The History Behind the Invention of Gas Masks

Surfboard glasser wears a gas mask while glassing a surfboard

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Inventions that aid and protect the ability to breathe in the presence of gas, smoke or other poisonous fumes were being made before the first use of modern chemical weapons.

Modern chemical warfare began on April 22, 1915, when German soldiers first used chlorine gas to attack the French in Ypres. But long before 1915, miners, firemen and underwater divers all had a need for helmets that could provide breathable air. Early prototypes for gas masks were developed to meet those needs.

Early Fire Fighting and Diving Masks

In 1823, brothers John and Charles Deane patented a smoke protecting apparatus for firemen that was later modified for underwater divers. In 1819, Augustus Siebe marketed an early diving suit. Siebe's suit included a helmet in which air was pumped via a tube to the helmet and spent air escaped from another tube. The inventor founded Siebe, Gorman, and Co to develop and manufacture respirators for a variety of purposes and was later instrumental in developing defense respirators.

In 1849, Lewis P. Haslett patented an "Inhaler or Lung Protector," the first U.S. patent (#6529) issued for an air purifying respirator. Haslett's device filtered dust from the air. In 1854, Scottish chemist John Stenhouse invented a simple mask that used charcoal to filter noxious gasses.

In 1860, Frenchmen, Benoit Rouquayrol, and Auguste Denayrouze invented the Résevoir-Régulateur, which was intended for use in rescuing miners in flooded mines. The Résevoir-Régulateur could be used underwater. The device was made up of a nose clip and a mouthpiece attached to an air tank that the rescue worker carried on his back.

In 1871, British physicist John Tyndall invented a fireman's respirator that filtered air against smoke and gas. In 1874, British inventor Samuel Barton patented a device that "permitted respiration in places where the atmosphere is charged with noxious gasses, or vapors, smoke, or other impurities," according to U.S. patent #148868.

Garrett Morgan

American Garrett Morgan patented the Morgan safety hood and smoke protector in 1914. Two years later, Morgan made national news when his gas mask was used to rescue 32 men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. The publicity led to the sale of the safety hood to firehouses across the United States. Some historians cite the Morgan design as the basis for early U.S. army gas masks used during WWI.

Early air filters include simple devices such as a soaked handkerchief held over the nose and mouth. Those devices evolved into various hoods worn over the head and soaked with protective chemicals. Goggles for the eyes and later filters drums were added.

Carbon Monoxide Respirator

The British built a carbon monoxide respirator for use during WWI in 1915, before the first use of chemical gas weapons. It was then discovered that unexploded enemy shells gave off high enough levels of carbon monoxide to kill soldiers in the trenches, foxholes and other contained environments. This is similar to the dangers of the exhaust from a car with its engine turned on in an enclosed garage.

Cluny Macpherson

Canadian Cluny Macpherson designed a fabric "smoke helmet" with a single exhaling tube that came with chemical sorbents to defeat the airborne chlorine used in the gas attacks. Macpherson's designs were used and modified by allied forces and are considered the first to be used to protect against chemical weapons.

British Small Box Respirator

In 1916, the Germans added larger air filter drums containing gas neutralizing chemicals to their respirators. The allies soon added filter drums to their respirators as well. One of the most notable gas masks used during WWI was the British Small Box Respirator or SBR designed in 1916. The SBR was probably the most reliable and heavily used gas masks used during WWI.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History Behind the Invention of Gas Masks." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The History Behind the Invention of Gas Masks. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History Behind the Invention of Gas Masks." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).