How Jacques Cousteau Revolutionized Underwater Exploration

“The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” brought the oceans’ depths and their inhabitants to millions of TV sets throughout the 1970s. But long before his TV career began, Cousteau co-invented the Aqua-Lung in 1943 with engineer Emile Gagnan. Their Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (or SCUBA) system revolutionized diving because it automatically adjusted air pressure in the lungs, reducing the risk of a fatal oxygen overdose.

Though he’s known as an explorer, a filmmaker, and one of the first environmentalists, Cousteau continually pushed technology forward to allow greater underwater achievements. Here are a few of his other innovations.

The Calypso: From 1950-51, Cousteau and his crew turned this former minesweeping boat into an oceanographic research vessel packed with instruments, including submersibles, a helicopter, dozens of antennae, and a “false nose” — eight portholes for underwater observation.

The Diving Saucer: This flying saucer-like submersible debuted in 1959. Big enough for two people, the 3.5-ton craft can drop to 100 feet and stay under for up to five hours. It was built with three lights, two cameras, a radio, a tape recorder, and a sampling arm. It’s still in operation, but newer submersibles have joined the team.

Sea Fleas: Launched in 1967, these two diving craft fit just one person each and can drop to 1,600 feet. Peering through portholes made of three-inch-thick Plexiglas, the pilots can see and radio each other, and can even use the sampling arms to help each other to the surface in a jam.

Conshelf I, II, III: These subaquatic labs proved people can live and work underwater. In 1962, two people spent five-hour workdays at 30 feet below in Conshelf I. By 1965, six “oceanauts” were able to spend three full weeks living 300 feet below in Conshelf III.

Turbosail: In 1980 Cousteau and his team created a new form of wind-driven engine. Housed in a cylinder that looks like a tall smokestack, the rotating Turbosail still provides efficiency four times that of the best conventional sails.

Of course, in order to create his TV specials, Cousteau needed cutting-edge cameras and lighting technology, so he drove those technologies forward too.

Jacques Cousteau died in 1997 at the age of 87.

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