The answer is: We may never know. Many inventors and corporations are quick to stake a claim, but finding that first commercially produced skateboard may be a futile search. In the first edition of the Quarterly Skateboarder, a full-page ad by Skee Skate of California makes a heavy claim: “This is it!!!! The skateboard that started it all.” Others begs to differ. Many historians and collectors believe the eponymous skateboard launched by the Roller Derby Skate Corporation was the first mass-produced skateboard. It well may be, although no one is certain when it was launched.
The Roller Derby was a wooden plank with a rounded tip at one end and modified roller-skate steel wheels attached. It boasted no concave or even kicktail, no mention grip tape, but it did have a snazzy bright-red paint scheme. Many believe the Roller Derby made its debut in 1959. But the company itself claims it introduced the board in 1963. David Kennedy, Roller Derby’s current vice president and CFO in Bottoms up views of the Humco Surfer which got all high tech with a spring loaded suspension. Humco courtesy G&S. Litchfield, Illinois, responded to this important query by producing a nine-page Roller Derby skateboard promotional brochure—first published in 1964.
Jim Scheller was Roller Derby vice president at the time. He began working for the company in 1957: “I don’t recall any skateboards in 1959. I believe that the first skateboard production for Roller Derby was in late 1963 and the beginning of 1964. The idea came from California, where we had a warehouse managed by a guy named· Sloniger. We did a little retooling at the plant in Litchfield but not much, and it turned out to be a good· business. Very good.” While the Roller Derby may not have been the first commercially produced skateboard, it was likely the first mass produced board, as many of them survive today.
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Still, other skateboards may have arrived earlier. Historian Iain Borden claims in his Skateboard, Space and the City: Art and the Body (2001) that 1956 was the first year: “The first commercial skateboards—like the Humco five-ply deck with ‘Sidewalk Swinger’ spring-loaded trucks (1956), the Sport Flite, and the Roller Derby (late 1950s to early 1960s)—came with steel wheels around 50mm in diameter and 10mm wide.” In his book Skateboard Retrospective: A Collector’s Guide, Rhyn Noll points out a two-wheeled contraption from the 1930s owned by Randy Beck from Chatsworth, California. This machine has two wheels attached to a piece of wood, but if we’re using the strict definition of four wheels and two trucks, this doesn’t quite fit in.
Noll also mentions a Mr. Carl Jensen: “I hear tales of Mr. Carl Jensen in the late fifties, a man who built early skateboards and brought them into my dad’s shop, Greg Noll Surfboards. Greg recalls Mr. Jensen as the first to sell skateboards to his Hermosa Beach shop in 1958, and considers him a founder of the commercial skateboard.” The book also points to 1958 as the year A. C. Boyden “better known as Humco, patented one of the earliest recognizable skateboards.” Looking through the collections of Todd Huber, Paul Naude, Gordon & Smith, and others, there are numerous odd-looking skateboards—some made of metal, some made of wood—that seem to have come out of the 1950s. There are boards by the Chicago Roller Skate Company, and it would make sense that it would be among the first to manufacture a skateboard, as it was one of the Big Four that controlled roller-skate production in the 1950s.
So which came first? Skee Skate? Roller Derby? Chicago? Humco? Or that Carl Jensen chap? I talked with Greg Noll, who made a good argument that Carl Jensen was the first guy to make a commercial· skateboard—and Noll himself may have been there at the start as well. Now, I don’t really care about this all that much and I don’t want to go around claiming that I made the first commercial boards, but first of all, in the 1950s we called those board “bun boards,” because when you fell you were always busting your ass. I opened my first shop on Pacific Coast Highway across from Center Street School in Hermosa Beach. At the time there was this guy Jensen who had five or six guys rolling around on the strand on the north side of the Hermosa Beach pier, riding these boards that had old roller-skate equipment with steel wheels.
Jensen brought them to the shop and said, “This is going to be a good thing.” Well, I got so tired of hearing all this BS, but I put a couple in the showcase and they sold. So then I started making some outlines and laminating them and I had a rubber stamp that said “Greg Noll Surfboards,” but all the time I was thinking, “These things will never sell.” I sold maybe fifty of the boards over the course of a year, but I didn’t really see the potential in it and as usual I was left standing at the train station as the train was pulling away, because then Hobie and Makaha and Gordon & Smith came along and of course they sold millions of the things—everyone’s making a bunch of dough.
I don’t have one of those original Greg Noll stamped skateboards and I wish I did. But just this year Element came out with a special edition of those bun boards, and they look pretty much the same as what we were making back there in the late 1950s, early 1960s. So am I the first guy to make a commercial skateboard? I don’t give a damn. All I know is, a lot of guys got rich from something I didn’t think was going anywhere.
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I had a Roller Derby skateboard when I was a child. 1963 sounds about right. I would have been about 8 years old at the time. I rode that board daily until one day, when flying down a hill, it snapped in half (they were made out of plywood) and I went sailing. It’s a miracle I didn’t break a bone. I felt worse about losing the skateboard than I did about all the scrapes and bruises.