Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pictures from Below: The Development of Underwater Photography

Stephen Frink and I!
Hello there, my name is Denisse and I will be spending most of the summer working in the History of Diving Museum alongside Amber getting first-hand experience in museum operations and non-profit administration. I am very lucky to have joined such a welcoming, fun and knowledgeable staff here at the museum. (Not to exclude a small schnauzer named Simi and local house cat, Mrs.Snickers of course.) The first event in the many to come was the Seminar series that just occurred last Wednesday. It featured Stephen Frink who is a brilliant underwater photographer and got me thinking more about the subject of Underwater Photography. These days underwater cameras have a variety of uses. Underwater cameras can be used for archeological, scientific, building and even artistic purposes. They are also a method of documenting marine life, cave systems, and landscapes.


I decided to take a deeper look into our museum collection and found that it began with William Bauer, a German inventor during the Crimean War in 1865 who was the first to try and capture images underwater by taking photos through the portholes in the submarine. Also in the same year, according to the British Society of Underwater Photographers, the first underwater photograph was taken by William Thompson using a housed plate camera that was lowered to the seabed and operated from a boat. Thompson was inspired by the possibility of using underwater photography to assess the damage done to bridges in times of flood. However it wasn’t until 1893 that the first real underwater photograph was taken by Dr. Louis Boutan. An article by John Humphrey in Science states that Dr.Boutan earned a doctorate in sciences from the University of Paris and had his first diving experience in Banyuls-sur-Mer when they invited him to use the laboratory’s diving suit. He, like many divers, found himself fascinated by the underwater landscape and wanted to capture it. He proceeded to invent a camera that sustained the pressure of the water and had external controls allowing him to operate the camera underwater. Thus the first photos taken underwater emerged after a long 30 minute exposure and up to a depth of 50 meters. Here is a self-portrait of Louis Boutan I managed to dig up from the HDM photo vault, including one of Stephen Frink holding a replica of Boutan's design!

Stephen Frink holding a replica of the camera casing invented by Dr.L Boutan in 1893.
© Stephen Frink/

Now that the impossible had become possible there still remained the problem with lighting and “back-scatter.” Back-scatter refers to the reflection of tiny particles in the water. To diffuse this he invented a magnesium lamp to improve lighting and added a blue filter in front of the lens. And like all devices, underwater cameras have been improved upon and have developed enough to be used to film underwater. The first underwater films occurred in the early 1900’s by Jack Williamson who used a submersible sphere to create a film set underwater.
Submersible sphere by Jack Williamson

This would lead to the making of Jules Verne’s classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Other, more compact devices for filming developed in the 1930’s by Yves Le Prieur. Now that underwater housing for camera equipment had developed, it was time to tackle the issue of color. Let it be known that it was here in Florida Keys where the first color photo was taken! Dr. William Longley and National Geographic staff photographer Charles Martin captured a color photo of a hogfish in 1926. The next significant figure is Hans Hass whose special housings and other inventions in the 1940’s led to a higher quality and overall improvement in the field. It was not long before a consumer friendly underwater camera joined the market.
This photo features Hans Hass using one of his cameras.
 Nikon developed the first commercial cameras in 1960’s, the first of which was the Calypso followed by the Nikonos. Although it was discontinued in 2001 the museum has a Nikonos III which is able to take photos up to 50 meters in depth and is all weather proof!

The museum also has some of the camera housings used by Art McKee and a modern underwater camera by Amphibico Inc!
Art McKee's underwater camera housing
 Amphibico Inc

We hope you can join us as all of these can be seen as you tour the South Florida Room here in the museum!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Adventures in Greek and Roman Diving

When you walk into the History of Diving Museum, you are met with information and artifacts that have been salvaged from under the sea dating to the Greco-Roman period and even earlier.  You will encounter an intact amphora (a Greek/Roman storage jar) and an amphora fragment that still has some olives in it.  However, these items have been retrieved by modern divers and archaeologists.  What about in ancient Greek and Roman times?  What did they do?  We know from the segment of Aristotle and the image of the wall carving depicting men swimming underwater with air sacs on display in the museum that divers existed 2000+ years ago.  But how did they manage to deal with things like changing water pressure, how far could they dive, and under what circumstances were they diving to begin with?  Most of the sources of information we have that survive today regarding ancient Greek and Roman divers are literary, but this blog will serve to make some sense out of all the information and shed some light on the mysterious world of Greek and Roman diving!


First, let’s explore how some of the divers prepared themselves for ‘the plunge.’  In the ancient Greek work Problems, which has been attributed to the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle (although it is not certain whether he was actually the author of the work), some very fascinating diving techniques of the Greeks are described.  For instance, divers would puncture their eardrums on purpose before they dove so that they wouldn’t have to worry about the changing water pressure the further down they went.  They could just weigh themselves down with a rock and sink to the bottom without wasting time dealing with the pressure on their ears.  Some divers would also shove sponges or even oil in their ears to prevent the water from getting in (32.2-11)

Plutarch (De Primo Frigido, 950B), a Greek-turned-Roman philosopher of the 1st century CE, and Oppian (Halieutica, V.638, 646), a Roman poet of the 2nd century CE, both mention that divers would take a mouthful of oil before each dive.  They claim that when the diver reached the bottom of their dive, they would spit out the oil so that he could see more clearly.  They did not have helmets or protective lenses to aid in their sight in salt water, so they had to improvise.  Some modern scholars, however, such as Dr. Frank J. Frost, have suggested that ancient Greek and Roman divers would take oil in their mouths for an entirely different reason.  They argue that the divers would force the oil up through their eustachian tubes, the tubes that connect the nasopharynx to the middle ear, in order to protect their sensitive ear tissue from exposure to salt water.  There does not seem to be any literary or archaeological evidence to prove this theory.  However, if it does turn out to be true that the ancient Greek and Roman divers used oil this way, it could indicate that they had a more sophisticated understanding of human physiology than what many of the extant literary sources suggest.

Although there do not seem to be too many dangerous predators in the Mediterranean sea today, ancient historians claim that sharks were a definite problem for divers and even discuss ways in which divers tried to keep themselves safe from the carnivorous animal.  For instance, the Roman historian Aelian, writing in the late 2nd/early 3rd century CE, states in his De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals) that divers would blacken their hands and feet in order to try to avoid a loss of a limb from a shark attack (15.11).  What makes this interesting is that to this day it is a widespread belief that sharks are discouraged by dark colors.  Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher and author from the 1st century CE, figured out something that modern divers know – that swimming directly at sharks can scare them away (Natural History IX.152-3).


Another thing that modern scholars have been fascinated about regarding ancient Greek and Roman diving has been how deep the divers could have gone.  Dives of 90 feet, according to the Rhodian Sea-Law (III.47), were well within ancient Greek and Roman divers’ ranges. Isidore of Charax (Athenaeus 3.93E) mentions pearl divers in the Persian Gulf who descended to 120 feet.  While ancient literary sources must be taken with a grain of salt regarding the accuracy of the information given (ancient historians did like to exaggerate!), compared to modern ‘primitive’ divers, 90 feet for a dive does not seem that unreasonable. 


Diving was a way of life for many poor men in Greece and Rome.  The most common form of diving was for sponges, then the murex for ‘purple’ dye, and pearls, among other plants and animals common in the Mediterranean.  According to the Rhodian Sea-Law (III.47-8), divers could keep part of their findings, depending on the depth at which they salvaged the objects.  For instance, if gold, silver, or some other type of material was found at 8 fathoms (48 feet) down, the diver could keep 1/3 of what he found.  If the objects were salvaged from 15 fathoms (90 feet) deep, then the diver could keep half, because of the danger to the diver that deep under water.  However, if items were washed ashore or found 1 cubit (approximately 18 inches) below the surface of the water, then the diver could only keep 1/10 of what was found. 

Diving in antiquity wasn’t just something that poor men did to earn a few drachmas, but was also a business.  There were several corporations that were devoted to fishing and diving and were very competitive, especially in the Roman economy.  Diving was also used for military operations.  For instance, the earliest known documented organized military dive took place during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).  The 5th century BCE Greek historian Thucydides writes that when the Spartans were being attacked on the island of Sphacteria, divers from the mainland were sent down to bypass the Athenian blockade and bring food and supplies to the besieged Spartan troops (History of the Peloponnesian War IV.26).  Thucydides also describes an instance in which the military of Syracuse drove stakes into the bottom of the harbor around their anchorage to prevent Athenian triremes (a ship with three rows of oars) from getting through.  The Athenians, however, sent divers to go down and cut through the stakes so that their ships could get through (HPW VII.25.6-8).