In the Green Room with Mike Wallace
This article, researching the true inventor of the wetsuit, is the second of two parts.
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 Institution 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.
Scripps Oral History
In a rare Scripps oral history interview in August of 1999 (6), Bradner candidly discussed his career and revealed a trove of hidden gems and invaluable insight into the process of invention and the origins of the wetsuit.
Bradner elaborated on his formative experience of being thrown into Gunpowder River in 1918 at the age of three, with his brother, age four. Bradner explained that his father “had faith that by taking this kind of approach it would not turn me off in the water and he was right. He threw us off the end of the pier in deep water, and well, actually I was happier under water than above pretty much from then on.” His father was the director of the Edgewood Arsenal (chemical warfare) in Maryland at the end of WWI.
In college Bradner was a self-described “lazy” competitive swimmer, who entered swim relays and high diving. While a grad student at Caltech, he began diving below sea level, rigging with another Ph.D. student some homemade diving equipment with a bottle of pure oxygen and a Co2 absorber in the pre-SCUBA days of 1938, five years before the Aqua-Lung was invented by the Cousteau-Gagnan team and more than ten years before that device was first marketed in 1949 (7). It was SCUBA that made the invention of the wetsuit a necessity, increasing cold water diving time from mere minutes to hours.
Advised by the Mayo Clinic to not go deeper than 30 feet under water with their set-up, the pair prowled the coast of Los Angeles and Palos Verdes. Part of his formative diving experience, Bradner found the water uncomfortably cold, forcing him to venture as far south as Punta Banda, Baja, in search of giant abalone—a quintessential snapshot of the idyllic, if not chilly, early California waterman lifestyle.
Fresh out of Caltech, he did a stint at the Naval Ordnance Lab in Washington, D.C., working on mine warfare technology at the start of WWII before moving to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to contribute to studies on high explosives and implosion. Bradner then moved back to California and on to high-energy physics at Lawrence Labs in Berkeley. Despite his “7-day workweek,” he somehow managed to set aside some time for recreation and at the same time was invited to join the National Research Council to advise on undersea swimming and warfare. It was here that the idea of a “wet suit” was spawned.
His primary focus was improving the equipment of underwater demolition teams (UDTs) and the frogmen who comprised them. From the standpoint of a disciplined and multi-faceted scientist, he quickly found that the contemporary “dry suits” did not provide sufficient insulation for divers and concluded that some sort of rubber compound that trapped dead air would be an ideal solution. So he “messed around” with other scientists to solve the problem after going through similar unsatisfactory experiments in layers of rubber and wool as Jack O’Neill and the Meistrells did later. At the recommendation of a colleague in 1951, they zeroed in on a product he called “neoprene foam rubber” made by Rubatex.
On June 21, 1951, Bradner sent a “definitive” letter to Larry Marshall at the Naval Office, pointing out “Look, you don’t have to stay dry to stay warm.” By that time his group had built several “imperfect” wet suits to present to the December “Swimposium” of that same year in Coronado, California, marking the first public airing of the concept. Water trials came next with the Navy SEALS, with the first open ocean trial in April of 1952 in 51.8°F water in Punta Banda, Baja. Other trials took place in Echo Lake, as well as an ambitious test at Christmastime in icy Lake Tahoe.
In the Marshall letter, Bradner said, “I do not care especially whether a patent on the suit is ever issued, since a refused application would presumably be just as effective in protecting the government from having to pay royalties. I plan to get someone started making the foam suits commercially within the next month or two, if all goes well. I do not anticipate any particular difficulty, since I specifically wish to avoid any profit myself. I don’t want to compromise my position of unbiased consultation on swimmers’ problems.” (8)
There are early photos of Bradner and his team venturing out to Año Nuevo Island to test the new suits 55 miles south of San Francisco. Named by Spanish chaplain Father Antonio del la Ascension as “Punta de Año Nuevo” or “New Year’s Point” (9), the craggy spit of land is known mainly for the wild marine mammals who descend upon it en masse during breeding season and attract formidable carnivorous predators in the process. Bradner would have been hard-pressed to find a more hair-raising location to test a wetsuit in the 1950s than Año Nuevo.
On a lighter note, Bradner vividly recalled another test of the suit in shallow waters near the Golden Gate of San Francisco. Donning his equipment, he submerged in 3–4 feet of water while under the watchful eye of another scientist who broke away to get something from the car. As he peered up from the water, “a very luscious woman came running down to the beach, this completely deserted beach with nothing except this black-suited creature in the water, and threw off all her clothes and lay down behind a rock. That I remember.” Who knows, perhaps he unwittingly became the inspiration for the 1954 Jack Arnold science fiction-horror cult classic Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The most obvious question that comes up is: why didn’t he patent the design? Bradner stated quite clearly that, “the morality in those days was that one was not supposed to profit by anything that he did under government auspices.” The patent office treated it as a classified project and bounced the issue back to the government, which found that it didn’t require any patent protection. In turn, that put the ball back in Bradner’s court to discuss the commercial application of the wetsuit with the University of California and any need for patent protection. “In my wisdom, I said, ‘No, I think maybe fifty people in the country (would use it).’” A fateful admission, considering wetsuit sales topped nearly $450 million/year in the most recent industry stats and the surf/skate business generated roughly $7.5 billion in sales/year combined in 2006 (10).
Once the research became declassified, contracting to build the suits for the SEAL UDT teams would take several years if they went through the Navy’s procurement bureaucracy, so Bradner and his engineering team formed their own production company, Engineering Development Company (EDCO), to manufacture the suits using unicellular foam plastic material (neoprene). He had no stake in the firm, but subsequently formed other lucrative commercial relationships with the engineers. Note that Bradner had discussed the strong connection between the thermal properties of the wetsuits and blast protection as early as 1950, though he lacked documentation for this earlier period.
Though he was the driving force behind the wetsuit, Bradner was scrupulous about treating its invention as a collaborative venture. This also held true for many of his other research efforts into much more sophisticated diving equipment, including underwater contact lenses, a single-hose regulator, and a decompression meter. Bradner even developed a loop system for quickly extracting SEALs from the water via inflatable boats, similar to modern tow surfing sleds. Engineering problems were to be solved collegially, not unilaterally “claimed” by any one team member. As he put it, “I don’t give a damn who thought of it first, as long as I’m not going around making a false claim. I’d be very happy to continue with the pleasure of being called the granddaddy of it, if it’s valid.”
Questioned by the Chief of Naval Operations about just why did “a good high-energy physicist spend his effort on swimmers and divers when around him people were doing Nobel prize work,” Bradner responded, “I felt that a single person could make a greater contribution, a greater impact, in a war situation by diving than by any other activity that I knew. I still hold to that.” Little did he know that his research, motivated by the war effort, would leave the legacy of year-round recreation for generations of divers and surfers to come.
A “Dry” Retort
A search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reveals the earliest listing for an “Aquatic garment having an ergonomically curve opening” incorrectly listed in the category of a “wet suit,” filed Jan 31, 1947 (11). Though extraordinarily detailed and impressive, the patent application clearly describes a dry suit, not a wet suit; “a water-excluding garment of rubber sheeting, with insulation provided by a thermal vest.” This leaves Bradner’s June 21, 1951 letter in place as the earliest documentary evidence of plans for a wetsuit.
While it is clear that we owe a debt of thanks to all the early developers of this critical aquatic garment, Hugh Bradner rates a special place in the pantheon of wetsuit development. Without the wetsuit, the popularity of surfing would be limited only to the summertime. Cold comfort in increasingly crowded line-ups, true, but infinitely better than using an itchy wool vest ill-suited to the rigors of sport. Though he is reluctant to claim it, Bradner is truly the “Granddaddy” of the wetsuit.
Admittedly, there is no “Bradner Eliminator, Psycho II or Vapor” wetsuit on the market today, since he never patented the idea. So the next time you pull on a thin, flexible and toasty wetsuit, take a moment to appreciate not only its creators, but its evolution and innovators.
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.