What Is a Wetsuit and How Does It Work?
If you plan to go exploring deep under the sea using scubagear, there’s one essential item you’re going to need: a wetsuit. Sometimes called a “wettie” by surfers, wetsuits offer protection from cold water temperatures for a variety of watersports. Their purpose is to keep you warm, and they do it by allowing you to get just a little bit wet!
It may seem odd to think about surfers wearing wetsuits. After all, don’t surfers usually surf in warm places, like California? It’s easier to understand, though, when you know more about the scientific properties of air and water. Water conducts heat away from your body about 20 times more quickly than air does. Air that’s 80 degrees may feel plenty hot. Water that’s 80 degrees, however, is still about 18 degrees cooler than your core body temperature. Once you’re submerged in that water, it won’t take long to feel quite cool.
A wetsuit keeps you warm by trapping a very thin layer of water against your body. To work properly, a wetsuit should fit very tightly against the body. In addition, the thicker it is, the warmer it will keep you. As soon as you enter the water, the wetsuit allows a tiny amount of water to form a thin layer against your skin. Your skin rapidly heats up this thin layer of water to very near your body temperature.
The wetsuit then holds in that heat because of the materials it’s made of. Most wetsuits are constructed of a thick layer of a special type of rubber called neoprene. Neoprene contains thousands of tiny air bubbles that act as insulators, trapping heat inside the wetsuit rather than releasing it into the water. Wetsuits come in a wide variety of designs. Some are full body suits. Others consist of shorts and short sleeves. Many wetsuits have thicker layers around the torso to keep core temperature up, while the extremities are covered in thinner layers to allow greater ease of movement.
In addition to keeping you warm, wetsuits can offer valuable protection. Even in warm waters, you may find divers wearing wetsuits to protect themselves from jellyfish stings or sharp-edged reefs. There’s some dispute as to who invented the wetsuit. Americans Jack O’Neill and Dr. Hugh Bradner both developed wetsuits made from neoprene.
In 1952, UC Berkeley and subsequent UC San Diego SIO physicist Hugh Bradner, who is considered to be the original inventor and “father of the modern wetsuit,” had the insight that a thin layer of trapped water could be tolerated between the suit fabric and the skin, so long as insulation was present in the fabric in the form of trapped bubbles. In this case, the water would quickly reach skin temperature and the air in the fabric would continue to act as the thermal insulation to keep it that way.
In the popular mind, the layer of water between skin and suit has been credited with providing the insulation. But as his letter notes, Dr. Bradner clearly understood the suit did not need to be wet because it isn’t the water that provides the insulation but rather the gas in the suit fabric. He initially sent his ideas to Lauriston C. “Larry” Marshall. Marshall was involved in a U.S. Navy/National Research Council Panel on Underwater Swimmers. However, it was Willard Bascom, an engineer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who suggested neoprene as a feasible material to Bradner.
However, Bradner and Bascom were not overly interested in profiting from their design and were unable to successfully market a version to the public. They attempted to patent their neoprene wetsuit design, but their application was rejected because the design was viewed as too similar to a flight suit. The United States Navy also turned down Bradner’s and Bascom’s offer to supply its swimmers and frogmen with the new wetsuits due to concerns that the gas in the neoprene component of the suits might make it easier for naval divers to be detected by underwater sonar. The first written documentation of Bradner’s invention was in a letter to Marshall, dated June 21, 1951.
Jack O’Neill started using closed-cell neoprene foam which was shown to him by his bodysurfing friend, Harry Hind, who knew of it as an insulating material in his laboratory work. After experimenting with the material and finding it superior to other insulating foams, O’Neill founded the successful wetsuit manufacturing company called 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.
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.