World Record Dive
On Wednesday, August 15, 1934, William Beebe and Otis Barton made themselves world famous by descending in their "Bathysphere" 3,028 feet beneath the ocean surface. 2009 marked the 75th anniversary of William Beebe and Otis Barton's historic Bathysphere dive.
(Will is on the left; Otis on the right, Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WCS_Beebe_Barton_600.jpg ).
William "Will" Beebe began exploring the undersea world with his homemade diving helmet April 9, 1925. He writes about those and other dives in The National Geographic Magazine ("A Wonderer Under Sea," Dec. 1932). Will encouraged others to join him in the "Society of Wonders" in what he called the "Helmet Kingdom."
This "realm of gorgeous life and color," he said, was the shallow area of the ocean near land between six and 60 feet deep. (Beebe in his personal helmet) He dreamt of exploring the deeper locations where he and his air hose tether could not reach.
Will said that based on "sketchy recollections" with Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, the idea for a spherical deep-sea vessel came from Roosevelt who drew a sketch on a napkin while the two chatted together about exploring the ocean depths.
Since Will was already a pretty well known figure from his popular books, newspaper and magazine stories, his newest inkling of exploring the deep blue sea in a submersible chamber was published in a New York newspaper in late 1926.
Soon his office in the New York Zoological Park was deluged with crackpot designs and strange drawings, proposing all sorts of devices. Those who knew Beebe knew that he wanted nothing elaborate or overly mechanical. He once said that although he knew how to drive, he disliked even driving a car. Beebe wanted something simple, so informed a mutual friend of his and Beebe to Otis Barton.
Otis Barton (left) was a wealthy single Harvard graduate with also had a passion for exploration and adventure. Barton had an engineering background and was attending postgraduate studies at Columbia University, Beebe's alma mater. Like Beebe, he too had explored shallow waters with his own wooden diving helmet, at the bottom of Cotuit Harbor in Massachusetts. Besides having a restless spirit similar to Beebe, Barton also had in his hands a substantial amount of money that he inherited from his grandfather.
Barton decided to design a deep sea vessel that could take him into the deep ocean realms. However, at around the same time, Barton read of Beebe's plans to build his own deep sea device in the 1926 Thanksgiving Day edition of the New York Times. Barton's hopes were dashed. But Barton felt Beebe's device, shown in the paper, looked like a "laundry boiler" and was a bit skeptical at its actual feasibility. He was still worried that he would be 'seconded.'
Obviously Beebe wanted to explore the ocean depths...perhaps if they joined forces they might both help each other? Barton wrote letter after letter to Beebe, without getting a single reply. Later, Barton found out that the reason Beebe didn't answer his letters was because he thought it had been just one of the many crank-pot ideas he'd been bombarded with ever since the newspaper article was published.
Barton described his access or lack thereof to the Director of the Department of Tropical Research of the New York Zoological Society like trying to meet an Indian chief or "potentate," and "twice as wary."
Barton asked a newspaper friend of his that was also a friend of Dr. Beebe, to get him an introduction. The mutual friend told Beebe, "You'd better see Otis's blue prints unless you want to lose out in this deep-sea exploration business." Beebe's reply was "Another gadget!" (Otis Barton's "The World Beneath the Sea," p.13).
Otis Meets Dr. Beebe
Will agreed to meet with Barton. On time for his momentous appointment that Dec. 28, 1928 day, Barton nervously brought his blue prints to the New York Zoological Park, not knowing if he would immediately be shown the door. Barton described Beebe as being tall and vigorous and who greeted him crisply at the door. Barton laid out his blue prints on Beebe's desk and explained his idea.
Now, Beebe had already seen all the fancy idiotic plans that had been sent his way since the 1926 article, so he was in the mind set that he wanted something simple and practical, not something out of an H.G. Wells book. The design which immediately caught Beebe's eye was indeed Otis Barton's simple round sphere. It was an ideal concept, making it so the strong pressures of the deep sea would be equally distributed if the vessel was shaped like a ball.
(Many years later, Barton designed another deep-sea diving sphere he called the Benthoscope. He set another world record depth dive in it. He also invented various means of lifting a person above a jungle canopy ( http://www.dendronautics.org/page3.htm. ) in the field now known as Dendronautics).
Beebe also liked the fact that Barton volunteered to fund the entire cost of the not-yet named deep sea diving device. Beebe was offered the ultimate free juicy carrot and a chance to explore a new world.
That afternoon, Beebe agreed to join forces with Barton. Beebe named the sphere the Bathysphere. Barton immediately set out to get the construction started since he was the one footing the bill for the early portions of its operation. The first Bathysphere expedition would be jointly sponsored by (Ultimately Beebe's employer) The New York Zoological Society and The National Geographic Society.
William T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, hoped the media attention would bring in more visitors to the zoo. Later, Hornaday would vent his displeasure that there had been no increase in attendance as a result of the Bathysphere dives, but instead, the National Geographic Society seemed to benefit more from the media exposure.
The two explorers, Beebe and Barton, were literally taking their lives in their own hands, truly pioneers, like the first astronauts leaving Earth's atmosphere into Space or Columbus, setting sail for an unknown land. They say curiosity killed the cat, but what would the planet be like had not man gathered his inner resolve, breathed deep, planned his movements, and boldly stepped where no one had gone before. Should the Bathysphere fail, the human occupants would be crushed to death in a nano second or less.
With their bodies sealed inside from the outside, like the Challenger Space Shuttle astronauts many years later, Beebe and Barton would not be able to escape in the event of an accident. And more questions: Would it leak? Would they freeze to death in the cold depths of the ocean? What if the air hose became severed by the cable as it was laid out and in?
Beebe suggested they paint the Bathysphere white to help attract fish for observation. It would be tethered from a mother ship at the surface of the ocean by a single, non-twisting cable 3,500 feet long. The steel cable, made by Roebling, would be seven-eighths of an inch thick and would have a breaking strain of 29 tons.
The Bathysphere and its cables cost Barton $12,000. Beebe suggested they paint the Bathysphere white to help attract fish for observation. It would be tethered from a mother ship at the surface of the ocean by a single, non-twisting cable 3,500 feet long. The steel cable, made by Roebling, would be seven-eighths of an inch thick and would have a breaking strain of 29 tons. Another 100 strands of cable would be interwoven around the steel central core to ensure it would not rotate the sphere upon descent or return to the surface. The part where the cable attached onto the Bathysphere's top swivel was fused with white metal.
The sphere also had four short legs to hold wooden skids. The first Bathysphere casting was too heavy, weighing in at five tons. Barton had chartered an old Royal Navy barge, the Ready from a Captain Harry Sylvester, who worked at the shipyard at Nonsuch Island in Bermuda. When Barton informed Captain Sylvester of his Bathysphere's weight, Captain Sylvester conferred with Nonsuch Island shipyard engineers and forbid Barton the use of the barge. The weight of the Bathysphere was too much for the Ready. Barton took to his room at the St. George Hotel on Nonsuch and began designing new blue prints for a second sphere.
Barton called the Bathysphere "the tank" and described his invention as "rather like an enormous inflated and slightly cockeyed bull frog." ("The World Beneath the Sea," p.27) Besides designing the Bathysphere and using his own money to pay for the design and construction, Barton then donated the it to the New York Zoological Society. William Beebe seems to be the one who always gets credit for the Bathysphere, but it was Otis Barton who contributed more than just heart and soul into the project.
"Mr. Barton deserves full credit for the contribution of time and money he has devoted to this work," wrote Beebe of his partner. "I was able to bring to bear but a small amount of helpful suggestion, but an unlimited belief and faith and keenest interest in the scientific results of this venture."
The first of three seasons of expeditions would take place off Nonsuch Island. This area was called Beebe's "cylinder," as it was the area he used most often for his deep-sea trawling. Instead of bringing up live creatures in his nets, Beebe now hoped to see identical or perhaps new unknown creatures swimming in the deep sea.
John Tee-Van, one of Beebe's assistants, came up with the idea of totally playing out and stretching the steel cable to eliminate the twisting problem. It worked. They conducted another unmanned test dive on June 6 down to 1,500 feet and everything went well. One interesting thing about each dive, was that Barton would not go without his lucky hat. He even held up one dive because he couldn't find it. The entire crew ran around the ship looking for the hat, until the search was called off. Barton had been sitting on his hat. On another occasion Beebe had sat upon a wrench during a trip in the bathysphere and he wrote that he carried its mark upon him for a week.
Later on the 6th of May, the two men decided on a manned descent. Besides climbing into a small entrance, the two had to slide over the hard, long steel bolts surrounding the entrance. They then had to sit in the cold, hard steel. No pillow could be found for the two men. The two pioneers went ahead without the pillows or other comforts and the door was sealed by loudly hammering in the ten large nuts. Barton said this part of each dive set their nerves on end. Beebe shook hands with John Tee-Van through the small 4" central hole in the door. The Bathysphere occupants and the research staff used this tinier "door" to pass instruments and things to each other instead of taking the time and effort to undo the main 400-pound door and its unwieldy bolts.
When they were ready for the dive the staff and crew placed the massive wing bolt onto the Bathysphere and tightened it. The people inside were now sealed in from the outside world except for Gloria Hollister's voice coming over the telephones wire. Barton turned on the two oxygen tanks and circulated the air with a palm-leaf fan. Hollister arranged bait around the portholes. The Bathysphere, containing its two first living voyagers, was gently hoisted by the ship's boom which was raised and lowered with the winch. At 1 p.m. the sphere splashed gently into the water. The fused quartz windows provided a clear view. Beebe announced his observations which Barton then relayed over the telephone to Hollister. Beebe's laboratory assistant Jocelyn Crane was responsible for noting the measured links of the cable as it went over the side.
On June 10, they conducted another unmanned test dive to 2,000 feet. It came back with three feet of communication wire stuffed inside the sphere. The repair to the leak had worked and the wire problem was fixed. On their next dive they reduced the amount of oxygen released into the Bathysphere by half, to eliminate the "oxygen jag" that they had encountered on their first dive. Barton said they did this to to be cold sober to face any problems. The two made another manned dive. They were down only a short time before the telephone cable was severed and the sphere and its two frightened occupants were quickly reeled up.
Communication between the two men and the mother ship was a priority. It was the only way the people at the surface could know how the two were doing. That's why it was essential that Hollister man the phone on the ship and she and Beebe or Barton would keep up a running, often silly dialog, just to maintain the communication. At times when the going got rough, the cursing from the men in the Bathysphere was broadcast for all to hear.
They cut away 300 feet of damaged telephone wire and again, the problem was rectified. Later, the interior of the Bathysphere was painted black to ease viewing of the outside undersea activities.
Because of his vast experience in studying deep-sea creatures hauled up in his trawling nets, Beebe was able to quickly identify many of the phosphorescent fish just be their light patterns. Many of these 'identifications' were laughed at by reputable scientists. Others made fun of the Bathysphere itself and the world-record dives.
On their seventh dive they announced their passage of other historic depths such as the depth of the deepest helmet dive (60 feet); the depth the Lusitania rested (285 feet; the ship Beebe had sailed with Mary as they began their 17-month-long pheasant expedition); the deepest a Navy diver had gone using a regulation suit (306 feet); the deepest submarine record (383 feet); the depth that divers had, on land, found the wreck of The Egypt (400 feet); the depth reached by an armored suited diver in a Bavarian lake and the deepest a living man had until then attained (525); and at 600 feet, where only dead men had reached. Beebe and Barton were lowered farther and farther, deeper and deeper, past all these noted depths. Down to 1,250 feet...1,300 feet.. With his wrist watch ticking loudly inside the chamber, to Barton's voice relaying his observations... to 1,426 feet...a quarter of a mile below the surface of the ocean.
First Hand Account
"I pressed my face against the glass and looked upward and in the slight segment which I could manage I saw a faint paling of the blue," wrote Beebe. "I peered down and again I felt the old longing to go further, although it looked like the black pit-mouth of hell itself-yet still showed blue." (The National Geographic Magazine, "A Round Trip to Davy Jones's Locker," June 1931, p. 675).
Barton wrote in his book "The World Beneath the Sea," that Beebe remarked to him, "Look Otis," he said, "there's a sight no man's eyes have seen before!" (p. 35)
"I sat crouched with mouth and nose wrapped in a handkerchief to prevent condensation," wrote Beebe, "and my forehead pressed close to the cold glass,-that transparent bit of mother Earth which so sturdily held back nine tons of water from my face." (The National Geographic Magazine article, "A Round Trip to Davy Jones's Locker," June 1931, p. 677).
This was followed by a solid cylinder of water, which slackened after a while to a cataract, pouring out of the hole in the door, some air mingled with the water looking like hot steam. Instead of compressed air shooting through ice-cold water. If I had been in the way, I would have been decapitated." (Above from: Half Mile Down by William Beebe, Published by Duell Sloan Pearce, New York, 1951.)
"When, at any time in our earthly life, we come to a moment or place of tremendous interest, it often happens that we realize the full significance only after it is all over," wrote Beebe.
"Soon after this there came a moment which stands out clearly, unpunctuated by any word of ours, with no fish or other creature visible outside. I sat crouched with mouth and nose wrapped in a handkerchief and my forehead pressed close to the cold glass - that transparent bit of old earth which so sturdily held back nine tons of water from my face. There came to me at that instant a tremendous wave of emotion, a real appreciation of what was momentarily almost superhuman, cosmic, of the whole situation: our barge slowly rolling high overhead in the blazing sunlight, like the merest chip in the midst of ocean, the long cobweb of cable leading down through the spectrum to our lonely sphere, where, sealed tight, two conscious human beings sat and peered into the abyssal darkness as we dangled in mid-water, isolated as a lost planet in outermost space."
Submerged inside the Bathysphere with Otis Barton, Beebe later wrote about his view from the round quartz windows in the June 1931 issue of The National Geographic Magazine ("A Round Trip to Davy Jones's Locker," p. 665):
"Again a great cloud of a body moved in the distance-this time pale, much lighter than the water. How I longed for a single near view, or telescopic eyes which could pierce the murk. I felt as if some astonishing discovery lay just beyond the power of my eyes."
"As I looked out I never thought of feet or yards of visibility, but of the hundreds of miles of this color stretching over so much of the world." ("A Round Trip to Davy Jones's Locker," p. 675).
Beebe took books of color plates of fish with him. In this manner he was able to note the changes in colors as they descended farther from the surface sunlight. On one occasion he saw black shrimp and when he looked at his red plate in his book, it too was black. They did have the outside light, which when desired, could illuminate the water close to the Bathysphere. In this manner, they were able to observe the fish and other creatures.
Once a live lobster was tied to the Bathysphere and survived a deep dive. Beebe took it and kept it in his aquarium. Barton wrote that on one dive, despite his best efforts, he got sea sick. Back on the ship, Jocelyn Crane lent Barton some of her perfume which he rubbed inside the Bathysphere. They made 15 dives during 1930. In November of 1930, the Bathysphere was put up for the season.
Titans of the Deep
Barton later conducted his own dives in the Bahamas, producing and directing a fictional dramatic movie about the Bathysphere called "Titans of the Deep." The 1938 film was erroneously credited to Beebe and his associates (Science, April 1937, p. 317) (Noted in "William Beebe: An Annotated Bibliography" by Tim M. Berra, p.84, section 594). Narrator was Lowell Thomas; actress was Joan Igou.
Barton received credit for acting in the film.
Information about the film from the American Film Institute
NBC Radio Broadcast
On Sept. 22, 1932 one of Beebe and Barton's Bathysphere dives off Nonsuch Island was broadcast by NBC (National Broadcasting Company) across the United States. It was even heard in the United Kingdom with a simultaneous short-wave radio broadcast link to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).
Beebe's adventures and popular books were frequently ridiculed by scientists. One such scientist, Carl L. Hubbs (University of Michigan), reviewed Beebe's book "Half Mile Down," and scoffed at the idea that Beebe had indeed seen a six foot long sea serpent, saying in his review, that Beebe probably saw two fish swimming close together. He even said that the fishes' lights "may be a 'phosphorescent coelenterate whose lights were beautified by halation in passing through a misty film breathed onto the quartz window by Mr. Beebe's eagerly appressed face." ("Natural Man," by Robert Henry Welker, p.139) Hubbs added that it was fraudulent and even contemptible for Beebe to presume "to describe and assign generic and species names 'for animals faintly seen through the bathysphere windows.'" ("Natural Man," p.139). Another scientist, John T. Nicols, a curator of recent fishes at the American Museum of Natural History, hinted that "Half Mile Down" belonged on the fiction shelf, because Beebe wrote the book in "dramatic fashion rather than meticulous." ("Natural Man," p. 139).
In 1933, the Bathysphere was exhibited at the Century of Progress Exposition at Chicago. Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, offered to sponsor another Bathysphere expedition (Grant number 101), but told Beebe that breaking a record was not one of the stipulations. Beebe later said that that's the reason why he gave Grosvenor the new world record.
Pitching in to fund the 1934 diving operations was again Beebe's parent organization, the New York Zoological Society. The Expo wasn't doing very well and Barton took the Bathysphere back to Roselle, New Jersey for a much-needed overhaul. Beebe trusted it right then and there, but it was not sea worthy.
New and improved quartz windows were installed, as well as new metal fittings, and modernized equipment for the interior. The Bathysphere arrived back to Nonsuch Island July 5, 1934. Beebe, again with Barton, set sail off Nonsuch, Bermuda, for further dives. They again used the Ready and Gladisfen. To that date their deepest dive was to 2,200 feet. There were other trials and errors involved with the sphere. Barton had fiddled with the window plug and had put in a glass pane. But it leaked. They put the plug back in and it still leaked. It was rough going for the winch, pulling up the 5,000 pound+ Bathysphere filled with 3,500 pounds of salt water.
Although Beebe never doubted the Bathysphere itself, he did doubt that he'd see many living creatures or so many so active. He was more than pleasantly surprised.
"The only other place comparable to these marvelous nether regions must surely be naked space itself, out far beyond atmosphere, between the stars, where sunlight has no grip upon the dust and rubbish of planetary air, where the blackness of space, the shining planets, comets, suns, and stars must really be closely akin to the world of life as it appears to the eyes of an awed human being in the open ocean a half mile down." (From Beebe's article "A Half Mile Down," in the December 1934 issue of The National Geographic Magazine, p. 704).
It was on August 15, 1934 that William Beebe and Otis Barton were lowered in the Bathysphere to more than a half of a mile below the ocean's surface, 3,028 feet. With four tons of strain pulling on the cable tied to the winch located on the deck of Beebe's mother ship Gladisfen, the two explorers dropped and sat suspended in the abyss at 3,028 feet, (over a half of a mile below the surface of the ocean). Never before had man been so deep, and so alive, at such great depths. And they lived to talk about it.
Captain Sylvester allowed them to stay there for only five minutes because he was fearful that the winch might have trouble bringing it back from such a depth. Barton wrote: "I peered fearfully out into the darkness of the abyss. No human eye had glimpsed this part of our planet before us, this pitch-black country lighted only by the pale gleam of an occasional spiraling shrimp." ("The World Beneath the Sea," by Otis Barton).
The winch started bringing them up and they heard a "loud plunk." The voices from above were anxious over the phone. The rope which guided the steel cable onto the reel had torn off. Only a dozen turns on the reel had remained when they reached 3,028 feet.
Today's Deep Sea Explorers The first to challenge the depths of the sea were William Beebe and Otis Barton in their simple, tiny Bathysphere. Today's research submersibles, for example the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's Alvin, dove on the wrecks of the Lusitania, the Bismarck and others (discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard). (For more information about ocean exploration, check out TIME Magazine's cover story for Aug. 14, 1994 "The Last Frontier."
For years, many scientists around the world have ridiculed not only Beebe's account of his Bathysphere dives, but the fact that a "true" scientist would publish his or her findings in professional/trade publications and not in popular books sold to common folk. Why, a scientist would not autograph his books, would he? Or go out dancing in jazz clubs? Or go through messy, public divorces? Or maybe stretch the truth a bit to make a dull account a little more livelier? What young child reading Beebe's exciting tales of adventure, exploration and curiosity may have never picked up and read about scientific findings and discoveries had she or he not had the option to not read a dry, boring scientific report, textbook or paper. Beebe made science come alive, and still today, his books are just as exciting as ever.
In 1997, noted oceanographer John McCosker of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, completed an expedition exploring the waters around the Galapagos Islands, identifying almost two dozen new species. His expedition used a state of the art research submersible which was able to even pick up specimens and put them into various containers so the living creatures could be examined on the mother ship. Like Carson and Earle, McCosker credits William Beebe for his choosing the field of oceanography as his profession, again, calling Beebe, the "Cousteau of his generation."
The Bathysphere is currently exhibited at the New York Aquarium; it used to be outside in a pile of junk.
New York Aquarium page about the exhibit:
Podcast about the history of deep-sea diving and the Bathysphere
In 1944, William Beebe edited a book called "The Book of Naturalists" and picked an essay by an aspiring young writer named Rachel Carson as its final chapter. In the late forties, Beebe convinced Carson to do some undersea diving in Florida for her book research; she dove 15 feet. William Beebe helped her obtain a Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Fellowship which funded aspiring creative writers. As a result, "The Sea Around Us" was published July 2, 1951 and went to number one on the New York Times Best Seller List where it stayed for 86 weeks.There are several real-world instances where Beebe inspired others to study science, such as noted oceanographer Rachel Carson, who dedicated her best selling book "The Sea Around Us" to Beebe. She wrote that Beebe was her mentor and friend.
Another famous oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, Ph.D., also credits Beebe as an influence. The following is an excerpt from her interview ("Undersea Explorer INTERVIEW January 27, 1991 Oakland, California http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/ear0int-1)" She was asked: "You mentioned the books that you studied. Were there any particular books that you remember being very inspiring as a young person?"
"I fell in love with the stories by William Beebe, who was an ocean explorer," Earle said in the interview. "He (Beebe) discussed what it was like to go down inside a submersible and peer out of a porthole and see beautiful, luminescent fish, with lights down the side like ocean liners. Bizarre creatures of the sort that you just don't see walking down the street, or going into the forest, or even looking around in shallow water. The aquariums of the world, as wonderful and diverse as they are, do not have the sort of creatures that Beebe described from his exploration back in the 1930's. I found that utterly inspiring."
Beebe's 1934 staff included members of his Department of Tropical Research, New York Zoological Society; John Tee-Van (general associate); Gloria Hollister (technical associate) and Jocelyn Crane (laboratory associate). John Tee Van's wife Helen made many of the artistic renderings. E. John Long of the National Geographic Society was in charge of publicity.
A photo of a replica of the Bathysphere at the Mystic Seaport Aquarium (from NOAA Photo Library):
Article on what happened to the Bathysphere (The New Yorker)
Preliminary Account of Deep Sea Dives in the Bathysphere with Especial Reference to One of 2200 Feet
by William Beebe, Department of Tropical Research, New York Zoölogical Society
Barton, Otis "The World Beneath the Sea" New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1953
Pollard, Jean Ann Sea Frontiers Magazine, Aug. 1994 "Beebe Takes the Bathysphere" (w/ photos)
The National Geographic Magazine, Dec.1932
The National Geographic Society "A Wonderer Under Sea" (with photos and color drawings) The National Geographic Magazine, June 1931
The National Geographic Society "A Round Trip to Davy Jones's Locker" (w/ photos) The National Geographic Magazine, December 1934
The National Geographic Society "A Half Mile Down" (w/ photos)
Beebe, William "A Half Mile Down" (w/ photos) Harcourt, Brace and Company/Cadmus Books, E.M. Hale and Company, Chicago, 1934.
Beebe, William "Nonsuch: Land of Water" (w/ photos and plates) New York Zoological Society, New York, Brewer, Warren and Putnam, 1932, 259 pages.
Beebe, William; Barton, Otis; Tee-Van, John "Diving to a Depth of a Quarter of a Mile," Illustrated London News, April 11, 1931, p. 594-595.
Beebe, William "Beneath Tropic Seas" (60 illustrations) G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1928, 234 pages.