KIRBY, Robert “Bob”
Last updated: August 1, 2017 at 18:41 pm
Co-founder of Kirby-Morgan, a manufacturer of commercial diving helmets, with Bev Morgan in 1965; author of Hard Hat Divers Wear Dresses (2002); former U.S. Navy diver; designed and built his first aluminum diving helmet, known as the Kirby #1 mask, while posted on the USS Nereus; became an abalone diver after leaving the navy in 1956.
Excerpt from Robert Kirby’s Hard Hat Divers Wear Dresses (2002), available from the Historical Diving Society bookstore:
I eventually constructed my gas and sixteen air hats, all adorned with a diamond nameplate reading: “R.Kirby, Commercial Helmets.” I initially built an air hat for myself, complete with bells and whistles. Someday I might be offered another diving job and, if I had my own hat, I would never have to dive another Mark V. My new hat, like all those that came after, was built on a Yokohama breastplate. I purchased these new for $250. My copper dome was spun by Hummel Sheet Metal in Santa Barbara. The completed helmet was just what I wanted; for the time being anyway. As a way of life, I would regularly change my mind and make modifications. Innovations came to me daily and often depended upon my mood. I hated the day-by-day manufacturing process – where the actual money is made. I preferred playing around with each new gimmick, tweaking it, turning it over, soldering on a fitting, and then adding air pressure. I had fun building my little air helmet and had no thought of actually selling it. Looking back I realize this was always a silly approach. I would make a helmet for myself, be forced to sell it, make another, sell it. Anyway, when I finished my first new hat I named it “Orville” in honor of the aviation pioneer, Orville Wright. My telephone fell silent. The market for heavy gear dried up overnight with only three exceptions: J. Ray McDermott & Co. of New Orleans wanted a gas hat; J. & J. Diving of Pasadena, Texas, needed one; and Del Thomason ordered one for Ocean Systems. Del’s phone call had me confused. Why weren’t they using their own system, the demand valve, inside their helmets? After Del picked up the hat, I waited for a second order which never came. I discovered the reason for Del’s order later. Dan, Del and Whitey had split from Laddy and Cal Dive, forming Ocean Systems. They needed good deep-water capabilities and our designs were the best. In an effort to spend less on the helmets, Del took ours to Japan where it was copied by Yokohama Diving Apparatus. I knew chances were good the three helmets I had just sold would be my last commissions in copper and brass. In order to survive, I once again needed to pull that rabbit out of my hat. In order not to flounder, I had to educate myself in the making of fiberglass masks and helmets.
Honours and Awards:
NOGI Award (Sports & Education, 2013)
Commercial Diving Hall of Fame (2000)
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Jeffrey Gallant is the Editor-in-Chief and Records Keeper of the Diving Almanac. He is also a contributing editor of DIVER Magazine, and the scientific director of the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group (GEERG). Jeffrey started diving in 1982.