Necessary Admiration For A Hunk of Steel

In 1932 two men became the first to descend into the deep sea.  Their descent, in nothing more than hunk of steel, took them past 3000 feet into the dark depths.  There is fine line between the courageous and the crazy.  Beebe and Barton’s dive may have been a bit both, as both trusted their lives to new-fangled equipment and methods to protect them from 100 atmospheres of pressure, being lost to the deep, or asphyxiating from a lack of oxygen. 

However, the day those two men climbed into that tiny…impossibly tiny..hunk of steel and went half a mile down represents one of the most pivotal moments of oceanography, exploration, and human advancement.  Almost eighty years later our methods, our interest in, and technology for exploring the deep can be traced back to Beebe, Barton, and a hollow steel ball.

That hunk of metal is named Bathysphere and its genius can be
attributed to Barton’s design, a simple steal sphere to be lowered on a
cable costing no more than $15,000.  But that humble sphere was
forgotten often out of public view.  In 1939 during the World’s Fair it
was displayed briefly.  During World War II the Navy in experiments to
measure the effects of underwater explosions harshly treated it.
Little is known of its years from 1957 when the New York Aquarium (NYA)
moved to Coney Island or how it was displayed.  In 1994 the Bathysphere was
removed during renovations where it “languished in a storage yard under
the Cyclone roller coaster” on Coney Island until 2005.  Fortunately,
the NYA gave her a new coat of paint and new home where you can visit
the old girl today. A fiberglass model can also be seen at the National
Geographic Society in Washington but the real one is a block from
Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs in the Big Apple. Sorry Jim.

I met aquarium curator Paul Sieswerda who last week graciously
showed me around the NYA on Coney Island. We traded what we knew about
Beebe, Barton, and Bathysphere.  Paul’s admiration for that
steal sphere is no less than my own.   I was amazed by the smallness of
the internal compartment that challenges the laws of physics to
comprehend how two grown men and equipment fit inside.  Seeing the
Bathysphere was no less than a religious journey for me and I offer my
deepest thanks to Paul and the rest of the NYA for hosting me. The
Bathysphere and the NYA is definitely worth the hour and half subway
ride out Coney Island if you find yourself in New York.

I end with a note on the future of the Bathysphere.  I freely
admit my bias here, but I had hoped to see her displayed more
prominently.  I don’t blame the NYA what they accomplish with limited
facilities, poor location, and small budget is phenomenal.
However, the Bathysphere is no less than an Apollo capsule or the Flyer II of
the Wrights.  The latter, both prominently and proudly displayed at the
Smithsonian, mark our explorations of the air above and space beyond.
The Bathysphere marks humans first manned exploration of the
deep ocean.  The first time human eyes witnessed the deep.  There is no
fanfare for the Bathysphere, no key chains or swag at the
aquarium gift shop to commemorate her, and no mention of her in any New
York City guidebook.  She is displayed but perhaps forgotten. 

For more information on Beebe, Barton, and the Bathysphere pick up a copy of Matsen’s wonderful book Descent.

9 Replies to “Necessary Admiration For A Hunk of Steel”

  1. On the topic of actual submersibles, does anyone know what the prognosis is for Alvin? Once the new sub gets built, it would be a shame if this icon of ocean exploration ends up in a weedy back lot.

    Hum, maybe we need a National Museum of Ocean Exploration.

  2. Philip, although it may not be called the “National Museum of Ocean Exploration” the Smithsonian is debuting the new Sant Ocean Hall this week. Giant and bigfin squid will be present. Don’t know if there is enough room for a bathysphere or a retired Alvin, but they should be preserved and not forgotten.

  3. Wow, those were amazing. Really took me back. 20,000 Leagues was the single movie that got me interested in the ocean as a kid. I watched it over and over and over and over… I still love it. I REALLY want to get a hold of one of the Nautilus replica rides. That would be so awesome in my backyard.

  4. I was also interested in the ocean as a kid. In 6th grade, I planned to be a marine biologist. But then one of my older brothers got his degree in marine biology at the College of Charleston. Of course that ruined it for me. ;)

    He went on to become a charter fisherman, then a commercial fisherman, then he abandoned the dream altogether, to spend more time with his wife.

    I went on to be an English major/Philosophy minor… what I thought I would do with that I have NO idea. I went to college in Winter Park, FL – a stone’s throw from SeaWorld. I should have studied, with the goal of working there.. oh well.

    At least I have my dreams, my aquariums, and my undersea D&D game. My SCUBA gear is rusting and rotting away in the attic (got my certificate from SeaCamp at Big Pine Key); haven’t had the chance to dive in over a decade. NC diving is dismal.

  5. Mystic Aquarium/Institute For Exploration has a Challenge of the Deep exhibit with a replica of the Bathysphere, Little-Herc, and a crawl-in mockup of the Alvin cockpit. The kids find the cockpit wonderful fun and the adults usually find it a bit “cramped”. I can only imagine how tight the Bathysphere must have been.

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