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When you pop on that snorkel or go for a deep dive underwater, it’s thanks to thousands of years of history, hard work, and developing the best possible technology. The origins of snorkelling & scuba diving date back around 5,000 years. Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, and even Houdini have all played a part in the history of the two activities.
From humble beginnings in ancient history, snorkelling and scuba diving technology has evolved to become safer, more comfortable, and a lot more enjoyable. Want to know all the hard work that’s gone into you being able to peek at that beautiful coral life? Read on!
The earliest signs of humans breathing underwater can be traced to sponge farmers on the island of Crete, in Greece. These divers would use hollow reeds as a snorkel apparatus, breathing through the hollow tubes while submerged underwater as you would with a snorkel.
Thousands of years later, we see the first signs of a scuba apparatus in the making. Rather than using oxygen tanks, Assyrian divers would fill animal skins with air and take them on their underwater explorations. A step above hollow reeds, but still a long way away from the technology we see today.
Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to write about the diving bell, a scuba-like contraption that allowed divers to breathe underwater. The diving bell worked by trapping a pocket of air inside its dome, which divers could then take breaths from while underwater.
Diving bells worked, but they were fairly limited in that they didn’t allow divers to travel long distances. Instead, divers had to remain within close distance of the diving bell so that they could take regular breaths.
Did you know Leonardo Da Vinci played a part in the history of scuba diving and snorkelling? More than just an artist, Da Vinci’s scientific sketchbooks contained detailed designs for many different diving apparatuses. These included everything from simple tubes that worked like a snorkel, to a completely self-contained diving suit and swimming gloves with webbed fingers (kind of like flippers for your hands).
Mankind has always been interested in discovering what’s underwater. They wanted to be able to see what’s going on so bad that the Persians developed the first version of goggles, made by thinly slicing and policing tortoise shells. That’s a lot of effort to get a closer look at what’s in the sea!
In England and France, leather diving suits were developed that allowed divers to go to depths up to 18 metres. The suits worked by pumping air from the surface using manual pumps and distributing it to divers through the suit. After a period of time, metal helmets were also released that withstood larger amounts of water pressure.
Around this time, people realised that tubes connecting swimmers to the surface of the water were great for snorkelling, but did little to help divers going deep underwater. The water pressure after a certain depth is simply too high for lungs to take in air. In 1771, though, British engineer John Smeaton invented the air pump. This provided a whole new world of opportunity for scuba diving and paved the way for the air tanks and pressurised dive suits we see today.
Using the air pump technology developed by John Smeaton, Sieur Freminet developed a scuba-like apparatus that allowed divers to inhale recycled air from a diving barrel. This rebreathing device was the first sign of a scuba, but not enough research and testing went into its development and Sieur Freminet passed away from lack of oxygen after using his device for 20 minutes.
In the 19th century, a lot of scientific and technological research allowed both scuba diving and snorkelling to develop quickly. Paul Bert and John Scott Haldane published studies that explained the effects of water pressure on the body, helping to define the safe limits for scuba diving. At the same time, technology was being developed that allowed people to breathe underwater for longer, including carbon dioxide scrubbers and regulators.
Another person had a go at using John Smeaton’s technology to develop a self-contained breathing device. This time it was English inventor William James, who designed a cylinder shaped iron belt that held enough air for a seven minute dive. The belt was attached to a copper helmet. This technology was actually advanced enough to allow for a lot of underwater salvage work to take place in England.
Famous magician Harry Houdini also had a go at developing a diver’s suit. Always fascinated by escape art, Harry’s ‘Houdini Suit’ was designed to be quickly and safely removed while underwater. But who wants to take off their diving suit underwater unless you’re a magician?
The first patent for a submerged person’s breathing tube is filed by Joseph L. Belcher. Joseph wanted to patent a breathing apparatus that delivered air to a submerged person by taking in air from the water’s surface through hoses connected to a float. He is granted his US patent in 1933.
We now officially see the first swimmers’ mask with integrated breathing tubes on the market. Introduced by French naval officer, Yves Le Prieur, Nautilus was a full-face diving mask. The mask featured two hoses coming out of the sides, which led upwards to an air inlet above the water’s surface. The snorkel mask was fitted with a ball valve that opened closed when submerged and opened when above the water’s surface.
In the same year, the first patent is filed for a front-mounted swimmer’s breathing tube. While most snorkel mask designs to date had featured hoses on the sides of the mask, French spearfisherman Maxime Forjot envisioned a breathing tube on the front of the mask. Their design also featured a single-lens snorkel mask that covered both the eyes and nose.
Another spearfisherman, this time Alexander Kramarenko from Russia, files the first patent for a side-mounted swimmers’ breathing tube. His design features a tube at the side of the head, with a ball valve at the top to expel water. In 1940, Kramarenko files the same invention in the USA and is granted a patent in 1943.
American spearfisherman Charles H. Wilen files a patent for a swimmer’s mask invention. His device is a full-face snorkel mask with two breathing tubes that have valves sticking out above the water’s surface. After the release of this snorkel mask, similar designs started appearing in catalogues throughout the world, all with integrated tubes.
Famous oceanographer and French navy officer Jacques Costeau, along with engineer Emily Gagnan, helped develop a more advanced diving suit and regulator. This was the first prototype of the scuba diving apparatus that we see today.
So we’ve been using the term snorkel in this article, but the term wasn’t in use until 1950. A ‘swim pipe’ was released by company Honolulu Sporting Goods, with advertisements telling people to “try the human version of the submarine snorkel and be like a fish”. In 1951, diving magazine Skin Diver used the spelling ‘snorkles’, and in 1957 the British Sub-Aqua Club debated whether or not to change the term breathing tube to the American term, snorkel. In 1958, a British thriller film was released, called The Snorkel. Since then, the term snorkel has stuck.
American Major Christian J. Lambertsen invented his own version of an underwater free-swimming oxygen rebreather way back in 1939, but in 1952 he filed a patent for a modified version of his design. He named this device SCUBA, short for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Later, this became the generic term for diving equipment.
Scuba company US Divers releases an L-shaped snorkel that was a step above the current J-shaped models available on the market. Their new snorkel made breathing easier, cut out water drag, and eliminated the U-shaped water trap that existed at the bottom of J-shaped models.
The British Standards Institution publishes the first national standard on snorkels. The ‘specification for snorkels and face masks’ set different maximum & minimum dimensions for both kids & adult snorkels, specified materials and design features for the snorkel tube and mouthpiece, and required that a warning label and instructions be included with every snorkel. Soon, these standards spread to other nations, helping to make snorkelling safer for everyone.
Outdoor company ScubaPro released a stabiliser jacket that provided buoyancy control. This was the first buoyancy control device of its kind and paved the way for deeper dives.
The US Navy created procedures for enriched oxygen gas known as nitrox, the first signs of the gas used in recreational scuba diving today. In 1970, NOAA started to use diving procedures for oxygen-enriched air, and in 1979 they published procedures in the NOAA Diving Manual. In 1985, IAND (International Association of Nitrox Divers) also started teaching procedures for using nitrox when diving.
Throughout this time, nitrox was considered to be dangerous and the diving community was uncertain about its use. In 1992, NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) was the world’s first major diver training agency to support the use of nitrox while diving, and in 1996 PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) followed suit. Nitrox is now the most popular gas used for recreational scuba diving.
The first snorkel mask that allows you to pinch your nose and equalise is released by Australian snorkel company, Ninja Shark. This is the first full face snorkel mask that also allows you to pinch your nose to equalise pressure when going for deeper dives. Snorkelling can merge with scuba diving, as you are given more freedom to explore below the water’s surface.