The Trieste bathyscape and grandpa’s Rolex

by brian lam

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My last grandfather passed away this summer and my uncle, upon receipt of my request for a keepsake, took it upon himself to pass me one of his nice watches, which he received himself upon being sent to the water nation of Australia to attend boarding school.

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It is a Rolex, and I take possession of it this month, after which it will go straight into a safe deposit box. Although I am sure it is not a diving watch, it reminds me of this story of how Rolex, in a stunt and research project, sent one of their watches to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, with Oceanographer Jacques Piccard and Captain Don Walsh.

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The band was attached to the outside of the Trieste Bathyscape as it descended to an unimaginable 35,800 feet. The year was 1960, over 50 years ago. The watch was a special model, according to one source:

Rolex Deep Sea Special, a huge – 57mm by 40mm by 39mm – Submarine-derived watch. The Deep Sea Special was designed focusing on the same guidelines as a Bathyscaphe, in other words it was a specially pressurised constructed steel chambers to protect the movement and dial…The initial MKI Deep Sea Special trials in 1950 were not successful, and Prototypes did not survive. These prototypes were then tested, but after a short time they filled with water…Back to the drawing board, Rolex engineers toughened and redesigned the case, and after three years of secret pre-trials, the Rolex MKII Deep Sea Special was ready.

The following day Piccard sent another telegram to Rolex in Geneva saying “Am happy to confirm that even at 11,000 meters your watch is as precise as on the surface. Best regards, Jacques Piccard”.

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The research here went into a consumer model called the Rolex Submariner, which among other innovations, had a extension link in the band that would allow for it to fit over a wetsuit without any alterations.

*A Rolex belonging to captain Don Walsh is on the auction block right now, too. (Thank you Jesús Diaz.)

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*The Trieste was a serious deep diving machine, capable of withstanding all the pressure the ocean could throw at it, but it was used less and less than WHOI and the US Navy’s Alvin subs due to the maneuverability of Alvin, despite the fact that it would be decades before later generations of Alvin could go even nearly as deep as the Bathyscape Trieste.

*The Piccard family is additionally notable for having members on record for having completed both the deepest dive and highest flight, with grandfather Auguste having twice beaten the record for highest altitude in a balloon in 1931-32.