Charlie Brown once said, “There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice.”
For our money, Charlie Brown has never been more right. There is something oddly satisfying about watching a Zamboni machine work as it washes away all the rough edges, leaving behind a shining, shimmering new surface of ice. If only erasing all of life’s rough patches was that easy.
So, where or where did this magical creation come from? Like all great inventions, the Zamboni machine was born out of necessity – resurfacing ice was a laborious process prior to its arrival. But that is only one part of this piece of equipment’s origin story. For the rest, you’ll have to start in the unlikeliest of climates.
Frank Zamboni and the Iceland Skating Rink
The history of the Zamboni machine begins roughly a century ago in, of all places, sunny Southern California. In 1920, mechanic Frank J. Zamboni and his brother Lawrence moved to Los Angeles and began working at their older brother George’s auto repair shop. Soon after, Frank became trained as an electrician and opened the Service Electric Company with Lawrence.
The company made refrigerator units for dairy producers and then got into the ice business, making the block ice used to transport food by rail. As refrigeration technology made this latter specialty obsolete, the brothers looked for new ways to use their ice expertise. Their solution was to build an ice rink to satisfy the growing interest in ice skating.
Iceland Skating Rink opened to guests in 1940. At 20,000 square feet, it was one of the largest rinks in the country, capable of holding up to 800 skaters. That many pairs of skates cutting, scraping and chipping the ice left the rink’s surface in rough shape. At the time, the process of resurfacing an ice rink required several people and took more than an hour. Workers shaved the ice by driving over it with a tractor equipped with a scraper, then discarded the shavings, sprayed the surface with water and washed away the dirty water.
Did you know? Inventor Frank J. Zamboni was, fittingly, born in a town called Eureka (it’s in Utah).
The Zamboni Machine Debuts
Zamboni was sure there was an easier way to accomplish this task and went to work trying to build an ice resurfacing machine. His first idea involved a sled towed by a tractor. It didn’t work. After years of tinkering, he changed course and developed a self-contained vehicle that shaved and washed the ice, and then created a new layer of ice. In 1949, he unveiled the Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer and ice skating was never the same.
(Side note: Before we get any further, we should make clear that “Zamboni” is not a noun, as there are other types of ice resurfacing machines. Therefore, the vehicle is not “a Zamboni,” it is a Zamboni ice resurfacing machine.)
The machine Zamboni built in the 1940s works essentially the same way as those used today. A blade running along the bottom of the vehicle shaves the ice. The shavings are picked up by a horizontal screw and deposited into a snow tank. Water from a second tank washes away dirt and is filtered and sent back into the tank. Lastly, clean hot water is sprayed onto the surface and spread out by a towel pulled by the vehicle to create a new, level layer of fresh ice.
The Zamboni Machine’s Big League Debut
Over the next few years, Zamboni introduced models B through D, each a slight improvement over the previous iteration. But it was the Model E that wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
On New Year’s Day 1954, the Ice Capades were taking place at the Boston Garden, followed by a hockey game between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Resurfacing the ice between events would be a tall task. Fortunately, Bob Skrak, who helped Frank Zamboni get his invention off the ground, was working for Ice Capades at the time. Skark took a Zamboni machine and smoothed the ice quickly and effectively, creating a rink that appeared as if it had never been touched. The Bruins’ management team was so impressed they ordered their own machine. Zamboni Model E 21 arrived later that year and became the first to be used by an NHL team, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Did you know? The Zamboni ice resurfacing machine made its Olympic debut at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.
The Zamboni Company Today
The Zamboni machine has evolved to become a highly effective, increasingly efficient battery-powered vehicle. The firm that produces it, however, has remained consistent. While it has expanded its operations to include factories in Canada and Europe, the Zamboni Company still operates out of Southern California, blocks away from the Iceland Skating Rink. In fact, it’s not uncommon to come across a Zamboni machine cruising along the neighborhood streets on its way to be tested at the rink.
In total, the Zamboni Company has produced more than 12,000 machines since 1949, including the ones you’re likely to see at your local arena.
Learn more about automotive history.