This year will mark the 67th anniversary of the launch of the bathyscape TRIESTE and on January 23, 2020 we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its history making dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.  From Greek words bathys=deep and scafos=ship, this deep submergence vehicle (DSV) was designed by Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard (inventor of the bathyscaphe and reknowned for daring missions to both the heights of the stratosphere and to great depths in the sea).  

The DSV was composed of two sections built by 2 separate Italian companies; the upper part was manufactured by the company Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico, in what was once the Free Territory of Trieste (on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia) now in Italy ; for which the bathyscape was named, while the pressurized sphere was built by the Acciaerie di Terni in Umbria.  The TRIESTE was launched into the Mediterranean Sea near Capri on August 26, 1953. 

The design of the TRIESTE was based on Picard’s first bathyscaphe, the FNRS-2. After it’s launch, the TRIESTE was used for several years in the Mediterranean by the French Navy and was then sold to the United States Navy in 1958 for $250,000 (equivalent to $2.2 million today).

So how did the TRIESTE come to be built in Trieste?

Jacques Piccard, Auguste’s son,  moved to Trieste to work as an economist after completing his degree in Geneva. He was then contacted by a local ship builder to consult on the bathyscape project alongside his father.  Piccard enlisted the help of local War Historian and Collector Diego de Henriquez (1909-1974), who lived through and witnessed first-hand many of the conflicts that played out in this region.  De Henriquez’s collection,containing thousands of items from the time of Austrian rule to the First and Second World Wars, and other conflicts on this soil, is now housed in the museum that carries his name, The Diego de Henriquez Museum of War for Peace. Its mission is to show the instruments of war (both the hardware and the propaganda, as well as written memoirs, documents and war footage), in an effort to educate future generations on the importance using human ingenuity for peacful ends instead of conflict.

Enrico Halupca, a local historian, writes in his book, “Il Trieste” (2019);  the bathyscaphe would not have been built in the Adriatic city without the fruitful exchange of letters between Piccard and de Henriquez. Indeed, the historian and war memorabilia collector saw the city an effective symbol for a future of peace, as it was becoming the center where a concert of nations were engaging in scientific research for the benefit of humanity, of which the “TRIESTE” would become a symbol.

In one of these letters, dated June 16, 1948, Jacques Piccard writes:

“You, Mr. de Henriquez, have often spoken to me about your plans to create a better and more peaceful world, to make the best use of the much good will on earth. How can we not think of Trieste, the Free Territory, as an ideal center for expanding a culture and an ideology for peace? Placed on the borders of two such different worlds, it could be the epicenter of a major undertaking.” 


Once completed, the TRIESTE was more than 15 m (50 ft) long. The majority of this was a series of floats filled with 85,000 litres (22,000 US gal) of gasoline, and water ballast tanks at either end of the vessel, as well as releasable iron ballasts in two conical hoppers along the bottom, fore and aft of the crew sphere. The crew occupied the 2.16 m (7.09 ft) pressure sphere, attached to the underside of the float and accessed from the deck of the vessel by a vertical shaft that penetrated the float and continued down to the sphere hatch.

The pressure sphere provided just enough room for two people and had completely independent life support systems, with a closed-circuit rebreather system similar to that used in modern spacecraft and spacesuits: oxygen was provided from pressure cylinders, and carbon dioxide was scrubbed from breathing air by being passed through canisters of soda-lime. Power was provided by batteries.

The TRIESTE departed San Diego on 5 October 1959 for Guam aboard the freighter Santa Maria to participate in Project NektonProject Nekton was the codename for a series of very shallow test dives and also deep-submergence operations in the Pacific Ocean near Guam.  Project Nekton recruited Jacques Piccard to join U.S. navy lieutenant and engineer Don Walsh, aboard the TRIESTE  for it’s crowning mission: diving to the deepest known point on the Earth’s surface, the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench on January 23, 1960.  It took them almost 5 hours to reach 35,814 feet (10,916 meters). The only other human to dive into the Mariana Trench would be James Cameron on a solo mission in March 2012 on his  DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, reaching a maximum depth of 10,908 m (35,756 ft) in 2hrs and 36 minutes.  While Cameron beat the TRIESTE’s descent speed record, TRIESTE still went deeper.  You can check out a comparison of the two vessels on this link.

Below is a film, narrated by Don Walsh describing his descent to the Challenger Deep. Along the way, the TRIESTE suffered a crack in one of the windows, but, unflappable, they pursued their goal.

From 1963, Trieste underwent many modifications and improvements and continued to be used in the Atlantic Ocean to search for the missing nuclear submarine USS Thresher. The Trieste found the wreck off the coast of New England, 2,600 m (8,400 ft) below the surface. Trieste was changed, improved and redesigned so many times that almost no original parts remain. It was transported to the Washington Navy Yard where it was exhibited along with the Krupp pressure sphere in the National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard in 1980. Its original Terni pressure sphere was incorporated into the Trieste II.

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