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The Waters Were “Boiling with Light”

Dagger-shaped Limacina and coiled Creseis. Sea snails viewed on 1934 dive.

Luminous dagger-shaped Limacina and coiled Creseis. Sea snails viewed on 1932 dive.

So pioneer ecologist and deep-sea diver Dr. William Beebe described the scene surrounding his diving bell as he and his partner, Otis Barton, peered into the depths a half mile below the waters near Bermuda in the fall of 1932. The dive, which reached a depth of 2,200 feet, was the deepest a human had ever ventured beneath the sea. It also marked a major broadcasting milestone thanks to the efforts of NBC’s engineers. They were able, through a considerable feat of technical wizardry, to relay the feed from Beebe’s microphone in the bathysphere to NBC’s facilities in New York while simultaneously sending it, via a specially constructed shortwave station aboard the bathysphere’s mother ship, to radio listeners in England and Europe.

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The newly-painted bathysphere in 1932.

The program is one of many, many radio shows from the 1920s and 1930s that aired, but was never recorded. Today, with the omnipresence of cell phone videos, we habitually assume that there is footage of any significant event.  Before 1934, when the invention of the lacquer disc made high-quality recording of radio broadcasts convenient, more than 95% of radio programming remained unrecorded. Luckily the NBC collection held by the Library of Congress’s Recorded Sound Section documents many lost broadcasts, and it provides vivid detail from the network’s written record of the 1932 bathysphere dive. When the NBC documents are paired with published accounts by both Beebe and Barton, a very clear picture of this historic dive emerges.

Otis Barton’s The World Beneath the Sea (New York, Crowell, 1953) gives a useful account of the team’s meeting. Beebe and Barton joined forces in the late 1920’s after Barton read a long profile of Dr. Beebe’s diving career published in The New York Times. Beebe was frustrated with his ability to reach only the meager depth of 300 feet in a diving suit and wanted a diving bell that would take him deeper. Fortuitously, Barton had been designing a craft he called the bathysphere, a huge metal ball that would be in communication with a ship above and which was capable of descending to far greater depths than the best suit of the time. The team would end up making many dives in the bathysphere including the first record-breaking dive in June of 1930 and the 1932 dive that NBC broadcast.

Dr. Beebe attempts to loosen the huge wingnut that sealed the bathysphere after the empty vehicle was sent to a depth of 3,000 feet.

Dr. Beebe attempts to loosen the huge wing nut that sealed the bathysphere after the empty vehicle was sent to a depth of 3,000 feet.

As reported in Beebe’s book Half a Mile Down (New York: Harcourt Brace Co., 1934), the troubled preparations for the 1932 dive began in earnest in August of that year. NBC’s engineering staff arrived in early September just in time for a hurricane to cause substantial delays.  Many possible broadcast dates were missed due to the capricious weather, but the team was eventually able to begin intensive testing of the bathysphere. They began with a series of dives in which  the empty bathysphere was lowered to great depths. On one of these runs, they lowered the craft to a depth of 3,000 feet, but when they began to bring it up, Beebe heard the winch’s engine straining under its weight. He quickly concluded that the vessel had filled with water, thereby becoming much heavier. His description of what happened when it was on deck and they were trying to unscrew the huge, brass wing nut securing hatch follows:

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, the bolt was torn from our hands, and the mass of heavy metal shot across the deck like a shell from a gun.  [The] brass bolt hurtled into the steel thirty feet away across the deck and sheared a half-inch notch gouged out by the harder metal.  This was followed by a solid cylinder of water, which slackened after a while to a cataract, pouring out of the hole in the door….  If I had been in the way I would have been decapitated.” (Half a Mile Down, p 154)

Jet of pressurized water shoots from bathysphere after 3,000-foot test dive.

Jet of pressurized water shoots from bathysphere after 3,000-foot test dive.

On the morning of September 22 the seas had finally calmed, and NBC was notified that the dive would proceed that day.  Announcer Ford Bond would provide a short description of the crew’s preparations at 1:30, and at 3:00 the dive itself would be broadcast. Unfortunately the NBC staff member making notes of the 1:30 broadcast stated that names and details “could not be heard or identified due to group of singers being in standby studio and making plenty of noise” (emphasis in original).  It seemed that the expedition’s troubles of early September had now infected NBC’s studios.

Clio, or flying snails seen on the 1932 dive.

Clio, or flying snails seen on the 1932 dive.

Happily, at 3:00 the unruly singers were gone and Bond’s descriptions of the dive could be heard and transcribed.  NBC’s log of the event begins when they had reached 1,700 feet, and Beebe describes what may have been a newly discovered luminous jelly fish.  In his own account he states that at 1,700 feet not a trace of light from the surface remained and that they had descended “below humanly visible light.”  At 1,750 feet the light from the bathysphere took on a “pale green to pale blue” hue, and Beebe described it as “cold and clammy.”  By 1,800 feet Barton reports that the oxygen is half gone, yet they continue the descent.  Their bravery is quickly rewarded with observations of “coiled pteropods, almost certainly Limicina” (the snails pictured at the top of this post), a hatchet fish, and unidentified “schools of fish, all brilliantly lighted.” It is at this point that the NBC log records his description of the surrounding waters as “boiling with light.”  At 2,200 feet, Beebe saw a light the size of a silver dollar explode in a shower of phosphorescence.  Only on a later dive did he identify the creature as a species of shrimp that, like an octopus, emitted a cloud when frightened, but whose defenses were far more glowingly spectacular.

Hatchet fish

Hatchet fish from the 1934 dive.

With this final observation the first broadcast ever from half a mile beneath the sea ended. Important details of the expedition would be unknown were it not for the documentation in the NBC Collection at the Library of Congress.  Beebe and Barton never again broadcast from such a depth, but they continued with their dives, and claimed to have discovered many species of fish hitherto unknown to science. Barton went on to break depth records into the 1940s.  Such exploration has continued to the present at increasingly greater depth, and, even today, scientists are  finding new forms of life below the waves. Thanks to subsequent advances in recording and video technology such events now do much to create public interest in wild life preservation, generate conservation dollars, and enlighten future researchers by their preservation at the Library of Congress.

2 Comments

  1. Constance Carter
    January 22, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks so much for highlighting William Beebe, my first boss. I was Beebe’s Girl Friday from 1959-1960 at his research station, Simla, in Trinidad. In addition to working on the social behavior of butterflies and fiddler crabs, I helped Beebe with his correspondence. He received mail from some of the more famous scientists of the day. While I would be so eager to reply to an Ernst Mayr or a George Gaylord Simpson, Beebe would thrust their letters to the back of the desk. Instead, he wanted to answer the letters of young people. He would give them observations to make and experiments to do and invite them to write back. He wanted to invest in the next generation of scientists. ST&B’s titles on science fair projects and its Everyday Mysteries site //www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/index.html encourage youngsters to research scientific topics.
    The Library’s Manuscript Division has the papers of Gloria Hollister Anable, 1916-2003 in its collections //lccn.loc.gov/mm2005085249. These chronicle her work with William Beebe, including Half Mile Down http://lccn.log.gov/34028468.

  2. Bryan Cornell
    January 22, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Wow! That’s really interesting, and thanks for the citation to the Gloria Hollister Anable papers. In our collection the NBC Master Books on microfilm contain the log of Beebe’s dive. They also have full scripts and other documentation of many of the programs on NBC from its inception to the 1980s.

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