Few men of science have ventured so high into the atmosphere and so deep into the ocean as the late Professor Auguste Piccard. Born in Switzerland in 1884 (the twin brother of Jean Félix, also a well-known scientist), Auguste first became one of the great exponents of ballooning. By profession a physicist, Auguste Piccard was concerned to explore the region high above the Earth known as the stratosphere. He established that a manned balloon could ascend to such heights to measure, for example, radiation and the activity of cosmic rays. Auguste Piccard built an aluminium airtight ‘gondola’ supported by a large balloon and in 1931 he succeeded in reaching an altitude of well over 51,000 feet, ascending from Augsburg. A year later, Auguste Piccard, together with Dr. Max Cosyns, reached a height of over 54,100 feet, from Zurich. Important as these achievements were, there is little doubt that, in the public mind at any rate, he is best remembered for his exploration of the depths of the sea.
After the Second World War Professor Auguste Piccard designed the bathyscaphe, which might be described as a kind of submarine. Whereas a conventional submarine is designed to carry a large crew and operate in comparatively shallow depths, the Piccard bathyscaphe holds only two people. It is, in fact, an instrument of research, with few other aims than to lower observers as far below the surface of the ocean as the pressures will allow. In appearance Auguste Piccard’s bathyscaphe resembles nothing so much as a large sausage, nearly 50 feet long and just over 11 feet 6 inches in diameter. Below this structure is a circular cabin, about 6 feet across, which will hold two men in comfort. A window in the cabin enables them to observe conditions in the ocean outside. Amongst the scientific equipment carried are an echo-sounder, an electronic flash camera, and a special ‘acoustic’ telephone which enables the observers to talk to the escorting surface ship by transmitting sound waves through the water. Devices in the bathyscaphe enable it to be raised or lowered by the crew at will. Propellers driven by electric motors enable a limited amount of horizontal movement.
The keys to the understanding of the bathyscaphe are pressure and density. Pressure in a fluid increases with depth. Thousands of feet down in the ocean pressures are so great that no man could survive without the protection the bathyscaphe affords. The cabin is heavily built of steel, three and a half inches think. The air inside is kept at a pressure similar to that of the atmosphere, so little difficulty in breathing is experienced by the crew. The depth of the bathyscaphe is controlled by making it lighter or heavier. There are two main devices for altering the weight. The main body (float) of the craft is divided into compartments containing petrol. Petrol is 30% lighter than water, so that the bathyscaphe would normally have an inherent tendency to float. The hull of the float is quite thin and will not resist great pressure. It does not need to stand up to pressures from outside, however, because water is allowed to flow in through holes on the underside. Equal pressures are thus maintained inside and outside the hull. The float chambers at each end of the craft can be either flooded with water (in which case the bathyscaphe sinks) or allowed to remain empty (when the craft floats on the surface). The most important alteration in weight, however, is effected by two ballast tubes which each hold five tons of iron pellets, held in place by electromagnets. When the magnets are switched off the pellets are dropped and the bathyscaphe will become lighter and will tend to rise to the surface. Using a combination of float chamber and ballast tubes the depth of the bathyscaphe can be controlled with accuracy.
After a prototype F.R.N.S.-2 had been developed, two bathyscaphes were built to Auguste Piccard’s designs, the F.N.R.S.-3 for the French Navy and the Trieste, launched in 1953. In that year Auguste and his son Jacques took the Trieste over 10,000 feet down in the Mediterranean Sea near Naples.
In 1956 Auguste descended 12,000 feet in the same area. The greatest test, however, came in January 1960, when the Trieste, sponsored by the United States Navy, made the record dive in the West Pacific Ocean. Manned by Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh, U.S.N., the bathyscaphe descended in the Marianas Trench some 35,800 feet (about seven miles), taking over four and a half hours to do so.
It should perhaps be noted that Professor Auguste Piccard’s bathyscaphes are not the same type of vessel as the bathyspheres developed by Dr. Beebe and Otis Barton for deep ocean exploration. The bathysphere is more simple in construction, basically a large metal sphere (cabin) which can be lowered by cable from a surface ship.
Professor Auguste Piccard died in March 1962, but his work is being carried on by his son Jacques. It is likely that Trieste, far from being the final word in deep exploration of the oceans, is rather the herald of great advances yet to come.