Richard K. Rein
April 18, 1977 12:00 PM

This spring more tennis players than ever will be striding onto the court with a new, outsized racket called the Prince. They will risk ridicule (“It looks like a shovel!”) and rage (“It must be illegal!”) in the liveliest tennis flap since Gussie Moran appeared in lace panties.

The inventor of the Prince racket, Howard Head, is bemused at the controversy; it has a familiar tone. In 1950 he perfected the first metal skis and heard them dismissed as a gimmick in much the same language. But the skis turned out to be stronger and more responsive than conventional hickory ones, and Head became the world’s leading manufacturer of metal skis. Both the company and the name were sold to AMF Inc. in 1971 for $16 million, and now “Head” appears on conventional tennis rackets, sports clothing and even bathing suits.

The Prince racket may be bound for the same success as the Head ski. More than 100,000 of the rackets ($65, unstrung) were sold in 1976, their first year on the market. Sales this year are 50 percent ahead of last.

“It’s the shape a racket should have had in the first place,” Head claims, adding that the otherwise precise rules of tennis specify only that the ball be hit with an “implement.” Because the strung area of the Prince is 50 percent larger than that of a conventional racket, it is more stable and has a “sweet spot” (the area in which energy is transferred to the ball most efficiently) four times bigger. Yet it is the same length and weighs a half-ounce less than the average. “I have no doubt,” says Head, “that in three or four years this will be the conventional racket and the others will be thought of as old-fashioned.”

Howard Head bears almost no resemblance to the popular image of the eccentric inventor. Instead of tinkering in the basement workshop, Head listens to Bach in the living room and cogitates. He prefers Carlos Castaneda to Popular Mechanics. He is no Mr. Fix-It at home.

But at a time when commercially successful inventions are as rare as better mousetraps, Head has struck patent gold twice. What’s his secret? A friend, Thomas J. Watson Jr., retired chairman of IBM, says, “The visionary engineer who’s just a nice guy never gets his product on the market. Howard is both visionary and hard-minded.”

His daughter, Nancy Everly, has another answer: “If he gets annoyed with something, he changes it. Most people never get that annoyed, or they get frustrated and give up.” Adds his wife, Joan, “Howard never gives up.”

“That’s true,” says Head, who also never lets false modesty cloud his vision. “The idea for an invention is only five percent. Making it practical is 95 percent of the job. You have to have a perfectionist streak, and you have to let that streak run until the product works. The ski is an example.”

In 1947, the lanky, 6’4″ aviation engineer took up skiing and found that he was barely able to make a snowplow turn. Typically, he blamed his skis. “If hickory was the best material for skis, then they’d make airplanes out of it too,” he reasoned. He bought some scrap aluminum and, after several years of trial and error, perfected a metal ski. “If I had known then that it would take 40 versions before the ski was any good,” he recalls, “I might have given up. But fortunately you get trapped into thinking the next design will be it.”

After he sold his interest in the ski firm, Head took up tennis and was confounded by shots that caused the racket to twist in his hand. He blamed the racket, of course. For 18 months he experimented and finally settled on the idea of increasing the strung area of the racket by about 3½” in length and 2″ in width. Those who benefit most from the Prince, says the 62-year-old Head, are players like himself. “I’m a medium-good hacker with it. I find I can play with and get invited back regularly by guys who are 20 years younger than I am and who have had 20 more years’ experience.”

Benefits for professionals are less dramatic but still apparently demonstrable. “When we’re having a good day, it doesn’t matter what racket we use,” says Valerie Ziegenfuss. the only woman on the pro tour playing with a Prince. “But the Prince brings consistency to my game—my bad days aren’t so bad.” Ion Tiriac, Clark Graebner, Frank Froehling and Don Budge also use the new racket.

As a child, Howard Head seemed destined for a life in the arts. His father, a Philadelphia dentist, encouraged him to read poetry. In grade school, Howard’s teacher asked the students to memorize their favorite poem. His was Tennyson’s The Revenge, 14 stanzas long. He still can recite long portions of it as well as poems by John Donne and passages from Shakespeare.

When Head enrolled at Harvard in 1932, he dreamed of becoming a writer like his older sister, Hannah Lees, a novelist and magazine contributor. “I was soon frustrated,” he recalls. “The finishing touch was a writing course taught by Bernard De Voto. I found it fascinating, but when I had to produce short stories it was agony.” Head shifted to engineering sciences (and his average went from C to A).

He had one final fling at the arts. After working briefly for the newsreels, he took a job in 1939 as a $20-a-week copyboy for the Philadelphia Record. The experience finally convinced him that “words weren’t my medium. My medium was a beautiful line or a beautiful object.” He took the first job that came close to calling upon those special abilities: as a riveter for a Baltimore military aircraft company.

After World War II, Head quit to pursue his vision of a metal ski. The development took all his own money (about $6,000, derived principally from poker winnings), as well as the savings of several friends. His two assistants posted their hours on the wall of the shop for a year and a half before Head could afford to pay them.

Even after the company became financially successful, Head attended to the most minute details. Early Head skis bear serial numbers actually inscribed in the inventor’s own hand. “I personally designed all the machinery to make the skis,” he says. “The employees had faith that if a machine wasn’t working, all I had to do was give it a kick and it would start again.” One day a Michigan congressman drove up to the plant in Timonium, Md. to have his skis refinished, and Head personally took him on a tour of the factory. That kind gesture was recalled by President Gerald Ford when he encountered Head at a 1975 Christmas party in Vail, Colo. Head, not surprisingly, had forgotten.

As the ski company moved from $10 to $20 million in annual sales, it suffered acute growing pains and was salvaged only by money from AMF. “I was a very inept manager,” Head concedes. “I compulsively had to do everything. Whenever I was dissatisfied, instead of taking it up with whoever had done it and getting them to do better, I would just do it myself. That’s when I ran out of gas, and the company began to suffer.”

Head’s personal life also took a series of downhill spills. His first marriage ended after six years in 1945, and his daughter moved with her mother to South Carolina. “Shortly thereafter,” Head recalls, “I got so immersed in the ski project that I just didn’t have the emotional energy to pay attention to my own daughter. I didn’t begin to know Nancy until she was about 12. It’s been a long trip, reforming and rebuilding a father-daughter relationship, but it’s worked.” Nancy, now 35, and her two children live nearby in Baltimore.

Another marriage, in 1960, broke up in just three years. “I was really married to skiing all that time,” Head explains. “I like to think that since my divorce from Head I have devoted myself to a successful job of marriage to Joan and to learning how to have more fun and satisfaction with people in general.” (Joan is a former worker for the Democratic National Committee whom he married in 1968. She is taking graduate courses in psychology and plans to enter law school.) Head continues: “The drug of creativeness is so powerful that people can go on and on until they die old and lonely. I have no interest in doing that.”

For all their wealth, the Heads live rather modestly. They own no other residence than a French cottage-style house in the wooded Roland Park section of Baltimore. “It’s a lot easier to stay at the Palace in St. Moritz,” Head explains, “or at Little Dix Bay when we go snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. We don’t have live-in servants. I don’t have a chauffeur. We don’t want encumbrances. We try to keep our lives uncluttered.”

In Baltimore, the house has been “resculptured,” in Head’s word, to minimize any annoyances that might trigger an effusion of creative anger. The television set is mounted behind a cabinet and swings into view at the touch of a button—a Head design. When Joan worried that her plants in a small greenhouse off the dining room were receiving too much light, Head balked at the idea of an awning—it would have destroyed the lines. Instead he devised a curtain of colored water which flows over the top and sides of the greenhouse and back into a basement reservoir. A sunken tennis court, swimming pool and Japanese garden are clustered in tight sequence. “I have a great love of the compact,” says Head. “I find it very restful.”

Head is en route by train to Princeton, N.J., company headquarters for the new racket. He is unsalaried chairman of the Prince board and a major stockholder, and as inventor is paid a royalty on every racket sold. “This company is exploding,” he says, clearly pleased to be busy. Then, gazing out the train window, the millionaire designer who uses technology to perfect the tools of sport ruminates about its perils.

“Our communication systems are highly pleasurable to use, but they don’t add to the overall enjoyment of living. They speed it up too much. Television is destructive. People don’t talk anymore. Even the goddamned telephone, useful as it is, probably is a negative. Even one small negative effect can wipe out a load of positives.”

Head admires the new opening device on a can of beer and continues. “My Cadillac is destructive, but I drive it. I will use to the fullest the advances in medicine with their superhuman, life-saving devices—but it isn’t good for society. If you’ve got these things, they are going to be used, but let’s say it would be nice if they had never happened.”

Does that include the innovative Head ski and the Prince racket?

“I don’t mean to make an exception for myself, but they are honestly all right,” he replies. “If a racket had a built-in computer that would always hit the ball for you, it would be destructive. If you could build a ski with an automatic stabilizing device, that would be destructive. I think my ski and my racket make both sports more pleasurable and accessible.”

The train stops at Trenton, but the doors fail to open. Head has to run back three cars to find a way out. “This is a hell of a way to run a railroad,” he mutters. Perhaps Howard Head is at this very moment listening to Bach in his living room and figuring out a new system for opening train doors.

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