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August 16th, 2017
Posted In: Articles
A young Jack O’Neill sporting a wetsuit.
So famous was Jack O’Neill and his brand of O’Neill wetsuits — and so early on was his start in the industry — that sometimes it is assumed One-Eyed Jack invented the wetsuit. While his contributions to the wetsuit are greater than those of any other entrepreneur, Mr. O’Neill didn’t actually invent the wetsuit, at least according to some.
The contemporary press generally credit O’Neill with inventing the wetsuit. Google, “who invented the wetsuit,” and the first dozen results attribute the invention to O’Neill. For example, upon his death, NBC published an Associate Press article titled, “Jack O’Neill: Surfer Who Invented Modern Wetsuit Dies at 94.” While not exactly crediting O’Neill with inventing the first wetsuit, the insinuation is certainly there.
Again, O’Neill’s contribution outweighs that of almost anyone else — certainly every other player in the wetsuit industry over the last 60 years — but it might be a stretch to claim he invented it.
The who invented the wetsuit debate primarily revolves around three men, O’Neill being the most famous of them.
Three men claimed to have invented the wetsuit: Jack O’Neill, Bob Meistrell, and Hugh Bradner. While it is somewhat unclear as to who can rightfully take credit for sure, one thing that is certain is that Bradner invented neoprene.
Bradner — a UC Berkeley physics professor and a Manhattan Project scientist — began working on a new material for the U.S. Navy’s Frogmen team in 1951 according to the Diver’s Institute of Technology.
So, while it is pretty clear Bradner fabricated the first wetsuit, NBC’s claim that O’Neill developed the first modern wetsuit may be legitimate. Bradner’s neoprene had no nylon layers on the outside. As such, it tore easily and was extremely delicate. Additionally, the holes created in the neoprene by the stitching needle allowed large sums of water to enter the wetsuit.
Bob Meistrell is the other player in the debate. Like O’Neill, Miestrell made a big name for himself in the wetsuit industry. Along with his brother Bill and another business partner, Bob started Body Glove. Arguably the second biggest name in the wetsuit industry, Body Glove came to fruition just a few years after the O’Neill brand got its start.
Meistrell was a surfer, a lifeguard, a professional diver, a Korean War vet and — though born in Missouri — a California Coast mainstay. In addition to designing and producing Body Glove Wetsuits, he is also famous for the one-man subs he manufactured!
First Versus Modern Wetsuit: Who Done It?
O’Neill and Meistrell both claimed to have developed the idea of nylon layers over the neoprene. Both also claim to have come up with the idea of a curved-needle sewing method doesn’t put a hole in the neoprene.
Any hard evidence that will definitively determine who first made the modern wetsuit is probably long gone. But, one thing remains certain, O’Neill’s name is the biggest in the industry.
Whether he was first to make a wetsuit or not, O’Neill is the most famous of the wetsuit pioneers… unless you ask a Body Glove fan of course!
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