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  • : Histoires d'un scaphandrier or the Stories of a Commercial Diver
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6 avril 2016 3 06 /04 /avril /2016 09:48
Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Hi every one,

You can now download “The Little story of the Underwater Cutting” in one single printable document at: https://www.academia.edu/24883704/The_Little_Story_of_the_Underwater_Cutting

United States production of the first underwater torch returns to Eugene Bournonville.

In 1904 he receives two welding torches from Edmond Fouche that he will use to repair some of its machines then a little later he interested himself in the patent filed in the USA by the Belgian Felix Jottrand on a blowtorch model that used a jet of pure oxygen to cut steel (53) and finally in 1906 Bournonville began to manufacture its own torches under the AIRCO name.

Figure n° 12: Davis Bournonville cutting torch (54)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Around 1916 basing himself on the German underwater torch he devised a special hood that can be adapted over the tip of a regular cutting torch.

Figure n° 13: Sketch of the Bournonville special hood (55)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

During a test made at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton with this oxyacetylene cutting torch a diver was able to make a circular cut of 48 cm (19 inch’) in 6 minutes at 6.6 meters deep (56).

Subsequently between 1917 and 1922 other US manufacturers also adapted their cutting torch to the underwater environment.

Figure 14: Diver using an oxyacetylene gas burning torch in 1919

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Photo n° 25: Schrader underwater torch (no information available) (57)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

One of the first companies that started to use this tool (without specifying the brand) was Merritt - Chapman & Scott from New York.

Their divers began to use it on small jobs like for instance the cutting of steel wire entangled around the propellers.

Then in 1918 one of the first large projects where mention was made of the use of the submarine torch was the salvage of the S.S St. Paul which sank for an unexplained cause and turned over on its port side in the mud in the Port of New York on 25 April of that year (58).

To be able to refloat the ship by pumping it empty the divers had to close off nearly 500 openings of all kinds, evacuate the 2,000 tons of mud that had accumulated in the wreck and cut Ø 450 mm openings in each of the steel bulkheads to drain the compartments.

Photo n° 26 The St Paul in the port of New York (59)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Then came the digging of 6 tunnels under the hull to pull the lifting slings.

These were made by the help of water fire hose, but apparently it was not an easy job for the divers because nearly one week of work was needed per tunnel.

The greatest difficulty of this job was not the patching or the pumping, but getting the ship upright again.

To solve it the salvage engineers erected 21 great steel legs shaped like the letter A along the starboard side.

Figure n° 14: Erecting of the steel legs (60)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

The turning sequence will last about a week. It will be followed by a few hours of pumping and finally September 28, 1918 the ship resurfaced.

Other similar interventions take place without that the torches evolve in design then in 1925 the United States Navy meets a disaster.

During the night of 25 September, one of their submarines the S-51 was rammed while navigating at the surface by the steamer S.S City of Rome and sank in less than one minute.

Ten men managed to jump into the water of which only three will be saved.

The next afternoon i.e. fifteen hours after the collision a first team of divers from the Navy arrived on the scene and immediately dived on the wreck that lies in 39 meters of water.

Photo n° 27: USN diver going down on the S-51 (61)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Unfortunately, despite their repeated blows on the hull no return signal will be heard.

The 23 men still on board are reported dead.

Since the announcement of the accident two large derrick barges of a private company, the Monarch and the Century are mobilized and sent to the scene of the disaster together with the submarine S-50.

Photo n° 28: The two derrick barges during their lifting trial (62)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Once there, the Captain Davis who is in charge of the operation installed an air hose in the gap whereby the S-50 pump air continuously with the slim hope that it can be confined in an enclosed space and thus lighten the wreck.

At the same time two steel cables are passed with difficulty under the submarine on the stern side and on September 30 lifting is attempted.

Despite some 400 tons of combined traction the wreck does not move one iota.

The wrecking company's divers are again sent to the bottom to burn small holes with their torch in the upper parts of the submarine to check for air pockets. But the result is negative no bubbles come out of holes, which of course means that the lifting means used are insufficient to lift the weight of nearly 1,000 tons.

Following this failure the work will be interrupted until October 16 (63).

The second phase of the work is entrusted to Captain Ernest King and Commander Edward Ellsberg.

To make this work, the latter prepared the next salvage plan:

Eight submersible pontoons would be sunk in pairs on either side of the submarine, connected by a cradle of heavy lifting chains under the wreck, and then blow with compressed air for a lifting force of 640 tons. The additional buoyancy would come from sealing and blowing the S-51 undamaged compartments.

In this case a rather simple plan but still requires seven months of actual work to be brought to completion.

This was due in part to the fact that at the time the US Navy divers were inexperienced and only a few had been trained to work at that depth. They were certainly very aquatic but those who were really able to work under water were really hard to find (64).

On the other hand, when he persuaded his superiors that he was able to do this salvage Ellsberg was convinced that the submarine torch prepared by the marine laboratory would be of great help to him, unfortunately it was not.

To make their own torch, the laboratory based itself on what had been done in France and Germany but from its implementation on site our Commander realized that she was not at all reliable.

In fact, during one of the first pontoon installation a false maneuver had been made and to unlock it a thick steel cable had to be cut. Normally at the surface, this cut would have taken a few seconds but in substance it had requested no less than 40 minutes of work and six bottles of gases to George Anderson the youngest diver of the team to sever the cable (65).

Photo n° 29: Cdt Ellsberg with his underwater torch (66)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

The work was interrupted on December 7 because of bad weather and Cdt Ellsberg took therefore advantage of the three-month of standby to follow an accelerated dive training course while at the same time he began to make some modifications to the existing torch so to make it more efficient. By testing the one that had used at sea he immediately realized that the flame was not hot enough and thought it was coming from the hydrogen which as reported elsewhere had a lower temperature than acetylene.

Knowing that acetylene could anyway not be used at this depth he tried to experiment with other gases but again he becomes disillusioned.

Result back to the drawing board and re-use of the hydrogen. It was well on the torch he had to work and not on the fuel gas.

But the development of it was not without risk. So one day he said it would be nice to try a torch with a big mixing nozzle. Jim Frazer, one of his testers went to water and lit the torch. She seemed to burn properly for a few seconds and then all of a sudden the flame was sucked into the torch and went out. Frazer looked at his tool without understanding what had happened, but suddenly he felt that his hand was burning and by reflex threw the torch away from him.

Just in time because it exploded in the tank.

Ellsberg knew that he was to return to a smaller tip.

Sea trials followed those in the tank and gradually the new tool was perfected.

Photo n° 30: Cdt Ellsberg during a trial dive (67)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Yet a problem remained.

To obtain a proper heating flame a correct dosage of the various gases had to be send to the mixing nozzle and the diver could only do that by adjusting the length of each gas bubble before the ignition to obtain the following values :

  • length of the air bubble: 3 inches (7,6 cm)
  • length of the hydrogen bubble: 3 inches (7,6 cm)
  • length of the heating oxygen bubble: 2,5 inches (6,3 cm)

Needless to say, the setting was quite laborious. Our designer imagined therefore a rather simple but effective system that would allow the divers to easily adjust the length of the gas bubbles with a removable adjustment bar they had to place in front of the nozzle (68).

The trials sessions followed each other and the torch was getting better but the flame extinguished still quite often. Ellsberg knew that it probably came from the air bubble. He finished his adjustment by altering the path of the air bubble so that its flow became parallel to the flame and not cross which sharply reduced the extinction of the torch.

Finally at spring after weeks of laborious work Jim made a final test during which he cut a big plate of 4.2 meters in 10 minutes, the underwater gas burning torch was ready just in time to resume work.

Photo n°31: Diver Kelley J.R with the Ellsberg torch (69)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Thanks to its tool the cutting divers would now be able to remove the various elements that hindered and perform the cutting of many vents in the lower portion of the submarine which aim to ensure the evacuation of water during inflation of watertight compartments.

Photo n° 32: The divers Francis Smith and Jim Frazer (70)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Besides the development of the underwater torch another interesting tool for divers was invented on this site. Indeed, to link the starboard and port pontoons together, various tunnels had to be dug under the wreck of the S-51. Unfortunately for our divers the ground on which the submarine laid was made by extremely hard clay and was very difficult to break through. The first tunnels were made using a 2.5 '' (Ø 65) fire hose equipped with a conventional lance like the one used by firefighters. But the problem with such type of tool and that each diver knows, is that the operating pressure cannot be very high because otherwise it is impossible to keep in place. As a result, the first tunnel took almost six weeks to be realized what was obviously much too long. Luckily in may a new nozzle designed and made by Machinist’s Mate (Second class) Waldren was now available. In the nozzle there were 6 jets, 1 large ahead and 5 smaller ones radially astern. It was found that the jet arrangement abolished the reaction which previously had made it impossible for the diver to hold the 2.5-inch hose with any special pressure; further, the radial jets enlarged the hole cut by the forward jet and shot the material cut loose astern at considerable speed. With this new invention the passages under the wreck could now be done in more or less two days.

Photo n° 33: Waldren's special balanced hose nozzle (71)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

A first refloating attempt took place on 22 June, but because of bad weather the team was forced to flood the pontoons and let the wreck go back on the bottom.

Phot n° 34: Diver Wickwire clearing air hose prior to flooding the pontoons (72)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Finally, work was successfully completed on 5 July 1926 and the submarine was towed to a Navy dry dock.

Photo n° 35: Towing of the S-51 (73)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Soon after its invention, the firm Craftsweld Equipment Corporation began manufacturing the Ellsberg torch and for many years they supplied the gas burning torch with teams of skilled divers to complete cutting works all over the world (74).

Photo n° 36: First underwater gas burning torch manufactured by Craftsweld (75)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

It was perhaps such a team that in 1937 defeated a cutting record during the construction of N.Y.C Marine Parkway Bridge.

On this site, the divers had managed to cut at 9 meters deep no less than 2118 sheet piles ( 14 cofferdams) in the space of 40 days, an average of almost 53 piles / day which was really not bad (76 ).

Given the increase of these underwater cutting works contracts various other US manufacturers started also to make their underwater cutting torch on the basis of which was designed by Cdt E. Ellsberg and therefore unlike some Europeans torches (French and German) all these American torches would remain faithful to the use of an air shield protection.

Figure n° 16: Detail of the American underwater torch (77)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Photo n° 37: Some of the American oxyhydrogen cutting torches (78)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Photo n°38: Airco torch (79)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Photo n° 39: Monarch torch (80)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Photo n° 40: Victor torch (81)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

Photo n° 41: KG torch (82)

Underwater cutting tools history (part 3)

All these torches were used extensively in Pearl Harbor and also in other ports for the cutting of the wrecks but apparently the US Navy divers were not fully satisfied with it.

For them they were not only poorly adapted to work in wrecks and sometimes difficult to implement, but especially dangerous to use inside the wreckage.

Indeed, it must be remembered that all these torches (except Picard) required if they were to be lit under water cold preset and therefore a more or less important part of unburned and highly explosive gas escaped the torch and could become trapped in one or other enclosed space. Therefore in 1942 for this kind of work the US Navy began to replace the oxyhydrogen torch by the oxy -Arc.

The inshore commercial divers will continue to use the oxyhydrogen torch until the middle of the fifties and then as everywhere in the world these have gradually been replaced by the oxy-arc cutting method.

To follow: English and other countries torches.


(53) History of Industrial Gases par Ebbe Almqvist page 360

(54) Gas torch and thermit welding by E.Vial Mc Graw-Hill Book Company 1921 page 75

(55) Gas torch and thermit welding by E.Vial Mc Graw-Hill Book Company 1921 page 94

(56) Gas torch and thermit welding by E.Vial Mc Graw-Hill Book Company 1921 page 94

(57) http://www.pieds-lourds.com/Pages/pages.htm

(58) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Saint_Paul_(1895)

(59) http://www.maritimequest.com/daily_event_archive/2008/04_apr/photos/25_ss_st_paul.jpg

(60) Popular Mechanics Magazine sept. 1925 page 438

(61) http://historylink101.com/bw/Early_Scuba/slides/IMG_5585_s2a.jpg

(62) Popular Science dec. 1925 page 9

(63) Popular Science dec. 1925 page 11


(65) Men under the sea by Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg

(66) Popular Science June. 1926 page 18

(67) Popular Science June. 1926 page 18

(68) E.Ellsberg, of Westfield, New Jersey. Underwater Torch and method therefor. Application filed Dec. 20,1927. Serial n° 241.387

(69) http://www.ebay.ie/itm/HARD-HAT-DIVER-1929-DEEP-DIVING-BOOK-SALVAGE-RARE-/251782484564#viTabs_0




(73) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/6/64/S-51_Salvage.jpg/300px-S-51_Salvage.jpg

(74) 20000Jobs Under the Sea A History of Diving and Underwater Engineering by T.R.Parker Sub-Sea Archives 1997 page 136

(75) http://seajunk.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/torch_1.jpg

(76) Engineering News Record, March 11, page 373-375

(77) The Professional Diver’s Handbook by John Bevan Submex 2005 page 118

(78) Underwater Work by Cayford Cornell Maritime Press 1966 page 112

(79) http://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/X54AAOSwVL1WBDMP/s-l300.jpg

(80) Ebay

(81) Ebay

(82) EBay

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