In the Green Room with Mike Wallace
This article, researching the true inventor of the wetsuit, is the first of two parts.
You check the swell, period and wind readings on SurfPulse, cackling at your good fortune that all the signals have aligned for an epic fall session in peaky, head-high, offshore conditions at your favorite beach break. With a muffled and wheezy cough on the cell phone, you call in sick to work and then reach for your wetsuit.
Not the slick, flexible and cozy superhero uniform you have come to cherish in 49-degree water temps. No, you don a scratchy oiled-wool sweater vest with a badly glued layer of paper-thin rubber already delaminating from the last session. Slap on a rubber skull cap and slather some Vaseline on your extremities. Lasting 15 minutes, you exit the water with purple lips and a Slurpee headache; your session is over before it began. Or it would be if you lived in 1949, two years before the dawn of the wetsuit.
This is a waterman’s tale of one unsung hero, a patriotic and humble university physicist, Hugh Bradner, who first solved the riddle of keeping mankind both wet and warm in the ocean. What closely followed was the refinement and commercialization of the wetsuit by two well-known rivals, O’Neill and Body Glove, pioneers who nurtured the market.
After the surfboard, the wetsuit is the next most critical piece of technology driving the popularity of surfing around the globe. Sure, in wintertime we’re grateful that somebody had the foresight, motivation and skills to first glue one together. For those of us not blessed to be living within a latitude or two of the equator, however, wetsuits are required year-round equipment taken for granted. The story spans from the very first post-war efforts to battle the cold with ill-fitting woolens to the latest “H-Bomb” battery-powered, Arctic-slaying heated wetsuit from Rip Curl. (www.ripcurl.com)
Without neoprene there would be little debate over the creation of the wetsuit. If not for neoprene and the nitrogen-infused air bubbles it traps close to the skin, there would be no flexible insulation for divers and surfers. According to About.com historian Mary Bellis, Wallace Hume Carothers was the brilliant father of modern man-made fabrics—inventor of both nylon and neoprene. He left a professorship at Harvard to head DuPont’s newly formed research division in 1928 and ultimately was credited with over 50 patents.
DuPont began producing neoprene in 1931. Nylon was unveiled in 1938 as an alternative to silk when trade relations soured with the U.S.’s main supplier, Japan, ahead of the war. Fast-forward 69 years and that former adversary now produces the vast majority of the best neoprene blends for wetsuits, adding nylon, spandex and even treated wool back into the mix for stretch and warmth. (See wetsuits on www.patagonia.com) Thought likely to have suffered from manic-depression, Carothers swallowed a small dose of cyanide he always carried on his person and ended his life in April 1937, a year before the gift of nylon was delivered to the world.
The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, hedges on the topic of the wetsuit’s creator, but does appear to lean towards Hugh Bradner’s principle role: “It is difficult to credit a single individual for the creation of the modern wetsuit. In 1951, while working for the U.S. Navy, Hugh Bradner had the insight that a thin layer of trapped water could act as an insulator. It was a colleague of Bradner’s who suggested neoprene as a feasible material. However, Bradner was not overly interested in profiting from his design and never marketed a version to the public; nor did he patent his design. The first written documentation of Bradner’s invention was in a letter dated June 21, 1951.”
The Encyclopedia of Surfing
Surf historian Matt Warshaw suggests: “The wetsuit was a result of WWII-funded developments in plastics and rubber. In 1951, looking to make underwater work more comfortable and productive for U.S. Navy divers, U.C. Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner began testing prototype wetsuits constructed from various unicellular polymeric materials, including neoprene. The navy declassified Bradner’s wetsuit designs the following year and encouraged commercial production, a decision that would eventually bring relief to surfers who were then wearing rubber caps and oil-steeped woolen sweaters as a defense against the cold.”
The O’Neill Story
Corporate legend has it that Jack O’Neill “circa early 50’s” water-tested various combinations of wool, rubber, PVC plastic and even “old WWII frogmen suits” (www.oneill.com). Indeed, after serving in the Army Air Corps, O’Neill moved to the frigid waters of Ocean Beach, San Francisco in 1952, and sought the means to extend his water time and earn a living. Dale Velzy and Hobie Alter were generally credited with creating the first board shops in Southern California. But O’Neill was the first to offer the whole bar of wax. He ultimately provisioned intrepid Northern surfers with boards, wetsuits, travel bags, wax and more, staking his rightful claim as creator of the first modern “surf shop” and even patenting the idea.
O’Neill history holds that Jack “discovered neoprene foam carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger plane,” though aviation experts cited by Wikipedia dispute this claim, since early neoprene was highly flammable and not well-suited to that dangerous use. This online resource also claims that it was Jack’s brother, Robert O’Neill, who created the first wetsuit designs for the company they founded together. Who knows what sibling rivalry lurked behind closed doors, but it was Jack who took charge of the business.
Regardless of how O’Neill sourced the material, he soon applied it to a variety of designs and his shop flourished. Success eventually drove him to relocate operations to 41st Avenue in Santa Cruz before it exploded into a global company. The business was largely managed by family members. Son Pat was credited with inventing the first practical surf leash, though surf pioneer Tom Blake in the early 1930s was reputed to have invented a leash that was fastened around the waist, not ankle. In fact, it was the recoil from a surgical tubing leash prototype that cost Jack his eye, resulting in the infamous swashbuckling eye patch logo. Jack O’Neill retired in 1985 to a seafaring life of leisure and charity, handing the reins over to Pat.
The line between machismo and hypothermia is a fine one and can likely be drawn right at Rincon Beach Park, south of Santa Barbara, where North and South surf cultures collide. Acceptance of the first Short Johns and Beaver-tail suits was not immediate—those inclined to insulate themselves were considered lesser men by stubborn and hardcore veterans. But increased warmth meant increased water time year-round and more rapidly improving skills. In the end, practicality won out and even the leash, or “kook cord,” as it was first snidely branded, is now virtually universal. Surfers are arguably worse swimmers for it, but better at board riding as a result.
Among the key product developments by the company over its history, O’Neill cites “wetsuit innovation, first surf shop, first surf leash, first surf boot, first glued and blindstitched construction, the Supersuit, the board bag, Animal suit, Zen zip closure and drain hole, double fluid seam weld construction, customized suit program, and the Mutant modular closure system.”
The culture of innovation at O’Neill has helped win customer loyalty and grab as much as 50% of the U.S. wetsuit business, according to a Transworld SURF retail survey. Since 1997, O’Neill has filed for five U.S. patents (1). To be sure, the company deserves credit for many highly useful innovations that have kept water men and women warm and comfortable, though credit for the birth of the first wetsuit may lay elsewhere. As often said, “It’s always summer on the inside.”
The Body Glove Story
Life-long watermen twins Bob and Bill Meistrell were similarly instrumental in the early commercialization of the wetsuit in Southern California and quickly recognized the importance of the developing market given their diving, surfing and lifeguarding exploits. They were brought into the business in 1953 via an $1800 buyout of Hap Jacobs’ stake in the Dive N’ Surf business based in Los Angeles with partner Bev Morgan, who later exited the business in 1957.
The entertaining and informative Body Glove corporate history, “The Story” (www.bodyglove.com) says that the brothers experimented with the usual wool and rubber combinations and found that neoprene backing on refrigerators might make a useful insulator for wet suits. Morgan reckoned they cranked out 1000–1500 orders for surf shops in the early days (2), a pace that burned him out and prompted him to cash out to the Meistrells.
The tag on Body Glove wetsuits to this day proudly touts “Since 53” in a soft jab at their dominant major Northern Californian rival, O’Neill, following apparent legal wrangles on the origins of the wetsuit. That rivalry mirrors the titanic North-South rumble between Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz for the legal rights to claim the mantle of “Surf City, USA,” recently won by Huntington. The Meistrells marketed the suits under the name Thermocline until 1965, when they hired a marketing pro to help them come up with the name Body Glove, as in “fits like a glove.” Under the original Dive N’ Surf designation, Bill Meistrell has three U.S. patents since 1987 (3).
On July 26, 2007, founders Bob and Bill Meistrell were awarded a prestigious granite stone on the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach in the category of Surf Culture for “creating the wetsuit.” The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which claims to be the “first surfing museum in the world,” having opened its doors in 1986, does not similarly anoint a northern wetsuit inventor on its website, nor does O’Neill claim it outright. While Body Glove deserves accolades for pioneering advancements in the wetsuit along with O’Neill, history shows that the story is more complex and intriguing.
Despite the inference by both O’Neill and Body Glove that they hold the keys to the wetsuit’s origin, due credit for the concept must be shared by a third waterman. In a Los Angeles Times article, “Surfing whodunit,” (4) Dive N’ Surf founder Bev Morgan admitted to trawling the Scripps library in La Jolla, California, and finding a 1951 report on wetsuits for the Navy, admitting that “Hugh Bradner invented the wetsuit, the first to use neoprene and come up with the whole concept.”
The Bradner Story
An avid waterman from infancy, according to family lore, Hugh “Brad” Bradner (b. 1915) was chucked off a pier by his father into the water at the age of three to sink or swim…he swam. Bradner graduated from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with a Ph.D. in physics, where he also coached the swimming and water polo teams, and was one of the first Americans to make a deep water SCUBA dive (5). As a nuclear scientist, he was among a trio who established Los Alamos in 1943 and he worked as a research scientist at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at U.C. Berkeley.
However, it was his work for the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory that led to his pioneering research on the wetsuit, as a means to keep Navy SEALS warm and insulated against underwater explosions. He rounded out his illustrious scientific career as professor emeritus at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at U.C. San Diego.
Consulted by the military and an active member of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), he was uniquely qualified to fuse science with ocean exploration. On many levels, Bradner worked in an era when the security of the country was paramount and collaboration was the most effective means to that end. It also explains Bradner’s evident reluctance to claim his rightful role as inventor of the wetsuit. That claim was just never important to him, then or now, despite the evidence in his favor.
(To be continued)
Thanks go out to Harold and Suzy Ticho for providing the inspiration for this story on the origins of the wetsuit and the life of their dear friend and colleague Hugh Bradner; Deborah Day, Archivist of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) Archives was invaluable in providing thorough documentation and photos of the wet suit, and Bradner’s contributions; Carolyn Rainey of Scripps for her intelligent SIO paper (#98-16): “Wet Suit Pursuit: Hugh Bradner’s Development of the First Wet Suit”; and Eric Hanauer for his insightful Scripps Oral History interview with Dr. Bradner.
Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his dog, Moose.