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Best know for his exploits - incredible for that time - in the stratosphere and the ocean depths, Auguste Piccard was above all a physicist of genius. He tested all his inventions himself: the pressurized capsule and the stratospheric balloon, which opened the door to modern aviation; the bathyscaph, which settled on the ocean floor at the bottom of the Marianas Trench ; not to mention the most accurate scales and seismographs of the time. A friend of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, he was a true Renaissance man who discovered Uranium 235 and was ahead of his time with his enthusiastic involvement in nature conservation. It is no wonder that Hergé used him as the model for Professor Calculus in the Tintin series.

Auguste Piccard, born on 28 January 1884 in Basel (Switzerland), was professor of physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, and then at the University of Brussels. A friend of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, he made possible modern aviation and space exploration by inventing the pressurized cabin and the stratospheric balloon. Always testing his own inventions himself, he made the first two ascents into the stratosphere (reaching altitudes of 15,780 meters in 1931 and 16,201 meters in 1932), during which he studied cosmic rays and became the first man to witness the curvature of the earth with his own eyes. For the first time, a human being had entered the stratosphere and proved that it was possible to survive for a long time

© Hergé

The stratospheric balloon and the bathyscaph made sure he entered the history books. Tintin cartoonist Hergé gave him a place in legend, with his character Professor Calculus.

above the 5,000 meter level, considered at that time an impenetrable barrier. Since this exploit, which at the time caused as much excitement as the first Moon-walk, Auguste Piccard has figured amongst those whose inventions have changed the face of the world. The door was now open for millions of passengers to be transported swiftly at high altitude, where low air density allows for greatly reduced fuel consumption. Applying the principle of his stratospheric balloon to the exploration of the ocean depths, he invented and built a revolutionary submarine which he called a “Bathyscaph”. The first prototype allowed him to validate the concept by diving off Dakar with Théodore Monod in 1948. But bad weather damaged the buoyancy float and the submarine

© Archives Piccard

The question now is not so much whether humans can go even further afield and populate other planets, but rather how to organize things so that life on Earth becomes more worthy of living.

Auguste Piccard

had to be handed over to the French Navy. Auguste then busied himself with his son Jacques in building his second bathyscaph, the Trieste. Diving with Jacques in 1953 to a depth of 3,150 meters, he became the man of both extremes, having flown higher and dived deeper than anyone else. So it was no surprise that the cartoonist Hergé took him as the inspiration for his Professor Calculus, the archetypal brainy professor in the adventures of Tintin. In 1942, he was already preoccupied with protecting the environment and the future of natural resources, writing a pioneering article in which he called for the use of solar energy and heat pumps. He died in Lausanne on 25 March 1962 at the age of 78.

© Archives Piccard

© Archives Piccard

«My father is a scientist, you know. But during all the years he spent working in his laboratory, he always insisted on carrying out the big experiments himself, in person. He built the first stratospheric balloon to study cosmic rays. But it was also to demonstrate the potential of the airtight cabin that he had invented, in which he himself flew up into the stratosphere. He wantetd to open the door to high-altitude air navigation. This is now a reality. And we’ve opened up other possibilities too with this underwater balloon, the Bathyscaph. »

Jacques Piccard

© Archives Piccard

«It was that simple - if you want to go into unknown territory, to somewhere no-one has ever been before, you just invent a device to do it, and off you go ! That machine was indeed a balloon of sorts. An embodiment of Archimedes’ principle in all its simplicity, it sank when heavier than water, and floated upwards when lighter. The cabin protecting the observers from the water and pressure had to be heavier than the water it displaced so as to withstand the crushing pressures at great depth. So it was firmly attached to a «float», a large, light-weight tank containing gasoline, just as a balloon is filled with gas. The Trieste was filled with 28,000 gallons of gasoline, enough to keep an average car going around the earth 25 times. On the surface, empty water-ballast tanks kept the Bathyscaph afloat. To initiate the dive, water ballast was admitted to these tanks, increasing the Bathyscaph’s weight by 14 tons. To float upwards, again as in a balloon, you just needed to jettison some ballast, in the form of iron pellets held in place by electromagnets. Whatever the circumstances, you could return to the surface simply by switching off the current. So even if everything went badly wrong or the current failed, you’d just automatically «fall upwards». Only a genius could have thought up such a simple system.?»

Robert Dietz

© Archives Piccard

His twin brother, Jean-Felix, who had migrated to the USA and become a professor of chemistry, made another ascent into the stratosphere, with his wife, Jeannette. Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek was named after him. Together with Ed Yost, one of their three sons, Don, was destined in the 1960s to pioneer the development of modern hot-air ballooning.

© Archives Piccard

Auguste Piccard, Commander of the French Légion d’Honneur and the Belgian Ordre de Léopold, is most famous for his spectacular inventions, but he remains a scientific genius of universal reach. His physics thesis was on the magnetization of water. He discovered Uranium 235, which at the time he named Actinuran. An experiment he conducted aboard a balloon confirmed the validity of Einstein’s theory of relativity at a time when this was being called into question. And he built the most accurate set of scales, galvanometer and seismograph of his era. His insistence on precision was legendary, earning him the nickname «extra decimal place».

Anecdotes and questions
© Archives Piccard
FNRS 1 balloon

Exploration and scientific research balloon
Financial backer: Belgian National Scientific Research Fund (FNRS)
On the initiative of King Albert 1st of Belgium

Fiche technique en PDF

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A tribute

The Belgian Scientific Research Fund (FNRS), created at the initiative of King Albert I, financed the construction of the balloon. As a tribute, Auguste Piccard named his balloon FNRS.

Flight number 13!

At an altitude of 16,000 metres (52,493 feet), in the stratosphere, the air pressure is only a tenth of what it is at sea level and the temperature is -60°C ! Man can only survive within a pressurized cabin. The first flight into the stratosphere was the 13th balloon ascent by Auguste Piccard, who made light of the number 13, quoting his friend Einstein, “God doesn’t play dice!”

Helmets must be worn!

The German authorities tried to ban the flight. Piccard was Swiss and a member of Bern Flying Club and so obtained permission from Switzerland. Then, at the last minute, the Germans decreed that helmets must be worn. Mme Piccard improvised two with materials to hand, namely baskets and cushions, enabling Auguste Piccard and his co-pilot Paul Kipfer to obtain the necessary authorizations! During the flight, the cushions served as seats and the baskets were used for storage.

No more water on board!

The pressurized gondola was painted white on one side and black on the other. The purpose of this idea was to maintain a pleasant temperature inside the gondola both by day and by night. Unfortunately the motor designed to expose the correct side to the sun was damaged during take-off. The explorers experienced temperatures ranging from sub-zero to 40°C! In such heat, water quickly became scarce on board. Condensation collected from the walls allowed them to drink a little... Because of a valve problem, the balloon took longer to return and the press pronounced dead those bold adventurers who dared to reach for the sky...

Discovered on the Gurgl glacier!

This door handle fitted to the gondola of the FRNS was lost in 1931 soon after landing... Rediscovered by chance in 1990 by an Austrian climber, it was offered as a gift to Bertrand Piccard, then a balloonist himself, in honour of his grandfather...

A record to be broken

Asked about the risk that his records would one day be broken, Piccard replied: “I look forward to the day when other stratospheric balloons follow my example and fly to altitudes higher than those I have reached. My objective is not to break records and especially not to be a record holder, but to pave the way for new scientific research and aerial navigation...”

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QuestIons sur
le ballon FnRS

Au ProF. Auguste PIccArd
et Au ProF. JAcQues PIccArd

Prof. Auguste Piccard

  • Avez-vous fait des études sur la radioactivité ?
  • Pourquoi êtes-vous monté dans la stratosphère ?
  • Que signifient les lettres FNRS ?
  • Comment s’est passé le 1er vol dans la
    stratosphère ? 
  • Quelles ont été les conséquences pratiques de vos vols dans la stratosphère ?

Prof. Jacques Piccard

  • Avez-vous eu peur pour votre père ?
  • Comment votre père était-il habillé pour ses expéditions ?

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of the Musée du Léman, all rights reserved."

The Musée du Léman is the custodian of the Piccard family archives, the AUGUSTE AND JACQUES PICCARD BEQUEST, AND OF A BERTRAND PICCARD COLLECTION. The Museum’s permanent exhibition traces these three generations through their inventions and achievements.

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of the Musée du Léman, all rights reserved."

© Gulfstream © Gulfstream

- medias -


Le professeur piccard,

l’Explorateur de la stratosphère

la suisse à l’honneur

grâcE aux aéronautEs piccard Et KipfEr

à la conquête de la stratosphère
la science et la vie
notre glenn s’appelait