Legends of Diving Articles
The First 50 Years,
Birth of a Sport
In the beginning the hunters led the way. Spearfishing
brought the divers together, forming clubs and competitions,
with Skin Diver Magazine recording the history as it
The term skin diver meant breath-hold diving without thermal
protection. Later the terminology became snorkel divers, and
finally free divers.
Spearguns were an important piece of equipment for the early
diver, with the "Arbalete" from France with rubber slings
one of the most popular. Developed by Rene Cavalero in 1941
who also supplied U.S. Divers with the "Champion" masks,
snorkels, and fins for many years.
Cavalero was a champion spearfisherman competing in
international meets worldwide.
In 1950, the first use of some diver protection appeared.
Consisting of wool sweaters and long john underwear it
offered little insulation and some protection for the early
Bill Barada, founder of the California Council of Diving
Clubs, author, and writer for Skin Diver Magazine, developed
one of the first dry suits. Offered through his company, Bel-Aqua
Water Sports in front entry and waist entry models with hood
and attached boots.
In 1953, EDCO (Educational Diving Equipment Company)
introduced foam rubber suits after a study on cold water
environment with the Naval Electronics Laboratory in San
The original material was of a skin two-side which offered
good thermal protection but required talc powder or corn
starch as a lubricant for donning, and could easily be torn
if not careful.
In 1960, the first nylon lined suit appeared. Offered by
U.S. Divers, it was more of a cheese-cloth type material
glued to the inside. Shortly after, nylon two-side material
entered the market. This allowed blind-stitching on both
sides along with gluing for a very durable suit. In 1968
hi-stretch imported foam appeared on the market, eliminating
zippers in the arms and legs and allowing a better fit.
While dry suits never disappeared completely, they
re-appeared in the 80's as foam rubber dry suits with air
injection systems for warmth and buoyancy control, and now
we have rubberized as well as plastic coated nylon suits for
cold water use.
Masks and fins were a major breakthrough for the early
divers. One of the first masks was developed by the Sea-Net
Mfg. Company located on Terminal Island, California in 1946
by Larry Romano. His mask had the distinction of being
purchased by Hans Hass on an early expedition. Other masks
came from France and Italy. The Squale at $4.95 being one of
the better ones. Many of the early divers used home-made
goggles. The Bottom Scratchers of San Diego, the oldest
diving club in the U.S. (1932) pioneered goggles and early
In 1938, Owen Churchill, an Olympic Yachtsman from Los
Angeles established his company, Churchill Swim Fins. He
obtained patent rights from Louis De Corlieu of France who
held patents from 1927, 1929, 1934. Owen Churchill designed
his fins in the shape of a fishes tail. He produced 946
pairs before WWII and 25,000 pair during WWII with 11,000
pairs for the UDT. He produced 400 pairs for the initial
British Frogmen, and by 1954 had produced some 200,000 pairs
total. This was our first U.S. fin. In 1943 at the request
of the U.S. Navy, he produced a non-floating black rubber
fin for the early U.D.T, and 0-S.S, swimmers. The
traditional fin was of a green rubber floating type. Body
surfers today still use this fin.
Another major producer of early fins was Arthur (Bud) Brown
of the Spearfisherman Company of Huntington Beach, Produced
in gum rubber initially and called "Duckfeet" they took the
industry by storm. Along with the "Duckfeet" and "Giant
Duckfeet" he developed the "Wide View Mask" with a large
purge valve mounted on the front. The sealing edge was a
foam rubber strip and was probably one of the best masks
The Duckfeet and Wide View Mask were later distributed by a
newer company, Swimaster of Los Angeles, who in turn was
absorbed by Voit Rubber Company. The line was christened the
Open heel was the norm, and footpockets were used for warm
water areas. Boots were not overly popular as they
disintegrated on the rocks. Divers were slow to realize the
excessive loss of body heat through the feet, hands, and
head, could lead to diving accidents.
In the early fifties, many people were enthralled with just
being underwater, exploring inner space, identifying marine
life, just being able to breathe underwater. To this we are
indebted to Jacques-Yves Cousteau of France, and Emile
Gagnan, a Canadian engineer of Air Liquids-France, who in
1943 developed a demand breathing regulator for underwater
use. Cousteau's initial patent was based on the two hose
inhalation/exhalation concept and the exhaust valve design.
The diaphragm operated regulator had been available since
1812 in the commercial gas field.
In 1946, with the help of Air Liquide-France, Cousteau and
Gagnan established their first company, LA SPIROTECHNIQUE
and offered the SCAPHANDRE AUTONOME (automatic diving
apparatus). In 1949, Rene' Bussoz, a distant cousin of the
Cousteau family, and owner of "Rene Sports, 1045 Broxton
Ave. , in Westwood, California became the first distributor
of the diving apparatus, now called the "Aqua-lung".
Using a steel 70 cu. ft. cylinder, which actually held 64.7
cu. ft., a harness and regulator, the unit sold for $160.
The regulator by itself was $80.
Many early divers and the people at Scripps used the French
regulator combined with surplus twin 38 cu. ft. cylinders.
In 1952, Rene' changed the company name to U.S. Divers Co.
In 1955, the operation was moved to Pico Blvd. in Los
A number of two hose regulators followed the initial unit.
From DA to DX, DW, DY, Mistral, Aquamaster, and Royal
Aquamaster. In 1973, the two hose regulator was discontinued
due to the overwhelming popularity of the single hose
Our first American produced regulator was the Divair and
marketed by Healthways in 1954. Three models were
introduced, each with a different back-plate material. All
resulted in some form of electrolysis. By 1957 the regulator
had disappeared. Healthways continued with a new two hose
regulator and several models of single hose regulators.
In 1954 Garrett Airesearch developed the Northill Regulator
for the U.S. Navy. In 1955 the unit was available to the
public with a pull cord reserve system and a shut-off
At this same time, Scott Aviation Company offered the Scott
Hydropak Unit with a full face mask, built-in snorkel with
single or twin upside down cylinders with easily reached
In 1955, the Davidson Corporation of Evasion,IL introduced
their double diaphragm regulator and shortened their name to
DESCO of Milwaukee was also offering their Air Master two
hose regulator. This was the line up for the mid-fifties. In
1956 we saw the advent of the first single hose regulators;
The Little Rose Pro from Rose Aviation Company at $22.50,
Cousteau's Aquamatic from France in 1957 (it had been
designed in 1951 but not released in the U.S.)
1958 saw a new company enter the field, Sportsways with
their series of single hose Waterlung regulators designed by
Sam Lecocq. Light weight, innovative, and reasonably priced.
Combined with a submersible pressure gauge and the first
o-ring sealed tank valve they dominated the field for
During this same period, Voit Rubber Co. offered four
different two hose models, all made by U.S. Divers with a
different case cover copied from the French Mistral
regulator. So began the Sea Hunt era.
In 1970 a major breakthrough was the adjustable 2nd stage,
allowing precise setting of the airflow. Up until this point
1st stages were either diaphragm type with an adjustable
external spring, or piston type requiring shims to be
inserted for pressure changes. Along with this the diameter
of the exhaust valve reached maximum size of one inch. Since
exhalation was the major factor in breathing resistance,
this improved performance greatly.
Through out the 60's and 70's all companies offered several
models of the single hose regulators.
In 1958 several rubber safety vests were offered by U.S.
Divers, Nemrod, and Healthways. These were primarily
emergency C02 vests for surface flotation. Later in 1963 the
first of the buoyancy compensators appeared. The first being
manufactured by Fenzy of France and Nemrod of Spain. Most of
these were designed with a small air cylinder that provided
emergency air and ascent capabilities. This system was
widely used in
Europe. Almost all were of the yoke type (horse collar).
Surprisingly, the first jacket type B.C. I ever encountered
was designed by Frederic Dumas, Cousteau^s diving-partner in
1957. It contained a very small 3000 psi cylinder, an
adjustable relief valve built into the mouthpiece, and a
holder for your snorkel. It had under arm buoyancy identical
to current B.C. jackets and was made from hypalon fabric.
The same as used in good grade inflatable boats. It was way
ahead of it's time!
The first of the back buoyancy units in 1968 was the Saf-T-Ballast
system. Composed of two plastic cylinders mounted on each
side of the tank. A hose was sandwiched in between your
valve and regulator ending in a needle valve with which you
controlled the air supply to the cylinders (the first power
inflator). A vent on the bottom of the cylinders allowed the
diver to dump air as needed. Not many were sold.
In 1970 the Attitude Pack (ATPAK), a back buoyancy unit
which featured a nylon bag and bladder and built-in weight
system entered the scene. It was the forerunner of the
current styles available today.
Most early B.C.'s featured an inner bladder of polyurethane.
Current models are bladderless using urethane coated nylon
or cordura and heat sealed for durability.
During the 70's we also passed through an evolution of rigid
buoyancy containers. These were back mounted devices that
operated similar to a submarine. The diver could control the
amount of air in the unit adjusting his buoyancy precisely.
As he descended his buoyancy remained stable throughout the
dive. Water for ballast could be added or vented. Several
were offered in the diving field. Another good design that
failed to stay with us.
Early dive stores began to appear from 1950 on. Rene', of
course, was the first. Mel Fisher opened his doors as Fisher
Sporting Goods. Later
changed to Mel's Aqua Shop. Bill Hogan had the Underwater
Sport Shop, all were early advertisers in Skin Diver
Magazine. From there it blossomed - east coast, west coast,
all over the U.S.
Current equipment today, while better made and more durable,
owes it's development to these early pioneers.
Currently we have the modern versions; titanium regulators,
TEK equipment, computers, split fins, and SKINDIVER has been
with us all the way.
Congratulations on the big 50.
Icorn, international dive legend, presents this article in the dive
legends series. Icorn attended the first instructor's course in the
United States at Scripps Institute in 1953. From there he has gone on to
an illustrious career in diving with many awards. Read more on
Nick Icorn, a legend at the Third Annual International Legends Festival
at the Portage Quarry in August, 2008.
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