Surf & Surfboard History: 1778 to 2018 an Indepth time-machine
Let's take a step back from what surfing is today, a highly competitive action-sport surfing on boards, and fins specifically engineered using advanced computer emulations, talented surfers, and sponsorship deals.
We're going to look back at what surfing once was, and not just surfing, but surfboards.
I mean, could you imagine surfing on a 35kg solid timber surfboard with no rocker, and no fins, we have gone over the importance of surfboard fins in a previous article, you'll understand that this wouldn't have been easy.
In 2018, we grab our surfboard, put it under our arm and it's like a feather, new composites, fiberglass, and resins make sure super-light-weight boards, but you better believe it wasn't always like that.
The evolution of surfing and surfboards is seriously interesting, just ask your parents what their first board was, they may even have photos.
I'm not going to lie, this is going to be a monster article, so to save you some time, I have made an index for you to skip to what best interests you:
- Solid Surfboards
- How long was the first surfboard?
- The first board innovation
- The first Hollow surfboard
- Shape changes
- The surfboard rocker
- How old is the oldest surfboard?
- Invention of the surfboard fin
- The single fin
- Twin Fins
- Thruster Fins
- Quad Fins
- Removable Fins
- The modern Surfboard
- Balsa Core
- Foam Core
- The Modern-Day surfer
The Solid Surfboard
I mean, the name speaks for itself, a solid chunk of wood. The solid surfboard isn't confirmed to have been wood, however, based on technology at the time, it's highly likely that it was a simple tree, carved flat and smoothed.
Going back to between 1778 and 1779 these are the years in which Captain James Cook traveled to Hawaii, in October - December 1778 Cook traveled from America to the Hawaiian Islands. In 1779 Captain James Cook was killed. It is recorded within his journals a crewman of the HMS first sighted what is known today as "surfing".
Although it is still "unknown" to what the surfboards or as the locals called it "Papa he‘e nalu" was made from, it is however recorded a couple years later boards being made from trees. The species of tree varies from location to location depending on local breeds.
Picture: The first known photo of "surfing" a solid wood board.
Surfing was apart of culture in Hawaii, your surfboard was more than just a piece of wood, they symbolized status, Royalties were known to have their boards made from native Hawaiian trees, this breed of tree was exclusive to Royals.
It doesn't take a genius to work out that these old boards were not as technically shaped as today's boards, to compensate for the weight, length was added, to create more buoyancy on water, more surface area means it can support more weight. This made them incredibly heavy, meaning surfers were in very good physical shape, and I don't mean like today's surfers who focus on their fitness, but just to get your board to the beach.
Let's blow your mind here for a second and talk about the length of one of these beauties!
How long were the first solid surfboards?
These boards ranged from 10 feet (3m) up to a massive 20 feet (6m), they weigh upwards of 35Kg/77lbs and some have been recorded as 68 to 91kg (200lbs).
Unlike modern boards, these boards were not designed to surf across a wave, these only went straight. This meant there was no "one surfer" rule on waves, you could line everyone up on the same wave with no problems!
These were used right up to the late 1930's and still exist today as memorial's, art, and in history museums.
The first board innovation
The first major board innovation came in the early parts of the 20th century when a young and talented surfer named George Freeth decided to ditch the 16' board and decided to cut it in half.
This became the talk on local Hawaiian beaches and like any trend has taught us, everyone jumped on board and soon sawdust was flying as locals hit their workshops to give it a go.
Picture: George Freeth with "short" solid wood board (1920's)
The invention of the hollow surfboard
Although over one-hundred years ago now, it didn't take a genius to work out the problem with solid boards, they were stupid heavy. They didn't have rockers, lacked fins, and had very little buoyancy.
So in 1926 an American surfer named Tom Blake (1902 - 1994) invented the very first, hollow surfboard.
New materials and techniques had risen, and marine plywood and waterproof glues were not more available, Tom Blake used his knowledge of construction and passion for the surf to build himself the very first hollow board, using a wooden framework covered with plywood and varnished to seal the wood.
Picture: Tom Blake on his first ever hollow board (1930's)
Besides being one of, if not the most influential figures in surfing history, Tom was an Author, Actor, Inventor and a national swimming champion.
The hollow surfboard soon became the go-to board of choice between 1926 to the late 1940's, they were lighter ( 20kg ), and much easier to transport. This, however, didn't fix the terrible design, and poor performance that the original boards still displayed.
This lead to passionate surfers looking to re-innovate the shape, and design of the board.
The first major shape change to Tom Blakes hollow boards came in 1934 when a group of Hawaiian surfers, John Kelly, Fran Heath, and Wall Frosieth took things to the next level.
They narrowed the tail, and the nose of the board, also changing the rails to a "V" shape, later becoming a "U" or rounded rails.
Picture: the original "hot curl" with early fin design. Credit: Surfing Heritage & Culture Center collection photo: Merson
This was a huge innovation in surfing history, this allowed for the board to maneuver across the wave, and not just straight, it meant the board could glide out on the shoulder, and ride in the curl.
These later became known as "hot curl" surfboards.
The Surfboard Rocker
Known today as the "most important" design element of a modern day surfboard, the surfboard rocker helps influence water flow, improving both balance, and performance.
Coming into effect in the late 1940s to early 1950s when inventer Bob Simmons (1919-1953) experimented with "curved" boards.
Bob, also known as "Father of the Modern Surfboard" introduced a number of new shapes and innovations still being used today. He played around with many shapes and sized including his infamous Simmons Spoon. The "spoon" has a kicked up nose and offered a curved design.
How old is the oldest surfboard?
Displayed in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii the worlds oldest surfboard dates back to the original sighting in 1778-79. It celebrated it's 230th birthday not so long ago, ridden by Hawaiian Royalty this board is certainly a piece of surfing history.
The invention of the Surfboard Fin
Invented by none other than Tom Blake in 1935, being an inventor, Tom constantly tried new boards and techniques to improve on his original hollow boards.
His first ever statement from Tom after using his newly invented surfboard fins he said "When I first paddled out the board felt like it was much easier to keep in a straight line, although I thought I might be imagining it. My first wave revealed the truth. Never before had I experienced such control and stability. There was much to work out, but the seed had been sown."
As you could imagine the surfboard fin was a game changer, the fin was designed to stop the board sliding sideways on a wave.
Before this, a surfer would control his or her board by hanging the toe of your back foot behind your board to keep the board stable.
The Single Fin
At this point in time, your longboards still had no fins, and no control, but the invention of the single fin, changed surfing forever, and the single fin design is a commonly used setup used today.
Invented in the late 1960s by George Greenough of Santa Barbara, California, later residing to Byron Bay, Australia.
Before George's innovative fin design, fins were more like what we know today as "keels", which in today's surfing is pretty much useless.
George was a non-surfer, he had never surfed a single wave at the time of his fin design, however, he was very observant and inventive, giving him the knowledge to come up with the single fin.
The single fin did not change until the late 70's.
Australian born surfer Mark Richards invented the twin fin setup in the late 1970's which become popular after the iconic surfer dominated the world competitive scene from 1979 right through to 1983. He won four consecutive world titles.
The second fin in Mark's eyes gave him the ability to make better flowing carves, and that it did! Giving him a huge competitive edge over his fellow surfers.
This lead to further fin innovation, one fin, now two fins? I wonder whats next? More fins are better right?
The thruster as we know it today ( Three fin )
I'm going to give this the benefit of the doubt, although I personally don't see this as "innovation" more following the trend of adding an extra fin, I'll give it some credit for taking the first leap of faith.
Another Australian surfer Simon Anderson was the first one to add a third fin to his board in 1980, known today as a thruster setup, the most popular, and wide-spread setup still used today.
This puts the centered fin slightly further back than the two outer fins.
Although critics had their doubts about the three fin surfboard Simon blew them away by winning a world cup event at the Offshore Pipeline Masters in 1981 on his new three fin board.
Four Fins ( Quad )
Records of the four fin are a little blurry, By this point adding another fin to your board is the obvious next move, this comes as no surprise that this was attempted by quite a few people all around the same time.
Although the four fin surfboard came out about the same time as the thruster, however, with the success of Simon Anderson with his world cup title using a thruster setup the three fin became the "go-to".
This left the four fin boards in the shadows.
The first noted "fin box" for a removable fin was in the early 1950's. Although they existed, they were few and far between.
Tom Morey, with an engineer and composite background, was one of the first early adopters of the removable fin system in the mid-1960's.
The removable fin box, and fin changed dramatically over the next 40 years, but nothing more notable than the invention of the plug changeable fin system developed by FCS ( Fin Control System) and successfully patented in 1995.
The modern surfboard
They're made for our generation of surfers, using modern technology, shaping techniques and materials to offer not only a strong and durable body, but offer a light-weight design.
Computer CAD software is often used to emulate the modern board's shape and design to work out the most optimal, high-performance designs.
The first break-through in the way modern boards were made was light-weight materials, balsa wood offered this by using a balsa core, balsa is not only light, but fragile and easily moldered into shape.
Once the board was shaped, a thin coat of fiberglass and epoxy resin was used to give it strength, as well as a long-lasting waterproof shell.
Although balsa was easy to carve, it was still wood, meaning hard on the tools, and time-consuming.
That's why the foam core was, and still is a very popular material for modern surfboards, easier to carve, easier to fiberglass, and lighter than balsa.
Still used in 2018 as the most commonly used material for shaping and design, it isn't going anywhere anytime soon either!
Photo Credit: Solana Surfboards
The modern-day surfer
It's now 2018, not only has it been a fun and adventurous story of surfing innovation, but a long one dating back 240 years from 1778 to 2018, surfing is now a well-recognized sport, and will make its debut in the Olympics in 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Not only that, but the sport has grown year on year, sponsors are popping up left-right-and-center to get a piece of the action, and although not everyone is surfing for the competition, it does show the popularity and growth.
Countries and councils are also seeing the need and demand for "surf only" beaches to be introduced and patrolled, this will give riders a safer, and more enjoyable experience.
Surf schools are also becoming more prominent, giving new riders, young and old the opportunity to learn, not only for fun but for fitness and relaxation.
Bring on the future, bring on the sponsors, TV deals and more mainstream media, let's ride the wave and see where surfing goes us next.