The World-Wide Impact of the South Florida Divinhood

The World-Wide Impact of the South Florida Divinhood

Florida Keys historians have emphasized treasure salvage, but overlooked that this started with an invention called the South Florida Divinhood. Biologists alike have forgotten that modern marine biology orginated with the same apparatus, and at the same time, diving historians have overlooked that the same Divinhood started recreational sports diving right here in the Florida Keys. Likewise, each of these developments had an international impact, and in each, the Divinhood served a key role as the catalyst. Here we will explore these interesting adventures and the impact of the South Florida Divinhood.

Miller and Dunn

An exaggeratedly optimistic view describes one of the newest cities in the United States, Miami, Florida: “There is nothing finer in the world, than Miami with an up-to-date, go ahead class of people.” It was a great place to live and make money, and if you couldn’t succeed in Miami, you would be a failure anywhere. Here was the best jail, an ice cream factory, free mail delivery, electricity, a telephone system, and four newspapers. Henry Flagler had built a complete infrastructure with all the modern conveniences to make Miami a tropical paradise and playground, prompting development, enterprise, and opportunities.
It was in this vibrant “can-do” environment that 37 year-old William F. Miller arrived from Evanston, Illinois in 1902. He quickly and eagerly participated in the new and ample opportunities. Miller is shown here standing by the mast of his sail boat with his wife Carrie closest.
William Miller invested in many businesses, but as fate would have it, he met the captain and craftsman William S. Dunn. By 1913, Miller and Dunn partnered in hardware, plumbing, and tinning businesses in the center of town on Avenue D. Where Miller was an excellent business man, Dunn was on the opposite end of the spectrum and could build just about anything with his hands. Dunn made a number of useful inventions for the surrounding South Florida waters as he had the tools and materials necessary from his hardware and tinning stores.
The Divinhood
To quote a common cliche, “Necessity is the mother of invention!” The craftsman William Dunn found a growing need for a diving apparatus to recover items that had fallen into the Miami waterways. What he built was a simple diving helmet from a cylindrically shaped wooden nail barrel.
The final product was an open-bottom helmet called the Divinhood. It was a copper design that was light, simple, very practical, and easy to use. The patent would show a single viewing port, a handle on top to easily lift it over the diver’s head, and an ordinary garden hose fitting that provided air to the diver. Imprinted on the helmet was the trademark “Dunn Divinhood.” The secret to its success and popularity was that it was so well adaptable it was perfect for diving in the warm, shallow waters of Miami and the Florida Keys.
Miller and Dunn began commercially manufacturing the Divinhood and advertised its application for a wide range of uses. Actually, a series of three Divinhood styles were developed: the Style 1 in 1916, the Style 2 in 1926, and the Style 3 in 1937. Alongside the helmet, Miller and Dunn developed compact double cylinder pumps in three improving designs for each successive Divinhood Style.
The World-Wide Impact

Some of the most common questions people ask are: “What were the helmets used for? Why make diving helmets? And, who needs them and for what?” The open-bottom helmet was so functional, it became a key technology in starting many fields related to diving. Accordingly each helmet style is credited with sparking a groundbreaking achievement: sports diving with the Style 1, marine biology with the Style 2, and underwater photography and modern treasure diving with the Style 3.

The Style 1 helmet was marketed to boaters seeking on site repairs and recovery of lost objects, but it was also useful for sports diving by non-diver amateurs and adventurers, mainly because of it’s ease and simplicity. A popular advertisement for the Divinhood claimed that “A diving apparatus so simple anyone can use it.”

The Style 2 is credited with starting modern marine biology. The first scientist to discover the great potential of the simple Divinhood for underwater study and exploration was Dr. William Beebe. At the time, Dr. Beebe was the Director of Tropical Research at the New York Zoological Society. In 1926, during his cruise on his ship called the Arcturus, Beebe fortuitously acquired the newly procured Divinhood and packed it in its compact crate amongst the cargo. His first dive was more than just an eye-opener for him. It exposed him to the unknown wonders of marine life and an easy way for sub-surface study. Upon entering the water, he instantly became converted from ornithology to marine biology. After he introduced the Divinhood Style 2 for underwater study and photography, many other biologists followed his lead. The Style 2 was also widely used for motion pictures, initially by Beebe, and later by Hans Hass and R W Miner.

Lastly, the Style 3 was becoming more common-place for those seeking access to the underwater environment, but the most interesting and picturesque character to use it was Art McKee, today a Florida Keys legend. A native of New Jersey, McKee was trained as a diver in heavy closed helmet gear. As the war approached, he took a job laying the pipeline under the Keys’ bridges for the Aqueduct Authority and for the Navy. Art then discovered the Divinhood Style 3 and adopted it as his favorite helmet. Shedding the warm, heavy gear associated with full diving-dress, Art began a long attachment to his open-bottom Divinhood. He preferred it even when early SCUBA became available and was used by all his diving companions and associates (note Art in the picture on the left using the Divinhood while the others use modern diving apparatuses). Art McKee used the helmet preferentially for pipe-laying, treasure salvage, and to initiate sports diving for tourists in the Florida Keys before SCUBA in 1948. Of the many applications of the Divinhood, McKee initiated modern salvage diving using the Divinhood Style 3 and became known as the Father of Treasure Salvage and also “Silver Bar McKee.”
Homemade and Commercial Imitations
The Miller-Dunn helmets were so functional they became widely imitated and replicated by others for their simplicity and usefulness. Craftsmen in their garages started using household items to build their very own version of the Divinhood. What they produced were many oddly shaped helmets with no two alike; however, they all shared one common feature: the open-bottom concept.

Maybe the most famous customized helmet was designed for marine biologist, underwater educator and photographer, Hans Hass. Distance and brewing pre-war tensions encouraged him to have a helmet made in Vienna by a tinsmith with the concept of the Divinhood in mind. Like Beebe, with this helmet he could now walk leisurely around the seabed and explore the reef.

Realizing there was a demand for open-bottom helmets, many commercial manufacturers mimicked the concept. Companies that at one time exclusively built the helmets for the full diving dress were now producing open-bottom helmets that were as functionally sound as the Divinhoods. For instance, the Hammond Company also of Miami, Florida built quite possibly the best open-bottom helmet design. The Divinhood required four weights to overcome the force produced by the contained air. The Hammond helmet, on the other hand, was constructed of heavy brass and was absent of any additional weights. It was also very large with a huge viewing port. It was an absolutely fantastic design.
Today, the open-bottom concept the Miller-Dunn Company popularized is still existence today. The modern SeaWalker invented for resort diving is still used in parts of Japan for the same desired simplicity as the early Divinhood. The helmet fits comfortably over the shoulders, and one can walk the ocean floor. The yellow AquaBell was also a popular recreational diving unit through the 1960′s. It was mainly used by beach combers that would bring the plastic helmet along on their trip, fill the yellow ring with sand, and use the specially designed pump to supply air to the bell.
The Significant Impact that is the Miller-Dunn Divinhood
Although the Divinhood is now considered an obsolete technology with the advent of replacements such as SCUBA, fiber-glass helmets for commercial diving and submarines, their technological significance to the history of science and technology serves as an important learning tool. At the History of Diving Museum, the history of the Divinhood helmet is paramount to the story we tell here. It encompasses a large segment of the museum, a segment in history that exhibits six displays in the museum. Furthermore, the Divinhood Style 2 is the logo for the History of Diving Museum because of its significance to South Florida, the Florida Keys legend Art McKee, and its groundbreaking design making it the logical identity of the museum.

Art McKee: The Father of Modern Treasure Hunting

The evolution of modern salvage diving can be understood through the life of one man, Art McKee. Long before Mel Fisher discovered the Atocha, McKee stood as the consummate symbol of Florida Keys treasure hunting. This is the story of his life and how he came to be known as the “Father of Modern Treasure Hunting.”

Art McKee was born in Bridgetown, New Jersey in 1910. From the outset, McKee was enthralled by undersea exploration. He is noted to have read books such as: “On the Bottom,” by Commander Ellsberg and “I Dive For Treasure,” by Lieutenant Harry E. Riesenberg.

His first exposure to diving, however, came at the coat tails of a major storm that hit the South Jersey shore in 1934. A hard-hat diver commissioned young Art McKee to help salvage a collapsed bridge, the bridge conntected east and west bridgetown. At this point, McKee was a mere line tender and assistant of sorts, however in the following years, McKee would continue in bridgebuilding efforts and eventually become a hard-hat diver himself.

As legend has it, McKee sustained a knee injury in 1936, which forced him to move to South Florida where he could rehabilitate year-round. Initially, McKee worked repairing the freshwater pipeline from Homestead to Key West; an endeavor that allowed him to perfect his hard-hat diving skills.

Art McKee eventually replaced the full diving-dress with the Miller-Dunn Divinhood. The Divinhood, invented in Miami, FL, is an open-bottom helmet design. He eventually became the poster-child for the Divinhood; even after swim-diving became popular, he continued to use the Divinhood for he believed much of his career was owed to the aparatus.

McKee, to his credit, made many important discoveries that allowed his persona to ascend to infamy. However, the most significant very well could have been the salvage of the “Ivory Wreck,” a slave ship that wrecked off Loo Key in the 1700′s. Although McKee recieved an enourmous amount of credit for his efforts, it was Dr. Barney Crile that tipped him off to its where abouts. Crile, a surgeon and head of the Cleveland Clinic, was vacationing with his family when the wreck was discovered.

Locally, McKee was growing in noteriety for his efforts as a salvage diver; Crile had heard of his reputation and commissioned him to assist in the salvage effort. Among many artifacts retrieved from the depths, the most significant were multiple silver bars and of course, Ivory tusks (an original is on display at the History of Diving Museum). Crile recorded these discoveries in his book entitled “Treasure Diving Holidays.” The book recounts the events of the salvage and contains pictures of Art McKee.

McKee’s salvage operations transformed this trade from leisure to a career path. Before long he collected so many artifacts that the next logical step was to open a museum. At first a small museum was adequate to house his artifacts, but eventually the collection grew so large he had to expand to a larger facility. The final landing spot would be the Museum of Sunken Treasure located at Treasure Harbor in Plantation Key, Florida. Today, most would recognize the once Sunken Treasure Museum as the Montessori School or formerly Treasure Village. When the museum opened, it was the premier tourist attraction in the Upper Keys; he even advertised the first glass bottom boat trips to salvage sites.

If Art McKee had ceased to continue his career in the field of diving, he would have already accomplished enough to make his mark permanently on history.

In the years following, he began marketing a travelling exhibit. On display were many artifacts to include a tusk from the “Ivory Wreck,” and more tantalizing to audiences, the silver bar.

McKee caught the attention of LIFE Magazine, where he appeared on multiple occasions. He also appeared on the Dave Garroway Show. To fully understand the magnitude of these achievements, imagine at the time, it was a significant achievement for a bridgebuilder and salvage diver from a small city in South Florida to appear on television and magazine. This was proof that McKee had truly become famous.

Art McKee was extremely charismatic in personality. Many people came to visit him because of their desire to discover for themselves the mysteries of the deep. Ed Link (aviation and marine specialist) and Mendel Peterson (curator and head of archaeology at the Smithsonian Institute) both came to work with McKee. Together these men invented the tools that allow for modern salvage diving. Together, they assume credit for developing the first underwater metal detector, jet propulsion vehicle and sifting cage.

Sadly, the life of such an instrumental figure in the field of diving was almost forgotten. Information on Art McKee’s life is scant, and his achievements in salvage diving are a just a part of the broader picture of the wrecks that he salvaged. However, the context of diving history allowed Art McKee’s legacy the proper avenue to be memorialized.

The History of Diving Museum stands as the greatest monument to his life, achievements and innovation. The museum was allowed a single diver to be painted on the building; The Guy Harvey and David Dunleavy mural depicts Art McKee atop his anchor searching the Florida Keys water.

Inside the museum, the Treasure Room displays Art McKee in his own exhibit in a myriad of ballast stones, coral, remnants from the Sunken Treasure Museum and his original inventions.

It is our firm belief, this is a major part in explaining the history of diving, and the story of the salvage industry cannot be properly understood without learning of the life and legacy of Art McKee.