The Pioneer Stage
The “figure” skate had its beginnings in the late 17th century in England during the period of Restoration, after King Charles II, who while exiled in Holland, fell in love with skating. Upon his return to England in 1658, the King brought back with him two unique innovations – a pair of iron skates and the Dutch roll. The Dutch roll was the first form of a gliding or skating motion made possible by the iron skate’s two edges.
During the Pioneer stage, the English skate-makers at first copied the Dutch skate, which was designed for long distance skating and as a means of transportation on the country’s canals. The Dutch invented the first iron blade, which was attached to a wooden platform with the distinctive front “prow” (tip) arched upward to allow the skater to safely glide over rough and dangerous ice conditions. The blade itself was low to the ice for added balance and stability. It promoted straight ahead skating with speed, and virtually no allowance for deep outside or inside edges.
In contrast, the needs of the British skaters did not match the function of the Dutch design; the distinctive prow was unnecessary as skating took place on smaller ponds and the feature made it difficult to climb up snow-packed embankments. English skaters wanted a skate that supported deep edges, quick turns and tight circles. After a period of trial and error, the English skate makers designed a shorter, higher skate that was curved on the bottom that today is known as the rocker.
“Only two inches of the blade touched the ice at any one time,” said Nigel Brown in “Ice Skating: A History”. He went on to claim that these revolutionary changes, “opened up to skating wide possibilities for the improvisation of intriguing exercises.” It is not certain when the rocker was added, but as Brown wrote, “It may have been invented logically, for a flat blade causes considerable friction upon the ice.”
By 1770, “fluted skates” had also appeared. Fluted is an architectural term that refers to a shallow groove running vertically along a surface, today referred to as a hollow. Interestingly, the fluted skates did not gain popularity in the beginning. While the blades functional area had improved, the fastening of the skate to the boot was still awkward. The search for the best method continued for hundreds of years, and often created all sorts of unintended consequences. For one, while the skates were evolving, the shoes for skating were just shoes or boots made specifically for walking. Initially the skates were fastened to the shoe with straps. Of course, after skating for a period of time, the straps would loosen, much like laces loosen today. Another unintended consequence was as the skate became more firmly attached to the sole of the shoe, the ankle joint became more susceptible to injury. From this, the natural progression was higher boots to support the ankle, which led to the more modern boot design we use today.