Hakai Magazine


A High-Pressure Job

What construction workers, scuba divers, and a risqué dance have in common.

Authored by

by Amorina Kingdon and Katrina Pyne

Article body copy

The bends is a condition rightly feared by scuba divers. Also known as decompression sickness, it’s triggered when a diver surfaces too quickly after spending time diving at depth. Decompression does weird things to the human body, and the pain can make people bend and contort themselves—hence the unusual name. But there’s another reason why some of the first sufferers used the term the bends to describe their then-mysterious affliction, and it had to do with fashion trends in glitzy, glamorous 1860s Manhattan.

No, folks weren’t scuba diving in the 1860s. Though the first bends sufferers were technically working under the sea, they were actually construction workers. In this video, we dig deep into the history of this well-known diving risk, what it actually is, and how it got its name.

Provided media:
Custom can illustration by Mark Garrison
Lower Manhattan skyline and East River, viewed from Brooklyn circa 1908 by Geo. P. Hall & Son, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
Bull kelp illustration by Pina Clothing
“Fun in a bottle” by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license