The Commercial Diver Network
The diving bell provides physical protection for the diver and a more comfortable environment
within which to undergo decompression. However, though it enables the diver to descend to
deeper depths and facilitates the return to the surface, it does not significantly alter the time on
the bottom. The major breakthrough in that area came in 1957 when the director of the Navy’s
Submarine Medical Center demonstrated that the body’s tissues would become completely
saturated with inert gas within 24 hours so that the period required for decompression for any
dive of that duration or longer would be the same (Zinkowski 1976). In the 1960’s when the
concept was applied widely, the limits of both depth and time expanded exponentially. Military,
scientific, and commercial interests converged in a period of rapid research and development of
equipment, gas mixtures, and forms of work organization. According to the general
superintendent of one of the industry leaders at the time, “No industry today can boast of more
rapid technological development than commercial diving” (Morrissey 1966, page 88).
Saturation diving systems are themselves complex environments, and their development required
parallel development of analyzers to read partial pressure of oxygen (systems were developed to
include both galvanic and polarographic types of analyzers); controllers to maintain oxygen
levels; and analyzers for carbon dioxide (infrared); carbon monoxide (infrared); helium (thermal
conductivity); nitrogen (computation of difference); and relative humidity (electric hygrometric)
(UST 1968, page 41). Within the diving bell, scrubbers kept the moist atmosphere ventilated;
rack operators monitored readouts to safeguard against carbon dioxide and oxygen poisoning;
and emergency gas bottles were installed to offer a few minutes of air in an emergency (Seib
These technological achievements introduced a host of changes in work organization and the
social environment within which diving took place. The expense of constructing, operating, and
maintaining saturation systems increased the capital needed to remain at the forefront of the
industry. Small companies were either absorbed by larger ones or had to restrict their work to
shallow environments. They had a hard time attracting divers when the innovation and recordsetting
was occurring elsewhere.
Companies gained greater control over the divers and their pay. Prior to saturation diving, with
decompression time tied to depth and time spent under pressure, deep work was done via bounce
dives wherein divers stayed on the bottom only a short period of time. Pay was tied to depth, so
divers could make huge sums of money in relatively little time. Both physiological and financial
factors limited the depths to which divers could go and the time they would remain there.
Saturation diving removed many of the constraints and set up new dynamics between divers and
their employers. “With saturation diving and almost unlimited working time at depth, diving
performance is now being judged on how long a period of time divers are in the water – that is,
20 hours a day in the water is somehow ‘better’ than 16 hours a day, even when less actual work
has been performed…(O)perators of lockout submersibles welcome a more accurate, qualitative
evaluation of work performed, and they are motivated to provide the performance that this
approach demands” (Duggar and Majendie 1979, pages 92 and 94).
Saturation diving also changed the nature of the relationships among divers and between divers
and their supervisors. Instead of one diver working alone, as many as six divers and a tender
would work from a diving bell. Communication was managed via unscramblers on the radio and
took place between the divers and the topside supervisor and not with tenders in the bell. Tenders
were excluded from decisions about the work to discourage them from taking charge of the
operations; if the tender entered the water to aid the diver no one would be tending and two could
be lost (Seib 1976).
Despite, and perhaps because of, the continued experimentation and ongoing danger of the early
years, divers continued to dive. Long hours in a diving bell could be excruciatingly dull, so
divers sought distraction. Some divers became avid readers while others worked longer than their
allotted time to avoid getting back into the deck chamber.
The continued advance of exploration and drilling toward deeper waters provided the stimulus
for invention, innovation, and dissemination in commercial diving. These technological advances
that made it possible for humans to work at great depths below the water’s surface also made
way for new technologies associated with the construction, maintenance, and operation of oil and
gas platforms and pipelines. In the following section, a brief overview of the history and
development of underwater welding illustrates the links.