Share on

15 February 1954: the Odyssey of the bathyscaphe

This week, let’s do a deep dive on the exploits of two Frenchmen who pulled off the feat of descending to a depth of more than 4,000 meters in a strange device…



A slender, eccentric inventor and adventurer with an oblong head adorned with a pair of small round glasses, a frill of frizzy hair and a dark-brown moustache, does that remind you of something? Yes indeed: in addition to being the grandfather of the famous balloonist Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard was the inspiration for Professor Calculus in Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. Although he did not go to the Moon, this brilliant physicist, eager to push the boundaries of human achievement, broke the world altitude record in 1932 with a flight at 16,200 meters in a spherical cockpit suspended from a balloon which he named FNRS 1 in honor of the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Belgian (like Hergé) organization which supported him. It was in the mind of this man of extremes and contrasts that the idea developed of an underwater exploration vessel capable of reaching the lowest ocean depths, a vessel he called the  “bathyscaphe” from the Greek “bathus” (deep) and “skaphos” (boat).

This strange device, the first model of which he named… FNRS 2, consisted of a spherical cabin accommodating two or three passengers, made of a very heavy steel capable of withstanding pressure. It was suspended from a flotation tank filled with lighter-than-water gasoline to compensate for the overall weight of the device, in accordance with Archimedes’ principle. It therefore descended by gravity and was brought up again by releasing ballast, essentially in the form of iron shot. An eventful first dive took place in 1948 off the coast of Dakar, the scientist being accompanied by the academician Théodore Monod: it lasted only 15 minutes and only reached a depth of 25 meters… but necessitated around twelve hours to free the two men.



Despite this less than overwhelming success, after long negotiations, the FNRS signed an agreement with the French Navy in 1950 to build a new model in Toulon naval base, the FNRS 3, 16 meters long and 3.35 meters wide. The engineer Pierre Willm was appointed as head of the project with Lieutenant-Commander Georges Houot as captain and pilot of the device. Professor Piccard, initially a mere technical advisor, ended up abandoning ship along the way.

Born into a family from Remiremont in the Vosges, Georges Houot entered the French Naval Academy at 20 in 1933. He qualified as an officer there and served on various military vessels. In 1949, he succeeded Jacques-Yves Cousteau as captain of the army’s undersea research vessel and actively took part in scuba dives. This led to a genuine passion for deep-sea exploration which was rewarded by his participation in the FNRS 3 project.

He shared this dedication with Pierre Willm. Born in 1926, this graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique and France’s Naval Engineering School opted for a career in the Navy which allowed him, in the course of his studies, to go around the world on the cruiser Jeanne d’Arc. After graduating as an engineer, in 1951 he joined the Direction des Constructions et Armes Navales, the forerunner of today’s Naval Group, based in Toulon.

The two men began the tests in the Mediterranean in the summer of 1953, and soon succeeded in reaching a depth of 2,100 meters. They began a new campaign in early 1954 off the coast of Dakar which resulted in a dive to a depth of 4,050 meters on the 15th of February. This record was to stand for six years and was the subject of Jacques Ertaud’s film Profondeur 4050. 



From 1953 to 1960 Houot made no less than 93 dives in the FNRS 3 in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Dakar, in Portugal and in Japan. He welcomed numerous fascinated scientists on board before the FNRS 3 was decommissioned and replaced, in 1961, by an even more efficient vessel named Archimède. Houot took charge of it – as with the vessels that were to follow – and descended to a depth of 9,500 meters in it off the coast of Japan.

The bathyscaphe adventure was nevertheless destined to end in the early 1980s, when technological changes, particularly the emergence of new materials and progress in robotics, allowed the development of lighter, more maneuverable and better equipped submarines.

"Debutant scuba diver seeks downsized equipment for experiments in washbasin."– Pierre Dac



- 14 February (1876): Alexander Graham Bell files a patent for the telephone
- 14 February (1930): launch of the training ship Jeanne d'Arc in Saint-Nazaire
- 14 February (1990): the American probe Voyager 1 takes the Family Portrait, a set of photographs showing six planets of the Solar System
- 14 February (2019): Airbus announces the end of production of the A380 and the end of deliveries in 2021, twelve years after its commissioning
- 15 February (2017): India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle places 104 satellites in orbit, a world record
- 16 February (1909): the French mechanic Fernand Forest invents the spark-ignition engine 
- 16 February (1932): the French industrialist Jean Mantelet files a patent for the potato masher
- 16 February (1937): the patent for nylon is issued to the American chemist Wallace Carothers
- 17 February (1776): Baltimore is the first town in America to have natural gas street lighting
- 17 February (1878): Thomas Edison patents his cylinder phonograph and the first telephone network in the United States begins in San Francisco with 18 telephones
- 17 February (1897): the German inventor Rudolf Diesel successfully tests his engine in Augsburg
- 17 February (1938): the Scotsman John Baird gives the first demonstration of color television
- 18 February (1911): the French aviator Henri Péquet transports the first mail by plane
- 18 February (1999): the Internet service provider Free is launched in France
- 19 February (1986): launch of the first module of the Russian manned space station MIR
- 20 February (1944): Hitler loses the battle for heavy water
- 20 February (1962): first manned American space flight around the Earth by John Glen