Skateboarding: From Humblest Beginnings Through 1980

Published: 09th February 2012
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Skateboarding from its very early beginnings has had its up and down “bumps.” Originally, it was simply a land alternative to surfers (Powell, 2008). The late fifties to the middle sixties can be considered the first period, followed by several years of dormancy, then the second period ran from the middle seventies to the late seventies, followed by a short dormant period. The third period occurred mostly through the eighties, followed by a lesser period of a few years and the fourth period began in the nineties to the present. Michael Brooks (2003) calls these four periods from 1959 to the 2000’s as the four “waves” of skateboarding history.

Crude scooters were the first prototypes of modern skateboards dating back into the early 1900’s. These were contraptions with a 2 X 4 fastened on top of roller skates. The first skateboards manufactured commercially were sold in 1959 in Hawaii and California.

Skateboards really began to take hold in the late 1950s in California’s beach scene by surfer’s who were frustrated by calm, un-surfable waters. Originally, boards were small and did not have the capability to turn and the wheels were made of metal or clay. In 1961, Larry Stevenson, considered by many as the father of skateboarding, popularized skateboarding in his magazine, Surf Guide. In 1963, he founded one of the first board companies, Makaha. Stevenson himself was an innovator. He experimented and introduced new materials and designs. In 1962, Val Surf opened, the first real store selling skateboards. Val Surf joined with Hobie Alter and the Vita-Pakt Juice Company and produced pressure molded fiberglass and other innovations. Floyd Smith and Larry Gordon invented the Fibreflex, the first laminated skateboard. Soon, travelling skateboard teams promoted skateboards and brought them to the world. Competitions soon began, the first was held in Hermosa, California, in 1963.

In the fall of 1965, skateboarding popularity again diminished after 50 million had been sold within just three years. Causes of this downturn were probably due to several factors: upset public over reckless riding, inferior products, and too much inventory. Also contributing were poorly built skateparks, inadequate safety equipment, and a wave of lawsuits. Cheaper clay wheels that did not adhere well to roads were the cause of nasty falls, some fatal. Marketing and manufacturing companies lost millions. Some cities banned skateboarding ushering in a dormant period during a time of much national and worldwide social strife. Diehard boarders experimented with new moves and tricks during the late sixties and early seventies; new designs and materials were tried out. Many were forced to fabricate their own boards, some even founding small manufacturing companies. During this time, Jim Fitzpatrick publicized and made the sport popular in Europe.

The second main period of skateboarding occurred during the early to late seventies. Frank Nasworthy invented skateboard wheels made of urethane which revolutionized the sport. Adding to that was the NHS invention of precision-bearing wheels, silk screening designs and decks with fiberglass on top of laminated wood. Tracker trucks brought wider axles and larger size and new components. Millions took up the sport as it again began to move forward with more efficient designs and better quality boards. Innovative slalom, downhill, and freestyle boarding became the rage and the first skatepark was built in Florida in 1976. Gradually decks widened to as much as 10 inches so as to give better stability on vertical surfaces. Colorful graphics were soon placed on the underside of boards. Pool and bowl skating became popular and new tricks were constantly being invented . Alan Gelfand invented the “ollie” or no-hands aerial in the late 1970’s. Skateboarding caught on in Sweden, Europe and other countries during these years. There began to be a meshing of punk with new wave music and images of skulls.

Banked slalom runs were a staple featuring curved or banked walls running continuously on both sides of the length of the course. Curving and twisting snake runs were present in most of the original concrete skateparks. However, safety concerns again began to haunt the sport. Insurance became expensive and most skateparks were bulldozed. By the end of 1980, skateboarding died another death and manufacturers lost millions while BMX biking became more popular.

Michael Brooks. 2003. The Concrete Wave. Warwick Publishing, Toronto. 197 p.
Ben Powell. 2008. Skateboarding Skills. Firefly Books, Buffalo, NY. 128 p.

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