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By Eric Hanauer
A few years ago I was assigned to write an equipment review for a diving magazine. The product was the Aqua-vox, an underwater communications contraption that utilized only sound instead of electronics to get the message across. It consisted of a soft plastic, funnel-like device that fit over the diver's nose and mouth, to which the regulator's second stage was attached. At the narrow end of the funnel was something that looked like a bullet. According to the manufacturer, that was what focused and directed the sound. All the diver had to do was speak into the funnel and the buddy would understand.
When I tested the Aqua-vox in the ocean there were two problems: 1. It didn't work, and 2. it nearly drowned me. My buddy understood me no better than when I talked into my octopus second stage, which was not very well at all. The same thing happened when he tried to speak to me. And the thing leaked constantly. I spent lots more time clearing out the water than talking.
I told the magazine editor my opinions of the device, and declined to write the story. This was during an era when that publication's editorial section was almost totally advertising driven. (Their policy has changed since then.) Unfortunately, the manufacturer had contracted for six months of inside front cover ads. So the editor wrote the story himself.
I'll have to admit he did a good job dodging the issues. He merely described the product, without ever stating whether or not it worked. At $200 a crack they must not have sold many of the devices, because shortly after their ad contract expired the company expired as well.
The history of any industry is rife with products that flopped, either because of bad timing or just because they were bad products. Their names still bring a sardonic smile after all these years: Ford Pinto, Kodak Photo Disc, Apple Newton, Firestone offroad tires. Diving has had its share of failed products as well. Some were totally wacked and doomed from the start. Others had a seed of inspiration that flowered in later years, but were introduced before their time. In this article we will examine some of them and discuss why they didn't make it.
Farallon, a company now defunct, produced the "orthopedic fin." A metal brace device was attached to the fin that extended up the diver's leg almost to the knee, where it was fastened with Velcro straps. The theory was that the brace took the pressure off the diver's ankle. It was a solution to which there was no problem, the most expensive fin of its era, and a major flop.
A weird fin designed by Watergill had blades separate from the foot pockets. They were connected by pair of metal brackets, with a wide gap between. The blade angle was designed to shift 20 degrees between the upbeat and the downbeat to optimize each kick. Every time the diver kicked, the fins would respond with a loud click. Needless to say, spearfishermen didn't exactly embrace this feature. Neither did underwater photographers, because it lent their models a clubfoot look. These products probably contributed to the demise of their parent companies.
But occasionally an ugly duckling can become a successful swan. Scubapro's Jet Fin was such a product. On one of his European trips in the 1960s, co-founder Gustav Dalla Valle purchased the rights to a funny looking French fin that had holes in the blades, called vents. The reaction of his partner, Dick Bonin: "That's the ugliest fin I've ever seen. We won't be able to give these things away." Gustav replied that they had better try selling some, because the order had already been placed. They were displayed at a trade show, and a few shops bought them out of curiosity. Soon calls starting coming in from dealers, asking for more. Up to that time nobody at Scubapro had even tested the product, but they quickly realized that the new Jet Fins were a big hit. The first vented fin and the first serious fin with adjustable heel straps, it spawned a generation of imitators.
About the same time Dacor developed a hard shell, back mounted BC that was supposed to work like a submarine, taking on water ballast for descents and blowing it out with compressed air for ascents. They advertised it extensively but could never get it to work right, so it never saw full production. In today's cyber world we call it vaporware, but there was no term for it in the diving lexicon of the 70s.
The first back inflation BC, the At-pac, caught competitors flat-footed in the early 1970s. They fought back by spreading the tale that it would float a diver face down when unconscious, a specious argument at best. To back up their thesis, they had to develop BCs that ostensibly would float a diver face up. US Divers' first attempt was the Calypso, featuring an incredibly complex array of five straps that came together in a single buckle in the middle of the diver's chest. To enhance face-up unconscious flotation, there were large air tubes that passed over the diver's shoulders. When inflated, they made the device ride up so high that any time you looked right or left, you couldn't see over those big yellow shoulder pads.
One that did make it to production was the first attempt at a wraparound mask, by US Divers. It looked like the later three-window masks, except the faceplate was a single piece of tempered glass with a 45 degree bend at each end. As something swam across the field of view, the diver would momentarily lose sight as it crossed the bend, then it would reappear slightly distorted at the side. The mask itself was huge, and despite two small purge valves at the base, its high volume was extremely difficult to clear. It also tended to leak unless the headstrap was tightened almost to tourniquet specifications. Yet despite these drawbacks, the mask was extremely popular among serious divers in the early 1960s. What finally killed it was a fatal flaw. The bending process weakened the glass, and there were numerous incidents of the faceplate developing spontaneous cracks at the bend. Although lawyers of the time didn't have the clout they enjoy today, the manufacturers realized they could be vulnerable to serious lawsuits if anybody drowned as a result. So quickly and quietly the wraparound mask was taken off the market, and replaced with a three-window version.
Perhaps the oddest mask of all was the Cressi dual snorkel model of the 1950s. Designed for surface swimming, there were two tubes sprouting from the top of the mask skirt, each equipped with a hinged cork plug that was supposed to keep water out. The user had to inhale and exhale through the nose, which continually cased the faceplate to fog.
The first octopus second stage was a part of the Viking-Norseman two-hose regulator from 1960-63. Nicknamed the "beer can" because of its cylindrical shape, this unit also included a built-in reserve valve. The octopus, then known as the Air Tap, was a small diameter corrugated hose attached to an extra low-pressure port. A buddy in need would pull the mouthpiece to release air. Apparently safety didn't sell in the 60s, because it was a commercial failure.
Occasionally a product fails simply because it was ahead of its time. The first commercial one-hose regulator, the Scuba King was made by diving pioneer E.R. Cross in 1954. It sold for $39.95 and that included a 38 cubic foot tank. Apparently there weren't enough bargain hunters around, because it was a failure in the marketplace. After Cross halted production, the remainder were sold out of a pickle barrel in a Los Angeles surplus store for $5 each. Today they are rare, valuable collector's items.
Introduced in 1957, the US Divers Aquamatic was an early single-hose regulator, sold as a cheap substitute for divers who couldn't afford a two-hose model. It was light, compact, and had the first downstream second stage. A year later, the Deluxe Aquamatic added a built-in snorkel with a rotating knob to switch from it to the regulator. The snorkel fell off too easily, and one couldn't switch over while in the water. It wasn't until the introduction of Sportsways Waterlung, the first with the "hockey puck" configuration, that single hose regulators went mainstream.
The Demone Demon claimed to be the first hydrodynamically designed regulator. Produced from 1962 through 1965, it had two second stages, one to be used as a backup if the other failed. Two slim hoses of the single-hose configuration were encircled by corrugated hoses, which routed exhaust bubbles behind the diver's back. This negated one of the major advantages of a one-hose regulator: ease of exhalation. The diver had to push exhaled air through the dead air space of that long, corrugated hose. Design obviously took precedence over engineering; it was a regulator for dives who wanted the Mike Nelson two-hose look with some of the advantages of a single hose. The sleek design look didn't help much in the marketplace, where it flopped.
Manufacturers continually tried to make regulators idiot-proof. One way was by adding a sonic alarm when tank pressure dropped to a pre-set level, 500 to 300 psi. There were several iterations, usually resulting in a honking sound that accompanied each inhalation. Spearfishermen or photographers stalking skittish fishes hated it.
The height of idiot-proofing was a Watergill design that never made it past the prototype stage. If a diver went longer than seven seconds without breathing, it would automatically inflate the BC. Imagine a photographer lining up a once in a lifetime shot, only to be suddenly yanked toward the surface because he held his breath for eight seconds.
Submersible pressure gauges made J-valves obsolete, although they hung around for three more decades, on the notion that they offered a redundant safety system. If you happen to be issued a J-valve tank at a dive resort, you should disable the shutoff by starting the dive with the valve lever already down.
In an attempt at greater consistency, Farallon developed a membrane-based computer that displayed several tissue bars. It was plagued by more problems than the SOS Meter ever was, and was quickly pulled off the market.
Divers of the 1980s might remember buoyancy balls. These were plastic balls slightly larger than ping pong balls. You were supposed to release one, which would ascend at a steady rate of 60 feet per minute regardless of depth. Then you were supposed to follow the ball to the surface instead of your smallest bubbles, as had been taught before the advent of electronic computers. The fact that the buoyancy balls cost money, whereas small bubbles were free and readily available, wasn't lost on perceptive divers. The advent of computers which also warned against rapid ascent rates put the final nails in their coffin.
Then there was the buddy mirror. This was a small, wide-angle mirror that was strapped to the diver's wrist. By checking the rearview mirror you could see if your buddy was still there, or if a shark was gaining on you.
The Scuba Air Moisturizer (SAM) was an attempt to combat dry mouth which resulted from breathing dry, filtered air. It was a tiny chromed brass cylinder that fit between the first stage and the regulator hose. Inside was a sponge that could be filled with water, scotch, or any liquid of the diver's choice. As air passed through the cylinder, every breath would be moisturized. It worked, but also increased inhalation resistance, and compromised the performance of the regulator.
When divers get together they talk about gear. Sometimes the talk gets fanciful. On a particularly quiet night on Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a group of us were discussing SAM, and took the concept one step further. Our invention was for cigarette addicts who couldn't wait to light up after a dive, much to the consternation of their shipmates. Why not make a device that allowed them to smoke underwater? It would be similar to SAM, except it would contain a cigarette of the diver's favorite brand, along with a mini lighter, so the addict could get a nicotine fix during the dive. We spent more time and effort naming the device than working out details. It would be called "self-contained underwater smoking machine." The acronym would be SCUSM, pronounced "scuzzum." If any reader becomes inspired to develop and patent it, please send me 10% in royalties for suggesting the idea.
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