The Dive that Conquered the Deepest Depths

By | April 9, 2019

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Bathyscaphe Trieste, 1953. (Getty Images)

It is curious that while eleven men have been to the moon, only three have been to the deepest recesses of the ocean. The Challenger Deep at the southern end of the Mariana Trench is the deepest point on Earth – nearly 36,000 feet below sea level. For comparison, Mount Everest, is 29,000 feet. The water pressure at this depth is an incredible 1,099 pounds per square inch.

The Challenger Deep was discovered in 1875 by the scientific expedition of HMS Challenger, which made the first measurements of its depth. Since then, the Deep held the imagination of the public enthralled.  

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A 1932 photograph of Auguste Piccard (1884-1962) - (Bundesarchiv Bild 102-13738, Auguste Piccard.jpg) Wikipedia

To the Deep by Balloon?

It was only in 1960 that the first manned descent was made possible by the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard. The scientist was known for experiments with helium balloons. In fact, he designed and manned a balloon to a record height of 51,775 feet in 1931.

By the late 1940s, Piccard developed a bathyscaph. It worked on the principles of a hot air balloon, but instead of soaring into the skies, the bathyscaph would descend to the deeps.

A large float acting as a “balloon” was secured above a spherical observation chamber. Instead of helium inside the balloon, the float was filled with tons of gasoline. Gasoline is lighter than seawater (think of oil sitting atop a pool of water) and imparts positive buoyancy to the bathyscaph, allowing it to rise. For ballast, Piccard opted to use tons of iron shot.