Viable diving equipment was developed by an Englishman, John Lethbridge, during the 18th century. These old-fashioned diving suits, often made of canvas and rubber as in the case of the Museum’s example, had weighted items such as boots and chest weights to keep the diver submerged. Someone had to be on the surface at all times to maintain the diver’s air supply and to receive or pass on signals via pull-ropes.
The boots belonging to the suit at the Maritime Museum are made of leather and brass. Diving boots had two purposes: the first was to protect the diver’s feet and the second was to add weight. Adding weight helped overcome the buoyancy effect of the diving suit, while adding it at the lowest point of the diver’s body helped improve stability underwater. The uppers were generally made of leather and canvas and were made to be renewable. The soles were either cast iron in the case of German boots, or brass or lead in most other cases.
The two chest weights included with this suit are made of lead. Weights were generally made of lead due to its high density, ease of casting and resilience to corrosion.
The suit’s gloves are of black rubber. Divers’ gloves were considered an important piece of equipment, as even in relatively warm water a diver’s hands can become very cold. There is also the risk of damage to the hands during underwater activities.
Hand operated air compressors were used in conjunction with diving suits before the advent of scuba tanks. Most compressors were encased in a wooden box with attached hardware. Compressors varied in size depending on how many cylinders they had and how many divers the pump could supply air to during a dive. The compressor with the Maritime Museum’s suit comprises a wooden box, metal wheel and rubber hose. There is an ID plate on the box which identifies it as having been made by Siebe Gorman & Co., Engineers, London.
The diving suit was the focus of one of the #MacroMondays challenges recently on social media. Click here to see the video.
Written by Leah Johnson
Maritime Museum file number 198
Maritime Museum file number 199
Maritime Museum file number 204
Maritime Museum file number 205