Thousands of years ago
The history of scuba diving, or breathing underwater, goes back thousands of years and probability to the dawn of man. Modern scuba though, with compressed air and other dive gear, was developed around the 1700’s and has only been honed in and improved since then. Breathing underwater was recorded around 2,500 years ago when humans breathed through hollow reeds in Ancient Greece. The story goes that a Greek soldier jumped off a ship during battle and stayed undetected by breathing through reeds by the shore. This is only recorded history. I’m sure undocumented cultures outside of Europe were using a similar method.
The Early Years
The beginning of scuba was similar to snorkeling but it evolved quickly. A few hundred years after the first report in Greece, with the use of natural snorkel equipment, Aristotle made mention of Alexander the Great using a glass barrel or diving bell underwater as a way to store air under the surface and lengthen the diving process. A diving bell is a ridgid chamber that is usually shaped like a bell or cone. The reason for the shape is that the air trapped at the surface remains inside, allowing humans to breath inside the diving bell or return to the bell after freediving the ocean floor. This design was revolutionary. It was the basis of many different scuba designs to come. For hundreds of years people experimented with bell designs made of materials like glass, leather, wood and, later, metal. Leonardo De Vinci even sketched something quite similar to our modern day scuba gear complete with air tank and goggles.
Dawn of Modern Scuba Diving
Big technological changes in the 1500 and 1600’s allowed for greater progress. During this time, air pumps were invented and the diving bell continued to evolve. The diving bell was the most advanced technology at the time and it was the focus of underwater exploration for years. Pumping air into diving apparatuses came next. Around 1780 John Lethbridge developed an air pump to deliver oxygen to the diving bell, which was instrumental in pushing the diving world beyond its limits of time and space. This technology would eventually lead to air tanks and the gear we use today. Without a doubt the 1700 and 1800’s saw the dawn of modern scuba equipment which became manufactured and enjoyed throughout the world.
The dive helmet was next on the scene. The dive helmet--big, bulky and heavy--was pinnacle of scuba diving in the early 1800’s. It’s look was iconic. It looked like an oversized space suit, before space travel was even possible. Different styles were tried, some with sealed bottoms that fit into a suit attached below and some with an open helmet that was only connected to the diver by straps. The connected helmets performed much better and became the focus for further change in design. In 1825 Williams H. James invented a full diving suit that encompassed the entire body of the diver. This enabled divers to stay warm since it trapped air and heat inside, allowing for longer dives. This propelled the underwater sciences forward as dives in the cold water became more and more feasible. The only downside to the suit is the process to get oneself inside it, which was a huge effort requiring help from multiple people.
Not soon after the diving suit was manufactured, compressed air was perfected and tested by two French inventors. The compressed air was stored in metallic tanks which were attached to the diver allowing for time underwater without being attached to a line from the surface. This was revolutionary. The air tank was worn on the waist which is what the Buoyancy Control Devices (BCDs) that are common today are based off. The entire history of breathing under water at this point had been done with air lines coming down from the surface. This is where modern day scuba tanks can trace their roots to...turning point in scuba history without a doubt.
Rebreathing devices were being patented and used around the World but it wasn’t until the 1940’s that it was perfected by Jacques Cousteau and engineer Emile Gagna in a way that was reliable and fully functional. Jacques pioneered scuba diving and was influential in turning it into a full blown recreational activity. In its early years scuba diving was used mostly as a tool for research of underwater realms and was continually being tested and used in military sectors world-wide. In the last 1950’s it began to enter the mainstream public. PADI, YMCA and NAUI made it possible for everyday citizens to engage in the activity.
Scuba Diving since then has become widely accessible and formatted into a way that’s beginner friendly. Scuba tourism is prevalent all over the Planet and we are continuing to explore the oceans, lakes and rivers that are accessible. A big part of this are the dedicated dive masters and companies that follow the strict safety guidelines that PADI and other Dive Companies follow and continue to lead safe and unforgettable dive trips daily. An amazing thing about scuba diving is that every dive is unique, even if you dive the same reef daily it will continue to be a different experience. Looking at that through the lens of history scuba diving history is easy to trace from it’s advancement in gear but other aspects are subtle are more difficult to measure empirically. The community based around scuba diving has always been tight knit and close but how does one measure the sharing of information about foreign dive spots, conditions and old fishing spots that come up after the dive and are only shared with companions and friends.
Some of our favorite modern scuba gear can be found on our scuba gear main page!
Today, the World is open and there are dive spots around the Planet that are now famous for their reefs, water clarity and sea life. We are blessed to be able to have easy access to so many dive sites not only through easily accessible info on the internet but also going scuba diving across the World can be done in a weekend. The history of scuba diving is an interesting one and it’s fascinating to look back but scuba divings future is quite bright and let’s help it to become even brighter.