Jacques Piccard (28 July
1922 – 1 November 2008) was a Swiss
oceanographer and engineer, known for having developed underwater
vehicles for studying ocean currents.
He is one of only two
people, along with Lt. Don Walsh of the
United States Navy, to have
explored the deepest point of the world's oceans, and the deepest
location on the surface of the Earth's crust, the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench located in the western North Pacific Ocean.
Piccard was born in Brussels, Belgium to Auguste Piccard, who was himself an
adventurer and engineer.
The Piccard family is noted for
undertaking challenges. Jacques' father Auguste Piccard
twice beat the record for
reaching the highest altitude in a balloon, in 1931-1932. The
Piccard family has the unique distinction of having made both the
highest flight and the deepest dive of all time.
Jacques' father, who had already set altitude records in his
balloon, started using the buoyancy technique used in balloons for
developing a submersible
. Jacques initially started
out his career by teaching economics at University of Geneva while
continuing helping his father improve the bathyscaphe to
demonstrate its potential for operating in deep waters. Together
they built three bathyscaphes between 1948 and 1955, which reached
record depths of 4,600 feet and 10,000 feet (the last one was
bought by the government). With this success, the younger Piccard
abandoned economics to collaborate with his father on further
improving the bathyscaphe and demonstrating its practicality for
exploration and research.
Jacques' son Bertrand Piccard
continuing his family traditions. He commanded the first nonstop
balloon flight around the world in March 1999.
Challenger Deep mission
Jacques sought financial help from the U.S. Navy, which at that
time was exploring various ways for designing submarines for
underwater research. Jacques was enthusiastically welcomed to the
U.S. to demonstrate his bathyscaphe, now named the Trieste.
Impressed by his designs, the U.S. Navy
vessel and hired Piccard as a consultant. Recognizing the strategic
value of a workable submersible for submarine salvage and rescue,
the Navy began testing the Trieste
With his Trieste
able to reach depths of 24,000 feet,
Piccard and his colleagues planned on an even greater
challenge — a voyage to the bottom of the sea. On 23 January
1960, Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh reached
the floor of the Mariana
Trench located in the western North Pacific Ocean.
The depth of the descent was measured at
10,916 meters (35,813 feet); later, more accurate, measurements in
1995 found the Mariana Trench to be slightly less deep at 10,911 m
(35,797 ft). The descent took almost five hours, and the two
men spent barely twenty minutes on the ocean floor before
undertaking the 3 hour 15 minute ascent. The bathyscaphe carried no
scientific equipment and no experiments were conducted; the
mission's purpose was merely to prove that the depth could be
reached. The descent progressed without incident until 30,000 feet,
when the crew heard a loud crack. They continued the dive, however,
finally touching down in "snuff-colored ooze" at 35,800 feet.
When they reached the featureless seabed, they saw a flat fish as
well as a new type of shrimp. Marine biologists later disputed
their observations, claiming that no fish could survive the 17,000
pressure at such depths.
Upon discovering cracks in the viewing windows, Piccard cut the
voyage short. After a 20-minute stay on the bottom, they began
dumping ballast for their return to the surface, and the damaged
vessel returned to its escort ships without incident.
The historic dive received worldwide attention, and Piccard wrote
an account of it, Seven Miles Down
, with Robert Deitz, a
renowned geologist who had helped plan the mission. A planned
return expedition, however, never occurred. The Trieste
was expensive to maintain and operate. It was incapable of
collecting samples and could not take photographs and so had little
scientific data to show for its voyages. The original vessel was
retired in 1961, although a rebuilt version later located the
remains of two lost U.S. Navy nuclear submarines, the Thresher and the Scorpion.
Grumman/Piccard PX-15 / Ben
Ben Franklin mission
On 14 July
1969, just two days before the Apollo 11
launch, the Ben Franklin, also known as the Grumman/Piccard PX-15
mesoscaphe, was towed to the high-velocity center of the Gulf Stream off the coast of Palm Beach,
Once on site, the Ben Franklin
with its six-man, international crew descended to 1,000 feet off of
Riviera Beach, Florida and drifted 1,444 miles north with the
current for more than four weeks, surfacing near Maine.
Crew members of the
/ Ben Franklin
A crew of six was chosen. Jacques Piccard was the mission leader;
Erwin Aebersold, another Swiss, was Piccard’s handpicked pilot and
main assistant to Piccard and project engineer during the
Franklin's design and construction. Grumman
selected a Navy submariner named Don Kazimir to be captain. The
U.S. Navy Oceanographic Office sent Frank Busby to conduct a bottom
survey along the drift track over the Continental Shelf
and the British Royal Navy
sent Ken Haigh, an acoustic
specialist, who studied underwater acoustics and ran sonic
experiments up and down the water column throughout the mission.
The sixth man was Chet May. As early as 1967, NASA had
established a Space Station Office and began to study the
feasibility of humans living in space, in completely contained
environments, for prolonged periods.
May was a NASA
scientist; his specialty was "man working in space". Wernher von Braun
heard about the Franklin
mission, visited the sub in Palm Beach, and considered the mission
a kind of analogue to a prolonged mission in space. He appointed
May as a NASA observer to accompany the mission and his role was to
study the effects of prolonged isolation on the human crew.
In addition to studying the warm water current which flows
northeast off the U.S. eastern coast, the sub also made space
exploration history by studying the behavior of aquanauts in a
sealed, self-contained, self-sufficient capsule for NASA. The
mission is the focus of a program that has aired on the Science Channel
During the course of the dive, NASA conducted exhaustive analyses
of virtually every aspect of onboard life. They measured sleep
quality and patterns, sense of humor and behavioral shifts,
physical reflexes, and the effects of a long-term routine on the
crew. The submarine's record-shattering dive influenced the design
missions and continued to guide NASA
scientists as they devised future manned space-flight
the American patriot and inventor who was one of the first to chart
the Gulf Stream, the 50-foot Ben
Franklin was built between 1966 and 1968 high in the mountains
in Switzerland for Piccard and the Grumman Aircraft
Engineering Corporation. It has been restored and now resides in
the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Vancouver, Canada.
Influence and distinctions
Ambient artists Mathieu Ruhlmann and Celer collaboratively released
an album called Mesoscaphe
in 2008, dedicated to the
voyage of the Ben Franklin
On 1 February 2008, Piccard was honored Doctor honoris causa
at the Catholic
University of Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve).
was the founder of the Foundation for the Study and Protection of
Seas and Lakes, based in Cully, Switzerland.
Jacques Piccard constructed four submarines and applied for at
least one US patent (D200,506) for a submarine:
- Auguste Piccard, the world's first passenger
- Ben Franklin
- F.-A. Forel
- Piccard 1971
- Jacques Piccard, Docteur honoris causa 2008 (Université
Catholique de Louvain)