The Deep Could Hide Monsters, But They Were Made By Man
November 19, 2016 12:05 AM   Subscribe

Unfathomable: Sunken treasure, death-defying adventure, sibling rivalry: How Charles and John Deane Invented modern deep-sea diving and saved the British Empire

"But Sarah’s concern would not change John’s mind. He stood on deck, assembling his suit and donning his helmet. Through its three small windows John could now see the horizon, engulfed in flames. A rear guard of British battleships had begun a massive fusillade against Russian forces, but the strait was still dense with mines, and the entire British navy awaited John’s descent in his legendary Deane helmet."
posted by Eyebrows McGee (19 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Literally every single part of this article is fucking fascinating.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:05 AM on November 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree. That article was really well written and excellently researched. I learned a whole lot!
posted by sleeping bear at 1:23 AM on November 19, 2016

And beautifully designed too.
posted by Laotic at 1:51 AM on November 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Absolutely fantastic story, and fantastic work by everyone involved. I also really appreciate the credits for everything at the bottom, since as I read through I was wondering, "Cool! I wonder where that image (etc.) came from?"

*Wild Applause* Thank you, EM!
posted by taz at 3:00 AM on November 19, 2016

Yes, an outstanding story. Thanks!
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:58 AM on November 19, 2016

Wow! The videos and images are breathtaking and add so much to this story. The bubbles video made me feel like I was actually there, in Portsmouth Harbour.
posted by cynical pinnacle at 6:04 AM on November 19, 2016

It is a fascinating, and sad story and man, do they make it hard to read. I am torn between fascination and grouchiness.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:07 AM on November 19, 2016

The source book is not, as they say in the used book trade, not an easy title. Shame. Here's hoping the library has it.
posted by BWA at 6:48 AM on November 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

In the shallower depths, diving seemed fine at first. Ten feet down, no problem. Twenty feet. Still fine. But at around 30 feet, they would feel pressure mount around the soft tissues of their face and neck. They’d try to breathe, but there’d be no air. At 40 feet, their face would engorge with blood. The blood vessels in their eyes would burst and bodily fluids would shoot from their orifices. Then they would hear a sickening swish at the back of the dive helmet—this was the sound of their hair being sucked off their scalp. At extreme depths, their face would rip from their head and be deposited back through the air hose on deck in a bloody spurt.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:18 AM on November 19, 2016

Yeah I was like I don't want to know how they know about the hair sucking noise because no.

But wow that has to the one of the most well designed web articles I've ever encountered not to mention well written.

Great fonts, excellent navigation, no weird pop up things or anything. I'm kinda dumbfounded at how amazing it is.
posted by sio42 at 9:30 AM on November 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

The article explains the cause of Charles' cognitive loss as the result of exposure to nitrogen at greater than atmospheric pressure, which most frequently results in "the bends" when the diver returns to the surface w/o proper time for decompression---of which they knew nothing at the time. The effect of "the bends" generally onset in a relatively short time after surfacing.

However, I actually wonder more about chronic oxygen toxemia, resulting from very long term exposure to oxygen at increased concentration---not enough to result in catastrophic seizures during the dive (CNS toxemia), but enough to cause subtle neurological damage over time, in Charles' case, time being years. If he was in fact making multiple dives a day for many days to depths of 60 - 100 feet (where P02 would be about .4 to .8 ATM) without significant breaks between dives and staying submerged for an hour or more at a time, this seems like a more likely explanation.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 10:00 AM on November 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you! I can't believe I haven't heard about this site before, it's right up & down my alley.
posted by hat_eater at 1:51 PM on November 19, 2016

Good point, Insert Clever Name Here. Charles also exhibited other potential cognitive symptoms even before diving, so maybe it was a little bit from columns N2, O2, and genetics.

Yeah, fantastic story and well presented. Tragic about Charles' mental illness, not re-filing his helmet for diving, and financial mismanagement.
posted by porpoise at 3:21 PM on November 19, 2016

Thank you! I can't believe I haven't heard about this site before, it's right up & down my alley.

Same here - that's my Sunday sorted!
posted by jontyjago at 2:01 AM on November 20, 2016

This story is fascinating and actually very relevant to me, as for the last few years I've been researching in my spare time the various inventions of a relative of mine had created between the US War of Independence and the War of 1812.

During that time, he had set his mind to military innovations, and had corresponded with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on his inventions of a 13 shot repeating flintlock rifle, a repeating pistol, and a selection of multi-barrel swivel guns for naval ships (one that could fire 224 rounds automatically), all of which were accepted and commissioned by the government for testing and use in the War of 1812.

One of his other inventions was a diving suit with its own air supply tank and what seems to be a very primitive form of a SCUBA regulator, with valves that would allow fresh air to come in from the tank, and expel used air out without sending it back into the 'fresh' air tank. Unlike the system invented by the Deane brothers, his system was not focused on operating at depth - he was designing it for the purpose of covertly approaching enemy ships while in harbor, and attaching timed explosives to the hull far below the water line.

Here's the letter to Thomas Jefferson he wrote in 1807, where he lays out the basic concept of the device that he first started experimenting with in 1776. The letter shows struggles of the inventor haven't changed much, dealing with officials and investors not exactly open to trying new things, etc., but if there was anyone around who would give a guy like him some consideration and honest feedback, it was Jefferson. (Also, the 'Brother Fulton' referenced in his letter is Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat and his friend and neighbor)

Alas, it seems that his idea was just a few decades ahead of its time - the waterproofing method he used seems to have worked to keep the water out of the tank, but the process ended up fouling the air it contained. Had he had access to the waterproofing process invented by Charles Mackintosh around 1820, that used naphtha derived from coal tar, and a better understanding and means to use pressurized air that was starting to happen around that time, things may have been able to proceed beyond the 'possible, but not practical' stage.

He's a fascinating guy, and it should be noted that not all of his work was focused on military applications. He helped start, build, and teach at a number of small schools around SW Pennsylvania, as well as develop and promote linguistic and language education reform. Researching his work has not been easy, as all his patents were burned with the rest of Washington, D.C. in the war of 1812.
posted by chambers at 2:03 PM on November 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Researching his work has not been easy, as all his patents were burned with the rest of Washington, D.C. in the war of 1812.

Are you sure it wasn't the Patent Office fire of 1836? The Patent Office building was famously the only U.S. Government building to survive the burning of Washington.
posted by RichardP at 3:40 PM on November 20, 2016

Are you sure it wasn't the Patent Office fire of 1836?

You're almost certainly correct, I goofed on that one.
posted by chambers at 7:23 PM on November 20, 2016

What a fascinating article, and so beautifully presented. Yay good journalism!
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:18 PM on November 20, 2016

I finally got around to reading this and it's great! I agree the layout adds to the story; impressively executed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:19 PM on November 21, 2016

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