In the early twentieth century watermen witnessed swim fins evolve from sticky palm fronds to meticulously crafted tools. One of the largest advances in that evolution was forged by Arthur H. Brown. Living in Southern California, Arthur was described as an expert diver in his day. At the time, Churchill Swim Fins were the only option for increased propulsion in the Ocean. He imagined a fin that provided more thrust and floated. His new symmetrical fin would stand in stark contrast to it’s predecessors and create die-hard fans from the very beginning.
Brown began the production of Duck Feet in a canyon near Laguna Beach, California. With the ambitious goal of creating a powerful floating fin, he studied rubber and the modern vulcanization process. He began producing fins under the company name “The Spearfisherman Co.” along with other skin diver focused products. In 1946, following many years of work, Spearfisherman Co. produced their first batch of fins for civilian use. As early as 1950 the fins were produced in both the regular size and Giant UDT. Both types were brown and made of pure gum rubber. These fins looked very similar to the Duck Feet Fins bodysurfers know and love today. Arthur was always tinkering with his molds and adjusting his rubber compounds, but this first shape is indicative of his earliest efforts. The photograph below was taken in Spearfisherman’s second manufacturing facility located in Huntington Beach. You can see in the photograph, both the early Regular and UDT models featured the “faded middle rib” design.
In 1950 the Korean Conflict was initiated and as is common during war-time commerce, certain resources become scarce. One such resource was the Ceylon, which was key to the manufacture of Spearfisherman’s unique invisible fins (pictured below). Brown continued to produce these fins after, but he had to create new compounds to do so. The real genius of Arthur Brown is not his fin design, but in his manufacturing work.
In an article written by Brown himself for Skin Diver Magazine, he details the process of manufacturing rubber fins. He describes the arduous task of turning raw rubber from Malay or Indonesia into vulcanized floating fins. Vulcanization is the process by which raw rubber from trees is chemically treated and compressed to make useful rubber products. Early in the nineteenth century, Charles Goodyear found that by mixing raw rubber with sulfur and applying heat he was able to produce a rubber far more valuable to commercial purposes. Just over 100 years later, Arthur Brown stood on Goodyear’s shoulders and produced the most powerful swim fin to date.
Modern fin producers inject prepared rubber into metal molds in order to vulcanize their final product. Arthur Brown pioneered this process in the 1940’s, forever changing the fin and aquatic goods industry. One of the most important steps in his innovation is the ability to use different rubber compounds on different parts of the fin. Previous fins were made of the same rubber mix, so if your footpocket was soft on your toes, your blade was just as soft. Brown was able to keep a stiff blade of one rubber type and inject stretchy rubber into the heel strap. Divers marveled at the floating, giant fins with deep channels and stretchable heel straps.
Brown’s design garnered more than just civilian attention. Naval Underwater Demolition Team sailors began using Duck Feet. The Spearfisherman produced a line of fins designed specifically for U.D.T. purposes. They were not only shaped to be much larger than the standard model, he also used “extra-stiff rubber.” These original UDT fins weighed 6 pounds and had more thrust per kick than anything else in the water. In 1956, the Navy Experimental Diving Unit out of Washington D.C., under the direction of then IT. Walter Mazone performed a formal evaluation of fins for military purposes. The tests were performed by 12 testers and they tried each of 14 commercially available fins. Both Standard and Giant U.D.T. Duck Feet were included in the testing, but it was the Giant U.D.T. fins which tested third highest in efficiency. The overall results of the tests were mixed, but Brown claimed his fins were a favorite among Pacific stationed U.D.T. servicemen and historical photographs support his claim.
Despite all of Brown’s manufacturing achievements, in the end he was unable to make Spearfisherman Co. a stable business and in February, 1957 Ken Noris’s Pacific Moulded Product Co. purchased Spearfisherman Co. and all of the innovations Arthur Brown had developed. Pacific Moulded Products had already acquired Swimaster and under the Swimaster branch of the company Duck Feet would continue to be manufactured.
The Swimaster team, under the direction of pioneering LA.CO. underwater instructor Harry Vetter, would leave their mark on the evolution of Duck Feet Fins in many ways. In the same year Swimaster took over production, Duck Feet were made available in black or “ebony” as they called it. The manufacturing change is indicated on the actual fins themselves as well, with Swimaster replacing the previous Spearfisherman stamp. With the new ownership, Duck Feet fins were more aggressively marketed, resulting in a handful of classic fin advertisements (shown below).
Beyond marketing, Swimaster also expanded the models of Duck Feet. By 1961 Swimaster was producing the Giant UDT, Regulation, Custom and Full Foot models. The Custom model resembling the original duck foot mold with an incomplete middle rail and made of softer rubber.
Swimaster carried the Duck Feet brand proudly for seven years and under their stewardship the fins continued to grow in popularity. In 1962, W.J. Voit Rubber Corp. announced a merger with Swimaster. Voit would take over marketing of Duck Feet and Swimaster technicians would focus on the expanding manufacturing in order to meet the growing demand.
Voit continues to manufacture and market Duck Feet presently. It isn’t clear, when they stopped using the Swimaster name and switch to marketing solely as Voit Duck Feet. You will also notice some Duck Feet models are stamped with AMF (American Machine & Foundry) because Voit is a subsidiary of the industrial behemoth. Along with the name changes, Voit would make adjustments to the beloved fins as well. In attempt to make the Giant UDT more comfortable, the engineers redesigned the footpocket to be rounder and softer. You can spot this change on the fin because they also tapered the center rib to fade before the foot instep. This mold remains unchanged and the UDT Model fins currently on the market share the same basic shape as the 1965 model.
As the years passed, Voit made few adjustments to the Custom Model mold. It eventually became synonymous with Duck Feet, as the Full Foot and Regulation models were phased out of production. The UDT model was moved around with the molds being lost and eventually found in Mexico, but the Custom Model remained the same. Sometime in the 1970’s the Duck Feet Custom Model was produced in two tone blue (above left). Those fins are identifiable by their lack of drainage holes. After the blue, came the “naval orange” version. There would be many more color variations to follow over the years. Voit would eventually add the two drainage holes at the base and mix the rubber compounds to adjust hardness. The color changes rolled on from brown-black (shown above), black-blue-green to the more recent additions of green-blue and lifeguard inspired red-yellow. Each revision of Arthur Brown’s original innovation let bodysurfers and Ocean enthusiasts experience their passions to ever expanding depths and now we can truly appreciate his pioneering work that made it all possible.
Special thanks to Historical Diving expert Dr. Sam Miller III for research guidance and support. This article would not have been possible without his contribution.
Thank you also to David Ritchie Wilson for research into the U.S. Military’s study of fins.