Beebe, Barton, Cameron

William Beebe (left) and Otis Barton with the bathysphere after a dive off Bermuda in 1934.

Writing the last post, I got thinking about the parallels between James Cameron’s recent dive and the first-ever human descents into the deep ocean, which were done in the early 1930’s by two men named William Beebe and Otis Barton[1]. These parallels are actually pretty striking. In addition to the suspense of record-setting dives in an untested submersible, the story is fascinating for the tense mixture of science, celebrity, ambition, and money that defined these two men’s relationship. When these similarities become apparent, the deep-sea dive is almost secondary.

Beebe and Barton were an odd pair. William Beebe was a naturalist at the New York Zoological Society, very much in the heroic Victorian explorer-scientist-gentleman mold. In addition to scientific publications, Beebe wrote numerous popular science articles, earning him fame from the public and distrust from the Very Serious scientific establishment. Even if he’d wanted to abandon popular writing, though, Beebe couldn’t. Because there were no other sources of support then, doing basic research meant raising funds from the people with money. In essence, Beebe’s fame and dashing image got him invited to their cocktail parties, where he could charm them with jungle stories before hitting them up for contributions.

In the mid 1920s, Beebe became interested in the ocean, and he hit upon the idea of trying to descend into the deep in a steel cylinder. At that time, Otis Barton was a graduate student in engineering at Columbia. Barton was from a rich Boston family, and had become fascinated by the underwater world as a teenager. Though studying engineering, Barton had dreams of becoming a famous explorer…like Beebe, say. After seeing Beebe’s deep-sea plans in the news, Barton realized that a sphere made much more sense than a cylinder for handling water pressure. He had preliminary plans drawn up and took them to Beebe, offering to finance the construction of the sphere himself if he could come along for the ride. Beebe agreed.

The bathysphere worked, but Barton and Beebe didn’t. Barton was less interested in deep-sea biology than in using the adventure to get famous, and was jealous of Beebe’s continued celebrity. Beebe thought Barton was lazy and mercurial, and didn’t appreciate Barton posturing for publicity when he had to fight so hard for approval from the “serious” scientific establishment, who viewed the bathysphere dives more as stunts than science. When Beebe got top billing in news stories, Barton actually wrote letters to the editor making sure he was mentioned too. If this alone wasn’t enough to make Beebe apoplectic, these letters often contained factual errors and exaggerations, further dinging Beebe’s scientific credibility.

Barton eventually decided to leverage his deep-sea cred into a career as a film director. The straw that broke their relationship came in 1938 when Barton released Titans of the Deep. This movie spliced footage of the bathysphere with other “thrilling” scenes, like a diving-helmeted bathing beauty shooting a barracuda, staged shark fights, and an octopus eating a lobster. Barton had featured the names of Beebe and his crew prominently in the movie’s promotion, and Beebe wrote letters to a half-dozen newspapers and Science magazine denying any responsibility for the film’s content.

The parallels should be clear by now. Cameron may have gone the opposite direction from Barton, from director to explorer, but like Barton, has used his fortune to buy a ticket to the deep on a craft of his own making, and feelings about this arrangement in the rest of the scientific community about are mixed. The “pure” research is smudged by the record-setting. There are unequal levels of celebrity, too: the science page of Deepsea Challenge’s website names only one of the mostly-unnamed cast of scientists it alludes to. If deep-sea scientists were like Otis Barton, they would be dashing off angry letters to the editor right now, reminding him to mention my name the next time, please.

Again, I don’t think Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge is a bad thing: public agencies weren’t about to fund this dive, and now we have a submersible, engineering developments, and data from the bottom. And I don’t think Cameron’s done anything more unethical than pursue a long-held personal dream. Maybe high-risk, low-reward pioneering expeditions like this need crazy, rich patrons. Maybe we need to let them have the spotlight, and get off our high horse. After all, looking back, Beebe’s detractors come off as petty and judgmental[2]. And without Barton’s money, engineering insight, and ambition, humanity’s first visit to the abyss would have been delayed, probably by decades.

But patron-based science, as shown by Beebe and Barton, can be a fraught endeavor. Large sums of money carry subtle obligations. Beebe didn’t love Barton, but had to let him sit shotgun because he paid for the ride. Beebe’s scientific reputation was on the line. Barton didn’t have one and didn’t need one. Beebe didn’t like to have babes fighting fish in a movie bearing his name, but Barton had the money to film it, and Beebe couldn’t stop him. If James Cameron had for some reason wanted to return from the abyss with footage of NTIs, he presumably could have surfaced with video in Hi-Def and 3D. We need sustained public support to make sure the long, hard work of high-quality, independent science continues to get done. Patrons do not necessarily want to do titrations, or count copepods, or age otoliths.


Most of what I know about Beebe and Barton comes from a book called Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss, by Brad Matsen (Pantheon Books, New York, 2005). It is recommended.

“I am forced to suggest,” wrote ichthyologist Carl Hubbs, about new fish species reported by Beebe, “that what the author saw might have been a phosphorescent coelenterate whose lights were beautified by halation in passing through a misty film breathed onto the quartz window by Mr. Beebe’s eagerly appressed face.” Burn.

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One Response to Beebe, Barton, Cameron

  1. Pingback: Book of the Week: Beebe, Barton and the Bathysphere – Biodiversity Heritage Library

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