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The Pioneers of Diving

by Trevor Norton

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-7867-0750-X

Lively, encapsulated histories of a dozen or so adventurers, scientists, and eccentrics who experimented to discover ways to plumb the depths of the ocean, written by British scientist Trevor (Marine Biology/Univ. of Liverpool).

Nobody had ever gone skindiving before John Guy Gilpatric created the first diving mask out of an old pair of flying goggles. That was in the South of France late in the 1920s, but people had been upending bell jars to capture the air inside in order to dive—and breathe—since Aristotle. Later in the 20th century, the efforts to discover the secrets of the deep became more scientific. J.B.S. Haldane, who follows his distinguished father in Trevor's study, began as a demolitions expert, progressed to the serious study of blood chemistry in the water and in the sky, and finished by laying the foundations for human and population genetics. He probably deserves his own book. Each of these adventuresome, sometimes foolhardy men arrived at the bottom of the ocean by a different route—from a love of the sea, from a love of the air, from pure curiosity, or from the love of photography. Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was seminal for most of them. Many tended to hurl themselves into the center of their experiments, some squashing themselves into leaky diving bells, others percolating their own blood for scientific ends. But what all Norton's subjects have in common is a battle against the pressure of deep water as they fought against the dark and the huge weight of an undersea atmosphere that tended to make eardrums perforate, bleed, and worse: "If the air supply was cut off," says Norton of some early divers who were over 150 feet down in primitive "hard hat" diving suits, "his entire body could be rammed up into the helmet, except for the soft bits which would shoot up the air hose."

A seaworthy effort. (b&w photos, illustrations)