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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a pamphlet
prepared by the
Royal Canadian Navy
Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic)
n. p., n. d.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic)

History of Diving​a

 (p1)  History gives no record of the date when diving first began or who the first divers may have been, but man's curiosity probably led him into the water and under its surface at a very early stage. Like some of the early pearl and sponge divers, the first divers probably used no equipment at all except perhaps a stone to get them to the bottom more rapidly. Although unaided divers have achieved some remarkable depths and durations, it is not likely that the early divers exceeded 1 or 2 minutes of submergence or 80 to 100 feet of depth.

Written records provide accounts of some very ancient diving exploits. Most of these were connected with naval warfare, for example, Xerxes is said to have used combat divers. Over 400 years before Christ, Herodotus told the story of Scyllis,​b a famous Greek diver who was employed by Xerxes to recover treasure from sunken Persian ships. When the job was done, the conqueror decided to detain Scyllis but the diver went over the side during a storm, threw the whole fleet into confusion by cutting the anchor cables, and then completed his escape by swimming 9 miles to Artemisium. Alexander the Great used divers to destroy the boom defences of Tyre about 333 B.C.,​c and Aristotle wrote that Alexander himself descended in some sort of diving bell.​d Divers were used in at least six naval battles and sieges between 400 B.C. and 1795 A.D. In the early 1800's Spanish warships still carried men whose duties were swimming and diving for the fleet, although no breathing appliances were used.

Several of the ancient accounts indicate that crude means of supplying the diver with air were sometimes used. About 77 A.D., the historian Pliny​e referred to military divers who breathed through tubes which were supported at the surface by a float. In a famous treatise on warfare written about 375 A.D., Vegetius described diving hoods equipped with air pipes.

Interest in diving increased after 1500, and many different rigs were designed. In 1511, the book written by Vegetius in 375 A.D. was printed, and a drawing of the diving hood described by him (fig. 1) became the first design for a diving dress to be found in a printed book.​f

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Figure 1. Diving hood of Vegetius.

Even before this, Leonardo Da Vinci had sketched diving outfits and hand fins along with submarines and flying machines. In 1524, Vallo​g designed a leather helmet which was slightly more advanced than that of Vegetius. This one at least provided eye‑ports, and its leather pipe was reinforced with iron rings and held up by a disk shaped float. If they were ever built, such rigs could not have been used in water much over the diver's head. In 1680 Borelli designed an outfit (fig. 2) which probably would have been the first self-contained diving apparatus — if it had been built, and if it could have been used, which is unlikely.

Although little of the equipment designed before 1800 was very practical, the under­water accomplishments of the period were surprising in many ways. A primitive snorkel submarine (propelled by 12 oarsmen) was making regular trips on the Thames around London about the time the Pilgrims landed in America. Diving bells and crude diving helmets were used for work on wrecks as deep as 60 ft., and reasonably practical air pumps were developed before the end of the 1700's.

 (p2)  The advent of compressors started the development of diving as we think of it to‑day. With the ability to maintain an air pocket against greater and greater pressures for longer and longer times came the physiological problems of working under pressure. As each problem was encountered, its solution was sought through the combined efforts of the scientists and the men willing to try again. The divers of the 1800's were true adventurers advancing into the unknown. They had no knowledge of how well their equipment would work or against what tests it would be pitted. They had no knowledge of what the pressure, the compressed air or the combination of the two would do to them, and the harbours around Europe were just as black then as they are now. We owe much to these individualists.

One of the most famous divers of the 1800's was Alexander Lambert. His most noted exploit took place when a tunnel, which was being built under the Severn River in England, flooded in 1880. Using the forerunner of the oxygen rebreathing apparatus, he went alone down a vertical shaft and far into the tunnel through masses of floating debris. In order to shut an iron door so that the tunnel could be pumped out, he was forced to return to surface to get a wrecking bar. On his second trip into the blackness he finished the job. Three years later, the tunnel flooded again and Lambert was hired to repeat the job. He tried to use the same equipment, but this time he was poisoned either by the high oxygen content or carbon dioxide. He barely managed to escape with his life, but he tried again the next day using a surface-supplied rig and completed the job. In 1885, Lambert forced his way through 3 decks and into the strongroom of a wreck at 162 ft. He recovered nearly half a million dollars in gold, but the job gave him a case of the bends which forced him to retire. There was as yet no adequate decompression tables, which were developed by Professor Haldane and his associates in 1907.

In 1878, another Englishman by the name of H. A. Fleuss designed the first success­ful self-contained breathing apparatus (fig. 3). As the name implies, this type of apparatus was a completely self-contained unit which was secured to the diver by means of a harness. This system dispenses with the need for an air hose connected to a compressor on the surface, the diver being equipped instead with small high pressure cylinders containing compressed air, oxygen or oxygen nitrogen mixture.

The elimination of the cumbersome air hose made the self-contained apparatus particularly suitable for work in confined spaces such as flooded mines and tunnels, and it was in this capacity that it originally found its most extensive use.

During World War II the development of a new type of under­water warfare brought about a requirement for self-contained equipment which would permit divers to go to greater depths and provide them with a greater range of operation. Experimentation and extensive research soon provided the under­water swimmers (frogmen), charioteers and disposal divers with self-contained equipment which enabled them to accomplish heretofore impossible tasks.

The versatility of self-contained equipment makes it ideal for certain types of under­water operations.

Self-contained breathing apparatus may be classified under two headings, the closed circuit sets using oxygen and nitrogen mixtures and the open circuit sets using compressed air. Closed circuit sets are the recirculating type in which the exhaled gas passes through a carbon dioxide absorbent and is rebreathed by the diver.  (p3) In the open circuit sets, using compressed air, the exhaled air is exhausted into the water, therefore eliminating the necessity of a carbon dioxide absorbent.

Divers are often required to search large areas of rivers, harbours, and harbour entrances as well as ships' bottoms. In most cases speed is essential and the divers must be able to cover the area thoroughly in a minimum amount of time. During World War II this problem was attacked and solved by the clearance diving personnel of the Royal Navy. They developed various search schemes and several types of self-contained diving gear which enabled them to search a variety of areas in a quick and efficient manner.

Past experience in Clearance Diving has proven that the self-contained diving equipment is far superior to the standard diving dress for this type of work.

In the past the Canadian Forces have used a variety of equipment. Figure 4 shows the Sladen suit, or more commonly known to most divers as "clammy death". A "closed circuit", or semi-closed circuit breathing apparatus is used with this rig. This bulky suit allowed the diver to use a complete of sets of long Johns to help withstand the cold. In figure 5, the closed circuit breathing apparatus is shown with a dry suit. Woolens are also used under the suit. This set still serves as the present day attack set, but wet suits have replaced the dry suits. Figure 6 shows a mine recovery set, which is partially self-contained but a life line provided telephone communication to the surface. This set is no longer used. The disco lightweight diving outfit showing in figure 7 is a surface air supplied apparatus. It was used for difficult work where plodding equipment was necessary. It is no longer in present use in the Canadian Forces.

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Figure 2. Borelli's design.

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Figure 3. Fleuss' design.

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Figure 4

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Figure 5

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Figure 6

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Figure 7

The equipment in present use by the Canadian Forces is the USN deep sea diving dress figure 8, for standard diving. For self-contained diving two sets are used. The closed circuit set known as the clearance diving breathing apparatus serves a dual role. When used with pure oxygen, no bubbles are emitted, therefore it serves as an attack set. Figure 9. When oxygen nitrogen mixture is used, it becomes a semi-closed set and it may be used for mine recovery. Figure 4. The other self-contained set employed by the Canadian Diver is the S. C. U. B. A. or self-contained under­water breathing apparatus. Figure 10.

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Figure 8. Deep-sea diving outfit

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Figure 9

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Figure 10

Diving operations are generally conducted from boats or diving tenders. The FDU(A) has four diving tenders of which two are used for deep diving, and the other two are used for self-contained diving.

The Canadian Forces have recently obtained a six‑man, deep diving submersible, figure 11. It is 19′2″ in length and has obtained a depth of over 2000′ in operations.

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Figure 11

Man has now managed to view the deepest parts of the world's oceans through the viewing ports of submersibles. For the same reasons that he is not content to view the moon from afar, he shall not be content until he is able to walk on the deepest part of the ocean floor. Breathing mediums are even now being developed that will enable him to do this. The day may well arrive when mankind will be as at home in the sea as he is now on land.

Thayer's Notes:

a I originally found a scan of this pamphlet on the website of the Canadian Naval Divers Association, but it was eventually turned into a less browser-convenient download item (as of January 2022, still available); so I requested permission, since the pamphlet is probably not in the public domain, to republish it here where it could be annotated, corrected, linked to, etc.

I am most grateful to LCDR Timothy Flath, Naval Diving Officer, RCN (now retired), for granting me that permission. His photograph site contains a wealth of material on the Royal Canadian Navy, his career as a diver, and related topics.

The pamphlet as originally printed consists of 14 unnumbered pages: a cover, three pages of text, and 10 pages for the eleven illustrations. Where needed, I use a crop of the cover, suitably colorized, as my icon for this page:

[image ALT: A sketch of a person in a diving suit emerging from stylized waves. The image serves as the icon on my site for a Canadian Royal Navy pamphlet on the History of Diving.]
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b VIII.8.1‑2. The story of Scyllias (Scyllis, Scyllus), an expert Greek diver, is told in part by Herodotus (VIII.8.1‑2), but the Greek historian merely says that he swam under­water, never surfacing, for 80 stades: a distance of about 15 km. The account of his cutting the enemy's cables is from the pen of Pausanias (X.19.1‑2), filling in the story seven centuries later, although admittedly reporting what was already common knowledge in his time, since Pliny the Elder (Natural History, XXXV.139) records a painting depicting it, by a certain Androbius whose dates unfortunately are not known. For the ancient history of the snorkel which would have made the swim possible — a very long swim, mind you — see my note to A. R. Buchanan, ed., The Navy's Air War, p90.

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c Arrian, Anab. II.21; the text gives no indication of any technical means that might have been used.

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d The diving bell, that first step towards a true submarine, is indeed mentioned by Aristotle (Problems, XXXII.5), in connection with sponge-divers, and rather casually as if it were in common use by them. Despite what one reads, however, Aristotle has nothing to do with the legend in which Alexander the Great goes down to the seabed in a diving bell, a "colimpha"; scholars generally derive the word from κολυμβάω, "to dive into the sea". This entertaining story became quite famous in the Middle Ages, being widely repeated, with literary embellishments and painted illustrations. It is often now said to be recorded for the first time in the works of St. Jerome, but it is not: it has come down to us as a brief aside in a long 7th‑ or 8th‑century book written in the most crabbed and barbarous Latin, purporting to be about the travels of a philosopher named Aethicus or often Aethicus Hister, as translated from the Greek by "Hieronymus presbyter" — a priest named Jerome, no indication that the great St. Jerome is meant, whose Latin was far better. Here is the passage in full, as transcribed on p253 of Éthicus et les ouvrages cosmographiques intitulés de ce nom, mémoire lu à l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres de l'Institut de France, suivi d'un appendice contenant la version latine abrégée, attribuée à Saint Jérôme, d'une cosmographie supposée écrite en grec par le noble istriote Éthicus ; publiée pour la première fois, avec les gloses et les variantes des manuscrits by Armand d'Avezac (Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1852); the context is the geography of certain islands, possibly near Denmark.

That the story should have been ascribed by someone along the line to Aristotle is understandable, since in the Middle Ages Aristotle is often referred to as "the Philosopher" without further qualification; but in this particular work, we find "the Philosopher" used many times to refer to Aethicus.

Idem ait Philosophus ultra illas gentes vel insulas alias non esse, et in laboribus suis quibus a meridie ambulavit per Oceanum, nullarum partium in tam inaestimabiles artium multitudines similia opera vel similitudinem non invenisse. Asserit Alexandrum Magnum illuc per obsidum foedera peraccessisse, ob hoc tantum ut hac causa navalium industriam consideraret et astutiam; et ultra quam credi potest de eo famosissimas fabulas inquiunt. Aiunt enim in ipsas colimphas ipsum Alexandrum introisse, et in profundum conscendisse usque ad imum ut sciret Oceani profundum, et differentiam maris, et abyssi; nobis vero incredibile videtur.

Again, the Philosopher states that beyond those people or islands there are no others, and in his travails during the course of which he ranged the Ocean from the south, he found no similar works or anything similar in so many incalculable multitudes of places. He asserts that Alexander the Great reached that place by the terms of a hostage agreement, for the sole purpose of gaining thereby a thorough and well-informed understanding of naval facilities; and they tell of him the most widely propagated tales, that go beyond anything that can be believed. They even say that Alexander himself entered those colimphas and descended into the depths to the bottom so that he would know the depths of the Ocean, and the diversity of the sea and of the abyss; to us it seems unbelievable.

(my translation)

In this context I am indebted to researcher Oleksiy Cherednichenko for alerting me to the so‑called "Cossack submarines", which are said to have been something like diving bells or underwater vehicles going back at least to the 17c; he has only managed to trace them back to Louis Des Hayes' Voyage de Levant (Paris, 1624), p321, speaking of the Zaporozhian Cossacks:

Quand il arriue que ces Cosaques sont suivis par les galleres du Grand Seigneur, ils se retirent vers les Paluds Maeotides, où ils font vn trou à chacun de leurs Caics, afin de les couler à fond, & se mettent sous l'eau dans ces marécages, où ils demeurent vn iour entier. Pour y auoir la respiratió libre, ils coupent des cannes, dont ils tiennent vn bout en leur bouche, l'autre hors de l'eau, attendant de cette façon que la nuict soit venuë. Par apres ils tirent leurs Caics de ces marais, les calfeutrent à leur mode, afin que l'eau n'y puisse entrer, & vont attaquer les galleres; qui parce qu'elles ne s'en doutent pas, ne font point de garde; & prennent souuent l'espouuente, en sorte qu'il leur en demeure quelques vnes.

When it happens that these Cossacks are pursued by the galleys of the Great Lord [the Ottoman Sultan], they withdraw toward the Maeotian Marshes, where they make a hole in each of their skiffs, in order to sink them to the bottom, & they go underwater in these bogs, where they stay for a whole day. In order to breathe freely, they cut reeds, one end of which they hold in their mouths, the other out of the water, and thus wait till the coming of night. Afterward, they pull their skiffs out of these swamps, caulk them in their way, so that water cannot get into them, & go attack the galleys; who, since they are not expecting them, post no watch; & often panic, so that they [the Cossacks] get some of them.

(my translation)

Mr. Cherednichenko points out that Des Hayes is very unlikely to have seen these submarines himself; the Cossacks had skiffs of course, but we may doubt whether any of them were submarines in any real sense. For my part, I find it hard to see what role the boats play in the French account: punching holes in them disables them as vehicles or indeed as anything else, and if we read the passage carefully, nowhere are we told that the men remain in them when they go underwater. What I get from this passage is merely that they make themselves invisible as fast as they can: they scuttle their boats in a precise way so as to be able to raise and reuse them later (a technique used for a somewhat similar purpose by the Allies in 1944 in the build‑up to the D‑Day landings in Normandy!), and they themselves drop into the water with a breathing reed. It seems to me in sum that here we have yet another repetition of a trope ultimately derived from ancient accounts, if cosmetically updated to the 17c. Here for example is what we find in the ninth-century or earlier Strategikon of ps‑Maurice (XI.4), as translated by Fr. George T. Dennis, p121:

Often enough when they are in a tight spot, they dive to the bottom of a body of water. There they take long, hollow reeds they have prepared for such a situation and hold them in their mouths, the reeds extending to the surface of the water. Lying on their backs on the bottom they breathe through them and hold out for many hours without anyone suspecting where they are. An inexperienced person who notices the reeds from above would simply think they were growing there in the water. But a person who has had some experience with this trick, recognizing the reeds by the way they are cut or their position, either shoves them down further into their mouths or pulls them out, which brings the men to the surface, since they cannot remain under water any longer without them.

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e I have found nothing in Pliny referring either to military divers or to breathing through tubes. The closest he comes is the well-known passage (IX.151‑153) in which he describes how divers handle fish attacks.

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f This image of a man in a diving hood is a detail cropped from an original illustration that does appear in many sixteenth-century editions of Vegetius; for example in Flavii Vegetii vier bucher der Rytterschafft, Erfurt, Hans Knapp, n.d. (1511?) as well as in a 1532 edition printed in Paris; but at any rate the image is 16c eye candy supplied by Knapp, an engraver by profession: Vegetius himself says nothing about diving helmets. The interesting point to me, which no one online seems to have pointed out (I haven't read the print literature), is that it's one thing, quite easily done, to credit a vaguely described technical device to an ancient writer — and quite another to draw a diagram of it: what is the source of the drawing: Knapp's own imagination? or some earlier tradition that he may have drawn on?

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g "Il Vallo" is the common and very understandable shorthand title for Battista (or Giambattista) della Valle's work on military engineering and siege warfare, the proper title of which, such as it is, was Vallo libro pertinente a Capitani per retenere & fortificare vna Citta con bastioni, con nuoui artificij di fuoco aggiunti, come nella Tauola appare, & di diuerse sorti poluere, & di espugnare vna Citta con ponti, scale, argani, trombe, trenciere, Artegliarie, caue, dare auisamenti senza messo allo amico, fare ordinanze, battaglioni et ponti di disfida, con le figure accommodatissime poste a luochi suoi, opera molto vtile con la esperientia dell' arte militare ("Valle's book for military commanders for holding and fortifying a city with bastions, with new firearms added, as appears in the table, and various kinds of powder; and for taking a city with bridges, ladders, hoists, flame throwers, trenches, artillery, mines; for providing immediate aid to a friendly force; for making field ordnance, forces, and bridges, with very convenient figures at the appropriate places, a work very useful with experience of the military art"). First published in Naples in 1521, the book was very success­ful and saw maybe a dozen reprints during the course of the sixteenth century. Franco Valente, author of a number of books on the history of the Molise region that was Valle's birthplace, has written a long and interesting three-part summary of the work. Valle's diving helmet, with its glass visor and rigid iron-reinforced breathing tube, is discussed in Part 3 and is illustrated with his original woodcut of it.

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Page updated: 17 Jan 22