Scuba Diving History


When water makes up about seventy-five percent of the earth's surface, humans can't help but explore it. But the mystery of the vast underwater world could never be solved on a single breath. And so scuba diving came to be. What are the origins of scuba, and how did it evolve?

What is "Scuba" diving?

"Scuba" is an acronym that stands for "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus." Scuba diving is just one of four ways to navigate the deep. There's also breath-hold diving, vessel diving, and surface air diving. The full story as to the origins of scuba could not be told without dipping into the diving that preceded it.

It ultimately took the minds and talents of several chemists, mathematicians, and inventors fascinated with the underwater world over the course of a few hundred years to come with better, safer, and more efficient ways to breathe underwater, to get to the technology we have today.

From hollow reeds, to diving bells, to scuba

Humans have explored the briny deep on a single breath for eons. The earliest evidences of it exist in ancient land artifacts, drawings, and maritime stories passed down through the centuries. In ancient as well as modern times, underwater diving was rooted in military pursuits. In recent history, the first scuba divers were navy frogmen who used oxygen re-breathers to remain submerged while in combat during World War II.

Long before the modern invention of underwater breathing devices, primitive snorkels or tubes made from hollow reeds provided ways to take in air while under shallow waters. Humans would be able to remain underwater to scavenge for food, search for lost treasures, or do battle, as did the Trojan warriors of the thirteenth century, BC. But repeated exposure to cold waters and other elements presented problems. What to do?

Diving Bells

The first successful attempts at remaining underwater, well for short periods of time at least, without breathing toxic air or nearly drowning was due to the "diving bell". The bell was held a few feet above the water with the opening facing down. Diver and bell would be lowered into the water with the diver's head in the top part of the bell which contained compressed air. The diver would leave the bell to explore, then re-enter for more air until there was no more air left in the bell. Who discovered it?

In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle had a penchant for finding ways to breathe underwater. He said,

"...One can allow divers to breathe by lowering a bronze tank into the water. Naturally the container is not filled with water but air, which constantly assists the submerged man."

The legendary philosopher created a prototype of the first diving bell from something like a glass jar turned upside down, into which the diver would thrust his head for more air rather than surfacing. Attached breathing tubes allowed additional air to be pumped into it from the surface.

Aristotle's student, Alexander the Great, dove twenty-five meters into the water with a colorless glass bell. It wasn't until the 1500s that Guglielmo de Lorena created and used what is considered to be the first "modern" diving bell.

The famous sixteenth century artist Leonardo da Vinci is said to have designed underwater equipment. Full leather diving suits, with air manually pumped into it from the surface, were worn at depths of 60 feet. A century later, chemist and inventor Robert Boyle, in an attempt to create "ideal" breathing gas, began studying the relationship between water pressure and gas volumes, and created what would become known as "Boyle's Law," which states that ideal gas is produced when water pressure and gas volume are at a constant.

The late seventeenth century English astronomer and mathematician, Edmund Halley, designed a large diving bell with a glass top to allow the light in, and to which a breathing tube was attached. The diver and bell would descend into the water, with the bell trapping the water. Fresh air was supplied to the bell from the surface through the tube.

Going down in a wooden barrel... the first diving suit?

Imagine yourself descending into the briny blue in a wooden barrel, and you're thinking like John Lethbridge did. The early eighteenth century English inventor became the first salvage diver to use pressure-proof diving gear. This completely enclosed suit consisting of a barrel filled with air, a glass porthole, and two leather sleeves allowed him to descend up to 60 feet. At the same time, but independently, Andrew Becker came up with something a little sportier; a leather-covered diving suit complete a windowed helmet and breathing tubes attached. Later in the century, British engineer John Smeaton experimented with a pump system to replenish diving bells with fresh air.

The diving helmet

Metal helmets able to withstand water pressure allowed divers to go deeper. Helmets protected the head, allowed divers to breathe, see clearly underwater, and even communicate with surface crew. A pair of British salvage divers in the 1820s, brothers John and Charles Deane, together designed and patented what would become a diving helmet out of a firefighter helmet used to rescue horses from a burning stable, originally called a "Smoke Helmet". The copper helmet delivered air through a hose, and was strapped to a collar and leather suit. The patent was sold to Edward Barnard, and a few years later the set was converted into an effective salvage diving suit.

Meeting a diver's demands for oxygen

Before the invention of a breathing system that delivers gas to the diver the very instant it senses an inhale - a demand regulator - diving helmets used a "free flow" system where gas was released at a constant rate.

In the 1860s, a pair of French inventors named Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze developed and patented the "Aerophore", an underwater breathing device using a tank of "compressed air" attached to the diver's back, and connected through a valve mouthpiece. Now divers could breathe underwater for periods of time without a surface air tube. It was later discovered that breathing compressed air caused "compression sickness". There was more work to be done.

Finally! A fully self-supporting breathing apparatus using compressed oxygen (rather than compressed air). It was designed by diving engineer Henry Fleuss, in 1876. To further avoid compression sickness the first dive tables were invented in 1908, allowing divers to perform occasional decompression stops.

A breath of fresh air!

While re-breathers, or ways to re-oxygenate, or purify, exhaled air inside a container had long been experimented with, the first mass production of the more modern version took place in 1912. Re-breathers were used in World Wars I and II to avoid bubble trails. The true forerunner to the modern scuba was the first open-circuit compressed air respirator designed and built by French naval officer Yves Le Prieur in 1925, although diving enthusiasts before him had toyed with primitive versions.

The Aqua Lung - a new way to breathe

"I want to get out in the water. I want to see fish, real fish, not fish in a laboratory."

- Sylvia Earle

After Jacques Cousteau had a few run-ins with oxygen toxicity using the old re-breathing system, he and engineer Emile Gagnan would revolutionize the world of scuba diving. Together, in 1942, the two French divers-engineers developed an underwater breathing system that came to be known as the Gagnan-Cousteau regulator, or the "Aqua Lung". The regulator featured a demand valve that, with the slightest inhale, automatically released air to the diver from a tank. The diver exhaled air into the water.

By the 1950s, the device sold worldwide as the first commercially successful diving regulator (otherwise known as a demand regulator, or demand valve) changing the course of scuba diving, making it a safe recreational activity and way to explore the mysteries of the deep blue sea.

In 1968, John Gruener and Neal Watson used compressed air to dive 437 feet, and in 1999 British diver Mark Andrews to a depth of 500 feet. In 1979, oceanographer Sylvia Earle "walked freely" on the ocean floor at a depth of 1250 feet.

A full set of scuba gear

Trial, error, and revolutionary technologies have taken underwater diving from a single breath to full scale scuba diving complete with neoprene diving suit, breathing apparatus, helmets, masks, swimming fins, and more.

Swim fins pick up the pace on scuba diving

Swim fins, otherwise called swimming propellers, or slippers, were patented by French diver, Louis de Corlieu in 1933 to help scuba divers move through the water faster. Mass production of the new rubber invention began in 1939. Wooden prototypes were experimented with by Benjamin Franklin, a lover of swimming, and whose study of the anatomy of frogs as a child aided him in developing swim fins. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century, and others, are also said to have played with the idea. With advancements in scuba diving, swim fins have an indispensable piece of scuba gear. Imagine trying to get around underwater with all that gear without them! Extra long fins and monofins are two types that aid the underwater diver in buoyancy and mobility.

Suiting up for the dive

Diving suits have come a long way since the wooden barrel!

The first truly one piece diving suit consisted of a diving helmet attached to a waterproof canvas suit and was the idea of German-born inventor, Augustus Siebe, in 1840. Air was pumped into the suit from the surface through an exhaust valve, an idea that set the standard for scuba diving suits for over a century!

The first rubber diving suits were designed in the 1930s by an Italian inventor, Zeffirelli, and worn during World War by Italian naval frogmen. The suits were patented by Pirelli in 1951. The "mother of diving suits" was widely circulated among not only scuba divers, but amateur spear fishers and salvage divers too. A complete Pirelli diving suit consisted of pair of trousers, boots, vest and sealers. And who could forget the famous diving suit of legendary escape artist Harry Houdini, designed for his underwater stunts. The first neoprene wetsuit was developed for the US military in 1953. Neoprene's softness and elasticity make it an ideal material for making wetsuits to this day.

A formal diving suit. No tie required.

There are today two kinds of self-supporting scuba diving suits: Ambient pressure suits that protect the diver from extreme water temperatures and other elements, and hard pressure diving suits, or armored suits, that protect divers from the atmospheric pressures of deep sea diving. Ambient pressure suits are most commonly used and include dive skins, wetsuits, semi-dry suits, dry suits, and hot water suits.

More facts about scuba diving

Scuba diving on film

What name comes to mind when you think of deep sea diving movies? Jacques Cousteau! His award-winning diving film, "The Silent World" not only won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival but made him a legendary fixture in the deep sea diving world.

Scuba diving organizations

By the late 1950s, scuba diving had grown so popular that training programs were in demand around the country. That led to the founding of a few underwater diving organizations. The National Association of Underwater Instructors, or NAUI, was founded in 1959 to promote dive safety education. In the late '60s, a pair of expert divers created the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, or PADI, to focus on similar objectives - the preparation and training of recreational diving - but different in its approach to training. 1980 saw the founding of the Divers Alert Network, a non-profit association that offers expert safety and medical advice to scuba divers.

A buoyancy compensator? What's that?

Otherwise known as a "buoyancy control device" a buoyancy compensator is a piece of diving equipment with a bladder, designed for divers in 1961 to create neutral underwater buoyancy. It was the work of Frenchman Maurice Fenzy, and was the first to be sold to the general public.


The drive to dive into deep waters has brought us from breathing tubes made from hollow reeds, to diving barrels, to bells, to re-breathers. Where is diving today? As technological advancements continue to be made, scuba diving will become safer, more efficient, opening the sport and profession of underwater diving up to more possibilities than ever before. While it's hard to say where diving technology will lead us in the twenty-first century, you can be sure that as long as there are waters to be navigated, humans will continue to find better, safer ways to do it.

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