Underwater Dream Machine

PBS Airdate: December 26, 2006
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: Most of the surface of planet Earth is under water. What lies beneath the waves is hidden from human eyes. But, in 1869, the French science fiction author Jules Verne imagined the Nautilus, a vessel that could allow men to see the undersea world in all its glory.

Verne's novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, brought to life in this 1954 film, inspired a young Peter Robbins.

PETER ROBBINS (Entrepreneur): Jules Verne had the wonderful story of going down below the sea with his submarine and looking around. And I used to read that, when I was a child, and say, "Oh, I'd like to have one of those." And his was pretty big, but, of course, it was a submarine built on fascination.

NARRATOR: More than a century of technological developments have made a reality of Jules Verne's fantasy. Today, submarines large and small crisscross the deep ocean. But compared to the Nautilus, in one important respect, real-life subs are a bit of a disappointment: they don't have much of a view.

The big military submarines don't have any windows at all, and even a scientific mini-submersible, like the famous Alvin, has only tiny portholes.

But now Peter Robbins has decided that he will emulate Captain Nemo and build his very own deep-diving submarine with a view, one with a transparent pressure hull.

PETER ROBBINS: I think about 99,000 people have said I am crazy.

NARRATOR: For the designer, it's completely unknown territory.

PAUL MOORHOUSE (Marlin Submarines): If there is a big mistake, well, yeah.

PETER ROBBINS: This is getting critical now.

NARRATOR: And pushing the boundaries of technology can be dangerous.

RICHARD DAWSON (Marlin Submarines): If the soda lime runs out...yes, you are going to die.

PETER ROBBINS: I would recommend to anyone who wants to build a submarine don't do it. I know more about it now.

NARRATOR: The Underwater Dream Machine, right now, on NOVA.

Google is proud to support NOVA in the search for knowledge: Google.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, serving society through biomedical research and science education: HHMI.

And by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: Most children love toy trains, but not many get to play with the real thing. Businessman Peter Robbins has his own life-sized train set, an entire railway that runs 600 miles between the U.S. and Mexico.

And Peter's thousand-acre ranch in Arizona is the perfect place to play with another toy.

PETER ROBBINS: It's more fun having a tank; you can take everybody for a ride with it. Unfortunately, the gun doesn't work, but we have a lot of fun driving up and down the road with it. And it's a nice break from the office.

NARRATOR: Peter has loved making things ever since he was a boy, but he still has one unfulfilled childhood ambition. It was inspired by reading the fantasy novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Jules Verne's novel anticipated, by a century, many of the technologies of undersea exploration: the submarine itself, free divers, and even a high tech electric power plant.

But, in one respect, the novel remains pure fantasy: no large deep-diving submarine has ever been built with the panoramic windows of the Nautilus.

In fact, portholes are very rare in submarines. One of the few exceptions is the research submersible, the Alvin.

ALVIN ENGINEER : ...titanium sphere is about two inches thick, and inside it sits three people: the pilot and two observers. It gets a little thicker up by the viewports, about three and a half inches thick. The viewports are made of plastic, so they're tough and not brittle like glass would be.

NARRATOR: Alvin's titanium hull allows it to dive to prodigious depths, and, through its three small viewports, scientists can see things no human eye has ever gazed on before. But the perspective is undeniably a little restricted.

But what if the hull itself were made of the same plastic as the viewports? Then the view would be truly out of this world. That's the challenge Peter Robbins has set his British designer, Paul Moorhouse, one of the world's leading architects of small submersibles.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: I've prepared two basic designs for Pete, one was conventional and one was a more adventurous kind, with the acrylic passenger section. And we knew at the start that the conventional one would be much more easy to control, in terms of cost and timescale. But the more adventurous one was the one that Pete decided that we were going to do.

NARRATOR: Paul's design combines a conventional steel aft section with a forward pressure hull made of transparent acrylic plastic. It won't be strong enough to dive as deep as Alvin, but it should still be able to descend a thousand feet and more, deeper than many military submarines.

And Paul's design has another striking advantage over most mini-submersibles. Alvin is typical of small submarines, in that it can only be launched from a large support vessel, the Atlantis. This means that each dive costs tens of thousands of dollars. But Peter's sub, the Alicia, will have, in addition to an underwater electric motor, a long-range diesel engine, which will allow it to operate independently on the surface, like a conventional motor boat. It looks good on paper.

The historic port of Plymouth, on the south coast of England: it's from here that the Pilgrim Fathers first set sail for America. It's also home to designer Paul Moorhouse's workshop.

Peter's given Paul a budget of just $1.5 million, not much to build something as complex as a submarine. Custom-made parts are expensive, so Paul's plan is to source as many components as possible from ordinary hardware stores and auto suppliers.

In this spirit, Alicia will be powered by this modified truck engine. It's a lot cheaper than a custom-built marine motor.

PETER ROBBINS: If we had unlimited money, then it would simply be, "Build it." We have to be much more delicate and much more careful. I don't have unlimited funds.

NARRATOR: Sticking to the budget will be tricky, but Paul has handpicked a small team of multi-skilled specialists, including Richard Dawson. Richard and Paul have known each other for years, and they share another obsession.

Before working on submarines, Paul and Richard designed and made kit cars together. They are used to stretching a budget and improvising. They know that sometimes the right part can come from the unlikeliest source.

RICHARD DAWSON: Here we are.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: ...get very sweaty on that.

RICHARD DAWSON: Yeah, no fabric to absorb any...


RICHARD DAWSON: That's simple.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: This looks quite nice. So,...

RICHARD DAWSON: That one, the too fussy swivel, again.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: I think they're designed for sitting through long boring lectures, aren't they.

RICHARD DAWSON: Probably, yes.


RICHARD DAWSON: Or long boring meetings.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: So they'd have to be, yeah, they'd have to be comfortable, really.

RICHARD DAWSON: So the console will be here, and then the acrylic will be about here, in front of the pilot.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: But this one is going to have to sort of hinge up.

RICHARD DAWSON: It'll have to hinge up so it can lean deeply and then also have a locker around underneath to put these in.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Yeah, because it'd be so light you'll have to climb in.

RICHARD DAWSON: That's right.

NARRATOR: Peter knows that realizing his dream will be expensive. But he's come up with an idea that will allow him to turn a profit from his new toy. He wants to take tourists and researchers beneath the sea to explore the many shipwrecks lying off the south coast of England.

PETER ROBBINS: For £100 you might be able to go down on a short dive; for several hundred pounds, a much deeper dive. So, if you look at the wreck maps, and go back even to the 1800s, you have a wreck approximately every half mile, that's known. That does not count the uncharted wrecks, so this could be a real playground.

NARRATOR: Two months into construction and the first key component of the sub is delivered, the steel aft section.

PETER ROBBINS: I'd like to go in here.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, let's go, let's...hang on. Keep on the foot carpet, though, Pete.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Compared with most of the submarines we've built so far, this is luxury.

NARRATOR: It weighs just over two tons and will house both of the sub's engines. Alicia has been designed to dive to a thousand feet, but the steel hull should be able to withstand the enormous pressure found at twice that depth. But go any deeper, and the sub will start to feel the strain.

RICHARD DAWSON: The first thing...what will happen is that you will get dents coming in between the stiffening rings, and that will make a very loud bang, yes. But by then, I mean, if you ignored the depth gauge for so long that you've gone a 1,000 feet deeper than you should be, then there is something wrong with your navigation.

NARRATOR: Alicia is a prototype, so Paul has been free to experiment with the latest technology, but sometimes an old fashioned low tech idea is the best solution. The sub's power supply will be ordinary forklift truck batteries. A total of 60 batteries, weighing around 65 pounds each, will be connected together to generate 120 volts of power.

This super-size battery weighs 1.75 tons, which will be part of the ballast weight that enables Alicia to submerge. It's a clever use of resources, but the innovation doesn't stop there.

By incorporating an idea first used by a German designer in 1850, the team has come up with a way to harness this weight to help them control the dive. They have built a container for the batteries, which will slide, on a track, back and forth. When this is moved forward, it will bring the nose of the submarine down. To bring it up, the battery is moved in the same distance, backwards. It's an elegantly simple design.

Perhaps the biggest technological challenge of the project is the creation of the two large transparent spheres. They'll be cast from acrylic, a tough, flexible plastic. They are vital to creating a submarine with a view.

In England, where the spheres are being made, Paul Everly is in charge of overseeing every delicate step.

PAUL EVERLY (Stanley Plastics Ltd): The first stage is to manufacture the aluminum mold; the aluminum mold can be spun or fabricated from aluminum. The next stage is to pour the liquid acrylic...liquid and powder acrylic into the aluminum mold. Then it goes into the oven, which then cooks over a period of time; it can be a week maybe, maybe two. And then, from there, it comes out of the oven and goes for machining.

NARRATOR: The liquid acrylic heated to around 150 degrees farenhiet. The oven has to be pressurized, so that the acrylic doesn't boil and form bubbles. At this temperature, he small molecules of plastic need to combine into long chains. These chains form in all directions, giving the acrylic sphere great internal strength

Once the acrylic has set, the oven temperature and pressure are reduced slowly to prevent any fractures from forming. But as Peter and Paul discover when they visit the Stanley plant, so far, things are not going according to plan.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: This is the one that went wrong, then?

BRYAN GURLING (Stanley Plastics Ltd.): This was the first casting. And it had some wood in the powder, and, during the mixing, the paddle wheel must have broken it up. And you can't see it while you're casting it, because the mixture is a white, milky, treacley mixture. And that's what we end up with: all these bits of wood in there, the inclusions.

NARRATOR: Because the first casting is useless, the manufacturer is forced to try again.

PETER ROBBINS: This is a piece of work, isn't it?

NARRATOR: This time, the results are better, but Peter is nervous that the delays have put them behind schedule.

PETER ROBBINS: We need those windows this summer. This is getting critical. We don't want to lose a whole diving season and go through another year because we can't get into the water. And we have some critical obligations, which we, actually, really need to meet this summer.

NARRATOR: This is unknown territory for the manufacturers. They have never attempted something on this scale before.

PAUL EVERLY: It's the biggest casting I believe we've cast. Each section is one and a half tons of material, and the finishing, as you can see, is a hand process. There is a lot of rubbing down, a lot of polishing, and a lot of time taken, so things do take a lot longer than you can predict.

NARRATOR: It's the hottest August on record in Plymouth.

As they wait for the acrylic domes to be finished, the team focuses on assembling the whole submarine. The front section of the hull has arrived. As the sub begins to take shape, Paul needs to keep a close eye on how the weight is adding up.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: The tail, on its own, is about 4.2 tons, and then the battery is 1.75, and then we've got the centerpiece, which is 3 tons, and the skid which is 800 kilograms, so that's six...nine...ten tons of that, at the moment.

NARRATOR: Alicia needs to weigh exactly 18 tons, once she is finished. Paul is concerned that the submarine might become too heavy. It's always possible to add some more weight, but it is very difficult to take the weight off.

They need to weigh each piece, individually, before it's added to the main structure. It's heavy going for Paul's bathroom scales.

RICHARD DAWSON: ...the only way we can accurately know the weight of the finished vessel, because, obviously, a vessel has to be of a certain finished weight in order to submerge.

NARRATOR: There's a lot of pressure on Paul, as the components made to his drawings are delivered. It's a real test of his skills as a designer.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: The biggest moment for me is seeing the parts go together. So, if you made a mistake on the drawing, they're not going to fit, and you might not know that until you tried to put the parts together.

NARRATOR: But Paul has a plan, if it doesn't work out.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Leave the country quickly. No, if there is a big mistake, well, yeah, you have to see what the cheapest way of making some changes are. You'd never change the acrylic; you'd to change the steel part, the hull.

NARRATOR: Paul's accuracy will be put to the test, as the two halves of the hull are prepared for joining. It's vital that the two sections fit exactly, otherwise there could be a leak, a potential disaster.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: It'll stretch it out too much, because you'll end up with too much.

NARRATOR: It's the moment of truth. Will the two halves fit together? If the engineering is a fraction of an inch out, it's back to the drawing board.

It's a perfect fit. Eighteen months into the project, and a submarine is beginning to emerge.

With everything running smoothly, Peter takes some time out and heads to Kiel, in Germany. He's a keen amateur historian, and is particularly interested in German U-boats from World War II. This submarine has been converted into a museum and gives Peter a chance to check out the equipment that was used 60 years ago.

PETER ROBBINS: My gosh, this is something. This would have to be R.P.M., rudder position.

I'm fascinated about the technology of these submarines. I'm fascinated about the stories of the people who worked in them, fought in them, and died in them. And I find it very intriguing.

NARRATOR: Peter has also made an exciting discovery. He's tracked down a surviving crew member from a World War II U-boat, who has agreed to meet him. For Peter, it's a poignant moment. His father served in the Navy during the Second World War, and now Peter will be meeting Rudi Wieser, a veteran who fought on the other side.

RUDOLF WIESER (U-Boat Veteran): Hello.

PETER ROBBINS: Mr. Wieser, I'm Peter Robbins. Guten tag. How are you?

RUDI WIESER: Welcome here in Germany.

PETER ROBBINS: Thank you very much. I'm very happy to be here.

RUDI WIESER: Step inside, please.




RUDI WIESER: Ja, in here.

PETER ROBBINS: Oh, my gosh. Look at...holy christmas!

RUDI WIESER (translated from German by interpreter): Ich hoffe, dass gefällt ihnen (I hope you like what you see.)

PETER ROBBINS: Oh, my gosh. What a treasure you have here. And what were you doing on the boat? What was your battle station?



RUDI WIESER: Yes. Seaman for ship out, for gun.

PETER ROBBINS: Ah, what kind of gun?

RUDI WIESER: This has two centimeters.

PETER ROBBINS: Two centimeters?


PETER ROBBINS: So, antiaircraft?

RUDI WIESER: Aircraft, yes.

NARRATOR: Rudi Wieser was only 17 years old when he was drafted into the German Navy. He joined the U-1195.

On February 4, 1945, it put to sea on its first patrol. With Germany just weeks from defeat, it proved to be the last major U-boat action of the war.

RUDI WIESER: As we started, I saw a bad omen in the sky, a dark almost black cloud. I thought to myself, "I hope everything is going to be all right. I hope I'm not going to hell." But then we put that behind us and decided that the only thing to do was to keep on going forward and hope we had some adventures, too.

NARRATOR: The U-1195 had one mission: to attack the allied supply lines from England to France.

Before long, they had sunk two prime targets, an American supply ship and a French troop transporter, carrying nearly 300 men. All but one were rescued.

The Allies sent six destroyers to hunt down Rudi's submarine. Their only hope to avoid detection was to sit on the bottom and try to hide in complete silence.

The destroyers, overhead, launched a massive barrage of depth charges. Under such an assault, it wasn't long before Rudi's sub was hit. Huge holes were ripped in the hull, releasing a telltale oil slick.

Thirty meters below, the crew had just one chance of survival. They deliberately opened the valves to flood the sub. As the hull filled up with water the pressure equalized and they were finally able to open the hatch.

Taking a last gulp of air, Rudi made a desperate attempt to reach the surface. He was lucky, but 31 of his shipmates didn't make it.

PETER ROBBINS: Would you like to come in my submarine?


PETER ROBBINS: Will you bring some beer?


PETER ROBBINS: You got a deal.

RUDI WIESER: Very good.

PETER ROBBINS: We'll do that.

NARRATOR: But before Alicia can take any passengers, it must pass a number of exacting tests set by the American Bureau of Shipping.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: The American Bureau of Shipping rules are written for large oceangoing ships, like super tankers. And we have to comply with the same rules, when it comes to things like the propeller shaft. So this is not like a normal boat propeller shaft, it's a scaled down super tanker propeller shaft. It's much thicker, much stronger than is necessary.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Is it too big to go in the hull?

RICHARD DAWSON: Yeah. Oh, here, here we go...going in.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Is there...? Oh, that's great. That's great.

NARRATOR: Back in the factory, work continues on making the acrylic sections of the sub. But the manufacturers have met with another problem. During the casting of one of the spheres, small bubbles appeared, a few of which are too close together, potentially weakening the structure. The bubbles are cut out, the holes refilled with new acrylic, and the sphere baked again.

Now, it's the moment of truth. Have the repairs worked?

But a closer inspection reveals a shattering discovery, there's another, much larger, cavity. Peter is called back from Germany for an emergency meeting.

This new defect is just too big to meet the strict safety standards set by the A.B.S. It's a frustrating setback.

PAUL EVERLY: We've done many repairs on acrylic casting and you can do it once and get it right, you can do it 10 times and it can be wrong. It's just a, it's a black art, and it's a pretty unique process. There is only a couple of companies in the country that can actually do it. And we've done it several times and had success, and this time, unfortunately, it's just not worked. So we're having to repair it, yet again.

PETER ROBBINS: We are going to determine if we try for third repair or whether we scrap the sphere as it is and start all over new, which will delay the project another two or three months. That'll mean almost a year in delay of casting these acrylic windows.

NARRATOR: The transparent passenger hull may be causing problems, but it's also attracting a lot of interest. Back in Plymouth, it's an exciting day for the team. Don Walsh is one of the world's most famous submariners and has always been one of Paul's heroes. Don had heard about the Alicia's daring design and was keen to come and see it for himself.

CAPTAIN DON WALSH (U.S. Navy, Retired): To their credit, they're willing to take the risk.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: That's right.

DON WALSH: Even though the acrylic isn't here, you could certainly get the idea from this framework. You certainly can imagine the view you'll get.

NARRATOR: Don spent 27 years in the U.S. Navy and has dived deeper than anyone in the world. In 1960, he commanded the Trieste submarine and descended nearly seven miles to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It took Don and his co-pilot five hours to reach the seabed. Here, the crushing pressure is more than a thousand times greater than at sea level. Don later received an award from President Eisenhower for this record-setting dive, one that has never been beaten.

DON WALSH: You have to love what you are doing and take some pride and joy in offering a way to introduce the oceans to many people who never dreamt of being able to get down into the deep ocean, see what's going on there.

NARRATOR: The most crucial equipment of any submarine, the air filtering system, is ready for installation. Air exhaled by the passengers is sucked through soda lime granules to remove the carbon dioxide. If the level of carbon dioxide rises too high, the crew will suffocate.

But the granules can only absorb so much, so the pilot has to make sure that there is enough on board and that it is constantly monitored.

RICHARD DAWSON: There's 10 kilograms in here, and that will last seven people a good 12 hours, which is far longer than any mission time that we plan. If the soda lime runs out, then that is it; you are generating carbon dioxide, there is no way of removing it, and so, yes, you are going to die. But we carry a lot on board, which will give us nearly a week under water, and, quite frankly, if something isn't done in a week, we'll probably die of boredom anyway.

NARRATOR: But Alicia has been designed with a failsafe mechanism. If all systems break down, an emergency weight can be dropped, making her buoyant so she will rise to the surface.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: When this piston rod pushes out, the drop weight goes forward, and it falls off these little ledges here. It just drops off and falls away, so it's a very important function. And it's to be operated by hand pump inside the submarine. So even if you lose power and lose compressed air and everything, you've always got this hand pump, and you just pump away, and then you'll lose about 500 kilos of weight, as you drop this weight.

NARRATOR: The inspector from the American Bureau of Shipping has returned to the acrylic factory. The spheres have been repaired and are ready for the final assessment.

He's a stickler for the rules, but with good reason.

RICHARD BLOOM (American Bureau of Shipping): My prime task is to ensure that the product meets the requirements of all regulations that are involved. One could not imagine the consequences of a failure.

NARRATOR: There is no guarantee that the repairs will measure up to the A.B.S.'s exacting standards. If the viewport is failed again, the whole design might have to be abandoned.

RICHARD BLOOM: We'll do a small calculation on that.

NARRATOR: Alicia's future is hanging in the balance. After an agonizing wait, it's time for the verdict.

RICHARD BLOOM: Okay, then. This is the entry in the book. That seems to be okay. Thank you very much, gentlemen.

NARRATOR: After more than a year's delay, the team can finally assemble the spheres.

For the first time since he conceived the design, Paul can now get a real sense of what the finished sub will be like.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: You can never really tell from your design what it's going to feel like to be inside this space. And it's certainly as good as I'd hoped.

NARRATOR: But will Paul's bold design stand the pressure? There is only one safe way to find out, and it means a long journey north, to Aberdeen in Scotland. But the truck carrying the submarine breaks down on the way. The journey takes three agonizing days, in frigid temperatures.

PETER ROBBINS: Ohhh! It's funny, I can't tell if the water is hot or cold.

NARRATOR: They've traveled north to use Britain's largest pressure chamber, which will simulate the conditions on a deep dive. If the submarine can't resist the high pressure in the chamber, there won't be any warning sign, it will just suddenly implode. It's up to Peter to decide how much risk he's willing to take with his investment.

The inspector from the American Bureau of Shipping has come to oversee the pressure test. To pass, the hull must withstand 375 meters depth; more is a bonus.

Alicia has passed. Now, it's Peter who can't take the pressure and calls a halt.

RICHARD DAWSON: We have a submarine, I hope.

PETER ROBBINS: Here's your cigar. Now, I knew that none of you could smoke, so this is a chocolate-filled cigar.

NARRATOR: With Alicia back in Plymouth, the team can finally concentrate on fitting the sub's outer shell. Everything has been handcrafted in fiberglass, even the 4-meter long conning tower.

It has taken three years, but finally everything is coming together.

PETER ROBBINS: I just want to say something now...have a bit of a tear in my minute...took three generations of capital from my family to make this happen, and a conversation with Paul 15 years ago. And, I just want to say how great everything went today and how neat it is to go to the next stage, and thank my partner for being square on it. Richard, John, thank you guys, a lot. Pony up, let's go.

NARRATOR: Alicia is on her way to her first sea trials. The team have decided on a discreet first launch in one of the most secure places in England, Plymouth's Royal Navy dockyard, home to half of the British nuclear submarine fleet.

It's the moment of truth for the Alicia, and a tense moment for Paul.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: I am very happy, the way it is floating at the moment, very happy indeed.

NARRATOR: For Peter, it's exciting to see his dream come a step closer.

PETER ROBBINS: There is not a sub in the world that's got this kind of viewing for what we're doing, not one in the world that can do what this can do. This is just phenomenal.

NARRATOR: But an unexpected problem with the main ballast tanks is making the Alicia list to one side.

The ballast system is crucial. On the surface, the ballast tanks are filled with compressed air. To dive, the tanks are flooded with water and the submarine begins to sink. But at the moment, they are filling up unevenly, making the Alicia unstable.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: The main thing is we have got to get the ballast tanks blowing evenly, so we've got to rethink the way we pipe them. But that's not too difficult, I don't think.

NARRATOR: It's only a short-term fix, but they add some weight to help with the balance, so that they can carry on with the test dive.

RICHARD DAWSON: Okay, I'm moving away, now, from the pontoon.

NARRATOR: With all the systems checked, everything is set for the Alicia's first dive.

RICHARD DAWSON: The water's slid forward in the V.B.T.s. I'm getting an alarm signal at the moment. Now I've got some water coming in from somewhere, stand by.

NARRATOR: It's the worst thing that could happen. They have to abort the dive and investigate where the leak is coming from. Richard rules out the malfunctioning valves, which gave them problems earlier.

RICHARD DAWSON: It's not a pipe connection, it's blowing up through's got stuck or something. Yeah.

NARRATOR: They have no idea what the problem is.

RICHARD DAWSON: We had an air leak on one of the solenoid valves, but I have no idea...We took it apart, and the leak stopped, so...

NARRATOR: With the first dive abandoned, it's back to the workshop.

After some minor repairs, the team is ready to try again. Peter has flown in Patrick Lahey, one of the world's most experienced submariners. But even he has never seen anything like Alicia.

PATRICK LAHEY (Submarine Pilot): The first thing that is most obvious to anybody is the view. I mean, there is nothing like it in the world. This is the only submarine that has a completely transparent pressure hull that can accommodate this many people.

NARRATOR: Patrick's main job will be to train Richard. Although he knows the sub inside- out, Richard has little experience of what to do when something goes wrong. But Patrick has seen it all.

PATRICK LAHEY: I've had flooding situations, I've had fires. And it's a case of you practice the drills, you get familiar with what you do, and then your reactions are not emotional, they're practiced.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: You are clear to run your thrusters, over.

NARRATOR: The thrusters, on top of the deck, help the Alicia make a controlled descent.

Richard's first task is to take the sub smoothly to the seabed.

RICHARD DAWSON: She is remarkably easy to handle, first dive and we did not hit the seabed with a thump, which I was expecting to. And I managed to control her very easily.

NARRATOR: Several of these short dives will be needed before Alicia can be taken to sea, but Patrick is pleased with Richard's piloting.

PATRICK LAHEY: Richard is a very level-headed person; he has the right demeanor for the position of pilot.

NARRATOR: With the shore tests completed, it's time for the first open water trials.

PATRICK LAHEY: According to the weather reports, conditions are favorable on the site for diving today. One thing that we all have to bear in mind is that today is Alicia's first real operational day at sea, so we don't really know exactly what's going to happen, we don't know what problems we might have. We have to all be prepared for the possibility that we may have to turn around and head back in, if things don't go the way we would like them to.

NARRATOR: Diving in the open sea is dangerous for a prototype sub, so Patrick has decided that the crew should be kept to a minimum. Peter has given up his place to Paul.

PETER ROBBINS: I may be the owner, but I've got to do what I'm told. Besides, I want Paul to go down first. I mean, he built it.

NARRATOR: With Richard at the helm, Alicia heads out to open water. Peter and the rest of the team follow in two support vessels.

The weather is turning nasty, so Patrick wastes no time and starts his briefing.

PATRICK LAHEY: You'd normally show people how to bring the submarine back to the surface. We'll always make sure our vents are secured after about 10 meters down, and then all you have to do is open the blow valves up in the front there; bring the submarine up. Hand mics are here for communicating with the surface. And then the last thing we always talk to people about is how to use the emergency breathing system, but you are familiar with all that, so we are good to go. I am going to call surface, tell them our hatch is secured, life support systems are running, all that good stuff. I am getting us set up at 15:09.

Safety briefing is complete; we are standing by for clearance to dive.

NARRATOR: Then Paul, Richard and Patrick are on their way.

PATRICK LAHEY: Chase, chase, depth 10 meters, one zero meters, heading 120 degrees, vents secured.

NARRATOR: Peter misses out on the important moment. He's feeling seasick.

TEAM MEMBER: He's from Arizona; he's not used to the sea.

NARRATOR: Twenty five meters below, the crew has reached the seabed.

PATRICK LAHEY: Okay, that looks like a pretty smooth bottom. Chase, Alicia, depth 25 meters, 25 meters.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Roger, Alicia. How do you read me? Over.

NARRATOR: There seems to be something wrong with the underwater communications.

PATRICK LAHEY: You are unreadable, unreadable.

NARRATOR: The surface boat has now lost all contact with Alicia. Up on the support boat they have realized that the problem is a faulty transducer, so they improvise a repair.

Alicia's crew seem unconcerned.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: Give me your best smile.

NARRATOR: The cutting edge broomstick technology seems to have worked.

PATRICK LAHEY: I have you readable; weak, but readable.

NARRATOR: For Paul, taking the risk with such a revolutionary design now seems worth all the extra time and effort.

PAUL MOORHOUSE: You can see so close to the windows. It's almost like you could stick your hand out and pick up a piece of gravel.

NARRATOR: After one hour, they resurface. Despite his seasickness, Peter looks forward to his chance to dive on Alicia.

With the dive a success, Patrick's job is done.

Soon after the first test dive, Peter invites veteran submariner Rudi Wieser to take a ride with him in the English Channel.

PETER ROBBINS: I can show you. This is for the engine, for the diesel. We have two air systems: this is emergency, this is normal.

NARRATOR: The diving depth is what impresses Rudi the most.

PETER ROBBINS: We can go to 305 meters.


PETER ROBBINS: That's our depth, our maximum, down with the octopuses.

NARRATOR: Peter's hoping to find one of the boats that Rudi encountered during his desperate battle in the channel.

PETER ROBBINS: Alicia to chase, how copy on the VHF?

NARRATOR: Conditions in the channel are murky.

RICHARD DAWSON: There you go. There is the Eagan Layne. Look! See it?

PETER ROBBINS: Alicia to chase, we have the Eagan Layne bow in sight. We have the Eagan Layne bow in sight, over.

NARRATOR: The James Eagan Layne was a huge supply ship. She weighed 7,000 tons and was 120 meters long. Yet, she never survived her maiden voyage.

RICHARD DAWSON: There you go; there's one you did earlier, yes.

NARRATOR: On the 21st of March, 1945, Rudi Wieser's U-boat torpedoed the Eagan Layne, just before she reached Plymouth. Fortunately there were no casualties.

They're back on the surface. The first dive is over, and Peter is delighted.

PETER ROBBINS: Dynamite dive, really nice, really nice, perfect, just beautiful.

NARRATOR: It's taken three years and nearly $2,000,000, but Peter's finally realized his childhood ambition.

PETER ROBBINS: Would I do it again? Yeah, I'd do it again. You only live life once, I think. I don't know if they have submarines in heaven or not, so I'm covering my bet.

On NOVA's Underwater Dream Machine Web site, see where technology and money can take you, from the Titanic to the International Space Station. Find it on

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Underwater Dream Machine

Directed by
Andreas Sawall

Produced by
Sarah Kinsella

Narrated by
Neil Ross

Edited by
Jenn Feray
James Curry

Andreas Bremer
Daniel Petry
Jürgen Friess

Underwater Camera
Jan Hinrich Hoffmann
Tom Baumgarten

Sound Recordists
David Kammerer
Andrea Geiselhart

Clear Cut Pictures
Rossi Multimedia

Production Team Context TV
Philip Wahl
Evelyn Wenzel
Anna von Wagner

Production Manager
Selina Kay

Online Editor and Colorist
James Curry

Audio Mix
Greg Gettens

Original Music
Judith Edelman

Archival Material
BBC Motion Gallery
US National Archives and Records Administration
Footage from 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Executive Producer Context TV
Daniel Petry

Executive Producers Dox Productions
Duncan Copp
David Sington

NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.

NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.

Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring

Post Production Online Editor
Spencer Gentry

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Melissa Salpietra

NOVA Administrator
Ashley King

Eileen Campion
Anna Lowi
Yumi Huh
Lindsay de la Rigaudiere

Gaia Remerowski

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Manager
Carla Raimer

Raphael Nemes

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Assistant Editor
Alex Kreuter

Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special ProjectS
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A DOX Production for NOVA, WGBH/Boston

© 2006 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved


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