Another brave new world is unfolding in the West. The prophet is Tom Morey, and his crowning creation is the Morey Boogie board. The Boogie board, for those whose surf never comes up higher than the foam on their mug of beer, is a sort of proletarian surfboard ranging in length from 35" to 42". At least half a million of these snub-nosed laminated polyethylene boards have been sold in the last eight years to people who find it easier to Boogie than to surf.
The Boogie board is only a short subject in the nonstop invention film that's running in Morey's brain. He has invented a new kind of Mylar toothpick, a circular book, an improved football, a sailboat with an adjustable mast, three-player chess and Ping-Pong games and... much, much more, most of which has never made it out of the theater of his mind.
"Almost everything has not been invented yet," says Morey, which gives him plenty of room. "Some people think of one or two new things in their lifetime. I have the misfortune of being a fabulous inventor."
The Boogie board was just the first manifestation of Morey's belief that "closed-cell plastic is the flesh of a new order of being." Many of his inventions are variations of the material he used to make the Boogie board. "The Boogie board is just a spineless protoplasm, an amoeba," he says. He has fashioned the foam into sailboards, surfboard-shaped life preservers and deck chairs. He has also built a revolutionary ukulele with a styrene-bead core and a fiber-glass outer shell. "I feel sorry for Stradivarius," he says with a laugh. "The poor guy had to work with what he had: wood."
May 9, 1982
"Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird; that's easy. What's hard is to be simple as Bach. Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."
Morey, who is 46, lives with his wife, Marchia, and their four children just off the beach at the end of a three-mile road on the Kona Coast of Hawaii's Big Island. His community, Puako, is flanked by a couple of luxury resort hotels and bordered by a field of petroglyphs, ancient carvings of Hawaiians. "I'm living in Hawaii because it's the place of drums and surfing heritage," he says. "It's the spirit of what's going on."
He occasionally plays bebop drums with an electric guitarist who lives nearby and also works with a jazz group called Rip! He performed with a band at one of the big resort hotels until he quit a few months ago. But he found it hard to improvise on tunes like Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.
The front yard of his beach cottage is among the scruffiest on the block. It's overgrown with white opiuma trees, crown flowers and monkeypod trees. Morey's unfinished projects lie around like abandoned prototypes at a Department of Defense weapons laboratory.
His two oldest sons guide you on a tour. Their names are Sol and Moon. Morey gave his first three sons celestial names: Sol, Moon and Sky. The fourth was named Matteson. "Sky's the limit," Morey says.
Sol, 10, and Moon, 9, start in the living room, where their father keeps his books on Bahaism, science fiction novels and Uncle Scrooge comic books. These are his major influences and sources of inspiration. In Uncle Scrooge he likes the character Gyro Gearloose, a fellow inventor. He mines Gyro for ideas. In fact, half of Morey's inventions look as if they belong in a comic book.
Sol and Moon show off their father's brainchildren. The very first Boogie board hangs on a wall of an alcove. Morey designed it 11 years ago, carving out slabs of polyethylene foam with an electric knife, and ironing over newspapers to melt and shape them. On the early Boogie board you could ride the waves while reading The Honolulu Advertiser.
The walls of one room in Morey's home are decorated with sketches of a proposed 1½-mile-square inland "surfatorium" with catch nets and large concrete bumps to create permanent standing waves'. He wants to call this idyllic water park Morey Boogie Land. He'd like to build it in Hawaii, where the ocean surfing is already the finest in the world.
The Air Skate rests near the driveway. Morey's sons call it a "flying rooftop." The Air Skate is 30 feet long and powered by a 55-hp VW engine with a propeller mounted on the Skate's stern, as on an Everglades swamp skimmer. It was supposed to skate along the waves like a manta ray and, with any luck, take off. Morey tested it, more or less successfully, several times, but now it's just sitting in his yard, sort of like Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose, which is parked now in Long Beach, Calif. Morey's ideas tend to be smaller than Howard Hughes's because he doesn't have as much money as Hughes did.
"Tom is a born tinkerer," says John Severson, editorial director of Wind Surf and a longtime friend of Morey's. "For him, everything's in a continual state of evolution. It's his greatest strength and weakness. There isn't anything that exists that doesn't need some parts added on. A lot of Tom's projects don't get carried out. He's in the material world and runs up against limitations, like cash."
At home, Sol says, "We're getting to the interesting part." The interesting part is a curved work shed that Morey designed himself. On one wall is a stack of experimental sailboards and some early Boogie boards, their surfaces all rough and ripped. "Cats," Moon says laconically. Cats are as fond of polyethylene foam as they are of overstuffed sofas. "That's Dad's absotivity hoop over there," says Moon. It's a glorified Hula Hoop that may have been recovered from the Lost Ark, but at present it isn't being used for anything. "Why does everything have to do something?" asks Morey. "Why can't something just be?"
Morey wears a T shirt that says PITY THE POOR JERK WHO CONSISTANTLY [sic] SEEMS TO KNOW WHAT THE HELL HE'S DOING, and an expression both beatific and world-weary. In conversation, he spins off ideas you couldn't follow with a blueprint. Listening to him is like staring at breakers; the notions keep coming and are ever-changing.
He drones on and on and on about his inventions like a Zen master at an infinite prayer wheel. As a matter of fact, he once had a Zen master living with him, but now he's a devotee of a religion that includes Buddhist, Christian and Islamic elements. One of Bahaism's prophets is Bab, a 19th-century Persian who, Morey says, heralded the dawn of a new era. Bab was a contemporary of Samuel Morse, Karl Marx. Charles Goodyear and other presurfing innovators—and of the fictitious U.S. patent-office official who resigned because everything had already been invented.
In keeping with the spirit of Bahaism, Morey invented the Boogie board to promote universal brotherhood. Indeed, he demanded that the present manufacturer, Kransco in San Francisco, stamp each Boogie board with the current Bahai year, which is now 139. Most people think it's the model number.
Morey believes the reason his Boogie board is so quick and lively is that it "conforms to the rhythm of the waves," the same rhythm, he says, that is the basis of all art, science and philosophy. "Waves are living creatures," he says. "I see everything that's going on as waves. We are chop on the face of the sea of reality. The ocean converses with you directly. The ocean is an organ of a whole being, and it tells you what's going on. By surfing on the Boogie board, you are communing with the rhythms of nature."
Morey had his first communion with nature at age 10. His family moved to Laguna Beach, Calif. from a tough Detroit neighborhood; his earliest memory is of five boys hitting him over the head with a toy gun. After a bout with rheumatic fever, he entered a paddleboard competition at Laguna and finished second. He has hardly left the water since.
At the University of Southern California, Morey majored in math but spent most of his time drumming and surfing. "Tom was one of the best surfers of the '50s," says Severson. "He was very fluid. He had one set of continuous moves."
At college he co-invented the Fantopper, a tangle of corrugated paper that opened up into a hat, a sculpture or a salad bowl. Perhaps it's a measure of the glorious '50s that he sold 100,000 of them at a buck apiece. It was later marketed as the Happi-Hat in a mail-order catalog that also offered other inventors' products, such as Bunion Bandage and Nudie ice-cube trays: "Super-cool, yet gives full sun protection with ultimate in ventilation. Great for convertibles, boats, golf, picnics, the beach or gardening.... For fashionable fun be the first to sport one." Sales of the hat were perhaps limited by the fact that it became soggy when wet, uncool for a hat.
Morey worked for Douglas Aircraft as a process engineer, specializing in rocket nozzles and filament windings, but around 1964 he opened a surfshop and went to work on his own designs. Earlier, he had pioneered turned-down noses on surfboards. He collaborated on a tri-sectioned surfboard that folded into a suitcase. "I remember Tom once took it out to the Banzai Pipeline," Severson says. "He and the board wound up in four parts, three of which are now at the bottom of the Pipeline. It was the first time I saw his little bizarre streak."
Morey continued to work on his surfing innovations while free-lancing for Surfer, then published by Severson. "Tom would write fanciful stories about what might be done to turn surfboards into spaceships," Severson says.
Morey set out in 1971 to design something lightweight that had the performance of a surfboard but was softer when it smashed you in the head after a wipeout. Morey made the board short and sleek, and replaced the traditional surfboard skegs with Vacuum Track Rails that practically weld it to the water. Thus the Morey Boogie board. It offers both a comfortable and relatively inexpensive ride for neophyte surfers. (The board now sells for $30 to $60, much cheaper than the $200 to $300 price range of a quality surfboard.)
Three years later he began selling the Boogie board out of a surfshop in Carlsbad, Calif., and pretty soon there were more Boogie boarders on the adjacent waves than surfers, a fact that hasn't exactly endeared them to surfers, many of whom are distressed at what they see as the despoiling of their sport. The Boogie board was perhaps the quintessential invention for Southern California—you could ride the waves on your stomach like a Hollywood biggie on his masseur's table, or you could stand back on it holding on to a neoprene leash like Zsa Zsa walking her poodles.
The Boogie board—and the money it has brought—has taken Morey out of the ranks of the mildly wonky basement crackpot. As the one great financial success in his perpetual printout of ideas, it gives Morey credibility, so that now nobody dares to completely kiss off his wilder inventions.
Three years ago Morey made a trip to England to visit John Searl, an inventor who claims to have devised a pilotless vertical liftoff machine that operates on "inverse gravity." "It tapped the difference between the confusion of reality and the stillness of the void," says Morey. Translated, that means the machine was a good idea, but before its time. Morey, who believes that Searl's invention is the wave of the future ("The whole idea of conventional aircraft is going out the window," Morey says), envisions a circular craft with a centrifugal blower in its center and wings shaped like a toilet seat. He hesitates to call it a flying saucer because he doesn't want people to think he's a crank.
He has also conceived a more "aerodynamically sound" football. He rejects the standard one that is kicked around these days. "Whoever made the first football was limited by what could be done with the skin of a pig, a rubber bladder and rawhide lacing," he says. Although Morey hasn't shown his football to the public, he describes it as made of "solid-core, closed-cell flexible foam, coated with urethane." He adds that the shape has been "optimized, refined, rifled."
Morey is also working most diligently on a new universal language and numbers system, so simple that even a surfer could understand it. His spirally alphabet resembles the paths worms trace under rocks. And his numerals, composed of primitive lines and circles, recalls the petroglyphs carved in lava behind his house.
The petroglyphs are a big tourist attraction on the Big Island. Morey's front yard has become a sort of minor exhibit along their route. Almost everyone stops and gawks. "Does anyone see commercial potential in this junk?" asks one tourist. "Yeah," Morey replies, "just everyone who ever looks at it." Morey doesn't suffer fools gladly.
Not even if they're potential investors. Morey thinks investors are only interested in turning a profit. Most are colorblind, he says. "What if I see a color nobody's ever seen before?" he asks. "I try to figure out a way to show it to somebody, and that somebody says, 'If I invest in this color, will I get my money back?' "
Morey thinks people should invest and stop asking venal questions. And believes gamblers should put their money on inventors rather than racehorses.
Morey is secretive about how much money he has made, but he doesn't look rich. "Like any baby, I'm just toddling along," he says, "seeing what the next thing is. I don't know what I'm doing."
He hopes to use the Boogie board material to build lightweight airships, hang gliders and blimps that "fly through the air like fish." So when the new world finally arrives, remember to duck.