The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Jul/Aug 2019


John Stephen Selby, 20 February 1938 - 26 April 2019

SOS Group founder passes away aged 81

John Selby with the first Hyperlite 1 prototype. Photo courtesy of the SOS Group

It is with sadness that we announce the passing of John Selby, founder of UK-based SOS Group and the original developer of the Hyperlite 1 portable hyperbaric chamber system. John dedicated more than 30 years to the development and advancement of hyperbaric technologies, with the mission of advancing front line hyperbaric capabilities to treat diver decompression sickness in remote locations. His life is a story of ambition, persistence and overcoming the odds to achieve exceptional achievements, unlikely ever to be possible in the modern day.

John Selby was born on 20 February 1938 in London, as the son of European refugees who fled to the UK shortly before the outbreak of World War 2. He spent his early years in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, before departing to Bryanston College and eventually onto the University of London to study Mechanical Engineering.


He was an active young man, gaining his university colours for rowing and later representing Great Britain at downhill skiing where he first showed a glimpse of his steely nerve, determination and an appetite for calculated risk. During his early 20s, he worked for De Beers Industrial Diamonds as the European sales manager, travelling around Europe several times a week to meet clients. He developed a love of flying, eventually persuading his bosses to allow him to fly himself around Europe, saving costs to the company, whilst providing John with free European travel. He became a well-known and very accommodating member of central London popular culture scene often hosting parties from his apartment in Notting Hill Gate.    

John’s love of flying eventually led him to start his own air-taxi company, Direct Air, which went onto to become the second largest air-taxi company in the UK. He flew many high-profile clients such as Formula One stars Nikki Lauda and Frank Williams and other occasional non-paying guests, such as one hitchhiker who John and his co-pilot picked up from a side road and offered to fly to Leeds, reducing his planned travel time from two days to just two hours.  

It was during these years that John grew interested in scuba diving and it was during this time that, through his involvement in the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) he met the love of his life, Jane Culverwell, a senior nurse, who at the time specialised in midwifery and burns.

John and Jane went onto to join the London Underwater Centre, which imported diving equipment and organised diving expeditions. They later set up SOS Ltd where they began to focus on development of new hyperbaric technologies. They received funding from the UK Ministry of Defence and in 1989 produced the first Hyperlite hyperbaric chamber, a portable, non-metallic chamber capable of transferring an injured diver or submariner from the scene of an accident to a nearby recompression facility. 


After successful manufacture, John introduced the chamber to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Safety Committee for Pressure Vessels for Human Occupancy – the industry leading safety committee for all systems (excluding space) that were intended to house a human being. Originally met with some skepticism as to the viability of a “non-metallic” hyperbaric chamber, John embarked upon a six-year long project to get his initial case approved by his fellow engineers on the committee. His courtesy, resilience and drive was an example to all who aim to achieve a tough technical goal.  

The SOS business continued to grow under the Selbys’ directorship with the additional support of John’s son Paul, who has been with the firm since 2008. It now has offices in the UK, Singapore and Philippines and supplies life-saving devices for governments and dive facilities in more than 30 countries worldwide.  

In his later years, John took a step back from the day-to-day running of the business but remained influential in the company. He spent more time with his wife, travelling on several cruises around Europe, Russia and Alaska. He visited family in South Africa and, when back home, was an active member of the Parkinson’s UK research and support charity. 

He is survived by his wife Jane, his son Paul, his daughter Sam and his grandson Benji.





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