Monday, August 2, 2010

Petroleum Underwater Diver's Light, Cabirol, France c.1860

The History of Diving Museum (HDM) displays many artifacts that are one of a kind, the first or simply the rarest in existence. However, out of the many priceless artifacts, the Cabirol Petroleum lamp is extremely rare and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Significant from both a technological and conceptual standpoint, the Cabirol Petroleum lamp was designed in 1860 by Joseph Cabirol in France. This grand petroleum lamp was made before electricity was used in underwater lighting! The Cabirol lamp predated the transition from open flame to electricity.

Now, to take a step back, it is best to understand the history of electricity to appreciate the significance of the Cabirol lamp. A late 19th century design, it barely missed the jump from oil lighting to electricity (a fuel that would be outsourced shortly thereafter). The discovery of electricity dates back to 3rd century B.C.E. during the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Texts confirm an understanding of electrical charge created by fish. However, electricity and positive energy would remain an intellectual phenomenon for the next two-thousand years. Many credit Benjamin Franklin with the first discovery and application of electric charge in his famous, 'kite in a thunderstorm' experiment, but truthfully, it wasn't until the 19th century that Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Otto Blathy, Anyos Jedlik, Sir Charles Parsons, George Westinghouse, Ernst Werner von Siemens, and Lord Kelvin transformed electricity from an intellectual curiosity to an essential tool for everyday life.

From a design standpoint, the fuel source (petroleum) was held in the bottom canister. To keep the flame burning in the crystal sphere, a steady supply of oxygen was needed -- just as a diver would need fresh air. The air was provided by a dedicated 2-piston air pump contained in the pump box. The air was pumped through a set of rubberized hoses (in 1860!), down the lamp. The hot gases were then channeled out the top and through the pipes surrounding the crystal globe, where the hot fumes were coolest to prevent scorching rubber return hoses.

Due to a fortuitous accident, this rare lamp was preserved for 150 years! The petroleum flame was lit and the lamp was quickly closed to make it watertight. But before the lamp was lowered into the water, the crystal globe became too hot and cracked -- as can be seen on the lamp! Because the lamp was broken, it was condemned to a removed warehouse, where it was forgotten for a century and a half.

The lamp is displayed in the "Abyss" exhibit at HDM.

The Cabirol Company

Cabirol is also known in the historical diving community for its contribution to helmeted diving. Around 1842, the company began producing helmets; their inclusion of a top window separated their design from that of the Morse Company. Although few still remain, the HDM collection owns a Cabirol helmet. An extremely rare artifact in its own right, missing the front port and brails, its dull color suggests the uncommon nature of the item.

At the time, the Cabirol Company was highly regarded in France and respected for their contributions in diving. The French, in their typical decadent fashion, prominently displayed divers etched in stone with the inscription "Famille Cabirol-Ferrus" on the steps of the Cabirol factory. To our dismay, two larger divers surrounded the doors of the factory, carrying none other than the Cabirol petroleum lamp.

Today, the Cabirol Company is no longer in existence. Once a small company in France, Cabirol was almost forgotten in diving history. HDM serves as the company's greatest monument and appreciation for their contribution to diving history.

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