The Sensational History of Scuba Diving

Since humanity began, humans have questioned what lies beneath the deep. Untouchable secrets, just out of reach, have beckoned from the depths. Mysterious and undeniably frightening, the concept of breathing underwater tantalized the pioneers of diving, just as it does for divers today. Let’s take a deeper look into the history of scuba diving.

An Introduction to The History of Scuba Diving

Scuba diving goes back many, many years. Even in Greek mythology, a warrior evaded Persian enemies by breathing through a hollow reed while remaining submerged beneath the sea. Persian divers, on the other hand, created goggles out of polished tortoise shells. Legend also says that Alexander the Great used a wooden barrel as an ancient type of diving bell. In the Ming Dynasty in China, divers upgraded from holding their breath to breathing through a long, curved pipe, attached to the face by a mask.

dive helmet history of diving

All ancient history aside, people have free dived for food, sponges, and pearls for eons. In olden times, free diving deeper than 130 feet (40 meters) was common, all without the aid of any air or modern equipment. Today, many people all over the world still engage in this dangerous yet spectacular activity, bringing up pearls, lobsters, and shells.

Diving began to take leaps and bounds in the 1500’s with the invention of the diving bell. People stretched the limits of physics and their bodies during these dangerous trips beneath the water, as very little was known about oxygen intake at this time. During this time, more sophisticated equipment began to arrive.

Leather diving suits and diving helmets were developed, and air was pumped into these suits from the surface via long, flexible hoses when the air pump was invented in 1771.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that studies took place on decompression sickness and the effects of water pressure. Two men developed the first compressed air tank and a simple regulator, the first huge step towards modern scuba diving.

Surprise! Harry Houdini even had a hand in the realm of scuba diving. Because of his work as an escape artist he would often be trapped beneath the water. His ingenuity was undeniable, and he invented a dive suit in 1921 that was easy to get out of. Now, divers could quickly rid themselves of their suits if they became tangled or trapped, thus saving their lives.

Diving became even more accessible in the 1940’s thanks to the genius of Emile Gangnan and Jacques Cousteau. Together, they invented the first modern demand regulator and improved the diving suit. They named the regulator “Aqua Lung,” and it completely transformed the diving world. Today, Aqualung is still a prominent and reliable brand.

Much of the more modern scuba diving equipment has been developed, unfortunately, due to warfare. From diving bells to submarines, the ability to head beneath the surface and stay there for extended periods of time is of great importance during a siege. Keeping divers safe became a priority, and new and improved equipment was a necessity.

Heading Beneath the Surface

Can you imagine being the first person to use a diving bell or metal scuba helmet? Or to head under the surface with nothing but a rubber hose in your mouth? To say that these innovators were brave would be a massive understatement. The danger involved was astronomical, but these pioneers paved the way for generations of explorers to follow. It’s safe to say the history of scuba diving is filled with risk-takers.


Without such courageousness there is no way we could have explored even a fraction of what we have seen. Though much of the world is undiscovered, scuba diving has given us the keys to the locks that have remained steadfast since time began.

Scuba diving has evolved heavily over the years, and we would do well to pay some homage to those who lived and died making scuba diving the wonderful sport that is today.

Influential Divers in the History of Scuba Diving

Because of their determination and ingenuity these divers should be mentioned in any history of scuba diving. Without the work that these fine individuals put into the field there is a good chance that none of us would be scuba diving, today. Thanks to their dedication to exploration and discovery, together we can continue to create and discover.

Yves Paul Gaston Le Prieur (1885 – 1963)

A member of the French Navy and a worldwide traveler, Le Prieur was no stranger to the sea. A character unlike any other, Le Prieur was the first man to take off in a plane from Japanese soil, and was the first Frenchman to earn a Black Belt in judo.

In 1926, Yves le Prieur created the first S.C.U.B.A., or Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. He was inspired by previous versions of scuba gear, but knew that the tube that ran from the diver to the surface was a hindrance and a safety hazard. He created a new device that consisted of compressed air contained in a cylinder and a simple pressure regulator. For the first time ever, humans could breathe underwater, on their own. Though you couldn’t stay under for very long, the concept took off, giving engineers and scientists a template to work off of for years to come.

His next big invention was the full face mask, which replaced the Fernez goggles. Fernez goggles clenched tighter and tighter to the diver’s face as they descended, often leading to disastrous consequences and “mask squeeze.” The full face mask was connected to the breathing apparatus, so pressure was maintained between the two. Now, you could dive far deeper than the previous 32 foot (10 meter) limit.

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Lloyd Bridges (1958 – 1961)

An unexpected name to add to this list is Lloyd Bridges, the lead character in the hugely popular television show “Sea Hunt.” Running between 1958 and 1961, Sea Hunt flickered on TV screens across the globe. Often narrated, Bridges’ character Mike Nelson dove to the seafloor to find sunken treasure or downed satellites, surrounded by flitting fish and odd creatures.

Because of his underwater antics, the world was introduced to the submarine seascapes, with all of their wild and weird wonders. People began to want to experience the depths for themselves, and scuba diving became a fresh, widespread pastime. Thousands of people geared up and headed beneath the waves: the very first batch of mainstream recreational scuba divers.

Sylvia Earle (1935 – today)

In addition to being an incredible marine biologist, author, and explorer, Sylvia Earle was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Not only that, but she set the women’s depth record of 1,250 feet (381 meters) in 1979 during a trip to Oahu.

SylviaEarle_MissionBlue_ JamesKetchum_KipEvans - History of Scuba Diving

Dr. Sylvia Earle

She and her husband, a submarine designer and engineer, designed the Deep Rover, a research submarine that could go to depths previously unexplored, up to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters). She then furthered her focus in marine engineering by founding the Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, creating equipment to explore the deepest of the deep.

In 1998 she was named by Time Magazine as their very first “Hero for the Planet,” because of her work in biology and engineering. She also became a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, where she is often referred to as “Her Deepness.” Dr. Syvlia Earle is widely held as a prominent figure in the history of scuba diving, marine conservation and exploration.

John Cronin (1929 – 2003) & Ralph Erickson (1922 – 2006)

The co-creators of PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) revolutionized the way scuba diving works, today. In 1966, it became simple for anybody to become a diver by learning skills and earning a series of certifications. Millions of people are now certified scuba divers, and diving has reached new, astounding heights.

John Cronin, in addition to being one of the most influential people in the diving industry, was the President of the Diving Equipment Marketing Association, and completely nearly 50 years in the scuba diving industry. In 1969 he was named the CEO and President of U.S. Divers, a title that he maintained until his retirement.

Ralph Erickson was always at home in the water, forming a swimming school in 1959 after his stint in WWII. Always at the forefront, he became instructor #35 in the very first class of NAUI Instructors. He wrote a book about scuba diving titled “Under Pressure”, and he used it during his classes to teach students what he knew about diving. He won received multiple awards and recognition late in his life, and was even elected into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910 – 1997)

Synonymous with scuba diving is the name “Jacques Cousteau.” As one of the co-inventors of AquaLung, Jacques Cousteau was more than a pioneer, he was one of the most influential leaders in the scuba diving field and is a well-known figure from the beginning of the history of scuba diving. The AquaLung allowed divers to dive for much longer, and to go deeper than ever before.

History of Scuba Diving - Cousteau with PADI CEO

Jacques Cousteau & former PADI CEO John Cronin in 1970

Jacques Cousteau had a desire to make the unknown known, and did all he could to share all that he had seen with the general public. Throughout his life he focused on marine conservation, and teaching others about the joys of scuba diving. He wrote books about what he saw deep under the water, sharing his observations with the world.

Throughout WWII he focused on creation, not destruction. He convinced an Admiral in the French Navy to allow them to form the Underwater Research Group, using his newly developed aqualung to maneuver through minefields, explore archeological wrecks, and conduct depth tests. This research changed scuba diving, forever.

In 1956 Cousteau also created his own submarine, known as a “diving saucer.” He used this first generation of submarines was used to make films about the underwater world, heading down to over 1150 feet (350 meters). Not soon after, he created a version that could go even further down, up to 1600 feet (500 meters). With these submersibles he created the renowned documentary “The Silent World” which won a highly esteemed award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Until the end of his life in the 1990’s, Cousteau continued to write, dive, teach, and learn. He starred in several films and television shows, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.

His genius has brought us beautiful and perspective altering quotes, teaching and guiding us. One of his most famous sayings was this, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” an idea that resonates with any scuba diver or lover of the sea.

We’re Just Getting Our Fins Wet

Scuba diving is still making leaps and bounds, with new and groundbreaking equipment being designed and utilized every year. Little tweaks have brought our masks, fins, and snorkels to new highs, making diving and snorkeling more comfortable and convenient. Snorkels have purge valves, fins can be flexible or split, and masks are made of tempered glass, keeping us safe at extreme depths.

Divemaster - PADI Pro - Scuba Divers - Topside - Beach

Drysuits have been recently improved, making cold water diving a cinch. Though divers have finagled drysuits for many years, it was not until fairly recently that they were available so readily to the masses. The newest development in scuba diving is the invention of the LED light, which aids divers in illuminating the intense darkness of the underwater world.

All of this new equipment helps us to dive more, living out what scuba diving greats like Jacques Cousteau dreamed for us to do. The underwater world that was once so distant and frightening is slowly but surely coming into focus, every year bringing more and more divers into the field. Because millions of scuba divers are now certified, more dive shops are opening and dive sites are being discovered. The scuba diving community is discovering each untouched corner of the sea, bit by bit.

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Oceans cover 71% of the surface of the globe, and more than 95% (yes, 95%!) of the Earth’s underwater world is unexplored. Those outrageous statistics combined with our unquenchable lust for knowledge will continue to bring people deep into the waters of the world, where we will learn more and more on every dive we accomplish.

Want to learn more about the sport of scuba diving?

Check out Scuba Diving Magazine for more information on dive destinations, gear and courses.

This blog was originally written by Bridget Pearson and published on the Diviac Magazine.

The Evolution Of Diving Regulators: From Rouquayrol To Today

The first diving regulator was created by French inventor, Benoit Rouquayrol, in 1859. It was a surface-supplied device that allowed divers to breathe underwater for extended periods of time. The device worked by using a weighted plunger to open and close a valve that regulated the flow of air to the diver. Rouquayrol’s diving regulator was a significant advancement in diving technology and paved the way for future innovations in the field. Today, diving regulators are an essential piece of diving equipment, used by both recreational and commercial divers around the world.

Primitive diving bells were invented in the 16th century, using upside down barrels as their primary form of communication. Diving was originally limited to one breath per breath. In 1771, John Smeaton, a British engineer, invented an air pump. William James, an English inventor, invented a self-contained underwater dive in 1825. A closed-circuit oxygen rebreather was invented in 1876 by an English sailor named Henry Fleuss. Dr. ChristianLambertsen designed a self-contained breathing apparatus in response to the impending world war in 1939. The first single-hose regulator, invented by E.R. Cross and American diver, was first used in 1951.

Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, the father-son team behind underwater diving, invented the modern demand regulator. In addition to allowing for safer and deeper dives, their invention provided the Aqualung, or self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), which is still used today.

In 1771, John Smeaton, a British engineer, invented an air pump that allowed air to pass through the diving barrel via a hose. Sieur Fréminet, a Frenchman, created the first diving dress in that year, which used compressed air behind the diver while he was swimming. In the nineteenth century, it only took a few years for improvements to catch up.

When Was The Scuba Regulator Invented?


The scuba regulator was invented in the mid-1950s by Hans Hass and Bob Hollis.

The term “scuba” is simply an acronym for self-contained breathing apparatus. It takes a lot more effort to learn about how SCUBA diving was invented. During World War II, Emile Gagnan and Jacques Yves Cousteau were instrumental in the development of the Aqua-Lung. It has been suggested that Alexander the Great used a crude diving bell in 332 BCE on several dives.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a French naval officer, and Emile Gagnan, an Air Liquide engineer, developed the Autonomous Diving System, or Aqua-Lung, in 1943. After Cousteau coined the term “Aqua-Lung,” a diving system that would be made available to English-speaking countries would be named after him. Henry Fleuss invented the first self-contained diving rig with compressed oxygen in 1876. As a prototype of closed-circuit scuba, the rope soaked in caustic potash was used to absorb carbon dioxide, allowing the exhaled gas to be re-breathed. Aqua-Lung, invented by Cousteau and Gagnan, was a revolutionary invention for its time because it allowed divers unprecedented freedom. Aqua-Lung allows divers to make decisions as if they were their own, rather than having the assistance of a trained team. Aqua-Lung’s popularity skyrocketed after it was introduced because it provided divers with a safe and efficient way to explore the underwater world. Despite its popularity among divers, the Aqua-Lung remains a popular diving tool for both professional and recreational users.

The First Open-circuit Diving Bell: Cornelis Drebbel’s 1620 Invention

Drebbel invented the first open-circuit diving bell in 1620. Drebbel’s diving bell was a copper vessel with a glass window on the side that allowed the diver to breathe and see.

Who Invented The Demand Valve?


Jacques-Yves Cousteau invented the underwater breathing apparatus known as a “ku*sto” in the late 18th century and was the first to introduce it to the world. Jacques Cousteau is best known for his invention of the first successful Aqua-Lung, open-circuit SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). For more information, please visit Wikipedia: Jacques Cousteau – Wikipedia. He and Emile Gagnan developed the demand valve system, which led to the introduction of modern regulators in 1942.

The Life-changing Demand Valve

Demand valves were invented in the early twentieth century as a means of controlling the amount of air a scuba diver breathed. By doing so, scuba diving became safer and more comfortable, and underwater exploration became more accessible. Aviation, diving, and water sports are all areas in which demand-valve technology has been used in recent years. Thanks to Gagnan’s pioneering work, we now have greater safety and comfort when engaging in these activities.

Who Invented The Diving Bell

The first recorded use of a diving bell dates back to 323 BC, when Aristotle mentioned that one had been used in the conquest of the town of Methone. It is believed that Alexander the Great used a diving bell during his siege of Tyre. In the 16th century, diving bells began to be used more frequently for both military and civilian purposes. In 1616, English inventor Cornelius Drebbel successfully built and used a diving bell in an attempt to reach the sunken city of Atlantis.
Diving bells were not widely used until the 19th century, when they began to be used for scientific research and exploration. In 1829, French physicist and inventor Denis Papin designed a diving bell that was used to reach a depth of 35 meters. In 1851, British engineer George Francis FitzGerald invented a diving bell that could reach a depth of 150 meters. In 1864, American inventor James Henry Purcell built a diving bell that was used to reach a depth of 300 meters.

Scuba Regulator How It Works

The piston moves as the regulator is pressurized, allowing air to pass through the high-pressure seat while the tank valve is opened. When the pressure inside the regulator reaches the intermediate pressure, the poppet valve closes against the seat, causing the air to stop flowing.

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During diving, your scuba regulator serves as your primary mode of communication with your air source. This device connects the diver’s body to the tank (or gas cylinder) and allows them to inhale air from the tank. The regulator and tank are the foundation of an underwater breathing apparatus. The mouthpiece, exhaust valve, and emergency purge valve are all part of the second stage of a scuba regulator. As the tank’s air pressure decreases, the regulator compensates by adjusting the water pressure as the diver changes depth. This device enables you to survive underwater until you can return to the surface, which is a significant achievement considering how difficult it is to return to the surface.

How A Scuba Tank Valve Works

How is a scuba tank valve operated? When scuba diving, the air in the tank of the diver’s boat is pressurized with breathing gas. This gas is delivered via the valve at the cylinder’s neck and controlled by the diver’s regulator. This valve shuts off the gas when the lever is pulled down by the diver, as the pressure is extremely high. This allows the diver to breathe from the tank without having to release the pressure. What are the reasons why scuba divers have two regulators? A second stage regulator (mouthpiece) is also available to allow a second person to breathe air from a scuba cylinder. As a result of a failed diving regulator, a fellow diver‘s air will be shared between him and his buddy’s cylinder. To use an alternate air source, the diver must first depress the primary regulator (mouthpiece) button. As a result, the alternate air source must be activated in order for the diver’s primary air supply to shut down.

Diving Regulator Mouthpiece

A diving regulator mouthpiece is a device that is used to help regulate the air supply while diving. It is placed over the mouth and nose and helps to keep the airway clear while diving. The mouthpiece also helps to prevent water from entering the lungs.

Scuba Regulator First Stage

A scuba regulator first stage is a device that is attached to a scuba tank and controls the flow of air to the diver. The first stage regulator reduces the tank pressure to an intermediate pressure, and the second stage regulator reduces the pressure further to the breathing pressure of the diver.

The main function of a scuba regulator is to reduce the amount of high-pressure liquid in the tank to an intermediate pressure that can be used later in the tank. During the regulator’s second stage, pressure in the first stage’s intermediate chamber decreases as you inhale. In this course, we will look at the piston and diaphragm as their first stages, as well as their similarities and differences. The valve’s operation is unaffected by tank pressure at the first stage. Without a balanced regulator, tank pressure is directly proportional to the pressure of the seat. While tank pressures are high, it can also increase breathing resistance at higher ambient air pressure (deeper water). Diaphragm regulators are typically complex because they have more components and are smaller in diameter. Piston regulators, which are simpler to design and larger in size, allow for a greater volume of air to be supplied to the second stage. Regulators with a special port for high-performance second stages may include more airflow.

The History of Scuba Diving

Scuba diver underwater

Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell.

Modern scuba diving gear consists of one or more gas tanks strapped to the divers back, connected to an air hose and an invention called the demand regulator. The demand regulator controls the flow of air so that the air pressure within the diver’s lungs equals the pressure of the water.

Early Diving Gear

Ancient swimmers used cut hollow reeds to breathe air, the first rudimentary snorkel used to enhance our abilities underwater. Around 1300, Persian divers were making rudimentary eye goggles from the thinly sliced and polished shells of tortoises. By the 16th century, wooden barrels were used as primitive diving bells, and for the first time divers could travel underwater with more than one breath of air, but not much more than one.

More Than One Breath

In 1771, British engineer, John Smeaton invented the air pump. A hose was connected between the air pump and the diving barrel, allowing air to be pumped to the diver. In 1772, Frenchmen, Sieur Freminet invented a rebreathing device that recycled the exhaled air from inside of the barrel, this was the first self-contained air device. Freminet’s invention was a poor one, the inventor died from lack of oxygen after being in his own device for twenty minutes.

In 1825, English inventor, William James designed another self-contained breather, a cylindrical iron “belt” attached to a copper helmet. The belt held about 450 psi of air, enough for a seven-minute dive.

In 1876, Englishmen, Henry Fleuss invented a closed circuit, oxygen rebreather. His invention was originally intended to be used in the repair of an iron door of a flooded ship’s chamber. Fleuss then decided to use his invention for a thirty-foot deep dive underwater. He died from the pure oxygen, which is toxic to humans under pressure.

Rigid Diving Suits

In 1873, Benoît Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze built a new piece of equipment a rigid diving suit with a safer air supply, however it weighed about 200 pounds.

Houdini Suit – 1921

Famous magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874) was also an inventor. Harry Houdini astonished audiences by escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, and locked boxes, often doing so underwater. Houdini’s invention for a diver’s suit permitted divers, in case of danger, to quickly divest themselves of the suit while submerged and to safely escape and reach the surface of the water.

Jacques Cousteau & Emile Gagnan

Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau co-invented the modern demand regulator and an improved autonomous diving suit. In 1942, the team redesigned a car regulator and invented a demand regulator that would automatically fresh air when a diver breathed. A year later in 1943, Cousteau and Gagnan began selling the Aqua-Lung.




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