P is for Auguste Piccard

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!

Auguste PiccardAuguste Piccard was the perfect portrait of the potty professor with his six foot six gangly frame, bulging forehead, receding hair, a white lab coat and round spectacles.

And he proved it too with inventions that set records for exploring both height and depth and by being the paradigm for two peerless fictional characters. I’ll bet you can guess at least one of them straight away.

Piccard was one of twin boys born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1884. (His brother Jean-Felix was another famous scientist and pioneer, but this isn’t his story.)

Their father was Jules Piccard, professor of chemistry so it is no surprise that the twins followed in his academic footsteps. Auguste Piccard attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and became a professor of physics at the Free University of Brussels in 1922.

Piccard became a member of the Solvay Conference, a regular gathering of the finest scientific minds to explore the issues of the moment in physics and chemistry, and it was there that he met Albert Einstein which started Piccard’s interest in the upper atmosphere and the solar radiation that might substantiate Einstein’s theories.

Piccard and his team

Piccard and his team

To this end he designed and built a spherical, pressurised aluminium gondola to be carried by a hydrogen-filled balloon that would allow ascent to great altitude without the need for a pressure suit.

Piccard made his first flight in May 1931 from Augsburg in Germany, reaching an altitude of 51,788 feet when he was able to measure the cosmic rays and gather much useful data. In all, he made 27 flights in his pressurised cabin and set a record when he reached 75,459 feet, a little over fourteen miles.

By the mid-1930s, Piccard realised that with a little modification, the sphere he used to reach such heights could also be used to withstand the pressure of deep sea exploration and so he designed and created the first bathyscaphe.

Piccard plays the fool

Piccard plays the fool

The project was interrupted by the outbreak of WWII, but he picked it up again in 1945. The bubble-shaped cockpit that maintained normal air pressure inside, while above it incorporated tanks of petrol, not as fuel but for buoyancy. Loaded down with tons of iron, it opened up the possibility of undersea exploration.

2011 saw the premiere of ‘Piccard in Space’, an opera based on the scientist’s achievements written by Will Gregory who said this of Piccard:

He was a gentleman scientist, a polymath, but he was also prepared to get into this tiny thing and shoot up into the stratosphere. Scientists don’t do those sort of things these days. They don’t theorise, design, build and then execute the whole operation themselves. It’s a bit like Einstein getting in Apollo 13 or something – quite unheard of – and I suspect those days are over.

But I mentioned at the beginning that you probably recognise Piccard, or a caricature of him, as the model for Professor Cuthbert Calculus from The Adventures of Tin Tin.

Professor CalculusHergé knew the unmistakable figure of Piccard from the streets of Brussels and though he used him as the basis for Calculus, he admitted to having made some adjustments.

‘Calculus is a reduced scale Piccard, as the real chap was very tall.’ he said. ‘He had an interminable neck that sprouted from a collar that was much too large… I made Calculus a mini-Piccard, otherwise I would have had to enlarge the frames of the cartoon strip.’

The other fictional reference may not be immediately obvious, but Gene Roddenberry named Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek after one or both of the twins.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Carver 30th October 2013

    Very interesting post about a fascinating person. Carver ABC Wed. Team

  • rhymeswithplague 30th October 2013

    Yes, indeed! I am old enough to remember some of his exploits. It’s like ancient history now, I suppose.

  • Joy 30th October 2013

    What a guy. It seems both an influence science and art.
    Joy – ABC Team

  • Potty Pudding 31st October 2013

    I like the idea of people who don’t just theorise – they explore their ideas in practice – live them. Perhaps our politicians could follow suit. Jeremy Hunt working as a hospital porter in a busy A&E, Michael Gove teaching Citizenship in an inner city “academy”, Nick Clegg licking arses in a mortuary. Yes Auguste Piccard could show these smug spectators the way.


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