The Story of Our Yellow Submarine

If you've ever visited the Maritime Museum, you know that we have a great big yellow submarine named the Ben Franklin outside the museum. While we'd love to say it is only there for the Beatles reference, there is actually a much more interesting story behind it!

The Ben Franklin was built in Switzerland in the 1960s by the famous Swiss inventor and oceanographer Jacques Piccard. Piccard was world-famous for being the first person (with Lt. Don Walsh) to descend to the deepest point on Earth: the Marianas Trench. At a staggering 35,797 ft below sea level and almost 17,000 psi of pressure, the two men were admiring the featureless seabed and strange sea creatures when they heard a loud cracking noise and discovered cracks forming in the viewing windows. Needless to say, they immediately started dumping ballast and returning to the surface!

His next project was to take the Ben Franklin and investigate the secrets of the Gulf Stream. Ben Franklin, the American inventor and patriot who the submarine is named for, had originally charted the Gulf Stream in 1770 but his research was largely ignored (that's another story). In case you don't know, the Gulf Stream is a "river under the sea" which carries 22 times more water than all the land rivers of the world combined!

Taking a crew of 6 men, Piccard and the submersible drifted for 30 days and 2,324 km from Palm Beach, Florida to Halifax, Nova Scotia at a depth of about 2,000 ft.

The crew lived inside the small, cramped space for the whole month but it was not necessarily as bad as it sounds. 

"Our life on board is relatively comfortable. Each man has his own bunk; there is a roomy wardroom forward, where a game of gin rummy can be enjoyed. And we have a fresh-water shower, washing and toilet facilities." - Jacques Piccard.

NASA was so interested in the mission and how it served as an analogue for space travel that they sent Chet May, an expert in "men working in space", to study the effects of working so long in an isolated space. Other crew members included Ken Haigh from the Royal Navy who studied underwater acoustics, Frank Busby from the US Navy who conducted a bottom survey, Don Kazimir who was the captain, and Erwin Aebersold who was Piccard's main assistant and project engineer. 

One amazing fact about the mission is that every single item onboard had to be weighed exactly. In Piccard's own words, if they were "one pound too light, we will never be able to sink. If we are one pound too heavy, we will never come up." Unlike most conventional submarines which are designed to be more compressible than water, the Ben Franklin was actually designed to compress slightly under ocean pressure, making it possible to stay underneath the water for an extended period of time.

Unfortunately for the men onboard, the mission happened to take place during another historic mission which took away their news cycle: Apollo 11. Eclipsed by the worldwide media coverage of the moon landing, the Ben Franklin's voyage slipped from public consciousness. 

The Ben Franklin was taken on a few more voyages in the 1970s before being sold to Vancouver businessman John Horton who planned to use it as an Arctic research vessel: however plans never materialized and the submersible languished in disuse. In the 1990s, the submarine was going to be scrapped, but in a sudden decision it was offered to the Maritime Museum, who graciously accepted this treasure of maritime history.

Now preserved outside our museum, the submarine offers visitors a chance to reflect on that amazing period of history when an exploratory mankind delved to the depths of the seas and the far reaches of outer space. Perhaps you can even sing a little ditty that goes something like, "we all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine..."