Book Review, Guest Post, History, Science

Book Review By Seawriter: To the Uttermost Depths and Back

During the decades humans first reached outer space, they were also reaching for the ocean’s uttermost depths.  They even managed to reach those depths before placing a man in orbit.

Opening the Great Depths: The Bathyscaph Trieste and Pioneers of Undersea Exploration, by Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers tells that story.  It is a history of Trieste, and also fits Trieste into its historical context.

The authors reveal an unexpected origin for the bathyscaph: high altitude ballooning. Its initiator, Swiss academic Auguste Piccard made his name in the 1920s setting altitude records in free-flight balloons. His purpose was scientific, measuring cosmic rays at stratospheric altitudes. He was equally interested in plumbing the ocean’s depths. He used concepts developed for balloons in designing the bathyscaph, an ocean-plumbing balloon. Gasoline substituted for hydrogen to provide buoyancy, iron shot provided ballast, with the crew in a pressurized spherical compartment.

His vision had to wait until World War II ended. A first attempt ended in failure in 1948, largely due to funding as the sponsoring nations, Belgium and France, impoverished by World War II underfunded the effort.

Trieste, his second attempt, was, perhaps, the last flourish of back-yard Edisons until Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Auguste, with his son Jacques, designed Trieste, obtaining private funding for construction.  The craft was named for the city where it was built, then an independent free territory. Its first sphere was built in the Italian steel town of Terni, and everything came together by 1953 when Auguste made a dive of 10,300 feet in it.

Funding problems plagued this civilian effort, too. In 1958, the US Navy purchased Trieste, along with Jacques Piccard’s services. In 1960, with a new, stronger sphere and Piccard aboard, Trieste took humans to a depth of 36,700 feet.

This was the start of a remarkable quarter-century US Navy career for Trieste and its two successors. It is easy to confuse the three vessels asm for security reasons, the Navy let people assume all three were upgrades of same one.

The authors sort this all out and take readers through the program’s accomplishments and challenges. Trieste dived on sunken nuclear submarines Thresher and Scorpion, recovered reentry capsules from US spy satellites from the ocean floor and conducted scientific research missions. There were even plans to use it to scoop up Soviet nose cones.

Polmar and Mathers present an informative, entertaining, and fascinating story in Opening the Great Depths. This book will captivate readers.

“Opening the Great Depths: The Bathyscaph Trieste and Pioneers of Undersea Exploration,” by Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers, Naval Institute Press, 2021, 304 pages, $44.95 (hardcover), $33.99 (Ebook)

 

*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas.  Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects.  Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.”  His website is marklardas.com.

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