This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
On one of the last shimmering days of summer, two weathered, middle-aged men undress in a parking lot on the northeastern shore of Lake Zurich. This is the city’s Gold Coast, where a halfway decent villa will set you back a couple of million francs. Jabbering in a Swiss dialect while working with swift, sure hands, the divers pull on thick black exposure suits and 20 kilograms of gear, including two big steel cylinders of pressurized breathing gas.
“It’s not always fun like this!” says one of the divers, a trim fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard. That’s Ernst Völlm. He lives on the shadier side of the lake. But he loves it here, where as a kid he used to swim, snorkel, and dream of being an underwater explorer like his idol, Jacques Cousteau.
For Völlm, today is a workday. On his left wrist he’s wearing his latest creation, an advanced dive computer known, appropriately enough, as the Zurich Scuba Diver Assistant, or SDA. He and his jovial dive buddy, Georges Götte, waddle web-footed down to the water, joking with nearby swimmers. Götte calls out “Gute Luft” (“good air”), and they jump in feet first. As Völlm descends into the blue depths, he clutches a rack of SDAs. Twenty minutes later, the divers resurface, and Völlm’s rack is chirping like a field of crickets. To test the units, he had “tricked” them into thinking he’d dangerously exceeded safety limits, and they are all screeching in protest.
Völlm is chief technology officer for Underwater Equipment Made in Switzerland, or UEMIS, headquartered in Adliswil. The 5-year-old firm’s offering is already among the world’s most coveted dive computers. Like any such unit, the SDA records the diver’s depth and time underwater and uses that data to calculate, every few seconds, whether it’s safe to return to the surface. If it’s not, the computer calculates a decompression schedule—basically an ascent plan that will let the diver get back to the world of air and light without risking a case of decompression sickness, better known as the bends.
Völlm built his first piece of diving gear—a diving lamp (“a car light in a housing, more or less”)—when he was 20. At the time he was studying mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. His first job was at a yarn-winding company, where he worked on an electronic bobbin winder.