Oral History Transcript — Dr. Thomas Aitken
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Interview with Dr. Thomas Aitken
Thomas Aitken; December 22, 1997
ABSTRACT: Born April 8, 1934 in Punxsutawney, PA; recalls family life and childhood. Pursued undergraduate education at Dartmouth, but dropped out after fatherís death. Drafted into Army Signal Corps in 1955; entered Columbia University School of General Studies after his active duty. Began position at Lamont on November 20, 1961 and worked there until retirement in 1994. Recalls his first cruise aboard the Vema; became chief scientist onboard in 1965. Comments on the change of big block grants for Lamont projects; discusses his role as mediator between Heezen and Ewing. Explains his tacit knowledge of the ship and its equipment; comments on the change in Lamont leadership when Ewing left. Describes the women computers at Lamont and their work; describe the data recording equipment and processes at Lamont. Reflects on his forced retirement and his long career of service at Lamont.
Session I | Session II
Doel:This is Ron Doel, and this is a continuing interview with Thomas Aitken, and were making this interview on the 22nd of December, 1997, at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. In the last interview, we did talk about the time up to your hire here at Lamont, and Iím wondering, when you think back on it, what you expected you would be doing once you began work at Lamont. What did you first see yourself doing, and how different was that within the first few years?
Well, actually, I didnít know. I had graduated from Columbia University School of General Studies in June of 1961, and I studied a little in geography, but I was interested in geology, and I had mostly geology courses and an interest in economic geology. However, that was a time, like now, when nobody was hiring geologists, and oil companies were laying off geologists. I had a friend that graduated a year before, named Charles Windisch, who worked at Lamont and sailed on Vema 17, so I applied at Lamont (it was then known as Lamont Geological Observatory) to get on the ship, and I didnít hear and didnít hear. I even drove up once to find out, and finally I heard, and I found out the day I was hired that I started work on the 20th of November 1961. Was hired by John Ewing as a warm body to go to sea, not knowing any of my duties or anything like that.
I came up here, and Vema at that time was in dry dock, or just out of dry dock, in Brewerís shipyard in Staten Island. And Clyde Buchanan — I was handed over to him after filling out all of the necessary papers on the first day, to go down to the ship and help install equipment. On the way down, he asked me do I have a passport? And I said, ďNo.Ē Well, I needed one, so I had to call home to my mother, and got her to express mail, or whatever they used at that time, my birth certificate to me so I could get a passport before we sailed. At that time, the scheduled sailing was the 27th of November, so I was rushing around — went down to get the passport, and then also was going to need all of these shots and everything. So I was going and getting shots, including yellow fever, which you had to get down at the Public Health Service, in lower New York. I went down there to get the shot, and coming back on the subway, this man came up to me, spoke to me, and he told me he recognized me from being around Lamont.
I didnít recognize him, because there were so many people, and his name was Marc [Marcus G.] Langseth. And so he came back up to Lamont, and came by every day when I was going down to the ship to install things and the ship got delayed, as most of our ships usually do, a few days. It finally got up to Piermont [NY] and getting ready to sail, was supposed to sail one afternoon. I have no idea what happened, but it didnít, and we didnít sail till the next morning, which was not untypical with the ship. And the girl I was dating at the time was waiting in the afternoon along down by Columbia to see the ship come down, which it never did, of course, so she didnít see it sail by.
Doel:Was she able to see it later?
Aitken:Yes, she saw it when we came in at the end of the year, when we docked into New York harbor, the 8th, 9th December — whatever day it was — in 1962. That cruise started out as a ten-month cruise, and was supposed to go around through the south Atlantic into the Indian Ocean and back. It got changed some time along the way, and went across the Pacific and ended up being a twelve-month cruise — actually fifty-three weeks, New York to New York. Not many ports. The first port was Bermuda, and in my total of six years of sea-time at Lamont, I never needed a port as much as I needed the first port.
Doel:[Laughs] I can imagine. What was that experience like for you, out at sea?
Well, we finally set out. We actually had more people on the ship than we had bunks, so we were hot-bunking. There were three of us hot-bunking to Bermuda, which meant that when somebody slept, and somebody was up you changed bunks. So I actually slept in two different four-hour shifts and two different bunks during the day and during the night. I was put on the twelve to four shift, using Navy-type shifts, was eight to twelve, twelve to four, and four to eight round the clock. This just started the year before, using explosives and hydrophones to shoot through single-channel seismic profiling along the way, and to get the hydrophone to work, you had to keep it still. To keep it still when the shot was ready to go off, you let it just stay underneath the water and let the cable play out, and then you have to haul it back in. And the way it was done was with a yoke formation, and on a BT winch, which is a very fine wire, and you had to be very careful doing it.
If you let out too much wire, the wire got around the cables, then stripped the cable, and you ruined the thing, and you had to pull it in chains, so it was really not appreciated doing that. And since every watch had to help make cables, and we were repairing the cables sort of continuously the whole time — that wasnít much fun. And there were many different yoke things. I remember one of the first things I did, I was given a 36-inch pipe about an inch in diameter, and I sawed it by hand lengthwise down the middle, making two, so that we built to make the yoke, so we could keep two parts of it apart. And I had to go down to the engine room to get something, and I was so glad I wasnít working in the engine room, because it was so hot and miserable. Coming out in December it was rough seas, so being seasick it was nice being out on deck doing these things, where at least you could see a horizon and have fresh air, even though it was cool, but at least you had fresh air.
Doel:What sort of things were you doing? You mentioned what you were doing above decks. Was it pretty much whatever needed to get done, or was it more specialized?
Aitken:Well, yes. Well, most of the people were specialized, and I had one of the ETs [electronic technicians] ask me what my specialty was, and I said I didnít have a specialty, you see? So he came around and said, ďWhat are you, a chief scientist?Ē And I said, ďNo.Ē But there was a heat-flow person who worked for Marc Langseth. There was a core describer who worked for the corer and did the coring as a geologist. There was a person who did the water bios, a water sampler. There was a biologist — took biology samples. There were a couple of electronics people. Somebody did the underwater camera work, and oh, there was a heat — I said the heat flow. There was a gravity person for the gravity records and the machine who tried to keep that operating. There were a total of twelve of us technicians on the ship, plus the chief scientist, so they had four people on the watch, which wasnít bad, because you had somebody shooting explosives and somebody slacking, we called it, the hydrophones all the time while we were underway, which kept two people especially busy, and the other two would be in marking all the records. At that time, we marked the records any time there was a change of course or speed every half hour on the half hour and hour, and we had to mark each machine individually. Later on, they made it where you just had to push one mark and marked all the machines at the same time, which made it much easier Ė didnít need to run around so madly. And all the machines had log books that had to be filled out, plus things had to be run, the records that were on all the machines. Again, as the years went by, a lot of those things were automated, but this was in the 1961, Ď62, Ď63 era.
Doel:I could imagine. And of course, later on, you did become chief scientist on quite a few of the mainland continent cruises.
Aitken:Yes, well, like most of them, like on the first leg out, Marc Langseth was on and he was one of the — out of the four people on the watch, one person was sort of in charge of the watch. When he was on, John Ewing was the chief scientist and Iíve forgotten, without looking at who the crew was, who were the others. But then, the second leg out of — well, particularly the third leg out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and after Bermuda, Marc Langseth was the chief scientist. Then down to Recife, Brazil, and on to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was again, not an uncommon thing if you had somebody that might sail the first one leg and they didnít have too much experience, or before they became chief scientist, or there were always experienced people on the first leg out. I did many first legs out of New York and usually in February and kept saying, ďShould know better than this, to sail out of New York in February, when everybody feels miserable.Ē
Doel:What did you enjoy most about it?
Aitken:It was different. You were outside. I hadnít looked forward to working in an office, so this was — actually, when I was in the Army, I met a person who was a geology major, and when I switched from chemistry to geology, because that sounded more fun, it used a part of chemistry I liked and working outside in the field. This was definitely fieldwork under conditions, and it was camaraderie also. Youíre all in it together. In fact, you get to know people pretty well when youíre on a ship thatís only 200 feet long and about fifty, thirty five, fifty feet at the widest, where thereís thirty seven people on it, you know a lot more about them than you know about most other people youíre around the rest of your life, and especially when, in those days, the technicians tended to stay for the whole cruise. So, I think out of the twelve that started, there must have been eight of us that did the twelve months together.
Doel:Who did you come to know best out of those?
Aitken:In the end it was all Roy Capo, the gravity observer. He was — because later on, I shared some apartments with him. Fact of the matter, on and off up until the time I got married, we shared apartments down in Fort Lee [NJ], South Nyack [NY], and Piermont down at the end — from South Nyack moved to Piermont. That was where we — well anyhow, we had shared apartments with other people and between various people, especially in the early days when I was going to sea on and off and didnít own the furniture. It was sort of nice, we just put our things in storage and gave up. Didnít have to pay an apartment rent. And later on, after you owned furniture and things, you had to have an apartment a year around.
Doel:You find someone, then, during the longer cruises?
Aitken:Generally most the people shared, usually two, three, four. For a while I was in an apartment down in Englewood [NJ] that had been originally set up with all geochemists. I got into it because some of the graduate students moved out, and I knew some the people from Lamont and the others Iíd sailed with on the ship. So I was in that, and then when that house was sold, the three of us left there moved up to an apartment in Piermont.
Doel:When you think back to the first long cruise that you were on, on board the R/V Vema, were there any parts of it that you found you really didnít like very much?
Aitken:I didnít like being seasick, of course. I never met anybody that did.
Doel:How long did it take you to get adjusted to being at sea?
Aitken:It takes me a good day, maybe two days, and I always feel miserable when we first go out. Fact of the matter, I say I go into port for two or three days and my system forgets it had ever been to sea before, but I also learned there are degrees of seasickness growing up. I found that usually I feel better once I get to sleep on the ship and get used to motion by sleeping. However, always coming out of port you have to set up all of the equipment, get everything working, and turn the electronic equipment off. It doesnít always turn on, and in those days, all of the equipment was built here at Lamont. So you had ETs but you learned that you needed to help them, and fix and solder and do various jobs like that.
Doel:And given the short amount of time that you had between your hire and the time that you went out, you really didnít get to meet many of the people who worked in the lab before that cruise, am I right?
Aitken:Thatís correct. I mean, I met the people who were just working on the ship, and most of them sailed. I met a couple of the people in John Ewingís office — his draftsman, secretary, Betty Batchouder, who still lives in Palisades, might be an interesting person to talk to, also. But I really only knew people on the ship. Fact of the matter, when I came back a year later, went into personnel and you know, said, ďIím Tom Aitken,Ē and I think it was the head of personnel, one of the women at the time said, ďOh, youíre Tom Aitken.Ē I jumped back, said, ďWhat did I do now?Ē But it was just — they knew all the names, they didnít have any idea who all these people were whoíd been on the ship for a year. So it worked both ways.
Doel:Iím curious, when you think back on that first long cruise, what were the highlights of it? What were the things that, when you think back to those earliest years of Lamont, just come foremost to mind?
Aitken:Well, one of the highlights of it — I never had the occasion to see it again was — we were coming out of St. George, Bermuda on the way to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We got into night and I had to work twelve to four. It was a beautiful full moon, and the sea was dead calm, with no ripples on it, but big swells. And that was beautiful because the moon reflected off the big swells, but like glass. I stayed up I guess till dawn, maybe to breakfast that night, just to Ė-
Doel:Just to watch that?
Aitken:Just to watch that, which is not uncommon. Another other thing I remember on the again, those earlier cruises you worked many hours. You know twelve, sixteen hour days, seven days a week were not uncommon for everybody. The people who had specific jobs — if the core describer was on the eight to twelve and the core was taken at one in the afternoon, he had to be there to describe that, and then ready to go on the eight to twelve. The same with the heat flow people, and you couldnít have — usually most cores were taken in the morning, afternoon, or evening, and then you had to do your work after that, then get set up. If it was on their watch, it was nice, but then after their watch was over, they still had work to do. The ETs — when things broke down, there were usually two ETs so they were on two different watches, but if something happened on the third watch, somebody had to get up and fix these things. The hydrophone cables and things were repaired — everybody on the watch worked on them almost continuously, somebody was working on them, which happened later on when I was on the Argentine naval vessel Commadante General Zapiola (this was after Buenos Aires) the Buenos Aires off the H/V Vema for approximately three months, and on the Argentine ship with Clyde Buchanan and William Ludwig, who was a chief scientist on that, and then at the other half George Peter joined for part of those legs.
Doel:Yes, I very much want to hear about that as soon as we can get to it.
Doel:What did you do to unwind on RN Vema and those early cruises?
Aitken:Well thatís hard to say. Itís hard remembering back what you did to unwind. You see the same people all the time. Actually, on that cruise, we had liquor on the ship. The H/V Vema is a Panamanian ship, so liquor was not illegal. The captain didnít want the Canadian crew drinking, because theyíre Nova Scotians and Newfoundlands, also known as the goofy Newfies.
Doel:This is Henry Kohler, of course, that youíre referring to?
Aitken:This is Henry Kohler who was the captain, of course. But the first year out, Vema 18, generally the technicians were older, and the next year, Vema 19, they were a little younger, and thatís when they stomped down, because the crew is getting liquor from the technicians and everything, so after that, you couldnít so openly drink it. But we used to have cocktails in, I think it was Lloyd Burckleís cabin, whoís still at Lamont. He was a maggie operator, I forgot that — the person that took care of the magnetometer.
Aitken:He and Roy Capo shared the biggest technicianís cabin, so that was the place where we gathered.
Doel:How big was the cabin that you had on that first cruise?
Aitken:Well, the first cabin I was in was the four-man cabin. There were four of us in it. It was not very big at the time. Later on they refurbished it and made it better, but at that time we had just one little closet for the four of us, and I was in the lower bunk to and fro, and it was really long. I used to keep clothes in my army duffel bag. There was a place to keep them but also it shortened the bunk. Even at six foot one the bunk was too long for anybody, and it shifted. And the ships tend to roll rather than pitch, they go back and forth, so having stuff piled up at the foot was an advantage.
Doel:Thatís interesting, yes. Was this cruise initially conceived as part of the Indian Ocean expedition? You had mentioned that one of the first destinations had been planned as Ė-
Aitken:I donít know. I think it actually preceded the Indian Ocean, or it may have been Ė-
Doel:It might have. It was right around that time Ė-
Aitken:I think that one of them was done for that, because, again Lamont had started the seismic profiling and every place we knew, everything we discovered was brand new. Later cruises just built upon what was found before. So just going from point A to point B seeing what was in the central parts of the ocean. I mean, the cruise went New York, Bermuda, San Juan, to Buenos Aires, and the R/V Vema went from there to Punta Arenas, Chile, which, at that time — and I think its finally been settled — but Argentina and Chile had been at war for close to a hundred years, so Argentine naval vessels didnít go into Chile. And then it came back to Ushuaia where you met the Commadante General Zapiola. Then it went up to Bahia Blanca, and then back to Buenos Aires, and then across to Capetown, South Africa, the Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and the freeman of Australia. Then to Wellington, New Zealand, to American Samoa, to Tahiti, and we started across to Kaiaia, Peru, at port Felima, but the seas — we just couldnít make headway that way. Then up to Sauna Cruz, Mexico, then the Panama Canal, then up past Cuba, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis Ė-
Doel:The Cuba missile crisis was at that time, wasnít it?
Aitken:We were right off Cuba then, that was where we were.
Doel:Were you aware of tensions at the time?
Aitken:We were very aware of tensions at the time. We were there, we [laughs] went to Nassau then to Bermuda and back to New York. We had to be out of sequence, yes. I mean, we were shooting explosives. The U.S. Navy asked us to stop, because if youíre familiar with underwater sound, theyíre very loud and even half-pound blocks were blanking out all their equipment. So we quit shooting our underwater explosives, recording, and the planes were overhead. And then after Nassau, we were doing a survey area that we had surveyed on the way down to San Juan from Bermuda, and weíd be running in squares, and the WV Vema at that time still had three masts. If any ship ever looked like a gun runner, it Ė-
Aitken:It did. All of a sudden, wed be out on the deck working with explosives, and then all of a sudden weíd get hit with these bright lights because these Navy planes — or Iím presuming they were Navy planes — theyíd come over and turn on their landing lights bright, to see what the ships were and what we were doing. Just come up the fantail of the ship, and it was all just a surprise, because it didnít happen all the time, but when you were out there and you got caught with them you jumped.
Doel:Did you ever feel in physical danger over the Cuban missile crisis, being in that vicinity?
Aitken:No, I didnít feel any danger. I mean, we were there. Itís — cíest la vie. Not much you can do about it. I mean, you know, I figured anything that happened to me was going to be an accident. Youíre worried about accidents, carrying twenty tons of explosives and shooting and handling them all the time. Youíre worried about accidents on the ship. In the year before, on the 17th of March, 1961, Vema 17, the chief scientist was blown up and killed by a premature explosion in his hands.
Doel:This is John [F.] Hennion?
Aitken:That was John Hennion. So, you thought about things like that, especially as you learned to shoot. You first started shooting, and you got — and part of handling explosives or shooting — you didnít worry about yourself, you figured that was your own fault. But you worried about other shooters. Because if you blew yourself up, thatís your fault, but to have somebody else blow you up is not too interesting.
Doel:Yes. Did you feel that others were paying the kind of care you wanted them to, in shooting?
Aitken:Yes. I mean, we were trained very, I think, very carefully and everything, and it depends upon personality. There was one person shooter that worked, but he was just a little bit clumsy, and you know, you used to have so much explosives around you would stand beside the people while they made up the charges and lit them and tossed them overboard. However, this person, people — nobody stood beside him while he was lighting it and tossing it overboard. [Laughs] You wanted to be far enough away from him. But didnít feel, you know, never did anything but it was just that feeling. We actually, you had — before I learned to shoot, we had one new shooter who made it up the first person that was taught to shoot, and when he lit the thing and threw it, it hit the rail and bounced back on the deck. He panicked, being a new shooter, because we were using six inch fuses, and there you had twenty one seconds before it went off. He had plenty of time to pick it up and throw it overboard. But he panicked and ran, and I was down in the aft cabin. The four-man cabin was pretty close, and I actually heard it go off on deck up above, and I knew what it was, and the fire alarms went off on the ship, and people were coming to get out. I knew what had happened on the thing, on the deck.
Doel:You mean the moment you heard it going off, you could diagnose it?
Aitken:Yes, it wasnít in the water, it was up on — it was right up to off my right hand, up above. So I got up and got dressed and went up to the lab where we were supposed to assemble, and very carefully looked around to see who was missing, because thatís my first thought. Well, turns out everybody was there and thereís no fire and everything. We were lucky in that sense, and it put just a very small dent in the deck, the polycrete, which you put on top of the steel deck — it blew it off, of course, and put a very small dent in the deck, which could be filled with polycrete from then on. Turns out one of the messmen was back picking up supplies for either breakfast or lunch — I donít know what time it happened — but he was sort of right under it, and he (laughs), it was a real surprise to him.
Doel:To put it mildly.
Aitken:To put it mildly. One of the other technicians I heard afterwards got up the thing and ran and appeared on deck naked, but there were no females on the ship, so that didnít make any difference. But itís still not cool, in case you have to abandon ship, youíd like to have a little bit of clothing on.
Doel:Yes. Wonder what else comes to mind when you think generally about that first long cruise. Were there other developments, either on the ship or when you were seasick?
Aitken:Well, there are always developments. I mean, different personalities come out. There were, you know, people that couldnít work with other people. After, when we got to San Juan, I was appointed one of the watch chiefs, and there was one technician that I always had on my watch, because he didnít get along with a couple of the other people. They didnít — he was young, he was like far young, he was just straight out of high school. And, also in the way — in shooting, it was not required to shoot. You didnít have to learn to handle the explosives, and we had two, I know of for sure, that did not shoot. Which was fine, but what it meant, the fact that we had four shooters, four people on the watch — so you did an hour shooting and an hour slacking. If you had somebody that didnít shoot, they did two hours of the slacking, and the four hours divided up into an hour and a third approximately, depending upon if you had somebody that was working in the core and developing film or doing things like that, lots of times they may not shoot. Though, people like myself, whoíd maybe shoot longer, and so they get the work done, but if we — because we had no other responsibilities. Also, the cameraman ran the winch. Later on, we were taking a lot of stations with Bruce [C.] Heezen, I learned to run the winch to spell him, because we were taking stations from eight in the morning till midnight, just one right after another. A person canít possibly do all that and develop the film between, so I learned to run the winch. Other people learned to run the winch, to do various jobs like that, to help out on station, because on station, record-keeping was much simpler, you just had to go in and write the times every half hour as we were hove-to and drifting with the seas. And we didnít bother recording when they had to steam it a little bit to straighten the wires out and everything, it was not recorded on the records.
Doel:You mentioned a moment ago the cooperation that occurred with the Argentines and when you were sailing on the one ship Ė-
Aitken:Commadante General Zapiola.
Doel:Yes, indeed. When did that come about? Was that the first cruise, or was that subsequent to it?
Aitken:Well that was on my first cruise, but they had worked with the Argentines before, so that was not new. They had done two-ship refraction, which we also did on — but this was the single-channel reflection for the first time. So we got to Buenos Aires, Clyde Buchanan, who had sailed on the ship out of New York to, I think, to Puerto Rico, got off and he came down to Buenos Aires. He was sailing with Bill [William] Ludwig on the Commadante General Zapiola, and they needed somebody else, so I was designated to go on that ship with the Argentines, and several Argentines went on the R/V Vema through the cooperative program. We also installed single-channel seismic gear on the Argentine ship at the time, and we did that plus when we got together out of Ushuaia, did two-ship refraction work to tie in with it.
Doel:You remember which Argentine scientists in particular you were working with?
Aitken:The names were Nestor Granelli, Alberto Lonardi —
Aitken:There were others, I donít remember what they were, and actually, one of the Argentine officers of Commadante General Zapiola, they were short a mate when we, for some reason, we sailed out of Buenos Aires to Capetown, he came on and sailed the rest of the cruise as mate on the R/V Vema; Alfredo Yung.
Doel:Iím curious how well you got to know people like Nestor Granelli and Alberto Lonardi during this time.
Aitken:Well, I didnít at that time. I think they were all on the R/V Vema at the time. I got to know Alfredo Yung — not J-U-N-G, Jung — Y-U-N-G, not the German. Itís a German name, but spelled in Spanish — because we were on the R/V Vema. I got to know Lonardi because he was up here at Lamont for years and worked for Dr. [W. Maurice] Ewing and had another office right beside mine.
Doel:I heard that. What sort of things was he doing when he was here?
Aitken:Bottom topography, mapping, and things like that. The Puerto Rico trench is one of the things he worked on a lot, I know. I forget, donít know what else, and — too much attention with, I mean — working for Doc [Ewing], you had your hands in a lot of various things and you werenít sure what particular thing. But thatís what he mainly worked on.
Doel:I wonder how you felt about the chance to work on the Argentine ship, what that experience was like.
Aitken:Well, I actually looked forward to it, it was interesting. It had bad points. The ship — the Argentines just got it from the U.S. Navy. Itís a sea-going tug, and I forget what the U.S. Navy named — it was an Indian name. Iím going to say a name, but I donít think itís right, Navaverro or something like that.
Doel:We can check on that.
Aitken:So, all the scientists come on, the Argentines plus the Americans, they kicked the petty officers out of their quarters, and we were in their quarters in hammocks. The bad feature was, since people were sleeping and working all the time, we never had lights on in the things. It was hard to crawl in and out through the bunks, and I remember, for a while, we even had water on the deck in there, so you couldnít keep anything on the deck, because there was an inch or two of water slushing around.
Doel:Really? [Laughs] And you didnít have those sorts of problems on R/V Vema?
Aitken:Didnít have those problems on R/V Vema. We ate with the officers. We actually — and our lab was set up in the crewís mess, and there was a big crewís mess, and then there were two passages way aft, one on each side, and we were on the port side, in the alleyway. Had the single-channel seismic set up and they thought we did two-ship refraction that was set up there also, and the Argentines did the shooting and did the slacking of the hydrophone, and we repaired the hydrophones, continually it seemed, and marked all the records and everything. Clyde Buchanan was the ET, Bill Ludwig was the chief scientist, and he was also refraction expert, that was his expertise, and Clyde Buchanan was on to learn that, and I was a warm body to do — because when shooting, itís no problem refraction, but it was receiving, so the two of them did receiving and I handled all the shooting, so it was usually, we were doing that maybe twelve or fourteen hours straight. And you get a little tired.
Doel:I can imagine youíd get — When you were on this cruise, particularly in the Pacific part, or other parts, did you come to meet scientists from other institutions, say when you came into port, or wasnít that very common at all?
Aitken:That wasnít common. One, there wasnít very — in 1962 there werenít many scientists around and in various ports. Later on, that became more common and if weíd meet other peopleís ships in port, I mean — I remember being on strip ships in Hawaii, and I was in Singapore once and went to look at them, I believe it was a Mobil Oil seismic ship there and they came over to our ship. It was things, yes. If they were around, yes, you did, but you know, you generally didnít see anybody in the beginning.
Doel:Yes. I wonder how the R/V Vema and the R/V [Robert D.] Conrad compared to those other ships that you did see out at sea, say by Scripps [Institute of Oceanography] and Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute]?
Aitken:Well, the R/V Conrad compared to them. The R/V Vema was unique, as everybody knows, it was built in 1923 in Copenhagen, Denmark, named the Haaser, and was by the Huttons, and they actually got rid of it because it was too small, and they bought a three masted square rigger as the replacement ship, which Captain [Henry] Kohler actually pointed out to me once, when it was in Miami, when they were sailing out of Miami on a later R/V Vema cruise. I forget which one, but so, and — the R/V Vema could not be registered by U.S. Coastguard, I think. There were no watertight bulkheads in the whole ship. It was of cast-iron, was the reason it had lasted so long. It actually still sailing now as a pleasure ship in the Bahamas, run by Captain Mike [?], known as the Mandalay. So if you want to go on it you can.
Aitken:I understand Captain Kohler was taken on a cruise on it when it was brand-new, or whatever you — first cruise, or whatever you — before it was brand-new.
Doel:In the early Ď80s, when it was being restored down in Ė-
Aitken:When they took it over.
Doel:Yes. I hadnít heard that. Thatís interesting. How well did you come to know Captain Kohler?
Aitken:Well, sailed over three years on the ship with him as a technician and a scientist, as a chief scientist. Now, chief scientist, you get to know the captain much better as a technician Ė-
Doel:And you first became chief scientist in 1965?
Aitken:Ď65, I was on the R/V Conrad, actually, out of — I was going with Dr. Ewing to Aidan [?] and sailing up through the Red Sea in April, and the doctor said to Ewing, no way for him to go into that area, so I was made chief scientist on the cruise from Aidan up to the Suez Canal. Then I stayed on with him, joining there, went to Naples and then to Plymouth, England, and came home.
Doel:What did you feel made for a good chief scientist? What sort of things were you always wanting to be careful about?
Aitken:Well, a good chief scientist was also a good technician. I thought it was just — you wanted all the equipment working. You wanted people to know what they were doing, and as far as ahead, you could warn people when you were going to do things. You had to plan, and generally you — I mean, when I was chief scientist, particularly, people like me, who had come through the technicians, our track was pretty much laid out, where we were going. Ewing would go over them with even senior scientists, pretty much tracks were laid out to fill out, fill in areas, so you didnít have control of where you went very much, within a little bit of latitude, but you had control of where you would stop and sample and do things. So that was just a matter of feel for what you wanted. And one reason Lamont has such a wonderful core collection used to be, you took a core a day to keep Doc happy, and so there were random corings all over the ocean. Well, now people go out and only core in specific places to core for certain things, but one reason they can do that is, thereís this big collection of cores taken in various places. And so you had — you knew how fast a ship could go and knew how many miles you had to go, so that told you how much time you had to stop, to hove to and take samples, and if you were ahead you could take more stations. You fell behind, you had to take less stations. You cored the day to come in and always came in in the morning, not to come in then, you got very upset. I was on with John Ewing, we came in at noon one time, and Kohler was not a happy captain.
Doel:[Laughs] It was too late.
Doel:Interesting, very interesting. Iím curious, too, did that kind of pressure to take at least a core a day persist into Manik Talwaniís term as director and then Barry [C. Baring] Raleighís? Or did it seem to slack off after Ė-
Aitken:Well, it did in Manikís. I mean, Manik was a graduate student of Docís, he grew up under Doc. So, things didnít really change then. And what really changed was his funding. Back in the Ď60s, he got two big contracts, one from ONR [Office of Naval Research], and one from NSF [National Science Foundation] to support the ship.
Doel:Right, the big block grants.
Aitken:Big block grants, and when I went to — when block grants — and Lamont was one of the last ones with block grants, and block grants went away, you had to write a thing and say what you were going out to do, and that changed that type of research. You just couldnít go out and do random things. You were going out to core for specific reasons, take samples, whatever you were doing, your seismic work was for a specific reason, so it was funding that changed. That was not, you know Ė-
Doel:Did you — and your experience was that there were less cores taken, or did people find a way of writing grants such that the practice could continue as it had before?
Aitken:Well, toward the end, much fewer cores were taken. You know, you did a seismic cruise, you took no cores. You went out, you didnít do seismic work. I mean, it was — you lost this thing. It was in one way a shame, the reason, one of the things, is plate tectonics. The United States naval ship R/V Eltanin was towing a magnetometer all along, and the R/V Vema was, and the R/V Conrad — nobody knew what to do with this data, but there were tons and tons of this data, and so once you had the data, then you go back and check it. There was nobody who said, ďWell, what are you going to collect, weíll fund it,Ē who knows, you know, plate tectonics would have been found, but I donít think as quickly, you know? Some graduate student by the name of Walter [C.] Pitman [III] working in magnetics, looking at all these records, and all of a sudden makes a connection because all the records were there, all the PDR [Precision Depth Recorder] records were, all these seismic records are there. Later on, on the R/V Vema — I think it was Vema 24, or Vema 26 was — did site surveys for the Glomar Challenger drilling. But a lot of those sites were picked on the original Lamont records, some from Vema 18, some from later cruises, and some from the other people once they did single-channel seismic. If you maybe only had one or two tracks through an area and you said, ďThis looks like a good place. Go out and survey and find out if it is a good place to drill with a drilling ship.Ē
Doel:Let me just pause. You were mentioning on the other side of the tape, about the changes that came once the funding switched from block grant to individual grant. I wonder, when you saw that, when that change really became evident to you in terms of practice on board the ship? Was it gradual or was there really a time when you just noticed it?
Aitken:No, I didnít. It was gradual. Also, I was never a scientist, you see, I was never writing the proposals and things, so I didnít notice so much. I was, you know, a senior technician and Ė-
Doel:Right, but you sure saw what was happening on board the ships when you sailed and how it felt.
Aitken:It did, but I was only — but, yes, you know, you could see things changing, so it was slowly how funding was changing, and seismic was still getting money then. Theyíre not getting any money now, for seismic work, marine seismic work anyway.
Aitken:So, I canít really put dates or things on that.
Doel:Sure. And you served as party chief for Eltanin 45, back in August of 1970 through October. How did that come about?
Aitken:Well, from the early days of R/V Eltanin, it was divided up. The ship was owned by the United States Naval Service, leased to NSF. NSF had contracts out — I donít know if it was in the beginning, but Florida State [University] did the coring. There was a group of Lamont people that did the camera work, and I guess the water sampling. There was another contract, Dennis [E.] Hayes had, made from the beginning, or I donít know, to [W. Maurice] Ewing at the beginning — did the seismic work. So seismic for that, you had technicians; you have your ET, somebody that did the computer, gravity, magnetometer, and somebody — one of those people were in charge. Again, by that time, Iíd been chief scientist, and experienced, and was going out with people who were not experienced, so I was named the party chief for that cruise. Alpine Geophysical, thatís right, they were the ship technicians. They ran the winches for the coring and everything. Lamont actually ran the hydrowinch itself, because we were used to doing that on our own ships, and even now, Lamont runs the winches on Lamontís ship. The scientists, right off from Lamont, and they donít run the winches, them and their technicians. The winches are run by Lamont people — it was run by Lamont people, but it was the technicians who ran that, where on other ships it was much more common — there were special technicians that only ran the winch. Of course, on the R/V Vema and R/V Conrad, there was the core crew who ran the corer winch. It was a little harder to run, but once you learned to run it, it wasnít bad. It actually could be fun.
Doel:Why was it fun?
Aitken:Well, it was free falling — that thing, letting it run free down, and it actually had been built probably by Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel, and when he was out on it, he used to run it down faster than I saw anybody else run it down. Lamont also — we always ran two wires at the same time, a light wire camera wire and a heavier wire, the core wire down the side, sometimes had maybe another wire over it but they never went deep, but these went down to the bottom. No other institutions did it. And when I went on the RN Eltanin I was party chief, but later on, on cruise 53, as an USARP [United States Antarctic Research Program] representative. I ran two wires on that ship, because when it was done, typical Ewing thing, it saves time. You donít have to run one wire down and up, and then one up and down. If you run them both down at the same time, you can get the same thing done in half the time, maybe even less.
Doel:Did that surprise the other people on the ship?
Aitken:Not surprised everybody, I mean, it surprised the officers on the R/V Eltanin, and — but you have to be right on top of it. I was out on the deck or on the bridge all the time, having to move the ship, because the ship is hove-to into the wind and sea on the side that youíre running the wires over, which was normally the port side, but the ship naturally wants to move forward, so if you have your heavy wire forward and your light wire aft, and you always put your light wire in first and get an angle on it before you put your heavy wire in, so they donít cross. But on the R/V Conrad and the R/V Eltanin, the light wire is ahead of the heavy one. So you usually had to steam backwards if there was any kind of sea that was pushing you forward any. And youíd first put the light wire and the camera in and steam backwards for a way and get a big angle on it, then put the heavy wire, put the corer in then, but you had to watch it. So, if you watched it very carefully and everything you donít tangle, which is not true in the Caribbean because thereís funny currents under there, and Iíve never seen anybody successfully do many two-wire sampling down there without tangling. Worzel tried and he tangled them every time, and you lose time when you tangle, because youíve got to bring them up together slowly, because one wire will cut through the other, and youíll lose one or both pieces of equipment. Of course, on the ship you also — once you put anything over the side, you should be only thankful they came back up, not upset when you lost it.
Doel:But Iím curious, too, how early on you became involved in camera work — one of your publications involved photography of the manganese nodules Ė-
Aitken:Okay, well, the films came back to Dr. Ewing. That was his specialty, the collection came back to him. And so they were not cut on the ship, and quite often not marked. Well, usually you scratched in at the beginning of the film which cruise and which station it was, but they didnít usually label what frame was what. And so they came back here. If they werenít — and weíd cut them into the strips and put them into the folder, and had to label each one and what the frame number was and everything, and they were put — and Dr. Ewing had somebody working in the photo lab printing them, so he looked at all the pictures, and he wanted to see everything before it was done, of course, but he went through all the pictures, and everything and weíd make things. So, got very interested in that and so you became — doing a lot of the work on it. Myself, Larry [Lawrence] Sullivan was on it, I think it was John Ewing and Dr. Ewing, I believe, and Thorndyke, Ed Thorndyke —
Doel:Ed [Edward] Thorndyke was also involved, doing the nephalometer [?] work.
Aitken:Yes, well he — and the camera. He built the cameras, or had them built. He designed and built them by — the timing devices on them were taken out of Timex watches.
Doel:Have you been involved in the building of the Ė-
Aitken:No, no. That was done by a technician out of Queenís College, where Ed [Edward M.] Thorndyke was a professor. He was a professor at Queenís College from the time Queenís College was founded in the late Ď30s.
Doel:How involved did you become in any of the plans to actually extract the manganese nodules? Is that an area that you took an interest in at all?
Aitken:Well, I was sort of interested, but no, that was done — youíd extract them from the bottom.
Aitken:No, but we used to have technicians, and usually the same one, from Kennicott Copper Company came out, and they had a free fall device that would go down, and when it hit the bottom, it would set and drop the weights and float back up with a radio transmitter and a flashing light so we could find them, and we knew how long, how fast they would fall and how fast theyíd come back up, so we could predict when we knew how deep it was we knew when they were going to be back up. So, we were taking the samples, the core was down, we knew how long it would take to get the core and camera back up and on board, so the object was to have them come up at that same time, so if you ran into any problems, youíd get up and you had to chase them, and that was one of the reasons for having the lights and that, because it might be daylight when you went down but it might be night by the time you were still chasing them around to see the radio transmitter, trying to find them. So, they would collect — they had that and they put the one with a single-shot picture down, so weíll get the same, not only idea from our pictures, but from the picture that they took as they dropped a sampler, which may or may not come up with a manganese nodule. They only went on legs when we were in an area where we knew were historically lots of manganese nodules around, from the pictures.
Doel:In talking about that one publication, which I believe was 1975, that that had appeared, weíve skipped over a number of the other cruises on which you had served as chief scientist, and Iím wondering which of them, say, the 22, 23, 24, were particularly memorable for you as you think back, that have stayed on your mind for various reasons?
Aitken:The first time as chief scientist, I remember that very well [laughs]. That was a track that was laid out up through the Red Sea, where we were supposed to go. And one place, one of the oil companies had gone through and guaranteed us thirty-six feet of water. Now, this was on the R/V Conrad. The R/V Conrad only drew seventeen to eighteen — I guess eighteen feet, three fathoms. But still, when youíre going through that area and the waterís deeper — you see the coral heads on your recorder coming up. Theyíre not close, but I was very, very glad to get out of that into deeper water. Also, that was the — just before that, Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute] — the R/V Atlantis had been through there and had taken samples and had found the first hot spots, were found there in the Red Sea, and the water sampler person kept wanting to go to one of these spots. It wasnít, you know, to go where — but it wasnít on my track, and there was no way I was going to deviate [laughs]. I didnít have to face Doc [Ewing] in a week or so [laughs]. I wasnít moving my track one iota. But went to one place and to take a core in a deep spot, and I remember going up looking for it, and we went out there and turned around, and moved the ship back and put the core down right in there. It was a very interesting core with colors and everything, and one of the graduate students on the ship paid me a compliment about how I just had moved the ship right to where I wanted it and put the core in and got this beautiful core out of the thing, so you know — First time you feel good getting — like, everybody always feels good getting compliments.
Doel:Right. And you felt that this first time worked fairly well, or very well.
Aitken:Worked very well. I mean, I had been enough on the ship for enough months, and had you know, done everything, except being the person actually responsible for putting the cores, you know, calling the shots. I mean, itís Ė-
Doel:You raised, I thought, a very interesting point a moment ago. If someone identified new phenomena that someone wanted to see, like the identified hot spot, but it wasnít on the track that Doc Ewing had identified, there really wasnít much of a choice in your mind. You knew that these new possibilities would have to be ignored in order to get down the program.
Aitken:Yes, thatís correct.
Doel:Yes. Did that change later at Lamont? Did it become — how to put it? — more democratic in the way that decisions were made?
Aitken:Well, it depends on who the chief scientist is, how much power, if they wrote — if it was their leg and they designed it themselves and they could change it and everything. I mean, this was Ewingís leg. I was just a puppet out there at the time, doing his leg. Whether he would have changed it or not, I donít know, but I was not going to make that change unilateral.
Doel:Sure. In that case, did you report to Ewing that another member had advised looking at these phenomena?
Aitken:He was a technician, was interested because it was interesting. I understood why and everything, I mean. And Doc understood that too, I mean, it didnít make any Ė-
Doel:Right. How well did you come to know Doc Ewing during the 1960s?
Aitken:Well, very well, and worked — well, at the end of the first cruise, came back and I was working for John Ewing, and John and I were back, and John approached me that Dr. Ewing was looking for somebody to work for him and he thought, with my personality and everything, that I could do it. So, I agreed Iíd go work for him, starting January Ď63. But, then I immediately went out on a short Ė R/V Conrad, on Conrad 2, because they needed experienced people and quickly, so I went down to Jacksonville [Florida] and helped them install equipment and change things around. Theyíd been out on Conrad 1, two two-week legs, and this was going in and so I sailed on Conrad 2, which was just a run up to Bermuda, and then 3 which was supposed to go down to Nassau, where we had an engineer — I believe it was a third assistant engineer had an epileptic fit — didnít know he was epileptic — fell down in the lab, and at that time, the way the lab was, without equipment setting inside of the plate, it stuck out. Far, he fell down, he hit his head —
Doel:On the plate.
Aitken:On the plate, it stuck out a sharp edge of it, you know, but, you know, half inch steel, and injured very badly, so of course it got to bleeding. Got the captain up to do the return, so we turned and headed for Bermuda, and that time, the U.S. Coast Guard still had a cutter station in Bermuda, and so the cutter raced out to meet us. The sea was so bad that they couldnít transfer him, but they did transfer a doctor and another technician, probably a medic, onto the R/V Conrad, and we went, headed into St. George, Bermuda, and it was — I remember that. We came into St. George, went up to the dock. When we had hit there, an ambulance was waiting, and by the time the ship was against, probably not even including tied up, they had the man off the ship into a hospital, and then it was going to be in there for a few days longer than I planned, so then I came back to Lamont and worked for Doc. Then he went out as chief scientist on the Vema 19, joining in Capetown, and I went with him, and we were going up to Freeport, and thatís when we lost the reduction gear. The R/V Vema was an interesting ship, it had — the original engine had been replaced by a landing craft engine, but to the propeller, to change the prop speed, it was changed by a reduction gear, just like in an automobile. And the crankcase blew, so we were there at sea floating around and had to get a tug and be towed in, but while we were towed in, we were still working. We were doing single-channel seismic profiling on the way in.
Doel:Even while towed?
Aitken:Even while towed.
Aitken:And then we ended up being in Capetown for about nineteen days. We had to find the part, fly it over, replace it and everything. Doc Ewing didnít stay, he flew home, and the next chief scientist, Chuck [Charles L.] Drake was to come out, and he did then. So, I was put in — I was the chief technician on the ship in charge of the technician equipment till the chief scientist came then. But Dr. Ewing I know, because I once worked for him. I went on most of the cruises when he went out, and generally I went out to sea with him, so —
Doel:Iím wondering — you mentioned something interesting a moment ago, when you said that John Ewing felt you were the right — and Doc Ewing — that you had the right personality to work with, with Doc Ewing. What did he mean by that? What do you think he meant?
Aitken:Well, Iím pretty easygoing, and didnít get upset and flustered, and Doe would upset you and fluster you pretty easily.
Doel:You were one of the few who could maintain an even keel in working with Doc Ewing.
Aitken:Yes, and that was sometimes hard. I remember one night I was up taking a class in the evening, and turned out I had to leave, and Doc was upset about something, or grumbling about something like that. But I remember walking out and just driving down to Columbia to take this class, and I didnít care whether I ever went back again! [Laughs] So frustrating. You get over it, but it could be very frustrating working with Dr. Ewing.
Doel:Iím sure. You mentioned taking classes at Columbia. Were you taking additional courses to gain background in computer sciences?
Aitken:Well, actually I had considered going to graduate school, and I was taking — I think I took a math class, and I forget what else. Maybe a chemistry class. I donít even remember now. It was — but right, I decided I really wasnít a student and really didnít want to go to graduate school, so I didnít take any more classes after that.
Aitken:These werenít graduate classes, these were undergraduate classes.
Doel:Did you take any classes with anyone teaching geology or earth sciences during the time that you were there?
Aitken:I took one class with Bruce [C.] n. Bruce Heezen had been a chief scientist on Vema 18. He joined in Wellington, New Zealand and went to American Samoa to Tahiti and then didnít come back with the data for a couple months. And it was also interesting — he and Doe [Ewing] were at odds. They both respected each other as scientists, heíd been Docís student and everything, but he wanted to be a big wheel, too, and there was only one big wheel at Lamont. But having sailed with Bruce Heezen, B.C., Bruce Charles Heezen, also nicknamed Beefy Chiefy by one of the technicians on the ship.
Doel:[Laughs] I hadnít heard that before. Interesting.
Aitken:Anyway, when I worked for Doc, and Bruce Heezen got all of the PDR records and everything, but I was — and Bruce knew I worked for Doc, but Doc also used me, I was the go-between between Bruce and Doc. I was the one who went over and got all the things, and it was, I mean — and Bruce would call me in, he and Marie [Tharp], at times and would talk to me and everything.
Doel:So, how did you come to know Marie Tharp?
Aitken:Well, through — because she was there working with Bruce. I still see her once in awhile at Grand Union or a couple times in the bank and things. She lives in South Nyack [NY].
Doel:Right. Did you feel that, you know, as you got to know Bruce Heezen and of course, knew Ewing, did the rift between the two of them seem no longer repairable, or did you think that there were ways that they could have resolved those tensions, that they simply didnít choose to pursue?
Aitken:I think theyíd just gone their own ways, and didnít choose to, but oh, I say if you really wanted to get term papers out, you should have just locked them both in a room with all the data, and had a whole series of secretaries typing up the papers as they came out.
Doel:[Laughs] Thatís interesting. Thatís an interesting thought. When you — clearly, during the Ď60s, you were coming to learn more and more different kinds of tasks; the technical work and the broader realm. What areas interested you most during those years? What challenges did you find to be the most interesting?
Aitken:I think the shipboard work was the most and that was interesting fun. You could, you were always still — when you did everything. You took samples, bottom pictures, cores, dredged occasionally, or took biology samples.
Doel:That it was such an eclectic mix.
Doel:Broad-based mixture of activities.
Aitken:Yes, and Iíd argue about where you should take your thing, and on station making sure everything, the ship wires didnít get tangled because I remember being on Conrad 9 in the Red Sea, and some mate — it was suppertime, interesting things always happened during meal times.
Doel:[Laughs] Iím sure they do.
Aitken:And somebodyís running the winch, the core winch, and Iím running the hydrowinch. Iíd get — I donít know that I may have eaten first. I may have eaten first and came up to replace the person, and all of a sudden — you know, youíre sitting there casually, and all of a sudden you see the sun starting to move rapidly. And the mate, for some reason, was straightening the ship up, or but he thought what he was, so we turned it around and got the wires tangled. I mean — soon as I saw that, I stopped the hydro winch, locked it, ran down the elder, the person running the core winch, to lock and stop. We donít want to do any — and then ran down and got — Doc was the chief scientist, and got him to come up because to get the things, you know, untangled and straightened out.
Doel:How did you untangle in that particular case?
Aitken:Well, one, you figure out what youíve done before and try to undo it with the ship. If you canít, if they get tangled, then you bring both wires up at the same speed. And sooner or later, if theyíre really tangled, the tangle is going to be at the surface, where you can reach over, put come-along — come-along is a thing that hooks onto the wire and you tie it off, and then you run it out, and it takes tension off the wire before that point.
Aitken:So youíd put the come-alongs on below the tangle, so you could move the tangle with your hands, hoping that — being very careful you didnít have it, you know, something broke when the wire was hot it wouldnít take off your head or hand. But that wasnít too common. Generally, you could just get them up, and usually they came up, they were just crossed, and once it came to the surface, you could, you know, the bar so close, you could take a boat hook type thing and keep the wire pushed out far enough, just — well, you use the light wire, you push it out and let the other wire come up underneath it without sawing across it.
Doel:Right. Did things change dramatically or noticeably as you shifted from using exclusively Lamont-built equipment to much more commercial equipment onboard ship?
Aitken:No, because it was actually a slow process. I mean, we were just — the gravimeter had always been a commercial thing, because thatís a — so, youíre used to that. As seismic gear got better, ran differently, slowly, we just replaced them with the one. But they worked, you know, it worked in practically the same way. I mean, the big change is when we finally got rid of explosives and went to —
Doel:Yes, and went to the airgun?
Aitken:Airgun, pneumatic sound source. When — I mean, I felt much better with that, having spent many months on the ship with explosives and everything, it — and I noticed that on Vema 19, when I joined the ship Iíd been off the ship for six months or something, and joined, they already had explosives. I knew — this is exactly the way I did it too, you know, for a long time. But coming, hadnít handled it, youíve been off for six months and the way people are casual about all these things, sort of makes you a little nervous.
Doel:I can understand that, you know, these are the Bruce —
Aitken:Familiarity builds contempt, maybe, I donít know. Donít respect it as much. They were supposedly very safe, I mean, you could drop them, you could shoot into them and everything. They needed — the blasting caps were the dangerous things, and the half-pound blocks, there was a hole in the middle. You put it down in and tape the friction thing, and actually we knew that because we had a thing, if the core wasnít big enough, you went in and jammed it. But I remember one time, even that didnít make it big enough. Tying the cap to the outside of the thing and throwing it overboard. The cap went off — it didnít set off the half-pound block. Tied to the side of it, it wouldnít go off.
Aitken:Yes, it was — so the explosives, themselves, were quite safe. It was the blasting caps that you had to be careful about. And I remember after finding blasting caps on the deck, cleaning up one day after a bad storm, where somebody had to pry the box open, got thrown, and picked up every one they saw, but there were two or three left laying around and it only takes a spark to set them off. But they were back in places where probably they wouldnít have done much damage. Wouldnít have done much of anything if it went off on you. Your hand crimp a blasting cap. The way to do it with the crimper was, you put it behind your back and down your fatty rear end, in case it went off, it doesnít do any real damage there.
Aitken:And the things on the blasting caps coming from the old days of the mine is to not crimp with your teeth, because thatís the way miners did out West in the gold, silver, lead mines, they used to crimp them with their teeth.
Aitken:And so when they went off —
Aitken:Not very good for the teeth or the mouth.
Doel:Or the mouth or parts connected [laughs].
Aitken:And we used special underwater fuses that would still burn underwater. A foot burned at forty two seconds in air, and we generally used six-inch fuses or longer, depending. We sometimes used floaters, where we wanted to get rid of a bubble pause, which would blow out a lot of the energy out, but you didnít get the bubble pause if you were in shallow water. It was very important, or if youíre looking for the surface sediments below, you usually filled up balloons and tied them onto a string about eighteen inches long so the thing floated out eighteen inches below the water. But if you shot — but on depth charges, you used six feet fuses for the same thing, and it burned — because of the pressure, it would burn faster and I think that six feet burned in seventy two seconds as it went down deeper and deeper. It was probably some formula, everything written down. We knew what charge would burn how long it was sinking.
Doel:Yes. As you said that, I was wondering how much of that was tacit knowledge that you kept in your head and how much of that was written down in a way that you could refer easily to it?
Aitken:Well, the only sharp depth charges and refraction — so I think that came with all the refraction data, all the — how much fuse you use on different size charges. And then the refraction work, if the ships were close you used the three-pound — half-pound and youíd go up to three-pound charges. I donít know what the nine-pound charges and the twenty-four pound charges and forty-eight, something like that — I donít remember that — and then the depth charges. The three-pound charges came out in a haversack, which in World War II, the soldiers carried explosives with. There were eight three-pound charges in it, tied together, so if youíre shooting twenty-four pounds, you just shot the whole haversack. If you were shooting three, nine, any combination of that, you took the haversack apart in cuts, so those haversacks were nice. Theyíre nice little things. I think I still have one left at home, you wash them up a few times for a little day pack type thing. But on a 48 you had two haversacks together, and when you shot the depth charges, you used in the well to set it off. What you did is you used half-pound blocks were placed in that, so the half-pound blocks went off to set the depth charge off.
Doel:It sounds like it was a different world when the first bulk air gun that you started using —
Aitken:No it was a Lamont air gun.
Doel:It was a Lamont air gun first?
Aitken:Yes, and the bulk of the people actually worked here at Lamont.
Doel:Yes, and very quickly took over the commercial production, from what I understand.
Aitken:Yes, got the patents on it and took it over. Lamont was allowed to build its own type air guns, which I donít know if youíve ever seen them. Theyíre a round cylinder with a piston down, and there was a fish that was towed, versus an oblong bolt in all the air guns, water guns, all these commercial guns that everybody uses now. Theyíre much more efficient, more power. You can — Lamont guns went off by the pressure build-up. When the pressure over-read, it set it off, where the commercial guns are set off by a trigger and you can fire more than one gun at a time. Lamont guns, you can only send time —
Doel:Did you continue to use the Lamont guns?
Aitken:Oh, for a long, long time, until — as long as youíre only using one gun, you used the Lamont gun. When they went to doing multichannel seismic, thatís when they switched to commercial guns, because you needed one to shoot six, twelve, eighteen, twenty four guns at a time.
Doel:Did you feel that the character of Lamont, as an institution, changed quite a bit when Doc Ewing went to Texas and [Manik] Talwani took over? Did it seem fairly continuous?
Aitken:I think it was fairly continuous. They were changing all along. I mean, it was — everybody was young in the late 50s and 60s, and everybody was old, and older, and they were ten, fifteen years older in the Ď70s, and it was effectively the same people came in — and say there was turnover of some, but as equipment became more sophisticated they no longer hired people like myself, who came in with no specialty, just a warm body and a strong back to heft explosives around, do everything, move things, mark records and things, so became less than that, you know — there were all these specialized people, but even they werenít as specialized. The ETís didnít have to be as specialized, and the original profilers were tombs in them — With saltwater, you have a sequence of what you did. The first thing, if the thing quit working, you have got a stick, you tapped them. If that didnít work, you took them out and plugged them back in. You went through a whole sequence of things before you called the ET, because generally you fix most of the problems before you — I mean, the thing suddenly goes bad, if you lose it, the air conditioning, now you donít have any salt spray in your lab.
Doel:Did you begin to feel differently about being at Lamont as these changes were occurring, as more and more specialized people were being hired?
Aitken:Well, I didnít because I mean, I was, you know, sort of doing my thing, but you got all the people getting married. I got married. Well, everybody was, you know, sort of young, single. A lot of technicians and as we went on, more and more technicians were married. I mean, now most of the technicians are married and they are the ones that go to sea a lot, because you need specialized ones and with experience and everything. Thatís not true of all of them, but thatís much more common. And computers came and made a big change. Doc was never into computers. I got into the computers when Doc left and Manik took over, and what Manik did, when Doc was here, he handled sort of the photography, and that was it, and the seismic stuff was handled by John Ewing. But the gravity people reduced the gravity under Manik, the magnetic people reduced the magnetics under whoever was in charge there, was Heirtzler for a while.
Doel:Jim [James R.] Heirtzler for a while.
Aitken:And things. When Manik took over, he brought every, all the things that were done on the computer together and put me in charge of it. I knew nothing about the computers. I had never worked on a computer, and we had the IBM 1130s at the time, and the punch cards. Acres and acres almost of punch cards in cabinets and things. Everything — so I didnít really learn the computers then, but I dealt with the problems all along because: one, Iíd been to sea, I knew what had happened and everything, and there were cases, but two, trying to straighten out navigation. You just donít know what happened, you know, you flip a coin. You donít know which one is right. You literally just flip the coin, but a lot of times you can figure out, ďOh, this is possible, this isnít possibleĒ and everything. I remember one problem I couldnít figure out for a long, long time, until I finally realized that the ship was backing up, because the heading was one way and the ship was going the other way, and you just looked at it. It doesnít make — you know, if somethingís wrong, and then, once you see that, itís obvious — the ship is steaming in reverse. So, I donít —
Doel:It would take somebody to step outside, to something thatís counter-intuitive and to —
Aitken:Yes. But it was all — so I did that. But then when we first, when we went to put a computer on the ship, and the first computer that went on were the PDP 8 deck, visual equipment corporation, and Iíd sailed with them and did simple tasks and ran it. But I know — when I ran them, if you made a mistake, you bombed, you had to put the thing in, so I was very careful and slow, so I never bombed it out. But when we first got the PDPs in the lab, I said, ďOkay, I need to learn these computers.Ē So I started working. I never became a programmer, but I learned to work on the computers, and do the data, and as we went along, as people left, retired or resigned, they werenít replaced. When we started out, I was — twelve or thirteen people worked for me, and in the end there was, you know, three or four. In the real end it was really me but I wasnít reducing all the data. What was being done on the ship was being done in this office, and I was just maintaining the data and putting it on the system and keeping it, but it was computers that made it possible. And more and more got moved to the ship and then the people on the ship reduced the data — they know whatís happened on the ship. You need — if youíre not on the ship, you donít know what really happened. You have a feel, but you —
Doel:Thatís a very important kind of information to accompany the data. Who first started bringing computers to Lamont, was it Manik Talwani or were there other people who principally worked on those?
Aitken:Well, I really donít know. Iím sure there were other people and things, because Manik wasnít very big into the computers. We had the computers up in oceanography. There were also IBM 1130 computers down in the seismology building, and they also have a link that would fit down to Columbia, so seismologists, the other people worked that — But everybody at Lamont used those computers, except the computers in oceanography were only used by the people working with the ship data. There was two of them, there was a sixteen megabyte one, the same as the ones down in [?], and the other was only an eight megabyte, so all this data had to run on an eight megabyte. Thatís the reason, when we changed the program it was fun, because it would say, ďComments to be added later.Ē One reason there werenít comments, there wasnít any room for them, so all of these early programs had no comments in them, and —
Doel:And of course, these comments are that sort of information about these data.
Aitken:Well, about the program.
Doel:And about the program itself, too, of course.
Aitken:Yes, and there [?] you find that there were statements that have been changed in the thing, that there were whole segments that didnít do anything anymore. Theyíd never been taken out because somebody had changed it. The programs were written mainly by graduate students. All these programs originally produced were written by the graduate students at Lamont.
Doel:That must have been quite a task, to try to learn how to read an earlier program and figure out what was working in it and what —
Aitken:Well, I didnít.
Doel:How much did you become involved with that?
Aitken:Not too much with the reading and doing and changing over. I ran the programs. I used to, you know, other people would change. Rose Ann Weissel would change a lot of the programs, a lot of things, but I would test them and would test for whether they do everything they were supposed to. The person who writes or changes a program cannot really test, because they know what its supposed to do, and they donít do all of these odd things. And actually, when I used to test a lot of programs for [?] and things, try these out, see what happens, because, not being a programmer, you think differently and put the data in and you see does it blow up. You donít find all of them. If you find things, and I would always — well, anytime I was running a program that did something funny, I would report it. Thatís the way, you know, rather than just let it go, so I was a program tester. Does this do everything? Does it do it correctly? Does it get — if you make one change it affects something else.
Doel:Right. How smoothly did the integration of computers go on board ship?
Aitken:It went slowly. There were problems. The PDP 1120-R was supposed to be the recognized military version, had problems on the ship, and to get it repaired, ooh. In fact, the PDP 8 had more problems on that. I remember a technician working on the R/V Conrad, lying under it, and I went up to see what he was doing, and he was holding a flashlight and he was asleep. He had fallen — he was looking at a pounder in a problem and he was tired. He just fell asleep, I mean, he was like — After you had told me.
Aitken:Thatís where it should be, yes, it should be.
Doel:Were referring to a conversation just outside the corridor, and you had mentioned, just as the tape was running out, that the person you had found was asleep, just been exhausted and fallen asleep underneath the computer. When did the computer really begin to seem like another routine piece of equipment onboard?
Aitken:Well, from the beginning it was a routine piece, it just did less. I mean —
Doel:Just its functions were more circumscribed.
Aitken:Yes. I mean, it could do — you worked up the navigation. I mean, satellite navigation was a great big change. The first year Conrad 9 came out of New York, had a satellite navigator put on, I guess, in Puerto Rico. I forget, Iím not sure of that. But this was a Navy — and it was a classified type of thing, so the data would be collected and it was sent back to Lamont to work the positions out, so that was a big challenge for the officers. Still shooting stars and everything, because they didnít know what the satellite was telling them after the fact, so they were, you know, trying to make — so you go down to navigation and it was reduced. Later on, on Conrad 9 in Naples, the rest of the equipment was brought that you could program and plug in and actually get the position of the ship after the satellite had come in, and you entered all the data that was on the sheet of paper. So, then you had not instantaneous, but within 15 minutes to half an hour, depending on whether you make a mistake typing all these numbers in and columns, then you had to redo it. And you could redo it. Youíd get a good position, and then now itís got — it just reads out and sends you a position right now and with a global positioning satellite, it effectively gives you, I donít know, how many positions are in a minute? I donít even know that, but itís more than one a second.
Aitken:And itís interesting that they still have a funny wave in the thing that nobody uses. The Gulf War, they turned it off because they didnít have enough official receivers, so they had to use commercial receivers for all these people over there so they were accurate, they turned it off. I was actually on the R/V Conrad doing the navigation at the time, and we came out of Barbados and was doing it, and at some point discovered we had a formula Bill [William] Robinson had worked out, of how to overcome this. And using that formula, I wasnít making the navigation any better. I then — so I went and it didnít dawn on me right away, it was a long time, but then I went back, and after I finally — in fact, and I could pinpoint the exact hour when they changed the thing, and you didnít have to run this formula too smoothly. We were running — what he [Robinson] did was run a twenty-point average. You take twenty points and youíre up one point, twenty points — just moving that to get your average. And if you — but the military, once it [?] this thing, not this area, so it was now youíre only meters away — I forget what the thing is — rather than centimeters away.
Doel:Right. Reducing the resolution.
Aitken:It basically reduced the resolution, but the Gulf War, they turned it off because they needed the other resolution.
Doel:Were there other times when similar emergencies denied you the chance to use things like GPS [Global Positioning Satellite]?
Aitken:Well, no. We used GPS. I mean, navigation now is so much better. Out on Vema 17 they were in a bad storm, down in the south Atlantic, but we didnít have a site for seven days and had been blown all around. They had no idea where they were during that time. I mean, it was so bad that the Nova Scotian dories were picked up and smashed into the cabin. The lifeboats, effectively, were smashed from the seas.
Doel:Were there ever any cruises that you were on where you felt weather conditions were such that you were concerned about your safety?
There was never one when I was, but we had, I remember, the Vema 18 coming from Bermuda up to New York in bad weather, and we were being tossed around and went — I was on the, I guess, eight to twelve watch that time and went into the bunk and was laying there and heard the core pipes break loose on deck. Well, I knew the core crew was going to have to get up and go out and lash them down. I said, ďIím not sleeping anyway. I might as well go up and help them.Ē So, I remember going up with them. I go out on deck, we get them lashed down and we were coming back. One person is in the hatch, and thereís me and thereís one person behind, and we just took a big roll. I remember grabbing the guy and then the guy behind me, and we stood and watched the side of the R/V Vema, it was very low, so it wasnít uncommon to have water come over the rail, but it really went down and everything. But the bridge, which was up six, eight feet, a wing of the bridge went under too. I mean, but we were worried about that. I mean, it wasnít that far over, but it was just, you know, it was just a bad storm.
Theyíd been through some real storms, I heard, on Vema 16 that they went through a hurricane or cyclone, whatever itís called in the Indian Ocean, and then the R/V Vema, being small, rode it out much better than those big ships that were — they were just like a cork, and the big ships were really damaged, and we werenít damaged at all. When I was in on the Argentine ship, the seas got so bad that we had to quit doing shooting. I remember going on the bridge, and thereíd be a seagoing tug. A tug does not dare pitch, because that would put the tow rope slack and pull it up and break it, so they were designed — any motion goes into rolling. And they roll a lot, and again, being a tug you want to see all around, so standing on the bridge with several Argentines and we would see a wave coming in and weíd try to predict what kind of roll — how many degrees weíd roll. It was the sport, just to see if we could predict the roll. But nothing ever got over thirty-five degrees.
Doel:Which is quite a bit.
Aitken:Which is quite a bit!
Doel:Sounds like you got quite good at that prediction, too.
Aitken:Yes, when youíre up there for a couple hours watching wave after wave come in, you know pretty much. But youíd miss some badly and youíd say, you know, ďWhy didnít we roll that much,Ē or ďWhy did we roll more?Ē It was just the way it would hit the ship, it seemed.
Doel:Yes. Let me pause this for one second.
Aitken:Sure. [Tape resumes] — sitting and talking, and so she showed me the thing and laid it down. And I didnít — I just assumed she was getting some for Mike [?].
Doel:Weíre resuming after a really brief pause, and you were talking about the tug, the Argentine ship that you were on pitching quite a bit.
Doel:Rolling, rather than pitching.
Aitken:It did not pitch at all.
Doel:It didnít pitch, it rolled, indeed. That was a slip of my tongue. When Conrad was getting near the end of its time at Lamont, was it your perception as well that the ship could no longer do competitive work in the field? Iím wondering just how, by that point, how many other kinds of ships you had seen, whether it was your impression as well that she could —
Aitken:No, I thought that we could still be doing competitive work and everything. What happened is, there were more and more ships chasing less and less money, and everybody was taking turns laying up ships and everything, and the R/V Conrad had really belonged to the Navy. It was AGOR-3, actually. The Sands and a couple of others were R/V Conrad class ships, and so it was laid up and turned over and I think it went to, I heard, to the Brazilians, I believe. Iím not sure thatís correct.
Doel:Iíve heard that before, yes.
Aitken:But yes, it could still do its thing. But again, we did a project called the Parker Project for the Navy out of Hawaii, and I donít remember the cruise or the year — you can look that up — and the Sands was there, which was a Navy ship, which had a U.S.N.S. [United States Naval Ship] crew on it. It had a much bigger crew than we ran with. I remember they had to go back into port while we stayed out for forty-four days. Of course, we used up all our supplies and everything, but we were just at Kauai, Hawaii. But they ran back into Hawaii while we stayed out, and those are some of the biggest seas I ever saw. Again, it wasnít scary when we were coming over, but the reason we know that the R/P FLIP [Floating Instrument Package] from Scripps [Institute of Oceanography] was there, and it supposed to never sink, but it got flooded by a forty-five foot wave and we were ten miles away. Came over and they came out with a plane, or a helicopter came out and dropped them a pump to pump it out and everything. They had two people, I guess, who were never in serious danger, but when it first happened they didnít know.
Aitken:I remember seeing them, but we were towing specialized equipment behind us, and we were just ran along in the troughs, and then ran north and then ran south, and when FLIP got swamped they also broke their tow line, and so they couldnít do any work. Having nothing better for us to do, we were supposedly looking for it — looking for a needle in a haystack probably would have been easier than looking for a yellow propane line in forty-five — well, they werenít forty-five then, but in twenty, thirty foot seas, it may have not even been at the surface.
Doel:Indeed. Do you recall —
Aitken:Kept us busy.
Doel:Iíd imagine. Were you able to find it?
Aitken:No. I didnít. Didnít surprise me that we didnít find it. It was a stupid assignment, I thought, but it gave us something to do, and that was one of the few times in the R/V Conrad every bunk was filled, so that was interesting. Weíd also done specialized shooting then. We shot charges every three minutes and two minutes, five minutes to fifty-five minutes an hour, and you shot them to go off on the minute, so that actually became a game — you made the charges up and when you had a clock, and knew when to light exactly when you threw it over. One was — they shot one off at two different depths — one was a long tube with lead shot at the bottom to make it sink faster, and the other one didnít sink as fast, but you became again, to make sure your shots were off right on the minute by lighting it right on the minute. So that made it interesting, it was just three of us shooting, each, again, for four hours at a time.
Doel:You mentioned the Navy Parker Project. What was that about?
Aitken:I donít know. You know, we were just one of many ships. I mean —
Doel:Involved in it.
Aitken:Involved in it, because I remember being up north when it was calm. I think we were hove-to and a couple other ships were hove-to, and there was some freighter coming along and seeing the ships. And this happened on other occasions too — if they see a ship, you know, just sitting there and blinking, saying, ďOkay, whatís the problem?Ē ďNo problem.Ē You know, this happened on Conrad 9 after it came out of the Straits of Gibraltar. We were taking a station, and a German freighter came by, flashed, ďYou okay?Ē ďYes.Ē ďOkay.Ē ďNo problem.Ē They came up by to investigate — well, why are we just sitting there if thereís no problem? [Laughs] The engines arenít running, nothing — because you can hear engines run if you have any kind of recorder on the ship, so they steamed up past us.
Doel:[Laughs] And took a careful look.
Aitken:Took a careful look.
Doel:And communicated further, to ask —
Aitken:No, I mean, because weíd answered their question. But they came up to look to see what kind of a ship was this that was doing that. Weíd also — we tried to take a core in the Straits of Gibraltar. Very nice, beautiful weather. We go and just start to put the corer over and we get sea fog, comes rolling in. Now in the Straits of Gibraltar, all kinds of ships are around. We canceled it quickly, because you couldnít see. But before it got too bad, if you were down on the main deck, you couldnít see any of the fog, but youíd go up one or two levels, it was clear, which was the first and only time Iíve ever seen that. But we immediately pulled the gear in and got out of that, because if we had stayed there, the chances of being rammed were high.
Doel:Right, right, because only a little bit of the ship was above —
Aitken:Well, everybody has radar and everything, but itís not very wide and thereís lots of ships going in both directions, and we had timed it to be a clear day when everybody can see. If we could see, we wouldíve been [?], but when youíre running radar, just didnít want to take the chance. And I was just as glad.
Doel:Iíve asked you before about memorable cruises. Iím curious also about memorable projects, the broader undertakings that have occurred at Lamont that you took part in.
Aitken:I donít really have anything that stands out. I mean, after a while everything runs together.
Aitken:You remember all the good parts and forget the bad parts. I guess memory is great that way. You know, if it happens to be really bad, you remember it, but just sort of miserable you donít remember too much. I remember twice in my life being land sick, and thatís interesting.
Doel:Is it? Yes, what happened?
You get used to the movement on the ship and when you get on land you get Ė itís like being seasick. And it happened once in Tahiti, slightly. I had been in port for a couple days and walking from town back to the ship which had moved to the fuel dock fueling, and walking that distance all of a sudden I just felt this. And the next time I felt it was on the Conrad. Weíd had problems and we came out in New York and went into Earl and loaded lots of explosives because we were going to shoot explosives in the Caribbean. And then we went into — I forget the Navy marine base in Norfolk. We went in there, which was [?] base and had to unload the explosives. And they were testing multichannel on the first part, so those people got off and the person who was going to shoot a big charge in the Puerto Rican trench got on and things. We went down and the engineers said, ďOh, theyíre probably going to go into Puerto Rico.
We couldnít go into San Juan with all the explosives, so we went to Green Island where we could unload the explosives. So went there and on the R/V Vema theyíre supposed to open it up high and lift it up and down, but the R/V Conrad had a real explosives thing. It was down low, and being tall, I was always one of the people that handed high to the low and low to high, and so there were two of us down in there handing the stuff up. The other person handed it to me and I would take it in my hands and put it above my head, and they would take it and go up, and so unloaded all the explosives. And I felt poor in there, and decided afterwards that weíd been at such close quarters that we had had low oxygen. But anyway, got up and we were tied up at [?]. And I got — oh, ďIíll just step across onto a dock.Ē I stepped onto a dock and all of a sudden, everything is moving! And I get back on the ship and everythingís fine, but itís a really fascinating experience.
Doel:Have you heard of others talk about that?
Doel:I guess itís —
Aitken:Itís not common, but itís not a rare thing. You just get — in the air — some people never get seasick, some people never get over seasickness. And some people get over it quickly or longer.
Doel:You had mentioned that you came to have about 15 people working under you at one point at Lamont,
Aitken:Yes, all women.
Doel:Tell me about how Ė Iím curious, generally, what the responsibilities were and the sorts of things that you were doing mostly when you were —
Aitken:Okay, this was data reduction. There were four of them who did keypunching. This was back — IBM 1130s with cards, and so all the data need to get in the computer, had to be punched up on a card and fed into the computer, so we actually had four that went down to three and two, but thatís all they did. And all you did was give them the data and they punched it up. And they actually divided it up among themselves and then the computer persons on the time, so people signed up at certain times, when certain people could be on the computer, run the cards through, check them out and everything. And we also backed up data on cards in machine language, which you couldnít read, but we kept — so we had the original punch cards and then the back-ups were made and shouldnít get used — you needed less cards, less space, and if you had to load these things on you could load them on very quickly, rather than, you know, one card at a time through, I mean, it was as one card as a time, but instead of a deck a foot long, it was a deck three inches long.
Aitken:So it was that, it was people worked on the navigation who couldnít punch up the cards, but somebody else took the data after it was punched up and worked on it, and each one of the women that did punching also worked on some of the data sometimes. But we had one woman, a Russian woman, Olga Provsarowsky, who worked on the magnetic data and was very well-organized, had everything in order and written up, and she would look at that and —
Doel:I was wondering what kind of background these women had. It seems that Olga Provsarowsky — hope Iím pronouncing that correctly.
Aitken:Iím not sure I pronounced it correctly either.
Doel:Yes, had background in the sciences —
Aitken:She was a scientist.
Doel:In order to be able to interpret this data.
Aitken:Yes, but again, it wasnít — this wasnít interpreting data, this was reducing data for somebody else to interpret, I mean, data is supposed to be smooth, and then you have a spike or something wrong, you check whether that number was punched wrong, which, if somebody read a three for an eight, or it was sixty-four and they punched fifty-seven just by —
Doel:Right. Second-level reduction of data.
Aitken:Yes. First was to get it on the computer, then you checked what errors and why — was the error simple, just a wrong number entered incorrectly, or was it something on the machine? Was it not recorded correctly, just a spike of something, and so you got rid of those and ran them through again, and navigation. And anytime we had gravity, the navigation was always better because the gravity data could be looked at by itself, but to really reduce it was tied in with the navigation, at false effect which is your north, east, south, west correlations. And if you have wrong points in it, the gravity would go — the data itself, you know, is smooth, and all of a sudden it would have spikes. That means thereís something wrong with the navigation, and you tried to get rid of that. And so some of that is just trial and error, and some of it you look and you see something and you check if your fixes were right, took it over to the satellite fixes. You had two satellite fixes too close together, so you had to get rid of one of them. Itís just the error was just big enough that you introduced an error. You got rid of one or the other, I mean, so you usually decided which one was better. You might try it both ways, one or the other, which made better sense. And youíd go back and look — again, you just looked at all the data that was entered. Was the time that they changed the course or speed correctly entered? And does it make sense with the gravimeter? If you changed course and speed, it changed, it took a while to settle down, so was that at the right time? Did somebody write down the wrong time that it was entered?
Aitken:Once an errorís entered, it keeps repeating.
Doel:Being repeated, yes.
Aitken:So, did that, and like I said, what I did, I got all the problems. I mean, once the things didnít make sense I spent a lot of time looking at the problems and making a decision, like, well which satellite do you throw out? Well, you throw out this happens, you throw out this one happens — well, which one do you say? Well, why, why do you want this one or that one? Well, weíll just throw this one out. You know, itís just for the final decision on something like that and things.
Doel:Sounds like by this point, youíre calling on a tremendous amount of accumulated tacit knowledge of what —
Aitken:Happens on my ship.
Doel:— kinds of things occur on ships, what equipment is prone to do.
Aitken:Yes. I mean these women didnít go on the ships, so I mean, later on a couple of them went, well, got on ships and things, when females finally started going. Actually, the first female on the R/V Vema was Captain [Henry C.] Kohlerís oldest daughter, Helga.
Aitken:And she went on, she was doing the navigation on the ship and computer work on the ship. And that was a nice, easy way to change into having females on the ship. I mean, in the beginning, there were very few female graduate students, and it got up to probably fifty percent now, maybe higher, I donít know.
Doel:When did you notice that change occurring? Was it the 1970s, more or less?
Aitken:Yes. I would say seventies with a few more, eighties. It just, it was very —
Doel:It was a gradual change around.
Aitken:Gradual change. And there were always a few female graduate students, they were usually in things that didnít involve the ship, geochemistry or looking at cores, things like that. But in geophysics more and more, not only at Lamont but at Scripps, at Woods Hole, all the institutions. I mean, it wasnít —
Doel:Yes. How much time did you get to spend at other institutions, like Scripps and Woods Hole?
Aitken:None really, I mean, I visited them. I went out and visited Scripps after Iíd been here five years. Iíd never seen the west coast and Doc [Ewing] was away so I took a vacation and went out to Scripps, visited there. I didnít know anybody there at the time and then just drove up the coast. But after that, once the drilling project started, it was run by Scripps, but the people — the first ship, Glomar Challenger, was doing Atlantic work, so all the people were here at Lamont, so I go to know all those people very well, so then I knew a lot of people at Scripps. And then, also, government agency did topography down outside of Washington and had a meeting. Had people from all the institutions down there to talk about data collecting and everything, so I met my equivalent at Scripps and Woods Hole, and Rose Ann Weissel was also down there, and then she was saying that the three of us looked the same, about six feet tall with beards [laughs].
Aitken:Like this was a requirement for the position. But Stu [Stuart] Smith was at Scripps, and I forget the guy at Woods Hole. He left that and went to another position at Woods Hole, so once I knew them, I think I had probably talked with them on the phone, because you exchange data.
Doel:Sure. Was their background similar to yours?
Aitken:I have no idea. I think they were much more into computers. I know because the person at Woods Hole went doing computer work for somebody else, and I knew Stu Smith did much more computer work than I did, so I donít know what his background was before. As far as I know, heís still there working. That was the last time I knew.
Doel:Right. Interesting. How well did you come to know others of the more senior people at Lamont, like Denny [Dennis E.] Hayes?
Aitken:Well, you knew the ship board, you know, the ship board people and scientists and everything. I mean, I first sailed on a ship with Denny Hayes when he was a graduate student.
Aitken:I mean, in the sixties. So you knew all these people because you knew them from the time they were a graduate student on, so yes, you know them fairly well. I mean, Lamont itself has never been that big, and the marine geophysics group was still much smaller group of that, so you knew who everybody was at Lamont. I mean, I know less and less people here because I only come in here to play basketball or volleyball in the summer, but you knew who everybody was and everything, especially in the sixties. Parties, everybody went to the same parties.
Doel:Thinking of this time of year, the Christmas parties up here were still occurring.
Aitken:Yes, I mean and then we, all the buildings used to have Christmas parties. I remember Larry Sullivan and I put money in to join in the core lab Christmas party that year. We had our own little party with Doc Ewingís group, but then we went over to the core lab which was a very much bigger party.
Doel:Could you tell things about the different groups by the kind of parties they held at Christmas?
Aitken:No, I mean, it was sort of the individuals.
Doel:Yes. Iím wondering, too, how well you came to know the subsequent directors at Lamont, people like Manik Talwani and Barry [C. Baring] Raleigh.
Aitken:Well, I knew Manik well, but no, Barry Raleigh, I mean, I didnít know him at all. I knew who he was. I think he knew who I was. I mean, of course, you always know who the director is, but they donít necessarily know you. I think Gordon [Eaton] saw me around and everything, and he may or may not have known my name.
Doel:What was changing, and in the sense that you knew Doc Ewing really well and you knew Manik —
Aitken:Well, because I went to sea with him. I mean, Iíd sailed with Manik on Vema 18, I mean, so.
Doel:It was really that early an initial sustained contact that made the difference.
Aitken:Yes, yes, and then I worked on that, and then I worked for him, so you just know people better when you sailed for a month or so on a 200 foot ship, and then worked for them, than somebody you just see, and the position changed too. It had funding and fundraising and everything.
Doel:Iím wondering how your responsibilities changed as well as time went on, say after Manik Talwaniís administration?
Aitken:Well, no, it changed and just contracts changed. I mean, when there was Manik here there was certain data reduction money, and then when I had to petition that out to different contracts, which was a real pain, because you have a little bit of money here and a little bit of money there, instead of it would have been very nice to dissolve it and put it in one pot, then you could do one thing. After that, contracts changed and everything and I didnít have to handle the money, and that was an advantage for me. You know, because I just did the work and didnít have to spend time and get a call and say, ďOh, you only had $1600.00 and youíve spent $1800.00 on this contract,Ē and wonder would the contractor change this personís salary on them, and salary was always the big item.
Doel:That was a considerable task, then, that you had when your funds were coming in, segmented from different —
Aitken:Yes, I mean, each contract Iíd get a copy of it and get, you know, so much for reduction, computer time, all the various things. And the salary and oh, how are we going to pay everybody out of this and write up what percentage and things. Even though that was still sort of some block granting and everything, but it still was divided up into sections.
Aitken:Of acquisition reduction.
Doel:Right. I wonder—
Aitken:And then you get messed up because somebody would take some of your money. I screamed once because they bought explosives out of the reduction money. I said, ďI canít have that, itís two or three thousand dollarsĒ — maybe it was more than that, I donít know, big bucks. Thatís not reduction! Look, I donít have enough money now — I was given money some way, but still when it comes in or something like that, youíve got to go screaming. And it depended on whoís contract it was. It was some contracts you got $3000, you knew you had $3000 and you couldnít spend $3001, you spend $3000. Thereís other peopleís contracts that came in, Marc Langseth was one. Any of his contracts came in, I spent it immediately, because otherwise it was gone and I didnít have it to spend, because he would have spent it, gone someplace else. Out of his whole contract. You could, the chief scientist, principal investigator, you know, had power so if you want that money, it had to be spent as soon as soon as I got it so I had it, not having to say, ĎWell, look, I had $3000, and they say, ďWell, sorry, the whole contractís gone.Ē So, I would have rather been clean, but there was, you know —
Doel:Yes. Clearly, you needed to know the personalities involved.
Aitken:And you had to go — yes. You get burned once, you also —
Doel:Were there favorite people whoís contracts you really enjoyed working under?
Aitken:No, because the data reductionís the same. It was just, I mean, it was —
Doel:It was just on this kind of level that you faced these particular challenges?
Doel:When you say ďwent to someone to get it fixedĒ, would it always be to the P.I., or would you go to the financial officer at Lamont, someone like Arnold Finck?
Doel:But did he ever get involved in —
Aitken:Well, he did, but not — no, I went to, well, used to go to the senior scientist who was involved in something. Heíd go to — well, Marc [Langseth] was the worst one, and I knew Iíd gain nothing going to Marc. I used to go to an assistant director and say, ďLook at thisĒ — I mean, I went, I actually went to Bill Ludwig with that one, because he was the one that was in charge of explosives, he was the one that okayed, bought all the explosives and everything, and screamed at him, instead of having him scream at me about other things. But no, I mean, you just went to present a case and, I mean, it was understood but I donít know, things like that were just frustrating.
Aitken:I mean, I think that was the case that I learned that I immediately, from then on, immediately spent and saved others.
Doel:Right. Did you get involved actively in the development of the Ewing, the ship?
Aitken:No, I really had no involvement with it.
Doel:How did your tasks and your challenges at Lamont evolve in the late seventies and through the 1980s? How did the nature of the job change?
Aitken:Well, became this — once the group had formed data and put it and maintained it, and then that was sort of over, whether there was twelve people working or it was down to five or down to me alone, and kept the database up so the scientists could always refer to it.
Doel:Iím curious about that. This was a master database for all kinds of data that were accumulated or primarily in different, in certain —
Aitken:There were ship data, thereís navigation, gravity, magnetics, and topography.
Doel:But Vema and Conrad together.
Aitken:Eltanin, and any outside data we got, and we used to keep them in two files: Lamont data and non-Lamont data. That was always divided up. It was divided up then by ship, I mean, wed know the years and things, but we went back when I had this big group. One of the things — we went back and reworked up a lot of old data, from Vema 17 on, because thatís when gravimeting started, single-channel seismic started. We never got back to reducing data before that, except sections, and youíd find cruises, because graduate students are working on the mid-Atlantic ridge, say, and so they reduced a section of the mid-Atlantic ridge. But the ship came out of Bermuda and ended up, say, in Dakar. Well, the beginning and end wasnít the thing, so we go back, add those, and check the whole thing out, make both legs complete and everything. And if somebody wanted — I think that Denny [Dennis E. Hayes] is still having data reduced, topography data, old data of the entire leg, and if you do that, you have to have navigation done for it so, so did that. And we had problems at Lamont — people complained about that — we went back and checked to make sure what had been done in the past was right, so a lot of times, checking that or what we had done was right, correcting. We would guarantee the quality of the Lamont data, the outside data, what you see is what you have unless thereís some obvious, a big spike you just throw out. I remember John LaBrecque went through a lot of the outside data and redid it — magnetics data — and corrected it, and we restored it, or he did some and he had some summer help and then he had a girl who was here for a semester from — Iím forgetting the college in Ohio. Iíll think of it later. But just doing that and correcting it, doing the correcting and then I would reload it onto a computer read, and run it through to make sure it didnít have to be reduced again, or still had some spike error and everything and that —
Aitken:So people would do that, but we did quality control on Lamont data. We had no way of doing it on outside data.
Aitken:I remember talking with Stu [Smith] once. We had this data — we had a person who got his Ph.D. here and left. Heís down at ODP [Office of Defense Planning] — Rakesh Netal, Indian fellow — he developed other programs to do crossover effect. In other words, where two lines cross, the depth should be the same, the gravity should look the same, the magnetics should look the same, particularly topography is the easiest one. And we had this — oh, before that, also became my responsibility to get the data to the National Data Center, which was in Washington, D. C., then moved to Boulder, Colorado, so I was responsible for sending Lamont data there. I also became — they didnít want everybody calling up, so I was the person, you wanted to get data in a certain area or a certain cruise and everything, it came from me. I ordered it, it came to me. I loaded it on the computer, put it in the databank and told you, ďHere it is.Ē So that was one change in responsibility.
Doel:Did the National Data Centers impose systematic rules on how the data should be presented?
Doel:How did that affect things at Lamont?
Well, it didnít affect things at Lamont because they had no systematic thing, so they accepted them, in Lamont format, Scripps format, or Woods Hole format, and then when we went to a meeting in Boulder and worked up a format for that, and then everybody submitted the data in that format, and that became a standard. The data went that way and came back that way, and then everybody you could change it back to your own format at your own institution and you took your own data and put it into that format through a computer program to send it to the data. And first, I remember when we first sent cards to them in Washington and then we got the sending — weíd send tapes. And then got, toward the end, usually put the data on the computer in FTP [Functional Test Procedure] and they would call, pick it up, and say theyíd gotten it and everything. And then wed just clear out off FTP, and if they had problems with it or didnít have problems, wed just do it again if something didnít jive.
But what I was saying about these crossovers, and they did crossover, everybody got into this crossover effect, but we got this one leg of Scripps data — and it used to be exchanged directly to Scripps, or directly to Woods Hole, but now everything went through the Data Center. There were exceptions because some people did recent data that went to a separate data bank here for the drilling project, and that was data that wasnít in the — they had their own database that they could get that and everything else, but it was protected from the world. But this Scripps leg had terrible cross topography, didnít match any place. It went from Fiji right around South American into Argentina. It didnít match at all and I talked to Stu and everything to say, you know, ďIs there any problem?Ē Well, he took the time and looked at it and said, ďNo, everything is fine.Ē It didnít match. I went back and looked at it again and decided the reason it didnít match is it was a cruise that was trying to go along sea mounts, and anytime you cross sea mounts you donít have to be off very far to have a big data error.
Aitken:And that was the reason, probably, that they were having tremendous errors. You expected some errors and things, and Rakesh had it that something would kick out errors beyond a certain thing, that — and I donít know what it was, knew at the time — or if youíre in an abyssal plane area it would be closer. You could change your error, but not general ocean if youíre within so many — We also discovered we had problems with our sea beam, and one arm. We were collecting data from that. It would have different depths than PDR [Precision Depth Recorder], which we normally used, and thatís because the PDR doesnít put any speed of sound it. Itís just measuring time rather than distance, and we used formulas for that and then corrected it. The other thing had corrections in it, and so youíd get different depths, and things werenít bad except where if you had to change — because a sea beam came in on a computer tape, you could read it right in rather than having to enter the data by hand, but if it was down for a while and you had to end in, youíd come along and I think it dropped —
Doel:You were moving your hand down a ways to indicate that it was really a big change.
Aitken:Big change, and it took a while to figure that out, and you know, again, you sort of lie. You smoothed it out, because the ocean didnít do that. One way to smooth it out was just to have a gap between a few miles, and then you could have, you know, the changes in depth arenít noticeable then.
Doel:So, it sounds that there were, at times, negotiations that went on between different institutions to try to reconcile these discordant data.
Aitken:Oh yes. Well, people were collecting a lot of data — Scripps, Lamont, and Woods Hole — and had earlier things. Actually, I discovered in our archives we had some original data from Scripps, and I sent it out to Stu, I mean, for them to archive. It should be in their data, I said. And we had original deck logs from the R/V Atlantis, the original R/V Atlantis at Woods Hole. I sent them off to Woods Hole — they should be archived there, not here.
Doel:Right. Weíll pause. You were saying that you had found RN Atlantis logs that you got back to —
Aitken:Yes, there were, but I think [W. Maurice] Ewing had probably been chief scientist. I mean, still archiving them, I sent them up to Woods Hole to archive with them. I mean, if theyíd had Vema logs, I would expect them to come back here, you know, have them all archived, the deck logs in order.
Doel:Did you feel that Lamont paid enough attention, devoted enough care, to these records as you would have liked?
Aitken:Well, enough care, but itís funding. Woods Hole had even a worse problem. They werenít — for that reason, my equivalent left there and they didnít replace him, because that was a salary, and the same thing ended up happening at the end with inc. Itís salary here, somebody gets paid to do this, and itís a lack of funding, and itís not available. But, yes, I mean, I thought we, the ship stuff kept pretty well I remember the seismologists, we kept their seismic records in good order. I think everybody, you know, kept things in pretty good order, but what happens is that thereís no funding for building or equipment or salary. Somebody has to do this or it gets booted. It gets bootlegged off something else, and now weíre just sort of part of that, and as money is getting tighter and tighter, thereís less places to bootleg somebodyís time.
Doel:Did the entry of personal computers play a role in the kind of work that you were doing in storing central data? Did it tend to decentralize the records, or did it still stay in various centralized areas?
Aitken:Still stayed the same, I mean, paper records, and originally when I first started going to sea as chief scientist, I came into port and every technician came with their papers, their data, to give it to you. And I realized, itís practically the same data. I made up a sheet so all you had to do was mark in how many copies, what I got of all this data, for my own use, but it was so handy that other chiefs gave it to other people there. We also used it in the lab when the data came back. We would check in what we got on all these things and put it in a notebook. After the fact, somebody says, ďI canít find certain things,Ē go look and see — well, we never received it, or yes we received it. So I had tried to establish — and most people liked it, that the data came into me — Iíd log it in and then give it to the various people because I had a record of it, of whether it came in or, and if it went directly to them, particularly all the computer tapes for MCS [?] or the logs they would tell me that. But we logged all these things in, and then we got that, I had it online to try to get it with a personal computer when you either had a work station or a terminal on your desk, you could just enter it. You could make up a format and enter this, so I used to enter mine and try to get it also to be entered online on the ship when they had the computers there, too. Donít have to be on paper — if itís a paper record, put in on that, but if you can manage to adapt it, you could still enter it online.
Doel:Yes. You were pointing a moment ago to something you brought to the interview, which is a massive, compiled list, perhaps five inches thick of the different personnel who were on board both the R/V Vema, and the R/V Conrad.
Aitken:The R/V Vema and the R/V Conrad, from Vema 17 onward and all of R/V Conrad. The ships crew and the scientists. Itís called a crew list, I mean it lists a total number, and the position. This one lists the technicians by their position, but who the captain was, the chief officer, the second mate, the boatswain, the radio operator, the ordinary seamen, chief engineer, second engineer — I canít read that one — steward.
Doel:The oiler and so on.
Aitken:Yes. Steward, this happens to be Henry Kohler —
Doel:Mrs. [Mary Evangeline] Kohler ó
Aitken:— and so she was listed as stewardess, because you have to be listed as something on the ship.
Doel:How helpful have you found keeping a record of this sort for interpreting these data and making the kind of adjustments that youíve been doing — I wonder what uses you have found for records of this sort?
Aitken:Well, it was handy knowing who was on the ship and occasionally, if you had that, youíd go back and if you had trouble with some data, youíd see if a personís still at Lamont. You could ask them any questions, but it was you know, just sort of interest. Again, it was a record that came out each leg, and it was just sort of nice to have, and I wanted it. I spent so much time on this ship, knew people, and I used to also — would then, if I was going to the ship, I would review who was on the ship, because everybody knows your name if youíre coming on the ship. If you canít remember everybodyís name and quite often, so you would maybe make a copy of the previous legs. At least you have that you can take with you and have in your cabin on the ship, so it was, you know, for data reduction and everything it wasnít that useful, but it was just a handy thing back. Weíd planned on doing a series of booklets that never happened of all the cruises or sections, like the Vema 17 one, and that listed all the seamen, everybody who was on the ship for every leg, which leg they were on, so this was done for to have that.
Doel:Interesting. Itís certainly a very valuable historical record, in addition to the uses that you have found for that. As I recall, your time at Lamont lasted officially through the end of Gordon Eatonís administration? Or did it come before that?
Aitken:No, it came before that. My official time ending I think was the 21st of March three years ago, 1994. So the 20th of November 1961 to the 21st of March 1994.
Doel:And I sense you would have stayed on at Lamont had there been sufficient funding for you to do so.
Aitken:Oh yes. I had all planned for that. I mean, as of right now, I have a boy just turned sixteen, sophomore in high school, and I have a sophomore in college, at Wake Forest University. But retiring and being retired as an officer I still get the half tuition at any college or university in the United States, undergraduate, up to a total of eight semesters.
Doel:But still, it must have been a difficult matter for you, to find the —
Aitken:Well, it was difficult but it was coming. I mean —
Doel:You sensed it.
Aitken:Yes, oh, I knew it — the writing — and Columbia has a rule that you canít retire till fifty-five, and this was happening before I was fifty-five ó fifty-three, fifty-four — and first I just was going to fight. I wanted to get till fifty-five to keep all the benefits. Well, it lasted till just two weeks short of my sixtieth birthday. But so it wasnít a surprise, I mean, at even that. I mean I knew the year before that it was coming to an end. First time, the coming of the end was the fall of Ď93, and just enough funding to get it up through the beginning of Ď94, so it was not a surprise. Didnít want it, but it was not a surprise in that sense.
Doel:Did you have any conversations with Gordon Eaton as director at the time, as to what else you might do at Lamont, or anything relating to —
Aitken:No. I didnít talk with him, but I had talks with — Gordon Eaton may have actually been gone. It was John Mutter, and people knew me at Lamont. I mean, people were trying to you know, find things around and a memo was sent around, which I had a copy of it, that I was generally out of funding and everything, and people knew me, and I had a lot of different skills. I mean, one of the skills I had kept employed, I did an awful lot of wiring for the computers in Lamont, both for the workstations and occasionally adding long wires, but usually hooking into the Ethernet to the workstation, and also a lot of putting in Apple Talk network in the buildings and hooking the computers up to that, so that was one thing that had filled out part of my salary.
Aitken:I mean, so I was sort of willing to do anything, but nobody really — nobody had money, I mean, it was very simple.
Doel:What have you been doing since you left Lamont?
Aitken:Oh, I sent my wife back to work.
Aitken:Yes, she started — we knew it was really coming, and so she got a job, sheís a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian as a night supervisor and started the first, or probably the second of January 1994, and went to graduate school full-time and got her Masterís degree, and then went to become a certified nurse midwife when she got that and got a job. Since August sheís been working as a nurse midwife at Lincoln Hospital in the city. So I became Mr. Mom, responsible for the house, the cooking, supposedly cleaning, not up to her satisfaction, of course, but Iím taking care of the kids and everything. So Iíve been playing a lot of tennis and sports and things, and doing that, but I never actually went and looked for a job because my wife also went back, taking a job. She went back to a job that was at twenty-five percent more than I was making after thirty-three years, working for Columbia University as a nurse.
Doel:Did it introduce strains, though, in the relationship, or perhaps —
Aitken:No, it did not. It didnít put a strain because it was coming for a long time, and I think in some ways it actually made it stronger, because she never liked being at home, and she had always worked part-time as a nurse, per diem and everything, so it didnít put a drum beat in there. No, so, no I donít — I was very lucky that way. I mean, I think we made a point of working at it, because we realized it could and everything.
Doel:Yes. Iím wondering, as you look back, you think back on what weíve been talking about, were there any experiences that were really memorable for you that we havenít spoken about so far in this interview?
Aitken:Probably are, but I canít think about them right now. I mean, my wife — the last leg I was on R/V Vema I got off in Puerto Rico, my wife met me there, so we spent, I forget, a week or so there. And then another occasion on the R/V Conrad I went from Guam to Hawaii and she met me there. We spent a couple weeks in the Hawaiian Islands before we came back. Those were pleasant. A lot of people have done that. Those are the only two times I ever did it, and they were obviously before children.
Doel:Yes. Well, thereíll be opportunity to add some more things when you get the transcript back. I was curious, if youíve looked back over your life, were there any guiding principles, religious or philosophical principles that youíve felt have been very important to you?
Aitken:Nothing that sticks out in my mind that way. I mean, it was just that, you know, I enjoyed going to sea, I enjoyed working at Lamont and everything, and I had friends that — from college, acquaintances, classmates — that werenít happy, and I was always happy in my job. I mean, every job youíre frustrated some days, but generally it was fun working, it was fun going to sea. I mean — and when my children were small I went to sea less, and that was nice just to stay — I would be very upset if I couldnít go to sea, but it was sort of nice not going to sea, because you always know you will go to sea again.
Doel:Yes. Itís clear that going to sea was a very important part of your experience here at Lamont. And Iím aware were coming up to the time at which you have to go, so I want to thank you very, very much for this long session that weíve had today, and you will be getting a transcript of the interview from Columbia University, and it will not be released prior to the time that you have a chance to review it and put in any conditions you might want.
Aitken:I canít see having any conditions. I left some names out deliberately [laughs].
Let me thank you very much.
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