Casualties became a theme. In 1775, the Scottish confectioner Charles Spalding improved diving-bell safety with better balance weights, a pulley system that increased dive control, signal ropes leading to the surface, and even windows. Spalding and his nephew, Ebenezer Watson, used such diving bells for salvage work—until they both suffocated inside one off the coast of Ireland.
The final contribution to the Halley-style “wet” (partially-enclosed) bell was by Englishman John Smeaton more than a decade later. Smeaton’s bell maintained the air supply by connecting a hose to a pump above the surface. This design enabled laborers to fix the foundation of England’s Hexham Bridge. But it led to lower-class caisson workers coming down with what they called “caisson sickness,” as Smeaton’s bell became ubiquitous in harbors throughout the world. Now known as the bends or decompression sickness, caisson sickness sometimes caused surfaced divers to have strokes, leading to paralysis and even death. Workers would come back to the dry world and pray they didn’t mysteriously take ill.
It wouldn’t be until nearly 1900 that scientists began to master the effects of pressure on the human body. Eventually, the wet bell gave way to modern, completely enclosed “dry” bells, which were really just pressurized diving chambers. By the mid-20th century, these sophisticated diving bells aided the booming offshore oil industry—fuel awaited human discovery in the deep, next to shipwrecks, sponges, and pearls.
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Alexander the Great reportedly claimed that while submerged, he saw a monster so massive it took it three full days to swim past him. It would have been physically impossible to survive in his bell that long, of course, but the story makes good legend: The ocean offers a void big enough to contain human metaphor and myth, an emptiness vast enough to consume a three-day-long behemoth—or to swallow the continent of Atlantis (as Plato claimed), or the whole Earth itself (as Noah’s God commanded), or to hide the Missing Link on the lost island of Lemuria, or to conceal countless missing vessels in the Bermuda Triangle.
It’s no coincidence that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung chose Proteus, the shape-shifting Greek god of water who tells the future to whoever can catch him, as a manifestation of the unconscious, that great dark sea in the mind. The ocean represents the unknown. For thousands of years, it marked the portion of Earth people could never access. It was a place conquerable only by God, whom Isaiah addressed, “Art thou not it that dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?”
Imagine again: Your arms are full of something heavy you imagine to be precious, and you spend the last of your breath kicking, ascending back to the small room where you hope there’s still enough air to breathe, and then enough to make it to the surface, where you’ll wait to find out whether you’ll become one of the sick ones. Someone will pay you, and maybe it’ll be enough. To go underwater always challenges humanity’s natural place; to strive to stay there is to defy our given position on the earth. But humans will persist, because still so little is known about what lurks deep in the ocean, and because discovering it is worth the trial of pursuit.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.