February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Howard Head

Howard Head, the son of a Philadelphia dentist, grew up wanting to be a writer like his older sister, a novelist. To get through Harvard, however, he had to switch his studies from English to engineering in his third year. Undaunted, after graduating with honors in 1936 Head took a scriptwriting job for the old March of Time newsreels. He was fired after nine months because he did no writing.

By 1939 Head’s writing career had not progressed beyond being a $20-a-week copyboy at the old Philadelphia Public Record. Bewildered as to his future he actually took an aptitude test at the Stevens Institute. Head’s test scores for creative writing were the lowest ever tested. On the other hand his score in structural visualization was the highest ever.

Head went to work as a riveter for the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Baltimore. Within a year he was promoted to the engineering department and spent World War II designing improvements for attack bombers and flying boats. There were no more silly thoughts of writing.

After the war Head went skiing for the first time. “I was humiliated and disgusted by how badly I skied,” he would recall. Characteristically he blamed such dismal failure on the clumsy hickory skis of the day. Back in Baltimore he set up a shop on the second floor of a converted stable near his one-room basement apartment.

Head sought to create a new metal ski of lightweight aluminum sandwiched around a center of honeycombed plastic. Head tinkered and experimented for months until he had produced his first six pairs of skis. He raced north to Stowe, Vermont to have the skis tested by pros. To test flexibility and strength the skis were stuck into the snow and flexed. One by one, each ski broke.

Not only would Head not give up, he resigned from Martin the day after New Year’s 1948 and took $6000 in poker winnings to go into the ski business full time. Three years and 40 design versions would pass before Head had a ski that achieved what Head sought: a stronger, livelier ski that was resistant to twisting.

The skis turned so much easier than traditional wooden skis they were dubbed “cheaters.” By the end of the 1950s some 200,000 Head skis were in use. In the next decade Head realized that he was not cut in the mold of manager of a $25 million-a-year company and in 1969 he sold Head Ski Company to AMF for $16,000,000. At 55 Head retired.

Like many retirees Howard Head took up tennis. As with skiing, he was horrible. After $5000 worth of lessons had done little to remedy the situation one of his frustrated instructors suggested Head get a ball machine to practice with. Head ordered a ball machine from a new company in New Jersey named Prince.

Head found the ball machine to be of ingenious design but filled with flaws. He offered a few design suggestions and wound up with 25% of the company and the titles of chief design engineer and chairman of the board. The Prince ball machine soon dominated the market. Head now had a dandy ball machine but his tennis game was still lousy.

He turned to the instrument of his frustration: the racket. He dabbled for two years before he began to enlarge the racket. Even Head was unaware of all the benefits he was reaping. Yes, the racket was more resistant to twisting on impact but by making the racket face wider Head also had to make it longer. And those three added inches in the throat of the racket was where he “struck gold.”

The seemingly innocuous three inches of stringing in the throat not only gave players a “super sweet spot” with more power and control but it was the basis by which Head was able to patent his racket design. Patent No. 3,999,756 was granted in 1976. The Prince Graphite racket became so successful some tennis shops sold nothing but Head rackets. The former, standard size tennis racket has gone the way of tennis trousers and long skirts.

Howard Head had revolutionized two sports simply because he wanted to get better. It was not a script he could have written.

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