If you had started in say 1955 your rod would have been heavy and made of split cane - maybe an Iven's Iron Murderer 10' capable of delivering an entire DT No3 Kingfisher silk (approx #8). And you would have had to have had a couple of these lines and kept them dried and treated with Mucilin because they took on water and started to sink after four or five hours hard fishing. The leader would only just have gone from silkworm gut over to a nylon monofilament such as Luron 2.
You would have had adequate (if heavy) waterproofing in the form of a waxed Barbour and heavily built black rubber thigh waders. An aluminium Wheatley clipped flybox and Brady bag to carry it and your nasty metal Thermos Flask.
Bloody awful equipment and a distinct distraction from the business of flyfishing - but state of the art and far better than whatever was available in earlier decades.
Over the next 20 years we went through solid fibreglass, hollow fibreglass and finally into hollow graphite rods. A ferocious period of development - given that split cane had lasted for 50 years. I would say that the critical development into modern flyrod systems came with hollow technology in the mid 60's - pioneered by Shakespeare's - remember the old White Wonderrod! I still have a few including Dick Walker's own Grafham Ghost (built by Don Neish) and they are eminently fishable and fairly light today.
I think I tried out the first carbon rod ever built - off the bank in Rutland's first season built by an engineer from Rolls Royce as a development project - Rolls were developing the material for jet turbine blades and looking actively for other applications. Within a year or two we were all on carbon fibre thanks to Shakespeare and Lamiglas initially and Hardy's a year or so later working with Dick Walker and Joe Fisher.
I'd even conned Hardy's into making the first carbon fibre leadliner by 1979. And whereas there have been definite refinements in cloths and tapering in the last 25 years - leading to significant weight reductions - there has not been a significant step change in rod technology since. Although there have been numbers of failed experiments with inclusions into cloths - such as kevlar and boron which came and went. As did the flirtations with solid tips made either from glassfibre or carbon. Effectively the modern flyrod has been with us for 25 years and what a pleasure it is to use compared to what went before.
Except, maybe sadly, very few rods are made in the Industrialised West, or have been for the last decade. The last 20 years have seen the rise and fall of Far Eastern manufacturers in Japan and probably now in Korea as the newer and aggressively cheaper manufacturing countries have gotten into fly rod manufacture. Most carbon flyrods come from China and Korea. I paid £49 for my first carbon rod in '71 - the other week I was offered better rods at less than £5 from China (but I had to take 1000!). Taking currency movements and devaluation into account the price of sensible carbon flyrods is minimally10 times cheaper than they were 30 years ago!
Flylines went through a sudden development in the late 50's and 60's driven by an expanding market and the invention of controllable PVC coating over a level core. Prior to that the process of tapering a silk flyline was horrendously balls aching and wickedly labour intensive.
Scientific Anglers were the first to get it right in the USA closely followed by Shakespeare, Gladding, Sunset and Cortland. By the mid 60's most of the real development was over and Scientific Anglers had an effective range of sinking lines and floaters as good as are commonly available today. And what they hadn't got others had, so that it was easy for a practical sort like myself to be carrying a range of 5 different sinkers and three different leadcored shooting heads by 1971. That availability of metered distinct sinkers opened the way to the development of deep fishing and ultimately Northampton Style - as a range of techniques, impossible to consider without the lines being there!
What has happened since has been largely marketing balderdash and cosmetisation with the possible exception of Teeny's work on sinkers. Manufacturers have generally got a little better at surface finishing and defining sinking rates and one or two have kept on developing lines for specific species applications mainly in the USA and for Stripers and tropical saltwater. However if you understand and can apply what was available by 1970 you won't catch any less fish on British stillwaters to this day!
There were one or two significant players behind flyline development. In the UK we owe a debt to Terry Thomas mainly for his work in defining with the Americans a sensible system of weight classification and tapering. Barrie Welham also made major contributions. It is interesting to note that both men were exceptional tournament casters in their day and I think both had won assorted British Championships in various disciplines. Line development without the active involvement of exceptional fishermen and casters is time largely wasted.
The Shooting Head
As a concept the shooting head was initially developed by the Steelheaders along the American West Coast in the late 40's. Marvin Hodge (also a great tournament distance caster) had a major hand in this work. By 1953 Arthur Cove was actively trying out shooting heads at Eyebrook. Dick Shrive did the significant development, as in most things connected with practical boat fishing. Shrive also invented the Sinking Tip as an aid to his bank fishing operations. It didn't take long for the folks influenced by what Shrive was up to, like Bob Church and Geoff Bucknall, to be majoring in the use of and writing about shooting heads. By the late 60's Dick Walker was briskly writing about practical long-range casting.
I know that by 1972 when I was well into boat fishing, I fished mainly with shooting heads and it was me who went researching into the other critical componentry that goes with shooting heads - jointing systems, knots and backing lines. It didn't take very long to conclude that 30bs fluo yellow Stren was the best practical monofil - after they stopped making Aqua 40 which was even better.
Don Neish developed the use of flattened monofil which is still used by a few - he rolled I think Abulon 30lb Sea Line through what was effectively a mangle - Shakespeare's sister company then made Black Streak for Bob Church which is still a viable product (frankly I sorted it out for both of them!) And, of course Shakespeare's were the first to produce Braided Monofilament for use as shooting head backing - ultimately I set up a small operation and made it for them before I sold out. These days I use prestretched fluo yellow dyed braided monofil which is better yet - not a lot of development in 30 years but when the product is right you don't need anything unnecessary!