Scuba 17.08.11

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Until the Second World War, the only way you could explore deep waters was in a diving bell, weighed down with a heavy helmet and lead boots, and with an umbilical cord to the surface through which would be pumped an air supply. In 1940, the doctor and diver Christian J Lambertsen, who died in February, aged 93, changed all that. With the invention of the "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus" (scuba), frogmen were freed from the surface or the ocean floor, ableto glide in flippers and wetsuits alongside colourful marine life.

Lambertsen, who was a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania studying respiratory physiology, conducted underwater experiments with cylinders of compressed oxygen during his summer holidays on the Jersey Shore. However, the compressed air quickly ran out and could not be reused because of the carbon dioxide that accumulated in the airbag into which it was exhaled. Lambertsen developed an innovative "rebreather" out of parts salvaged from hospital anaesthetic machines, which used soda lime to absorb excess carbon dioxide. The resulting patent application shows a gas-masked figure wearing a bulky harness, with a vacuum-sized filter and airbag on his back and a canister of air in front. Using his Amphibious Respiratory Unit, Lambertsen conducted underwater tests to depths of 60ft and was able to stay submerged for up to 30 minutes.

It was soon realised that Lambertsen's self-contained breathing system, which left no trail of telltale bubbles, had valuable military applications. During the Second World War, Lambertsen worked for the army's Office of Strategic Services (OSS, a precursor to the CIA), where he refined his scuba equipment and trained divers to use it. In an exercise called Operation Cincinnati, combat swimmers penetrated the US Navy's harbour defences in Guantánamo Bay and, undetected by sound detection gear, blew up an old barge. Special underwater forces were deployed in Europe and the China-Burma-India theatre, where they engaged in salvage, reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Lambertsen was the first to exit and re-enter a submerged submarine and also helped develop a one-man submersible canoe, codenamed Sleeping Beauty.

In June 1943, the underwater adventurer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau and engineer Emile Gagnan invented a system that would further revolutionise deep-sea exploration. They modified a demand regulator that Gagnon had invented to allow his petrol-engine car to run on cooking gas during wartime rationing to create a device that Cousteau christened the "Aqua-Lung". A demand valve regulated the air supply from cylinders of compressed gas, allowing a diver to receive air at the slightest intake of breath and to exhale it into the water through valves in the mouthpiece. Cousteau hoped the Aqua-Lung would turn him into a "man-fish" beneath the ocean surface. First sold in France in 1946, and now included in virtually every scuba kit in the world, it opened up a magical marine wilderness that Cousteau recorded in his Oscar-winning films.

In a remote cove on the French Riviera, Cousteau unpacked his "automatic compressed-air diving lung" for the first time. He strapped three cylinders to his back, put on his flippers and mask, bit the rubber mouthpiece of the air regulator and "walked with a Charlie Chaplin waddle into the sea". An assistant attached 3kg of lead to Cousteau's belt and he sank gently to the sand. "I breathed sweet effortless air," Cousteau marvelled in The Silent World (1952). "There was a faint whistle when I inhaled and light rippling sound of bubbles when I breathed out ... I looked into the sea with the same sense of trespass that I have felt on every dive ... My arms hanging at my sides, I kicked the fins languidly ... and sank dreamily down."

 

Image

The Cousteau Society

 

Words

Christopher Turner

quotes story

With Lambertsens' invention frogmen were freed from the surface or the ocean floor, ableto glide in flippers and wetsuits alongside colourful marine life

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