They live with dignity and grace in a quietness that gives no hint of their prominence or… their tragic tale. Newman and Naomi Darby know without a doubt that they are the originators of the sport of windsurfing. Although they’ve made peace with the fact that no one in the windsurfing world acknowledges their contribution, much less knows their names, they do speak up whenever the windsurfing world misleads itself about its origins.
Such was the case when American Windsurfer displayed an issue about the Origins of Windsurfing.
We didn’t want to be bothered when a subscriber by the name of Chad Lyons called to say that the interviews we conducted were misleading concerning the Origins of Windsurfing. The caller suggested that a copy of the magazine be sent to Newman Darby who he said was the first. We defended ourselves by saying that the subject we interviewed did mention Darby as a predecessor. Fortunately for us, integrity prevailed and a copy was sent as promised.
NOT LONG AFTERWARDS NEWMAN DARBY CALLED and wanted to point out some of the false characterizations made against him in the interviews. We suggested that he respond in writing so that his comments could be published.
A week later Darby’s letter arrived along with a three hour home video that was made to chronicle his involvement in the early 60’s. The photographs and the film footage were so complete and compelling that we were stunned that such evidence existed and we didn’t know about it. Suddenly what we prided as the definitive article on the Origins of Windsurfing became embarrassingly incomplete.
When speaking with Newman Darby and viewing his video the man’s gentle and giving spirit comes shining through. Although the windsurfing world might have wronged him, and our magazine might have passed him over, one can see that he harbors no malice or resentment towards our failings. Such a characteristic became even more evident when we met him at his home in Florida, a meeting that was complicated and delayed by a sudden heart surgery for Naomi a few weeks earlier.
During our conversation, we learned how a powerful and greedy legal system stripped Darby of his “prior art” credit and denied this sport an accurate and constructive sense of identity.
As we talked, we began to feel like windsurfing orphans, encountering for the first time our lost heritage. We came face to face with an elderly couple who fell in love with each other and during their courtship, conceived a sport.
More than thirty years later, at the age of 70, Newman Darby still goes windsurfing when he hears the call of the wind. Even though the magic sport which Newman and Naomi created together has failed to properly acknowledge them, they continue to bestow good wishes on their glorious sport. We listened and realized: They are the true parents of this sport.
American Windsurfer: That’s a very beautiful photograph. Where was it taken?
NEWMAN DARBY: The name of the lake is Trailwood Lake, and it’s in Bear Creek Township, which is on top of Wyoming Mountain, just about three or four miles outside of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. It’s a very deep lake, not very big, about a mile around.
AW: Is this the first picture ever taken of a windsurfer?
ND: Probably the first or second. It’s on the first roll ever taken. And we can’t tell which negative came first from looking at them.
AW: What went on here?
ND: Well, years before that, I’d been building and designing boats and I’d always come up with the idea of a free sail system. In 1948 I started building a boat trying to steer it with a sail rather than a rudder. I had trouble pulling the thing together so I went into designing and developing catamarans.
AW: Were there catamarans at the time?
ND: There were catamarans, yes, but most of the catamarans that you could buy had dagger boards so you couldn’t sail through the surf at the ocean and close to shore. Some Hobie Cats today don’t have any dagger boards, but the catamarans of that time had to have a dagger board so you could sail. I built an aluminum catamaran that used the sides for lateral resistance instead of a dagger board. This design became a six page article for Popular Science magazine.
I was going to put a free-sail system with the universal joint on this boat, but then I decided that it was too big and complicated. I talked to Naomi about it, and she agreed. She thought it’d be nice to have a little simple sailboat. We were single and dating at the time and often riding in the catamaran talking about these things.
AW: So you had the free sail concept already?
ND: Well, I’d been thinking about that for a long time. You have to understand that in those days, it was considered impossible to surf on a wave, on the Atlantic Ocean. Did you know that?
ND: They claimed you couldn’t do it. You could only do it in the Pacific Ocean because of the waves there. I was determined there was something wrong. For years I had been trying to surf on big lakes, and found that the waves were not high enough for my kind of surfing. I took a surfboard out with a big canoe paddle and I’d hold that up and I’d blow with the wind, using the strong 25 mile per hour winds, and blow with it and catch the waves. Halfway down the waves I used the paddle to steer by holding the flat blade of the canoe paddle to the wind, and this would turn me left and right.
Then I got the idea that maybe I could hold a sail on a surfboard. But all the sails then were so off-balance that I was afraid to go out on a surfboard. I decided I’d have to make a balanced, easier to use sail. Naomi, meanwhile, was a canoe racer, and had her own canoe. She wanted to put a sail on her canoe. We talked it over, and decided that we’d make two sails. I’d make the spars and rigs for her canoe, and she’d sew the two sails. We made the sail, and the whole thing. It was in the winter, so we had to wait until early summer of 1964. We took it to the community lake where her family lived and tried it out there.
AW: What was it like the first time?
ND: I had lee boards on it and it tended to slip more than I wanted it to. I could see right away that I needed more lateral resistance. I’d been sailing for twenty years and I anticipated that the lee boards wouldn’t be enough and it would slip. So, in the plywood surface, at top and bottom, I had in the frame a section where I could add a dagger board at the proper place.
The very first time out, I had the lee boards on, and it would track and you could turn. The turning radius was big, like in a car. It wouldn’t turn sharp. It would jibe all right, but it was not going well against the wind. Also, remember, nobody taught me and I was a beginner, so it was hard to evaluate something when I had never done it before.
AW: So you had to teach yourself how to do all this?
ND: Yeah, it wasn’t too hard to do, because even back to the early nineteen forties, I was sailing on the Susquahanna River. For two or three miles, we’d have deep areas, then we’d have shallow rapids for about a mile or two, then deep areas, and then rapids and the shallows again. I found that I could tip the boat to the left and to the right, and I could have some steerage with no rudder and no oar in the water. I also found that by tipping the boat, which was a small boat, about the same length as today’s average windsurfer, I could steer it and keep it on course. When I got in deep water, I could drop the oar in and use the oar again. I knew which way to tip the sail to steer it, but it was not on universal joints. I was tipping the entire boat, and I could not tip it far enough to make a sharp turn without turning the boat over.
AW: So this is how you came to the universal joint idea?
ND: Well, I just wanted to tip the sails further. Now in the picture you see of Naomi, there’s no universal joint on it. There’s a shallow hole in the bottom and I’d set the sail in it. I first designed the universal joint back in 1948 to use, but I was afraid it would be too dangerous. I told the people I was teaching just to set the sail in there while in a light wind, and hold it there, and if the wind got too strong, to throw it out ‘til the sail flew and to stay on the board. We didn’t fall off the boards. I don’t think you ever fell off, did you Naomi?
NAOMI: Probably not.
ND: I don’t remember you falling off.
AW: So it just held there by your weight?
ND: Yes, in this picture. (Photo of Naomi sailing) But every time the wind blew too strong, it blew the sail out of the socket. So I decided, “Well I’m going to have to use the universal joint.” I was a little afraid it would break your legs if you went over. Then I started developing one using rubber hoses, and I put them in a vice in the shop and I kept bending the rubber on the hoses to see if it’d crack, and it cracked too soon. I even tried a metal universal joint, and I finally devised one using ropes.
ND: A nylon rope universal joint.
AW: And the rope just threaded through the bottom of the hull?
ND: Yes, I have some right here, I’ll show them to you.
NAOMI: He sailed for less than a month without the universal joint because, well, just practicality told him he needed it.
ND: The sail would fly off too often. We were originally sailing them in light winds, about 7 miles an hour, and we could hold it in the socket easily. But, as soon as we’d get winds up to 10 or 12 miles an hour, whoom! The sails would fly out of there, up over our head, and then I’d think, “I’ve gotta hold the sail down.”
AW: Now the board was very, very, stable, it was almost like a door, right?
ND: It may be, but it’s a scow. At that time, scows were the world’s fastest monohulls because they only sat about an inch in the water and they would get up and skim and plane. I was experimenting with a surfboard, which was then skinny and tipsy. I figured I would learn on this thing. So I made myself a board that could be stable so I could get my senses about it. I wanted to see if it was possible to sail on this. Then we went into designing different kinds of hulls, more like surfboards.
AW: When did you realize you had something?
ND: It wasn’t until the second time that we thought it was going to work, wasn’t it, Naomi, it wasn’t the first . . .
ND: The first time I think we were kind of, uncertain about it, weren’t we. . .?
NAOMI: You didn’t give anybody a ride!
ND: No, no it wasn’t working right. [chuckle]
ND: As I said, it wouldn’t tack. You’re the only one who was there on the first ride, weren’t you?
NAOMI: Yes, I watched you, I followed you all over with the canoe. . .
NAOMI: I had a hard time.
ND: But it wasn’t working, I wasn’t happy with the way it sailed. If I couldn’t sail it, how am I going to teach somebody else, you know, and so. . .
NAOMI: He experimented A LOT! I mean, every time he would go out, he would be on it, maybe half an hour, and back. Then, he’d have to pull all his tool kits out of the car, and change this, and then back out. That’s why, even today, that boat there that he’s built, he changes everything, the minute he’s out, he senses something, comes back, retunes it. So, if I would go out and I thought I had a perfect boat, when I went out the next time it wouldn’t be the same because he’d change it for some reason. It was constantly under change, let’s put it that way.
AW: So in the meantime, you were sitting on the beach saying “What about me?”
NAOMI: Yes, well I was, I followed him in the canoe which wasn’t a lot of fun. I followed you paddling everywhere.
AW: So when was the first time you went out?
NAOMI: It was probably a couple of weeks after. Yes, my first time, that’s when he took the picture. I mean, I didn’t even have a camera in the beginning, because we were too busy watching him and seeing that he wouldn’t drown, and that kind of stuff.
AW: Now, looking at this picture, it looks like you knew what you were doing.
NAOMI: Oh, he’d always tell you what to do. I followed instructions well.
AW: So this was in the summer of 1964?
ND: Yes. I knew that it was possible. In fact, on our way home, I told Naomi, “This is so much fun, it could be an Olympic sport some day, maybe . . .”
NAOMI: Yes, he did say that.
ND: My brother Ken, he saw us doing this, and he decided to go into the business after these pictures were taken, six months after?
NAOMI: Yes, he’d lost his job and decided he wanted to do something.
AW: So you guys began building boards?
ND: We went into business, and Ken started getting stockholders. He started looking at the business in the latter part of 1964. Then he went up to Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania and prepared the proper papers to incorporate the business for the purpose of manufacturing these sailboards.
First he rented a store, which was about a hundred feet long and about twenty feet wide. It had garages in the back that could be used as a shop. I merged my sign and graphic arts business with the new sailboard business. Then Ken got more money from his stockholders and rented a big barn, about ten miles away from our store. Our store was in town, and it was going to serve as the shop to sell the boards. Ken also set up a production line and we started making the first sailboards around Christmas of 1964.
I remember we took my wooden sailboard which you see in that picture there, and copied it and made it out of fiberglass. We didn’t use plywood anymore, we used boards, strips of wood. Ken decided it was the way to go, it was cheaper than plywood. We fiberglassed over the strips of board, using them for the base inside.
AW: Was this company called Darby Industries?
ND: Darby Industries Incorporated. Yes. That’s what we called the company.
AW: Does the company still exist?
NAOMI: It’s still . . .
ND: Yes, they’re still going. And I think in the back of the shop you’ll find two old fiberglass boards.
AW: Now obviously the company doesn’t make windsurfers anymore, right?
ND: No, they don’t. They make Truckhoes, back hoes, and hashsas. Hashsas are outdoor woodburning furnaces which you set up for heating your homes.
AW: So once you started building the boards, how did you get the word out?
ND: At first we contacted the California surfing company, didn’t we?
NAOMI: That was the first time. And then, of course, Popular Science. It was also published in the English Yachting magazine, AYRS. We didn’t have a lot of trouble. In fact, Life magazine wanted to do a whole spread, but Ken didn’t want us to go and bother, so it never did get in there.
ND: Yes, I don’t know why.
NAOMI: It was advertised in Popular Science and Mechanics, and in the boat show.
ND: The Philadelphia Boat Show.
NAOMI: It was on The Price Is Right.
ND: They were giving them away. [chuckle].
NAOMI: Gave them away, if they guessed the right price.
ND: They demonstrated it on national TV, how it steered.
AW: What were they called at that time?
AW: A Sailboard?
ND: Yes, we called them sailboards. Popular Science magazine claimed they had six million readers, so when they first came out, the deal was they’d give us a little advertisement, and the article, and they paid us a certain amount. Then, they paid us a little bit less if they gave us an ad. In the following issue, we paid for an ad in the classified section. We also advertised in The New York Times newspaper. It was in 1966 that it was put in the Philadelphia Boat Show.
AW: So. . . you never got to patent the thing?
NAOMI: Started to.
ND: Charles Hawk was one of our stockholders. He also worked for a company that did clearing work getting patents. At the beginning of the summer of 1965, he wrote up the first set of patent papers. He sent them to patent attorneys, Cushman, Darby and Cushman, of Washington, DC. They thought the papers had to be re-written and changed around. So, then my brother Ron wrote up a second set of patent papers to see if the patent attorneys would think they were better. They were still lacking something. The patent attorneys then sent the papers back to my brother Ken. Ken figured he could correct the things that were wrong. He made revisions and sent them back. We were running out of money, and weren’t selling enough sailboards to be putting all this money into the attorney fees. If the boards had been selling fast, they would have been patented. But if the people weren’t buying them, we didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars for getting a patent. So, we kind of just dropped it. But these papers were recorded in the office of Cushman, Darby and Cushman, and they were used later on as evidence . These documents were classified prior art at the Federal Court in New York City, when windsurfer companies were having arguments over the patents. The papers were considered the first applications to the patent attorneys, but they never got to the patent office.
AW: History could have been quite different.
ND: It could have been.
NAOMI: It could have been different even later. When we we realized there was a problem, we went down to the patent office. When we saw what the patent was really about and how similar it was to the Popular Science article, the head of the patent office told me that all we had to do to correct it was to send two letters; one to Windsurfer, and one to the patent office. Think of it . . . for the price of two stamps, [less than 10 cents each at the time] and the whole thing would have been taken care of. I actually went home, wrote the two letters, and had them in the envelopes. But the lawyers and everybody wouldn’t let me do it, wouldn’t let me mail them. The lawyers influenced Newman to the point where he was scared stiff. They told him that we would be sued if we sent the letters, and we didn’t have the money or anything to back a legal battle. The lawyers were all in agreement to just do it the way they wanted it, and that was it.
AW: All these lawyers, and the people who said “don’t do it.” You listened to them?
ND: Yes. . .
AW: Newman, why did you agree with the lawyers?
ND: Well, I didn’t know what else to do. They told me that I couldn’t handle the case. It would be too expensive, cost thousands of dollars, and I wouldn’t have enough money. I could be sued, and all kinds of things. It was a kind of scare tactic. A company as small as ours was fighting big multi-million dollar corporations in Europe. The Windsurfer brand was tied in with big corporations over there. It would be like fighting a dream team. Like the Simpson thing. They had so many attorneys you just couldn’t win. They could pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for attorneys’ fees. We couldn’t afford to do this.
AW: You mean you would be liable just because you were the first?
ND: They told me we could be. They kind of threatened us with the idea that we couldn’t handle it. We didn’t have enough money. The attorneys . . . from Mistral. I probably shouldn’t have gone along with them, but we signed a contract. In the contract I’d also work as an advisor and a designer for them.
ND: I still have the contract some place. But after they sold out, they just didn’t honor the contract at all anymore. By then, the president who signed the paper with me, he was out, too.
NAOMI: The lawyers for Mistral came because they wanted, I think, to have the patent. They thought if they could get it over in Europe, and with Newman on their side, they would have control of the patent themselves. The Mistral lawyers came over and asked us to go down to the patent office, and that’s when the patent attorney advised us as far as what we could do.
AW: Why did Mistral want you to go down to the patent office?
NAOMI: At the beginning, I didn’t really know what they were trying to do. I think they were backing Newman because they felt he would have the power to get the patent also in Germany. They were hoping, I think, that by having an alliance with Newman, they would get control of the patent themselves.
AW: So they wouldn’t have to pay royalty fees.
ND: And they could control the industry. What it is, is the patent gives you a legal monopoly.
AW: Now once they suggested to you that you go down to the patent office, then what happened from that point?
NAOMI: Well, we came back, and that’s when they said no don’t do anything. They would handle everything.
AW: That was the patent office?
NAOMI: Oh, no the patent officers told us what to do. They said it would take only the price of the stamp to settle the whole matter. It was the lawyers from Mistral.
AW: This is really amazing . . wow . . .
NAOMI: Yeah, the whole thing could have been different even at that point.
ND: Money talks. There were big corporations fighting for control, that’s what it amounted to. And a lot of these corporations were not just sailboard corporations. They were big, growing corporations that were going to diversify and build the sailboards.
NAOMI: Everybody was just more powerful and had a lot more money . . . [than us] and that money talks.
AW: Another decisive opportunity to change the course of history . . .
NAOMI: Exactly. I wish I had sent the letters, but I’m not sure it would be better. That’s the funny part. I don’t know how it would’ve gone. But the lawyers wanted to keep the whole thing going, and actually, nobody has that patent. But nobody wants to admit it because it was always in court somewhere. The whole seventeen years. After seventeen years, who cares, you know? But that’s what it was. It was just a money ploy for the lawyers. It was the best thing they ever had going.
ND: Today the colleges use the case as an example for their patent attorney students. The college kids call us up, and they take two different sides and they have the battle in the colleges.
AW: So how do you feel about all of this?
NAOMI: I just try to put it behind me, I don’t even want to think about it. Newman, he doesn’t care because he’s strictly an inventor and an artist. Fortunately, money is not my main objective or I really would feel badly [laughing]. I don’t care about the money. But I got mad all the time because they would say his boat didn’t work. All they had to do was come and try it, and they would know. That’s what really irritated me because people would write things that they didn’t know. All they had to do was come. All these things could be proven. And to just keep writing about things that weren’t true. That’s really what I objected to the most.
ND: Yes, they put on a publicity campaign, and made up stories that weren’t even true, and they . . .
AW: Who’s “they” you’re talking about?
ND: Mostly the Windsurfer people . . .
ND: I’m not sure if it was Schweitzer or Drake, or both along with publications and magazines and books. It seemed like they just . . . You saw it, you know. In your own magazine, they had everything mixed up and wrong. And this has been going on for like twenty years. It’s tiring. It’s a simple thing to find out what the truth is, how it happened and not to keep making up stories.
AW: So, it must have been very, very heartbreaking to be ignored and . . .
ND: Well, it is to have people make up stories that aren’t true. We know what the history was. To have others just keep publishing it, just for publicity, and acting like we never existed. It’s as if our company never existed or even our competitors never existed. They just practically forgot how this thing started.
NAOMI: I really don’t like to remember the sailboard. Newman’s always coming up with new ideas and things like that. The only thing that hurts me is that all the time, other people just walk right over him. We’re not good business people. We really aren’t. So, that’s one thing we don’t feel bad about. But it does hurt that they would say things about his boat that were not true. That’s what bothers me the most. Because to me, logic is logic, and it can be proven. I mean, all you have to do is come up, hop on the board, how hard is that? Nobody wanted to do it.
AW: Do you still think that what Newman came up with is a better product?
NAOMI: I think eventually they’re going to go back to the sail he originally started.
NAOMI: I think it works better.
AW: For beginners, and . . .
NAOMI: Yes, and I think that they haven’t even done the research. He can just toy with something, and just keep modifying it, and modifying it, and changing it and improving it, continually. He doesn’t let anything alone. You go out sailing with him and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I mean, he just constantly is improving on whatever he does.
AW: Why do you think they were able to make a “go” of the sport whereas yours just sort of died on the vine?
ND: I think that, in the United States, it was a hardsell item, no matter who was doing it. All these companies, they were never coming through. It was just a matter of where you were selling it and who was buying it. The Europeans seemed to be more interested in such types of sports than the Americans. Also, it takes a lot of money to properly promote a new idea. 99% of the inventions just lay in the patent office and go nowhere because of the lack of money for promotion. They could be good ideas, too, and they just go nowhere. It takes a lot of promotion and a lot of work, and factories, and business men, and everything else to get things going.
AW: So ‘76 was just the beginning of the legal battles?
ND: As far as I know. I understand he got his patent, that it was okayed around 1971 or ‘72. I didn’t know that he’d gotten a patent on it. When we signed our second contract in 1971 with Popular Science magazine, they told me about a company in California also making sailboards. I was going to sell them an article on this sailboard with the new surfboard shape hull because I thought it was a little faster and better looking and could take waves better. The scows don’t take waves well. I sent the plans in to Popular Science magazine in the early seventies, and didn’t know there was anybody trying to patent it at the time.
I shouldn’t say that I didn’t know. Three or four years earlier in my shop, at Darby Industries, a man came in. At that time, we had people coming in, looking at the sailboards, and talking about buying them, you know. I thought he was a customer, so I showed him the sailboards. At that time, I’d built two models of the sailboards which were typical 12 feet long, 26 inch wide sailboards that were so popular in the 1970’s. He was looking over the details and I was trying to sell him the idea. On the way out the door, he turned around and said to me, “There are two men trying to patent this.” And I said, “Who?” He just shook his head. And I said, “Where?” “Oh, they live far away,” he said and he turned around and walked away.
That was the first time I heard someone was trying to patent the sailboard. I actually told him that no one could patent it because we were already in business manufacturing them, and it was against the law to patent something that’s already being manufactured. He responded by saying that he thought that they could patent it, and he turned around and walked away. Then, a couple of years later, I got a call from California. I thought the caller was one of our customers who had bought our plans and was building our sailboard. At that time I often received calls from people who had questions about the sailboards. We were selling plans all over the place, hundreds of plans on how to build these sailboards. Then we’d get people calling or writing letters to us.
This guy from California talked quite awhile on the telephone. He was asking all kinds of questions, and wanted to know if he could sail on his surfboard instead of the scow that was included in the plans. I said “yes” and I told him that you could build them about 24 or 26 inches wide and about 12 feet long. He needed to keep the sides straight, slightly point the front and curve the back in so it looked more like a surfboard. We talked quite awhile. Then to my surprise, he said that they were going to patent it.
AW: Did you get the name of this guy?
TO BE CONTINUED: Next Issue of AW: Part 2
If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the videotape viewed by the AW Staff and described in this article, you may contact Newman Darby by writing him at 8024 Lorain St., Jacksonville, FL, 33208, or calling him at (904) 924-0653.