Amazing Century of the Piccards From Auguste to Jacques to Bertrand
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
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
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 these related
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.
Piccard - Biography of this Swiss-Belgian physicist from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Piccard Gondola - Photos of the history-making balloon gondola
that is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.