History of Diving, part 1

We will present here some of the most important events and people in the history of diving in 9 parts, about 10 events / people per part. Every month you get a new part to read.


Strangely, we begin our story about the history of diving with something that seems to have nothing to do with diving, but we want to show with this that oceans, rivers and lakes, since ancient times, have been important to humanity and perhaps it was the proximity to the hidden world beneath the surface. and people’s curiosity that made them start diving.

Mesopotamia, the two-river country with the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and in the east-west direction bounded by the Aegean Sea and the Persian Gulf, is usually considered the cradle of civilization. The country was located in an area that is part of today’s Iraq 5000 years ago.

From here came the story of Oannes, the fish god. Oannes was said to be an amphibian, to half human and to half fish. At dawn, Oannes rose from the Persian Gulf to teach people wisdom, science and the arts, to write, count, build cities and create laws and more. At sunset, Oannes returned to the sea, to return to shore the next dawn.

Some scholars believe that the bishops’ attire is inspired by drawings of Oannes.

Truth is that Mesopotamia was very well and early developed. Agriculture was important and the first areas of irrigation that we know are found here. It was also in Mesopotamia that they invented for example the plow and the wheel. The first written language we know about, the wedge language, originated here and the first mathematical notes are know is a kind of accounting of trade and debt from Mesopotamia, but complicated geometric and trigonometric calculations were also made. There were schools where those who could afford could put their children and they had to learn to write and interpret the wedge language, as well as the four ways of counting. They had astronomical knowledge, knew that the earth was round and knew about 11 planets and that the planets, including the earth, rotated around the sun to name something and right here in Mesopotamia the history of diving begins as well.

We have deliberately separated ourselves from submarines except in a couple of cases that have a Swedish connection. The same goes for underwater robots, however, we address the first developed by each within this group.

This chronology extends from the past to the present. If, in retrospect, we are to make some sort of summary and also allow us to create a new word, the people who have been of significant importance to the development of diving can be roughly divided into two groups. Rough because there are several who have been active in both groups. The two groups are ”facilitators” and ”users”. The facilitators, in turn, consist mainly of the groups of technical innovators and medically knowledgeable people, while the user group consists mainly of divers, salvors, photographers and oceanographers.

As in so many other cases in terms of technological development, the armed forces and their needs have been an important factor for the development of diving as well, but the first historical evidence found for human activity under the water surface is peaceful in nature.

Many people have contributed to the development of diving, some of them mentioned here. There are also many who have failed and been forgotten, but their attempts have also led the way forward.

Here, in Part 1, we tell about the history of diving from 4,500 BC to Leonard da Vinci in the 1500s after Christ.

We hope you enjoy the reading.

(A good source in creating this chronology has been SPUMS Journal Volume 29 No.2 June 1999. Spums Archive

If you have the rights to any of the images used to illustrate the material, please contact us through our contact form , and we will give you credit for the picture, or remove it if you wish.)

4500 – 3200 F.Kr. Mesopotamia

Archaeological finds from what used to be Mesopotamia show that during this period, diving was done to collect spongia, that is what we daily call bath sponge. Food in the form of algae, as well as pearls and corals, were also collected. The latter two were used as means of payment for all kinds of goods.

The diving equipment was very simple and probably consisted of a stone, perhaps tied to a rope for reuse. The stone was the diver’s weight in order to reach the dive target without any major energy loss. Otherwise, the diving equipment consisted of a collection basket to put ”bargains” in 1 .

1194 – 1284 BC Trojan War

The two epics Iliad and the Odyssey attributed to Homer and believed to have been recorded around the 7th century BC describe, among other things, the Trojan War (1194 -1284 BC). Whether the Trojan War was a mythological war or real is unknown. However, there are no archaeological finds to prove it. Here is a first description of divers in the service of the armed forces. According to the epic, free divers were used to sabotage opponents’ warships 2 .

900 BC Mesopotamia

In the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh in ancient Mesopotamia was King Ashurnasirpal II’s palace. Archaeological excavations in the area found, among other things, a relief of swimmers with air-filled sacks. Whether the bag was intended as an air supply or floating aid is uncertain. The relief is now on view at the British Museum in London 3 .

460 BC Scyllis, Hydna

The Greek historian Herodotos describes how the Greek diver Scyllis, also mentioned as Syllias and Scyllos, bears parts of a treasure for the Persian king Xerxes. Scyllis is so successful that Xerxes decides to keep him captive and force him to continue diving to retrieve more items. Scyllis escapes during a storm by swimming more than 9 kilometers ashore. First, however, he cuts off the lifeboat moorings, equipped with a reed as a snorkel.

In another chronicle by the same author, the event is instead described as follows. Greece and Persia faced a critical sea battle. The Persians had anchored up for the night outside Pelion to ride out a storm. Scyllis and his daughter Hydna, who was a recognized good swimmer and (free) diver, volunteer to swim and sabotage the fleet. They swim out and cut the ship’s anchor rope and in the storm the ships push together and some where destroyed, some sink. Thanks to Hydna and her father’s company, the Greek fleet was given more time to prepare for the battle and it all led to the Greek fleet winning the battle of Salamis 4 .

332 – 212 f.Kr. Aristoteles

Aristotle’s problem paper describes how divers in the Aegean Sea use diving bells to get deeper where sponges are of better quality and to stay underwater longer. The dive clock is described by Aristotle as a large cauldron turned upside down. Some argue that Aristotle himself tried to dive with both reed tubes and diving bells. He must have later taught Alexander the Great to use a diving bell. Something that the latter must have used, among other things, during the siege of Tyros, where divers went down in diving bells (the model was called Colimphax) to cut the pole that would prevent enemy ships from reaching the city5.

200 – 1 BC

During this period, commercial diving occurs in virtually all Mediterranean ports. The industry became so well organized that rules regarding the fee structure for salvage work were created. Generally, the diver’s payment depended on the depth of the wreck. For example, at depths of 7.6 meters or deeper, the diver’s share was half of the value of all goods recovered. At a depth of 7.6 – 3.6 meters, the diver’s proportion dropped to one-third and in shallow water where the diver could stand on the bottom with the hump above the surface, the proportion was only a tenth of the value of the salvaged 6 .

77 Plinius

Pliny the Elder compiles a form of an encyclopedia of 37 books. Among other things, it is mentioned that military divers use breathing tubes that are attached to buoys at the surface7.

1100s Ahsan-ul-Ghawasin

Egyptian Ahsan-ul-Ghawasin served in the Navy under the Turkish Sultan Saladin during the Third Crusade. As a way to get supplies to the city of Acre, he designed a unit made of a bellows. The weight of a heavy stone allowed the unit to remain submerged just below the surface and he could swim past the Christian guards. The script contains painterly tales of icy horror as he witnessed the hundreds of Arab bodies lying on the seabed ”serving as a feast for eels, squid and crabs.” He also became one of those bodies after being discovered by a Crusader patrol and shot dead with an arrow. However, his memory lives on as being the first to develop a form of diving helmet 8 .

1300s Cyclop / mask

It has not been possible to obtain any year for when cyclop / mask began to be used, but it is known that in the 1300s, possibly earlier, Persian and Polynesian pearl divers began using visual aids underwater, with windows made of the polished outer layer of the turtle shell.

The development then proceeded with the use of ”swimming goggles”. This is best exemplified by the use of safety goggles when swimming across the English Channel in 1911. Thomas ’Bill’ Burgess is credited for being the first person to use safety goggles to cross the channel and even though this is entirely true, he did not actually wear swimming glasses or a cyclops. Instead, he used motorcycle glasses; these worked well because he swam breaststroke but they were not completely waterproof 9 , but some time afterward, we can assume that the production of cyclops started. The development then proceeded with the use of ”swimming goggles”.

Red. Note. The first cyclopes had a glass that covered both eyes (hence the term cyclopes) as well as the nose. They had two recesses to enable pressure equalization. Some were fitted with a valve at the bottom of the glass to facilitate the emptying of water. Then the mask, which had two glasses, developed, which significantly reduced the air volume and made it easier to empty. The masks had the nose outside the glasses, but inside the rubber seal which also made it much easier to equalize pressure. The first cyclops/masks with silicone instead of rubber came in the latter part of the 1970s.

16th century Leonard da Vinci and others

Leonard da Vinci sketched on several different diving equipment, but none of them were developed for practical use. During the same century Vegetius (1511), Vallo (1524), Lorena (1535) and Lorini (1597) described different snorkeling models with valves 10 .


Please note that several references are to Swedish books or web pages.

1. Edmonds C, Lowry C, Pennefather J. Diving and Subaquatic Medicine 2nd edition. Sydney: Diving Medical Centre Publication, 1981; 1-12

2. Edmonds C, Lowry C, Pennefather J. Diving and Subaquatic Medicine 2nd edition. Sydney: Diving Medical Centre Publication, 1981; 1-12

 3. Davis RH. Deep diving and submarine operations 7th edition. London: St Catherine Press, 1962; 7-9

4.Scyllis, Hydna . Besökt 20200425

5. Aristoteles. Besökt 20200425

6. Bachrach AJ. Breathhold Diving. In A Pictorial History of Diving. Bachrach AJ, Desiderati BM and Matzen MM.

 7. Eds. San Pedro: Best Publishing Company, Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, 1988; 2-3

8. Davis RH. Deep diving and submarine operations 7th edition. London: St Catherine Press, 1962; 7-9.

9. Ahsan-ul-Ghawasin. Besökt 20200425

10. Cyklop, Mask. Besökt 20200504