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The Lyson narrative continues:


"With this machine, Mr. Lethbridge says, he could move about twelve feet square at the bottom of the sea, where he frequently staid thirty-four minutes: he had frequently been for six hours at a time in the engine, being frequently brought up to the surface, where he was refreshed with a pair of bellows. Many hundred times, he states, he had been ten fathom deep, and sometimes twelve fathom with difficulty. When his machine was finished, he offered his services to some merchants of London, to adventure on the wrecks of some treasure ships then lately lost; but it was some time before he found any who had sufficient confidence in the success of his experiments to offer him terms at all adequate to his deserts and expectations: but after his success had been proved, he was employed to dive on wrecks in various parts of the world, both for his own countrymen and for the Dutch and the Spaniards.


He mentions, in his letter already quoted, that he had dived on wrecks in the West Indies, at the Isle of May, at Porto Santo, near Madeira, and at the Cape of Good Hope. His most laudable endeavours were so far crowned with success, that he was enabled not only to maintain his family, but to purchase the estate of Odicknoll, in the parish of King's Carswell, near Newton Abbot. At the house of his grandson, John Lethbridge, Esq., at Newton, is a board on which is an inscription in gold letters, dated 1736, stating, that John Lethbridge, by the blessing of God, had dived on the wrecks of four English men of war, one English East Indiaman, two Dutch men of war, five Dutch East Indiamen, two Spanish galleons, and two London galleys, all lost in the space of twenty years; on many of them with good success ; but that he had been very near drowning in the engine five times. The apparatus, about twenty years ago, was at Governor Holdsworth's, at Dartmouth, but it was then in a decaying state. 


There is reason to suppose, that Mr. Lethbridge was the first person, who, by his ingenuity and intrepidity, succeeded in recovering goods from wrecked vessels: "


captain Rowe's diving machine

Captain Rowe's diving machine c. 1730

To our eyes, this looks remarkably similar to John Lethbridge's invention. A Captain Irwin who dived for Captain Rowe in this machine identified the defects of both machines when he wrote:

"Now, though this diving-engine be better than a great many, yet it has the same inconveniency of not being fit  for the great depths. Diving at a depth of 10 fathoms, I felt a strong stricture in my arms by the pressure of the water, and. that venturing two fathoms lower to take up a lump of earth with pieces of eight sticking together, the circulation of my blood was so far stopped and I suffered so much, that I was forced to keep my bed six weeks. I have heard of a another diver that died in three days for having ventured to go down to 14 fathoms."

Another 100 years were to pass before William Taylor invented the first armoured diving dress that was articulated so the diver could move around in 1838. Even then, the diver's body was not completely protected from the pressure of the ocean. It was not until the 20th century that a diving suit came into use that could be termed as safe - and then safe only if it was used under strictly defined conditions.


Diving machine based on lethbridge 1912

This curious machine, dating from 1912, clearly shows the influence of John Lethbridge. It was designed to  be towed along the floor of the ocean in these two positions and had four wheels made of oak. Using the zimmer-like frame shown left, the diver can propel himself along on two of the wheels.. The body encased the diver in  rigid steel but it still did not solve the problem of extruding the arms under pressure.


From The Wolborough Parish Register

11 December 1759

"Buried Mr John Lethbridge, inventor of a most famous diving engine, by which he recovered from the bottom of the sea, in different parts of the globe, almost £100,000 for the English and Dutch merchants which had been lost by shipwreck."


Was this the start of Lethbridge's great idea?

In 1715, the same year that Mr. Lethbridge invented his machine, the following account of another sort of diving engine appeared in the Exeter Mercury on 2 September 1715:

"Yesterday in the afternoon, his Majesty (George I), the Prince and Princess &c. went to take the air in their barge; during which time an experiment was made of a diving - ingine (sic) of a new invention in which a man walked at the bottom of the river from Whitehall almost to Somerset House, being under water three quarters of an hour. This ingine is said to tbe invented by one Major Becker and they say it's the best of the kind that ever was heard of.  It was made of leather with glass eyes in such a manner as the use of his hands and feet were entirely preserved. For conveniency of air a long pipe was fixed from the engine to a vessel and at the top of the pipe was a man planted, who, by that contrivance could discourse with the diver the whole time."


Through his invention John Lethbridge restored the fortunes of his family and purchased a good estate called Odicknoll, situated between Edginswell and Torquay in the parish of Kingskerswell where he lived happily for many years.

To read more about this man who became famous throughout the world and to see a modern full-size model of his invention go to






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