Specialization within the field of underwater historic archeology was established by Mendel L. Peterson, who served as Head Curator of the Division of Military and Naval History, United States National Museum, 1948-1957; Head Curator and Chairman of the Department of Armed Forces History, National Museum of History and Technology (NMHT), 1958-1968; and Curator of the Division of Historic Archeology, NMHT, 1969-1973.
Peterson began taking an interest in underwater historic archeology in 1952, and thereafter conducted extensive research as well as headed expeditions to underwater shipwreck sites in the Florida Straits, Bahamas, and West Indies. Grants from the Explorers Research Company and National Geographic Society enabled Peterson to engineer his Proton Processing Magnetometer, an electronic searching device used for locating underwater artifacts and tested in the waters of Bermuda. When the Division of Historic Archeology was organized in 1969, emphasis on underwater historic archeology had more focus. Peterson supervised the Division's Underwater Exploration Project which, until his retirement in 1973, involved further exploration of the Caribbean and thorough research of previously discovered underwater sites.
In 1965 Peterson published History Under the Sea: A Handbook for Underwater Exploration, which remains a standard reference source on surveying underwater archeological sites and on laboratory techniques for preserving artifacts from underwater excavations.