Using revolutionary technology to find “a rusty old ship”

Ballard
Ballard

After he discovered the wreck of Titanic in 1985, Robert D. Ballard, Ph.D., heard from his mother. “That’s all they’re going to remember you for,” she said, “having found a rusty old ship.”

Since then Ballard, founder and president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium, where he works with Dean Emeritus Gerard N. Burrow, M.D. ’58, HS ’66, has gone on to find PT 109 and Roman trading ships, among others. But his real accomplishment in finding the Titanic was the validation of a new approach to exploring the 72 percent of the Earth under the sea. Frustrated by the limitations of sending people underwater, he developed a telepresence—remotely operated vehicles with sophisticated digital cameras. “It had all the characteristics of my submarine, except me,” he said in October during the Wayne O. Southwick Lecture for the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. “The first application of this new exploratory technology was the discovery of the Titanic.”

When he saw the high degree of preservation on the ship—including a chandelier still hanging in the ballroom—he came to another realization. “It hadn’t dawned on me that the sea was a museum,” he said.