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Unsung Hero: Inventor of the Wetsuit

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Courtesy of NWKite.com from Wall Street Journal:

HUGH BRADNER (1915 – 2008)
Physicist Didn’t Profit From Wet Suit, But He Didn’t Mind Much
By STEPHEN MILLER
May 17, 2008; Page A8

It was Hugh Bradner’s great insight that keeping warm in frigid waters isn’t the same thing as keeping dry.

Mr. Bradner, who died May 5 at age 92, was the father of the wet suit, the artificial rubber skin that made the Pacific coast safe for surfers and let Navy SEAL demolition teams dive anywhere duty called.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San DiegoHugh Bradner’s wet suit paved the way for the spread of water sports.
The suit he designed in 1952 used the synthetic rubber neoprene. The tight-fitting material traps a small volume of water around the diver’s body. The water quickly warms up, thanks to body heat, and little further cold water can get in, keeping divers warm even in chilly waters. Mr. Bradner’s proof of concept involved jumping into icy Lake Tahoe in midwinter.

“My wife wore the first wet suit,” recalls Walter H. Munk, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. “She got a suit from him that he tailored himself. It was elegant.”

Wet suits have grown into an industry with some $200 million in annual sales. With further development, they have transformed deep-sea diving for the military and for business.

“It’s the equivalent of sweaters and socks to a land person,” says Matt Warshaw, author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing.

“All of the water-sports activities, like surfing, water skiing, whitewater rafting…are where they are today because of the thermal protection afforded by wet suits,” says Gene Muchanski, president of Dive Industry Association.

But Mr. Bradner didn’t receive a penny for his invention, because he failed to patent it.

The wet suit was just one idea to flow from Mr. Bradner’s restless mind, which produced a trigger for the original atomic bomb, a form of suntan lotion that never caught on because it was too protective, and the skyhook, a proposed cable in geosynchronous orbit that might haul payloads into space at almost no cost. Mr. Bradner was one of four authors of a paper presenting the skyhook in the journal Science in 1966. It has remained a subject of speculation and science fiction.

Raised in Ohio, Mr. Bradner graduated from Miami University of Ohio and received a Ph.D. in physics from California Institute of Technology in 1941. After working at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Lab, he was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer as one of the original staffers at Los Alamos, N.M., where the first atomic bomb was assembled and tested in 1945. Mr. Bradner’s job included designing the town’s layout.

Soon after arriving in New Mexico, he improved his own domestic situation by marrying Mr. Oppenheimer’s personal secretary, Marge Hall. Because the top-secret town was off-limits to family, Mr. Oppenheimer gave away the bride at their wedding. (She died last month.)

After the war, Mr. Bradner moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught physics and conducted radiation research. In his spare time, drawing on his Navy experience, he researched frogman apparel. He wanted to improve on bulky dry suits that could easily spring a leak and put divers at risk.

The Navy deemed the wet suit interesting, but worried it might make its divers more-obvious sonar targets. Mr. Bradner tried briefly to commercialize his invention, then, typically, turned to other interests.

“He was an adventurous spirit, a scientific dabbler who did all sorts of things,” recalls Mr. Munk, 90.

As the 1950s went on, Mr. Bradner drifted from high-energy physics to oceanography. He produced other diving inventions, including a method for extracting Navy SEALs via inflatable boats, and underwater contact lenses. His lifelong interest in diving led him to be among the first Americans to try scuba, developed by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan.

In 1961, Mr. Munk lured him to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD as a researcher in a geophysics institute headed by Mr. Munk. Mr. Bradner’s reputation for adventure was enhanced one summer in the 1960s, when his family accompanied him aboard a 106-foot sailing schooner around the South Pacific, from which he collected seismographic data. They called it their “seismic summer,” says his daughter, Bari Cornet. He also worked on methods of detecting undersea detonations. He retired in 1980.

In retirement, Mr. Bradner pursued his multifarious interests, including adding to a shell collection, some of which is housed today at the San Diego Museum of Man. His most coveted shell was a golden cowrie, says his daughter, and one of his last publications was for Hawaiian Shell News, about how to use a scanning electric microscope to photograph cowrie radulae, or teeth.

Over the years, Mr Bradner watched others take credit for inventing the wet suit. “We live a good life based on more professional things,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “So what the heck.” But in 2005, the Times published a long article validating his claims, including archival evidence that made other claimants withdraw.

“The recognition was important to him,” says his daughter.

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