Resembling a nightmarish creature, or a mummified Patrick Star, the Old Gentleman of Raahe is, in fact, the oldest surviving diving suit in the world. While its origin is not entirely known, the suit appears to be dating back to 18th century Finland. This valuable rarity is the best-known exhibition piece owned by Raahe Museum, the oldest local history and culture museum in Finland, established in 1862.
The Old Gentleman, also known as Wanha Herra, was donated to the Raahe Museum by Captain Johan Leufstadius (1829-1906), a master mariner and shipowner, in the 1860s. At that time, the town of Raahe in the Gulf of Bothnia was a busy shipping center where diving operations were most likely needed. Attesting to the presumably Finnish origin of the suit are the top parts of the boots that resemble the traditional short-shank boots and the diving gloves that are similar to the Finnish mittens. The suit was once used for inspecting the bottom of a sailing vessel. Diving most likely lasted for short periods of time because the suit was not completely waterproof and could also not withstand the high pressure found underwater.
This ancient diving suit was once a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that ensured the transition from the diving bell to the standard heavy diving gear. Using methods and materials available in the 18th century, the manufacturer constructed the suit out of calfskin sewn with waxed thread. The leather was made waterproof with the use of a mixture of mutton tallow, tar, and pitch. The hood of the Old Gentleman was reinforced with strips of wood and air was pumped inside through a wooden pipe. To get inside the suit, the diver would have to enter a hole in the suit’s stomach. The hole was then closed by twisting a leather strap and fastening it around the waist of the diver.
The Young Gentleman of Raahe
In 1988, Raahe Museum conservator Jouko Turunen tailored a perfect reproduction of the Old Gentleman using the same methods and materials found in the 18th-century version. Known as the Young Gentleman, or Nuori Herra, the newer diving suit proved that it can serve its purpose. Several underwater experiments, including a 40-minute long dive, showed that the suit was fully functional.
As the oldest surviving diving suit in the world, the Old Gentleman participated in exhibitions across the globe, including the 1998 World Exposition in Lisbon, a 1985 Sea Finland exhibition in London, as well as faraway places like Philadelphia, United States, in 1988. Today, the original diving suit is no longer traveling the world to avoid damage, but the 18th-century diving technology is still represented at worldwide exhibitions by its younger (and taller) replica. As for the Old Gentleman, it can be visited at the Diving Department of the Crown Granary Museum (Kruununmakasiinimuseo) in Raahe.