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Historical Rebreathers

Rebreather History: From Conception to the Modern Era (1680-2012)

By Michael Menduno

1680: Giovanni Borelli conceives the closed circuit rebreather. Believed recirculating air through copper tube cooled by seawater would allow impurities to condense.

1726: Stephan Hale developed a device for surviving mine disasters. The helmet contained a flannel liner soaked in sea salt and tartar as a scrubber (first chemical scrubber).

1773-4: Oxygen independently “discovered” in Sweden by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and in England by Joseph Priestley.

1776: Freminet designed a copper kettle diving helmet based on Borelli’s theory; concludes condensation does not remove impurities and installs a surface supplied line to the diver using a mechanical bellows to pump air.

1778: Antoine Lavoisier, a French nobleman and ‘Father of Modern Day Chemistry’, coined the name oxygen.

1878: Henry Fleuss and the Siebe Gorman company receive patent on recirculating device using pure O2. A year later he uses the device for the first enriched air nitrox dive. The practicality of the Fleuss system is demonstrated by repairing flooded tunnels two years later.

1878: Barometric Pressure is published by Dr. Paul Bert. The volume discusses oxygen toxicity, hypoxia and decompression sickness.

1881: Achilles, Khotinsky & Simon Lake receive patent for a rebreather that uses barium hydroxide as a chemical scrubber to remove CO2.

1904: Siebe Gorman receives patent for Oxylite, a potassium and sodium peroxide mix that liberates O2 on contact with water.

1905: A Fleuss apparatus is patented for use in submarine escape.

1908: Development of the first staged decompression techniques (Haldane).

1912: Draegerwerk demonstrates a submarine sled with a two-hour closed circuit supply of O2. Scientific American magazine predicts this development could be “the advent of a new sport.”

1915: Oxylite rebreathers are used for underwater scenes shot for movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

1919: Patent for oxygen-helium breathing mixtures (C.J. Cooke)

1925: U.S. Bureau Of Mines experiments with helium decompressions (Hidebrand, Sayers, Yant).

1926: First self-contained open circuit SCUBA system (Fernez-Le Prieur)

1928: British air with oxygen decompression tables to 320 fsw (Davis, Damant).

1935: Nitrogen narcosis attributed to elevated nitrogen partial pressures (Behnke).

1937: First successful Heliox Dive to 420 fsw (End, Nohl).

1939: U.S. Navy (USN) Heliox Tables published (Behnke). Successful rescue and salvage operation of USS Squalus in 240 fsw.

1940-1944: Italians use O2 rebreathers against the British at Gibraltar. Brits counter with EAN rebreathers with mixtures of 32.5, 40 and 60 percent oxygen. The increased depth capacity of these mixes versus pure oxygen gives the British a distinct military advantage in their defense of Gibraltar. Use of these mixes is classified a state secret and was one of the well kept secrets of WWII. Lamerbertson develops the LARU, Lambertson Amphibious Respiratory Unit rebreather.

1942: Hans Haas completed the filming of his second underwater movie called Menschen unter Haien (i.e. Men Among Sharks), shot in the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Crete, and featured Haas in a Dräger rebreather.

1943: Development of the Gagnan-Cousteau ‘Aqualung’ demand valve regulator.

1943: Enriched air nitrox first proposed as a diving gas to reduce decompression problems (C. Lambertson).

1953: USN Air Tables Published.

1957: Development of saturation techniques: The Genesis Project (Bond).

1959: Nitrox diving methods first published in USN Diving Manual.

1962: First commercial heliox dive to 420 fsw (Wilson). Buhlmann successfully demonstrates ‘gas sequencing’ techniques on a 1,000 fsw dive. First saturation dive to 200 fsw (Link).

1965: First commercial saturation dive to 250 fsw using the Westinghouse Cachalot System.

1969: Walter Stark introduces the ‘ElectroLung’ mixed gas rebreather for $2,500, subsequently bought by Beckman Instruments. Beckman shuts down division in 1970 after a number of fatalities.

1970: First recorded incident of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). NOAA launches enriched air nitrox program.

1970: Biomarine Industries (a General Electric (GE) spin-off company) launches CCR 1000 mixed gas rebreather, a predecessor of Carleton Technology’s Mk 15/16 used by the U.S. Navy.

1970-1980: A variety of units like the GE Model 1400 (Mk-10), Shadow Pac, Westinghouse KSR-5, STM 300, Sterling Electronics SS-1000, Normalair-Garrett Deep Dive 500 hit the market. None of these products survive.

1977: First unsuccessful open circuit special mix dive in the sport diving community (Smith, Holtzendorff—Wakulla Springs).

1979: NOAA nitrox diving methods published in NOAA Diving Manual 2nd Edition.

1980: First successful special mix sport dives at Diepolder II to 360 fsw (D. Sweet).

1982: NewtSuit, a one atmosphere hardsuit becomes operational.

1982: ORCA Industries launches the first consumer dive computer called the EDGE.

1986: The International Association of Nitrox Divers (IAND) is formed by Dick Rutkowski, to provide nitrox training to sport divers.

1987: Jochen Hassenmeyer special mix open circuit dive to 656 fsw.

The Wakulla Springs Project (320 fsw) successfully completed using heliox and Hamilton Research Ltd. tables.

Dr. Bill Stone tests prototype fully-redundant Cis-Lunar rebreather on Wakulla Springs project. Stuart Clough and Rob Palmer explore Andros Blue Holes using open-circuit heliox and Carmellan rebreathers.

Ed Betts forms American Nitrox Divers Inc. (ANDI) to offer enriched air nitrox – dubbed ‘Safeair’ – training.

1988: Sheck Exley’s mix dive to 780 fsw at Naciememto Del Rio Monte using trimix.

1989: Sullivan Connection Project (240 fsw) successfully completed using trimix.

1989: Oliver Isler completes major push in La Doux de Coly siphon using the RI 2000 semi-closed rebreather.

1990: aquaCORPS: The Journal For Technical Diving, launched in January , coins the term ‘technical diving’.

1991: Tom Mount joins IAND as president and changes the name to the International Association of Nitrox & Technical Divers (IANTD)

A DEMA committee bans nitrox training providers from the Houston show. DEMA Executive Director Bob Gray later lifts the ban after meeting with CEOs of IANTD and ANDI.

1992: Ross Cowell designs and manufactures the blending stick for mixing nitrox through a compressor.

In response to DEMA’s attempted ban on nitrox, aquaCORPS organizes the Enriched Air Nitrox Workshop with the Scuba Diving resources group.

1993: aquaCORPS Journal organizes the first tekConference for technical divers just prior to DEMA.

Skin Diver magazine published a three-part series blasting nitrox and mix use as unsafe for sport divers.

1994: aquaCORPS Journal organizes Rebreather Forum 1.0 in Key West, Florida.

Bret Gilliam forms Technical Diving International (TDI) after splitting from IANTD.

Jim Bowden established a new open-circuit depth record of 925f/284 m at Zacaton. Famed cave explorer Sheck Exley dies during an attempted 1000f/307 m dive at Zacaton.

1995: Draeger introduces its Atlantis semi-closed rebreather for recreational divers.

Mix gas diving goes mainstream as BSAC, NASE, PADI and the SAA announce enriched air nitrox programs.

aquaCORPS Journal organizes the first Eurotek and Asiatek conferences.

1995: Japanese-based Grand Bleu Inc. launches the $2,800 Fieno-S semi-closed rebreather for recreational divers.

1996: aquaCORPS founder Michael Menduno organizes Rebreather Forum 2.0, held September 1996, at Redondo Beach, California. PADI’s DSAT division publishes the findings.

1997: Ambient Pressure Diving Ltd. launches the ‘Inspiration,’ the first production closed circuit rebreather for sport divers.

1998: KISS rebreathers sells its first units after spending two years in design and development.

1999: Draeger manufactures the ‘Ray’, a semi-closed rebreather for the recreational diver market.

2001: Halycon markets the RB80, a semi-closed rebreather with a patented water removal system.

Cochran develops a dive computer for a CCR.

Mares introduces their semi-closed rebreather, the SCR Azimuth.

2004: Ambient Pressure Diving introduces the Evolution, a smaller, lighter unit with more advanced electronics than its predecessor, the Inspiration.

2008: Poseidon unveils its new rebreather, the Poseidon MkVI. A unit engineered by Bill Stone with marketing and distribution by Poseidon.

2010: KISS introduces the lightweight GEM rebreather with an innovative mouthpiece (patent pending) that vents one third of a breath.

2011: Rebreathers become mainstream as PADI launches their recreational rebreather course.

KISS Rebreathers introduces a rebreather bailout prototype at DEMA 2011 in Orlando.

2012: Nuytco Research Ltd. unveils the Exosuit, the next generation of Atmospheric Diving Suit (ADS), incorporating rebreather technology.


Writer and technologist Michael Menduno published and edited aquaCorps: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), which helped usher tech diving into the mainstream of sports diving, and coined the term “technical diving.” He also organized the first Tek, EuroTek and AsiaTek conferences, and Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Menduno, who is based in Berkeley, CA remains an avid diver.



5 Comments Leave A Reply

5 Responses to “Rebreather History: From Conception to the Modern Era (1680-2012)”

  1. Gregg Stanton

    Professor Theodore Schwann in 1853 applies for a patent, never given, for a rebreather that he used in his physiology class. reference: Rebreather World, but I also have pictures from the Patent office. Ill send them to you if you like.

    Do you have pictures of Steven Hale’ apparatus?

  2. Ronda Friend Hollis

    Title: Ronda totally unbiased wife of Bob Hollis

    I see that two rebreathers were mentioned in 1995 yet no mention of the Phibian the rebreather that Bob Hollis and Oceanic presented at DEMA. Granted all the years of hard work and dreaming came to an end in front of a 92 year old Federal Judge, he didn’t seem to grasp the technology etc.
    Anyway Bob kept dreaming, he had this goal since diving the electro lung in the early or mid 60’s.
    He knew that Fed OSHA had to change it’s position on Nitrox or there would be no future for rebreathers. So he hired a lobbyist in Washington to work on getting a bill passed changing the law. PADI was also starting down that path and so John Cronin and Bob signed an agreement to move forward.
    With help of congressman Jerry Lewis the bill was passed. The Hollis rebreathers were finally introduced for recreational market in 2012 (the Prism) and the Explorer in 2014.
    Of course I am totally unbiased, but I do remember living through it.
    It really was a wonderful study of the history of rebreathers, I did enjoy it.

    • Joseph Ogershok

      Thanks for your unbiased update. 😉

  3. Joseph Ogershok

    When I went through the Special Forces Underwater Operation (SFUWO) course in February 1974 we we diving the “Emerson Rig” likely the Emerson-Lambertsen Closed-Circuit Oxygen Underwater Breathing Apparatus (UBA) as noted on page 10 of CAPT Frank Butler’s paper on this subject. In 2004, when published under the title “Closed-circuit oxygen diving in the U.S. Navy.” it was the most comprehensive work available on US Navy use of closed curcut diving. It is available at:

    While the US Navy was looking at the Draeger systems the Army Special Forces community with testing the CCR 1000.

    CAPT Butler, an ophthalmologist, is also considered to be the father of Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC). Both this paper and TCCC were developed during his work with the US Navy’s SEA/Air/Land (SEAL) teams. TCCC is now considered the “standard of care” by most armed services for combat injuries.

  4. Joseph Ogershok

    While a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, Chris Lambertsen began to design and build first closed-circuit oxygen SCUBA rig in the United States. In 1939 when Dr. Lambertsen was a first-year medical student he completed the initial prototype of his Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit
    (LARU). He first dove his prototype in 1940 near Minneapolis, Minnesota, in Lake Nokomis. There he tested the functioning of his new underwater breathing apparatus. Butler, F. K. . Closed-circuit oxygen diving in the U.S. Navy. Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal 2004, Vol. 31, No. 1


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