In Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss, Brad Matsen brings to vivid life the famous deep-sea expeditions of Otis Barton and William Beebe. At a time when no one had traveled deeper than a few hundred feet, they took the world to a half mile down. At the height of the Depression, Beebe and Barton plumbed the depths of the ocean in nothing but a steel sphere, setting two records at once: it was also the first time a dramatic journey of discovery was broadcast live in America and Europe.
Beebe was an internationally acclaimed naturalist when he became obsessed with oceanography. He had an oceanographic research station on Nonsuch Island off Bermuda and a tug that could launch the craft. Beebe also had the support of many of the
most famous financiers and industrialists of the day, the ability to drum up publicity wherever he went, and connections at the New York
Zoological Society and National Geographic.
Barton was half Beebe's age and heir to a considerable fortune, and had long dreamed of deep-sea exploration and making his mark on the world as an adventurer. Barton had the engineering skill to design the craft-his idea was simple, yet elegant: a steel sphere with thick portholes tethered to a support ship by a steel cable-and he had the wherewithal to build it. Together, Beebe and Barton would achieve what no one had done before-direct observation of life in the blackness of the abyss. But even as they achieved their greatest success, a bitter rift left the two explorers on barely more than speaking terms.
In this vivid narrative history of scientific vision, courage, and adventure, Brad Matsen illuminates the dramatic achievements of Beebe and Barton against the backdrop of the great age of exploration, in a riveting tale of man and nature.
A legendary naturalist and a wealthy engineering student come together in the name of science (and glory) in this highly readable look at the discoveries that made William Beebe and Otis Barton international celebrities of the Depression era. Journalist and nature-doc producer Matsen (Planet Ocean, etc.) shows how Barton, who'd long dreamed of undersea adventure, convinced the already-famous Beebe that his diving device will be the key to Beebe's success. Barton would pay for the bathysphere--a four-and-a-half-foot steel ball dangling from a wire rope and ventilated by its occupants waving a palm leaf fan--and thus go along for the ride. The men were personally incompatible, but they made an effective team; from 1929 to 1934, they made more than 20 dives off Bermuda and many improvements in their vehicle. Matsen devotes greater energy to Beebe, noting how his scientific credentials were often questioned--a bon vivant, he wrote for Ladies' Home Journal as well for Science. Matsen also pays tribute to the duo's support team (which Beebe often did not), including wildlife artist Else Bostelmann. From interpersonal conflict to the first radio broadcast from the ocean's depths and the intricate negotiations with National Geographic Society that enabled them to make their last dive in the depths of the Depression, Matsen's account is a thoroughly researched, fluently written addition to the history of science.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 05, 2006
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Excerpt from Descent by Brad Matsen
When Otis Barton told the story, he always said it began and very nearly ended on Thanksgiving Day in 1926, when he went for a walk to buy a newspaper. He left his third-floor apartment on East Sixty-seventh Street in Manhattan and turned toward Madison Avenue, loping along lost in thought. Barton was preoccupied that morning with a recurring fantasy in which he was a celebrated explorer just back from
a dangerous adventure, with photographs and specimens of creatures never before seen by man, resting between expeditions in a penthouse apartment with a weeping willow on the terrace, a beautiful girl who liked camping and looked good in a pith helmet by his side. Like other boys enchanted by the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and the other fantasists who were so popular during his childhood, Barton had feasted on daydreams of wild animals, caves filled with gold, and lost civilizations. As a young man of twenty-six, the theater of his imagination was still as vivid to him as the pavement beneath his feet.
In the real world, though, Otis Barton was an engineering student at Columbia University, the grandson of a merchant who had started with a clapboard storefront in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1850, sold dry goods, and prospered. Otis Barton's father, Frederick, went to Harvard, made a small fortune as a textile mill salesman during the boom years just before the turn of the century, and moved his family to New York, where business was even better. His first son, Frederick Otis Barton, Jr., was born there on June 5, 1899, followed by two daughters, Ellen and Mary, and a second son, Francis. Frederick Barton died suddenly in 1905--heart attacks ran in the family--and his wife, the former Mary Lowell Coolidge, packed up her children and moved first to Concord, Massachusetts, and then to a house on Marlborough Street in Boston.
Mary Barton's relatives and social circle included the Lowells, Cabots, and Coolidges, who had built their fortunes in railroads, manufacturing, and finance as coal, steam, and cheap labor drove the engines of the Industrial Revolution. Her marriage to Frederick Barton had been considered shrewd by family patriarchs, who correctly assumed that merchants would capture a significant share of the money pouring into the pockets of mill and factory workers as mass consumption became a predictable part of the economic equation. After Mary returned to Boston as a widow with her share of the Barton inheritance and her own small fortune, she settled her family into the proven aristocratic pattern of fall and winter in the city, spring traveling abroad, and summers on Vineyard Sound.
Otis Barton had been raised by women. His mother, her sisters, and
a devoted nurse, Katy Gaule, tended him like a prince, and the only indelible image of men in his life was a painting by William Merritt Chase that hung in their parlor entitled A Portrait of Master Otis Barton and His Grandfather. Against the kind of dark background familiar to anyone who has wandered through a gallery of Dutch masters stands the figure of four-year-old Otis in a high-collared, thigh-length smock and knee socks, next to a seated, gray-bearded patrician holding a sheaf of papers on his lap. Otis, looking directly at the artist, is a beautiful child with an oval face, dark hair combed to a shock in the middle of his forehead, and perfectly spaced features that hint of intelligence. His grandfather's countenance is tragic by comparison, defined by sagging pouches under his eyes and an expression of utter weariness. The painting seems to suggest sadly that all lives pass from hope to defeat.
At twelve, Otis Barton joined the tribe of privileged teenaged boys at Groton, where he played baseball and became something of a legend because of his academic record. Before he could read or write, he had discovered that he could think in pictures and recall images in his mind as though he were looking at a photograph or a painting. Otis used this rare gift of an eidetic memory as a parlor trick, reciting long passages in Greek and Latin after seeing them just once on a page. He could do the same thing with figures and reading assignments. Rote learning and memorization were in vogue, and he scored the second-highest grades in the history of the school to that time. Otis was a tall, good-looking young man who should have fit in well with his classmates, but he often came across as moody and awkward, perhaps because the terrain of his imagination was every bit as real to him as that of the outside world. By the time he left Groton he was known as a loner and a daydreamer.