Cover image for The bends : compressed air in the history of science, diving, and engineering
The bends : compressed air in the history of science, diving, and engineering
Phillips, John L., 1965-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
ix, 256 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
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TJ985 .P46 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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With the invention of compressed air in the 1840s, human divers could enter previously inaccessible deep water environments and engineers could design underwater mines and monumental bridges that had never been possible before. But a painful, sometimes fatal illness--decompression sickness, or the bends--mysteriously afflicted many of those who used compressed air. This book is a wide-ranging history of the wonders compressed air brought about and the suffering its unknown hazards inflicted. John L. Phillips explores the intertwining roles of science, technology, engineering, medicine, and politics in the invention of compressed air, the recognition and identification of decompression sickness, and the hundred-year-long process of learning to understand and treat the bends.

The book begins with an overview of the biology and chemistry of respiration and a discussion of the steam engine that could generate compressed air. Drawing on previously unpublished letters, diaries, and notes, Phillips tells the story of early uses of compressed air, first observations of decompression sickness, growing awareness of the bends during construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and efforts to understand the pathophysiology of the illness. He then considers employee health and safety issues, the science of diving today, and human limits to exploring the ocean deeps. In the history of compressed air and its illnesses, Phillips finds important lessons for dealing with other diseases yet to be confronted in the modern world.

Author Notes

John L. Phillips, M.D. , is a fellow in urologic oncology at the National Cancer Institute, NIH.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

"The bends" is a set of painful, debilitating reactions to decompression suffered by divers, miners, and underwater excavators. Compressed-air environments necessary to offset water pressure at certain depths alter respiration, forcing the body to store nitrogen in fatty tissue and nerve cells. Too-rapid decompression releases bubbles of nitrogen into the blood stream and thence to the heart, lungs, joints, or brain. Phillips assembles a wide array of information and anecdotes to explain the biology and chemistry of respiration and early attempts at diving. He contrasts the systematic attempts of medical scientists to understand and treat the illness with the profit-driven pragmatism of engineers organizing large-scale underwater construction. Packed with interesting details and stories, the author explores many side issues, sometimes at too great length. Technical matters are generally explained clearly, although some medical aspects of the bends will be beyond the reach of the lay reader. Phillips makes almost no attempt to place developments in a wider historical framework; the few paragraphs devoted to context are too simplistic. His encyclopedic range and style carry the story forward, while the strong bibliography and useful illustrations complement the readable text. General readers; undergraduates; graduates; two-year technical program students. D. H. Porter; Western Michigan University



Preface When the Brooklyn Bridge celebrated its centennial, there was great interest in the history of its construction. As David McCullough recounts in The Great Bridge , the first victims of decompression sickness (or the bends) were not scuba divers of the 1940s, but miners and tunnel builders a hundred years earlier. I appreciate, however, that the history of the bends contains an underlying theme that was much broader and more revealing about science and society. From the seventeenth century, when air was first studied as matter made up of atoms, to the twentieth century, when compressed air is routinely used by engineers, divers, and doctors, the history of the use of compressed air and its effects on workers serves as a paradigm for the evolution of scientific thought. The initial enthusiasm for compressed-air technology and early lack of understanding of what caused the bends showed how discoveries relating to the Earth and its elements led to great progress as well as terrible dangers. Scientists' advances in preventing and treating the bends showed how the complex systems of the human body can be gravely influenced by the simplest of physical laws and gas chemistry. And yet these same advances show that, nevertheless, we will always be confined in our explorations by the limitations, not of the human mind, but of the human body. This book reflects my great interest in how history, science, and the pioneers of engineering and biomedical research shaped our modern world and how these lessons of the past may guide our discoveries of the future. Excerpted from The Bends by John L. Phillips, M.D.. Copyright © 1998 by Yale University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.