If you’ve ever surfed in less-than-tropical waters, you’re likely familiar with the wetsuit. A friend of surfers and divers in cold weather, this rubbery attire lets you engage in the watery activities you love without falling prey to hypothermia. Ever wonder how this marvel of underwater insulation came about? The history of the wetsuit makes for some interesting reading.
The idea of a suit that would protect its wearer in water is not a new one. As early as 1916, U.S. Navy divers were donning the canvas and rubber Mark V suit to work at significant depths. This early 20th century invention is still used by the commercial industry for work in strong currents.
During World War II, Italian frogmen were carrying out their underwater maneuvers outfitted in rubber suits made by Pirelli (known today for manufacturing tires).
In 1951, physicist Hugh Bradner, who had many inventions already to his name, set out to develop a suit that would keep US Navy frogmen warm in cold water. He hit upon the notion that such suits needn’t be watertight to keep their wearers warm. Insulation could be achieved by air bubbles trapped in the material, which would reduce heat conduction. Working on this concept, the first wetsuits were made of the foam neoprene, which is still used in wetsuits today. The suits went, however, through numerous evolutions in construction before becoming the sleek, form-fitting piece of athletic gear we are currently familiar with.
A series of improvements
Originally created out of untreated neoprene, the first suits were sticky against the skin and had to be sprinkled with talcum powder to be put on. Without lining, too, the neoprene was delicate, tearing easily. Nylon was later used to line the suits, making them easier to get into. It was in the 1970s that neoprene was sandwiched between layers of nylon or Lycra/Spandex, increasing the overall durability of wetsuits.
Another challenge with early wetsuits was putting the layered material together in a way that would prevent too much water from entering the suit. Wetsuits are not meant to be watertight, however, “flushing” (replacement of the warmed water inside the suit with cooler water from the outside) will undermine its ability to keep the wearer warm. Simply sewing suits together resulted in holes that let water in through the seams. Makers tried seam taping, a technique in which tape was melted into the nylon, sealing the seam. Seam gluing was another method attempted, however, the bond between the glue and the neoprene was not very durable and easily tore.
The eventual solution, which is still predominantly used today, was blind stitching. This type of sewing uses a curved needle that enters just under the surface of layers and comes out on the same side. Combined optionally with tape and liquid seams, it creates wetsuits that are more durable and are as watertight as possible. Too, machines have largely taken over the assembly of wetsuits, with precision resulting in better-fitting suits much less prone to leakage than their hand-sewn predecessors.
Reaching the consumer market
While Hugh Bradner is considered ‘The Father of the Wetsuit’, his attempt to bring his invention to consumers was not a success. Two other manufacturers had already established a presence by the time he tried to penetrate the market.
The first and better-known of the two was Jack O’Neill, who made and sold neoprene vests out of his San Fransisco surf shop. When the vests started selling better than the boards he shaped, he put out a number of designs, such as the long john, the shorty and the beaver-tail jacket. His wetsuits gained recognition over the years in the surfing community, and O’Neill has become a name synonymous with the modern-day wetsuit.
Bradner’s other competition were Bill and Bob Meistrell, twins known as The Meistrell Brothers. They recognized the potential benefits of neoprene and created their own suits, originally under the name ‘Thermocline’. The brand didn’t catch on, however, so at the suggestion of Hang Ten founder Duke Boyd they renamed to the now well-known ‘Body Glove’. One of the company’s recognized achievements was the creation of the non-zip wetsuit in 1989.
Wetsuits are now standard equipment in the world of water sports and commercial diving, and they continue to evolve. One modern development is the use of titanium in high-end or competitive wetsuits. The titanium is woven throughout the suit, increasing its ability to retain body heat and keep the wearer warm.
In the early 2000s, the world’s first wetsuit with built-in heating was created by Rip Curl. Named the H-Bomb, it was powered by lithium batteries that conducted electricity through coated fiber elements in the back of the suit. Though effective, it was too pricey to be practical and was soon removed from the market.
As wetsuits came to be used in open-water swimming and triathlons, the outer texture of the suit became important for reducing drag in the water. Single-backed suits, with the neoprene bare on the outside, were developed for swimmers, the slick neoprene allowing water to slide easily over the surface. Some suits for free-diving and spearfishing go the opposite route, with lining on the outside and bare neoprene on the inside. To further avoid flushing, the smooth surface of the neoprene is removed to expose an “open cell” surface which sticks to the skin.
With the future of the environment becoming a growing concern, some wetsuit manufacturers are also looking at more eco-friendly materials for their product (neoprene is oil-based and non-biodegradable). Companies such as Patagonia and Picture Organic are exploring the use of natural rubber, while innovative brand Vissla is making wetsuits out of recycled water bottles.
Without a doubt, the wetsuit has opened frontiers in surfing and other water pursuits that were only imagined before its invention. Climes that were considered too inhospitable before are now host to a variety of water sports. Surfers needn’t seek out the tropics to get their fill of wave-riding.
So, next time you see your favorite surfer in full wetsuit – or when you put one on yourself – remember the innovation behind its making and spare a bit of appreciation for what it’s made possible.
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