Then along came Jack O'Neill.
Jack O'Neill was a surfer in the San Francisco area who had a day job of selling architectural aluminum. He surfed at every opportunity he got, but surfing in the cold waters off San Francisco caused him constant sinus problems. One day while showing a drawing to a client, his clogged sinuses opened up leaking on the drawing he was showing. Jack found himself not only embarrassed but out of a job.
Given his unemployed status Jack decided to do what any avid surfer would do in the 50s. he decided to open a surf shop in his garage which was very close to the beach. He made surf boards out of balsa to sell in his shop, while at the same time experimenting with vests and other clothing that might help keep a surfer warmer while riding the waves.
His experiments were a study in trial and error and determination. First he experimented with PVC which he knew was a good insulating material but found that it was difficult to work with. He moved on to working with plastic foam which once again proved unsuccessful for this needs. Then he found neoprene.
Neoprene proved to be not only a good insulating material but it was both flexible and buoyant making it ideal for use by surfers.
And so the neoprene wetsuit was born. Jack O'Neill's wet suits proved to be practical and could be produced in large numbers. Over the years many improvements have been made to the suits O'Neill originally designed. Nylon backing was adding to make them slide onto your body easier without the ripping and tearing that sometimes occurred with the original wetsuit.
Next came improvements in the way the pieces of the wetsuit was joined together. Here too a bit of trial and error was needed to achieve the result the manufacturers wanted. Stitching allowed the water barrier between the skin and the wet suit to leak through the needle holes. Gluing the seams was tried, only to discover that when the neoprene stretched the glue would let loose and the suit would start coming apart. Finally tape bonding of the seams was tried and this worked quite well. With the introduction of nylon backing on both sides of the neoprene and taping the seams on the inside of the suit the suits held together without leakage. Blind stitching was then used to flattened the wetsuit seams. These innovations made the suit easier to produce and gave it a much better and stylish look.
Today, O'Neill is a major corporation and leads the field in wetsuit design. But if it hadn't been for Jack O'Neill's drippy nose and his vision of being able to surf in cooler water temperatures who knows where our surfing buddies might be today.