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Technology and Guts

The worlds first commercial nitrox dive

"Fortune favors the bold"
(Scottish proverb)

Would you believe me if I told you about some divers with more "daring do" than perhaps even Jacques Yves Cousteau? How about futuristic technology so advanced for its time that even NASA’s developments pale in comparison..….Is this possible?

Remarkably, not all-epic explorations are measured in distance or depth. The dives that I am about to relate to you did not exceed one thousand feet in length, nor did they go deeper than forty feet, yet their historical significance is unsurpassed.

Imagine using diving equipment so different from known technology that it is truly radical. Yet technology was only a part of the picture, the other, perhaps more important aspect was "guts". The divers involved exhibited almost unbelievable courage in an escapade that would humble even the best cave divers today.

On November 3rd, 1880, twenty-nine year old inventor, Henry A. Fluess arrived in Portskewett, from London. He brought with him the worlds first, practical, self-contained breathing apparatus. This life support unit was actually a very simple nitrox rebreather, but nothing like it had ever been seen before. Up until then, divers could only use cumbersome surface supplied dive gear.

Fleuss Diving Apparatus

Fleuss Diving Apparatus

Pictures of the Fleuss Apparatus

Portskewett is the site of the Severn tunnel. During its construction, the tunnel had suddenly flooded. The engineers needed to get a person 200 feet down a shaft which had forty feet of water in it, then 1000 feet back into the flooded tunnel. The mission was to close a four-foot by four-foot, iron door so that the tunnel could be pumped out.

The conventional hardhat dive gear of the day proved unworkable because of the 1200 feet of umbilical that had to be dragged in. Imagine a 1200-foot push into a cave in full heavy gear, pulling an air hose. The tunnel engineers were snookered: they had hit the wall of known technology.

Fluess himself had made a couple of dives to test his new apparatus, but he had never actually done a working dive. None the less, he had come to offer the services of his new nitrox device.

After studying the drawings of the shaft and tunnel, Fluess had Alexander Lambert, an employee of Siebe Gorman & Co., and a very experienced diver, stand by at the bottom of the shaft. The idea was for Fluess, who was wearing his oxygen rebreather, to be lowered down the 200 foot shaft, where Lambert would undo Fluess's lowering rope, then point him in the direction of the flooded tunnel.

Keep in mind that underwater lights, communications, bail out gas, and OSHA inspectors, were a thing of the future. So imagine Fluess, essentially a non-diver, using the first experimental nitrox rebreather, crawling along in absolute darkness, between the train rails, reaching through the mud to feel his way, pushing through restrictions and construction debris, without a lifeline. Was he wondering what was going to give out first? The oxygen supply in the 450psi copper cylinder or the carbon dioxide absorbent (hemp fibre impregnated with a solution of caustic potash)? Or his nerve?

His first effort lasted one hour and netted him about 300 feet into the tunnel. Today this would be considered over twice the allowed NOAA oxygen exposure. Again and again he tried, each time gaining a bit more distance. It eventually became clear that the equipment would work, but Fluess's inexperience as a diver was letting him down. Alexander Lambert, who would eventually become famous for his diving exploits around the world, asked if he could give it a try. That afternoon, Lambert became the first working diver to get trained on a self-contained breathing apparatus.

Lambert's attempts the following morning resulted in a successful, one thousand-foot penetration into the tunnel, where he managed to take up one rail and partially remove the other from the sill of the door. This effort took one hour and thirty minutes. Taking a smaller crowbar in on his next attempt, he removed the final obstruction, and closed the iron door.

Lambert's exposure to oxygen partial pressure was over three times that allowed on the NOAA exceptional exposure limits table. As well, his PO2's were as high as 2.0 ata's, depending on how efficiently he purged the breathing loop (whether by accident or design). Consider that this diver was working hard, in total darkness, under primitive conditions, while utilizing totally unfamiliar diving equipment.

In the event of hypercapnia, oxygen toxicity, hypoxia, disorientation, or caustic cocktail, these pioneers were on their own. Without any of the redundancy, protocols or training that we take for granted, even the slightest problem could have resulted in a fatal incident.

This epic adventure by Fluess and Lambert in the Severn Tunnel over one hundred and twenty years ago, puts into perspective our diving achievements today. Many things have changed since the time of Henry Fluess and Alexander Lambert, but the success formula remains the same …. "Technology and guts".


The Nitrox Stik™
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