The History and Science of Ice Skating Ice skating is one of the great pleasures of winter. But the origin of the idea of attaching blades to our feet has not been well understood. Researchers at Oxford University think they may have an answer. Federico Formenti, co-author of the study called "Human Locomotion on Ice," says it all started in Finland.
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The History and Science of Ice Skating

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The History and Science of Ice Skating

The History and Science of Ice Skating

The History and Science of Ice Skating

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Ice skating is one of the great pleasures of winter. But the origin of the idea of attaching blades to our feet has not been well understood. Researchers at Oxford University think they may have an answer. Federico Formenti, co-author of the study called "Human Locomotion on Ice," says it all started in Finland.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

One of the pleasures of winter is strapping blades onto your feet and skating out onto a frozen sheet of ice; the cool puffs of air on your face, the silent joy of gliding, almost frictionless.

But have you ever thought about how weird it is? Listen to what I just said, strapping blades onto your feet and skating out onto on a sheet of ice. What human started that behavior?

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This week in Science Out of the Box, researchers at Oxford University have just released a paper on the origins of ice skating. Federico Formenti is an expert in human locomotion at Oxford University, and he's one of the co-authors of the paper, "The First Humans Traveling on Ice: An Energy-Saving Strategy?"

He joins us from the studios of the BBC in Oxford.

How are you, sir?

Dr. FEDERICO FORMENTI (Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford; Author, "The First Humans Traveling on Ice: An Energy-Saving Strategy?"): I'm fine. Thanks. Hi, Andrea.

SEABROOK: So, who was it? Who was the first person to strap on the skates and go out onto the ice?

Dr. FORMENTI: Well, there's not a definite agreement on where the ice skates may have first started, but it seems that the first person who put on some skates did that in Finland. And that apparently happened at least 4,000 years ago. And from our perspective, it seems that they first did this to save energy during their daily journeys.

SEABROOK: Interesting. Finland is a pretty cold place; lots of ice there, so that all seems to make sense to me. But there are lots of cold places. Why Finland?

Dr. FORMENTI: Well, especially in the southern area, there's the highest density of lakes, and consequently wherever you are in that area and wherever you need to go to, you will surely find at least one lake on your route. And consequently, by finding a way to cross the lake, you would save much more time and much more energy than you would by using ice skates anywhere else in the world.

SEABROOK: Does the archeological evidence show that it's Finland?

Dr. FORMENTI: No. What we found from archeological and historical evidence was that bones skates were in use at least in 2,000 B.C. And they were spread in quite a few countries in Central and Northern Europe.

SEABROOK: So, by 2,000 B.C. or BCE, the skates were all across Northern Europe.

Dr. FORMENTI: Yes.

SEABROOK: What kind of animal bones are the skates made of?

Dr. FORMENTI: Most of their remains, which were found, are from horses and cow bones. But, indeed, people would use bones from any animal which they could find in the area where they lived. And it's probably worth mentioning that the skates for the first - about 2,000 years were completely different from what we see today. So, basically, they were animal bones and people would just stand on them with their knees slightly bent. And, apparently, a stick was used to push on the ice and that was the means of propulsion (unintelligible).

SEABROOK: Oh, like cross-country skiing kind of a punting in a boat.

Dr. FORMENTI: Like that or like a gondola(ph) or same sort of movement but on the ice. The bones were flat at the bottom because, otherwise, it would be perhaps dangerous for the ankles which could bend laterally and…

SEABROOK: We know about that for modern skating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORMENTI: Yeah. So they did make them flat at the bottom from, like, the very beginning. And because of the fatty nature of the bone, the sort of resistance to motion, the so-called dynamic gravitation to fiction, was quite limited compared to what we expected. So gliding on a straight line was very easy. What was quite difficult, compared to modern skates, was making turns…

SEABROOK: Uh-huh.

Dr. FORMENTI: …because, of course, you don't have blades and consequently when you want to turn you need to use the stick again.

SEABROOK: Have you tried doing this? It sounds like you may have tried doing this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORMENTI: I tried and I didn't manage the first few turns, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORMENTI: …it was safe, eventually.

SEABROOK: Frederico Formenti is a doctor of human locomotion biomechanics at Oxford University. He joined us from the studios of the BBC in Oxford.

Thanks very much, sir.

Dr. FORMENTI: Thank you.

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