Auguste Piccard: The Man Who Flew To The Stratosphere

Jun 1, 2022 0 comments

Auguste Antoine Piccard was a Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer, who became the inspiration behind one of Tintin’s most lovable characters—Professor Cuthbert Calculus. The eccentric, hard-of-hearing professor made his first appearance in Red Rackham's Treasure, where Professor Calculus demonstrates a new kind of diving machine for underwater exploration, which too was inspired by one of Piccard’s invention. Using Calculus’s submarine Tintin locates the wreck of the sunken 17th century vessel, the Unicorn, and recovers various artefacts including old documents that reveal that Marlinspike Hall is the ancestral home of Captain Haddock.

Auguste Piccard and Professor Calculus

Auguste Piccard and Professor Calculus from “the Adventures of Tintin.”

But Auguste Piccard was much more than an inspiration for a cartoon character. He was an adventurer in his own right, who flew to the Earth’s upper atmosphere and dived into the depths of the oceans.

Auguste Antoine Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix Piccard were born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1884. Their father was a professor of chemistry at the University of Basel. The brothers followed in their father's scholarly footsteps and attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Auguste completed a degree in physics, while his brother studied chemistry. Following graduation Auguste remained at the Institute as a professor. Later, Piccard moved to the University of Brussels, where he accepted a newly created position in the physics department.

Piccard became interested in cosmic rays and began to plan an expedition to the upper atmosphere, where he could measure cosmic radiation and thus provide experimental evidence for the theories of Albert Einstein. To reach great heights and survive, PIccard designed and built a pressurized aluminium capsule or gondola, inside which the intrepid explorers could comfortably sit and conduct various experiments as the hydrogen-filled balloon and the hanging gondola soared up through the dense air.

Auguste Piccard with the gondola that he designed.

Auguste Piccard with the gondola that he designed.

On 27 May 1931, Auguste Piccard and his colleague Paul Kipfer took off from Augsburg, Germany in the pressurized capsule. During the ascent, the cabin began to leak, but they managed to plug it with vaseline and cotton. With the leak fixed, the balloon continued to rise until it reached a record altitude of 15,781 meters (51,775 feet), becoming the first persons to reach the stratosphere. Piccard and his companion measured the cosmic rays and found these mysterious radiation were far more powerful than at the earth’s surface. The explorers trapped samples of the upper air in cylinders. Analysis of these may prove it to be exceptionally rich in ozone. With observations completed, the explorers attempted to descend, but without success. As their oxygen tanks ran low, they floated aimlessly over Germany, Austria, and Italy. Cool evening air finally contracted the balloon and brought them down on a glacier near Ober-Gurl, Austria, with only an hour’s supply of oxygen to spare. They had been airborne for 17 hours.

PIccard broke his own record a year later, on 18 August 1932, when he rose to 16,201 meters (53,153 feet) on another balloon. All in all, Piccard made 27 flights.

Paul Kipfer and Auguste Piccard

Paul Kipfer and Auguste Piccard wearing makeshift helmets to please German laws which insist aeronauts should wear helmets.

Having conquered the heavens, Piccard decided to plunge into the watery depths. In 1937, he designed a pressurized capsule that was capable of diving to the deepest depths of the ocean, an invention which he called the bathyscaphe. The term bathyscaphe comes from the Greek terms bathos, meaning “deep,” and scaphos, meaning “ship.” By necessity, the bathyscaphe was heavier than water and sank easily, but in order to rise from the depths Piccard used the same principles that took him to the stratosphere—buoyancy. Piccard could not use air as the buoyant material because at the tremendous pressure at the depths, air compressed easily. So Piccard used gasoline, which was lighter than water and being liquid, it was incompressible. He designed a huge tank and filled it with gasoline. The passenger-carrying gondola was suspended underneath this gasoline tank. To make the now floating craft sink, tons of iron were attached to the float with a release mechanism to allow resurfacing.

World War II interrupted the construction of the bathyscaphe, which was not completed until 1948. On October 26, 1948, the first test dive of the bathyscaphe was conducted successfully off the coast of Cape Verde. On November 3, 1948, in a deeper dive of approximately 1,400 meters (4,600 feet), the cabin withstood the pressure perfectly, but the float was severely damaged by a heavy swell of water that it encountered after the dive.

 the Trieste bathyscaphe

The Trieste bathyscaphe. Photo: Getty Images

Piccard with his son, Jacques, built a second bathyscaphe called Trieste and together they dove to 3,150 meters (10,335 feet) in 1953. In 1956, Auguste Piccard achieved a dive of 3,810 meters (12,500 feet). Only six years later, on January 23, 1960, Piccard’s son Jacques Piccard and a US navy lieutenant Don Walsh took the bathyscaphe to the deepest point in the ocean called Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, becoming the first persons to do so. Nobody returned to Challenger Deep for 52 years, until Titanic director James Cameron descended successfully on March 26, 2012.

Auguste Piccard died on 24 March 1962 of a heart attack. He was 78 years old. Even after his death, Piccard continued to inspire a generation of balloonists, including his one grandson Bertrand Piccard who made the first non-stop balloon flight around the globe in 1999.

Inspiration for Professor Calculus

Belgian cartoonist Hergé was inspired by Auguste Piccard and his bathyscaphe to create the character of Professor Calculus. The Swiss physics professor held a teaching appointment in Brussels when Hergé spotted his unmistakable figure in the street. However, Piccard was a tall fellow, at 6ft 6in. In contrast, Professor Calculus was short. In an interview Hergé stated: “Calculus is a reduced scale Piccard, as the real chap was very tall. He had an interminable neck that sprouted from a collar that was much too large... I made Calculus a mini-Piccard, otherwise I would have had to enlarge the frames of the cartoon strip.”

# Popular Science, Aug 1931
# Auguste Piccard, the Versatile Explorer: from the Sky to the Bottom of the Sea, Open Mind BBVA
# Britannica
# Encyclopedia


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}