The Illustrated History of Inline Skate Design At the U.S. Patent Office:
An Inexpensive Inline Skate for the Masses ... That Everyone Ignored!
By the time the 1930s came along, dozens of inline skate designs had been filed at the U.S. Patent Office ... And the public? Was it interested. ... Not at all!
As far as it was concerned, roller skates had four wheels, two in front and two in back (like a car), and the place to use them was the local roller rink.
Like many inventors before him, Christian Siffert, of Deerfield, Ill., tried to change this. In 1938, he patented a design for an inexpensive inline skate, which he claimed could not only be used on sidewalks but also, with a change to sharp-edged wheels, on ice.
It Goes Into Production
And Siffert's skate didn't only exist on paper, like the designs of so many other inventors. He got it out there! In the mid-1940s, AFCO Products, Inc., of Chicago, started manufacturing -- and even marketing -- his skate. Proof of this was sent to me recently by Rollerblade founder Scott Olson: a photo of an ad for the so-called "Jet" Skate (with Siffert's patent number on it) from the March 1948 issue of Popular Mechanics.
"You will like the new 'Jet' Roller Skate," the ad promises. "[It] goes over cracks and irregular surfaces with a new smoothness. ... Three ball-bearing wheels in line give more speed with less effort."
And the price: $4.95 with free shipping! (One of the reasons for the low cost was the fact that the skate didn't have a boot. Instead, it strapped around the wearer's shoes, like a child's roller skate.)
A Modern Heel Brake
The Jet Skate, the ad claims, is the "only skate" with brakes "to stop quick." And while this claim was likely false -- by then several different brakes had been invented and patented for roller skates -- the brake used on the Jet skate bore an uncanny resemblence to the modern heel brake. And it even worked the same way: "To stop quick, simply raise the toe," the ad explains.
Given the date of the invention, Siffert's brake seems impressive. Brakes have always been -- and still are -- a design issue for skate makers. (Consider the experience of Scott Olson: For the first two years, he was selling an inline skate with no brake at all, which was fine with many of the early adopters -- mostly hockey players -- but a problem for inexperienced skaters. In 1982, he added the toe stop, but found that it didn't work well. Finally in 1984 or 1985, he added the heel brake, which helped beginners get over their fear of being unable to stop.)
But Not the First Heel Brake
But Siffert can't be given the credit for the first heel brake. For that, you have to go back to at least 1892 when Walter Nielson of New York patented his Combined Ice Roller Skate. Nielson left a space at the back of his 14-wheel skate where, he wrote in his patent description, "a pad of rubber, leather, or like material should be placed ... so that when the skater desires to stop, it is only necessary to press the pad ... against the floor or ground."
The skates of Siffert and Nielson have another thing in common. They also were both designed for dry land and ice. Nielson accomplished this feat by designing his skates so an ice blade could be screwed onto the frame when the wheels were removed. Siffert did this by designing special ice wheels. These wheels have a ridge of metal around them, as though each one is wrapped in an ice blade.
The non-ice wheels for the skate are described as "relatively wide, flat rollers." There is no mention of what they are made of, although the body of the skate is to be made of a single piece of sheet metal.
So What Happened?
It's hard to guess how well the Jet skates rolled. A lot probably depended on the wheels and bearings. However, it sounds as though Siffert's ice wheels didn't make the cut and were abandoned sometime before the skates were manufactured. The Popular Mechanics ad offers an "ice skate attachment" for $2.25 "extra." There is no illustration of the attachment, but the word "attachment" makes it sound as though it was a conventional ice blade, which would have been screwed to the frame, rather than a set of special "ice" wheels.
Like all early inline skates, the Jet skates never caught on. Today, they may be a collector's item. ... I have been able to find only one reference to Jet skate online: a defunct auction on Ebay for a AFCO Jet skate ad from 1947.
But you got it hand it to Siffert ... it looks like he gave it a pretty good try!
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Burnson
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