An eye for an i #392 Children

An armour to dive deeper

It is human nature to delve deep into things. If there is something we don’t understand, we examine it more carefully, discover information and learn more about it. Even if we are taking it literally, and talking about delving too deeply into water, we do have a long history for that as well.

While swimming as a skill on the surface could be acquired, people, for centuries, dreamt about the ability to swim or walk freely under water – for more than just the few minutes possible by holding one’s breath.

Millennia of work

There are descriptions from Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th Century BC about how people attempted to go underwater with the help of an upturned metal cauldron. Legend has it that Alexander the Great, the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, was lowered into water in a glass diving bell.

And then there are designs that are more recent than the above examples. The 16th Century Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci made sketches of both diving suits and diving bells. Britain’s Edmund Halley from the 17th Century, known for his work as an astronomer and the comet that bears his name, also drew designs for improving the diving bell.

It is certainly clear that with regard to diving suits and diving bells, improvements done were based on building upon existing work. And amidst the names of such giants already mentioned, it is easy to miss out an American by the name Leonard Norcross.

Norcross’ machines

Born in the U.S. in 1798, Norcross lost his father while he was just three. He lived with his mother until he started his apprenticeship with a farmer and then left to live with his aunt. It was during this time that he attended school and started developing a love for mechanical inventions. Working as a young man, Norcross continued to read and study independently, eventually going on to teach for several years as well.

Norcross came up with a number of innovations, mainly pertaining to agriculture. He made a threshing and separating machine, a nail-making machine, a stump lifter and an accelerated spinner for hand-woven wool. His most important invention, however, turned out to be a diving suit that he called a “diving armor”.

Norcross had been tinkering with a suit that would let people stay a lot longer and deeper underwater. Using elastic rubber, which had recently seen improvements, to back his cloth, he attached it to a metal helmet to form a watertight seal. Hoses connected the top of the helmet to an air supply on the surface of the water.

Closed diving suit

The elastic rubber allowed the whole suit to be filled with air and keep the diver relatively dry. In order to counter the buoyancy added by the air thus added, the diver’s boots were iron shot and weighted down. Norcross’ “diving armor” was thus among the first closed diving suits.

When Norcross’ invention was tried out in 1834 in the Webb River in Maine, U.S., it proved to be non-fatal and the test diver was able to walk freely underwater without any problems. Norcross applied for a patent for his “diving armor” and obtained it on June 14, 1834.

Use of rubber sets it apart

Since then, diving suits have improved drastically, making them more practical for divers to handle themselves while underwater. Cumbersome air hoses were done away with and instead replaced by compressed air tanks that could be carried by the divers themselves.

The use of rubber in Norcross’ design set his diving suit apart from those that came before him. And even today, diving suits are predominantly made of synthetic rubber that works best as wetsuit material.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 10:06:06 PM |

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