The skateboard has a long and colorful history full of DIY ingenuity and innovation. Even today, customization and home-shop modifications play a large role in how amateurs approach the sport – whether it is loosening the trucks, oiling up the bearings, or carving a logo into the grip tape.
Given the unceasing evolution of the skateboard it should come as no surprise that the archaic-looking boards of the late 1950’s bear little resemblance to the skateboards used by contemporary skaters today. Furthermore, the incorporation of high-tech apparatuses, such as the electric motor and hand-held remote control, demonstrate that the skateboard continues to push the boundaries and evolve into new forms.
The Skateboard: An Origin Story
While skateboarding cannot be traced to any one individual and appears to be the invention of multiple people, it is well known that west coast American surfers first pioneered the sport.
During the late 1950’s surfing grew in popularity. It was during this time that the first skateboards, constructed from roller skates attached to wood, made their appearance.
One can only imagine a group of surfers, sitting around one day, bummed out by the flat surf, stroking their chins and pondering ways to make waves. “What if we surf the sidewalk?” one of them asks. “Radical idea!” replies another.
After the initial invention, skateboarding continued to grow as a trend. The sport became popular enough that surfboard companies, like Mahaka, started to make higher-quality boards with actual trucks (instead of bastardized roller-skates) and clay wheels. Both the new trucks, called Chicago trucks, and the clay wheels were huge innovations and increased the sport’s growing popularity.
In 1963, the first skateboard contest was held in Hermosa Beach, sponsored by Makaha, one of the major player surf shops making skateboards at the time. But soon after this initial wave of popularity, the sport died off.
According to the Hermosa Beach Historical Society: “…since no one wore safety equipment, just as the sports momentum began to build, injuries forced the sales momentum to a halt. Skateboarding “is not a crime”, but was declared unsafe, and outlawed in many areas.”
Many of the injuries during this time resulted from the clay wheels used, which while better than their metal predecessors, did not possess great traction and would stop dead when encountering a pebble or crack in the sidewalk.
It was not until 1972, when Frank Nasworthy invented the urethane wheel, that skateboarding came back into vogue. Nasworthy formed the legendary company Cadillac Wheels and modern skateboarding was born.
The infamous Zephyr team demonstrated the power of urethane wheels at the Ocean Festival in Del Mar, California. The Zephyr team, or Z-boys displayed the now classic style of riding low and carving hard. This time period in southern California represents the glory days of early skateboarding. Films such as Dogtown and Z-Boys and Lords of Dogtown depict this era. Famous Z-boy skaters include: Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta.
Aside from allowing skaters to ride low and carve, the urethane wheel made the sport more popular. No longer did small pebbles pose a threat and new opportunities such as banks, ledges, and sewer ditches opened up for conquering.
Up until this point, skateboarding had still remained an offshoot of surfing – something surfers did when the waves were low. But in the late 70’s, things changed forever and skateboarding took on a life of it’s own. In 1978, Alan Gelfand invented the “Ollie.” An Ollie is the most fundamental trick in skateboarding in which all other flip and air tricks are derived. It involves the skater pressing down on the heel of the board with their back foot and sliding up their front foot while the board is lifted before leveling off in the air. In short, it is jumping with the skateboard.
The innovation of the Ollie opened up a Pandora’s box of new tricks and possibilities. And then in 1976-78 California was struck by a severe drought. The drought forced homeowners to drain their pools. With empty pools ripe for picking, the skaters came, riding the pool walls and inventing new tricks daily.
During the 1980’s, skateboarding further evolved as an anti-establishment activity. This was due in part to the maturation of the sport. As skaters improved, gaining the ability to grind and Ollie down stairs, public property became their new ocean, calling out to be surfed. As skaters waxed surfaces for grinding and damaged ledges, business owners and police came to see skateboarding as a nuisance.
It would not be until the 1990’s, with the emergence of the X-Games, that the sport was recognized as a legitimate activity. The proliferation of free skate parks also cut down on damage to public property. Skateboarding infused the culture, from video games to shopping malls. Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find a boy or girl who didn’t grow up owning a skateboard.
The History of the Electric Skateboard
While the electric skateboard might seem like a modern device of recent invention, the first motorized skateboard was invented in 1975. The Motoboard, as it was called, was advertised as an electric skateboard, but was in fact gas-powered. The Motoboard proved short-lived due to a series of flaws, such as the pollution it emitted and that the control module required a cord to connect to the motor, which made it cumbersome to use. As a result, Calfornia made motorized skateboards illegal under vehicle code 21968:
“(a) A motorized skateboard shall not be propelled on any sidewalk, roadway, or any other part of a highway or on any bikeway, bicycle path or trail, equestrian trail, or hiking or recreational trail. (b) For purposes of this section, an electrically motorized board, as defined in Section 313.5, is not a motorized skateboard.”
Not much changed for the electric skateboard until the late 1990’s when Louie Finkle, “Electric Louie”, developed a wireless form of electric skateboard. While the technology was groundbreaking and popular, it was also expensive and did not prove to be a successful business venture for Finkle.
It would not be until the late 2000’s that technological evolution made the manufacturing of electric skateboards more economically feasible, thereby allowing anyone the opportunity to purchase an affordable board.
Future of the Electric Skateboard
In the past sixty years, we have moved from roller-skates screwed into a wooden plank, to efficient wooden boards, to gas-powered boards, to wireless electric skateboards. We’ve also witnessed evolution of the battery from lead to lithium ion.
As technology continues to evolve and industrious skaters continue to customize and improve the electric skateboard, who knows where things will go?
Photovoltaic-painted grip tape? Nano-tech? Who knows?
But one thing is for sure. Skateboarding will never die.