10 February 2009
The invention: The first successful chamber for manned deep-sea diving missions. The people behind the invention: William Beebe (1877-1962), an American naturalist and curator of ornithology Otis Barton (1899- ), an American engineer John Tee-Van (1897-1967), an American general associate with the New York Zoological Society Gloria Hollister Anable (1903?-1988), an American research associate with the New York Zoological Society Inner Space Until the 1930’s, the vast depths of the oceans had remained largely unexplored, although people did know something of the ocean’s depths. Soundings and nettings of the ocean bottom had been made many times by a number of expeditions since the 1870’s. Diving helmets had allowed humans to descend more than 91 meters below the surface, and the submarine allowed them to reach a depth of nearly 120 meters. There was no firsthand knowledge, however, of what it was like in the deepest reaches of the ocean: inner space. The person who gave the world the first account of life at great depths wasWilliam Beebe. When he announced in 1926 that he was attempting to build a craft to explore the ocean, he was already a well-known naturalist. Although his only degrees had been honorary doctorates, he was graduated as a special student in the Department of Zoology of Columbia University in 1898. He began his lifelong association with the New York Zoological Society in 1899. It was during a trip to the Galápagos Islands off the west coast of South America that Beebe turned his attention to oceanography. He became the first scientist to use a diving helmet in fieldwork, swimming in the shallow waters. He continued this shallow-water work at the new station he established in 1928, with the permission of English authorities, on the tiny island of Nonesuch in the Bermudas. Beebe realized, however, that he had reached the limits of the current technology and that to study the animal life of the ocean depths would require a new approach. A New Approach While he was considering various cylindrical designs for a new deep-sea exploratory craft, Beebe was introduced to Otis Barton. Barton, a young New Englander who had been trained as an engineer at Harvard University, had turned to the problems of ocean diving while doing postgraduate work at Columbia University. In December, 1928, Barton brought his blueprints to Beebe. Beebe immediately saw that Barton’s design was what he was looking for, and the two went ahead with the construction of Barton’s craft. The “bathysphere,” as Beebe named the device, weighed 2,268 kilograms and had a diameter of 1.45 meters and steel walls 3.8 centimeters thick. The door, weighing 180 kilograms, would be fastened over a manhole with ten bolts. Four windows, made of fused quartz, were ordered from the General Electric Company at a cost of $500 each. A 250-watt water spotlight lent by the Westinghouse Company provided the exterior illumination, and a telephone lent by the Bell Telephone Laboratory provided a means of communicating with the surface. The breathing apparatus consisted of two oxygen tanks that allowed 2 liters of oxygen per minute to escape into the sphere. During the dive, the carbon dioxide and moisture were removed, respectively, by trays containing soda lime and calcium chloride. A winch would lower the bathysphere on a steel cable. In early July, 1930, after several test dives, the first manned dive commenced. Beebe and Barton descended to a depth of 244 meters. A short circuit in one of the switches showered them with sparks momentarily, but the descent was largely a success. Beebe and Barton had descended farther than any human. Two more days of diving yielded a final dive record of 435 meters below sea level. Beebe and the other members of his staff (ichthyologist John Tee-Van and zoologist Gloria Hollister Anable) saw many species of fish and other marine life that previously had been seen only after being caught in nets. These first dives proved that an undersea exploratory craft had potential value, at least for deep water. After 1932, the bathysphere went on display at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. In late 1933, the National Geographic Society offered to sponsor another series of dives. Although a new record was not a stipulation, Beebe was determined to supply one. The bathysphere was completely refitted before the new dives. An unmanned test dive to 920 meters was made on August 7, 1934, once again off Nonesuch Island. Minor adjustments were made, and on the morning of August 11, the first dive commenced, attaining a depth of 765 meters and recording a number of new scientific observations. Several days later, on August 15, the weather was again right for the dive. This dive also paid rich dividends in the number of species of deep-sea life observed. Finally, with only a few turns of cable left on the winch spool, the bathysphere reached a record depth of 923 meters— almost a kilometer below the ocean’s surface.Impact Barton continued to work on the bathysphere design for some years. It was not until 1948, however, that his new design, the benthoscope, was finally constructed. It was similar in basic design to the bathysphere, though the walls were increased to withstand greater pressures. Other improvements were made, but the essential strengths and weaknesses remained. On August 16, 1949, Barton, diving alone, broke the record he and Beebe had set earlier, reaching a depth of 1,372 meters off the coast of Southern California. The bathysphere effectively marked the end of the tethered exploration of the deep, but it pointed the way to other possibilities. The first advance in this area came in 1943, when undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnan developed the Aqualung underwater breathing apparatus, which made possible unfettered and largely unencumbered exploration down to about 60 meters. This was by no means deep diving, but it was clearly a step along the lines that Beebe had envisioned for underwater research. A further step came in the development of the bathyscaphe by 102 / Bathysphere Auguste Piccard, the renowned Swiss physicist, who, in the 1930’s, had conquered the stratosphere in high-altitude balloons. The bathyscaphe was a balloon that operated in reverse. Aspherical steel passenger cabin was attached beneath a large float filled with gasoline for buoyancy. Several tons of iron pellets held by electromagnets acted as ballast. The bathyscaphe would sink slowly to the bottom of the ocean, and when its passengers wished to return, the ballast would be dumped. The craft would then slowly rise to the surface. On September 30, 1953, Piccard touched bottom off the coast of Italy, some 3,000 meters below sea level.