In the early days, when motion pictures were still new, filming the ocean was a radical idea.
A surface-level shot of the waves was certainly feasible, but capturing footage of swaying undersea fauna, swimming fish, and marbled sunlight dancing on the seafloor? The consensus was: It couldn’t be done.
In fact, it could be. A century ago, the brothers John Ernest and George Williamson, the sons of a sea captain and inventor, would prove it. To do so, the Williamsons turned to a piece of technology their father had designed for divers in undersea repair and salvage jobs. The device was a series of flexible concentric tubes, “interlocking iron rings that stretched like an accordion,” as the Library of Congress puts it, made to suspend from a specially outfitted ship so that a diver could descend into a watertight chamber below. At one end of the tube was the boat on the surface of the water; at the other, the submersible room.
John Ernest and George were enchanted by their father’s machine. From the glass portals along the tube, they observed red snappers, yellowtails, fat groupers, and other shimmery creatures weaving through the coral reef of the Bahamas. And they had the idea of bringing a camera with them next time. Later, when they shared their still photos with newspapers—images included a blurry oblong shark and shadowy seaweed—it created a sensation.
Eventually, the Williamsons’ tubes—outfitted with a new, specialized spherical observation chamber that had a large funnel-shaped window—would be used to film the underwater scenes in the 1916 film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “I call this my magic window,” one of the silent film’s intertitle cards reads, before revealing a gray, clouded ocean view. “We gaze on scenes which you might think God never intended us to see.”