Ralph Wilford Samuelson
Ralph Wilford Samuelson was only 18 when he invented water skis and the sport of water-skiing on Lake Pepin, a wide part of the Mississippi River near Lake City, Minnesota. Considered the “father” of the sport by the American Water Ski Association, he was the first to waterski. He was already skilled at aquaplaning -- standing on a long board while being pulled by a power boat -- but he hoped to create something like snow skiing on water.
Samuelson first began to think about skimming over the lake when he and the other neighborhood kids were sliding down snow banks on wooden barrel staves. Barrel staves such as those were used in his first attempts to ski on water. When that didn't work, he tried snow skis. When that didn’t work, he invented water skis.
The skis were made out of two pine boards that were 8 feet long and 9 inches wide, purchased from the local lumber yard for a dollar each. The front tips were curved after softening the wood by boiling the tips in his mother's copper kettle. Samuelson then used clamps and braces to bend the wood, finally painting them white with the help of his older sister, Harriett. He picked up some scrap leather at a harness shop to make bindings for his feet. After buying 100 feet of sash cord at the local hardware store to use as a tow rope, he talked a blacksmith into making an iron ring for a handle, later wrapping black tape around the handle to make it softer for his hands.
After months of trial and error, on June 28, 1922, starting off wearing the skis he had built while riding his aquaplane, Samuelson first succeeded at water-skiing. He slipped one ski, and then the other, into the water and skied for several yards before he fell. Determined to get up on his skis without using the aquaplane, he continued his attempts with the assistance of his older brother, Ben, who would give him a tow behind his work launch, a large motor boat powered by a converted Saxon truck engine (top speed 14 knots).
Getting up on his water skis was at first particularly challenging, as he attempted to take off with his skis level. Not until he tried leaning backwards in the water, with ski tips slanted up, poking out of the water, did he succeed. Samuelson was elated and so was his brother. It was a great way to celebrate his birthday. He would be 19 the next day, July 3rd.
The following days and weeks, Samuelson attracted a lot of attention locally. He developed his own water show, doing tricks for townspeople. Gaining confidence on the water, he began jumping wakes. One day, slamming down after crossing a particularly big wave, he cracked a ski and had to make another pair. Except for reinforcing the tips and moving the leather straps farther back to make the boards easier to maneuver, he duplicated the originals.
Samuelson took his skis and his talents on exhibitions tours around Minnesota, becoming the star performer at summer weekend water carnivals. At an exhibition on July 8, 1925, he performed the first ski jump on water. He converted a 4 foot by 16 foot floating diving platform into a ramp by removing the floats from one end. He fell flat in his first attempt, with his skis sticking to the 30-degree incline while he went off the 5-foot end head first. After greasing the launch platform surface with lard, he succeeded on the second try. Also that year, he became the first speed skier, racing across the water at 80 miles per hour, pulled by a restored World War I Curtiss flying boat that flew just above the waves.
In the 1920s and 1930s, he developed his own water ski show and took it on the road, with performances throughout Minnesota, and from Michigan to Florida.
All together, Samuelson spent 15 years performing shows and teaching water skiing. He skied his final run in 1937. While helping to construct a boathouse in Florida, a construction failure toppled the roof onto him. He broke his back and was unable to waterski again.
He married and became an innovative and successful turkey farmer – until disease killed off most of his flock and left him in debt. Filing bankruptcy in 1952, he described it "as close to disgrace as disgrace goes."
Samuelson did not patent his water ski invention. However, in the 1960s he was recognized as the “Father of Waterskiing,” thanks to the curiosity of a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter, who while vacationing noticed Samuelson’s skis hanging on the wall of the municipal boathouse. Through his hard work and support of some Lake City business people, research finally revealed the true origins of the sport in 1963. The reporter’s story attracted the attention of the American Water Ski Association, and Samuelson became a celebrity.
The American Water Ski Association formally acknowledged Samuelson in 1966 as the first recorded water skier in history. He was also recognized as the first ski racer, slalom skier, and the first organizer of a water ski show. He was inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Winter Haven, Florida, on January 22, 1977. When he returned to Minnesota, he began to suffer the effects of cancer and died in Pine Island on August 28, 1977.
Each summer, Lake City celebrates its water skiing heritage by having Water Ski Days during the last weekend of June. As a tribute to Samuelson, a monument stands on the shores of Lake Pepin just off of highway 61. The Lake City post office has a 10-foot by 10-foot mural of Samuelson being pulled behind the aeroplane in 1925 gracing its lobby.
NOTE: These biographies have been compiled from information accompanying the nomination form submitted to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, information available on the Internet and from a variety of other sources.