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Joseph-Armand Bombardier
The Father of Snowmobiling

by Murray Lundberg

Originally posted on January 2, 2001

    Joseph-Armand Bombardier is only one of hundreds of inventors who have designed machines for traveling across the snow. The first snowmachine patent seems to have been issued in 1927 to Carl. J. Eliason of Sayner, Wisconsin. Bombardier's development in 1958 of the type of sport machine that we know today as a "snowmobile", however, was instrumental in changing life in all regions that get snow. In the Far North, those changes were both rapid and dramatic.

    Bombardier was born at Valcourt, Quebec, on April 16, 1907. As a teenager, he was fascinated with mechanics, and quickly showed that he had a natural gift for working on machinery. His passion was to develop a machine that could travel across both snow and muskeg, and by 1930 he had built a successful machine that was driven by tracks. It was steered by braking one track or the other, as in the tractors of the time. In 1937 he made his first major breakthrough, building a vehicle with steerable skis in front of a set of tracks.

    In 1942, Bombardier established a company to manufacture his tracked vehicles. Great strides were made in the technology during the war, and in 1947 Bomardier announced a new 12-passenger enclosed snowmachine. Designed primarly for military use, it was quickly adopted for use by the Canadian police, mining and oil exploration companies and even a few ski-hill operators.

    In late 1958, the revolutionary Bombardier sports machine, the Ski-Doo, was introduced. Although the concept was similar to the company's larger machines, the size (and price) of the new "snowmobile" made it an instant hit. Within a decade, even dog-teams in Inuit villages were being replaced by machinery. By the mid-1970s, the U.S. Snowmobile Association was sanctioning over 250 major races across the US and Canada, including a marathon 650-mile one from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.

    The Father of Snowmobiling died at Sherbrooke, Quebec on February 18, 1964. His company, though, has continued to grow. In the early 1970s a major acquisition was made by Bomardier when the Austrian company Lohnerwerke GmbH was purchased. A subsidiary company, Rotax-Werk, was the supplier of the Rotax engine used in Bombardier's snowmobiles and other vehicles and equipment. With plants in Quebec, Austria, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Finald, Mexico, Germany, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and the United States, the company now has 53,000 employees and had sales in January 1999 of $11.6 billion.

    As popular as it is, though, snowmobiling is not without controversy. Conservationists and wilderness travelers are complaining more loudly every year about the physical damage done to sensitive alpine areas, the noise that destroys "the wilderness" for many miles around on a clear winter day, and the harassment or even killing of wildlife by irresponsible riders. For snowmobile riders themselves, drinking and driving is a serious problem, and many deaths occur every year. In the Yukon, going through thin ice after a few drinks dulls judgement seems to be a fairly regular occurence.

    As with so many activities, it's a shame that the actions of a few irresponsible snowmobile riders can result in restrictive legislation being introduced. With a proper attitude, Joseph-Armand Bombardier's brainchild can be a superb way to enjoy the winter.

Bombardier's 12-passenger snowmachine as used by
the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1957
From the RCMP Quarterly, Vol. 24 No. 1 - used here with permission

Skidoo - Official Site

The Effects of Snowmobiles on Sled Dogs
This extract from The Alaska Highway describes the history of snow travel in Alaska and the Yukon

Photo is © 1997-2001 by Bombardier Inc., and is used here with permission.