Strange Deep-Sea Diving Suits

Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

Under Pressure - and Enjoying It

This time, we thought we’d take an in-depth look at diving suits, those strange looking costumes that many of us have seen before, on TV, in movies or maybe even in real life. The diving suits known as standard diving dress had a metallic helmet, made of brass, bronze or copper, an airline or hose supplying air from the surface, a canvas diving suit, weighted boots and were equipped with a knife, just in case. The suits had other lead weights too, usually fitted on the chest or back, to help the diver descend to the required depth. These types of suits aren’t used that often these days, but although they are the diving suits that most people are familiar with, they weren’t the first ones to be developed.

(image credit: Musée Fédéric Dumas Sanary sur Mer)


This diving suit (see below) was designed way back in 1715 by Pierre Remy de Beauve. The suit’s iron corset protected the diver’s chest from excessive water pressure and a leather jacket was supposed to make the whole thing waterproof. Two pipes linked the helmet to the surface, from where air was pumped using bellows. The suit also featured weighted shoes, to assist the diver with his submarine explorations:

(images credit: Musée Fédéric Dumas Sanary sur Mer)


For this suit from 1797, the air would have been pumped down through the weighted air tubes from a turret on the surface. The diver also didn’t wear the weighted boots that became a standard feature of later suits, but appears to have carried a few weights with him, just to keep him from floating back to the surface too early. Still, let’s hope he didn’t step on anything sharp in those bare feet:

(image credit: Avi Abrams)


Here’s a good selection (left) of some of the early designs, showing something of the evolution of the diving suit. However, at the bottom of the picture, the unsuspecting diver on the left could perhaps be facing an imminent attack from his more robotic counterpart, approaching from the other side. This suit on the right dates from the 1870s and was probably the latest fashion in its day for the professional deep-sea explorer. It certainly seems to have attracted the attention of the two people in the background:

(images via)


This is the front cover illustration of The Illustrated London News from February 6, 1873 and shows divers preparing to descend to a recently wrecked ship called the Northfleet. The rather bizarre diving suit on the right is from the 1870s too. I can only assume, that the designers assumed, in their wisdom, that there’d be so much for the diver to see under the waves that he wouldn’t know where to look first, hence the helmet’s multiple viewing windows. Either that or this isn’t diving attire at all, but rather a spacesuit, rescued from the wreck of a craft flown by an alien species with multiple eyeballs:

(images via 1, 2)


In 1906, de Pluvy created one of the very first atmospheric diving suits. He claimed to have completed a number of dives to depths of up to 100 meters. The joints were apparently made of leather and rubber, but the suit does seem to have worked, even it does resemble a robot from a 1950s science fiction movie. This one on the right is also from the early 1900s and seems to be the famous William Walker, who heroically saved Winchester Cathedral from collapsing in 1905 - read the full story here.

(images credit: Historical Diving Society, Italy, via; right image: via)


Here’s American silent movie comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966), wearing a diving suit for a scene from The Navigator, released in 1924. Keaton even wears his distinctive hat on top of the helmet, just in case he didn’t stand out enough from the other members of the cast.

The Neufeldt-Kuhnke diving suit from 1923 (right) could withstand pressure at depths of 160 meters. The suit’s breathing apparatus was operated in a closed circuit and the diver even had a telephone to stay connected with the surface. Makes you wonder though how he’d make or answer calls with those claws and I wonder where he kept the phone itself? -

(images via 1, 2)


In 1935, J. Peress’ dive suit, Tritonia, (left) explored the wreck of the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland in 1915. Peress’ chief diver was Jim Jarrett, who descended to 95 meters. The suit he used was a forerunner of the JIM suit, which was named after him (see later in article). The two divers on the right look to be either preparing for, or maybe recovering from, an undersea mission of their own.

(images via 1, 2)


U.S. Navy divers wore the Mark V suit from 1918 right up to the mid 1980s. This suit allowed divers to work at much greater depths than before and was mostly used for deep sea and salvage diving missions. The rubberized-canvas suits protected the diver from cold, contaminated water and when they were working in hazardous environments:

(images credit: Maritime Exchange Museum, Carl Purcell)

Navy diver George W. McCullough (left) waits to start his dive wearing a Mark V suit. The wrist cuffs and a rubber seal at the neck made everything watertight, and in case you were wondering, wool undergarments layered beneath the suit kept the diver warm and cozy while he was busy beneath the waves. The helmet on the right dates from the 1940s:

(image credit: Naval Undersea Museum, Greatest Collectibles)


Cool Recent Developments

Atmospheric Diving Suits (ADS) were first used in the oil industry then later developed by the Navy for submarine rescue missions. The pressure inside ADS is the same as it is on the surface. This allows divers wearing ADS to work at extreme depths without having to decompress on their return to dry land. The JIM atmospheric diving suit is named after Jim Jarrett, the chief diver of the suit’s designer, J. Peress. The JIM was developed in the late 1960s and was basically a one-person submarine. Divers no longer had to experience freezing water, complex gas mixtures, and potential decompression sickness. They could breath normal air, return to the surface quickly and even dress casually inside the suit, with most divers choosing to wear a thick wool sweater.

The JIM was first used in 1974 by the oil industry in the Canary Islands. In 1976, divers used the JIM at an oil well in the Arctic, working for six hours at a depth of 275 meters. In 1979, Sylvia Earle set a world record in the JIM. She descended to 381 meters and walked around on the sea floor for two and a half hours, a record that has never been bettered, so far. The JIMs were still in use during the 1980s, before being surpassed by the WASP suit.

(images credit: Naval Undersea Museum, 2)

The WASP one atmosphere diving system from Oceaneering (left) allows divers to work for long periods at depths of 700 meters. The manned suit is used to inspect and repair facilities located in deep ocean environments. One of the most recent developments in deep sea diving was Nuytco Research’s launch of the Exosuit (right), designed to be the next generation of atmospheric diving suits:

(image credit: Oceaneering, Nuytco Research Ltd.)


Deep Diving Media Circus

(left: scuba diver with an umbrella, Paris, 1949 via)

Imagine if you saw this guy (left image below) emerging from the waves, while you were quietly relaxing on the beach? He almost looks like he’s taking a call too, presumably on his shell phone. And who says those old bulky, cumbersome diving suits were uncomfortable? Here on the right is one of the people involved in the making of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1952, taking an underwater nap during a break in filming. I wonder if this could be referred to as relaxing on the seabed? -

(image credit: left: Peter Harris; right: Peter Stockpole for LIFE Magazine, see it bigger)

At the International Exposition of Surrealism in 1938 (left), the always guaranteed to be outlandish Salvador Dali decided to appear dressed a little differently to his fellow artists. Can you guess which one he is? Decades later, perhaps in homage to that earlier surreal diving suit incident, this chauffeur wearing a diver’s helmet (right) is on display at the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg Florida. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure if I’d feel too safe with this guy driving me around:

(images credit: Donald Pittenger, 2)

Tintin, a heroic Belgian reporter (left) who has had many exciting adventures, first appeared in print in 1929. Tintin was created by Georges Remi (1907-1983), who wrote under the pen name Herge. This modern figurine is based on the Tintin story Red Rackham’s Treasure. With his faithful dog Snowy at his side, Tintin prepares to dive down to explore the wreck of The Unicorn. The August 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix and Inventions also featured undersea treasure hunting, with the hero’s very striking red gear guaranteed to make him stand out amongst the other residents of the ocean floor.

(images credit: Big Bad Toy Store, Modern Mechanix 1933 cover)

Ever wondered how to meet girls and get dates? According to these pictures, all you need is a trendy diving suit and the rest will follow, although the initial kiss may present something of a challenge. On the right, this was actually part of a campaign by the British Lifeboat Institution to raise funds for important sea rescue missions. Still, the suit certainly attracted attention from young ladies, as shown here on the streets of London. Maybe there’s something to that diving suit dating idea after all? -

(right image credit: Modern Mechanix)

Diver Dan’s adventures were shown on children’s television in the early 60s. This is the DVD cover (left) from a few years ago, bringing Dan to a whole new audience. I don’t think Dan ever conducted his exciting nautical adventures on a bicycle (right). Still, who knows, it might have been his preferred mode of transportation to travel to the set every day?

(right image credit: Rob Jan)


Diving deeper as it gets... weirder

Maybe these types of designs will be the wave of the future for the well-dressed diver? Characters in the BioShock video game series wear these formidable-looking suits:

(images via)

This one on the left also looks somewhat futuristic, but is in fact on display at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. And finally, how about this inflatable diving suit? Not sure I want to consider what kind of gas might be used to inflate the suit though:

(image credit: Glenn D, 2)

Article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.




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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating post full of amazing photos, thanks for sharing it!


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