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  • The Day Wager April 8, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    A recent post that has haunted Beachcombing was that concerning an early submarine exploring a world of Merfolk near the Isle of Man in the seventeenth century. What most interested Beachcombing was not curiously the mermaids, welcome as they were, but the fact that an innovative technology had slipped unnoticed into an eighteenth-century Manx folk tale. Since then Beachcombing has been chasing down references to pre-modern diving bells and submarines and his wonder has, if anything grown. He has also though, almost incidentally discovered some early submarine stories that deserve to be better know. One of these is the Day Wager.

    In 20 June 1774 a bet was made, namely that a certain East Anglian, J. – John? Jason? James? – Day could (i) sink himself to a depth of twenty fathoms (36.5 metres) under the sea; (ii) stay there for twelve hours and that (iii) he could then return to the surface unassisted.

    Day seems already to have made some experiments with underwater survival in Norfolk, but for this bet he took his ‘sloop’ Maria to Plymouth Harbour where a middleman Christopher Blake arranged the bets.

    A certain Sparks of Plymouth created the underwater chamber that was 12 feet (broad) by 9 feet (wide) by 8 feet (high) with two layers of caulked planks and a chained water tight door on the top. This was a claustrophobic little womb in which there would be no natural light.

    The Life Chamber (let’s call it that) would be attached to a small sloop that would be sunk with the Life Chamber on it and Day could cut certain ballast ropes to detach the life chamber from said boat and drift (too quickly?) to the surface.

    What is impressive to Beachcombing’s unscientific mind are the weights involved. The ‘ballast’, for example, was actually two five ton rocks! And then when, in Plymouth harbour, the sloop refused to sink, on the day of the bet, another twenty tons of stone were routinely brought out and thrown onto the boat to push it underwater!

    And then the betting folk and Day’s friends waited and waited and waited and waited…

    You see where this is going.

    Day did not resurface after twelve hours and suddenly the participants realised that there was no way to get him out.

    What went wrong? One possibility is that the Life Chamber broke on the way down under the pressure. Certainly witnesses described a great perturbation on the sea as the boat went down. But this could easily have been an air pocket in the sloop itself bubbling to the surface.

    Alternatively Day couldn’t release the ballast from his chamber or passed out through lack of oxygen.

    Interestingly, a Dr Falk came into the picture 30 July 1774 intending to drag Day to the surface as ‘there was a philosophical probability of restoring life to a man whose death he presumed not to be real but a cessation of the animal functions.’ Beachcombing must emphasize that this was a month after poor Day had ‘gone missing’. But back in the eighteenth century anything was possible…

    Does anyone have further references? J. Day deserves his immortality. And does anyone know if the boat was ever salvaged? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    1 May 2011: Judith Weingarten writes in – ‘I wonder if Lawrence Norfolk got his idea for the submarine barrel that his hero Salvestro built to descend to the sunked city in The Pope’s Rhinoceros (‘they had caulked its staves and cut a tiny window in the side into which fitted the glass … then cased the whole in leather with lacings for the window and the top’) from this story.  A fascinating thought.  If you haven’t read the book — and it’s quite a long and eventually stultifying read page 7 onwards.’ Thanks Judith!