Balloonists, scientists, serial explorers and pioneers of change: over the decades, the Piccards have revolutionized the world of STEM generation after generation.
Rooted in Switzerland and driven by the scientific curiosity of twin brothers Auguste and Jean Felix Piccard, this family would, alone, leave permanent marks in history books.
Now, imagine looking at a family tree of the Piccards: a tree that extends to the highest sky and reaches the bottomless ocean’s depths. Who are the people that comprise this record-breaking family?
What was the secret, if there ever was, of their genius? What drove their unquenchable thirst for knowledge, moving them to explore the world, the sky and the deepest sea?
Meet the Piccard family… through their records.
First people to enter the stratosphere
- When: 1931
- Who: Auguste Piccard and Charles Kipfer
On 27 May 1931, physicist Auguste Piccard and his assistant Charles Kipfer (both CHE) became the first people to ever enter the stratosphere.
Auguste's interest in exploration had long been simmering: after the first experimental flights with his twin brother Jean Felix in 1913, in the mid-1900s he focused his efforts in ballooning and the upper stratosphere.
Eccentric character, adventurer and notably the mind behind the discovery of Uranium-235, Auguste Piccard was one of the delegates at the influential 1927 Solvay Conference, together with other luminaries such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.
In fact, some of Piccard's reason for the attempt was to compile experimental evidence of the theory of relativity formulated by Einstein, fellow Zurich EHT alumni and colleague: he would venture higher than any other man had been before to measure the activity of cosmic rays and investigate, prove and further validate Einstein's theory.
Despite the doubts if the human body could actually survive a flight into the stratosphere, Piccard was set on risking his life in the name of science.
In 1931, the Swiss scientist reached an altitude of 15,781 m (51,775 ft) with the use of a hydrogen balloon, and flew from Augsburg in Germany to the village of Gurgl, in Austria.
“Exploration is the sport of scientists.” - Auguste Piccard
"It will be a great day for me when other stratospheric balloonists come along and exceed the altitudes I reached,” Piccard said after his successful feat.
“My aim is not to beat records, and still less to retain them, but to open up a new zone for scientific research and air navigation."
A famously eccentric man, with his iconic pointed goatee, matching green bowler hat and raincoat, Auguste caught the eye of Belgian illustrator and writer Hergé. The artist used Piccard as the model for the character of Professor Calculus in the Tintin series.
First woman in the stratosphere
- When: 1934
- Who: Jeannette Riddlon-Piccard
A record breaking-pilot and often regarded by her peers as one of the first women in space, in 1934 Jannette Riddlon-Piccard (USA) piloted the Century of Progress to an altitude of 10.9 miles (17,550 metres).
In comparison, many modern large commercial airplanes reach a maximum ceiling of around 43,000 feet (12,500 meters).
Jeannette was adopted into the record-breaking Piccard family by marriage after meeting her husband and partner-in-science Jean Felix Piccard at the University of Chicago. Following her history-changing flight with her husband as a co-pilot, she would become the first woman to reach the stratosphere.
Did you know?
Gene Roddenberry named Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the record-breaking cinematic saga Star Trek after the twin brothers Auguste and Jean Felix Piccard.
He derived Jean-Luc Picard from their names.
A pioneer in her field and an example for women in STEM, she was the first licensed female balloon pilot in the U.S.
On 23 October 1934, she took off from Dearborn, Michigan, USA, crossed Lake Erie and eventually landed in Cadiz, Ohio, USA after a journey that lasted 7 hours and 54 minutes.
After the attempt, Jeannette would progress into a successful career in aviation, and worked as a consultant to the director of NASA's Johnson Space Center for several years.
However, she didn’t limit her groundbreaking achievements to space and science and, after a spiritual journey, in 1974 Jeannette became one of the first women to be ordained priest at the age of 79 years old.
An incredible woman in many aspects, a lot can be said about Jeannette Riddlon-Piccard.
She continuously succeeded in notoriously male-dominated fields such as STEM and religion and, together with many other courageous women, challenged the social boundaries of the early 1900s. She soared high, broke records and created her success in a world where women's options were extremely limited despite facing constant patriarchal pushback.
Jeannette was posthumously inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1998.
First cluster balloon flight
- When: 1937
- Who: Jean Felix Piccard
You guessed it: Jean Felix Piccard earned his own record not long after his brother and wife.
In July 1937, the scientist broke the record for the first cluster balloon flight, by travelling onboard a gondola suspended beneath a large cluster of small gas-filled balloons – a small but revolutionary change, as such vehicles would normally only rely on a single large balloon.
Starting from Rochester, Minnesota, USA, the record-breaking balloon reached a remoted wooded gully near Lansing, Iowa, landing around 110 miles (160 km) of distance from his start point.
Sadly the record-breaking journey didn't go as smoothly as everyone had hoped, and ended in flames.
First, after reaching an altitude of around 11,000 ft (3,350 m) sooner than expected, Jean Felix struggled to carry on his experiments due to the drop in temperature in the gondola.
Despite the scientist's attempts to fix the issues caused by the unexpectedly fast ascent, the descent didn’t go any better: the gondola was meant to lose altitude by releasing individual balloons, but Piccard discovered that some of the balloons were stuck.
As releasing them was impossible, he had to “kill” the balloons.
How? Gunning them down with a pistol he had packed in case of an emergency!
After Jean Felix had to pull the trigger on the balloons, however, the detonation of a pyrotechnic charge disengaged the upper half of the balloon cluster and ignited the thermal insulation on the gondola, setting fire to the vehicle.
Thankfully, even if loss of data in the fire caused problems for his long-term plan of breaking the altitude record in a gigantic 2,000-balloon cluster, Piccard managed to escape and save himself.
He landed in the woods and scrambled out of the vehicle as the flames spread.
Reportedly, after the ordeal, the scientist managed to walk for about an hour to the nearest farmhouse, where, calm and relatively unscathed by the experience, he greeted the farmhouse’s owner with a simple question:
“Good morning, may I use your telephone?” - Jean Felix Piccard
Deepest manned submarine dive
- When: 1960
- Who: Jacques Piccard
Jacques Piccard, son of Auguste Piccard, followed in his father’s footsteps.
Having achieved his goals in the field of high-altitude research after becoming the first man in the stratosphere, August Piccard turned his eyes to the sea. He returned to an idea he'd first proposed in 1905: the so-called bathyscaphe, a submersible designed to reach the deepest depths, and took his son Jacques on a journey at the very bottom of the sea.
The joint efforts of father and son created the submarine Trieste, which would become pivotal for submarine exploration.
Under his family's guide, Auguste's son Jacques became an oceanographer and engineer, and one of the first people to explore the unknown parts of the ocean.
On 23 January 1960, Jacques a US Navy submariner, Lieutenant Don Walsh, took the Trieste II bathysphere to a depth of 35,810 feet – nearly seven miles down - in the Challenger Deep and broke the record for the deepest manned submarine dive.
Located in the Pacific Ocean, and more specifically in the vastly unexplored Mariana Trench, the fascinating and insidious Challenger Deep is the deepest known place on earth.
The descent, never tried again after Jacques' expedition, took 4 hours and 48 minutes.
The Trieste crew spent a whole of 20 minutes on the deepest bottom of the ocean, where sunlight is but a distant memory and pressure on the hull is in the order of 16,000 pounds per square inch, cutting their exploration time short after they realized that some of the equipment had been damaged by the pressure.
The ascent back to the surface took a total of three hours and 17 minutes, and allowed the crew to resurface and address one of the most fascinating questions in the history of humanity: can life survive at such extreme pressure, at the very bottom of the ocean?
For the first time, humanity had an answer: a roaring yes.
Jacques Piccard also broke twice the record for the deepest dive by a crewed vessel, once in 1953 and the second in 1960:
- In 1953, the first feat saw the father and son duo descending to 3,150 m (10,340 ft) off the coast of Ponza, Italy.
- On 23 January 1960, with Jacques and US Navy diver Don Walsh at the controls, the Trieste became the first crewed submarine to reach the Challenger Deep. Although it's not the deepest dive anymore, it remains the deepest manned submarine dive ever attempted.
Although with different machines, that historical depth record was broken only after 60 years by Guinness World Records 2021 Hall of Fame inductee Victor Vescovo.
First hot-air balloon crossing of the English Channel
- When: 1963
- Who: Don Piccard
In the 21st Century, crossing the English Channels – for work, travels or visiting relatives in another country – might not seem like a big deal. Either on a plane, train or boat, thousands of people pass through it every day. But have you ever wondered how it would feel to soar above the English Channel on a hot-air balloon?
That’s how Don Piccard, a USA pilot and one of the three children of Jean Felix and Jeannette Piccard, added yet another record to the family’s ever-growing collection together with inventor and fellow aviator Ed Yost.
On 13 April 1963, the two accomplished the first crossing of the English Channel by hot-air balloon.
Although it wasn’t the first crossing of the channel using balloons or airships, there was a substantial difference in how they operated: if the vehicles before Don's expedition used to be filled with a lifting gas such as hydrogen or helium, the balloon built by Don and Ed to cross the English Channel was the first ever to use only hot air for lift.
To conquer this challenge, the two pioneers built a balloon called Channel Champ specifically for this attempt and manoeuvred it from Rye on the south coast of the UK to Gravelines in France.
They also developed the prototypes of modern hot air balloons, introducing new features to the old models.
The first circumnavigation of the world by balloon
- Who: Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones
- When: 1998 to 1999
During the 90s, the ever-growing stream of family's successes continued when third-generation explorer and clean technology pioneer Bertrand Piccard (Switzerland), together with Brian Jones (UK), completed the first ever non-stop around-the-world flight in a balloon.
Bertrand's first attempt at completing the first circumnavigation of the world by balloon ever started in 1997 aboard the prototype Breitling Orbiter 1.
Grandson of record-breaking explorer Auguste Piccard, Bertrand had initially planned a 15-day journey, but a fuel leak forced the Breitling Orbiter 1 to an emergency ditching in the Mediterranean.
The second attempt at this nail-biting journey was, again, unsuccessful: this time the circumnavigation was cut short by the Chinese government refusing Breitling Orbiter 2 permission to fly over their territory.
But Bertrand didn’t give up and with the third, successful flight, he crossed a total distance of 40,814 km and finally broke the record after piloting the Breitling Orbiter 3 for 19 days and 21 hours, fighting storms, flying restrictions and unmerciful winds in the Caribbean.
“The first problem was to fly south to below the 26th parallel to respect the Chinese restrictions” - Bertrand on his website
The balloon departed from Chateau-d'Oex, Switzerland, and touched down on the 'finishing line' of 9.27ºW over Mauritania, North Africa, in the middle of the desert.
“I remember exactly the moment when I decided to become an explorer,” Bertrand writes on his website.
“It was July 1969, I was 11 years old, and my father had just boarded the "Ben Franklin Mesoscaphe", which he had designed to study the Gulf Stream. He was going to drift for a month 3,000 km along the East Coast of America.”
Despite the no doubt daunting legacy left by his ancestors, Bertrand entirely upped the game by achieving a second record title.
In 2016, he also broke the record for the first-ever circumnavigation in a solar-powered aeroplane.
The record was broken on board the plane called Solar Impulse.
Through this challenge, Bertrand also wanted to highlight the practical opportunities offered by science to solve climate change, exploring alternative routes that would reduce the environmental impact.
Find a complete timeline of the Piccard family records in Guinness World Records 2023, out now.