The History of the Life Preserver
If you’ve ever fallen out of a boat or off a dock as a kid – or maybe even as an adult – you were probably pretty happy to find yourself bobbing in the water instead of sinking into the deep. That is, if you were wearing a life preserver or someone tossed you one fairly quickly. But have you ever stopped to think about the history of this interesting and oft neglected piece of marine equipment? Known throughout the recent past as life savers, life jackets, life buoys, perry buoys, cork jackets, kisby/kisbee rings, and even Mae Wests, life preservers have a rich history and have saved many thousands of lives.
The idea that humans could float on the water without a boat is nothing new. In 870 BC, the Assyrian King Assur-nasir-Pal’s army used inflatable animal skins to cross a moat. While not every ancient sailor had such a device, it is fascinating to consider that the technology existed. Life preservers as we know them today – as opposed to various floatation devices employed in situations not involving individuals in need of rescuing – hit the scene when maritime-specific lifesaving organizations began to form. In 1757, for instance, a Frenchman made a jacket out of cork for water emergencies. Norwegian seamen used cork-stuffed vests and even blocks of wood to preventing drowning.
In the same period, other lifesaving inventions attracted interest, but failed to catch on. Cork was a popular material in “modern” life preservers, as was kapok fiber. However, kapok fiber was soon banned not only for its flammability, but also for the fact that it lost its buoyancy when compressed. The main advantage kapok had over cork was that cork was heavy and bulky, and kapok was more effective at keeping a person’s head above water. Balsa wood, utilized in the post WWI era, was one of the other life preserver materials whose heyday was short.
In the 1800s, the influence of organizations like Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (which used the kisbee ring) helped popularize life preservers. Shortly after the invention of the kisbee ring in the UK, the US Congress passed a law requiring ships to carry life preservers and similar rules have been in place ever since for military, commercial, and pleasure boats. Nearly a hundred years later, the eponymous Mae Wests were pressed into service in WWII. These were the first inflatable life vests, and they were issued to soldiers because they were compact enough to fit into packs.
During this same era, Congress passed the Motorboat Act on the US home front – and as a result, less bulky life preserver designs came into being. The idea was that if life vests were more comfortable to wear, people would actually wear them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th Century that easy-to-wear, activity-specific life preservers came into being.
So what’s next for the hardworking life preserver? Seeing that shipwrecks and maritime accidents will happen wherever people are boating, it’s likely that the life preserver will never stop evolving. We look forward to seeing what engineers and designers do next with this piece of necessary equipment.