Science & Technology

September 19, 1957 – Bathyscaphe Treiste Reaches Record Depth

Bathyscaphe Trieste


On September 19, 1957, a curious creature containing iron pellets, gasoline, oxygen, and two humanoids visited the aquatic denizens of the deep, two miles below the gentle waves and warm breezes of the Mediterranean Sea.  The mysterious mechanical interloper was the bathyscaphe Trieste, a deep-submergence vehicle originally conceived, designed, and constructed by Swiss physicist and inventor August Piccard, on a successful voyage to set a new diving depth record.  Piccard coined the term “bathyscaphe” from two Greek words: “bathos”, meaning “deep”; and “scaphos”, meaning “ship”.  The bathyscaphe consisted of a float chamber filled with gasoline for buoyancy (gasoline is less dense than water, and naturally wants to rise to the water’s surface) and a pressure chamber for two crew members.  Piccard’s first bathyscaphe, the FNRS-2 had been constructed in 1947.  Using what he learned from his early explorations, Piccard then designed the Trieste, which was built in 1952 in the town of Trieste, Italy, with the support of many local individuals, companies and institutions.

Between 1953 and October of 1957, the Trieste completed 48 dives in the Mediterranean.  Its success attracted the interest of the United States Office of Naval Research, which purchased the Trieste and assigned it to the Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego, California.

Trieste Diagram by Ralph Sutherland

The Trieste’s float chambers were more than 50 feet long and contained 22,500 gallons of gasoline.  Water ballast tanks were added at each end of the float section.  The crew’s pressure chamber was slightly over 7 feet long and contained completely independent life-support systems, including a rebreather system with oxygen tanks and a carbon dioxide scrubber.  The bathyscaphe was battery-powered and operated by the French Navy during its Mediterranean adventures.  Nine tons of magnetic iron pellets in ballast silos, and an electromagnetic control system, allowed the Trieste to descend and ascend.  Crew members observed the underwater scenery by one cone-shaped window of acrylic glass with illumination by quartz arc-light bulbs outside the ship.  Everything on the Trieste had to be designed to withstand the over 1000 atmospheres of pressure found at the extreme depths Piccard wanted to explore.

Image Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

September 12, 1957 – [Subliminal] Messages

Popcorn and Coca-Cola. [1957 Time Capsule].

On September 12, 1957 [1957 Time Capsule], market researcher James Vicary revealed at a press conference in New York City that 45,699 movie-going guinea pigs [1957 Time Capsule] had been recently exposed to what sounded suspiciously to alarmed Americans like thought control.  The Wall Street Journal reported the following on Vicary’s presentation about his new subliminal [1957 Time Capsule] projection technology:

“This story may sound as though a flying saucer [1957 Time Capsule] is lurking behind the scenes, but you can rest assured that all characters in this drama are real.  The tale begins some months ago when several closed-mouthed men walked into a New Jersey motion picture house [1957 Time Capsule] and fitted a strange mechanism to the film projector.  Over the next six weeks, as 45,699 unsuspecting movie goers watched Hollywood’s newest epics [1957 Time Capsule],  a strange thing reportedly occurred.  Out of the blue, it is claimed, patrons started deserting their seats and crowding in the lobby.  Sales of Coca-Cola [1957 Time Capsule] reportedly rose 18.1% and popcorn purchases zoomed 57.7% over the theater’s usual sales.  These claims – and the explanation of this purported phenomenon – were made at a press conference yesterday afternoon [1957 Time Capsule] by executives of a new firm called Subliminal Projection Co., Inc.  The movie patrons had been subjected to ‘invisible advertising’ that by-passed their conscious [1957 Time Capsule] and assertedly struck deep into their sub-conscious.  The trick was accomplished by flashing commercials past the viewers’ eyes so rapidly [1957 Time Capsule] that viewers were unaware they had seen them.  The ads, which were flashed every five seconds or so, simply urged the audience to eat popcorn [1957 Time Capsule] and drink Coca-Cola, and they were projected during the theater’s regular movie program.”

Vicary claimed that subliminal advertising [1957 Time Capsule] would revolutionize the advertising industry – which was moving rapidly to take advantage [1957 Time Capsule] of the growing popularity of television – by promoting products directly to the drives, needs [1957 Time Capsule] and desires of the unconscious mind.  The cool, rational processes of conscious recognition and evaluation [1957 Time Capsule] would be disabled.  The public was worried: were they about to become [1957 Time Capsule] the victims of brainwashing?

Image Credit: Faux Food Diner

August 31, 1957 – Plumbbob’s “Smoky” Leaves a Troubled Legacy

On August 31, 1957, Operation Plumbob’s “Smoky” test flamed into the sky over busy Yucca Flat, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.  Area 8 of the Nevada Test Site played host that day to the third test of the UCRL TX-41 –  a three-stage, thermonuclear weapon design.  After two previous tests of 3.5 and 5.0 megatons (Redwing Zuni and Tewa), “Smoky” was probably a partial, two-stage test with a decreased yield of 45-50 kilotons.  The MK-41 nuclear device eventually developed from the TX-41 test series became the largest-yield nuclear weapon ever developed or deployed by the United States.  Its yield of 25 megatons was also the highest yield-to-weight ratio for a US nuclear weapon, at about 6 kilotons per kilogram.

Smoky became famous – notorious, even – for its tragic consequences.   Over three thousand servicemen had been in the vicinity of ground zero shortly after the blast, practicing maneuvers as part of the Desert Rock exercise.  Their exposure to radiation from the test eventually became the subject of a Congressional investigation and epidemiological evaluation.  A 1980 study found statistically significant increases in leukemia cases among the 3224 participants.  Instead of the expected four cases, ten were found.

August 27, 1957 – Underground Nuclear Test Launches Giant “Manhole Cover”

On August 27, 1957, a four-inch-thick steel plate weighing several hundred pounds shot into the stratosphere over the Nevada Test Site, never to be seen again.  Operation Plumbbob’s Pascal-B was an underground test of a nuclear safety device designed to limit the amount of destructive energy released by a bomb in the event of an accidental detonation.  Buried at the bottom of a 500-foot shaft and sealed with an over-2-ton plug of cement, Pascal-B generated sufficient energy – the equivalent of a few hundred tons of dynamite – to vaporize the concrete plug.  The concrete vapor expanded and raced up the shaft, propelling a massive steel plate sealing the shaft opening into the sky.

According to the February 1992 issue of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine, astrophysicist Bob Brownlee was in charge of designing the Pascal-B test.  “He knew the lid [steel plate] would be blown off; he didn’t know exactly how fast.  High-speed cameras caught the giant manhole cover as it began its unscheduled flight into history.  Based on his calculations and the evidence from the cameras, Brownlee estimated that the steel plate was traveling at a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth’s gravity when it soared into the flawless blue Nevada sky.  ‘We never found it.  It was gone,’ Brownlee says, a touch of awe in his voice almost 35 years later”.

Even though the eventual whereabouts of the steel plate forever remained a mystery, it’s unlikely, according to the laws of physics and the character of the Earth’s atmosphere, that the plate headed into outer space.  Unable to maintain escape velocity on its own (not being equipped with mini-rocket engines), it would not retain sufficient speed to pass completely through the layers of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases surrounding our planet.  Most likely it either vaporized in the explosion, disintegrated in the atmosphere, or landed somewhere far from the Nevada Test Site.  It’s also possible it became some innocent person’s “close encounter”, or enormous fish story.

August 21, 1957 – The Russians Launch the R-7

August 21, 1957 Launch of the R-7

On August 21, 1957, the Soviet Union carried out the first successful test launch of their prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7.  The two-stage, 112-foot-long, oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and carried a dummy warhead 3500 miles.  The Soviets described the R-7 as a “super long-distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket.”  It was the “super long-distance” part that alarmed the United States, and the world at large, during the Cold War era of the 1950s.  Russian R-7 ICBMs were intended ultimately to be “tipped” with nuclear devices – weapons – capable of delivering the equivalent of almost 3 megatons of TNT.

At this time, the United States’ ICBM program was producing nothing but “spectacular failures.”  Initially, each branch of the armed services worked independently and in competition with one another to develop an American ICBM.  The success of the R-7, a version of which was used in October to launch the Sputnik satellite, redoubled the efforts of American scientists and military to win the Race to Space and prevent the spread of International Communism.  In the late fifties, the Atlas program began to make significant progress toward parity with the Russians.  In July of 1959, the first fully-operational Atlas ICBM lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Image Credit: RKK Energia &

August 19, 1957 – Dr. David Simons Sets New Altitude Record

On August 19, 1957, Air Force physician and space flight researcher Dr. David Simons reached a record altitude of 102,000 feet (over 19 miles) above the earth in a telephone-booth-sized, air-conditioned capsule suspended from a helium balloon.  Dr. Simons had conducted earlier experiments with monkeys, mice, guinea pigs, and human volunteers to investigate reactions to weightlessness and the hazards of exposure to primary cosmic radiation.  But in August of 1957, as part of the Air Force’s Man High Project, it was Simons’ turn to experience the world from a vantage point beyond 99% of the earth’s atmosphere.  Life published an article about the historic flight, “A Journey No Man Had Taken,” during which Dr. Simons conducted  25 experiments armed with cameras, a 5-inch telescope, a tape recorder, a microphone taped to his chest, and photographic cosmic ray bombardment track plates taped to his arms and chest.  He observed the moon and Venus, aurora borealis and cloud formations.  He stated that his most important finding was that with the right equipment, humans could survive at the very edge of space.

Simons took off from a deep, open-pit iron mine in Crosby, Minnesota and landed, 32 hours and 10 minutes later, in a field in South Dakota.  In his Life article, Dr. Simons described seeing a “purplish-black” sky, etched with thin bands of blue.  Thin shells of dust “hovered over the Earth like a succession of halos.”  He later wrote a book, with Don A. Schanche, about his experiences, titled “Man High.”  A sign he posted on the inside of his capsule warned, “Have all the fun you want, but don’t jump up and down.”

In the days after the “high point” of his career, as his commanding officer Col. John Paul Stapp jokingly put it, Dr. David Simons was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  He continued to conduct research, including studies on radio telemetry for in-flight medical monitoring.  After his retirement, he became fascinated with and researched pain and myofascial trigger points, co-authoring in 1983 a still-standard text on the subject.

Image Credit: Life magazine

August 18, 1957 – “The Next World War Will Be Decided in a Matter of Hours”


On August 18, 1957, the New York Times ran a commentary by military editor Hanson W. Baldwin covering the recent military budget negotiations in Congress. In his article, Hanson extensively quoted the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Clarence Cannon, D-Missouri. Cannon, a fiscal conservative, argued for defense budget cuts:

“The next world war will be decided in a matter of hours. There will be a period of mopping up and taking over but the war will be decisively fought on one afternoon or less. . . . The Army is no longer of any use in war except in occupying territory taken from the air and in enforcing martial law. . . . Could the Navy protect us? Ridiculous! . . . The imminence of war is receding. An age of nuclear stalemate is dawning.”

Baldwin had his response ready, measured and authoritative. A Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and author of scores of books on military and defense issues, Baldwin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, reported from the South Pacific, North Africa and Europe during World War II, and was now in his twentieth year as the Times’ military editor.

“The picture drawn by Mr. Cannon is black-and-white and hence fallacious. Nuclear weapons alone are not sufficient. We cannot provide security solely by big bombers and bigger bombs. . . . The threat of nuclear bombardment may deter world wars but it obviously has not deterred small wars. . . .

“The problem of United States – or world – security in the nuclear age is as complex as the technology that is supposed to be its servant. It is, in the first place, a political and psychological problem, the problem of the nature of man; it is only secondarily a military problem. As long as men want things that other men have, as long as men quarrel, as long as they are aggressive, just so long will there be conflict in all the broad interpretations of the word.”

Image Credit: Library of Congress, U.S. Army