One of the best perks of working at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center is the opportunity to meet inventors and innovators from a wide variety of fields. I recently enjoyed talking with skateboard innovator Frank Nasworthy about his development of urethane “Cadillac Wheels,” which led to the renaissance of skateboarding in the 1970s.
Before I tell his story, it's important to set the stage. Nasworthy’s work came almost a decade after the first whoosh of skateboarding popularity quickly went up—and then came crashing down. According to a 1975 Sports Illustrated article, titled “Wheeling and Dealing, “Ten years ago, there were a lot of warehouses full of skateboards. The fad had started in Southern California's beach towns, where kids nailed roller-skate wheels to miniature wooden surfboards and whiled away the days when the ocean was flat, scaring the daylights out of passing motorists. The craze swept inland and for a year anybody who could tool up fast enough made money. That was 1965. Fifty million skateboards were sold that year. Manufacturers sponsored teams; a promoter was able to sell out a park in Anaheim at $5 a head for what he called the International Skateboard Championships; orthopedists coined a term, skateboard fracture, for a shattered elbow. And by January 1966 it was all over. The skateboard was a good toy, but the kids had pushed it to its limits and were on to new challenges.” 
For skateboarding to ascend again, it needed someone to develop innovative improvements to the limited, and limiting, equipment. Nasworthy was not the most obvious candidate. He moved around as a military kid (his father, US Navy Captain George Franklin Nasworthy, served as the NATO Liaison for the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and ended up in Northern Virginia, where he graduated from Annandale High School. In 1969, he started studying engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI), commonly known today as Virginia Tech. In the spring of his freshman year, Nasworthy was suspended for civil disobedience in protesting the Kent State shooting and the Vietnam War.
Frank said, “At this point in my life, I was a land-locked surfer.” With his friend Bill Harward, Frank pulled out his old skateboard from the garage and skated all over Washington, DC, and Northern Virginia. He recalled, “We skated on weekday nights and went to Cape Hatteras surfing on the weekends until the winter’s cold prohibited it.” 
During the summer of 1970, Harward took Nasworthy to visit a friend, Richard Heitfield, at his father Vernon’s nearby Creative Urethanes factory. Among other things, the factory produced polyurethane roller-skate wheels. (Vernon Heitfield invented them initially so his younger son Tom could roller skate indoors in the basement of their house.) While at the factory, Nasworthy and Harward saw some rejected wheels, which they were allowed to take away with them. They tried putting these urethane roller-skate wheels on their skateboards at home and immediately realized what an improvement they were; the urethane wheels offered a smoother ride with better traction.
As it turns out, this would change Nasworthy's—and skateboarding's—trajectory.
The following summer, Nasworthy traveled with Harward to California to visit friends. While Harward stayed in Los Angeles, Nasworthy moved to Encinitas in San Diego County—primarily to surf, but he liked to skateboard, too. Given the frustrations he had experienced using existing steel and clay wheels, he asked his dad to send him the skateboard with the Creative Urethanes wheels attached that he had left at home in Annandale. As Nasworthy explains it, “The Creative Urethane wheels were unique in that they used a ‘loose ball bearing assembly.’ This loose bearing wheel allowed the Creative Urethane wheels to be easily adapted to the old skateboards laying around in everyone’s garage. This was a fundamental aspect that connected the Creative Urethanes wheel to the existing base of old skateboards.”
He asked Creative Urethanes to make wheels for skateboards to his design specifications and formed the Cadillac Wheels Company. To get the word out about the new wheels, Nasworthy tried peddling them to surf shops up and down the California coast, but few showed interest as nobody understood what the wheels could do. Instead, first, by word of mouth and by giving hundreds of wheels away for free, and then through ads in surfing magazines, the news spread like wildfire. The new Cadillac Wheels were not only extremely durable, but they also provided a better ride with more traction and more flexible movement.
Nasworthy told me, “The wheels gave skateboarders the ability to do things on land that surfers dreamed of doing in the ocean on their evolving long surfboards. . . . It literally drove the surfboard industry to design to enable and allow surfers to act out on water what they were now able to do on land using their skateboards.” Of course, this rapid success meant that other skateboarding companies quickly jumped on the bandwagon of making skateboards with urethane wheels, too.
Additional skateboard inventions and innovations quickly cropped up. These included the development of more responsive “trucks,” or axles, the metal suspension assemblies that attach the wheels to the skateboards; a sealed bearing, which made the wheels dirt proof as well as more reliable and safer, since sometimes the loose ball bearings would come out; the use of fiberglass, molded plastic, and other materials instead of wood; and the addition of “kicktails” to the board design that helped skaters spin and pivot. It was the ‘60s craze all over again, with skateboarding shooting up in popularity. Both boys and girls used their boards not only for fun and as creative energy outlets, but also for transportation that was cheaper and easier to carry around than a bike.
After reigniting the skateboard craze, Nasworthy decided to license his wheels to Bahne and Co., which packaged Bahne skateboards with Cadillac wheels. At their height, they were selling up to 20,000 skateboards a month. As described in a 1984 article: “The smell of money attracted all kinds of predators, and they began circling the industry, hungry for some of the spoils. . . . Fly-by-nighters were buying second-quality wheels from reputable manufacturers and selling them for more than top-quality wheels were worth. In 1979, the skateboard industry started on a downward slide one more time, gutted by its own greed. Skateboarding hit rock bottom in 1980. The companies who weren’t committed to the sport got out. Skateboarder Magazine quit publishing.” 
Nasworthy had already decided it was time to move on. He returned to college, earning his delayed Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mechanics at the University of California San Diego in 1984. Then he pursued a different kind of inventive career as a mechanical engineer, primarily at Hewlett Packard where he helped to develop the first wide format thermal inkjet printer and was the co-inventor (sometimes under the name George Franklin Nasworthy, Jr.) on multiple patents, including US Patent 5,530,459 related to printer paper handling.
He no longer skates himself, but he has passed a legacy of love for the sport on to his kids and grandkids. (He told me that he continues to try to surf to this day, though.)
As the Skateboarding Hall of Fame and Museum summed it up for his 2012 induction, “Frank Nasworthy paved the way for the second great boom of skateboarding in the 1970s. The new Cadillac Wheels made for more traction and opened the door to the low-slung surf style and further evolution into banks and soon thereafter vertical pool riding. In effect, Frank Nasworthy helped to evolve skateboarding by quite literally reinventing the wheel.” 
 Sarah Pileggi. "Wheeling and Dealing: Remember Skateboards? They Are Back, and Better This Time Around." Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1975. https://vault.si.com/vault/1975/09/01/wheeling-and-dealing, accessed September 13, 2022.
 All direct Frank Nasworthy quotes are from the author’s correspondence with Frank Nasworthy, September 9, 2022.
 Steve Sorensen. "Frank Nasworthy in Encinitas Invented the Cadillac Wheel and Changed Skateboarding Forever.” San Diego Reader, February 23, 1984. https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1984/feb/23/cover-shred-till-youre-dead, accessed September 13, 2022.
 Skateboarding Hall of Fame and Museum. “Frank Nasworthy.” https://skateboardinghalloffame.org/2020/04/frank-nasworthy-2012/, accessed September 13, 2022.
- Nasworthy, Frank. “Breakthrough—The Urethane Wheel.” SkateBoarder Magazine 2, no. 1 (Summer 1975): 22-23. https://skateboarding.transworld.net/skateboarder-archives/skateboarder-magazine-volume-2-issue-1/, accessed September 13, 2022.
- Pileggi, Sarah. "Wheeling and Dealing: Remember Skateboards? They Are Back, and Better This Time Around." Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1975. https://vault.si.com/vault/1975/09/01/wheeling-and-dealing, accessed September 13, 2022.
- Skateboarding Hall of Fame and Museum. “Frank Nasworthy.” https://skateboardinghalloffame.org/2020/04/frank-nasworthy-2012/, accessed September 13, 2022.
- Snyder, Craig B. “Brand New Cadillac.” In A Secret History of the Ollie: Vol. 1: The 1970s (Delray Beach, FL: Black Salt Press, 2015), 18-23.
- Sorensen, Steve. “Frank Nasworthy in Encinitas Invented the Cadillac Wheel and Changed Skateboarding Forever.” San Diego Reader, February 23, 1984. https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1984/feb/23/cover-shred-till-youre-dead, accessed September 13, 2022.