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The History of the Fin

THE YEAR 1717

While the concept of fin like footwear has appeared in history dating back to inventors such as Leonado DaVinci and Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, the earliest recorded design for use was in the 1717 and is credited to an 11 year old boy who went on to be the kite flying inventor of electricity as well as one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin. He referenced it in his memoirs which were started in 1771 and were still unfinished at the time of his death in 1790. His inventions started out with a pair of oval paddles made of wood which he said were something like an artist's pallet. Because of the fatigue it caused to his wrists, he transferred the design to his feet in a sandal like fashion. His accomplishment and advocacy for swimming got him inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame 240 years later.

YEAR 1914

The next noted event happened in 1914 when a 26 year old Frenchman by the name of Louis Marie de Corlieu who introduced the prototype of what would become the modern day design to a group of French Naval officers, de Corlieu, himself held the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He ended his military career in 1924 and devoted his time to the development of the fins.  It wasn't until April of 1933 that he applied and received a patent for them, he began mass producing the fins in 1939.

Another credit goes to an American by the name of Owen Churchill who was working on his design which was said to be inspired by natives in Tahiti. The young boys would weave mats and attach metal straps to them. These then would be dipped in tar, cooled and hardened and the boys simply placed them on their feet and went in the water. Mr. Churchill decided to make his design out of vulcanized rubber which is a cured rubber which makes it harder and less sticky than the natural rubber. This process also makes the rubber more durable. Vulcanized rubber products are still used today in the form of car tires, hoses and soles of shoes to name a few. He patented his design in 1940. Snorkeling and skin diving was not a popular sport back then and Owen sold less than 1000 pairs when they went into production.

YEAR 1948

Up until 1948 all of those designed with some sort of strapping device to keep them on the feet. An Italian company called Cressi-Sub in collaboration with a 34 year old inventor Luigi Ferraro introduced the first ever full foot style. The Rondine was one that could be slipped on like a shoe. This was inevitable from a country that has a long history in the shoe making field. His design was a one piece molded rubber and Cressi-Sub is still making quality snorkeling gear today.

THE 1980's

This introduction of full foot fins brought about the first actual categorization with the choice of the strap style or the full foot style. More snorkeling equipment manufacturers were opening and in an effort to be different from one another began doing research on the propulsion. The rigid non flexible blade designs being offered were heavy in weight and required a lot of energy to use. This caused noticeable stress on leg ankle and foot muscles. Dare it be said "It was almost like having two boards strapped to your feet". More flexible blades were introduced and in the early 1980's, lighter weight plastics were starting to be used. The plastic blades were bonded to the rubberized foot pockets in both the strap and full foot designs. As more and more research was done with regard to propulsion other adaptations to the blades began to appear. Because the blades were one flat piece, vents and side rails were added. The vents helped to reduce some of the energy levels needed in the kicking process and the side rails helped to keep the water one the fin during each kick. They also served to channel the water in a single direction which was toward the wider tips of the fins. The lighter weight blade materials along with the vents and side rails meant that they could be made longer allowing the to basically deflect even more water that their predecessors.

This lengthening and widening of the blade was more evident in the strap style than in the full foot versions. Many feel that this was a turning point in that scuba divers seemed to favor the strap design with the wider and longer blades while snorkelers tended toward the full foot styling. The wider and longer blade was more difficult for a snorkeler to use because each kick they made ended up with at least part of the blade going above the surface of the water. They were basically wasting propulsion by slapping the water on each downward kick. The narrower and shorter style of the full foot design allowed the fin to remain under the water during the upward and downward kicks allowing it to do what it was designed to do, propel.

It was somewhere during this period of discernment that full foot design started being referred to as those who snorkeled and the strap design became known for scuba divers. It wasn't odd at the time to see divers have two pairs, one for diving while the other was reserved for snorkeling.

Manufacturers began to explore ways of creating one style that was suitable for both sports. They were pretty successful with it for the most part but the snorkeler side still had to deal with bulkier fins. That is, until someone decided that snorkelers were just as serious about their sport as divers are about theirs. They concentrated on designs that really were beneficial to the top-of- the water explorers. Blades were shortened and made a bit wider creating what is now called Travel Fins. These proved to be excellent for the traveler because they packed so well that they could even fit in carry-on luggage for air travel. They were designed in both open and closed heel styles and they proved themselves with regard to performance.

THE 1990's

The early 1990's brought about another innovative evolution which created a whole new category. The change was with regard to the blade. Traditional blades as previously described were one piece designs that worked like a paddle. A company called Nature's Wing introduced a design that split the blade right down the middle. The result was a blade that used significantly less effort during the kicks without sacrificing propulsion. For more on this style be sure to read our article What are Split Fins?".

Most of the other changes have been with the strap and buckle systems which are almost too numerous to mention but the one notable feature is that on the quick release design for the open heel. This strap and buckle combination allowed the user an easier method for removal as well as an easier way to replace a broken strap.

One can see that there have been numerous changes and innovations since Benjamin Franklin's original design. Will there be more in the future?