Underwater Dream Machine

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 Dream).

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 maximum depth.

"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.

On its 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 U-1195.

Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Alica at sea

Peter Robbins takes his newly designed submarine, the Alicia, out for a test run.

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