Auguste Antoine Piccard

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Auguste Antoine Piccard


Swiss Physicist, Inventor, and Explorer

Auguste Antoine Piccard was a Swiss physicist, inventor, and explorer who is famous for being the first, with a partner, to reach the stratosphere in a balloon of his own design. He also invented the bathyscaphe, a submersible capsule, making it possible to reach the lowest point in the ocean.

Auguste and his twin brother, Jean, were born in Basel, Switzerland, on January 28, 1884. Their father was a professor of chemistry at the University of Basel. The brothers followed in their father's scholarly footsteps and attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology; Auguste completed a degree in physics. Following graduation he remained at the Institute as a professor. In 1919, he married the daughter of a French historian.

Three years later Piccard moved to the University of Brussels, where he accepted a newly created position in the physics department. He had studied cosmic rays and was attempting to design an experiment in which he would ascend to more than 16,000 meters (52,493 ft) in order to gather more data on the subject. It was clear to him that such high altitudes would require specialized equipment so that the trip would be a success. In 1930 Piccard designed and built a round aluminum capsule, or gondola, which had the capacity to be pressurized to the air pressure at approximately sea level. The gondola was also equipped to reuse the air supply inside, and the balloon itself was large enough so that it was not necessary to have it completely filled before lifting off the ground. On May 27, 1931, Piccard and a partner became the first humans to reach the stratosphere by ascending to 51,961 feet (15,781 m) after lifting off from Augsburg, Germany; the air pressure at this altitude is approximately one-tenth that of the air pressure at sea level.

Piccard ascended to a record-breaking height of 55,563 ft (16,940 m) on August 18, 1932, this time in a balloon furnished with a radio. Following this event Piccard shifted his time and energies to conquering the depths of the sea.

Using the principles he had developed with the pressurized gondola for the stratospheric balloon trip, Piccard designed a pressurized capsule able to dive to the deepest depths of the ocean, an invention which he called the bathyscaphe. The term bathyscaphe comes from the Greek terms bathos, meaning "deep," and scaphos, meaning "ship." The gondola in this case was suspended beneath a tank filled with gasoline, which is "lighter" than water, thereby forming a virtual underwater balloon. Weights, or ballast, would cause the bathyscaphe to dive; the ballast would be released at the end of the dive so the bathyscaphe could return to the surface.

The bathyscaphe was not completed until 1948. In October of that year it was tested in an unmanned dive off the Cape Verde Islands; the dive was not a success. In 1953, Piccard and his son, Jacques, in a new and improved bathyscaphe named Trieste, dove to the depth of 10,330 feet (3,149 m) in the Adriatic Sea. In 1956, Auguste Piccard achieved a dive of 12,500 feet (3,810 m) in the same region. Following this success, the Piccards set their objective as the Mariana Trench. This is where the deepest known spot in the world, Challenger Deep, is located. The Mariana Trench is a 1,835-mile-long (2,953-km-long) depression along the Pacific Ocean floor; the Challenger Deep is about 200 miles (322 km) south of Guam and is approximately 36,200 feet (11,034 m) down.

On January 23, 1960, Piccard's dream was realized. His son, Jacques, with a United States Navy lieutenant, descended in the bathyscaphe Trieste to 35,800 feet (10,912 m) in the Mariana Trench off Guam. Auguste Piccard died in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 24, 1962.


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Auguste Antoine Piccard

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Auguste Antoine Piccard