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Diver's air hose with metal fittings

Date: pre 1980s
Dimensions:
Overall: 41 x 15 x 41 mm, 10.7 kg
Medium: Rubber, metal
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Vessels and fittings
Object Name: Air hose
Object No: 00005589

User Terms

    HistoryThe European Australian pearling industry began in the 1850s and by the early 20th century, Australia was supplying 75 per cent of the world's pearl shell, from north Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Torres Strait. Pearl shell was a valuable material before the days of plastic, and sold for £150 per ton in Sydney in the 1860s. It was a versatile and decorative material used to make buckles, buttons, jewellery and cutlery. The occasional natural pearl found was considered a bonus.

    For thousands of years, local coastal Aboriginal populations traded natural pearls with neighbouring islanders, and pearl shell - collected by combing the beach while the tide was out - with inland Aboriginal groups. With the foundation and rapid expansion of pearling stations in the 19th century, European pearlers unable or unwilling to undertake the difficult and dangerous task of diving employed cheap Japanese, Pacific and Torres Strait Islander, Philipino, Malay and Indigenous Australian labour.

    Originally shallow pearl shell beds were worked on by free-diving from small open boats. The desire to access shell beds located in deeper water saw the use of hard-hat suits and equipment, which became widespread on Australian pearl luggers in the 1880s.

    This hard-hat equipment consisted of a full diving suit and helmet, connected by a hose to a pump on the pearl lugger's deck. The diver wore layers of woollen garments under a watertight canvas suit called the dress, along with mittens and boots weighing up to 7kg each. A steal corselet was connected to the diver's chest and back, onto which 50kg of weight was strapped. The heavy copper helmet with a glass face was screwed on supported by the padded collar of the dress. Until engine driven pumps were introduced in the 1910s, the pump was manually operated by men turning two large wheels. Once air was pumped into the diver's dress, he stepped down into the water and adjusted valves on his helmet to release air and sink to the bottom.

    In the early days of deep water pearl diving, it was difficult to equalise the pressure inside and outside the suit, and the little-known decompression sickness known as the 'bends' claimed the lives of hundreds of divers. The introduction of the wet-suit, mask, fins and self contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) kit gave divers greater manoeuvrability and better air supply, and saw a decline in pearl diving fatalities. The transition to this new equipment was slow, but as divers productivity increased the use of hard-hat equipment by Australian pearl divers ceased in the mid 1970s.

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