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Nobody can say for sure when the first human being decided to explore underwater, but odds are, it wasn’t long after they discovered it. Seeing an obvious source of food would have sent many a caveman into the water, but you can only hold your breath so long. It’s apparent that they did have some success, because sea artifacts like shells, pearls and sponges have been found dating thousands of years back, very clearly used on land. Breathing through reeds was an option, but you aren’t gonna catch a lot of fish limited to the top two-feet of the water. So, what next?
Perhaps the earliest reference to scuba diving is a 3000-year-old Assyrian fresco that shows men swimming under water, using some kind of breathing device. Aristotle describes a “Diving Bell,” purportedly used by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The diving bell concept was experimented with for centuries until the first documented Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus appeared: Leonardo Da Vinci designs a freestanding system that includes an air supply and a means of buoyancy control in the 1500’s. There is no proof that it was ever actually manufactured, but it clearly heralded the birth of the SCUBA. The first recorded observation of decompression sickness came about in 1667 when Robert Boyle began experimenting with compressing and decompressing snakes. He detected a gas bubble in the eye of a snake that had been compressed and then decompressed- the earliest documented evidence of "the bends." Early re-breathers began appearing in Italian manuscripts in 1680. Drawings by Italian Physician Giovanni Borelli show a giant bag that used chemicals to clean the exhaled air, attached to a boiled leather helmet via a pipe. He also draws odd frog-like feet on the diver which some historians believe to be the very first swim fins, or at least the reason for the “frogman” label.
This basic concept of an arrangement that included a helmet, some air source (either surface or self contained) and a dive suit continued to evolve. A “Smoke-helmet” invented by an English inventor, Charles Anthony Deane, is patented in 1823. A few years later Charles and his brother John modify the helmet and secure it to a "diving suit” with leather straps. Although the rig uses surface air and the diver risks drowning if he bends over, the apparatus becomes widely used for salvage work. The first practical SCUBA was invented by another Englishman named William James in 1825. It used weighted tanks of compressed air formed into a belt, a full watertight suit, and a copper helmet. An American, Charles Condert, develops a similar setup soon afterward, but drowns in the east river in Brooklyn during its test dive. Then in 1828 a Frenchman named Lemaire d' Augerville takes SCUBA a step further when he patents a belt which allows divers to hover underwater, ascending or descending at will- the first known “Buoyancy compensator". At this point in time, the search for a practical system allowing men to stay underwater for any length of time with some degree of mobility was largely a commercial endeavor, used by salvagers, boat builders and construction teams. Then in 1869, Jules Vern introduces SCUBA to the world in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." The adventure of Captain Nemo was shared by legions of landlocked readers, who now clamored for answers to that question posed by Ecclesiastes 3,000 years ago, "That which is far off and exceeding deep, who can find it out?" New York began construction that same year on the Brooklyn Bridge. After being subjected to hours in sealed construction capsules sunk deep in the riverbed (called “caissons,”) the workers complain of painful, cramped joints. Called "caisson disease," the bent appearance of the unfortunate workers limbs is soon nicknamed the “Bends.” By 1880, a French doctor, Dr. Paul Bert, realizes that the symptoms of "caisson disease" are indistinguishable from physiological complaints of deep-sea salvage divers, and theorizes that it is caused by the formation of nitrogen gas bubbles in the bloodstream.
Building on Dr. Bert’s research in 1910, a British physiologist named Dr. John Scott Haldane develops a procedure that calls for gradually staged decompression. His research culminates in the publication of the first dive tables, which are published as the US Navy Dive Tables in 1912. That same year, a German manufacturer of fire-fighting equipment named Dräger revolutionizes the commercial dive industry by creating a self-reliant dive system combining a helmet with a backpack containing a mixture of compressed air and oxygen. By 1926 a diving system based on compressed air carried in tanks was patented by an officer in the French Navy, Yves le Prieur. His apparatus supplied air to a full-face mask. Earlier models supply a nonstop flow of air, but models were soon developed with a manual on/off valve to preserve air supply. Le Prieur later establishes the world's first SCUBA diving club in 1936, called the "Club of Divers and Underwater Life." In the 1930’s, an American named Guy Gilpatric, using aviator goggles and some putty, creates the first facemask. His book, “The Compleat Goggler” becomes the earliest book dedicated to amateur diving.
By the mid-1930s, facemasks, fins, and snorkels are in common use. “Swimming Propellers” are patented in 1933 by a Frenchman, Louis de Corlieu. Among Gilpatric's avid readers is a French Naval officer named Jacques -Yves Cousteau. In 1943 Jacques Cousteau partnered with Emile Gagnan to design and test the first “aqualung.” Using a re-designed car regulator, the Cousteau-Gagnan Aqua-Lung provided compressed air on demand. SCUBA was now practical for the recreational divers. By 1949, shops across the world are selling the Aqua-Lungs. His book, "Silent World," co written by Frédéric Dumas and James Dugan is published in 1952 and is credited for launching the recreational dive industry. A woman named Zale Parry became a national celebrity in 1954, starring in a TV series called "Kingdom of the Sea" and breaking the deep-diving record by diving to 209 feet near Catalina Island, CA. She went on to become one of the first scuba diving instructors in the country and one of the original three female instructors in the United States. Kingdom of the Sea is followed by the incredibly popular “Sea Hunt” in 1958. Sea Hunt becomes one of the most popular programs on the air and attracts legions of new divers to the sport of SCUBA. In 1959, the YMCA’s National Aquatic Council develops the first national diver certification program. After diving pioneer, Connie Limbaugh, drowns in 1960 while cave-diving, and as accident rates for scuba divers mount, the need for standardized training and certification becomes apparent. The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) is formed in 1960 and holds its first Instructor Certification course in Houston during the Underwater Society of America Convention. NAUI becomes the first international certification agency. NAUI is followed in 1966 by the creation of Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI.) PADI trains 3226 divers in its first year of operation. Jacques Cousteau makes a deal with ABC in 1966 to produce four hour-long television programs, titled “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” It was wildly popular, running from 1968-1976 and showing in over 100 countries. This series introduced millions of viewers to the incredible beauty and fragile nature of the sea. Finally, in 1980, Dr. Peter Bennett founds the Divers Alert Network at Duke University as a non-profit organization to promote safe diving. DAN breaks the world record deep dive in 1981: a record 2250-foot “dive” was made in a Duke Medical Center chamber in North Carolina.
While this chronology highlights the most significant milestones in the history of SCUBA, our intention is certainly not to minimize the contributions of hundreds of other people who played a part in allowing SCUBA to become a recreational sport. Many seemingly “small” innovations became the groundwork or concept for these larger achievements. With an estimated half-million new divers certified every year, we’ve come a long way from holding our breath long enough to grab dinner. And, with the technical advances in equipment and increased growth of SCUBA tourism, we can expect to see diving continue to grow into one of the greatest pastimes ever.