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A Paipo Interview with John Ruffels

Researcher of Dr Ernest Smithers (23/07/1901 -4/12/1973) - inventor of the surfoplane
"Riding on Air in the Surf"

A Paipo Interview with John Ruffels
October 24, 2010 (revised March 6, 2011) - Newcastle, Australia
Telephone interview by Bob Green

Introduction. John Ruffels lived at Bondi for 40 years and has described the surfoplane as "part of the landscape." The surfoplane was not only the forerunner of the modern surfmat but a surfcraft that many surfers first learnt the basics on. John was a postman for 37 years and in his travels met a woman who had been a contortionist at the Tivoli. She told John that her husband, Aubrey Ping, had played a role in the development of the surfoplane. Examination of patent documents and communication with the Smithers family did not confirm the role of Aubrey Ping in the development of the surfoplane. However, Aubrey Ping did know Ernest Smithers and was an interesting figure in his own right. [See Note 1.]

In a U.S. patent filed in 1934, the surfoplane was described by Smithers as "an improved type of pneumatic surf board or float." Smithers designed a craft which balanced speed and control -- two essential qualities of any surf craft. Prior to the surfoplane there were a variety of lifesaving and recreational craft made of rubber, or that were inflatable. Smithers's particular achievement was that through experimenting with various design features such as length; width; number, length, and size of internal partitions; friction grip; and stiffness he developed a surf craft that was relatively easy to ride, safe and fun. Smithers also played a significant role in the marketing of the surfoplane.

Of Dr.Ernest Smithers, John Ruffels has said: "Geez, a story which involves Charles Kingsford Smith, Frank Beaurepaire, Phar Lap, Bondi, Stan McDonald, Black Sunday, Sue and Joy Smithers AND the inventor of both the Jaffle Iron AND the Surfoplane.....!! This bloke is a legend!" The story of the surfoplane is also a story of an inventive mind.

John Ruffels and the Smithers family.
JohnRuffels is on the far right with members of the Smithers family. Left Hand Surfo was courtesy of Neil MacDonald grandson of Stan; the longer Surfo was hired out at Bronte by Stan or Basil, via a sub-contractor. Probably early 1950s. Centre Surfo is 2000 revival model. Right Hand Surfo is Neil MacDonald's from the 1930's. Was rectangular but not big. No handles, four barrels.

Photo courtesy of the Smithers family.

Questions & Answers

1. Can you give some background into Ernest Smithers and some of his achievements?
He started off as a court reporter. He was quite proficient when he first left to school but something got into his bonnet and he decided he'd go back to school. Go to university, he went to night school first, then university to get a medical degree. He was going along swimmingly until he got into a serious disagreement with the head of the medical faculty of the University of Sydney. So he thought, "My chances of passing a degree at this university aren't very good." So he upped with his wife and daughter and went over to Scotland and England, and finished his degree there and came back. When he was here, he needed money so he went over to Palm Beach and started repairing yachts, and buying and selling yachts, to get a bit of money.

Medical student E.E. Smithers, ca. 1925, when he was studying at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for his medical degree. His studies were completed at Glasgow, in 1931.

From the Sydney University Medical Faculty Year Book. Smithers family scrapbook.
2. Where did the idea of the surfoplane come from?
What happened when he was repairing these boats is that he would use inflatable cushions on the boat to get ashore. I had also heard that he was out riding either a rubber or wood surfboard at Bondi and it broke in half. He had to use the other half to come in. He realised that it was much more manageable in that size. [See Note 2.]
Johny Weismuller with rubber board and Tom Blake, ca. 1932

Photo courtesy John Elwell and Gary Lynch.

So he spent eight years cutting up rubber, borrowing dis-used car inner-tubes from garages around Bondi, and experimenting with lots of different rubbers and in the end, with colours and he found that yellow was the best colour to see a surfoplane from a distance and for safety purposes.

Smithers surfoplane and excerpt from U.S. patent filed in 1934.

Source: Application for registration of a design by Ernest Eric Smithers and Carl Dodson Richardson for A surf plane - Class 3. 9929. Dated October 7,1932. Len Smithers has reported surfoplanes always had four panels, though his father designed a longer version (about 18 inches longer) but there were very few of them. He kept the bigger model for himself [see: Smithers Ernest E, et al. (1936, December 15; filed February 19, 1934). Pneumatic surfboard or float. U.S.Patent No. 2,064,128. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved from].The U.S. patent used the word "speed" whereas the Australian patent used the word "mobility." The Australian patent also includes an amendment dated January 23, 1936, deleting the above words "or sides which diverge from the parallel by only a small angle, or are slightly curved."
3. Any idea as to what his motivation to make one?
He had an inventive personality or bent. In fact, over the years he invented an early car fridge; a contraceptive gel which was used by women in the 1940s, but unfortunately the impatience of the parties in the sex act would mean that it wasn't as successful as it could have been; he invented the Tru Slice Bread Knife which was a gun-metal rail which was about the thickness of a slice of bread that was attached to the blade of a bread knife and this meant that bachelors and incapable people could cut the perfect slice of bread and not waste bread. And, what makes him a legend in my eyes, his family claim that he invented the jaffle iron. Now there are toasting irons that have been around in America since 1925, and a guy called Champion over there claims to have invented that. But this one was the Australian one, two round dishes with the two branding iron handles and wooden ends that meant you could hold the hot metal.

Dr. Smithers also patented a toaster in 1949, most likely a Jaffle Iron, not to be confused with the toaster he also invented, which had a timing device in it. In later years he retired to Sussex Inlet and they ran a motel there. His poor wife had to get up and make breakfast for everyone. This answers your question about the inventive mind. And his wife said, "I need to make five bits of toast at once but they pop up at different time and I can't butter five pieces of toast at the same time." So he took the timer out of the washing machine, attached it to the five toasters and she could make five pieces of toast at once. That's the kind of guy he was.

4. What were his family's recollections of Ernest Smithers making and developing the surfoplane?
First of all, the house was ankle deep in lots of different coloured rubber, up and down the hallway of the cottage that he lived in with his wife and children. That was the recollection of family, that for years, over an eight year period up until 1932, when he patented it.
5. You have mentioned that the surfoplane was used in the Black Sunday rescue? [See Note 3.]
That's right. What happened, it was the job of his good friend Stan MacDonald who ran the concession for the surfoplanes, deckchairs and everything at Bondi, eventually spraying mutton bird oil to give people good tans. [See Note 4.] He ended up being a partner with Dr. Smithers in another design of the surfoplane called the Beacher, which I think was patented in 1933. The original surfoplane was in 1932.

Stan MacDonald ca. 1920s and a surfoplane beach hire concession

Photo courtesy of the Local Studies collection, Waverley Library; photo courtesy Alison Lee.

They used to collect these surfoplanes when people abandoned them after the time was up because they couldn't be bothered coming back with them and other people would rush off and ride them for nothing. They had to scoop them up and carry about 10 or 15 surfoplanes on their head at once. Stan was the father and Basil was the son. Basil would be coming back with all these surfoplanes of his head, apparently he heard the alarm from the lifesaving bell or whatever it was. People were getting washed out. His father said, "Quick, get out the back there with those surfoplanes and hand them out to the non-swimmers." Len Smithers recalls being involved in the rescue and that six people could hang off one surfoplane and it saved a few lives.

Max Lambert from Clovelly Surf Life Saving Club in the lead at a Manly carnival in the 1930s.

Source: Clovellly SLSC photograph excerpt from: Cadigan, N. (2008). Evolution of an icon: 100 years of surf life saving in NSW. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, pp. 130-131. See Note 5 for photo information and use of the surfoplane by lifesavers.
What year was that?
6. What roles did Kingsford Smith and Frank Beaurepaire play in the development of the surfoplane?
The only thing that I can think of for Frank Beaurepaire, who owned Advanx Rubber, is that he was associated with rubber products like tires and possibly later on, the surfoplane. As far as I know Kingsford Smith was part of the syndicate that got the surfoplane going, The Surfoplane Limited Company, and had their company on O'Connell Street, in the city. And he also went around to Manly Council, Waverly Council and Randwick Council to lobby them to allow them Stan McDonald and Ernest Smithers to have the concessions to hire out surfoplanes on the beaches. [See Note 6.]

Surfoplane company annoucement, ca. 1934, and a Surfoplane advertisement, ca. 1933

Company News. (1934, April 11). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), p. 15. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from Advertisement from: Thoms, Albie. (2000). Surfmovies: the history of the surf film in Australia. Noosa Heads, Qld: Shore Thing.
7. You mentioned a syndicate - who else was involved with the syndicate?
I don't know, I haven't been able to find that out. All I have been able to find out, as you have, is that there are two patents in the patents office. One is an application for letters patent for an invention by Surfoplanes Limited in 1933 (no names involved) and the other one was an application for registration of a design by E.E. Smithers Propriety Limited for a toaster in 1949 and another item for the surfoplane in 1932. [See Note 7.]

Surfoplanes Limited letterhead

National Archives of Australia.
I've sent you an e-mail with a copy of a letter from the Prime Ministers Office (Robert Menzies) in the National Archives, with the names J.T Jennings (an M.P) on it.
He did have a lot of influential people lobbying all sorts of people. They got a lot of publicity from the papers because, whenever the beach season started, this new product was very, very popular. They sold them in England, in America, New Zealand, South Africa, in Newquay in Britain. They were very popular in lots of magazines and newspapers loved to do stories on surfoplanes and how kids loved the freedom of being able to swim with safety on them. But I don't know who else was involved. One thing that is interesting, in the 1932 patent another man is involved in the patent. His name is Carl Richardson. This bloke I've never even heard of before and his name is on the patent. So that's a bit mysterious.
8. Smithers sold the design didn't he?
A couple of complicated things happened. In November 1936, he took Advanx Rubber to court because they were actually making surfoplanes while the company had the patent. When he was in the court, one of the lawyers said to him, "You're silly paying all that money for the lawyers. You should sell the company to all these big business people and free yourself of the headaches." So he did that and him and Stan MacDonald went off and redesigned the surfoplane and called it the "Beacher." Apparently it had improvements relating to a pneumatic surfboard or float. And that's what their application said.

Post-1930s surfoplanes. The original model didn't have handles.

Photos courtesy Henry Marfleet.
Can you tell me about how the Beacher differed?
That's the tricky question. I don't know. I'm not sure when handles came in. I have the impression they came in the early 1950s. If you look at all the photos in the New South Wales State Library, of surfoplanes, the lot of them don't have handles until after the war. A short canvas mat on the rubber raft, on the inflatable surfboard, that was so that you could get a grip with your body lying on the top of it, was the substitute before handles were there.
9. What do you think has been the contribution of the surfoplane to surfing?
In my opinion it gave lots of young people an opportunity to get out in the water and work out manoeuvrability, and to work out the rhythm of waves and to understand nature's power and to have a bit of respect for it; and to get ducked a few times and get the confidence, and then eventually to slowly stand up. And then when they got too big for that because there were no fins on surfoplanes in the old days, they did have some later, they would then develop the confidence to move onto surfboards. That and the fact that a lot of people who were not very good swimmers but didn't mind going in the water went out on surfoplanes and felt a bit more confident in the water. Confidence and understanding of water flow would have been the main things I took from surfoplanes. [See Note 8.]

Surfoplanes were popular with all ages. New Zealand and Bondi.


Source: Photographer unknown. (1936, January 11). Beach Holidays. [Image of photograph]. Auckland, New Zealand; New Zealand Herald. Photograph provided by Allison Lee. And, Sam Hood Collection. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW # hood_01543.

I believe a lot of people who became good surfers started off on surfoplanes.

You often see in biographies or in newspaper articles, like Tom Carroll or Mark Richards, probably George Greenough, too.

Mark Richards at Kirra ca. 1960, and with surfoplane.


Photo courtesy of Mark Richards. From: Knox, D (1992). Mark Richards : A Surfing Legend. Sydney. Collins Angus & Robertson.

George Greenough still rides surf mats.

I heard that. Actually there's a wonderful anecdote I picked up when I was doing a story about a superior club down at Bondi started by the Sydney golf club (which was pretty elite). They had their own bathing club called the Rose Bay Surf Club. There was a 90 year old lady there I think, back in the 1970s or 1980s, who still used to go down to the beach in Summer with a surfoplane. So that was pretty good.

George Greenough on a modern surf mat, a 4th Gear Flyer prototype, which eventually became
known as the "4GF Standard" -- C Street, Ventura, California,
ca. 1985.

Photo courtesy of: Paul Gross.
10. Is there any other aspects of your research on Smithers that you wanted to add?
I'd just like to say, that when somebody invents something there is often a lot of people are thinking along parallel lines or they see their invention and think of something which could improve that. (For further elaboration on these thoughts and other possible precursors to the surfoplane, including comments by Len Smithers, see Note 9.)

Drawing from Smithers 1934 U.S. patent and a 1924 U.S Pneumatic surfboard

Photo: Smithers's U.S. patent 2,064,128. For the photo on the right, 1924 pneumatic surfboard, see: Unknown. (1924, September). Pneumatic Boards for Surf Riders Are Safe and Easily Carried. Popular Mechanics, 42(3), 362. Retrieved from Google books.

Do you think he surfed them much himself?

Yes, I think he did (see Note 10). He certainly had a love of water when he went down to the Sussex Inlet. I didn't tell you the end of the story about the washing machine. He'd taken the timer out of the washing machine and his wife now had five toasters that popped up at once, so she was happy with the buttering. But the washing machine never, ever went again. So that's really a parable about inventors and how they think. Most of his inventions, like the car fridge which he made out of some materials that the Americans had devised for insulating, it was a wax, that they insulated packets of cargo that they dropped out of aeroplanes to people in tropical islands and things. It had that insulation facility. He realised that if they lined a metal box with bamboo and put this wax in the middle of it, he could insulate it so then people could have a fridge that they could put in their car.

Ernest Smithers with surfoplane

Photo: Williams, J. (1934, January 6). Riding on Air in the Surf. The Telegraph. Sydney, Australia.

Note 1. Deian Ping advised, "I do not have an exact birth date, but he would have been born around 1898 - 1899. He was an exceptional student who won a coveted "State Scholarship" to Nudgee College where he gained subject prizes, the Dux and full colours in Rugby and Rowing. He won his scholarship to the University of Queensland, in 1916, graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science and a blue in boxing and rowing. Then he spent some time as a research assistant to Sir Doctor Earle Page in the study of worm infection especially heart and tape worms at Cherbourg. He went on to study Medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1929." (Deian Ping, personal communication, December 1, 2010.)

He was a rubgy blue from Brothers College in Queensland, a qualified biologist as well as the first Chinese doctor from Sydney University. He is also reported to have helped name the racehorse Phar Lap. See: Lennie, Michael. (n.d.). Lightning. Phar Lap - the Story of Australia's Wonder Horse. Museum Victoria Australia. Retrieved from and  Lennie, Michael. (2003, September 22). Who Named Phar Lap? Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from A transcript of an interview with the nephew of Aubrey Ping, Aubrey Moore Mellor. 

Dr. Aubrey Moore Ping c. 1960 and sculling.


Photos courtesy of Deian Ping.

Note 2. A 1925 news article indicates inflatable cushions were well known prior to the development of the surfoplane (The West Australian, 1925), while a 1922 letter to the editor advocated kapok cushions as life saving devices on yachts (The West Australian, 1922). Dr.Lee's torpedo bouy from 1907, may also have been an influence on Smithers (Vesper, 2006, contains photos of Walter Biddell's torpedo bouy). Len Smithers thought that the yacht cushions that were surfed were the initial design source rather than the reported contribution of the broken surfboard. In an interview with Ernest Smithers he states, "I discoverd these proportions through an accident I had with a copy in rubber of an actual surfboard. It snapped in half in the surf, and I found I raced ashore on one half, riding the breakers FASTER AND STRAIGHTER than I could on a board." Continuing, he stated, "Those seconds of practical experiences taught me more than years and years of research. And the result is what we have to-day - a faultless safety surfoplane." (Williams, 1934) At time this article the dimensions of a surfoplane were 35 inches long x 27 inches wide.
  • Lifebuoys For Yachtsmen. (1922, March 21). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879-1954), p. 9. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from
  • Pneumatic Upholstery. (1925, December 3). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879-1954), p. 4. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from
  • Vesper, Stan. 2006. Bronte: the birthplace of surf life saving. Caringbah, N.S.W.: Playright Publishing.
  • Williams, J. (1934, January 6). Riding on Air in the Surf. The Telegraph. Sydney, Australia.

Note 3. Black Sunday was February 6, 1938. The events have been documented, including the role of Dr. Aubrey Ping in resucitating swimmers. Ping was elected to a posiiton of honorary medical officer in recognition of his role. Brawley reports he held this role for 25 years. See: Brawley, Sean. (2007). The Bondi lifesaver: a history of an Australian icon. Sydney: ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. 

Note 4. For information on Stan and Basil McDonald, see: Waverley Cemetery - Walk No. 2. Waverly Council: Bondi Junction, NSW, Australia. Retrieved from, as derived from these sources: Waverley Library's Local History Collection; The Australian Encyclopedia; Australian Dictionary of Biography. Last updated June 1, 2008. Excerpt follows:

16a. STAN McDONALD (1882-1959) surf lifesaver and beach inspector. Appointed the first Chief Beach Inspector of Waverley Municipal Council. A member of the Bondi S.L.S.C. Awarded the Silver Medal and Certificate of the Royal Shipwreck Relief and Humane Society, and the Certificate of Merit of the S.L.S. Association, for surf rescues. Nicknamed the "King of Bondi."

16b. BASIL (BAZ) McDONALD (1913-1986) surf lifesaver and beach inspector. Known as "Mr Bondi," he followed in his father's footsteps as a Bondi lifesaver and beach inspector, and the family business of hiring out beach equipment at Bondi Beach. Awarded the Order of Australia in 1980, he took part in many rescues, including "Black Sunday" in 1938.
Note 5. Photograph's caption reads (Cadigan, 2008), "Clovelly's Max Lambert is first away in the surfoplane race at a Manly carnival in the 1930s." Another book (Brawley, 2007, p. 194) recounts Brian Hutchings breaking a draw in a 1953 competition with South Africa, "Hutchings was well versed in the ways to maximise the performance of the rubber mats. The South Africans competed with their surfoplanes pumped to capcity, reducing their speed and manoeuvrability. Hutchings released some air from his so that he and the surfoplane became one."
  • Cadigan, N. (2008). Evolution of an icon: 100 years of surf life saving in NSW. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, pp. 130-131. 
  • Brawley, Sean. (2007). The Bondi lifesaver: a history of an Australian icon. Sydney: ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.Galton, B. (1984).
  • Gladiators of the surf: The Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, a history. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W: Reed. For more on Holcombe, see Surfresearch: 1933 Surf-o-plane 2 ft 7"#146

Note 6.  In addiiton to his historic flight from California to Brisbane, in 1928, Brawley (2007) notes that Charlie Smith and his cousin nearly drowned at Bondi on February 1, 1907. Smith was found unconscious and required resuscitation. Also see: "Air Commodore Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, MC, AFC (1897–1935)" in Fifty Australians. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved from

In 1934, the The Sydney Morning Herald announced that Surfoplanes Ltd was registered in Sydney, with a capital of 20,000 pounds. An agreement was reported between Ernest Smithers and Sir Kingsford Smith, and T.H. Wynne-Lewis to carry on as vendors, hirers and manufacturers of Surfoplanes. Kingsford-Smith and Smithers were cited as first directors. See: Company News. (1934, April 11). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), p. 15. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from

Note 7. Three documents are known to exist in relation to the patent/design process of surfoplanes:

  • Application for registration of a design by Ernest Eric Smithers and Carl Dodson Richardson for A surf plane - Class 3. 9929. Dated 7.10.1932. M. Carson on behalf of Beach Chairs Limited of Coogee wrote to the patent office on 31 March 1933, asserting that surfboards "inflated by air have been sold in the shops of Sydney for several years" and on 27 April 1933, that the company has "suspended manufacture of surf floats" pending the patent application process.
  • Application for Letters Patent for an invention by Surfoplanes Limited titled - Improvements in or relating to pneumatic surf boards or floats. Subsequent to Smithers application to obtain a patent on the surfoplane (21.02.1933) on 6-7 February 1935, a hearing was held by the Deputy Commissioner of Patents, to hear the objection filed by Hardie Rubber Company to Smithers and Richardson's patent application (11456/1933).
  • Smithers Ernest E, et al. (1936, December 15; filed February 19, 1934). Pneumatic surfboard or float. U.S.Patent No. 2,064,128. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved from [See PDF file.]

At the  February 6-7, 1935, hearing it was alleged that between December 1931 and "early" 1932, Smithers had approached a number of companies (Hardie, Dunlop, Ago Supply and Pope Alliance) to manufacture the surfoplane. Negotiations with Hardie Rubber recommenced around July 1932, and in November 1932, four to five floats were manufactured. It would seem that at some stage Hardie Rubber developed their own version of the surfoplane. The hearing involved significant legal argument around whether the design had been publicised, was novel (Jordan's swimming floats, work on a similar device by Stevens, and U.S. rubber surfboards were cited), as well as the issue of whether Hardie was bound by confidentiality provisions and what "substantially rectangular" and "parallel" meant. Smithers's knowledge and exposure to these other floats is unknown.

Teece, the Deputy Commissioner of Patents, reserved his judgment. However, subsequent renewal fees paid by Surfoplanes Limited, through 21.03.1944, indicate a patent was granted. Persons involved with the company included Carl Dodsworth Richardson and Frank Knight who were associated with promotional marketing.

Note 8. See: Bowes, Pete. (2010, November 24). Surfoplanes ~ their place in the scheme of things. Retrieved from Pete Bowes tells his story of riding a surfoplane at Bondi.

Note 9. See also the brief piece containing a photo of a "surf girl" at Bondi with her "Dunlop Perdriau rubber surfboard" (Cairnes Post, 1932). The Farmer's Rubber advertisement (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1932) for rubber surfboards indicated dimensions of 54 inches long and 17 inches wide.

Dunlop Perdriau rubber surfboard. February 1932; October 1932 SMH advertisement for a rubber surfboard.

Source: Cairnes Post.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald.
  • What are the wild waves saying?. (1932, February 19). Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909-1954), p. 9. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from
  • Advertising. (1932, October 24). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), p. 1. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from

    Additionally, note the A1337 4420 Application for registration of a design by The Surf Rider Company (assignee of John P McCarty and Fritz W Falck) for a pneumatic float for surfing purposes - Class 14. Date 1923. This design did not progress to the patent stage due to a the applicants not responding to the examiner's report so it is unclear whether the Surf Rider Company went into production.

    The testing process for the surfoplane is unclear. At the patent hearing, Smithers's counsel, Thomas, sought to establish that the surfoplane had not been viewed in public, a key element in establishing Hardie Rubbers development of a similar surfcraft and whether the design was already in the public domain. The process of testing surfoplane prototypes is not clear. Len Smithers was six years old in 1932, and could only recall rubber, surfoplanes and French chalk throughout the family home. The 1935 patent hearing makes no reference to the contribution of Aubrey Ping. However the contribution of Vera Elizabeth Smithers, his wife, was discussed. In the 1934, The Telegraph article, Smithers noted his house was littered with rubber bags and "We stumbled over and walked and slept on them for years. We talked about nothing else at meal times. We lived on air!" This supports the involvement of Vera Smithers in the development if the surfoplane. [See:
    Williams, J. (1934, January 6). Riding on Air in the Surf. The Telegraph. Sydney, Australia.]

    Len Smithers recalls another type of surf float being around at the time (Len Smithers, personal communication, March 1, 2011):
    "At the time there was a similar thing, but it was very thin, long and was very soft. You couldn't properly float on it, you could, it wasn't like a surfoplane. The difference was, if you wanted to go out in a big surf and a huge wave came at you, you could put your back to it and put a bear hug on it and you could survive. The other type, you could fold it up. There was a certain amount of rigidity in a surfoplane that would stand a big wave, to come down big waves."
    Len emphasised the proportions of a surfoplane - length, width and height. These other surfcraft were reported as being "about 5 feet in length, about roughly the same width, it was very thin though only about 2" thick and with 8-9 little panels across. It was terribly soft. There were a few of them around but they didn't take off" (Len Smithers, personal communication, March 5, 2011).

    The board featured in Popular Mechanics (1924), and in earlier patents, such as the Surf Coaster (
    Gulbrandsen, 1916) or the Inflatable Vulcanized Article (Hopkinson, 1928) indicate that others had previously worked on the idea of an inflatable surfcraft.
    • Unknown. (1924, September). Pneumatic Boards for Surf Riders Are Safe and Easily Carried. Popular Mechanics, 42(3), 362. Retrieved from Google books.
    • Gulbrandsen, Michael A. (1916, November 28). Surf Coaster. U.S.Patent No. 1,206,696. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved from
    • Hopkinson, Russell. (1928, May 29). Inflatable vulcanized article. U.S.Patent No. 1,671,642. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.Retrieved from
    Smithers's U.S. patent acknowledges the existence of earlier pneumatic surf craft. His patent, however, reveals some of the experimental depth of the surfoplane and how it differed from other craft. For example, Smithers recorded that speed was enhanced by lengthening the partitions within the surfoplane, making all compartments of approximately equal size, or increasing the number of compartments. Stability was enhanced by a shorter partition (e.g, 6 inches from end), having each outside compartment larger than the two inside compartments, or by making the surfoplane stiffer. Length and width were designed to enable paddling.

    Even long before the modern inflatable rubber surf riders discussed above were invented people from the Middle East crossed rivers using  inflatable animal skins. The Assyrian empire was a dominant force from 1365–609 BC.

    This relief of a siege depicts Assyrians crossing a moat or river using inflated
    animal skins as flotation devices.

    Source: Claudia. (2010, November 19). Pinorama, Assyrian bliss, etc. [Web log post]. Retrieved March 30, 2011, from a relief on display at The British Museum); and (see above citation).

    Note 10. SHOREthing, describes Movietone Newsfilms that included footage of surfoplanes, including Movietone News 9/14 (1938) which included photos of Smithers surfing a surfoplane. Thoms reports (Thoms, 2000, p. 40) that this newsreel referred to the surfoplane as bringing a "a new zest and a new technique to the sport of surf-shooting." Interestingly the photo depicted of Smithers has him kneeling on the surfoplane. Other newsreels of surfoplanes in action were noted: 6/7 (1935), 7/15 (1936), 8/13 (1937), 10/6 (1939). Thoms reports that the latter newsreel featured surfoplanes in 2-metre surf. Len Smithers reported "he went out in these big seas and he got dumped by a big wave and burst his ear drum. He was deaf for the rest of his life". (Lee Smithers, personal correspondence, March 1, 2011).
    • Thoms, Albie. (2000). Surfmovies: the history of the surf film in Australia. Noosa Heads, Qld: Shore Thing.

    Thanks to Len Smithers, June Sturzaker, Claire Harris and Alison Lee, the four children who contributed much of the information regarding Dr. Ernest Smithers.

    Feel free to send me suggestions, comments and additional information to: The Paipo Interviews

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