John Lethbridge, Diver

In the early eighteenth century, writes Zélide Cowan, John Lethbridge spent some forty years salvaging treasure from sunken ships.

It was noon on Monday May 3rd, 1715. A strange silence settled over the land, as the sky deepened to twilight. Suddenly it was night. ‘The total darkness lasted, as far as we could observe, 2 minutes and a half. I saw but 2 stars... At the total darkness, the birds, which were singing before, all ceas’d except the nightingales, and endeavoured to get to their nests, but not being able to do that, they fluttered in the air in great confusion, till it was all over.’

This was reported of the total eclipse of the sun in Hampshire; but in an orchard in Newton Abbot, Devon, even stranger effects were to be observed; surrounded by a collection of friends and neighbours, a man was easing himself into a large barrel lying on the ground. When he was inside, he called to them to ‘bung it up tight’, which they did, and they then sat down to wait in the swiftly gathering darkness, staring with some nervousness, one imagines, at both the sky and the large hogshead in their midst.

After half an hour, when it was day again, the man knocked on the barrel and his friends released him. John Lethbridge, the inventor of a famous diving engine, had completed his first experiment.

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