The Father of Computerized Shaping

Michel Barland: creator of our Skynet overlord

tktk

Not pictured: the little door to the coal-burning furnace that powered pioneering shaper Michel Barland’s computer.

Today’s surfboards are built with levels of precision and consistency unheard of when shapers were still kicking chickens out of their shaping bays and ashing joints into the resin tints. Love ’em or hate ’em, computerized shaping machines took a whole bunch of the guesswork out of building the magic board. And thank holy lord for that.

Actually, thank French surfer and engineering genius Michel Barland, who was onto all of this before anybody. Way before. Look at him up there with a computer that he designed and built himself. No mouse. No trackpad. No interface to speak of. Just rows of numbers onscreen. For all I know, the thing's running on vacuum tubes and punch cards. This was 1984. Barland, one of the original Biarritz surfers, already had spent five years developing a computer-driven shaping machine. Here's what SURFER said at the time:

Over 5,000 hours of programming has gone into the Barland System. First, the computer receives its instructions—up to 50 pieces of information that describe the board's dimensions and features, including wings, channels, and fin-box positions. The blank is held in place on the shaping stands by suction pads while the cutting head carries out its work at 8,000 RPM. Bottom curve, planshape, deck and rails are cut in with amazing accuracy, exact to a ten-micron margin of error. Under the current program, given some fifty calculations, the machine can shape a six-foot surfboard in 12-15 minutes.

The article says Barland had already made 1,500 boards by that time, but as far as I know, none of them ever left the continent, and the tech-driven process itself certainly hadn't yet been replicated in America or Australia. Why not? Probably because home computers weren't a thing quite yet, and the machinery involved was expensive, and maybe the whole idea at that point just seemed too Frankenstein. Might also have had something to do with Barland's marketing. The man had a huge bulging brain, but his label for this brave new label read "Barland Computer Pre-Shaped." Right there on the deck of your board. Not sexy.

I stayed at the Barland family house for a week in 1988. The house, a rambling old building filled with his offspring, was attached to the factory where Barland did all his work. I was all set for boards at that time, and hadn't yet given a thought to the marriage of computers and surf equipment. Michel didn't speak English, I didn't speak French. I left the house each morning to surf Hossegor, while he locked himself into the factory and coded the sport's future. I don't remember much about him. Quiet, friendly, a little intense. The one thing I do recall is that, during the huge family dinners each night, at the end, one of his kids would come out of the kitchen with a big steaming bowl of hot chocolate, which would be placed in front of Michel. All dinner long, he'd sit, listen, and quietly and directly answer whatever question came his way from the family. He was pretty detached, for the most part. But when that bowl of hot chocolate hit the table in front of him, he beamed like a child. Lit the room up.