Heroes Under The Sea

The story of Scuba Diving & it's pioneers


The following are extracts from “Stars beneath the sea” by Trevor Norton.  To enjoy the full stories I recommend you buy the book.  Not only is it full of facts about the pioneers of diving, it’s full of little anecdotes & is an absolute delight.



You probably thought that Scuba Diving was a relatively new sport, well read on…

There is a painting of Alexander the Great encased in a glass barrel beneath the sea accompanied by a nervous looking cockerel & a cat. It appears that he was narked as he stated that he observed a giant fish that took four days & nights to pass before his gaze.

The Athenians used divers to breach harbour booms at Syracuse during the Peloponnesian war in 415BC.

The Romans has crack regiments of frogmen called “urinatores”. Knowing the habits of divers, perhaps the reason for this name should remain obscure.

Around this time were many drawings of divers wearing helmets with long tubes rising. Even Aristotle made reference to the similarity between divers & elephants with their trunks. Sponge divers had inverted jars lowered to them filled with air.

In the fourth century BC the principle of the diving bell was understood. However It was not until 1599 that a large inverted cask with a man inside was successfully used underwater. No less a figure than Edmund Halley, when not gazing at comets, designed a wooden bell large enough to carry several men to the sea bed. His innovation was to extend the divers’ endurance by sending down barrels of air to replenish the supply. He also fashioned a watertight hood & hose so that they could work outside the bell. Halley’s bell became routinely used for underwater salvage work as deep as 60 feet for 90 minutes at a time.

In 1756 John Smeaton built the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, after it’s predecessors whilst extremely grand & decorative failed to remain standing. His design based on an English oak tree was revolutionary, involving dovetail jointed granite & quick drying cement was to set the standard for lighthouse design throughout the world & is still copied today. It took three years to build & after 120 years it was found that the rock on which it was built was breaking up. The Eddystone had such significance that it was dismantled (leaving only the stump which can still be seen) & reassembled as probably the most famous lighthouse in the world on Plymouth Hoe as a testament to it’s design.

In 1788 Smeaton, followed up by designing the first practical pump that could supply a bell working at depth. Smeaton’s box became the top-of-the-range diving bell for the next 150 years. Not a bad legacy!

The traditional metal helmet dive suit was invented by an Englishman, John Deane in 1820, & its exploitation made Siebe Gorman of London the most famous manufacturer of diving equipment in the world. Only limited by the depth to which air could be pumped to the diver. The suit was so successful that in 1839 the Royal Navy founded the first ever diving school.

In 1865 Benoit Rouquayrol & Auguste Denayrouze designed a suit that had air pumped from the surface plus a cylinder carried on the back containing pressurised air. The diver could detach himself from the air hose & wander around for short periods. The most important innovation, however, was a simple valve that not only supplied air at the pressure of the surrounding water, but did so only when the diver sucked on it. Their historic innovation was not appreciated at the time.

It was not until 1942 that Jacques Cousteau’s collaborator, Emile Gagnan, reinvented this demand valve & modern free diving was born.

At last there was a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) with which anyone could explore the underwater world.

In 1865 a French naval officer set out regulations for his divers. They:

Should not be in a sweat.
Should be in good health.
Should be of a cool, calm temperament & must not be under the influence of alcohol.

As today, divers were rarely all, or indeed any, of these things.

In these safety conscious days the rule book is heavier than the weight belt, but the pioneers of diving rarely conformed. They were mavericks, energetic & eccentric visionaries who risked their lives for the thrill of discovery.

A few stories of some of these extraordinary people:


 John Guy Gilpatric 1896 – 1950

By the age of sixteen, Gilpatric (American) showed signs of being a bit unusual by setting a flying altitude record.  By twenty-one he was already an accomplished flying instructor, an exhibition flyer at air shows & a test pilot.

He survived the last 18 months of WW1 unscathed.  On being demobed he turned his back on flying & decided to become a freelance journalist.  Being quite successful he married & moved to Antibes on the French Riviera.  Soon the lure of the sea beckoned & he discovered spear fishing & it soon became a daily occurrence along with a group of other “serious sinkers”.  Although his home made goggles leaked (flying goggles with the holes plugged with putty) & the misaligned lenses gave him double vision, lacking fins & weight belt his technique of just kicking towards the bottom with his lungs squeezed towards crushing point was effective.  In the early days he also employed a nose clip & ear plugs & was armed with 10 foot harpoons propelled by a thick rubber band like a slingshot.

On writing of his exploits for the Saturday Evening Post he received many letters from people wanting to learn to dive & also from many who thought that they were the only people already experiencing the depths.  After reading of Gilpatric’s antics a group in San Diego in 1933 founded what was probably the first ever diving club, calling themselves “The Bottom-Scratchers”. In 1938 he expanded his writings & produced the first ever book on sport diving titled “The Complete Goggler” dedicated to his wife Louise.  A copy of the book was given to Cousteau & for decades it sailed with him on the “Calypso”.  In 1939 Guy returned to the USA & worked for the intelligence service. His writing continued & in 1943 his book “Action in the North Atlantic”, a tribute to the courage of the Merchant Marine was turned into a film staring Humphrey Bogart.  In 1950 Cousteau brought the first ever aqualung to the USA for testing by the navy.  He asked to meet Gilpatric, but was too late. Guy’s beloved wife had developed breast cancer.  The physician told them of the diagnosis at 2:30 one afternoon; two hours later Guy shot Louise in the temple then placed the gun in his own mouth.


  Henri Milne Edwards 1800 – 1885

Henri was a very notable naturalist & was one of the first to venture under the waves.  He was born in Belgium, the twenty-seventh son of an Englishman (no TV then).  He got his chance after a friend, the commandant of the Paris fire brigade designed & built a diving helmet.  The helmet was for firemen & clearly unsuitable for underwater use, however government funding enabled the idea to be improved so that Henri could descend to the depths.

In 1844 Milne Edwards, two other naturalists & seven crew made the hazardous journey to Sicily in a rather crowded nine metre fishing boat with a great brass double forcing pump with its balance beam (as used by only the best fire brigades) mounted on the bow.  The latest state of the art equipment was a large open-bottomed metal reservoir in the form of a helmet, communicating by means of a long flexible tube with a pump through which air was forced. It had a glass visor & a cushion placed around the neck for comfort.  The helmet had to be kept upright.  If the diver leaned forward, the sea rushed in & drowning became a distinct possibility.  The helmet was not easy to use due to its volume & weight, plus it had long stirrups that stretched from his feet (shod with lead sandals) to the helmet to keep it in place.

All kitted up, Henri descended into the sea for the first time, half an hour at thirteen feet was achieved after much anxiety.  The safety feature of his rig was the fact that if things went wrong the diver could duck out from beneath, shed the helmet & swim to the surface.  The only problem with this however was a slight matter of the lead sandals which did tend to hamper the swimming thing.  A work-round they tried was a line from the diver up & over the yardarm, a tug on the line & the crew above would haul Henri up to the surface.  That at least was the theory, in practice however, on one occasion the yardarm broke & it was not unusual for Henri to be yanked aloft unexpectedly by an over anxious crew.  As committed as the crew were, unfortunately if frequently took them five minutes to get Henri to the surface … not really a comforting thought for a diver in trouble.  Aware of the life saving facilities Henri still went deeper for longer.  Armed with a pickaxe to detach large clams & the like Henri came up from the bottom time & again with his specimen box full with a rich harvest.  The expedition was a success, Henri had observed creatures that had never been seen before & was the first marine biologist to describe living subtidal communities.

On returning to Paris, ill health dogged him & he never dived again & reverted to the life of an engrossed academic with the odd exciting interlude.  During the siege of Paris in 1870 he braved the bombardment to save precious specimens that he had collected on his expedition to Sicily.  Later his son Alphonse led scientific cruises to investigate the deep water fauna of the Atlantic & the Mediterranean.  Henris later life produced volumes on the biology of corals, molluscs & mammals & his “Natural history of the Crustacea” was considered a landmark study describing hundreds of new species. The lifelong work of Henri was known to Jules Verne indeed one of the characters in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” was clearly based on Henri. Verne refers to “Milne Edwards, my worthy master”. That is closer to immortality than most scientists achieve.

Henri Milne Edwards was a true naturalist who endured danger & discomfort to see how organisms really lived.  Where he led under water, others would follow.


 Roy Waldo Miner 1875 – 1955


At the age of 30, Roy Miner joined the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  The museum was one of the greatest in the world with its maze of great halls covering some 23 acres around Central park & its contents valued in the region of $30 million.  Miners task was to design new exhibits, so he constructed full size simulations of tide pools & wharf pilings.  Miner was meticulous & so went to observe the creatures at first hand & caught the “bug”. In 1923 he set off to the Bahamas & spent the next 13 years building the museum a full size replica of a coral reef.  He took with him Artists, modellers & photographers to record the inhabitants of the reef.  Among his equipment was a ten ton chain hoist & a diving sphere from which they could observe the underwater population.  Not satisfied with their sketches, photographs & cine film, Miner soon found another use for his chain hoist & together with crowbars, hatchets & hammers started breaking off massive amounts of coral clusters later to be coated in beeswax & painted in their original hues before being shipped home to New York.  For the aquatic life he resorted to the “bang-bang”, a ten foot bamboo pole with dynamite caps on the end. After stunning the fish they were retrieved to the surface where they were sketched & a wax mould taken. Nothing is mentioned about the survivors if indeed there were any.  Miners collection included some ten boat loads of sponge clippings, a 12 foot coral growth like a rosette weighing 900 pounds, the largest single specimen weighed two tons & overall this expedition collected 40 tons of coral alone & Miner made five expeditions!  The museum decided it would like a pearl diving tableau so Tongareve in the South Pacific was relieved of another ten & a half ton of coral, 100 pearl shells, about the same again of giant clams & several thousand specimens of invertebrates.  The reef exhibit covered 8,000 square feet & rose to a height of 17 feet.  As well as the 40 tons of big corals there were thousands of smaller ones, hundreds of sea fans & over 500 model fish.  The exhibit stood for around 25 years, alas the seas will take another 75 years to rebuild it’s lose.  No doubt times have changed, Roy Waldo Miner may have been a hero in the American Museum of Natural History & he did enable the great unwashed to glimpse a view of the watery world around us but I don’t think he deserves a ranking along side the other stories on this page or to have his story uttered along with the other pioneers of diving.


Charles William Beebe 1877-1962

Will was an assistant curator of birds at the Bronx zoo for the New York Zoological Society & constructed the largest aviary in the world.  He soon tired of life at the zoo & aged 26 he took his new wife off on the first of 60 expeditions to the jungle & tropical islands.  Now a director over Tropical Research he spent the next 8 years studying a quarter sq mile of jungle in British Guiana. He took 5 years off to study the pheasants of the world, covering the Himalayas, Malaya, Mandalay, China & Mongolia.  During his travels he shot dead a threatening tribesman.  He was pushed out of the way of a leaping tiger.  His Chinese cook turned out to be a multiple poisoner.  One of his trackers returned one day with eight fresh human heads hanging from his belt. After falling through a thicket he grasped a branch that turned out to be a king cobra, but that was not as bad as the fer-de-lance he encountered later in the week.  Strangely, on returning home his wife filed for divorce claiming cruelty.  His marriage over, he embarked on more expeditions accompanied by a “devoted band of female assistants” ( I like this guys style ).

As a child William clutched a rock so that he could sink to observe sea anemones.  Now aged 48 his interest in fish tempted him once again below the waves.  In 1925 before setting of for the Galapagos islands, Will bought a large copper helmet with two windows at the front, and a rubber garden hose to carry air from a car tyre pump to the helmet.  Whilst doubting the efficiency of his kit he soon discovered “the delights of dangling”.  He dismissed the dangerous creatures of the deep but was extremely lucky to survive encounters with amongst others an eight foot moray or the five foot shark that he bopped on the snout when it went for the same puffer fish that he was after.
William was greatly concerned with pressure, ”forty feet is a good limit to set” & he warned not to be tempted to go that bit extra for an alluring shell or coral.  Mindful of the pressure, he never ventured below sixty feet. As usual with divers, Will soon ended up with loads of gear: waterproof paper, pencils, cameras, oil paints, fishing poles with dynamite caps, crowbars & submarine slingshots, all the usual stuff.  His main aim was to collect & identify as many creatures as possible.  He recounted “A seven foot shark took an hour to subdue even with the help of many shots from a Luger & several charges from a shotgun at close range”.  He even tried unsuccessfully to “capture” a whale shark, using drums & harpoons.

Beebe was a born publicist & a genius at getting the rich to finance his expeditions, enabling him to dive frequently & fearlessly.  No longer satisfied to wade in the shallows he looked longingly into the green depths far beyond the length of his hose.

In 1926 Beebe published plans to submerge in a cylinder.  An engineer & zoologist Otis Barton, who had been diving with a bucket helmet since 1917, replied to this publication with the suggestion that a sphere would be greatly more receptive to pressure.  Beebe took no notice & it was not until several years that he teamed up with Barton.  Barton financed, designed & built his own bathysphere & was to deal with the technical side of the dives.  Lowered by a hawser 1” thick it took 28 attendants to tend to it & its communications. The hatch door was 14” wide & held in place by 10 steel bolts which were tightened then pounded with hammers until all slack was removed.  The sphere, a mere 4’6” in diameter was a little cramped as Beebe was over 6’. On an initial dive, at 600 ft the hatch started to leak & Barton suggested aborting, Beebe said “I think not, don’t frighten them on deck”.
The thick electric cable was being slowly pushed through the seals by the pressure & by the time they returned to the surface they had gained 5 gallon of water & had 14 feet of cable wrapped around them.  Beebe & Barton persevered with their bathysphere & on a subsequent dive when they submerged to a staggering 2,200 feet, their conversations with the surface was broadcast by the BBC & NBC.  Later on a three hour dive they reached 3,028 feet, with the porthole holding back 19 tons of pressure.  They had penetrated five times deeper into the ocean than anyone before them.  The bathysphere was finally retired to take it’s place alongside Miner’s coral reef in the American Museum of Natural History.  Barton went on to make underwater films & in 1949 without Beebe descended to 4,500 feet.
Beebe was depressed later to learn that one of his jungle study sites had been replaced by a banana plantation, a seal colony he studied was slaughtered for dog food & the iguanas he had written about in the Galapagos islands had been exterminated by American soldiers using them for target practise.  Beebe now turned his energy to preventing the depredation to reefs by tourists & divers. Beebe had hoped to expire of heart failure upon witnessing some new heart stopping wonder, but alas he died of pneumonia.  Throughout his life he had inspired many books, his own assembled armies of adjectives to paint the underwater landscape & he awakened the general public to the excitement of exploring the depths of the ocean.


John Scott Haldene 1860-1936

   Naturally we think of the pioneers as strange eccentrics that went beneath the waves in all sorts of weird contraptions and rig outs.  However some people that had a lasting influence on our sport never even got wet.  Such was the case with John Scott Haldene, he has too scared of the water to even learn to swim.  Haldenes had been Lords of Gleneagles since the thirteenth century and John could trace his ancestry back to 1250AD.  John graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university, his main interest being the influence of air quality on human health.  He analysed air from slums, sewers and factories and had a major input into the understanding of the spread of typhoid.  John was frequently seen gathering jars of samples of air from every location and it has he that discovered the deadly effects of carbon monoxide.  His findings led to the electrification of the underground and his appointment as Gas Referee for the country to check on the quality of domestic coal gas.  In 1887 John married Kathleen and there soon followed a son Jack, who has to follow in his fathers footsteps and a daughter Naomi.  In 1897 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and shortly after a fellow of New College Oxford. Now fascinated by gases in mines he exposed the fact that in mine explosions most fatalities resulted from suffocation rather than the blast itself.  He was the first to show conclusively that pneumoconiosis in miners resulted from the inhalation of dust.  His experiments into carbon monoxide poisoning led to the introduction of mice and then canaries into mines as an early-warning system and he devised better mine rescue equipment.  He frequently subjected himself to near fatal quantities of poisonous gases in the course of his research often to be found incoherent and unable to walk or even stand.  He was also responsible for proving that coal dust was responsible for most underground explosions to the mine owners with a practical experiment that blew a couple of boilers over 300 yards over their heads.

   John and Kathleen lived in the same house in Oxford for over sixty years (later called Wolfson College) and during his later years he worked almost entirely from home.  Beyond his study in the attic John kitted out a lab with an air-tight chamber so that he could investigate the effects of various gases.  He sometimes got his daughter Naomi to keep an eye and if he collapsed she would drag him out of the chamber and administer artificial respiration.  Naomi and her brother Jack loved to sneak into the lab to chase globules of mercury across the floor, make funny noises by sniffing nitrogen or get giddy on chloroform!  Although John used mice, he disapproved of experiments on animals and “never used an animal if a man would do”.

   In 1906 at the request of the admiralty he turned his attention to the effects of high pressure and the physiology of deep sea diving.  After some initial tests on goats, John took a group of navel conscripted “volunteers” to the Firth of Clyde where they kept trying greater and greater depths to try and “bend” the divers (“Join the Navy and see the world”, the Ad said).  After returning to the surface, divers often began vomiting and suffered severe pains in the joints – “ the bends”.  Cases of paralysis were common and in the worst cases death. Haldene’s experiments showed that the greatest danger of decompressing lay entirely in the last stages on approach to the surface.  This was the complete opposite of what was thought at the time.  A year later Haldene published the first universally accepted decompression tables which were used until superseded in 1956.  No development in the history of diving has saved so many lives.  Haldene’s main claim to scientific fame was his discovery that it is the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the lungs and consequently in the blood that governs breathing.  In 1915 John was charged with identifying the poisonous gas being used by the Germans.  Haldene’s house echoed with sounds of coughing and retching from the attic, where father and son were breathing toxic gasses and testing home made gas masks.  By the time they succeeded Haldene’s lungs had been damaged beyond repair.  At the age of 75, having returned from investigating heat stroke in oil-rig workers in the Middle East John collapsed and developed pneumonia.
The man that did so much to help others breath safely whether down a mine or underwater died in an oxygen tent as the clock struck midnight.

The Oxford Department of Anatomy, to whom he had willed his body, asked to be freed from the obligation to dissect a friend and colleague. So he was cremated and his ashes scattered in the family graveyard at the mouth of Gleneagles.


Sorry, but I'd better stop now before someone starts talking about copyright.


 To enjoy the full stories I recommend you buy the book “Stars beneath the sea” by Trevor Norton, available from most good book-shops.   Not only is it full of facts about the pioneers of diving, it’s full of little anecdotes & is an absolute delight.  With Christmas looming, just added it to your "wish list".


Must go,  got to read another chapter.......................

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