Our relationship with the ocean can go back to the earliest days of human existence. Man has established a strong relationship with the sea due to moving from one place to another, depending on the sea’s bounty for sustenance.
Human attempts to dive can date back to ancient Greece. However, without advanced technology, they could only stay in the water for a short time. Furthermore, with business development and breakouts of war, Greece began to design swimsuits with various materials to reduce water resistance and lengthen the time they could stay in the water.
As a result, a kind of air supply equipment occurred in Greece in the 4th century BC. It was an upside-down closed jar sunk into the ocean, which was designed for salvaging sponges. With the stored air inside, the jar could provide a little oxygen for divers so they could move underwater.
Franz Kessler drew up plans for a new dive bell in 1616. An improvement was that glass ports were added to allow the diver to see. Another feature that the original did not have was that the bell seemed untethered. However, this bell was never used and still lives today only as a design. British astronomer Edmond Halley actually invented the first practical diving bell, which could carry more than one man. It was then improved by John Smeaton, who provided air via a pump from above the water. This kind of diving bell is still used in harbor construction and salvage at sea.
In the 15th century, Leonardo Da Vinci made the first known mention of the concept of air tanks. In one of his notebooks, called the Atlantic Codex, he provided tantalizing descriptions of systems that may have been used at the time to breathe air underwater artificially. He also made sketches of what appeared to be different kinds of snorkels and an air tank carried on the diver’s chest. Unfortunately, no mention is made of whether these tanks were connected to the surface or not.
Additional drawings show a complete diving suit, equipped with some sort of mask, with a box containing air. Da Vinci even included the provision for a urine collector into his design. He also famously made designs for an “Underwater Army” diving suit with bamboo pipes, a sheepskin suit, and a bell-shaped air-trap.
Charles C.J. Le Roux created a waterproof and windproof fabric that could be made into early diving suits. The first pressure-proof diving suits appeared in the 1710s. John Lethbridge built the first completely enclosed suit to aid in salvage work, which consisted of a pressure-proof air-filled barrel with a glass viewing hole and two watertight enclosed sleeves. This suit gave the diver more maneuverability to accomplish valuable underwater salvage work.
In the 1710s, the French aristocrat Pierre Rémy de Beauve made another vital step forward in developing the diving suit. His ‘diving dress’ featured a metal helmet with two connected hoses.
One hose supplied the helmet with air from above via bellows; the other removed the diver’s exhaled air.
In 1797 in Prusse, Karl Heinrich Klingert was the first to develop a full-body diving suit made of a metal helmet, a broad metal girdle, and pants and a vest made of waterproofed leather. With the use of a pump turret, air could be supplied to the diver via a long, weighted tube.
The next most significant leap in diving technology came in 1837 with the advent of “heavy footers” – diving suits made to encase the diver in thick waterproof leather, a heavy metal helmet, and weighted boots. The diving helmets developed for this were used for over a century. In addition, the diving helmet suit made it possible for divers to move underwater more freely.
British engineer Augustus Siebe developed the standard diving dress in the 1830s. Then in 1878, Alphonse and Theodore Carmagnolle in Marseille, France, developed an armored suit with twenty small portholes and articulated limbs, which they were granted a patent for. This was the first human-shaped atmospheric diving suit (ADS) – meaning that the pressure inside the suit was one atmosphere – the same as at the surface. Therefore, the diver would not have to worry about the dangers of decompression. But sadly, the suit never worked properly, and the joints were never entirely waterproof. The same year, Henry Fleuss of London became the very first scuba diver to invent the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) using compressed oxygen.
This system used a rubber mask connected to a rubber airbag, a copper oxygen tank, and a scrubber for removing CO2, so the exhaled air could be re-breathed. This device was initially developed to save trapped miners, but it was immediately recognized for its underwater potential. While it did limit the divers working depth due to the danger of oxygen toxicity, it was a revolutionary design. From the late 1800s and throughout most of the 20th century, most standard diving dresses were made from a sheet of solid rubber laminated between layers of tan twill.
Diving gear experienced a booming period in the 20th century. Today’s wetsuit can trace its origins back to the commercial fishing and salvage industries of the 1910s. In addition, military demand effectively pushed diving technology development during World War I and World War II. The original diving suit was developed for deep-sea divers, which was vastly different from today’s “second skin” wetsuits. As the forerunner to today’s modern design, the Mark V suit was first used by the United States Navy in 1916; it was invented as a means for divers to reach greater depths while protecting them from injuries from sharp objects underwater. This early suit resembled a modern space suit compared to today’s wetsuits. It was used extensively by the U.S. Navy Frogmen during World War II.
In addition, Italian frogmen wore dry suits made of latex rubber in World War II. They were made by Pirelli and patented in 1951. As a result of military research into various rubbers and plastics, neoprene fabric was discovered as the ideal choice for lightweight wetsuits just after the war. A wetsuit is designed to help keep the body warm and protected and prevent hypothermia. As the name implies, this neoprene suit contains a small amount of water between its layers to help maintain the body’s core temperature as the outside water temperature drops.
A physicist associated with the University of California, Berkeley, Hugh Bradner, invented the modern wetsuit between 1951-1952. Early wetsuits sandwiched the relatively thin neoprene between layers of spandex or nylon. The first neoprene suits were not easy to put on and could easily be torn by pulling and stretching. This led to the practice of divers sprinkling talc on their bodies before donning their wetsuit. After a few years, wetsuits began to be lined with nylon so they could be put on more easily. The modern era of wetsuits started in 1989 with the advent of the non-zipped wetsuit by Body Glove (a wetsuit company). Their design used materials, such as spandex, to make the suit easier to don and wear.
In the decades since, several advancements have been made in the wetsuit design, including suits without zips, the use of materials like ‘Spandex’ and titanium, and enhanced insulation using thermoplastics. As a result, wetsuits are now available that have been designed for individual sports. There are also wetsuits for use in specific temperature ranges, mobility levels, and surface finishes. With years of development, more and more wetsuits are appearing with different styles, patterns, colors, and even with stronger functions.