“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.