Hockey team owners hate them because the fans would rather watch them instead of going to the concession stand. Olympic champion Sonja Henie had two of them. The company that makes the things with a funny name holds a near monopoly. How it came to be invented is the classic tale of one opportunity leading to another and necessity being the mother of invention.
Frank Zamboni was a constant inventor and entrepreneur. He and his brother, Lawrence, moved to California in 1922 and opened an auto repair business. They soon grew tired of it. Next, they opened an electrical service business. They built and installed large refrigeration units for dairies to keep their milk cool. They expanded the business to take care of the produce industry by building a plant that made blocks of ice that produce wholesalers could pack into railroad cars with their perishable product for shipment across the country.
Refrigeration techniques improved and the demand for block ice diminished. They looked for other opportunities to use their expertise in making ice.
Ice skating became extremely popular in the 1930s. There were few rinks in Southern California due to obvious climate conditions. So, Frank and Lawrence built the Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount, California. The rink is still in operation, today.
When it opened, it was one of the largest ice rinks in the country with 20,000 square feet of iced surface and room for 800 skaters. It was an open-air facility and the hot sun and dry winds made it hard to keep a good sheet of ice, so, they built a domed roof over it.
At that time, resurfacing the ice was accomplished by pulling a scraper behind a tractor, then three or four workers would shovel up the shavings, spray water on the ice, then squeegee it clean.
Then, the water was allowed to freeze. The whole process would take over an hour.
Frank Zamboni, always the inventor, began thinking of a way to make a smooth sheet of ice quickly with one machine.
Frank bought a tractor in 1942 and built a machine he put on a sled to be towed behind it. The first machine failed to smooth the ice or pick up the "snow". He tried many variations of the same design without success. In 1947, he came up with a new idea- a machine that would shave the ice, remove the shavings, wash and squeegee the ice, then hold the snow in an elevated tank large enough to last for resurfacing of the entire rink.
The new machine, named Prototype number three, still didn't work right, but he used its parts to build a four-wheel drive machine that did work. By the summer of 1949, Zamboni was able to consistently get a good sheet of ice. He named the first successful working machine the Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer.
They used the first machine at the Paramount Iceland Skating Rink. It had four-wheel drive with four-wheel steering built on a handmade chassis Frank made using war surplus axles and engine parts. He put a cover over the conveyor chain to keep snow from falling back onto the new ice. It had an in-tank snow melting and washing system. The wooden sides were hinged so accumulated snow could be shoveled out. Water was re-circulated to wash the ice before applying the final coat of water.
In 1950, Olympic skating star Sonja Henie's traveling ice show was practicing at the Iceland Skating Rink. She saw the Zamboni in action and had to have one. She asked Frank Zamboni if he could build one in time for her upcoming Chicago performances. He worked night and day, loaded the parts into a trailer, and drove it to Chicago behind the Jeep he would install the parts on. He assembled Model B right there on site.
Sonja Henie, later, bought another Zamboni, which she took with her on tour in Europe. Zamboni built two more Model Bs. One he sold to the Ice Capades, which is now on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the other to the Winter Garden ice rink in Pasadena, California.
Today, Frank J. Zamboni & Co. operates two plants and makes about 200 Zamboni machines a year. You can still see them driving them from the plant down the street to the Paramount Iceland Skating Rink for test runs. It takes about eight months to assemble each Zamboni.
In addition to ice surfacers, the company makes a Zamboni to suck up rainwater off of Astroturf playing fields, and another that rolls up and lays down Astroturf called the Grasshopper.
A Zamboni has a top speed of nine miles an hour and is a fan favorite at hockey and baseball games.
They have built over 6,500 Zamboni machines since 1949 and have sold them around the world.