The famed French explorer and underwater adventurer Jacques Cousteau was credited with many things during his long career. Among his notable successes (brought on by wartime need) were:
* The aqualung* The underwater breathing regulator* Standardized swim fins
Some believe Cousteau, a noted diver in the 1940s, was also responsible for a good bit of what today would be called the wet suit (although the types of wet suits available now is mind-boggling).
One thing that Cousteau is somewhat noted for and one would probably remember it if you watched his famed weekly Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau of the 1970s is the development of the Zodiac inflatable boat.
The interesting thing to note is that many of the inventions of Cousteau and his fellow French developer Alain Bombard have become standard parts of the arsenals of the nations that field large fleets and specialized warfare arms groups such as the U.S. Navy Seals and like groups in other nations.
The Zodiac, though, deserves special mention because it not only became a mainstay of Cousteaus weekly adventures as his dive teams explored the underwater reaches of the world you can probably find episodes of that show online somewhere on the Internet, if you are interested but it is also the culmination of an effort that began with the first application of rubber vulcanization techniques nearly two centuries ago by Charles Goodyear, the father of modern rubber technology.
In a serendipitous intersection of technology and initiative, some inventors began to wonder what they could do with vulcanized materials and the thought that ran through their minds was maritime. That some of the inventors were from Britain, which, at the time, was the peacekeeper of the seas (1840) with the worlds largest navy (the U.S. Navy was tiny by comparison, though, growing).
Interestingly, it was the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo and many other battles and for whom a British regiment was named (the 33rd Foot), who saw the value of trying to use the revolutionary vulcanized technology to create pontoons for small boats. Commander-in-chief of the British army, Wellington participated in nearly 70 battles and during that time it must have occurred to him that river crossings possibly temporary bridges or raiding parties certainly would be facilitated if the army had small boats to command. However, given his penchant for logistic organization, Wellington also likely knew that standard wood boats of that era could not be carried easily, so he thought of the rubberized pontoon boat one that could be inflated, deflated and easily transported and that was the direct ancestor of the Zodiac pontoon craft so widely in use today.
The next step in the evolution of the inflatable craft was by member of the British military, Lt. Peter Halkett. His development was of an individual craft that could serve as a poncho or raincoat when not being used as a waterproof, single-person craft. The term boat cloak was used to describe this use Halketts design, which, incidentally, was meant for polar exploration.
Led by the military and its needs, the next advance in inflatable design came in the Mexican War when the Army Corps of Engineers devised inflatable boats that could also serve as pontoon bridges.
Meanwhile, the 1850s saw an explosion in inflatable technology and even experts today still marvel at just how modern the inflatables of that era looked.
Military warfare changed forever with the Civil War and the development of the ironclad ship (the memorable battle in 1863 between the ironclads Merrimack and Monitor for the North and South, though it ended in a draw, spelled doom for the wooden warship. Indeed, the propulsion systems used also spelled doom for the sidewheelers that were the majority of the U.S. Navy in the Civil War) as the Navy equipped each of its ironclad gunboats (used heavily in the Mississippi campaign of Grant and the capture of Vicksburgh) with several rubberized, inflatable small craft to act as lifeboats.
And, while this period of innovation and development yielded craft like the three-pontoon, inflatable craft that crossed the Atlantic, the Nonpareil, a three-pontoon craft, there was little further development for about another 30 years as the inflatable took a backburner to other developments. About the most ambitious period of development came after 1900 when circular inflatables, that tended to crack along seams and sink, were in vogue.
At most, some farsighted people saw the inflatable as a good lifeboat. This was spurred on, doubtless by tremendous loss of life in disasters like the loss of the Titanic, a century ago. Though termed unsinkable by her designer, one of the largest liners built until todays seagoing gargantuan pleasure palaces, the Titanic was the first modern ship designed with sealable bulkheads that were supposed to seal broken sections of the ship off from the rest of the craft and keep her afloat. Her designer failed to see one fatal flaw with his concept of sealable bulkheads a ship didnt just settle to a certain level and float levelly until help arrived. Ships actually would go down by the bow or stern, depending on the nature of the initial underwater problem, rather than just floating calmly on the superstructure waiting for help. At least that must have been Gordon Browns thinking when he devised the sealable bulkheads because he left rather large airspaces between the top of the bulkhead and the decking against which they were supposed to stop. This meant that as one compartment filled with water, it slopped over into the next until the ship filled up and went down by the stern with a loss of more than half her passengers and crew. The losses amounted to thousands because the Titanic was not equipped with only enough lifeboats for half her first class passengers. She carried about 2,000 to 3,000 first-, second- and third-class/steerage passengers and crew.
The losses suffered by the Cunard line that fateful April night against an iceberg that was farther south than any other ever encountered and the fact that help was actually nearby as a ship hove-to for the night on a transmitted iceberg warning and turned off its wireless and ignored the rockets fired by the rapidly foundering Cunard liner, which was using its new wireless installation, transmitting to ships whose arrival would be hours after she had gone down and most of the carnage had occurred. They also led to a new international treaty that mandated one lifeboat seat or life-saving device seat per passenger.
For the shipping industry, developments in rubberization couldnt have come at a better point as they were able to successfully bond rubber to foreign materials and the true inflatable one which could be depended on to last for an indefinite period, not just hours or days before becoming a sinking rubber doughnut life raft was developed. Ships could then store them on top-deck storage units so that if the unthinkable happened, which it still often does, the crew could swing out its standard lifeboats now many more in number and motorized because the Otto cycle marine engine was available and still have more than enough life sustaining rescue equipment aboard for all souls.
For the most part, the life raft defined the inflatable for two generations. It was a large, generally six-sided pontoon boat with three seats and rubber flooring, plus built-in davits for oars. They were actually meant to be captured by larger lifeboats and towed in line.
This was also the situation through World Wars I, II, Korea and Vietnam as inflatable technology saw little change.
That changed radically when Cousteau and company produced their version of the inflatable Zodiac, a dual-pontoon inflatable with a hard floor, real bow and transom on which could be mounted a tiller-steered outboard. Cousteau improved on the design somewhat by armoring the pontoons so that they could be taken into coral-filled reef lagoons and into other rubber-hostile environments. It really wouldnt have done to have a Zodiac meet its fate and that of a $50,000 color camera and team because it ripped a pontoon, would it? This led to a whole new class of modern boat, the rigid hull inflatable.