Bathysphere: The World’s First Deep-Sea Exploration Vessel

Mar 7, 2020 0 comments

On the afternoon of September 22, 1932, listeners across America and the UK tuned their radio sets to an extraordinary live broadcast that was being transmitted from inside a small steel sphere hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface. Locked inside the sphere was naturalist William Beebe and inventor Otis Barton, who designed the device. Through a telephone system supplied by Bell Laboratories, Beebe described the wonderful marine life that swam past his tiny quartz window—”a school of brilliantly illuminated jellyfish with pale green lights came within three feet of [our] window. I have never seen such brilliant light,” Beebe announced. Transmitting from 1,500 feet beneath the surface, Beebe and Barton was on their way to the deepest ocean dive in history.

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William Beebe inside the Bathysphere.

At that time, five hundred feet was the deepest anybody had ever dived using an armored diving suit. A typical submarine barely descended to 400 feet. Beebe wanted to dive deeper, not because for the thrill, but to observe the mysterious ocean life that dwelled there. Until then, the only understanding of deep sea life came from animals dredged from the ocean floor. Nobody had ever watched them in their native environment.

Beebe and Barton’s vessel, called the Bathysphere, was a sphere less than five feet across. The inside was crammed with all sorts of scientific equipment, a telephone for communication to the top, electric lamps, bottles of oxygen and trays of soda lime and calcium chloride to absorb carbon dioxide exhaled by the occupants. To observe the outside world the vessel was equipped with two small windows fitted with three-inch-thick fused quartz, and a spotlight mounted above one of the portholes. Beebe and Barton would squeeze inside the sphere through a small hole, and the 400-pound (180 kg) entrance hatch would be bolted from the outside to prevent leakage.

Beebe and Barton conducted their first test dive on May 27, 1930, off the coast of Bermuda. The Bathysphere was attached to a 3,000-feet-long steel cable by which the vessel was lowered into the waters from the deck of a former British Naval ship. Over the next four years, the two intrepid explorers made nearly three dozen dives to the deep, pushing further and further below the surface. With each deep dive, the stakes began to climb and the dangers increased. Even a small leak at that depth would have caused a jet of water to shoot into the Bathysphere tearing through flesh and bone like bullets. But the rewards were worth the risks.

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Cross-sectional view of the Bathysphere.

Beebe and Barton observed an astounding variety of life, many of which were never seen before. Beebe also became the first person to observe how sunlight gradually loses its colors as one descends into the depths of the ocean.

“The green faded imperceptibly as we went down, and at 200 feet it was impossible to say whether the water was greenish-blue or bluish-green,” Beebe wrote in his book Half Mile Down, an account of his experiments with the Bathysphere.

“At 1,000 feet, we took stock of our surroundings. I tried to name the water; blackish-blue, dark gray-blue. It is strange that as the blue goes, it is not replaced by violet—the end of the visible spectrum. That has apparently already been absorbed. The last hint of blue tapers into a nameless gray, and this finally into black,” Beebe added.

An article describing his dives appeared on the June 1931 issue of the National Geographic, accompanied by beautiful illustrations of the animals Beebe observed, visually transformed from Beebe’s notes into paintings by nature artist Else Bostelmann. Many of these previously-unseen animals would be confirmed years later using underwater photography.

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Observed sea life drawn by Else Bostelmann.

Bathysphere

Observed sea life drawn by Else Bostelmann.

In order to raise funds for explorations, Beebe and Barton struck a deal with NBC promising the national broadcaster that the duo would dive to half a mile beneath the surface, while describing what they saw to the audience. On the day of the dive, the sea was unusually rough, but the program had already began airing so Beebe and Barton decided to continue with the descent. Beebe’s voice, as he spoke into the telephone, was carried up through nearly 3,000 feet of wire from the submerged capsule to the deck of the ship Freedom. From there, a portable 50-watt radio transmitter beamed his voice to the receiving station at Flatts, in Bermuda, to be broadcasted across the country.

As soon as the program ended, Beebe gave the order for them to be pulled back up. The motion of the Freedom on the surface, where the sea was extremely choppy, was transmitted down the steel cable, causing the Bathysphere to swing wildly from side to side like a pendulum. Beebe and Barton were violently thrown about inside the sphere, and both were bruised and bleeding. Barton had succumbed to seasickness and vomited.

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William Beebe and Otis Barton.

Beebe and Barton were just 440 feet short of the promised 2,600 feet, or half a mile, when the dive was terminated. They would have to wait another two years before they could reach the goal. On August 11, 1934, Beebe and Barton descended to 2,510 feet (770 m) when Beebe stopped the descend so that he could observe the spectacular life forms at the depth. The remaining distance was called off. The two returned again, four days later, and this time reached 3,028 feet (923 m), setting a new world record. Barton would eventually break that record, fifteen years later, on his new, improved diving vessel which he called the Benthoscope. Barton reached an unprecedented depth of 4,500 feet (1.4 km).

Although the Bathysphere was rendered obsolete by technological advances within a few decades, the work that was achieved from the vessel continues to inspire generations of scientists and oceanographers. Beebe named several new species of deep-sea animals on the basis of observations he made during his Bathysphere dives, some of which remain controversial to this day because they have never been observed again by anyone else. Some of Beebe's critics claimed that the scientist erred in observation, possibly because of his breath fogging up the Bathysphere's window, or that he willfully made things up.

Today, the Bathysphere stands on display at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.

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A replica of the Bathysphere on display at the National Geographic museum in Washington DC. Photo: Mike Cole/Wikimedia Commons

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Bathysphere

References:
# National Geographic, https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/08/15/commemorating-a-milestone-in-ocean-exploration/
# The Official William Beebe Web Site, https://sites.google.com/site/cwilliambeebe/Home/bathysphere
# William Beebe,  Half Mile Down

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