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From a wave pool in London to this. The evolution of the wave pool.

From a tiny wave pool in London to this. The evolution of the wave pool.

Date: 1934
Location: Wembley Swimming Pool, London
Moment: The world’s first wave pool opens to the public

“We got out of the car – Pottz, Elko, Glen Winton, and I – and we’re standing there with our boards looking at a swimming pool, going, ‘Is that it?’”  – Tom Carroll, on seeing the Allentown, Pennsylvania wave pool

Wave pools are a bit of a dividing force in the world of surf. There are those who claim it’s not surfing – that real surfing is more than just the act of riding a surfboard; that it requires the ocean and its wandering, untamable power. But there is a place for the consistency and controllability of a wave pool. Man-made waves are fast becoming a reality, and could prove to be the ship that pilots surfing – for better or for worse – to the same levels in extreme sports as motocross or snowboarding.

Developments in wavepool technology have exploded in the last few years. With places like the Basque Country’s Wavegarden quickly becoming a real possibility in terms of rideable waves, the surfing public is starting to take notice. Landlocked surfers are taking solace in the fact that the ocean is no longer necessary to surf, and developers are beginning to look at man-made waves as a real opportunity to both bring surfing to an untapped demographic and to make some real money.

But the first real wave pool was built in London, England, well before surfing was anything more than a glimmer in the eye of a few intrepid mainlanders. The pool was 200 by 60 feet, and electric pistons moved massive paddles, generating waves that swimmers bobbed around in. It was a novelty at best, but the first real seed had been planted.

It wasn’t until nearly thirty years later that the first wave pool was used by surfers. At the Summerland Wavepool in Tokyo, Japan, a similar method was used to create small, gutless lumps. But people surfed on them. According to, surfers at Summerland weren’t allowed to ride traditional fiberglass or wooden boards, but instead rode body boards or foamies, due to safety concerns. As with any invention, there were major problems to overcome. Safety, of course, was a large one. Secondly, and perhaps the most obvious, was the wave quality – building a site with decent waves was proving much harder than anyone expected. The price of creating and running machines that made waves was astronomical, and almost shut the doors on any further developments. Almost.

In 1969, Big Surf opened in Tempe, Arizona for somewhere around two million dollars. It was an enormous facility: at 20 acres of Hawaiian themed luxury, Big Surf included a 300 by 400 foot wave pool developed by an engineer (and non-surfer) named Phillip Dexter. Initial reports from professionals at the time were positive – but the waves were still a far cry from anything the ocean could dish out. Emulating nature’s awesome power was, and still is, the most elusive factor in the wave pool industry.

Then, in 1985, Tom Carroll won the World Inland Championship in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Surfers from all over the world attended the event to surf on chlorine-filled mush, but it was a large step in the slow moving journey towards contestable surf in a controlled environment. In 1997, Kelly Slater won the Typhoon Lagoon event, a place that had the best waves out of the ocean. Rip Curl has held events at Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia. The Japanese opened the Ocean Dome in Miyazaki, which eventually closed due to budgetary concerns. At the time, it was widely considered to be the best indoor wave in the world.

Now, after years of development, trial and error, and increasingly better man-made waves, there are more than a handful of options for surfing out of the salt. Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool has been on the backburner for years, with occasional artist’s renditions of a circular pool being released. Greg Webber’s wave pool technology is on the forefront, but so far, the most successful has been Wavegarden.

As technology progresses and man-made waves become increasingly better, the doors are opening for surfing to become more than a fringe sport – wave pools are confronting the largest hurdle in turning it from a pastime with a touch of professionalism to something completely different. What we could be seeing is the evolution of an entirely new genre, one where the skill of the person surfing is the only thing to take into account, and not Mother Nature’s changing moods. And it all started with a few electric pistons in a pool in London.


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