Scuba Diving History: A Deep Dive into the Depths

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The name Jacques-Yves Cousteau is synonymous with scuba diving’s history, and you are forgiven if you’re under the impression that the story started with him. 

In 1942, Jacques, along with Emile Gagnan, redesigned a car regulator to function as a demand valve, and a device that provided divers with a supply of compressed air delivered with each inhalation.

That compressed air was stored in a tank, and the diver was, for the first time, untethered for longer than just a few minutes — a design recognisable in today’s kit as the “Aqua-Lung,” and one that made diving far more accessible and fun.

But, this is not where the story began. 

Early History

Throughout history there are various references to something called a “diving bell,” some even as far back as 332BC, when Aristotle told of Alexander the Great being lowered into the Mediterranean in one.

And, unsurprisingly, Leonardo Da Vinci also designed a similar solution to breathing underwater, comprising of a face mask and reinforced tubes (to withstand water pressure) which led to a bell-shaped float on the surface, allowing the diver access to air.

Fast forward to the century between the years 1550 and 1650, and there are far more reliable reports of the successful use of diving bells. Necessity is the mother of invention, and sunken vessels laden with riches provided more than enough incentive for underwater exploration. And, where once the obstacle of potential drowning would have thwarted such ambition, the diving bell was the solution.

Here’s how it worked: the bell would capture the air on the surface, and, when pushed straight down, would force that air to the top and trap it, allowing a diver to breathe a limited store. (The idea is the same as the simple experiment of turning a drinking glass upside down and submerging it directly down into a body of water.)

They were designed purely as a diver refuge that allowed them to stick their heads in and refill their lungs, before heading back out to locate and retrieve whatever sunken booty they could get their hands on.

The Santa Margarita — a Spanish ship that sank during a hurricane in 1622 — and the Mary Rose — a warship of Henry VIII’s English Tudor navy, sunk in battle in 1545 — were dived in this way, and some of their treasures recovered. But it wouldn’t be until the creation of 1980s technology that their recoveries would be completed.

Major Advancements

In the year 1650, a German man named Otto von Guericke invented the first air pump, a creation that would pave the way for Irish born Robert Boyle and his experiments which formed the basis of decompression theory.

In case you need a refresher, this is the bit of scientific theory that states that the “pressure and volume or density of a gas are inversely proportional.” Meaning a balloon full of gas at the surface will reduce in volume, and the gas inside will become denser, the deeper the balloon is taken. (For divers, this is why air in your buoyancy control device expands as you ascend, but it is also why your tissues absorb more nitrogen the deeper that you go.)

Robert Boyle first observed a bubble in the eye of a distressed viper used in compression experiments, but it wasn’t until 1878 that a man named Paul Bert linked the formation of nitrogen bubbles to decompression sickness, suggesting that slower ascents out of the water would help the body eliminate nitrogen safely.

Paul Bert also demonstrated that the pain from decompression sickness can be relieved by recompression, which provided a huge step forward in understanding the still perplexing diving illness. 

Even though diving science had only just started to grapple with decompression theory in 1878, some 55 years earlier, brothers Charles and John Dean created the first diving helmet by modifying their previously invented breathing apparatus used for fighting fires, called a smoke helmet. The design was supplied with air by a pump at the surface, and would be the start of what we recognize as a “hard hat diver kit” today.

Although it had its limitations (like water entering the suit unless the diver constantly stayed in a vertical position), the helmet was used successfully in salvage during 1834 and 1835. And in 1837, a German-born inventor called Augustus Siebe took the Dean brothers’ helmet a step further, connecting it to a watertight suit that contained air pumped from the surface — establishing even furthering the basis for suits still in use in the 21st century.

In 1839, the UK’s Royal Engineers adopted this suit and helmet configuration, and, with air supply from the surface, salvaged the HMS Royal George, an English navy vessel that sank in 1782.

The gunship was buried under 20 meters (65ft) of water, and the divers were noted to complain of rheumatism and cold-like symptoms after resurfacing — something which would be recognized today as symptoms of decompression sickness.

Thinking back, it’s amazing to consider that — for over 50 years — divers were working underwater with no real understanding of how and why they seemed to suffer from this mystery illness, known to them as “the bends,” so named because it made sufferers bend over in pain. 

A few years later, in 1843, the Royal Navy established the first diving school.

And later still in 1864, Benoît Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze designed a demand valve that delivered air upon inhalation; an early version of the “Aqua-Lung” previously mentioned and later invented, and that was originally conceived as a device to be used by miners.

The air came from a tank on the wearer’s back, and was filled from the surface. The diver could untether for only a short time, but it was a significant step towards a self-contained unit.

Meanwhile, Henry Fleuss developed what was arguably the world’s first “rebreather”; something that uses oxygen instead of air — absorbing the carbon dioxide of the user’s breath and allowing the unused oxygen content still within to be recycled — and included a rope soaked in potash to act as the carbon dioxide absorbent. With it, dive times of up to 3 hours were possible.

It’s easy to see that the pace and evolution of diving was increasing radically —  equipment was improving, along with the understanding of the dangers, and the beneficial roles that divers could play were broadening. And yet, they were being hampered by the mystifying sickness that plagued divers without explanation.

So, in 1908, at the request of the British Government, a Scottish physiologist by the name of John Scott Haldane started research. And, as a result, a stunning 80 years after the first diving helmet was used, the first “diving tables” were produced — a chart to assist in determining a decompression schedule — by the Royal and US Navies, their development undoubtedly sparing countless divers from decompression sickness.

After that, the pace only continued. US Navy divers set a 91 meter (300ft) diving record in 1915;  the first self-contained diving system was developed and marketed in 1917; helium and oxygen mixtures were researched in 1920; wooden fins were patented in 1933; and shortly afterward, Rouquayrol and Denayrouzes’ design was reconfigured by French inventor, Yves Le Prieur.

Le Prieur’s improvements featured a high-pressure tank that freed the diver from all hoses, the downside being that, to breathe, the diver opened a tap which significantly reduced possible dive times. It was at this point that the first recreational diving clubs were formed, and diving itself took a step away from its military routes and into leisure.

Into the Public Eye

The depths continued to increase, and in 1937, Max Nohl reached a depth of 128 meters (420ft); the same year that the O-ring, a type of seal that would become very important in scuba diving, was invented. 

Divers and filmmakers, Hans Hass and Jacques-Yves Cousteau both produced the first documentaries filmed underwater which enticed and lured would-be adventurers into the depths.

Their inadvertent marketing of a new sport coupled with Jacques’ invention of the Aqua-Lung in 1942 paved the way for the leisurely pastime enjoyable today. 

By 1948, Frédéric Dumas had taken the Aqua-Lung to 94 meters (308ft) and Wilfred Bollard had dived to 165 meters (540ft).

The next few years saw a further series of developments that all contributed to more people diving: The company, Mares, was founded, creating scuba diving equipment. The Aqua-Lung went into production and was made available in the USA. Underwater camera housings and strobes were developed for both still and moving pictures. Skin Diver Magazine made its debut.

The documentary by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Silent World, was released. Sea Hunt aired on TV. Another scuba diving company, Cressi, imported dive gear to the US. The first neoprene suit — also known as a wet suit — was designed. The first diving instruction courses were taught. The film Frogmen was released. 

And on it went, many more books and films being released to feed the suddenly ravenous imagination of audiences.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was one such story; adapted from Jules Vern’s novel first published in 1870, today, the 1954 film is over 60 years old and its influence still strong. Where else could that young, animated, wandering clownfish of today’s silver screen have gotten his name if not from the Nautilus’ commander, Captain Nemo?

Although courses had previously been available, it wasn’t until 1953 that the first scuba diving training agency, BSAC — The British Sub-Aqua Club — was created. Along with it, the YMCA, the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), all formed between 1959 and 1967.

This was largely due to the fact that rates of scuba accidents had risen sharply, and a need for proper training became evident. By the 1970s, certification cards for divers were required for air fills. 

The first stabilization jackets were introduced by Scubapro, known as “stab jackets,” and they were the forerunners of the BCD (buoyancy control device). Diving, at this point, still followed navy diving tables — which were created with decompression diving in mind, and were overly-penalizing for the type of repetitive leisure dives most hobbyists were now undertaking.

In 1988, Diving Science and Technology (DSAT) — an affiliate of PADI — created the recreational diving planner, or RDP, specifically for leisure divers. By the 90s, technical diving had entered the diving psyche, half a million new divers were certified annually, and dive computers were on practically every diver’s wrist. 

This Day Onwards

Today, enriched air or nitrox is in common usage to reduce the proportion of nitrogen in breathing-gas mixtures, most divers have a camera, rebreathers are the staple of technical divers, and Ahmed Gabr holds the open circuit depth record at 332.35 meters (1090.4ft).

In the 21st century, diving is a huge industry. Numerous different scuba training courses are available, and PADI alone certifies around 900,000 divers annually.

Destinations, resorts, and liveaboards can be a little overwhelming, but it’s not at all surprising to see parents diving with their children. And the future may hold exciting advances — a satellite imagery driven sub-aquatic navigation gadget? Communication devices becoming as ubiquitous as dive computers? (It would be a shame to lose the silent comedy value of today’s underwater signals, but advancement is advancement.) 

On top of that, the furthering of reduced underwater restrictions, depths, and amount of time will only continue to increase. 

It’s also possible that there will be a fundamental change in the gear that is used. It’s still true that the standard tank, BCD, and regulator set up is bulky, awkward, and heavy — it hasn’t changed much over the years. One possible example and future solution is a design that exists for a recreational rebreather to be built into diving helmets. 

And, in a very James Bond fashion, crystals that absorb oxygen from water have been synthesized for patients with lung problems, the application of which is obvious for diving. 

But whatever may await the evolution of underwater exploration, it’s a sure thing that people losing their fascination for deep-sea adventure isn’t included.

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