This question comes from my attempts to give a good answer to the previous question, How was difference in water pressure perceived in ancient cultures or the middle ages?

I know from my childhood that "Alexander the Great used a diving bell (some say submarine:-) during the siege of Tyre, even submerged himself". Trying to find the source of this story I searched Internet for "diving history", "diving bell history" and so on. Everyone repeats this story, some with reference on Aristotle's "Problemata", others on the Medieval Arabic "Alexandria" (around 1200). Some also mention Roger Bacon (who also wrote on Alexander), without a precise reference.

Search in "Problemata" found no mentioning of Alexander or Tyre or siege, not speaking of the diving bell. Other works of Aristotle (on animals) show that he had no clue about the principle on which the diving bell works.

The citation from Alexandria says that Alexander used a "barrel made of glass", and there are even pictures of this:-)

So I have two specific questions:

  1. Where did Aristotle write ANYTHING about diving (in a bell or otherwise) during the siege of Tyre by Alexander? (Title and page number).

  2. Is there any credible mentioning of a diving bell before, say 1500, or ANY evidence that it existed or that someone understood how it works?

EFDIT. Let me try to state shortly what I understood from the long answer of Conifold. One sentence of Aristotle (highlighted in the answer) can be interpreted as that he has heard of something like a diving bell, without himself understanding much about water and air pressure (as his other statements show). The story of Alexander in Tyre is made up by medieval authors.

  • $\begingroup$ As far as I heard this was invented in the early modern period by a French fellow named "scaphander" or something, who tried to give a demonstration in front of the appropriate Louis but was unable to because of the stormy weather, but the name caught on. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2015 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ skaphe (small boat) et andros (man), what a coincidence! The term was actually coined in the 17th century. $\endgroup$
    – VicAche
    Dec 10, 2015 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @katz - See Scaphandre for the diving suit : Abbé de la Chapelle (1775), and see Scaphander lignarius for the sea snail; originally : Bulla lignaria (Linnaeus, 1758); Scaphander (Montfort, 1810). $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2015 at 19:57

2 Answers 2


Historians believe that the extant version of Problemata was not penned by Aristotle personally, but “while the Problemata is not the genuine Aristotelian work, it nevertheless contains an element derived from such a work”. Problemata XXXII.5 discusses breathing under water, including the oft quoted passage interpreted as referring to a diving bell:”Why do sponge-divers slit their ears and nostrils? Is it in order that the breath may pass more freely? For it is by this way that the breath seems to pass out; for it is said that they suffer more from difficulty of breathing by being unable to expel the breath, and they are relieved when they can as it were vomit the breath forth. It is strange, then, that they cannot achieve respiration for the sake of its cooling effect; this appears to be a greater necessity. Is it not quite natural that the strain should be greater when the breath is held, since then they are swollen and distended? But there appears to be a spontaneous passage of the breath outwards; and we must next consider whether breathing inwards is so also. Apparently it is; for they enable the divers to respire equally well by letting down a cauldron; for this does not fill with water, but retains the air, for it is forced down straight into the water; since, if it inclines at all from an upright position, the water flows in”.

The Alexander story does not appear in Problemata, and has all the hallmarks of a late anecdote. The siege of Tyre did happen in 332 BC, and divers were used to destroy underwater defenses, the same happened even earlier at the 413 BC siege of Syracuse according to Thucydides. But the "very fine barrel made entirely of white glass" called calimpha, the two companions, the bottom of the sea, the "large and powerful fish devour the small fry" are likely Alexandriad’s own fable. It got better as time went by, Alexander went 600 feet underwater in a glass case when he was 11, see Bachrach’s History of the Diving Bell. The conflation likely happened by associating Aristotle as Alexander’s mentor and the cauldron of Problemata with the calimpha fable.

Presumably sponge divers had some working understanding of the bell’s principle already in Aristotle’s time, and presumably it was reinvented multiple times in different places. A documented account of bell’s use does not appear until 16th century however, Bacon’s alleged contraption c. 1240 notwithstanding. Tasnier reported (p. 94) that in Toledo in 1538 he saw two Greeks lowering themselves under water in a large inverted kettle in the presence of Charles V, the inventor might have been de Lorena who is credited with "inventing" the bell in 1535 by some sources. Norwood took out a patent on diving devices in 1632, but by then Drebbel already built a working submersible (1620), and by the end of 1620s improved it enough to transport king James I.

Anything like modern understanding of water pressure etc. does not appear until Torricelli, even Galileo had trouble explaining siphons before that. In 1683 Sinclair published a book called Natural Philosophy Improven by New Experiments Touching the Mercurial Weather-Glass, the Hygroscope, Eclipsis, Conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter, by New Experiments, Touching the Pressure of Fluids, the Diving-Bell, and All the Curiosities Thereof (sic!), which might have been the first modern work on physics of diving bells.

  • $\begingroup$ can you give a reasonable online reference for Problemata where I can find the paragraph you cited? Of course I can go to the library, but if you know an online version, I will appreciate this. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2015 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexandre Eremenko My first link is to online version, just search on the page for "cauldron" and this passage comes up. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Dec 10, 2015 at 22:41

For Aristotle :

  • Problemata Book XXXII, 960b,30-31 : “divers to respire equally well by letting down a cauldron”.

  • Parts of Animals, Book II, 659a,5 : “Some divers, when they go down into the sea, provide themselves with a breathing-machine, by means of which they can inhale the air from above the surface while they remain for a long time in the water.”

For Roger Bacon, the locus rferring to Alexander is De mirabili; see Friar BACON his Discovery of the Miracles of Art, Nature, and Magick, transcribed by Dr.Alan R.Young (1659), page 18.

For the colimpha attributed to Alexander the Great, it seems is due to Jerome, see here. Presumibely, the attribution "migrated" subsequently from Alexander to his teacher Aristotle.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.