The Birth and Evolution of Scuba Diving

By Sophia Read

For The Bali Times

Scuba diving as we know it today is a very recent development, but humans have been exploring the world beneath the surface of the waves for almost all of our history. Possibly the first incidence of “diving” in literature was documented by Herodotus over 2050 years ago. The historian reported the story of the Greek sailor Scyllis, who averted a Persian invasion by cutting the mooring lines of a Persian invasion fleet, breathing by using a hollow reed.

This relationship between the military and diving continued through the years. The development of the equipment that we use for scuba diving is a side effect of our naval developments and expansions. The need to repair ships and underwater installations has fueled the search to find more and more efficient ways of breathing underwater.

The first of these was probably the “diving bell” – a dome full of air, lowered into the water, allowing a man standing within to breathe. As early as 1690, Edmund Halley (who gave the comet its name) began to develop more sophisticated models of the diving bell. Halley’s device extended the time that could be spent underwater by replenishing the supply of oxygen within, from barrels of air lowered from the surface.

In 1790, John Smeaton further refined the diving bell design by adding a hose and pump to allow the air inside to be renewed from the surface. His design became the standard for salvage work in harbors (again, nearly always military salvage).

It was 1776 that saw the first authenticated instance of an attack by a submarine, in New York harbor – the American Turtle versus the HMS Eagle. Submarine diving uses the same theory as that of a diving bell: air is taken from the surface and contained within the vessel. Times were necessarily limited until efficient ways of both removing the excess carbon dioxide produced by people breathing and of adding oxygen to the air inside were developed.

The next major development in our exploration of the underwater world was the “diving suit.” These began as simple helmets, supplied with air from the surface by hose. In 1837, Siebe, a German inventor working in England, was the first to introduce an entire suit – he added a complete rubber suit to the helmet, and the first complete “diving dress” was born.

One of the most important developments in the history of sport diving was patented in 1864, when two Frenchmen – Rouquayrol (a mining engineer) and Denayrouse (a naval lieutenant) developed what was essentially the first “demand regulator.” Their “Aerophore” did not deliver a constant supply of air as with the diving suit, but only allowed the flow when the diver inhaled. The diver was still tied to the surface with a hose that supplied air to the tank on his back, but was able to detach and explore for a few minutes alone. Jules Verne, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, used a version of this regulator to explain the underwater forays by his protagonists. However, the several hours he gave them to explore under the sea was a wildly inaccurate exaggeration.

The Aerophore was adopted by navies throughout the world. In the meantime, scientific research allowed technicians to understand more and more about the effects of depth on the human body, and recompression chambers were introduced. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Haldane, Boycott and Damant published The Prevention of Compressed-Air Illness and shortly after that both the British and the United States Navies adopted tables based on their research, which aimed to prevent what had become known as Decompression Sickness. Modern sport divers still use tables based on this research to calculate safe limits for diving today.

Rouquayrol and Denayrouse’s invention did not revolutionize diving as such. The surface-supplied diving dress and helmet were still very much in use, and the concept of the free-swimming diver was almost unheard of – divers walked along the bottom of the ocean much as we walk along the surface of the earth.

The introduction of the swimming element into diving came about more because of developments in breath-hold diving. The modern mask and swim fins really arrived in the 1930s.

In 1933 another French sailor, Yves Le Prieur, took the earlier Rouquayrol and Denayrouse invention and redesigned it to incorporate a demand valve with a high-pressure air tank. He removed the regulator – air was supplied via a tap, and the exhaled air flowed out from under the edge of the mask. These two French inventions were the forerunners of modern “open circuit” scuba. The French continued their intimate involvement with the birth of sport diving when a young naval aviator was involved in a horrific car crash. The resulting injuries sustained by Jacques Yves Cousteau turned him from the skies forever, and towards the sea.

He collaborated with another engineer, Emile Gagnan. Together they took a car regulator and converted it to supply compressed air from a tank to a diver when he breathed. The apparatus was tested and refined by Cousteau and two friends, Dumas and Tailliez, who called it the “Aqua-Lung.” Modern scuba was born.

However, their apparatus remained prohibitively expensive for many years, and it was an Australian, Ted Eldred, who designed the world’s first single hose regulator for public sale: the “Porpoise,” Eldred supplied the Australian market throughout the 1950s, until his company was purchased by the patent holders to the Costeau/Gagnan regulator, and the Porpoise died.

However, sport diving was now a reality, and becoming ever-more popular around the globe. It was moving out of the realms of the home inventor, and into the mainstream. Costeau’s genius was in his popularization of underwater exploration. Through his myriad of books, films and television programs, the entire world opened its eyes to the beauty of the underwater world, to its mysteries and to its importance.

To regulate the safety of sport diving, various organizations began for the purpose of teaching safe diving practices – NAUI, PADI, CMAS and SSI are their descendants today. Sport diving is becoming more popular, and safer, as advances in technology improve the equipment we use. Diving is booming: 50 years after the invention of modern scuba, PADI certified 515,000 divers; today, PADI centers around the world certify almost 1 million new divers a year.

So what is the appeal of diving? Perhaps Cousteau said it best himself:

“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to the earth. But man has only to sink below the surface and he is free … Buoyed by water, he can fly in any direction – up, down, sideways – by merely flipping his hand. Under water, man becomes an archangel.”

The writer is sales director of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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