The History of Ice and Figure Skating

From Necessity to Activity to Sport

Ice skate
Key wound ice skate, circa 1863. Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Historians generally agree that ice skating, what we also today call figure skating, originated in Europe several millennia ago, though it's unclear when and where the first ice skates came into use.

Ancient European Origins

Archaeologists have been discovering ice skates made from bone throughout Northern Europe and Russia for years, leading scientists to posit that this method of transport was at one point not so much an activity as a necessity. A pair pulled from the bottom of a lake in Switzerland, dated back to about 3000 B.C., are considered to be one of the oldest skates ever found. They are made from the leg bones of large animals, with holes bored into each end of the bone into which leather straps were inserted and used to tie the skates to the foot. It is interesting to note that the old Dutch word for skate is schenkel, which means "leg bone."

However, a 2008 study of northern European geography and terrain concluded that ice skates likely appeared first in Finland over 4000 years ago. This conclusion was based on the fact that, given the number of lakes in Finland, its people would have had to invent a time-saving way to navigate across the country. Obviously, it would have saved precious time and energy to figure out a way to cross the lakes, rather than circumnavigate them.

Metal Edged

These early European skates didn't actually cut into the ice. Instead, users moved across the ice by gliding, rather than by what we have come to know as true skating. That came later, around the late 14th century, when the Dutch started sharpening the edges of their formerly flat-bottomed iron skates. This invention now made it possible to actually skate along the ice, and it made poles, which previously had been used to aid in propulsion and balance, obsolete. Skaters could now push and glide with their feet, a movement we still call the "Dutch Roll".

Ice Dancing

The father of modern figure skating is Jackson Haines, an American skater, and dancer who in 1865 developed the two-plate, all-metal blade, which he tied directly to his boots. These allowed him to incorporate a host of ballet and dance moves into his skating—up until that point, most people could only go forward and backward and trace circles or figure eights. Once Haines added the first toe pick to skates in the 1870s, jumps now became possible for figure skaters. Today, increasingly spectacular leaps and bounds are one of the things that have made figure skating such a popular spectator sport, and one of the highlights of the Winter Olympic games.

Sporting Developments was developed in 1875 in Canada, although the first mechanically refrigerated ice rink, named the Glaciarium, was built in 1876, at Chelsea, London, England, by John Gamgee. 

The Dutch are also likely responsible for holding the first skating competitions, however, the first official speed skating events were not held until 1863 in Oslo, Norway. The Netherlands hosted the first World Championships in 1889, with teams from Russia, the United States, and England joining the Dutch. Speed skating made its Olympic debut at the winter games in 1924.

In 1914, John E. Strauss, a blade maker from St. Paul, Minnesota, invented the first closed-toe blade made from one piece of steel, making skates lighter and stronger. And, in 1949, Frank Zamboni trademarked the ice resurfacing machine that bears his name.

The largest, man-made outdoor ice rink is the Fujikyu Highland Promenade Rink in Japan, built in 1967. It boasts an ice area of 165,750 square feet, the equivalent of 3.8 acres. It is still in use today.