Monday, December 11News That Matters

Howard Head And The Prince Tennis Racket: A Journey From The Personal To The Democratic



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All professions involve an intellectual journey. The doctor sees her patients, diagnoses their ailments and prescribes a therapy for healing. The lawyer interviews his client, consults his law books and argues the case in court.

For engineers, we often think of their intellectual journey in terms of theory to practice. The engineer draws on science and mathematics and applies these principles to design new devices and systems. Often, the engineer’s journey starts with a problem posed by a company or government agency, but the move is still from science to solution—that’s why we frequently refer to engineering as applied science. In fancy philosophical terms, the engineer’s journey is from the objective to the subjective: from pure scientific principles to the messy world of corporate profits and consumer wishes.

Yet, if we want to fully appreciate the role that engineers can—and will—play in shaping the future, we should consider their journey in another way: not just from theory to practice but also from personal to democratic. A fascinating example of such a journey is how Howard Head developed a revolutionary tennis racket in the 1970s. "With . . . my racket I was inventing not to just make money, but to help me," explained Head, "I invent when it’s something I really want. The need has to grow in your gut. People who go around trying to invent something generally fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem."

Howard Head Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Howard Head, the engineer behind the Prince tennis racket.

Howard Head was born in 1914, the son of a Philadelphia dentist. He went to Harvard to study English, but found he was a lousy writer. Casting around for a new major, Head took an aptitude test and got a perfect score for structural visualization, for being able to imagine machines in three dimensions. After graduating with an engineering degree, he joined the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Baltimore. There, he helped build and design B-26 attack bombers and PBM-3 flying boats, working his way up from riveter to aeronautical engineer during World War II.

Shortly after the war, Head went on a ski vacation that he didn’t enjoy because he couldn’t maneuver the heavy wooden skis then being used. Back at Martin Aircraft, he scrounged aluminum scraps and designed a flexible laminated ski. Head’s new ski revolutionized the sport and by 1966, the Head Ski Company was selling 300,000 skis a year and grossing $25 million annually. In 1969, Head sold the company and retired, taking up tennis as a new hobby.

But Head wasn’t very good at tennis, and he soon realized that either he was going to need to practice a lot more or he was going to have to improve tennis equipment. Rather than practice, Head retreated to his home workshop to experiment with modifying his tennis racket. Like other novice tennis players, Head’s problem was that whenever he hit the ball off center, the racket would twist and almost spin out of his hand, sending the ball awry. After two years of studying what caused the twisting, Head had a Eureka moment when he realized that, if he made the face of the racket bigger, it would have more inertia and hence resist twisting when struck by the ball. By adding two inches to the racket’s width and extending this width three inches into the throat of it, Head found he had better control of his tennis stroke. He began winning matches against his friends and even beating his old coach.

But here’s where the real engineering spirit kicked in. Why, wondered Head, should this new racket only improve his game? Could this new design help other players as well?

To answer this question, Head turned to the engineers at the Prince Manufacturing Company. During his long hours of practice, he had purchased one of the company’s ball machines. Dissatisfied with how the machine lobbed tennis balls, Head not only tinkered with its innards but bought the Prince Company. As Chairman of the Board, he challenged the company’s engineers, more or less saying, &quot;Okay this racket works great for me; now let’s optimize it so it works well for everyone who wants to play tennis.&quot;

Howard Head, “Tennis Racket,” US Patent 3,999,756 (filed 10 Sept. 1975, granted 28 Dec. 1976).

Patent diagrams comparing the “sweet spots” in Head’s tennis racket [5A] and a traditional racket [5B]. The “sweet spot” in Head’s racket is labelled zones 33, 35, 37 which are significantly larger in area than the corresponding zones 33’, 35’, and 37’ in the traditional racket.

Pam Shriver playing with a Prince racket during a semi-final match against Martina Navratilova at U.S Open Tennis Championship, September, 1978. The sixteen-year-old Shriver upset the number-one seeded Navratilova to become the youngest finalist ever in the Open. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

But while the new racket added to Head’s wealth, that wasn’t the point. &quot;Visionaries don’t get things done,&quot; he once said. &quot;The idea for an invention is only 5% of the job. Making it practical is 95%.&quot; Head took delight not just in solving a problem for himself but in making his solution accessible to a wide audience. And by making tennis easier and more enjoyable for larger numbers of people, he was making it more democratic. Why should only the rich—who could afford hours of practice—enjoy tennis? Why shouldn’t the average person be able to play?

For Head, then, the essence of engineering was moving an idea from the personal to the democratic. While we like to think that objective science comes first in engineering, Head’s story reveals that it’s often the passion and personal desire—the subjective–that drives engineering forward. And this forward motion can be toward making goods and services available to an ever-increasing number of people. Sure, we’ve been talking about tennis rackets here, but engineers can—and are doing—the same for energy, health care and personal security; these too can be made democratic.

Head’s story is timely as we think about the future of engineering, especially how the profession seeks to attract a more diverse population of students. To include women and students from diverse backgrounds, we need to signal to them that engineering is not only about math and science. Rather, it is about acquiring the analytical skills needed to be able to act on your values and your beliefs. Like Head, engineering students will be going on a journey from the personal to the democratic, a journey that is sure to provide society with the technology needed to make the world a better place.

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All professions involve an intellectual journey. The doctor sees her patients, diagnoses their ailments and prescribes a therapy for healing. The lawyer interviews his client, consults his law books and argues the case in court.

For engineers, we often think of their intellectual journey in terms of theory to practice. The engineer draws on science and mathematics and applies these principles to design new devices and systems. Often, the engineer’s journey starts with a problem posed by a company or government agency, but the move is still from science to solution—that’s why we frequently refer to engineering as applied science. In fancy philosophical terms, the engineer’s journey is from the objective to the subjective: from pure scientific principles to the messy world of corporate profits and consumer wishes.

Yet, if we want to fully appreciate the role that engineers can—and will—play in shaping the future, we should consider their journey in another way: not just from theory to practice but also from personal to democratic. A fascinating example of such a journey is how Howard Head developed a revolutionary tennis racket in the 1970s. “With . . . my racket I was inventing not to just make money, but to help me,” explained Head, “I invent when it’s something I really want. The need has to grow in your gut. People who go around trying to invent something generally fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem.”

Howard Head Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Howard Head, the engineer behind the Prince tennis racket.

Howard Head was born in 1914, the son of a Philadelphia dentist. He went to Harvard to study English, but found he was a lousy writer. Casting around for a new major, Head took an aptitude test and got a perfect score for structural visualization, for being able to imagine machines in three dimensions. After graduating with an engineering degree, he joined the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Baltimore. There, he helped build and design B-26 attack bombers and PBM-3 flying boats, working his way up from riveter to aeronautical engineer during World War II.

Shortly after the war, Head went on a ski vacation that he didn’t enjoy because he couldn’t maneuver the heavy wooden skis then being used. Back at Martin Aircraft, he scrounged aluminum scraps and designed a flexible laminated ski. Head’s new ski revolutionized the sport and by 1966, the Head Ski Company was selling 300,000 skis a year and grossing $25 million annually. In 1969, Head sold the company and retired, taking up tennis as a new hobby.

But Head wasn’t very good at tennis, and he soon realized that either he was going to need to practice a lot more or he was going to have to improve tennis equipment. Rather than practice, Head retreated to his home workshop to experiment with modifying his tennis racket. Like other novice tennis players, Head’s problem was that whenever he hit the ball off center, the racket would twist and almost spin out of his hand, sending the ball awry. After two years of studying what caused the twisting, Head had a Eureka moment when he realized that, if he made the face of the racket bigger, it would have more inertia and hence resist twisting when struck by the ball. By adding two inches to the racket’s width and extending this width three inches into the throat of it, Head found he had better control of his tennis stroke. He began winning matches against his friends and even beating his old coach.

But here’s where the real engineering spirit kicked in. Why, wondered Head, should this new racket only improve his game? Could this new design help other players as well?

To answer this question, Head turned to the engineers at the Prince Manufacturing Company. During his long hours of practice, he had purchased one of the company’s ball machines. Dissatisfied with how the machine lobbed tennis balls, Head not only tinkered with its innards but bought the Prince Company. As Chairman of the Board, he challenged the company’s engineers, more or less saying, “Okay this racket works great for me; now let’s optimize it so it works well for everyone who wants to play tennis.”

Howard Head, “Tennis Racket,” US Patent 3,999,756 (filed 10 Sept. 1975, granted 28 Dec. 1976).

Patent diagrams comparing the “sweet spots” in Head’s tennis racket [5A] and a traditional racket [5B]. The “sweet spot” in Head’s racket is labelled zones 33, 35, 37 which are significantly larger in area than the corresponding zones 33’, 35’, and 37’ in the traditional racket.

Pam Shriver playing with a Prince racket during a semi-final match against Martina Navratilova at U.S Open Tennis Championship, September, 1978. The sixteen-year-old Shriver upset the number-one seeded Navratilova to become the youngest finalist ever in the Open. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

But while the new racket added to Head’s wealth, that wasn’t the point. “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%.” Head took delight not just in solving a problem for himself but in making his solution accessible to a wide audience. And by making tennis easier and more enjoyable for larger numbers of people, he was making it more democratic. Why should only the rich—who could afford hours of practice—enjoy tennis? Why shouldn’t the average person be able to play?

For Head, then, the essence of engineering was moving an idea from the personal to the democratic. While we like to think that objective science comes first in engineering, Head’s story reveals that it’s often the passion and personal desire—the subjective–that drives engineering forward. And this forward motion can be toward making goods and services available to an ever-increasing number of people. Sure, we’ve been talking about tennis rackets here, but engineers can—and are doing—the same for energy, health care and personal security; these too can be made democratic.

Head’s story is timely as we think about the future of engineering, especially how the profession seeks to attract a more diverse population of students. To include women and students from diverse backgrounds, we need to signal to them that engineering is not only about math and science. Rather, it is about acquiring the analytical skills needed to be able to act on your values and your beliefs. Like Head, engineering students will be going on a journey from the personal to the democratic, a journey that is sure to provide society with the technology needed to make the world a better place.

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