Pioneer of the Deep: William Beebe and his Bathysphere

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William Beebe was one of the century’s leading pioneers into the oceanic world. The Brooklyn, New York, native possessed an unrelenting curiosity about the natural world around and beneath him. Throughout his dozens of books describing his various expeditions, Beebe brought all of us in closer touch with the natural world. Beebe’s interest in ornithology, which is the study of birds, reaches far to Mexico, Asia, Galapagos Island, and deep into the jungles of South America. Beebe had a strong interest in collecting animal specimens, even teaching himself the art of taxidermy as a high school student. An avid amateur ornithologist, he published his first article in Harper’s Young People while still in high school, about a bird known as a “brown creeper.” It was the year 1930 when he began his historic underwater adventures, as he already established himself as a scientist of international renown. Little did he know that his greatest contributions were still to come.

Before 1930, Beebe had discussed at length his fascination with the possibilities of deep-sea diving with his good friend and fellow naturalist, Theodore Roosevelt. Both were concerned with the persistent problem of water pressure. They knew very well that an unprotected diver could be rendered unconscious by the weight of the sea at a depth of just 200 feet or 60 meters. To venture deeper than that would surely result in immediate death. Beebe and Roosevelt contemplated the design of various vessels that might allow for deep-sea exploration. In 1928, Beebe received permission from the British government to set up a research station in Bermuda to study the marine life in the region. He soon realized that for dredging and diving to observe deep-sea animals in their native habitat, a special underwater helmet would not be sufficient. Helmets were safe to only a few hundred feet down, and though submarines had descended to 383 feet, they had no windows to permit observation. Beebe wanted to build a deep-sea vessel with observational windows, capable of descending to even greater depths.

william beebe inside the bathysphere-10

Lacking a keen feel for machinery, Beebe sought advice from various engineers. In 1928, he was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Otis Barton. Barton’s initial letters to Beebe went unanswered, largely because the latter received so much correspondence from obvious cranks. But eventually, a mutual friend introduced them, and Barton presented his design in person with a blueprint for a seemingly simple deep-sea-diving vessel. He called it the bathysphere. Barton described it as “…just a hollow steel sphere on the end of a cable.” Aware that pressure was distributed most evenly along a sphere’s surface, Beebe was immediately taken with Barton’s creation. The two made plans to begin testing the bathysphere to see where it might take them.

The men conducted their first unmanned test of the bathysphere on May 27, 1930, descending to only about 45 feet. They sent it down deeper for the second test and found that the crucial electrical and phone cables, encased in a rubber hose, were badly twisted around the suspension cable. Once that issue was resolved, Beebe and Barton made their first dive, descending to 803 feet, and made several more successful dives that summer. They documented many deep-sea animals previously never observed in their native habitats, and Beebe noted how parts of the solar spectrum were filtered out during descent until only the violet and blue hues remained. They also conducted shallower dives to map Bermuda’s underwater geography, despite the risk of the vessel colliding with the submerged cliffs.

A combination of harsh weather and the Great Depression foiled diving plans the next summer, and Beebe pledged to dive down a full half-mile to raise funding for more dives. The resulting funding enabled them to resume their dives in 1932. The project was nearly scuttled during an unmanned test of the bathysphere, when it reemerged nearly full of water. As they loosened the heavy metal hatch bolts, one of them “shot across the deck like the shell from a gun,” Beebe later wrote in his memoir, Half Mile Down. But they fixed the leak, and a dive was scheduled for September 22, 1932. Barton planned to film the creatures through the bathysphere’s window, and NBC broadcast verbal observations as they were relayed up the phone line. It was a rough descent, and the bathysphere’s swinging from side to side caused Barton to vomit from seasickness. But they kept going, eventually reaching 2,200 feet—still 440 feet short of their half-mile goal. By then, Barton and Beebe were badly bruised from the rough ride and asked to be brought back up.

Once again, Beebe found himself in need of sponsorship to conduct more dives in the bathysphere. This time their benefactor was Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, editor of National Geographic, who pledged $10,000 if Beebe and Barton succeeded in reaching a depth of half a mile and Beebe subsequently authored an article for the magazine. By this time, the bathysphere needed some repairs, but once the renovations were complete, they succeeded in reaching 2,510 feet on August 11, 1934, just 140 feet shy of their goal. A few days later, on August 15, Beebe and Barton successfully took the bathysphere down to the promised 3,028 feet, setting a new world record in the process.

Bathysphere-at-New-York-Aquarium

Beebe lost interest in the bathysphere, deeming it too expensive for what little knowledge remained to be gained from such dives, but he continued to be an avid researcher. Active well into old age, even at 80 he could still scramble up tree trunks to examine bird nests. As his strength flagged, he still managed to do work in the laboratory, such as examining the structure of birds’ nests. He died of pneumonia in 1962. As for the bathysphere, it was exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was used to observe underwater explosions during World War II, before finding a permanent home at the Coney Island aquarium in 1957. For Beebe, his journeys beneath the sea exposed him to “a world as strange as that of Mars.” “These descents of mine beneath the sea seemed to partake of a real cosmic character,” he later wrote. “First of all, there was the complete and utter loneliness and isolation, a feeling wholly unlike the isolation felt when removed from fellow men by mere distance… It was a loneliness more akin to a first venture upon the moon or Venus.”

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