First Manned Bathysphere Dives

William Beebe and Otis Barton pioneered the exploration of the ocean depths, contributed to the knowledge of deep-sea life, and provided a model for the further development of deep-sea diving vehicles and for the scientific observation of the seas.

Summary of Event

The first half of the twentieth century was an age of exploration. On land, both the North and South Poles were conquered, and the most remote portions of Africa, Asia, and South America were revealed to explorers, paleontologists, and archaeologists. In the air, humans traveled in airplanes and dirigibles and assaulted the heights of the atmosphere in balloons. Until the 1930’s, however, the vast depths of the oceans remained largely unexplored. [kw]First Manned Bathysphere Dives (June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934)
[kw]Manned Bathysphere Dives, First (June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934)
[kw]Bathysphere Dives, First Manned (June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934)
[kw]Dives, First Manned Bathysphere (June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934)
Deep-sea diving[Deep sea diving];vehicles
Ocean exploration
[g]United States;June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934: First Manned Bathysphere Dives[07610]
[c]Science and technology;June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934: First Manned Bathysphere Dives[07610]
[c]Earth science;June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934: First Manned Bathysphere Dives[07610]
[c]Exploration and discovery;June 6, 1930-Aug. 27, 1934: First Manned Bathysphere Dives[07610]
Beebe, William
Barton, Otis
Tee-Van, John
Anable, Gloria Hollister
Griffin, Jocelyn Crane
Grosvenor, Gilbert Hovey

People did know something of the oceans’ depths. Soundings and nettings of the ocean bottom had been made many times since the 1870’s. Diving helmets had allowed humans to descend more than 90 meters below the surface, and the submarine allowed them to reach a depth of nearly 120 meters. There was no firsthand knowledge, however, of the deepest reaches of the submarine world.

The person who gave the world the first account of life at the great depths was William Beebe. When he announced in 1926 that he was attempting to build a craft to explore the ocean, he was already a well-known naturalist. Although his only advanced degrees were honorary doctorates, Beebe had graduated as a special student in the Department of Zoology of Columbia University in 1898. He had begun his lifelong association with the New York Zoological Society in 1899. His first specialty had been in ornithology, and he had made his name in that field through a four-volume monograph on pheasants, which he studied in the field for many years. The events of his many trips and expeditions were recounted in a number of popular books and articles.

It was during a trip to the Galápagos Islands that Beebe turned his attention to oceanography. He became the first scientist to use a diving helmet in fieldwork, swimming in the shallow waters. He continued this shallow-water work at the new station he established in 1928, with the permission of English authorities, on the tiny island of Nonesuch in the Bermudas. Beebe realized, however, that he had reached the limits of the current technology and that studying the animal life of the ocean depths would require a new approach.

While he was considering various cylindrical designs for a new deep-sea exploratory craft, Beebe was introduced to Otis Barton. Barton, a young New Englander who had been trained as an engineer at Harvard University, had turned to the problems of ocean diving while doing postgraduate work at Columbia University. Although he had begun designing a spherical diving device as early as 1926, the reports of Beebe’s forthcoming attempts temporarily dissuaded Barton from pursuing its development. By December, 1928, however, Barton had heard nothing further of Beebe’s work, so he brought his blueprints to Beebe. Beebe immediately saw that Barton’s design was what he was looking for, and the two went ahead with its construction.

The bathysphere, as Beebe named the device, weighed 5,000 pounds, with a diameter of 1.45 meters and steel walls 3.8 centimeters thick. The door, weighing 400 pounds, would be fastened over a manhole with ten bolts. Four windows, made of fused quartz at the suggestion of Edwin Elway Free, Free, Edwin Elway a New York physicist and lecturer, were ordered from the General Electric Company at a cost of five hundred dollars each. A 250-watt water spotlight, loaned by the Westinghouse Company, provided exterior illumination, and a telephone, loaned from the Bell Telephone Laboratory, provided the means for communicating with the surface. The breathing apparatus consisted of two oxygen tanks that allowed two liters of oxygen per minute to escape into the sphere. During the dive, carbon dioxide and moisture were removed from the interior by a tray containing, respectively, soda lime and calcium chloride. A winch using steel cable would lower the bathysphere.

On June 3, 1930, Beebe and Barton tested the completed bathysphere. They lowered the unmanned craft to a depth of 610 meters. When the craft was raised, the communications line was tangled around the cable. An unperceived twisting had occurred in transferring the cable from its original spool onto the winch, and this twisting undid itself under water. Three days later, a second unmanned test dive was made. This time, all went well, and only about a quart of water had seeped into the sphere when it returned from a depth of 457 meters.

Thus, at 1:00 p.m. on June 6, the first manned dive commenced. Beebe and Barton descended to a depth of 244 meters. A small leak had started through the door at 91 meters, but it was no worse than during the test dive. A short circuit in one of the switches showered them with sparks momentarily, but the descent was largely a success. Beebe and Barton had descended farther than had any human before.

Two more days of diving yielded more minor inconveniences and a final dive record of 435 meters below sea level. On these dives, Beebe and the other members of his staff (ichthyologist John Tee-Van and zoologist Gloria Hollister Anable) saw many species of fish and other marine life that previously had been seen only after being caught in nets. These first dives proved that an undersea exploratory craft had potential value, at least for deep water.

Beebe’s group, joined by a new associate, Jocelyn Crane Griffin, set out once again with the bathysphere in the fall of 1932. Two unmanned test dives initially yielded only a bathysphere full of cold seawater: A new window had been improperly installed. After draining the craft and fixing the window, the group prepared for another round of manned dives. The most dramatic of the dives came on September 22. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had arranged to do a live broadcast on a Sunday afternoon. The first attempts had to be postponed because of weather and other technical problems, but on that afternoon, even though the seas would normally have been too rough, Beebe and Barton made a descent. The last several hundred meters of the descent were carried live, and a large audience heard Beebe’s conversation with Anable. Several new species of fish were tentatively identified. A new depth record was set at 671 meters; Beebe decided to come up at that point because of the buffeting the bathysphere was taking as the mother ship was tossed by waves. After the 1932 dives, the bathysphere went on display at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago.

In late 1933, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society offered to sponsor another series of dives. Although a new record was not a stipulation of sponsorship, Beebe was determined to set one. Beebe still considered the primary purpose of the dives to be scientific. He had thought to include cosmic ray analysis experiments on the dives, but Robert Andrews Millikan, Millikan, Robert Andrews the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, responded to his queries by saying that the bathysphere would not be submerged long enough for any useful data to be obtained. Similarly, spectrographic data could not be gathered because the smallest spectroscope could not fit through the door of the bathysphere.

The bathysphere was completely refitted before the new dives. Again, many companies donated the equipment Beebe needed. Notable was a more modern breathing apparatus donated by the Air Reduction Company. The outer sphere also was altered. An unmanned test dive to 920 meters was made on August 7, 1934, once again off Nonesuch Island. Minor adjustments were made, and on the morning of August 11, the first manned dive commenced, attaining a depth of 765 meters and recording a number of new scientific observations. Several days later, on August 15, the weather was again right for a dive.

This dive also paid rich dividends in the number of species of deep-sea life observed. Finally, with only a few turns of cable left on the winch spool, a record depth of 923 meters—almost a kilometer below the ocean’s surface—was attained. The ascent was marred by the breaking of a guy rope used to spool the incoming cable, but this was scarcely noticed by Beebe and Barton.

Later dives included the other members of the group. Anable descended to a depth of 368 meters, a record for a woman. Griffin reached a depth of 351 meters. Tee-Van descended to 457 meters on August 27, 1934. After these dives, Beebe turned his focus to shallow-water dives in the Pacific Ocean.


The work of Beebe and Barton with the bathysphere marked both an end and a beginning. It marked an end in the sense that although it showed that undersea exploration was a scientifically profitable enterprise, it also pointed out the limitations of the bathysphere in pursuing that enterprise. Beebe had originally sought to build a new exploration craft because he saw the limitations of what was then the best method of exploration: the rigid diving suit or diving helmet. Although the bathysphere solved the immediate problems of diver mobility and depth limitations, it did not cut the “umbilical cord”—the bathysphere was still dependent on a surface vessel. Further, there were inherent problems with the basic design. The bathysphere had no fail-safe contingency should the sphere become separated from the cable. The danger of such a catastrophic failure was always a possibility. Technologically, the bathysphere was near its design limits: The deeper one went, the more steel cable was needed; the more cable that was needed, the heavier the combined weight of the cable and bathysphere, thus calling for larger and larger winches and mother ships and raising the cost of the expedition. The inability to maneuver horizontally also limited the bathysphere’s scientific effectiveness.

Barton continued to work on the bathysphere design for some years. It was not until 1948, however, that his new design, the benthoscope, was finally constructed. It was similar in basic design to the bathysphere, but the walls were strengthened to withstand greater pressures. Other improvements were made, but the essential strengths and weaknesses of the original bathysphere remained. On August 16, 1949, Barton, diving alone, broke the record he and Beebe had set fifteen years earlier, reaching a depth of 1,372 meters off Santa Cruz Island in Southern California.

The bathysphere effectively marked the end of the tethered exploration of the deep, but it pointed the way to other possibilities: In 1943, Jacques Cousteau and Émile Gagnan developed the Aqualung underwater breathing apparatus, allowing unfettered and largely unencumbered exploration down to about 60 meters. This was by no means deep-sea diving, but the development of true shallow-water mobility was clearly a step along the lines that Beebe had envisioned for underwater research.

A further step came in the development of the bathyscaphe Bathyscaphe by Auguste Piccard, Piccard, Auguste the renowned Swiss physicist who, in the 1930’s, conquered the stratosphere in high-altitude balloons. The bathyscaphe itself was a balloon but operated in reverse. A spherical steel passenger cabin was attached beneath a large float filled with gasoline for buoyancy. Several tons of iron pellets held by electromagnets acted as ballast. The bathyscaphe would sink slowly to the bottom of the ocean, and when its passengers wished to return to the surface, the ballast would be dumped. Although bathyscaphes were constructed before the benthoscope in 1948, early tests were partial failures. In 1953, however, both the French navy’s FNRS-3 under the command of Georges Houot and Pierre-Henri Willm and the Trieste under the command of Piccard and his son Jacques set new records. On August 14, Houot and Willm dove to 2,099 meters without touching bottom off Provençal. The Piccards touched bottom off Capri on September 30, some 3,000 meters below the surface.

Finally, spheres of any kind were surpassed by improved submarines designed for deep-sea exploration. A craft that existed when Beebe began his deep-sea research became the design that would ultimately conquer the ocean’s depths. It cannot be denied, however, that all of these further attempts owed something to the courageous and scientific spirit of Beebe and Barton. Bathyspheres
Deep-sea diving[Deep sea diving];vehicles
Ocean exploration

Further Reading

  • Barton, Otis. The World Beneath the Sea. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1953. Barton tells the story of his life from shortly before his first meeting with Beebe up to the period after his record-setting dive. The account is heavy with anecdotes and opinions and should be used only to supplement Beebe’s account (cited below). Photographs.
  • Beebe, William. Half Mile Down. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934. Beebe’s definitive popular account of the dives, some of which had been published earlier in National Geographic and other popular magazines. Includes technical appendixes by Barton, Tee-Van, Anable, and Griffin, as well as photographs, illustrations, and an index.
  • Gould, Carol Grant. The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist. Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2004. Exhaustive study of the life and career of Beebe, from his early work as a naturalist, through his deep-sea explorations, to his later jungle expeditions. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Guberlet, Muriel L. Explorers of the Sea: Famous Oceanographic Expeditions. New York: Ronald Press, 1964. Popular, episodic account of a number of ocean explorers, loosely defined. A bit too enthusiastic, but a good story. Bibliography and an index.
  • Matsen, Brad. Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. Recounts the design, construction, and expeditions of Beebe and Barton’s bathysphere. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Piccard, Jacques, and Robert S. Dietz. Seven Miles Down: The Story of the Bathyscaph Trieste. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961. Piccard, pilot on all dives of the Trieste and son of its inventor, and Dietz, the first American to make a dive in the bathyscaphe, tell the story of the dives made from 1948 to 1960. Useful for comparisons between the crafts and their descents. Photographs and an index.
  • Soule, Gardner. The Greatest Depths: Probing the Seas to Twenty Thousand Feet and Below. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, 1970. A popular account, written by a reporter, that covers all aspects of deep-sea study. Quotes freely from many other works and includes a few interesting comments from Beebe’s second wife. Photographs, bibliography, and an index.
  • Welker, Robert Henry. Natural Man: The Life of William Beebe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. An unconventional biography of Beebe that delves into critical analysis. Indispensable for understanding Beebe. Scholarly, but very readable. Photographs, notes, and an index.

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