In 1986, I invented snowboarding. Three years before I would see and ultimately obtain a real snowboard, I stood atop a steep, snow-covered Minnesota hill on a skateboard deck sans trucks, and dropped into the abyss.
Anyone reading this will understand the absurdity of this claim. Snowboarding, while still a very fringe sport in its infancy, was certainly taking place in a number of mountain towns across the United States by 1986. The world’s largest snowboard brand, Burton Snowboards, was founded in 1977.
However, audacious fallacies about the origins of snowboarding have been rampant as of late, most notably in a misinformed article in the New York Times Magazine in which writer John Jeremiah Sullivan claims that “snowboarding comes from Hawaii” even though the article goes on to mention that the proposed creator of snowboarding was actually a man named Robert Trumbull, born in Illinois, who was snow surfing in the California hills when he dubbed the term “snurfing,” in 1938.
The next year a few young men in the Midwest created what they called the “Bunker” and applied for a patent. And while this was another version of a stand-up sled, and predated more massed-produced versions, it was more historically significant than Trumbull’s contributions as there was recorded evidence of the product.
While we don’t know who the first person to stand sideways on a piece of wood while sliding down a snow-covered hill was, we do know with some historical accuracy that Robert Trumbull, the journalist from Illinois was the first person to combine the words surfing and snow. The modern toboggan sled with its curved nose and attached rope preceded Trumbull’s word mashing by at least a hundred years, making it completely feasible that children had been sliding sideways well before Trumbull or the industrious Midwesterners supposedly invented snowboarding.
In 1965, on the banks of Lake Michigan, a man named Sherman Poppen had an ingenious breakthrough when on Christmas day he bound two skis together and sent his young children speeding down the snow-covered hills surrounding his lakeside home. Poppen who was an avid lake surfer was inspired to develop his early prototype further and eventually trademarked what would become known worldwide as the ‘snurfer’.
The snurfer was the first mass-produced board developed for what we now called sliding sideways or as Poppen referred to it “perpendicular to the direction of travel.” The snurfer became a popular children’s toy and resembled a water ski with a rope tied to the nose and two traction pads secured to the deck. It was certainly a step forward in the evolution of what would ultimately lead to what we think of today as a snowboard, but Poppen, while significant to the sport, did not invent snowboarding.
In fact, when a young man named Jake Burton Carpenter came to Poppen looking for a licensing deal, Poppen turned him down leading Burton to create the term snowboarding and ultimately evolving on the rudimentary design Poppen had developed. By 1977 Burton Snowboards was a brand and the foundation for the modern snowboard was cemented, including rudimentary binding systems.
Around the same time, a wild-eyed rebel of a kid from New Jersey named Tom Sims was building his first prototypes, which in 1963 he called a “skiboard,” as it combined his two favorite hobbies, skateboarding and skiing. Sims an avid skateboarder and surfer who relocated to Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1971 developed his own namesake line of skateboards and snowboards, quickly developing a West Coast/East Coast rivalry between the Sims and Burton label that played an essential part in helping advance snowboard technology out of the snurfer era and into the modern snowboard era.
So who invented snowboarding? Much like surfing, no one single person invented the sport. Surfing’s roots can be traced back to ancient Polynesian kings who rode waves on large pieces of koa wood, however riding waves using floating watercraft can also be traced back to Pre-Incan times in modern-day Peru. How long humans have been using the waves as a source of both navigation and recreation is anyone’s guess.
While the Polynesians certainly deserve credit for the culture and activity that we call surfing today, snowboarding, much like surfing and skateboarding seem to be an amalgamation of many different regions and cultures interacting with their environment in totally natural ways. Is modern snowboarding’s lineage directly related to both skateboarding and surfing? Yes, so maybe in someway Hawaii was indirectly responsible for snowboarding. However, the likelihood that kids in Europe or India or some other mountainous region stood up on their sleds in defiance of cautious parents is very high.
The most direct lineage of modern snowboarding seems to be Poppen’s snurfer, even if Trumbull once slid down a snow-covered hill on a piece of wood, if this is inventing snowboarding then any kid, like myself, that slid down a snow-covered hill before ever seeing snowboarding in person or in the media entirely conceived of snowboarding, as it seems like a natural activity for anyone who has been exposed to surfing or skateboarding when confronted with a sled-worthy hill.
Snurfers aren’t snowboards though, just like boogie boards aren’t surfboards. This is why having an uninformed, albeit talented, writer making an unbounded proclamation about who invented snowboarding is condescending and inaccurate. If we are going to credit snowboarding then we should be exact about what a snowboard is, and a snurfer, while being a precursor to the snowboard, is not an actual snowboard. Even today we don’t call bindingless boards snowboards, we call them powsurfers or snow skates. With this in mind there is still a debate about who invented the snowboard, but there are only two men who are at the center of that debate and they are Tom Sims and Jake Burton Carpenter.
We as snowboarders, however, owe a great deal of gratitude to Poppen. There’s no debating that Burton and Sims were directly inspired by Poppen’s snurfer, and with the mass production of the snurfer, our collective consciousness was undoubtedly expanded. We also owe Jake Burton a great deal of gratitude as he undoubtedly had a hand in inventing the snowboard, and we owe Tom Sims one as well as he brought a freestyle element to the snowboard and developed modern-day bindings, an essential part of the “snowboard.”
Tom Sims and Jake Burton our the godfathers of our sport and they deserve the acknowledgment as the creators even if they were inspired by established sports and products. And while Trumbull may have been a respected newspaperman and avid surfer he really made no significant contribution to the sport, and he certainly doesn’t get credit for inventing snowboarding. Even though I decided to slide down a hill in 1986, before ever being exposed to snowboarding, I will happily relinquish my title as innovator and inventor to Sims and Burton. They created snowboarding, they lived snowboarding, they are snowboarding.