Fifty years ago, Swiss inventor Hans Martin-a former stunt
pilot-sold his patent for metal ski-boot buckles to Henke, then the world's leading ski boot company. Skiers needed such a convenience. The number of lacing hooks and eyelets on a pair of boots had skyrocketed to as many as 90 with the introduction-around 1950-of the inner boot and rear lacing. A skier could spend as long as 10 minutes lacing the equivalent of four boots before setting out on the slopes, to say nothing of the annoying on-snow adjustments required as the day progressed. But time wasn't the only inconvenience. Unless skiers used a hook-like device to cinch the laces of the stiff leather outer boot, they risked raw, sore fingers. And pity the racer who adjusted his laces on a frigid January day before stepping into the starting gate.
The buckle boot was to be the answer. "No more frozen fingers!" Henke ads trumpeted. "Flip it open... flip it shut. Keep your gloves on!" But when Henke salesmen began to show the $49 Speedfit boot to dealers in 1955, they were often laughed out of shops. At the time, buckles were associated with boots worn to walk through snowy, slushy streets. "Who would want to wear galoshes to ski?" shop owners sneered.
Skiers were equally slow to embrace the new laceless boot-reluctant to give up lacing's close, comfortable fit. The infinite adjustability of laces offered skiers the most personalized fit they would see until custom foam liners arrived 20 years later.
By contrast, early buckles created painful pressure points on the foot. Racers-usually the first to adopt new technology-didn't embrace the buckle boot until the early 1960s, when hand-lasted inners and improved tongues reduced hot spots. Still, a racer would wear out a boot within a few weeks as the leather stretched beyond repair.
What performance-minded skiers really needed was leather's replacement: plastic. In Dubuque, Iowa, plastic boot inventor Bob Lange equipped his early prototypes with laces, but it was almost impossible to cinch the stiff plastic tight. Only buckles, Lange discovered in 1965, would enable his new plastic boot to work. Fortunately for him, the buckle had already been invented...and the ski boot-and the ease of skiing-changed forever.