Thursday, June 13, 2024

On This Day in the Old West: June 14

Today is the anniversary of two important patents so we will just take a look at them in our post for June 14. These are American inventions, of course, and ones your characters would have either used themselves or at least heard of in the news.

In 1834, Leonard Norcross of Dixfield, Maine patented the hardhat diving suit. The deep-sea diving suit, hard hat or copper hat equipment, or just heavy gear is a type of diving suit that was used for all relatively deep underwater work such as marine salvage, civil engineering, commercial diving work (like pearl shell diving), and similar naval diving applications. 

In 1739, German engineer Konrad Kyeser described a “diving dress” made of a leather jacket with a metal helmet fixed with two glass panes. The jacket and helmet were lined with sponge, which was thought to “retain the air,” and a hose was attached to a bag of air.

The first real helmet was created in the 1820s by brothers Charles and John Deane as a “Smoke Helmet” to be used by firemen. This apparatus consisted of a copper helmet with an attached flexible collar and garment. A long leather hose attached to the rear of the helmet was to be used to supply air. The original concept was that the air would be supplied by pumping it in with a double bellows. A short pipe allowed de-oxygenated air to escape. This firemen’s garment was composed of leather or airtight cloth and secured by straps. In 1828, the brothers decided to find another application for their device and converted it into a diving helmet, which they marketed with a loosely-attached “diving suit.” A diver could work in this suit, but only in a full vertical position, otherwise water flowed in.

Norcross improved on this design, creating a better suit that could be used in any position so that divers could work more efficiently underwater. Your characters could easily have been familiar with underwater engineering and salvage work from newspaper and magazine articles or even from direct observation.

On land in 1834, a new method of producing sandpaper was patented by Isaac Fischer, Jr. of Springfield, Vermont. The first sandpaper we know of was from 13th Century China, when crushed shells, seeds, and sand were bonded to parchment using natural gum. Shark skin was also used as a natural sandpaper, as was the horsetail plant.

According to the patent, Fischer’s idea involved coating paper sheets on both sides with a reducing or polishing solution that would then be glued. At this point, they were making better-quality sandpaper with powered steam rollers. Isaac Fischer Jr. is regarded as the creator of industrialized sandpaper even though he wasn't the first to actually make sandpaper.

Your characters would certainly have used sandpaper, whether mass-produced by Fischer’s method or hand-produced in the more old-fashioned methods. Some of the materials used for the abrading part of sandpaper, in addition to plain old sand, could have been flint (not commonly used in modern sandpaper), garnet, emery, and aluminum oxide. In addition to paper, backing for sandpaper includes cloth or rubber, used for discs and belts, and “fibre” or vulcanized fibre, a strong backing material consisting of many layers of polymer-impregnated paper. Flexible backing allows sandpaper to follow the irregular contours of a workpiece, while inflexible backing is optimal for regular rounded or flat surfaces. Stronger paper or backing increases the ease of sanding, so good quality paper is best.

From diving suits to sandpaper, the Old West saw many important inventions in the 1800s.

J.E.S. Hays

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