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See Part 1 of this series: Incipient Underwater Efforts, for a brief overview of some of the earliest human explorations of the underwater world.

With the coming of steam engines in the late 1700s, it became possible to efficiently force a continuous supply of fresh air into diving bells. But early air pumps typically did not have sufficient power to generate enough compression for deep submersion. However, the chambers of the 18th century that were designed around the ability to have a continuous supply of air pumped into them were the forerunner of surface-supplied diving with helmet and diving suit in the subsequent century. Diving bells nonetheless continued to improve throughout most of the 1800s, with cooled air, carbon dioxide absorbents (caustic soda), and improved air pumping capability becoming increasingly available. As such, it became possible to work for many hours at depth. Divers could move out from the bell to walk or swim as long as they could breathhold, returning to the bell as required. By 1850, air pump designs had started to improve markedly, and this allowed air to be sufficiently compressed to the extent necessary to overcome the weight of water compressing deeper underwater working environments.

As medical knowledge started to slowly creep toward the modern era around the year 1800, ongoing technological discoveries made other adventures possible. One result of such progress was the need for underwater salvage work, and this, not surprisingly, raised concerns regarding other aspects of environmental physiology and medicine in the early nineteenth century. An early example of an ambitious attempt to meet the needs for underwater work was the diving “machine” designed by Karl Heinrich Klingert. On June 23, 1797, Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim dived into the River Oder wearing Klingert’s apparatus, reached the bottom, and was able to saw through a tree trunk. This device could allow a diver to go as deep as 6 or 7 m. (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 Klingert’s diving machine

It was, unfortunately, of limited practical usefulness. The dream of being able to move about underwater with one’s own reliable air supply became reality in 1819 when Augustus Siebe, a London coppersmith, invented the first version of his diving dress. This consisted of: 

a copper helmet riveted to a leather jacket . The diver entered the dress through the open waist and then thrust his arms into the sleeves with his head protruding into the helmet. There was no control over the amount of air entering the helmet, and the excess air bubbled out around the diver’s waist…it had one disadvantage in that if the diver were to lie d:own or turn upside down, the dress quickly filled with water and he was likely to drown.

Siebe’s primitive original rig was safe and effective enough to be used for much useful naval salvage work, such as in the case of the sunken British war ship, The Royal George. By 1837, Siebe had produced a much-improved version, and this consisted of a full waterproof suit that was bolted to a breastplate and helmet (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 Siebe’s waterproof suit

It covered the diver’s entire body, enabling him to work in any position, and adjustable air intake valves and helmet exhaust valves were also incorporated on this adaptation of the original. So effective was this 1837 production that it remained (with very minor alterations in materials and valves) essentially the same suit used for much classical deep-sea diving until the mid-1980s! No modifications to the diving suit mentioned above were made until the World War II era when scuba made its first appearance in German-occupied France, courtesy of Cousteau and Gagnan. Scuba had as its major feature a demand regulator that automatically delivered only the needed amount of air to the diver at depth. This clever device has in many ways transformed the world of diving and made the boom in recreational scuba diving possible.

Although being able to work and play underwater with a continuous air supply has been of great benefit for many commercial and recreational purposes, this invention also helped to usher in the greater frequency of decompression sickness. Robert Boyle was perhaps the first to discover the etiology of decompression sickness in 1670 when he: 

produced symptoms of decompression sickness in a snake that had been placed in a vacuum chamber (Fig. 3). He was prompted to write: “I once observed a viper furiously tortured in our Exhausted Receiver…that had manifestly a conspicuous bubble moving to and fro in the waterish humour on one of its eyes.”

Figure 3 A modern replica of Robert Boyle’s original vacuum chamber from the late-1600s, housed in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK. (photo courtesy John B. West)

Thus Boyle noted that rapid reduction of ambient pressure may result in the production of bubbles in the tissues of the body. In addition, the first description of the symptoms of decompression sickness in 1841, while certainly related to atmospheric pressure, had nothing to do with diving. The casualties were coal miners who worked in mine pits that were pressurized in order to keep out water. A French engineering pioneer, Charles-Jean Triger, designed a system where air under pressure in an iron shaft, or caisson (complete with simple air locks), kept water out which then allowed for access to bed of coal buried deep beneath quicksand in the Loire Valley of France. The first recorded observations of decompression sickness in these mine workers were referred to as mal de caisson, and then 20 years later in the USA the collection of signs and symptoms was termed caisson disease. It was noted that the miners (and later underground tunnel workers) often suffered cramps and pains, as well as a feeling of suffocation or “chokes,” after leaving the compressed air environment. Two French physicians, B. Pol and T.J.J. Watelle, made the world’s first formal medical observations and treatments for decompression sickness. An English translation of their 1854 writings demonstrates Pol and Watelle’s accurate grasp of the problem, “One case seems to indicate that the quickest and safest means of restoration is an immediate return to the compressed air.”  By the mid-1860s, European and American efforts in mining, tunneling, and bridge-building (using caisson foundations) had expanded greatly, and the crippling aftereffects of compressed-air use became more prevalent.

In the next installment of this series on significant happenings in the early history of diving physiology and medicine, we’ll explore the contributions of the French physiologist Paul Bert. It was during the latter half of the nineteenth century that decompression sickness started to be studied scientifically, most notably by Bert.


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