How Southern California’s Aerospace Industry Helped Revolutionize Surfing

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Bruce Brown had already been to Hawaii plenty of times for his surf films. The North Shore of Oahu, while magnificent, was well-worn territory to the sandy-haired surfers who lapped up his movies at the Santa Monica Civic. For his next film, Brown wanted something different. He wanted South Africa, where he’d heard word of a small surf community from some board-shaping buddies. Brown contacted a travel agent about a flight and learned it would actually cost $50 less to keep flying east — all the way around the world — than to return the way he’d come.

Surfers in Venice Beach | Dick Whittington Studio/University of Southern California Libraries
Surfers in Venice Beach | Dick Whittington Studio/University of Southern California Libraries

“The Endless Summer,” the circumnavigating adventure that would make Brown a millionaire and spread the California Dream across the globe, happened because the director found out he could save a few bucks on a flight.

Ask someone who’s never been to Southern California what the place is all about, and you’ll likely hear tales of Hollywood, palm trees, gangs, skateboarding and, yes, surfing. Pose that same question to residents of Palmdale, El Segundo or Downey, and you’ll get a decidedly different answer: aerospace.

Southern California has been an aerospace hub since the 1920s, when more than two dozen aircraft firms, lured by soft weather, cheap land and loose capital, set up shop in the region. The industry kept growing during World War II when aircraft companies employed 2 million people and pushed out 300,000 planes. During the Cold War, the Department of Defense poured billions of dollars into Southern California, funding high-tech research into missiles, bombers and rockets.

The population of Los Angeles County more than doubled between 1920 and 1940, then doubled again between 1940 and 1960, and aerospace companies were a big part of that. Los Angeles had become a decentralized metropolis, a sublime sprawl that befuddled outsiders. Those aerospace companies were also a big part of the surfing boom, and not just because they helped make commercial jet travel cheaper for wandering wave-riders.

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"There are lots of other beach areas where surfing hasn’t taken off as much as it did in Southern California,” says historian Peter Neushul. “Aerospace is integral to all of that. Where you're living. Your access to the beach. The technology you take to the beach. Everything.”

Neushul is the co-author, along with Peter Westwick, of “The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing,” a game-changing look at board-riding. The duo also worked together on the paper “Aerospace and Surfing: Connecting Two California Keynotes,” which draws specific connections between airplanes and surfboards.

To fully understand the impact aerospace had on surfing, you have to go back to 1928, to the Pacific Coast Surf Board Championship in Corona del Mar. This event is legendary among surf historians because it was there that renowned waterman Tom Blake won the paddling race by drilling hundreds of holes into his redwood board and covering them up with a thin veneer. Before then, surfboards had been solid wood and could weigh up to 200 pounds. Just getting them across the loose sand was a feat of strength, and if surfers ever let go in the water — watch out — the boards were careening concussion-machines. Blake’s modifications made his board float higher in the water, cutting down on drag and enabling him to paddle his way to the jetty and back much faster than his competitors.

Tom Blake In Los Angeles circa 1922 | Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Tom Blake In Los Angeles circa 1922 | Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images


So goes the legend, but Neushul and Westwick have uncovered a connection that’s far more important for the history of surfing than Blake’s paddling victory. Also in that competition was Gerard Vultee, whose day job was designing aircraft at Lockheed. The prior year, Vultee had worked on the Lockheed Vega, the plane Amelia Earhart would later use to fly first across the Atlantic and then across the United States. The Vega’s wing was hollow, with plywood covering wooden struts. We don’t know exactly what the watermen discussed on the sand of Corona del Mar that day, but there was Blake, who was trying to figure out how to make a lighter surfboard, and there was Vultee, who had just designed a lighter aircraft wing.

In less than a year, Blake had built a surfboard with a plywood skin over wooden struts. He secured a patent in 1932 and licensed the new design to the Thomas Rogers Company in Venice Beach. That firm’s main business was making airplane wings.

“Standard accounts, and Blake’s own recounting, portray him a heroic lone inventor,” write Neushul and Westwick in their paper. “If the history of science and technology has taught us anything, however, it is to look for influences from the wider context.”

Tom Blake’s patented design for the “water sled” from 1932, which became known as the hollow board that revolutionized surfing | Courtesy The United States Patent and Trademark Office
Tom Blake’s patented design for the “water sled” from 1932, which became known as the hollow board that revolutionized surfing | Courtesy The United States Patent and Trademark Office

Blake had halved the weight of a typical surfboard, making his models much easier to carry across the beach and muscle over whitewater. He is considered one of the most influential watermen ever, the author of the first surf history, the man behind innovations in surfboard fins and underwater cameras — not to mention a vagabond whose lifestyle was emulated by countless surfers. The hollow board was just one of his many contributions to the pastime.

“It was as if Blake’s advancements in surfboard design and construction had turned on a huge light bulb,” writes Drew Kampion in the book “Stoked! The History of Surf Culture.” “Suddenly anything was possible. Inspired by Blake’s ideas, other surfers began experimenting with their equipment, and a design renaissance was soon underway.”

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One of those renaissance men was Robert Simmons, who studied hydrodynamics and advanced mathematics at Caltech. He also moonlighted at Douglas Aircraft, working the graveyard shift so he could surf a Tom Blake hollow board in the daytime. Southern California was awash in polysyllabic foams and resins in the postwar era, as the military and chemical companies combined forces to create lighter, faster planes. Simmons ran across these new materials either at Douglas or through his brother, Dewey, who worked on aircraft radar.

“Whatever the conduit, Bob Simmons was soon using fiberglass and resin,” write Neushul and Westwick, “first to reinforce the noses of wood surfboards, then to seal and strengthen the whole board, and finally in combination with polystyrene foams to make a remarkably lightweight yet strong surfboard.”

These lighter boards were perfect for a five-foot-tall 15-year-old named Kathy Kohner, who started hanging out with Malibu surfers in the summer of 1956. Kohner’s father, Frederick Kohner, would pen the novel “Gidget: the Little Girl with Big Ideas” based on his own daughter’s adventures, creating a character who would spread the popularity of surfing like no other. A decade later, when the two protagonists of Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” fled Malibu in search of waves less crowded by the influence of “Gidget,” their boards survived all those airplane holds and car trunks, thanks to several layers of space-age resin.

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, aka Gidget, surfing in Malibu in the 1950s | Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, aka Gidget, surfing in Malibu in the 1950s | Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Bob Simmons is probably the most influential surfboard designer of the 20th century,” says Westwick, adding that Simmons didn’t just stop at innovating surfboard materials. He also revolutionized board shapes, reading up on hydrodynamics and testing new models at Caltech’s torpedo tanks. With Simmons’ boards, surfers could carve up waves like never before, attracting even more young people to the beach. And how did they have all that leisure? You guessed it: aerospace.

"What aerospace also does in Southern California is it creates a lot of time for people,” says Neushul. “You've got all these middle-class, well-educated kids who learn to swim. Their parents can pay for swim lessons. You're not going to go surfing if you can't swim. And your parents have enough money that you can piddle around and do this kind of stuff. It creates a different sort of lifestyle."

Aerospace helped perpetuate the idea of California Dream, and surfing is a big part of that. The region attracted adventurous big-thinkers who made it all the way to the end of the land mass, and they were not satisfied with simply stopping there. They strove to reduce drag and increase lift, to fly and float away.

Top Image: Women surfboarders form a star as they lie on their huge hollow surfboards on Santa Monica beach | Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images



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