Piccard, Auguste

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(b. Basel, Switzerland, 28 January 1884; d. Lausanne, Switzerland, 24 March 1962)


With his twin brother, Jean Félix (d. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 23 January 1960), Auguste Piccard achieved fame and distinction as a scientist and explorer of the stratosphere and the ocean depths. Sons of Jules and Helene Haltenhoff Piccard, the Piccards were members of a prominent Vaudois family: their grandfather was commissaire général of the canton; their father, head of the chemistry department at the University of Basel; and their uncle Paul, designer of the first Niagara Falls-type turbines, which he manufactured and sold through the Piccard-Pictet Company he founded in Geneva. They attended the local Oberrealschule before entering the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, from which Auguste received a degree in mechanical, and Jean Feix in chemical engineering. Obtaining doctorates in their respective fields, the brothers served for many years as university professors, Auguste in Zurich and Brussels, Jean Felix at Munich (where he was assistant to Adolph von Baeyer), Lausanne, Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Minnesota. Jean also held positions with the Hercules Powder Company in Delaware and the Bartol Foundation of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; he became a U.S. citizen in 1931.

Auguste Piccard attracted world attention when, on 27 May 1931, ascending with Paul Kipfer from Augsburg, Germany, in a free balloon, he achieved a new altitude record of 51,775 feet. The sixteen-hour flight, which ended on an Austrian glacier, marked the first use of a pressurized cabin for manned flight. It was followed on 18 August 1932 by an ascent with Max Cosyns from Zurich that attained 53,153 feet and ended near Lake Garda, Italy. After his last flight, in 1937, Piccard devoted himself for the better part of ten years to studies aimed at realizing his youthful dream to “plunge into the sea deeper than any man before.” Although interrupted by World War II, his research resulted in 1948 in an unsuccessful first trial of his bathyscaphe (from the Greek for “deep” and boat”)—a self-propelled, untethered metal sphere designed on balloon principles and intended to withstand pressures of 12,000 pounds per square inch at a depth of 12,000 feet, off the Cape Verde Islands. Despite this failture a second model in 1953 carried Auguste and his son Jacques to a depth of 10,168 feet, thereby trebling the 1934 record of William Beebe off the Bermuda coast. Picard and his son built a third bathyscaphe, Trieste which he sold to the U. S. navy in the late 1950’s. He lived to see his son, with Lt. Don Walsh, USN, set a new world record of 35,800 feet with the Trieste in the Marianas Trench of the Pacific Ocean on 23 January 1960. Father and son were working on a new ship called a mesoscaphe at the time of Piccard’s death


I. Original Works. Piccard wrote three books: Audessue des nuages (Oris, 1933); entre ciel et terre (lausanne, 1946); and Au fond des mers en bathsyscaohe (Paris, 1954) the published similtaneously in German as Uber den Wolken. Ulter den Wellen (Wisebaden, 1954) A bibliography of his articles is in Latil and Rivorie (below)

II. Sencondary Literature. Works on Piccard are Adelaide Filed Auguste, Piccard Captain of pace Admiral of hte Abyss (Boston, 1969); Alan Honourm Ten Miles High, Two Miles Deep; The Advertures of the Piccards (New York, 1957); pierre de Latil and Jean Rivoire, Le Professeur Auguste Piccard (Paris 1962), Alida Malkus, Explring the sky adn sea; Auguste and Jacques Piccard (Chicago, 1961); adn Kurt R. Stehling and William Beller, “The First Speace-Gondola Flight,” in Skyhools (New York, 1962), ch, 13

Marvin W. Mcfarland

Auguste Piccard

views updated May 21 2018

Auguste Piccard

The Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard (1884-1962) is famed for his explorations of the stratosphere and the ocean depths.

Born into an academic family in Basel on Jan. 28, 1884, Auguste Piccard was educated there and at the Zurich Polytechnic. From 1907 he taught in Zurich, was early interested in aviation, and studied the behavior of balloons. In 1922 he went to Brussels University as professor of physics, where he remained until 1954 (except during the war years, which he spent in Switzerland). He wished to investigate the physics of the stratosphere, a region which was beyond the range of sensitive automatic instruments until the advent of electronics and continuous radio monitoring from the ground. Supported by the Belgian Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique, in 1930 Piccard designed a hydrogen balloon supporting an airtight cabin to carry an observer into the stratosphere. With this balloon (named FNRS) in 1931-1932 he reached record heights of over 50, 000 feet. Thus was a new era of scientific exploration opened. Lack of funds prevented his participation in further flights.

In 1937 Piccard turned to deep-sea exploration and developed the bathyscaphe, the underwater analog of his stratosphere balloon. Aided again by the Belgian foundation, work began but was interrupted by war. Thus the first bathyscaphe, FNRS 2, was not completed until 1948. It consisted of a strong spherical cast-steel capsule with Plexiglas windows supported by a lightly constructed float filled with petroleum. As in an air balloon, vertical movement was controlled by the release of ballast or supporting fluid. In the bathyscaphe iron-shot ballast was retained by energized electromagnets and released by interrupting the current. Dives off Dakar in 1948 proved the utility of the system.

In 1950 the vessel was transferred to the French navy and a new bathyscaphe, FNRS 3, was constructed. Initially under the direction of Piccard, it utilized the pressure capsule and much essential equipment from the FNRS 2. But difficulties with the French and contacts made in Italy by Piccard's son, Jacques, led to their building a third bathyscaphe, the Trieste, with Swiss and Italian funds in 1952-1953. Essentially similar to the FNRS vessels, the new bathyscaphe had many improvements, including a forged-steel capsule. A successful dive of more than 10, 000 feet was completed off Capri in 1953. Shortage of funds hampered research until 1957, when support was received from the U.S. Navy. After evaluation the Trieste was purchased and shipped to San Diego. In 1960, with a strengthened observation capsule and increased buoyancy, the bathyscaphe dived 35, 800 feet to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench off Guam, the world's deepest known hole.

From 1954 Piccard led an active retirement in Lausanne, where he died on March 24, 1962. Most of the Trieste's work after 1953 was directed by Jacques Piccard.

Further Reading

Auguste Piccard, In Balloon and Bathyscaphe (1956), and Jacques Piccard and Robert S. Dietz, Seven Miles Down (1962), provide informative, if popularized, accounts of the Piccards' work. G. Houot and P. Willm, Two Thousand Fathoms Down (1955), gives an illuminating but chauvinistic account of the FNRS 3.

Piccard, Auguste

views updated May 21 2018

Piccard, Auguste (1884–1962) Swiss physicist who explored the stratosphere and deep seas. In 1931, a hydrogen balloon carried an airtight aluminium sphere containing Piccard and an assistant to an altitude of almost 15,800m (51,800ft). This was the first ascent into the stratosphere. From 1948, he experimented with designs for a diving vessel called a bathyscaphe. In 1953, Piccard and his son, Jacques (1922– ), descended in the bathyscaphe Trieste to a depth of about 3100m (10,000ft) in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1960, Jacques Piccard and a naval officer used the same craft in the Pacific Ocean to reach a record of 10,900m (35,800ft).

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