80 Years Later: Beebe, Barton, and the Bathysphere

By: Julia Zeh
Edited by: Aishwarya Raja

On August 15th, 1934, William Beebe (pronounced “Beebee”, not “Beeb”) and Otis Barton went where no humans had ever gone before. Although they did not leave the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere, they did travel to a world which, until then, had been unknown to man. This past summer marked the 80th anniversary of the pair’s journey 3,028 feet below the surface of the ocean into the home of a multitude of alien species.

To give a little background, Otis Barton was an engineer pursuing a postgraduate degree at Columbia University when he came up with the idea for the bathysphere, a large metal sphere in which he and Beebe would later explore the deep sea. William Beebe was a naturalist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, had been a founding ornithologist at the Bronx Zoo, and had also attended Columbia University.

When they were kids, Barton and Beebe had created their own diving helmets to explore shallow waters. Interestingly enough, both would eventually grow up to live out their dreams of exploring deeper waters. Barton designed the bathysphere and brought it to Beebe in the hopes of finding a partner for his ocean exploration project. His first meeting with Beebe was so successful that his design for the bathysphere went on to be manufactured. Eventually, the two would squeeze into this dark, metal sphere only four feet in diameter and make history together.

Starting in 1930, the pair began diving off the coast of Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, and would continue diving for the next four years. In the summer of 1934, Beebe and Barton made a dive that would make history. The pair dove to a world record-breaking 3,028 feet, a record that would stand for 15 years until Barton would dive deeper with his own improvements on the original bathysphere.

During this incredible dive, Beebe transmitted his observations via radio to scientists above the surface. These scientists recorded everything Beebe said and sketched the various organisms he described. Beebe and Barton had entered an entirely new world with animals that no one had ever seen before. Outside the portholes of the bathysphere, they witnessed firsthand bioluminescent animals that glowed in the dark. In a paper written in 1932, Beebe described the illumination, the temperature, the pressure, and the animal life at these great depths. He devoted a great deal of his time and writing to identifying fish species he observed during his dives. In particular, Beebe became so accustomed to the different flashes of light that he could associate them with specific fish species. His team also spent time trawling and recording data. Fish from their nets were described in Beebe’s paper and were another important aspect of his identifications of various deep sea fish.

The surprisingly small hunk of metal that took Beebe and Barton down to the mysterious depths of the ocean now finds its home at the New York Aquarium, where thousands of people walk by it every day. Though it looks unimpressive among the walruses and brightly colored fish, the bathysphere marks an important development in scientific history, bringing knowledge of the deep to humans on the surface.

William Beebe and Otis Barton with their bathysphere. (From Wikipedia)
William Beebe and Otis Barton with their bathysphere. (From Wikipedia)


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