It’s summertime in Jacksonville and many of the visitors to our museum have been out boating or fishing on Lake Jacksonville. We hope you are all wearing your life preservers!
Initially, back when vessels were made primarily of wood, there was little need for a life preserver. If the ship sank, there were generally large pieces of floating wood for one to grab onto. As metal ships replaced the wooden ones, the need for a floatation device became obvious. It was in 1765 that an Englishman, Dr. John Wilkinson, was given a British patent for a cork filled jacket “for seaman’s preservation.” Other patents followed, some including pockets for the storing of “oranges, milk, and other provisions which make drowning impossible.” Sadly, these jackets, worn with the cork on the back, forced the swimmer into a face down position in the water.
Designs had improved by the time of the sinking of the Titanic. The cork materials had been moved to the front of the jacket, and aboard the ship were enough life jackets for everyone. Still, when passengers wearing life jackets jumped from the deck, even if the drop was only ten feet or so, they were unlikely to survive. The force of the cork filled jacket hitting the water would force it up, snapping the wearer’s neck.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s when a Minnesota man, who loved to boat and fish, began to design a life preserver that would be comfortable to wear and most of all, wouldn’t kill the wearer! In 1928, Mr. Peter Markus was awarded a patent for his new design of a life jacket. Patterned after a man’s dress vest, (that’s why today we sometimes call them life vests) he used a rubberized cloth with built in air pockets. It was designed to fit over a person’s head, weighed less than two pounds, and was easily secured by straps sewn on the front panels. To inflate the vest, two cords with knots were connected to small cartridges of pressurized carbon dioxide. When the wearer needed to inflate the vest, he or she just pulled the cords which released the carbon dioxide into the vest’s air pockets. Once inflated, the vest held the wearer’s head above water, even if they were unconscious.
After receiving his patents, Markus began attending boating and sports shows. It was at one of these shows that Markus met a Navy captain who saw the value of the jacket and invited Markus to Washington DC to demonstrate his device. The jacket was quickly accepted with one change – make them bright yellow so they’ll be easier to see.
The vests were soon making headlines throughout the world. In 1935 the dirigible Macon crashed in the Pacific Ocean. 98 of the 100 people on board survived using the new life vests.
One of the most iconic photos of a life vest shows former President George Herbert Walker Bush being pulled from the ocean after his plane had been shot down by the Japanese in World War II. The photos and video footage clearly show his inflated life vest. Sadly, not all pilots were as attentive to their equipment as Mr. Bush was. Occasionally, the pilots would use the carbon dioxide cartridges to carbonate a favorite beverage or cocktail. The navy ended up adding small tubes to the front of the vest so the pilot could manually blow into them and inflate the air pockets.
There is an excellent example of a World War II aviator’s life vest on display in your Vanishing Texana Museum. The vest is a gift to the museum from a local resident, Mr. Steve Hesterly. Because it was for military use, one can see where, attached to the vest, would have been a dye marker package(yellow-green) and a shark deterrent packet (dark blue-black). Our vest is a model B-4, manufactured by the United States Rubber Company and was, at first, called a “horse collar” type preserver. Because of the appearance of the front of the vest, after inflation, it was nicknamed the “Mae West” vest after the buxom actress of the 1930’s.
Before the war, Markus made a profit licensing manufacturing rights to various companies. In support of the war effort, Markus cancelled his patents and made them available, royalty free, to any company that was making them for the government.
Today, this style of vest is still a best seller. Its basic design continues to be used by the military as well as commercial airlines.
Be sure to come by and see this historic piece of military memorabilia. Your Vanishing Texana Museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11-4. Parking and admission are free at our 300 South Bolton location.