Tom Morey: living his surfing years, before the boogie board revolution | Photo: Morey Archive

Tom Morey, the inventor of the bodyboard and bodyboarding, was born in Detroit, Michigan, USA, on August 15, 1935. 

Morey was a descendant of the men who founded the Detroit-based Dodge Brothers automobile company. Morey moved to Laguna, California when he was nine and learned to bodysurf with his father. 

Tom began riding a surf mat aged twelve, rode his first wave on a borrowed surfboard at sixteen and was on his way to becoming a top Californian longboarder by the time he turned 18.

Tom Morey also developed his musical skills in his youth and was playing drums professionally by 1948 when he was in his early teens.

1950s | The Jazz Years

Tom formed the Four Eyed Five in 1952 and the Tom Morey Quartet in 1954.

In 1955, he entered the University of Southern California, initially to study a music major but he switched to mathematics. That year, he surfed a wave behind an ocean-going yacht, the first person in history to do so. 

Morey worked summers as a lifeguard at Laguna Beach. Despite graduating from university in 1957 with a degree in maths, Morey still found plenty of time to surf Laguna and Malibu, play drums in a local band and even win the college jazz band competition.

Morey pursued music throughout his whole life and played with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Secondo "Conte" Candoli, and Bud Shank.

Tom Morey (drums): playing with Lin Halliday and friends, circa 1955 | Photo: Tom Morey

Morey was one of the most talented surfers on the sunny, post-war Californian coast and one of the first sponsored "professional surfers."

Morey was part of the Velzy and Jacobs surf teams before being sponsored by Dewey Weber. Dewey reckoned Morey had the same rhythm as Miki Dora and was as good as anyone in the 1950s, even Phil Edwards, the undisputed Kelly Slater of the era. 

Tom was always trying something new and was the first to do a standing island pullout, where a surfer stands at the nose and spins the board around until the tail block faces the beach, in six-foot surf. 

Despite his achievements in the water, Morey was famous - not that is mattered to Tom - although Morey did feature in a cover of Surfer Magazine in 1964.

Contemporary surf magazine editor and longtime friend John Severson says, "Tom was one of the best surfers of the 1950s. He was very fluid. He had one set of continuous moves."

After graduation, Morey worked in a gym, joined the National Guard to dodge the draft into the war in Vietnam, played with bands, and often sat in at local jazz sessions.

Morey also experimented with surfboard concepts and unusual materials. As far back as 1957, Morey talked about making a surfboard with a skin like a dolphin.

While trying to make a surfboard with a honeycomb cardboard core, he and a college friend invented a paper hat they called the Fantopper Hat in 1956 and set up a business that ended up selling tens of thousands of Fantoppers out of stores in Los Angeles.

The hat even made the cover of Parade Magazine. Ever the innovator, by 1955, Morey had already invented concave nose pockets and turned down noses for surfboards.

Morey married his first wife, Jolly Givens, in December 1958. In 1959, Morey began work with Douglas Aircrafts in Santa Monica as an engineer working with different aspects of composite materials for missile nose cones.

It was an ideal job for Tom as he had access to space-age materials and technology. He was able to order samples from suppliers and experimented with their use in surf design. Morey applied what he had learned to surf-related innovations and set up a series of companies to make and invent technologies for surfboards in the 1960s.

1960s | Surfing Experimentations

As the Sixties dawned, Morey still surfed Malibu and Laguna, went skiing, played gigs and continued to experiment with new materials. 

His first daughter Michelle was born in 1961, and the Morey's bought their first home the next year in Manhattan Beach, California. A second daughter, Melinda, was born in 1963.

Tom continued to surf, ski and play music and experiment in surf design and materials. By 1964, Tom had quit his day job to work on surfboards full time. Morey rented a building in Ventura, hired workers and began production.

Next, he developed the removable polypropylene fin. Morey made the first commercially successful interchangeable fin system he christened the W.A.V.E. fin system.

Morey and his family moved into a house in Ventura. As his surf shop business began to expand, he continued to develop innovative concepts, but the idea of a board with a dolphin skin never left his mind.

Morey made his first trip to the Hawaiian Islands in 1965. By then, surfing had exploded in the West coast of the USA after being exported from Hawaii. A Californian surf industry began to emerge alongside an emerging counterculture with distinct and unique lifestyle.

In 1965, Tom Morey created the first professional surf contest when the $1500 Tom Morey Invitational was held at Venture Point to promote his retail shop. The contest was an innovative, noseriding-only surf contest.

The front third of the contestants' boards were covered in black paint and surfers were only timed for time spent on the top third of the surfboard.

The top prize was won by an overjoyed Mickey Munoz, but years later Morey admitted he had discovered Munoz won by seven-tenths of the second only by a timers error, and that the runner-up had actually won the event.

The noseriding event was held the year later with a prize purse of $5000. (This time a three-day event including motorcycle races, music and the noseriding contest).

In 1965, Morey and his college friend Karl Pope formed the Morey-Pope company and moved into a larger building. From 1965 to 1969, the Morey-Pope surfboard line included classics such as the Camel, the Eliminator, the John Peck Penetrator, Bob Cooper's Blue Machine and the McTavish Tracker.

In addition to developing a wax replacement product called SlipCheck, the Morey-Pope company also built, tested and marketed the Trisect: a three-piece surfboard that folded into a canvas suitcase.

John Severson remembers, "Tom once took it out to the Banzai Pipeline. He and the board wound up in four pieces, three of which are now at the bottom of the Pipeline."

Morey started the Tom Morey Skeg Works in 1964, and created the first polypropylene fin which led to the first commercially successful interchangeable fin system.

The Skeg Works became Morey Surfboards in 1965 and introduced the W.A.V.E. (Water Apparatus and Vehicular Engineering) removable skeg system, the first of its kind and now a surfboard industry standard.

In 1967, Morey spent four months surfing in Rincon and Puerto Rico with other top Californian surfers. Morey appeared in 1960s surf movies and served as president of the United States Surfing Association in 1966. By the end of the 1960s, Morey had a solid reputation as an innovative shaper in California.

In 1969, Tom was contracted to build a honeycomb paper surfboard and ride it in big surf at Makaha to film a commercial for the International Paper Company to prove they used top waterproof materials.

Tom made the paper surfboard by using resin impregnated cardboard. The first board weighed over fifty pounds. Tom paddled out at Makaha, and the board sank on its maiden voyage.

Undeterred, Tom bought all the tubes of silicone he could find in the area and spent the night filling in the hundreds of honeycomb holes in the parking garage at the hotel they were staying in.

The next day at Makaha, despite all criticisms, the board actually worked. Morey caught a few nice rides, and the producers managed to put together a workable commercial.

"If you look closely," reveals Tom, "you'll note in the closing scene I'm paddling back out on half board." A photo of Tom surfing the paper surfboard at Makaha got a double page spread in Life Magazine.

While in Hawaii on the photo shoot, Morey visited Kauai where he bought a small farm, and he and his wife moved to the island in August 1969.

He also bought and ran a small Mexican restaurant with his wife as well as playing a regular gig with a local band. He sold half of the Morey-Pope company to Karl Pope and played a regular gig at the Poipu Beach Hotel while running the restaurant with his wife. 

1970s | The Bodyboard Revolution

Morey chose to live in Hawaii because "it is the place of drums and surfing heritage. It is the spirit of what is going on."

Tom was a smooth, stylish surfer into the 1970s. Morey also began practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM). He continued to perform in jazz bands and write articles on surf design, contests, wave formation, surf techniques and health for Surfer Magazine.

Tom Morey and Marchia Nichols: married for life | Photo: Morey Archive

Morey separated from Jolly in July 1970, and later met his current wife, Marchia Nichols. Marchia and Tom would have four sons together: Sol, Moon, Sky, and Matteson.

In the early 1970s, Morey was looking for a new way to ride waves, as Tom put it, "I was always depressed by the shape of a surf mat. A surf mat is really designed to hold air, not to surf. Surfboards, on the other hand, are more efficient, but a lot of people get turned off to them because they are so hard."

Wondering whether it was possible to combine the advantages of the surf mat which is soft, light and relatively inexpensive with the performance of a surfboard, Tom set about experimenting with shapes in a soft, flexible foams.

A few months after Tom moved to a house on the Big Island, the inventor decided to do something with his last nine-foot piece of foam. Eventually, he cut the block in half and found he could shape the foam using his wife's iron if he first put down a sheet of the Honolulu Advertiser to stop the foam melting. 

On the morning of July 7, 1971, Tom woke early and cut out his new shape from lines he has drawn on the blank. He fashioned it the way he wanted with the iron to construct a four and a half foot surf craft, which was wide as possible for strength and had a square nose to hold on to with a sharp trailing edge to cut into the wave face.

Once he was finished, he ran across the road with his invention and paddled out to a wave called Honels, on the west side of the Big Island. Morey had an epiphany.

"I could actually feel the wave through the board," he said later. "On a surfboard, you're not feeling every nuance on the wave, but with my creation, I could feel everything. I was thinking: 'it turns, it's durable, it can be made cheaply, it's lightweight, it's safe. God, this could be a really big thing.'"

The Morey family: Tom and Marchia had Sol, Moon, Sky, and Matteson | Photo: Morey Archive

Tom's wife Marchia, the mother of bodyboarding, was the second person to ride the bodyboard when she was eight months pregnant.

This new board was just the first manifestation of Morey's belief that "closed cell plastics is the flesh of a new order of being. The boogie board is just a spineless protoplasm, an amoeba!"

Tom's next challenge was to turn his new creation into a commercial proposition, and for that, he needed a name. He first came up with the S.N.A.K.E. or Side Navel Arm Knee and Elbow (the parts of the body needed to ride the new surf craft) but eventually, Tom, who loved music almost as much as the ocean, called his invention the Morey Boogie after the boogie blues tempo. Boogie was a type of jazz music that was popular before World War II. 

As Tom put it: "Boogie swung, and it had a wiggle and a jiggle to it... it was perfect."

Bodyboarding, or the art of riding waves prone, is not new. Throughout Polynesia, ancient Pacific islanders used wooden paipo boards to slide across the ocean swells lying down.

With a change in wave riding technology, stand up surfing came to the fore at the beginning of the 20th-century along with a vital renaissance in Hawaiian culture and the sport of surfing.

The humble act of bodyboarding took a back seat until Tom Hugh Morey invented the prototype of the modern bodyboard from a piece of packaging foam, effectively modernizing what ancient Polynesians had done for thousands of years.

This invention successfully reintroduced an ancient art to the masses, and over the next four decades, bodyboarding took off as a pastime, a profession, an industry and a sport attracting an estimated six-to-eight million participants across the world each year.

Tom began selling his bendable soft-skinned board as a mail order kit. In 1973, Morey returned to California and visited the Wiltshire foam factory where he had another boogie breakthrough, when he saw the skins of some foam blocks sitting on the scrapheap.

"The company would skin a block of foam, and these scrap pieces were like the crusts on a loaf of bread," elaborates Tom.

Morey was allowed to take some of the skins home with him and found he could glue them to the bottom of his boogie board to make a slicker bottom.

Tom Morey: the inventor shows his first bodyboard creations | Photo: Morey Archive

The boogie board was finally ready for action. Tom persuaded Surfer Magazine to let him place an advert for his mail-order kits in their publication.

Tom priced his first boards for $37 to match his age. A few orders trickled in the week after the magazine with his advert hit the shelves, which Tom found extraordinary.

Finally, Tom was in business; he went and trademarked the name, and the Morey Boogie board was born. Tom continued to advertise with Surfer, and within a few months he was churning out dozens of boards per week.

He put up the price of his product and also sold the board as a do-it-yourself kit. The orders flooded in. In 1975, Morey took on a business partner, Jim Faivre, a carpenter and old sea captain, in order to scale up production.

Together they created the first tools to heat weld the deck to the core and started cutting the foam with knives rather than sawing them.

Morey believes the reason his boogie board is so quick and lively is that it "conforms to the rhythms of the waves," the same rhythm that, he says, is the basis of all art, science, and philosophy.

"Waves are living creatures," he notes. "I see everything that is going on as waves. We are the chop on the face of the sea of reality. The ocean converses with you directly. The ocean is an organ of a whole being, and it tells you what is going on. By surfing on the boogie board, you are communing with the rhythms of nature."

According to Tom, the bodyboard was more than just a wave toy: "For anyone to become a graduate on this planet, it is essential they learn to enjoy this activity."

Morey was a spiritual man who became a devotee of the Bahia faith, which stresses universal peace and brotherhood and the unity of all religions. Bahaism incorporates Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic element. Morey invented the boogie board in keeping with the spirit of Bahaism to promote universal brotherhood.

In July 1971, in Hawaii, Tom Morey was inspired by Baha'i prayer, and he kept returning to a certain passage: "convey upon me, oh, my God, a thought which will turn this planet into a rose garden."

"Almost everything has not been invented yet," says Morey. "Some people think of one or two new things in their lifetime. I have the misfortune to be a fabulous inventor."

The boogie was a quintessential Southern Californian surf invention in the 1970s. The success of the boogie gave Morey more credibility as an inventor and was at least one financial success from his continuous print out of ideas.

But always much more of an inventor/innovator than a hardcore developer or businessperson, Morey sold his share in Morey Boogie in 1977, just before the popularity of the bodyboard exploded.

Morey Boogie: in the late 1970s, Tom Morey was producing around 80,000 bodyboards per year | Photo: Morey Archive

In the late 1970s, around 80,000 bodyboards per year were being produced. Bodyboarding became the fastest-growing water sport in the 1980s, with teams of professional riders who influenced a whole generation of young surfers.

Tom Morey spent the next ten years in Hawaii working as a consultant by day, and a jazz musician by night. Living his dream - finding the space to create eternally and be created in the process.

The modern bodyboard was soft, flexible and lightweight. It opened the door to entirely new ways to ride waves. Bodyboarders immediately began to tackle waves previously deemed unrideable. It was an amazing and elegant invention. It was simple, like all good ideas. It became a product, sport, and lifestyle.

Drop-knee power riding was pioneered at Sandy Beach in 1977. Pat Caldwell landed the first El Rollo in 1978. The first Morey Boogie contest was in Huntington Beach in 1976, and the first Hawaiian contest was in Haleiwa two years later.

In 1978, Morey co-developed the foundations of today's soft surfboard technology with Californian surfer Mike Doyle. This was the prototype of what would become the standard style of board used by beginner surfers all over the world.

1980s | The Explosion of the Boogie Board

Very few sports and trace their ancestry back to one person, but bodyboarding can. Bodyboarders continued to grow within the sport itself and today's top bodyboarders are among the planet's most gifted athletes, perhaps some of the greatest wave riders to have ever lived.

Past the accolades, the elite bodyboarders' motivation is simple and pure; it is not for money, but for experience and lifestyle: something Tom can be proud of.

Bodyboarding has brought people together and formed a unique and strong network of friendships across the globe that crosses the usual lines of conflict, race, religion, nationality, age, and gender.

Tens of thousands of people have built their lives around bodyboarding or launched a career from it as bodyboard stars, competitors, judges, shapers, videographers, coaches, and retailers.

The new craft had been ridden at the Banzai Pipeline by the 1980s, and pioneers like Keith Sasaki were developing the unique Hawaiian style of bodyboarding.

The day bodyboard legend and drop-knee inventor Jack Lindholm paddled out to Pipeline for his first time; he got up "Jack Stance" on his first wave, becoming the first rider to drop-knee the Banzai and raising a good cheer from the beach in the process.

By 1981, the US amateur tour had a bodyboard division, and the seminal Mach 7-7 came in 1982. The first US bodyboarding championships were held in 1985 in Ventura.

The early 1980s was the dawn of the first real dedicate magazine coverage of the new sport. In perfect cosmic timing, Mike Stewart arrived on the scene in 1982, performing never before seen combinations of maneuvers.

In the 1980s, Morey returned to mainland USA to work for Boeing, but returned to California in the 1990s to re-enter the surf business.

Tom Morey: he never stopped developing new surf-related gear | Photo: Morey Archive

1990s | Continuous Innovation

It was well-known that this Californian surf inventor boogied to a different beat. Morey was a restless inventor. After the boogie, Morey spent time working on a universal language and number system, a three-player chess, a sailboat, and much more.

Morey was also a major league surfing innovator who wrote about designing artificial waves many years before the first flow riders were built.

He could already see - back in the 1980s - hydrofoils and Slater-esque wave pools. Tom's proposal was a 1.5 square mile inland "surforium" with large concrete bumps to create permanent standing waves and wanted to build this idyllic water park he named Morey Boogie Land in Hawaii, where the ocean surfing is already the finest in the world.

"Tom is a born tinkerer," says John Severson. "For him, everything is in a continual state of evolution. It is his greatest strength and weakness. There isn't anything that exists that doesn't need some parts added on."

In 1999, Surfer listed Tom Morey as one of the twenty-five most influential surfers of the century.

2000s | Inspiring Millions

After the millennium, Morey focused on developing new soft surfboard technologies and his own unique surfboard shapes, with the Swizzle Longboard being his most popular design. Morey was inducted into the Huntington Beach Hall of Fame in 2003.

He told Surfers Journal in 2008: "The world is an old-fashioned place to me. Everything I see can be improved."

Tom continued playing music with quartets and bands up until he lost his sight.

Put simply: Tom Morey was surfing's first legitimate futurist. A short list of ideas he has brought to the surfing world's attention includes professional contests, removable fins, down rails, wax replacements, bodyboards, and the idea of soft beginner-friendly surfboard technology.

Maybe that is the reason why, in spite of Morey's ubiquitous name and nature, it's so easy to lose sight of the impact he has had on surfing over the past 50 years.


Support Tom Morey and his family.

Are you a fan of Morey's vision and work? Discover a few things you probably didn't know about the inventor of the boogie board.


Words by Seamus McGoldrick