|How did a Frenchman come to invent the diving mask by sticking macaroni up his nose? Maxime Forjot's story illustrates how some of the most simple items in our divebags underwent difficult births.|
Forjot was 28 when he moved to Nice on the French Riviera for the sake of his son's health. He quickly came to love the seaside life, and swam in the Mediterranean every day.
In 1934 he read of Tahitians who fished with a spear, using goggles to help spot their prey. If the simple natives of Polynesia could catch fish in this way, he decided, it should be possible for Europeans, with their superior technology, to do even better.
He was further inspired by the full-face mask demonstrated by Le Prieur in 1935 for use with his compressed air-breathing apparatus.
As it happened, another inventor living on the Riviera, a Russian called Alexandre Kramarenko, was also engaged in copying the Tahitian goggles, which covered only the eyes and were limited to the shallows because of pressure squeeze.
Maxime Forjot soon realised that if the goggles were extended to include the nose, the diver would be able to compensate for the increasing pressure by blowing into the airspace.
He determined to make what he called a face mask, initially for his own use on his daily excursions. He engaged a skilled worker called Megean to help him build a mould. "My aim was to have an exact relica of my head. This is often done when making deathmasks of people. This is exactly what was done on Napoleon.
In my case the difference was that I was still alive. So I plucked up courage and asked Megean to cover my face with plaster to make the mould. It was extremely painful and dangerous, as we had to wait until the plaster dried. It sticks to your skin as it dries and makes your eyelids burn. You even risk blindness.
To make sure that I could breathe during this operation, I stuck two pieces of macaroni up my nostrils. We were then able to make a bust mould onto which we poured rubber, producing a mask that fitted my face perfectly.
We fitted a single window for both eyes and left the mouth free for a breathing tube, which I made next."
He wanted the diver to be able to swim while looking down. This called for a tube connecting his mouth with the surface air. His tube was made of plastic and connected a mouthpiece at one end with a curved section that reached 15cm above the divers head.
The tube was held in position in front of the mask by a metal clip attached to the mask rim.
This design is still used today by competitive fin-swimmers, because of its superior hydrodynamic properties over a side-mounted snorkel.
But it was not until December 1938 that the co-inventors, Forjot and Megean, were able to register their patent.
The early prototypes were developed during spearfishing activities in local waters, and their attention soon turned to perfecting the speargun.
Kramarenko had just patented a 1.8m harpoon gun containing a spring that was compressed when the spear was loaded into the barrel. This was no mean feat because of its great length, which also made it difficult to handle.
Forjot followed two months later with a shorter, spring-powered gun that worked in the reverse way; the spring was attached to the front of the barrel and extended as the spear was loaded.
It proved substantially more effective and reliable and was manufactured under the Douglas name. Future models were made in different lengths, with an arm brace, and there was even a folding version for travellers.
The Forjot/Megean team thus made a significant contribution to the performance of the early spearfishing enthusiasts, at a time when fish were plentiful. They were wise enough to protect their inventions with patents, as they believed there would be enormous growth in this new activity.
In 1939, Forjot joined the Air Force and, as a patriotic Frenchman, offered his mask to the Navy. It was later adopted by Jacques Cousteau as part of his new diving apparatus.
Following his demobilisation in July 1940, Forjot returned to Nice to discover that his inventions had been copied. Megean had refused several offers for the purchase of his share in the patents - clearly their invention was gaining a significant financial value, and this was still in the middle of the war.
But it was the beginning of a night-mare that was to last for 20 years. Forjot tried to protect his patents against all comers and was constantly involved in court actions, including four appeals. His opponents had far greater funds and better legal talents available, and determined to wear him down.
Unable to fund expensive inter-national patents, he had to abandon his inventions under the pressure brought to bear by the big diving-equipment manufacturers.
He was ruined by this struggle, and had to sell his Douglas brand to a competitor. In the end he was left only with the satisfaction of knowing that he had been first.
The patent is just an illusion, Forjot reflects bitterly. Everyone imagines that a patent assures the inventor of certain rights. But in fact it is just like a birth certificate - it certifies the registration.
A really useful invention thus becomes drowned in a hotchpotch of jumbled ideas. During all the court cases I found myself in a strictly defensive role. It was a real scandal.
It seems that the most trifling of inventions are well-protected, but really significant ones are not.
In 1956 Forjot registered another patent, covering improvements to his original design, notably the split head strap and double skirt seal that are virtually standard on todays dive masks. He hopes this this will bring him some return one day - but when
There is no doubt that Forjot made a significant contribution towards adapting man to the underwater world, and we have all used products that owe something to his pioneering efforts.
If you are a home inventor, burning to launch a brilliant idea onto the diving world, take care. The cost of protecting your invention is a major investment that, unless you are a lottery winner, you are unlikely to be able to justify.
Registering designs and patents remains extremely expensive, as more and more countries need to be included in the procedure. Attacking pirate products is equally costly.
The only path likely to bring results is to take your idea to a major manufacturer, sign a confidentiality agreement and convince it that your product has a bright future.
Even manufacturers have problems. Cameras were not allowed into the annual DEMA trade show until comparatively recently, because visitors who were clearly not representatives of the press were taking detailed photographs of new designs.
Almost identical copies of products such as masks and fins appeared in competition with the original designs. In some cases, prototype designs shown at the show were beaten to the market by the copies.
The copying company, bypassing research, design and development, could obviously offer the product more cheaply than the original. Fortunately, most of the copiers have now gained the experience and confidence to present their own designs to the market.
If you have an original product idea that is adopted by a big company, you have indeed won the lottery. And if it is a great idea, we will all benefit in the end. But until you see the royalty cheque, be very careful who you tell about it.