The First Family of Science: The Piccard Scientists

'The First Family of Science' was a sentence coined for the Piccard family which has produced an unbroken line of explorers and scientists over four generations. The latest scion is Bertrand Piccard, the man who surrounded the globe in a hot air balloon. And now we are all waiting for him to do the same with the first aircraft powered by solar power only: Solar Impulse.

Jules and Paul Piccard

The family saga started out with two brothers, Jules and Paul Piccard. Jules, the older, was born in 1840 in Lausanne in Switzerland. He studied chemistry in Heidelberg in Germany under Robert Bunsen of Bunsen Burner fame. After graduation, Jules Piccard was called as a lecturer to the School of Polytechnics in Zurich in Switzerland. During his time there, he developed the water vacuum aspirator which would inspire Robert Hirsch to invent his famous funnel. In 1868, he was called to the University of Basel in Switzerland as professor for chemistry as successor to Christian Friedrich Schonbein.

His research in Basel covered food and pharmaceutical chemistry. He was instrumental in promoting Basel as a world center for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The importance of the chemistry department was reflected in the fact that he was joined there by Christoph Friedrich Goppelsroeder and Friedrich Krafft as extraordinary professors. As a personal friend of Louis Pasteur, Jules often exchanged views on food issues with him.

One of his researches covered a flavone found in the blue passionflower: Chrysin. In his research, he was hoping to find a pharmaceutical solution for the treatment of anxiety. He also discovered a component of nuclein in 1874; a find that would further the research into DNA.

Jules Piccard was not averse to making use of any technical advance he could lay hand on, either; he had a telephone line installed at his home as soon as feasible and in 1880 it became the first telephone to be in use in Basel. He retired as a professor in 1908 and went back to live in Lausanne where he died in 1933.

Paul Piccard was the younger of the two brothers and was born in 1844 in Lausanne. After graduating from the School for Polytechnics in Zurich, he started working as an engineer for a few years before becoming professor for mechanics at the School for Polytechnics in Lausanne in 1869. He resigned from this position in 1872 to start out in business with Jules Faesch. Together they developed turbines that were powered by water pressure.

After the death of Jules Faesch, Paul Piccard went into a business venture with Lucien Pictet. The company Picard-Pictet built Pic-Pic (or PicPic) cars between 1906 and 1920. While they were being produced, Pic-Pic automobiles were considered the equal of Rolls Royce and Mercedes. Piccard-Pictet designed the first grand prix racing car with four wheel brakes. The company also continued to produce turbines; their turbines were used in the power stations on the Niagara Falls. These turbines were in use into World War II. Paul lived all his live in Lausanne where he died in 1929.

Jean-Felix and Jeannette Piccard

While Jules Piccard was living in Basel and worked as professor for chemistry at the University of Basel, he and his wife Jeanne had twins in 1884: Jean-Felix (or short just Jean) and Auguste. Jean went to study chemistry at the School for Polytechnics in Zurich. He moved to Munich in Germany where he became the personal assistant of Adolf von Baeyer. With the start of the World War I, Jules returned home to Basel.

In 1916, he went as a lecturer to the University of Chicago in the United States where he met his American born wife Jeannette. They both accepted to become lecturers at the University of Lausanne in 1919 and the couple returned to Switzerland. In 1926, they moved to the United States again where Jean took up a teaching position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1933, he took up teaching at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware before becoming professor for aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 1936.

In 1913, Jean and his twin Auguste went on their first balloon flight, and the brothers became hooked on ballooning. It was a passion that Jean's wife Jeannette would later share in. In 1933, Jean Piccard built in cooperation with Auguste the experimental balloon Century of Progress for the Chicago World Fair. Jeannette meanwhile acquired the necessary licence as a balloonist. With Jeannette as captain, they made several flights to ultimately almost 11 miles (17.7 km) making Jeannette the first woman in the stratosphere.

Jean and Jeannette together invented the plastic balloon which first flew in 1936; it became the forerunner for all modern balloons. He co-invented the polyethylene balloon with Otto Winzen and became an ardent promoter of using balloons for research in high altitudes. He subsequently designed specific polyethylene balloons for high altitude flights which would be used throughout the 1950s and 1960s for research purposes.

Jean died in Minneapolis in 1963. He was commemorated in Gene Roddenberry’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Jeannette in turn thought she was good for another first in the Piccard family album and concentrated on her lifelong interest in religion. She was ordained the first woman priest of the Episcopal Church in 1974. She died in Minneapolis in 1981. It is thought that she was the inspiration behind the character of Elisabeth Orme in Julian May’s Pleistocene Exiles.

Jeannette and Jean had a son, Donald, born in 1926 who was responsible for reintroducing hot air ballooning as a sport and a pastime for thousands of Americans from the 1960s onwards. He is currently engaged in the XAP Extreme Altitude Project to bring a balloon into the mesosphere.

Auguste Piccard

Auguste went to the School for Polytechnics in Zurich to study physics. After graduation, he stayed on as a lecturer for experimental physics until called as professor to the University of Brussels in Belgium in 1922.

There, he developed an airtight capsule cum hydrogen balloon to ascend into the stratosphere. In 1931, he ascended with his assistant Paul Kipfer starting from Augsburg in Germany. The flight took them to 15,785 m (52,000 ft.) but on the way down something went wrong with the valve lines hampering maneuverability of the balloon. They crash landed near the Austrian Village of Obergurgl; a commemorative monument marks the place where they came down.

In 1932, he ascended with Max Cosyns from Dubendorf in Switzerland to an altitude of 16,200 m (53,000 ft.). His twin brother Jean and his sister-in-law Jeannette would break that record a year later. Auguste applied the knowledge gained with the airtight capsule to start developing a deep sea diving capsule. World War II interrupted work, but it was resumed soon after.

He developed the bathyscaphe (the word is derived from Greek deep plus ship) Trieste and in 1953 he marked a new record in deep sea diving with his son Jacques by diving to 3,150 m (10,000 ft.) in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In 1954, he retired to Lausanne where he led an active retirement often acting as adviser to his son Jacques. He died there in 1962.

The first and largest ever built commercial submarine was named after him; the mesoscaphe Auguste Piccard was developed by Jacques for the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne in 1964. It conveyed 30,000 people to the ground of Lake Geneva on the Swiss-French border.

Auguste was immortalized by Belgian cartoonist Hergé as Professor Cuthbert Calculus in The Adventures of Tintin. In an interview with Numa Sadoul, Hergé said: ‘Calculus is a reduced scale Piccard, as the real chap was very tall. He had an interminable neck that sprouted from a collar that was much too large ... I made Calculus a mini-Piccard, otherwise I would have had to enlarge the frames of the comic strip.’

Jacques Piccard

Auguste’s son Jacques was born in Brussels in 1922. He studied economics, history, and physics at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and stayed on as a lecturer for economics.

He gave up his teaching job after World War II and joined the team of his father developing the bathyscaphe Trieste. The Trieste was subsequently bought by the US Navy and its construction enhanced to take it to even greater depth. In 1960, the Trieste descended the Mariana Trench near Guam to almost 11,000 m (36,000 ft.) manned by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh. No one has got near that mark since then. The Trieste sustained some damage due to the pressure and was later redesigned to find use in locating two lost US Navy nuclear submarines, the Thresher and the Scorpion. The Trieste can be viewed in the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C. Jacques’ and Don’s reports of fish at the depth of 11,000 m were at the time refuted by ‘serious scientists’ as arrant nonsense.

Jacques went on to design the first and largest ever built commercial submarine which was named after his father; the mesoscaphe Auguste Piccard was developed for the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne in 1964. For the duration of the exhibition, it conveyed 30,000 people to the ground of Lake Geneva. Admittedly, there wasn't a lot to see for the eager diving tourists, but just imagine being offered the possibility to go on the dive.

For the US Navy he designed a further mesoscaphe, the Ben Franklin. With five others, he spent a month drifting in the Gulf Stream from Florida to Nova Scotia. The expedition collected data on marine life, underwater acoustics, and psychological data on the crew living in such cramped circumstances for a month. The latter data went into NASA considerations when designing Skylab. The Ben Franklin can be viewed at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

Jacques established the Foundation For The Study And Protection Of Seas And Lakes in Cully in Switzerland. His dive into the Mariana trench and his incessant engagement eventually led to a ban on dumping waste into deep sea trenches and his foundation is active still today in promoting the protection of maritime life all over the globe. He retired to La-Tour-de-Peilz in Switzerland where he died in 2008.

Bertrand Piccard

The story of the family is far from over. The latest scion in the Piccard family tree is Bertrand, the son of Jacques. He was born in 1958 in Lausanne. With 16, he became one of the pioneers in paragliding and ultralight aviation. He soon held teaching brevets for both and worked as an instructor while studying medicine. Apart from several championship titles in extreme sports, he is best known for flying a hot air balloon non-stop around the world. Together with Brian Jones he steered the Breitling Orbiter 3 to enter another 'first' into the family's books.

In 2009, Bertrand Piccard and his crew presented the first airplane to be starting, landing, and flying exclusively with solar power. The airplane Solar Impulse with the special air-flight designation HB-SIA (HB for Switzerland, Solar Impulse A) presented itself as a major high tech compendium. Its wings were as wide as that of an Airbus 340, but while the latter had a weight of 448 tonnes, Solar Impulse had a mere 1,500 kilograms. The top of the wings were completely covered in solar panels, and the machine was equipped with rechargeable batteries to enable night flight. The ingenious use of light weight materials was adequate for a single occupant flying while the use for heavier freight still has to be proven.

The development of Solar Impulse took six years with a team of 70 people working on it. The airplane presented itself with the ability to fly without fossil energy; it was able to fly on solar power alone and this included starting and landing procedures which were accomplished by solar power alone. The first test flights in Swiss airspace were done from the military airbases in Dubendorf and Payerne. The first flight of Solar Impulse on December 3, 2009, was a resounding success and the first flight on solar power ever.

July 8, 2010, saw the first night flight successfully completed on solar power alone. Solar Impulse had started 26 hours earlier from the military airbase in Payerne, Switzerland. The flight test had been conducted in Swiss airspace in altitudes between 8,500 m (27,900 ft.) and 1,500 m (5,000 ft.). Solar Impulse had ascended to 8,500 m by 4 p.m. over a period of nine hours. It then descended to 1,500 m to cruise through the night.

Pilot André Borschberg described the experience as ‘the most incredible flight’ in his 40 years flying career. Solar power did give him a feeling of serenity during the silent flight, he said, that was completely missing in any other form of powered flight. He believed that the future of flight had finally taken off.

Solar Impulse successfully completed the first international flight on May 13, 2011. The historical flight took it from the Swiss military base in Payerne to Brussels in Belgium. The flight took 13 hours including the wait at Brussels to get permission to land. The start of the flight was delayed by over two hours due to dense ground fog in Payerne, something that will have to be considered for the future of solar flight. The route took Solar Impulse from Switzerland over France and Luxembourg into Belgium at an average altitude of 3,800 m (12,500 ft). The whole flight was accessible on internet through Twitter and Facebook (among others); a camera installed in the cockpit allowed the interested public to take a look at the controlling panels in the airplane.

When Solar Impulse touched down in Brussels, a great cheer from the gathered crowd could be heard through the online transmission. Spectators and Brussels officials had gathered for the estimated landing time at 9 pm to be witnesses to that historic flight. Not the least to cheer was Bertrand Piccard as the whole flight had gone without a hitch. He later confessed that he had had nightmares for weeks of an empty hangar in Brussels with a notice ‘no exhibit due to technical problems’.

Brussels air control Belgocontrol on the other hand called the incoming landing flight a pure nightmare. They described it as a feat similar to getting a pedestrian to cross a suburban motorway during rush hour. Solar Impulse flew a top speed of 70 kph (43 mph) with four 7.5 kW engines.

On June 5, 2012, Solar Impulse landed in Rabat in Morocco. It completed the first intercontinental flight by a solar airplane that had started at the Swiss military base in Payerne for a flight to Madrid in Spain. From there it flew to Rabat. With this flight, the development program for HB-SIA had been completed, and Bertrand Piccard and his crew entered the second phase of the program: the development of HB-SIB in view of circumnavigating the globe non-stop.

As of May 3, 2013, airplane and prototype HB-SIA left  San Francisco to attempt a flight across the American continent in several steps from San Francisco to New York. The non-stop flight around the world with HB-SIB is planned for 2015.

Further reading:

Flying Without a Permit
Iconic Design: Swiss Army Knife
Nonexistent Switzerland