The Joseph Peress Diving Suit

The inventor Salim Joseph Peress

In 1930 Salim (Joseph) Peress demonstrated the diving suit which he invented that kept divers dry and at atmospheric pressure, even at great depth. But it took 40 years before engineers incorporated his articulated joints in a new generation of armoured suits. It was used to help in the exploitation of the North sea oil.

Two British engineers sat in a smoky Brighton pub, deep in conversation with an old man. It was 1965, the North Sea was being explored for oil, and the industry was looking for ways to get divers onto the deep ocean floor. The race was on to develop a working atmospheric diving suit (ADS), and 80-year-old "Pop" Peress was the only person with a possible solution to the problems involved.

The story of the Jim suit, as it was to become known, begins in England in 1914, when 18-year-old Salim Joseph Peress was offered a job by the aircraft manufacturer de Havilland as a trainee draftsman.

The young Peress grew up in the Middle East, where he had watched Persian Gulf pearl divers in action and seen how they suffered from the bends. He had a natural flair for engineering design, and had challenged himself to construct an articulated diving suit that would keep divers dry and at atmospheric pressure, even at great depth.

At the time, little was known about decompression diving. Various atmospheric suits had been developed during the Victorian era, but nobody had managed to overcome a basic design problem - the construction of a joint that would remain flexible and watertight at depth. The joints that had been made seized up under pressure.

In 1918 Peress began working for WG Tarrant at Byfleet, Surrey, where he was given the space and tools to develop his ideas. His first attempt at an ADS was an immensely complex construction machined from solid stainless steel.

In 1923 the P&O liner Egypt sank in 122m of water after a collision off the French island of Ushant. It held a cargo of 10 million in gold bullion, and Peress was asked to design a suit for the salvage operation. He declined, insisting that his prototype steel suit was still too heavy for a diver to handle.

Peress was nonetheless encouraged by the request, so set to work on another suit using lighter materials. By 1929, he thought he had cracked the weight problem, and in the process had managed to improve the flexibility of the joints.

By 1930 Peress had completed the trials and the "Tritonia diving suit" was demonstrated publicly in a small tank at Byfleet in May. In September it was taken to Loch Ness on board the Recovery where Peress's assistant, Jim Jarret, dived in the suit to 135m. It performed perfectly - the joints proved insensitive to pressure and moved freely, even at depth.

Jim Jarret made one more deep dive to 90m on the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland, followed by a shallower dive to 60m in the Channel in 1937. Then, due to lack of interest, the Tritonia was retired.

Peress gave up and turned his attention elsewhere. He became a millionaire by pioneering plastic moulding, and formed a company that became the world's largest manufacturer of turbine blades for the aircraft industry. With a bit of persuasion from the two British engineers, Pop Peress agreed to come out of retirement. The team set to tracking down the original Tritonia suit. It was found lying in pristine condition in a Glasgow workshop, where it had been hidden for 30 years under a pile of rubbish.

The suit was dusted off and dived for the first time by 80-year-old Peress in the factory test tank. It worked perfectly.

Getting Pop into the suit was not too difficult but it took about three hours to get him out. Five years later the team unveiled two modern atmospheric suits using the Peress joint. The test depth for the new model was to a staggering 610m, and it was to be named "Jim" after the first ADS diver, Jim Jarret.

By the 1980's Jims were being used around the world to depths beyond 600m. Pop Peress died in 1978, after seeing his dream for a working ADS finally reach a successful conclusion.

Seven years later, in September 1985, the Jim suit was used to help salvage a Wellington bomber that had been discovered at the bottom of Loch Ness, close to where the suit had first been tested.


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