According to Sir Robert Davis’s book, Deep Diving & Submarine Operations, archaeological excavations have revealed mother-of-pearl inlays dated as early as 4500 BC which must have been gathered by breath-held divers. Although this is the earliest indication of man’s first technique for underwater work, there are many other examples of early attempts at diving, both military and commercial. For many years, an Assyrian frieze (900 BC) in the British Museum was thought to depict an underwater warrior breathing air from a goatskin lashed underneath himself. However, closer inspection reveals this to have been a flotation device kept inflated via a breathing tube by the user – the world’s first example of water wings!
Several authors refer to abortive attempts at diving throughout the earlier part of the first millennium but it was not until Becker (1715) that a working personal diving apparatus was demonstrated in London with a diver reportedly staying under water for about an hour. In 1754, Dr Richard Pococke’s Travels in England contains an account of divers engaged in salvage operations on a man of war off the Needles who were supplied with air from the surface and worked underwater for 5 minutes at a time. In 1783, the Encyclopedie Methodique refers to similar operations on the wreck of the HMS Royal George at Spithead.
Later designers of theoretical (and largely problematical) diving apparatus included Freminet (1772), Forfait (1783), Pilatre de Rozier (c.1783), Klingert (1797), Burlet & Sardou (1798), Forder (1802), Fullerton (1805), Drieberg (1808) and James (1825) who designed the first self-contained diving dress provided with a supply of compressed air although it does not seem to have ever been developed or tested.
In 1819, Augustus Siebe introduced the first pattern of his diving dress and helmet. The original form was known as the ‘open’ dress and consisted of a brass ‘hard hat’ helmet, equipped with a viewing port, attached to a jacket reaching to the waist. The helmet was supplied with air under pressure from a pump on the surface and could escape freely at the diver’s waist. In 1837, Siebe modified his original ‘open’ dress by enclosing the diver (apart from his hands) in a waterproof rubberised canvas suit to which the helmet was attached. This was known as Siebe’s ‘closed’ dress and was to become the world’s Standard Diving Dress, the most widely used diving equipment until World War II. In a modified form, it can still be found in use throughout the world.
In 1866, the first self-contained open-circuit (breathed air exhausted) breathing apparatus was designed by Frenchmen Benoist Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze. This was a demand regulator system mentioned by Jules Verne in his classic ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’. This book, written in 1869, described the apparatus and its use in a conversation between Captain Nemo and Professor Arronax.
In 1878, the first practicable self-contained closed-circuit (breathed air recycled) breathing apparatus was designed by Henry A Fleuss, an English merchant seaman, in association with Siebe, Gorman & Company. This consisted of a watertight face mask connected by a tube to a breathing bag, a copper cylinder of air compressed to 39 atmospheres and a chamber of CO2 absorbent (rope yarn soaked in caustic potash) through which the air was breathed. Fleuss’s diving set was used successfully during work in flooded collieries in 1880 and by Alexander Lambert in his famous exploit in saving the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1882. In collaboration with Fleuss, R H (later Sir Robert) Davis modified this equipment to produce the Siebe Gorman ‘Proto’ and ‘Salvus’ breathing sets used by British, American and other Allied armies for mining, tunnelling and other military operations during the First World War. Subsequently, these designs led to the Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (DSEA) that was intended not only for submarine escape but also for work on the sea bottom and about ships’ hulls.
In 1943, the development of a self-contained open-circuit breathing apparatus was revisited by a French naval officer, Commander LePrieur. His design used a tank of compressed air but did not include a demand regulator. The diver was thus forced to spend much of his time manipulating a valve to control his air supply. This, coupled with a short endurance, severely limited the practical use of the equipment. In 1943, two other Frenchmen, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Mr Emile Gagnan successfully demonstrated a set with an improved demand regulator and high pressure air tanks and this became the first truly successful open-circuit self-contained diving apparatus. Thus, the ‘aqualung’ was born as used by the Royal Navy and thousands of SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) divers to this day.
Back to Top
Back to History of RN Minewarfare & Clearance Diving