The Evolution of Alvin

Alvin celebrates its 50th birthday this year. In the past half century, the deep-sea submersible has made more than 4,700 dives all over the world. It has discovered hydrothermal vents, explored the Titanic, and searched for a missing hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea. It even spent a year—while lost—at the bottom of the ocean.

To keep the sub at the cutting edge of research and exploration, Alvin’s caretakers have made a number of modifications and upgrades over time. Here are a few.

Scroll to Explore Alvin's Evolution

1964

Alvin, the first U.S. research submersible, was commissioned on June 5, 1964, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Able to dive 6,000 feet but smaller than military submersibles, the new vehicle had systems—including thrusters and ballast tanks—that were miniaturized. Alvin was named for its primary inspiration, the engineer and geophysicist Allyn Vine.

1966

Upgrades to Alvin's ballast system and sail configuration were interrupted when a U.S. B-52 airplane collided with a tanker and lost a hydrogen bomb off the Spanish coast. Alvin helped the U.S. Navy recover the weapon, then returned to Cape Cod to complete its overhauls.

1973

Engineers swapped out Alvin's steel personnel sphere for a slightly larger titanium one. The new material—lighter and stronger than steel—enabled Alvin to go to 12,000 feet.

1978

Alvin received a new titanium structural frame, along with a second manipulator arm and a sample basket to aid in scientific work. The manipulator arms could now carry cameras, enabling researchers to take close-up shots of specimens or experiments.

1982

Alvin's sail section got a new paint job. Rick Chandler, submersible operations administrator at Woods Hole, says the red-orange sail made the vehicle easier to spot in the water when it surfaced.

1986

Engineers replaced Alvin's single propeller with four thrusters, which improved maneuverability. The submersible also got better battery packs and a new way to slip in and out of the water: Instead of an elevator system, a lift tee was used to help crew members move Alvin more easily.

2013

The first phase of a major overhaul was completed. Upgrades included a larger personnel sphere with five view ports instead of three, new syntactic foam for better buoyancy, a forward lateral thruster, an LED lighting system, and five high-definition cameras. Though still limited to a depth of 14,764 feet, Alvin should be able to dive 21,325 feet after phase two is completed.

BY MATTHEW TWOMBLY, ANNA SCALAMOGNA, AND ALEX STEGMAIER, NGM STAFF; MEG ROOSEVELT

Sources: Rick Chandler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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The Evolution of Alvin

Alvin celebrates its 50th birthday this year. In the past half century, the deep-sea submersible has made more than 4,700 dives all over the world. It has discovered hydrothermal vents, explored the Titanic, and searched for a missing hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea. It even spent a year—while lost—at the bottom of the ocean.

To keep the sub at the cutting edge of research and exploration, Alvin’s caretakers have made a number of modifications and upgrades over time. Here are a few.

Scroll to Explore Alvin's Evolution

1964

Alvin, the first U.S. research submersible, was commissioned on June 5, 1964, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Able to dive 6,000 feet but smaller than military submersibles, the new vehicle had systems—including thrusters and ballast tanks—that were miniaturized. Alvin was named for its primary inspiration, the engineer and geophysicist Allyn Vine.

1966

Upgrades to Alvin's ballast system and sail configuration were interrupted when a U.S. B-52 airplane collided with a tanker and lost a hydrogen bomb off the Spanish coast. Alvin helped the U.S. Navy recover the weapon, then returned to Cape Cod to complete its overhauls.

1973

Engineers swapped out Alvin's steel personnel sphere for a slightly larger titanium one. The new material—lighter and stronger than steel—enabled Alvin to go to 12,000 feet.

1978

Alvin received a new titanium structural frame, along with a second manipulator arm and a sample basket to aid in scientific work. The manipulator arms could now carry cameras, enabling researchers to take close-up shots of specimens or experiments.

1982

Alvin's sail section got a new paint job. Rick Chandler, submersible operations administrator at Woods Hole, says the red-orange sail made the vehicle easier to spot in the water when it surfaced.

1986

Engineers replaced Alvin's single propeller with three thrusters, which improved maneuverability. The submersible also got better battery packs and a new way to slip in and out of the water: Instead of an elevator system, a lift tee was used to help crew members move Alvin more easily.

2013

The first phase of a major overhaul was completed. Upgrades included a larger personnel sphere with five view ports instead of three, new syntactic foam for better buoyancy, a forward lateral thruster, an LED lighting system, and five high-definition cameras. Though still limited to a depth of 14,764 feet, Alvin should be able to dive 21,325 feet after phase two is completed.

BY MATTHEW TWOMBLY, ANNA SCALAMOGNA, AND ALEX STEGMAIER, NGM STAFF; MEG ROOSEVELT

Sources: Rick Chandler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution