Although a seemingly simple device, fins are a comparatively modern invention made possible by the introduction of vulcanised rubber.
In 1929 the inventor, a Frenchman by the name of Louis de Corlieu, produced a prototype fin made from this material before, in 1933, patenting his design.
Five years later, in 1938, an American Olympic yachtsman, Owen Churchill, discovered natives in Tahiti using the crude crepe-rubber fins. He bought a pair, and on his return to the States spent 8 months improving the design, and testing them before producing them under licence from de Corlieu.
As with all ‘new’ inventions, the testing process was rigorous. Calling on the services of fellow athletes, Churchill’s fins were first tested by former Olympic Gold-medallist swimmers turned movie stars; Johnny Weismuller – who made his name playing Tarzan of the apes – and Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, who starred in the weekly science-fiction serial about the adventures of ‘Flash Gordon’, the, “Star Wars” of their day when they were first screened, in the late ‘thirties, and whose nick-name, ‘Buster’, was applied to anyone with the surname, ‘Crabb’ … including the WWII Royal Navy diver, Lionell ‘Buster’ Crabb, whose disappearance while on a clandestine survey of a Russian cruiser visiting the UK in 1956, has been the subject of numerous books.
Interestingly, ‘Buster’ Crabb (Lionell, not Larry) had – prior to joining the wartime Royal Navy – briefly flirted with the idea of investing in the production of the fins but, apparently being opposed to physical exercise of any description had discarded the idea.
(In 1940, Owen Churchill sold 946 pairs of the new fins. During the course of the war he manufactured 25,000 pairs for use by Allied combat divers and swimmers. The post-war boom in recreational diving was a further boost to sales. By 1954, Churchill estimated that he had sold two million pairs of the fins in the USA alone.)
Lt Bruce Wright, of the Royal Canadian Navy, was a swimmer of Olympic standard and who, having been brought to England to teach free-swimming divers how best to move through the water wearing the newly designed ‘frogman’ suit – developed by the Dunlop Rubber Company in conjunction with the Admiralty – had brought with him his own equipment as well as a pair of the American-type fins.
An essential element in the use of a lightweight diving suit worn by a free-swimming diver engaged in a multitude of tasks – and with no known swim fins available in the UK – a sample of the American fins became a high priority. Regrettably the first consignment ordered by th Admiralty was sunk by a German U-Boat in mid-Atlantic. Trials of the suit took place using a crude set of fins cut from heavy sheets of rubber until the safe arrival of a second consignment of fins.