A Brief History of Diving, part 2:

Evolution of the Self-Contained Diver

By Alex Brylske

Last month we began our examination of the history of diving by tracing the exploits of free divers from ancient times through the Middle Ages. We also took a look at how diving technology advanced from the Renaissance through the 19th century. Yet while free divers, diving bells and hard hats are part of our heritage, recreational diving wasn’t possible until we were freed from surface tethers to operate in an almost fishlike state. That’s the subject of this second article — the evolution of self-contained diving systems and related equipment that made the diving experience what it is today.


The Earliest Pioneers

While references to diving systems can be found in the writings of both of the Renaissance scientists Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Borelli, credit for the first workable self-contained design should probably go to the English inventor William James. His apparatus (figure 1) consisted of an iron reservoir secured around the diver’s waist, which held air at a pressure of 30 atmospheres (440 psi). The air was injected into a helmet, regulated only by a free-flow on/off valve. Although his design dates back to 1825, there’s no evidence that it was actually used. The first functional system was invented on the other side of the Atlantic.
An American, Charles Condert of Brooklyn, New York, manufactured and used the first functional self-contained diving system in 1831. His design (figure 2) consisted of a gum-impregnated suit that was partially inflated by a horseshoe-shaped air reservoir secured around the waist. Glass ports allowed him to see out, and expired air escaped from a small hole in the top of the hood. Air was periodically replenished via an on/off valve. The air reservoir was “charged” at the surface by a pump Condert built from the barrel of a gun. Condert also had to carry a 200-pound (90-kg) ballast to counteract the system’s enormous positive buoyancy. Yet, crude as it was, Condert’s system worked, and he made numerous dives to a depth of about 20 feet (6 m) in the East River. But on one fateful dive in 1832, he experienced a problem that severed the hose that provided air to the suit. He drowned as a result.
Refinement of Condert’s design came in 1863, when another American, T. Cato McKeen, added a large back-mounted air reservoir and fabricated a rubber suit. But the most ingenious part of McKeen’s apparatus was the addition of a second air system to inflate the suit and bring the diver to the surface. One author describes this as the forerunner of the modern buoyancy compensator.
While the Americans designed the first, the most famous self-contained design of the last century was developed by a French mining engineer, Benoit Rouquayrol, and his associate, French naval officer Auguste Denayrouze. In 1865, they built the Aerophore (figure 3). This apparatus was similar to earlier designs — an air reservoir was carried on the back — except that it was the first to incorporate a regulator to control the air delivery. Using a crude diaphragmlike device, their regulator was similar in concept to the modern demand valve. In fact, expired air was expelled into the water through a one-way valve, much like in a modern scuba regulator.
While the Aerophore was designed primarily as a surface-supplied device, it could function independent of an external air supply. The Aerophore enjoyed widespread popularity and was the inspiration for the diving suits described by a contemporary — Jules Verne — in his classic adventure novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Self-contained systems were extremely inefficient and required large air reservoirs. So by the 1870s, interest shifted to developing an oxygen system that could scrub and recirculate the breathing gas, a system that we today call a rebreather.
The first successful rebreather was built in 1878 by an Englishman, Henry Fleuss. His apparatus consisted of a rubberized fabric hood, a breathing bag and a copper cylinder containing oxygen compressed to 30 atmospheres (440 psi). The tank, along with a carbon dioxide scrubber, was worn on the back. As the diver rebreathed his expired air, the system only needed periodic recharging from the oxygen supply.
Fleuss’ system was used in one of the most incredible commercial diving operations in history. In 1880, a tunnel under the Severn River in England flooded and couldn’t be pumped out unless a hatchway door was closed. Unfortunately, that hatchway was not only 60 feet (18 m) underwater, but also 1,000 feet (303 m) back into the tunnel. In a death-defying dive, one of the most famous commercial divers of his time, Alexander Lambert, made the excursion using the Fleuss oxygen apparatus.
The most remarkable thing about Lambert’s dive is that neither he nor anyone else knew that breathing pure oxygen was toxic below a depth of about 25 feet (8 m). But he found that out three years later when a similar problem occurred and he was asked to make the dive again. This time Lambert almost died from an “oxygen hit” (massive convulsions). His experience pointed out the system’s major drawback — a diver can only breathe pure oxygen for a limited time at depth.
Regardless of its limitations, Fleuss’ apparatus was far from a failure. Later he redesigned it, placing the oxygen tank and breathing bag on the diver’s chest. This was a prototype for the oxygen rebreathers used by the frogmen of World War II. And a modification of the Fleuss device became the first successful submarine escape apparatus. Interestingly, a similar system was even used in filming the first underwater feature movie, J.E. Williamson’s 1915 version of — what else? — “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
In 1900, the inventor and early underwater photographer Louis Bouton went back to an air-based design. He became the first to solve the air reservoir problem by adding high-pressure tanks capable of holding 200 atmospheres (about 3,000 psi) of air. The self-contained diver was finally beginning to look like his modern counterpart.
By 1918, a relatively obscure but highly successful system was developed in Japan — the “Ohgushi Peerless Respirator” (figure 4).
Ohgushi incorporated many of the ideas of his predecessors, but his major contribution was using a more modern mask design, similar to the one used by early scuba divers. The major flaw in the system was the complex way the regulator system worked. To breathe, the diver had to clinch his teeth against a valve, inhale through his nose, then exhale through his mouth. Nonetheless, the Japanese Navy adopted the device and there are records of its use in salvage operations to depths of more than 200 feet (61 m).

The Genesis of a New Sport

Most of the diving systems we’ve described so far were custom-made by their inventors. But by the early 1920s, some visionaries were beginning to see a need for mass-manufactured equipment. Some even foresaw diving moving beyond the realm of commerce and becoming a recreational activity. One of those visionaries was a Frenchman named Yves le Prieur.
Le Prieur learned to dive in the navy during the early years of the 20th century. But his zeal for improving diving systems didn’t emerge until 1925, when he saw a demonstration of an underwater torch used to cut metal. What impressed le Prieur most wasn’t the cutting tool, but the breathing system the diver used. It had been invented back in 1912 by Maurice Frenez. Soon after the demonstration, le Prieur and Frenez collaborated on an improved system using tanks of compressed air, and by 1933 had a very functional apparatus (figure 5). The major flaw in le Prieur’s device, however, was that it wasted so much air. Lacking a demand-type regulator, it was a free-flow system. The diver manually controlled the air flow from the tank, allowing it to enter directly into the mask. The expired air — along with a lot of unused air — escaped under the mask seal. Still, the “Le Prieur Improved Diving Apparatus” made a major contribution and helped spawn recreational diving.
In 1935, le Prieur gave a series of demonstrations of his device in Paris that sparked the imagination of many. One observer was Jean Painleve, who that same year founded the first amateur diving club: Club des Scaphandres et de la Vie Sous l’Eau.

Birth of the Man-Fish

In the years after World War I, an expatriate American named Guy Gilpatric was living on the coast of southern France. Although his name is virtually unknown today, Gilpatric more than perhaps anyone else was the modern inspiration for recreational diving. An ex-aviator, Gilpatric began spearfishing in the Mediterranean using a crude pole spear and a pair of his flying goggles he had sealed with putty and paint. Gilpatric became quite an accomplished spearfisherman and was well-known in the local community. In 1928, he published an important book describing his adventures, “The Complete Goggler.” This work went on to spur the first generation of free divers, much as Cousteau’s later book, “The Silent World,” inspired the first generation of scuba enthusiasts.
Strangely, Gilpatric never wore fins, even though prototypes came on the scene by 1930. By 1933, a French inventor named de Corlieu received the patent, and by 1935 fins were available commercially for the first time. Fins were brought to America by yet another diving pioneer, Owen Churchill, who produced the de Corlieu design under license. Churchill’s fins went on to become standard issue for both the frogmen of World War II and early sport divers. You can still see an adaptation of the Churchill design in use today. The stubby, odd-shaped fins are extremely popular among boogie boarders and body surfers.
Like fins, the diving mask can be traced back to the 1930s. The modern diving mask, of course, evolved from goggles. And the first person to improve on their primitive design was a Russian, Alec Kramarenko, who, while living in Japan, was inspired by the equipment and technique of the Ama pearl divers. For hundreds of years the Ama divers had used double-lens goggles made of tortoise shells. Kramarenko replaced the double lens with a single plate, and using a molded rubber skirt, held the plate in place by a wooden frame.
Still, his design did not enclose the nose and, therefore, the diver couldn’t equalize the internal pressure with the external water pressure. This allowed the diver to descend only about 20 feet (6 m) before succumbing to a serious mask squeeze. To solve this problem, Kramarenko added rubber bulbs at each end. On descent, these bulbs were squeezed, forcing more air into the mask itself, counteracting the external pressure. While it was rather bizarre-looking, the design did work. The final evolution of enclosing the nose as well as the eyes in the mask is credited to yet another Frenchman, Maxime Forjot. He received a patent for his innovation.
Communications among free divers of the time was very poor, and parallel development of technology certainly occurred. For example, American diving pioneer Jack Prodonovich independently developed an improved diving mask about the same time as Kramarenko and Forjot.
Creation of the snorkel is a little less clear in the historical record. Gilpatric credits his friend, Englishman Steve Butler, for the device, but the patent eventually went again to Maxime Forjot in 1938.

The Forgotten Men of Diving

At the same time free diving technology was advancing, an important step forward was made in breathing apparatus design. The first completely automatic scuba system was produced by George Commeinhes, one of the spearfishermen inspired by Gilpatric.
Commeinhes’ family owned a company that manufactured valves for the mining industry. By using his mechanical knowledge and his family’s ample resources, Commeinhes improved on le Prieur’s design. He retained the full-face mask concept, but placed the compressed air tank on the diver’s back. But more significantly, Commeinhes’ device abandoned the free-flow design of le Prieur, replacing it with a demand valve mounted between the diver’s shoulders.
In 1937, the Commeinhes unit was approved for use by the French Navy, and was tested to depths of more than 150 feet (45 m). Unfortunately, while the Commeinhes device held great promise, the inventor was killed in combat during the war. One can only speculate how the history of diving might have been altered had Commeinhes not met such a tragic and untimely end.
Another future innovator noticeably inspired by Gilpatric was a young Austrian zoologist, Hans Hess. But unlike Gilpatric’s fascination with spearfishing, Hess’ interest was in underwater photography. After a successful expedition taking underwater photos along the Dalmatian coast, Hess planned a more extensive expedition to make an underwater film. Although he originally intended to film in the Red Sea, the mounting tensions that would lead to World War II convinced him to change his plan. Instead, he chose the island of Curaçao, and thus the first feature-length underwater documentary was shot in the Caribbean in 1939.

Serendipity and Creation of Modern Scuba

The influence of Guy Gilpatric on diving’s early pioneers was very significant. And one of the earliest converts to the new sport was a French naval officer named Philippe Tailliez. Coincidentally, a friend of Tailliez’s who was also a naval officer was involved in a serious car accident, and was reassigned to duty in the French coastal city of Toulon. As part of his rehabilitation, he began to do a lot of swimming. One day Tailliez introduced his friend to Gilpatric, and the history of diving would never be the same. That accident victim was Jacques Yves Cousteau, and together with Tailliez and another well-known spearfisherman, Fredric Dumas, the trio would go on to ensure that the fledgling sport of diving would become what it is today.
Cousteau’s experience with the le Prieur device led him to believe that a great potential existed for the recreational use of underwater breathing equipment, but only after significant design improvements. Initially, Cousteau experimented with oxygen-based systems. But by 1939, experience —
including a bout with oxygen convulsions — convinced him that oxygen was too dangerous for use in a recreational system.
In the fall of 1942, along with his friend Tailliez, Cousteau went to Paris on leave. The men had two objectives. First, they wanted permission to make more underwater documentary films. (Cousteau had made his first underwater film, “Ten Fathoms Under the Sea,” in 1940.) The second reason was to meet with Emile Gagnan, a talented engineer who worked for the Air Liquide Corporation. (Today Air Liquide is the parent company of Aqua Lung.) The reason Cousteau contacted Gagnan was because of his expertise in building specialized valves.
Gagnan agreed to help and proposed a valve based on a design he’d invented to convert automobiles from gasoline to natural gas. (Remember, this all occurred during World War II, when gasoline was a scarce and valuable commodity.) Their original design was only marginally successful. In fact, Cousteau nearly drowned during the first test dive in the Marne River. They then redesigned the demand valve and positioned it on the diver’s back between his shoulders — similar to the Commeinhes apparatus. But unlike previous designs, Cousteau and Gagnan abandoned the full-face mask, opting instead to supply air to the diver via a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece connected on one side to an intake hose delivered the air, and to an exhaust hose on the other side that directed the expired air away from the diver.
The refined and patented Gagnan valve design was successfully tested in the summer of 1943. After more than 500 shallower test dives, Cousteau’s friend and associate Frederic Dumas made a 220-foot (67-m) dive, confirming the reliability of the Cousteau-Gagnan invention. With a simple, safe and reliable breathing apparatus, the final piece had been added to the puzzle, and the stage was now set for the creation of the new sport of scuba diving.

Sport Diving Comes to America

In the early 1930s, Guy Gilpatric published several articles in the Saturday Evening Post magazine, giving Americans their first exposure to his undersea exploits. The effect was immediate. By 1933, Californians Glen Orr, Jack Prodanovich and Ben Stone formed the first spearfishing club in the United States — the famous San Diego Bottom Scratchers. By 1939, the Bottom Scratchers added yet another diving trailblazer, Wally Potts, and together the group pioneered the design of more effective equipment and refined the techniques of free diving.
The aqualung was brought to America in 1948 by a Navy UDT commander, Doug Fane. The next year, Cousteau sent six units to Rene Bussoz, a sporting goods dealer who owned a store near the UCLA campus. Seeing the potential value of scuba for scientific investigation, a young graduate student by the name of Conrad Limbaugh convinced his professor to buy two of the units. Soon after, Limbaugh, along with an associate, Andy Rechnitzer, began diving throughout the Southern California coast. In 1950, the two enrolled in the Ph.D. program at San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography. There they informally tutored a few of their colleagues in the use of scuba until 1952, when a student at another California university died in a diving accident.
Alarmed by the death, the Scripps administration asked Limbaugh to create a training course and manual. The result was the first formal scuba program and textbook in America. In 1954, also concerned over the potential hazards of this increasingly popular sport, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation sent three representatives — Al Tillman, Bev Morgan and Ramsey Parks — to San Diego to take Limbaugh’s course. This became the first scuba instructor program ever conducted in America. Returning to Los Angeles, the trio formed the nation’s first recreational scuba training program. By 1955, of the total worldwide sales of aqualungs (some 25,000 units), 80 percent were purchased in California. The United States clearly had the largest population of recreational divers on the face of the planet.
In 1960 Conrad Limbaugh died in a cave diving accident in France. His position was soon filled by another member of the Scripps’ dive team, James Stewart. Over his 30-plus-year career, Stewart has gone on to pioneer many of the scientific diving techniques which are the mainstay of academic diving programs throughout the world today. He also helped establish the American Academy of Underwater Scientists (AAUS).
Still another development was under way in the 1950s that was to have equal significance to diver training. The National YMCA formed a committee — headed by National Physical Education Director Bernard Empleton — to publish a text based on the then-available resource material related to scuba diving. By 1957, the committee published the results of their work under the auspices of the CNCA (Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics) — a textbook entitled the New Science of Skin and Scuba Diving. This text, significantly revised, of course, is still in use today in some diving programs. In August of 1959, the YMCA conducted the first national instructor-training program.
On the heels of the YMCA, several other diver training organizations came on the scene. In 1960, the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) was formed, followed in 1966 by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Today, recreational scuba diving in North America supports an estimated $2.4 billion industry, training nearly 350,000 new divers each year. One can only imagine if pioneers such as le Prieur, Gilpatric, Commeinhes and Cousteau could have envisioned the result of their inventiveness and drive. What the future will hold is up to us.
The author would like to thank diving historian Eric Hanauer for his assistance in compiling information on the development of diving in America. History buffs eager to learn more are referred to his book, “Diving Pioneers: An Oral History of Diving in America,” available through Aqua Quest Publications. Call (800) 933-8989.