Archive Gallery: Going Deep With Vintage Submersibles

The four-wheeled diving car, the world-famous Bathysphere, the farming sub, and more underwater craft from decades past

After the war ended, Piccard designed a self-propelled "bathyscaphe" capable of descending more than two miles below the surface. Unlike its predecessor, the bathyscaphe hung from an buoyancy device resembling a large balloon (Piccard was a prolific aeronaut, after all).The device contained seven aluminum cylinders filled with aviation gasoline, which was light enough to offset the weight of the steel sphere underwater. Instead of using steel balls as a ballast, crewmen on the bathyscaphe would drop iron-framed concrete blocks suspended from the buoyancy device by electromagnets. Releasing and retrieving the ballast would be as easy as pressing a remote control. Meanwhile, a surface ship would monitor the submersible's whereabouts and would use sonar emitted from the bathyscaphe to guide it back upward. Read the full story in ["Piccard's Submarine Balloon"

While touting space as the next great frontier, we tend to forget that our oceans encompass domains that might as well exist on other planets. Like outer space, the deep sea isn’t an easy place to access, but explorers reared on Jules Verne and tales of the giant squid couldn’t resist the challenge of mapping Earth’s most alien habitat. To that end, innovators like aqua-lung inventor Jacques Cousteau, Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard, and aviation pioneer Edwin Link built submersibles fit for the long and treacherous task. As Piccard once said, “Exploration is the sport of the scientist.”

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By definition, submersibles lack the autonomy, power, and size of submarines. Most of the vehicles covered in this gallery couldn’t function unless they were tethered to a surface ship. While Edwin Link dreamed of using submersible to facilitate week-long “camp outs” under the sea, these vehicles were barely equipped for comfortable living. But for the purposes of exploration, leisure, and even undersea farming, they were perfect (well, as perfect as technology back then would allow).

Appearance-wise, early submersibles shared more in common with land vehicles than military submarines. Early diving cars were squarish, had four wheels, and lacked windows. One even came with a large crane for harvesting sea sponges. This all changed in 1928 when Otis Barton convinced naturalist William Beebe that a small spherical vessel was best suited for resisting the ocean’s crushing pressure. Six years later, Beebe and Barton set a diving record when their Bathysphere descended 3,028 feet, making Beebe the first marine biologist to study deep-sea wildlife in its natural surroundings.

Naturally, the Bathysphere’s renown drove Beebe’s peers to emulate his success. Auguste Piccard, who had previously set an altitude record while ballooning, developed an interest in adapting balloon technology for undersea vehicles. The result? A spherical cabin suspended from an enormous buoyancy device containing 10,000 gallons of aviation gasoline. Piccard’s work reaped an incredible reward just two decades later, when his son Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh became the first (and so far, only) men to reach Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the world’s oceans.

Click through our gallery to read about the Bathysphere, the “U-Drive U-Boat,” and other submersibles from decades past.