Who Invented the Aqualung?

How the modern scuba system evolved

How the modern scuba system was invented and came to be called the Aqualung is a story that involves a little-known Australian inventor, a Las Vegas salesman, author Arthur C. Clarke, fictitious spy James Bond, and Frenchman Jacques Cousteau.

Most people recognise the name Jacques Cousteau and associate the famous Frenchman with his adventures and work in the oceans. Many people also credit Cousteau as the inventor (or at least co-inventor) of the modern scuba system, which is sometimes called an Aqualung. While Jacques Cousteau certainly helped invent a brilliant new Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) system, and did even more to make diving popular around the world, he did not, strictly speaking, invent the system that is commonly used today. Here’s how it all unfolded…

In 1943, Jacques Cousteau was living in Vichy France with his wife Simone and their children. Encouraged by two friends, Phillipe Tailliez and Frederic Dumas, Cousteau had become a keen swimmer and snorkeler. At first, he had taken up swimming to strengthen his arms, which he had injured in a car accident, but as he became more proficient in the water, he and his friends began to catch fish to supplement their food supplies in war-ravaged France.

As they swam and caught fish, Cousteau, Tailliez and Dumas constantly discussed ways they might breathe underwater. The heavy copper helmet, boots and weights of the standard dress diver, with its airline to the surface, was little use for spearing fish. It was far too heavy, slow and cumbersome. In 1860, using the same principals as modern scuba, two Frenchmen (Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze) had made a workable demand regulator that worked with a tank of compressed air. Other divers had made valves to regulate the flow of compressed air from a tank to a diver’s mouth.

Jacques Cousteau’s Original System

After testing the various systems available, Jacques Cousteau turned to his father-in-law, who worked for the French industrial gas company Air Liquide. Henri Melchior introduced Cousteau to Emile Gagnan, an engineer with Air Liquide who was designing gas valves for automobiles. Gagnan showed Cousteau a demand valve that he thought might be suitable for Cousteau’s underwater needs. Then Gagnan fitted it to tanks of compressed air and ran a large corrugated hose from the demand valve to the diver’s mouth. When the diver inhaled, they would draw air into their lungs from the demand valve. When they exhaled the expelled air bubbled out the side of the mouthpiece. Cousteau tested the idea underwater and found that it partly worked. That is, it worked when he was swimming level, but not when he was swimming up or down. He and Emile Gagnan discussed it and realised the problem was that the air had to be expelled at exactly the same depth as the demand regulator.

So a second hose was added, from the mouthpiece over the other shoulder, back to the demand regulator behind the diver’s neck. It was the circuit created by the two large corrugated hoses (not the demand regulator which already existed) that was the secret of the diving system invented by Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau. Using the facilities of Air Liquide, Emile made a number of systems which were used by Jacques Cousteau, Phillipe Tailliez and Frederic Dumas. As Tailliez and Cousteau were both in the French Navy, they showed the system to the navy, which set up the Groupe de Recherches Sous-Marine (Underwater Research Group). After World War II, Tailliez and Cousteau continued to dive for the navy. Meanwhile Air Liquide set up a subsidiary company called La Spirotechnique (The Breathing Technique), patented the system and began patenting and marketing the Cousteau-Gagnan Regulator.

Cousteau Aqualung
The Cousteau Aqualung

At first, La Spirotechnique called the new diving system Scaphandre Autonome (Automatic Diving Suit) and Jacques Cousteau began teaching people to use it. Initially, it was not accepted readily by commercial and navy divers, who still liked the idea of being dry when they worked, and having an airline to the surface.

In the years immediately after the war, La Spirotechnique sought international distributors for its Scaphandre Autonome, and found one in America in expatriate Frenchman, Rene Bussoz, who was working in Las Vegas. Bussoz had a business importing French slot machines and parts, and when he saw the Scaphandre Autonome, he ordered 20, hoping he might sell them in America. But Bussoz did two things differently to Cousteau. Firstly, he realised the name Scaphandre Autonome meant nothing to Americans, so he named the revolutionary diving system, Aqua-Lung. Secondly, he did not try to sell the system to commercial divers. Young Americans, many of whom had just returned from the war, were enjoying the warm beaches along America’s west coast. Rene Bussoz marketed Aqua-Lungs as a fun, easy way to dive and he introduced the idea of scuba diving as a recreational pursuit. Across America, and then across the world, scuba diving and spear fishing clubs flourished. La Spirotechnique bought out Bussoz’s business (buying the Aqua-Lung name in the process) then began marketing Aqua-Lungs around the world, while jealously guarding its patent for the ‘Cousteau-Gagnan Process’. Worldwide, sporting goods manufacturers, diving equipment suppliers, and many other people looked for ways to get around La Spirotechnique’s patent. The person who did so successfully was an amateur spear fisherman in Melbourne, Australia.

How scuba was revolutionised

Edward (Ted) Eldred was born in 1920 and grew up in Melbourne’s suburbs. From a young age he frequented Melbourne’s beaches and became a strong swimmer and keen spear fisherman. Immediately after World War II he bought ex-navy rebreathers for diving, but found them dangerous.

I met Ted Eldred in 1997. He was living on his property in country Victoria and still liked designing things at his drawing board. He agreed to be interviewed about about how he came invent the system that eventually replaced the Aqua-Lung with its two corrugated hoses.

Ted Eldred Porpoise Regulator Inventor
Ted Eldred the Porpoise Regulator Inventor

Jeff M: Ted, start by telling me about when you saw the Aqualung patents, and your idea of how to circumvent the Cousteau-Gagnan Process.

Eldred: Well, I never saw the Aqualung. I just read about it. I saw illustrations in a magazine or a paper. I immediately started to investigate. Usually a patent doesn’t hold very much. You get pages of garbage. There’s probably only one paragraph that is the crux off the whole thing. So, when I saw the Aqualung patent, I had a good look at it and realised it was based purely and simply on the circuit of the two air hoses. Then the logical thing of course, was to redesign the circuit. So that’s what started me off. I decided to separate the first and second stages of the demand regulator. To take the second stage from the top of the tank of compressed air and put it in front of the diver’s mouth.

Jeff M: What made you take the leap from there, to actually making one to see if it would work?

Eldred: First of all you’ve got to design a set of specifications. The first set of specifications I applied to the equipment were those given to me by the British Admiralty for helmet diving. The first Porpoise was built around those specifications—inhalation requirements, exhalation requirements. The rest was comfort and wearer utility of the apparatus to fit a person who’s going to swim. It went through a few stages. The very first test of the regulators were on a test bench, to ensure they gave the performance I required. Then I developed the complete unit. That would be late 1949, or 1950. The first unit was the model CA1. I started making them and selling them. Then I set up the scuba school at the Melbourne City Swimming Pool.

Porpoise Scuba System
The Porpoise Scuba System

Jeff M: When you set up the diving school was it successful from the time it started?

TE: Oh, it boomed. We had a waiting list. It was a pretty comprehensive set of teaching that we applied to it. The [Royal Australian] Navy thought it was a hell of a good idea. But out here in Australia we were so isolated, that we didn’t have a clue what was going on overseas. We were just a little backyard company with a lot of expertise. But everything was done on the cheap. I was just pursuing my field here, which was to satisfy the requirements of the navy and open it up for the sporting enthusiasts. I had to make all my own tooling, and design all my own tooling. We didn’t have enough money to invest in a lot of expensive equipment. It was a small struggling company at that stage. I went around trying to get the money into the company—trying to get other companies interested.

Jeff M: So how did the Porpoise regulator go from a small company in Melbourne, Australia, to replace the La Spirotechnique Aqualung internationally?

Eldred: One day the author Arthur C. Clarke turned up at the swimming pool to get diving lessons from me. Clarke had got an assignment to write a book about the Great Barrier Reef. Before he came to Australia he had ducked his head under the water two or three times, but when he arrived in Melbourne he saw the diving school in operation and he was amazed at what he saw. Clarke said to me that he had no idea that diving equipment had advanced to that stage. All he knew about was the Aqualung. So anyway, he went up to the Barrier Reef and we loaned him some equipment to take up there.

When his book was published it featured photographs of the Porpoise equipment all the way through it. There was even a Porpoise diver on the cover. People suddenly saw a scuba system that did not have the two big hoses like the Aqualung. And Clarke wrote about how superior the system was.

Coast of Coral by Arthur C Clarke

Jeff M: So basically people overseas saw it and copied it?

Eldred: Arthur C. Clarke’s book features the Porpoise all the way through it. Of course, this opened the eyes of people all over the world. They suddenly saw the way to circumvent the Cousteau-Gagnan patent. So they didn’t have to worry about patent rights because it wasn’t patented. To patent a thing worldwide takes a lot of money. I never had that. You see, I’m a good technician, but I’m a lousy businessman. I was naïve regarding overseas financing.

That’s when La Spirotechnique arrived on my doorstep. This big arrogant French Canadian turned up and told me that La Spirotechnique was going to buy my company. If I didn’t sell they would flood the Australian market with cheap Aqualungs and put me out of business. I had no choice, I had to sell out to them.

The Aftermath

Ted Eldred sold his company to La Spirotechnique. The twin hose Aqualung, as it was designed by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan was gradually replaced by the single hose regulator that had been designed by Ted Eldred. La Spirotechique simply continued the name Aqualung.

And where does superspy James Bond come into the story? The best place to see both the original twin hose Aqualung and the single hose Ted Eldred design being used side by side is in the Bond movie Thunderball made in 1965. In the climatic underwater fight scene, Largo and his baddies (in black wet suits) use the original twin hose style Aqualungs. James Bond and the goodies in orange wetsuits, use the more efficient single hose regulators designed by Ted Eldred.

James Bond Thunderball Aqualung Battle
The James Bond Thunderball Aqualung Battle

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