in Iowa isn’t going to be dense enough. If you want the appropriate building material you’ll either have to move north – at least to Northern Minnesota. If you find a snow bank that has been packed by wind, you may be able to cut it out and use it, but you will likely need to put in some extra work to pack snow to make blocks. 

Once you choose how large you would like your structure to be, you can begin building. These blocks should not be completely square, but wedge-shaped. This, combined with building in a spiral allows for a self-supported dome. If your dome is completely semi-circular, not all of the blocks share compressive forces, making it more likely to fall. Instead, build your igloo to be a parabolic or catenary arch, more egg-shaped than the dome on the Old Capitol. If you want all the ins and outs of the project, come in and check out How to Build an Igloo and Other Snow Shelters by Norbert E. Yankielun.

If you don’t think you can make your own igloo from scratch, you don’t have to be completely kept out of the fun. A Canadian company called PlaySnow makes igloo-shaped support structures that can be covered in snow to make a structure that is sturdy and safe from collapse. They are designed for children, so take that into consideration before you purchase one for your wintertime fun, since a too-small igloo is uncomfortable.  

Inuit Village, Oopungnewing, near Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in the Mid-19th century
A PlaySnow structure


Works Cited

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). igloo | dwelling. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Hoyt, A. (2021, February 20). How Igloos Work. HowStuffWorks.

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Igloo.

Santa’s Lapland. (n.d.). Interesting Facts About Igloos | Santa’s Lapland.

Yankielun, N. E., & Bauer, A. (2007). How to Build an Igloo: And Other Snow Shelters (Illustrated ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.

Coast into Winter Fun

You’re almost done with the semester, and soon you’ll have time to go outside and enjoy the snow. Have you ever thought about the history of sleds? 

Sled race, anyone?

Sleds have a very long history, helping us to work and play. You may have spent your snow days gliding downhill on a plastic saucer or an innertube style sled. The story of the Flexible Flyer is one of engineering, redesigning, and risk.

The Flexible Flyer

Samuel Leeds Allen loved winter activities. From “coasting” (the term used for downhill sledding in the Victorian  era), to ice skating, it was difficult to keep him inside during the Philadelphia winter. During his childhood, toboggans were the most common version of a sled. Having no runners or brakes, riders had to dig a heel into the snow to turn or stop. He was also a tinkerer from a young age. His mother was quoted as saying “I never saw anyone with such perseverance. He never seemed to give up on an idea.” Allen’s teachers believed him to be lazy because he didn’t engage well with the lessons, preferring experiential learning over rote learning. 

After leaving school, Allen moved to live with a relative on a farm in New Jersey. It was there that he started making improvements to farming implements. Eventually he created his own company, S.L. Allen & Co., which made seeders, hoes, plows, harrows, corn shellers, feed grinders, and lawn mowers, among other things. He worked hard to cultivate relationships with buyers, and utilized advertisements in existing publications as well as creating his own. Allen also thrived because of patents and the protection of intellectual property they provided. 

While enjoying sledding with his daughters, Allen’s mind turned to improving the experience. His daughter remembers having to sled down hills again and again and reporting every thought about the ride. Eventually, he would patent his first sled in 1887 called the “Fairy Coaster.” It was large enough to hold three riders on its padded seat, and was steerable with a braking system. However, at $50, the price point was out of reach for most consumers. It was an absolute failure. 

Patent 408,681, the Flexible Flyer

Allen learned from this episode, and worked to improve his design. In 1889 he would be awarded his second patent, this time known as the Flexible Flyer. Again, it looked like the product would be a failure. For several years, Allen’s sled would again fail to sell significant numbers. It wasn’t until people started getting more free time in the mid 1890’s that they had time to enjoy sledding. By 1910, the Flexible Flyer would become the most popular brand, with distinctive branding and features. You can even get your own Flexible Flyer today! 

Sledding on Sand

Maybe your winter plans include more tropical climates – you can still sled! Did you know that some of the first sleds were used on wet sand? There is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians used sleds to efficiently move large blocks of stone. I’m sure you could also take a snow saucer down a sand dune.

The native peoples of Hawaii also have their own version of sledding, called hee holua, or “sled riding.” 12-foot long wooden sleds are ridden down a kahua holua (sledding course), which is made out of lava-gravel. Riders usually ride the sled lying down face first, standing up, or kneeling. Speeds can reach 50-80 miles per hour! 

Sledding on Flat Land

Sleds are also helpful tools to move across flat snow-covered land, but you’ll need some extra power. Dogsledding is one method, utilizing special breeds of dogs who have strong legs and thick coats. Today most of us are most familiar with the Iditarod, a race between Anchorage to Nome, a distance of 938 miles that typically takes 8 to 15 days. This race commemorates the “Great Race of Mercy,” a rush to get diphtheria antitoxin to an ice-bound Nome in the winter of 1925. The serum was transported by relay, and most of the dogs in the original effort ran an average of 31 miles. 

Balto was the lead dog when his owner Leonhard Seppala delivered the serum to Nome

If you don’t have a team of dogs, you can simply kick yourself to your destination. Resembling dogsleds, kicksleds are found in Northern Europe, and work exactly how you think they would. The user stands on the back, and simply kicks to create forward momentum. They were most popular in the mid-2oth century, but you may see some around if you visit during kicksledding weather. Because the runners are very narrow (think ice-skates), they work best on ice or very hard snow.

This model looks like she’s getting some real speed using her kicksled.

What do you think now? Will you be sledding this winter? Share your tips and tricks with us below!


Works Referenced:

Bisno, A. (2021, December). The sled that steers. United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Green, A. (2013, December 24). A Brief History of the Sled. Popular Mechanics.

Leonard, D. (2020, December 10). The history of sledding. Grunge.Com.

McCarthy, E. (2012, December 28). 25 Things You Might Not Know About Sledding. Mental Floss.

Meredith, D. (2016, January 12). Dogsledding. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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