Neoprene: A Brief History

DuPont's Discovery

During the 1920s the increasing demand for natural rubber led to higher and higher prices, sparking a search for an equivalent synthetic rubber. It was during 1930 that Wallace Carothers, a chemist in DuPont's fundamental research group, produced a rubber-like substance during a polymerization experiment using chloroprene.

DuPont marketed its discovery in late 1931 under the trade name Duprene. Because neoprene was more resistant to water, oils, heat and solvents than natural rubber, it was ideal for industrial uses such as telephone wire, insulation and gaskets, and hose material for automobile engines.

DuPont improved both the manufacturing process and the end product throughout the 1930s. The original manufacturing process left the product with a foul odor, so a new process was developed which eliminated the odor-causing byproducts and halved production costs. The company began selling the material to manufacturers of finished end-products.

DuPont discontinued the Duprene trade name in 1937 in favor of the generic term "neoprene" to signify that the material was an ingredient, not a finished consumer product. It was used in consumer goods like gloves and shoe soles, but World War II removed neoprene from the commercial market. Although production was stepped up, it was all claimed by the military.

After World War II, Dupont purchased a government owned neoprene plant to keep up with the increasing demand for neoprene. Essentially unchanged since 1950, neoprene continues to be essential in the manufacture of adhesives, sealants, power transmission belts, hoses and tubes.


Neoprene Meets the Ocean

It wasn't until the 1950s that neoprene was first used in a wetsuit. At that time a number of people around the world began experimenting with neoprene as a way to stay warm in the water. Who was first depends on who you are talking to, but nonetheless, a few key people got there in different ways.

Hugh Bradner, a University of California, Berkeley physicist is often considered the original inventor and "father of the modern wetsuit." In 1951 he had the insight that a thin layer of trapped water could be tolerated between the wetsuit fabric and the skin, so long as insulation was present in the fabric in the form of trapped air bubbles. The air in the fabric meant water would quickly reach skin temperature and continue to act as thermal insulation to keep it that way. The suit did not need to be dry to be insulative. Dr. Bradner clearly understood that the air (gas) in the wetsuit fabric provided the best thermal insulation.

Corporate legend has it that it was Jack O'Neill from San Francisco who pioneered the wetsuit. Jack loved the ocean and spent every opportunity down at Ocean Beach bodysurfing in bathing trunks in the briny cold water. The story goes that Jack began experimenting with different materials that would prevent him from, quite literally, freezing his balls off. He experimented with PVC stuffed into his trunks, but it wasn't until his bodysurfing friend, Harry Hind, showed Jack a sample of neoprene foam that his first wetsuit-type vests emerged. Hind knew that neoprene was an insulating material thanks to his own laboratory work.

After experimenting with neoprene and finding it superior to other insulating foams, Jack founded the wetsuit manufacturing company 'O'Neill' in a garage in 1952, later relocating to Santa Cruz, California in 1959 with the motto "It's Always Summer on the Inside".

Bob and Bill Meistrell, from Manhattan Beach, California, also started experimenting with neoprene around 1953. They started a company which would later be named Body Glove.

However neoprene was not the only material used in early wetsuits, particularly in Europe. The French-made Pêche-Sport Suit and the UK-made Siebe Gorman Swimsuit were both made out of sponge rubber. The Heinke Dolphin Suit of the same period, also made in England, came in a green male and a white female version, both manufactured from natural rubber lined with stockinet.

The Modern Wetsuit is Perfected

Originally, neoprene wetsuits were made with raw sheets of foam-rubber that did not have any backing material. This type of suit required extra caution while pulling it on because the raw foam-rubber by itself is both fragile and sticky against bare skin. Stretching and pulling excessively easily caused these suits to be torn in half. This was somewhat remedied by thoroughly powdering the suit and the body with talc to help the rubber slide on more easily, but it was far from ideal.

During the early '60s everybody was "goin' surfing" and many needed wetsuits to do it. The problem of how to keep the neoprene from tearing and how to make wetsuits easier to slip on and off was solved with one simple solution: laminating elastic nylon jersey to the surface of the neoprene. Using nylon as a backing material to strengthen the neoprene, combined with the introduction of the zig-zag stitch, was a huge leap forward.

New Kids on the Block: Yamamoto Corporation

During the 1960s a new type of neoprene was pioneered. Up until this time, the process of manufacturing neoprene involved petroleum and petro-chemicals. The chloroprene rubber chips needed for the first stage of production were produced during the polymerization process by heating oil (which we are currently running out of worldwide) to extremely high temperatures.

Yamamoto Corporation developed special technology to convert the calcium carbonate from limestone into chloroprene rubber chips and then further processing to achieve neoprene foam with a very high micro-cell structure. This new process results in neoprene with very different characteristics to oil based neoprene. Yamamoto has been marketing their Yamamoto limestone neoprene since this inception.

Titanium-Lined Neoprene
During the 1980s Yamamoto developed the warmth of neoprene by lining it with a Titanium Alloy Alpha coating prior to laminating, or directly onto the rubber finish. This Titanium-lining was a major discovery in making wetsuits thinner and warmer, as it reflects body heat back to the inside and at the same time repels cold on the outside. Since this discovery many Asian suppliers have tried to copy the technology but have not been able to get the high results that Yamamoto have. [Read more on Titanium]
Newer Kids on the Block: Seventhwave

It was in 1987—just before the Sharemarket crash in September—that Paul Zarifeh and Geoff White founded Canterbury Wetsuit Co Lot, which began manufacturing and repairing wetsuits in Christchurch, New Zealand. Everything was new and every aspect of production had to be worked out from scratch. What Paul and Geoff did know however, was that Yamamoto neoprene had an excellent reputation—so ever since that first order of 300 spring suits for R&R Sports, Seventhwave has used limestone neoprene.

The name changed to Seventhwave Wetsuits Ltd in 1996 to reflect the move from wholesale to a retail business. This change, coupled with the newly developed Custom-Fit system and the introduction of the internet, led the company to the path it is on today: online custom-fit wetsuits, delivered worldwide.