"Bobsledding is the only Olympic winter sport that we can claim is totally American," says Christopher Lindsay, National Director of Youth Bobsled Programs (Lake Placid, NY). Lindsay spent the last three years researching the sport's precise beginnings.
The practical use of bobsleds in the U.S. dates to 1839, when loggers used them to haul wood. "Bob" means "to shorten," says Lindsay.
Competitive bobsledding originated in Albany, NY, in 1886 when the loggers came to the city to sell the wood. In an attempt to show off for the ladies, the men rode the empty sleds through the streets. This event caught the imagination of locals. One businessman, Stephen Whitney, designed a two-section sled. A board, approximately 244 cm wide and 366 cm long, was connected to the rear section with a round bolt. A thick wooden rod running crossways through the front portion extended 20 cm on either side to form the steering handles.
Built of solid oak with tempered iron-clad blades, the original sleds weighed between 500 and 700 lbs empty. Fifteen to 20 men and women added more than a ton of weight to the 30-ft-long sled. An engineer at the time calculated the projectile force of such a machine, traveling at 40 mph, to be sufficient to carry the sled through a two-foot brick wall.
At the sport's pinnacle, 20,000 people gathered in Albany to watch the competition. The killing of a 14-year-old boy by a runaway sled in 1889 put a stop to the sport. Competitive bobsledding continued in Davos, Switzerland, where Stephen Whitney introduced his sled after the New York tragedy.
Volunteers wanted. In order to bring the sport to a new generation, Lindsay is developing a "build-your-own bobsled" education program for junior high and high school students. Mechanical engineers are needed to design blueprints that will be used to build a sled from scratch. If constructed to Olympic regulations, the children will be invited to Lake Placid to run their sled on the Olympic training track. Not only will the children learn about the sport, says Lindsay, they will acquire mechanical engineering skills and master physics laws, vectors, and G-forces while having fun.