Jan 12, 2010

A Bit of Swim Fin History

This is from Cal Porter's wonderful "Then and Now" blog, which documents the Southern California Coast in times gone by. This entry covers some fairly early (Owen Churchill) and really early (Ben Franklin) swim fin pioneers!


Owen Churchill is given credit for inventing the swim fin. His fins are well-known throughout the world. The idea came to him while on a trip to Tahiti in the mid-1930’s, where he observed a group of natives on the beach weaving small mats from palm fronds and dipping them into a tub of hot tar. When the tar had cooled and hardened they would tie these mats to their feet and enter the ocean to swim or free dive. Churchill was fascinated by the tremendous increase in swimming speed this generated. He returned to the States and immediately began developing and patenting the first rubber swim fins. I was there at the Olympic Swim Stadium in Los Angeles in 1940 when he first introduced his invention. I watched in amazement as each swimmer wearing the black, vulcanized rubber, Churchill swim fins easily shattered the world’s records for the 50 and 100 meters. Soon after, Churchill made his fins available to the public. He sold very few that first year but I rushed out to be one of the first customers at $4.95 a pair. It was a sizable expenditure but no problem; in 1940 I was making 35 cents an hour as a lifeguard at the Venice Salt Water Plunge.

Churchill’s First Fins, photo source: Smithsonian

But let’s take a look back a few years, back to over 200 years before Churchill’s 1930’s invention. It is the year 1720, and we’re not in the South Seas, we’re in the waters of Boston Harbor. Bostonians were terrified of the water at that time. One writer summed it up this way: “The most frequent use of the harbor is for transport, and drowning”. However, there was one 14 year old boy who had no fear of the waters of Boston Harbor. He frequented the wharves, marshes and docks, loved the water, and taught himself to swim expertly. In later years he advocated universal swim lessons for all, unheard of in his day. In his own words, “I had a strong inclination for the sea; living near the water, I was much in it and about it and learnt early to swim well”. He developed powerful arms and shoulders from swimming and soon showed how inventive he could be at his favorite sport. He was about to conduct his first experiment and test his first invention; dozens would follow. His name? Benjamin Franklin. I learned of his exploits by studying his own writings in the Philadelphia Franklin Library, and from others who wrote about his amazing life. This quote is from the book, The New American, by Milton Meltzer: “He loved playing in the water, and not content with using his hands and feet to swim, he made oval paddles to be held in the palms to increase his speed. Then he added flippers to his feet to further increase his speed”. And a quote from Ben Franklin, himself, from a letter he wrote some years later to his friend, Barbeau Dubourg: “When I was a boy I made two oval palettes, each about ten inches long and six broad, with a hole for the thumb in order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter’s palette. In swimming, I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I remember I swam faster by means of these palettes, but they fatigued my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals; but I was not satisfied with them because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles and not entirely with the soles of the feet”.

So here in 1720 we have the very first hand paddles or hand fins, and the first swim fins for the feet (Leonardo da Vinci briefly gave thought to the idea of fins in the 1400’s). The first commercial hand paddles I ever saw were put out by the Sea Net Manufacturing Company of Los Angeles in 1944, and of course fins arrived in 1940. To fully utilize these two inventions of his for increasing his swimming speed Franklin probably experimented with some sort of front crawl stroke, (“I struck the water with their flat surfaces”), and a flutter kick with his feet to make the fins work, both of which would again put him a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time since the breast stroke was the only method used by the few people who could swim at all at that time; even the side stroke was unknown.

In addition, Franklin came up with other ideas to increase his speed in the water. The marsh or pond area of the harbor where he swam was one mile across. On days when a brisk wind was blowing, he would send his friend with his clothes to the other side, a mile away. He would then let loose above the water and into the wind a sturdy kite that he had made, and hanging onto the cord, he would race across the harbor “at a most agreeable speed”. Sounds like the precursor of many later water activities that we now know, and are popular today. If there had been a handy plank around I’m sure Franklin would have aquaplaned across the harbor. Who knows what other aquatic ideas he might have come up with if he hadn’t been sidetracked harnessing electricity, inventing reading glasses, and heating stoves, and lightning rods, and the odometer, and countless other inventions, and then, of course, taking part in forming the United States of America and signing The Constitution.

And what if he had lived closer to the beach when he was a kid in 1720 instead of inland on the other side of the harbor? And what if he saw those beautiful, white- crested waves rolling unridden toward the shore, and there was an old, thin plank of wood lying on the beach? Do you think it possible, with that imagination and inventiveness of his, that he just might have come up with another of his aquatic ideas?

No doubt!


Anonymous said...

A few other names in early swimfin design...

Leonardo Da Vinci (1500s), Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1600s), Louis de Corlieu (1933)

Geoffrey Levens said...

Go read the whole blog. Fascinating look at the California that used to be. First person history.