Oral History Transcript — Sir Anthony S. Laughton
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Interview with Sir Anthony S. Laughton
Anthony Laughton; May 6, 1998
ABSTRACT: Topics include: his family and early education; his decision to attend Cambridge University and Kings College; the impact of WWII on his education; his Naval experiences; his post-war education; getting into geophysics; work on seismic refraction at sea; his dissertation work on the velocity of sound through the sea-bottom sedimentation; obtaining a Fulbright scholarship to go to U.S. where he spent one year at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observation; work with deep-sea camera; work with Bruce Heezen; comparison of Lamont with Scripps Institution of Oceanography; work leading to the gradual acceptance of sea-floor spreading; his work at National Institute of Oceanography; studies related to sea-floor spreading; comparison of British and American standards for classification of data; the Indian Ocean Expedition and its importance to the theory of sea floor spreading; his research vessel, Discovery; reactions to the work of Vine and Matthews; his work in the Gulf of Aden; Soviet ships and style of research; recollections of Russian scientist Gleb Udintsev; participation on the Atlantic Panel and participation on international programs and committees; comparison of the NIO to Lamont; the British government's support for research; the Rothschild report; differences between applied and strategic research; submarine detection work; creating government science policy; negotiations on the 3rd Law of the Sea; radioactive waste disposal.
Session I | Session II
Levin:...and this is an interview with Sir Anthony Seymour Laughton [pronounced lor’-tun]. And did I pronounced that right?
Laughton:Yes, you did.
Levin:Okay. And I’m Tanya Levin. I know you were born in London on April 29, 1927. Can you tell me a little bit about your parents and about what they did for a living?
Laughton:Yes. My father was born in Rugby and, when he was young, he was apprenticed to his father in the cabinet making trade. But he decided at an early age he didn’t like cabinet making or wasn’t very good at it, and so he decided to come up to London from Rugby to make his own fortune and his own way. And he got into the firm of Gillows. It was selling furnishings and high class furniture. And he did very well in this and traveled around the world. One time he traveled to Moscow to try and sell interior decor to the Czar’s palace in Moscow, and he went out to South America, and he traveled around. And so his job was interior decoration. Eventually he became independent, and ran his own company. At the outbreak of war in 1939 we were living in London and of course nobody wanted their house decorated then. So this was a great blow to his whole career, and he was by that time fairly elderly, because he was born in 1876 and had served in the First World War. And when the Second World War came it really put everything out of order. And he did a certain amount of work for war damage assessments, and then after the war got into the antiques trade. So that was my father’s career. My mother was trained as a masseuse, and practiced privately while looking after the family. The family was my brother and myself. My brother, two and a half years older than I am, eventually became a lawyer, and became chief legal advisor to British Steel at the end of his career. And so it was that I lived in London. I was born in Golders Green, lived my early teenage years in Golders Green and Hampstead, North London, and then of course at the outbreak of war this was a bad place to be. So we moved to stay with my grandparents who lived 20 miles west of London at Gerrard’s Cross, where eventually my parents bought a house and we lived at this house after the war. My mother died just at the end of the war in 1945 and my father died in 1959. So that was my family background.
Levin:So, but you did your grammar years, the years from five to nine in Hampstead.
Laughton:Yes. That was a small pre-preparatory school. Up to the age of eight I went to this school called Heysham. It was a small Dame school, we would call it, of boys and girls, about 30 altogether. And then I went to a preparatory school, down in Surrey, not far from here actually, between here and Dorking, called Abinger Hill. And that was a very interesting school. It was quite small, about 70 or 80 boys, but very advanced in the way its education took place. It used what was called the Modified Dalton System of education, where you have a lot freedom in choosing what you want to do and when you do it. But a very good, broad grounding for education generally.
Levin:Okay. So during your earliest years, the time when you were in London right before the war, did you live in a house or a flat?
Laughton:We lived in a house. It was a semi-detached house in a little residential area in a nice part of Golders Green, and it had a park behind it and nearby there was Hampstead Heath which is a big open space. My brother and I would ride our bicycles and sail our boats on the pond and do the things that boys do.
Levin:Did your father travel a lot during this period?
Laughton:Not a lot of travel at that time. By that time he had got his own business in London and he was active there.
Levin:And, okay, so then you went to school, and but then the war came and you left to live with your aunt you said.
Laughton:Yes. But my aunt was living with my grandparents, so yes, it was with her too. At my prep school I was due to leave the school in the end of the summer 1940. But the school was between London and France, so it was in serious danger of having attention from the German bombers. A parent offered to take the entire school, lock stock and barrel to Canada, which it did during the summer term in 1940. So I had to decide whether to go with the school. I talked it over with my parents and I decided that I didn’t. I was due to go to my next school in September, so I left early and went to my next school, Marlborough College, early. This was a fairly traumatic, sudden change from one school to another.
Levin:So, but at this previous school, you said it was a modified Dalton System, so what sort of interests were you cultivating at this school? Did you have any science?
Laughton:I don’t think there were any particular scientific interests, because there wasn’t any science taught. In those days science was not taught at prep school. We did have the son of Lord Melchett at the school. Lord Melchett was the founder of ICI, and he donated a school laboratory, which was a wooden hut, and some scientific equipment in which we did things like make soap and mix chemicals and saw them fizz. So that was really the first scientific contact I had. My father was not a scientist, my mother wasn’t a scientist, my brother was not a scientist. So there was no science in the family. I guess I was the one who tended to take things to bits and find out how they work and played with my chemistry set and made stinks and things like that.
Levin:So you liked taking things apart at an early age?
Levin:Okay. What sort of reading did you do during this time?
Laughton:Oh my goodness. Not as much reading as my brother. I much preferred to do things with my hands — woodworking and gardening when I was at home. I would prefer to go out and walk in the woods. Reading, oh, I read the normal children’s books and I got very enthusiastic with sailing at that time through the Arthur Ransom books. I don’t know how familiar those are in the States, but Arthur Ransom wrote several children’s books, his first book being Swallows and Amazons, a story of children who sailed in the lakes of the Lake District in Cumbria. And then each year he would bring out a new book, and it was a book that children would read, and they were adventure stories and so forth. And that got my enthusiasm for sailing going.
Levin:Did you have the opportunity to go out sailing at all?
Laughton:Not really. We used to have holidays down in Cornwall at a nice little Cornish port called Coverack, and we would rent a boat, a rowing boat. We decided that rowing was too hard work so we hoisted an oar with a ground sheet, and then the next year it became bamboo mast with a homemade sail, and so on. We developed our interest in sailing there. The first real sailing boat that I sailed in was during the war on the Thames when my brother and I were doing farming work. There was a sailing dinghy in one of the cow sheds which we repaired and sailed on the river. So that led to my interest in the sea I suppose. The genetic background is probably from my grandfather, my mother’s father, who was in shipping, and looked after a shipping agency in Southampton. They lived in Southampton.
Levin:Would he share stories with you about being on the sea?
Laughton:Well, he didn’t go to sea himself. He was a shipping agent. He worked for Kings which later became Cox and Kings. It is now a tourist company, tourist agency. But in those days it was a shipping company that shipped goods all over the world, and so he would be involved with the shipping side, not actually going to sea himself.
Levin:And so you started at Marlborough when you were about 13 years old?
Laughton:At about 13, right.
Levin:The war has just started.
Laughton:The war had started. I had gone to Marlborough three months early, and I found myself in the first year advancing up the school very rapidly because I seemed to do reasonably well. And the first set of formal examinations in those days was called School Certificate, normally taken at the age of 15 or 16, and I took it at the age of 14. And that put me ahead, so I took the next exam two years after that, called Higher School Certificate, which is the equivalent of what is now called A Levels. I took my School Certificate and then my Higher Certificate about a year or more earlier than most boys. I started doing science for the School Certificate and showed, I suppose, some scientific inclinations and ability. So the big question after I had taken School Certificate, was whether to specialize in science when I got into the Sixth Form or take a year to do something different before specializing in science, because I had a year in hand
Levin:What science had they given you for this preparatory?
Laughton:Physics, chemistry, I didn’t do any biology, and it’s one of the lacunae in my career, never having done biology. But it was mixed science in School Certificate.
Levin:Was it basically just rote principles, or did you do a lot of experiments?
Laughton:A lot of experimentation. There were very good science laboratories at Marlborough, and good science teaching. And I suppose what grabbed me most was physics. We did a lot of physics experiments, a lot of chemistry experiments, and I was continuing with maths, which was part of the School Certificate and of the Higher Certificate. I took Higher Cert in 1943 and then because I had a year in hand, I actually took the whole lot again the following year and got better grades in 1944, although I had got perfectly respectable grades in 1943. And then I took a scholarship from Marlborough to King’s College at Cambridge.
Levin:Okay. So this was following after you finished your exams there at Marlborough. Then you went on to Cambridge?
Laughton:Then I went on to Cambridge.
Levin:With this scholarship. But so you had been working at Marlborough. You were passing these tests really early, and so had that extra year, so you repeated the courses.
Levin:While you were still at this school, what kind of guidance did they give you? You went to Cambridge, but was there ever any other choice that you might have gone to? Who guided you in where to go and how to get there and get this scholarship?
Laughton:Well, I suppose two people probably. One was my Housemaster. Being a boarding school, one’s housemaster is quite involved in your education and your prospects, and my parents came and discussed where I should go and what I should do. And secondly, the head of the science department, who was a Dr. Gould. And he was very helpful, and I know we talked a lot with him. Now, my brother had gone to Cambridge. Not to the same college. He went to Magdalene College. And it was very much the situation that academically one chose Oxford or Cambridge as first choice universities. There were nothing like as many other universities as there are now after the big expansion in the number of universities in the post-war years, but Oxford and Cambridge, or “Oxbridge” as people refer to it, was the first choice. My father hadn’t been to a university. He was very keen that we, both my brother and I, went to a university. And I chose Cambridge because Cambridge is well known for its science, and better than Oxford. And I chose King’s College I suppose because of the music. It’s famous for its music. It has the wonderful chapel and a chapel choir and is world renowned for the music in the carol service at Christmas. So that was perhaps part of the reason to choose it. Of course, remember during all this period, exactly the period I was at Marlborough, the war was on. There was no end in sight. We knew that every boy there would be called up and have to serve in the forces. We knew that education immediately after school was going to be cut. And whether one survived the war or not was an open question. Many people didn’t, obviously. So that had quite an impact. And the other impact the war had on my schooling was that most of the young masters had gone off to fight. They had been called up. They were in the services. So many of the older masters who had retired came back to teach. And they were a bit old fashioned. They were not as young and dynamic as the younger ones would have been. I don’t know what impact it had on me, but it obviously had some impact on the school. So that was Marlborough. At Marlborough I started to play the French horn, which I have played ever since. There was a lot of music at home and I enjoyed this. I loved the piano and was taught at Marlborough, as well as the French horn.. Both have given me enormous fun all of my life. During my time at Marlborough we were living in Gerrard’s Cross, having bought a house there. And then eventually in 1945 the war ended, much to the relief of my parents who realized that I would not have to fight.
Levin:Yeah. But before this time, of course you finished Marlborough, and then well the war is still on, so you actually went into the Navy.
Laughton:I did, yes.
Laughton:Well, there was a curious arrangement. It was a wartime arrangement. I signed up to join the Navy in October 1944. The war was still going in Europe, the war in the Pacific was still active, and there was no immediate prospect of civilian life, of an ordinary life. So I signed up to join the Navy, by taking the “King’s Shilling”, because I wanted to get into the Navy and rather than be thrust into the Army. The government had a scheme for enabling boys who left school to grow up a little at University before they went into officer training. And that scheme was called a Short Course. Short Courses were held at various universities where you did a mixture of military training and academic work. Now I had an entry into Cambridge, through my scholarship. I had a minor scholarship there. So I naturally wanted to go Cambridge for the Short Course. That started in April 1945 and went through to September 1945, six months long and was independent of the university terms. There were University students there doing their own thing, people who were either unfit for the service or for various reasons were not in the services.
Levin:Did they have any women at the university at this time?
Laughton:There were women at the university and there were women’s colleges. There weren’t women on the Short Courses. I did a Naval Short Course. Now the question was what academic work should I do. And I looked at the list of options, and there were no sciences courses offered at all. Well I’d done my science Higher Certificates and I had got my scholarship, so I thought, “Well, I’ll try something different,” and I signed up for a course in Moral Sciences — philosophy, metaphysics and ethics. And it turned out I was the only person doing that course, and so I just had three supervisions a week with three different tutors, one who went by the eminently suitable name of Professor Wisdom, and life was very pleasant at Cambridge in the summertime without the prospect of having to work very hard. I produced essays when I was required to, but the rest of the time I would spend on the river punting or playing cricket or tennis or enjoying life. Again, you must remember that when I started at Cambridge the war was still going on and my expectation was to join the fighting Navy. Of course the war in Europe ended in May 1945. So that meant I wasn’t going to have to fight in Europe. But of course the war in the Pacific was still very active and the Japanese didn’t surrender until August 1945, so the prospect was that I’d be going out to the Far East. The Japanese war ended when the atomic bombs were dropped. The Japanese surrendered, and it was virtually on that same day that my mother died. So of course I came back home because of that. Just before she died she knew that I wouldn’t have to go and fight in the war, which was a relief for her. So then I completed that course, and in September 1945 I then joined the Navy proper and went into full-time training as a young cadet. I spent two months in initial training down in Plymouth, two months on a training cruiser up in Scotland, an old broken down ship HMS Dauntless that was incapable of going outside the Forth of Firth because they feared the funnel would fall off.
Levin:But then this time in the Navy, this two years, was it voluntary or was it required?
Laughton:No, that was required. Because you see, there was conscription. Everybody had to join. And even though the war had finished, those who had been fighting the war were released first, and there was still plenty of clearing up work to be done. And so everybody who was conscripted then had a demobilization number. They gradually worked the numbers through and when they got up to your number you left. Well, for me my demobilization number didn’t come up until the spring of 1948. I had spent nearly three years in the Navy. Having been through initial training, sea training and officer training at a country house in Hampshire, I got my commission as a midshipman in the Spring of 1945. So as a young midshipman, having been taught ship handling, having been taught knots and splices and ropes and navigation and all the elements of seamanship, I then joined a ship. Predominantly my time in the Navy was spent sweeping mines, because there were mines all over the place. Initially I was in a small ship that was concerned with laying markers for mine sweeping, and later I was in an even smaller ship, a 120-foot motor launch , a Fairmile Motor Launch, equipped with mine sweeping equipment for sweeping acoustic and magnetic mines. You have a huge hammer box which you hang over the bow, and it makes a fearful racket and it puts off any mine ahead of the ship. And then astern, you have two electrodes, one long, long cable and one short cable. As enormous currents are pulsed through this, they set up a magnetic field around the long cable, and that triggers magnetic mines. Now the Germans had been laying mines all over the place, but they’d laid them particularly around the Thames estuary, which had shipping lanes going up into London, but it also had lots of sandbanks. And the shipping lanes were kept free of mines regularly during the war by mine sweepers, but they had never swept the sandbanks, because you just avoided them. And so after the war we had to actually then sweep over all the sandbanks. And because they put mines in that could be activated twelve times before they went off, we had to sweep up and down twelve times in formation, using ships in line abreast, up and down, up and down. So navigation was important, keeping the right place, keeping station was critical. And it was interesting seamanship. And this was all good seagoing experience. I loved going to sea, I enjoyed the life on board. Except that there was too much drinking and too much smoking. I mean there was very hard drinking and tobacco was so cheap that people smoked like chimneys. Nowadays it would have been entirely inappropriate. But then, you know, that was a way of life.
Levin:That’s interesting. Getting back to the war. When you were in this Short Course, you mentioned that there was no science, you couldn’t choose from a science course. What about science during the war? I know Britain was involved in the bomb program to work on the atomic bomb, but you were a scientist, you were trained as a scientist. Was there any thought of moving you toward some kind of a project?
Laughton:No. I don’t think it ever came up. I think they were looking for more experienced scientists, people who had already got research experience or qualified with a degree. They might have been involved, brought into the teams for nuclear bombs and the whole atomic energy program. Cambridge was of course a predominant place for discovering about the nucleus. Rutherford, Lord Rutherford, discovered atomic structures at Cambridge. There were scientists drawn from the universities who went into the specialist laboratories that were developing atom bombs and mine sweeping and a whole lot of other technology — radar, for instance. Radar was a terribly important scientific invention that was developed in this country and the Germans didn’t know about it. They didn’t understand how we managed to detect their planes at such long range when they were coming over. And so radar development was a very important scientific development during the war.
Laughton:But I didn’t get involved in any of that.
Levin:Did you hear what was happening?
Laughton:No, not very much. It was kept very quiet. I followed a bit and read a little bit in the scientific journals, but it wasn’t until after I’d left the Navy that I had got more deeply into science. Up until then it had been learning science at school about the classical period of science and what people had done in the famous experiments in the past. But clearly there was a lot of extremely important science going on at Cambridge in that Short Course period, but I just didn’t know about it. I didn’t know the people.
Levin:Okay. So then you have this time in the Navy, and when you got out you went right back to Cambridge?
Laughton:Well, I spent, I had about six months after I left the Navy before my Cambridge year started in October 1948, and I spent that time working in a research laboratory of British Aluminium, which was very close to where we lived. I got a summer job effectively, getting experience with various techniques and seeing what a real research lab was like. Now that was interesting, and I could live at home and bicycle to work. And but then it was in October ‘48 that I started my proper scientific training. It was an interesting time at Cambridge at that time, because a whole lot of the students at Cambridge and other universities were people who had been fighting in the war. They weren’t boys and girls straight from school. They were people, such as bomber pilots, or commandos, or had been on raids, or had been in command of a destroyer and dropping depth charges and torpedoes. They were men of mature age who had done that war service and now were coming back to do their academic studies. This was described by the Senior Tutor of King’s College in a book he wrote about this, a golden age for the university, because it had suddenly this influx of very mature people. It wasn’t to say that they didn’t do pretty outrageous, silly things at times, but it was difficult for them to abide by the rules and regulations about getting into college by 11 o’clock in the evening and not entertaining girls in your rooms and lots of petty restrictions that were a hang-up from pre-war. So it was an interesting, exciting time.
Levin:So was the university evolving then to meet their new intake?
Laughton:Yes. I think it had to make a lot of the post-war changes of attitudes, changes of expectations. There were I think fewer of the playboys. People were coming to the university actually to work because they wanted to get qualifications, they wanted to get on with their life, they wanted to earn a living. And the sort of “Brideshead Revisited” type of outlook on university life, which was pre-war, was less. I don’t say it had gone completely. Of course you have to remember, at that time we had even more rationing than we had during the war. There was a tighter supply of food. The country was bankrupt, we had martial aid from America to keep things going and to help reconstruct our own industries in Europe, and so we couldn’t afford the luxuries of life. There was food rationing so one had rationing for bread, for butter, for jam, for bacon, for meat, you know, everything. And going into hall in college to eat, we would take a great tray full of all our own rations and plop them down and eat. Coal was rationed, and it was very cold. We had one sack of coal to last us a term in our rooms. There were no electric fires, just a coal fire. So life was fairly spartan. A lot of the things that had been closed down during the war hadn’t really started up again. A great occasion for me, and for the college, was that the college celebrated its 500th anniversary, which should have fallen in 1941. The war was on then. It was actually celebrated in 1951, by which time they had just completed putting the wonderful stained glass windows back into King’s College chapel. The stained glass had all been taken out during the war and stored underground, and there were just tarpaulins and sheets over them, and it was very dark and miserable. Well, they eventually put those back, and to celebrate the delayed quincentenary and the restoration of the chapel windows, the King and the Queen and Princess Margaret all came down to the college and it was a very special occasion. And I had the opportunity to sit opposite the King at tea in the Provost’s lodge where there was a special tea party. That was interesting.
Levin:How did you get that opportunity?
Laughton:Well, I was Secretary of what they call the Amalgamation Club, which I suppose means as being President of the junior common room. I don’t know what the equivalent is in America. But the undergraduates have to elect somebody to represent their views. And I had that position. And that was my last year of being an undergraduate. So life at Cambridge was full of music and science and belonging to other societies.
Levin:Were you playing in an orchestra at this time?
Laughton:I played in the university orchestra. In fact I was principle horn in the university orchestra for four years. Because that included the years that I stayed on and did research afterwards. So, where does that take us?
Levin:So you began your studies at Cambridge, and you went in knowing that you wanted to study science. That’s right?
Levin:Were you thinking physics at this time still?
Laughton:The system at Cambridge was that, if you did a natural sciences degree, for the first two years you had to do three different subjects. So it was broadly based. In your third year you could specialize in a single subject. So for the first two years I did physics, chemistry, mathematics, and I did a half subject in mineralogy. Now those were two relatively easy years, because a lot of the work repeated what I had covered in the Higher Certificate that I had done at school. In my third year, Part 2, I did physics only. That was much more difficult. There was a sudden leap into advanced physics of a sort that I found myself much less at ease with. One got into relativity and quantum theory, and there were all these high-powered people like Professor Dirac around, whose lectures I went to, and it was much harder for me actually to make that jump between the second and third year. It was quite difficult. In fact I could get my degree on the first two years, because there was a system that people who had served in the services could have their degree in two years rather than three. So I got a First Class Honors Degree after my second year.
Levin:So the normal period is four.
Laughton:Three. Three years.
Levin:Three years? And so they took off a year. Because of the Short Course?
Laughton:No. Because of having served in the services.
Laughton:Anybody who had been in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force could get a degree in two years. Because there was a great bottleneck, you see, of people suddenly wanting to come, and they couldn’t accommodate or teach them all.
Laughton:So I did very well in my second year exams. I didn’t do so well in my physics exam. I got a 2-2, which is a second class, second division. Now that takes us up to 1951. And I wanted at that time to go into research. What I really would have liked to have done was to have joined Professor Pippard in the low temperature physics laboratory, low temperature physics being down in the 2 or 3 degrees absolute region, covering the superconductivity and superfluidity phenomena. I couldn’t get a place in that team, but I did get a place with Professor Otto Frisch in the nuclear physics laboratory in the Cavendish to work on the cyclotron. A lot of the nuclear research was using the cyclotron as an accelerator and Professor Frisch had been very influential in the development of atomic energy and was a distinguished formerly German scientist. So I started work there in October 1951, and as part of the routine evaluation of radiation hazard they took blood samples. The white count of your blood is a sensitive measure of whether you’ve got too much radiation. Radiation attacks the white corpuscles. So I had a blood count, and the doctors sent for me and said, “Look, we better have another blood count,” and I had another blood count, and they finally came back and said, “Your blood has only a third of the number of white corpuscles that it should have as the norm. We don’t advise you to start a career of nuclear physics.” And so that was somewhat devastating after three months.
Levin:So Otto Frisch at this time was at the Cavendish?
Laughton:At the Cavendish, yes.
Levin:Okay. And so you had just gone there, and then they started to take the blood tests after you had started working.
Laughton:Yes, yes. I hadn’t actually been in contact with any radiation. I was still doing the book work. So that was the turning point in my life really, because nuclear physics was a very fashionable subject. It had been tremendously important during the war and in terms of the splitting the atom, atomic energy, atomic bombs, nuclear bombs. Everything was going into that big, expanding subject. But it had in a way gone over the top almost at that stage. And so when I came out of that, a friend of mine in King’s College by the name of Dr. Maurice Hill, who I knew as a friend, had said to me, “Well, what are you going to do now?” I said, “Well, I’m not really sure. Any ideas?” And he said, “Well, you’ve been in the Navy, so you know about the sea. You’ve read physics, therefore you’re a physicist. Come and join me and do marine geophysics.” And I said, “What the hell is geophysics?” Because I had never done any geology in my courses. And anyhow, the end of the story is that I joined up with Maurice Hill and joined the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics at Cambridge. I did my Ph.D. in the next three years under the supervision of Maurice Hill. The subject of my Ph.D. was really developed from my association with Maurice Hill. Maurice had worked very closely with Maurice Ewing at Lamont.
Laughton:And they were very friendly. Together with Prof. Russell Raitt at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography they were developing the method of seismic refraction studies at sea using explosives to determine crustal structure. Whereas Maurice Ewing and his colleagues and Russ Raitt had developed two ship techniques, one ship firing the explosions and one ship receiving, Maurice Hill developed the one ship technique using sono-radio boys to receive the acoustic signals and to transmit those signals back to the ship. This was a much more economic way, because you only needed one ship and it was easier logistically. Maurice Hill did his Ph.D. on the development of refraction seismics. And he found in some of his results that the plot of the velocity of the propagation of sound through the sediment layer on the time-distance curve gave a certain characteristic cusp, which he explained in his Ph.D. thesis as being due to a gradient of velocity in the sediments. In other words, the further you go down the higher the velocity. And he wanted to be able to test that experimentally in the laboratories to show it was really the case. And so my thesis program was to sample ocean sediments, to measure the velocity of sound through them in the laboratory, to then compress them and squeeze the water out, and to see how the velocity of sound varied. And that was an interesting experimental approach in the laboratory. I had to develop the equipment and pressure vessels and porous discs and assign velocity measurements, and so forth. And it led me to a lot of understanding of soil mechanics, because this is essentially a soil mechanics problem, the compaction of sediments — well studied in engineering geotechnics. One of the great names of that day was Professor Karl Terzaghi. I think he worked at MIT. And so I had to learn soil mechanics and apply that to the measured velocity variations. But at the same time I went off to sea with Maurice Hill to do seismic refraction at sea, and I worked with him on many of his expeditions both during that research period when I was at Cambridge and afterwards —
Levin:Was this when you got the samples for this dissertation?
Laughton:Well, yes, yes. We collected samples by coring and we brought those back, trying to preserve the water content. We cut the samples up, put them in the pressure containers, did the compression to get out the water and measured both the compressional and the shear wave velocities in the sediments. And that worked out really quite well, and one could associate the variation of compaction overburden pressure with the velocity gradients that were observed in the field. And it had quite a lot of relevance which I hadn’t realized at the time, to the work of submarine detection by sonar. Because a lot of sonar systems worked by actually bouncing the sonar off the bottom, you needed to know what happens to the sound, and track the modification of sound frequencies as it reflected from the bottom. It was an important element in Naval research, particularly going on in the United States. There were people at the marine physics laboratory in San Diego who I communicated with after I got my Ph.D. and published this work; in particular Ed Hamilton who was working with the Navy on acoustic propagation in sediments.
Levin:Since this had interest for the Navy, and it was what they were looking for in their own studies, were they funding this research, the ship time?
Laughton:No, no. I mean, the system of funding in those days was really very different from the way it is now. There wasn’t the specific funding of projects. Although having said that, a lot of the background funding of the Department of Geophysics at Cambridge came from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Maurice Hill got grants from ONR for the work in Cambridge. But it was it was a block grant and not specifically focused to specific objectives. No, I had a free hand to carry on and do this research, and it was of scientific interest, and when you publish it, it gets used by other people. I eventually called my thesis “The Compaction of Ocean Sediments” and I later wrote a paper on the velocity of sound in compacted ocean sediments. What I really would like to have called my thesis was, “On Squashing Mud,” but I thought it was a bit too frivolous for the examiners. So that takes us up to about 1954, when I had completed my field work, and my lab work at Cambridge. Then I had the opportunity to go to the States, largely fixed up through the friendship of Maurice Hill and Maurice Ewing. I got a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the U.S. So I spent a year at the Lamont Geological Observatory. I had two thousand dollars to last me for a year. It wouldn’t go far as much these days.
Levin:And was this your choice to go to Lamont, yours and Dr. Hill’s decision? You had your choice of other institutions?
Laughton:Well, it was, I suppose there was a choice. Lamont was the powerhouse of marine geophysics at that time. It was the place one wanted to go to, and it was very dynamic. Maurice Ewing had a driving ambition in marine geophysics and got some very fine people around him who I will talk about in a minute.
Laughton:It was fixed up because of the connections between Maurice Hill and Maurice Ewing, And so I went there. I traveled over in the Queen Mary, because generally one went by sea in those days. I liked going by sea. When I arrived at Lamont in April 1954 Maurice Ewing, (or Doc as we would call him), was at sea. He left a message that I should join him in the Lamont ship, the VEMA in the Gulf of Mexico.
Levin:So you had just barely gotten there?
Laughton:I barely had. So in two weeks I flew down to Galveston.
Levin:Who met you when you first came to America? Did someone come to get you and set you up for a short period?
Laughton:Well, there were a number of people. I was actually this morning re-reading my diary of being in America. I had friends who lived in New York. I stayed for the first few days at International House up on Riverside and then I went out to Lamont. I met several people out there. There were many people, very friendly, and I’ll talk about some of those later. To begin with, I stayed for a couple of weeks in the lodgings with a lady who lived in Palisades.
Levin:Okay. Then you got the call.
Laughton:And then I got the call to go down to join the VEMA. I flew to Galveston, joined the VEMA Cruise 2 as it was then, and was surprised to find this really very elegant three-masted schooner that had belonged to Miss Emily Post as a luxury yacht, which had gone through a lot of history, during the war years, of being stripped out and eventually chartered by Lamont as a research ship. It was in an absolute state of chaos inside. Equipped with steel bunks from its wartime use and definitely a working ship.
Levin:Is this very different from the ships you had been on before, even the research ship with Dr. Hill?
Laughton:Yes, because DISCOVERY II was the research ship that I had worked on with Dr. Hill, and that was built as a research ship; as a ship for work in the Antarctic in 1926. She was a steamship. It was a very good quiet ship from the acoustic point of view, but because she was built to work in ice she had a very rounded bottom so that if she caught in ice she would squeeze out rather than crush. And that meant that she rolled like anything. Terrible rolling, and that made life sometimes very difficult on board. But she had quite a lot of space and she was well equipped. Different laboratories and good cabins and so forth. The VEMA was really minimally equipped. Very little stowage, storage, everything thrown on board, things in big jumbles tied to stanchions and these two large winches, a big coring winch on the deck and a hydrographic winch. And so I made my number with Doc on board, and after a while he said, “Tony, I want you to look after the deep sea camera.” I said, “Yes. Where is it?” He said, “It’s up on top of the deckhouse up there.” The man who designed this from Queens University in New York, by the name of Ed Thorndike, had taken it to sea, and but had been too seasick to enjoy or be able to use it at sea and had returned home. So I said to Doc, “How does it work? Is there a handbook?” And he said, “No, there isn’t a handbook,” and I said, “Well, how does it work?” and he said, “I don’t know. Take it down.” And so we took it down and I then had to take it apart and find out how it worked, how you loaded the film and so forth.
Levin:Do you know how he chose you to do this?
Laughton:I was a spare bod around. An Englishman who comes out, give him a job to do. If there is a camera, well, look after that. You know, it’s fairly casual. I mean, he didn’t know much about me except what Maurice Hill had told him from Cambridge I suppose. So that was fine. I learned how to work it. And the custom on VEMA in those days was — in fact it was Doc’s philosophy — that every day you would take a core station and a camera station, wherever you were. To collect and to build up a database of information about the sediments and about the nature of the bottom. And of course we did echo sounding as well as we went from place to place. So we stopped at a core station. The core would be lowered from the main winch forward, always working on the starboard side. The camera would be lowered over at the same time on the wire from the hydrographic winch aft. And the ship lay to with the wind on the starboard side so that the wire tended to go out a bit. And that was fine. We worked several stations, and the wires got occasionally tangled up, but we managed to sort them out.
Levin:Yes. It looks like —
Laughton:A few days later I was doing the camera station on my own, and everybody was up forward for coring. I was bringing the camera back in board, and the counter which tells you how much wire there is out, had slipped a digit. I thought I had a hundred meters to come in, and I hadn’t, and suddenly the camera appeared out of the water very fast, and it crashed into the block at the top and the springs compressed and then suddenly everything exploded apart and the camera went plummeting into the ocean, and that was the end of Ed Thorndike’s camera. Doc Ewing turned around, up on the fore deck, and he said, “Oh boy!” I felt like crawling into my bunk and dying, because here was I, this young raw Englishman who had just come out and I had lost the one and only multi-shot deep sea camera that had been specially developed, etc. etc. So, anyhow, these things are sent to try us. And I got on with other things on that cruise. We used some earlier single shot cameras that were on board. And eventually we made our way back via Havana and sailed up into New York.
Levin:So you were around Cuba.
Laughton:Yes. We were well west of Cuba, but we went into Havana before the revolution.
Levin:Yeah. Okay. Do you remember, what was your next task after the camera? Were you just working with the single camera?
Laughton:Well, generally helping around and watch keeping. They had some single shot cameras on board that I used. When we got back into New York, Maurice Ewing had not been back home for many months — well, that’s not quite true. The previous cruise VEMA Cruise 1, there had been a major disaster when four people were swept overboard in a hurricane off Bermuda. Maurice Ewing was one of those, and he was quite badly hurt and partly paralyzed, and but he was even worse in hospital, so he’d come out and join the ship, because he couldn’t bear not to be at sea. But on that same accident, the first mate of the VEMA had been lost and drowned. And so when we got back into New York there was a great deal of focus from the press on the accident and on Maurice Ewing and the others.
Levin:Did you consider the ship unsafe?
Laughton:No, it was not unsafe. She was a very well found ship, very stable, with a deep keel. Just rather tatty. In those days she still had her full figurehead, a full mast, and an open bridge for the watch keeper. Back in New York, I didn’t have anywhere to live at that time so I lived on board the VEMA while she was moored alongside Piermont jetty, which is the local pier where Lamont kept the ship. And I helped rebuild various things and I went up, bicycled up, to the lab and worked on ideas of camera design, developed film, started to put reports together, and went to various lectures that were being given. Advanced courses were being given by Maurice Ewing, and Frank Press, (who was later President of the National Academy of Sciences) who was working at Lamont in those days.
Levin:These were courses at Lamont or at Columbia?
Laughton:No, no, these were held at Lamont, particularly on this topic of seismic propagation in layered media. There I read a book by Ewing, Jardetsky and Press, and it eventually came out as a monograph. And my fellow student was Manik Talwani, who later became director of Lamont. He is now down in Galveston I think. Also there was Hans Berckhemer, who was a German seismologist who was in Lamont for a year, and one or two others. There were a lot of students around Lamont, and it was a very exciting time. Particularly I got to know Bruce Heezen, who was on the staff. Bruce had worked a lot with Doc Ewing, written a lot about sediments and had talked about turbidity currents and analyzed the earthquake in 1929 which broke a lot of telegraph cables crossing the Atlantic, and assessed turbidity current propagation. He had done a lot of work on trying to evaluate the shape, the morphology, of the sea floor, and was working with his cartographer, Marie Tharp. Both of them I knew very well. Bruce had got a cruise in the VEMA coming up, VEMA Cruise 4, and I joined him on that cruise to operate the camera. And by this time another multi-shot camera had been built, a replacement. And I sailed, with Bruce as principal scientist, across the Atlantic. We went from New York to the Azores to Casablanca, Cadiz, and then back to New York. And on that cruise we were doing coring, dredging, photography, and seismic reflection shooting. In those days this consisted of preparing a half pound charge of dynamite, lighting a slow-burning fuse, throwing it over the stern, paying out a hydrophone cable as one was underway when the thing was about to go bang. As soon as it went off bang, you pull the hydrophone cable in, and half an hour later you would be doing the same thing. And that went on day and night, and built up a huge stock of these recorded as wiggly lines on photographic paper. And so it was a very arduous business, constantly doing that routine, and taking the echo soundings. We also measured the magnetic field using a magnetometer towed astern. I don’t think we had a gravimeter on board in those days. I think that came later. It was very much of a period where Lamont’s policy was not to test theories but to collect data. And so we were collecting data along all our tracks. We examined some seamounts on the way, we did a lot of work on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, we crossed over west of the Straits of Gibraltar between Casablanca and Cadiz and then back across the Atlantic to do more work on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. And so, on that cruise I got to know Bruce Heezen very closely, and his colleagues and their students doing other measurements.
Levin:Was Charles Hollister aboard?
Laughton:Not I think on that cruise.
Levin:Because I know that they wrote a book on underwater photographs
Laughton:Yes, the “Face of the Earth”, yes. I might be able to tell you who was on that cruise.
Levin:And you’re looking right now. Is this a diary of your trip that you have?
Laughton:I’ve kept diaries of all my cruises at sea, but I kept a diary of my entire year in America, which is quite entertaining. We had Chuck Drake and Bruce Heezen on the cruise who were the joint scientific leaders. Sam Gerard, Arthur Hopper [?], David Carter, George Sutton, seismologist, Hans Berckhemer, Ed Spencer, Julie Hershman [?] —
Levin:Really? Julie Hershman was on board?
Levin:Do you remember —? Because Doc’s policy was to not let women on board.
Laughton:Julie Hershman was a man.
Levin:Oh! Okay. That would explain it.
Laughton:Yeah. Well, there’s a list of people. But no, Charlie Hollister wasn’t on the cruise. I didn’t get to know Charlie Hollister until after I’d left Lamont. I think he was there after me. So I came back from that cruise with a whole load of stuff, and things to write up, more courses to do. And about that time I was also writing up my Ph.D. thesis. I hadn’t got that completed, and I was writing up an application for a research fellowship to go back to Cambridge. Which I didn’t actually get. I did go up to Woods Hole several times, and I went to Princeton, I went to MIT and visited colleagues and friends and was introduced to people. And when I went to Woods Hole for the opening of Challenger House, which is a visitor residential center now, I met for the first time Dr. George Deacon. Interestingly enough I noted in my diary, “Martinis and Manhattans in copious supply from 5:00 to 8:00, but everyone in fine form and gave me a chance to make myself known to Dr. Deacon of the NIO, the National Institute of Oceanography, and many others. These encounters may be fruitful for the future. Who knows?” That encounter with Dr. Deacon opened up my career. And he said, “What are you doing when you’re finished in America?” and I said, “Well, I don’t know, but I have applied for a fellowship. If I don’t get it, who knows?” He said, “Well, if you don’t get it, give me a ring when you’re back in England.” And I gave him a ring when I was back in England. And he said, “When do you want to start at the NIO?” I said, “When do you want me to start?” He said, “What about next Monday?” So I started at NIO, no job descriptions, no interviews, that was the way George Deacon operated. He found people that he thought would be suitable for his laboratory and he said, “Come and join me.” Life is different now. But to complete the time in America, I then went out on another cruise with Jack [John] Nafe. Now Jack Nafe and Chuck Drake were both extremely charming and competent and excellent geophysicists both in the field of seismics, and both became lifelong friends. Jack Nafe had got a cruise on VEMA Cruise 6, doing seismic and magnetics and coring and so forth, down to Bermuda and to Puerto Rico. So I worked along with him on that cruise taking photographs, operating the camera. I left the cruise at Puerto Rico to go back to Lamont because I had a limited amount of time before I had to leave. And I had to write up my thesis. So I left Lamont in April 1955. Before I left I had the chance to take a trip across the States. I took the Greyhound bus from Washington through Chattanooga, through Carlsbad, visited the Grand Canyon, ended up at La Jolla, stayed in San Diego, and was welcomed by Russell Raitt and his wife Helen, by many of the Scripps scientists, and got to know John and Lynne Knauss. John Knauss was later on Director General, if that’s the right word, of NOAA. He still has got a house in La Jolla. And I have often got in touch with the Knauss’s since then. That was a chance to see Scripps, to see what was going on there, and I spent about a week at Scripps and finally flew back. So that visit greatly expanded my horizons, because Lamont and Scripps were the two major centers of marine geophysics in the USA. Lamont tended to concentrate in those days on the Atlantic, Scripps tended to concentrate on the Pacific.
Levin:Did you notice differences in techniques, besides the differences in location?
Laughton:I didn’t go to sea with the Scripps people, so it wasn’t really easy to say. They had developed a two ship seismic method. The HORIZON and the SPENCER BAIRD went off, to the Pacific with George Shor and Russ Raitt who did a lot of work with those ships. Bob [Robert] Fisher, who I got to know very well later on, was into rock dredging in the Pacific whereas Lamont was rock dredging in the Atlantic. There was a big sediment lab in Scripps and a sediment lab in Lamont. So they were running on parallel courses. And there was of course a lot of physical oceanography and marine biology going on as well in these places. But I didn’t get involved in that, because I was interested more in the earth sciences side. But when I came back from Lamont I think my view was that Lamont was the top laboratory in marine geophysics in the world, the leading place. And when I joined NIO, the librarian would complain bitterly that I always thought those at Lamont were the only people that knew anything and that I was very blinkered on that. And I have since learned of course that there was a huge amount going on elsewhere in the world, and particularly in places like Russia and France that I, as well many people, were very ignorant of. And also in Germany. So, that more or less takes us through the American experience.
Levin:One question. While you were still at Lamont of course you had the opportunity to sit in on some of the advanced courses with Press.
Levin:And with Drake, or rather with Nafe as well? Any of his classes?
Laughton:I didn’t do any classes under Drake. And I talked to him a lot and sailed with him. Did I sail? I’m not sure I did sail with him. Yes I did.
Levin:But as for just the lecture series, they had a talk once a week, didn’t they?
Laughton:Oh, there were always research talks. Yes. Many of those, and I gave some myself on my topics. There were research seminars, and all of the students and visitors would give those, and that was a very valuable part of what was going on at Lamont. But as I say, the only formal course actually that I attended was this one given by Doc Ewing and Frank Press.
Laughton:And it was interesting just to read —
Levin:Was this similar to when you were at Cambridge? Were there research talks as well?
Laughton:Indeed. Yes. Almost every laboratory will have research talks. It’s very common. Because that’s the way that students exchange their own ideas. They would talk about what they were doing, and very often one would actually be involved in other research students’ activities. When I was at Cambridge there was one research student doing seismic studies of drowned river valleys and estuaries, which was a land seismics program, and I would go off with the Land Rover and help fire charges and deploy geophones and things like that. So there was a lot of exchange, and one wanted to know about what people were doing, because that way one learned. And Cambridge was very active, not only in marine geophysics at that time under Maurice Hill. Sir Edward Bullard, who is a distinguished geophysicist, had been at the geophysics lab. He wasn’t there when I first joined, but later he came back to be Director of the place again. And Maurice Hill worked with Bullard. There were distinguished people like Professor Keith Runcorn, who worked on palaeomagnetism. And his team, Ken Creer, Ted Irving, Jan Hospers, were working on the problems of magnetization of rocks under the influence of the earth’s magnetic field. Jan Hospers had collected lava flows from Iceland, carefully oriented drilled samples, and had measured the magnetization back in the lab and found that some were reversely magnetized. They appeared to be magnetized in the wrong direction. Were they upside down? No. There is a mechanism for magnetizing rocks in the presence of other rocks surrounding them that would produce reverse magnetization. The Japanese had suggested that. All of these things were being looked at and eventually were discounted. And the evidence pointed to the fact that the earth’s main dipole field itself was reversing. And that was an extraordinary idea. At that time the idea that the whole earth’s magnetic field would reverse, north as south and south as north, was revolutionary. But the palaeomagnetic evidence seemed to be saying that. And then other people had measured the wandering of the poles, — polar wandering. If you took rock samples, for instance in India, the palaeomagnetic latitude may be different from where India is now. So by plotting the palaeomagnetic latitudes, that is the latitude at which the lava solidified and cooled through the Curie point temperature and acquired its magnetization, you can learn something about where that continent was at the time it solidified. That was an input into the whole question of continental drift.
Levin:And this is, you were talking still mid-1950s?
Laughton:This was mid-1950s, yes. And it went on. It culminated (not culminated, these things never culminate,) but led to the Fred Vine-Drummond Matthews ideas of sea floor spreading and magnetic reversals, bringing those two things in together. But that’s jumping ahead in the story a bit.
Levin:It’s interesting though. I know that at Lamont Professor Doc Ewing was very much against continental drift. Did you pick up on that, that sentiment?
Laughton:Well, when I started my research degree at Cambridge, the first book I was given to read was Harold Jeffreys’ The Earth. Now Harold Jeffreys, a very distinguished old geophysicist, who had studied the properties of the center of the earth and the mantle from earthquake measurements, had really quite definitively said, “Continental drift, in the way that it was proposed by Alfred Wegener and Dutoit, was impossible. You can’t have continents drifting through an ocean of magma, because the magma is too strong.” And so that had ruled out continental drift in the way that Wegener and Dutoit had conceived it. But the evidence came from what was happening at Lamont. Bruce Heezen and Maurice Ewing had discovered that there was an enormous continuous mid-ocean ridge going through the oceans encircling the world. A massive ridge. And only bits were known before, but they had not suggested that it was a major continuous feature. Secondly by the plotting the earthquakes — the seismology work that Lamont had done by Lynn Sykes and his colleagues, — if you plot the shallow earthquakes on the surface of the earth you find they all lie down in the middle of mid-ocean ridges. It’s all old hat these days, isn’t it? But then the association of those two was very important. The third thing was from measuring the heat flow in the ocean crust across the mid-ocean ridges. Sir Edward Bullard had developed a method of measuring heat flow with a probe stuck in the bottom, and Art Maxwell at Scripps, had also developed a similar technique. Collections of heat flow data indicated that there was a lot of heat coming out near the mid-ocean ridges. It varied up and down, but generally there was more heat flow in the middle. Then people collected rocks, dredged rocks, analyzed the age of rocks. The rocks in the middle of the oceans were younger than the rocks at the edges. If you take rocks from islands and you analyze the sediments, the same story holds true. So Bruce Heezen and others in the USA came up with the idea of sea floor spreading. This was later confirmed by the Deep Sea Drilling Project Leg 3 which actually measured the ages of the sediment sitting on the rocks of the ocean crust. The other thing was that we never found land rocks, such as granites, in the oceans, except as erratics. They were always basalts, always volcanic rocks. So sea floor spreading as a concept was pretty solid by the late 1950s. And Bruce Heezen wrote his monograph with Maurice Ewing, “The Floor of the Oceans” published in 1959 as Geological Society of America, Special Paper #65.
Levin:When your professor gave you The Earth to read as your first book, did you have a discussion afterwards about it? Or were there any other contradictory books that you read that said perhaps that Dutoit and Wegener might be right?
Laughton:Well, there were books. I suppose the other important book was by Arthur Holmes, who had espoused the idea of continental drift, and he supported some of the ideas. There was work by Warren Carey that I read. But there were other people, land geologists, who really believed that continents only went up and down. They described synclines and anticlines and vertical forces. But no big horizontal movements. Now there was a very classic survey made of magnetic fields by Raff and Mason off the west coast of the United States, in the Eastern Pacific. They had mapped very linear magnetic anomalies, a very beautiful pattern, which appeared to be offset by an east-west line. And Vic Vaquier at Scripps had interpreted this as being a huge trans-current fault. He postulated that the sea floor had been made like this and there had been a lateral fault with a displacement of a thousand miles. Now, that was a problem. Because if we have a thousand mile fault displacement what happens to the ends of it and can you find it? And there were various attempts to try to rationalize that with what we knew about the oceans. It didn’t really work terribly well. There were others who worked on that Raff-Mason data, and could see this magnetic pattern, and that’s why when we went to sea marine geophysicists collected magnetic data and tried to do these analyses. It wasn’t until quite a lot later, until the Vine-Matthews ideas came along, that the explanation for this really happened, and these were added to by Tuzo Wilson, the Canadian geophysicist, who developed the idea of a trans-current fault. But you know, I don’t want to get too far into it, into the whole development of plate tectonics.
Levin:Okay. So when you left Lamont —
Laughton:When I left Lamont in ‘55, even sea floor spreading was not a theory. Marine geophysics was collecting data. We realized something about the age of sediment, something about the nature of sedimentation, turbidity currents. We recognized the existence of the abyssal plains, why they were there, and the horizontal transport of sediments. At that stage nobody had drilled into the sediments. Nobody knew how deep they were, although the seismic refraction stuff was beginning to show something about sediment thicknesses. We talked about the typical oceanic crust velocity structure, the sediment layer, layer two of volcanics, and then something of higher velocity that made up the ocean crust. The project MOHOLE, to drill through to the Mohorovicic discontinuity, was yet to come. These were all things that were being talked about and argued about and trying to be interpreted, but there was very little data to go on, except earthquake data, propagation of seismic waves and the indirect things like heat flow and magnetics. So, I left Lamont in ‘55. I got a job at the National Institute of Oceanography. George Deacon said to me, “What do you want to do?” I said, “What do you want me to do?” and he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I really would like to build a deep sea camera” on the experience of the inadequacies of the camera that I had been using in the States. I had ideas how to do it better. And to provide the technique for us in the UK to take photographs of the deep sea floor. And so the first few years at the Institute here in Surrey I spent designing and operating a deep sea camera. And my first papers that I wrote and published at that time were on photography of the deep sea floor. And that was a very attractive thing. The press were very interested, you know, just to show what happened 3 miles down, and it was news then. Particularly if I got color pictures, or a lot of fish or something interesting in the picture. But out of those photographs came the evidence that the bottom of the sea was not passive and still and stagnant and devoid of life. Photography demonstrated that there was life there. There were actually fishes swimming around. There were currents on the bottom enough to move the sediments and create waves of sand, ripple marks and so forth. And these were all new things which photography could give. The photography revealed fields of manganese modules known from dredge hauls in the Challenger expeditions of 1872-76, but nobody knew quite how dense they were or how they lay. The people at Scripps did a lot of work on that. Willard Bascom started at that time to discuss the economic value of manganese nodules. So I was really the first geophysicist at the Institute to demonstrate these. The National Institute of Oceanography was founded predominantly from two areas of research. One was from a group who was studying the biology of the Antarctic, a group called the Discovery Investigations Committee, which had its own ship before the war. And that research had arisen out of the problems of the decline of the whaling industry and the over-fishing of whales. And so that led to the question of what was the food for whales? Krill? How big were the resources of krill, how were they distributed, what was the chemistry in the seawater supporting the krill, the biology, the food chain? This also led to studying the ocean currents in the southern ocean. So that was a sort of biological physical oceanography group that existed before the war. The war came, and that went. Some of the people working in that field worked for the Admiralty during the war, particularly George Deacon, who led a group in the Admiralty Research Laboratories on waves. Knowing about the waves on beaches for the landings by Allied forces was very important. It was critical to try to forecast the waves and to understand the processes. So Group W was formed at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, which worked on waves, on the theory of waves. It attracted physicists and meteorologists and people who were interested in ocean currents. That group, together with the biologists who had come from the Antarctic work, was the core of the National Institute of Oceanography. And the NIO was created in 1949. When did I leave Lamont?
Levin:Fifty-five was it?
Laughton:Then it must have been 1949 when NIO was created, and it moved to these premises in 1951. It found a disused naval building and moved into that. So it had been going for five or six years when I got there in 1955, and but there weren’t geophysicists. There were some geologists who were working on shallow water sediments, and but no one in geophysics. I had a free hand to develop into that area. And I still worked very closely with Maurice Hill and the group at Cambridge, his seagoing group.
Levin:Oh yeah. So you had this collaboration with Maurice Hill.
Laughton:Yes with Maurice Hill.
Levin:Was it an official one, or just because of your relationship with him?
Laughton:It worked between the department of geophysics at Cambridge and George Deacon, the Director. The geophysics group could use our ship, DISCOVERY II, and then later we replaced that with the new ship, DISCOVERY in 1963. Maurice Hill had the use of the ships for one month a year or six weeks or something like that. And I would go out with his cruises, because I was a geophysicist. Maurice Hill’s group was doing seismics, magnetics, gravity. I did underwater photography and ocean floor mapping, because for these expeditions we were interested in describing features of the sea floor in the northeast Atlantic and then to try to understand the geology that created them. So this involved coring, dredging, magnetics, gravity, seismic refraction, seismic reflection, heat flow measurements, photography. And in order to make sense of these things one needed to know morphology of the sea floor. At that time there was the Hydrographic Department in this country which, by agreement through the International Hydrographic Organization with other countries, collected together soundings of the ocean depths taken by ships from all over the world onto one in one million plotting sheets. Each country had its own area, and the UK covered a lot of the northeast Atlantic, and these collected sounding sheets had got the raw data of numbers which I spent time translating into contour charts, reflecting the morphology. And we would go out and look at certain features which appeared on these, do much more elaborate mapping, surveying around them, and trying to define the features. And those features were sometimes parts of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We in fact discovered parts of the Median Valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge even before it was described by Bruce Heezen in “The Floors of the Ocean.” Surveying at sea was a very difficult business in those days. Today it’s easy. We’ve got satellites up and you switch on your hand held GPS and you know where you are within 10 yards. It was not like that then. You relied on celestial navigation, if the sun was out or the sky was clear at nighttime for stars. And that meant twice a day or three times a day you knew where you were. But of course it’s frequently cloudy and frequently overcast and stormy, and the radio aids really only covered the shorelines. DECCA, LORAN, LORAN-C later covered a lot more of the oceans, but was not very good. And so we laid buoys. We’d lay a buoy in 3 miles of water depth. And that’s not a trivial business, because of the weight of 3 miles of wire. If you use heavy wire this means an enormous buoy. And we couldn’t afford to carry those around, so we used very lightweight buoys and moored them on piano wire. Literally 1-millimeter diameter piano wire, single strand. And they were fine as long as it didn’t blow too hard or there was not too much swell. And on the top of the buoy we put either a passive radar reflector or an active radar transponder to fix the ship’s position relative to the buoy. Because the buoy tended to swing around in the current, if you’re really wanting to do accurate surveying, you had to then check where the buoy was in relation to a fixed feature on the bottom. And then navigate with respect to the buoy on radar and then come back and again to the fixed feature to the bottom. The buoys would sometimes go adrift, and sometimes we’d have to lay three, four or six buoys. Sometimes we would never find them and sometimes they would drag their anchor a little bit and hop along. You weren’t quite sure whether you doing it right or wrong. Half my time at sea was spent actually fiddling with the navigation. And then relating that to the echo sounding that we had, was an important part. And from that one could create charts. And so a lot of what I was doing was trying to create better detailed charts of the morphology of the sea bed. And then other students from Cambridge would use them to interpret their own work and frequently there would be papers with multiple authors, as you see in the literature.
Levin:Well, I was wondering. You mentioned that each country had an area as their responsibility by their hydrographic office to study. So England had a great deal of the North Atlantic?
Laughton:Well, that was not to study, but to collect data. [phone rings] Excuse me.
Levin:Okay. [tape turned off, then back on...] We’re not going to get through by 6:30, are we?
Levin:I don’t think so. Perhaps if you can — [tape turned off, then back on...] We are resuming after a brief interruption. And I was going to ask you: Maurice Hill had sort of invented this one boat method. It was more economical. So were other places picking up on this? I know during this, when you were at Lamont it was during their heyday when they had enough money to run two ships. But did other places start to pick up on this and they realized it was more economical? Or were there special reasons for operating two?
Laughton:I’m not quite sure that I can answer that. Things developed in a slightly different way in the end. I know there are some other laboratories, but not the American ones, using the sono-buoy system. Then there was the move towards using the receivers on the bottom, which avoided the water path. And they became known as the ocean bottom seismographs, or pop-up bottom seismographs, which is a technique that developed really after the Maurice Hill sono-buoy systems. And then came the business of seismic reflection methods using streamers. It started with a single hydrophone and then it became multiple hydrophones, and then very, very, very long multiple hydrophones, such as the oil industry were beginning to use. The explosion was replaced with an air gun, a manufactured explosion. And the pathways were not vertical for seismic reflection, but oblique and at varying angles. So you got variable angle seismic reflection that gave something of the same information as the seismic refraction work. But not as long a range. And the Lamont system, they tended to use wide angle reflection techniques more than seismic refraction techniques with one ship. I don’t know whether historians would agree with me on that potted history. [laughs]
Levin:Okay. So now, going back to what we were talking about before, we were discussing your work making the maps, the contour maps, and the data that was supplied by the hydrographic office. And I think I had asked about the different countries. It wasn’t so much a study, but —
Laughton:Well the prime role of the hydrographic departments is to make charts for navigation. They undertook a role of collecting soundings in depths that are greater than any navigational hazards. They undertook that role under a program that had started in the beginning in the century for creating morphological maps of the deep ocean, called the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, GEBCO. And that program, starting in 1903 in Monaco initiated the systematic collection of all soundings that were taken by any ship going across an area. All these soundings would be fed into certain centers of responsibility. The individual hydrographic offices took different areas of the oceans as a responsibility for collecting the sounding data together. Having collected them together, that was the end of their responsibility. And that was the raw data that I could use. If I was working the Atlantic it would be UK data, if I was working in the South Atlantic; or it would be perhaps be South African data, or Australian data, or American data. And this collection was coordinated through the International Hydrographic Organization. But at the same time the International Hydrographic Organization and later an organization in France, the Institute Geographique Nationale, undertook the contouring of these data collections to generate contoured charts, world charts, which constituted the GEBCO bathymetric charts. This was a series of 24 charts covering the whole world, 16 Mercator charts and eight Polar charts, polar projection charts. And the system of GEBCO charts, went through a steady development. Obviously the first edition which was published in 1904 got out of date very quickly. Then there was a second edition, then more and more data came online, and then echo-sounding was developed, and so as massively more data came streaming in, so there was a third edition and a fourth edition. And that was running up to early 1960s, the fourth edition. But the trouble with those charts is that they did not reflect the knowledge, the increasing knowledge of the processes that went on in the deep ocean, the geological processes. The joining up of the numbers and the interpolation in places where there was no data was not very good. As a result, the scientists who knew about the processes didn’t want to buy the charts. The navigators were not interested in the deep ocean, and didn’t want to buy the charts, and so nobody bought the charts. And so the IGN in Paris said, “If nobody wants the charts, we are going to stop doing this.” IGN wanted to be paid for doing it, and they were doing this for free. The Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, SCOR, has a series of working groups. And one of those working groups was set up to look at morphological mapping of the ocean floor. And I was a member of that working group. I was on the GEBCO committee even before this happened, because of my interest in contouring — together with Bruce Heezen and Bob Fisher and others. In the SCOR working group 41, we looked at all the contour charts that were being produced on a world basis — U.S. Navy, Russian, German, GEBCO — and had a critique of them. None of them met the criteria which we felt that scientists wanted, and so we rewrote a set of criteria for what we would really like to see on world contour charts. And that later was accepted under a revised GEBCO organization which brought in scientists from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission together with the hydrographers from the International Hydrographic Organization. And the organization was restructured to bring these two together in a guiding committee of scientists and hydrographers, to work to the specifications we had drawn up in SCOR working group 41. So all those threads then came together. The fourth edition, which was the GEBCO edition which nobody wanted, was scrapped, cut dead, even the plates that were done. We started from scratch with a fifth edition, and that took quite a number of years to produce, because it was all voluntary effort from different scientific coordinators from the different regions which they knew and understood, and they were responsible for overseeing the contouring, or doing the contouring. And we started in the 1970s and the last chart of that series was done in the 1980s, and so the whole of the fifth edition took ten years really.
Levin:You mention the data coming from different countries. What about Russia? Was their data complete that they sent in? Was it difficult to get their data?
Laughton:We gradually got Russian data coming in with one or two very key Russian people who had become colleagues, and then Russian data started coming. The greatest set of data that never came in was of course the classified survey data from the U.S. Navy, from the British Navy, from the Russian Navy — for submarine operations. A huge amount was collected. We haven’t got it yet. I’m going to have to say we have to stop.
Okay. I will resume this later.
Session I | Session II