Editor’s note: Just last week, The Atlantic monthly ran an article online connecting Thomas Edison (yes, that Thomas Edison) to the origins of surf filmmaking. The centerpiece of said article was a tale of how Robert Bonine, a filmmaker from Edison’s production company, traveled to Hawaii in the early 1900s and, among other things, captured locals surfing the gentle waves of Waikiki. As it happens, this isn’t by any means a groundbreaking discovery, but interesting nonetheless that a mainstream publication like The Atlantic would produce a story on it. For additional commentary, we reached out to the acclaimed Matt Warshaw. His response, in its entirety, below. Also, check out the full article in The Atlantic (it’s worth a read!).
I remixed that footage last year, for the Encyclopedia of Surfing Waikiki page (see below).
What I can’t take my eyes off of here is the way white people dressed on the beach. All those weeks on a steamer, then you arrive in paradise, check into your hotel, hit the beach, and you’re still strapped into a woolen three-piece suit, bow-tie, and hard leather shoes? Did the locals ever get tired of laughing at us?
This is one year before Jack London blew into town and famously gave surfing a try. You read the article London wrote, and its all manly and death-defying, talking about the “bull-mouth monster” waves he faced down, the “smashing blows” he took, the “sea-god” surfers he watched. And you gotta figure what he actually experienced was pretty much what we’re seeing in this movie. But, I guess it’s all relative. I took my seven-year-old son out surfing for the first time last week, in waves smaller than the Waikiki surf here, and for him it was Armageddon. Thrilling and terrifying. Two-footers can be bull-mouth monsters after all.
Edison’s movie shows surfing at the very last stage when it’s still in its little self-contained pod, in Hawaii. And yeah, I know those princes surfed in Santa Cruz 20-something years earlier, and some mystery girl maybe surfed in New Jersey too, but nothing stuck. Surfing was still Hawaiian, totally. Not for long, though. London does his article a year later, George Freeth sails for California that summer to become the Johnny Appleseed of surf, Duke Kahanamoku has just dropped out of high school to go full surf and swim. Surfing is ready to take off. But here in ’06, it’s pretty much just those plank riders you see, falling off their boards from laughing at the dumbass guys on the beach in their suits.