A brief history of the life jacket

Published: January 26, 2018

life-jacket-history 'Fleetwood Lifeboat 'Child of Hale' (1887-1892) and the crew who saved 13 seamen from the Barque 'Labora' on November 7th 1890. They all wear Captain Ward's cork block life jackets'. Photo courtesy of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

The lowly life jacket is a fixture of cottages everywhere: hanging on hooks in the shed, discarded in a heap on the dock, strapped on and ready to go for an early morning fishing trip.

The life jacket seems almost timeless, and, in fact, the life jacket as we know hasn’t actually changed much since it was first developed.

According to Dr. Christopher Brooks, the physician, scientist and inventor who literally wrote the book on life jackets (it’s called Designed for Life: Life Jackets Through the Ages),  the life jacket as we would recognize it was first developed in the 1850s, as iron boats began to replace traditional wooden vessels.

“With wooden ships, if there was a shipwreck, there was plenty of floating debris, spars and masts, for sailors to hang on to,” he explains. “Iron ships, of course, don’t float, so drowning deaths went up and it became necessary to develop life jackets for those on board.”

Of course, Brooks says, people had been devising different ways to float in water since long before that. The earliest example of a life jacket or flotation device being used can be found on a marble carving in the British Museum from 870 BC, which shows Assyrian soldiers swimming while holding on to inflated animal skins.

Fast forward to the early nineteenth century, and you’ll find advertisements for Mallison’s Seaman’s Friend and Bather’s Companion, a jacket made out of cork sheets attached with a strap that went through the legs.  

Once the mid-nineteenth century rolled around — and those iron ships began sailing and, sadly, sinking — the first modern life jackets started to make their appearance, allowing a sailor to float using a vest filled with balsa wood or cork blocks. The most famous early modern version, dating from the 1850s, was a cork vest designed by one Captain Ward, who was an inspector for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in England.  

But however important life jackets were — and however many lives they saved — there were no international regulations requiring their use on ships until the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was held in 1913. If that year rings a far-off bell in your mind (or perhaps brings to mind a Celine Dion song), it should: it was the year after the Titanic sank.

That shouldn’t be surprising, says Brooks. “There always has to be a terrible accident to produce any changes to life-saving technology,” he points out. “No work gets done until there’s a significant push to do so.”

In response to the Titanic tragedy, the SOLAS Convention proposed a set of recommendations regarding “life saving appliances” in 1914, in part requiring a life jacket to be available for every passenger on board a ship. (Even today, Brooks points out, life jackets on board cruise ships are SOLAS-certified.) That convention set the stage for the creation of the International Maritime Organization in 1948, the UN agency which has responsibility, among other things, for international maritime safety and now boasts 172 member states.

Further improvements to life jacket design happened after losses in the Battle of Britain during World War II, with developments coming from both sides of the conflict. Dr. Edgar Pask, a physician who worked at the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine in Farnborough, England, pioneered the use of a hybrid inflatable/inherent buoyancy jacket called the Mae West with UK pilots. (The inflatable chest on the life jacket mimicked the buxom curves of the eponymous actress.)

On the German side, scientists working for the Luftwaffe responded to pilot loss in the North Sea by developing dependably inflatable life jackets.

While materials have changed over the years, from cork and balsa to kapok, a plant fibre, to foam, and from rubber to polyurethane-coated nylon, the basic technology and purpose of the life jacket remains the same: it’s designed to flip you face-up (within five seconds to meet modern standards) and keep your nose above water.

That’s not to say, of course, that work doesn’t continue on new developments. CORD, a testing facility in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is the home of the world’s only commercially accessible, fully immersible thermal manikin, which is used to test new innovations in marine survival suits, thermal life jackets and marine work suits.  

But even with the latest and greatest developments, the challenge, says Brooks, is convincing people to actually wear the life jackets they have. While the Lifesaving Society points out that drowning deaths have decreased steadily since 1994, as of 2016 there were still 1.4 drowning deaths in Canada for every 100,000 people, and most of those are preventable.

“The majority of people who drown are men aged 20 to 34, who tend to see life jackets as either not macho, too hot or too uncomfortable,” he explains. “They’re also more likely to be under the influence of alcohol or self denial. The belief that drowning ‘is never going to happen to me.’ It’s ironic. Adults will insist that children wear life jackets, but they won’t wear one themselves.”

Wear your life jacket. You’ll be wearing a part of history.

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