The word diving can mean different things such as free diving, jumping into water, moving underwater, breathing through a hose from the surface or scuba diving. Did you ever wonder what scuba actually means?

Let’s dig into history a little bit to find outdiver. We have all seen pictures of early divers wearing heavy metal suits with a hose leading to the surface. These were clearly not scuba divers.


Early dreams of breathing underwater

Men were searching for ways to breathe underwater for a long time. Amongst many, Aristoteles and Da Vinci thought about the possibilities of being submerged. Aristoteles mentioned something similar to a diving bell 360 B.C. whereas in 1500 Da Vinci sketched several diving appliances in his notebooks.

All of these early inventions that were trying to allow humans to breathe underwater were based on some kind of hose to the surface to provide the source of air.


From 1670 onwards many inventors tried to put together an apparatus that would bring air or oxygen down beneath the surface of the water. There are no reports, though, that any of these actually worked, most weren’t even tried.


The first one without a hose to the surface

In 1878, finally, an English engineer named Henry Fleuss built the first commercially successful SCUBA.

SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Fleuss’ first apparatus was a watertight, stiffened rubber mask fitted over the face, and into it ran two breathing tubes from a flexible bag, worn on the diver’s back. This bag was connected to a copper tank of oxygen compressed to 30 atmospheres. The exhalations returned through the bag, where an absorbent removed the carbon dioxide product of breathing. The absorbent comprised of rope yarn soaked with a solution of caustic potash.


Wow! That doesn’t sound like something I would like to go diving with. Early compressed oxygen cylinders were filled to a pressure of 30 bar. That is what we call an empty tank or at least low on air nowadays. I also thought that rebreathers were a fairly new invention. The apparatus described above was a close-circuit rebreather.

In 1880 a diver almost died using this new apparatus as they did not know about oxygen poisoning at depth. The gas this diver was breathing contained about 50-60% oxygen. Just shortly before the incident the first publication providing information about this topic has been released by Paul Bert – “La Pression Barometrique”. Despite this the diver using the apparatus was able to successfully close a flood gate in an underwater tunnel.


Further developments of rebreathers

The inventions that followed were for mine rescue, fire fighting, and a submarine escape apparatus in the early 1900s. Some of these were called CCOUBA (closed circuit oxygen underwater breathing apparatus). That sounds quite similar to SCUBA, right? The main uses of the new improved apparatuses were for rescue and the military.


Adding fins

The development quietened down later on until successful attacks were made in 1941 by Italian frogmen in World War II. The frogmen used a refined version of the CCOUBA, an improved suit and fins. Their unusual look due to the new suit and the fins gave them the name frogmen. Imagine moving underwater without fins. Not very easy.


This led to further development of rebreathers.


What about open-circuit?

The open-circuit systems used by most recreational divers today were not developed based on the rebreathers as one might think. The origin was one with a helmet and a hose attached to the surface, more specifically the Rouquayrol-Denayrouze apparatus invented in 1860. This was the first of its kind to be mass-produced. These were produced right up to 1965. Really? Who was still using this if they already had frogmen at the time?


Removing the helmet

Based on this Maurice Fernez invented the Fernez Breathing Apparatus which was still connected to the surface, but much smaller without requiring a helmet.

Another inventor named Yves Le Prieur saw the apparatus in 1925 at an exhibition and following a collaboration of the two, Le Prieur had the idea of creating an apparatus independent from the surface.


The first functional open-circuit system

le prieur diving apparatusIn 1926 the first version of scuba gear as we know it today was introduced. The diver carried an air tank on his back supplied with a continuous gas flow through a mouthpiece. The pressure from the tank was adjustable by hand and two gauges showed the pressure of the tank and the output.

With the separate goggles it was only possible to dive to 10 meters. Any deeper and the diver risked a “mask squeeze” as the the goggles couldn’t be equalized. So Le Prieur invented a full face mask directly supplied from the air cylinder in 1934.

These guys also formed the first diving club in France in 1935.


Demand regulator

To improve the time underwater with Le Prieurs apparatus another, meanwhile quite famous person, joined in 1942. Jacques-Yves Cousteau combined the apparatus with a demand valve from another not diving related invention by Emile Gagnan. The two of them founded a company later known as Aqua Lung to mass-produce their new invention – the Aqualung.


This was the first scuba kit almost like we know it today and the basis of what we normally use for recreational diving. The main difference is that the Aqualung was a two-hose system.

Two different one hose, two stage systems as we know them today were released in 1951; one in California as the “Sport Diver” and one in Australia as the “Porpoise”.


Aqualung, Sport Diver, Porpoise – what about SCUBA?

To answer that question we have to go back to the story about the rebreathers. These were called CCOUBA, quite close. In the US the rebreathers used by combat frogmen were then referred to as
SCUBA in the 1950s for the first time.

Recreational scuba diving only started to become popular in the 1950s and the new expression with it.


So, scuba gear todaywe’re not using that term correctly?

At first probably not. SCUBA was used for a rebreather which was developed earlier and independently from the gear we mostly refer to as scuba today. However, today the word is not only used to refer to equipment that allows divers to breathe underwater, but also as a noun to describe the activity of scuba diving or an adjective for the gear used.

Now that we know what SCUBA means it does sound a bit silly though to say “I love to do scuba”. In full words this would mean I love to do self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.



Quick D. 1970. A History Of Closed Circuit Oxygen Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Royal Australian Navy, School of Underwater Medicine. Project 1-70.
Scuba Diving in Wikipedia. Retrieved on 26/08/16 from
Maurice Fernez in Wikipedia. Retrieved on 26/08/16 from
Yves Le Prieur in Wikipedia. Retrieved on 26/08/16 from