SI Vault
Howard Head says 'I'm giving up the thing world'
Ray Kennedy
September 29, 1980
The inventor of the revolutionary Head ski and Prince racket has decided that the world will have to wait for a better snorkel. At 66, he's geared down, savoring life and trying to "reinvent" himself
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 29, 1980

Howard Head Says 'i'm Giving Up The Thing World'

The inventor of the revolutionary Head ski and Prince racket has decided that the world will have to wait for a better snorkel. At 66, he's geared down, savoring life and trying to "reinvent" himself

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Prince Manufacturing Inc., itself a youngster, has been focusing its promotional efforts on the youth market with impressive results. Six of the eight quarterfinalists in the 1980 NCAA championships were Princelings. So are half of the 22 members of the U.S. Junior Davis Cup teams. And in the Brand Name Open, Prince claims to have won more junior titles this year than the Jack Kramer Autograph squad ever did. Many of the junior heavies are from the ranks of Nick Bollettieri, the no-nonsense teaching pro who runs a tennis boot camp near Sarasota, Fla. (SI, June 9, 1980). What Nick says goes, and what he says is, "Prince is the racket of the future. It will be used by the players who will dominate tennis a few years from now."

The present is all déjà vu to Head. He went through this before with his Head ski, and he is struck by the similarities. "With both my skis and my racket I was inventing not to just make money, but to help me," he says. "I invent when it's something I really want. The need has to grow in your gut. People who go around trying to invent something generally fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem."

It has been said of Head that if he were an omelet chef, he would redesign the egg. True, but what he is is a sportsman who learned to win by losing his patience but never his stubbornness. "Visionaries don't get things done," says Head. "The idea for an invention is only 5% of the job. Making it practical is 95%. You have to have a perfectionist streak, and you have to let that streak run until the product works."

Head's daughter, Nancy Everly, says of her father, "If he gets annoyed with something, he changes it. Most people never get that annoyed, or they get frustrated and give up." His third wife, Joan, adds, "Howard never gives up."

Well, he did once, but only after he was convinced that not even he could redesign fate. Son of a Philadelphia dentist, Head grew up wanting to be a writer like his older sister, Hannah Lees, a novelist and magazine contributor. At Harvard, though, his English grades were so shaky that he switched to engineering sciences in his third year. He graduated with honors in 1936. Still stubbornly pursuing a literary career, he took a job as a scriptwriter for the old March of Time newsreels, but he was fired after nine months because he did no writing. Shortly thereafter he took a job at Pathé News, again as a writer, but was fired after six weeks for spending top much time repairing the film splicers. "Fiddling with those machines was more fun than writing," says Head. "Too bad I didn't realize then what that meant."

The realization came three years and a lot of lost jobs and won poker hands later. It was 1939, and finding that he hadn't progressed beyond being a $20-a-week copyboy at the Philadelphia Public Record, Head concluded that maybe the writing was not in his typewriter but on the wall. "Something was wrong," he says. Desperate, he took an aptitude test at the Stevens Institute, and "to my great anger and disbelief, I found I had the lowest potential for creative writing they had ever tested."

In structural visualization, however, his score was the highest ever. "That meant I could think in three dimensions," Head explains. "I don't just see a structure; I feel it. When I see a suspension bridge, I can feel the compression and tension of the cables just as I feel the sinews working in my arm."

Head put his feel to work, first as a riveter and then as the boss of a rivet gang at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. in Baltimore, hammering out B-26 attack bombers and PBM-3 flying boats during World War II. Within nine months he was promoted to the engineering department, where, he says, "I turned out to be embarrassingly good at structural design. Finally I was home."

In 1946 Head went off to Stowe, Vt. for his first attempt at skiing. "I was humiliated and disgusted by how badly I skied," he recalls, "and, characteristically, I was inclined to blame it on the equipment, those long, clumsy hickory skis. On my way home I heard myself boasting to an Army officer beside me that I could make a better ski out of aircraft materials than could be made from wood."

Back at Martin, the cryptic doodles that began appearing on Head's drawing board inspired him to scavenge some aluminum from the plant scrap pile. In his off-hours he set up shop on the second floor of a converted stable in an alley near his one-room basement flat. His idea was to make a "metal sandwich" ski consisting of two layers of aluminum with plywood sidewalls and a center filling of honeycombed plastic.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7