At the Catch The Next Wave conference held in London earlier this week, retired US Navy captain Don Walsh shared his thoughts on the importance of “looking backwards to the future”. The author of over 200 ocean-related publications was the first Officer-in-Charge to pilot the Bathyscaph Trieste — a USN deep submersible — to the deepest part of the ocean at a depth of 35,840ft, requiring innovative solutions. This achievement in January 1960 led to Walsh being awarded a medal from President Eisenhower.

Don Walsh

“I don’t think we look back at history enough in engineering and I’ve spent half a century in undersea engineering,” says Walsh, who together with Jacques Piccard and James Cameron (who reached the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep in March 2012) are the only men to have reached such depths. “When I joined the Trieste programme in the mid 1950s, there were only two manned submersibles in the world. In those days, if you wanted a new piece of equipment, you couldn’t go to a vendor and pick it up, you had to design and manufacture it. Today I can see our DNA in the majority of ocean systems in manned and unmanned submersibles.”

Walsh discussed in great detail the importance of exploring new avenues and in taking existing advances in technology from other sectors and modifying it to be fit for purpose. He explained how one of the first ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicle) had been especially built as a result of this project, so it could be deployed from the Trieste should the vessel ever get stuck on the sea floor.

Bathyscaph Trieste

“Underwater lights and cameras that we used were a first of their kind,” says Walsh. “This didn’t come into existence because we were particularly creative but rather because if you wanted to do something, you had to invent it.”

While sharing stories and thoughts on times gone by, Walsh also pointed to examples of technology that were revolutionary at the time of launch but had in fact been explored several years earlier. An example of this was in ocean thermal energy, which Walsh and his team had looked into in the 1950s and discovered that a French scientist from the mid 19th century had already investigated ways to harness it. It is an interesting observation and adds weight to his belief that there could be more that engineers and designers could learn from history and could potentially save time in R&D.

“There is still a lot that could be mined from what we did in the early days of deep submergence and underwater engineering,” says Walsh, who was present when  Cameron made his deep sea dive and revealed the difference between what Cameron had done and what he did. “I said to the press, if you put one of the earliest aircraft next to a Boeing 747 and made a comparison, you would get an idea of the differences. 50 years before I made my dive the first real airplane started flying. 50 years after my dive James did his dive — half a century is a long time and technology continues to improve at a rapid rate.”

Walsh’s closing remark was to marry the importance of this point with the need to give creatives and engineers the permission to make mistakes, as it is only then that you push the boundaries far enough to make leaps in technology.