Our relationship with the seas goes back to the earliest days of human existence. Moving from one place to another, or depending on the sea’s bounty for sustenance, man has had a relationship with the sea. Whether for this reason, or because the water on our planet offers so much in terms of travel, food, fun and enjoyment, the truth is we just can’t enough of it.
Through the years there have been countless inventions and technological developments that have allowed us to fulfil these desires. At one end of the scale, you have simple items like rowing boats, inflatable toys, and swimming trunks. At the other end, you have submarines, tidal energy, and underwater cameras. Let’s delve into the history of the wetsuit.
What’s So Good About Wetsuits, Anyway?
Where wetsuits fit on that technological scale is up for debate. To those who know no better, they appear to be nothing more than a skin-tight suit you go swimming in. This is understandable because to simply look at one, it is easy to think that’s all they are.
The truth is, wetsuits offer a lot more than just something to wear in the water. The advances in the materials used to make them mean that wetsuits provide buoyancy, protect against hypothermia, reduce friction so the user can move quickly through the water, and allow an incredible amount of flexibility as they are being worn.
All these advantages didn’t simply happen by accident. These and the other benefits of wearing a wetsuit are the results of many years of development, to the point where today you have wetsuits made from materials that are some of the most advanced in the world.
How Did It All Start?
We’ve been wearing swimwear for centuries, but the concept of wetsuits is a more modern phenomenon. There is a lot of debate of who was the first person to create a wetsuit, but most knowledgeable sources regard this to be Hugh Bradner.
In 1951, while working for the navy, he came up with the idea of using a thin layer of water to act as an insulator for those who were diving and working in cold water. It might seem counterintuitive – that having water inside a suit would be a benefit, however, the theory holds true. As Bradner stated, ‘when diving you do not need to be dry to stay warm.’
While his theory was correct, unfortunately Hugh Bradner never developed it to the point where he would patent a design for any wetsuit. One of the reasons for this was his dismissal of neoprene as a viable material for producing a wetsuit. As it turns out he was wrong on this point and it was neoprene that was first used, as it is today, to manufacture wetsuits.
A Surfer Named Jack O’Neill
While many credit Hugh Bradner with being the first theorize about wetsuits, they regard a man by the name of Jack O’Neill, as the person who truly developed the first wetsuits. Jack O’Neill lived in California in the 1950s and loved to go surfing in the Pacific Ocean.
He loved it so much that he opened his very own surfing store, where he would make and sell surfboards, and other equipment. Jack noticed that surfers would go into the water wearing normal tops such as sweaters and cardigans to keep warm in the cold waters. Jack decided he wanted to address this problem, and before long he created his first wetsuit.
From PVC to Neoprene
The first wetsuits that Jack O’Neill produced were made from PVC and similar plastics. While they did a good job of insulating those who wore them, the characteristics of these materials made manufacturing the suits a difficult task. Having experimented with other materials, including plastic foams, Jack realized he needed something different if wetsuit production was ever going to be feasible.
This is when he came across a material called neoprene. It was a material which could not only insulate surfers to keep them warm, it also had qualities such as buoyancy, and most important of all in terms of making wetsuits, it was flexible.
What Is Neoprene?
Neoprene sounds very ‘sci-fi,’ and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was something that NASA had just invented. However, far from being a product of the space age, neoprene’s earliest incantation can be traced all the way back to the early 1930s.
It was first developed by scientists working for the DuPont company, who were looking for ways to create flexible materials. The first compound they produced and marketed was called Duprene, however, it had one significant issue… it stunk terribly. Further research took place and not only were they able to eliminate the smell, they slashed the costs of producing it too.
In 1937, the material was given the generic name ‘neoprene’ and its use from then until today has seen it used in just about every industry imaginable. You find neoprene used in civil engineering, household products, musical instruments, the automotive industry, toys and games, and even some fashion designers have used neoprene in their creations.
Wetsuit Development in the Early Years
We know neoprene has been the main material used for wetsuits for many years, albeit, the technology behind today’s version is a whole lot different than in the days when Jack O’Neill first used it.
Back then, wetsuits had no lining, so to prevent them from sticking to their skin, users would use talcum powder. The early wetsuits were also not the most robust of garments, and they would tend to rip very easily. Wetsuits progressed to having nylon linings which negated the need for talc, and while it worked, it came at the cost of wetsuits being less flexible.
This problem was resolved to some extent when in the 1970s, nylon linings were replaced by a second layer of neoprene. This also led to advanced stitching methods being implemented to bind and seal the neoprene materials.
In the decades since, several advancements have been made in wetsuit design, including suits without zips, the use of materials like ‘Spandex’ and titanium, and enhanced insulation using thermoplastics.
Wetsuits are now available which have been designed for individual sports, and there are also categories of wetsuits for use in specific temperature ranges, mobility levels, and surface finishes. You can purchase gender-specific wetsuits, and they now come in a multitude of styles, colors and trims.
So, thanks to today’s wetsuits and the advancements that have taken place over the years, you can truly enjoy whatever water sport you are taking part in, plus you can make a fashion statement too.