Diving suits have enabled us to explore the deepest ocean depths. Initially developed to reclaim lost items from sunken ships or inspect ship’s hulls, they have since opened up new possibilities for ocean exploration.
What are some of the major milestones in the evolution of the diving suit?
And so, without further ado, here are some of the major milestones in the evolution of the diving suit. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Konrad Kyeser’s “Diving Dress” was an interesting early concept
One of the first major steps in the evolution of the diving suit was Konrad Kyeser’s “Diving Dress”. A renowned military engineer, Kyeser wrote a book in the early-1400s called Bellifortis, on military arts and technology.
Within it was a description and depiction of an early diving suit.
2. Franz Kessler’s diving bell was another important step
Another important step in the development of the modern diving suit was Franz Kessler’s diving bell. Kessler spent his life as an artist and inventor within the Holy Roman Empire between the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of his inventions, the diving bell, was a crude but effective underwater exploration device. Kessler is believed to have been inspired by the earlier work of Guglielmo de Lorena, who actually dove in a sunken Roman vessel in his own diving bell in the 1530s.
Kessler’s devive consisted of an airtight, wooden, upside-down, bell-chamber that could accommodate a small crew of divers. Once lowered into the water, air would remain trapped inside the bell, allowing the crew to breathe underwater for a short period of time.
3. Leonardo Da Vinci may have invented air tanks
In the 15th century, Leonardo Da Vinci made the first known mention of the concept of air tanks. In one of his notebooks, called the Atlantic Codex, he provided tantalizing descriptions of systems that may have been used at the time to artificially breathe air underwater.
He also made some sketches of what appeared to be different kinds of snorkels and an air tank that was carried on the diver’s chest. No mention is made of whether these tanks were connected to the surface or not.
Additional drawings showed a form of a complete diving suit, equipped with some sort of mask, with a box containing air. He even included provisions for a urine collector in his design.
Da Vinci also famously made designs for an “Underwater Army” diving suit with bamboo pipes, sheepskin suit, and a bell-shaped air-trap.
4. John Lethbridge used one early diving suit to dive wrecks for salvage
In the early-1700s, an English inventor called John Lethbridge developed one of the first-known, completely enclosed suits to help divers during salvage work on sunken ships. His suit provided the diver with a fair amount of maneuverability in order to complete the work successfully.
After initial trials in his garden pond, Lethbridge actually used the device to dive a number of wrecks — four sunken English men-of-war, one East Indiaman, a Spanish galleon, and some galleys.
Through his exploits as a salvage diver, Lethbridge became very wealthy, with one particular dive on the Dutch Slot ter Hooge, sunk off Madeira, netted him three tons of silver.
5. Pierre Remy de Beauve’s diving dress was another important step
In the 1710s, the French aristocrat Pierre Rémy de Beauve made another important step forward in the development of the diving suit. His ‘diving dress’ featured a metal helmet with two connected hoses.
One hose supplied the helmet with air from above via a bellows, the other removed the diver’s exhaled air.
6. Charles and John Deane invented one of the first diving helmets
Another major milestone in the development of the modern diving suit was Charles and John Deane’s diving helmet. Building on their work for an earlier smoke helmet for the fire brigade in the 1820s, the brothers adopted the design for potential use underwater.
At the time, diving bells were the main go-to for dive and rescue missions, but were very limited. The Deane’s design was effectively a large metal bowl with vision ports that also sported a short jacket that could prevent water from reaching the wearer’s face.
Air was supplied to the helmet via a surface air pump. It also included an air exhaust that would direct bubbles away from the diver’s field of vision.
7. Lodner D. Phillips and his atmospheric diving suit
Yet another important step in the evolution of the diving suit was the work of Lodner D. Phillips. In the 1860s, Phillips developed one of the world’s first-ever, fully-enclosed atmospheric diving suits.
It featured articulated joints, a viewing chamber, and even a hand-cranked propeller for movement. While there is documentary evidence of the suit’s existence, it is not clear if one was ever made for use.
In the 1880s, however, the Carmagnolle Brothers, drawing their inspiration from Phillip’s design, developed their own articulated atmospheric diving suit.
8. “The Old Gentleman of Raahe” is one of the world’s oldest surviving diving suits
Another important development in the evolution of the diving suit was “The Old Gentleman of Raahe“. Created to help inspect the hulls of ships without the need for a drydock, it is currently one of the oldest surviving early diving suits in the world.
Dating to the early 18th century, this suit is primarily constructed using hand-stitched seams. The suit was sealed and waterproofed using a mixture of mutton tallow, tar, and pitch.
The helmet was reinforced with a wooden frame, to prevent it from collapsing, and an air pipe was affixed to the front. Air was supplied using bellows, and exhaust air was removed via a pipe at the rear of the helmet.
9. Mike Humphrey and Mike Borrow’s JIM Suit was revolutionary
Skipping forward in time, another milestone in the evolution of the diving suit was the JIM suit. Developed in the late-1960s by Mike Humphrey and Mike Burrow, the first JIM suit was inspired by Joseph Peress’ 1930s Tritonia diving suit.
An atmospheric diving suit, it was specifically designed to maintain an internal pressure of 1 atmosphere despite external water pressure. Because of this, no gas mixtures were required, and deep-sea divers did not need to undergo decompression when they returned to the surface.
It was made from cast magnesium and weighed in at around 499 kg. The suit featured breathing apparatus that supplied air for up to 72 hours and delivered air through the mask directly to the diver’s mouth and nose.
10. SCUBA gear was another important step
No discussion of diving equipment would be complete without a discussion of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). While many of the basic elements of SCUBA had been invented by the 1940s (notably Henry Fluess’ rebreather), it took Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan to modify them sufficiently to make SCUBA of practical use for most people.
The pair were able to redesign a car regulator to function as a demand valve that provided divers with a supply of compressed air delivered with each breath. This compressed air was stored in a tank, allowing the diver, for the first time, to swim untethered for long periods of time.
Called the “Aqua-Lung” by Cousteau and Gagnan, the lightweight and relatively easy-to-use SCUBA equipment suddenly opened up diving for pleasure to the general public.
11. Phil Nuytten’s “Newtsuit” is very light and strong
And finally, the “Newtsuit” is the current go-to diving suit for sea exploration and underwater work. It was invented by Phul Nuyetten in the late-1980s and is a fully articulated atmospheric diving suit that enables divers to reach a depth of up to 305 meters.
The suite features an acrylic dome for visibility and can be modified with an optional backpack, with two horizontal and two vertical thrusters for added maneuverability underwater.
Primarily used for ocean drilling rigs, pipelines, salvage work, and photographic studies, it is the standard deep-sea diving suit of many of the world’s navies too.
Unlike the JIM suit, the Newtsuit is primarily composed of aluminum, trimming its total weight down to 113 kgs, making it more practical and easier to use than its heavier predecessor.