Hugh Bradner, we salute you. Hughie was a Berkeley physicist named Hugh Bradner who worked with the U.S. Navy to design a diving suit for the military that didn’t need to prevent water intrusion to keep the wearer warm. And thus the wetsuit was born. Surfing went from being a summertime, warm water pursuit to year round, any time, anywhere.
He used a foamed neoprene material made by a company called Rubatex. Back in the day, extruded neoprene strips were mainly used as a sealant around gaskets for cars and planes. Neoprene worked to keep you warm cos it was filled with tiny, uniform air bubbles that helped insulate against the cold, even without being waterproof. The navy divers tested it out and it worked a treat.
Bradner wasn't interested in the monetary side of his invention, so didn't pursue a patent for it, leaving it open for anyone in the market to copy. There weren't many divers or surfers back in 1952 so he probably didn't fully understand it's economic potential. Lucky for us.
Bradner formed the Engineering Development Company (EDCO) with some colleagues in order to manufacture his “Sub-Mariner” suit. An ad in the Skin Diver magazine showed the short version of the Sub-Mariner selling for $45.
The same year EDCO started, Jack O’Neill opened the first O’Neill surf shop in his garage near Ocean Beach. O’Neill was a surfer and had been testing various ways to stay warm while surfing off the frigid Nor Cal coast. He'd tried soaking his jersey in kerosene to make them more water resistant, as well as experimenting with the rubber drysuits worn by Navy frogmen. These were tightly sealed at the wrists and ankles to stop water from entering the suit, and worn over long underwear to stay warm.
O’Neill’s earliest wetsuit prototype was this vest coated in PVC plastic, circa 1953.
“They’d roll the top and bottom together to seal around the waist,” explains Brian Kilpatrick, O’Neill’s Director of Marketing Communications. “You’d be good for half an hour before the seal would break and then the waders would fill up with water, and you’d be lucky to survive. You can imagine how dangerous that was: He’d be surfing at Ocean Beach basically in rubber overalls filled with water. Super scary.”
The drysuit let O’Neill stay in the water a bit longer - but it sure wasn't safe. About the same time that Bradner was conducting his experiments in Berkeley, O’Neill heard about neoprene from a pharmacist mate. He hand-cut neoprene panels to the desired size (starting off with a swimsuit brief and vest) and then added some PVV sheeting to tone side of the neoprene to strengthen it.
O’Neill introduced his wetsuit to the world in 1956: At a sporting goods trade show in San Fran, he set up a swimming pool, put his kids in his new wetties, and chucked them in along with a flotilla of surfboards, inflatable rafts, and big chunks of ice. The orders started rolling in.
But still, most surfers weren’t sold on the benefits of wetsuits, and many continued to brave the cold waters without one. You were considered a "sissy" if you wore one! Maybe the delay in uptake was also cos the early suits were really basic and often restricted mobility, with their their rough rubber interiors chafing the hell outta ya skin. Add to this some really thick neoprene material and lack of zippers, which made them really hard to put on.
At the same time down in Redondo Beach, Bob Meistrell and his twin brother Bill had been experimenting with their own wetsuit designs. The bro's went to Rubatex to learn about their different rubber products and work with the company to produce the best possible wetsuit fabric....and came up with the “Dive N’ Surf Thermocline Wetsuits". Luckily for them the marketing guy they hired to help 'em, pointed out that that didn't exactly roll off the tongue.
“What makes your suits better than anyone else?” he asked them. The brothers replied, “They fit like a glove.” A few days later, the marketing guy returned to their shop with a finished version of their classic, circular hand logo labeled “The Body Glove.”
Sixty years later ou's surf in Iceland and in Antarctica. The advent of the wetsuit has pretty much quadrupled the coastline that’s eligible for waves, and there's no mistaking that some of the world’s best waves are on colder coastlines.
A big thanks to Hugh, Jack, Bob & Bill. No more having to chase the Endless Summer around the world. ("And of course we all know there's no waves in Tahiti" - watch the original Endless Summer movie for that quote alone. And of course some lekker Bruce's footage).