Anyone who has frequented an ice rink has no doubt watched with envy as the driver of the Zamboni machine resurfaces the ice. Behind the famous machines there is a man – Frank Zamboni – who would have turned 119 on January 16th. The innovator, inventor and entrepreneur never came across an obstacle he could not tinker his way through.
Frank J. Zamboni was born in Eureka, Utah. Frank’s parents moved their family (with one year old Frank in tow) from Eureka to a farm in Idaho, where Frank developed his mechanical skills. In 1920, Frank moved to southern California with his brother Lawrence to join their older brother George in his auto repair business. After a short time working on cars, the two younger Zambonis decided to open an electrical service business catering to the local dairy industry. There the brothers installed many refrigerated units dairies used to keep their milk cool.
When the demand for cooling expanded into the produce industry, they moved their business forward with a new vision. They built an ice-making plant and sold large blocks of ice to nearby produce packing plants. But as refrigeration technology improved, demand for block ice began to shrink and Frank and Lawrence started looking for other ways to capitalize on their expertise with the frozen water.
That opportunity came as the popularity of the sport of ice skating grew. There were few rinks in southern California, so in 1939, Frank, Lawrence and a cousin built Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount. Iceland opened in 1940 as one of the largest rinks in the country, with 20,000 square feet of iced surface – enough room for 800 skaters. The original rink was an open-air facility, but was soon covered with a domed roof. Their next challenge was how to best maintain the indoor surface of the rink.
At the time, resurfacing the ice meant pulling a scraper behind a tractor and shaving the surface. Three or four workers would scoop away the shavings, spray the surface with water and then wait for it to freeze – a process that took more than an hour. For Frank it was a puzzle to be solved – how could he make a good sheet of ice in a short period of time? It was not long before he attempted to develop a machine that would make the task of ice-resurfacing fast and efficient.
In March of 1942, Frank bought a tractor and started experimenting. His first attempt was a machine built into a sled towed behind a tractor that neither smoothed the surface nor picked up the “snow” adequately. He repeated experiments for years and went through many designs until the summer of 1949, when he created the “Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer.” Frank applied for and was granted a patent in 1953. The first Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine, Model A, was built, tested, modified and re-tested at Paramount Iceland. In fact, Frank Zamboni wanted to call his company The Paramount Engineering Company after the city that was so dear to his heart, but that name had already been taken. So he named the company after himself, knowing there could be no disputing a name that belonged to him.
Although he had nearly perfected his machine, Frank never stopped experimenting with new innovations and enhancements. In 1954, Zamboni introduced the Model E which became the first standardized design for his machine. Between 1954 and 1955, twenty of these models were manufactured and sold. Among the purchasers was the NHL team the Boston Bruins. They used the Model E for over 30 years and in the late 1980s, they requested that the vintage machine be fully restored by the Zamboni Company. When the restored machine was delivered and ceremoniously turned over at the Boston Garden, it was announced that the Zamboni would be delivered to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a part of its historic collection.
Frank Zamboni passed away in 1988, but his machine and his memory live on. Nearly 20 years after his death, Frank was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his revolutionary machine. Two years later, he was given the ultimate honor by the sport with which he is most closely associated; in 2009, Zamboni was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the few inductees who never played the game competitively.
The Zamboni Company remains in operation today and in April 2012, Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc. delivered its 10,000th production machine. From the 1949 Model A to the 650 Series of electric resurfacer today, Frank Zamboni’s desire to develop the best possible product for his customers remains as strong in his successors over 70 years later. As Frank often pointed out to rink owners, a comment indicative of his own lifelong mission, “The principal product you have to sell is the ice itself.”