The invention of the modern wetsuit was a game changer for fans of watersports such as open water swimming and surfing. Not only do these items help to insulate and protect the body from low temperatures, but they also aid buoyancy and streamlining in the water. This can increase safety and comfort in the water, and even be a life-saving factor.
Here's a look at how this highly popular and useful piece of aquatic equipment came to be invented.
The prototype diving came together through a series of inventions, starting with the creation of a waterproof fabric in the early 18th century. The first pressure-resisting diving suits were made in the 1710s to enable underwater salvage work. They were typically made of leather or watertight canvas, and had to be weighted to allow for underwater descents.
During World War II, lighter diving suits were made out of latex rubber by Pirelli, for the use of Italian frogmen in military operations. This opened the gateway for experimentation with different types of rubber and plastic, and eventually led to the development of neoprene in the 1950s.
Neoprene is a synthetic rubber material that has excellent insulating properties, and is also strong, flexible, and buoyant. It was invented in 1951 by a US physicist named Hugh Bradner, an associate of the University of California. Bradner was an enthusiastic surfer and wanted a lightweight suit that would help to insulate him from the chilly Pacific waters.
The wet suit was designed to allow a thin layer of water to become trapped between the skin and the suit, which would then be heated by body temperature and act as a natural insulator. Despite the advancements of Bradner’s design, his patent application was rejected because it was considered too similar to a flying suit.
Nonetheless, there was sufficient interest in the wetsuit among the watersport community for Bradner to find a manufacturing partner. In 1952, the first wetsuits were made and sold to US surfers. However, early wetsuits were a struggle to put on, and were prone to ripping at the seams.
Over the next decades, further technological advances in material science and improvements to the design of the wetsuit made them more durable, usable, and effective in the water. The quality of the stitching was improved, and areas of stress such as the knees were reinforced to reduce the risk of tearing.
By the 1980s, it was possible to combine neoprene with elasticated materials such as spandex. This made wetsuits easier to put on, eliminated the need for excessive zips, and made them more close-fitting and streamlined in the water.
Today, there are wetsuits designed to suit every purpose, from surfing to cold water swimming, and professional athletes and military and police divers. There’s a choice between a full suit or a shortie; a suit that can be worn in a sauna or one designed to withstand freezing Arctic temperatures.
No doubt the coming decades will see further improvements to this indispensable piece of equipment, whether for professional or recreational use.