Cousteau's Aqualung Invention

By Max Roman Dilthey
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

Jacques Cousteau, born in 1910 in André-de-Cubzac in western France, was an underwater filmmaker and explorer who co-invented the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus in 1943, later coined the Aqualung. He also served in the French military as a spy during World War II. The Aqualung used a regulator to control the flow of oxygen, allowing for longer dives than other apparatuses, which relied on unregulated flows of oxygen from long, cumbersome hoses or dangerous chemicals like lime. Cousteau used this system to create several underwater documentaries that captured audiences around the globe.

Early Life

Cousteau's early life reflected a fascination with mechanics and the sea, though he came to reject his education. After boarding school, he eventually finished his preparatory studies and enlisted in the French Navy as a pilot. Cousteau's career started with a twist of fate; in 1933, he was in a car accident that crushed his arms. He took to swimming as part of his rehabilitation and was given a pair of swimming goggles, which inspired him to pursue undersea exploration. He married in 1937 and fled with his family to Megreve, France at the start of World War II.

The Aqualung

During World War II, Cousteau spied for France and documented activity in Italy. For his efforts, he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French military, among other medals. During this time, he continued to explore underwater. Cousteau's first film, "10 Fathoms Down," was developed in 1942 using underwater cameras, since no breathing apparatus existed that was safe or efficient enough for his crew. The entirety of the film was made by free-diving, using only the air held in their lungs to descend below the surface for filming. This spurred him to work with Émile Gagnan, a French engineer, to develop a self-contained breathing apparatus in 1943.

Development and Testing

The first design of the Aqualung developed by Costeau and Gagnan consisted of a pressurized oxygen tank with a two-hose system. One hose fed pressurized oxygen to the wearer using a regulator, which adjusted the flow of oxygen to an ambient pressure. The second hose vented the user's exhalation. The system was a significantly safer alternative to other primitive rebreathers. Cousteau and his friends Frederic Dumas and Philippe Tailliez spent the entire summer and fall of 1943 testing and perfecting the Aqualung before patenting it.

Worldwide Distribution

Cousteau began marketing the system in 1946, first in France and later in the United States under the english moniker "Aqua-lung." He also provided the system to the French navy, whose divers used it to clear mines from French harbors. He purchased a Royal Navy minesweeper in 1950, christened the "Calypso," which would serve as a mobile studio and laboratory for the rest of his career. In 1948, Cousteau used his Aqualung system to find and document the Roman shipwreck "Mahdia," marking the inception of underwater archaeology. During this time, he also wrote "The Silent World," which was published in 1953 and later made into an award-winning documentary film.

A Lasting Legacy

The Aqualung system proved durable, safe, and inexpensive to produce. The system was further developed by Ted Eldred in the 1950's, who created a single-hose system that delivered more air pressure using a vacuum assist for deeper dives. While filming his television program "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," Cousteau began to see the toll human activity was taking on ocean ecosystems, and went on to begin the Cousteau Society in 1973 to promote conservation and education in the hopes of preserving the ocean, his life's purpose. He died in 1997 at the age of 87, one year after the "Calypso" sank in Singapore Harbor.

About the Author

Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.