Jacques Cousteau: Biography, Inventions & Exploration

Instructor: Judith Schultz

Judy has been teaching college History for 17 years and holds both a Master's and a PhD in History. She grew up in suburban Chicago & now lives in Tucson AZ

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a scientist, naval officer, explorer, inventor, writer, and filmmaker. By the 1970s, he was a celebrity with his own television series. He worked to inspire people to care for the world's oceans and for the sea life living within them.

Early Life

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a French scientist, naval officer, explorer, inventor, writer, television presenter, and filmmaker.

Born in a small village in southwestern France in 1910, Cousteau spent some of his early years suffering from a variety of medical ailments and did not particularly enjoy school. His curiosity drew him towards a love of water and a fascination with taking things apart and putting them back together. His family moved to New York in the early 1920s, and during his relatively brief time living in the United Sates, Cousteau learned to speak English. He also used his time in summer camps to become a skilled swimmer and spent as much time as he could staying under the water.

The family moved back to France when Cousteau reached his teen years, and he was sent to a boarding school to further his studies. He entered college in Paris and just a few years later, at 20 years old, Cousteau took the entrance exam for the French Naval Academy. He did well at the academy, and Cousteau received his commission as a second lieutenant in the French Navy in 1933. Once an officer, Cousteau set his sights on becoming a Navy pilot, but a devastating car accident in 1936 changed that plan. Because he suffered multiple fractures and faced a long recovery, Cousteau could no longer meet the physical requirements to be a pilot. But it was during his recovery and many hours spent swimming to regain his strength that Cousteau rediscovered his love of water and decided that his career and future would be in exploring the seas.

Jacques Cousteau

World War II

Increased political tensions between European countries and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930s eventually resulted in the beginning of World War II in 1939. For Cousteau, the onset of war meant continuing to serve in the military, but within his duties he was also able to continue research and experimentation with breathing equipment that would allow divers to stay under water for longer periods of time. The self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (better known as scuba equipment) had been invented, but Cousteau was determined to find ways to improve the breathing regulator devices on scuba tanks so that divers had more time underwater and could dive to greater depths. Divers were limited by very short periods of oxygen delivery, and Cousteau discovered that pure oxygen continuously coming through to the diver eventually caused toxicity and a deadly loss of consciousness at just 45 feet below the water's surface. Cousteau knew of a device called a demand regulator that had been designed by engineer Émile Gagnan. The demand regulator could be controlled to deliver gas in machines and cars when needed and not continuously. Cousteau partnered with Gagnan to adapt the demand regulator to scuba tanks. They had success in 1943, and the demand regulator for divers that they invented was called the Aqua-Lung. The Aqua-Lung tank acted just like the diver's lungs and only delivered air when the diver breathed in and not continuously.

After the War

Cousteau received several honors for his military service during WWII, but the end of war allowed him to begin working on his own goals with more energy and time. He teamed up with other experts and scientists to do research expeditions, and together these teams did the first underwater archaeology. But what Cousteau wanted most was his own research vessel, and in 1950 he leased an old British minesweeper and did the conversions that it needed to become an ocean research ship. He named the ship Calypso, and he spent the next 47 years working from the Calypso.

Throughout the next ten years, Cousteau continued his expeditions and research, but he also became a savvy businessman and promoter of his work in order to continuously raise funds for his work. He wrote books and produced documentary films that brought audiences under the sea with him. In 1956, he won his first of three Academy Awards for his 90-minute documentary The Silent World. Jacques Cousteau was adept at balancing serious research, expeditions, and inventions with outreach to audiences across the world.

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