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Wet Suit Pursuit

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Wet Suit Pursuit: Hugh Bradner's Development of the First Wet Suit Carolyn Rainey Archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography University of California, San Diego La Jolla, CA 92093-0219 November 1998 SIO Reference Number 98-16 In the 100th anniversary issue of Sunset Magazine, published May 1998, the “ongoing timeline of major events” says that in 1952 UC Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner invented the wet suit. This single fact summarizes a more complex story. In the spring of 1951 Bradner decided to spend some “weekend time” improving the equipment for the navy frogmen. Soon thereafter, he sent ideas and concepts of the wet suit to UC Berkeley physicist, Lauriston C. “Larry” Marshall, who was involved in a U.S. Navy/National Research Council Panel on Underwater Swimmers. In the fall of 1951 the effort to actively develop the wet suit began when colleagues at the Berkeley Radiation Lab joined Bradner in the fabrication and testing of various materials. At the end of 1949, the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and National Research Council agreed to work together using scientific applications to solve amphibious operational problems. A committee was formed under the chairmanship of UC Berkeley engineer Murrough P. “Mike” O’Brien. Several government panels met to discuss and watch East Coast and West Coast underwater demolition teams in action. Their views were recorded in the Hahn-Bascom-Gerdes preliminary survey report distributed in October 1951.1 The navy terminology was changing from “UDT’s” to the broader term of “underwater swimmers.” In December 1951, the Swimmer Symposium was held in Coronado, California. This symposium brought together operational, technical, civilian, and military people to discuss mutual problems and ideas. The National Research Council in cooperation with the Italian, French, and British governments consolidated information about the physical, psychological, and physiological effects of underwater blasts on swimmers. At that time, Hugh Bradner, a designer and physicist at UC Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory, had been working on preliminary calculations on the effects of “absorptions” or reflection of shock waves on unicellular material and was invited to participate. Bradner already held patents for a number of inventions and clearly had the skills and knowledge to help underwater swimmers and swimmers in general. His goal was 1Hugh Bradner Papers, 1938-1973, MC16, Box 2, “135, Panel [on Underwater Swimmers] Meetings, 1951-1953.”straightforward, design a wet suit for the military underwater swimmer. In a letter to Larry Marshall dated June 21, 1951, Bradner wrote that suits do not need to be watertight if thermal insulation is obtained by air entrapped in the material of the suit. The diver does not have to be dry to stay warm. He began testing the wet suit models in the fall of 1951. Commercial Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (scuba) was brought to the United States in 1949 when Rene’s Sporting Goods in Westwood, California, began selling a new underwater breathing machine called the Aqua-Lung, invented in 1943 by French Navy captain Jacques Cousteau and Canadian engineer Emile Gagnan. According to Andreas B. Rechnitzer, SIO alumnus and diver, the use of scuba for science began at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the summer of 1950 when Conrad “Connie” Limbaugh and other graduate students began formal investigations of the kelp beds. At that time, divers were limited to just two sets of equipment-- two regulators, tanks, weight belts, fins, and faceplates. To combat the discomfort from cold waters the divers tried various kinds of clothing (long johns), greasy skin coatings, and surplus air force survival suits. These Scripps divers were among the first to try out the Bradner wet suit at their scuba training classes at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Bradner explained in simple terms the difference between the wet verses the dry rubber suit. The wet suit gets its thermal insulation from the many small air bubbles trapped in the material, and hence can stand a small amount of water flow between the garment and the skin. The wet suit was made from a unicellular foamed plastic material such as neoprene, rubber, or polyvinylchloride; while the dry suit was a thin waterproof garment made from heavy rubberized cloth under which the diver wore thick, usually wool underwear. A dry suit that depends on woolen underwear will lose its thermal insulation if water displaces the air in that underwear. Willard Bascom, an SIO research engineer, recommended that Bradner try a unicellular material made by Rubatex. Bradner developed a foam suit using a material of unicellular neoprene ordered to American Standard Testing Methods specifications and obtained a sample from the Rubatex Division of Great American Industries. When it became clear that the navy would be slow in producing wet suits for their own use, they declassified the design, and encouraged commercial production in 1952. Bradner collaborated with a group of engineers at UC Berkeley on the design of a commercial wet suit using the rubatex material. The engineers formed a company under the guidance of Dave Garbellano, an engineer-physicist at UC Berkeley, called Engineering Development Company (EDCO). Foam plastic materials like ensolite and rubazot were already being used internationally for many purposes, however Bradner was the first person to use the unicellular foam plastic material neoprene for exposure swim suits. It would take several years for EDCO to obtain and develop tougher materials to improve their suit. EDCO requested navy cooperation to have prototypes of the suit tested in order to produce a suit that would meet their needs. A letter from LCDR Henry A. Gerdes, Office of Naval Research, dated November 24, 1952, to F.B. Allen, BuShips, US Navy, elaborates further: Dr. Bradner is under contract to AEC. [He has a] sincere interest in the problem of making a satisfactory exposure swim suit for cold water3 operations...Because of this interest, he immediately went to work to help the swimmer. During August and September 1952 he was a consultant to a Cooperative Council under the terms of contract N7onr-29140, at which time he proved his ideas for a swim suit. Being under contract to the Government, he was


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