If you an 80s kid like me, you had dreams of being Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, zooming around with a skateboard on the back of a car and hoverboarding your way through a city while escaping the bad guys. But who invented the skateboard? And what path did it take to become ubiquitous with cool?
In my time, skateboarding was the way you got around to your friend’s house. It’s where you could drive down the street and see a group of kids doing flips pretending they were Tony Hawk or Steve Caballero. It was what you brought to school every day and showed off to the girls.
But while skateboarding was the thing to do in the 1980s, it was anything but new, and the first skateboards looked nothing like the ones we’re used to seeing then or now. Before the first one was made, kids would ride on wooden boards with crates and handles. They had all sorts of different names as they developed with time, like Kne-Kosters, Scooter Skates, and Skeeter Skater.
In fact, as I digress back to the original Back to the Future movie, we actually get a sneak peak of what those looked like. In the film, Marty travels back to 1955 and comes across two girls riding a board with four wheels, and a wooden box and handles attached to it. These were called orange crate scooters.
Okay, I promise, no more Back to the Future references.
So Who Invented the Skateboard?
In essence, Bill Richards made the skateboard, Larry Stevenson created skateboarding, and the surfing community helped it erupt. There’s a lot of gray area and a couple of different guys ultimately laid claim to it which seems to be the case with any novel sport.
In 1958, Richards took these weird-looking scooters and simply got rid of the handles; he simply took a rectangular wooden board and added roller skate wheels to it. This became known as the roller derby skateboard, officially the first of its kind.
These boards began selling in 1959 at Val Surf for $8, but were nothing like we would soon see. They were extremely thick and narrow, and you couldn’t grip them with your feet or do any fancy tricks. It was basically taking a piece of wood, supporting it with clay wheels below, and rolling down the street in a straight line. While it was considered a skateboard, it wasn’t really skateboarding as we know it.
The Godfather of Skateboarding Arrives
That changed with Stevenson, known as “The Godfather of Skateboarding.” However, instead of a suit, tie, and heavy gangster Corleone accent, Stevenson still repped a suit but just hung around surfers. The kind of lifestyle was garnering attention on the West Coast, and Stevenson was marketing it by publishing The Surf Guide.
After seeing an old clip on television of orphans being handed old skate scooters with the crate and handles, the light bulb popped so brightly in Stevenson’s head that one could go blind. He imagined a world where skateboarding was a street version of surfing. A board where people could move around like they do on a surfboard, turning and flipping and doing cool things, except on pavement instead of water.
He just had to find a way to bring the surf culture to all 50 states, not just a handful. The best part for Stevenson was he had the perfect profession to make this a reality.
“I realized that with Surf Guide, I had a unique capability to promote something,” he said.
He didn’t need to go from door to door selling these new boards. He could just print extra copies of Surf Guide, get it out to the audience he needs to spread it to, and let the word of mouth and hopefully the media do their thing.
Of course, Stevenson couldn’t do this alone. He needed a few pieces to help him sell the skateboard. First, he needed Tom Cleary, a writer who could help sell skateboarding to surfers and interested readers.
Streamlining the Product
He also needed a shop and people to help him create these new boards. Stevenson opened up a production center in Santa Monica, Calif., and partnered with Makaha, who was a popular surfboard manufacturer. They began making new Makaha skateboards, a 29-inch board that basically looked like a miniature surfboard but with wheels to it.
Stevenson wanted to ensure that these new boards were similar to surfboards, where you could maneuver yourself around and have foot gripping so they were controllable. Instead of clay wheels, he used nylon and added foam, plywood, and other essential ingredients to ensure control.
The next thing Stevenson needed was a huge event to help get this kick-started, and with the help of Makaha, he got the answer to his prayers. The company sponsored a huge contest in 1963 at Pier Avenue Junior High School in Hermosa, Calif., with a number of reputable surfing legends, including Brad “Squeak” Blank, Danny Bearer, Woody Woodward, and Steve Tanner. These would play an integral part in helping Makaha and Stevenson sell these boards to different parts of the country by doing more promotional contests.
This was a groundbreaking event with the media present, taking videos and writing stories. It would get on the local news, and pictures would spread across the country. People would see all these skateboarders actually skateboarding, doing tricks and cool flips, creating that “Wow” factor that Stevenson wanted.
The Skateboarding Revolution Continues
From there, things just spread, kinda like when Tom created the first MySpace status update and social media exploded in hundreds of different directions. Designers created more skateboard styles and types. Riders incorporated tons of innovative tricks. And new companies were born, such as Powell Peralta, Zorlac, Santa Cruz, and AntiHero.
Like anything, people grow bored and lose attention, forcing companies to add new twists to skateboards to win back eyeballs. Today, manufacturers are trying to perfect The Back to the Future experience and make the hoverboard look just like the one in the movie (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
But while technology has sadly diminished risk-taking in our current crop of youth, the core of skateboarding never dies. You still go down the street and see a group of kids flipping around and trying to impress girls. And you can’t turn on the X-Games without wanting to watch the skateboarding competitions.
So go down to the local store, pick up a new and fresh skateboard, and ride on the back of a truck, waving to the girls on your way to school while “The Power of Love” is playing in your earpods.