The World's Oldest Known Diving Suit, the Old Gentleman

Suits like The Old Gentleman allowed divers to check the hulls of ships without having to drydock them.
Marcia Wendorf

OK, it isn't pretty, but "The Old Gentleman of Raahe" did the job it was intended to do. It's the world's oldest surviving diving suit, and it dates to the early eighteenth century.

The suit was donated during the 1860s to the Raahe Museum in Finland by a Finnish shipowner and a mariner named Captain Johan Leufstadius (1795-1867). The museum is the oldest local museum in Finland, and during the 18th century, Raahe was a busy shipping and shipbuilding center on the Gulf of Bothnia.

The diving suit was used to check the hulls of ships without having to bring them into dry dock. The suit has been attributed to Finland due to the fact that the toes of the feet are similar to traditional Finnish boots, and the hands are similar to Finnish forester's mittens.

A drawing dating to 1727 in the Swedish National Archive shows a similar diving suit, which helped to date the suit.

How it was made

The Old Gentleman is made mostly of leather, with seams stitched with pitch thread and sealed with pitch. Pitch is derived from petroleum, coal tar, or plants. To waterproof it, the suit was coated with a mixture of mutton tallow, tar, and pitch.

The Old Gentleman hood
The Old Gentleman hood Source: (screengrab) Wonder World Tube/YouTube

To keep the hood from collapsing under the pressure of the water, it was reinforced by a wooden framework. At the peak of the hood is an opening for a wooden air pipe. Air was pumped to the diver with a piston pump or a bellows, and air was discharged from the suit through a short pipe on the backside.

Since it wasn't completely watertight and couldn't withstand high pressure, divers wearing The Old Gentleman could only stay underwater for a short time.

In 1988, a reproduction of The Old Gentleman was created called The Young Gentleman. It was made to see if The Old Gentleman actually worked, and it worked like a charm. The New Gentleman performed without any limitations in diving depth or duration, staying underwater for 40 minutes.

The Old Gentleman has made its way around the world. It was displayed in Philadelphia in the U.S., at London's Sea Finland exhibition in 1985, and at the 1998 World Exposition in Lisbon, Portugal. However, The Old Gentleman's traveling days are over, and today, it is The Young Gentleman that appears in exhibitions around the world.

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