Jim Steele: Dive History and the Evolution of Dive Equipment – Part 2

  • BCD1
  • BCD2
  • Presentation
  • regulator1
  • regulator2
  • fin
  • knife
  • mask1
  • mask2

Click through the images above to see more equipment.

By Gayle Hudson

In January, Jim Steele gave members a history of SCUBA diving, the Bay Area’s unique contributions to the sport of recreational diving and showed us some early SCUBA equipment.  Jim started part two of his presentation with a history of the BCD.  He showed us a U.S. Divers backpack from 1961-62, a horse collar BC and an inflation vest like the type used on airplanes. Jim claims ‘they’ (or just Jim?) used to steal them off airplanes to use for diving!  Next up was the Nemrod BC bailout system, created about 1963-64, with an attached bottle of compressed air. If a diver got low on air, he could reach down, rotate the bottle, fill up the BC and breathe out of the BC. It sold for $125.00 and was considered a high-end unit.  Jim also showed us a barebones BC with an oral inflator, which Dennis said a diver had to be proficient with oral inflation to use correctly. It sold for $16.00.

Jim said, at the time, everything was happening in California in terms of dive equipment innovation. The Nemrod bailout system was found to be a hard sell, at a time when a diver could be completely outfitted for $300.00.  Ed Brawley, who owned several stores in the Bay Area, asked Nemrod to remove the bottle and add an inflation valve.  Ed named it a ‘buoyancy compensated device’ and the BCD was born. He paid Nemrod $18.00 per unit and sold them for $60.00. After two years, the technology was opened up to other companies.

More innovation followed with companies like Scubapro, SeaTec, SeaQuet, and Hollis adding their own ideas to the BCD design.

Jim mentioned Bob Hollis has sold his companies (Hollis, Oceanic, Underwater Products) to a company in Salt Lake City called Hirsch Sports. Hirsch has been buying up sport equipment manufacturers like Bare, Zeagle, and Atomic. Bob Hollis sold his Oceanic computer line to Lquid Air and has retired to Monterey.

Jim told us a new technology for dive computers is coming out that will look like a smartphone with icons. These computers will have a dive log where the user can add photos and program the computer using their cellphone and Bluetooth. The units are expected to retail around $300.

wetsuitThe presentation continued with a discussion of the first wetsuits, which were made from gas expanded G231 neoprene. On Wednesday nights, ATDC members would gather at Steele’s dive shop and hold a custom wetsuit-making night, where they would lay out rubber, cut to size and glue the pieces together.  These suits had no zippers and used an attached hood.  Divers would powder up, slide in and stay warm because there was no nylon lining the suit. This allowed very little water to enter into the suit, especially at 90 feet.  Jim said for warmth, look for neoprene with low compression; test it by squeezing it between your fingers.  Jim said only two manufacturers make 98% of the suits, so suits are cheaper when you buy them without recognized logos.

Jim went on to talk about fins, regulators and masks. We thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the evolution of dive equipment and California’s unique contribution of innovation and technology to the sport of diving.