For surfers and divers, wetsuits are a way of life, a wardrobe staple, a necessity that is often taken for granted—but they have not even been around for 75 years. While the exact history of wetsuits is debated, one thing remains clear: Wetsuits were invented in California. The groundbreaking invention allowed individuals to stay underwater longer, aiding the Navy in performing life-saving practices and spurring on a new form of surfing.
Before being crafted from neoprene, diving suits were made of rubber and canvas and weighed around 30 pounds; they also needed to be used in conjunction with a copper helmet, which weighed approximately 55 pounds. Despite their weight, these original wetsuits (called the Mark V) performed well enough to allow military divers to venture deeper into the ocean’s depths than they had previously been able to.
Additional research began during World War II, when Americans noticed that the Italian frogmen wore rubber diving suits and were self-contained divers that did not require air lines. The invention of rebreathers in 1910 changed scuba-diving gear forever and inspired a new generation to innovate a better, more modern wetsuit in America. This triggered research into various kinds of rubber, the outcome of which was neoprene.
A new kind of wetsuit was invented in 1951, when Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner began experimenting with neoprene in an effort to redesign the equipment for the American frogmen. This rubbery synthetic material—which clung tight to the skin, like a glove—allowed a small amount of water to be trapped between the wearer’s body and the suit, warming the water to body temperature and acting as a better insulator. At the onset, these wetsuits were not lined on the inside and needed to be coated in talcum powder, and they were not strong enough to avoid tears; these flaws allowed for more experimentation and innovation as the years went by, resulting in the wetsuits worn today. Unfortunately, for Bradner—who is still considered to be the father of wetsuits—his invention was not patented.
While wetsuits became known and loved worldwide, the debate between who initially created them continues. For those who interacted with Bradner, there is little doubt that he was the first, but for others, it is easier to believe wetsuits were pioneered by the large companies that are now household names: Body Glove and O’Neill.
As the years went by and these companies continued to improve their methods, wetsuits became lined with nylon, which simultaneously made the suits less sticky and less flexible. To mitigate this, two layers of neoprene were sewn together using blind stitching so that holes were not created in the wetsuit during the sewing process. Neoprene wetsuits of various thicknesses allowed for different levels of warmth and protection against particulates in the ocean’s waters, further opening the market and providing additional ease for divers.
Since these impressive, industry-changing discoveries, companies have created all kinds of variations to fit every sport and need, including: zip-up wetsuits, non-zip wetsuits, suits with thermoplastic materials to increase insulation, wetsuits with spandex to boost maneuverability, wetsuits with taped seams, women’s wetsuits, and kids’ wetsuits.
Regardless of who invented the wetsuit as we now know it, all of these incredible minds in California helped to improve the ways in which we experience the ocean. The modern wetsuit created a niche for cold-water surfing; allowed the military to become more efficient; and enables divers to head down deeper than imagined to protect our coral reefs, understand marine life, and better care for our planet.