Charles Anthony Deane was born in 1796 in Deptford, London, and home to the Royal Naval Dockyard. His brother John was born four years later and both attended the Royal Hospital School in Greenwich.
Both of the Deane brothers were familiar with the sea, Charles as a merchant seaman and John through his seven years serving with the East India Company.
Deane to the Rescue
It was John Deane who came up with the idea of a diving helmet but in circumstances that had nothing to do with the sea. In the 1820s, he was passing a farm where a barn was on fire. The farmer had a hose and a small pump that he was using to try and control the fire to little effect and the smoke was such that no-one could enter to rescue the animals inside.
Deane ran into the farmhouse in search of buckets and came across an old suit of armour. Inspired, he grabbed the helmet and went back into the yard where he fitted the hose and had the farmer use it to pump air rather than water. Now able to breathe in the smoke he was able to lead the horses to safety.
In 1823 Deane patented his ‘Smoke Helmet’ which he described as ‘Apparatus or Machines to be worn by Persons entering Rooms or other places filled with Smoke of other Vapour, for the purpose of extinguishing Fire, or extricating Persons or Property therein.’
As you can see from the photo above, the helmet consisted of a lightweight copper helmet with a short breastplate riveted to a leather jacket. It had three glass windows and two hoses, one supplying air from a bellows and the other to take away the exhaled air.
The Deane brothers took the invention to fire insurance companies and the Admiralty but none were interested and it seemed that the ‘Smoke Helmet’ would go the way of other failed inventions. But the brothers had other ideas – if the helmet could be used to breathe in smoke-filled rooms then surely it could let a man breathe under water.
The only way of going underwater at that time was in a diving bell, most famously by Isambard Kingdom Brunel who used one to dive to the bottom of the Thames to investigate why the tunnel his father was building at Rotherhide kept flooding. But diving bells were cumbersome and the Deane brothers realised that their idea could be made into a more practical solution.
They designed and redesigned the helmet until they had it perfected in 1828. The helmet now had just one hose and the air was supplied by a pump rather than by bellows. The exhaled air was allowed to bubble out at the bottom of the jacket. The other problem to solve was how to keep the user warm and dry so they devised a waterproof one-piece suit that the diver climbed into through the neck. The instructions read:
A person equipped in this apparatus being enabled to descend to considerable depths, from 20 fathoms(120ft) to probably 30 fathoms(180ft) and to remain down several hours having the perfect use of his arms and legs and is freely able to traverse the bottom of the sea to seek out the hidden treasures of the deep.
The Deane brothers used their suit in many salvage operations in the years that followed, including recovering canon from the Mary Rose which had sunk in the Solent in 1545. They also acted on behalf of the Admiralty in clearing the Russian wrecks at Sevastopol during the Crimean War.
Charles Deane died in 1848 while John lived to the age of eighty-four when he died in 1884.