Paul Boyton (USA)

Honor Contributor (1993)

The information on this page was written the year of their induction.

FOR THE RECORD: Credited with promoting swimming before the turn of the century as an innovator, author, and lifesaver.

Born in 1849 on the banks of the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Paul Boynton became an accomplished swimmer, making his first lifesaving rescue at twelve years of age.  Boynton left home at fifteen and signed on with the Union Navy, after which he joined Juarez’s Navy in Mexico and then spent time in the French Navy during the Franco-Prussian conflict.  Eventually he returned to America where he helped in the organization of the United States Lifesaving Service.

Boynton organized the first lifesaving service in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was appointed captain of the service in 1873.  For the next two years, not a single person drowned in Atlantic City.  Boynton was personally responsible for saving seventy-one people.

It was while he was captain of the Atlantic City Lifesaving Service that he began to experiment with new lifesaving equipment–particularly a rubber suit invented by C.S. Merriman of Iowa for which Boynton became famous throughout the world. The suit consisted of a pair of pantaloons with five tubes which could be inflated at will. The suit was easy to put on and was able to sustain the wearer in the water indefinitely while keeping the wearer perfectly dry.

In the fall of 1874, Boynton journeyed to New York determined to give a demonstration that would prove the utility of the suit to the world.  He also traveled to Europe to promote the suit which also contained a paddle to help propel the swimmer.  One of his demonstration feats was to swim the English Channel wearing the suit, and in 1875 Boynton succeeded in swimming from France to England, but with the use of a sail attached to the suit.

As a result of his amazing conquest, Boynton was received with great acclaim, and messages of congratulations were sent by both the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales; however, few orders were taken for the suit.

One consequence of Boynton’s effort was that it caught the eye of a young man named Matthew Webb.  Full of pluck, determination and ambition, Webb used the information that Boynton’s swim provided about the tides and currents to make his own attempts at crossing the Channel later that same year.  The Boynton-Webb swims encouraged the art of swimming and popularized open water swimming, especially the challenge of crossing the English Channel.

For the next few years, Boynton introduced his lifesaving suit to the governments of the European nations through a series of personal demonstrations in some of the most challenging swims in history.

Boynton’s amazing journeys include traversing 400 miles of the Rhine from Basle to Cologne; completing an 84-hour swim in the Danube from Lintz to Vienna and Budapest; swimming over 92 hours, covering 740 kilometers in the River Po from Turin to Ferrara in November 1876; and one of his most memorable swims, the Arno River from Florence to Pisa and the Tiber from Ortie to Rome.  For this swim in Italy, Boynton received a very warm welcome in Rome and was greeted with cheers from at least 100,000 people covering the banks of the river.  The compliment he most appreciated came from a brass band that played “Yankee Doodle Dandee” as he paddled past their station.  After being wined and dined in Rome, he next swam from the Island of Capri to Naples.  For this feat King Victor Emmanuel II made him a Knight in the Order of the Cross.

For the last portion of his European tour, Boynton crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Tarifa to Tangiers and in August of 1878, Boynton swam the Seine from Nogent to Paris.  When he arrived at the French capital, the New York Times correspondent estimated the crowd at nearly one million.

Upon returning to the United States in December of 1878, Boynton swam the Hudson from Albany to Manhattan, and in September of 1881, he commenced the longest swim he ever undertook–3,200 miles in the Mississippi River.

Boynton wrote a book on the art of swimming and in 1892 published The Story of Paul Boynton, which detailed his life of travel and adventure.  Unfortunately, Boynton’s suit never became popular in the way he had hoped.  Boynton was simply a man ahead of his time.  Today, a similar suit is being used by the Unites States Navy and Coast Guard for sea rescue operations.