Jacques Cousteau and the Race to the Deep Part 2

Jacques Cousteau Leaves the Underwater Research Group

The Story So Far…

Before World War II, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard had conceived and commenced building an ‘underwater balloon’ (a bathyscaphe) to explore the deep ocean. The principal was based on suspending a heavy steel ball (cabin), holding one or two occupants, beneath a float filled with gasoline. Iron shot would be poured into silos in the bathyscaphe, and then kept in place with electromagnets. With the occupants in the cabin, the bathyscaphe would sink, travelling downward to previously unreached depths, before the occupants in the cabin would cut the power to the electromagnets, steel shot would pour out, and the bathyscaphe would return to the surface, positively buoyant because the ‘balloon’ or float was filled with gasoline and therefore lighter than water.

After Jacques Cousteau had co-invented the Aqualung during the war, he and Phillipe Tailliez (assisted by a civilian Frederic Dumas) had established the Underwater Research Group for the French Navy. Hearing of Piccard’s bathyscaphe, Cousteau had offered the services of the French Navy and the Underwater Research Group to test it. In an unmanned test dive in 1948, the bathyscaphe (named the FNRS-II) had successfully descended to, and returned from, 4554 feet (1400 m). But the float holding the gasoline had been irreparably damaged. Against his wishes, Auguste Piccard’s sponsors had given the remains of the damaged FNRS-II to the French Navy. Auguste Piccard had been upset about this and, assisted by his son, Jacques, had commenced building another bathyscaphe in the city of Trieste, Italy. Meanwhile, Jacques Cousteau had resigned from the French Navy to concentrate on making underwater documentaries, while Phillipe Tailliez had remained in the navy and been sent to French Indochina (Vietnam).

The Underwater Research Group was put under the command of Georges Houot, who wanted to continue deep sea research and set about repairing the FNRS-II.

When Georges Houot, the new commander of the French Navy’s Underwater Research Group, set about rebuilding the damaged bathyscaphe, FNRS-II, he realised the fundamental problem with Auguste Piccard’s design was that the float holding the gasoline was too flimsy to survive on the surface of a rough sea. He enlisted the services a submarine engineer, Andre Gempp, to design a new, more seaworthy float. Gempp got to work and, using his experience as a submarine designer, eventually designed a float that resembled a small World War II submarine. It had a conning tower to keep water from entering the hatchway when waves rolled over it, a pointed bow, and a wide hull to reduce rolling on the surface. The original steel sphere from the FNRS-II, which had been cast in two halves and joined, was incorporated into the bathyscaphe, but was positioned in such a way as to allow the occupants to enter and exit when bathyscaphe was floating on the surface. To pay tribute to Auguste Piccard’s original sponsors, who had donated it to the French Navy, the rebuilt bathyscaphe was named FNRS-III.

But Gempp had hardly begun building the new float for the deep sea research vessel when the French Navy ordered him to Saigon, where locals were attempting to overthrow French rule. Gempp was replaced by Pierre Willm, a young naval engineer barely six months out of college. Willm immediately picked up where Gempp had suddenly left off, and took to his task with enthusiasm. In July 1952, the prefabricated sections of the new submarine-shaped float arrived at the naval base at Toulon, and Houot and Willm began assembling their deep sea vessel.


Jacques Cousteau Houot and Willm at Toulon
Jacques Cousteau, Georges Houot and Pierre Willm at Toulon navy base

Throughout 1952, while the French were assembling their bathyscaphe at Toulon, the father and son team of Auguste and Jacques Piccard were building theirs at Trieste, Italy. The Piccards’ bathyscaphe would be built on the same principles as the FNRS-III. It had a float that held 28,000 US gallons (106,000 ltr) of gasoline, and sphere that had been cast in Terni, Italy. The sphere’s external diameter was seven feet two inches (218 cm) and on land it weighed eleven tons. To thank the city of Trieste, which had sponsored them, the Piccards named their bathyscaphe Trieste.

By the end of 1952, the Piccards were ready to test their bathyscaphe, but they faced a problem. Trieste sat at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, where the water is relatively shallow and dotted with islands. It was obviously not the place to test a deep sea vessel. In January 1953, the disassembled Trieste was loaded onto trucks and transported across Italy to the Italian naval base at Castellammare, near Naples. From there it could be tested in the deeper Tyrrhenian Sea. Once they arrived at Castellammare, the Piccards began assembling the Trieste.

While the Piccards were preparing the Trieste in Italy, Georges Houot and Pierre Willm were testing their bathyscaphe in shallow water off France, observed by Phillipe Tailliez, who had returned from Indochina. Houot and Willm encountered many problems in the shallow shakedown dives. Most of the problems were related to getting the buoyancy correct, or issues associated with the external electrical wiring, which ran to the electromagnets holding the iron shot in the hoppers. But issue by issue, the French bathyscaphe was modified and made to work efficiently.

Bathyscaphes Reach One Mile Down

At the same time, the Piccards got their bathyscaphe into shallow water off Castellammare and encountered the same issues. Getting the delicate balance of the correct amount of iron shot to pour into the silos and the correct amount of gasoline in the float was proving critical. Variations in water temperature at different depths, gasoline heating while on the surface, then cooling as the bathyscaphe descended, and other issues, affected the bathyscaphe’s ability to perform as required.

Houot and Willm conducted the first deep manned dive in the FNRS-III on 6 August 1953. They reached 750 metres (2460 ft) and returned. Six days later they took the FNRS-III to 1500 metres (4920 ft). A day later again they dove below two kilometres, reaching 2100 metres (6900 ft). The Frenchmen had gone more than 1.3 miles deep.


FNRS3 at Toulon
The FNRS-III at Toulon, France Today. (Courtesy Henri Paole)

Meanwhile the Piccards began testing the Trieste off the island of Capri, descending beyond one kilometre. It was a worthy achievement in its own right, but the Piccards understood that in metric Europe, if the French had reached two kilometres, then they needed to reach three. The Trieste was towed from Castellammare to the island of Ponza, where naval charts showed the water was more than three kilometres deep. On 30 September 1953, six weeks after the French had passed two kilometres, Auguste and Jacques Piccard gently touched the bottom of the sea at 3167 metres (10,390 ft). They were deeper than three kilometres, or more than two miles underwater.

Auguste Piccard who, fifteen years earlier, had conceived the idea of an ‘underwater balloon’, and who had seen his original bathyscaphe taken from his control and given to his rivals, had finally been vindicated. But he and his son had still only gone two miles deep in an ocean that was, in places, seven miles deep.


Trieste Bathyscaphe in Italy
The Trieste being lifted into the water at Castellammare, Italy.


At Toulon, Phillipe Tailliez was still in the French Navy and still overseeing the Underwater Research Group that he had commenced with Jacques Cousteau. Needing an idea to draw the attention of the world back on the French bathyscaphe programme, and away from the Piccards, he came up with an idea. His friend Jacques Cousteau was now world famous. He had just published a bestselling book The Silent World, and was making popular documentary films. Tailliez decided to have Georges Houot take Cousteau to the deep sea in the FNRS-III, then while the world was watching, announce that the French would dive to four kilometres.

Jacques Cousteau Goes Deeper than One Kilometre

On 3 December 1953, Houot and Cousteau climbed into the cabin of the FNRS-III and sank to 1230 metres (4035 ft). Cousteau became the sixth person to descend beyond one kilometre. (Following Otis Barton, William Beebe, Houot, Willm and the Piccards.)

At the end of the dive Cousteau stepped out of the bathyscaphe cabin wearing his familiar red cap and the spotlight of the world was on him. Tailliez used the attention to announce the French would next dive to four kilometres and, to rub salt into the wounds of August Piccard, they would do it by returning to Dakar, Senegal, where Auguste Piccard’s original FNRS-II had failed five years earlier. That way, they would be using the original sphere of the bathyscaphe Piccard had designed and built, and taking it a kilometre deeper than Piccard had been able to manage in the Trieste.

On 15 February 1954, Houot and Willm descended to 4050 metres (13,000 ft) off Dakar. They were the first to go beyond four kilometres. Yet it was still less than half way to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean.

 Sphere from FNRS2 and FNRS3
The first bathyscaphe cabin (used on the FNRS-II and FNRS-III) as it is today at Toulon. (Courtesy Henri Paole.)

Both Houot and Willm, and the Piccards, knew that in their competition to go deeper than one another, they had pushed the bathyscaphes to their limits. If they were going to go deeper, they would need to build larger bathyscaphes with bigger cabins.

That is what both parties decided to do. Houot and Willm began designing a bathyscaphe they called B11000, meaning one that could go to a depth of 11,000 metres. (The deepest point of the Mariana Trench.) Then, knowing the French Navy were unlikely to support the project, they sought sponsors who would. Meanwhile, Auguste Piccard sat at his drawing board, designing a bathyscaphe that could also descend to eleven kilometres. The Piccards, too, knew they needed sponsors, but they had an advantage because the United States Navy was interested in using their bathyscaphe to research deep sea sound channels. .

To be continued…

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