Fire service folklore recounts the practice of firemen growing long beards to help them breathe heavy smoke. The theory was a fireman would dip his whiskers in a pail of water, then clinch his wet beard between his teeth and breathe through his mouth, using the wet beard as a filter.
One of the earliest recorded attempts was in France, where the "Apparatus Aldini" was tested in 1825. This was a thick mask of asbestos worn over the head. Another mask made of woven iron wire was placed over the first. The device provided a small margin of heat protection, provided the wearer was able to maintain the air space between the two masks and not allow the iron mask to touch the inner mask.
1824, a miner named John Roberts came up with a "smoke respirator," or hood, that would allow a person "to enter a dense smoke condition without any danger." Various types of filter masks were developed and used by firemen in Europe and the United States. In 1861, an inventor named Brad Brooke devised a "smoke and noxious vapor respirator" designed to allow a person to "enter a building however dense the smoke or vapor might be without injury."
James Braidwood, the Superintendent of the London Fire Brigade, invented another type of hose mask at about the same time. To supply air and protect the firefighter from smoke, a tube was co nnected to an air pump attached to the engine outside the fire building. A stout leather dress and hood were worn to protect the wearer from heat and flames. Thickly glazed eye holes were provided in the hood. To furnish light a powerful reflecting lantern was worn on the chest. A shrill whistle was attached to the hood for emergency communications.
In 1863, a patent was granted to A. Lacour for his invention, the "improved respiring apparatus." This was actually a self-contained breathing apparatus of sorts and consisted of an airtight bag made of two thicknesses of canvas, separated by a lining of India rubber. The device was carried on the fireman's back and held in place by two shoulder straps and a belt around the waist. The bag was filled with pure air inflated with a pair of bellows, and came in different sizes for air durations of 10 to 30 minutes. From the upper part of the bag two India rubber tubes were connected to a mouthpiece that was held in place by biting down with the teeth. Corks were placed in the mouthpiece when the bag was being filled through a faucet at the bottom of the bag. The corks were then removed when the wearer was ready to begin breathing the stored air. It came with a pair of goggles to protect the eyes from smoke, a rubber clamp for the nose and an air whistle that could be pressed by hand to signal.
In the 1870s, fire departments were buying and using "Nelly’s Smoke Excluding Mask." This filter-type mask had a small bag of water that was suspended by a neck strap. Connected to the water bag were two sponge filters that were kept wet when the bag was squeezed. Air was drawn through the filters to the mouthpiece in the face mask.
Toward the end of World War II, Scott Aviation was manufacturing breathing equipment that allowed air crews to operate at extreme altitudes. One story goes that a number of Scott engineers watched a smoky fire being fought in a nearby building. They were amazed that the firemen had to operate in such a severe smoke condition and they decided to see if they could adapt their equipment to suit firefighting. Working with the Boston and New York City fire departments, Scott introduced the Air Pac in late 1945 after a year of field testing.