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Maxime and Roland Forjot: Spearfishing pioneers and manufacturers

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Vintage snorkeller
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. :)

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I see a pair of Technisub “Caravelle” detachable black plastic blade fins poking out on the right hand side of the fin and regulator photo. You could remove the polypropylene blades and walk around the rocks using the rubber foot pockets as shoes, but I never knew anyone who did that. A plastic prong on each side entered a tunnel on each side of the foot pocket and a bracing section on the blade interlocked molded blocks on the toe section of the foot pocket sole.
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The "Douglas" spring gun used an extension spring rather than a compression spring, which meant that the full length of the gun barrel was used for spear propulsion except for the length taken up by the spring with its coils all closed up. Compression spring guns only use half the gun's barrel length with the spear tail latched in the centre of the gun. Forjot thus had to equip his spring guns with a remote trigger in the mid-handle operating a pull rod to a rear mounted sear lever that held the spear which ran through the middle of the stretched out spring. This seems a better idea than the compression spring, but the springs were prone to breaking at their anchor point with metal fatigue, whereas compression springs lose their length as the spring gradually collapses as the coil spacing decreases with a lot of use. Unlike compression springs tension springs don’t buckle and rub on the barrel wall during the shot and muzzle loading.
Thanks, Pete, for the additional information. I think I've spotted a pair of Gouvernail fins made by the French firm Hurricane on the fourth image of the collection. The Frédéric Dumas museum already has at least three pairs of these fins from the 1950s:




The name "Gouvernail", French for "rudder", references the tall central rib of the blade claimed to "steer" the fins in use. My copy of James Aldridge's oddly titled but excellent Undersea Hunting for Inexperienced Englishmen of 1955 (George Allen and Unwin) has a line drawing:

In the early 1950s, the UK imported plenty of underwater swimming gear from Australia and the European mainland to compensate for the then dearth of domestically manufactured equipment and to meet home demand as the new craze for "sub-aqua swimming" gripped the leisure market.
Pierre-Andre Martineau was the brains behind “Hurricane” in that his name appears on the many French patents, but he seemed to have a flair for unique embellishments that served no real purpose beyond attracting customers by offering something different. Hence we have swim fins with useless rudders in the form of high vertical strakes, dive masks with side port holes that don't really serve a purpose (just turn your head), snorkels with a multiplicity of corrugated rubber tubes and extravagant spearguns such as his dry spring guns (enormously heavy) and lever type rollerguns. The less you knew about diving then the more likely you would consider buying his gear, but back in its heyday that would be the majority of customers. Maxime Forjot was of a more practical bent, but thought his patents would be honoured by his rivals. They were, but in their breech! Copying was all the rage and the first spring guns are all rip-offs of the United Service Agency guns made in France, right down to the details of the mid-handle grips. At a glance the early guns all look like each other, then individual styling begins to be used to differentiate competitors’ products and that has continued on to the present day.
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