Otis Barton, born 1899, first began exploring under water at age 16 when he created his own diving helmet with a breathing tube. By the time he had graduated from Harvard with an engineering degree, he had plans to create a device that could explore far beyond the 365 feet of the current submarines. He was dismayed to read that William Beebe, an acclaimed, self-taught naturalist and explorer, might beat him to it with his own plans for a diving tank. Seeing the engineering flaws in Beebe’s design, Barton approached Beebe about a joint, undersea expedition using Barton's own design for a diving sphere. Beebe agreed.
The construction of what would eventually be called the Bathysphere was an engineering wonder for the 1920s. It was a steel, metal ball with a viewing window, electric lighting, air-conditioning, oxygen, a search light, and telephone communication. The sphere was submerged slowly from a boat via a giant cable by a team of assistants. The author goes into detail about the engineering requirements for the sphere to withstand their goal of 2-miles deep. Each part was manufactured by the company that specialized in that particular product. For example, the lamps came from General Electric, and the phone system from Bell Laboratories.
Beebe and Barton made their first dive in 1930, setting a record of 803 feet. Going deeper with each successive dive, they topped off their record at 3,028 feet in 1934. Because of these unprecedented depths, Beebe and Barton were the first to observe the sea beyond the reach of sunlight: “The sun’s light and colors simply drop away in order of the position of their wavelengths in the spectrum, beginning with reds at about 50 feet, then yellows at 150, and greens at 300. Finally, only the faintest hint of purplish blue remains at 700 feet.” As a result, fish which are one color in the sunlight become an entirely different color. Beebe observed a pilot fish whose “reds had gone to black, its grays to white…” (93).
Due to his frequent deep-net fishing excursions, Beebe was familiar every fish known to science at the time. Nevertheless, some of these fish he had not seen alive until his Bathysphere dives. Others he had seen, but were considered shallow-water dwellers until now. Beebe also described many new fish that haven’t been seen since. His claim that these were as-yet-undiscovered species caused much controversy by a scientific community, many of whom felt Beebe was not qualified to make such a claim.
It was through the single viewing window that Beebe witnessed these discoveries of the deep, while Barton kept an eye on the operation of the Bathysphere. Having followed and idolized Beebe’s career during his youth, working with Beebe should have been a dream come true for Barton. However, it was clear early in their working relationship that they had vastly different personalities and even goals. Barton was an adventurer desiring eventual fame; Beebe’s passion was science. “Barton was good with mechanical things and fixed the generator…but he wasn’t a patient observer of specimens. When Hollister [Beebe’s assistant] was showing him around her lab, he picked up a dragon fish she was preparing and his rough handling broke off a part of its tail. Barton laughed. Later that night, Hollister told Beebe she’d just as soon not have Barton hanging around while she was working.” Barton, likewise, was put off by Beebe’s “break-neck, dawn-to-dusk pace” and authoritative manner (56-7).
Thereafter, their relationship would be strictly a working one, and often strained at that. Barton increasingly resented being overlooked for his part in the Bathysphere creation and expeditions. By the end of their diving career, Barton’s desire for fame prompted him to exaggerate the deep sea creature they had seen. This shoddy reporting of their dives angered and dismayed Beebe, whose pop-icon status already placed him on shaky ground within the scientific community. The catalyst for their permanent separation was Barton’s shabby movie production sensationalizing the Bathysphere dives. A shark was killed and a battle raged between an octopus and a lobster. The movie, which closed in three weeks, was inaccurately credited to both Barton and Beebe and their Bathysphere associates. Beebe quickly set the record straight, publicly disassociating himself and the others from this embarrassing production.
Despite his life-long struggle to achieve scientific legitimacy, Beebe was eventually credited with having an understanding of ecology before the word was even in common use. “Beebe’s legacy as a pioneering ecologist rivals that of his contributions to ornithology, marine biology, and oceanography. The notion that an organism can only be understood when its surroundings and neighbors are taken into account was so radical during his time as to have been completely absent from most scientific discussion. The term ‘ecology’ was not in common use when, in 1909, Beebe published a twenty-page article in Zoologica entitled ‘The Ecology of the Hoatzin’ [a south American bird]…” (232). Beebe passed away at age 84.
Having far less interest in scientific recognition, Barton continued pursuing film-making until he was called to service in WWII. It was after his service that he designed the Benthoscope which took him 4,500 feet, breaking his and Beebe’s deepest record. He undertook small, naturalist projects throughout the latter years of his life. He passed in 1992 at age 92.
I found this book to be really engaging, even in some of the technical descriptions. Knowing this was accomplished in the 1920s was fascinating to me. I was disappointed by the conflict between Barton and Beebe, but that was part of the story’s pull. It was a perfect story for both readers of information and those seeking entertainment.