Today in Transportation History – 2008: Passing of a Deep-Sea Pioneer

Oceanographer and engineer Jacques Piccard, whose work involving underwater vehicles revolutionized deep-sea exploration, died at the age of 86 at his Lake Geneva home in Switzerland’s municipality of Cully.

Piccard was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1922. He came from a renowned Swiss family of adventurers and transportation pioneers. His father, Auguste Piccard, was an accomplished inventor and physicist who in the early 1930s set new altitude records for balloon flights. Auguste’s twin brother Jean Felix Piccard was also a record-setting high-altitude balloonist. Along with his aviation achievements, Auguste Piccard made vital contributions of his own to underwater research efforts; he created the first bathyscaphe, a deep-sea submersible, in 1948. Jacques Piccard’s own son Bertrand, continuing his family’s pioneering transportation efforts, made history in 1999 when he completed the first non-stop balloon flight around the world.

Jacques Piccard started out in a decidedly different type of career, teaching economics at the University of Geneva. In his spare time during the years between 1948 and 1955, he helped his father build bathyscaphes for underwater exploration and research. Ultimately, the younger Piccard gave up his teaching career altogether to focus on deep-sea vehicles.

Lieutenant Don Walsh, USN, and Jacques Piccard in the bathyscaphe TRIESTE. Location: Marianas Trench

As part of a U.S. Navy (USN) project in 1960, Piccard used Trieste – one of the bathyscaphes that he helped his father develop – to travel to the Challenger Deep (the deepest known section of the world’s oceans) in the Mariana Trench near Guam. Piccard was accompanied on this unprecedented dive of nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) below sea level by USN Lieutenant Don Walsh. Their journey remains the deepest dive ever undertaken by humans.

Piccard’s other accomplishments included building a total of four mid-depth submarines known as mesoscaphes. One of these vessels included the first tourist submarine, which he used to take approximately 33,000 passengers to the depths of Lake Geneva during the Swiss National Exhibition in 1964. Even when he was in his 70s, Piccard continued to take high school students deep into the lake via that submarine.

When Jacques Piccard’s died, Bertrand said that his father had given him “a sense of curiosity, a desire to mistrust dogmas and common assumptions, a belief in free will, and confidence in the face of the unknown.”

For more information about Jacques Piccard, please check out and his Associated Press obituary at

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