So who actually invented the wetsuit? It’s a little more complicated than you may think. Surfers today can’t imagine life without wetsuits as they’ve become such a core part of our surfing life and allow us to get more from surfing no matter where we surf and in the world’s harshest cold conditions.
It’s a reminder of how committed (and crazy!) the early surfers were.
You may also have wondered what is a wetsuit made out of? We’ll tackle some of these questions today.
Who invented the Wetsuit?
Nobody knew back in the day that something as simple as a wetsuit would turn into the vast industry that we see today. Wetsuits allow us to surf in the toughest coldest conditions that those that went before us could never have imagined.
In 1952 Jack O’Neill started working on the idea of keeping warm for longer while being in cold water, to extend his surf sessions. He came up with the idea of a wetsuit as a solution to this issue which concerned surfers up and down the Californian coastline at the time.
Well, at least that’s what he claims….
Who is Jack O’Neill?
Somewhere around the 1940s, Jack spent a lot of time in the Naval Air Corps serving as a pilot. He then came to San Francisco, California, and started taking gigs as a lifeguard, taxi driver, longshoreman, fisherman, draftsman, and traveling salesman.
He also loved surfing, a fairly underground outdoor activity back then, and went surfing daily before going to work.
One day he stained some documents with seawater with his sinuses while working as a draftsman, and he lost his job. As he had time on his hands, he started making surfboards with balsa wood and selling them from his garage.
And it went exceptionally well and eventually Jack opened up a surf shop near Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The father, adventurer, surfer, sailor, and hot air balloonist entered the world of business, and that’s where Jack found his true calling.
His friends told him that his business wouldn’t go anywhere, but with the help of the neoprene wetsuit, his business grew into one of the world’s most significant wetsuit brands.
From Where Did the Wetsuits Come?
According to Jack O’Neill, when he opened the shop, he tried many different ways to stay warm while surfing. At the time, surfers used to wear wool sweaters soaked in oil to keep the water away and retain body heat.
According to O’Neill, he thought about using neoprene vests and later turned them into full-body wetsuits. This idea came from the neoprene carpeting in the aisle of a passenger plane DC-3.
He started creating these wetsuits and was selling them by 1952 in his shop. But here’s a twist in the story! As it turned out many decades later, it was established that perhaps Jack was not the true inventor of wetsuits, but he certainly contributed to the evolution of wetsuits and in a major way.
The True Beginning
Carolyn Rainey of California-San Diego University in 1998 concluded that Hugh Bradner was the true inventor of these wetsuits. He tested them in 1951 utilising knowledge he had gained in the military.
Rainey found evidence that the concept of neoprene wetsuits was already among the surfers when Jack began selling them. According to another early surfer Bev Morgan, Rainey found out about Bradner’s wetsuits.
Bradner told his friends when he saw the report written for the US Navy and the NRC (National Research Council) in 1951 at the Scripps Library.
As it went, Brander never earned a dime from his invention, and nobody jostled him for any credit. However, O’Neill and his company made massive progress in improving the design and evolving the wetsuits into the major industry that we see today.
What is a wetsuit made out of?
Since the day’s of the original wetsuits – they have been made from neoprene. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber, which traditionally has been petroleum based.
In more recent years many brands have started to use limestone based neoprene in their wetsuits, claiming to have less environmental impact than the traditional neoprene. Brands such as Matuse and Vissla are examples of wetsuit brands using limestone based neoprene.
But despite the environmental rationale, limestone is a non sustainable resource and these wetsuits still require a significant refining process to create the neoprene used in these wetsuits.
More recently Patagonia has worked with a natural rubber solution called Yulex in their men’s and women’s wetsuits. Not only that the process of refining the natural rubber to neoprene is less intensive and water based without the use of toxic chemicals.
Patagonia has allowed other wetsuit producers access to Yulex as a neoprene resource, and as the production techniques have improved to produce higher and higher quality and durable wetsuits over the years, this trend towards natural rubber looks set to continue.
Most wetsuits have layers of neoprene and some may come with a lining, as well. The lining could include titanium to help trap heat or it might be made of another type of material, such as nylon. This lining makes the wetsuit more comfortable to wear but also can heavily increase the warmth of the wetsuit. Brands such as Xcel Wetsuits are producing amazingly warm wetsuits with their lining technologies – see here for more information on the Xcel Drylock range.
Neoprene is the most important material to discuss when talking about what wetsuits are made of. However, there are several layers and materials used in most wetsuits today. Some of the materials you might find include:
- Neoprene – The main layer for insulation.
- Nylon – Usually in the lining for comfort
- Spandex – May also be used in the lining or the outer layer.
- Titanium – Usually stitched in to help keep heat in.
- Aluminium or Copper – A heat-reflecting material used to better insulate the body.
- Zippers – Used for closures or to make fitting easier around the ankles and wrists.
While neoprene is the main material used in every wetsuit today, there are other materials used, too. When answering the question, what is a wetsuit made out of, neoprene is the simple answer, but as we can see over the years several materials have become vital parts of most wetsuits.
We hope you’ve gained some knowledge about who invented the wetsuit.
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