You may not know that the wetsuit was invented in San Francisco, but by some accounts it was, and its creator has just died after a long life in Northern California surf community. Jack O'Neill, the eyepatch-wearing icon of Santa Cruz, died peacefully at the age of 94 at his oceanfront home Friday, a place he's called home for 50 years, as the Associated Press reports.
O'Neill said he created his first neoprene wetsuit after experimenting with multiple materials to try to better tolerate the cold Northern California waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach, where he moved in 1949 at the age of 26. He attended San Francisco State University, earning a bachelor's degree there, and along with wife Marjorie Bennett he opened a surf shop in his garage on Ocean Beach in 1952, where O'Neill wetsuits were first sold. He would later relocate his family to Santa Cruz, in 1959, opening a second shop there on 41st Avenue and built the O'Neill surf brand we know today, becoming the largest manufacturer of surf gear in the 1980s.
"All my friends said, 'O'Neill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business,'" O'Neill often recalled, according to family members speaking to the AP. But little did they know what a huge business surfing and deep-sea diving gear would become.
There has been a dispute over the years, however, about who can rightfully claim to be the wetsuit's original inventor it seems clear that it was created around 1949 or 1950, but as the LA Times reported on the controversy a decade ago, the family behind the competing Body Glove empire has tried to stake a claim to the invention, and many still credit Hugh Bradner, a UC Berkeley physics professor and Manhattan Project scientist, who claims to have done his own first experiments with neoprene suits in 1949, taking his first dip in one in icy Lake Tahoe. Bradner never patented the idea, and O'Neill says he and Bradner discussed the claim over the years, and O'Neill stuck to his guns that he came up with the idea all on his own saying he discovered neoprene, a US military invention in WWII, lining the walkways of a commercial jet.
Whatever the exact truth may be, O'Neill leaves behind an enduring legacy for surfers in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, and O'Neill Inc. and Body Glove are said to share in a half-billion-dollar-per-year market share for surf gear worldwide with wetsuits selling for $200 to $500 apiece.
Surfing historian Matt Warshaw told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012, "Of all the things that Jack is known for, I think his genius for marketing and promoting stood out." As the LA Times notes, O'Neill took his colorful personality to trade shows, making a name for his brand by dressing his own kids in wetsuits and dunking them in ice baths.
In 1996, O'Neill also founded a nonprofit that he was said to have considered his proudest work: O’Neill Sea Odyssey. The organization, using his own Team O’Neill catamaran, promotes ocean conservation education for children, and has taken nearly 100,000 school-age kids out into Monterey Bay since its founding, as CBS 5 reports. O'Neill called it "the best thing I've ever done."