A detailed record of underwater salvage operations in and around Narragansett Bay has been discovered in an early 19th century letter book. The operations were conducted from April to November, 1815 from the Sloop Mary Ann, captained by Asa Brooks. The record reveals that the salvagers used a diving bell to explore the seabed, search for shipwrecks, and recover sunken items of value—most often iron, copper, lead, anchors, or cables.
The diving bell is an ingenious piece of equipment with a long history. As its name suggests, it is shaped like a bell and open at the bottom. Air is trapped in the upper portion of the bell’s chamber when it is submerged in water, enabling divers to venture underwater with an air supply. For many centuries, before modern development of submarines and submersible vehicles, humans used diving bells for underwater exploration, scavenging, and marine engineering. The earliest known record of bell diving was described by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that technology was developed to pump fresh air into the bell, thereby extending the amount of time that a diver could spend underwater.
Whether the diving bell used by Newport’s salvagers in 1815 was outfitted with a fresh air pump is not apparent from the rough sketch pictured above. The scale notation on the sketch indicates that quarters were cramped inside the bell, which measured about eight feet tall and five feet wide at its base. A log of “Transactions on Bord [sic] the Sloop Mary Ann,” reports that divers were sent underwater in the bell up to a dozen times per day in efforts to scavenge metal from sunken wrecks in and around the bay. The log entry pictured below describes sailing to Point Judith, going ashore to “obtain information,” and returning “with the promise of Mr Bilington to show us the Wreck of the British frigate Serene.” According to the following log entries, the crew successfully found the Serene with help from Bilington and worked for many days to dislodge an anchor from the wreck.