Saturday, 8 March 2014

A short history of the Human Powered Vehicle

A short history of the Human Powered Vehicle 

Picture via
When I was a teenager and growing up in the 1970s the skateboard craze burst onto the scene, we embraced it, living in a hilly area meant we had heaps of places to practice and go fast downhill. Then come off even faster when we realized we couldn’t stop or got “speed wobbles”.
 I see the shapes and skills of the boards and riders these days as well as the sub culture it has created and never in a hundred years would have thought the sport would have evolved to such a massive social and business model. If I did, I would be now very rich. In my day it was about getting from A to B quicker and unlike a bike, I didn’t have to worry about it being pinched from the railway station. These days you can watch a young person ride a half pipe for hours it almost seems like they are practicing Zen, attaining enlightenment by slowly turning repeating each move going higher and with each repetition achieving something more. That is until the make a mistake and come crashing down from height much like I did in my day.

It is assumed that skateboarding was invented and developed between the late 1940s and early 1950s, no one seems to know who invented the first board but common consensus believes it was a simultaneous event in several beach side areas in the U.S and accredited to the growing popularity of surfing at the time. Skateboarding is the result of keen surfers wanting to still get their fix on flat wave days. The use of old roller skate wheels onto a plank of wood was used to replicate the boards in surf, thus it being referred to “sidewalk surfing” in its infancy. Though the wheels were made of clay and there was no real method of turning, not to mention unless you skated on a smooth surface without and dirt, rocks, sticks whatever you were in fear of coming to an abrupt halt and flying off the board let alone smashing the wheels. Roller skaters could lift their feet, skateboarders couldn’t. This somewhat primitive practice obviously had some merit because skateboards did go into commercial production as early as 1960 an L.A surf shop bought Roller skate wheels and place them on formed wooden boards.
 Though skateboards were still basic in design and basically still roller skate wheels bolted to a surf board shaped bit of plywood by 1965 Skateboarding was so popular it had generated sales in the millions spawned a national competition and national magazines. This popularity was short lived and dismissed as a fad and interest dropped off rapidly, with no competition or national magazines existing by the end of the decade. Development of skateboards never stalled even during this lull period and with the development of polyurethane wheels and the advent of the “Trucks” rubber balls under the T shaped axles to help steer the wheels by shifting weight made the earlier skateboards easier to maneuver and experiments with fiberglass and aluminum. Couple these innovations with cheaper production costs resulted in a spike in the popularity again around 1972.
This time it went global.
One of things that helped this was a combination of social and environmental factors. In California in the early part of the 1970s a prolonged drought had made it necessary for officials to ban the filling of domestic pools, this and the event of the new board technologies worked in the favour of an enterprising Surf board maker Skip Engblom saw the potential in a group of young surfers/skateboarders and created the Z Boys.
The Z Boys went on to set benchmarks in tricks and completions that had never been reached before and created a whole new popularity in skateboarding that traveled the world. All of this is captured brilliantly in the documentary Dog Town & Z Boys.
Thanks to the Engblom’s opportunism and the camera of his partner Craig Stecyk, most of the beginning of this period is faithfully recorded. The creator of the film Stacey Peralta along with Jay Adams and Tony Alva went onto become legends in the field of skateboard history. With this new fame came more completions expanding outside the USA and bringing in competitors from Europe, South America and Australia.
Big money started pouring in and with it more manufactures, specialist and bulk, magazines and movies. The sport evolved as did the boards and the shape changed drastically over a short period of time to cater for new tricks and abilities now being attempted by the elite.
This kind of attitude and sponsorship can be directly linked to the creation of the X games and the popularity of extreme sports, not only BMX and Moto-Cross but paragliding and surf skiing amongst others. People like Tony Hawks have become so wealthy and well known off skateboarding that after more than a decade from retirement from competition he can still draw crowds and be part of the Big Day Out concerts as a major draw card he that well respected.
And it seems that age is no longer a barrier for skateboarders,
I have worked on a project recently with two keen riders who having been bit by the bug in their pre teens are both in their mid thirties. Nick Ford is married with children and does graphic design in Sydney, whilst Scott Robinson a respected commercial artist in Brisbane works with Government sponsored galleries and art programs and recently was given a commission to do a portrait of one of his boyhood heroes Jay Adams. Both are seen on weekends trying to skate down hand railings in city parks. So be careful next time you scowl at some older gent zipping through the park, he may be your accountant. One thing can be sure, Just like our Grandparents screamed at kids whizzing past them on boards our kids are going to be doing the same when they get older.

Originally published in the Boronia and Basin Community news 2010

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