Who was Jack O'Neill? Everything you need to know!

November 14, 2022

Without Jack O'Neill, there would not be surfing as it is known today. He not only launched O'Neill the original surf brand, he launched the whole notion of the surf industry.

In 1952 when our founder, Jack O'Neill began designing and producing the world's first neoprene wetsuits out of the world's first surf shop. He was a legendary businessman and surfing innovator. In this article, you will read everything you need to know about this extraordinary person!

Who was Jack O'Neill? Everything you need to know!

Who was Jack O’Neill?

Jack O’Neill was a legendary businessman and surfing innovator. He was, among many more, the founder and name giver of our company, and helped to develop the wetsuit that allowed surfers to hit the water all year-round. In this blog article, you will read everything you need to know about this extraordinary human being, who remains a huge inspiration to all of us here at O’Neill.

Jack O’Neill’s early life

Jack O’Neill was born in Denver on March 27, 1923. He grew up in Southern California, where he started body surfing in the late 1930s. In his early career, he served in the Army Corps, sold fire extinguishers and worked as a fisherman. In 1949, Jack moved to San Francisco, where he attended San Francisco State University. Three years later, he opened up a small shop in surfing equipment near Ocean Beach – a ‘surf shop’. It might be hard to believe, but Jack is credited for inventing the term. In 1959, Jack moved to Santa Cruz, where he lived near the ocean for the rest of his life.

Jack oneill hot airballoon

Jack O’Neill’s house in Santa Cruz

In Santa Cruz, Jack O’Neill lived in a cozy green house on a cliff in the Pleasure Point neighborhood. The point is known as one of the best surf spots in the Santa Cruz area. The spot directly in front of his former house is now known as the ‘O’Neill spot’. The Pleasure Point Community also celebrates ‘Jack O’Neill Day’ in honor of the legendary local.

Is Jack O’Neill the creator of the first wetsuit?

Jack O’Neill is often said to be the inventor of the wetsuit. Truth is, it’s hard to credit one person with the invention. Like more surfers at the time, Jack had long been searching for ways to surf for longer in cold water. He experimented with oil-treated sweaters, underwear with a layer of rubber and suits of PVC foam. In this sense, it is safe to say Jack created some of the first pieces of insulated surfwear. Seeing the successful experiments of UC Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner in the early 1950s, Jack O’Neill switched to neoprene. The material proved to be ideal for surfing: flexible, lightweight and capable of trapping body heat. Jack O’Neill was one of the first to sell neoprene wetsuits commercially and helped to popularize them all over the world. He also introduced a nylon jersey lining that made the material wearable against the bare skin, and made the first fullsuit. O’Neill’s success in making wetsuits also led to one of the best-known slogans in surfing: ‘It’s always summer on the inside’.

Jack O’Neill eye accident

In 1971, Jack lost his eye in a surfing accident. From then on, he wore an eye patch. Combined with his big, wild gray beard, this gave him an iconic, pirate-look. The Jack O’Neill T-shirts with his face became hugely popular.

O’Neill Sea Odyssey

Besides setting up a successful company and making a huge contribution to the sport of surfing, Jack was a fanatic sailor and hot-air balloon pilot. Nevertheless, he considered the O’Neill Sea Odyssey his biggest legacy. The Sea Odyssey is an educational program that teaches children about the ocean to encourage the protection and preservation of the oceans. He once told a reporter: “The ocean is alive, and we’ve got to take care of it. There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Is Jack O’Neill still alive?

Unfortunately, Jack O’Neill isn’t alive anymore. He passed away at home in 2017, aged 94. He died of natural causes.

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