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Whenever people wax nostalgic about the past, they’re often not thinking of the technological advances that make today way more comfortable than it used to be. Scottish castles made of stone had no central heating, the dudes who first climbed Mount Everest were sporting natural fibers like wool (barely suitable NYC in February, let alone the highest point in the world), even early fighter pilots had to deal with fleece bombers that would freeze at high altitudes. In a word, life on land and in the air was colder, much colder. So cold you’d probably regret everything you ever said about wishing you had been born in the ‘50s. And don’t even get us started about in the water, because we’re getting there anyway.
Being as mankind has a tendency to endeavor to conquer all things (and conquer them well), the aspiration to make colder seas navigable was a concern as far back as 1927, when Thomas Edgar Aud of Herndon, Virginia filed a US patent for a “life-saving suit.” More akin to a modern dry-suit than a wetsuit made of neoprene (which was invented until 1930), Herndon’s proposed suit was to be "made of some suitable strong and durable water-proof material, such as soft vulcanized rubber or any suitable combination of rubber and fabric." The result was more Michelin Man than amphibious James Bond, but the intention was there.
Piggybacking off of Herndon’s original idea, UC Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner developed what would become the modern wetsuit in 1951 during his work for the US Navy. The critical difference between Bradner’s suit from the ones that came before it was the use of neoprene (aka a major deal breaker). Neoprene, which was invented by DuPont scientists in 1930 was a synthetic rubber with properties like malleability, fire-resistance, and general tolerance to extreme conditions that made it useful for everything from gaskets to lining landfills, and, yes, of course, wetsuits.
Neoprene’s cellular structure was the rub; its nitrogen gas bubbles trapped in its core made it an optimal option for heat insulation. The trick for neoprene wetsuits was in the layers that effectively kept the warm water in the suit trapped against your body, and the cold water out. If the warm and cold water kept mixing together, there was no point in wearing a wetsuit at all. Just imagine wearing a wet sweater that has finally reached something vaguely similar to your body temperature and someone continuing to pour cold water over you--it's a little like that. Recognizing this, Herndon employed waterproof tape seams that were blind-stitched on the surface. Any perforations meant cold water getting in, which was a no-go.
Still, wetsuits had a long way to go; the early versions were made of foam-rubber neoprene with no backing material, which made for a real not-fun time pulling it on and was tacky and uncomfortable against the skin. Wetsuits tore in half, leg hair was lost, talc powder employed. It did the trick, but it didn't do the trick well. Eventually wetsuits were lined with nylon sheeting, which took away some of the strain of pulling on the suit but added rigidity and limited flexibility. It was not until the ‘70s when double-backed neoprene came on the scene, alleviating previous problems by sandwiching the foam-rubber between two protective outer layers. They pulled on easily, were harder to tear, and could finally be smattered with the logos and colors you often see today. Eureka, they'd found it.
It only took fifty-something years to get it right, but if you’ve ever been surfing in Montauk in March, you’ll agree that some things in life are worth the wait. And, yeah, there's no better time to live than now.
Images courtesy of UC San Diego Library.