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‘True diving pioneer’ Bob Kirby dies

Bob Morgan black and white in diving helmet
Bob Kirby, co-founder of Kirby Morgan

Bob Kirby, co-founder of US company Kirby Morgan, which came up with a succession of lighter, more comfortable and practical helmets and full-face masks for commercial divers, died at his home in California on 1 June. 

Seventy years earlier in 1952, Kirby had become a US Navy diver and welder, in the days when heavy, impractical surface-supplied diving helmets offering restricted views remained standard issue. He designed his first dive-mask, now known as the Kirby #1, while still in the service. 

After leaving the navy in 1956 Kirby became an abalone diver, enjoying the freedom to use a converted low-volume helmet with a large square faceplate. 

Over time he designed for his own use 16 “air hats” with copper domes built on Yokohama breastplates, regularly tweaking the designs and selling each previous helmet on. He had no plans to exploit them for profit, until he realised that manufacturers had been developing his ideas to take to market.

23kg weight-saving

From 1963 Kirby carried out exploration work for oil companies off the Californian coast. At that time diving deeper than 75m meant using the Navy’s helium recirculation system, with the already-heavy standard Mk V helmet and a scrubber unit attached to the back. 

In 1964 Associated Divers asked Kirby to design and build a lighter system, and within a month he had modified a Desco helmet to save 23kg in weight, and replaced the risky-when-wet Natron scrubber material with soda lime. A successful 90m test dive saw the helmet go into production. 

With saturation diving reducing demand for heavy gear, Kirby met diver and surfer Bev Morgan, and the two collaborated to manufacture glass fibre masks for abalone and commercial divers, before forming the Kirby Morgan Corporation to produce lightweight commercial helmets.

In 1965 the two designed and manufactured a model that was “the opposite of the Navy helium helmet he trained on”, as manufacturer Desco states in a tribute that calls Kirby a “major contributor to modern commercial diving”. 

The Kirby-Morgan low-volume demand-system helmet was “light, efficient and easy to use” and became the benchmark for such headgear, it says. 

Initial products included the BandMask and Clam Shell helmet, but in 1968 Kirby Morgan merged with Pacific Instruments, and when that company went out of business Kirby sold out to Morgan.

The Abyss

In 1974 the pair got back together as Diving Systems International to develop a glass fibre air helmet, with the US Navy eventually adopting their SuperLite 17 design. The company closed in 1980, after which Kirby worked on a variety of projects, taught diving courses and in 1989 built helmets and backpacks for his friend James Cameron’s film The Abyss.

Kirby Morgan Dive Systems continues to this day in Santa Maria, California, and is said to make more than 80% of the world’s surface-supplied diving equipment. In 2002 Kirby told the colourful story of his career in the limited-edition book Hard Hat Divers Wear Dresses.

Bob Kirby book cover
Kirby’s limited-edition autobiography

“We knew him as a kind, caring, intelligent gentleman,” states Desco. “He deserves to be remembered with the likes of the Deanes, Siebe, Heinke, Morse and Schrader… the diving-equipment makers of today will take the lessons learned by those who came before and diving will continue to advance.” 

Jon Council, president of the Historical Diving Association USA, described Kirby’s impact on the industry as “nearly impossible to quantify” and said that he co-founded “one of the most dynamic and important commercial and military dive-equipment manufacturing firms in the world”.

And HDSUSA co-founder Lesley Leaney described him as a true diving pioneer and said that Kirby-Morgan equipment had served to “revolutionise the equipment of military and commercial diving”.

Kirby received the Historical Diving Society USA Diving Pioneer Award and the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences NOGI Award, and was inducted into the Commercial Diving Hall of Fame. He leaves his wife Claudia and family.

Also on Divernet: Diving Colossus Tom Mount Dies & Pioneering US Diver Dottie Frazier Dies At 99

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