The Vancouver Maritime Museum includes pieces that are available for public viewing any time. One of those pieces is the Ben Franklin, a submersible stored outside the museum. Before you take your next stroll in Vanier Park, read up on this extraordinary vessel. This article was originally written by past Librarian and Archivist Carrie Schmidt and published in BC Shipping News in May 2011.
One of the most impressive examples of marine engineering in the 20th century found a permanent home at the Vancouver Maritime Museum in 1999: the mesocaphe, or medium-depth submersible, Ben Franklin (code name PX-15), the largest of its kind.
The PX-15 was specifically designed for use in Dr. Jacques Piccard’s Gulf Stream Drift Mission: a 30–day voyage along the Gulf Stream, with its six–member crew conducting a variety of oceanographic and acoustic studies. Piccard and Donald Terrana of the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation oversaw the two–year construction of the Ben Franklin in Switzerland, at a cost of $2.5 million – somewhat more than the original estimate of $1 million. The 48–feet–long vessel weighing 147 tons was shipped to Florida and christened as Ben Franklin in August 1968. It was named for the famed scientist, inventor and American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who is credited with charting and naming the Gulf Stream in 1770 while serving as the US Postmaster.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was keenly interested in the mission and supplied an observer to evaluate crew reactions to a long stressful voyage in a completely enclosed environment. The studies conducted provided valuable data that NASA used in preparation for manned flights to Mars. Nasa continues to use that data today.
Ben Franklin began its mission on July 14, 1969 off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida and concluded August 14, off the coast of Halifax. It traveled 1400 nautical miles at an average depth of 650 feet, with a maximum depth of 1800 feet. Some of the data collected includes:
- Over 900,000 temperature, salinity and sound velocity measurements
- 500 temperature vs depth profiles of the Stream
- 50 miles of gravitational anomalies
- 60 000 photographs of crew activities in support of the NASA study
The crew emerged from the 3700–cubic–foot vessel quite a few pounds lighter – crew members had rations of 3158 calories per day but only consumed about 2300 calories. The captain on board, Don Kazimir says “Actually, we ate pretty good on the mission. We had freeze-dried meals that were reconstituted with hot water. I brought a lot of pantry type items like peanut butter, crackers, etc. that made the trip ok. Music using cassette tapes helped a lot.”
The scientific and psychological significance of the Gulf Stream Drift Mission was overshadowed by the fact that only 6 days after the mission began, man walked on the moon for the first time. The media was much more interested in space travel than deep sea travel. After its original mission, the vessel participated in other oceanographic studies but was seriously damaged after striking a coral reef in 1970.
Vancouver-based Horton Trading Ltd. purchased it in 1971 with the intention of adding a “lock-out” diving chamber and using it for commercial work, but this was never completed. Since it was donated in 1999, the Ben Franklin has been on public view just outside the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and much of the research material generated on board is housed in the Leonard G. McCann Archives within the museum.
Photos are part of the VMM Collection (top right: interior of Ben Franklin; bottom left: Ben Franklin in New York.