Once upon a time, if you wanted to ski downhill, you had to hike uphill first. There were other ways to get people up a mountain, like trains or horse-drawn carriages, but you can see how this would be rather time-consuming and limited in the number of people served. There had to be a better way.
According to the association, German farmer and innkeeper Robert Winterhalder invented the world’s first overhead cable tow in 1906—skiers hooked handles onto the water-powered continuous cable above their heads, then glided uphill on their skis. Though it was easy to use, Winterhalder’s invention didn’t catch on elsewhere.
In America, the first surface lift—the umbrella designation for uphill transportation that keeps a skier’s skis on the ground—was a steam-powered toboggan tow built in Truckee, California, in 1910 and later adopted by skiers.
Canadian skier Alex Foster built the first working model of the rope tow—a continuous rope that skiers simply grabbed onto and held with their hands—in 1931 outside of Shawbridge, Quebec. By 1934, the tow rope technology had made its way to Woodstock, Vermont.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Swiss ski mountaineer and mechanical engineer Ernst Constam invented the world’s first J-bar in 1934 in Switzerland, followed by the two-passenger T-bar in 1935. Both technologies quickly caught on across Europe and the U.S.
Still, all these methods were designed for athletic people, and they were still limited in how many skiers they could serve at once. Meanwhile, ski resorts were opening in the Western US and needed to accommodate as many people as possible to turn a profit. So James Curran invented the ski chairlift, although he was neither a resort employee nor a skier! He didn’t have a college degree, and he never profited from his invention. Read the story of Curran’s chairlift at Smithsonian.
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