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Phuket: The ancient ways of breathing underwater

Phuket: The ancient ways of breathing underwater

SCUBA DIVING: It seems that since evolving from life in the sea, humans have long been attempting to get back in the water one way or another. Our fascination with the sea spans millennia. Considering this planet is two thirds water, should it really be called earth?

By Simone Allène

Monday 17 December 2012, 12:41PM

An Assyrian carving from around 885 BC shows what appears to be armed men using small breathing sacs underwater, allowing them to sneak up on their enemies. In 500 BC, the Greek sculptor Scyllis was said to have used a reed as a snorkel to hide underwater as he cut the enemy Persian ships from their moorings.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about kettles being used to take air down to sponge divers so they could collect a bigger harvest, and in 325 BC Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great is said to have descended to an impressive depth of 25 metres in a large diving bell made from clear glass and reinforced with steel bands.

Around the turn of the 16th Century, the Italian inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci described the first fins, snorkel and breathing apparatus. He also came up with a design for a helmet made from leather, with spikes for protection against “sea monsters” and a breathing tube to the surface. 

Early studies of the basics of physics, hydrostatics and aerostatics during the Renaissance period led to important understandings about diving. What’s now considered the first true diving bell, made by Guglielmo de Lorena in 1535, featured a barrel-shaped chamber that rested on the diver’s shoulders, with the weight supported by slings and a chain to the surface. Their was no external supply of air – only what was held inside the diving bell, enough for a few minutes at the most. 

In 1865, two Frenchmen - Rouquayrol and Denayrouse - invented the first autonomous open-circuit breathing apparatus, using a steel bottle and valve connected to a mouthpiece. This was vital as the supply of air to the diver could now be equalised with the outside water pressure. This enabled divers to breathe at much greater depths, but introduced new dangers of injury from decompression sickness, or “the bends”. 
Many think rebreathers are a relatively new technology, but the British diving engineer Henry Fleuss designed one back in 1879 that was used to work underwater, and was also used several times to rescue miners from flooded tunnels.

In 1923, Germans Hans Neufeldt and Karl Kuhnke created an armoured diving suit in which air could be supplied to the diver at near surface pressure, reducing some of the dangers of decompression illness. This suit could go up to 160m deep, but the design limited the diver’s movements.

Closer to the modern day, most divers know about Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan’s “Aqua Lung” – a key design that helped spur the development of recreational diving. The Aqua Lung provided freedom of movement and a demand valve that did not waste air, with the air pressure inside the diver’s lungs matching the pressure of the surrounding water. This proved to be a ground-breaking safety feature.

So, the next time someone asks me why I gave up the corporate world for diving, I think I can be proud to be following in such footsteps – now, what can I invent?

Simone Allène worked for financial institutions but left the sharks of ‘The City’ for the ‘real’ ones in 1998. She has been based in Egypt, Maldives, Fiji, French Polynesia and Thailand with 5,231 dives and counting. She’s now PR & Marketing for Sea Bees Diving but still regularly throws herself off the back of boats.

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