In an age when, from the comfort of a shore-side laboratory, scientists are able to view images of the oceans deepest depths and the habits of the often-bizarre creatures that dwell there, it’s difficult to conceive of the problems faced by early marine naturalists.
In 1892, the French scientist, Louis Boutan likened the difficulties faced by naturalists reliant on specimens being fetched up from the depths in trawl-nets as being, “analogous to a visitor from the moon who might make observations from a moon-ship floating on top of our atmosphere … he would be reduced to using the means our own naturalists have used up to now: He would drag and net.”
The problem faced by Boutan and his colleagues was that diving was still in its infancy and the equipment bulky and clumsy. Few scientists had the inclination to dive and most divers lacked the systematic training necessary to make valid studies and observations of what they saw.
Deciding that photography would prove a valuable scientific tool in studying natural life beneath the sea, Boutan set about designing and building the world’s first underwater camera.
Employing a fixed-focus box camera housed in a copper waterproof box with three glass ports, (two for the viewfinder and one for the lens); a lid that screwed tight on to a rubber gasket; and an external shutter control lever, Boutan realised that the water pressure at ten-metres would probably crush the box. He therefore pressurised the box by fitting a tube attached to a rubber, air-filled balloon! As the water pressure increased the balloon collapsed and forced air into the housing.
Although he made his first dives using this apparatus in 1893, the lengthy exposure times, (between ten- and thirty-minutes), proved impractical.
The ‘Drowned’ Camera
Of the opinion that a camera open to the sea would remove the need for pressurisation and waterproofing and that focussing and aperture size could be adjusted as easily as on land, his second effort utilised specially varnished sensitised exposure plates.
Testing this ‘drowned’ camera in 1894, he reported mediocre results. The movement of the shutter caused small wave undulations that blurred the resulting image. Although believing that, “however bad the results, the future of underwater photography may well lie in this direction.”, Boutan went back to an arrangement similar to his first design; a waterproof box in which both the lens and the photographic plates were surrounded by air.
Seeing the light!
Studying the optical problems associated with underwater photography, Boutan’s third underwater camera had an astigmatic lens that could be focussed before the dive. It proved an outstanding success and led him to experiment with the idea of artificial lighting.
Building two storage batteries powering two submerged arc lamps pressure tested to a depth equivalent to 100 metres, the camera proved its worth when, in 1899, it was lowered to a depth of 50-metres where – despite one of the housed arc lamps flooding – it took a sharp picture image of a previously prepared sign reading, “Photographie Sous-Marine”. It was another forty years before photographs were taken at depths exceeding those achieved by Boutan.
“The image moved!”
Following in Boutan’s footsteps other inventors developed their own designs for underwater cameras and began to feed the public demand for more images of this alien world. Appreciating the entertainment value of the new medium, John Williamson, a newspaper cartoonist, designed and built an observation bell attached by a metal umbilical tube to a surface vessel.
In 1914, from the dry comfort of this ‘photosphere’, he began to film the world’s first undersea movies, including – in 1915 – his acclaimed silent version of the Jules Verne classic, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea”.
By the 1950’s colour photographs of the world beneath the sea began to appear in magazines around the world. Together with documentary films of their exploits these images helped catapult to fame names like Hass and Cousteau and popularised recreational diving.
“What’s on the telly?”
With the widespread introduction of television the value of being able to receive real-time underwater images became apparent. In 1951 the search for the missing HM Submarine Affray in the English Channel took on a new dimension when a specially developed underwater television camera, (operated by legendary WWII diver, “Buster” Crabb), identified the sunken craft.
Living up to Boutan’s expectations of a tool that would benefit science, undersea researchers regularly employ remote U/W cameras to ‘eyeball’ scenes far beyond the scope of safe diving limits. But for recreational divers and photographers the true value of the camera rests in its ability to faithfully produce wonderful images of a world that defies description.