The origins of diving are firmly rooted in man's need and desire to engage in maritime commerce, to conduct salvage and military operations, and to expand the frontiers of knowledge through exploration, research, and development.
Diving, as a profession, can be traced back more than 5,000 years. Early divers confined their efforts to waters less than 100 feet deep, performing salvage work and harvesting food, sponges, coral, and mother-of-pearl. A Greek historian, Herodotus, recorded the story of a diver named Scyllis, who was employed by the Persian King Xerxes to recover sunken treasure in the fifth century B.C.
From the earliest times, divers were active in military operations. Their missions included cutting anchor cables to set enemy ships adrift, boring or punching holes in the bottoms of ships, and building harbor defenses at home while attempting to destroy those of the enemy abroad. Alexander the Great sent divers down to remove obstacles in the harbor of the city of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, which he had taken under siege in 332 B.C.
Other early divers developed an active salvage industry centered around the major shipping ports of the eastern Mediterranean. By the first century B.C., operations in one area had become so well organized that a payment scale for salvage work was established by law, acknowledging the fact that effort and risk increased with depth. In 24 feet of water, the divers could claim a one-half share of all goods recovered. In 12 feet of water, they were allowed a one-third share, and in 3 feet, only a one-tenth share.
1-2.1 Breathing Tubes. The most obvious and crucial step to broadening a diver's capa bilities was providing an air supply that would permit him to stay underwater. Hollow reeds or tubes extending to the surface allowed a diver to remain submerged for an extended period, but he could accomplish little in the way of useful work. Breathing tubes were employed in military operations, permitting an undetected approach to an enemy stronghold (Figure 1-1).
At first glance, it seemed logical that a longer breathing tube was the only requirement for extending a diver's range. In fact, a number of early designs used leather hoods with long flexible tubes supported at the surface by floats. There is no record, however, that any of these devices were actually constructed or tested. The result may well have been the drowning of the diver. At a depth of 3 feet, it is nearly impossible to breathe through a tube using only the body's natural respiratory ability, as the weight of the water exerts a total force of almost 200 pounds on the diver's chest. This force increases steadily with depth and is one of the most important factors in diving. Successful diving operations require that the pressure be overcome or eliminated. Throughout history, imaginative devices were designed to overcome this problem, many by some of the greatest minds of the time. At first, the problem of pressure underwater was not fully understood and the designs were impractical.
1-2.2 Breathing Bags. An entire series of designs was based on the idea of a breathing bag carried by the diver. An Assyrian frieze of the ninth century B.C. shows what appear to be divers using inflated animal skins as air tanks. However, these men were probably swimmers using skins for flotation. It would be impossible to submerge while holding such an accessory (Figure 1-2).
A workable diving system may have made a brief appearance in the later Middle Ages. In 1240, Roger Bacon made reference to "instruments whereby men can walk on sea or river beds without danger to themselves."
1-2.3 Diving Bells. Between 1500 and 1800 the diving bell was developed, enabling divers to remain underwater for hours rather than minutes. The diving bell is a bell-shaped apparatus with the bottom open to the sea.
The first diving bells were large, strong tubs weighted to sink in a vertical position, trapping enough air to permit a diver to breathe for several hours. Later diving bells were suspended by a cable from the surface. They had no significant underwater maneuverability beyond that provided by moving the support ship. The diver could remain in the bell if positioned directly over his work, or could venture outside for short periods of time by holding his breath.
The first reference to an actual practical diving bell was made in 1531. For several hundred years thereafter, rudimentary but effective bells were used with regularity. In the 1680s, a Massachusetts-born adventurer named William Phipps modified the diving bell technique by supplying his divers with air from a series of weighted, inverted buckets as they attempted to recover treasure valued at $200,000.
In 1690, the English astronomer Edmund Halley developed a diving bell in which the atmosphere was replenished by sending weighted barrels of air down from the surface (Figure 1-3). In an early demonstration of his system, he and four companions remained at 60 feet in the Thames River for almost hours. Nearly 26 years later, Halley spent more than 4 hours at 66 feet using an improved version of his bell.
1-2.4 Diving Dress Designs. With an increasing number of military and civilian wrecks littering the shores of Great Britain each year, there was strong incentive to develop a diving dress that would increase the efficiency of salvage operations.
1-2.4.1 Lethbridge's Diving Dress. In 1715, Englishman John Lethbridge developed a one-man, completely enclosed diving dress (Figure 1-4). The Lethbridge equipment was a reinforced, leather-covered barrel of air, equipped with a glass porthole for viewing and two arm holes with watertight sleeves. Wearing this gear, the occupant could accomplish useful work. This apparatus was lowered from a ship and maneuvered in the same manner as a diving bell.
Lethbridge was quite successful with his invention and participated in salvaging a number of European wrecks. In a letter to the editor of a popular magazine in 1749, the inventor noted that his normal operating depth was 10 fathoms (60 feet),
Figure 1-3. Engraving of Halley's Figure 1-4. Lethbridge's Diving Suit.
Figure 1-3. Engraving of Halley's Figure 1-4. Lethbridge's Diving Suit.
with about 12 fathoms the maximum, and that he could remain underwater for 34 minutes.
Several designs similar to Lethbridge's were used in succeeding years. However, all had the same basic limitation as the diving bell—the diver had little freedom because there was no practical way to continually supply him with air. A true technological breakthrough occurred at the turn of the 19th century when a hand-operated pump capable of delivering air under pressure was developed.
1-2.4.2 Deane's Patented Diving Dress. Several men produced a successful apparatus at the same time. In 1823, two salvage operators, John and Charles Deane, patented the basic design for a smoke apparatus that permitted firemen to move about in burning buildings. By 1828, the apparatus evolved into Deane's Patent Diving Dress, consisting of a heavy suit for protection from the cold, a helmet with viewing ports, and hose connections for delivering surface-supplied air. The helmet rested on the diver's shoulders, held in place by its own weight and straps to a waist belt. Exhausted or surplus air passed out from under the edge of the helmet and posed no problem as long as the diver was upright. If he fell, however, the helmet could quickly fill with water. In 1836, the Deanes issued a diver's manual, perhaps the first ever produced.
1-2.4.3 Siebe's Improved Diving Dress. Credit for developing the first practical diving dress has been given to Augustus Siebe. Siebe's initial contribution to diving was a modification of the Deane outfit. Siebe sealed the helmet to the dress at the collar by using a short, waist-length waterproof suit and added an exhaust valve to the system (Figure 1-5). Known as Siebe's Improved Diving Dress, this apparatus is the direct ancestor of the MK V standard deep-sea diving dress.
Figure 1-5. Siebe's First Enclosed Diving Dress and Helmet.
1-2.4.4 Salvage of the HMS Royal George. By 1840, several types of diving dress were being used in actual diving operations. At that time, a unit of the British Royal Engineers was engaged in removing the remains of the sunken warship, HMS Royal George. The warship was fouling a major fleet anchorage just outside Portsmouth, England. Colonel William Pasley, the officer in charge, decided that his operation was an ideal opportunity to formally test and evaluate the various types of apparatus. Wary of the Deane apparatus because of the possibility of helmet flooding, he formally recommended that the Siebe dress be adopted for future operations.
When Pasley's project was completed, an official government historian noted that "of the seasoned divers, not a man escaped the repeated attacks of rheumatism and cold." The divers had been working for 6 or 7 hours a day, much of it spent at depths of 60 to 70 feet. Pasley and his men did not realize the implications of the observation. What appeared to be rheumatism was instead a symptom of a far more serious physiological problem that, within a few years, was to become of great importance to the diving profession.
1-2.5 Caissons. At the same time that a practical diving dress was being perfected, inventors were working to improve the diving bell by increasing its size and adding high-capacity air pumps that could deliver enough pressure to keep water entirely out of the bell's interior. The improved pumps soon led to the construction of chambers large enough to permit several men to engage in dry work on the bottom. This was particularly advantageous for projects such as excavating bridge footings or constructing tunnel sections where long periods of work were required. These dry chambers were known as caissons, a French word meaning "big boxes" (Figure 1-6).
Figure 1-5. Siebe's First Enclosed Diving Dress and Helmet.
Caissons were designed to provide ready access from the surface. By using an air lock, the pressure inside could be maintained while men or materials could be passed in and out. The caisson was a major step in engineering technology and its use grew quickly.
1-2.6.1 Caisson Disease (Decompression Sickness). With the increasing use of caissons, a new and unexplained malady began to affect the caisson workers. Upon returning to the surface at the end of a shift, the divers frequently would be struck by dizzy spells, breathing difficulties, or sharp pains in the joints or abdomen. The sufferer usually recovered, but might never be completely free of some of the symptoms. Caisson workers often noted that they felt better working on the job, but wrongly attributed this to being more rested at the beginning of a shift.
As caisson work extended to larger projects and to greater operating pressures, the physiological problems increased in number and severity. Fatalities occurred with alarming frequency. The malady was called, logically enough, caisson disease. However, workers on the Brooklyn Bridge project in New York gave the sickness a more descriptive name that has remained—the "bends."
Today the bends is the most well-known danger of diving. Although men had been diving for thousands of years, few men had spent much time working under great atmospheric pressure until the time of the caisson. Individuals such as Pasley, who had experienced some aspect of the disease, were simply not prepared to look for anything more involved than indigestion, rheumatism, or arthritis.
1-126.96.36.199 Cause of Decompression Sickness. The actual cause of caisson disease was first clinically described in 1878 by a French physiologist, Paul Bert. In studying the effect of pressure on human physiology, Bert determined that breathing air under pressure forced quantities of nitrogen into solution in the blood and tissues of the body. As long as the pressure remained, the gas was held in solution. When the pressure was quickly released, as it was when a worker left the caisson, the nitrogen returned to a gaseous state too rapidly to pass out of the body in a natural manner. Gas bubbles formed throughout the body, causing the wide range of symptoms associated with the disease. Paralysis or death could occur if the flow of blood to a vital organ was blocked by the bubbles.
1-188.8.131.52 Prevention and Treatment of Decompression Sickness. Bert recommended that caisson workers gradually decompress and divers return to the surface slowly. His studies led to an immediate improvement for the caisson workers when they discovered their pain could be relieved by returning to the pressure of the caisson as soon as the symptom appeared.
Within a few years, specially designed recompression chambers were being placed at job sites to provide a more controlled situation for handling the bends. The pressure in the chambers could be increased or decreased as needed for an individual worker. One of the first successful uses of a recompression chamber was in 1879 during the construction of a subway tunnel under the Hudson River between New
York and New Jersey. The recompression chamber markedly reduced the number of serious cases and fatalities caused by the bends.
Bert's recommendation that divers ascend gradually and steadily was not a complete success, however; some divers continued to suffer from the bends. The general thought at the time was that divers had reached the practical limits of the art and that 120 feet was about as deep as anyone could work. This was because of the repeated incidence of the bends and diver inefficiency beyond that depth. Occasionally, divers would lose consciousness while working at 120 feet.
1-2.6.2 Inadequate Ventilation. J.S. Haldane, an English physiologist, conducted experiments with Royal Navy divers from 1905 to 1907. He determined that part of the problem was due to the divers not adequately ventilating their helmets, causing high levels of carbon dioxide to accumulate. To solve the problem, he established a standard supply rate of flow (1.5 cubic feet of air per minute, measured at the pressure of the diver). Pumps capable of maintaining the flow and ventilating the helmet on a continuous basis were used.
Haldane also composed a set of diving tables that established a method of decompression in stages. Though restudied and improved over the years, these tables remain the basis of the accepted method for bringing a diver to the surface.
As a result of Haldane's studies, the practical operating depth for air divers was extended to slightly more than 200 feet. The limit was not imposed by physiological factors, but by the capabilities of the hand-pumps available to provide the air supply.
1-2.6.3 Nitrogen Narcosis. Divers soon were moving into deeper water and another unexplained malady began to appear. The diver would appear intoxicated, sometimes feeling euphoric and frequently losing judgment to the point of forgetting the dive's purpose. In the 1930s this "rapture of the deep" was linked to nitrogen in the air breathed under higher pressures. Known as nitrogen narcosis, this condition occurred because nitrogen has anesthetic properties that become progressively more severe with increasing air pressure. To avoid the problem, special breathing mixtures such as helium-oxygen were developed for deep diving (see section 1-4, Mixed-Gas Diving).
1-2.7 Armored Diving Suits. Numerous inventors, many with little or no underwater experience, worked to create an armored diving suit that would free the diver from pressure problems (Figure 1-7). In an armored suit, the diver could breathe air at normal atmospheric pressure and descend to great depths without any ill effects. The barrel diving suit, de-
signed by John Lethbridge in 1715, had been an armored suit in essence, but one with a limited operating depth.
The utility of most armored suits was questionable. They were too clumsy for the diver to be able to accomplish much work and too complicated to provide protection from extreme pressure. The maximum anticipated depth of the various suits developed in the 1930s was 700 feet, but was never reached in actual diving. More recent pursuits in the area of armored suits, now called one-atmosphere diving suits, have demonstrated their capability for specialized underwater tasks to 2,000 feet of saltwater (fsw).
1-2.8 MK V Deep-Sea Diving Dress. By 1905, the Bureau of Construction and Repair had designed the MK V Diving Helmet which seemed to address many of the problems encountered in diving. This deep-sea outfit was designed for extensive, rugged diving work and provided the diver maximum physical protection and some maneuverability.
The 1905 MK V Diving Helmet had an elbow inlet with a safety valve that allowed air to enter the helmet, but not to escape back up the umbilical if the air supply were interrupted. Air was expelled from the helmet through an exhaust valve on the right side, below the port. The exhaust valve was vented toward the rear of the helmet to prevent escaping bubbles from interfering with the diver's field of vision.
By 1916, several improvements had been made to the helmet, including a rudimentary communications system via a telephone cable and a regulating valve operated by an interior push button. The regulating valve allowed some control of the atmospheric pressure. A supplementary relief valve, known as the spitcock, was added to the left side of the helmet. A safety catch was also incorporated to keep the helmet attached to the breast plate. The exhaust valve and the communications system were improved by 1927, and the weight of the helmet was decreased to be more comfortable for the diver.
After 1927, the MK V changed very little. It remained basically the same helmet used in salvage operations of the USS S-51 and USS S-4 in the mid-1920s. With its associated deep-sea dress and umbilical, the MK V was used for all submarine rescue and salvage work undertaken in peacetime and practically all salvage work undertaken during World War II. The MK V Diving Helmet was the standard U.S. Navy diving equipment until succeeded by the MK 12 Surface-Supplied Diving System (SSDS) in February 1980 (see Figure 1-8). The MK 12 was replaced by the MK 21 in December 1993.
Was this article helpful?