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Basic gear from mid-twentieth-century France

Discussion in 'Vintage Equipment Diving' started by David Wilson, Dec 5, 2018.

  1. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

    On to the "Cygne", the Squale snorkel-mask named thus because the snorkel protruding from the top of the mask resembles a swan's neck.

    Squale Cygne snorkel-mask
    vitrine-sqale-detail-2.jpg img_6528.jpg
    I am grateful again to the Musée Frédéric Dumas for the above images of the snorkel-mask. And for the excerpt from the patent underlying the product, below:

    So what we have here is a single-snorkel mask resembling many others of the time in French production. If you are observant, you will have noticed that the first image in this posting is of a full-face mask with a chinpiece to cover the mouth as well as the nose, while the other images are of snorkel-masks covering the eyes and nose only, as a normal diving mask would do. Masks like these were on open sale in the 1950s and early 1960s qand they would have been used not only by novice snorkellers but also by experienced underwater hunters who wanted to keep their hands free to hold their speargun and their catch.
  2. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

    Paul Dubois (above), who invented the Squale mask adopted by the world's navies, also came up with a design for swimming fins, which went into production as "palmes Supermarines".

    Supermarine fins

    Once again, I am indebted to the Dumas online museum for these pictures.

    The first point to note about these fins is that each fin in the pair is "handed", i.e. designed to fit the right foot only, or the left foot only, as shoes do. Attention is also paid to foot comfort, from the toe opening at the front of the foot pocket to the extended heel plate at the back.

    The second point relates to the final image showing a Supermarine fin embossed with a La Spirotechnique logo. France's La Spirotechnique company was the European counterpart of US Divers States-side. How Supermarine fins turned from a Squale product to a La Spirotechnique product remains something of a mystery, although US Divers stocked Squale masks. There must presumably have been some "understanding" between the two firms for this to be the case, but it was actually quite common for one diving equipment manufacturer "carried" the products of other manufacturers in addition to their own. Perhaps somebody knows more than I do at this point.

    But that's not the end of the tale. Those of my readers who have been paying particular attention may recall from my East German and Hungarian threads that similar fins were on sale during the 1960s and 1970s behind the "Iron Curtain".

    The GDR ad above for "Hydro-Slip Super" fins dates from the third quarter of 1960, so pretty early in modern fin development. The caption under the image of the fin reads in English roughly as follows: "Our new "Hydro-Slip-Super" swim fin with its blade angled downwards by 20° and outwards by 6° and its open-toed, comfortable, foot-friendly shoe-like foot pocket." The manufacturer was VEB DEGUFA of Berlin-Weißensee. The fin bears a very close resemblance to the Squale Supermarine although it comes with one centre rib instead of two.

    If you have also read my Hungarian vintage equipment thread, you may remember that the manufacture of fins, masks and snorkels in East European countries was eventually centralised in landlocked Hungary. The Hungarian People's Republic obliged with a Supermarine clone of their own, dubbed the "Tihany":
    Tihany is a village on the northern shore of Lake Balaton on the Tihany Peninsula in Hungary. The whole peninsula is a historical district:
    Here's a version of the Tihany fin in blue:

    So I leave you with a couple of mysteries. How did Paul Dubois' invention become a La Spirotechnique product in France and how did it come to be partly cloned in the GDR (East Germany) and then fully cloned in the Hungarian People's Republic?

    That's it for today and for Squale. I am minded to move on to La Spirotechnique next time.
  3. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

    Moving on, as promised, to La Spirotechnique. This French company was a subsidiary of Air Liquide, founded in 1946 to exploit Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan's patents. I am going to focus today on a lesser known Cousteau-Gagnan patent, US 3082442:
    As you can see, it's a US patent for a "swimmer's fin" that was previously patented in France as FR 3082442. You can read the whole patent document at https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/00/25/cb/04accdcdabc9d6/US3082442.pdf. The point of the patent is neatly summarised by Shilling's An Annotated Bibliography on Diving and Submarine Medicine as "This invention enables the flat propelling section of the fin to be automatically set into its optimum position by connecting it to the footgear by means of an intermediate section of less rigidity."

    Anyway, Cousteau and Gagnan's fin eventually saw the light of day as a marketed product in the form of the "Otarie".

    La Spirotechnique Otarie fin
    cb88b7_8bff6553526d40eebb92eee9e85ef15a~mv2.jpg Otarie.jpeg
    The Otarie made it over the Pond to US Divers in 1964:
    USDivers64.jpg The bit about "the snug, flexible high instep support" seems to be what the patent was all about.
  4. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

    The second La Spirotechnique fin to be reviewed today is the "Supermarine". And yes, I know I have already covered this model last time because it appears to have been the brainchild of Paul Dubois, the man behind "Squale". I can only presume that "Spiro" may have had the manufacturing facilities for Dubois' design.

    La Spirotechnique Supermarine fin
    s-l1600.jpg Supermarine_1965.png
    Adjustable open-heel Supermarine fins appear to have entered La Spirotechnique's repertoire in 1965. By the look of the catalogue page, they weren't embossed with the company logo, perhaps because the firm had old stock from Squale to dispose of first. The fins never made it over the Pond to US Divers, though.

    I'm going to finish here today because the next La Spirotechnique fin to be reviewed is the (in)famous Caravelle designed by Luigi Ferraro as a historic triumph in design but a heroic failure in marketing. More anon.
    Sam Miller III likes this.
  5. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle


    On to the La Spirotechnique Caravelle (above). An unusual design in so many ways. To begin with, it was the first composite fin, combining a natural rubber shoe with a polypropylene blade. Secondly, it pioneered a certain kind of modern freediving fin separating the blade and foot pocket. Thirdly, the shoe could function as a beach shoe when walking to the water and the blade could be added later when in the water.

    The Caravelle's designer was Luigi Ferraro, a diving pioneer in wartime and a prolific inventor in peacetime. You can read about his contributions to the postwar development of diving equipment on the website dedicated to his life at Welcome to Luigi Ferraro's official site | Luigi Ferraro. His picture above shows him wearing another of his designs, the Pinocchio mask, which anticipated the low-volume diving masks of today and has been in continuous production at Cressi from its prototype in 1952 to the present. Over the years the mask has assumed something of a cult status.

    Ferraro designed the Caravelle fin for his own Italian company, Technisub, in 1963. The Caravelle is often regarded as a technological success but a commercial failure, because it combined a detachable plastic blade with a rubber full-foot pocket, anticipating the introduction of composite fins by another Italian company, Mares, more than a decade later, but it did not sell well among the diving community of the early 1960s. You can read more about these two inventions on the Luigi Ferraro website at Inventor and Entrepreneur | Luigi Ferraro, which is a treasure-trove of information about this Italian innovator.

    Here are some more images of the Caravelle:
    and here's an Alec Peirce video reviewing them (2.20 minutes in):

    So revolutionary was the Caravelle design that it came to the attention of the finswimming and underwater swimming community of the Soviet Union. Here is the country's version of the fin:

    The Soviet fin was made in the "Sport" factory in what was then Leningrad. The plant produced plastic fins at a time when rubber fins were considered best.

    So much for the three models in the La Spirotechnique fin repertoire. Just one of them, the Otarie based on a Cousteau-Gagnan patent, was designed by La Spirotechnique. Although the other two were embossed with La Spirotechnque markings, they originally came from elsewhere.
  6. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

    The page above shows La Spirotechnique's fin repertoire in the mid-1970s. The Supermarine and the Caravelle are long gone, but the Otarie full-foot fin is still around. We'll leave that model as read.
    • There is now an adjustable version of the Otarie, the "Otarie réglable". The caption reads: This new fin offers, for divers wearing bootees, the Otarie increased performance owing to its longer blade."
    • The "Palmes Pro" came on the scene around 1970. The caption reads: Professional fins. Adjustable fins, made of specially formulated rubber, rigid blade for maximum propulsion efficiency. Worn with bootees. Approved by the French Army and Navy."
    • The Spiro Fin adjustable is described thus: "The two superimposed blades create ducts in their resistant part, which eliminate turbulence and give extra strength for better efficiency. Adjustable with special shoe for wearing bootees."
    • The Spiro Fin with foot pocket: "The same principle as the adjustable Spiro Fin. May be worn without bootees. The strap is designed for wearing fin with bootees."
    The range shows a continuing attachment to the past with its variations on the theme of Otarie, while giving a nod in the direction of the future with Beuchat Jetfin and Scubapro Jet Fin lookalikes.

    That's it for today. I'll resume services in a few days' time with a closer look at La Spirotechnique's range of diving masks.
  7. Sam Miller III

    Sam Miller III Scuba Legend Scuba Legend

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: CALIFORNIA: Where recreational diving began!
    The Caravelle's were the Edsel's of the diving world.
    I certainly recall when US divers introduced them. I was given a pair to use and report as to their performance -- I recall that I could not discover one good thing to write in my repost about the fins

    They were in all SoCal US Diver shops but I don't recall any one wearing them on the many diving beaches or dive boats.
    So very soon they disappeared

    Sam Miller, 111
    David Wilson likes this.

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