Legends of Diving Articles


The First 50 Years,
Birth of a Sport

by Nick Icorn

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 unfolded.

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 diver.

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 Diego.

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 masks,

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 ever produced.

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 Swimaster line.

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 Angeles.

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 regulators.

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 mouthpiece.

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 valves.

In 1955, the Davidson Corporation of Evasion,IL introduced their double diaphragm regulator and shortened their name to DACOR.

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 sometime.

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.

Legends Series

Nick 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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1993 Originally Published in Historical Diver Magazine
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