By Leslie Leaney and Bob Ramsay
The colonial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries introduced their diving equipment to the Asian region. The British, with their vast military empire would have brought helmets manufactured by Siebe Gorman, Heinke and possibly others.
The French, who maintained colonial interests in what is now Vietnam and other areas, were also manufacturers of diving helmets. They introduced a helmet with a different method of attachment to the divers dress. Instead of 12 bolts at the edge of the breastplate, Rouquayrol & Denayrouze produced a helmet that had only three bolts. These were attached to the breastplate neck ring and then the bonnet neck ring fitted over them. A diving dress that had three holes around the neck aperture was manufactured, and was attached to the helmet breastplate by placing the three holes over the three bolts. The bonnet was then lowered onto the three bolts and tightened down with nuts, creating a waterproof seal at the neck ring instead of at the outer edge of the breastplate.
Other European colonial powers such as the Dutch and Germans also had interests in the area, but so far we do not have much evidence of their diving equipment being used regularly in the region. During the early 20th century the US began exerting influence in Asia, and their troops saw military action around Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The helmet the Americans used was the U.S. Navy Mark V, which was in service from 1916 through to the early 1980s.
To offset American influence, the Soviet Union was also active in the region. The country had been manufacturing diving helmets for many years and these were introduced to countries such Korea and China. The Russians constructed helmets of many different designs based upon the 12 bolt and three bolt models.
Siebe Gorman 12 bolt helmet (England)
As a dominant military power, the British Empire sold diving equipment around the globe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the helmets that were used by the Royal Navy were also used by Asia-based military units.
When Augustus Siebe retired in 1868 his company changed its name to Siebe & Gorman. They continued to make technological improvements to the successful 12 bolt design the core of which remained unchanged for the duration of the company’s life. From circa 1868 to around 1904, the company stamped their name into the front of the breastplate, but then started attaching manufacturers plaques to the breastplates. The helmets have their serial numbers stamped into the inside of both bonnet and breastplate neck rings. Several HDS members have compiled information that can correspond a helmet serial number to an approximate year of manufacture. As manufacturing progressed, there were several modifications and improvements to these 12 bolt helmets, most notably the introduction of electronic communications in the late 1800’s.
Siebe Gorman & Co. Ltd sixbolt helmet (England)
Following the success of their 12 bolt helmet Siebe Gorman & Co. introduced a six-bolt pattern helmet around 1905. The helmet was designed by their employee Robert H. Davis who eventually went on to own the company and was later knighted for his work. Many of the helmets manufactured by the company can be found in his book Deep Diving and Submarine Operations, which has been published in nine editions and is one of the essential books for a historical diving library. It is available from HDS USA. The six-bolt helmet functions in exactly the same way as the 12-bolt version, but the straps that attached the breastplate to the divers dress have recesses in them that fit over corresponding ridges in the collar of the dress to effect a better seal. Like the Siebe Gorman 12 bolt, these helmets are not uncommon and are found in numerous museums and private collections.
Rouquayrol & Denayrouze three-bolt helmet (France)
The first major successful step away from Augustus Siebe’s 12-bolt helmet design was made around 1870 when French manufacturers Rouquayrol & Denayrouze designed a helmet where by the waterproof seal to the suit was affected at the neck ring of the helmet, rather than the outer edge of the breastplate. They produced a helmet with three bolts set in a triangular design. The neck of the dress would fit over the three bolts on the breastplate neck ring, and the bonnet would be tightened down by three nuts to clamp the neck seal between both surfaces of the neck ring. This design of helmet became known as a “three-bolt,” and it was manufactured by companies in France, Germany, Russia, China, East Germany, and on a much smaller scale by some other nations. The bonnet featured four round view ports with only a port guard on the top port. The model shown here is by the Rene Piel company of Paris.
U.S. Navy Mark V. (USA)
With no empire in the early 1900s, helmets manufacturered in America were sold predominantly in their domestic market. In 1916, the US Navy established the Mark V diving helmet as their standard helmet. The American military used it from 1916 through to the early 1980’s when the Mark XII, which was built of fiberglass, replaced it. As America’s influence increased during the 20th century the Mark V was adopted by various other countries. It had three round view ports, or lights, and an oval port on the top of the bonnet. All the ports had guards over them and the front port was hinged so that it could open like a door, and could not be lost.
The helmet had an adjustable exhaust valve that was located at the front of the helmet and ran under the right port. A small spit cock was located on the lower left side of the face port. It had a longer breastplate bolt at the lower left front where the diver’s air control valve was attached. The US Navy Mark V was manufactured by four companies under contract to the US government. The original manufacturers were Morse of Boston and Schrader of New York. During World War II, they were joined by Miller Dunn of Miami and DECSO of Milwaukee.
The Mark V saw service in American military actions in Asia and examples still turn up in the region. It is also the helmet that has the most reproductions on the market so members need to be aware of these fakes.
An original Mark V weighs around 30 kilogrammes, whereas most of the reproductions weigh about 20 kilogrammes or less. An original US Navy Mark V is not an uncommon helmet and is one of the most sought after by collectors around the globe. The model shown here is an A. Schrader’s Son from 1918 in original condition apart from the air control bolt being shortened.
Russian three-bolt military
During the last half of the 1800s, Russia was an importer of diving equipment. When they started manufacturing their own helmets they copied the French three-bolt design, and over the years, they made numerous styles. The military version had three round view ports and a carrying handle on the crown to make it easier to lift. A small housing for the communications speaker is located at the lower left side of the face port. There were numerous manufacturers of these helmets over the years and they usually have a manufacturer’s plaque attached to the breastplate, which carries the helmet’s serial number. These helmets are very common and can be easily found for sale on the Internet or from reputable maritime dealers. They are relatively cheap and provide an economical way of acquiring an authentic diving helmet. The workmanship is not up to the standards of the majority of European and American helmets and this is reflected in their price, which is currently between US$1,000–1,500 and higher.
Russian 12 bolt commercial
In addition to the French three-bolt design, Russia also followed the Augustus Siebe 12 bolt design. Both of these designs were found in the Russian commercial diving industry and the helmets have three round view ports and no port guards. The style of breastplate is similar to the Pearler design with the straight edges at the front and back. They come with the manufacturer’s plaque on the breastplate and are in plentiful supply on the Internet along with models of similar styles with different component configurations. Like the Russian military helmet, they provide an economical way of collecting authentic helmets but their quality is generally not of the highest standards. The current market prices on these are the same as the military model.
This article originally featured in Dive the Big Blue: A Historical Affair Volume II