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Where’s the Nobel for surfing science? California would win.

Surfing

If you love to spend your beach time on top of the water rather than in it, you can thank Hobie for helping you do it.

Hobie Alter, the “Henry Ford of surfing,” who revolutionized surfing and put his name on whole lines of surfboards and catamarans, died at age 80, leaving as his legacy a flotilla of floating devices, beginning with the first lighter-than-wood polyurethane foam surfboard crafted more than 50 years ago.

But Alter was not the only man to send Californians skimming over the water.

Peter Westwick is a science historian who directs the Huntington/USC aerospace history project and is coauthor of a book about the history of surfing.

As early as the 1920s, surfing aerospace engineers and scientists who recognized the overlaps of riding water and riding air were noodling around with back-of-the-envelope designs.

Rip-riding aerospace engineers at aviation firms as well as at Caltech perfected hydrodynamics for lighter-weight surfboards, “very likely based on hollow airplane wings being built at the time,” Westwick says.

During World War II, L.A. native Bob Simmons managed to study at Caltech, work at Douglas Aircraft and squeeze in surf time; boards of his design became the Formula One speed demons of the waves. Aeronautical engineer Jim Drake made windsurfing workable, and a Douglas Aircraft engineer/surfer named Tom Morey invented the boogie board.

It makes perfect sense, says Westwick: “Experiments with wave tanks, new materials — foam and polyester resins used in aircraft — were being applied to surfboards,” like Hobie Alter’s. Breakthrough aviation materials like fiberglass and resin, “waterproof and very light, were probably the key revolution in surfboard development in 100 years.”

Nowadays, at Silicon Beach, south of LAX, within sight of the ocean waters, other creators of different technologies are crafting new ways for human information to move through the air and the airwaves, as Alter, Simmons and their kind did for the waterborne.

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