“The Old Gentleman of Raahe: A Journey Through Time with the World’s Oldest Diving Suit”

The Raahe Museum, established in 1862, proudly holds the title of Finland’s oldest local museum. Within its collection of rare artifacts, the most distinguished is ‘The Old Gentleman of Raahe’—an 18th-century diving suit made of cowskin. This intriguing piece of maritime history was generously donated to the museum by Captain Johan Leufstadius in the 1860s.

Despite attempts to trace its origin, the diving suit’s provenance remains elusive. However, clues such as the design of the suit’s toes resembling traditional Finnish countryman’s boots and its hands mirroring typical Finnish forester’s mittens suggest its local origin. An intriguing 1727 sketch in the Admiralty archives of the National Archives of Sweden further depicts a diver wearing gear akin to the Raahe diving suit, though the Admiralty version was intended to be constructed from metal.

The practicality of the Raahe diving suit is impressive. Crafted from cowskin with meticulous pitch thread stitching and sealed seams, the suit was waterproofed using a mixture of mutton tallow, tar, and pitch. The hood was reinforced with wooden strips, and the diver received air through bellows and flexible leather stockings. A unique feature was the hole in the suit’s stomach, allowing the diver to enter and secure it around the waist, facilitating ship bottom inspections without dry-docking.

The diving suit, known as ‘The Old Gentleman of Raahe,’ reflects the mastery of 18th-century diving technology, serving as a transitional form between diving bells and heavy diving suits. It enabled underwater inspections without the need to tilt or dry-dock the boat, showcasing the evolution in diving capabilities during that era.

Having embarked on a global journey, ‘The Old Gentleman’ traveled to prestigious exhibitions worldwide, including stops at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Turku, Philadelphia, and the Expo98 World Exhibition in Lisbon. However, due to the strain of extensive travel, a perfect reproduction, aptly named ‘The Young Gentleman,’ was created in 1988. Crafted with the same methods and materials as the original, this reproduction proved functional in underwater experiments, with the longest dive lasting 40 minutes. Now, ‘The Young Gentleman’ proudly represents Raahe Museum and 18th-century diving technology in the diving department of Crown Granary, while the original ‘Old Gentleman’ remains retired from its globetrotting adventures.


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