How the snowmobile reinvented winter

Hop on board Joseph-Armand Bombardier's snow machines and discover how one man conquered the Canadian winter.

By Canada Science and Technology Museum

Tourists snowmobiling across the Athabasca Glacier in a Bombardier snow machine. (ca. 1953) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

Joseph-Armand Bombardier of Valcourt, Quebec, wanted to build a vehicle that provided people living in remote areas with reliable winter transport.

Bombardier B-7 Snowmobile. (1939) by Canada Science and Technology MuseumCanada Science and Technology Museum

In 1937, he patented a sprocket wheel and track drive system that would allow a machine to drive over snow and ice.

Bombardier B-7 Snowmobile, sprocket wheel and track drive system. by Canada Science and Technology MuseumCanada Science and Technology Museum

This seemingly minor invention is responsible for the launch of both a major Canadian transportation company, and a recreational sport with enthusiasts all over the world.

A winter scene in Quebec, near Montreal. (1935) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

A matter
of safety 

It is no secret that Canada gets a great deal of snow. Winter travel is often treacherous, but modern tools for taming the snow, such as winter tires and snow-clearing equipment, help keep people moving - most of the time.

A street covered in snow in St. Sauveur, Quebec. (1939) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

But in the first half of the 20th century roads and highways in rural areas of Canada were not plowed so they were often impassable.

First snow vehicle from Armand Bombardier. (1922) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

Joseph-Armand Bombardier began experimenting with snowmobile prototypes as early as 1922.

He started out on open propeller-driven sleighs, before moving on to cars that he modified with chains and tracks.

Snow covered farmhouse, Morin Heights, Quebec. (1939) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

For Bombardier, the urgency of reliable winter transportation hit home when, in 1934, the impassable winter roads prevented him from getting his infant son to hospital.

The boy died of peritonitis (an inflammation of the abdomen lining).

A B12 Bombardier Snowmobile. A B12 Bombardier Snowmobile.Canada Science and Technology Museum

Enter the B7 snow machine 

In 1937, Bombardier built a seven-passenger, covered snowmobile that he called the B7. 

A Bombardier Snowmobile. (1940) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

Built using Bombardier's newly patented sprocket-and-track system, the new snow machine could travel across rough, snow-covered terrain.

A Bombardier Snowmobile. A Bombardier Snowmobile.Canada Science and Technology Museum

At roughly the same price as a low-end car, the B7 became popular with country doctors and vets, and postal, forestry and utility companies.

A Bombardier snowmobile with tourists out on the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper, Alberta. (1953) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

The commercial success of the B7 snow machine allowed Bombardier to expand his production facilities.

And in 1941, he developed new snowmobiles capable of carrying more passengers.

Snow mobile ambulance by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

Bombardier's snowmobiles replaced school buses and ambulances until the winter of 1948 when the Quebec government passed laws that required highways and major roads to be cleared of snow.

Snowmobile outside the Lynn Lake, Manitoba, mine office. (1952) by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

Bombardier Ski-doo at Ste. Martine, Quebec. Bombardier Ski-doo at Ste. Martine, Quebec. by UnknownCanada Science and Technology Museum

'The machine that changed Winter'

Sales of his large snow machines began to decline, so Bombardier began to diversify his business to encompass heavy farm equipment. And in 1959, the company released a new, smaller, recreational snowmobile - the Ski-doo.

Design for Ski-doo helmet (ca. 1970) by Jacques OstiguyCanada Science and Technology Museum

The Ski-doo was a smash hit.

Not only was it a commercial success, it became something of a pop culture icon.

Snowmobiling in Jasper National Park, Alberta. Snowmobiling in Jasper National Park, Alberta.Canada Science and Technology Museum

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, snowmobile races were held across North America and Europe.

The bright yellow Ski-doo became a familiar sight in snowy fields and parks.

Bombardier Olympique Ski-Doo. (1964) by Canada Science and Technology MuseumCanada Science and Technology Museum

Joseph-Armand Bombardier passed away in 1964.

But modern versions of his original Ski-doo design are still enjoyed today by enthusiasts and thrill seekers.

Bombardier Olympique Ski-Doo. Bombardier Olympique Ski-Doo. by Canada Science and Technology MuseumCanada Science and Technology Museum

The one millionth and one Bombardier Ski-Doo. (1973) by Canada Science and Technology MuseumCanada Science and Technology Museum

By 1973, the millionth Ski-doo rolled off the assembly line.

This, the million and first machine, was presented to the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Bombardier Challenger 604 Bombardier Challenger 604Canada Science and Technology Museum

Eventually, Bombardier's company expanded into rail aerospace manufacturing, becoming one of Canada’s largest companies.

Snowmobiles on display at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. (2018) by Canada Science and Technology MuseumCanada Science and Technology Museum

And it all started with just a wheel and a track.

Credits: Story

Canada Science and Technology Museum, 2018

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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