A Brief History of Diving: Free Divers, Bells and Helmets

It may sound like strange preparation for someone in diving, but I was trained as a history teacher. And one of the things I...

It may sound like strange preparation for someone in diving, but I was trained as a history teacher. And one of the things I learned was to value the contributions made by our predecessors in helping us become what and who we are today. Surely, unless we understand where we’ve been, we cannot possibly appreciate where we are. We’re products of history as much as we are the progeny of our parents. While this may sound like something straight out of History 101, the same logic applies to the history of diving. To understand where we are, we must know where we’ve been.

In this article series I’ll try to provide a brief glimpse into our past as divers. In part one, we’ll examine the exploits of the divers of antiquity, probe the evolution of the first diving machines and put into perspective the enormous contributions of the early hard-hat divers of the 19th century.

Ancient Divers

Since the dawn of human existence, men have entered the water to collect food, so it’s impossible to trace the exact date or origin of diving. We do know from artifacts that the people of Mesopotamia engaged in diving as a form of commerce — usually collecting pearl oysters — as long as 4,500 years ago. By the third millennia before Christ, the Greeks of Thebes also had a thriving pearl-diving industry, and the Chinese followed soon after.

References to sponge fishermen are mentioned by Homer as early as 1000 B.C. Tethered to the surface, their technique involved plummeting to depths of almost 100 feet (30 m) by holding a heavy rock. They, of course, knew nothing about the anatomy of equalization. So to try and compensate somewhat for the increasing pressure on the ears they poured oil into their ear canals and took a mouthful before descent. Once on the bottom, they spit out the oil, cut as many sponges free from the bottom as their limited breath-holding capacity would allow and were then hauled back to the surface by the tether. Certainly a grueling and painful way to earn a living.

The most famous divers of antiquity were the Greek Scyllias and his daughter Cyana. The Persian King Xerxes commissioned them in the fifth century B.C., as treasure salvors during one of the numerous wars between the Persians and Greeks. Not wanting to lose this valued diving duo, Xerxes refused to allow them to return home after finishing their commission. Using reeds as breathing tubes to avoid detection, they slipped into the water under the cover of darkness and escaped. Years later, they destroyed one of Xerxes’ fleets by diving into a stormy sea and cutting the mooring lines of the vessels at anchor.

For their bravery, statues of Scyllias and Cyana were erected in the Greek city of Delphi. Parenthetically, one contemporary writer noted that Cyana’s diving experience proved that “young women may dive into the sea without fear of losing their virginity.” Until then, it was believed that the water pressure that could so easily break eardrums could in the same way compromise the virtue of young maidens.

Divers were also enlisted into military operations long before the birth of Christ. The Spartans and Athenians were the first to employ combat divers, but history usually credits Alexander the Great in his famous siege of Tyre (Lebanon) in 332 B.C. He used “demolition divers” to remove obstacles from the harbor. In fact, Aristotle reported that Alexander himself made several dives in a crude diving bell to observe the work in progress.

By the first century before Christ, a thriving salvage industry sprung up throughout the major trade routes of the Mediterranean. The industry became so well organized that laws were on the books mandating the fee structure for the services of salvors. Generally, the fee depended on the depth of the wreck. For example, in depths of 25 feet (7.6 m) or greater, the salvor’s share was one-half of all goods recovered. From 25 to 12 feet (7.6 to 3.6 m), the share was reduced to one-third, and in shallow water where they could stand, the share was only one-tenth the value of the goods.

Greece and Mesopotamia did not hold exclusive license on diving. Collecting pearl oysters and seafood by diving was a common activity throughout the world. From the Ama divers of Japan and Korea to the Mayans of Central America to the Yahgan Indians of the Cape Horn region, freediving has a long and rich history. Even Columbus found a thriving pearl-diving industry on the coast of what is now Venezuela. Interestingly, in all of these cultures, the divers were usually female.

The Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution

In Europe, free divers continued to make significant contributions in warfare up through the Middle Ages. From Denmark to the Mediterranean, divers were used to cut anchor rodes, drill holes in ships’ hulls and ferry supplies to besieged coastal cites.

The first diving apparatus is credited to an Egyptian named Ahsan-ul-Ghawasin, also known as Issa. He served in the navy of the Turkish Sultan Saladin during the third Crusade. As a means of getting supplies through to the city of Acre, he supposedly constructed a device made from a bellows. Weighted by a heavy stone, the device let him remain submerged just below the surface and swim past the Christian sentries. The record contains colorful accounts of Issa’s horror at witnessing the hundreds of Arab bodies strewn on the sea floor “serving as a feast for eels, octopus and crabs.” He, too, became one of those bodies after he was spotted by a Crusader patrol and shot dead by an arrow.

With the dawn of the Renaissance and profusion of scientific inquiry, inventors experimented with various designs, including breathing tubes (most of which were impractical) and diving bells. Leonardo da Vinci, in particular, penned a number of drawings of diving systems and even sketched what could be considered the prototype of modern goggles and fins.

By the latter half of the 18th century, crude but marginally successful diving systems were developed throughout

Europe. In 1771, a Frenchman named Freminet produced what he called the “hydrostatergatic machine.” It consisted of a brass helmet with eyeholes. The air was supplied by a bellows into a small air reservoir, then pumped down to the diver. But because of the minimal air delivery capability, Freminet’s device was of limited use. In 1786, John and William Braithwaite developed an improved version of the helmet, as did a German named Klingert in 1787. Still, the advances in diving technology of 17th and 18th century came from improvements in diving bells rather than helmets.

The Evolution of Diving Bells

Although their design was relatively haphazard and unsophisticated, diving bells did meet with limited success during the Renaissance. One of the first successful salvage operations using a one-person diving bell was carried out in 1531 in Lake Nemi near Rome. As the bell carried with it only the amount of air trapped within it once it submerged, it provided only a short bottom time. In addition, the buildup of excess carbon dioxide was a problem, though one which was unknown to scientists and inventors of the time.

In 1669, George Sinclair, a professor at Glasgow University, wrote a treatise describing the theory and techniques for using diving bells. Based on Sinclair’s theories, in 1685 one of the most famous early salvors — Sir William Phipps — used a bell to recover nearly a million dollars worth of treasure from the wreck of the Spanish galleon La Nuestra Senora de Almiranta in the West Indies.

At about the same time as Sinclair was writing about diving bells, a contemporary named Sir Robert Boyle was making important discoveries concerning the behavior of gases under pressure. Using Boyle’s research, in 1681 a French priest named Abbe Jean de Hautefeuille wrote “The Art of Breathing Underwater,” explaining for the first time why, “It is not possible for man to breathe air at normal atmospheric pressure when he is himself underwater at depth.” These ideas culminated in the more sophisticated diving bells designed by famed English astronomer Sir Edmond Halley (the same guy “Halley’s comet” is named for) and an enterprising commoner from Devon, England, named John Lethbridge.

Unlike the traditional bell design, Lethbridge’s idea was to place the diver in a large sealed cylinder, allowing his arms to remain free to work. He called his device a “diving engine.” Once sealed, a diver could remain submerged about a half-hour to a maximum depth of about 60 feet (18 m). Then the engine was hauled up and the air supply refreshed with a bellows. Lethbridge and his son traveled throughout the world for nearly 30 years, successfully salvaging wrecks for sponsors such as the famous Dutch East India Company. He is credited by many as the forerunner of the modern commercial diver.

Edmond Halley’s design was a more traditional bell, but it was far more sophisticated than any of his predecessors’. Like Lethbridge’s engine, it was constructed of wood, but it was also encased by lead to give it negative buoyancy. Unlike Lethbridge’s design, it contained a valve to purge stale air and a system of weighted barrels connected to a hose to replenish fresh air while the bell was underwater. Divers could even leave the bell for short periods using a special helmet and umbilical. On one excursion, Halley himself dived to 60 feet (18 m) in the bell and remained there for 90 minutes. He reported a pain in his ears, “as if a quill had been thrust into them.” Although unknown at the time, it’s also interesting to note that such a bottom time is well in excess of any no-decompression limit. There is, however, no mention of Halley experiencing bends systems. Soon after Halley’s design was published, a French mathematician, Denis Papin, suggested replenishing the air supply in diving bells continuously via hoses and bellows.

Halley’s bell design was refined by an American named John Smeaton in 1788. Smeaton incorporated several improvements, including a bell made from cast iron, the first efficient hand-operated pump to sustain the air supply via a hose, an air reservoir system and nonreturn valves to keep air from being sucked back up the hoses when the pump stopped. This was the first truly modern diving bell, and by the end of the century virtually every major harbor of the world had one for salvage, construction and repair operations. From this point on, bottom times began to increase dramatically and working underwater was becoming commonplace.

The Dawn of Modern Diving Systems

In 1820 a farm near Whitstable, England, caught fire and ignited a spark that would eventually result in the standard equipment used by divers for almost 150 years. Because of the dense smoke, rescuers were unable to get into the stable to save a team of valuable horses. The small water pump of the local fire brigade had little effect on the blaze, and a disaster was surely in the making. But an ingenious, burley man in the crowd had an idea. Borrowing a helmet from a medieval suit of armor on display at a nearby home, he asked the fire brigade to pump air, not water, through the hose. Placing the hose under the helmet to provide a continuous air supply, he bravely walked into the stable through the dense smoke and saved the entire stock. That man was John Deane.

Realizing the implications of his improvised invention, John and his bro-ther Charles went into business producing a fire-fighting apparatus, which was patented in 1823. But John had a grander vision for his invention. He believed it could be used for diving, and by 1828 the original fire-fighting apparatus evolved into “Deane’s Patent Diving Dress.” He modified the fire helmet design by adding larger viewing ports and countered the effects of buoyancy with weighted shoes. A heavy fabric suit was worn to protect the diver from the elements, but the helmet did not attach to the suit. It merely rested on the diver’s shoulders and secured to his waist by straps.

As the helmet wasn’t attached to the suit, air escaped from the bottom. This, however, was the system’s major flaw, as the diver had to continually remain in an upright position. If the diver bent over, or even fell, the helmet would flood and he would drown. Still, the Deane’s system was very successful, and soon the brothers became well-known salvage operators. In 1836, they produced what was probably the first diving manual. A truly remarkable man, John Deane continued diving for many years, even diving under the ice in the Black Sea to salvage Russian warships at the age of 56.

Most historical records tend to forget about the Deane brothers, and instead concentrate on a German instrument-maker by the name of Augustus Siebe. In reality, Siebe only refined the Deanes’ design by inventing an efficient way of sealing the helmet to the suit and improving the exhaust system. By 1840, the “Siebe Improved Diving Dress” was introduced, and Siebe went on to found Siebe Forman and Company, one of the most famous diving companies in the world. It was Siebe’s system that became the true predecessor to the famous deep-sea diving dress familiar today to everyone.

Salvage of the HMS Royal George

In 1783, the British warship Royal George sank in a freak accident while anchored for repairs in England’s Porstmouth Harbor. It was a devastating tragedy with an inordinate loss of life, including 250 visiting women and children. As she was in a busy harbor in only 65 feet (20 m) of water, the ship was a major hazard to navigation. In 1839, the task of salvaging her fell to a colonel in the British Royal Engineers named William Charles Pasley. Many historians believe that Pasley’s operation brought diving into the modern era, and given the number of innovations and discoveries that resulted from the salvage of the Royal George from 1839 to 1842, it’s a hard conclusion to dispute.

The salvage operation was on the cutting edge of early 19th-century technology, and one of Pasley’s objectives was to evaluate various diving systems. Abandoning most systems because they were either too cumbersome or dangerous, he selected the Siebe Improved Dress and recommended its adoption as the standard for the Royal Engineers. This certainly was one reason the Siebe design went on to become so universally popular.

One of the reasons the Royal George operation gained fame was because salvors used underwater explosives for the first time. Incredibly, the exploding devices were made from lead-encased oak barrels filled with gunpowder and welded shut by a brave crew member. They were detonated by a wire that ran from inside the device to a battery on deck.

Of interest to recreational divers were the numerous historical milestones generated from the Royal George operation. For instance, one of the rules Pasley invoked was that his divers had to operate in pairs. This became the first recorded use of the buddy system for diving. In addition, the historical record is replete with the exploits of one particular diver, a Corporal Jones. On one occasion, Jones’ umbilical became hopelessly entrapped in a load of pig iron ballast as it was being loaded in a cargo sling. Miraculously, Jones managed to cut free from his umbilical, kick off his weighted boots, and ascend back to the surface from 60 feet (18 m) while continuously exhaling. He thus became the first person in recorded history to make an emergency swimming ascent, which in a full diving dress, is no easy feat.

Another unfortunate milestone for the salvage crew was the first medical account of a massive diver squeeze. Early diving helmets did not have nonreturn valves. This meant that if a hose was severed, the high-pressure air surrounding the diver rapidly and with incredible force evacuated the helmet. At even a modest depth, the tremendous negative pressure created by the escaping air caused an extreme and often life-threatening squeeze on the diver. This is exactly what happened to Private John Williams. Fortunately, however, even though “his face and neck were swollen and livid, his eyeball capillaries ruptured and blood was flowing from his ears and mouth,” Williams survived. But he never returned to diving.

In extreme cases, the negative pressure caused by a severed air hose could actually suck flesh and soft tissues up into the pipe and much of the diver’s body into the helmet. Stories abound, in fact, among old-time commercial divers, where so much of a diver was sucked into his helmet that it was buried in place of a coffin. (And you thought an ear squeeze was painful.)

Over the three years the salvage operation was under way, Pasley’s crew received extensive and colorful coverage in the press. Eventually, their exploits came to the attention of the Royal Navy. There was quite a bit of jealousy because the Royal Engineers were a contingent of the British Army. But swallowing their pride, the Navy allowed Pasley to take a complement of 13 petty officers from the HMS Excellence and set up the first Royal Navy diving school. The first instructor was the indomitable Corporal Jones. At the conclusion of the Royal George operation, Pasley said of him, “Whatever success has attended our operations is chiefly attributed to the exertions of Corporal Jones, of whom as a diver I cannot speak too highly.”

Concurrent with advances in surface-supplied diving, some designers were looking into diving systems that would free the divers from tethers to the surface. In part two, we’ll explore the evolution of self-contained diving, as well as trace the development of diving as a sport.


By Alex Brylske