Physicist noted for explorations in both the upper atmosphere and in the ocean.
Auguste Piccard was among the most prominent members of a family devoted to scholarship. His father, Jules Piccard, was a professor of chemistry at the University of Basel. Auguste’s twin, Jean, earned a degree in chemistry and eventually held positions at several universities.
Piccard early developed a fascination for science. As a child, he was interested in the biology of the oceans; eventually this led him to design a ship to study ocean depths. Piccard enrolled in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, studying physics. In 1904, he published his first scientific paper.
In 1910, Piccard was awarded a degree in mechanics from the institute, becoming a member of its faculty. He soon developed a gauge for measuring air pressure, and participated in his first balloon ride into the lower atmosphere. In 1914, he was awarded a doctorate by the institute.
Piccard’s research during this period dealt with the study of cosmic rays. His appointment as a professor of applied physics at the University of Brussels in 1922 provided him with the opportunity to combine his expertise in mechanics and engineering with such study. A major difficulty in the observation of cosmic rays was caused by their absorption by the atmosphere. Piccard reasoned that if one could travel into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, interference could be negated. The low atmospheric pressure at such heights, however, had proven fatal to those who had made such attempts. With funding provided by the Belgian government, Piccard designed a pressurized, airtight cabin in a balloon, which would allow penetration into the stratosphere.
On May 27, 1931, Piccard and his assistant Paul Kipfer reached an altitude of 51,762 feet. Unable to release enough hydrogen to land, Piccard and Kipfer waited until sundown, when the cooler temperature allowed the balloon to land on an Austrian glacier; altogether, they were in the air approximately seventeen hours. On August 18, 1932, Piccard and Max Cosyns made a second ascent into the stratosphere in a redesigned cabin, reaching a height of 61,221 feet.
In the late 1930’s, Piccard began the design of a bathyscaphe (a navigable submersible) that could be used to study the ocean depths. Interrupted by World War II, Piccard did not complete his design until 1948. In 1953, Piccard, accompanied by his son Jacques, made a dive to a depth of over 10,000 feet. Piccard retired from the University of Brussels in 1954, returning to Switzerland, where he died in 1962.
Field, Adelaide. Auguste Piccard: Captain of Space, Admiral of the Abyss. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. A juvenile biography of Piccard. Honour, Alan. Ten Miles High, Two Miles Deep: The Adventures of the Piccards. New York: Whitlsey House, 1957. A biography relating the exploits of both Auguste and his brother Jean. Piccard, Auguste. Between Earth and Sky. Translated by Claude Apcher. London: Falcon Press, 1950. Firsthand account of Piccard’s work and record-setting ascents. Written as a popular account for the layperson. _______. In Balloon and Bathyscaphe. London: Cassell, 1956. A more detailed account of Piccard’s work and career.
History of human flight