Any one that has ever pulled a thin piece of rubber over their shoulders so that they can paddle out into the cold pounding surf has Jack O’neill to thank for making that secession possible. His little shop in San Francisco is now a multimillion-dollar empire, but that wasn’t why Jack O’Neill began. He just wanted to stay warm. “I’m just as surprised by this as anyone,” O’Neill says. “I was just messing around with rubber.”
Jack O’Neill was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1923 and was raised in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t long before he and his family moved to Southern California. He wandered as a lad, working as a lumberjack, serving in the Army Air Corps and then moving to San Francisco in 1949. Living in San Francisco, O’Neill earned a living as a commercial fisherman, then sold architectural aluminum, fire extinguishers and skylights. He loved the ocean and sneaked away to it at every opportunity, even taking his lunch breaks down at Ocean Beach, bodysurfing in bathing trunks in the briny cold, often alone or with the odd diehard.
Jack O’Neill started his empire when he began experimenting with materials that would prevent him from, quite literally, freezing his nuts off. It all started when he began by stuffing flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC) into bathing trunks “borrowed” from the Sutro Baths or Fleishacker Pool. Those worked well enough for Jack to begin a family with his wife, Marge. But early wetsuits took a huge step forward when a scientist friend showed O’Neill a sample of neoprene foam.
Before Jack O’Neill, surfing in Northern California’s chilly waters was a rugged sport practiced by hardy men. It was he who kept searching for a practical way to keep warm, and it was he who worked persistently to develop the modern neoprene wetsuit, one of the most important innovations in surfing history. Other individuals have also contributed to the evolution of the wetsuit, but Jack O’Neill is the man perhaps most responsible for surfing’s endless summer.