Whether you call them ice cleats, shoe chains, ice spikes or an icegripper, 'personal traction devices' are rapidly gaining popularity as a 'must have' piece of winter equipment. Most people would be forgiven for assuming these devices are a recent invention. However research reveals this humble product has a long and interesting history.
The military were early adopters and users of ice cleats. Performing duties in cold weather regions such as mountainous areas or the Arctic is very dependent on equipment. Individual mobility and effectiveness can be increased by skis, ice cleats, and snowshoes. The devices used by the military as long as hundreds of years ago were a very different proposition to today's products, which utilise materials such as Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) a stretchy plastic which can maintain its elasticity in temperatures as low as -40c. As well as utilising modern plastics and modified rubbers today's ice grips and ice cleats incorporate special metals such as hardened carbon steels, which provide biting studs and edges, giving superb grip even on the slickest, packed ice. And they are even becoming environmentally friendly with recycled materials being used more and more in their construction and manufacture.
The development of ice cleats, ice spikes and shoe chains has been a history of successes and failures. A quick scan through some of the patent records of the past couple of hundred years reveals some fascinating ideas. The patent records demonstrate that today's products have evolved through a succession of inventions.
A patent filed in April 1873 saw a significant change in personal traction through the concept and design of the 'ice creeper'. This particular patent introduced a new heel plate. The heel design involved a supporting frame held in place on the heel with screws. The design was made from iron.
Compared to today's quick 'on and off' products, the ice creeper is cumbersome and would have required specialist fixing by a cobbler or shoemaker. At a time when most people would have had only one pair of shoes, they would not have had the luxury of being able to have a device permanently attached to a 'spare' pair of shoes. It demonstrates that this type of device could have only been afforded by the wealthy. By comparison today's products retail from as little as 15 and are within the means of most people.
In the same year a number of other designs were filed for patent. The major improvement of some of these designs was the use of a grooved plate with spikes on it that were attached with pins. The result was a thinner piece of iron being used than in the past. This resulted in this type of traction footwear being more comfortable. It demonstrates that inventors started thinking more about user wearability as well as the basic function of grip on ice.
Despite the flurry of improvements ice creepers were still difficult to use. An invention by William Foehl in 1874 went some way to making the products more adaptable, by allowing the position of the safety points to be altered. Which meant it could be done without having to remove the device from the footwear.
The research and development continued and there were at least twenty more patents applied for over the course of the next five years. Close to one hundred of them existed as we moved into the 1900's. Some of the designs were outlandish and quite impractical,others bore a remarkable resemblance to some of today's products. Despite the number of ideas ice cleats, ice grips and other personal traction products were not readily available. The products on offer were criticised for being difficult to use, with complex designs resulting in discomfort for the user.
The design of the Anti Slipping Device by Webb in 1957 demonstrates that although a lot of inventors were well intentioned, they did not necessarily have the focus of a designer. Webb's idea looks clumsy and impractical compared to the products available today, which have benefited from input by product designers amending inventions and helping to 'shape' them into products fit for purpose for modern consumers.
A number of patents applied for in 1960's and 70's started to change the functionality of personal traction products. Ideas for more comfortable and easier to use ice grips were introduced. These new product designs easily slid onto just about any type of shoe making them easy to use, flexible and affordable. Initially designs were taken up by manufacturers serving the industrial market. Through larger scale production ice cleats and ice grips became affordable to be used in a work environment. The costs of investment on behalf of the purchasing organisation could quickly be recouped through improved productivity.
By the mid 1970's ice cleat designs benefited from the addition of features allowing them to be used in deeper snow as well as ice. This was perfect for winter sports enthusiasts as well as for emergency crews. This introduced ice cleats as a product to a whole new market and started to increase their popularity. By the 1990's ice cleat design had moved on significantly. Incorporating modern materials such as Velcro fasteners, stretchy plastics and hardened stainless steels. Resulting in easy to use quick on and off products with ice biting studs and edges which did not rust. A number of companies sprang up whose ice cleat designs all differed slightly.
Products started to appear that were aimed at niche markets such as winter joggers and ice fishermen. In areas such as Alaska where the weather is extremely cold all year round, traction footwear has more than served its purpose. It has allowed people to continue enjoying sports as well as using them for basic task activity and even survival.
The concept of easy on and off traction footwear that could be mounted to shoes and boots took off in the late 90's. Many new ideas were introduced through the use of patents and designers were employed to look at rubbers and TPE' thicknesses and designs to improve wearer comfort.. But ensuring the product stays in place on the footwear while being used. An example of a product which has got all these design elements right is ICEtrekkers Diamond Grip.
The history of ice cleats shows this product category has come a long way. No doubt there will continue to be new developments in the future. Perhaps, looking back at the early ice cleat and ice creeper inventions will give designers and developers new ideas that society can benefit from. For modern consumers there is an ice grip, ice cleat, ice spike or shoe chain at just about every price point and affordable to most people. Some are basic, almost disposable products designed to last a few weeks, whilst others contain serious design input and are manufactured to a high quality for extended use. One thing is for sure - it's not necessary to join the 18,565 people admitted to Accident and Emergency as a result of slipping on ice, when for a few pounds you can benefit from hundreds of years of creative development of a product specifically designed to stop you slipping in icy conditions. Source