How Artificial Snow Was Invented

You don’t have to ski on cornflakes because Hollywood’s quest for authenticity on-screen triggered an avalanche of frozen innovation

Men feed blocks of ice into a snow machine in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1938. (The Huntington)
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In the first minutes of the otherwise forgettable 1934 film As the Earth Turns, something remarkable happens: The falling snow melts.

For years Hollywood’s “snowmen” had faked winter wonderlands with a dusting of gypsum, banks of bleached cornflakes, fields of pyrocel (similar to the substance used for dental impressions) and flurries of asbestos. Now Warner Bros. technical director Louis Geib had conjured a cold and wet blizzard on a sunny backlot in Burbank.

His invention—the first known snowmaking machine—consisted of three rotating blades that shaved ice from a 400-pound block and a high-powered fan that blew the resulting particles into the air. A low-tech precursor to the water-crystallizing snow guns that will be used this winter at about 90 percent of the country’s ski resorts, Geib’s machine was ideal for close-ups and, as the movie’s child actors learned, snowballs, though they disappeared quickly under the hot lights.

Geib’s innovation was also a hit off-screen, as the burgeoning ski industry—which sometimes trucked in snow for big events—began experimenting with the same technology. In the winter of 1934, the Toronto Ski Club repurposed an ice planer from a local skating rink when Mother Nature did not provide cover for a scheduled competition. The man-made stuff, the club reported, was “much better than snow.”

Now winter could appear anytime, anywhere. It snowed inside Boston Garden for a 1935 winter sport exhibition and it snowed the next year in Madison Square Garden. It even snowed in Los Angeles.

On a 63-degree day in March 1938, the studio snowmen ground 350 tons of ice to create four- and five-foot drifts on a towering ski jump in the middle of the Memorial Coliseum. Twenty-thousand people gathered for the competition, as skiers hurled themselves more than a hundred feet into the air.

Meanwhile, on the Warner Bros. lot nearby, Geib had already moved on to a new big-screen weather dilemma: how to replicate hail.

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