The closed-circuit rebreather was first conceived by Italian scientist Giovanni Borelli in the late 1600s, but it wasn’t until the invention of the galvanic oxygen sensor in the 1960s that the development of mixed gas rebreathers was possible. Similarly, mix technology was first developed by the US Navy in the 1930s to enable divers to reach deeper depths to rescue sailors from downed submarines. The technology was later adopted by commercial offshore oilfield divers in the 1960s in response to the need to dive deeper.
Both of these technologies came together in Dr Bill Stone’s 1987 Wakulla Springs Project – the first large scale amateur mixed gas diving expedition, which arguably serves as an appropriate demarcation of the birth of tek diving, though it would be another five years before this type of diving got its name.
This timeline serves to highlight some of the key milestones and developments that led to the emergence of technical diving in the mid–1980s to late 1990s. We extended the timeline through the year 1999, when the first production mixed gas rebreathers for sport divers had become available.
The decade that followed, 2000-2009, could well be characterised as the infancy of rebreather use in the sport diving community. Unfortunately, like the initial adoption of mixed gas technology, there were a disproportionately high number of rebreather fatalities in those early days, which were the focus of Rebreather Forum 3 held in Florida in 2012. But that’s a story for another time. That being said, as you might suspect, further advancements in the art and science of diving, diving technology and safety culture have continued on through the present day.
Robert Boyle helps pioneer the scientific method and establishes “Boyle’s Law”, which defines the inverse proportional relationship between absolute pressure and the volume of a gas. He is also the first to describe manifestations of decompression illness in animals
Giovanni Borelli conceives the closed-circuit rebreather. He believed recirculating air through copper tubing cooled by seawater would allow impurities to condense
Stephan Hale develops a device for surviving mine disasters. The helmet contains a flannel liner soaked in sea salt and tartar as a scrubber (first chemical scrubber)
Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele independently discover oxygen, but Priestly is usually given credit for the discovery. They are both able to produce oxygen by heating mercuric oxide (HgO). Priestley calls the gas produced in his experiments ‘dephlogisticated air’ and Scheele calls his ‘fire air’. The name oxygen was later coined by Antoine Lavoisier who incorrectly believed that oxygen was necessary to form all acids
Sieur Fréminet designs a copper kettle diving helmet based on Borelli’s theory; concludes condensation does not remove impurities and installs a surface supplied line to the diver using a mechanical bellows to pump air
Antoine Lavoisier, a French nobleman and “Father of Modern Day Chemistry” coins the term “oxygen”
English astronomer Norman Lockyer discovers helium in a spectrograph of the sun
Henry Fleuss and the Siebe Gorman company receive a patent on a recirculating (rebreather) device using an O2 enriched gas mix and a caustic potash scrubber. Fleuss’s device is later used (1880) to help restore flooded tunnels on the Severn Tunnel construction project
French scientist Paul Bert publishes his classic work, La Pression Barometrique, about the physiological effects of breathing air under pressure. The book discusses oxygen toxicity, hypoxia and decompression sickness
Diver Alexander Lambert successfully employs the Fleuss rebreathing equipment to close a watertight door in the workings and seal off the waters in a flooded railway tunnel under the River Severn, in southwest England
Achilles Khotinsky and Simon Lake receive a patent for a rebreather that uses barium hydroxide as a chemical scrubber to remove CO2
The first helium gas well is discovered in Dexter, Kansas, USA
Siebe Gorman receives a patent for Oxylite, a potassium and sodium peroxide mix that liberates O2 on contact with water
A Fleuss apparatus is patented for use in submarine escape
Professor John Scott Haldane (UK) develops first staged decompression techniques (Haldane)
Draegerwerk demonstrates a submarine sled with a two-hour closed-circuit supply of O2. Scientific American magazine predicts this development could be “the advent of a new sport”
Oxylite rebreathers are used for underwater scenes shot for movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Oxylite rebreathers are used for underwater scenes shot for movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
The US Navy establishes the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) in a Washington D.C. shipyard
Patent granted for oxygen helium breathing mixtures (C.J. Cooke)
Professor Elihu Thomson (USA) studies the effects of helium on animals and decided that helium, with its low solubility, would prove a suitable nonnarcotic replacement for nitrogen in the breathing gas used by deep-sea divers
US Bureau of Mines experiments with helium decompressions (Hidebrand, Sayers, Yant)
First self-contained open circuit SCUBA system Yves Le Prieur
British air with oxygen decompression tables to 320 feet (98 metres) are published (Davis, Damant)
A group of U.K. caving enthusiasts organised the Cave Diving Group (CDG), thought to be one of the earliest diving clubs, to explore a partially flooded system at Swildon’s Hole, in the UK, using a home-made respirator. The following year using, using Standard Dress (‘Hard-Hat’) diving equipment on loan from Siebe, Gorman & Co., exploration continued. While allowing modest exploration, reliance on an umbilical hose proved cumbersome
Researching the causes of nitrogen narcosis, US Navy Captain Albert R Behnke, attributes the condition to elevated partial pressures of nitrogen
Italian Navy engineering officers, Teseo Tesei and Elias Toschi, develop a manned torpedo (nicknamed, Maiale, the “Pig”, in Italian) capable of being steered towards a target vessel by two divers wearing oxygen rebreathers. (Five years later, one of the Italian Maiale torpedos is salvaged by the Royal Navy following an aborted 1940 raid on shipping in Gibraltar, and provides the inspiration for their own version of the weapon; the “chariot”)
Twelve years after the US Navy and the Bureau of Mines begins experimenting with helium, the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) dives to a simulated depth of 500 feet (152 metres) in a chamber
Engineering graduate from MIT, Eugene Max Nohl, with the help of Dr Edgar End, makes a successful dive to 420 feet (128 metres) in Lake Michigan, Illinois using a helium/oxygen mix
The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) is established
Dr Edgar End and Max Nohl made the first intentional saturation dive by spending 27 hours breathing air at 101 feet (31 metres) in the County Emergency Hospital recompression facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Chief machinist’s mate William Badders, USN, in thehelium-equipped rig worn during the salvage of the USS Squalus
US Navy divers prove the value of heliox mixtures for deep diving work. They rescue of surviving crew members of the stricken submarine USS Squalus in 1939, and eventually salvage it from a depth of 230 feet (70 metres)
In the US, Christian Lambersten starts to develop the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit (LARU), an oxygen rebreather that will be used by what will later become the US Navy SEALS
Chief machinist’s mate William Badders, USN, in the helium-equipped rig worn during the salvage of the USS Squalus wikipedia.org
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TECHNICAL DIVING TIMELINE (1660–1999)
It’s fair to say that the emergence of “technical diving” in the late 1980s, that is, the introduction of mixed gas technology, and later mixed gas rebreathers to the sport diving community, represented the culmination of hundreds of years of scientific discovery and technological development.
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