Who was the first scuba diver?

By: Charles W. Bryant
Children playing in water, cherishing childhood together.
Marine Life Image Gallery Early scuba divers weren't so different than their modern counterparts. See pictures of marine life.
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Man has always longed to spend some quality time with the creatures of the deep blue. Maybe it's because of the unknown nature of the ocean's depths. For centuries, it was largely a mystery, only viewed from topside. Tales of giant squid and other man-eating aquatic monsters are as much a part of seafaring history as schooners and frigates. Just like outer space, the vastness of the ocean has always captured man's attention and inspired exploration. So much that early attempts at diving date all the way back to the time of Alexander the Great who, legend has it, used a diving bell to journey down as far as 600 feet (182 meters) into the ocean. While this is likely the stuff of legends, genuine strides were made in the late 1600s as innovators like Denis Papin and Edmund Halley made deep sea submersion in a diving bell a reality.

Deep-sea diving suits, known as diving dresses, were next to hit the scene. In 1823, John and Charles Deane were awarded a patent on a diving dress and helmet based on those used by firefighters at the time. The heavy helmet was connected to a hose that ran to the surface and supplied the diver with fresh air. The only problem was that the helmet was open at the bottom and water would leak in if it wasn't kept completely vertical. A man named Augustus Siebe modified the Deane Patent Diving Dress by attaching the helmet to a waterproof suit. The result was the direct precursor to the legendary and familiar MK V deep-sea diving dress.


But despite all these advancements, the diver still had to be attached to the surface via air hose. The key words in the acronym SCUBA are "self-contained," something a diving dress or bell never achieved. So even though man had been trolling the ocean's depths since the 1600s, the first self-contained unit didn't come around until the invention of the scuba set in the middle of the 20th century.

First Scuba Diver

Underwater pioneer Jacques Cousteau pays homage to diving's roots.
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Determining who the first scuba diver was kind of depends on whom you ask. Many diving historians point to an Englishman named William James, who in 1825 invented what is commonly agreed to be the first open-circuit scuba system. Open-circuit means that the air you take in is vented into the water, as opposed to being "re-breathed" by the diver. Like Augustus Siebe's diving dress, James used a heavy copper helmet attached to a waterproof suit. Air was compressed into a metal container around the diver's waist and fed into the mask and regulated by hand.

Others say that Henry Fleuss deserves the recognition as he was awarded the first patent for a re-breather in 1878. His scuba set allowed a diver to stay submerged for up to 3 hours and it was successfully used by diver Alexander Lambert in 1880 for an underwater construction project.


If you want to go back even further, in 1771 a man named Doctor Freminet invented the first self-contained diving system, named the Machine Hydrostatergatique. He was allegedly successful in diving to a depth of about 50 feet (15 meters) for several minutes at a time, with a copper air tank on his back that was fed into his copper helmet. By the strictest definition, this would make Ferminet the first scuba diver. Unfortunately, while he gets his due in history books, most scuba enthusiasts don't consider him to be first, as his system was so different from what we would come to think of as scuba.

Still others say that Charles Condert invented the first scuba system in 1828, based on suspicions that William James' scuba system, while patented, was never actually built and used in the water. Condert's system was based on the Deane brothers' diving dress and James' published patent, and he managed to make several dives into the East River of New York to depths of about 20 feet (6 meters). Ask another diving historian and he or she may say that all of these systems, while valuable for being a part of the history of diving, don't qualify. He or she will make an argument that famous French diver Jacques Cousteau and his partner Emile Gagnan were the first true scuba divers because of their invention and perfection of the Aqua-Lung -- the same system used by divers today.

Even though it may be impossible to know who the very first person to scuba dive was, each of these inventors developed key innovations that made modern scuba diving a reality.


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More Great Links

  • "History of Diving." U.S. Navy Diving Manual. 2009.http://www.s297830378.onlinehome.us/usn/Chap01.pdf
  • "Scuba Diving History." Divinghistory.com. 2009.http://www.divinghistory.com/id19.html
  • "Scuba History." Scubasites.net. 2009.http://www.scubasites.net/scubahistory.html
  • "The Origin of Scuba Diving." Scubaeds.com. 2009.http://www.scubaeds.com/10.html
  • Hanauer, Eric. "Diving pioneers: an oral history of diving in America." Aqua Quest Publications, pp 32-40.
  • History of Scuba Diving." Divingheritage.com. 2009.http://www.divingheritage.com/waybackkern.htm