Origins of Modern SCUBA Diving


The accumulation of seashell artifacts at prehistoric living sites possibly indicates that food was taken from the sea by divers long before references in recorded history. The earliest records are of Cretan sponge divers (3000 BC) and diving for oyster pearls in China (2200 BC). Military divers were used during the Trojan War (ca. 1194 BC). Reference to military diving activities is made by Herodotus (5th century BC) and in Homers Iliad (pre-700 BC). Alexander the Great deployed frogmen against the defenses of Tyre (333 BC) and was supposed to have descended in a diving bell himself.

Aristotle (4th century BC) writes of the diving bell. Prior to this time all diving was probably done by breath-holding to depths not exceeding much over 100 ft. The diving bell was the dominant diving apparatus for the next 22 centuries until about 1800. In 1691 a sizable and sophisticated bell was patented by Edmund Halley. This bell was ventilated by lowering barrels of fresh air making dives possible to 60 ft and up to 90 minutes, during which divers made breath-holding excursions out of the bell.

Supplying Compressed Air

By 1770 the elementary hand-operated air compressor provided the next major advancement in diving. This enabled LeHavre (1774) to develop a moderately successful helmet-hose diving apparatus. Surface-supplied compressed air diving developed as the prevalent diving technique by 1800. It remained virtually unchanged until the mid-l950s. A boosting factor to diving in the 1800s was the salvage of H.M.S. Royal George. For this operation Augustus Siebe developed and perfected the diving helmet and closed dress in 1837. The Siebe helmet and closed dress were the primary diving apparatus for the working diver from 1837 to the 1960s. In 1905 the US Navy developed the Mark V Diving Helmet which was a refinement of the 1837 Siebe outfit.

Progress in diving from 1837 to the present was dependent on two factors: improvement of the air compressor and the study of hyperbaric physiology. The compressor improved rapidly during and following the industrial revolution. However the study of diving physiology was slower to progress. In 1878 Paul Bert started to untangle the complexities of nitrogen absorption and elimination in tissues (the bends). The first recompression chamber for treatment of decompression sickness was installed to support the caisson workers during construction of the first Hudson River Tunnel in New York (1893). In 1907, John S. Haldane published the first decompression tables for divers which was based on Paul Bert’s work.


In 1680 an Italian priest and biologist named Giovanni Alfonso Borelli developed a SCUBA based on the theory that the diver’s hot exhaled breath could be rejuvenated by cooling and condensing. Needless to say, this unit was not successful; however, this represents a movement toward freeing the diver. Borelli also experimented with the fin and buoyancy-compensating devices. In 1835 an American, Charles Condert, published the design of a free-flow SCUBA, which consisted of a helmet, flexible dress and a compressed-air reservoir fitted around the diver’s waist. This was to have significant influence on the design of future diving apparatuses. A Frenchman named Rouquayrol developed a demand regulator system in 1865. Although this unit was basically surface-supplied by a hose, it also had significant influence on the development of SCUBA. Jules Verne described this unit accurately in his book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, even though it had only been released four years earlier.

In 1878 Henry Fleuss and Robert Davis developed a closed-circuit oxygen rebreather system, which utilized a chemical carbon dioxide absorbent. This was the beginning of a long list of closed-circuit oxygen SCUBA with the eventual development of the semi-closed circuit mixed-gas SCUBA by Dr. Christian Lambertsen. In 1924 Yves le Prieur introduced a manual-valved, self-contained, compressed-air breathing apparatus. In 1942 Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan developed the demand-type SCUBA, which is the basic compressed-air SCUBA used throughout the world today.