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A Short History of Scuba Diving

Men and women have practiced breath-hold diving for centuries. Indirect evidence comes from ancient artefacts of undersea origin found on land (such as mother-of-pearl ornaments), and depictions of divers in ancient drawings. In ancient Greece breath-hold divers are known to have hunted for sponges and engaged in military exploits. Of the latter, the story of Scyllis (sometimes spelled Scyllias; about 500 B.C.) is perhaps the most famous, as told by the 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus.

During a naval campaign, the universitycafe Greek Scyllis was taken aboard ship as prisoner by the Persian King Xerxes I. When Scyllis learned that Xerxes was to attack a Greek flotilla, he seized a knife and jumped overboard. The Persians could not find him in the water and presumed he had drowned. Scyllis surfaced at night and made his way among all the ships in Xerxes’s fleet, cutting each ship loose from its moorings; he used a hollow reed as snorkel to remain unobserved. Then he swam nine miles (15 kilometres) to rejoin the Greeks off Cape Artemisium.

The desire to go under water has probably always existed: to hunt for food, uncover artefacts, repair ships (or sink them), and perhaps just to observe marine life. Until humans found a way to breathe underwater, however, each dive was necessarily short and frantic.

One of the major hurdles of diving is to stay under water for a longer period of time. Breathing through a hollow reed allows the body to be submerged, but reeds more than two feet long do not work well; difficulty inhaling against water pressure effectively limits snorkel length. Breathing from an air-filled bag brought under water was also tried, but it failed due to rebreathing of carbon dioxide.

In the 16th century, people began to use diving bells supplied with air from the surface, probably the first effective means of staying under water for any length of time. The bell was held stationary a few feet from the surface, its bottom open to water and its top portion containing air compressed by the water pressure. A diver standing upright would have his head in the air. He could leave the bell for a minute or two to collect sponges or explore the bottom, then return for a short while until air in the bell was no longer breathable.

In 16th century England and France, full diving suits made of leather were used to depths of 60 feet. Air was pumped down from the surface with the aid of manual pumps. Soon helmets were made of metal to withstand even greater water pressure and divers went deeper. By the 1830s the surface-supplied air helmet was perfected well enough to allow extensive salvage work.

Starting in the 19th century, two main avenues of investigation one scientific, the other technological, greatly accelerated underwater exploration. Scientific research was advanced by the work of Paul Bert and John Scott Haldane, from France and Scotland, respectively. Their studies helped explain effects of water pressure on the body, and also define safe limits for compressed air diving. At the same time, improvements in technology – compressed air pumps, carbon dioxide scrubbers, regulators, and so forth – made it possible for people to stay under water for long periods.

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