The First Instance Of Caisson Disease

Caisson disease, better known as compression Sickness or the bends became widely known with the construction of the deep piers of the Eads Bridge in St Louis. Caisson disease, not actually a disease. What happens is that the deeper you into the water the more you compresss.  If you are on breath hold like most of the divers in the 19th Century your lungs compress with the rest of you and there’s not really any possibility of nitrogen bubbling into the blood stream under compression.

Hard hat diving had been around since the early 19th Century, but I couldn’t find much on the internet about decompression sickness from 19th Century hard hat divers.  I suspect that much of the reason for that is that hard hat diving is strenuous enough that bottom times are fairly short and the ascents are slow, so the possibility of the bends is mitigated somewhat.

For the people working in the caissons it was a different story. They were spending 12 hour days in the caisson and then exiting right from compressed air to one atmosphere. Which made cases of the bends inevitable.  I suspect that only the general health of the workers kept the situation from becoming a total disaster.

Click to access Eads%20Bridge.pdf

Things might have gone easier if the engineers on the Eads bridge had known about what happened to the crews of this early submarine.

Then Delgado found a New York Times article dated 1866 that outlined an event that happened on a New York river.  According to the article, Julius Kroehl, who was a German-American who invented one of the first submarines that could be fully submerged and travel under water, had been testing out his ship in the river when it sunk.  If this story is true, the sunken submarine is Kroehl’s Sub Marine Explorer.

But if the sunken submarine was Kroehl’s, then why would it be in Panama if it was only tested in a New York river? After more research, Delgado found out that the first trial was actually successful; that the submarine was then taken to Panama to be used for collecting pearls.  It is said that the submarine actually lasted a few weeks while collecting pearls, however, something must have gone terribly wrong to leave it rusted out in the middle of an ocean.

The submarine managed to harvest pearls successfully for a while.  In 1869 another New York Times article stated that one of the pearl-harvesting missions brought up almost 10 tons of oysters and pearls which estimated about $2,000.  However, all men who had been on the submarine contacted fever and decompression sickness; the vessel was condemned as harmful to the crewmembers’ health.  A year after the submarine arrived in Panama, Kroehl himself died from decompression sickness from diving in the submarine.  The sub was then taken to the island where it has remained beached ever since.  Delgado found it nearly 130 years later.

Sub Marine Explorer is a submersible built between 1863 and 1866 by Julius H. Kroehl and Ariel Patterson in Brooklyn, New York for the Pacific Pearl Company. It was hand powered and had an interconnected system of a high-pressure air chamber or compartment, a pressurized working chamber for the crew, and water ballast tanks. Problems with decompression sickness and overfishing of the pearl beds led to the abandonment of Sub Marine Explorer in Panama in 1869 despite publicized plans to shift the craft to the pearl beds of Baja California.

Sub Marine Explorer had an external high air pressure chamber which was filled with compressed air at a pressure of up to 200 pounds per square inch (1,400 kPa) by a steam pump mounted on an external support vessel. Water ballast tanks were flooded to make the vessel submerge. Pressurized air was then released into the vessel to build up enough pressure so it would be possible to open two hatches on the underside, while keeping water out. This meant that air pressure inside the submarine had to equal water pressure at diving depth, exposing the crew to high pressure, making them susceptible to decompression sickness, which was unknown at the time. To surface, more of the pressurized air was used to empty the ballast tanks of water.

contemporary (August 1869) newspaper account of dives in Sub Marine Explorer off Panama documents 11 days of diving to 103 feet (31 m), spending four hours per dive, and ascending with a quick release of the pressure to ambient (sea level) pressure. Modern reconstruction of Explorer’s systems suggests an ascension rate of 1 foot per second (0.30 m/s), or a rise to the surface in just under two minutes. The problems of decompression do not appear to have been clearly understood; the contemporary reference notes that at the conclusion of the dives, “all the men were again down with fever; and, it being impossible to continue working with the same men for some time, it was decided, the experiment having proved a complete success, to lay the machine up in an adjacent cove….”(The New York Times, August 29, 1869)

Apparently a large number of the crewmembers suffered from the bend and that caused the submarine use to be ended.  Which was actually reported in the papers.  The reasons were not understood and so the bend would continue to ravage bridge and tunnel projects until the 1890’s or so.  Those were brave times.

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