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Surfing whodunit

Who created the neoprene wetsuit? That's long been a sore point among the two entrepreneurs and a professor who each claim to be the inventor.

October 11, 2005|David Eisenstadt | Special to The Times

AT 77, Bob Meistrell leads deep-sea diving expeditions to Catalina Island and remains at the helm of Body Glove International, the multimillion-dollar Redondo Beach surf company he co-founded with his twin brother Bill half a century ago.

Jack O'Neill, 82, is a bit landlocked these days after turns as a wartime pilot, surfing legend and driving force behind Santa Cruz-based O'Neill Inc., one of the surf industry's most recognized brands.

Age forced Hugh Bradner, an 89-year-old UC Berkeley physics professor and Manhattan Project scientist, to mothball his scuba tanks a few years ago and downshift to a quiet and modest life in La Jolla.

These three Californians share more than Social Security checks. Each claims to be the father of the neoprene wetsuit, an invention that debuted in the early 1950s and revolutionized surfing and deep-sea diving.

"That's got to be the longest-standing argument in surfing," says Matt Warshaw, a San Francisco-based surf historian.

Argument hardly covers it. Mystery is more like it, a whodunit built on 50 years of boasting and recalling the successes of men who are all vying for the same crown. Each declares he's the sole inventor, dismissing the others as mere marketers.

"We developed the surf suit. I just know we did it," O'Neill says from his oceanfront home in Santa Cruz.

Meistrell, in constant motion inside the dining cabin of the company's 72-foot yacht, is similarly certain and direct. "I believe we did it first. And everyone copied us," he says.

O'Neill and Meistrell have locked horns in the wetsuit business and threatened lawsuits for decades. Each revels in his insistence that the other is wrong.

Bradner, the lone non-multimillionaire of the bunch, stakes his claim with professorial precision.

"The only invention I claim in this is the neoprene wetsuit," he says. "If somebody has documentation that precedes mine, I'd like to hear about it."

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Oiled sweaters

EARLY surfers and divers routinely immersed themselves in 45-degree seas with nothing more than a swimsuit, oil-soaked wool sweaters or long underwear.

"We'd dive to 200-foot depths without wetsuits," says Jim Stewart, the former head of the underwater program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. O'Neill and others experimented for a time with vests made from polyvinylchloride, or PVC. Though the vests offered some protection, they absorbed water, making them more like lead suits than wetsuits.

Then came the real thing. As the name suggests, wetsuits aren't waterproof. They work by providing an insulating layer between skin and outside air and water. Neoprene, which emerged from World War II military research on various rubbers and plastics, remains the essential material -- lightweight, flexible, comfortable and durable -- that most effectively keeps surfers and divers toasty even in 40-degree water.

Walk along any California beach on a winter morning and you'll see as many wetsuits as there are surfers. Ditto for divers. To this day, early surfers tend to credit O'Neill and occasionally the Meistrells; divers tend to pick the Meistrells and, once in a while, Bradner. For Body Glove and especially O'Neill Inc., the claim is an important piece of corporate lore. Each company traces its roots to the early 1950s surf and dive shop that became a mega-business with wetsuits as its core product -- and founders as inventors are a key part of its image.

The O'Neill website seamlessly connects Jack O'Neill's rambunctious and colorful personality by backing up his tale of being the inventor of the wetsuit and discovering neoprene in a eureka moment.

"If you were one of Jack O'Neill's children, founder of O'Neill Inc. and wetsuit inventor," reads a passage on the O'Neill company website, "you might very well listen as he told ice-cold horror stories that drove him to develop our trusty neoprene armor."

The O'Neill site displays grainy photos to reinforce the impression of its patriarch as a cross between Capt. Nemo and Thomas Edison. Then the website continues with an even more startling revelation.

"Jack finally struck gold with neoprene, which he discovered carpeting the aisle of a DC-3 passenger plane." But that's unlikely, according to Frank Thompson, curator of the Prairie Aviation Museum in Bloomington, Ill., who says rubber was not used for carpeting, carpet lining or padding on a DC-3 or almost any passenger airplane for a simple reason: It's not fire retardant.

Body Glove takes a less direct -- but no less sweeping -- approach to its claim.

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