TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: December 26, 2006
Engineering ingenuity and one man's astounding determination are at the center
of this program, which follows American entrepreneur Peter Robbins as he
embarks on a 10-year odyssey to create his own million-dollar underwater vessel
from scratch and explore the sunken wrecks of German U-boats (see A Lifelong
The film follows the submarine's progress from design to manufacturing, a
daunting endeavor without the resources of a big shipyard or backing of the
military, and one that requires some truly innovative solutions, since parts
must be scavenged or even bought off-the-shelf at business supply stores. The
show chronicles the obstacles and successes, the sheer imagination and
motivation of Robbins and his small team in bold pursuit of building his
underwater dream machine.
Throughout his life, Peter Robbins has
cultivated a passion for submarines reminiscent of the fabled Captain Nemo of
Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (See an excerpt from this
classic novel.) As an engineer, he is fascinated by the precision of Germany's
U-boat technology; as an entrepreneur, he is intrigued by the prospect of
underwater tourism. The documentary immerses viewers in Robbins's remarkable
story, in which he risks everything to create his pet project, the
Alicia—a one-of-a-kind, privately built, six-person sub with a
panoramic view—and then tests his invention with a dive into the past to
uncover a piece of history.
"Underwater Dream Machine" delves into the fascinating details
surrounding Alicia's genesis. Assembled at a cost of $1.5 million,
Alicia's design and construction are monumentally complicated
undertakings. NOVA cameras accompany the team whose job it is to bring to life
Robbins's vision, spotlighting the inventive engineering and creative
problem-solving as the project slowly takes shape in a small warehouse.
Viewers will see how limited funds and the absence of a submarine
superstore for parts push the team members to become creative builders. The
design crew shops for seats at Office World, takes the engine from a truck and
modifies it, and repurposes 60 forklift batteries to power the sub underwater.
Unique to the project are several enormous acrylic domes, specially designed
bubble windows to provide passengers with a 180-degree view of the ocean world.
The single most costly components to produce, they are crucial to the
submarine's viability as a tourism venture but extremely difficult to perfect.
After several marred attempts, Robbins begins to fret over whether these can
ever be manufactured without flaws.
The sub's other functional features include a manganese steel hull measuring
over 16 feet long, a soda-lime gas scrubbing system that maintains oxygen
levels inside the sub, and the sliding belts employed to shift the weight of
batteries during dives. The end result is an 18-ton, two-engine vehicle devised
to dive to 1,000 feet and withstand pressure of twice that encountered at
"Underwater Dream Machine" also examines the
mounting emotional pressure on Robbins as invoices pile up and schedules are
pushed back. It also looks at the motivations driving one man to risk
bankruptcy time and again for a journey to the ocean floor.
inaugural mission, Alicia steams out of England's Plymouth Harbor on an
uncertain dive to test whether the sub is operable—an event that could
have historic implications. Thirty-nine German U-boats litter the seabed of the
English Channel. These were Hitler's most feared weapons, and the Alicia
gives Robbins the chance to try and find them. He tells NOVA how he is
captivated "by the technology, the stories of the people who worked in them,
fought in them, and died in them."
One such gripping tale is that
of U-boat veteran Rudi Wieser, who was one of the few to survive his
submarine's sinking and now shares with NOVA a vivid first-hand account of his
escape to the surface. Robbins invites the 81-year-old to join him on the
Alicia's maiden voyage—an expedition to find Wieser's sub, the