Jacques Piccard presents the Mésoscaphe submarine to the public in the Giovanola Frères fabrication plant in Monthey, 26.8.1963.
Jacques Piccard presents the Mésoscaphe submarine to the public in the Giovanola Frères fabrication plant in Monthey, 26.8.1963. Swiss Museum of Transport

The Auguste Piccard Mésoscaphe submarine

While there have been huge strides forward in exploring the universe, most of the underwater world is still a dark, closed book. The Piccard family has done significant pioneering work in exploring the bodies of water on our planet. The Mésoscaphe submarine descended into the depths of Lake Geneva and was deployed in the world’s oceans. This icon of engineering skill was one of the star attractions at the 1964 National Exhibition in Lausanne.

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher is a historian and curator at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.

Three generations of the Piccard family are united by a pioneering spirit and a love of adventure. The most famous member of the family is probably Bertrand Piccard, who in 1999 became the first person to complete a non-stop balloon flight around the globe. He restated his commitment to a sustainable world in 2015-16, circling the blue planet in a solar-powered aircraft. His grandfather Auguste Piccard (1884-1962) was the first person to enter the stratosphere, setting the altitude record of 15,781 metres on 27 May 1931 on board the balloon ‘FNRS-1’. The ascent was used to explore the upper layers of the atmosphere. With this balloon experiment, Piccard provided the evidence for part of his friend Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) theory of relativity. The two had studied together at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Auguste Piccard inspired the Belgian comic artist Hergé (1907-1983) to create the character Professor Calculus, whom he always depicted with wild, unruly hair. In the 1930s, Auguste Piccard turned his attention to deep-sea research. He applied the principle of the stratospheric balloon to the ocean depths. For the name of his deep-sea diving machine, he used the Greek words bathos (deep) and scaphos (ship) – ‘bathyscaphe’. On 23 January 1960 his son Jacques Piccard (1922-2008), together with American oceanographer Don Walsh, dived to the record depth of 10,916 m at a point in the Mariana Trench, on board the submarine Trieste.
Auguste (left) and Jacques Piccard pose in front of a model of the bathyscaphe diving sphere, May 1960.
Auguste (left) and Jacques Piccard pose in front of a model of the bathyscaphe diving sphere, May 1960. Swiss National Museum
Drawing of the Mésoscaphe while on a dive.
Drawing of the Mésoscaphe while on a dive. Swiss Museum of Transport
Jacques Piccard inspects the shell of the submersible, May 1963.
Jacques Piccard inspects the shell of the submersible, May 1963. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Jacques Piccard in the cockpit of the Mésoscaphe, April 1964.
Jacques Piccard in the cockpit of the Mésoscaphe, April 1964. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Symbol of Expo 64

Following his successful dive, Jacques Piccard worked on the construction of the Mésoscaphe, a submarine for medium depths, in preparation for Expo 64 in Lausanne. In February 1963 work began at the Giovanola Frères fabrication plant in Monthey. To practise launching the submarine, for test purposes an old steam engine was rolled into the water on rails. On 27 February 1964 the 165-tonne colossus was officially launched at Le Bouveret, under the watching eyes of the media and with curious spectators thronging the lakeside. The world’s largest tourist submarine was berthed in the harbour of the Expo site in Lausanne. In addition to the Auguste Piccard PX-8, named after the man who came up with the idea, a hydrofoil manufactured by the firm Supramar flew the flag for Switzerland’s capacity for innovation in the area of watercraft. From July to the end of October 1964 the Mésoscaphe, powered by an electric motor, undertook approximately a thousand diving excursions, showing about 33,000 passengers the world below the surface of Lake Geneva. In addition to the images shown on monitors, a stewardess provided a running commentary on the dive. Despite the cloudy underwater visibility, it was an incredible overall experience. Celebrities such as Walt Disney, one of the most influential figures in the movie industry of the 20th century, couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a trip in this one-of-a-kind diving vehicle. Other unusual guests included jugglers from the Knie National Circus, who brought two chimpanzees on board with them. The 28.5-metre-long and 6.8-metre-wide hull also offered ample space for a fashion show put on by ‘Madame TV’, a social interest magazine show broadcast by Television Suisse Romande (TSR) from 1962 to 1971. Despite the success of the Mésoscaphe, the Expo management had fallen out with its creator Jacques Piccard in the lead-up to the exhibition launch, due to various safety issues and his lack of an engineering patent. As a result, Piccard wasn’t even invited to the official opening ceremony. When he visited the exhibition later on, he bought an ordinary entrance ticket.
The Mésoscaphe at the landing stage in front of the Expo site.
The Mésoscaphe at the landing stage in front of the Expo site. Swiss Museum of Transport
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Launch test using an Eb 3/5 locomotive, thus also called the ‘Locoscaphe’.
Launch test using an Eb 3/5 locomotive, thus also called the ‘Locoscaphe’. The Eb 3/5, manufactured by the Schweizerische Lokomotive- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM, the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works) in Winterthur, was also known by the nickname ‘Habersack’. SBB Historic
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Launch of the Mésoscaphe at Le Bouveret on Lake Geneva in February 1964; in the background is the steamship Montreux.
Launch of the Mésoscaphe at Le Bouveret on Lake Geneva in February 1964; in the background is the steamship Montreux. Swiss Museum of Transport
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Artistes from the Knie National Circus board the unusual watercraft.
Artistes from the Knie National Circus board the unusual watercraft. Swiss Museum of Transport
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The Mésoscaphe on a dive in Lake Geneva, 8 July 1964.
The Mésoscaphe on a dive in Lake Geneva, 8 July 1964. ETH Library
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The interior of the submarine, with armchairs and screens.
The interior of the submarine, with armchairs and screens. Bertrand Piccard
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The Mésoscaphe in the harbour at Expo 64 in Lausanne.
The Mésoscaphe in the harbour at Expo 64 in Lausanne. Wikimedia / Anidaat
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The Mésoscaphe was the big visitor drawcard at Expo 64. SRF

Adventure and treasure-hunting in America

After Expo 64, there was a long period of uncertainty as to what ought to be done with the Mésoscaphe. In 1966 it was transported to Marseille, where it was used for tourist purposes. In 1969 it was bought by Horton Maritime Explorations in Chicago and converted into a research vessel. The appearance and the function of the submarine changed a number of times in the 1970s and 1980s: it was outfitted with a new kiosk and two diesel engines, painted red, damaged by a hurricane, repaired and deployed in various locations between the United States and Colombia. During the Cold War only military submarines were authorised in the USA, and as a result when the Mésoscaphe had to travel from San Diego to Vancouver in 1978 it had to do so on the surface of the water, and was fitted with a wind sail. The world’s largest non-military submarine undertook its most bizarre mission in 1981: an expedition company leased it in Colombia to search for the wreck of the Spanish galleon San José, sunk by an English fleet in 1708. At the time, the galleon was transporting untold wealth for the Spanish crown – a treasure estimated to be worth US$ 5 billion to $17 billion. The submarine found the shipwreck in 1982, and since then the parties involved have been mired in legal disputes over competing claims of ownership. The treasure remains on the seabed to this day.
Oil painting by Samuel Scott (1702-1772), depicting the explosion of the San José.
Oil painting by Samuel Scott (1702-1772), depicting the explosion of the San José. National Maritime Museum
The Mésoscaphe, marked by the effects of time and weather, in Galveston, Texas in 1983.
The Mésoscaphe, marked by the effects of time and weather, in Galveston, Texas in 1983. Horace Horton

Instants and Eternity

An association formed in 1995 worked to ensure the legendary submarine would be preserved. Four years later, the 165-tonne steel hulk was transported to Europe on board a container ship and found its way back to Switzerland via the Rhone. The rust-corroded submarine resurfaced in Murten at Expo.02, where it became a symbol of impermanence at the ‘Instants and Eternity’ arteplage. In 2005 it was transported to the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne. After nine years of restoration work the Mésoscaphe was opened to the public at the Museum, and will hopefully be preserved for eternity.
The submarine at the arteplage in Murten, opposite Jean Nouvel’s Monolith.
The submarine at the arteplage in Murten, opposite Jean Nouvel’s Monolith. Swiss Museum of Transport; photo: Claudia Hermann
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The Mésoscaphe, in the livery of Expo 64, in the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne on the occasion of its unveiling in 2014.
The Mésoscaphe, in the livery of Expo 64, in the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne on the occasion of its unveiling in 2014. Swiss Museum of Transport
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