P is for Auguste Piccard

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 24 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

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.

8 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 24th April 2019

    Everybody plays the fool. There’s no exception to the rule.

  • Trevor Rowley 24th April 2019

    Never been to Basel in Switzerland but I went to Basle in Switzerland in 1965 and it was a delightful place.

  • Ian Rhodes 24th April 2019

    There are four ways to spell it – Basilea, Basel, Bâle and Basle – depending on the language being spoken. Basel is the German spelling because it is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. (See the BBC guide)

    • Trevor Rowley 24th April 2019

      I was well aware of the technical differences, Ian. As a born and bred Non-Conformist, I shall continue the way that I always have done. When we go to Rome, we don’t say we’re going to Roma – or do we? Then again, as we both know, there’s no such place as Dukinfield – us two are from Duki!!

      • Ian Rhodes 25th April 2019

        But we do say Beijing, Kolkata etc so I suppose there are no hard and fast rules.

        Incidentally, I noted this week the death of the co-founder of the British Space Agency who also taught maths at our alma mater albeit before our time.

        • Trevor Rowley 25th April 2019

          I think he’d gone by the time I arrived.

  • Dota 25th April 2019

    Auguste Piccard was great! Thanks for spreading information about this honorable and and wise man.

  • ABC Wednesday 25th April 2019

    Well…. like many others, this person made historie in one way or the other

    Have a heartwarming en splendid ABC-Wednes-day / -week
    M e l o d y (team ABC-W)


Your email will not be published on this site, but note that this and any other personal data you choose to share is stored here. Please see the Privacy Policy for more information.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: