Shooting thousands of feet into the air, a Swiss scientist was on a mission. Inspired by fellow scientific titan Albert Einstein, he and his co-pilot were sealed inside a metal capsule suspended below a hydrogen balloon. Their daring and dangerous 1931 journey was a bid to become the first people to reach the stratosphere, but as the craft climbed ever higher, Auguste Piccard and his companion seemed only to be proving the perils of 20th-century air travel.
Described as a friend and confidant of Einstein, Piccard made a game-changing contribution to the field of physics. It nearly cost him his life, but against the odds he succeeded, soaring into the sky and complementing the groundbreaking theories of his contemporary. Einstein may be the more recognizable face, yet Piccard was an explorer who went on Indiana Jones-style adventures.
When not working out theories, he was exercising outdoors and taking to the water on a boat. Einstein loved to sail, though was reportedly terrible at it. Piccard, too, faced his own failings.
Piccard was born in 1884 in the city of Basel, northwest Switzerland. His father Jules worked as a professor at the local university. There doesn’t appear to be much information available about his mother, Jeanne. It was clear that Auguste and his twin brother Jean were destined for great things. Together, they would put a whole new spin on reaching for the stars.
As mentioned by Britannica, the brothers attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. Qualifying as doctors, they focused their energies on teaching. Auguste specialized in physics and Jean in chemistry.
Someone else who studied in Zürich was Albert Einstein. He too went to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he read mathematics and natural sciences. That said, he predated Piccard’s time there. Einstein had been born in 1879 in the city of Ulm, part of the state of Baden-Württemberg, close to the Bavarian border in Germany. After graduating, the young Einstein studied for a Ph.D. at the University of Zürich.
Einstein’s parents weren’t scholarly: his father Hermann was a salesman and engineer, while his mother, Pauline, was a housekeeper. All the same, they raised someone who became a legend in academic circles and around the world.
Arguably Einstein’s most famous contribution to the field was his Theory of Relativity, which overtook the ideas of hallowed figures such as Sir Isaac Newton. He began publishing the building blocks of it in the early 20th century. Even a simple explanation is enough to trigger a headache, but a relevant detail concerns how larger objects can curve or warp their surrounding space.
Piccard spotted a major curve of his own whilst engaged in the epic balloon journey. When he heard about Einstein’s theory, his imagination was fired. Boundaries were about to be broken.
While Einstein was at his desk, Piccard had his head in the clouds. A little beyond them in fact. We’re familiar with the idea of a stratosphere, the middle layer of the atmosphere that helps separate us from space. Piccard helped cement that idea for the public. He wanted to go higher than humankind has ever gone and with a specific purpose in mind: one inspired by the Theory of Relativity.
Einstein talked about gravity, but Piccard was interested in another invisible force: cosmic rays. He thought that he could get to the bottom of this phenomenon by traveling way up high.
Website BBVA Openmind notes that Piccard wanted to support Einstein’s theory by observing cosmic rays. Traveling at the speed of light, these rays are composed of atomic fragments, as mentioned by Space.com. These strike the Earth and create electrical interference. First discovered in 1912, it would be another couple of decades before Piccard set to work investigating them at what he believed to be the source: our planet’s stratosphere.
Yet in order to reach the stratosphere, Piccard needed not only propulsion, but also protection from the extreme conditions. His plan was eccentric — off the wall and extremely risky. Yet that was the life he chose.
Piccard was known for being a pioneer of sorts, even before he decided to launch his balloon and make history. As mentioned on the Bertrand Piccard website, by 1917 he was a Professor of Physics at the Federal Technical University in Zürich. Whilst in the job, he reportedly predicted the discovery of a uranium isotope, which went on to be identified by the American physicist Arthur Jeremy Dempster as Uranium-235 some 20 years later.
In 1926 he also performed a daring balloon experiment, connected to U.S. physicists Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley, whose ideas laid some of the groundwork for Einstein’s theories.
The early decades of the 20th century saw giant leaps made in the field of physics. In his lecture to the American Physical Society, Canadian-American physicist D. Allan Bromley outlined some of the strides forward. Einstein’s work, plus New Zealander Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus, received a mention. And of course, the concepts of quantum mechanics were also developed during this period.
In other words, the advancements we enjoy today happened because of individuals such as Piccard, Einstein, and their peers. They made the new century an exciting time to be a physicist.
As for Auguste’s brother Jean, he too made his mark on history. In 1937 he ventured upwards, setting a world record for the first cluster balloon flight. This trip used many inflatables instead of a single balloon, hence the “cluster.” We’ve mentioned that Auguste had encountered some difficulty during his journey six years earlier, and Jean’s was no different. At one point he had to shoot some balloons to lose altitude!
If that sounds bad, wait till you hear about Auguste’s story. The separate exploits of the Piccard brothers were a true inspiration, going on to influence adventurers both real and imagined.
Piccard’s striking appearance, comparable to the typical “mad scientist”, stuck in the mind of Georges Prosper Remi. He’s better known as Hergé, the Belgian artist who created Tintin two years before Auguste’s cosmic-ray odyssey. When drawing the hero’s friend Professor Calculus, he also drew on Piccard in order to bring the character to life. One small, or rather tall, detail which got changed was the height: Piccard stood at an intimidating 6’6”.
If Calculus had been that tall, he’d never have fitted on the page! So, Hergé opted to make his fictional counterpart more of an average height. It was a fitting tribute to the man regardless.
The Piccards went on to inspire the humans of the far future — made-up ones, of course. Gene Roddenberry was the man behind one of the world’s most enduring science-fiction franchises, Star Trek. Back in the late 1980s, though, he was busy conceiving its first sequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation. When looking for a name for its captain, he remembered his history and so Jean-Luc Picard was born.
Captain Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is still in action today, courtesy of the Paramount + streaming series. This namesake went past the stratosphere and into the realms of deep space.
Piccard shared an interest in flight with various other high-profile figures. Among those was the record-breaking Amelia Earhart, who became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic in 1928. The pair apparently met in 1933 when Piccard also spoke with aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first male pilot to go transatlantic. Earhart later disappeared, along with navigator Fred Noonan, in 1937 as they neared the end of a round-the-world flight.
Piccard refused to compare himself with Lindbergh during their exchange. According to the newspaper The New York Times, he commented, “I am a mere balloonist.” It seems he was humble as well as ambitious!
What did Piccard’s friend Einstein make of the hair-raising balloon trip to study cosmic rays in 1931? The answer to that isn’t entirely clear, but one thing’s for certain: the pair communicated frequently with each other via letter. Bertrand Piccard’s website mentions how in 1927 they exchanged thoughts and ideas, as well as advice. They also sent diagrams, so it’s likely that Piccard informed Einstein of his airborne project, complete with illustrations.
The site also notes the presence of Piccard at the Fifth Physics Council, held at the Solvay Institute in Brussels. A group photo shows him at the back. Where else would he be, given his height?
Also visible in the shot is Marie Curie, who discovered radium and polonium; Max Planck, who originated quantum theory; and Werner Heisenberg, the mind behind quantum mechanics. In fact, there were numerous galaxy brains in attendance for the event, with Einstein — another quantum contributor — among their number. No doubt he and Piccard had a catch-up, where he may have shared some of the ideas that helped make his name.
Piccard was about to send his thoughts regarding cosmic rays literally sky-high. When he did get that balloon off the ground, he made headlines and endangered his life in the attempt.
Professor Piccard undertook his incredible mission on May 27, 1931. His co-pilot was assistant Charles Kipfer. Naturally, a lot of planning was needed before take-off, with one of the chief concerns being the men’s protection. They weren’t just going to step into a basket and hope for the best. They required something sturdy, something that encased them, and also something through which they could see the outside world.
The solution came through an invention devised by Piccard. He and Kipfer would eventually enter the stratosphere inside a metal sphere. This mode of transport has an interesting history of its own.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale — FAI — looked back on Piccard’s adventure for the 90th anniversary of the flight. They described the capsule he traveled in as “a pressurized gondola that allowed the men to break the 5,000-meter barrier without wearing pressure suits.” This conjures up images of an elegant cruise into the clouds. Of course, the reality was very different. The emphasis was on practicality rather than comfort.
BBVA Openmind refers to the gondola as the first pressurized cabin of its kind. Having conceived this unusual design, how did Piccard manage to get it built and ready to reach the next layer of the atmosphere?
The Wonders of World Aviation website mentions that the capsule was hermetically sealed. This crucial detail enabled Piccard to avoid wearing a pressure suit. It also set a new standard for stratospheric journeys. Measuring 7 feet in diameter, it was made from aluminum alloy. This made the capsule light enough for the professor’s purposes and also thin. Just an eighth of an inch of metal separated him and Kipfer from the atmosphere.
The demon drink played a role in its construction. We’re not talking wild parties: as noted by BBVA Openmind, Piccard went to a beer cask factory in order to turn his ideas into a reality!
The method of sealing beer inside metallic vessels proved a perfect fit for Piccard’s plans. Meanwhile, he looked down from the sky and into the water for inspiration when it came to the capsule’s interior. Submarines keep a supply of fresh air through something called the Draeger System. Wonders of World Aviation describe how it conditions the air by “replacing the spent oxygen and extracting the carbon dioxide by a chemical process.”
That took care of business on the inside. However, Piccard had some interesting ideas when it came to the outside. The color scheme of his gondola would be an important feature.
The metallic container for Piccard and Kipfer was painted two different colors: black on one side and silver or white on the other, depending on which source you believe. Either way, Piccard had a scientific reason for the move. Because of the nature of his work, studying cosmic rays, he wanted to absorb heat on one side and reflect it on the other. Basically, this was a way of keeping the pilots warm or cool on demand.
This brings us to the next challenge for Piccard — how to make sure the capsule was facing in the right direction, so the men could benefit from this intriguing innovation.
The answer to the problem didn’t so much make Piccard’s head spin as lead him to a spinning object. Figuring a propeller would be a good way of turning the capsule in mid-air, the Professor and his team set about attaching one. With an air supply in place, plus a seemingly reliable air-conditioning system, Piccard had got the complicated bit out of the way. Next to the gondola, the balloon was surely a breeze...
Well, it sort of was. A hydrogen balloon appears straightforward enough: just pump in the gas and go. Yet the calculations needed to be made to guarantee Piccard’s dreams didn’t go off bang.
Piccard had a world-first goal in mind, which brought with it singular problems. For example, they worked out that the potentially dangerous gas would expand the higher the balloon went. To resolve this issue, only a fifth of the balloon was filled, to accommodate the gas as it changed dramatically in volume. This would also change the shape of the balloon. Images show it at ground level resembling something like a big carrot.
All being well, the yellow balloon would assume the form of a sphere as it ascended, to match the capsule beneath. Reports state that the latter weighed approximately 1,500 lbs, with a diameter of 99 feet.
Piccard and Kipfer planned to launch the balloon from the district of Augsburg, Germany. It was a populated area, though the location chosen was an aerodrome. Press attention followed as the unusually tall and eccentric-looking Piccard made the final arrangements for take-off. Thousands of people reportedly showed up to watch. The venue was also far from water, as mentioned by Wonders of World Aviation.
It wasn’t the first time he’d attempted the launch. He’d tried to ascend in September the previous year, but this had been thwarted by unsuitable weather conditions. Hopefully, the second time was the charm.
The heavens didn’t appear very kind to Piccard as the capsule was brought out. Several dents were made as the lightweight craft took the full force of nature. Still, the team managed to get everything in position. Finally, after months of patiently waiting, the experiment could begin. Piccard and Kipf were about to get up close and personal with cosmic rays and enter the record books into the bargain.
Any drama had hopefully been minimized, thanks to the intensive preparations. Yet Piccard and company were in for a shock. This would be a successful mission, but not a pleasant one.
Was there a countdown before take-off? No: because the launch happened without the professor realizing! The cutting-edge gondola was fitted with eight portholes, so the rather cramped-looking crew could see out. Writing in 2011 for British newspaper The Guardian, Killian Fox noted how Kipfer “looked out of the window while they were doing a final check and he could see chimneys going past.”
How did Piccard manage to launch in such an unexpected fashion? Blame the balloon handlers: they released the giant hydrogen carrot too early, and the men were caught unawares.
At least they were off and on their way to their exciting and unexplored destination. Piccard reportedly went to insert a vital instrument into a hole measuring 1 inch in diameter. He then went to do it again, and again. The piece wouldn’t fit, owing to damage sustained when getting the capsule in position against the wind. Piccard and Kipf realized that an important aperture was now effectively a leak in the ship.
The professor had no choice but to jam the instrument in until it fitted. It didn’t entirely plug the unexpected gap, so the men needed to improvise to avoid their mission becoming a death trap.
As the two-man crew put their thinking caps on, the pressure inside the gondola was on the plunge. Piccard then dropped some liquid oxygen on the floor. This wasn’t an accident: he did this because it would steady the pressure. The leak was patched up, though by this time almost half an hour had passed, and the balloon was 50,000 feet up. It was now time to relax, relatively speaking. Or was it?
Piccard and Kipf were unaware of the fact that the gas release valve, important for a smooth descent, had been compromised. They finally discovered this when it was too late to turn back.
The worrying news didn’t bother Piccard too much. He figured the balloon would start coming down anyway post-sundown in the lower temperatures. They couldn’t afford to play too much of a waiting game, though. After all, the men only had so much oxygen to survive on, and their supplies of water weren’t unlimited. Probably best at that point to focus on the task at hand. Time to fire up the propeller and start absorbing and reflecting heat.
Bad news again: the motor for this had packed in. To make matters worse, the black side was pointed toward the Sun. The gondola was turning into an oven of sorts, with various parts of the vessel affected by the rising heat.
Oxygen was being consumed at an alarming rate, with pressure falling once more. It must have been an agonizingly slow wait for conditions to become right for a natural descent. When the balloon began going down, another nasty surprise lay in store. The descent was so leisurely that the men calculated it would take weeks to reach solid ground. Thankfully, things sped up a bit, though nerves were no doubt thoroughly jangled.
At a close, but still hazardous, distance of approximately 12,000 feet from land, Piccard and Kipf opened the capsule’s manholes. By this stage, they were doubtless ready for a breath of fresh air!
As per The Guardian, Piccard’s intended landing site was the Adriatic. Of course, things had deviated slightly from the plan since then. The balloon was flying over the Alps, where an Austrian glacier made a chilly but still-welcome alternative. They’d endured what was surely one of the most daring and disaster-laden air voyages in history. All the same, camping on an ice block probably wasn’t what the men had imagined after hitting the deck.
BBVA Openmind mentioned that a mercury leak was among the other challenges that occurred mid-journey. It’s a miracle that any scientific work was undertaken at all, yet Piccard did have some findings to report.
The residents of a local village went to rescue the grateful balloonists from their unconventional landing spot. The gondola had to stay put initially, with the business of getting it off the glacier far from a simple one. Wonders of World Aviation highlighted the colossal group effort required to shift it. Skiers, soldiers, and people described as “peasants” worked together to retrieve what in many ways was the mission’s most crucial crew member.
Piccard had sought to travel higher than any man had ever gone and examine a force that rained down from the sky on humankind. How did he get on? The results were well and truly in.
It was revealed that Piccard and Kipf had become the first men to reach the stratosphere. Guinness World Records reported that the duo had reached a height of 51,774.934 ft. This bested the previous distance by some margin. So, it was certainly time for some back-slapping chez Piccard. Nearly two decades after his first trip in a balloon alongside brother Jean, he’d taken his place as a master of the sky.
Piccard probably saw it in less prosaic terms. He simply wanted to get up there, check out some cosmic rays, and use the findings to bolster Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Piccard’s study of cosmic rays produced some fascinating outcomes. He had been able to record and measure rays of considerable power up in the stratosphere. Yet ultimately the source of the rays would be linked to further out in space. Holding the record for having been the highest humans was welcome, but not exactly what Piccardhad signed up for. Guinness World Records quotes his words to the press.
He stated, “My aim is not to beat records, and still less to retain them, but to open up a new zone for scientific research and air navigation.”
As well as peering out at the wonders of the stratosphere, Piccard and Kipf also had an opportunity to look down at the Earth. Earlier we mentioned that Piccard had spotted his own curve: well, this was it. The spectacle of humanity’s precious blue-and-green planet, with all its countries, continents, and wide oceans. Beautiful, unforgettable, and, the scientists observed, decidedly curved in shape. That said, not everyone agreed with this view.
Some commentators have since somehow interpreted Piccard’s observations as evidence that the planet is in fact flat. It might help them, thinking that they have an eminent professor in their corner, but even so, this is surely a stretch!
He may not have cared much for accolades by the sounds of it, yet Piccard later went on to break more new ground. The polymath did this by heading underwater. With the farthest reaches of heaven already on his resume, he later wanted to explore the limits of our oceans. Just as he’d entered new territory with the invention of his hermetically-sealed gondola, he devised a new way to encounter marine environments and sea life.
Piccard unveiled a submarine that he christened the “bathyscaph.” The vehicle used gasoline instead of air to float the sub at these eye-popping depths, with large quantities of iron for added weight.
Together with his son Jacques, Auguste Piccard traveled down 10,334.65 feet. It was another entry for the record books, though this would be surpassed by Jacques in 1960. The son went not just a stage further, but several giant breaststrokes forward, achieving a depth of 35,810 feet. Not that his father was entirely absent from this achievement. Their work together had spawned the Trieste series of subs, another addition to an explorer’s arsenal.
Highest person in the world and deepest manned submarine dive: that’s an impressive set of claims to fame for one family. Yet their eye-opening achievements don’t stop there.
Piccard was the first man to enter the stratosphere, but who was the first woman? None other than the American Jeannette Riddlon-Piccard. She’d been married to Auguste’s brother Jean when she took to the skies via balloon in 1934. Three years following her brother-in-law’s triumph, she soared to a staggering height of 17,541.85 meters. The expression “stratospheric” was practically invented by the Piccards!
Guinness World Records writes that she “succeeded in notoriously male-dominated fields such as STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — and religion and, together with many other courageous women, challenged the social boundaries of the early 1900s.”
That’s not the end of the Piccards’ record-breaking story either. Jean and Jeannette’s son Don crossed the English Channel in a hot-air balloon for the first time in 1963. Don had followed in the family’s footsteps and become a pilot, offering his major contribution to the field of air travel. This was accomplished with traveling companion Ed Yost.
Yost had his own credentials to bring along for the ride. He’s credited as the man who invented the modern hot-air balloon.
If Don Piccard’s adventure sounds awe-inspiring, but maybe a little on the modest side compared to other achievements, then Auguste’s grandson Bertrand went on an even more epic journey. Teaming up with Britain’s Brian Jones, he circumnavigated the globe by balloon, the first time this feat had been completed. Like his illustrious grandfather, he encountered one or two pitfalls on the path to success. And when we say pitfalls, we mean major obstacles.
It reportedly took three tries for him to get around the world. His endeavors of 1998 and 1999 meant he’d seen out the century in style on behalf of his family.
Auguste Piccard died on March 24, 1962, at the age of 78. He passed away at home in the city of Lausanne in Switzerland. His efforts to advance the understanding of the sky and the sea made him an icon in the scientific community. Having rubbed shoulders with Einstein and Curie, he went on to reach the stratosphere just a few years later.
His name has been immortalized by Star Trek, and his image etched into the public consciousness via Tintin. And others have paid tribute in their own particular ways.
Piccard had gone to a maker of beer casks when planning his amazing airborne gondola. So maybe it’s only appropriate that the Hennessy cognac brand saluted both him and his son Jacques for their respective contributions to air travel and deep-sea exploration. A 2016 Hollywood-style commercial depicted their exploits in dramatic style. Beforehand, there had been a musical tribute. Five years earlier, an opera by Will Gregory titled Piccard in Space debuted.
Quoted by The Guardian, Gregory refers to Piccard’s trip as “a catalog of terrifying lurches from one catastrophe to another.” Yet however catastrophic the adventure, it broadened people’s horizons forever.