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Engineers Week continues: Celestial Space and Eternal Darkness

February 17, 2010

Celestial Space and Eternal Darkness: The Piccards' Engineering Feats By Martha Cornog

When your father twice beats the record for the highest balloon flight, what can you do but explore the eternal darkness of the ocean's depths? At first, Jacques Piccard was just helping out with dad's bathyscaphe--his real career was teaching economics at the University of Geneva. Father Auguste was internationally recognized for his adventures in the upper atmosphere, having made twenty-seven balloon flights and setting a final record of over 72,000 feet. Auguste had even designed a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola that would allow ascent to great altitude without requiring a personal pressure suit. Now for his bathyscaphes, he was applying the buoyancy technique used for his balloons to assist in submersion. But after their third bathyscaphe reached a record depth of 10,000 feet, the Trieste as it was now called found a buyer in the U.S. Navy, which hired Jacques as a consultant. In early 1960, Jacques' team successfully touched bottom of the North Pacific's Mariana Trench, a record depth of over 35,700 feet--deeper than Mt. Everest is tall. Auguste was the inspiration for the amusingly absent-minded Professor Calculus in Belgian cartoonist Herge's The Adventures of Tintin. For 1940s readers, scientists and engineers must have seemed marvelous creatures, probably half mad with their tinkerings and experiments. But the younger Jacques received no such distinction. By the 1960s, record-shattering explorations had become much more commonplace, and scientists depicted in comics were likely to be serious heroes or villains. The Piccard family has the unique distinction even today of having made both the highest flight and the deepest dive of all time. In 1960, Drexel honored Jacques and Auguste Piccard with its Science and Engineering Award as part of the eleventh annual Drexel Engineer's Day. Want to read more? Jacques' memoir, Seven Miles Down: The Story of the Bathyscaph Trieste, is part of the Drexel library collection.

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