Before action cameras and drones captured surfers hurdling along epic waves, there was Thomas Edison’s production company.
In 1906, a camera operator for Edison’s company named Robert Bonine arrived in Hawaii to film several scenes of what was then a new territory of the United States. For three months Bonine filmed short documentary vignettes of life on the island.
Possibly the oldest footage of surfers in existence, the footage entitled “Thomas Edison’s Hawaii” depicts surfers riding the waves off the beaches of Waikiki. The film’s portrayal of surfing is a mere echo of the sport it would become – absent of the fiberglass boards, big waves and professional contests that evolved later. Other clips show outrigger canoes and a luau.
While not the earliest footage of Hawaii itself (an Edison crew filmed six boys splashing in a harbor in 1898), the Bonine film is assumed to be the oldest extant footage of the practice of surfing.
According to newspaper reports at the time, the film shoot was a major event for the island. “Moving pictures of canoes and surfboard riding are to be taken off the Moana and Seaside hotels, Waikiki, this afternoon,” The Honolulu Advertiser announced on 12 August, 1906, the day of the shoot. “Those who can ride surfboards standing up are wanted to be there in force.”
“Everybody that could get in focus was ‘Bonined’ at Waikiki beach yesterday afternoon,” The Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported. “That is, they were included in some rare pictures taken by Robert Bonine, the moving-picture man of the Edison company of Orange, N.J.”
The following year, the Bonine films were distributed to the mainland, and people there got their first peek at the sport of surfing (for some it was their first glimpse of a motion picture). A decade later, the sport began arriving in the mainland with Duke Kahanamoku surfing exhibitions in Southern California.