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The American Experience

William Beebe: Going DeeperWilliam Beebe

Over seventy percent of the earth's surface is covered by oceans, only a fraction of which has ever been explored. William Beebe was one of this century's leading pioneers into the oceanic world. The Brooklyn, New York, native possessed an unrelenting curiosity about the natural world around, and beneath, him. Through his dozens of books describing his various expeditions, Beebe brought the average citizen in closer touch with the natural world.

Beebe's interest in ornithology took him to the far reaches of Mexico, Asia, and the Galapagos Islands, and deep into the jungles of South America. In 1919 he was named director of tropical research for the New York Zoological Society. His many exotic expeditions yielded an impressive collection of rare birds for the Society's zoological gardens. In 1930 when he began his historic undersea adventures, the 51-year-old Beebe had already established himself as a scientist of international renown. Little did he know that his greatest contributions were still to come.

Prior to 1930, Beebe had discussed at length his fascination with the possibilities of deep-sea diving with his good friend and fellow naturalist Theodore Roosevelt. Both he and Roosevelt were concerned with the persistent problem of water pressure. They knew well that an unprotected diver could be rendered unconscious by the weight of the sea at a depth of just 200 feet. To venture deeper than that without protection would surely result in being crushed to death. Beebe and Roosevelt contemplated the design of various vessels that might allow for deep-sea exploration. Lacking a keen feel for machinery, Beebe sought advice from various engineers. In 1928, he was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Otis Barton. Barton presented Beebe with a blueprint for a seemingly simple deep-sea-diving vessel. He called it the bathysphere. Barton described it as "...just a hollow steel sphere on the end of a cable." Aware that pressure was distributed most evenly along a sphere's surface, Beebe was immediately taken with Barton's creation. The two made plans to begin testing the bathysphere to see where it might take them.

Beebe chose as a diving spot an area 10 miles off Nonsuch, a tiny island off of the coast of Bermuda. In June 1930, the bathysphere, along with Beebe, Barton, and a team of 26 assistants was floated out on a huge barge. Connecting the bathysphere to the barge was a 3,500-foot steel cable, almost an inch thick. A solid rubber hose, carrying telephone wires and electricity for lights, provided those within the bathysphere their only contact with the outside world. Once inside the sphere, Beebe remarked upon the tight quarters it provided: "The longer we were in it, the smaller it seemed to get."

On August 15, 1934, after a series of dives, each progressively deeper, Beebe and Barton made their record-breaking descent of 3,028 feet. In that instance, the bathysphere withstood over 1,360 pounds of pressure. Beebe was not motivated by breaking records or making history, however. His passion lay in the discovery of creatures never before observed. Beebe took special pleasure in giving names to many of the newly-discovered creatures. "I saw some creature, several feet long, dart toward the window, turn sideways and--explode. At the flash, which was so strong that it illumined my face and the inner sill of the window, I saw the great red shrimp and the outpouring fluid of flame."

For Beebe, his journeys beneath the sea exposed him to "a world as strange as that of Mars." "These descents of mine beneath the sea seemed to partake of a real cosmic character," he later wrote. "First of all there was the complete and utter loneliness and isolation, a feeling wholly unlike the isolation felt when removed from fellow men by mere distance... . It was a loneliness more akin to a first venture upon the moon or Venus."

Beebe and Barton's record dive stood for 15 years. Beebe retired in 1952 and died, at age 84, ten years later.


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