The history of the wetsuit is one where the technology was developed out of necessity. Swimming underwater for any length of time meant finding a way to keep core body temperature warm. In short, underwater swimmers needed to wear a wetsuit.
Wetsuits are designed to let a small amount of water perforate the suit. This thin layer of water becomes trapped between the diver and the suit and then warmed by body heat. This is the reason it’s essential that your wetsuit fits like a glove. The thicker the neoprene the warmer the wetsuit, and the more protected the diver is against debris in the water.
The development of the wetsuit started out as military research in the early 20th century. The first underwater suit was the Mark V suit which allowed divers to go deeper into the ocean than ever before. It was developed for the US Navy, primarily for use in deep sea and salvage operations. The early incarnations of the wetsuit proved to be effective insulation garments, however the discovery of neoprene, resulting from concerted research throughout the Second World War, was the real starting point for the wetsuit as we know it.
US physicist, Hugh Bradner is often credited as the architect of the modern day wetsuit, thanks to his research into thermal insulation using a thin layer of water between the suit and the skin. With the suggestion that neoprene would be a suitable material the modern wetsuit was born. Hugh Bradner was not the only innovator of the wetsuit. Bob & Bill Meistrell and Jack O’Neill (better known as the founders of Body Glove & O’Neill) have also staked their individual claims as inventors of what we consider to be the wetsuit of today.
Since those early days the wetsuit has continued to evolve apace. In the 1970’s Body Glove designed the very first non-zip wetsuit and today there are several closure options to choose from (front, back & cross zip). Spandex, for flexibility and titanium and other thermoplastic materials, for insulation, have been introduced to the fabric for improved performance. New techniques for seams such as taping, gluing and blindstitching have been developed, solving the problem of needle hole punctures leaking water.
Wetsuits are being designed for every aquatic discipline – from surfing to diving, triathlons to kiting, if you’re exposed to the water, there’s a wetsuit for you. You have only to look at the design spec of the multitude of wetsuits on offer today to see that the history of the wetsuit is one that is still being written.