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California is famous for its laid-back, athletic lifestyle that includes lounging on the beach, catching gnarly waves, and skating around the boardwalk. So, it makes sense that the Golden State is also known for inventions like wetsuits, blue jeans, and even skateboards. But it might come as a surprise to learn that the inspiration for the skateboard came from surfboards and not snowboards—which were actually invented on the other side of the country 15 years later.
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Southern California surfers sought new ways to maintain and improve their skills year-round, though it wasn’t always practical to hit the beach. In an attempt to hone their craft when the waves were flat, avid surfers took to dry land and invented early versions of the skateboard we know today. It is suspected that the first iteration appeared in the late 40s or early 50s, when dozens of surfers crafted their own vehicles by attaching roller-skate wheels to the bottoms of wooden boxes or boards. But unlike many of California’s other inventions, it is unknown who invented skateboarding.
While we may never know who originally thought to take surfing to the streets, there is one clear inventor who is responsible for designing the skateboards we use today: Larry Stevenson. In 1963, Stevenson hand-built the first-ever surfboard-shaped skateboard inside his garage in Santa Monica. But his passion for surfing and skating didn’t stop there. Stevenson went on to organize the world’s first skateboarding team; patent kicktail and double kicktail skateboards; and craft skateboards using high-performance and high-quality materials under his brand, Makaha.
It was around the same time that competitors began popping up to take advantage of the hobby’s rising popularity. Through all of this, however, the structural elements of the board’s functional components went largely unchanged. Though the sport began to peak in the late 60s, the skateboard’s wheels didn’t adapt until 1971.
In the beginning, skaters would assemble their boards with whatever resources were available, and for many, this meant relying on roller-skate wheels. At the time, these wheels were made out of steel and played an important role in roller derby rinks, but they didn’t provide a smooth ride on the streets of Venice, San Diego, or Santa Monica. To compensate for this, a clay composite wheel was invented; it combined bits of plastic, paper, and finely ground walnut shells to offer a more fluid motion. But alas, there was more fine-tuning to do.
Seeing this opportunity, Frank Nasworthy—who’s friend’s father owned a plastic factory that experimented with a polyurethane roller-skate wheel—ordered several sets of these plastic wheels and started affixing them to the trucks of his own skateboards. Nasworthy was so inspired by the improved ride that he started his own company, the Cadillac Wheels Company, and began selling his wheels to surf shops throughout Southern California. While these wheels were ultimately replaced by bearing wheels, the more fluid ride allowed skateboarders to do tricks for the first time. So of course, when the California drought came in 1976, skaters jumped at the chance to skate along the walls of emptied swimming pools.
Since the Golden State is home to countless renowned skate shops, one of the first skate parks in the world, and iconic skateboarding brands like Vans, there’s no doubt that skateboarding is distinctly Californian.
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