How SCUBA Diving Was Invented

16th century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great in a diving bell

16th century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great in a diving bell

People often wonder what SCUBA stands for and how SCUBA diving was invented. While SCUBA is simply the acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, the history behind the invention of SCUBA diving is much more complex.

SCUBA diving as we know it today is largely attributed to Emile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. However, the origins of underwater diving date back to Aristotle and the Greeks. In his works, Aristotle wrote that Greek sponge divers used a bell that contained air and was lowered down to them as they picked sponges off of the bottom of the Mediterranean. However, the lack of stable air supply limited their movement and the length of time that they could spend underwater. Alexander the Great has also been noted to use a crude diving bell during several dives in 332 BCE.

Sieur Freminet is credited with developing the first self-contained air equipment that is somewhat similar to today’s SCUBA equipment in 1772. This “rebreathing apparatus” was able to recycle air inside of a diving bell. However, Freminet passed away after only spending 20 minutes in his new invention due to lack of oxygen.

In 1852, William James developed another type of self-contained air device. His device consisted of an iron belt that connected to a copper helmet, which held enough air to accomplish a seven-minute dive. Nearly a century later, in 1939, Dr. Christian Lambertsen created a “self-contained underwater oxygen breathing apparatus” for the U.S. military. His device worked extremely well in shallow waters, but the level of oxygen toxicity it created made it unsafe for use in deeper waters.

aqua-lungThis brings us to Cousteau, who most people think of when they ponder how SCUBA diving was invented. Cousteau arrived at the conclusion that purified and filtered compressed air was the ideal gas mixture for self-contained breathing apparatuses. Between 1942 and 1943, during World War II, Emile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau made adjustments to a pressure regulator, which Gagnan had originally created to allow vehicles to run on vegetable oil due to the widespread shortage of petroleum throughout the war. Gagnan’s revised regulator was able to send air at the right pressure. The pair coined the apparatus the “Aqua-Lung,” which led to the creation of the common SCUBA gear that divers use today.


Images via Wikipedia, 


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