Doing things right has been a theme in Bill Spahr’s life, and it may have earned him a place in history that could upstage Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
Spahr, 91, decided he wanted to spear fish in Lake Pontchartrain, so after some research, he designed a self-contained diving helmet. His ingenuity shined in the concept and skill that led him to recycle parts of an old water heater that he welded together into a dive hat that let him stay under the water nearly 20 minutes at a depth of 33 feet.
According to Spahr, he made his helmet in 1940 and used it until 1944.
“I used to pump air into it with a bicycle pump,” he said of the rear tank on the helmet. “It would smell like oil from the oil in the pump.”
It worked, although it became more about watching fish than spearing them because he couldn’t perfect his spear gun design, and he did this at age 13. He welded a handle atop the helmet so he could carry it on his bicycle.
“It’s unbelievable what’s under that sea wall,” Spahr said of the fish he saw while diving. “It was interesting going there and watching them, and I was proud of the fact I didn’t have to pop up for air.”
Over the years, he held onto the helmet until his children found it at his home and decided it would make a nice attraction at their restaurant, also called Spahr’s, in Des Allemands.
“It looks like something from outer space,” he said.
And that’s when diver Bob McMillan and his wife, also of Des Allemands, went there to eat one day and saw the helmet.
McMillan was amazed by the discovery, maintaining Spahr’s self-contained helmet predates Cousteau and Emile Gagnan’s work. The two redesigned a car regulator to automatically provide compressed air to a diver on the slightest intake of breath. Their concept gave birth to the SCUBA “Aqua Lung,” which is considered a fundamental improvement on air supply for divers in 1943. SCUBA stands for Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.
“I was born 50 years too soon,” Spahr mused about his passion for making things and doing it right – just like his father who ran the railroad machine shop.
When he served in the military in Japan, his self-taught machinist skills came into great appreciation in his ability to fix appliances on the base. It required he fabricate parts, but he got things working again and soon service members covered his desk with broken appliances and he fixed them, too.
“I was in the machinist business again,” Spahr said.
But McMillan is determined to credit Spahr for his invention. He’s contacted two area museums, which would take the helmet with his permission, and hopes the Smithsonian also will document his achievement.
“It looks like something from outer space.” – Bill Spahr
And it was one.
Spahr further mused, “I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here.”
McMillan explained, once mist formed on the helmet glass as an indicator of carbon dioxide, Spahr would release more air into the helmet through a tube that was once from the tank to the helmet and it would vent through a bicycle valve. The helmet has no gauges other than an air compressor.
Also, Spahr had decided to stay away from anything with buckles that might tie him down in the deeper water. If anything went wrong, he wanted to be able to drop the helmet and swim to the surface.
Fortunately, he never had to use his emergency plan.
Although Spahr doesn’t consider his helmet a big accomplishment, he enjoys telling people his story.
These days, he’s content sitting at a table at his restaurant in Des Allemands happily boasting he’s outlived five doctors and is working on his sixth. But he also admits he and his family would be proud of his achievement being documented, and McMillan is determined to put him in the history books.