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A Brief History of Diving (before 1943)

Discussion in 'History of Scuba Diving: Tales from the Abyss' started by Akimbo, Sep 7, 2017.

  1. Akimbo

    Akimbo Lift to Freedom Volunteer Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    I apologize to the hundreds of diving pioneers that weren't
    included in this very brief overview. I hope that the hyperlinks and
    posts that follow will lead you to their fascinating stories.

    Timeline of diving technology

    How did we get here?

    "You can't fully comprehend diving
    history without understanding
    engineering history"

    The story of advancing beyond ancient breath-held diving is more about "enabling technologies" than building on the shoulders of earlier undersea pioneers. Nothing is more fundamental to modern diving than the ability to move, compress, and convey air.

    Although the social need for collecting sea food and lost object recovery (salvage) predates human civilization, it was not as critical or widespread a need as moving water. Mechanical positive-displacement pumps powered by humans and animals were eventually applied to firefighting. People also discovered that these devices could pump air.

    Firefighters needed a flexible method of conveying water from the pump to the fire so hose was invented. Most accounts describe the first hoses as being made by sewing leather around wooden mandrels. Advances in fabric and vulcanized rubber manufacturing led directly to modern hoses made today.

    The First Successful Diving System
    John Deane patented the "Smoke Helmet" in 1823. The copper and leather helmet was supplied through leather hoses fed by a manual air pump and allowed firefighters to enter smoke filled spaces. The smoke helmet was eventually manufactured by Augustus Siebe in 1827. John and his brother Charles Deane modified the design so it could be used underwater. The leather was extended lower on the torso but remained open at the bottom, requiring the diver to stay more or less upright to prevent air escaping and flooding the hat.

    Augustus Siebe improved the design in the 1830s by replacing the open-bottom extension with a full canvas suit that attached to the helmet. That allowed divers to work horizontally. Siebe and his son-in-law, Gorman, formed Siebe Gorman which became the leading manufacturer of diving helmets for nearly a century. The company developed a close relationship with the Royal Navy. A classic text on the company, products, diving history, and lore can be found in Sir Robert Davis' book, Deep Diving and Submarine Operations. My copy of the 7th edition, volume 1 and 2, has over 700 pages.

    Augustus Siebe's original closed diving dress is known by quite a few different names:
    I will call it "heavy gear".

    Personal Sidebar
    I was trained to use Mark V heavy gear at the US Navy Second and First Class Diving Schools in the early 1970s. I had been a recreational Scuba diver since 1962 with an obsessive fascination with advanced deep diving.

    So, here I am sitting on a wooden bench aboard a barge at 32nd street naval station in San Diego Bay. Classmates are bolting me into this really primitive rig that was invented about a generation before the US Civil War. To be fair, this was the "updated" version of Augustus Seibe's invention... as-in Chief Stillson's 1915 update!

    My classmate-tenders screwed the hat to my breastplate with a 1/8th turn of the interrupted screw threads, secured the dumbbell (locking mechanism), and give me two pats on the hat... meaning stand up and walk to the ladder. This was the moment when the origin of the name "heavy gear" became crystal clear to me. It outweighed me by over 30 Lbs (13 Kg).

    The two most recognized heavy gear hats are the Siebe Gorman Admiralty Pattern 6 bolt (left) and the US Navy Mark V.

    The common characteristics of heavy gear include a helmet (hat) and breastplate that attaches to a suit that fully encloses the diver, or includes wrist seals to expose the diver's hands. Air is supplied by a hose from the surface which is connected to an air compressor (pump). Major improvements since Seibe's time include:
    • Adding audio communications
    • Simi-closed circuit recirculators to conserve mixed gas
    • Enlarged view ports
    • Adding a check (one-way) valve to the hat to prevent deadly suit squeeze

    How do they work?
    Most hats can be removed from the breast plate with an interrupted bayonet or a 3-bolt flange. Air freeflows into the hat through an air control valve, either mounted to the hat or inline with the umbilical/air supply hose. Air flow rates to ventilate the hat are typically about 6 ambient CFM or 170 Liters/Minute. Air escapes into the water through an adjustable spring loaded exhaust valve which allows a slight back-pressure to be maintained in the suit.

    Many hats allow the front viewport to open so the diver to breathe and talk while being suited up on deck. Air is directed past the front viewport to prevent fogging and minimize the effective dead-air space. Two-way communications is provided through a speaker mounted in the hat and connected to an amplifier on deck; often referred to as a radio, phone, or comm box. Divers that require the Valsalva Maneuver to equalize their ears press their upper lip against the inside of the hat to block their nostrils.

    Suits were originally constructed from heavy canvas with vulcanized rubber lining. This material was replaced by fiber-reinforced vulcanized sheet that is similar to modern Haz-Met drysuits, but a couple of times thicker. A heavy rubber "gasket" that matches the bolt-pattern on the breastplate provides access to don and doff the suit. Most suits include heavy vulcanized rubber wrist seals but some have integrated 3-finger gloves.

    This image is of of me in a Mark V Helium Hat during US Navy First Class Diving School in 1971.
    The tender is soaping-down the suit during a pressure test looking for leaks as part of the pre-dive check.

    A considerable amount of weight is required to counteract the buoyancy of the suit and hat. The US Navy Mark V components weight:
    • Air Hat and Breastplate: 54 Lbs (25 Kg), Helium Hat: 92 Lbs (42 Kg)
    • Weight Belt: 85 Lbs (38 Kg)
    • Boots (pair): 35 Lbs (16 Kg), 2x weight with Helium Hat
    Typical heavy gear boots with lead soles and bronze toe caps.

    Some hats are designed for lead "breast weights" that hang off pegs on the breastplate. Surprisingly, suit inflation can be controlled so that you are nearly neutral. It can also be adjusted so that you are about 50 Lbs (23 Kg) heavy or 200 Lbs (90 Kg) positive. This attribute is very useful when working on the bottom with a waterjet, jack hammer, or lifting heavy objects... just don't let go of that weight before deflating the suit!

    Hundreds of variations of heavy gear have been manufactured in about 20 countries. Here are some of the major manufacturers:

    Continued in the next post
  2. Akimbo

    Akimbo Lift to Freedom Volunteer Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    Continued from previous post

    There have been many concurrent inventions and copies of heavy gear. J.B. Green described several versions in his book Diving With and Without Armor published in 1859. He happened upon salvage divers using a rig very similar to Seibe Groman's closed dress in the summer of 1850 along the shores of Lake Erie. No manufacturer was mentioned so it is unknown who made it, if it was a copy, or a recurrent invention/homebrew. He built his own "improved" version over the winter of 1885 in Boston.


    Conserving Gas
    There has always been a desire to reduce the amount of air (breathing gas) required to ventilate the hat for different reasons. Initially it was to overcome the limitations of the crude hand-powered air compressors (pumps). There was a delicate balance between the diver's desire to work deeper, the ability to pump a sufficient volume of air, and safe working pressures of the hoses suitable for the umbilical.

    The French inventors Benoît Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze joined forces in 1865. The Rouquayrol Denayrouze Society (company) was formed to manufacture diving equipment for sale to the French Navy and commercial divers. Benoît Rouquayrol was a mining engineer and held a number of patents relating to emergency breathing systems for mine safety. Auguste Denayrouze was a French Navy lieutenant when they met and became interested in adapting Rouquayrol's regulator for use underwater.

    The Rouquayrol-Denayrouze diving system used a cast iron horizontal back-mounted surface-supplied air reservoir for a demand regulator that supplied air to the diver through a mouthpiece. The diver wore a half-mask similar to a modern Scuba diver. Later versions were adapted to copper diving helmets. Their product won the gold medal at the 1867 World's Fair where Jules Verne noticed it and described it in his book, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

    The technology race between compressor capacity and hose working pressures met a new barrier as divers discovered how to manage Nitrogen Narcosis with gas mixtures. The US Navy pioneered Helium-Oxygen in the 1930s and Arne Zetterström's Hydrogen-Oxygen dive in 1945 changed the equation. The cost and logistics of supplying special gasses led to the development of what are essentially surface-supplied semi-closed circuit rebreathers built into the hat.

    The Return to Free Swimming Divers
    Heavy gear almost exclusively dominated diving before World War I. Two "enabling technologies" developed by this time; rebreathers and lightweight rubber drysuits. Pure Oxygen rebreathers were widely used in mine safety and rubber manufacturing allowed making reasonably close-fitting drysuits, although waterproof zippers were still decades away.

    These two technologies made it practical for European Navies to start developing combat swimmers for reconnaissance, sabotage, and harbor warfare. British, German, and Italian navies had effective combat divers by World War II. With the help of the British, the US started to develop what soon became the UDT (Underwater Demolition Teams), and the Navy SEALs in the 1960s.

    Oxygen rebreathers saw limited use in civilian diving between the wars. Hans Hass used Dräger rebreathers for hunting and scientific diving starting in the 1938 after meeting Guy Gilpatric on the French Riviera. Gilpatric's 1938 book, The Compleat Goggler inspired Hans Hass and Cousteau.

    The Mediterranean was the world's diving incubator at that time... primarily due to warm clear waters in the summer months. Rubber drysuits were effective enough if you had to use them, like in the military, but too delicate for commercial diving and restrictive enough to be undesirable for recreation.

    The next important enabling technologies to change diving were high pressure compressors and cylinders. Maurice Fernez developed a free-flow surface-supplied lightweight diving system that proved effective in the early 1920s. The French Naval Officer Yves Le Prieur watched a demonstration of the Fernez rig at the 1925 Industrial and Technical Exhibition in Paris. That inspired him to adapt it to use high pressure cylinders to eliminate the surface tether. They collaborated on the project and demonstrated the Fernez-Le Prieur diving apparatus on 6 August 1926 in Paris. The air supply was manually regulated by the diver using a valve to control flow.

    All the pieces were in place:
    • The British and US Navies developed and published decompression tables.
    • Diving physics and physiology were thoroughly documented in navy diving manuals and a few books
    • Rouquayrol-Denayrouze developed the demand valve for use underwater
    • High pressure compressors and tanks were available
    • The half-mask and fins were on the market for freediving spear fisherman
    • Georges Commeinhes began work to adapt his father's demand regulator-based firefighting rig for use underwater
    • Thousands of single-hose demand regulators were used to supply oxygen to crews of high-altitude bombers
    • Skilled freedivers wanted to extend their bottom-times
    Jacques-Yves Cousteau
    Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a French Naval officer that wanted to make motion pictures. He married Simone Melchior in 1937; the daughter of Henri Melchior, a senior director of the multinational industrial gas supplier L'Air Liquide. Cousteau was recovering from a car accident when fellow officer Philippe Tailliez suggested swimming to help him regain strength. Tailliez was a skin diving (freediving) spearfisherman and would dive while Cousteau swam. He offered to let Cousteau try his mask fins and snorkel, which he reluctantly accepted. That afternoon changed his life and diving history.

    Freediving honed Cousteau's skills and increased his fascination with diving. His interest in filmmaking changed his focus to the world under the Mediterranean. Cousteau, Tailliez, and Frédéric Dumas experimented with several diving systems including pure Oxygen rebreathers and Fernez-Le Prieur's manually-regulated rig. Neither provided the freedom they wanted.

    Simone wrote to her father in late 1942 to ask if he knew an engineer experienced with demand regulators. He arranged a meeting with Émile Gagnan, a 42 year old L'Air Liquide engineer working on a regulator to convert gas engines to run on cooking gas. Petroleum products were scarce during the war. Cousteau arranged a furlough and met with Gagnan at his workshop in Paris. The first prototype was tested in the Marne River in January 1943. The regulator was attached to back-mounted cylinders with a single corrugated hose to a mouthpiece with an exhaust valve. It was extremely position sensitive and free-flowed through much of the dive.

    The solution was to add a second corrugated hose from the exhaust side of the mouthpiece to the wet-side of the regulator diaphragm to equalize the pressure. A prototype was successfully tested in June of 1943 outside of Toulon on the French Riviera. L'Air Liquide named the invention Aqua-Lung and their lawyers filed for patents.

    Scubaboard Footnotes

    What do you call this gear?
    Deadly helmet squeeze
    US Navy Experimental Diving Unit
  3. compressor

    compressor ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Northeast USA
    Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I enjoyed reading the above accounts. Thank you so much.
  4. tridacna

    tridacna ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: New Jersey
    Absolutely wonderful. Please please please continue.
    compressor likes this.
  5. Akimbo

    Akimbo Lift to Freedom Volunteer Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    Here are a couple of US Navy training films (converted to video) on Mark V heavy gear that can give you more of an understanding of how it works.

    This film goes into detail on dressing the diver

    This brings back a lot of memories... and reminds me how grateful I am that I never had to do any actual work in one of these. It also gives me some pride in any small contribution I made that helped make it obsolete. However, I am glad I learned to use it.

    This video shows how heavy gear hats are made:
  6. 2airishuman

    2airishuman Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Greater Minnesota
    Well written, Akimbo. I enjoyed it. If you're interested, Wikipedia could use your assistance. The history of diving articles there are a mess.
    compressor likes this.
  7. Akimbo

    Akimbo Lift to Freedom Volunteer Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    Writing for Wikipedia is much different and more demanding. A simple apology for glossing over a lot of information just wouldn't work. This thread was designed to tell a brief story and help put our history into perspective. My hope was that the hyperlinks would add detail for anyone interested without obscuring the 50,000' view.

    Thanks to you, @compressor, and @tridacna for all for the kind words.
    compressor likes this.
  8. flyboy08

    flyboy08 Loggerhead Turtle

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: NYC
    Very interesting, thank you.
  9. iamrushman

    iamrushman Loggerhead Turtle

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: ft. lauderdale, florida
    well done and well appreciated...thanks for keeping it short and sweet.....
  10. scubadada

    scubadada Diver Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Philadelphia and Boynton Beach
    Thanks @Akimbo

    I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to dive a Mark V in the Key Largo canal while I was taking the hyperbaric course from Dick Rutkowski in 2005. This was an experience that I will never forget. I have a picture around here somewhere but can't currently locate it :(
    compressor likes this.

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