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For centuries people have tried to design machines and suits for divers. They were mostly like underwater suits of armour. They protected the diver from the pressure of the water outside the suit so they were a bit like a man-shaped submarines.

They have been called all sorts of names like ‘Winnie the Pooh Suits’ (because of their large heads), ‘Iron Dukes’, ‘Iron Men’, ‘Armoured Diving Suits’, ‘Articulated Diving Suits’ and even ‘Deep Sea Diving Robots’. Now we tend to call them Atmospheric Diving Suits because the pressure inside the suit is the same as the ‘normal’ air pressure that we live under everyday (we call that ‘1-atmosphere’).

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Cartoon illustration of a a baby diver in a pink wetsuit

Amazing facts about…

Weird Diving Suits

Two bright yellow butterfly fish swim in front of a reef covered in brightly coloured soft corals and sea squirts: purples, reds, oranges.
The first one we know of was invented by Englishman John Lethbridge in 1715. It was simply a wooden barrel with armholes in it and a small window that the diver could look out of. John Lethbridge used it to successfully recover large amounts of silver from wrecks.

Over 120 years later another Englishman, W H Taylor, designed the first armoured suit with real joints. Although it was not a true Atmospheric diving suit it was pretty close. Mr Taylor patented the suit but it was never built.

18 years later, in 1858, Lodner D Phillips, an American, designed the first fully enclosed Atmospheric Diving Suit. It even had a hand cranked propeller and claw-shaped hands (we call them manipulators) to pick up things underwater. We don’t know if it was ever built.

Then in 1882 two French brothers, Alphonse and Theodore Carmagnolle patented an amazing metal suit with ball joints at the shoulders, elbows and knees. It had lots of eye holes all over the head so that the diver could look out in almost any direction. It was extremely heavy. Unfortunately it never worked properly. But the suit has survived and is on display in the National Navy museum in Paris.

Two Australians John Buchanan and Alexander Gordon also designed a flexible waterproof suit. It was manufactured by a company called Siebe Gorman and tried out underwater in Scotland in 1898.

Then in 1906, a French engineer M de Pluvy built and Atmospheric Diving Suit that did not need a supply of air from the surface. It contained chemicals that renewed the oxygen in the air in the suit. It looks quite awkward to use but Mr de Pluvy said he made several dives in this suit going down as far as 90m (300 ft).

American Chester E MacDuffee designed his own suit in 1914. It probably was not watertight because it had a pump to pump out water from the suit. It was tried out in Long Island Sound in 1915 but unfortunately, it was not very successful.

The next year another American Harry L Bowdoin patented a very complicated suit with 18 joints – even one for each thumb. It had 4 windows in the head and it even had a lamp on the chest. Unfortunately we do not know if it was ever built.

In the same year, 1915, a German company, Neufeldt and Kuhnke built two Atmospheric Diving Suits. In Germany they were known as ‘Panzertaucher’ (Armoured diver). Although the joints tended to leak and seize the deeper it went, it was used on several deep water dives but only for observing what was happening underwater. It became famous when it was used to salvage gold and silver bullion from the wreck of the SS Egypt.

American, Benjamin F Leavitt dived his own metal suit to 100m (361ft) in Lake Michigan. Then in 1917 he dived to 55m (182ft) to successfully salvage copper from a wreck in Lake Huron. He made other successful salvage dives in his suit. The suit had its own air supply so it did not need an air hose to the surface. It even had a telephone line so that he could talk to the people on the surface.

In the early 20th century many ADS designs were patented but all had problems with the joints until Joseph S Peress patented the first spherical type joint that used fluid to equalise pressure. His first suit was not successful (1925) but his next one (1932) worked very well and became known as ‘Tritonia’, It is now often referred to as ‘Jim 1’ – named after the diver who tested it underwater – Jim Jarrett.

In the 1930s Galeazzi an Italian diving inventor started to design and make his own suits. He continued to make Atmospheric Diving Suits until 1976. At least 25 suits were built.

In 1953 Alfred A Mikalow designed his own suit specifically for salvaging sunken treasure. The arms were designed to take lots of different tools. It successfully dived on a wreck in 100m (328ft) of water near Fort Point, San Francisco.

In 1971, a British suit, the JIM suit was completed. It was named ‘Jim’ in honour of Jim Jarrett the test diver of the first truly successful Atmospheric Diving suit made by Peress in 1932. In 1976 it set a record for the longest working dive below 150m (490ft) lasting almost 6 hours at 276m (905ft). Jim had no propellers and so as subsea walkways were gradually removed from oil platforms, it was replaced by WASP and the Newtsuit which could ‘fly’ through the water using propellers.

Then WASP and Spider came along. They weren’t like the other suits because they had no legs.
WASP was developed in 1978. It was like JIM without legs. It had 4 small propellers to move it through the water.
The next year Spider was launched. Spider stood for ‘Self Propelled Inspection Diver’. It was very similar to WASP.
WASP is the picture on the left. Spider is on the right.

And then in 1984, Canadian diver Phil Nyutten patented what has come to be known as the ‘Newtsuit’ (named after his surname which is pronounced ‘Newton’). It is possibly the most successful ADS in use today and can dive to 760m (2500ft).
Cartoon illustration of a baby diver in a yellow wetsuit
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Funny Bones

Where do diver’s sleep?

Click to find out
On the sea bed, of course!
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Cool Kidz

There were lots more really strange diving inventions.
This short video is about only 5 of them.
You may be able to find even more – or even design one of your own!
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Books we love

Stars Beneath the Sea
by Trevor Norton

There are not many books about diving inventions written especially for kids. This is a book for adults but it is very readable and full of stories and pictures about some diving pioneers, their strange inventions and their extraordinary adventures underwater.


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Cartoon illustration of a diver on the seabed
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