Home Vintage Scuba Vintage Scuba with Alec Peirce: Early Dive Lights

Vintage Scuba with Alec Peirce: Early Dive Lights

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Hi divers, Alex Peirce here with another one of my vintage scuba videos! I hope you enjoy this as much as the masks!

Today we’re going to concentrate on dive lights. It’s something every diver knows about – you probably have one – but I want to take a few minutes of your time to talk about them. I want to show you a modern dive light and concentrate on where it came from, and what they used to be like.

Here’s a dive light from 30 years ago and one from today. Which would you rather carry? This modern dive light is probably equal in light output to all the vintage lights (about 10) on my table put together. It’s lightweight: you can stick it in your glove compartment or use it for camping or fishing; you can use it on your bedroom table or for an emergency.

The new lights are incredible: they’re LED, are fully rechargeable, and have so many options. You can press the button to get a light, press it down, and there’s four different levels; and on warm light there’s four different levels. You can hold it down for a few seconds and get S.O.S. You get all those functions: six different levels at warm or cool light, the S.O.S., and a red light for diving at night so you don’t disturb the fish. Dive lights were crude and have really changed over the years!

The very first dive lights we had in the ‘50s and ‘60s were normal flashlights that were modified. If I were to open one up, peel off the rubber, and pop out the plastic lens, out would come a flashlight: the same kind of flashlight you would buy at any hardware store: just an ordinary flashlight with 3D-cells and a simple little bulb. You’d turn it on and it would get light, and this rubber covering made it almost completely waterproof. You’d have to disassemble it after every dive because some water would leak in – we didn’t have good o-rings back in those days – but the rubber housing kept it safe to operate. There were little buttons on the top that worked right through the rubber: press it on or off and it couldn’t be any simpler. The 3D-cells were usually good for one dive while the new rechargeable lights with lithium batteries and LEDs are good for maybe 20 or 30 dives and you can recharge them hundreds of times.

Another dive light from that same timeframe was the popular Aqualux marketed by US Divers. It was one of the first lights made for diving. It has an aluminum body where the head unscrews and you can take it out, pull out the reflector, and pop in batteries. You screwed the head down to turn it on or off to turn it off. Being completely metal, it tended to corrode and there was a lot of maintenance involved.

Later, as plastic became more popular (and it became more popular underwater since plastic doesn’t corrode), other companies started to come out with dive lights. This is one of the earliest Dacor lights and this style as been around for a long time: we were still selling it into the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. It’s very simple: a case, two or three batteries, and an o-ring; you put the batteries in, put the bulb on top, then screw in the plastic cover, which goes over the o-ring and seals it well. There’s no buttons on it so how do you turn it off and on? It’s spring-loaded so you turn the head down or screw it off – easy! It worked pretty well but you still had to rinse out the inside because the hydrogen gas from the batteries would destroy the innards if you weren’t careful. An improvement over the earlier Dacor lights had a different handle on it, and they were popular for 10 or 12 years.

If you had the money and could afford a big light… this is a pretty neat one that’s older than some of these. It looks like it’s made of wood, but it’s made of a material called bakelite – you don’t hear of it anymore so you might want to Google it. Bakelite was a mixture of various materials with a compound, and it was good because it didn’t corrode, but it had one fault: it was brittle and if you dropped it, it would shatter into a material pieces. It had a switch on top and it used those big square 6-volt batteries with the springs on top. It had a sealed beam, which was a big improvement. These were very common back then and you could buy them at any hardware store or farmer’s supply – they were used in tractors.

Some companies went on to improve dive lights. Some dive lights had bigger heads on them but with the same batteries and bulb and with a bigger reflector – though a wider light means less light, so it was a bit of a trade-off. Farallon had a beautiful light with a big head on it along with a rechargeable battery and the selection switch had different levels – this was when dive lights started to get sophisticated! ScubaPro had its own version with the same bulb: not all that bright but with three or four D-cells in there and a neat switch that let you move the lock so it wouldn’t come off accidentally. You can see the trend of making the same thing but making it bigger.

That’s the way dive lights started out, from the very simple rubber coating on a flashlight, and it got a little more involved. Eventually, as the market improved and grew, scuba companies started to proliferate and started making scuba lights. Dacor made a product similar to the old Bakelite one with a big top held by four screws and an o-ring that’s a rubber gasket. On the front there’s a sealed beam – there’s a handy light to put in your glove compartment but this was a scuba light.

Along that same trend of getting a bigger light with a bigger beam on it, a company came out with the Darrell Allen light. Why is it so nice? It’s one piece of aluminum (quite heavy) and inside it has 6-volt batteries. The switch was neat because one problem with a lot of these lights was the switch: there was a hole through the housing, and sometimes the switch would leak, and your light would be ruined. This has a switch that slides back and forth and there’s no hole through the housing. It’s a magnetic switch so this button, as you move it forward, moves a magnet on the outside: the magnetic effect goes through the aluminum and inside there’s a switch that when you push it forward, it closes, and you get light. The only opening on this light is at the front, which is held on by six screws squeezing down on an o-right, which sealed it. This was a really popular light, but it wasn’t cheap: you could buy a good dive light for 19 dollars back then, and this would be as much as 30 or 35 – it doesn’t seem like very much today but back then it was a whole lot of money.

This is the famous Ikelite. There was a gentleman by the name of Ike who was a prolific and busy diver who lived in Indianapolis. He was handy and was one of the first people in North America to have expertise in plastic molding. He embedded one of the first lights and it was so popular everyone bought it; it was relatively inexpensive at 20 dollars. It’s the simplest thing in the world: there’s a sealed beam and the o-ring, and you put the battery in. There’s a switch on the bottom with a waterproof over. It was Ike’s light, which was so popular it became known as Ikelite; and now Ikelite is a big company that makes dive lights and underwater camera housings. A little later, they came out with improvements with detachable handles so it could be mounted on a strobe.

I’d like to take a second to talk about one of my very first dive lights. Even though these lights were 10, 12 or 19 dollars, that was a lot of money for a kid in the ‘60s making 25 cents an hour, particularly when I could go to Popular Mechanics. They had all kinds of do-it-yourself articles like how to make your own dive light. I got one of these 6-volt, sealed beam bulbs from the tractor store and soldiered a piece of wire on the back. I took an ordinary can and put a 6-volt battery into it; and on the side of the can I put in two slots so I could put a belt on my weight belt. I took the wires from the light and soldiered them to the battery. It came on! Quickly, I poured a bunch of tar over the battery and jumped in the water. I had one of the first canister lights – all you fancy tech divers out there with your 700-dollar canister lights…I made one for three bucks and it worked really well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any switches since the battery was dead after one dive; but that was what we had to do in the ‘60s.