Divers and Diving in the 1870s

While researching the development of marine salvage in the New Jersey-Massachusetts region, I came across a series of fantastic Scientific American articles about “submarine engineers,” divers and wrecking (what we now call salvage). They are priceless bits of late-nineteenth century Americana. The text below accompanied the image above in the article “Submarine Diving,” which appeared in periodical’s January 25, 1873 edition.

Loaded with a weight of over one hundred and forty pounds, under a pressure of nine atmospheres, beneath a hundred feet of fluid, two minutes’ existence in which is impossible, and in depths where no ray of light has ever penetrated, man cannot only live but work. Not only can he labor but, remaining submerged for hours with impunity, performs operations which require skill; placing the explosives which are to tear up sunken reefs, leveling unequal bottoms or plunging into the holds of wrecks, with marvelous intrepidity he can force the sea to yield its buried treasures.

Probably no calling necessitates more personal risk. Out of the number of professional divers in the United States, in all thirty or thereabouts, the average yearly mortality is four, though so large a percentage is due more to the recklessness of men in the face of danger to which they become inured than to mere accident.

The armor in which the diver is incased, in comparision with the weight of which that work by the knights of old is as nothing, is well represented in our engraving. It consists of body, collar piece, helmet, and shoes. The body is composed of one thickness of rubber between two of cloth, and covers the man from his neck to his heels, being closely strapped into the shoes at the bottom and snugly helf about the wrists by rubber cuffs. The helmet looks very like an immense copper pot, and when put on is connected with the body by means of the collar piece, which fits closely about the shoulders and is fastened to the helmet and the body by thumbscrews, rendering it perfectly air-tight. There are glasses at the front and sides of the helmet, the piece in front being constructed to open. This is never closed until the man is ready to descend, when it is tightely screwed up, and from that moment the air pump must never cease working even for a single instant, lest the diver suffocate. The air forced to him from above reaches him by means of a rubber hose which, leading from the air pump and passing under his left arm, connects with the back of the helmet, the air passing over his head and down in front of his face. The foul air escapes through a small valve in the back of the helmet, and the rapidity with which it goes is regulated by the preference of the man in the dress. The shoes are soled with an inch or two of lead, and over the shoulders, slung by chords, are two enormous leaden plates, one on the back and one on the breast, thus giving the diver sufficient weight to descend. A life line is fastened about his waist, by means of which he communicates his wants to those above. One pull on the line signifies more air is needed, two, that the pumps are sending him too much and he is liable to float up, and three pulls indicates that he desires to be hauled to the surface…

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