Some of the world’s greatest inventors have launched industries – but did you know some inventors have also launched sports? That’s exactly what happened when Joseph-Armand Bombardier invented the Ski-Doo® snowmobile.
Bombardier is one of 15 legendary creators and innovators we will celebrate this spring as we welcome the 2024 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductees. Read on to learn more about this ambitious inventor and his impact.
An Aptitude for Mechanics
Born April 16, 1907, in Valcourt, Quebec, Canada, Bombardier understood the challenges of living in rural villages where snow made unplowed roads impassable.
He showed an early aptitude for designing and modifying mechanical devices and turning them into mobile toys, such as a miniature locomotive, tractors and boats. He attended Séminaire Saint-Charles-Borromée in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and then opened his own machine shop in Valcourt in 1926. Over the next decade he devoted his spare time to developing a variety of motorized vehicles designed to travel over snow.
To be useful for traversing snowy terrain and navigating through the snow’s changing conditions, a vehicle would need to be light. But at the time Bombardier began designing his vehicles, the only motors on the market were quite heavy. So Bombardier decided to put the motor in the back of the vehicle, and then he redistributed the weight over a track-and-wheel system he devised. A pair of front-mounted skis directed the vehicle, and for propulsion, Bombardier added a rubber-covered sprocket to pull the track.
These ingenious decisions resulted in vehicles that, despite their large size, seemed to “float” over snow.
A Lifelong Dream
Bombardier obtained his first patent, in Canada, for his sprocket wheel/track system in 1937. That same year, he introduced the B7 model, which carried seven passengers in an enclosed compartment. Through the years, he continued perfecting his vehicles and obtained different patents. His vehicles included the 12-passenger B12 snowmobile, and the C18, which offered a capacity of 18 adults or 25 children. These vehicles had many uses, such as delivering mail and goods and operating as school buses.
In 1942, Bombardier incorporated his business as L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée. The company sold several hundred vehicles a year until the late 1940s, when the Quebec government began plowing rural roads and the demand for large snow vehicles declined significantly. Bombardier’s company adapted by producing tracked vehicles for a variety of applications including farming, mining, logging and forestry, and petroleum exploration operations. In the 1950s, Bombardier also began producing his own tracks, which involved patenting his own process for vulcanizing rubber.
Beginning in 1957, Bombardier focused all his time and resources on achieving his lifelong dream of inventing a smaller, fast snowmobile.
At the time, a number of manufacturers had started offering lightweight, powerful, affordable gasoline engines, and these proved to be essential for designing smaller snow vehicles. Bombardier and his staff used a small engine and applied their own innovative designs for other mechanical components, The result was the first rider-over-tunnel design, where the rider straddled an elongated seat and steered a pair of front-mounted skis. Behind the skis, a single wide, seamless track enabled the sled to "float" on the snow at high speed.
An Enduring Impact
In 1959, Bombardier brought a working prototype of his rider-over-tunnel snowmobile to an Ontario missionary outpost. As the first lightweight, maneuverable snow vehicle, Bombardier’s prototype was extremely popular with everyone who gave it a try. The inventor donated this snowmobile prototype to the mission and felt inspired to pursue his idea of using snowmobiles for recreation as well as for work.
Bombardier’s small, affordable vehicle, which was originally called the Ski-Dog, went into production as the Ski-Doo snowmobile in late 1959. Its rider-over-tunnel design became the industry standard.
As snowmobiles became more and more popular for sport and recreational use, an estimated 136,000 miles of signed and maintained snowmobile trails have since been developed by snowmobile clubs and associations in North America.
The successor to L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée, Bombardier Inc., is now a global leader in aviation, focused on designing, manufacturing and servicing business jets. Bombardier’s legacy is celebrated in his hometown of Valcourt at the Musée de l’ingéniosité J. Armand Bombardier and through the Fondation J. Armand Bombardier philanthropic activities. Valcourt is also the corporate and manufacturing headquarters for BRP (Bombardier Recreational Products), which became an independent company in 2003 and is a worldwide leader in recreational vehicles.
Bombardier’s inventions and innovations earned him a total of 16 U.S. patents and made an enduring impact around the world.
Meet More of Our Extraordinary 2024 Inductees
To learn more about the new National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees whose stories will inspire generations through our events, museum exhibits and invention education programs, visit our website.