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SCUBA diving

June 10, 2003

A public radio commentary

I'm on my way to the Caribbean for a week of SCUBA diving. Every breath that I take under water is due to Jacques Cousteau. You probably think of him as just a television showman of sorts, yet he was a real innovator in the technology of underwater exploration.

At night Jacques Cousteau had dreams of flying using his arms as wings. In his waking hours, the closest he could get to this was swimming underwater. Wanting to "fly" even deeper he first used a long air tube from the surface - but this tube offered as much peril as opportunity. One day, while diving off the coast of France, Cousteau felt the air pipe break. Luckily he quickly closed his wind pipe and shut off all air from the surface. If he'd taken a breath he would have burst his lungs.

As Cousteau descended the pressure on his body increased. For example, at thirty-three feet his lungs felt twice as much pressure around them as they did at the surface. To prevent his lungs from collapsing and killing him he had pressurized air sent through the surface pipe. When it broke, it filled with unpressurized air, and a single breath could cause his lungs to implode. To wean himself from this danger, Cousteau dreamed up what he called a "self-contained compressed-air lung" or, in his more evocative phrase, an "aqualung." He wanted to strap a compressed air cylinder to his back, and have a mouth piece that delivered air whenever he needed it.

Cousteau knew of the demand system used to supply oxygen through the masks of high-altitude pilots: Their air supply flowed only when they took a breath. So he headed to Paris to find someone to invent such a device. By luck he ran into Emile Gagnan, an expert on industrial-gas equipment. As Cousteau outlined his ideas, Emile interrupted and said, "Something like this?", handing Cousteau a small device. He explained: "It is a demand valve I have been working on to feed cooking gas automatically into the motors of automobiles." At the time there was no gas for cars and all sorts of projects were under way for using fumes from burning charcoal and natural gas. Gagnan modified his valve for Cousteau, then in June of 1943 sent him a prototype.

Cousteau went to a railway station on the French Rivera and got the wooden case expressed from Paris. "No child," Cousteau later said, "ever opened a Christmas present with more excitement than ours when we unpacked the first aqualung." He added: "If it worked, diving could be revolutionized." Indeed it was.

With his new device he was free now to fly underwater. He experimented with loops, somersaults and barrel rolls. He stood upside down on one finger and burst out laughing. I know exactly the freedom he felt: I'll soon be doing my own underwater somersaults and barrel rolls in the Caribbean.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises