Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
For centuries human beings have been fascinated with the concept of being able to "breathe" underwater while exploring the deep blue sea. As early as the third century B.C., Aristotle is said to have made references to some type of breathing apparatus that would allow a person to stay underwater for an extended period of time.
After years of somewhat crude inventions ranging from goggles
to snorkels to 16th century "diving bells," technology
began to advance and inventors devised equipment such as the
air pump, created in 1771 by John Smeaton; a breathing belt,
invented in 1825 by William James; underwater breathing systems
created in 1828 by John and Charles Deane, and in 1837 by
Augustus Siebe; a self-contained underwater breathing unit
created by Henry Fleuss in 1873; and a breathing system for
the U.S. military designed by Christian Lambertson in 1939.
Lambertson's system, designed for the miltary's SCUBA program
(for "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus")
was somewhat successful, but divers were injured or killed
frequently from oxygen toxicity.
Shortly thereafter, in 1943, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile
Gagnan invented a system that would revolutionize the world
of deep-sea exploration and push diving into the mainstream,
allowing people around the world to become exposed to a magical
oceanic wilderness they had been unable to experience before.
The system is known as the "Aqua-lung."
Cousteau was born June 11, 1910, in Saint-Andre-de-Cubzac, France, near Bordeaux. He was well-traveled thanks to his lawyer-father, who moved often and took his family with him on frequent trips. Cousteau was a restless student but an avid swimmer with an interest in film and natural technical ability. In 1930, he was admitted to France's Naval Academy. He served in the navy and later entered naval aviation school, but after a car accident at age 26 he was transferred to sea duty and began a rigorous swimming program to regain strength in his arms.
During World War II, he served as a spy for the French Resistance
and was decorated with the Legion of Honor at the war's conclusion.
Meanwhile he pursued an interest in sea exploration and managed
to make several underwater films during wartime. He also met
fellow Frenchman and engineer Emile Gagnan, with whom he collaborated
on creating a machine that he hoped would turn him into somewhat
of a "man-fish" underseas. Oxygen and air-pressure
regulation, he knew, would be key.
Emile Gagnan was born in Burgoyne, France, in 1900. He earned a technical degree and began working as an engineer for L'aire Liquide, with specialization in high-pressure pneumatic design. With Cousteau he began working to create a demand-valve for what was to become the Aqua-lung system. A similar type of valve had been used in gas-generator engines and Gagnan imagined it would also be useful in regulating air supply in a variable pressure environment. His theory was correct, and this valve would be a central component of the Aqua-lung's demand regulator, which adjusts air pressure automatically and supplies air as a diver needs it, so that air pressure inside a diver's lungs match the pressure of the water. This would prove a critical and groundbreaking safety feature.
After a few unsuccessful attempts, Cousteau and Gagnan perfected
a device that was incredibly safe, reliable and easy to use.
This would change the diving scene forever. The Aqua-lung
was first sold in France in 1946. By 1951, Aqua-lung systems
were being sold in England and in Canada. U.S. distribution
rights were acquired in 1952 and U.S. Divers launched to great
success. Air Liquide, a French company, bought U.S. Divers
in 1958 and changed the name to Aqua Lung America, which became
part of Aqua Lung International, established by Air Liquide
in 1988 and now the world's largest diving company. The Aqua-lung
system is now part of virtually every set of modern SCUBA
gear in the world, with thousands upon thousands of units
sold, and recreational scuba diving has become an international
In 1947, Gagnan emigrated with his family to Montreal, Canada, where he began working for Canadian Liquid Air Ltd. There he set up a lab and designed and developed a large number of technologies integral to the evolution of modern SCUBA equipment. Meanwhile, Cousteau, who had already become known in his field, developed an international reputation as a pioneer of deep-sea exploration as well as an environmental activist.
In 1952 he published "Silent World" with Frédéric
Dumas and James Dugan, which attracted many to the world of
recreational diving. He later wrote many more books including
"The Living Sea" in 1963 and "World Without Sun"
in 1965. His acclaimed documentary television series "The
Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" began in 1968 and
ran until 1976. He was nominated for 40 Emmys with his documentaries
and won three Oscars for them as well, for "The Silent
World," "The Golden Fish," and "World
In 1950 he became president of the French Oceanographic
Campaigns and began sailing his ship "Calypso" on
regular explorations. Soon he retired from the navy, but not
until after he had helped create post-war minesweeping techniques
for use in shipwrecks as well as in French harbors. In 1963
he developed the "Calypso-Phot" underwater camera,
and, with Jean Mollard, the SP-350 deep-sea, two-man submarine.
In 1974, Cousteau started the Cousteau Society for the protection of ocean life. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Reagan in 1985, and in 1977, he and Peter Scott received the UN international environment prize. In 1992 he became a regular consultant for the UN and the World Bank on development and the environment. Cousteau also served as chairman of the U.S. division of the Aqua Lung company's board of directors, working well into his 80s. He died on June 25, 1997.