Jacques Cousteau


Jacques Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau
Paris, France
Death date
Associated organizations
Cousteau Society, the French Academy
Fields of study
Mechanical Engineering, Oceanography
U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, Television Academy's Hall of Fame, International Council of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, National Geographic Society's Centennial Award, Legion of Honor from France


Jacques Cousteau was a French sailor, undersea explorer, photographer, inventor, war hero, writer, and pioneer in underwater archeology. Within the history of engineering and technology, his most important contributions include the invention of modern day scuba gear, specifically the diving regulator. To the broader public, he is best known for producing and writing for television, which have educated audiences around the world on the subjects of ocean's natural treasure and the effects of pollution. His diving inventions have allowed scientists and explorers to further discover the Earth and its hidden properties within the sea. [1]

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910 in Saint-Andre-de-Cubzac, France. Born to Daniel and Elizabeth Cousteau, Daniel returned to Paris, France to work as an international lawyer, where Jacques eventually got sick. Suffering from stomach illnesses, the doctors had informed Jacques to not perform any strenuous activities. Despite this, he went on to teach himself how to swim at the age of four, developing a passion for the sea. He also displayed an intuitive understanding of mechanical devices, building a model of a marine crane when he was eleven years old. [2]

During his teenage years, Cousteau was expelled from a French high school for breaking the school’s windows with rocks. In retaliation by his parents, he was sent to a military-style academy near the French-German border, where they "straightened him out" and made him into a dedicated student. He went on to graduate in 1929, unsure of what career he wanted to pursue. He eventually decided to join the military to experience traveling. After passing a rigorous entrance exam, he was accepted into the Ecole Navale, the French Naval Academy. Traveling on a yearlong cruise, he graduated second in his class of 1933 and was promoted to second lieutenant. He was then sent to a naval base in Shanghai, China to survey and map the countryside. [3]

After coming home to France, in 1936 he suffered a major automobile accident that nearly took his life. Traveling too fast on a bend, his car disconnected from the road. Cousteau's right side was paralyzed and broke dozen bone were broken, including both his arms. Surgeons recommended in amputating the paralyzed right arm that became infected, but Cousteau insisted against amputation. Due to the severity of the accident, his navy career was terminated.

After months of therapy, he spent much of his time swimming to increase the strength of his shattered arms. During his time recovering, he opted to take a position as a naval gunnery instructor. Swimming daily to strengthen his arms, he improvised a pair of swimming goggles from aircraft pilot goggles and swam down to explore the sea floor. The beauty of the sea floor and its flora made a deep impression upon him, and he decided to make diving his life's work. [4]

After the Nazis had taken the city of Paris, Jacques and his family were forced to take refuge in the small town of Megreve, near the Swiss border. For the first few years of the war while hiding from Nazis he continued to experiment with underwater exploration. During his time experimenting, in 1943 he met Emile Gagnan, a French engineer who shared his passion for discovery. Together they began to experiment with the newly invented compressed air cylinders, constructing snorkel hoses and body suits that led to the assembly of a scuba set.

In 1942 the first aqualung device was constructed, allowing divers to stay underwater for extended periods of time. Using the device, Jacques joined the French Resistance movement to spy on Italian armed forces, documenting troop movement. He was recognized for his resistance efforts and was awarded several medals, including the Legion of Honor from France. After the war ended, he continued to work with the French navy to clear underwater mines by applying his breathing device. Between missions, he continued his underwater explorations by recording various tests and film segments with the waterproof camera. [5]

On July 19th, 1950, Cousteau purchased the Calypso, a converted U.S. minesweeper he used to undergo scientific deep sea exploration. After undergoing significant renovation, Jacques deployed the Calypso on a Red Sea expedition where he yielded numerous discoveries of previously unknown plant and animal species. After discovering a volcanic basin beneath the Red Sea and sailing to the Italian town of Toulon in the February of 1952, the crew discovered ancient Roman wreckage filled with treasure near the southern coast of Grand Congloue. The discovery gave Cousteau fame in France, and also helped his published work The Silent World gain international attention.

In 1953, Cousteau began to collaborate with Harold Edgerton, a pioneer in high-speed photography who invented the strobe light and other photographic devices. Edgerton assisted Jacques in outfitting the Calypso with innovative camera technology that skimmed along the ocean floor to send back photos of deep-sea creatures. Realizing the limitations of deep sea diving, they not only employed camera technology, but also began to use submarines for scientific research. Named the DS-2 (nicknamed the diving saucer), it had made more than one thousand dives and had been part of countless undersea discoveries. [6]

In 1956, using the footage he obtained from Edgerton’s cameras, Jacques adapted his The Silent Spring into a documentary film that detailed the underwater world and popularized scuba diving. It went on to win both the Palme d’Or at the year’s Cannes International Film Festival and the academy Award in 1957, one of three Oscars his film received. In 1957, Cousteau became the director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. He was in charge of the Conshelf Saturation Dive Program that conducted experiments on men who lived and worked at considerable depths along the continental shelves. In 1974 he formed the Cousteau Society, a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to marine conservation. [7]

Cousteau produced and starred in many television programs to promote the preservation of the oceanic environment. He went on to create additional documentaries with his son Philippe on exploring the ocean. After his son’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1979, he suspended his film production. He went on to publish many written works, until his death on June 25th, 1997 in Paris, France. His last book, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving our Natural World, was published posthumously in 2007.[8]