For centuries, people have been fascinated with the idea of being able to “breathe” underwater. Though humans dipped under the surface thousands of years ago to collect food from the ocean, over time the potential for underwater exploration, military use, and construction became obvious, and people looked for ways to stay under longer and to go deeper. There are records dating back to the 4th Century BC of Aristotle and Alexander the Great creating simple devices that let them take a few breaths under water.
After centuries of rudimentary inventions, prototypes, and improvements, inventors went from basic goggles to diving bells. In 1535, inventor Guglielmo de Lorena created a weighted chamber that was sealed, greased, and had an exhaust valve to release used air and regulate pressure. The chamber was large enough for one person to stand in. In 1691, scientist Edmund Halley patented a diving bell. His initial design, when descended by cables into the water, acted as an air bubble for the person inside the chamber. Using a levy system, smaller chambers with fresh air were brought down and the air was piped into the bigger bell. With time, he advanced to air pipes leading to the surface to replenish fresh air. Though models were improved, it wasn’t until nearly 200 years later that Henry Fluess created the first self-contained breathing unit. The unit was composed of a rubber mask connected to a breathing bad and carbon dioxide was exhaled into one of two tanks on the divers back and absorbed by caustic potash, or potassium hydroxide. Though the device enabled considerable bottom time, depth was limited and the unit posed a high risk of oxygen toxicity to the diver.
Then came The Mark V Diving Helmet. This cartoon looking equipment set up is what you might picture when you think of the classic, old-school diving suit. The Mark V was designed in 1912 and the helmet alone weighed 25 kilograms! Christian Lambersten developed a closed-circuit model in 1940 which advanced the military benefits Used by the US Navy, the soldiers that wore his suits were called frogmen because of the suit’s frog-like appearance. Lambersten named his invention SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) which became the common term for all diving related equipment.
In 1942 with their invention of the Aqua-Lung, Jacques Cousteau and his business partner Émile Gagnan entered the big leagues. The two met during World War II where Cousteau was a spy for the French Navy. Together with Gagnan’s engineering prowess and Cousteau’s underwater inclinations, the two created the Aqua-Lung. Though by far not the first breathing apparatus it was the most popular and brought diving into the mainstream. Suddenly people were able to explore the ocean not for military purposes but for science, curiosity, and fun.
Since then, Aqua-Lung has become an international company. Émile Gagnan went on to design many integral parts of modern-day SCUBA gear. Jacque Cousteau became famous for sea exploration and environmentalism. His show, “The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau” exposed people to a world most had never seen. Active internationally, Cousteau’s legacy continues a model for marine conservation.
As diving became more popular, dive schools popped up. In 1967 PADI, or Professional Association of Diving Instructors, was established and since has certified over 25,000,000 divers. SSI, or Scuba School International was founded in 1970.
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