When Skateboards Were Invented [The Origins of Shredding]
The history of skateboarding might be relatively short, but it’s overflowing with passion, creativity, and energy. Every time you hop on a board, cruise around the neighborhood, visit the local skate shop, or pop a trick, you’re carrying on a rad tradition of shredding. If you’ve ever wondered when skateboards were invented, you’re in the right place. The story is gripping!
When were skateboards invented?
Skateboards were invented in the 1940s by Californian surfers looking for a way to practice when the waves weren’t surfable. Scooters and rollerskates were pretty popular at the time, so surfers found a way to combine the technology to build the earliest versions of the skateboard. The first decks looked more like jerry-rigged toys than professional pieces of equipment, but that’s where skating’s DIY tradition got its start.
Who invented the skateboard?
Unfortunately, there’s no record of who invented the skateboard. In its earliest days, skating was a hybrid of surfing, scootering, and rollerskating which made it difficult to pinpoint early inventors and innovators. It wasn’t until skateboarding gained traction in the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s that people started paying attention to these trendsetters. The beginning of skateboarding was truly a grassroots activity developing organically between a bunch of rad dudes and dudettes looking for a new way to shred.
The Rad History of Skateboarding
Surfing on the Streets
The history of surfing and the history of skateboarding are closely intertwined. Skateboarding history kicked off in the 40s and 50s when surfers in California looked for a land-based alternative to riding the waves. They wanted to replicate the feeling of surfing when Mother Nature wasn’t throwing out rideable swells.
While nobody knows exactly who invented the first skateboard, somebody had the genius idea of attaching old-school roller skate wheels to wood planks. These makeshift shred decks made it possible to “surf” on the sidewalk which eventually gave rise to sidewalk-surfing - the father of modern-day skateboarding.
Bill Richard, an LA surf shop owner, is credited with assembling the first commercial skateboard in the late 50s. He simply attached skate wheels from the Chicago Roller Skate Company to specially built wooden boards. It didn’t take long for the craze to take hold. Soon, surfers and non-surfers alike were cruising, carving, and slashing all around California.
The earliest skateboarding tricks mimicked what surfers were doing on the waves. That’s why early adopters would primarily stick to curbs, hills, empty pools, homemade ramps, and even drainage ditches. These moves might seem basic by today’s standards, but keep in mind that skateboarding was just getting started.
Looking for some books about the history of skating? Check out these rad reads!
- Four Wheels and a Board: The Smithsonian History of Skateboarding
- Why it's a read: You know things are getting serious when the Smithsonian writes a book about your sport! If you’re looking for comprehensive coverage of skating history, this is it.
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- Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History
- Why it's a read: The author’s background as a skater and architectural historian makes for a unique perspective on the connection between skating and the city.
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Our Staff Pick
- The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder's History of the World
- Why it's a read: A colorful overview of skateboarding's backstory by a skater with commentary from legendary skaters? 'Nuff said!
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While it’s a mystery who created the first skateboard, Larry Stevenson is known for revolutionizing shred decks with the invention of the kicktail in 1969. This seemingly simple upward curve on the end of the board unlocked a whole new world of moves. The back tail allowed for greater control and maneuverability than ever before.
The first boards to sport the back tail looked similar to penny boards, just a bit larger. Instead of simply cruising around, skaters started incorporating pivots, manuals, hippie jumps, and other tricks. The kicktail was quickly followed up by the double-kicktail which featured a curved edge at both ends of the board which opened up even more room for tricks for skaters.
As if the kicktail wasn’t enough, Larry also put together one of the first skateboarding teams and hosted one of the first skateboarding contests. The Makaha Skateboard Exhibition Team featured some of the gnarliest riders of the time. Early skating championships mainly hosted flat-ground freestyle contests and downhill races.
Skating exhibitions and competitions played a crucial role in spreading the good news of skateboarding across the country. It was no longer confined to the coastal regions of sunny Southern California. Skaters started popping up in the concrete jungle of New York City, the rural towns of the Midwest, and everywhere in between.
Reinventing the Wheel
Back in the day, skaters didn’t have a lot of options when choosing street skateboard wheels. It was a toss-up between the equally lame metal rollerskate wheels and clay wheels. The metal wheels were prone to sliding, and the clay wheels barely lasted a full day of skating before completely falling apart.
In the early 70s, Frank Nasworthy threw a set of urethane wheels on his skateboard hoping for a smoother ride. The difference was immediately noticeable. The polyurethane wheels offered more traction and stability which meant more precision carving, higher speeds, and greater control overall.
With $700 he had saved up, Nasworthy started the Cadillac Wheels company which was named for the smooth riding experience. The polyurethane wheel transformed skating virtually overnight as the material quickly became the dominant choice among skaters and skateboard manufacturers. The skateboard wheel has only undergone some minor changes since the first Cadillac Wheels rolled off the production line.
Keep on Trucking
Up until the 70s, the Chicago Roller Skate Company had a monopoly on skateboard trucks. The limitations set by metal and clay wheels hamstrung any developments…until “Captain Cadillac” Nasworthy ushered in the era of polyurethane wheels. Suddenly, everyone was looking for a way to build more lightweight, flexible, and dynamic trucks to match the newest wheels.
Companies like Bennet, Tracker, and Independent Trucks drove a massive wave of innovation that brought skaters less wheel bite, reduced speed wobbles, and lighter boards. Some of the major changes included higher kingpins, stronger locknuts, and more absorbent bushings (the plastic material between the locknut and the axle).
Getting a Grip
If you’ve ever tried to ollie on a pre-grip-taped board, you’ve felt the frustration of early riders. They would have given anything to have an ultimate guide to grip tape. Instead, they had to rely on good ol’ fashioned trial and error to find a way to keep their feet gripped to the boards. Keep in mind that surfers were the first riders when skateboards were invented. That’s why some of the earliest skaters rode barefoot. Pretty hardcore, huh?
Surfing wax was one of the first proposed “solutions”, but it didn’t work well on wooden decks which were way too slippery. Next, surfers tried dousing their boards in Slip Check - an anti-slip spray that was popular among surfers in the 60s. Things got even more MacGeyvered when some skaters put a mix of resin and sand on their boards.
What seemed like a last-ditch effort actually became the earliest form of grip tape. By this time, most skaters had decided to throw on a pair of shoes. The next trick was finding the right balance between strong and weak grip tape.
Thicker material tore through skate shoes like a hot knife through butter, but weaker versions wouldn’t provide any traction. Eventually, the perfect thickness and coarseness of grip tape were developed.
The Skatepark Boom
Not everything was smooth sailing when skateboards were invented. In fact, a lot of city officials and disgruntled citizens were claiming that skateboarding is a crime. Some people said the sport was too dangerous for kids while others pointed to the damage it was causing cities. The overwhelming popularity of skating (along with these complaints) compelled cities to take action.
Between 1976 and 1982, over 200 skateparks popped up across the country to give skaters a place to…well, skate! Surf City in Tuscon, Arizona was the first official skatepark which featured a long, winding snake run and concrete ramps. Skateparks eventually adopted stair sets, rails, ledges, pyramids, funboxes, and other features as new skating styles developed.
As the birthplace of skating, California hosted the majority of these skate havens. This boom in parks made skating more accessible to the general public than ever before. The costs of skateboards were also going down due to the huge demand and widespread production.
All Feet on Deck
As mentioned before, the earliest shred decks were made out of wood. The material was widely available, relatively affordable, and easy to cut into different shapes, so it made perfectly good sense in the beginning. The Hobie Cat Company released the iconic Hobie Skateboard in 1964 which took the wooden deck mainstream.
As skateboarding matured, people began experimenting with different materials. Plastic was a popular alternative in the 70s because it was even more affordable than wood. These boards were thought to be sturdier but proved to snap too easily under even the slightest amount of pressure. Fiberglass, one of the main materials in surfboards, was even taken for a spin although the material didn’t catch on.
Eventually, shred decks returned to their roots with wood becoming the material of choice. Today, boards are made with several layers of sturdy maple wood that are glued and pressed together through a sophisticated and largely automated process. Of course, there are some exceptions like penny boards which are made out of a plastic composite, but wood is still the most popular skateboard material.
The advanced skateboard tricks you see people landing today would have blown the minds of even the most advanced skaters in the early years. In fact, most of the first skating moves wouldn’t even be seen as tricks today. Carving, pivoting, bank riding, pool riding, and other seemingly simple moves were standard tricks in the sport’s infancy.
Skateboarding changed forever in 1978 when Alan Gelfand invented the hands-free jump on vert ramps which became known as the ollie. Fellow skaters were shocked when seeing “Ollie” Gelfand keep the board glued to his feet as he took flight over vertical ramps. This move led to a radical change in skating where tricks became a primary focus.
Watch Alan Gelfand ollie into skating history:
Rodney Mullen pushed the limits even further when he debuted the first flat-ground ollie in 1982. Dubbed the “Godfather of modern freestyle skating”, Mullen would go on to develop dozens (no exaggeration!) of foundational skating tricks including the kickflip, heelflip, impossible, backside kickflip, and 360 flip.
Fun Fact: The kickflip came full circle in 2011 when Zoltan "The Magician" Torkos landed the trick for the first time on a surfboard.
Taking to the Streets
For the first few decades of skating, freestyle and vert were the most popular styles. In the late 80s, the new trend of street skateboarding took off. Street skating took inspiration from both early forms of the sport but placed a greater focus on tricks. Instead of staying trapped in parks, street skating invited riders to start shredding throughout the city.
Skaters found ways to transform standard city architecture into skate-able obstacles including handrails, stair sets, benches, ledges, handrails, statues, picnic tables, curbs - you name it, skaters were shredding it. Soon, skaters “discovered” popular spots across the country. For example, Philadelphia’s LOVE Park became a legendary hotspot during the birth of street skating.
With a new form of skating on the scene, people went back to the drawing board to further perfect the skateboard. While old-school boards were commonly 10” in width or larger, street decks were widdled down to 7” or 8”. This narrower design allowed the board to turn quicker during flips or spins, making it easier to land tricks.
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Skate wheels also underwent some changes in the 80s and 90s. Polyurethane remained the ideal choice for wheels, but they got smaller, lighter, and harder. In fact, skateboard wheels are often labeled by their hardness according to a durometer. These technical changes were also made to make boards more conducive to the ever-growing list of flat-ground tricks skaters were popping out.
The Explosion of Skate Culture
In the first few decades of skateboarding, the deck underwent a series of drastic changes. Throughout the 2000s, the skateboard hasn’t undergone too many drastic tweaks, but the popularity of skating has exploded. Estimates suggest that there are well over 10 million active skaters in the world.
Skate media has been a serious boon to skating culture ever since popular surfing mags started covering the new sport in the 60s and 70s. The development of the handheld video camera led to the rise of skate videos which were first released on VHS tapes before turning to DVDs and eventually fully digital media. Tony Hawk’s video game series further launched skating into pop culture.
The skateboard shop has also been at the center of the boom of skate culture as a place where skaters can meet up with stellar people, stock up on the latest gear, and stay up to date on the newest trends.
In Summary: When Skateboards Were Invented
From its humble beginnings as “street surfing” to its induction as an official Olympic event, the history of skateboarding has taken some stellar twists and turns. Although the design, shape, and material of skateboards have changed over the decades, the stoke and passion skaters bring to the activity have remained the same. The background of when skateboards were invented might have been a bit more in-depth than you thought, but now you’ve got tons of random skating knowledge to show off!