Legends of Diving Articles

 

Sam Davison Jr
Founder and President of DACOR

For those of us that grew up in the Midwest, the name DACOR meant “family", it was a company of “divers for divers.” Throughout Sam Davison’s life, his experience in Guam is what drove him and his famous company DACOR. His contributions to the sport are endless.

Sam Davison Jr. was a US Marine that spent considerable time in the South Pacific during the Second World War. His time on the island of Guam


Sam Davison and his puppy, Charlie

changed his life and gave him images that he would never forget.

He and his fellow Marines discovered a new item while serving on the island…Japanese underwater goggles. This opportunity provided him images that he wanted to share with the world. This experience would later inspire the direction his life would take.

When he first came home from the war he sold vacuum cleaners from

1945-1947. In 1948 he went to the University of Miami to become an engineer.

His underwater experiences in the oceans of Guam still proved to be the driving force in his life, however. He soon met up with his old neighborhood friend, Bob Olson, on the shores of Lake Michigan. This friendship would prove to stand the test time.

The two experimented with their desire to get under the water by using rather inventive means. They placed inverted buckets over their heads, with hoses pumping in fresh air. This would have to do until Davison discovered in 1950 that a SCUBA device had been invented in France. Needless to say, he was more than ready to trade in his bucket and hose for this much safer and convenient equipment.

Upon reading an article in the July 1953 edition of Popular Science on how to build your own diving lung, their dream to dive was finally achieved. In these early days, Sam was diving up to 170 feet and more with no idea what the bends were.

Sam Davison Jr. borrowed $10,000 from his mother, Martha, and with this loan he built his first regulator. It took him two years to build the R-1, a

double-hose regulator. A buyer for Montgomery Wards saw the device and, impressed, bought ten of the regulators and then 300 more, shortly thereafter. Sam felt this was the best regulator ever made and decided to start a company to manufacture it. The Davison Corporation of Evanston, Illinois was born.

Borrowing the first two letters of his last name and the first three of the
word “corporation,” he came up

First DACOR Regulator on a tank

with the name DACOR in 1954. His father, Sam Sr, asked Sam Jr to give Don Davison (Senior’s brother) a job and some stock at the start of this enterprise. Don was given 10% minority stock in the company. Don worked in sales for the company until he died. A few years after the formation of the company Sam’s mother, Martha, died.

DACOR introduced their first regulator in 1955, named “Dial a Breath.” This regulator started a manufacturing frenzy. The regulator had a vane in the airstream to restrict or open the airflow. The theory at the time was that when a diver is forced to breathe harder, he doesn’t use as much air. Though this theory would later be proven untrue, no diver ever got hurt or injured using this regulator.

This diagram on March 31, 1955 is the first of 176 blueprints found with the designs
by DACOR friends during this time period

From 1954 to 1955 DACOR’s regulators were designed by Sam and some friends of his who were mechanical engineers.

This would prove to be a successful collaboration. Wally Mitchell, one of the engineers, was a millionaire and Sam (who would soon become one) would meet at The Superior Tea and Coffeehouse in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. As they sipped their morning coffee, they would study scraps of paper with pencil drawings of regulators that Sam had drawn. When they were satisfied with the drawings they would sign them and would also have the waitress add her signature.

They were always brainstorming over new styles of regulators. They had regulators in tank valves and a full-face mask with a built in regulator just to name two of the many versions they developed. There were over 176 blueprints found with their designs during this time period.

Sam worked with Wally Mitchell on the R4 and the C3 regulators, the two hose regulators that replaced the model 2500 Dial-a-Breath. He also worked with Vern Pederson, one of the early experienced divers and fabricators of the day. They experimented with various spring and lever combinations.

He later worked with another engineer, Lenny Dwarkins, on the first single hose regulator, called the “DACOR Dart.” By all indications he was four years ahead of Sportsways on the invention of the single hose. His drawings featured advanced downstream second stages and work on piston first stages. Why did he wait four years to introduce them to SCUBA" That is a question that remains unanswered, but it is possible that he lacked funding. He, however, deserves to be recognized as a forerunner in regulator design.

DACOR’s first in-house engineer was Doug O’Neil, who later helped to design the Olympic single hose regulators.

Sam came up with the original idea for the “Glo-Top” snorkel with the neon orange decal around the top of the snorkel tube. He was the originator of the larger barrel snorkel, as well. DACOR called it the “Big Barrel,” a wrap-around snorkel. Davison came home one night with one of those see-through plastic life-sized models of a human head. He played around with shapes and lengths to find a snorkel that felt just right.

This was done in the kitchen, of course. He brought some clear straight tubing and bent it to various shapes with a heater. He made a few prototypes and went to Racine Quarry in Wisconsin to test them out. There was a lot of detail work, burnt hands, and a lot of rejects but Sam wanted them to be perfect.

Sam Davison Jr, Founder and President of DACOR, Carl Aldrin, and Wally Mitchell

His experimental team consisted of his sons Gary and Jeff. He came home one night, filled the tub full of water and had the boys put regulators in their mouths. He called his wife and yelled, “Look! They can breathe under water!”

He went on to develop a curved snorkel designed to adapt to your head in 1960. DACOR was known as the most innovative dive equipment manufacture in the 1960’s.

He would take divers who worked for the company to Lake Racine in Wisconsin to test the new equipment the company invented. Sam never was certified as a diver and he had a style all his own. When diving, he always took an inner tube with rope strapped around it. Attached to the rope was a plastic twist top bottle that contained his cigarettes and his famous blue tip matches that he would strike off the top of his mask to light a cigarette. After smoking his required cigarette, he would go back down and work on his project.

The company did not realize instant success. Sam said “You have to have someone out front selling the stuff and someone in the back making it.” Most of the time, Sam did both. His business philosophy was that if his company made the best diving equipment, he would beat his competition in the end.

Sam had some key people join the company in the 60’s. He considered all employees family. Upper management would walk the floor and find out who had new ideas in Shipping and Production. It really bothered Sam that he could not speak to some of the workers who spoke Spanish, He learned Spanish so that he could talk to them. He would have “taco days” and bring everyone food. They all felt a valuable part of the DACOR family.

Mike Martin was not only one of those employees, he was also a classmate of Sam’s son, Jeff. Mike began work in the Repair Department with Jeff in 1973. After Jeff went on to further his education, Mike took charge of the whole department. He later went on to head regulator production. At that time, Jeff’s brother, Gary, was brought in to handle the Repair Department duties. While heading up the regulators, Mike and Sam became good friends. After a couple of years, Sam offered him the Sales position for the Midwest states. Martin still works in the diving industry to this day.

In the mid 70’s DACOR was a household name and was one of the major manufacturers of SCUBA equipment in the world. In all the time Sam ran the company, hardly anyone knew who he was. He never signed autographs and would not allow promotional use of his name. He was a quiet pioneer and let the company products do the talking. Davison was a workaholic and would go home and work half the night and still be back at the company the next day. His door was always open to his employees and friends. He was an accomplished pilot of gliders and seaplanes, as well as a licensed captain and avid photographer.

Sam Davison (right) was good friends with Mel Fisher (left). Note the
gold chalice held by Fisher and the gold bar held by Davison.

Sam was a personal friend of Mel Fisher, the treasure hunter who finally found the Atocha off the coast of the Florida Keys. It was one of the richest treasures ever found. Davison used to give Mel DACOR equipment for use on his dives. This served as valuable advertisement for the company. When Mel found the Atocha, he called Sam and they met at the site. A few days after this trip, DACOR’S Shipping and Receiving Department received ballast stones from the Atocha wired to pallets. Sam had them all shipped to Dacor’s Home Office and built a wall in the lobby out of these precious stones. We at Portage Quarry remember a diver visiting from Chicago saying he was getting the ballast stones from the contractor who was tearing the DACOR building down. What we would have given to have some of those stones…such a rich history behind them!

The Andrea Doria wreck has always been the Mt Everest to divers the world over. The hyperbaric chamber at DACOR was used by divers at the wreck site. It was always made available to the dive community, as well.

Nothing excited Sam more than a new piece of equipment. All of his key people were divers and unless they were all satisfied that an item was of the highest quality DACOR would not sell it. Sam’s children played pivotal role in his operation, true to his family values. His son, Gary, played an important role in sales and his brother, Jeff, was an engineer for the

DACOR Hyperbaric Chamber

company and later became President after his dad passed away. Through his entire career, Sam’s wife, Joan, worked with him. Sam died in August of 1987 of lung cancer. The company was sold to Mares in November of 1998 by his wife Joan. She died in August of 2000.

I had a personal experience that exemplifies the integrity of Sam Davison and the company he started. I had trouble with a piece of DACOR equipment many years

ago. I called the company to voice my concerns. Unbeknownst to me, I was talking to Sam Davison himself. I asked to speak to a supervisor. It was then that he identified himself and said “You can’t go any higher than this.” He always took the side of the customer and I was no exception. He made sure every customer was satisfied. He did everything it took to keep the trust of the divers he outfitted. DACOR was “The Professional’s Choice.”

One night while drinking beer with his father, Gary asked him, “Did you ever think Dacor would be where it is today" Especially when you know where you started" On the kitchen table!”

Sam threw his hands up in the air and turned and looked at Gary with that one-of-a-kind smile and said, “This is all a dream!” Sam certainly lived his dream and left behind a legacy.

DACOR and Sam Davison have gone on to become American Legends in Diving.

DACOR plant in Northfield, Illinois


Author: Legends of Diving Writer's Guild

Our many thanks go out to Gary and Jeff Davison,
Kent Rockwell, Kirk Garanflo, and Jerry Powell.

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