Better Surfing Through Chemistry

Bing Copeland
Kemp Aaberg, 1960. Photo: John Severson
Dave Sweet
Foam "Easter egg" boards. Photo: John Severson
Hobie Alter

On a slow weekday afternoon in 1957, three years after Hobie Surfboards opened for business, a resin salesman walked into the shop and handed Hobie Alter a small white chunk of synthetic material about the size of a cigarette pack. “It was hard and dense,” Alter recalled. “You could just barely dig your fingernail into the surface.”

Polyurethane foam was just then coming onto the commercial market. Like nearly every other petrochemical product of the time, it was developed during the war; in ...