Who Invented the CPAP? A look into the CPAP’s Amazing History.

Who Invented the CPAP

With PAP devices like CPAP helping millions of patients with sleep apnea, we can wonder who invented these amazing machines. The simple answer is  Dr. Colin Sullivan  is often credited as the inventor of the CPAP for humans. He did however have a lot of help from Eliot Philipson who first came up with the idea and first used it on…dogs! I can’t wait to share with you the details. The genesis of this device is a long and fascinating journey into medical history.

When was the first CPAP invented?

Eliot Philipson devised the first incarnation of what eventually became the CPAP machine in 1970.  Philipson was researching ways to help dogs with respiratory problems breathe better. He conducted this research in his lab in Toronto, Canada. His initial research focused on dog breeds who were known to have respiratory issues such as Bulldogs and Pugs.  The first forays and tests conducted on these animals were deemed a success as the machine helped these dogs with their breathing during slumber.

Further Research and Tests (1970-1976)

Philipson developed the machine with tweaks to the amount of air pressure used and the noise levels that the machine put out during operation.  Philipson had an eye on possibly using the machine for human use, but he wasn’t there yet in terms of development.  The track record of dogs that were helped by this new machine was impressive enough to warrant more interest in Eliot’s work and this is when things took a turn for the better.

Let’s Partner Up! (1976)

Colin Sullivan CPAP

Dr. Colin Sullivan joined Philipson in 1976 to help develop the machine further and to start testing it on human patients.  Sullivan’s work and additional research helped produce the first CPAP machine for human use in the late 1970’s.  Colin Sullivan is credited worldwide as the inventor of the CPAP machine and the first machine for human use was a doozy!

The machine itself was in essence, a paint compressor with reversed airflow.  The patient would wear a face mask with tubing going into the machine, much like today’s models.  The big difference between today’s models and this first model was the noise levels as the first model was very loud to use.  The sound issues notwithstanding, the machine proved to be a success with users much like the earlier models by Eliot Philipson that helped the dogs.

CPAP Is Officially Announced (1981- 1987)

After his research with Philipson, Sullivan returned to his home in Australia. Sullivan released his first medical findings about CPAP use in 1981 and he was awarded a patent for his invention.  Dr. Sullivan’s patent was licensed to Baxter International in 1987 for industrial development of a CPAP device.  This device was released by Baxter in 1988 and helped usher in a new era in sleep apnea treatment.

The Creation of Resmed

Dr. Peter C Farrell CPAP

The newest industrial CPAP was seen as too bulky and not affordable enough to sell to patients. A commercial CPAP was needed. Baxter International started to see the project as too much of a risk. It would be expensive and there was no telling how much of the population would need or want a CPAP. However, and executive at Baxter International was a believer in the CPAP project. His name was Peter C Farrell.

Peter Farrell came up with a plan to create a new company with the help of Dr. Sullivan who was the project’s biggest advocate. He planned to create a new company and buy out the rights to the CPAP from Baxter International. After some complicated fundraising, ResCare was registered as a company in 1989 which now most people know it as Resmed.

They pushed to have the CPAP meet FDA standards in the US as well as standards throughout Europe. They also made a push to make it more compact. They finally were able to make the first commercial CPAP and it weighed approximately 14 lbs. It weight much more than CPAPs today, but it was at least functional for a person’s home.

By June of 1991, units were being shipped out all over the world. And because of its high success rate, demand just kept increasing.

Now And Into The Future

As technology continues to develop at lightning speeds, the CPAP machine is always looked at for revision and further development.  Companies are always asking the questions “can we make the machine operate quieter?”, “how can we improve the airflow and retain better control of it?”, “how can we develop face masks that offer more comfort for the user”?

Further refinements in these areas will make the CPAP an even better and more universally-loved device for future sleep apnea patients. Things like computer reading, Bluetooth, and cell phone apps continue to push what CPAP can do. Even more models like APAP, BIPAP, and ASV are also used and expand PAP therapy to new limits.

Why is it called CPAP?

Colin’s machine was called CPAP as the acronym stood for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure.  This outlined what the machine did for their patients by supplying steady airflow into the upper respiratory system as the patient slept.  Users of this device reported having a clearer mind and less fatigue when awakening the following morning.  This first model of CPAP machine was continually developed and refined over the next 10 years as technology increased and material costs decreased.

What did people use before CPAP?

Sleep Apnea patients had little options before the advent of the CPAP machine.  In usual cases, the best treatment available to the patient was targeted surgery.  This surgery would entail removal of portions of the upper respiratory system which were deemed the cause of the sleep apnea.  If the patient was suffering from major bouts of sleep apnea, the surgeon would install a permanent tracheostomy if the initial surgery wasn’t a success.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea or OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea) is the condition where the upper airway (from the back of the throat to the bottom of the esophagus) collapses during sleep.  This accounts for loud snoring by the sufferer and bouts of complete breath stoppage during nighttime hours.  Spouses often recoil in horror telling stories of their loved ones’ sleep issues.  These stories include being kept awake at night due to the snoring and watching them not take a breath for many seconds before gulping air when the airway opens back up.

Sufferers of sleep apnea often report waking up lethargic with low energy and low mental acuity.  This lethargy is due to the loss of oxygen that occurs during sleeping hours as the airway collapses.  Under normal circumstances, good airflow during sleep promotes good oxygen levels as oxygen rejuvenates us while we sleep.  This is why you sometimes see people wake up “fresh faced” and “ready to go” when they wake from sleeping.  Sleep Apnea is not a new affliction as stories and journal writings about what became sleep apnea go back to the prehistoric age.

Long Term Effects of Sleep Apnea

In recent years, there have been links to several conditions that have been partially tied to long-term sleep apnea.  Being drowsy during the day is one such condition and it can have lasting effects on your daily routine with an increased risk of accidents tied to being sleepy.  Mood changes can also be tied to lack of oxygen while you sleep.  These mood changes can introduce periods of depression and anxiety as well which can exacerbate further changes in mood.  There also have been reports of decreased liver function, heart disease, and early-onset diabetes that have been partially tied to sleep apnea issues.


Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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