A Second Year Student Organizes a Collection for Inventor of the Breakaway Basketball Rim
I spent the summer working at the Archives Center at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. My job was to process a collection, come up with an intellectual arrangement, house the documents and write a finding aid for the Arthur Ehrat papers. The Smithsonian’s blurb about this collection: “Papers, primarily relating to Ehrat's invention of the breakaway basketball rim, including patents, licensing documents, and litigation documents; also photographs of Ehrat, audiovisual materials including oral history interviews with him.”
I met an amazing person this summer. His name is Arthur Ehrat, and he’s 82 years old. He and his wife, Mary, have lived in Virden, Illinois, for most of their lives. They had five daughters, and “Every last one of them was a cheerleader.” This is one of Arthur’s favorite sayings, and he always punctuates it with a hearty chuckle.
Arthur loves to tell stories. One of his best, and the one I came to know quite well, is how he invented and patented the “deformation-preventing swingable mount for basketball goals,” better known as a breakaway basketball rim. This type of rim allowed for spectacular slam dunks with minimal damage to either the rim or the backboard. Before the breakaway technology emerged, basketball players often injured themselves during dunks, bent the rim out of shape or even ruined backboards. Pro player Darryl “Dr. Dunk” Dawkins ranks as one of the most flamboyant and destructive dunkers. In 1979, he slammed the ball so hard that he completely shattered a glass backboard. He subsequently named his dunk “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam-Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.”
Enter Arthur Ehrat, who never played basketball and spent three decades as the manager of a grain elevator. One summer day in 1976, his nephew Randy, who was a college basketball coach, said that Arthur should come up with a way for basketball players to dunk the ball without injuries or equipment breakage. It was well known among Arthur’s family that he liked to tinker and invent. It wasn’t long after this conversation that Arthur bought a simple basketball rim and other hardware and set to work.
He tried various hinges and magnet arrangements before hitting on a brilliant idea: a John Deere coil spring. He pulled a heavy-duty spring from a cultivator, cut it in half and welded the piece on to a metal plate. The coil was sturdy enough that it would only yield after more than 150 pounds of pressure was applied.
Arthur eventually patented his basketball goal in 1982, though it was an arduous process and there were other inventors with similar ideas. He enlisted the services of a patent lawyer, and the two of them spent the next 17 years signing licensing agreements and defending the patent from infringement. While this invention may have helped to change the face of basketball (think “Shaq Attack”), Arthur Ehrat is by no means a household name. He emphasizes that while his invention never made him rich, he did make enough to put his girls through college.
For information on this internship for 2007, link to: http://invention.smithsonian.org/resources/research_interns.aspx