How to Drown Yourself DIY Style

One of the things you notice when reading these old magazines is that liability law did not really seem to exist in the first half of the century. Some of the activities and devices promoted by these magazines are just plain dangerous. We’ve covered crazy schemes to give city kids fresh air by hanging them out of apartment windows, playground equipment that seems designed to crack heads open, electric baths and children’s car seats that look like they’ll catapult the child through the windshield. Modern Mechanix in particular seemed to love publishing ingenious ways to drown yourself. Here are a few of my favorites:


Cooky Jar Diving Bell

These two brothers both made homemade diving helmets. Their first model used a water tank and their second, designed to increase visibility, used their mother’s pilfered cooky jar.
Cooky Jar Helmet

Build a Diving Helmet from a Water Heater
Not content with just showing projects made by their readers, this 1932 article from How To Build It magazine (a spinoff of Modern Mechanix) teaches kids how to make their own diving helmet from a water heater. Air is pumped in via a pair of small bellows. You’d better hope your little brother doesn’t get tired pumping those things!
Water Heater Helmet

Building a Tin Can Diving Helmet
There must have been some issues with Modern Mechanix’ first design because barely a year and a half later they published these new and improved diving helmet plans. I must say the air pumping system on this one looks a lot more functional.
Diving Helmet

Take Thrilling Underwater Cruise in ONE-MAN SUB
If anything this project seems even more dangerous than the diving helmets. You basically seal yourself into a (hopefully) air-tight tin can and have your friends drag you along 30 feet beneath the surface at 15 MPH behind their boat.
Homemade Sub

“Suicide Club”
Just in case you were wondering if anyone actually followed the plans and built any of these things, here’s a short 1935 article about a group of Los Angeles youths dubbed “The Suicide Club”. Not only did they build and use these contraptions, but they did it with the approval of the city playgrounds department.
Suicide Club

DIY Gas Mask
This one doesn’t quite fit the theme, but suffocation is suffocation and you really have to wonder about any gas mask that requires you to hold your nose.
Homemade Gas Mask

By the way: This is the first post in a new series called “From the Archives” designed to give newer readers a look at some of the best posts from the last few years. The archives have gotten pretty big now; almost 4,000 posts, with over 9,000 images, and there are lots of great articles in there. So once or twice a week I’m going to pick a topic that ties together a number of articles from the archives and try to form some sort of narrative around them.

I would also like to open up this section for guest posts from any of our readers. If you have a particular subject you like, have expertise in, or have noticed some pattern such as “Everything Cool in the 1930′s was designed in Germany”, please send me an email and let me know what you have in mind. Feel free to make it as long or short as you like and to include links to other sites and sources.

16 comments
  1. John C. Ratliff says: March 4, 200812:16 pm

    This helmet is very dangerous on two points:

    1. It depends upon the bellows for air pressure to keep water out of the helmet.

    2. There is no non-return valve in the helmet to keep air in it of the supply is lost.

    This latter point is especially bad if the diver is deep (greater than 5 feet), and there is a seal made at the shoulders. Loss of air would then allow the water pressure to try to force the diver’s body into the helmet, and through the small holes in the top (assuming that the hose stayed intact). This led to a number of diver deaths in the early days of diving, and is very, very dangerous. This helmet should never be dived!!!

    John C. Ratliff

  2. John C. Ratliff says: March 4, 20081:01 pm

    I forgot to add that I’ve been diving since 1959, and am a Certified Safety Professional. Please do not dive this helmet.

    John C. Ratliff, CSP

  3. Stannous says: March 4, 20082:37 pm

    Don’t worry John, I doubt if any of the odd collection of science history geeks that read this blog
    are foolish enough to try ANY of these ideas.
    However, if they’re considering it I suggest they send a bio to the Darwin Awards before trying one.

  4. sandy says: March 20, 20087:38 am

    omg is this some kind of sick joke?????

    i only found this site looking up drowning as a type of sucide for i project!!!!!!!!

    this is not funny it’s serious you know!!!! people drown themselves as a way out and is a REAL sucide attemt

    i h8 this site!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Desiree says: April 19, 20083:25 pm

    I smell a troll.

  6. Cole says: May 11, 200812:24 pm

    dunno…some simple modifications and they might work well. might.

  7. Luke S says: May 11, 20082:32 pm

    The helmets are shallow water dive helmets, perfectly viable and have been around since the early 1800′s. They don’t need a relief valve, the air escapes past the shoulders as it’s designed to do. People still use them to this day, quite safely too. Look it up on google if you don’t believe me. The US navy made good use of them during WW2. They can be used to a depth of 30ft as long as the usual safety principles of breathing air under pressure are observed, and it’s a good idea to not bend over. They are not meqant to be attached to the diver, it simply rests on the shoulders and need to be weighted to counter the air inside. Out of interests sake do a web search for Miller Dunn for you doubting Thomases . The bellows shown are barely adequate, and that submarine is pure insanity.

  8. Luke S says: May 11, 20082:41 pm

    Forgot to add that Mr Ratliff’s comment above re the non-return valve is a good one, but once the air supply fails it doesn’t matter too much either way.

  9. Luke S says: May 11, 20083:09 pm

    I really wish there was an edit function here, dammit. To further clarify what I was trying to say, the helmet shown above is not safe (well duh). It should not be strapped to the diver, it should not have an apron around it, there is no non-return valve shown, the bellows are inadequate and the article itself is dangerous due to a lack of information combined with misinformation. Having said that these helmets do actually work, but not as shown. They must have the ability to leak air from around the bottom or alternatively have a relief valve in the back. I shouldn’t make un-editable posts so early in the morning.

  10. Jan C. Warloe says: June 17, 20081:06 am

    Such open helmets were the forerunners for standard heavy diving gear 200 years ago. Breast plate and water tight diving suit came together with the air pump around 1830, and the proffessional hard hat gear has virtually remained unchanged since. Non-return valve on air supply, chin operated exhaust valve and coms has later been added. The open helmet is dangerous with unsufficiant, unreliable air supply, no non-return valve, no way to ditch the helmet instantly (the weigts must be attached to the helmet) and if the diver is without training and may panic in a free ascent. On the 27th of May this year an american died on the Cayman Islands while using a modern version of this helmet. (see:CDNN-CYBER DIVER)
    Comments by Jan C. Warloe Norwegian diver – June 17, 2008

  11. Rick Segedi says: June 25, 20082:06 pm

    I couldn’t believe it when I saw that first picture at the top of the page. I have an old picture of one of my uncles wearing a water tank helmet almost exactly like the ones shown here which he made back around 1940. He did it as a personal project for his high school welding class! He also made a pair of diving shoes which were high topped boots to which he attached inch thick lead soles. After he completed the project my dad and I accompanied him to the end of a pier on Lake Erie where he tested it out (I was 8 years old at the time). We supplied pressurized air through a foot – operated tire pump (a new gadget at the time) and he slowly climbed down into the water on a ladder. Once the helmet was in the water my dad had to pump like mad or my uncle would come back up because the water would rise in the helmet. After a few tries he and my dad got the hang of it long enough for him to get down to the bottom (around ten feet at that spot) and walk around for a few minutes before climbing back up. I remember that afterwards he said that he couldn’t see much of anything down there and was pretty disgusted after all the work he put into making the thing. After all the excitement of going down to the lake to help with the test I was pretty disappointed myself. At the time, I’d say we didn’t know how lucky we were!

  12. Mike Dooley - Seattle says: August 24, 20089:37 am

    I prefer using this helmet over my Miller 400 or my Gorski, both of which I dearly love, but the waterheater helmet just seems to work better. I’m not confined with all the technicalities of things like an EMS system or CO2 buildup, non-return valves and all that nonsense. I just am having difficulty finding a dive shop that will clean it up and run it through its annual certification. I’ve also been asked to leave a few dive sites, especially those stuck up Oil Rig bosses up in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Oh…and goodyear garden hose is much cheaper than that Scottish Gates 33HB stuff. But I do get a bit of a headache when I get into the 250′ ~ 300′ depths, might be that hose off-gas problem…. dunno……

  13. rulido says: May 4, 200912:13 pm

    so. . . duz it work? We’d be interested to know you see . . . we are trying to think of an educational way to kill our “mate”. That earlier comment on “i smell a troll” was cool dude-dont loose that coolness or we will find you. We’re no science history geeks you . . . geek! BE HAPPY DUDES!!!!!!! luv you lots xxx :D

  14. Garnet says: May 4, 20109:22 pm

    My wife and I dove with a bell style helmet in San Andres Island to a depth of 35 ft. Not very pleasant due to the pressure on the ears. My wife had to abandon her dive to too much pain. I stayed about 20 min. the helmet were unatatched and just sat on my shoulders. Not too practable but allowed us to experience the under water view. We were supported by two scuba divers for safety. A DIVING EXPERIENCE that required very little training.

  15. Dan says: January 20, 20116:12 pm

    @ 5 feet, you wouldn’t be forced into the helmet, You would probably be a bit more bouyant than without the helmet, but not by much. You wouldn’t use this helmet to dive more than 15″ anyway, and if something should fail then you can jetison the helmet and swim to the surface. I know that is realistic, because I freedive to 15-20 feet many times, and can stay on the bottom and return on a single breath. it may not be a bad idea to build a resivoir of sorts, to hold an air bubble near the bottom to use as a “base camp” of sorts, where the diver can return for more air and place salvaged items/shellfish ect.

  16. John C. Ratliff says: May 5, 201111:35 am

    I have read the posts, and stand by the comments I made earlier. The last one, by Dan is interesting in that it ignore the very real potential for air embolism from an air overpressure injury to the lungs. A person can embolize (send air bubbles into the blood stream) in as little as ten feet of water. It happens from holding your breath and ascending, with the air expanding in the lung’s air sacs with no where to go. The air sacs can rupture, allowing the air to enter the blood stream with potentially fatal consequences. Scuba divers get a lot of training in the medical aspects of sport diving, and lung overpressure injuries are discussed in detail. So there are really a number of ways to kill yourself with this do-it-yourself project. No, in ten feet of water you won’t be squeezed into the helmet. But that has occurred to hard hat divers in much deeper water, and Mike Dooley of Seattle talked about going way deep with this helmet, to 250-300 feet. I think he was pulling someone’s leg about that one though. Rulido, you asked if it does work. The answer is “sort-of…” It had its place in the history of diving, but probably should be left there. John

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