Friday, December 19, 2014

Jacques Piccard


Piccard on the right with a naval officer, having just done something no one had ever done.

".... And as we were settling this final fathom, I saw a wonderful thing. Lying on the bottom just beneath us was some type of flatfish, resembling a sole, about 1 foot long and 6 inches across. Even as I saw him, his two round eyes on top of his head spied us - a monster of steel - invading his silent realm. Eyes? Why should he have eyes? Merely to see phosphorescence? The floodlight that bathed him was the first real light ever to enter this hadal realm. Here, in an instant, was the answer that biologists had asked for the decades. Could life exist in the greatest depths of the ocean? It could! And not only that, here apparently, was a true, bony teleost fish, not a primitive ray or elasmobranch. Yes, a highly evolved vertebrate, in time’s arrow very close to man himself. Slowly, extremely slowly, this flatfish swam away. Moving along the bottom, partly in the ooze and partly in the water, he disappeared into his night. Slowly too - perhaps everything is slow at the bottom of the sea - Walsh and I shook hands."
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When I was nine years old and with my family on vacation in south Jersey, we took a day trip up north to Atlantic City.  This was in the mid-1960's and pre-casino A.C. was filled with gloriously wondrous activities, especially on the famous Steel Pier.  For example, for a quarter [pricey, I know] one could race slot cars on an enormous track with a number of other competitors, see a live musical act [The Supremes minus Diana Ross; Davey Jones minus The Monkees, Pat Boone plus his wife and daughters], a horse plunge into the ocean from a diving board with a helmet-clad bathing beauty on his back, or, for a nickel, watch a chicken in a lighted box dance "The Twist" to a Chuck Berry 45 while electric current pulsed through a wire under its feet.  It really was nothing but non-stop amazement.

My favorite activity was also the most expensive, naturally.  At the side of the Steel Pier was a blue and white diving bell affixed to the superstructure.  For a dollar, we could stand in a long line, climb aboard, and sink like a rock 22 feet under the surface.  The view was ordinary, of course, unless you're excited by discarded cans, carrion crabs, and muddy sand.  But still, how many of us really got to travel in an actual submersible?  Fortunately, it would also return to the surface.  It was so amazing, none of my friends back in Ohio believed it existed.


One of the reasons that I was so determined to spend the equivalent of ten comic books worth of money on this ride is that I had written a report for my favorite elementary school teacher just a few months before on Jacques Piccard and his bathyscaphe Trieste, which had descended to unheard of depths in the Pacific Ocean.  The descriptions of the adventure were still fresh in my imagination when I took that two-story plunge into the Atlantic.

The Trieste was merely one of many devices created by a remarkable Swiss family reaching back into the previous century.  While it was used to plumb the depths of the sea, the bathyscaphe was actually based on the high altitude experiments of Auguste Piccard, Jacques' father and a physicist at the University of Brussels in the 1930's who decided to test his theories using a new type of pressurized balloon gondola of his own invention that would allow its occupants to reach high enough into the atmosphere that Piccard could study cosmic rays.  Auguste would make 27 balloon journeys, eventually reaching the record height of over 27,000 feet, or one-third of the way into space.

During Auguste's work improving the pressurized balloon gondola, now with Jacques as his assistant, they realized that with some minor re-engineering the balloon gondola could be made into a submersible cabin.  Using the same physics employed in gauging the buoyancy of a high-altitude balloon, the Piccards fashioned a pressurized sphere attached to a larger cylinder filled with heavy viscous liquids and weighted with simple iron shot.  The first version of the bathyscaphe [from the Greek for "deep vessel"] was ready for its shakedown cruise in 1939 when world events delayed its development.  After the war, the experiment fell to Jacques to complete, as his father now considered himself too old for such extracurricular adventures.

Jacques was born in 1922, had studied engineering, physics, and economics at the University of Geneva [where his father taught], served in the Free French Army during the war, and was working as a lecturer upon the war's conclusion.  As he became more involved with his father's projects, he would leave teaching and dedicate his days to perfecting what would become the third and most famous of the Piccard bathyscaphes, the Trieste.

As you can see, unlike a submarine, it was not self-propelled; able only to go either down or, thankfully, up.

In 1953, the Trieste managed to descend to a record depth of over 10,000 feet [nearly 2 miles] into the Mediterranean Sea near Capri, but that wasn't enough for Jacques, who was now being recognized in the European press as a "hydronaut".  He knew that the Trieste could go much, much deeper. However, such a bold venture required capital and, in the 1950's, the best place to find that revenue was in the United States.

Piccard went to the U.S. Navy with an offer to use the Trieste in their deep-submergence experiments. In those earlier, wilder days at the Defense Department, instead of simply renting the Trieste, the Navy bought it outright and appointed Piccard as its pilot/consultant.  Training a Navy lieutenant, Don Walsh, in its operation, Piccard convinced the powers-that-be into making a bold attempt to sink the Trieste into the deepest known portion of the undersea floor.

On January 23, 1960, Piccard and Walsh began a five hour descent into the Marianas Trench in the southern Pacific.  Their target, a valley labeled on undersea maps as the "Challenger Deep", was seven miles below, a depth that exerted 4348 pounds per square inch on the hull.

[As a helpful example to understand how much pressure this is, a stream of water leaking from a pinhole in the submersible's hull would, before the entire vehicle imploded, have the force necessary to cut through flesh and bone as efficiently as a high-intensity laser.]

Not exactly roomy, either.

While the goal of the mission was to prove the engineering superiority of the Trieste, a secondary, and rather staggering, result was also achieved.  Until that time, it was assumed by marine biologists that no sea life existed at those depths due to the extreme pressure.  But, as Piccard watched in fascination out his small, thick window, even the ocean deep held a rich variety of God's creatures.


After twenty minutes on the sea floor, Piccard noted that micro-fissures were beginning to develop in the Trieste's port window, so it was prudently decided to get the heck out of there.  [He had been warned by "experts" not to include a window in the design, but c'mon....]  It took three more hours to surface and, by the time they broke through the waves near their Navy escort ship, the entire study of ichthyology had been re-appraised.  The only problem, said the scientific community, was that the Trieste was not equipped to take samples.  Piccard decided to address this problem directly.

Piccard designed a replacement to the bathyscaphe, a mesoscaphe that was capable not only of collecting samples and traveling independently at a specified depth, but could also carry a larger crew. The first, the Auguste Piccard, was used to boost awareness of submersible technology and raise funds by ferrying paying passengers under the waters of Lake Geneva during the Swiss Exhibition of 1964.  A second mesoscaphe was created under contract with Grumman Aircraft and named the Ben Franklin.

This one had enough room for The Professor and Mary Ann, too.

In 1969, carrying a crew of six, the Franklin would drift with the Gulf Stream for over four weeks. During that time, Piccard and the crew would study the current and also the psychological effects on half a dozen men living in tight quarters and engaged in dangerous activity. This latter study was of particular importance to NASA's Apollo space program.  After being launched off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida, the Franklin would next surface 1500 miles away off of the coast of Nova Scotia.

[Interesting note: Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the wreck of the RMS Titanic and director of the Mystic Aquarium, would make his first underwater voyage as a crew member on board the Franklin.]

Piccard would continue his research until his death in 2008, winning a number of accolades and honors along the way.  While originally disputed by the scientific community, the existence and deep-sea life was eventually proven and Piccard's observations ratified.  His early research into ocean pollution and the results of coastal development served as the foundation for the scientific, rather than political, understanding of planetary changes.  In so doing, he would found La Fondation pour l'├ętude des Mers et des Lacs, an organization that works with many of the surf and beach conservation organizations that this writer holds dear.  Continuing in the tradition of his family, Jacques' son, Bertrand Piccard, completed the first non-stop circumnavigation in a balloon in 1999.

Jacques Piccard's two books, Seven Miles Down and The Sun Beneath The Sea are no longer in print but can be located for very reasonable prices through used book dealers.  Libraries always seem to have copies of them about, too.

And what happened to the diving bell from the Steel Pier, you ask?  It is currently beached and on display at the Atlantic City Aquarium.