The Rise of the Zamboni


1828 speed skating race in the Netherlands

Those of us acquainted with ice hockey have undoubtedly seen the ice cleaning machines mosey on across the ice during intermission. We refer to these rather enormous contraptions as “Zambonis.”

You might be surprised to learn this might be inaccurate, if you can’t confirm the brand of the machine. Zamobi is the name of a company, like Kleenex is the name of a tissue. Though the Zamboni family was the first to market, another company also produces ice resurfacing machines, called the Resurfice Corporation. More on them later; for now we’re going to take you back before either of them and ask, how was ice resurfaced before these big, lovable machines?

You might first wonder when it was that people even started worrying about the quality of ice. In 1763, the first speed skating race was held in England on the Fens, a swampy land in the east of the country. For those intrepid souls out on the ice, they quickly learned the smoothest path would deter unforeseen falls.

Of course, one option was to scrub the ice by hand. Those familiar with the fantastic sport of curling know that to speed up the stone, sweepers buffer that ice to let the stone glide along. But this is a rather time consuming process, especially on a large surface, like one the size of an ice rink. So some interesting contraptions were developed.


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Al Purpur worked for the University of North Dakota for decades and tended to a colossal rink called The Barn. One of the first promoters of ice hockey in Grand Forks in the 1930s, he saw the need to clean the ice at hockey games and decided to create a device. What he developed can be seen on the right, which, according to SiouxSports, “consisted of two barrels, one welded on top of the other, pipes, and valves that directed hot water to the ice through a canvas strip at the bottom rear of the Rube Goldberg contraption (‘My barrel flooding outfit,’ Purpur called it).”

Though this was certainly an upgrade from the manual scrubbing ice, Purpur had to pull the fairly large, hot metal object across the rink. A push-able device would have been an improvement. And it was.

In the early 1940’s, Olympic medalist speed skater Leo Friesinger was quoted as saying, “it is a pleasure for me to return to Minneapolis and skate on the best ice in the United States.” Why would Minneapolis have such nice ice, you might inquire?Well, it was because of two men, Elmer Anderson and Gotfred Lundgren, who worked for the park board and used a three part system: a mechanized sweeper, a tractor drawn ice planer, and a bucket of hot water. The men are pictured on the left in 1935 with their sweeper.

But while all of this was an upgrade, it was not enough. Enter Frank Zamboni.


Early Zamboni. Image credit: eWillys


Zamboni owned a refrigeration company, which made ice to keep dairy products fresh. With the advent of modern refrigeration techniques, Zamboni opted to take his ice expertise to other frozen venues.

He created an ice rink in 1939 in Paramount, California but soon became frustrated by the available ice cleaning methods. He used his mechanical skills to develop a few different models of ice resurfacers, including one that was powered by a Jeep. After a few revisions, in 1949, the Zamboni was born. More than 10,000 Zambonis have been made since.

Since dying in 1988, Frank has since been inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Speed Skating Hall of Fame, among other honors.

However, the Resurfice Corporation has come on with its similar but sleeker model since its 1967 founding. Resurfice has provided the resurfacing machines (and NOT Zambonis!) for multiple Winter Olympics.


Wooden Zamboni c. 1949
image credit: Hemmings Daily