Inventors are fascinating people.

Every week we have these brilliant people in our offices, and one of the best parts of this job is hearing their stories. Not just about how they’ve created a business, but how they’ve innovated and solved a problem.

Howard Head wasn’t one of our clients, but his story echoes many of the same stories we hear weekly from our clients. 

A failed Harvard-educated writer turned engineering phenom; Head invented both the revolutionary composite ski (Head) and the modern large-sweet-spot tennis racket (Prince). What drove him was not just the desire to make money, but the need to help himself.  

The need to invent, Head claimed, has to be something you really want; it has to grow in your gut. 

From Failure to Phenom

Howard Head didn’t start with a crushing desire to invent things. He wanted to write. Even after his shaky English grades forced him to change his major to engineering, he didn’t give up on his dream. After graduating in 1936, he took a position as a scriptwriter but lost it nine months later when he failed to produce anything. 

His next job as a news writer ended after a mere six weeks when he spent more time repairing the film slicers than writing. He kept trying, but his poker-playing skills were supporting him more than his $20-a-week job as a copy boy at the Philadelphia Public Record. 

Desperate, Head took an aptitude test, which revealed some of the lowest possible scores for creative writing and one of the highest ratings ever recorded for structural visualization. As Head would later describe it, he didn’t just see a structure. He felt its compression and tension in the same way the rest of us can feel our muscles tense. 

Head gave up writing, took a job as a riveter in an airplane factory, and was eventually promoted to the engineering department.  

It’s the Tools, Not the Carpenter 

When Head first tried out downhill skiing, he was awful at it. Like many of us, he blamed his equipment, particularly his flimsy hickory skis. Unlike many of us, though, he didn’t quit the sport. With typical bravado, he bragged to an army officer sitting next to him that he could make a better ski out of aircraft aluminum. 

He sketched out ideas for a metal ski with a plastic honeycomb center sandwiched between layers of aluminum with plywood sidewalls. Unable to let go of the concept (or the embarrassment of his lack of skills on the slopes), he scavenged some aluminum scraps from the plant and set up a shop in a converted stable near his one-room apartment. 

Related: Design Arounds Could Be a Lifesaver for Your Next Product and Patent

The Mother of Invention

A lack of equipment did not slow Head down. To get the heat he needed to perform his envisioned lamination, he welded an iron tank, filled it with motor oil drained from automobile crankcases, and used old camp burners to brew it to 350 degrees. To get the 15 pounds per square inch of pressure he needed to fuse the materials, he put his ski mold into a rubber bag and pumped the air out using a refrigerator compressor hooked up backward. Then he dumped the bag into the boiling oil. 

In 1948, Head quit his job at the airplane factory and used $6000 in poker winnings to focus on his skis. Three years and forty pairs of failed prototypes later, he had it. The new skis had steel edges, a plywood core for strength, and a plasticized bottom for a smoother run. 

Head skis were more durable, easier to turn, and much more resistant to twisting than traditional wooden skis. While some professionals were reluctant to try what they considered to be “cheater” skis, he persisted. By the 1964 Olympics, most of the U.S. and Swiss ski teams used Head skis. 

Related: Keeping Competitors Away From Your Game-changing Product

As his interest waned in skiing, Head sold to AMF for $16 million in 1969 and decided to take up tennis. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t any better at tennis, and even $5000 in tennis lessons didn’t help. He bought a Prince ball machine but still couldn’t hit the ball and blamed the machine. He started tinkering with it and took his ideas to Prince management. Within two years, he was both Chief Design Engineer and Chairman of the Board at Prince and owned 25% of the company.  

Don’t Ignore the Obvious

Despite this success, Head was still unable to hit the ball. The sweet spot on a traditional racket is tiny, and Head soon realized that increasing the racket’s width would decrease the racket’s tendency to torque when the ball didn’t hit dead center. 

It was something no one else had tried because enlarging wood rackets either caused them to break or be too heavy. Even though rackets were now being made of lighter weight metals, no one had thought to change the size. 

Head understood that users would not want the racket to feel differently. So rather than make it 2″ wider in all directions, he kept the total racket length the same but extended the head down the shaft toward the user’s hand–shortening the shaft. Despite a drastically larger hitting area and sweet spot, if you closed your eyes, you could not feel the difference. 

It was both obvious and ingenious, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was unimpressed. They turned down his patent application three times. The racket was, in the eyes of the USPTO, an obvious extension of a state of the art tennis racket design. 

Look for the Unexpected Results 

Head was determined, and to convince them he set up a test to demonstrate how much faster the balls would rebound from his sweet spot versus the much smaller one on traditional rackets. He was stunned when his experiments proved that his racket performed worse than existing rackets. 

However, when probing the rackets away from the so-called sweet spot, his racket suddenly showed improved rebound speed. His design had not only increased the size of the sweet spot but, unexpectedly, moved it away from the center–closer to the user’s hand. This was the type of unexpected result that the Examiner was looking for, and he finally granted Head’s patent in 1976.  

Head’s daughter had an explanation for her father’s determination. “If he gets annoyed with something, he changes it. Most people never get that annoyed, or they get frustrated and give up'”

Head himself saw it a little differently. “Visionaries don’t get things done,” he once said. “The idea for an invention is only 5% of the job. Making it practical is 95%. You have to have a perfectionist streak, and you have to let that streak run until the product works.”

This sounds like a lot of the people we get the privilege of working with here. They’ve got original and incredibly interesting ideas that should be awarded patents without question, but often need a little help to find and highlight that unique feature that grabs a Patent Examiner’s attention.