Going Under: Diving Suits through History

Serious exploration of the underwater world began in the early 17th century, when the first submarine was invented by Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel.  Then, the environment beneath the sea was considered the most dangerous and mysterious on earth – long before the prospect of exploring environments, such as outer space, was even feasible.

The invention of individual diving suits in the early 18th century allowed a more refined exploration of the ocean depths.  The initial drive for the creation of diving suits was to aid salvage missions, at a time when many ships (carrying many treasures) were lost to the ocean on perilous journeys.  The first diving suits were designed in 1710s and in 1715, English inventor John Lethbridge created the first fully-enclosed suit, consisting of watertight sleeves, a pressurised air filled barrel and a viewing hole.

These basic elements formed the foundation for the design of future diving apparatus, the technological advances of which were covered regularly in illustrated scientific periodicals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Expeditions to ships sunken in WWI and WWII, fueled by public intrigue and fascination, were often dramatically illustrated in the likes of newspapers such as the Italian Sunday supplement; “La Domenica Del Corriere” and the French illustrated supplement “Le Petit Parisien”, with bold and vivid interpretations of almost robotic-like diving suits placed in otherworldly environments.

Early diving suits, far away from today’s equivalent, continue to be well-received in popular culture as a representation of the quirky and bizarre, due to their odd appearance and design aesthetics and for their kitsch, retro-futurist elements.  Film and television characters in early diving suits have appeared in cult productions, think the Ghost of Captain Cutler in Scooby Doo – this eerie, glowing and growling deep sea diver is of the show’s most popular villains (Below: Captain Cutler in SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection).

SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
For anyone enchanted by the exploration of the undersea world and have an appreciation for unusual design; the photographs and illustrations of early diving suits held by the Mary Evans Picture Library are a joy to behold.


Above: French inventor Freminet’s ‘Machine Hydrostatique’ which incorporates something like a  modern diving suit combined  with an air tank.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Pesce, ‘Navigation sous- marine’, 1772.


Above: Klingert’s diving suit and apparatus.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la Science’ volume 4 page 637, 1797.


Left: Cabirol’s diving suit combines effective protection with considerable ease of movement, the two basic requirements for working underwater.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Above: Diving dress and equipment of an amber hunter.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Right: A state-of-the-art diving suit of the late 19th century, made of rubber and fitted with an emergency air tank, just in case the unthinkable should happen… Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 655, 1875.


Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922

Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

 Deep-sea diving suit, for salvage work on HMS 'M1' subrine

Above: A German deep-sea diving suit brought from Kiel for examining the lost submarine ‘M1’. On 21 November 1925, while on an exercise in the English Channel. The ‘M1’ submarine sank with the loss of her entire crew, the crew members appear to have tried to escape by flooding the interior and opening the escape hatch, but their bodies were never found. At the time the submarine was lying too deep to use ordinary diving apparatus. So the decision was made to ask for the assistance of Messrs. Neufeldt and Kuhnke, of Kiel, who specialized in deep-sea diving apparatus.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922.

Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924.

Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920.

Diving suit used during Lutine salvage operation

Left: Full figure of man in underwater diving suit, c 1940.

Centre: A man holds up a rubber diving suit used during one of many salvage operations of HMS Lutine, which sank off the Dutch coast during a storm in 1799. Photograph c. 1934.

Right: American inventor H.L. Bowdoin with his deep-sea diving suit. On the shoulders are two 1000 watt automobil lamps. 15th August 1931.


Above: A German underwater photographer struggles to get into his rubber diving suit, with a little help from his friends. Unattributed photograph for Barnaby’s Studios Ltd c. 1930s.


Above: William Walker, diver, who worked under Winchester Cathedral between 1906 and 1912.


Looking back to the future – robots in the archive

Earlier this month The Science Museum in London opened their much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition ‘Robots’, the first of its kind in the world which charts a comprehensive history of robotics, from their early days right through to the robots of the future.

I wanted to pick out some visual highlights from our archive, which show the diverse nature of how robots have been celebrated in visual media throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Visions of the future

Robots, or ‘automated and mechanical machinery’ were often discussed in 19th century engineering and scientific periodicals, in speculation of how the future may look.  An early example in the archive appears in the ‘La Science Illustrée’, 1896 which shows unusual-looking ‘futuristic’, metallic, almost anthropomorphic machines working on a farm.  In La Nature, 1893 Canadian inventor George Moore’s ‘Steam Man’, a fully mobile robot automaton powered by an internal steam engine is featured.

Early robotics are also featured in an 1886 edition of the British comic ‘Funny Folks’ with a slightly humorous illustration showing a railway commuter in an an automatic shaving and boot polishing chair. ‘The Very Latest Development of the Automatic Mania’, ‘Drop a penny in the hole and take your seat’.

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Rise of the Robot

Robots were first introduced into popular culture by Karel Capek’s science fiction play of 1921, ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’. Capek was a Czech writer who, through theatrics, made the Czech word ‘robot’ popular in the English language and synonymous within the realms of science fiction. A much-loved highlight of the Mary Evans archive is the extensive collection of Pulp Science Fiction magazines, published between the 1920s and 1950s and acquired for the library by Hilary Evans. Whilst the stories inside were published in monochrome, the illustrated front covers were reproduced in vivid colour with imagined, utterly bizarre scenarios and many of the stories were based on, or featured robots. Sometimes they were friendly, sometimes not, some from other planets and some closer to home, but nevertheless certainly ‘amazing’ and ‘startling’ as the titles would suggest.


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Karel Capek and a programme for the first English production of the play, also known as R.U.R. and written by Karel Capek, when it was performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London.


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Unusual news

Robots were also the focus of many non-fiction stories. Throughout the early half of 20th century, the Italian Sunday supplement, Illustrazione del Popolo (supplement of the Gazetta del Popolo), was well known for its vibrant, candid and overtly dramatic covers based on unusual events-of-the-week throughout the world. As well as coverage on subjects such as the paranormal, bizarre crimes and freak weather, robots were also a hugely popular feature of the news. The Illustrazione del Popolo flourished during the early advances of robotics at a time when they were still objects of wonder and fantasy and the newspaper played on this aspect, presenting robots in all sorts of curious situations and interactions with people.

Robots as a feature of disguise were often reported, one cover of the Illustrazione del Popolo, 18 August 1935 edition; shows Zorinna, president of a naturist club in San Diego, California, carried off by a humanoid robot – much to the horror of her fellow club members. The paper reports that this robot is actually a man in disguise, who thought it would be a crafty way to enter the camp, for what we can imagine would certainly be lewd activities (men were barred from entering)!

Another ‘deception by robot’, in the 6 January edition of the same year, we see a robot or a ‘Man from the year 2000’ has been the subject of an arrest in the Italian city of Pavia on the suspicion that it is actually not a robot, but an imposter – merely a man in disguise. The paper reports that the imposter had been disguised as a ‘Mechanical Marvel’  which had been touring around several Italian cities on an extended tour of Europe.

A few more examples include an anthropomorphic robot, which appears in a 1929 edition of the ‘Illustrazione del Popolo’ – in the form of a robotic guard dog, which had been invented by a French engineer. The illustration seems to show the robot in action, having deterred a gang of burglars – very innovative! Another quirky illustrated scene sees a New York impresario replace his chorus girls with electrically powered robots, however his ingenuity is not well received by the audience (!) in the Illustrazione del Popolo, 16 December 1928.

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Eric the robot

Eric the Robot was Britain’s first robot, designed by Captain William Richards and engineer and inventor Alan Reffell (pictured below) Eric was originally built to inaugurate the Model Engineering Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, 1928, in place of the Duke of York who could not attend, but Eric proved so popular he subsequently toured the world and drew in the thousands. They would flock to see this new mechanical man rise, bow, make a ‘speech’ and stare in wonder at his flashing eyes and teeth!

Shortly after his world tour however and with the continued advance of technology, Eric sadly disappeared from the world stage and was long forgotten about, until recently. As of last year the Science Museum had successfully funded via Kickstarter a campaign to rebuild an exact replica of the famous Eric, (what happened to the original Eric remains a mystery) and is now one of the stars of the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition.

A notable example of Eric’s news coverage appeared in the Illustrated London News,15th September edition 1928, in the form of a diagrammatic illustration by artist George Horace David (G.H. Davis) who worked for the Illustrated London News for 40 years up until his death in 1963. The illustration gives a unique cross section showing how, concealed in his body there is an electric motor and a system of pulleys and cables. Eric also featured on the cover of French periodical ‘Le Petit Inventeur’, a wonderful illustration with Eric giving a shoe polish, a caption accompanies the illustration. ‘This scene is not a fantasy, the future will bring us even more surprises’.

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Pictured above right – Mr. Refell, inventor and engineer from Surrey with Eric the robot.

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The servant of the future -- a robotic servant polishes a man's shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Date: 1929

A greater selection of archive imagery on robots can be viewed here.