Catalina Island News

Celebrating the early days of Scuba


In 1942, an ambitious young French Naval officer and equally driven mechanical engineer collaborated on a project that would alter history. Their efforts were to open up the world's oceans to undersea explorers with the creation of a simple, yet revolutionary design for an underwater breathing device which they coined the "Aqua-Lung".

The first fully autonomous and reasonably reliable diving regulator was the brainchild of Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, and together they helped redirect how humans would venture beneath the waves.

Prior to their invention, undersea work and exploration had been restricted to surface supplied umbilical hard-hat divers or shallow water rebreather divers who were primarily members of the military or commercial dive industry.

Both types of diving were limited by their particular technologies. Hard hats or helmets were limited by the length of hose which carried the all important air delivery for the divers to breath, and in the case of rebreathers we must remember that miniaturized electronics were nothing but a futuristic vision during that time, so a means for measuring things like Oxygen and Carbon dioxide levels within a diving system was simply non-existent.

The result was that for rebreathers, where the diver does just that, “re-breaths” their own exhalations repeatedly and oxygen is added into the mix as each breath converts a portion of it into CO2 which is subsequently removed via a chemical absorption medium were restricted to shallow working depths.

Since there was no reliable underwater air analyzer at that time, the answer was to limit a diver’s depth to under 30 feet which also reduced the risks of oxygen toxicity issues by doing so. The problem of course is that with both those methods of diving the restrictions left people aching to see what was just out of reach, deeper, or further away.

The Cousteau-Gagnan process as it came to be known, essentially changed everything regarding autonomy in the water. The diver could wear their scuba unit and breath compressed air which allowed for much deeper dives than that of an oxygen rebreather. The two key and distinct advantages of the Aqua-Lung being the freedom to swim at will, removing the distance limitations of umbilical diving, and of course increased depth excursions.

While the new technology was first applied in military circles during the height of WWII, by March 1947, U.S. patent rights had been filed, and on Oct. 18th 1949, that patent was awarded.

Within just a few years sales had begun in the U.S. marketplace, and along with the introduction of the equipment came a new breed of underwater enthusiast. Up until then, the general public’s options for diving were basically focused on spear fishing or other forms of food gathering like abalone, crab or lobster, and it was primarily done by free, or breath-hold snorkel diving. These folks, almost all of them men, relied on using swimming goggles which eventually moved onto full-face lens masks, most of which were home-made. The majority of these “Skin-Divers” would almost automatically shift over to usage of the Aqua-Lungs once they came available.

Throughout the early 50’s came a flood of new divers onto the beach scene, and to meet the new demand also came an assortment of new manufacturers who wanted to capture a share of the blossoming market.

Cousteau’s dive equipment manufacturing consortium in France, “La-Spirotechnique” set up shop on Broxton Ave. in Los Angeles after they bought out Cousteau’s brother-in-law’s business “Rene’s Sporting Goods” and transformed it into U.S. Divers-Aqua Lung. Other U.S. manufacturers quickly joined in. Healthways, Dacor, Voit-Swimaster, Scott Aviation, Garrett-Northill were the first American makers of their own variations of the Aqua-lung system. Healthways was the California based company which trademarked the U.S. Naval acronym term “Scuba, or Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus”.

Healthways took the word in the early 50’s and used it to describe, or name their own version dive regulator. Later on, “SCUBA” would evolve to describe an entire diving industry.

Perhaps more important than all the first generation open-circuit scuba equipment were the people who were the first to use it. They, through their adventurous spirits and desire to explore also became the test pilots and design adjusters for each piece of new hardware.

Along with what would become household names like Jacques Cousteau or Lloyd Bridges, there were others, some who would themselves become famous like Andy Rechnitzer, Conrad Limbaugh, Mel Fisher, Hans Hass, E.R. Cross, Dick Anderson, Billy and Bobby Meistrell, George Bass, Scott Carpenter and women like Dottie Frazier and Zale Parry.

But there were plenty of others, lesser known figures who also contributed greatly in the early days of the dive industry. Folks like Gary Keffler whose sons Dan and Terry have since taken over his “Underwater Sports” chain of dive shops in the Pacific N.W. or Sal Zamitti in San Francisco, or even Avalon’s own Cap Perkins who was one of America’s first military scuba divers. All of these folks and many more have contributed in the promotion and advancement of the dive industry in one way or another.

Many of the names listed above have passed on in just the last few years. This of course is understandable since it’s been 72 years since the invention of the Aqua-Lung. With each passing year fewer and fewer original generation open-circuit scuba divers remain amongst us to share first hand accounts of those times and experiences. The combined contributions of these diving pioneers can be listed among some of the greatest achievements in technology, physiology study and exploration in all of mankind’s historical pursuits.

Last month Avalon hosted the 34th annual harbor cleanup which typically attracts between 400-500 divers who participate, there was a display of vintage dive equipment which makes up one of the largest private collections in the nation. Visitors were encouraged to visit the display and see some of the equipment used for diving from the earliest days of open-circuit scuba. Much of it dated from the 40’s and 50’s, a time when creativity, innovation and passion drove an entire generation to follow a dream of discovery beneath the surface of the water. We celebrated the people, equipment and spirit of the era which helped lay the groundwork for today’s diving industry.

On behalf of a grateful township, Thank you harbor divers for once again using your skill sets to help keep Avalon Bay cleaner and maintain its allure for tourists to our island community.

By Jon Council