How the Mississippi River Helped Invent Water Skiing

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: August 23, 2022
© iStock.com/sportpoint
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Water skiing is one of America’s most beloved and extreme water sports. According to Statista, more than 5.92 million Americans water ski. If you are an active water skier or someone with the sport on your bucket list, you’ll be interested to know that the sport has a rich and heartwarming history.

In addition, the Mississippi River’s history is intertwined with the invention of waterskiing. If you’d like to discover more about the Mississippi, water skiing, and its Minnesotan inventor, continue reading.

Ralph Samuelson Invents Water Skiing…

Ralph Samuelson
In 1922, Ralph Samuelson invented water skiing.

©Luzz / CC BY-SA 2.5 – License

In 1922, Ralph Samuelson invented water skiing. With his brother’s help, he used a pair of wooden boards and a clothesline to ski. However, despite his unique idea, Samuelson wasn’t able to maintain balance. 

For several days, he tried out many positions until he decided to lean back so that the tips of the boards stuck out of the water. It worked, and today, skiers still make use of this form. Soon, he decided to recreate his idea on Lake Pepin.

Where is Lake Pepin?

Lake Pepin
Lake Pepin is Mississippi’s largest lake and flows between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

©iStock.com/juliannafunk

Lake Pepin is the Mississippi’s largest lake. It flows between Minnesota and Wisconsin, making it the perfect venue for Samuelson’s experiments. He first attempted to ski by using wood barrels and then snow skis. But none worked, so he purchased boards 8 feet long and 9 inches wide.

He boiled the tips of the wood in his mother’s kettle to bend them and with the help of his sister, Harriet, painted it white. He also used leather to make binders for his feet. This did the trick, and Samuelson was able to ski on Lake Pepin. Not surprisingly, the word “ski” originates from an old Norse word that translates to “stick of wood.”

Water Skiing Begins to Gain Popularity

Young man glides on water skiing
On July 8, 1925, Ralph Samuelson attempted his first ski jump and failed.

©J_UK/Shutterstock.com

As you might imagine, Samuelson’s success didn’t go unnoticed. Over the next few weeks, many more people gathered to watch him ski. On July 8, 1925, he attempted his first ski jump and failed. But he tried again and was successful. 

Samuelson soon began to charge people to watch him ski. This money paid for the gas and the boat. He also began to speed ski by skiing across the lake at 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), gaining even more popularity. He began to tour other areas of Minnesota and became the star performer at many water carnivals.

Patenting Water Skiing

Waterskiing
In 1925, Fred Waller patented the first water skis.

©iStock.com/Gerd Zahn

Despite his growing popularity, Samuelson didn’t patent his water ski design. It was true that he had gained some popularity within Minnesota and other states, but many other USA states hadn’t heard of him. In 1925, a popular inventor, Fred Waller, patented the first water skis.

Many accounts of history wrongly presented Waller as the inventor of the sport, but Samuelson had gained enough popularity to prevent that from happening. He went to Detroit to work for Ford before switching to the boat business and then moving to Florida.

The End of His Career

Two years later in 1927, Samuelson hurt his back in a construction accident, which spelled the end of his skiing career. Despite suffering such a loss, he got into the turkey farming business. His family life wasn’t so great either, as disagreements had caused a divide. During this period, his wife, children, and faith were all he had.

Samuelson pulled through the difficulties, and 50 years after he invented the sport, he was officially recognized as its father at the 1972 National Water Ski Championships in Seattle. He was also honored at the unveiling of a monument in Lake City and at the American Water Ski Association. Several relics, such as his old skis, can be found in the Museum/Hall of Fame in Winter Haven. Although Ralph Samuelson passed away in 1977 after a battle with cancer, his legacy which started on the Mississippi River outlives him.

In 2012, members of the Horsehead Water Ski Club in Australia broke the World Record for the “Most Water Skiers Towed By a Single Boat”. They towed 145 skiers on a single boat. Usually, ski boats can only be used if there are at least 2 people inside them, but we imagine that it took a larger team than that to pull this off and document it.

Other Unique Minnesota Inventions

The world has Minnesota to thank for many unique inventions in addition to water skiing. Although Lake Pepin runs between Minnesota and Wisconsin, Ralph Samuelson was from Minnesota. Here are some other inventions from The Star of the North State.

Pop Up Toaster

Just a few years before Samuelson’s invention, Charles Strite invented the first pop-up toaster. His invention saved Minnesotans and the rest of the world from having to deal with burnt toast. Luckily, he went on to patent his invention 2 years later, in 1921.

Refrigerated Truck

Before Frederick McKinley Jones’ invention in 1938, the perishable food marketplace wasn’t an easy one to thrive in. If the products weren’t sold before they expired naturally, sellers suffered huge losses. 

However, in 1938, Jones invented the refrigerated truck, which solved this problem and made the perishable food marketplace more scalable. Although Jones wasn’t born in Minnesota, at the time of his invention, he worked for Thermo Cool, a Minneapolis-based company.

Snowmobile

Water skiing isn’t the only fun activity that originated in Minnesota. In 1956, Roseau Edgar Hetteen modified his farm machinery into a snowmobile. This invention quickly went viral as it allowed people to move very fast across frozen lakes. 

However, Hetteen isn’t the only inventor credited for the modern snowmobile as it underwent many modifications. There is also proof that Wisconsinites had experimented with similar designs in the 1900s.

Microwave Popcorn

In 1982, Pillsbury, a Minnesotan company, created frozen microwave popcorn. It could be popped in the microwave but had to be refrigerated. The fuss around this invention didn’t last as shelf-stable microwave popcorn was soon created.

COVID-19 Saliva Test

Vault Health, another Minnesotan company, released the first COVID-19 saliva test. As you know, before this invention, getting checked for covid required uncomfortable nasal swab. We can thank Minnesota for releasing the first FDA-approved saliva test.

Up Next…

Who First Explored the Mississippi?

4 Major Tributaries of the Mississippi River

Discover the Dark Side of the Mississippi River


The Featured Image

Waterskiing
Fifty years after he invented the sport, he was officially recognized as its father at the 1972 National Water Ski Championships in Seattle.
© iStock.com/sportpoint

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