Try as he might, tall and lanky Howard Head never could claim to be truly proficient at the sports he loved. But he could say that he changed them forever. As he explained it when I first met him, he was a frustrated weekend athlete, and he thought that his frustration was linked to the equipment available.
By bringing his talent for physics and kinesthetics to bear on equipment designs, Head earned himself a fortune, renowned status in the sports world, and, recently, a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Head, who was a client of mine, was inducted in May 2017 for his contributions to the sports of skiing and tennis.
In 1947, the 32-year-old engineer for the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company went to Vermont to go skiing for the first time. It didn’t go well. Head would later say he was “humiliated and disgusted” by his initial attempt at the sport. It wasn’t just his inexperience at play; Head was certain that the common skis of the day – thick, heavy, and made of wood– were a major culprit in his poor performance.
With a talented eye for envisioning the inherent structure of things, Head got to work almost immediately at designing a new kind of ski. After three years and numerous failures, he finally hit upon the right design: an aluminum ski with a plywood core, steel edges, and a polyethylene coating to prevent icing.
The design caught on immediately; by the mid-’60s, $25 million worth of Head skis were being sold every year. In 1969, he sold his company for $16 million and retired with his wife to their home in Baltimore.
For most people, that would be the end of their productive years – but not Howard Head. When he took up tennis a few years later, the process repeated itself. Frustrated by his poor play, Head not only improved the tennis ball throwing machine â€“ and purchased 25 percent of the company that manufactured it, Prince Manufacturing– but also sought once again to improve the primary equipment of the sport: the tennis racket.
Head modernized the racket as he had done with skis. He greatly increased the “sweet spot” of the racket by 40 percent, making high-speed, accurate shots much easier to accomplish. The PRINCE® racket with its large sweet spot and an enlarged racket face was accomplished all while keeping the same general weight, length and balance for the racket as in conventional rackets – an unexpected synergistic approach that made the racket very playable, especially for the average tennis player.
When he first brought his big racket into the office, explaining it so that a patent application could be prepared and filed, and holding it next to a regular size racket, Head said: “Mark my words: this new large racket will make the current small rackets obsolete very shortly.” How right he was.
As with the skis, Head tested many different designs before hitting upon the right one. He also experimented with making rackets with various new materials. The PRINCE® Graphite model then became the best-selling tennis racket in the United States.
Head faced an uphill battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, however, which initially judged his racket as “no more than an obvious extension of the state of the art in tennis-racket design,” according to Head. The Patent Examiner merely viewed the new racket as a “big” tennis racket, and an invention is not patentable just for making something bigger. We eventually demonstrated its novel features and secured Patent No. 3,999,756, granting him and Prince a patent on rackets having the properties noted above. While other companies manufactured their own, larger-than-traditional rackets, Prince’s strong patent helped the company flourish for many years – and made Head a legend in the tennis world just as he had become in skiing.
But Head was never in it for the glory or riches. As he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1980, “I invent when it’s something I really want. The need has to grow in your gut. People who go around trying to invent something generally fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem.”
As problem-solvers go, Howard Head might have been one of the best the world has ever seen.