For twenty years, the USS Dolphin had been charged with the task of intercepting slave-ships in the West Indies, the East Indies, and the Barbary Coast. In 1859, it embarked upon its final voyage, a scientific expedition to sound the depths of the Atlantic ocean.
The expedition was led by Matthew Fontaine Maury and Giovanni Cantelli. Maury, a former naval officer from Virginia, had been gravely injured in a skirmish with pirates. Crippled in body but fortified in spirit, Maury decided to explore those regions of the ocean that no living man had visited. He would make a map of the ocean floor. Cantelli was an Italian physicist, the inventor of a device that transformed images into audio-frequency tones which could then be sent across telephone lines. His interest in building a transatlantic line of communication had incited him to join Maury’s expedition. He was also a gifted musician. It was Cantelli’s idea to sound the ocean depths with piano wire, instead of rope; the piano wire fell straighter and more quickly, and when dropped into a choppy sea, it produced a resonant humming noise not unpleasant to the ear.
One morning, when the ship was about hundred leagues south of the Azores and far from any coast, the falling wire stopped abruptly. Further measurements of the vicinity confirmed that the ocean floor lay on average nearly six hundred fathoms below them, with the exception of an area some 15 yards in diameter, where the waters were only a little more than two fathoms deep. The shallow region formed a perfect circle, and as perfect circles do not exist in nature, Cantelli and Maury were lowered down in a diving bell in order to investigate.And so it was that on August 10, 1859, they became the first men in twelve thousand years to enter the Tower of Oricalum, from whose heights a vanished civilization saw lights from Stars that have long since burnt out.
Subsequent attempts to relocate the tower have proved fruitless. Some say it is cursed. The Dolphin returned safely to Norfolk, but a year later, Union troops set it ablaze so that it would not fall into Confederate hands. Cantelli’s communication device failed, and died in relative obscurity in his native Florence. Today he is remembered as the inventor of the fax machine. Maury completed and published his map, the world’s first map of Oceanic Bathymetry. Maury’s map charts the depths of the area south of the Azores, but makes no reference to any shallow circle. Perhaps he wanted to protect the tower; perhaps he wanted to forget it. One of his great-nephews would later recall that, in the weeks before his death, old uncle Maury would mutter incoherently about the towers of Atlantis.
The diving bell was lowered until it floated just above the hard smooth surface of the circle, scattering a school of halibut in a burst of bluish silver. It was a cloudy day, even at this shallow depth the light was dim. From the glass windows of the diving bell, at first Maury and Cantelli could only made out a green circle around them, pale, almost flourescent against the darkness of the surrounding deeps, a sunken garden floating over the black abyss. Algae and barnacles covered the surface of the circle. By repeatedly extending and retracting one of the legs of the diving bell, they were able to scrape the algae away, revealing a geometric pattern, “like a map of whirlpools,” said Maury. “Or like a net of interlocking suns,” said Cantelli; “mi ripigneva là dove ’l sol tace. “Against me coming, pushed me, step by step/ Back to the place where silent is the sun,” echoed Maury.
As their eyes accustomed to the dim green light, Maury and Cantelli gradually discerned the outline of a circular wall, the interior of which was regularly adorned with large purplish rings of some unknown metal. From these rings, bolted to the wall, hung chains of the same metal. The rings showed no signs of rust or decay. Cursed, or miraculously preserved from the passage of time, the violet-colored chains repelled the abundant sea life that bubbled and flit around it. “We have come to a prison,” said Maury, “or to their place of exile. Men were chained to these walls.”
An irregular protuberance rose up from the middle of the circle. As the diving bell approached the center, they made out the outline of the form: the same purplish metal a triangular shape with another, inverted triangle atop it: an hourglass, said Maury. A woman, said Cantelli, and then the clouds broke, rays of sunlight illuminated the circle with a brilliant green light, and through the window of the diving bell they saw with atrocious clarity a leering and sadistic face, eyes aglow, mouth sharp-toothed and smiling, smiling, always smiling, eternally victorious.