20 Years Later: Reflecting on Ike Brigham's 2001 DEMA Reaching Out Award

By Jean Rydberg

20 years ago Ike humbly received the 2001 DEMA Reaching Out Award for his lifelong contributions to the dive industry.

"I must admit to being nervous because there are those that think a roast or a lynching might be more appropriate. I am flattered and a little embarrassed by all of this, especially considering the accomplishments of industry super stars like Bob Hollis [Oceanic], Allen Uke [Underwater Kinetics], and Dave Parker [Pelican Products]." - Ike Brigham

Born in Louisville, KY, and raised in Indianapolis, IN, the young Ike Brigham was an entrepreneur from the start. He was raised like an only child with a much older brother and sister having already moved out of the house. He was said to have marched around "like a little General Ike Eisenhower" by his brother who served in the U.S. Navy in Would War II. The nickname stuck. In his early teens he operated a thriving bicycle repair business, "Ike's Bikes," complete with printed business cards.

In spite of his father serving as the distinguished head of the Indiana State Library for many years, Ike wasn't much for book learning. After high school he spent one semester in the Purdue University School of Engineering before becoming bored and returning home to his high school sweetheart. He joined a family friend and mentor in running a business specializing in surface finish repair and painting appliances in the style of the day. In the late 1950's they purchased a load of inventory from a man who was running a dive shop out of his garage. They started offering wares in their previously empty storefront under the name Diver's Supply Company.

Shore Divers in the 1960s Midwest

Ike is most likely the fully clothed fellow gearing up in the foreground while his first wife and two young children observe from the shore of the dive site. Ike spent all of his free time in the 1960's diving with a close-knit crew of midwestern divers.

Ike was an avid diver traveling up to the Great Lakes on the weekends where running salvaging missions on old shipwrecks was en vogue. Most notably, Ike was one of the team that brought back several artifacts from the wreck of the William H. Barnum which sunk off the coast of Mackinac Point in 1894. Dive lights were essential in the dark, deep waters.

At the time underwater flashlights were notoriously unreliable. Ike returned to Indianapolis at the end of one weekend hauling four imploded lights in his trunk. While ruminating on the disaster, he started thinking about a better way to design a dive light. His first prototype was hand poured and cured in an old Westinghouse oven in the back of the shop. He debuted his novel new design at the NSGA show in Chicago and caught the attention of Dacor, who began selling the light with their company name emblazoned on the handle.

Ike Brigham, Fred Leete, and Jerry Boyd with artifacts from the WH Barnum wreck.

(left-to-right) Jerry Boyd, Fred Leete, and Ike Brigham pose proudly with artifacts salvaged from the William H. Barnum which sunk in the Great Lakes in 1894. 

Ike started to become known through the dive show circuit and more and more dive store owners started to phone in requests for "Ike's Lights." The name IKELITE® was trademarked in 1962 and Ike moved on to solving his next greatest problem: how to have a dry cigarette and lighter on hand when he surfaced after his dive. His second major product, the clear cylindrical waterproof Accessory Case,  was not quite as big of a hit but did find a number of interesting uses over the next 40 years.

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau started airing in 1966 and recreational scuba diving was experiencing a huge boom. Like the underwater Gold Rush, there were opportunities to improve the experience of the scuba diver at nearly every turn. Ike was the first to add a rotating bezel to the underwater compass, which would feel naked and a little useless now without one. Now familiar with the molding process, Ike set his sights on what was to become the true cornerstone of the IKELITE product line: photography.

Divers Supply Company Indianapolis Catalog 1966

In the early days we were half a block north on the corner of 34th and Illinois. The 1966 catalog featured a wide variety of goods from the expected to the unexpected, like ash trays featuring scuba-related cartoons and a "diver down" flag for the top of your car antenna. Ikelite's "fascinating accessories" include the accessory case (prominently featured in the middle of the cover page), the dive compass with a rotating bezel, and the deluxe model IKELITE lantern flashlight with sealed beam bulb, redesigned toggle switch boot, and choice of black or clear case at a cost of $16.95. The light was advertised as leakproof, pressure proof, and foolproof.

In the mid-sixties Ikelite moved down the street to our current home and Ike introduced seamless underwater camera and flash housings. The Nikonos waterproof camera was already popular among divers in the day. Waterproof housings, on the other hand, allowed divers to take a wide variety of affordable cameras with them on their dive. Housing kits with two controls sold for as little as $29.95 and offered the advantage of being able to see a slight leak in time to save their camera. For divers using more than one roll of film, a well designed housing allowed the photographer to change film in a dry camera. Ike pioneered quad-ring controls seals and was the first to use lid snap closures on an underwater housing. 

[1969] "Underwater photography proves to be one of the most rewarding endeavors of a diver. Through pictures he conveys the underwater splendor for all to enjoy. And he enhances the diver image as a sportsman and professional." - Ikelite Catalog

[2001] "The industry must recognize that underwater photography remains the easiest vehicle to promote diving. An underwater photo should be taken of each student in every class and given to them so they can show it to their friends." - Ike Brigham Reaching Out Award Speech

Ikelite went on to blaze the trails of underwater photography by overturning the underwater flash market. Photographers at the time were limited by strobes dedicated to the camera system they were shooting with. These strobes weren't interchangeable between camera manufacturers. Ikelite was the first to separate the electrical cord from the strobe unit and make it detachable with a waterproof connection for interchangeability. This represented a revolution for divers stranded with a broken unit looking to borrow a strobe while diving in a remote location. From there the records of Ikelite firsts grew into a long list of now-standard features: aiming lights, audible ready signals, removable battery packs, battery power indicators, smart charging, wireless TTL slave sensors, and more.

Ike's two enduring passions in life were his work computer and his car collection. The first thing he did when he returned home from work was to turn his computer on to check emails and the day's business metrics. The many who corresponded with him through the years recognized his witty one-liners that often arrived in their inbox long after midnight. Ike was a regular on the burgeoning online photography forums and newsgroups (when those were a thing), helping users and non-users through their equipment issues. 

He recognized the importance of computer technology in running a business, spending many of his evenings customizing the software for the Company's robust ERP system. He also saw early on that email and the web would become the most important ways to introduce new products and connect with the public. Ikelite was one of the first companies in the dive industry - and the world - to launch a consumer focused website. The web catalog ikelite.com premiered on July 1, 1996, one month before nike.com went live. 

Ikelite website circa 1996

Our website ikelite.com first launched on July 1, 1996 and was optimized for the Netscape 2.0 web browser. The website was designed by long-time Head of Marketing, Gale Livers, and ultimately kept up-to-date by Ike. In Ike's mind the website quickly made printing catalogs obsolete, shifting from a new print catalog every year to one every 3-4 years and eventually not at all. At the rate we release new products, a print catalog's information is incomplete before the ink has dried.

 

In his free time, Ike enjoyed tinkering with his antique car collection and driving a different car to work every day. His collection included six Packards ranging from 1927 to 1955, a team of "summer" and "winter" (i.e. convertible and coupe) Corvettes, and his very first car. The latter is a1927 Packard that he paid $175 for as a 16-year-old kid. He hitched a ride up to northern Indiana to pull it out of an old man's barn. It was a convertible with a broken rag-top so he bore the worst of Indiana winter weather as he drove it home back home to Indianapolis in a raging snowstorm. He upgraded at his first opportunity but kept track of the car through the years and bought it back in the early 1990's. 

Ike and his wife, Sandra, were active in a number of national car clubs including the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA). They enjoyed hosting parties and coordinating events for the clubs and for many years Ike served as Editor of the Hoosier Horn, the quarterly newsletter for the Indiana Region CCCA

Ike Brigham and Gene Perkins discussing car collection

Ike discusses his cars with long-time friend and fellow collector Gene Perkins. Most of his cars were American made with the exception of this 1965 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III, and his prized 1955 XK-140-MC convertible and 1953 XK-120 coupe Jaguars. He also tucked in a 1976 Triumph TR-6 that he had retrofitted with the 350 horsepower engine from a 1978 Corvette he also owned.

Ike passed away in 2006 and passed the company he built down to the next generation of Brighams who grew up playing in the factory, building flashlights during summer breaks, and wondering why he never moved his mini-empire out of the Midwest. 

Following is a short video compilation which played at the 2001 DEMA Reaching Out Awards ceremony to honor Ike's achievements. 

 

 

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