The Wonders of Salvage

Periodically, I make the decision to sell off all of the diving-related books, manuals and documents that I’ve acquired over many years.  It’s a ritual that involves taking them down from the book-shelf, blowing off the dust and then  taking a quick and – what is intended to be – final peek inside the covers.  Invariably, they all wind up back on the shelf to sit out another few years.

First published in 1924, and revised in 1926, David Masters book, ‘The Wonders of Salvage’, offers some wonderful insights into the world of diving as it was almost 100 years ago.


1926 Reviews of, ‘The Wonders of Salvage’.

“No birthday of a young nephew or niece will be complete without ‘The Wonders of Salvage.’  Mr David Masters is in supreme control of his subject, and ordinary sensational fiction grows pale before the facts he relates.”

– Punch Magazine’s literary reviewer.

“This book is to be recommended for what it tells of the ingenuity of the scientist, of the acumen and enterprise of the expert in charge of the operations, and, above all, of the courage, resource and pertinacity of the diver.  But apart from all that, it contains tales which make Blue-books of sensational magazines”

– The Times


The Diver

“Without the diver, treasure hunting beneath the waves would be impossible.  The salvage expert may make the most brilliant plans, collect the most up-to-date and scientific plant to assist him, but in the end it is the diver who carries the work through, and upon the courage, determination and skill of the diver the success of the expedition depends.  To dive to a depth of 5 fathoms, or 30 feet, is a task that the average man could accomplish without much difficulty; most men, too, would be able to reach a depth of 10 fathoms or 60 feet, if they were in decent physical condition. But at 15 and 20 fathoms and over the body is called upon to stand exceptional strains and so exceptional men are necessary.

Quite apart from the many risks, deep diving is very arduous, and seldom are men found with the physique that will enable them to dive 100 feet and over.  The deep-sea diver must be trained like an athlete, perfectly sound in wind and limb and heart, and in tip-top physical condition.  A fat diver stands little chance of attaining great depths, sothe finest divers are generally on the slim side, men without an ounce of superfluous fat and with muscles as tough as steel.

          ” … with muscles as tough as steel.” 🙂

The physical strain placed on the body and heart merely by diving to these great depths is not generally realised.  To ask the human body to undergo pressures three, four and five times greater than atmospheric pressure is expecting the body to undergo strains three, four and five times greater than the body was built to stand.  ….

The crack sea-diver is almost as difficult to find as the swimmer who can conquer the English Channel.  When it comes to doing actual work at depths of 100 feet and over, the strain on the diver’s body is indeed very much greater, for his exertions use up so much oxygen that his heart is called upon to pump at an increased speed in order to replace it. …

Breathing compressed air not only places a strain on the lungs, but it tends to fill the body with an excess of nitrogen.  This nitrogen may easily form tiny bubbles of gas , and these bubbles, if they reach the heart, might cause the death of the diver or bring on that dread paralysis known as diver’s palsey, a disease which renders the lower part of the diver’s body quite useless.

Strangely enough, it is not in going down that this danger threatens the diver, but only in coming up. …

Dr. J. S. Haldane and Dr. A. E. Boycott conducted some remarkable diving experiments for the British Admiralty in 1906, during which Commander Damant and Mr. A. Catto attained the record depth of 210 feet. … Diving was, in fact, so dangerous that exceptional precautions had to be taken, with the result that the diver who walks about the bottom of the ocean today may be far safer than a man walking across Piccadilly, thanks to the fine work of Dr. Haldane, Dr. Boycott, and Dr. Leonard Hill.

Never was knight attired for the tourney more carefully than the modern diver is clad before venturing into the depths …. in appearance these diving dresses seem cumbersome, and the diver looks more than ever like a knight in armour.

Another form of dress largely in use enables the diver to descend in shallow water without relying on the usual air-pipe and pump.  In such dresses the diver carries certain chemicals which not only purify the air he is breathing, but also furnish him with fresh oxygen.  One chemical absorbs the poisonous carbonic acid gas given off by the breath, and the other chemical gives off fresh oxygen as the moisture of the breath touches it. ….

So commonplace is the diving dress that it no longer excites curiosity.  Yet it remains one of the wonders of modern civilisation.  Merely by utilizing the sap of a tree, which we know as rubber, and fresh air, men are now able to work and live at the bottom of the sea.”

It’s fascinating to look back and to be able to see just how far diving has come … and then to think how history will –  in another hundred years or so – view today’s diving explorers and adventurers?


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