Earl Miller, 77; Invented Safer Type of Ski Binding


Earl A. Miller was a ski technician with the heart of a car salesman. When it came to closing a deal, Miller would do anything, even if it meant cartwheeling and crashing down the mountain at 50 mph to prove his point.

Miller, who invented a novel, safer version of the ski binding, died June 14 in Owensville, Mo. He was 77.

One of the thorniest technological problems facing ski designers has always been how to keep a skier's feet attached to the skis. In the sport's early days, this was either done with leather straps or cables.

The problem was that the long, wooden skis stayed attached to skiers during a crash. As a result, schussers would go bouncing down the mountain with their legs twisted in profoundly unnatural ways. Or, they could suffocate, unable to struggle back to their feet from immense drifts or tree wells.

Bones weren't just broken--they often shattered into tiny pieces. Yet many of the injuries were accepted by rugged skiers as a price they were willing to pay. "The stereotype was that if you skied back then, you should be spending half the winter in a cast," said Matthew Miller, Earl's son.

Earl Miller was born in Manti, Utah, in 1925. He grew up winning ski tournaments throughout the Wasatch Mountains and later piloted Mustang fighters during World War II. After the war, he was a ski instructor at the Alta ski resort near Salt Lake City, where he made up his mind that skiing was unnecessarily dangerous.

At the time, ski bindings released a ski boot only at one angle. Miller's new "step in multiple release binding," which appeared in the early 1950s, released boots at several angles, allowing skiers to escape more types of crashes.

He developed the binding by studying exactly how much force it took to break a human bone. Occasionally, research efforts involved cadavers.

To prove the effectiveness of his new bindings to customers at different resorts, Miller would purposely crash at 50 mph. He would then dare skiers to do the same thing on competitors' skis. If they emerged unscathed, he promised them $500--and then would add, "Bring your own crutches."

Few took the offer.

Miller's solution to one problem created another dilemma. When skis and skiers were separated, runaway skis had an unfortunate tendency to zoom several hundred feet down the mountain. To retrieve their equipment, skiers had to either walk or slide down the slopes--an often treacherous task.

In response, Miller perfected the ski brake, two stick-like devices that dug into the snow and kept downed skiers and their skis in the same general vicinity.

Miller eventually founded Miller Ski Co., based in Orem, Utah, which today is known as Miller Snowboard Corp.

He held more than 100 patents for ski-related technology, had a hand in developing several resorts and was one of the founders of the Professional Ski Instructors of America. Miller was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1994.

Miller is survived by his wife, Elaine; son, Matthew; and daughters Jill Tarbet, Lisa Miller and Kim Miller.

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