Early 1950s and beyond
A variety of technological innovations that made surfing more accessible to the average surfer had a long lasting impact on the nascent surf culture boom.
In 1950, Malibu-based, Joe Quigg introduced a shorter, lighter board made from imported balsawood (known as the “Girl Board,” as he first designed it for a cohort of women surfers in Malibu) that improved performance and helped popularize the sport. Foam boards appeared in , further launching the sport and making surfing more accessible than ever. The extraordinary growth of southern California during this period literally populated the coast with beach-goers and surfing novices.
A group of scientists out of Bell Laboratories introduced the first transistor in 1947, and, in 1953, the first transistor radio, based on the invention of Herbert Matare and Heinrich Welker, was introduced at the Dusseldorf World Fair. There are several companies who lay claim to the first transistor radios: intermettal of Germany, Texas Instruments, Regency, and RCA.
The use of transistors in radios is arguably one of the most significant electronic innovations of the twentieth century, certainly the forerunner of later electronic innovation. The result was radios that were much smaller, lighter, and portable, as exemplified in the many popular images of people (particularly young people) carrying the radio against one ear.
The post World War II baby boom, a sense of prosperity, and disposable income catapulted the transistor radio’s popularity, and, in turn, it had its own effect on popular culture by changing music listening habits. Specific to surf music, it brought the world attention to surf musicians.
The height of the transistor radio’s popularity was at its height in the 60s and 70s, with its decline later in the 70s with portable tape cassette players and boom boxes becoming the next big wave.
In 1952, longtime bodysurfer, Jack O’Neill, opened a tiny surfboard making shop, called the Surf Shop, just south of San Francisco.
Before then, he’d been tinkering with the idea of a surfing vest and a two-piece suit to make surfing more accessible in the chilly waters of the Bay Area. The surfers at the time did not take well to this, as it seemed very un-cool and an insult to their macho image. He tried a new version of the suit in his second shop in Santa Cruz, with some success with divers, but not surfers.
It took another surfer, Bev Morgan, to convince surfers in 1962 to give an improved version of the wetsuit a try. He used effective public relations, with the help of Bill and Bob Meistrell, surfers from Manhattan Beach, by giving incentives to board makers to initally give away the suits to their best riders, with the proviso that they had to use them in competition. Eventually, their suits were branded as Body Glove, and soon, Jack O’Neill followed with an improvement on his product. This competition inspired further development and improvements of the suits, which gradually gained acceptance within the surfing community. In the end, it is Jack O’Neill who was credited for developing the one-piece Neoprene suit, the primary prototype of today’s wet suit.
The surfboard leash, developed in 1971 by Pat O’Neill, the son of Jack O’Neill, was even more controversial than the wet suit. The idea was to reduce the danger to surfers of having to swim in strong currents to retrieve their lost boards, but the early leashes had their own built-in dangers. In fact, Jack O’Neill lost the use of his eye in a surfing accident in which he was using one of these leashes. But the leashes continued to be developed and improved, for example, in the replacement of the original surgical cord by less stretchy material, and changes to the placement of the leash, and they are now attached to almost every manufactured surfboard.
Interestingly, as the population of surfers multiplied in California, Hawai‘i, and elsewhere around the world, the images and popular representation of surfing narrowed. Opening in 1959, Gidget, the movie, touched off a worldwide sensation. The story stemmed from the real life experiences of Kathy “Gidget” Kohner who, although never a serious surfer, was a regular at the Colony in Malibu. Hanging out with her peers and befriending the tight-knit crew of young surfers in the summer of 1956, she kept a journal, which, adapted first as a book by her Hollywood screenwriter father, would ultimately introduce people around the world to the youth culture of the Malibu surf scene. Note that in the film, Gidget, there is no music we can readily identify as “surf music.” Instead, the popular band, The Four Preps, appeared as themselves providing music for a Malibu beach party, and also sang “Gidget,” composed by Fred Karger, over the opening credits. The rest of the film score is normal Hollywood fare for a small orchestra. While Gidget is frequently cursed in the surfing community for popularizing the commercialization of the sport, the film does catch some of the character of 1950s California surfing culture and included footage of leading surfers of the era, Miki Dora and Mickey Munoz among them. In contrast, the many Gidget sequels and other “beach blanket” films, especially those starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, are parodies of surfing culture. Yet their popularity, for better or worse, shaped the global post-World War II imaginary of California and surf culture.