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The History of Scuba Diving

Updated on August 23, 2017

A fascinating journey through the centuries: from Breath-Hold Diving to modern-day Scuba Equipment

Scuba Diving, in its current form didn't happen until around the 1950s, with the invention of the "Aqualung" by Cousteau and Gagnan. Before that, crude and later more sophisticated diving attempts using surface supplied air to bells or suits was the standard way to explore, salvage, collect food or conduct military operations underwater. And going back even further, people have been doing Breathe Hold Diving for thousands of years, and using snorkels made of hollow reeds.

Read on for this complete History of Scuba Diving Take a deep breath! And...any predictions on what will come next?

More Scuba Diving Adventures - History, Mysteries and other things


Breath-Hold Diving: the Precursor to Modern-Day Scuba Diving

As Early as 4500 BC, people were freediving

We know for certain that ancient civilizations engaged in breath-hold diving because of underwater artifacts such as pearls that have been found on land, among excavated items of similar antiquity. Coastal cultures in China, Greece and Mesopotamia were probably diving as early as 4500 BC, for food, sponges and possibly warfare. Diving for sponges has been mentioned in ancient Greek writings and pictures of the activity are portrayed in many ancient cultures.


Hollow Reeds: the first Snorkels around 500 BC

The story of Scyllis

In an effort to remain underwater longer than could be done on a single breath, ancient divers used hollow reeds to extend their underwater time. While partly effective, they could not be longer than about 2 feet due to the difficulty in breathing from them because of the differences in pressure on the surface and underwater.

There is a famous story about Scyllis, a Greek and one of the first reed-divers, dating from around 500 BC, and told by the historian Herodotus. There was a Naval campaign and Scyllis is taken as a prisoner aboard a ship by the Persian King Xerxes. Scyllis overheard rumors about an attack on the Greeks, so he stole a knife, jumped overboard and remained hidden underwater by using a hollow reed. He surfaced at night and cut loose all of Xerxes ships from their moorings and swam 9 miles to rejoin his fellow Greek soldiers.


The First Diving Bells in 300 BC

As early as 360 BC, there are recorded instances of crude diving bell use, however these bells would not be refined until the 16th century.

In 360 BC, Aristotle talks about the diving bells in "Problemata," saying that they are used for sponge fisherman and have to be forcibly kept upright upon descent in order to prevent air from escaping and water from entering.

Later, in 322 BC, Alexander The Great commissions the use of diving bells during the siege of Tyre in order to remove underwater obstacles in the harbor and it's even said that Alexander himself made several dives in order to check on the progress.


1600's Diving Bells and Suits

Unlike the crude diving bells of centuries earlier, the diving bells of the 1600's were the first that allowed the diver to stay underwater for a good length of time. The bell was held stationary a few feet from the surface and was open on the bottom, which allowed water to enter, but the compressed air to remain on the top. The diver could breathe by standing upright with his head in the air portion, after leaving for a minute or two to collect sponges or whatever else he was looking for. He could do this as long as the air was still breathable.

In 1691, Edmund Halley refined the diving bell even further by inventing one with a glass top to admit light. He then lowered barrels from the surface which would replenish the air inside the bell. This allowed divers to use an air hose to explore short distances outside of the bell.

In the 1600's, the first full diving suits made of leather were invented in England and France and could be used to depths of 20m. They depended upon air being pumped down from the surface. Later, helmets were made from metal and could withstand greater depths.

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1700 and 1800's Diving Bells and Suits

During this time, diving bells and suits were becoming increasingly more advanced and sophisticated, so that more complex salvage, harvesting and military operations could be conducted for the first time. Air was mostly supplied from the surface using pumps.


1865: The first demand Valve Scuba Unit is invented

All previous diving bells and suits supplied air continuously, which is quite wasteful in terms of what a diver actually needs. A demand valve, where air is only supplied during inhalation is much more efficient. The first one of these was invented by two French inventors, Benoit Rouquayrol and August Denayrouze. This was the first time that divers could essentially be free under-water, without having air supplied from the surface or a station of some sort underwater. It was only possible for a few minutes at this early stage.

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1942: the Modern-Era of Diving Begins

The first demand valve regulator is introduced for public use

For about 100 years, from the mid 1800's to mid 1900s, major advances in scuba diving were made. For example, decompression sickness was understood and Haldane made his first dive tables in response to this. An underwater camera, rebreathers, face-masks and fins were developed and in common usage.

However, in 1942, Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagan invented the first demand valve regulator that could release the compressed air within a tank with the slightest effort. The pair conduct numerous test dives, patent it, and it goes on sale to the public in 1948, with scuba diving beginning to become popular in the 1950s. In 1959, the YMCA became the first organization to offer certification in Scuba Diving.

Scba Diving from the 1950's- Present Day

Modern Day Scuba Diving as we know it

After the introduction of the first modern-regulator, many more advances were made, until we have the equipment that is presently in use. Regulators are further developed and things such as pressure gauges and an Octopus become standard gear. Wetsuits and dive computers are developed, and more scuba diving organization such as PADI, SSI, and Naui are formed. Depth records are constantly being set and broken. Although there are advances being made each year in things like rebreathers, dry-suits and fins, for most recreational divers the modern scuba set will probably see them through until the end of their lifetime.

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    • imolaK profile image

      imolaK 5 years ago

      I'm not a diver, but it must be very interesting to visit the underwater world. Blessed!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      its actually preety fascinating

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 6 years ago from Australia

      What a fascinating read!

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 6 years ago

      Interesting stuff. I loved the Jaques Cousteau series on TV. I learned to dive in Falmouth UK where I reached BSAC sports diver level. I haven't done much recently. I live near Stoney Cove in the UK a favourite inland spot for divers.

    • BlenderHead LM profile image

      BlenderHead LM 6 years ago

      Interesting lens! :)