Mr. Darby Goes to Washington

After a tip from subscriber Chad Lyons, we came to know Newman Darby…

ONE YEAR AGO, the windsurfing world was oblivious to an elderly man by the name of Newman Darby. Those who knew him gave a deaf ear to his claim as the originator of the concept of windsurfing.

After a tip from subscriber Chad Lyons, American Windsurfer came to know Newman Darby and discovered some shocking news about windsurfing’s past. We found how lawyers took advantage of a meek and gracious couple, manipulated their trust with “friendly” off–handed threats and managed to suppress their convincing evidence of “prior art” away from the lucrative patent battles being fought around the world.

Consequentially, without their files, rights were awarded. Eventually, after 15 years of continuous legal battles, the patent ran out. In its wake, fortunes were made by a few masterminds whose closets became filled with dead windsurf companies unable to meet their high retroactive royalty demands.


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ENTERING THE HALLS OF HERITAGE: Darby and Oswald step into the museum’s archival room to examine the “Darby Windsurfing Collection.” (right) With John Sleckner, the museum’s Chief Archivist who is now entrusted with the preservation and scholarly dissemination of this windsurfing legacy. (enlarge)

NEWMAN DARBY sailed into the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. He arrived this past March to discuss the Smithsonian’s recent acquisition of his  archives and artifacts associated with the invention of the windsurfer.

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Upon his arrival, one of my colleagues commented, “That’s really the guy that invented windsurfing?” That made me wonder, “What is an inventor supposed to look or be like?” We were all surprised how unassuming, friendly, soft-spoken, curious, and energetic this inventor was. Every photograph, drawing, or piece of correspondence I pulled from the files triggered Newman’s memory and an amazing outpouring of nostalgia.

We toured the Museum’s vast Sports, Leisure and Recreation archives, where his original windsurfing board and sail will be stored along with the other water sports equipment and clothing  collections. It was important to show Newman how the records of his invention were to be preserved.

The opportunity to work with a living inventor such as Newman was not only unique, but exciting. It afforded me a chance, with his guidance, to carefully examine his archival material and ensure that each photograph was identified, drawings properly dated, and annotations clarified. More importantly, I saw and experienced firsthand the environment in which Newman invents and hence learned more about the likes of him and what motivates an inventor to create.

I became aware of the Newman Darby story in June of 1997, shortly after the publication of his interview. Clearly this was a classic American invention story—a passion that led to the development of a product and ultimately, a world-wide sport.

During one of our first telephone conversations, Newman suggested I contact his younger brother, Ken Darby in Falls, Pennsylvania to look at  the original boards, ca. 1965. So, my colleague Craig Orr and I took a “road trip” to examine the boards. Ken, like Newman, is an inventor and along with his son Ron, shared stories about the early days of sailboarding on the Susquehanna River. By the time we departed Falls, my introduction to the sport of windsurfing had officially begun. It became clear this was truly a family of inventors. Now I needed to go to Jacksonville, Florida to meet Newman Darby and acquire for the museum their precious archives.

So in the middle of winter I made my request and received permission to go to Florida on an acquisition trip. There I spent a few days with Newman and his wife, Naomi, to examine and pack their documentation for shipment to the Museum. Sifting through boxes in his kitchen table, he constantly imparted information while I listened. When we were not looking at his artifacts, we indulged in a homemade shrimp dinner (courtesy of Naomi), enjoyed birthday cake—my visit came on the heels of Newman’s 70th birthday—or ventured to the beach to see some real “boardheads.”

Like many independent inventors, Newman works out of his garage and invents for the joy of it.  This is a common  reason why the papers and artifacts of modern inventions are often lost.  Fortunately, even with several moves, the Darbys retained their records. The records  clearly revealed their contributions to the sport of windsurfing, as well as Newman’s love for sailing since boyhood. Also revealed in the documents were drawings for the first modern catamaran.

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While he was the true originator of the sport, the most remarkable quality of Newman is that he has a spirit that never wavers, even after he failed to patent his invention and received no credit for his contribution. At 70, Newman continues to invent and improve his sport. He gladly teaches others on how to construct and sail their own windsurfers.  He began to teach me and this summer, a few of us from the museum will be visiting him for a few windsurfing lessons.


Newman and Naomi Darby, independent inventors and originators of the sport of windsurfing, donated their archival materials to the National Museum of American History Archives Center in March, 1998. The Darby Windsurfing Collection, 1946-1997, contains approximately 3 cubic feet of correspondence, notes, notebooks, drawings, sketches, photographs, an 8mm film, patent litigation records, newspaper clippings, and articles. This collection is available for research by appointment. For more information about this and other invention-related collections, contact Alison L. Oswald, Archivist, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Room C340, MRC 601, Washington, DC 20560 or surf the http://invention.si.edu/s-newman-darby-windsurfing-collection-1944-1998 or  http://amhistory.si.edu/archives/AC0625.pdf

by Alison L. Oswald

Archivist at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Alison Oswald took interest after our American Windsurfer interview with Darby.

photos by John Chao

Publisher and Editor of American Windsurfer is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines.

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