James Bond’s No Time to Dive Scuba History

James Bond, Thunderball and the History of the Human Torpedo

Thunderball was the fourth movie in the James Bond franchise and, like the previous three, starred Sean Connery as the super cool British spy. Bond movie number three, Goldfinger, had been a breakout success, largely because of Bond’s gadgets including Bond’s Aston Martin car with machine guns and ejector seat. The producers wanted Bond using more gadgets in Thunderball in order to keep up the momentum. Bond’s Aston Martin made brief appearance at the beginning of Thunderball, just after Bond had escaped the clutches of villains using a jet pack. But the real Bond gadget-fest kicked in when Bond goes underwater. Q gives Bond a miniature rebreather, a wristwatch with a Geiger counter, and an underwater infrared camera along with and underwater propulsion device.

The bad guy, Emilio Largo (Number 2 in the evil organisation SPECTRE) has his share of gadgets too, including a cool-looking manta ray shaped underwater sled, or human torpedo. A couple of Largo’s men (in black wet suits) sit in the cabin of the orange sled to transport the NATO atomic bombs that Largo has stolen. It’s also fitted with spear guns built into the manta ray wings.

The Underwater Sled Used in Thunderball
The Underwater Sled Used in Thunderball

The sled is based on an Italian mini-sub or SDV (Swimmer Delivery Vehicle). They are also called ‘wet subs’, because the people riding them stay wet and have to have scuba gear. Wet subs were developed during World War II by the Italians, who originally called them ‘Maiale’, which is Italian for pig, because that’s how they handled underwater. The famous Italian Tenth Light Flotilla (Decima Mas or X-Mas) rode them around the Mediterranean successfully blowing up British ships. When the British captured a couple during World War II, they copied the design to build their own, which they named Human Torpedoes, or Chariots.

After the war, two members of Decima Mas decided to develop chariots/pigs for military and commercial use. They started a company with a good Italian name (Construzione Motoscafi Sottomarini) meaning Construction of Submarine Motorboats, and abbreviated it to COSMOS. Their first model was the Seahorse I, which used a petrol engine and a snorkel. Their second model used batteries and an electric motor in watertight compartments, and was called the Seahorse II.

What Emilio Largo and his baddies are using in Thunderball is a Seahorse II, with a manta ray shaped cowling added for the movie.

The Cosmos Seahorse II came with an optional enclosed cabin. Here is a pic of one of the few still that still exist. It is fitted with the enclosed cabin and is in a US Navy museum in America.

Cosmos Seahorse II with enclosed cabin
Cosmos Seahorse II with enclosed cabin

Today there are only handful of Cosmos Seahorse IIs in the world that I know of. In addition to the one pictured above, there are two in Australia. One of these is currently undergoing a restoration by a friend of mine and is close to complete.

Cosmos Seahorse II undergoing restoration in Australia
Cosmos Seahorse II undergoing restoration in Australia

There’s still a bit of work to be done on making the compartments watertight, and sorting out the batteries, but when it is complete, I’ll take it for spin and make a video. So don’t forget to subscribe to my Jeff Maynard Adventure Historian YouTube channel.

Frontier Below Fun Fact: A Cosmos Seahorse II was used in the movie ‘Skippy and the Intruders’ filmed in Australia. For those of you who didn’t grow up on Australian television, Skippy was an intelligent kangaroo that hung out in a national park with a young boy. The pair had adventures and, in the movie-length film, smugglers are using a Cosmos Seahorse II to land drugs in a remote area of the park. After the film, the same Cosmos Seahorse II made regular appearances in another Australian TV series, ‘Great Barrier Reef’, which was also produced in the 1960s.

Frontier Below Fun Fact: Check the diving equipment used by James Bond and all the good guys in Thunderball. (The good guys are in orange wetsuits.) Then check the diving equipment used by Emilio Largo and the bad guys in black wet suits. Largo is wearing the twin hose style Aqualung invented by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan. Bond is wearing the single hose regulator that replaced it. For the story behind how one system replaced the other, see my YouTube video Jacques Cousteau and the Secret of the Aqualung.

The Ins and Outs of Recompression Chamber History

Licence to Kill was the 16th James Bond film in the official franchise and the second (and last) time Timothy Dalton got to be Bond. Bond has his ‘Licence to Kill’ revoked by MI6 when he goes rogue, and sets out to avenge the torture of his CIA sidekick Felix Leiter and the murder of Leiter’s wife by nasty drug dealer Franz Sanchez.

Sanchez is smuggling drugs into America using Milton Crest, who has a phony marine biology research operation. Crest’s boat is used to smuggle the drugs and there’s plenty of underwater action as Bond sneaks aboard, gets captured, escapes, saves the pretty girl and all the normal Bond stuff.

On board Crest’s marine research boat there is a recompression chamber, presumably in case any of the marine biologists get bent while studying fish or collecting drugs. When Sanchez suspects Crest of betraying him, he has Crest tossed into the recompression chamber and some of Sanchez’s baddies crank it up. We don’t see how many atmospheres they crank it up to, but then Sanchez grabs an axe and chops an air hose leading to the chamber. The pressure drops almost instantaneously and poor Crest, looking out the porthole has his head expand until his whole body explodes splattering blood on the porthole.

The Recompression Chamber in Licence to Kill
The Recompression Chamber in Licence to Kill

Recompression chambers were developed in the 19th century, initially for workers in caissons (underwater structures used to lay the foundations for bridges). Workers leaving the compressed air environment too quickly, experienced ‘caissons disease’ or ‘decompression sickness’ (sometimes called ‘the bends’ because victims were bent over and crippled). Workers experienced sharp pain in their joints and reported the pain disappeared if they returned to the compressed air environment. When divers in the standard diving dress (copper helmet, etc.) began to go deeper and ascend quickly, they experienced the same problems. Initially, it was thought that if compressed air caused the problem, then returning the victim to a compressed air environment would only make it worse.

An American doctor, Andrew H. Smith was one of the first people to suggest recompression would be the answer to caissons disease. Smith had been asked to study the problem during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, New York. He was followed by a British civil engineer, Sir Ernest William Moir, who was consulting on the construction of the Hudson River Tunnel, New York. Moir was the first to build a chamber specifically for recompression in 1889. It had a small hatch for entry, and a series of valves and pressure gauges.

Frontier Below Fun Fact: The chamber in Licence to Kill is most likely a movie prop. The hatch door opens out, which is unusual. Normally the door is on the inside, so when the pressure inside is increased, it will seal the door shut. Having the door on the outside of the chamber, and increasing the pressure, runs the risk of air escaping. Also, there would not have been a hose for Sanchez to cut with an axe. Anything that could have been severed with a single chop of an axe, would not have been strong enough to pressurise the chamber.

Frontier Below Fun Fact: Heads don’t explode as a result of sudden decompression, like Milton Crest’s did. It did look spectacular through.

A History of the JIM Suit

The Name’s Jarret, Jim Jarret.

For Your Eyes Only is the 12th Bond film and the fifth of seven in which Roger Moore gets to wear flares and play the British secret agent. (I’ll circle back to the underwater car in The Spy Who Loved Me in a future blog.) Bond has to track down a missing nuclear missile guidance system which has sunk along with a British submarine. When diving to the submarine, James Bond gets to fight a baddie in an atmospheric diving suit.

James Bond versus JIM suit
James Bond versus JIM suit

Earlier in the film, Bond is aboard the ship owned by the bad guys and, in a nice piece of foreshadowing, bumps into the JIM suit while there is no diver inside it. James Bond spells out JIM, explaining the suit as, ‘J-I-M diving equipment’. But it’s not an acronym. A JIM suit is named for a real ‘Jim’.

After decompression sickness began to cripple and kill divers in the 19th century, it was realised the problems stemmed from pressure on the human body. Inventors started building atmospheric diving suits (ADS). The idea was that the diver would be sealed inside a hard ‘shell’ and therefore protected from the water pressure. The air inside the suit would remain at one atmosphere, no matter how deep the diver went. (Hence the name.) The problem to be overcome with ADS were the articulated joints in the arms and legs. They had to be strong enough to withstand the pressure and not allow water to squirt in, but also had to be moveable. Inventors tried making joints using ball bearings, but these would seize under pressure. The breakthrough came in 1930, when a British engineer and inventor, Joseph Salim Peress made an atmospheric diving suit with oil-filled joints. The oil would not compress at depth, and allowed the two surfaces it separated to still move against one another relatively freely.

Peress named his atmospheric diving suit the Tritonia, and the diver he used to test it was Jim Jarret.

Jim Jarret in the Tritonia beside a standard dress (helmet) diver
Jim Jarret in the Tritonia beside a standard dress (helmet) diver

Peress failed to interest any navies or salvage companies in his atmospheric diving suit, and for 30 years it was left in factory storage in Scotland. In the 1970s, with the North Sea oil and gas industry needing divers to work beyond the limits of compressed air, modern inventors began making atmospheric diving suits. An ageing Peress came out of retirement and the first JIM suit was modelled on the Tritonia. As the new atmospheric diving suit was developed it was referred to as JIM’s suit, in reference to Jim Jarret, who had since died. The name stuck, and a series of JIM suit models were developed, including the one that fought it out with James Bond in For Your Eyes Only.

Frontier Below Fun Fact: Modern atmospheric diving suits include the Exosuit made by Nuytco Research Ltd in Canada. They can be configured with thruster packs to allow the diver to be independent of a cable to the surface.

For more on the history of the human quest to reach the bottom of the ocean, get of copy of my book The Frontier Below.

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