June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of Scuba Diving

6 min read
rigid diving suit

Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus or SCUBA diving has a long history. It was a journey of discovering exactly what a human being would need to survive underwater for long periods of time. Let us look at how each part developed over time.

Breathing Underwater

Lungs Only

Until today, free diving is a sport that tests how long a diver can swim underwater on one breath of air. The Bajau, a people who live in the waters around Southeast Asia, have even genetically developed until they can stay underwater for 13 minutes at a time. 

Free diving used to be the only kind of diving that existed. It was originally used to harvest food from the ocean, or treasures to sell such as coral or shells. However, a free diver’s reach is always limited by how long he can go without air.

Take Some Air With You

As early as 332 BC, we heard of “diving bells” being used. Most famously, according to Aristotle’s writing, Alexander the Great experienced using a diving bell in the Mediterranean.

The diving bell used the science of air being trapped in a container when the container goes into water mouth-first. The water prevents the air from escaping by sealing the mouth of the container. As long as the container does not tip upwards, which would allow the air to escape, there will be some breathable air trapped inside. 

The diving bell functioned by being too heavy to float, and being large enough to hold a considerable amount of air. The bell would be lowered mouth-first into the water, the diver inside breathing its air until the bell was at the required depth. The diver would then swim out to do whatever they planned to do, returning to the bell for air. 

Diving bells could not go too deep, or the water pressure would force air out anyway. Decompression sickness was also a problem if the bell went too deep and the divers had to surface rapidly. However, from 332 BC to the 1600s, diving bells continued to be the main way that humans explored the ocean.

Stay Connected To The Surface

Eventually, in 1690, scientist Edmund Halley (the Halley of Halley’s comet) figured out how to continuously pump air into a diving bell from the surface. Bellows and flexible hoses pumped air into the diving bell from above at a steady rate. From the diving bell, a hose could be attached to a diving helmet so that the diver would not have to keep swimming back to the bell for air. At this point, the diving bells were so complex another person could sit in the bell to regulate both the incoming and outgoing air.

From there, it did not take long for air hoses to be directly connected to rigid diving suits so that divers could breathe air directly from the surface. The movie Men of Honor (2000) is one good example of how rigid diving suits worked and are used. 

However, depth continued to be a problem. Decompression sickness, also called diver’s bends, would plague any diver who went too deeply. A rigid diver’s suit did not give the diver enough control to suspend for the time needed to decompress at the different water depths. 

Rebreathe Your Air

The challenge for divers was how to bring enough air with them to do what they wanted to do, and still be light enough to decompress on the way up. Divers connected to the surface would always be limited by their airlines.

In 1772, a Frenchman, Sieur Freminent, used a tank that would collect exhaled air and then return it to the diver for inhalation. Supposedly, the carbon dioxide would be converted into oxygen for rebreathing. However, the limited amount of oxygen in exhaled air led to the death of the inventor as he tested the device. Before apparatus was invented that could safely expel air into the water without compromising the diver’s oxygen, most of the self-contained diving tanks experimented with rebreather technology.

Breathe Naturally

Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan realized that if air was compressed, it could be carried in a small enough container for a diver to move around with. The real challenge was letting the air out in regulated doses so it would not blow a diver’s lungs out. While there were many other inventions and rebreathers working along the same lines of thought, Cousteau and Gagnan were the first to create a fully automated system that managed both the compressed air and the water pressure.

In 1943, they redesigned a car regulator into an air regulator that would automatically feed compressed air to a diver when they breathed in. It also adjusted the air pressure according to the external water pressure. Unlike the rebreathers, this apparatus allowed the exhaled air to leave the diver’s body, which was much safer. 

The Diving Suit

Move Less, Breathe More

The first diving suits were designed to hold air coming in from the hoses, to protect the divers’ bodies from the cold, and to resist the water pressure. The result was incredibly stiff diving suits, but, to a degree, unlimited breathing. However, there were many risk factors involved. Divers were heavily dependent on those managing the air hoses from above, and on the integrity of their suits. If either the hose or the suit was compromised, the diver would have very little they could control on their own. 


Harry Houdini, the great escapist, was also known for being trapped underwater in a full-body suit and successfully getting out. To do this, he developed what was called the Houdini suit, a diving suit that one person could easily slip out of to save themselves if they were stuck underwater. While this did limit the integrity of the suit itself, as it would need to be in two pieces to work, it allowed later diving suits to be modified so that, if anything happened to either air hose or suit, the diver could leave easily.

Move Well, Compress More

Developing a lighter diving suit for deeper dives was challenging. The rigid diving suits were designed to protect the divers’ bodies from too much water pressure. However, as the Aqualung and other breathing apparatus developed so that pressure inside the divers’ bodies could be equalized, rubber wetsuits were developed to keep the divers warm and resist a large amount of the pressure on their bodies. 

Wetsuits were first used by the Italian military, and then greatly developed by the US Navy during and after the Second World War. Later on, neoprene was discovered to be the best material for wetsuits, and it is used until this day. 

The Test of Time

Over time, there are a few scuba-diving equipment centers that continue to stand out and have been around for quite a while. Here are a few of them.


Aqua-Lung, later called Aqualung, was the very first popular and affordable piece of scuba-diving equipment. It took diving away from the realm of specialty, and made it so that hobbyists could consider taking up diving as well. The gear had become affordable and the expertise needed, minimal. It was invented in 1943 and eventually turned into a scuba-diving gear brand.


Another brand that has been around for a while is SCUBAPRO. Launched in 1963, it began as a reseller of existing scuba equipment and branched into manufacturing as diving became more and more popular. Their main investment is in research and development, which allowed them to join the scuba equipment game as producers and not just distributors.


Cressi was founded in 1946, but they had been producing equipment for spearfishing since at least 1938. For scuba-diving gear they began with face masks, masks with integrated snorkels, and then ventured into diving fins and rebreathers. They began to develop their own line of diving regulators, and branched out into manufacturing different kinds of diving equipment. 


Beuchat, like Cressi, had been developing equipment for spearfishing since the 1930s. As diving began to get more popular, they focused on spearfishing equipment and then started to experiment with underwater camera housings. It was only in 1953 that Beuchat experimented with the first isothermal wetsuit, which would regulate divers’ body temperatures. 

Science and Technology

Diving has come so far since free-diving days. Dive computers, automatic regulators, different ways of wearing tanks and different kinds of wetsuits are all over the market. There is deep sea diving, drifting, cave-diving. However, the most basic requirements are still how to breathe, and how to stay warm and safe deep underwater. The rest is modern history.