Bob ( Robert ) Kirby

Bob Kirby started his career as a navy diver in 1952. In 1955 he met Jerry Todd, an abalone diver from San Diego who invited him to see what that work was about. At a nine days leave from the Navy Kirby made his first dive with the small volume japanese diving helmet which was converted by Jerry Todd. Kirby never liked the heavy MK5 diving equipment used by the US navy which was unpractical in use and had windows ‘to small to look through them with both eyes at a time’ ... His first diving mask, al aluminum frame with a large round window, Kirby designed an built when he was still with the navy but working on his own account in the weekends. The USS Nereus, the ship Kirby was stationed on had all kinds of facilities, among them a machine shop and a foundry. The mask Kirby designed had been inspired by a mask made of stainless steel made by a Henry Hanson. After the first mask appeared to be working good he made ten more of them. These masks now are known as the ‘Kirby #1 mask’. In 1956 his navy contract ended and he became an Abalone diver doing all kind of work in between. In 1956 he converted a Desco small volume helmet with a large square face pate which he used for abalone diving.

In Robert Kirby's book ‘Hard Hat Divers Wear Dresses’, published in 2002, he refers to his first diving helmets

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.

(From pages 158/9 & 162/3 ‘Hard Hat Divers Wear Dresses’ by Robert Kirby) 

This book is still available from the Historical Diving Society Bookshop:

This chapter is to be extended with the story of Robert Kirby ‘recirculater’ helmets. Do you have photographs available of a Kirby Recirculator? Please share them.


the scrapbook of diving history