Desco History


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A Brief History of DESCO

Known to commercial divers throughout the world DESCO was first organized in 1937 as a Wisconsin corporation under the name of Diving Equipment and Salvage Co. Its organization was the result of several events which occurred during the preceding years.


During the early 1930's, a Milwaukee diver, Max Gene Nohl, had received national publicity as the result of his salvage operations on a sunken steamship, the "John Dwight." This brought him to the attention of a Hollywood producer, Col. John D. Craig, who was interested in the possible salvage of the torpedoed Cunard liner, the "Lusitania," which lay in 312 feet off water of the Irish coast

At that time, no equipment or reliable techniques were available for diving operations at such a depth, and it was obvious that such a project would require both physiological experimentation and an advance in diving equipment design. Although no actual attempt was ever made to salvage the Lusitania, its challenge caused Nohl to join forces with two other Milwaukeeans. The first was Jack Browne who was also a diver. The second was Edgar End, M.D. of the Marquette University School of Medicine who was a pioneer in the new science of hyper baric physiology and medicine.

Browne and Nohl worked together on the design of a new type of lightweight, self-contained diving suit. At the same time they worked with Dr. End to explore the promising possibility of preventing nitrogen narcosis by having the diver breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen rather than air.
The first result of this collaboration was the incorporation of DESCO as
the manufacturer of the newly designed diving equipment. The new corporation was largely financed by Mr. Norman Kuehn, a Milwaukee businessman. Browne and Nohl became its first full-time employees. Browne was also one of its shareholders. The second result was that, On December 1, 1937 in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, Max Nohl succeeded in diving to a depth of 420 feet, thereby breaking a depth record which had been held by a U.S. Navy diver Frank Crilley, since 1915. Nohl accomplished this feat using DESCO's new diving equipment and breathing a heliox mixture prescribed by Dr. End.

World War II brought large Navy contracts for diving equipment to DESCO. They included not only conventional hard-hat gear, but also the design, development and manufacture of an oxygen rebreather, known as the "B Lung." This, for the first time, permitted Navy divers to swim freely under the surface, in the manner of SCUBA divers today, but without producing bubbles which might disclose their position. By V-J Day, DESCO was producing more diving equipment than any other company in the world.

DESCO by then had its own pressurized wet tank, and on April 27, 1945, Jack Browne used this tank to "dive" to still a new record depth of 550 feet of sea water. As in the case of Nohl's earlier dive, he breathed a heliox mixture under the supervision of Dr. End. Both dives were milestones in the development of modern techniques of mixed-gas diving.

In 1946, Norman Kuehn and Jack Browne sold the company to another Milwaukee businessman, Alfred Dorst. Under Dorst, the company continued to design and manufacture U.S. Navy and commercial diving equipment but also broadened its product line to include a variety of sporting goods, including water skis, aquaplanes, swim-fins, spear-guns, and simplified oxygen rebreathers, such as the "A Lung," intended for use by sports divers. At about this time also the company changed its name to "Diving Equipment and Supply Co., Inc."
After the Korean War, which again brought an increase in U.S. Navy contracts and orders, the ownership changed hands several times, and during this period it went out of the sporting goods business. Ever since, it has concentrated solely, as it did at the start, on the design and manufacture of commercial and U.S. Navy diving equipment.


In 1960, Max Nohl and his wife were tragically killed in an automobile accident.

In May 1966, DESCO was purchased by Tom and Marilyn Fifield. In 1968 it moved to its present address at 240 North Milwaukee Street in Milwaukee.

Mr. Fifield was responsible in the 1960's for the design and development of the DESCO Diving Hat which remains a standard piece of modern equipment for diving with air in relatively shallow water where mixed gases are not needed. Also the company, in addition to its full line of conventional diving equipment, has continued to improve and manufacture its famous DESCO Full-Face Mask which originated in the early design efforts of Jack Browne and Max Nohl. This mask has probably been used in more total hours of commercial diving than any other piece of equipment ever made.

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