Brief History of Life Jackets

Did you know that back in 870 B.C. Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal’s army used inflatable animal skins to cross a moat? This shows how far we can trace back the use of water safety devices.

At the time of Ashurnasirpal, history had already recorded drowning deaths, but of course these problems proved less dangerous when people still used wooden boats to travel on water because in case of shipwreck, they could simply hang onto the different kinds of wreckage. With the appearance of iron ships though, the need to develop water safety devices increased.

One of the very first cork life jackets.

Dr John Wilkinson made the first life jacket out of cork, and patented it in 1765. According to The Sporting Magazine October, cork life jackets entered the market as early as 1804. Captain John Ross Ward designed the cork antecedent of the modern life jacket in 1851, developing it for the National Lifeboat Institution.

In the 1860s, cork remained the main component of life jackets, but soon people also started to use kapok, a natural fiber. Its waxy coating provided the necessary buoyancy, keeping the air inside the device. Sealed into vinyl pockets, it still had a problem: the potentially life-saving instrument could lose buoyancy if punctured. Now, most of Europe and Canada forbid the use of kapok in life saving equipment.

Kapok life jackets.

Surprisingly, no rules obliged sailors to use life jackets until the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, held the year after the Titanic sank in 1912. In 1914, they proposed a set of recommendations in the interest of having life jackets available for every passenger on every ship.

The life jackets used on the Titanic in 1911-1912.

Inventing the first inflatable life preserver in 1928, Peter Markus provided the next development in the technology. People nicknamed this new inflatable device the Mae West because it made the wearer look like they had big breasts like the well-known actress of the time. These jackets became quite popular with U.S. Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force servicemen during the Second World War.

In 1953, as a consequence of the sinking of the ore carrier Carl D. Bradley which caused 33 deaths, it turned out that life preservers had another problem: unconscious people could easily slip out of them and sink. The Coast Guard required a change in design to prevent this kind of unfortunate event.

The Mae West.

The flotherchoc took the next step in life jacket history in France in the 1960s. A light and flexible body-fitting vest, it had the same disadvantage as the original kapok devices: over time, the vinyl packets could lose buoyancy if punctured.

Nowadays, all manufacturers use plastic to make life vests, some vests from closed-cell foam or foamed plastics encased in nylon. Closed-cell foam was invented around the 1940s, but did not see use for this function until the 1970s. Made of tiny, individual air-filled pockets within the foam itself, this closed-cell foam insert has a sponge-like structure.

Nowadays, countless water safety devices abound in various shapes and forms. They aim to keep the injured person’s head above water, and activating as fast as possible. We hope our product, Arken lifebelts, can mark the next step in the history of inflatable life preservers.

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