Pioneers: Ivor Howitt- Memories of an Aberdeen Amphibian

Pioneers: Ivor Howitt

Part 1

In March 1914, off Watling Island in the Bahamas, John E. Williamson took the first ever underwater motion pictures. He achieved this by filming from a glass-fronted underwater chamber, suspended from a barge by a flexible articulated access pipe. His film, The Underwater Expedition of the Brothers Williamson, created a sensation. The public of the time was largely ignorant of the submarine world, and his film ran for many months in Chicago, New York and London. He went on to make the first film version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (See his book Twenty Years Under the Sea).

In 1924, Williamson provided his unique ‘Photosphere’ to help Dr Roy Waldo Miner film coral reefs off Andros Island in the Bahamas, and collect some 40 tons of coral for display in the Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History. Underwater filming had progressed to the stage where divers wearing ‘open’ helmets (surplus air spilled out at shoulder level) were setting up cameras encased in heavy brass boxes, mounted on tripods placed on the sea bed.

By 1935, Dr William Beebe had published his classic Half Mile Down, in which he described open helmet diving in the shallows off Bermuda, and his bathysphere descents into the ocean abyss. Beebe’s great ability was to convey his own unbounded enthusiasm for exploring the natural world. His philosophy was that ‘boredom is immoral’! He strongly urged the ordinary public to don diving helmets and discover the underwater world for themselves, and he accurately forecast the proliferation of diving as a sport. Extracts from his book were published in National Geographic in June 1931, December 1932 and December 1934; the 1932 issue shows that despite his hundreds of dives, Beebe did not quite understand the physiology of diving. He advises not going below ten fathoms (about 20 metres) because ‘our ears cannot withstand too great a pressure.’

Hans Hass certainly was inspired by Beebe, and no doubt many others, including Jacques Cousteau. Their stories are so well known that I need not repeat them here. Naval divers were active during the Second World War, of course, some equipped with oxygen rebreathers and swim fins, and others astride ‘human torpedos’ or operating out of midget submarines. However, the technical details of their breathing units remained shrouded in mystery until well after the war, and it was with this absence of information and equipment, that I started my personal diving odyssey which, like the wanderings of the legendary Odysseus, lasted ten years.


Scotland, 1945-1950

As a teenager at the end of the war, and fired by Beebe’s descriptions, I determined to go diving. There were three major obstacles. The North Sea off Aberdeen was extremely cold; no sport diving gear of any kind could be bought; and my knowledge of diving was limited to what I had read about marine scientists in far-off tropical waters. It was a case of improvisation with materials at hand.

I modified a Civil Defence gas mask and connected it to a motor car foot pump with a length of rubber tubing. With a friend of mine, Hamish Gavin, I went to a farm dam on a wintry day with frost on the ground. We stripped off, and in turn submerged in the icy water with chattering teeth, nearly paralysed with cold. We immediately discovered that the gas mask’s angled eye glasses gave double vision underwater, and it took half a dozen jerking intakes of air to get a lungful. Matters were not helped by the pump slipping on the frozen ground and occasionally collapsing on its side! Still, it was a start, and we had learned two valuable lessons about refraction and air supply.

I then made a 1920s-style diving helmet open at the bottom, from a sheet of copper wrapped around a dustbin lid, and 60 pounds of lead weights bolted in place. A garden hose supplied air from a four cylinder pump comprising two pairs of car tyre foot pumps mounted in opposition and operated by a long handle. All this heavy and bulky equipment had to be carried to the coast on our push bikes. Without suits, we turned pink after five minutes, and blue not too many minutes later!

Another friend, Les McCoss, fitted a war surplus field telephone inside the helmet, and set up a loudspeaker on land so that we could all hear the diver. Our voice communication resembled that of later space explorers. In fact, those early pioneering dives were as exciting to us as the first space walks by astronauts on the moon. Fortunately our parents were supportive of our experiments, as we had already got them used to our other activities, which included mountaineering, rock climbing on sea cliffs, skiing and canoeing.

Several other friends became involved, and in 1948 we formed a small club, The Amphibians. I revelled in the pleasant task of designing and making all the underwater breathing equipment. I discovered that a free swimmer got sufficient air from our four cylinder pump, provided that an ‘economiser’ or air bag was used. These economisers filled from the pump as we breathed out, and gave sufficient air for our next breath in. One version I made from a section of car tyre inner tube, and another from a rubber hospital bedpan with the bottom cut out to provide head room. I fashioned perfectly adequate non-return valves by drilling a ring of air holes in bottle screw-tops, and centre-pinning a disc of thin rubber which flapped open and shut effectively regardless of the diver’s orientation underwater. Swim fins were made by wiring stiff rubber piping each side of a flap of inner tube rubber. Very uncomfortable, but they worked.

As secretary of The Amphibians, I wrote to the Dunlop Rubber Company in February 1949, as they had made the naval frogmen’s fins during the war. Incredibly, they replied that they could see no commercial market for swim fins in peacetime. This response reflected the virtual non-existence of sport diving in the UK at that time. A disc of transparent perspex and yet more inner tubing formed a serviceable face mask. With this equipment, we swam free on the end of a 20 metre length of small bore reinforced hose, to a depth of some five metres.

By now our activities had attracted considerable attention. A speleologist in Bristol wrote to seek advice on how to make equipment suitable for exploring underwater caves, and several others also sought our advice, even from as far away as Gibraltar. It was obvious that the general public had little knowledge of diving equipment.

Lt.-Commander Reay Parkinson, who was in charge of the naval team identifying the wreck of the 16th century Spanish galleon Florencia, sunk off Tobermory on the Island of Mull, invited us to come and see the operation. There we met Commander Lionel Crabb and Sidney Knowles, famous for their WWII underwater searches for mines attached to ships in Gibraltar harbour by Italian human torpedoes, and their clearing of mines from Italian harbours. Crabb was later to disappear in mysterious circumstances when he tried to examine the underwater details of a Russian battleship visiting Portsmouth during the Cold War.

I was allowed to dive with their ‘P-type’ suit, which had been used on British human torpedoes, breathing a mixture of 45% oxygen and 55% nitrogen – which allowed deeper diving than with pure oxygen. During gin and tonics in the wardroom with the officers, I commented on the luxury of diving in a nice warm suit. A junior officer noted our predicament, and a week or so later we became the proud owners of two old rubber ‘frog suits’ (minus breathing gear) which had seen better days. We also acquired two standard copper diving helmets condemned by the local harbour board as unsafe for further use by their divers – but safe enough for us! Les McCoss negotiated a pair of swim fins from a demobbed naval frogman. War surplus British Davis and German Drager kits for submarine escape were put to use as economisers, with air supplied by our four cylinder pump.

We got permission to use our dive gear in the local public pool (fame opens all doors!), so with a Leica camera encased in a metal box and large numbered cards suspended from a cord at one metre intervals, we checked the effects of refraction on camera focusing underwater. The giant leap forward came in 1949 when I bought the British version of the French Cousteau-Gagnan aqualung. This was the Siebe-Gorman compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA) with two 27 cu ft cylinders mounted on a back frame, with reducing and demand valves and a pressure gauge. Corrugated air hoses connected to a simple mouthpiece. Home Office regulations prevented the British Oxygen Company from filling my CABA cylinders with air for civilian use, but we got around this by using oxygen for dives less than ten metres deep.

One of our best dives was the wreck of the Alirmay, a fishing boat which foundered on the rocks south of Aberdeen. The water was clear and the wreckage strewn over the bottom in about 20 feet, or six metres. The mast just touched the surface and swung about in the swell. Careful timing was needed to pass between the wreckage and a rock wall, because a heavy timber beam thudded against the rock with each surge. We collected some of the lead rings from the fishing net as souvenirs; I still have one.

I also dived to the wreck with the open helmet, but this almost ended in disaster as I surfaced onto a ledge. A surge tipped me upside down and the helmet filled with water. Hamish, blissfully unaware of my predicament, continued his leisurely rate of pumping air, while I held my breath with lungs bursting until the water level got sufficiently below my mouth to allow a gasp! Another memorable day was when we sat underwater behind a waterfall in the Lui Burn near the Cairngorm mountains. A continuous curtain of sparkling air bubbles danced and glittered in the sunlight. Beauty appears in the most unexpected of places.

In April 1950, the Aberdeen Film Appreciation Group screened Cousteau’s 1945 film Epaves, showing his team exploring wrecks off the south of France, swimming free with aqualungs strapped to their backs. This was the first film I had seen of ‘aqualunging’ in the open sea, and I could not wait to get to warmer waters with my own kit. Late in 1950, my engineering training and studies completed, I emigrated to Australia. My sole assets after eight years of hard work were £60 cash, and another £60 invested in the aqualung, with no accessories. How does that compare with the buying power of today’s youth?!

Top