- Jan 5, 2007
Among the 250 diving-related questions asked and answered by Alain Perrier in his 250 réponses aux questions du plongeur curieux (Gerfaut, 2008) is No. 112: Who invented the diving mask in its current form? Here is his answer:
This question cannot be answered with certainty because, apparently, many inventors claim this creation. Among them, Maxime Forjot (picture above), who passed away in 1986 at the age of eighty-three. Son of the inventor of the watering can, sportsman, poet, designer, airplane pilot, he moved to Nice in 1931 where he discovered a passion for the Mediterranean and swimming. In 1934, he was interested in Polynesian hunting techniques and decided to invent equipment to see underwater and breathe at the same time. Inspired by the mask of Le Prieur, in 1935 he gave the first pencil strokes of what would become a modern mask. On this project, he has a competitor in the person of Alex Kramarenko who also puts on a mask. But the latter quickly reveals its limits because it covers only the eyes and the diver is forced to equalize the pressure inside the device thanks to large bulbs located on the top of the mask. Maxime Forjot has the idea, he and a few others probably, to make a mask that encompasses both the eyes and the nose. As the mouth is free, it suffices to add to the assembly a breathing tube fitted with a mouthpiece, a technique already known at that time. The patent for his invention was filed in 1938 under the name of “marine eye”. His creative genius will make him file the same year another patent for a spring harpoon gun, marketed under the Douglas brand. In 1939, his marine eye won the vermeil medal at the Lépine competition. Maxime Forjot will spend his whole life defending the anticipation of his patents. In the 1950s, his son Roland will take up the torch by launching into the manufacture of spearfishing sets and improving the various materials available on the market.
The story of Maxime Forjot's battle with the French patent laws can be perused at The ripping-off of Maxime's mask. It makes sobering reading as a cautionary tale for anybody having devised a revolutionary invention but lacking the necessary business acumen to bring their "better mousetrap" (or any other innovation for that matter) through mass production to the market place where fortunes can be made (but sadly lost too). Maxime also designed spearguns, founding the Douglas brand to sell his underwater hunting equipment. He resided in the French Riviera city of Nice on the Mediterranean where other spearfishing pioneers and manufacturers of the 1930s chose to open underwater sports equipment businesses with English-sounding names like "Watersports" and "United Service Agency" in what was a popular and fashionable resort with wealthy Anglophone tourists wanting to to try their hand at fish hunting in the Med during the otherwise austere aftermath of World War II.
Maxime had originally moved to Nice for the sake of his son Roland's health, swam in the Mediterranean every day and patented a diving mask in 1938 dubbed “l’œil marin” (the marine eye, shown above). That moniker may have inspired the brand name "Marin" Roland Forjot deployed from the 1950s to the 1970s for the sale of the underwater swimming equipment he designed and manufactured at his enterprise "S.F.A.C.E.M." (French: Société de Fabrication d’Articles de Chasse d’Exploitation Sous-Marine; English: Company manufacturing hunting articles for underwater use) at 34, rue Ribotti in Nice. The business was sold to Scubapro in 1977, fuelling the concern of other French diving equipment manufacturers about creeping globalisation. My first "proper" diving mask, purchased when I joined my university sub-aqua club in the mid-1960s, was a "Marin Stabilizator" compensator mask imported from France to the UK by what was then E. T. Skinner & Co. and what is now Typhoon International.
Now for the reason why I am bringing these two giants of French underwater hunting and swimming history to your attention. Yesterday evening, I decided to visit the Musée Frédéric-Dumas website, which is a superb depository of documents and exhibits relating to the history of diving. This virtual museum has not idled under Coronovirus lockdown in France, accepting and even collecting in December a substantial donation of Maxime and Roland Forjot memorabilia previously stored in the family attic by their descendant Bernard Forjot-Bailet. You can see the contents for yourself here, where the following snapshots are displayed:
More fins & spearguns
Packing boxes containing future exhibits
Press for moulding fins: view 1
Press for moulding fins: view 2
Finally, the text on that page, which I have very roughly translated for you:
Extraordinary donation of Maxime and Roland FORJOT items by Bernard FORJOT-BAILET, their descendant. Yesterday, Tuesday 1 December 2020, we went to Nice with a van hired for two days in quest of Bernard Forjot-Bailet’s extraordinary donation of items belonging to his inventor and designer grandfather, and to his father Roland Forjot, industrialist, inventor and designer and exporter of fins, masks, guns and snorkels. Bernard and his wife Laurence had brought down from the attic, using a miller’s ladder, hundreds of diving items, some in their packaging ready for shipment. This remarkable family business, spanning 3 generations, operated until the end of 1978. Bernard worked there. He is a passionate man who explained to us as we loaded the van with moulds and industrial devices, the manufacturing techniques of all the diving items. Of course, we will need his help when we reassemble the moulding equipment, providing technical explanations of how they work. We would like to thank Bernard Forjot-Bailet and his wife Laurence for this extraordinary donation. Though made of aluminium, the moulds are excessively heavy, and the unloading of the truck was carried out in a masterly and rapid manner, by the services of the city of Sanary. We thank them very much. Huge referencing and reassembly work awaits us now. We already have documents from Maxime Forjot, Bernard Forjot-Bailet’s grandfather, in our documentary database. The press with its fin mould positioned in the upper part is visible in Bernard’s last two photos.
If you have any interest at all in the history of spearfishing gear, do keep an eye on this page for any moves towards cataloguing the donation contents. Speaking for myself, I am particularly looking forward to seeing the captioned close-ups of the Forjot masks and fins.