Legends of Diving Articles


Dr. R.W. Hamilton
Breathing Gases, Gas Tables
and effects of Pressure

Dr RW Hamilton

Dr. R.W. Hamilton, known affectionately as "Billy Bob" to his beloved wife and friends, was born in Midland, Texas on June 6, 1930. He was inquisitive as a child and pushed everything to the limit. This proved true with his education, as well. He studied at the University of Texas, earning a Liberal Arts degree. Hamilton then received a master's degree in Animal Breeding at Texas A & M and went on to the University of Minnesota to earn his doctorate in Physiology and Biophysics. While in college he joined the Air Force and served as a jet fighter pilot during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He received the distinguished Flying Cross and rose to the rank of major.

During his time in the military, Major Hamilton served as a Life Support Officer, helping to solve equipment problems that had caused unsuccessful bailouts. He eventually served as the principal investigator for the USAF and in NASA research on atmospheres for space flight. He proposed a radical new idea for protection against very high G-forces on fighter aircraft and was recommended to NASA by the National Academy of Sciences as a Scientist Astronaut.

In 1964 he packed up his wife and four kids and headed for Ocean Systems, a division of Union Carbide based in Tarrytown, New York. He researched the effects of gases under increased pressure in hypobaric environments. He was both physiologist and subject in his early laboratory dives. His work led to the first manned saturation exposure dive to the continental shelf pressure of 200 meters of sea water or 21 atmospheres.

Hamilton pioneered the study of neon as a component of breathing gases, studying the human performance and decompression aspects of this gas to pressure as great as 400 msw (meters of saltwater). He advocated the use of neon as the ideal inert gas for long duration space flights. He also collaborated in the use of neon offshore in an unprecedented series of deep commercial dives, as well as explored its value in closed circuit breathing systems.

Dr RW Hamilton - fighter pilot

Hamilton developed the hyperbaric chamber fire safety program with his colleagues in his lab and introduced the fundamental data universally applied by both the diving and hyperbaric medical communities. His data was used as guidelines by the National Fire Protection Association. His concept of the "zone of no combustion" led to the development of safe atmospheres and breathing gases for underwater habitat welding. Hamilton worked offshore to help implement this idea.

At Ocean Systems he led the Access laboratory program, which involved rapid compressions to the pressure of 300 msw (1000 feet of sea water) using nitrogen to mitigate compression effects. In associations with NASA, Hamilton worked on development, excursions, and decompression procedures for use with a hyperbaric lock on a space station. His work with decompression tables, physiological effects of gases, and methods of managing exposure to oxygen were instrumental in the origination and development of the new field of "Technical Diving." Hamilton studied the physiology risk of breath hold diving and rediscovered the technique of air packing as a means of increasing lung volume.

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