Amazing Century of the Piccards
By: John Shepler
Dawn breaks in the Egyptian desert. A majestic silver object glistens in the sky above this ancient land of humankind's earliest technological accomplishment, and gently floats to earth. It's a day destined to make history. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in the Breitling Orbiter 3 have just fulfilled a hundred year old challenge to be first to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. Yet, for Piccard, this is more than just a personal triumph. It's a legacy for the Piccard family, who for three generations have ventured higher, deeper and farther than their contemporaries. The name Piccard is virtually synonymous with adventure and discovery.
The story begins on January 28, 1884, with the birth of twin brothers, Auguste and Jean-Felix Piccard, in Bassel, Switzerland. Both were intensely interested in science. Auguste became a physicist and one of Europe's foremost authorities on cosmic rays. Jean pursued a career in organic chemistry and aeronautical engineering. Both earned the degree of doctorate in natural science from the Swiss Institute of Technology. Both became enamored with lighter than air technology and flew balloons for scientific study beginning in 1913. Jean served in the lighter-than-air unit of the Swiss Army and then moved to America to take a teaching position at the University of Chicago. There he met and married his scientific and life's partner, Jeannette Ridlon, in 1919.
In the early 1930s, the lives of Auguste, Jean-Felix and Jeannette Piccard would become intertwined in a great adventure to conquer the stratosphere. Auguste was convinced that it would be necessary to get above the earth's atmosphere to learn more about the cosmic rays that rain in from distant stars. He contracted with a German firm for a 500,000 cubic foot balloon made of rubberized cotton, and then designed a spherical gondola that could carry two people above 40,000 ft. without pressurized suits. The air they breathed was purified and recycled by equipment developed for German submarines in World War I.
On May 27, 1931, Auguste and his assistant, Paul Kipfer, lifted off from Augsburg, Germany and reached a record altitude of 51, 775 ft. His flight became a sensation around the world, and he was recruited to fly another stratospheric balloon out of Soldier Field for the Century of Progress World's Fair that would celebrate Chicago's 100th birthday in 1933. Auguste declined, but recommended that Jean take charge of the venture. Unfortunately, Jean was not licensed to fly the balloon, but he and Auguste did design a new duralumin pressurized gondola for pilot Tex Settle, who was chosen to make the trip.
After the publicity flight, Jean and Jeannette acquired and refurbished the "Century of Progress" balloon with the intention of flying it themselves. To prepare, Jeannette took balloon pilot instructions in the spring of 1934, and soloed in June. On October 23, 1934, Jean and Jeannette Piccard took off near Detroit and flew to 57, 559 feet. Jeannette was the first woman to travel into the stratosphere and might properly be called "the first woman in space." You can visit the gondola they flew in. It's on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Auguste Piccard's interests had turned from outer space to inner space. By 1937, he'd designed a new gondola to keep pressure out rather than in, and called it the bathyscaphe Trieste. In 1948, he took Trieste into the ocean. The bathyscaphe can be thought of as an underwater balloon that uses gasoline for its lift. Gasoline is lighter than water, while hydrogen and helium are lighter than air. "It was the submarine that led me to the stratosphere," says Auguste Piccard in his book, "Earth, Sky and Sea." He had first thought of the pressurized gondola for deep sea exploration while in school, but balloons were in vogue in the 1930's, and the opportunity to explore upward came first.
Auguste was joined by his son, Jacques Piccard, and together they made over 100 dives, the deepest of which was two miles into the ocean depths. Trieste withstood over 16, 000 pounds per square inch of water pressure in 1960, as Jacques Piccard and Navy Lt. Don Walsh descended to 7 miles beneath the Pacific, in the Mariana Trench near Guam, the deepest place in the ocean.
Jacques Piccard, today 76 years old, continues to pursue the oceanographic work he began with this father, Auguste. He works from his own laboratory on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. His son, Bertrand, a psychiatrist, has taken on grandfather Auguste's challenge of pushing back the frontiers of atmospheric travel by balloon.
In 1998, Bertrand Piccard took off from Switzerland with Wim Verstraeten of Belgium and Andy Elson of Britain in the Breitling Orbiter 2, a helium and hot air balloon that was intended to go around the world nonstop. The made it to Burma. This year, with Brian Jones, he's flown from Switzerland to Egypt, more than 26,000 miles in almost 18 days aloft. It is an astonishing achievement, made even more fitting in that Bertrand's flight began in Switzerland, where Auguste and Jean started their own initiatives to explore the upper reaches of the stratosphere.
Will the legacy of the incredible Piccard family continue? I wouldn't be surprised if in the next generation we hear words like: "Captain Piccard, please come to the bridge of the starship."
Books of Interest:
Around the World in 20 Days, The Story of Our History-Making Balloon Flight by Bertrand Piccard; Brian Jones
The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space by Craig Ryan. The first approaches to outer space were made by ascent through the stratosphere in small capsules suspended by plastic balloons filled with helium. This is the story of the work that started with Auguste Piccard and ended with the dawn of the rocket era.
Ballooning The complete Guide to Riding the Winds by Dick Wirth and Jerry Young. This books describes the history of ballooning, how they are constructed and raced, and the people who have made it possible for any of us to float thought the sky in a wicker basket. This book has many beautiful photographs to accompany the inspiring text.
Books by Auguste Piccard - Auguste authored two books that are available as used or out of print editions. They are "In Balloon & Bathyscaphe" translated by Christina Stead, and "Exploring the Sky and Sea," which was co-authored with Jacques Piccard.
Books by Jacques Piccard - Jacques also authored several books on oceanic exploration that are available as used or out of print editions, including "Seven Miles Down" and "The Sun Beneath the Sea"
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
History of Ballooning - From NOVA Online's coverage of the Balloon Race Around the World, here's the history of ballooning from 1783 to the intense competition of the 1990's.
Auguste and Jean Piccard - Biographies of these two pioneering aeronauts.
The Piccard Gondola - Photos of the history-making balloon gondola that is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Discoveries in the Deep - From NOVA Online's "Into the Abyss", a chronology of undersea exploration.
Trieste II - Photo and specifications of this deep submergence vessel, plus history of the Trieste I and II bathyscaphes.
Copyright 1999 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: March 7, 1999 as part of A Positive Light