The inventor: Robert Winterhalder (1866 – 1932)
In 1904, spa guests started arriving in the Schneckenhof – a farm with a restaurant and guest house, belonging to the Winterhalder family. Due to the fresh air, the winter months were busy, too. Winter sports became increasingly popular and many visitors started skiing and tobogganing. However, climbing the slope was problematic, especially for those suffering from asthma. The farmer and landlord, Robert Winterhalder, noticed this and began thinking about ways of easing the climb for the visitors. The existing belt drive system from the mill to the threshing floor of the Schneckenhof gave him the idea of installing an additional system which could pull visitors up the mountain to the edge of the forest. Winterhalder used the hydropower created by the mill in front of his house to drive his newly invented “elevator” forwards. He had already extended the mill’s machinery before 1900, allowing the power generated by the water wheel to reach the upper floor of his farmhouse, where the hay and grain was stored, via an endless wire rope. He had always found it tedious to first carry the grain to his mill and then to move the flour back to his house. It was this type of transmission belt that he essentially also used for his ski lift.
Opposite the farm was a sluice-covered canal which served as a water tank. Winterhalder laid an underground iron strip from the canal’s outlet above the mill all the way to the mill house. In addition to the existing system, a second drive wheel was coupled with the cogwheel which powered the rope tow running parallel to the slope. The revolving steel rope connected across five poles with mast rollers, leading 32 m upwards and crossing a distance of 280 m to the upper lift station. This “continuous cable car with towing hitches for tobogganists and skiers” was officially launched and put into operation on 14 February 1908. This elevator system, the first ski lift in the world, was a huge success. It became a key topic of discussion among winter sports enthusiasts across the whole of Germany. Robert Winterhalder tasked the Kleyer Patent Agency in Karlsruhe with drafting a patent application for the lift. Between 1909 and 1911, he obtained the patents (utility models) for Germany, France, Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland).
In 1910, Winterhalder built the first iron-beamed lift with a 15 PS electric motor for the International Winter Sports Exhibition in Triberg. He was awarded the gold exhibition medal by the Grand Duke of Baden, Prince Max of Baden, for his construction. The lift covered a distance of 550 m and an altitude of 85 m. It was able to transport 32 people at once. Due to a dispute with the property owners, the lift in Triberg was closed in 1914. A material shortage led to its dismantlement in 1917. Similarly, the Ur-Lift in Schollach was also only in operation until the beginning of the First World War. Its iron parts, carriers, and rollers were to be melted down in 1917, and the site was thus dismantled. The cable rope, however, was reused by the Schneckenwirt (the landlord of the Schneckenhof) as a replacement transmission belt to the house.
The “first ski lift in the world” was never entirely forgotten. Every so often, newspapers, magazines, and TV channels tell its story. Back in the day, after all the building plans for the lift in Triberg were completed, it was quite difficult to find an authorisation body that was ready to take responsibility for granting permission to build this previously unprecedented mode of transport. Without the Grand Duchy of Baden Railway Administration, the first motorised lift would probably never have been built. Robert Winterhalder tried to take his invention to other places such as to the Feldberg. However, he was unable to find any investment partners. After having viewed the system, an advisory council from Karlsruhe stated, “The whole thing is good, but you don’t have the right background. You should be a doctor, an engineer, or at best a technician! Yes, dear Schneckenwirt, we are living in “doctor times”; nothing good can come from someone who is not at least a “doctor”. God-given intelligence and practical experience are not enough. It is the “title” which will give sight to the blind.” (Source: Badner Land, 5th edition, 1914).
The inventor, misjudged during his day and age, never lived to see the development of the skiing sport and the ski lifts. His patent was no use to him. His suggestion to the Black Forest hoteliers was also of no avail, even though he presented them with a profitability calculation: By charging 20 pfennigs per ascent, he arrived at a net profit of 5,400 German marks. Yet even today, ski lifts are still being built according to Winterhalder’s principle, regarding the advanced towing hitch in particular. Early on, Doppelmayr from Austria (in Voralberg), nowadays a global name in cable car construction, bought the patents from Robert Winterhalder.
Today, all that remains on the historical mountainside in Schollach is the old mill house. The winter sports centres developed elsewhere. The building was restored to its initial state. The original mechanism is still in place but needs extensive renovation. In the Schneckenhof, you can meet Klaus Winterhalder, the inventor’s grandson. Sit down and have a chat with him and let time stand still for a little while…