Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center Archivist
I first encountered a skateboard in 1972. It belonged to the Phelps boys who lived across the street from me in Rochester, New York. Their board was handmade--rough wood and a set of wheels that never seemed too stable or flexible. Maybe that's why I never stood on the board. I always sat and was pushed around by the dozens of kids who roamed my neighborhood.
By 1978, I was the proud owner of a plastic yellow skateboard with a kicktail (used to lift and turn a skateboard) but I still wasn't able to stand up. So it was a short-lived romance between me and that yellow board. Now, after thirty-three years, I find myself revisiting my own skateboard shortcomings, reflecting on more recent technological changes, and wondering, "Could I stand up now? Has technology made it easier? The more technology you have the better you skate, right?"
A bit of history
The early history of skateboarding is deeply rooted in and influenced by 1950s California surfing culture: "sidewalk surfing" was originally used to describe the sport. However, there are many aspects of roller skate development that also influenced skateboard development. By the 1850s and 1860s, roller skates had the familiar form of a flat wood plate or board with attached wheels. Reuben Shaler's parlor skate of May 1860 (U.S. Patent 28,509) is an example of this construction.
Variations on that basic form moved the technology in a more skateboard-like direction. One such innovation, the "scooter skate," appeared in the December 1930 issue of Popular Mechanics (see page 892). Its three rubber wheels (two in the rear and one in the front) attached to a metal base or "board" where the foot was placed, so it was like wearing a roller skate, but only for one foot.
By the 1930s "scooters" with steel roller skate wheels mounted to planks of wood and attached to an apple crate with handlebars became commonplace. The evolution of this configuration is evident in the Skeeter Skate Skooter and the Ride-Em-Cowboy marketed by the Garton Toy Company of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in the 1940s. These frames were constructed of metal with a baked-enamel finish, ball-bearing roller skate wheels with shock-absorbing cushions, and handles of wood. Garton's advertisements talk about "rubber cushions" and "streamlined" steel footboards, features later found in skateboards.
Anatomy of a skateboard
The basic look of the skateboard has changed little since its separation from the frame and handlebars of the scooter. The basic components are:
- deck (mostly seven-ply maple that is typically 8 by 30 inches),
- trucks (metal assemblies that attach the wheels to the deck),
- bearings, and
- grip tape to help the skater keep his or her footing.
From the late 1950s to the late 1960s, these basic features changed little; innovation stalled, due primarily to a downturn in the popularity of skating, as well as legal and health issues resulting from skating injuries. By the 1970s, however, advances in equipment and materials resulted in many innovations to skateboards and skateboarding.
There are four major technological improvements that transformed skateboarding: the introduction of fiberflex to the deck, polyurethane wheels, precision ball bearings in the wheels, and new truck designs.
Decks are typically constructed from several layers of wood, especially maple. In 1964, though, Larry Gordon, an avid surfer, introduced the fiberflex board comprised of a fiberglass laminate called BO-TUFF® (originally developed for archery) with layers of maple. This material allowed the skater to handle shock and impact better and the board could "flex" on landing.
The introduction of urethane wheels to skateboarding by Frank Nasworthy in 1972 radically improved the ride. Nasworthy met the owner of Creative Urethanes in Purcellville, Virginia, in the early 1970s. Creative Urethanes was working on developing a roller skate wheel that would not wear like the soft, composite clay wheels then in use. Recognizing the potential of the urethane wheels for skateboards, Nasworthy ultimately moved west to California and began designing and manufacturing urethane "Cadillac Wheels." The new wheel improved the grip and turning capabilities of skaters and forever changed skateboarding.
Other innovations in urethane wheels directly affected the skater's experience. The size of the wheel altered speed and control: larger wheels produce a faster and more controlled ride. Similarly, the hardness of the wheel also influenced the ride. Hard urethane wheels provide a fast ride, but it can also be a rougher ride because there is little to absorb the vibrations. Softer wheels are slower and more prone to wearing and wheel replacement, but the ride is smooth.
An important part of wheel function is the ball bearings assembly. In 1884, Levant M. Richardson, who later started the Richardson Ball Bearing and Skate Company, was the first to use steel ball bearings in roller skate wheels (U.S. Patent 308,990). His invention reduced the amount of friction on the wheels and created a somewhat smoother ride, but the ball bearings kept escaping. Richard Novak, a surfer and skateboard enthusiast like Nasworthy, solved this problem in 1975. His "Road Rider precision wheels" with sealed ball bearings lasted longer and were faster than standard wheels.
As new polyurethane wheels made rides faster, truck manufacturers in the late 1970s responded with innovations that made the trucks more responsive and flexible, enhancing turning ability. Ron Bennett of Bennett Skateboards was particularly influential in his designs for the first trucks made specifically for skateboards.  Similarly, Gullwing Trucks responded to new styles of skateboarding, particularly riding vertical surfaces, with a split-axle design that, according to a March 1977 Gullwing ad, "won't hang up on edges or coping."
Today, renewable and recyclable materials are being introduced into skateboarding. Bamboo, Nu-Wood (an injection-molded, recycled-fiber-filled thermoplastic), CornBoard, and other biocomposite materials for skateboard decks are under development. Many manufacturers have also adopted other environmentally friendly business and manufacturing practices such as using water-based finishes and paints, zero-formaldehyde glues, and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified hardwoods; composting wood scraps; returning glue to manufacturers; and recycling steel, aluminum, cardboard, and paper.
Boards, like their riders, are unique. From the deck to the trucks to the ball bearings and the wheels, skaters can "build" their rides to be soft or hard, stable or more flexible for turning tricks, and now, sustainable. All of this is made possible by advances in technology and materials. Past and present skateboarders and manufacturers (many of whom are skaters themselves) continue to push the limits of innovation.
 Skateboard legend David Hackett, one of the original Z-Boys of Dogtown (see Art Molella's column for more on the Z-Boys), traced Bennett's influence on the early days of skateboarding: "If you look at all of the early, early pool and ramp shots back in the day of all the Dog Town Guys, ... We all rode Bennett's because they were the best turning truck in the World." "Manufacturing Profile: Bennett Truks," Concrete Wave magazine (fall 2006), p. 49.
For further reading:
Judith A. Davidson, "Sport and Modern Technology: The Rise of Skateboarding, 1963-1978," Journal of Popular Culture 18, no. 4 (spring 1985), pp. 145-157.
"Environmental Issues," Transworld Skateboarding, March 13, 2000, http://skateboarding.transworld.net/1000010706/news/environmental-issues/. Accessed August 28, 2011.
Exploratorium "Skateboard Science" website, http://www.exploratorium.edu/skateboarding/, includes a glossary of skateboarding terms. Accessed August 28, 2011.
Garton Toy Co. catalog, Wheel Goods and Sleds for 60 Years (1938), University of Wisconsin Digital Collections, State of Wisconsin Collection, http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.SheGarton. Accessed August 28, 2011.
Eric Weiss, "[Frank Nasworthy:] A Reinvention of the Wheel, Annandale Teen's Idea Brought Skateboarding Back to Life," Washington Post, August 17, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6502-2004Aug16.html. Accessed August 28, 2011.
Scott A. Wilhite, The Evolution of the Roller Skate 1820-Present: A Pictorial History (Lincoln, Neb.: National Museum of Roller Skating, 1994).
From Prototype, August 2011