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Jean Piccard

Jean Piccard used a metal gondola and a cluster of 92 balloons to climb to 11,000 feet.
Jean Piccard used a metal gondola and a cluster of 92 balloons to climb to 11,000 feet.

Jean Piccard, twin brother of Auguste, was born in Basel, Switzerland, on January 28, 1884. From a young age, he showed an interested in high-altitude balloon flight. He became an organic chemist and aeronautical engineer and earned a doctorate in natural science from the Swiss Institute of Technology. Although physically separated from his brother, he often collaborated with Auguste on his investigations into the stratosphere.

In 1913, while still in Switzerland, Jean Piccard made his first balloon ascent with his brother. In 1926, he moved to the United States, where he became a U.S. citizen in 1931. In 1933, he led a research team on the first flight of the Century of Progress that investigated cosmic rays. On October 23, 1934, he and his wife and partner in research Jeanette made a second ascent in the Century of Progress from Dearborn, Michigan, reaching an altitude of 57,979 feet (17,672 meters). During that flight, they carried out further cosmic ray research and also tested a liquid oxygen system. As a result, Piccard was instrumental in the development of a liquid oxygen converter for use in balloons and high-flying aircraft.

In 1936, Piccard developed and launched the first plastic film balloon, which was the forerunner of modern balloons. He devised the multiple balloon concept, and in 1937, made the first manned ascent, climbing to 11,000 feet (3,350 meters) using a cluster of 92 balloons attached to the metal gondonla of the Pleiades. He also worked on the Helios project for the Office of Naval Research—a project in which a cluster of balloons would carry a sealed gondola as high as 100,000 feet (30,480 meters).

In the 1940s, Piccard worked with balloon designer Otto Winzen to design a polyethylene high-altitude balloon that was only 1/1000 of an inch (0.0254 millimeters) thick. Later he developed a frost-resistant window for balloon gondolas and aircraft and an electronic system for emptying ballast bags.

Piccard also taught at the University of Minnesota until his retirement in 1952. He died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 28, 1963.