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 on August 15, 1935, in Detroit, Michigan, USA.

Morey is related to the founders of the Detroit-based Dodge Brothers automobile company. The Moreys moved to Laguna, California, when Tom was eight. There, he learned to bodysurf on his father's back.

Tom began riding a surf mat at age nine, rode his first wave on a borrowed surfboard at 15, 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.

The 1950s | The Jazz Years

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

In 1953, Morey initially entered the University of Southern California to study a music major, but he switched to mathematics.

Morey worked as a lifeguard at the Balboa Bay Club but still found plenty of time to surf Laguna and Malibu, play his band, and skim through college.

In 1954, Tom worked at the Laguna Beach lifeguard force.

In 1955, Morey went to work for Disneyland as the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ride operator.

In that same year, he became the first person to let go of the tow line and actually surf the wave generated by an ocean boat.

Morey's band won the college jazz band competition in 1956, and in 1957, he graduated with a degree in mathematics.

Morey started his honeycomb paper hat business with Bob Tierney the same year he finished college and also prototyped a paper honeycomb surfboard.

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

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 recognized for his standing island pullout, where a surfer stands at the nose and spins the board around until the tail block faces the beach in three-to-eight-foot surf.

In 1963, Tom Morey made the cover of Surfer.

Contemporary surf magazine editor and later 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."

While trying to make a surfboard with a honeycomb cardboard core in the mid-1950s, Tom and a college friend invented a paper hat they called the Fantopper Hat.

They 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 was forever experimenting with surfboard concepts and unusual materials. As far back as 1957, Morey talked about making a surfboard with a skin like that of a dolphin.

Morey married his first wife, Jolly Givens, in December 1958.

He graduated in 1958, began serving his six years of duty at the National Guard, and was awarded the Expert Infantry badge (out of 15,000 soldiers), which is the highest peacetime army award.

Tom also played for the National Guard band and for both Kennedy and Nixon on separate occasions.

In 1959, Morey began work with Douglas Aircrafts in Santa Monica as a composite engineer, working with different aspects of composite materials for missile nose cones, rocket nozzles, and filament winding.

It was an ideal job for Tom, as he had access to space-age materials and technology that later helped him order samples from suppliers and experiment 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.

The 1960s | Surfing Experimentations

As the 1960s dawned, Morey still surfed Malibu and Laguna, gigged, 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. She became a recognized fine artist.

Between 1964 and 1965, Tom Morey made his first trip to the Hawaiian Islands. Surfing exploded in 1965 up and down the West Coast of the USA after being exported from Hawaii.

A Californian surf industry began to emerge alongside an emerging counterculture with a distinct and unique lifestyle. By then, Tom had quit his day job to work on surfboards full-time.

Morey rented a building in Ventura, hired workers, and began production. Morey and his family moved into a house in Ventura, and as his surf shop business began to expand, Tom continued to develop concepts.

But the idea of a board with dolphin skin never left his mind. 

In 1965, Tom Morey created the first professional surf contest when the $1,500 Tom Morey Invitational was held at Venture Point to promote his surfboard business.

The contest was an innovative, noseriding-only surf contest.

Surfers were only judged for time spent on the front quarter of the surfboard, so the front quarter of the contestants' boards were covered in bright colors so the judges could more easily view the surfers on the nose.

The winner was the person who spent the most time on the nose. With no interference rules, surfers battled it out to get into the top three with a maximum of five waves. Time was counted on the green water opportunity only, not the white water soup.

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.

In 1966, the event ran as an interesting three-day format.

Day one was time spent on the wave. Day two was time spent on the nose. Day three was spent on the nose and the wave.

The noseriding event was held the year later with a prize purse of $5,000. By containing the event with the help of local authorities, Tom was able to help offset some of the costs via admission fees to watch the event.

In 1965, Morey and his college friend Karl Pope formed the Morey-Pope company and moved into a larger building.

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

Morey surfed Makaha on a sizeable day and pulled into the bowl. He ended up breaking the board into three pieces.

The Trisect was designed for this eventuality; Tom simply changed fasteners and surfed Honolua Bay a couple of days later.

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.

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), a removable skeg system, the first of its kind and a surfboard industry standard.

Tom Morey appeared in many 1960s surf movies and, in 1967, he spent four months surfing in Rincon and Puerto Rico with other top Californian surfers.

Morey 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.

The goal was to film a commercial for the International Paper Company and prove they used top waterproof materials.

He paddled out at Makaha and, after the completion of his performance on the first wave on his new creation, the filmmaker asked the question, "Whenever you are ready!" After the first wave, the board basically sank on its maiden voyage.

Undeterred, Tom stayed up all night and fiberglassed the top and bottom honeycomb holes in the parking garage of the hotel they were staying in - the full story appeared in Surfer Magazine.

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.

After filming this commercial, Morey visited Kauai and bought a small farm where he and his wife moved in August 1969.

He also bought and ran a small Mexican restaurant with his wife, where he played a regular gig with a local band.

He gave his 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.

The 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, artificial 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 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 from melting.

On July 7, 1971, a time when Morey kept returning to a certain passage of a Baha'i prayer: "Convey upon me, oh, my God, a thought which will turn this planet into a rose garden," the inventor woke up 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 as 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 flexible foam 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 many 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 Wilshire foam factory, where he had another boogie breakthrough when he saw the skins of some foam blocks sitting on the scrapheap.

"The company would skive off the top and bottom skins like crusts of a loaf of bread," elaborates Tom.

On a hunch, Tom made an offer for these scrap skins. Tom was now ready for action and ran a small mail-order advert in Surfing Magazine. 

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

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

At this point, Tom didn't have a product. He figured if there weren't any interest, he would just send the money back and forget about it. Fortunately, orders started trickling in.

Finally, Tom was in business. He trademarked the name Morey Boogie for $10, and the Morey Boogie board was born.

Within a few months, Morey 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 who developed the use of knives and heat welding to shape the foam for bodyboard production.

Together they welded the deck to the core and started cutting the foam rather than sawing it.

Tom made the Boogie because he wanted to go surfing, and his creation became the quintessential Southern Californian surf invention of the 1970s.

The success of the Boogie gave Morey more credibility as an inventor and was at least one financial success from his continuous printout of ideas.

Nevertheless, Tom remained more of an inventor and innovator than a hardcore developer or businessperson.

The Boogie took off. In the late 1970s, around 80,000 bodyboards per year were being produced.

Boogieboarding became the fastest-growing water sport in the 1980s, with teams of professional riders who influenced a whole generation of young surfers.

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

The modern boogieboard was soft, flexible, and lightweight. It opened the door to entirely new ways to ride waves. Boogieboarders immediately began to tackle waves previously deemed unrideable.

It has been an amazing and elegant invention. It was simple, like all good ideas. It became a product, sport, and lifestyle.

Tom invested 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.

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 beginner board used by surfers all over the world.

Boogie riding developed in leaps and bounds. Drop-knee power riding was pioneered at Sandy Beach, Hawaii, in 1977. Pat Caldwell landed the first El Rollo in 1978.

The first Morey Boogie contest was held in Carlsbad, California, in 1976, and the first Hawaiian contest was in Haleiwa two years later.

The 1980s | The Explosion of the Boogie Board

The early 1980s was the dawn of the first real dedicated magazine coverage of the new sport of "bodyboarding."

Since then, 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.

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.

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.

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 first US bodyboarding championships were held in California four years later.

In perfect cosmic timing, the seminal Mach 7-7 came in 1982, the same year Mike Stewart arrived on the scene 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

The 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, an improved sailboat, and a three-player chess, Morey created a universal language and number system... 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 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.

The 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 shortlist 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, despite his ubiquitous name and nature, it's so easy to lose sight of the impact he has had on surfing over the past 50 years.

Tom Morey passed away at 5 pm, on October 14, 2021, in California, precisely eight days after receiving a proclamation from the city of Oceanside for his outstanding contributions to wave riding around the world.

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 | Bodyboarder and Writer

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