gear design tech
Much of the gear we now take for granted wasn't around not so long ago. (Photo: Robbie Shade/Flickr)

The 10 Greatest Gear Innovations of the Past Century

Because a world without internal-frame backpacks, bike derailleurs, and wetsuits would be a darker place

Robbie Shade/Flickr(Photo)
Bob Parks

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Small design shifts can have big consequences, shifting the direction of a sport and bringing a new wave of athletes to the game. Let us now pay homage to these 10 heavy hitters that changed the history of gear.

1926: Metal Edges on Skis

Metal edges changed skiing forever, opening up the mountain to both groms and experts. With them, skiers could carve short, aggressive turns and make controlled stops no matter the conditions.

How’d they come to be? In the 1920s, Austrian accountant Rudolf Lettner nearly killed himself on hickory skis with worn wooden edges. His brain took a cue from the metal tips on his poles, and he screwed thin steel rails to his skis, patenting the idea in 1926.

Steel edges–along with new composite materials that that made skis flexible beginning in the 1940s–set up the resort boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

1937: Derailleurs on Bikes

Hills were cut down to size for cyclists once a mechanism was invented to change gears while in motion.

How it happened: Tullio Campagnolo tinkered with a system in the 1930s, and Lucien Charles Hippolyte Juy released a commercial derailleur in 1938, but the first time the devices were allowed in the Tour de France was 1937. (Before that, racers had to disconnect the rear wheel, spin it around, and reconnect it.)

Derailleurs were a mechanical marvel, and they gave the biggest advantage to cyclists when they were riding hard, an idea that evolves to this day with electronic control of shifting and shocks and hydraulic brakes.

1945: Canoes from Formed Aluminum

Noisy and hot, today’s floating aluminum canoes are minor players in a boating market full of alternatives like kevlar, polyurethanes, and composites. But there was a time when floating tin cans launched a revolution on the water. Suddenly, families could toss a (relatively) lightweight boat on the car and, when on the water, smack on rocks without worry.

Grumman aircraft company vice president William Hoffman invented the craft after one too many portages in the Adirondacks. His insight: the post-war factories could turn out peacetime vehicles as easily as planes.

1952: Wet Suits

Jack O’Neill remade surfing into something that could take place all over the world, any time of year. His idea: surfers could stay warm by covering themselves in neoprene. O’Neill opened his San Francisco store in 1952. (A year earlier a Berkeley professor independently realized that an insulator with a layer of water inside didn’t hamper its warmth.)

To this day, the wet suit has changed the way we dive, kayak, and the places we can hold triathlons.

1967: Internal Frame Backpacks

In the mid 1960s, Greg Lowe thought deeply about how to secure a heavy pack to the users’ bodies when they clambered over rocks. Lowe installed rigid internal frames in his pack so it held closer to the body. He added shoulder stabilizers, a sternum strap, and side compression straps so that it moved with him. It wasn’t until the 1990s that internal frames were widely adopted by everyday hikers, but they so increased comfort on the trail that a wider variety of participants can now tackle multi-day hikes.

1973: Urethane Skateboard Wheels

Engineer Frank Nasworthy’s central insight: Make skateboards slower. The teenager replaced his regular hard clay wheels with prototype urethane wheels after discovering the synthesized rubber at a family friend’s company. The new wheels did, indeed, slow him down. They also enabled carving, powerslides, and tricks that demand adhesion to the ground.

Three years after switching up his wheels, he started a company that sold them. Nasworthy, who is now a biotech engineer, said at the time: “The whole world’s being turned into cement. So why not use it?”

1975: Running Shoes Cushioned by Foam

Chemist David Schwaber invented a soft, plushy kind of foam, which arguably set up the 80s running boom by inviting average people to take up jogging: Who wouldn’t want a bouncy, comfortable ride from the first mile?

The foam was called ethylene-vinyl acetate, or EVA, and was first applied in 1975 to a Brooks shoe called the Villanova (and Lady Villanova).

Since then, it has spread to all major brands, not without some controversy. Some biomechanists point out that EVA creates an unstable platform for the foot, possibly increasing the chance of injury in some designs. Even today, the presence of EVA is a personal decision for runners defined by its utter rejection or enthusiastic embrace.

1982: Running Watches with Heart Rate Monitors

Checking heart rate during a run was once a radical concept. It allowed an athlete to self coach through workouts based on data previously only available in the lab.

Finnish cross country skier Seppo Säynäjäkangas created the first portable heart rate monitor in 1975. Seven years later, his company, Polar, launched the first wireless version, and today such self-coaching has evolved to heart rate in sleep sensors to gauge athlete health, as well as wrist-based heart-rate variability tests to diagnose fatigue.

1989: Mountain Bikes with Suspension

As trail riders know, suspension offers better control on rocky, uneven terrain, allowing bikers to go faster and reducing the chance of a flight over the handlebars.

Motocross mechanic Paul Turner first displayed front and rear bike suspension at a bike show in 1987. Two years later, Turner produced a front-fork system with his company RockShox.

Modern bike suspension engineers have tinkered with the design ever since to prevent too much energy return to the rider and to vary the device’s behavior by terrain. Now we even have computerized electronic systems that adjust the suspension automatically depending on terrain.

2006: Body Sensors Tied to the Cloud

The release of Nike+ in 2006 signaled a change in the way athletes received information about their bodies.

That year, Nike sold a small shoe gadget that wirelessly relayed the wearer’s movements to remote server farms where it was analyzed and displayed on a personal web page.

It seemed like a minor tweak, but cloud-based analytics have allowed sports equipment makers to stick smarts into everything from tennis racquets for swing analysis to concussion helmet sensors for snow sports to power meters for runners.

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