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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Overhead Ski Lift

Inventor: Fredrick Bryon Tomlinson ’35 Th’36

Fredrick Bryon Tomlinson
Courtesy of Thayer School of Engineering.

When he designed the Dartmouth Ski Tramway, Fredrick Bryon Tomlinson ’35 Th’36 was a student working under the direction of Thayer School Professor William P. Kimball ’28. Tomlinson’s J-bar, installed at Oak Hill Ski Area in 1935 for $3,000—about $50,000 in today’s currency—is considered the nation’s first overhead ski lift. With an 80-horsepower engine, it could transport 600 skiers each hour up 1,200 linear feet for an elevation gain of 350 feet. Although the lift was relatively small, its impact was national. It became the conceptual model for Sun Valley’s first chairlift, built in 1937 by Kimball’s classmate Charlie Proctor ’28.

What’s up for debate is how much of the Dartmouth Ski Tramway was invention and how much was engineering innovation. Tomlinson’s original pencil sketches are housed in Dartmouth’s Rauner Library, but the actual idea for the Oak Hill project came from Dan Hatch, manager of the Dartmouth Outing Club.

Oak Hill Ski Area
Photograoh courtesy of Dartmouth College Archives.

Hatch had seen a picture of the Davos, Switzerland, J-bar and asked Tomlinson to design something similar for Oak Hill. What wasn’t known in Hanover was that a Swiss engineer named Ernst Constam had filed a U.S. patent for the Davos ski lift six months before the Oak Hill lift was built. Constam didn’t know about Dartmouth’s J-bar either—until the College contacted him about the improvements it had made to his design. Things then went downhill. In 1939, a Constam representative came to campus and demanded an immediate payment of $500 for patent infringement. Two years later the College settled for $450.

The Oak Hill ski tow remained operational for 42 years until the ski area itself closed in 1977, a victim of lack of snow and a preference by undergrads for the Dartmouth Skiway. Eulogized the Valley News, “The lift has reached the end of its rope or cable.”

—Lee Michaelides

Categories: Inventions

Tags: alumni, history, innovation

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