Oral History Transcript — Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus
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Interview with Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus
By Ronald E. Doel
In Middleburg, Virginia
November 10, 1989
Athelstan Spilhaus; November 10, 1989
ABSTRACT: Descriptions of other Spilhaus oral history interviews that cover childhood as well as career in education and public service; impressions of graduate education at Massachusetts Institute of Technlogy (MIT), early 1930s; work at Sperry Corporation. Meteorological research at MIT (C.-G. Rossby, C. S. Draper); meteorological work with Technical Services, South African Army, 1935-1936. Return to MIT, 1936; develops bathythermograph; life at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Professorship in Meteorology at New York University; impressions of department. Develops ozone research project; post-World War II involvement in numerical weather forecasting (John Von Neumann). Dean of Institute of Technology at University of Minnesota, 1949-1966; involvement in weapons testing, involvement in United States National Committee of the International Geophysical Year; impressions of committee members and its operations. National Academy of Sciences advisory panels on oceanography and waste management. Personal philosophy.
Doel:We are making this interview in Middleburg, Virginia. I would like to state that this oral history is made in conjunction with others already available—one at the Columbia Oral History Project that Peter Jessup made with you in 1980 and also an interview that was done at the Sprague Library at the Harvey Mudd College in Claremont by Joseph Platt and Enid Douglass. The questions that I'm going to be asking you will focus primarily on your scientific career.
Spilhaus:There was another oral history done at Texas A&M.
Doel:Is that copy available at Texas?
Spilhaus:I'm sure it's available down there. Yes, I know it's available there because writers have referred to it. I forget who did it, but it was done when I was visiting professor down there in the early eighties.
Doel:Okay, well, that's good to know. What I'd like to do, since the other interviews did cover your childhood and your early experiences in science and other work that you did, is ask you about your reaction when you were gone from South Africa to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1933. I'm wondering what differences you noticed in the style of scientific research coming from South Africa to America. Did anything stand out particularly?
No. It does not stand out particularly, but the reason that it doesn't is interesting. I never thought about it. When I arrived at MIT, there's an apocryphal story told that I just came over by boat on steerage from Liverpool to Boston, walked up to MIT and got my bags out of door of Dean Lobdell's office in 1932, two weeks before the academic year was to start, and that I wanted to go into graduate work in aeronautics.
And he said, "Have you got any papers in?" And I hadn't put any application in. (To this day, I'm not really good at paperwork.) And he said, "Oh, but the course is full." And he said, "What university do you come from anyway?" And I said, "The University of Capetown." And he said, "I never heard of it." The apocryphal story, and I'm not sure I was as rash as this, was that my reply was, "You will."
Doel:That's a good story.
Well, it points to your question because I think the University of Capetown was an exceptionally good university for a remote place like that in the thirties. And I think my science grounding—although I'd taken a degree in engineering, because the University was not rich, they didn't waste their time on engineering shops and laboratory and things. They taught us applied physics, physics, chemistry, mathematics—applied mathematics as they called it in those days—then a few things like... I guess we did get some English and history, but not very much. It was really a deeply based, undergraduate training in science. And then a little engineering on the side, you see.
So that the shock of getting to MIT was not as great for me as one might think. My grandfather was a very distinguished mathematician and he set up the educational system in South Africa under Cecil John Rhodes. He was pretty disciplinarian. I suspect he had—one doesn't remember these things—but I suspect he had a lot of input into my interest and studying. And my mother, I know she did. She was one of the first, perhaps the first, woman graduate of the University of Capetown. And so, I was already sort of in the academic business. My main recollection of going to MIT was not difference, but great pleasure in being associated with a place like that. I immediately felt it. It was small then. Karl Compton was President.
Doel:That's right. He had just arrived, in fact.
Spilhaus:Yes. And what impressed me was that here at the great university, MIT in America, Karl Compton invited all the foreign students—there weren't so many then—to his house every so often and that didn't happen even in Capetown. He was extraordinary. And immediately the relations I began to have with professors were so good that my whole impression was not so much the difference but the similarity in how far I could come to a place and feel the same kind of friendship and closeness of professors he felt in his own little home town.
Doel:That's a very interesting observation.
Spilhaus:Yes. It's a question of quality, you see. You come from a quality place to another quality place and there's not so much difference.
Doel:How had you heard of MIT? Do you recall what you knew about it before you had arrived?
No. No, I really don't know. After I finished my work in engineering at the University of Capetown, I believe I graduated—our graduation of course was in our northern mid-winter. It was December or sometime in the year, probably 1930. I graduated in December. I was interested in aeronautics and I got a job in Germany. And that's all recorded in other places.
And I began to see the stirring of Hitler and in any case my interest in aeronautics became such that while I knew engineering, I didn't know much about aeronautics and I guess my decision to come to America was simply that I had travelled a great deal. My father had been an ambassador in Europe—I knew Europe pretty well. I'd travelled to Burma and India as an engineer at sea. That was one of the interesting things was that the early university, not having the practical facilities for work in engineering laboratories and things, used to insist that during that during the summer vacations the engineers took a job in some practical engineering. I chose to go as a marine engineer during the summers. That led me to my later interest in the sea, I suppose.
Doel:But you weren't really interested in oceanography, per se?
Spilhaus:Oh, no, no! I went to MIT to study aerodynamics, aeronautics. And my object of going there to study aeronautics was to go back to South Africa because I was convinced that in those immense spaces that I knew so well in Africa that air travel was the only way. So, that's what led me to MIT.
Doel:I'm curious about your contacts with some of the people at MIT. How quickly did you come to know Rossby, for example?
Spilhaus:Not at first. At first I had—my objective, you see, I did not get into geophysics—my objective was strictly aeronautics, aeronautical engineering. And so, the people I met at first were people in that field. And these were great, great people. And it's great people of course that you always remember. I remember a young Swiss, Manfred Rauscher who I started with the very first year after I was admitted on probation and I had to prove myself and I studied like mad. A young man from Russia. I remember studying with a fellow now, Bright Wilson. Wilson's father, Bright Wilson, who I knew later on at Wood's Hole, trustee at Wood's Hole, Harvard fellow. I think it was his father who wrote an amazing book on aeronautics and impressed me in my first year. I got to know Stark Draper by studying instrumentation in aeronautics.
Doel:He was one of the first people that you met then, coming to MIT?
Spilhaus:Well, in the first year, these were my people. And then the other aeronautical people. But upstairs in the Guggenheim building were the meteorologists. I did take one course in introductory meteorology from a man by the name of Hurd C. Willett, who was really a forecaster and became kind of a long range forecaster, not an analytically based kind of scientist. What we might call a—I don't want to be derogatory at all, but I've never been impressed by the forecasting business, or weather artists....
Doel:Right. These were non-mathematical approaches?
Spilhaus:The non-mathematical, but genuine weather artists. And I did take a course with him. The only reason that I got into meteorology, I think, was I worked with Stark Draper on my master's thesis which was aeronautics. And I did a paper one the speed of rotors in suction-driven aircraft instruments.
Doel:That's right. That's one of your first papers.
Spilhaus:That's correct. And it was actually to show the kind of thing I spoke about MIT—of the family kind of thing. A great man, J. C. Hunsacker, picked up this little paper and Stark Draper was backing his young student from overseas. I'd only been here for less than a year. And Hunsacker published that in Volume One, Number One of what was then the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, IAS, and later became after it joined the Rocket Society, the Institute of Astronautical and Aeronautical Engineers IAAE. So, this was a boost I got. And then another thing was that—this was the summer of 1933 that I graduated with my Master's Degree in Aeronautics, which I managed to get in the one year—I got a job, when nobody was getting jobs. And this was through Stark Draper who, with his work on gyroscopes, was close to the Sperry Gyroscope Company.
Doel:Right. I'm curious about your relationship with Draper. How much interaction did you have with him? You were his roommate for the first year?
Spilhaus:Oh, I was his roommate for years after that. Yes. Not the first year, but after that. And after the Sperry experience I moved in with him. He had an apartment just across the street from the Guggenheim building. We could walk across in our bedroom slippers and go to work, which we did very often. And Draper was a tremendous scholar. He had a great effect on me, but you see these were the people before I got into meteorology.
Doel:Did Draper have his own laboratory in '32, '33, when you were at MIT?
Spilhaus:Oh, not really. I think he did most of his work in the Sloan Laboratory which was the engine laboratory—aircraft engine laboratory.
Doel:Was that Charles Taylor's laboratory?
Spilhaus:Charles Taylor was there and Eddie Taylor. Two Taylors. Two Taylors were professors of aeronautics there. And I remember—I did, yes—that's where he had his laboratory because that's where I had my apparatus set up for doing the work on the little gyros where we cut away a gyro instrument and put plexiglass in, and then operated it. And with Edgerton's early strobe lights, measured its speed. I mean this was fantastic how the old timers worked then. Edgerton was a young man in electrical engineering then. He was working with very early strobes. And with his things we could measure the speed of the rotor whizzing at thousands of rotations per minute and so forth.
Doel:What was the atmosphere of the laboratory like then? What was it like to be working there?
Spilhaus:Well, extremely different, I think, from today because first of all, I can only remember everybody helping everybody else and nobody distinguishing between whether they were a professor or a research assistant or the mechanic of the shop who worked. The mechanic of the aero shop worked for me later on on the bathythermograph. I don't know how it is today, but I would say that the atmosphere was probably, because of smallness, far less formalized. You could bootleg things through, you know.
Doel:Did you feel you had sufficient funds to buy instruments and develop them then?
Spilhaus:We had no funds. I mean almost none. Very little in the way of funds. But I never felt I lacked anything. I don't know. I can't answer that question. Draper worried about that. I mean Draper and other people worried about that. They acquired a gyro. And then some of the machine shop would do the necessary things. Oh, sometimes it was ...but worked with fairly simple equipment in a way.
Doel:And you also had the meteorological airplane.
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Well Draper was co-pilot of that for a time. We used to call him "Snowdrift" Draper. He turned the airplane upside down in a snowdrift one time. But he wasn't the pilot. He'd just go out and fly. He was an aeronautical nut. The fellow who actually flew the plane for while was Dan Sayer, who later became a professor at the Aeronautical School in Princeton.
Doel:That's right. He was one of the founders of it.
Spilhaus:Yes. Dan Sayer was quite a character.
Doel:Do you recall specific things about him?
No, not really. Except I thought he was the least academic fellow I ever knew. To me, growing up in academic circles, I thought when he became this professor at Princeton, I thought that was amazing. But he was probably more of a darn good organizer/entrepreneur to start that school and no so much an academician—not so much of scholar. And that's not slamming him because he deserves the credit for the early meteorological flights.
And in the early flights that you speak about, yes, that's when I first began to get in touch—even in the first few—I suppose I knew about those flights through Draper. And I knew that there was a German upstairs in the aeronautical building, Karl Langer, who Rossby had working on the little meteorgraphs that were carried up in the airplanes. So, then I got this job at Sperry's in the summer of 1933 when nobody was getting jobs. And I got an absolutely princely salary—and I mean it—of $200 a month. And that was a great deal of money in 1933.
Doel:I want to talk about that in just a moment. But I'm curious about what happened to others who were graduating from MIT in that time. Where did they go for jobs? Were they generally successful?
I remember one that I followed and knew. Only one. No, I couldn't tell you about any except one. And this one girl was an extremely interesting case—Elsie Hill. Elsie Hill was a paraplegic. She went to her classes in a wheelchair. She was a lovely girl—cheerful as anything. And with all her handicaps, I think she was about the only one in the group who really.... Ah, there was one other I remember, too, and he was pretty bright, too. Elsie Hill, myself and George Bentley. Where George Bentley went I'm not sure, but you can find out that from MIT. The three of us ended up, I think, with straight honors and we were competitors. Elsie Hill is the one I recall though.
I think at that next Christmas I drove her up. She was going on—we both were going on—and I drove her up to Montreal to her home. And I went up visiting up there. Elsie became the head of the Canadian de Havilland Aircraft even with the handicaps. And I believe she headed that company—and this you have to check because I lost touch with her during World War II. But you'd have to check that. I'd be extremely interested because we were all so full of admiration for her when she overcame these things.
Doel:That's a remarkable story for that period of time.
Spilhaus:Yes, yes. And for a girl. Weren't many girls at MIT.
Doel:Just to be certain, you weren't living with Draper then during the first year?
Spilhaus:Not during the first year. During the first year, I started out living in one of the boarding houses on the MIT campus. And then, a fraternity house offered for me to live there. It was Theta Xi Fraternity on Beacon St. Anyway, they offered to take me in. But I was a pretty serious student and I thought the hubbub of this fraternity house, which was mostly undergraduate, was unusual for them to take a graduate in. Very nice of them to offer. So what I did was I made an arrangement to join the fraternity and eat there because, you know, the whole problem of coming out on very little money was on my mind. And I could eat there. And then I took a room just right across the street from the fraternity house so that I could study in peace and quiet. That was how it came about. But it was after that—that was the first year—and then I moved in with Stark Draper.
Doel:In the second year?
Spilhaus:I believe it was the second year or perhaps the middle of the second year. I don't recall exactly when.
Doel:Was he as serious a student at the time as you were?
Oh, yes. In fact, that was what was so great for me because I didn't have to live alone in order to concentrate on studies. Draper was so disciplined. There were three of us in this little apartment house. Three of us that chipped in. And we could get at that time Mr. Ed, we called him. He was a fine old black man who came in and cooked our dinner in the evening. So then we got a third one and he was not a student—was a former student, I think, at MIT, Red Blair. I don't know what happened to him because he wasn't in the academic circle at all. He was just a good roommate.
Draper would simply take his clothes off and Red used to call Stark "Droopy Drawers" because he would walk around in his slippers and shirt and just his underpants, thoroughly comfortable, sit in his room and study with a green eye shade over his head. And naturally, I would study. So it was a great influence, great influence on me. And then, of course, with Draper there, we had all kinds of things. Jimmy Fisk, that later on became the President of Bell—Murray Hall Laboratories at Bell—was a friend of Stark's and mine. Draper and I took a course together later on. Gradually the young student and the instructor became on a par. We both took a course with Norbert Wiener—this was 1934-35 or so, it must have been 1934—on the summability of series. Wiener was pretty tough to understand. There were only three of us in the class.
The other one became, and I can't recall his name, but he became the professor of mathematics or head of the mathematics there at Annapolis. He was a bright, East Side boy from New York. And he knew what Wiener was talking about. We were all pretty poor, so we would invite him and trade a meal after Wiener's lecture—the day of Wiener's lecture—and he would go over it again with us and explain it. These little things I remember.
Doel:There was a sense of community then?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And that, of course, was when I got a fellowship after 1933. You see, I'd been intending to go back to South Africa when I got my master's degree. But two things happened—I got this wonderful job at Sperry's and I got a fellowship from MIT to continue. But I didn't know what to study; I'd taken all the aeronautics courses. So I'd been intrigued with this little introductory course in meteorology so I went upstairs. And that was when I really got to know Rossby. That was the end of the first year.
Doel:When you went down to Sperry, I'm curious if you had a clear expectation of what it was that your were going to be doing there—whether you had in mind to work on a particular project or if it was more general in nature?
Spilhaus:I had a very clear idea of what I was going to work on because this work I'd done, the little paper I'd written on speed of Gerro Rotors. I'd also made Gerro Rotors estimates of the use of venturies on the outside of the aircraft to create the suction to drive the little instruments. Draper and I had computed the horsepower that it took to turn a little wheel. And we then computed the drag and tested the venturies. Oh, I did a lot of work on venturies in the wind tunnel—the drag of a venturi in a wind tunnel. And we found that it took about eight horses to drive this darn little wheel and the instrument. So, when I went down to Sperry's, I pointed this out and Elmer Sperry was there then. Sperry's was a two-armed thing. Sperry's had the rail car which was a railroad inspection thing that I think was magnetic things moved along the rails.
Doel:What was it like to be working in Sperry? Who were you working with in particular?
That was also a totally new experience. My only experience from working had been in Junkers Flugzeugwerke in Germany where I was really an apprentice mechanic. There I worked with the German master mechanics, but now for the first time, I was hired in a job as a research engineer, so that I wasn't a lowly apprentice. It was quite a different thing. Thanks to Draper, I knew probably as much about the mathematics and the aerodynamics of gyro instruments as anybody there. In fact, that is probably why they hired me to do analytical work for them. And I really was not given specific certain tasks, but allowed to do whatever I wanted to. I've got a patent with a Mr. Carter, one of the fundamental patents on the artificial horizon.
Of course, Kathy laughed. She said to think about how many millions and millions there were and I got a ten dollar bonus from Sperry. I thought that was just great—they didn't have to pay me anything. That was what I was paid to do, handsomely paid to do. Before my work, the artificial horizon was a gyro, but it hit a stop. And if you rolled the plane too much or dived it too much, the horizon would hit a stop. My contribution was to make a rotor that had 360 degrees of freedom. And that's what that was about. Because actually, just when you needed the horizon, it would blank out—it would hit the stop and then go away. And it's in extreme attitudes that you need the horizon worst. So I did that, actually that was a significant thing. The other important thing. I was talking about Elmer Sperry who was quite a character.
Elmer normally had his office in a different area, one floor down. But we all went down and this Mr. Carter that I later worked with, or one of the other engineers at Sperry's, had devised a beautiful double venturi—a ventury within a venturi. You had a great big venturi and then a little venturi in the throat to kind of increase the suction. Of course it increased the drag as well. And I was brought down to this thing where this engineer proudly showed it to Mr. Sperry and Preston Bassett, the Chief Engineer of the Sperry Gyroscope Company, who I think is still alive. (Peter Jessup was actually interviewing him, I think, too. You might get in touch with Peter.) And Preston Bassett was there. And I told Elmer the whole story of the reason I got in to these big people—and they were big people in their day—was through Draper, of course.
And Draper wasn't there, but I told Elmer the whole story about this ridiculous waste of horsepower to drive the little gyro instruments. I said, "I would use pumps." Tiny little pumps." Tiny little pumps off the engine. And it was dramatic, because here is this engineer who had made this beautiful prototype of a double venturi. And Elmer said, "Pres [Preston Bassett], I think we've got to get away from venturies. Let's forget about the darn thing." And he bent it over his knee. That was kind of a dramatic thing because air-driven instruments were the way that they had them.
Instruments were at a very primitive stage. And here the venturi was out as far as Sperry was concerned. And then the venturi just disappeared, I guess. Maybe they had a few venturies for taking foul gases out of the onboard toilets, but not as instruments. And that year was a very interesting year. Balboa. Remember Balboa with his fleet of sea planes, flew over from Spain? That was one of the epic trips and, of course, we were all involved with that.
Doel:What was your involvement in that?
Oh, my involvement, really nothing except that when they arrived in New York, Sperry's perhaps had given them instruments or something—I don't know. But we were involved in all the partying and celebration. And at that time, again, I wasn't directly involved, Wiley Post was about to fly around the world. Wiley Post flew by the seat of his pants and it was quite a sales job to get Wiley to believe he needed instruments or to look at them. And Sperry's supplied the instruments for him.
So there were a lot of things on the fringes that I wasn't directly involved with, but which are very interesting historically. But now I recall you asked me what I was doing, what I was supposed to do down at Sperry's that summer. Now I do recall it because these other things were so interesting that I had forgotten my main job! No. They got me down to evaluate the turn error in the artificial horizon. When an airplane makes a turn—banks and makes a turn—a properly banked turn at a certain speed, the axis of the gyro is inclined. And as the airplane is turning with the axis of the gyro inclined, it introduces an error, so that when the airplane straightens out, the horizon is no longer horizontal. This was one of the problems of the early gyros.
And that was my job. I did a mathematical analysis of the turn error. And then, we had a airplane out on Long Island and the pilot would fly along with the "artificial horizon" and get actual measurements. I went along on a few of the flights, but actually they set up the flight program and produced the data so that we had data from the actual instruments which matched my theoretical analysis. What they did with that turn error analysis I don't know because I'd completed my analysis before I left Sperry's. I didn't lose touch with them. I was still in the happy position of being a kind of a consultant to them. Got a few little jobs during the following year, but I didn't stay with it because I went up into meteorology at MIT and got interested in meteorological instruments.
Doel:Did you have any discussion with the people at Sperry about working on meteorological instruments, or was that really contained within MIT?
Spilhaus:No. I hadn't even thought of meteorological instruments at that time. I hadn't been upstairs. That was the summer of 1933. I went upstairs for meteorology later on. No. I had very little contact with Sperry after that time. Things went on. And I only got back to Sperry when later—we'll get to it—when the Navy wanted to produce a few models of the bathythermograph. And I thought, "Gee, my friends at Sperry would be just the people to do it." They actually didn't do it, but I got in touch with them again.
Doel:Had you thought to stay at Sperry? Had you been tempted to do that?
No, no, I had no thought. I had by that time—well, I'm half Scotch, you know. My mother was Scots and when I got a fellowship with MIT, I just thought that was the greatest thing n the world. Instead of going back to South Africa, I'd go on studying. That was the only thing on my mind. And the question was what to study. Oh, I'll tell you what took me up to meteorology, not only just that it was up above aeronautics. But some of the less realistic people ...well, no , not the professors but the journalism of that day was all gung-ho about how the Wright brothers had conquered the air.
Well, up in Boston, with the snow storms and everything, airplanes were icing up; airplanes were going down. I just decided in my kind of iconoclastic way the Wright brothers made a flying machine, but they didn't conquer the air. And I've got to know something about this darn medium. And I got into my mind even then, and this is probably my real—I haven't thought about it much—but my real beginning to get interested in geophysics.
I got into my mind from that arrogant statement—that the Wright brothers had conquered the air—that engineers by and large are worried about their machines and don't worry about the medium in which the machines operate. That's why I really wanted to study meteorology, still from the point of view of part of the aeronautics business.
Doel:Thinking to apply it back to aeronautics?
Spilhaus:Exactly. And of course, when I got to know him, Rossby had started with the Guggenheims, the first little meteorological service in California, and the airlines were beginning to have their own meteorologists. This was the beginning where they had discovered that they hadn't conquered the air, that the meteorological service was darned important for them. And this idea of the medium was interesting because much later on when I was in the ocean business pretty heavily, even after World War II, I discovered that the David Taylor Model Basin towed hulls in their great model basin with no waves on the surface of the water. And I mean just any hydrodynamicist knows that the drag of a thing through waves is entirely different than the drag in still water. This is inconceivable to me that the David Taylor Model Basin—and somewhere in my files (I checked on this again because I could hardly believe my recollection of the fifties) I have a letter from a David Taylor Model Basin saying that no, they introduced waves into the towing basin only about 1950.
Spilhaus:It is remarkable. It is extraordinary how—I hate to say the Navy was backward—but how out of touch they were with the thing. You see, again, neglecting the medium. Now, wait a minute, let's make a connection here. We're jumping ahead, but you can come back to it. The bathythermograph actually developed by me for the purposed of studying the ocean—the eddies of the Gulf Stream, was used—and we had a hell of a time, Columbus Iselin and I, we had a hell of a time selling it to the Navy because the Navy, when they couldn't detect a submarine down on Guantanamo Bay, thought that the SONAR was at fault. They were neglecting the medium—the fact that the sound waves bend and that's why they missed the thing. So for the first time, I'm beginning to see there was a trend, a subliminal trend in my mind, about the importance of the medium for man to operate his machines in. And probably that is my entry into geophysics, I think. You know, you don't make all these mystical things when you're that age. But they happen, you know. It's the train of thought.
Doel:Did you find others at MIT were thinking in the same lines as you? Or did you feel you were a pioneer in applying that?
Spilhaus:Oh, certainly there were others. Certainly Rossby appreciated the practical—although he was a great theoretician, his whole school at MIT was built on the basis that you had to have meteorology for the flying of airplanes,more than now. And certainly, down at Wood's Hole. When I first went down to Wood's Hole, Columbus Iselin, who was not only a professor at Harvard, but also a top notch sea man... he'd sailed the Atlantis over —saw to its building in Copenhagen and sailed it across the Atlantic. Columbus appreciated, of course, the [medium]. In fact, I think sea people, true sea people, are those that do understand that you have to take care of this very powerful medium that they're in. But perhaps there were only a few, only a few like that who appreciated it.
Doel:So when you went back to MIT then that following year, what happens?
Spilhaus:Fall of 1933, you're talking about?
Doel:Yes. You had it in your mind that you were going to be taking more courses in meteorology?
Spilhaus:Yes. I went and I just took an awful lot of courses in meteorology. And then, you see, I'd had to do my aeronautical degree and I'd had to stick to a set of courses to get that degree. Now I was sort of going vaguely on toward a doctorate. I could take what I wanted. So then I took Wiener's course in mathematics. I was associated with a great geophysicist, a fellow student of mine, Chiam Pekeris, who went to Israel in the early days and stayed there. I think at the Weisman Institute, or is that Tel Aviv University?
Doel:I think so. We can check on that.
Spilhaus:Yes. Well, anyway, Pekeris was a student with me in Rossby's day. And Pekeris and I were the only students of Louis Slichter in a course called geophysics. And that was one of the most enjoyable courses I had. I don't speak for myself, but I think I have to say, two fairly bright students and a bright professor sat in his office in three chairs and we went through the Harold Jeffreys' book The Earth. We just went through that book and this was my first—well, if you discount meteorology courses... they're also geophysical courses, but this was my first course called Geophysics.
Doel:Were you dealing with solid earth geophysics in this course?
Doel:Do you recall what....
Spilhaus:How Jeffreys's book was called? Well, it was called Physics of the Earth, I think.
Doel:I think so, or something similar.
Spilhaus:Very famous book.
Doel:Right. And if I recall correctly, it was in one of its first editions back at that time.
Spilhaus:That's correct. And another side-line was that Harold Jeffreys, in that edition, pooh-poohed Wegener's theory. I had become entranced with Wegener's theory just as sort of a view to my artistic sense, this jigsaw thing. And I'd just knocked into it in the library while browsing. I was sold on Wegener from the minute. Harold Jeffreys was not sold on Wegener. Every geologist in America said, oh, his is all nonsense. There are no forces to make the continents drift. And Wegener's theory was pooh-poohed until, I believe, Sir Edward Bullard was on the Capricorn Expedition at Scripps in the sixties. He began to measure the heat coming out form the bottom of the ocean and that led to the clue and revival. By that time—I'm jumping way ahead—I was writing a comic strip, "Our New Age." I wrote about Wegener's theory (before it had ever been accepted by the geologists) in the comic strip. That was the beauty of working on that; I could write anything I wanted to.
Doel:And you reached quite a large audience by doing that.
Spilhaus:Yes. I have comic strips about Wegener's theory of continental drifts from 1959. Perhaps before Bullard went out on the Capricorn Expedition.
Doel:What do you recall about Louis Slichter and the way he talked, or your interactions with him?
Spilhaus:I can see him. He was a portly, comfortable, wore glasses. A smiling man. But outside of his office and his lectures I didn't know him. Very pleasant person. Absolutely wonderful course. I mean the privilege of two guys sitting down and having a course—that's what went through my mind.
Doel:Do you remember any discussions in particular that you had either over Jeffrey's work or other problems of geophysics?
Not particularly. Pekeris was very knowledgeable about the incoming radiation sun in albedo and things. That was his thing. If it came where the radiation of the sun was involved, Pekeris and he would get in an argument. I was, as I said, very much hooked on Wegener and I guess I got pretty hot about it when I saw that Jeffrey's didn't agree with this thing. And I guess I drew out Slichter on what possibly could be the moving forces in the continental drift. But Slichter was neither pr nor con and I don't recall that he was.
But at MIT, Pat Hurley, who later got all embraced with the thing suddenly, he didn't, ...when my son took his study in oceanography at MIT in the sixties would it be? Yes, in the sixties, MIT still hadn't come around. Pat Hurley hadn't come around to the Wegener theory. Then suddenly he came around and later on, ten years later, he was with me at an international geological expedition in Morocco. And he was all gung-ho for it then. But all these Johnny-come-latelies... ha, ha, ha.
Doel:That's fascinating. Do you recall discussion about that with anybody else? Did you have contacts with people in other departments, say at Harvard, as well in that year?
Spilhaus:You know, it's strange. That's a very good question. It's strange that while I had contacts with all the professors and people I wanted, my student contacts were few. I just had a little coterie of Stark and Jimmy Fisk. Oh, the meteorological students I knew, but in other departments then, the meteorology department and my coterie of friends in physics and mathematics that Stark and I gathered around us, we had very little. Oh, you could go to any department in MIT and get assistance. When I wrote my paper on the transient condition of the human hair hygrometric instrument in Rossby's I had the textile people, Hopple and the textile people, working with me on that. Oh, yes, there was contact, but I didn't have—perhaps I misconstrued your question—it was possible to get assistance from anybody.
Doel:I also meant, did you get to Harvard to talk with people like Francis Birch and Bridgman? They were, of course, working on problems involving geophysics.
Doel:Yes. The high pressure work.
Spilhaus:No. I met Bridgman once or twice, but I really didn't have much contact. My contact with Harvard people was really through the Harvard people at Wood's Hole later on. I didn't have too much direct contact with Harvard.
Doel:Do you recall other classes that you took during that second year?
Spilhaus:Yes. One. Oh, oh, yes. I mean they were so extraordinarily good that I can't help recalling them. I was fortunate enough to... I think I'll give a preamble at the expense of rambling on and on. I had never enjoyed studying chemistry. At the University of Capetown, as I think at most universities in the world in those days, chemistry was taught as a kind of cookbook science. I couldn't stand sciences where you had to spend a year learning a special cant or lingo before you could understand the subject matter. I didn't like biology for the same reason. Biology had its own special lingo, when I was really interested in the science of biology, not the lingo of biology. That fault, incidentally, still exists to this day. We try to get a universal computer language, but we don't try to get a universal scientific language. So I had to speak their mysterious lingoes and cants, you know. It's getting better I suppose. But anyway, I didn't enjoy chemistry until I had the great luck of studying under Slater.
Spilhaus:John Slater. Yes. Slater, whom Draper and I knew. And Slater had—I was in the course where he was using his manuscript before he published the great book which made chemistry understandable to me for the first time, Chemical Physics, remember that book? I believe it was the first book that really attacked chemistry from the physical point of view. Once they tied chemistry and physics together, then chemistry began to make sense to me. Organic chemistry, I must say, was a little slow in coming into the tribe. We used to kid the organic chemists that an organic chemist was just a chemist who couldn't count beyond eight. And then we had to go into organic chemistry, ha, ha. Chemical Physics, that was a fabulous thing. To me, it was one of the most remarkable things that happened in the course. You saw the genesis of what, to me, was the book that brought physics and chemistry together.
Doel:Did you have a seminar then with John Slater?
No. It was just a regular post-graduate—it was the post graduate chemistry course, Chemical Physics. It wasn't physical chemistry—that had always existed. Chemical Physics, that's what it was. Slater was in the Physics Department, but I don't know whether it was called a chemistry or not. That was the beauty of it—it taught things together. This made a profound impression on me because here I began to see that the trouble, to me as an educator later on, I began to see that the trouble with science was that it was all pigeon-holed.
And this stood me in great stead later on when I became Dean of Minnesota when I tried to get the crossings between the scientists. I got the electrical engineers working with the medical school. I fought, bled and died to get biology and botany into the Institute of Technology—never succeeded on that one. I got geology out of the arts college and into the Institute of Technology because I knew that these sciences needed to have the fundamentals of physics and chemistry. Particularly biology—it was slow, slow in coming in. And the old fashioned rock geology. In fact, it was I who turned that into a geophysics department at Minnesota later on.
Doel:That's something I very much want to talk to you about. It's interesting.
Spilhaus:We'll get to that later, yes. But what I'm trying to do is make the connection ahead that it was Slater's thing of tying chemistry and physics together that probably, subliminally in my mind, made me realize that these things needed to be together.
Doel:It strikes me, too, that it's also the experience that you had at MIT that you wanted to recreate the lack of barriers.
Spilhaus:The lack of barriers. Yes.
Doel:Was there always good communication between aeronautics and meteorology? They were of course in the same building.
Spilhaus:I would say not. Good communication, but they all went their own ways. I don't know that there was any extraordinarily much better communication between mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering. Although Hunsacker was head of both at one time.
Doel:Right. But that was later on.
Spilhaus:Yeah. Later on. Smith was head when I was there. There were some remarkable people there. "Otto the Cop" we used to call him, Otto C. Coppin. After World War II he gave us the course in airplane design where we had to sit down and design a little airplane. He later on designed the airplane with foldable wings or take-offable wings, which was a car and an airplane. And it actually—there was a lot written about it at the time and his actually was the only one I think that did any good, or at least flew. But he was a real design engineer. Shatswell Ober, wonderful fellow, he was in the side of aeronautics that I wasn't terribly interested in structures. We had a very analytical chap by the name of Smith, who I took a course from and enjoyed thoroughly. He was theoretical.
Doel:Which Smith was that? We can check on it if it doesn't come to mind.
Spilhaus:Yes. He was sitting in as Head of Aeronautics. A very quiet, retiring man. There was a wonderful young fellow—a wonderful fellow—he's not young; he's dead now, Johnny Markham, who ran the wind tunnels. I worked a lot with him because on the gyros and testing venturies.... The thing that amazed me was here was this immense wind tunnel in the bottom of the aeronautical building and that they'd give me all the time on that wonderful machine. I just felt so fortunate to use it. You talked about did we lack money. Well, I don't know, but I never lacked the cooperation in getting the things I wanted.
Doel:That's interesting. Was there much competition for the use of the wind tunnel—was it hard to get time on it?
Spilhaus:I guess it was hard to get time on it because it cost a lot to run it. I would think you had to have somebody who believed in what you were doing. Stark, of course, always had the good backing. And Johnny Markham was in charge of the wind tunnel and he became a great friend. Certainly, I would say at MIT in those days it wasn't hard to get support for any worthwhile thing that a student wanted to do.
Doel:This makes me curious. Was there much direct contact between the department and Karl Compton and his office? Did he take much direct personal interest in the aerodynamic work being done? Or the meteorological?
Spilhaus:I wouldn't know that; but my guess was that Karl took an interest in all departments at MIT. I had a tremendous respect for him as a president. My guess is that he probably paid attention to the departments—at least I'm reading into his mind what I did myself when I went to MIT; I always paid attention to the departments that weren't doing well and left the ones that were doing well alone. I think aeronautics was doing well.
Doel:Did you have any seminars with Rossby?
Oh yes, oh yes. Once in the Meteorology Department it really was a tight little family. I mean we were all on one floor. There were as many staff in meteorology as there were students, I would say. See, Rossby had only really started that as a department in 1933. So the well-known meteorologists who were there with me, I numerate them: Ray Montgomery, later associated with me in New York University; Harry Wexler; Gardner Emmons, later associated with me at New York University.
Gardner was a Willett-type forecaster—just the guy I needed to counterpoint myself when I started the department at NYU. Ray took his degree in oceanography. He was an analytical type. Ray and I worked together on several papers. Ray died a year or so ago. Then there was a man, Horace Byers, who was Chief Meteorologist for TWA in the day. And I think TWA sent him to school at MIT. He then went into academic life and I know he was at Texas A&M in the latter part of his life. Chiam Pekeris I mentioned. Who else? Well, those fellows. And you see, that was about the student—apart from the undergraduate introductory course—that was the student quotient then.
But we had Rossby, Willett, Kiley and Langer on the instrumental side. Two map plotters, Murphy and Atsenault. So I'd say that staff was bigger than the student body. I mean, what a wonderful family. And you talk about seminars; it was a perpetual seminar with Rossby. If you went to lunch over at Walton's just across the street from the Guggenheim Building, we'd all sit down and Rossby would start putting the cream in his coffee, worrying about the hydrodynamics of whether it cooled faster if you stirred it or if you didn't. It was a continual seminar!
Doel:I'm curious. Of course he'd been schooled in the Bergen school of meteorology. Do you recall discussions about Bjerknes and his work?
Spilhaus:Well, not any discussions about Bjerknes. Of course, Rossby in this dynamic, mathematic, analytical class which we all took and which was my kind of side of the business. That and the instrumentation side were my loves. I never really cared about forecasting and I can show that bias to this day.
Doel:Well, it's a very different type of science.
Well, it isn't a science. And Lorentz came out in the very early days after World War II and showed that the nonlinearages together made forecasting for over beyond the period of persistence or beyond the period, or say what's over to the west will be here tomorrow, was not possible. Now the foundation of Lorentz's work has led to this marvelous new frontier of mathematics, the mathematics of chaos. I think the only future of meteorological prediction, if there is a future, lies in this mathematics of chaos. I'm no great mathematician so I have no authority to say that, but I believe this.
And I believe that the so-called long range forecasts that are made by the government at great expense, that say what they need is a seventh generation computer. When I was in NOAA, I said, "Well, you bring me a sixth generation idea and I'll buck for a seventh generation computer. A seventh generation computer doesn't do a damned thing for a first generation idea." But it was a continual seminar. And we had close relations then with the Harvard, the little Harvard meteorological thing which was the Blue Hill Observatory which was strictly very much an observational. Charlie Brooks was the head of it and he was terribly interested in clouds and that kind of stuff which bored some of us theoretical people.
Doel:Do you recall whether or not Bjerknes had visited MIT?
Oh, yes. That's what I was going to say. I got off the track. I was going to say that in the analytical side, of course, we all had heard of the Wilhelm Bjerknes from Rossby and studied his works and everything. Then Jakob Bjerknes, his son who was not really a theoretician at all, curious, but who devised the polar front idea, visited MIT. And this is how the polar front business—you know, we used to call it front, well, the frontal system that they use to this day—came over to this country. It came over by Rossby inviting Jakob Bjerknes. Jakob, of course, ultimately stayed here and went to UCLA and so forth. And we had other Norwegians; Homberg came over.
He stayed; went to UCLA. So that's how the polar front theory came in and that was a marvelous time for me in a way because even though that was on the forecasting side, that was—you know, you were in at the genesis of the thing in this country. Jakob Bjerknes was a weather artist—very good one. And I must say this for all my reservations about forecasting—one of the people that turned out, a fellow student, Jerome Namias. And he was a weather forecaster. Just self-trained almost. And his work, his long range forecasting, does make sense because the's really doing climatological forecasting. And he's doing it from what I consider a sensible basis—from measuring the heat back to the ocean, which is the thing that absorbs and stores the heat and gives off the heat. It withdraws and deposits in the world bank of heat.
The oceans are a good thing for climate and this is where I got the idea that you couldn't possibly understand meteorology without understanding the ocean. And that's what led me into oceanography. Again, the cross-fields. I couldn't understand aeronautics without understanding the medium. I couldn't understand that medium if I couldn't understand the basic—what I believed then in my simple words, the basic bank of heat that operates the atmosphere.
Doel:Right. Rossby was also emphasizing that point, wasn't he?
Spilhaus:Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm probably just following my mentor.
Doel:Do you recall if Harry Wexler was particularly interested in those questions then? Of course he did some of that work then, didn't he?
Spilhaus:Actually, Harry's work was, I would say apart from the example of the excellent analytical work of Rossby, it didn't follow Rossby's. I don't think he worked in the same fields, did he? Vorticity?
Doel:Perhaps in vorticity. He was interested in the heating-from-above question, with the heat balance in the atmosphere.
Spilhaus:Oh, well, we were all brought into that by Chiam Pekeris and certainly that would be the MIT influence. And I think undoubtedly Harry's career was influenced by those early days at MIT.
Doel:But he didn't work that closely then with Rossby?
Spilhaus:I think he worked very closely, as we all did when he was there, and I'm sure later on, too, because Harry was a very distinguished fellow.
Doel:This was the time that you came into first contact with Wood's Hole? Was that through Rossby?
Spilhaus:Absolutely. Rossby was interested in vorticity—the work that led to the formulation of the jet stream in the atmosphere and that. He was interested in the eddies thrown off by the Gulf Stream. And it was toward the end of 1934 that Rossby asked me to go down to Wood's Hole with him on a cruise on the Atlantis, the sailing ship, with an instrument that Carl Langer had devised called an oceanograph—great big rat trap thing, didn't work at all because it had pivots which got fouled up in the thing and smoke in the thing. What Carl had done was take a meteorgraph off an airplane and tried to make it so it was submersible in sea water.
Doel:And this was still using the smoked glass?
Spilhaus:No. They were using the smoked brass foil carried on a sector. Big pin with pivots. And I went out with Rossby because I was to operate this thing and that was my first contact with Wood's Hole. It was probably the fall of 1934. And I worked quite a bit with Rossby on the ship. Rossby was a very amusing man. He didn't like the ship rocking all the time and he asked old Captain McMurray, who was an old sea captain brought up under sail, you know, because that was a sailing vessel; he says, "Can't we put out four anchors near the Gulf Stream and keep us standing here?" And, of course, it was the things I saw that were wrong in the oceanograph that led me to just do the same thing—take what we used to call a little meteorgraph and have no pivots in it. And this led to the bathythermograph in 1936.
Doel:So you began working on it then that summer?
No, no. It wasn't my work at all. I wasn't supposed to work on that. I went to Africa after the end of 1935—no, June of 1935, I went to South Africa. I'd always been planning to go back. I got married and went to South Africa. And I took one of these little meteorgraphs of Carl Langer's and I started the first upper air ascents in the southern hemisphere, which you'll find a paper about. Because I had my job, which was a boring job, as Deputy Director of Technical Services in the South African Army and there aren't a few technical services, I had a chance to use all the airplanes and stuff.
And that was an interesting little piece of research. But I continually was thinking about this old oceanograph and I really had conceived the idea. And then I got the offer from Rossby to come back to MIT for the fall term of 1936 (I'd just spent a year in Africa). As soon as I got there, I was working again on model experiments on his jet stream eddies. That was my official work, but I was bootlegging making a bathythermograph and that's when I was working with the mechanics. It wasn't an official project of anybody's; nobody blessed the thing. Rossby wasn't an instrumentalist in any sense of the word. He knew he needed these rapid synoptic measurements, but he didn't know how to get them. He knew the "oceanography" didn't work and he just forgot that.
Doel:Wasn't the other problems with that instrument, in the old version, that you couldn't raise and lower it quickly?
Spilhaus:No, it was a great big square box. And so I looked at all the things that were wrong and just decided to build something that would work and that was the BT, which eventually worked. And Rossby was very excited about that. He was always encouraging. And that's what—when I went back from Africa, I was paid by Wood's Hole. They underwrote. So I was really working for Wood's Hole.
Doel:I'm curious about when you were working back in South Africa for that year, for you had access to the planes. Of course, that was the Department of Defense projects as I understand.
Spilhaus:Yes. They were funny old planes, bi-planes, and I used to fly occasionally with them and we'd go up to 18,000 feet often without oxygen or just a sniffer where you took just an occasional sniff.
Doel:It was rather risky.
Spilhaus:Well, these were good pilots and I went up with them to show that I'd go to. We'd go as high as we could go, actually, and I don't believe we had oxygen. At the most we might have had a little oxygen bottle and a mask and just taken a sniff now and then, but I don't even recall that. And they were open cockpit planes. The meteorgraph tied to the wing.
Doel:One of the projects was to measure diurnal temperature and changes in the free atmosphere, the changes in density and temperature.
Spilhaus:Not diurnal. I was making one measurement a day in the morning; and what I simply wanted to get was a record over a year to fill in. They had done this, of course, in the northern hemisphere and I thought it would be interesting to get the mean kind of distribution in the southern hemisphere.
Doel:And no one else had done this before?
Spilhaus:Not in the southern hemisphere—there had not been any flights. Well, remember that at that time there were only a few airplane flights in the United States. And now as a result of this, much later after I left South Africa during or after World War II, South Africa began to have a few airplane flights in the meteorological service. And the, of course, I went back as an advisor to the government there to revise their meteorological services. It was interesting how it all tied in.
Doel:Right. Now that was of course right after World War II.
Spilhaus:That was 1947. Yes.
Doel:Did you have many people you could talk with in South Africa about your research?
No, no. That was the great difficulty. I would have had a lot of people had I been associated with the university, but the Department of Defense was no place for me to be. Quite different from my associations later with the Department of Defense and the Army here where the (NDRC) National Defense Research Council and all that stuff had brought science into the thing. But there was no real scientific work in South Africa. That was my problem. I went up to the meteorological office quite often and had a few contacts but it wasn't that great. So I was in Pretoria, and had it been Capetown, I would have had plenty of contacts at the University.
At Witwatersrand, I would have had plenty of contacts. In fact, I did publish a couple of papers in the Royal Society through friends at Witwatersrand. Pretoria was a parochial government capital, you know, even in those days, even under Smuts and nobody to talk to. I tried to keep myself stimulated. I gave a course in the aerial photogrametry at the technical school in Pretoria. But really it was a dull time and I just kept myself intellectually alive by doing my own papers there. I wrote a few papers. But then I was so glad when I got this telegram from Rossby asking be to come back.
Doel:Do you recall what the offer was in particular from Rossby? Was it to work on a particular project or something to be associated with Wood's Hole?
Spilhaus:It was to work on a particular project. He wanted me to build a rotating dishpan. A famous old oceanographer and a man I knew was Eckman, E-C-K-M-A-N or E-K-M-A-N, and I met Eckman later on.
Spilhaus:We were talking about Eckman?
I was entranced with Eckman's book, a very early book on the Dynamics of Meteorology. Not only do you recall important professors in one's life, but one recalls important books. I mentioned one, Chemical Physics by Slater, another one was Dynamics of Meteorology by Eckman. So important was that book to me, and it was out of print, that my wife at that time copied the whole book so I had a typescript on it. And I don't know why I wanted it—it was just that I thought it so important. And the other book was Harold Jeffreys's book, talking about books influencing you. And a book in aeronautics that was this Wilson book, I'm sure it was Wilson, Wilson of Harvard.
All of these thing you know. But anyway, Eckman had described in his book an experiment he'd made where he had a rotating pan and he put at the center of it a piece of ice in the warm water. And then he'd spun the pan to represent the Coriolis force. And he began to see these currents, could be done with dye and so forth. Rossby's task to me was to build a rotating pan that could spin at different speeds and have a method of identifying the currents, have a jet stream coming out of the center, and a method of identifying the currents and the eddies to study for his vorticity thing. And I did this for a year. I think it helped Rossby in visualizing what he was doing, but we never really could tie in the rotating pan experiments with the dynamics of the real world, if I might say it that way. It was a very pretty demonstration of the Gulf Stream and eddies, but beyond that, I couldn't get anywhere with it.
Doel:It wasn't really a research tool?
Spilhaus:It didn't seem to be. Later on von Arx at Woods Hole built a great big pan and he went on with this thing. And Fultz in Chicago made pan experiments after mine.
Doel:Fultz was in the 1950s, right?
Spilhaus:That was right, more or less, close after my work. I left my big pan, six foot pan, down in Woods Hole and von Arx carried on after I went in for the War in 1942. So that was the job that I had to do. But the job I soon saw that I couldn't relate these pan things, the pictures I was getting, to the dynamics. And this dissatisfied me that I was getting pretty pictures that weren't really contributing. I think they contributed to Rossby's visualization probably, but I couldn't get it. And that's why I spent my time working on the bathythermograph.
Doel:Do you have conversations that you recall with Rossby about this problem and the applicability of the pan work?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. But he never got discouraged. He said, "I like to see it. I like to see it." And he liked to see the pictures. I wrote a very short note on it and it wasn't a scientific paper, it didn't contribute to anything as far as I could see. I was really rather surprised. He got Fultz working on it. Rossby was still interested in pan experiments.
Doel:Was Fultz a Rossby student?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes, out in Chicago. And von Arx followed my pan because I left it at Woods Hole. So it all came from Rossby. I don't think—and maybe someone else is up on it and cant tell me better—but I don't think any of those pan experiments really produced any great analytical value. Perhaps Stommel looking at von Arx's things got some insights, you know, for his work. But direct connections were difficult to make. That's my view on it anyway.
Doel:It's interesting that you say that Rossby wanted that kind of visualization that helped him conceive the mathematical modeling dynamics that he wanted to do.
Spilhaus:Yes. I think that was it—that was it. He just wanted to see it. He could see the Gulf Stream coming out from under the jet and shooting off these eddies, you know.
Doel:What did others think who were at Woods Hole about the big pan experiments?
Spilhaus:Oh, before World War II, Wood's Hole was so small. Again, we were all complete family. Frankly, I don't think anyone at Wood's Hole was very much interested in the pan experiments, but they were smart enough to realize that if Rossby wanted them, it was worthwhile backing Rossby. I'm sure that was the attitude. They were much more interested, funnily enough, Columbus Iselin and Bigelow, the two great leaders, in my bathythermograph, my bootlegged experiment. And they were right, of course, in the long run. You know, it makes me think—and I think I have to say this—I find in myself a little bit embarrassed in being interviewed as a geophysical scientist because I'm not sure that my contributions in geophysics have been scientific in the pure sense of the word. See what I'm trying to say?
Doel:It seems that you've done both, though. You've made the instrumental and mathematical contributions, as well as the organization of the research.
Spilhaus:Well, that's it. I could take an idea that someone had and then I could help him by developing it—see the potentialities of it. And that's what I've tried to do. More or less what my son does in AGU—he's helping other scientists.
Doel:How did working at Wood's Hole compare to MIT, the working experience?
Spilhaus:I never worked—I never closeted myself down at Wood's Hole, except in the summer. I worked at MIT. And then when Wood's Hole was paying me, I just went down on a ship. Although the summers at Wood's Hole in those days were great, even though there was a small crowd, the people were so good.
Doel:You had quite a few visitors come during the summer?
Yes, but I mean, even the regulars—Bigelow; Alfred Redfield, a biologist. He was the guy who made biology make sense to me. I suddenly realized what's the use of studying all this physical, dynamical side of the ocean if it doesn't relate to the life in the ocean? I became really interested in biology, never studied it much. Redfield was a great man. Columbus Iselin, tremendous fellow. I'm sure Columbus and I, our discussions first of all of getting the BT and the use of anti-submarine warfare.
Later on, I discussed with him how we could get Woods Hole more into the practical side of instead of just studying the ocean, doing something about using the ocean. Columbus and I were the two who said, "Let's do something with the ocean." I'm sure that Columbus, and the encouragement he gave me on that was instrumental in my ultimate idea of the sea grant colleges which was a great idea, I think, not a scientific idea, as I say. But I think that was one of the good contributions because it was a practical approach to getting people's feet wet in the sea.
Doel:And a very important development; we'll be talking about that, too.
Spilhaus:But we showed the connections about how a train of thought goes. And they certainly—when I talk to a fellow like you—they come to mind because I'm not given to self analysis very often.
Doel:Did you have much direct contact then with Bigelow?
Doel:Do you recall any particular conversations?
Yes. I recall one that I've related many times. He gave me a cruise on the Atlantis to test a very crude BT in the fall of 1936 and the darn thing didn't work very well. It vibrated and was a terrible disappointment to me after I'd thought about it a year in Africa, come back, built one, bootlegged in the shop at MIT. I wasn't even being paid then by MIT but they—my friends in aeronautics, said go ahead and bootleg at night. I was allowed to work down in the shop with my stubby fingers and the mechanic would help me and I'd solder it at home. You talk about money; we didn't have money. There were no federal grants. Nobody was sponsoring it—neither Wood's Hole nor MIT was sponsoring it. And I had to do it with my own fingers. Yet, in a way, it leads me to sort of philosophize a little bit. I wonder if in the development of an instrument there isn't some advantage when the guy who conceives the idea has to fiddle around with it himself. This is the way Edgerton did his early stroboscopes; this is the way I did the BT.
Because in the process of slowly doing it, instead of handing it over to a team the way it's done today to produce—you say sketch it out, build it—you continually think about it. And today, in my little things I invent in geography and maps, I enjoy making the prototypes myself, however crude they may be, because it gives me time to think about it. So the team thing which is necessary in big projects also has its disadvantages. Individual, single author things are becoming rarer, aren't they? A pity, I think. Although one must admit that the practicality of working with huge science projects you're bound to have to have a team. But I digress. I was saying that after I went out on this cruise, I went into Bigelow. Of course, Columbus, who was kind of the assistant director, not by title, but the second shot there and he hated to direct anything. But Bigelow also was a scholar doing his own work. Ideal, in my mind to be a director where you can do your own research, instead of having directors now who really administer more and it takes them away from their own science.
And therefore, it takes them away from a feeling of fellowship with the scientists. Unfortunately true in universities and all these places. Bigelow. I went into Bigelow and I was really apologetic as anything. I mean, to run a ship for a week in those days was a great expense and a tremendous thing for him to do for me. Especially on a bootlegged project. And I was apologizing there. He said, "Don't worry. As a biologist, I simply put that down to the perversity of inanimate objects. Go get it fixed and I'll give you another cruise." And he did. I mean, that was the kind of thing that was just wonderfully encouraging because I was down in the dumps over it ready to junk the damn thing.
Doel:What were the problems that came in that first cruise?
Oh, little engineering problems that when you look back were so easily solved, but not when you're in the midst of it. I conceived the idea that the simplest thing which would have no pivots—and you can see it in my papers on the BT—was a compressible sylphon bellows for pressure, carrying on top of it a bi-metal which would scratch across the glass slide, giving you the X-Y, the Y being pressure and the X being temperature. But, of course, it seems so obvious now—you had to ventilate the bi-metal. You had to have holes in the thing. And of course the water rushing by, because you wanted quick descent and ascent, vibrated like mad.
Obviously stupid design. Well, what I did after Bigelow's encouragement is say that I've got to get that temperature thing so that the rushing water can give me quick heat transfer to the temperature element, yet not vibrate the pen that's inscribing. Pressure was no problem at all, you just have a tiny pinhole. Well, the obvious thing was to use a bourdon tube. Have a coiled bulb on the outside of the instrument, communicating with a bourdon tube on the inside. And the bourdon tube had the pen.
Then you could practically seal that whole thing. I did mean that the liquid in the bourdon tube was a slightly different temperature than the bulb and that made for certain errors because the body of the instrument wouldn't change temperatures quickly. But as long as the liquid in the bourdon tube was small compared to the liquid in the bulb, there wasn't a great error.
Doel:Right. It would be a systemic error.
Spilhaus:Yes. And that was very cleverly corrected by Allyn Vine later on when Wood's Hole took over the production of the thing. He put in a little correcting bi-metal in there which went the opposite direction in the water inside. Actually, a well-known device for correcting for what they call a cabinet error when the sensor is separated, when the actuating part of the sensor is separated from the exposed part in the medium. So I just quickly built another one with a bourdon tube which I got from on existing instrument. Bought an air thermometer or something with xyline in it, and the bourdon tube, put a pointer on. And I got the BT with the bourdon tube. You've probably seen—I'll give you one—perhaps you saw an article in Sea Technology.
Doel:That one I didn't see.
Ah. It would be very useful to you when we get to the BT. And that was the way the BT, after Vine and Ewing refined it for—because they, for the first time, got money to do the thing when the War came along. That was the first government money that came in. They had the money and they could do a good job and they did do a good job making the crude scientific instrument, which was just for oceanographers, into a really useful thing. But the principle was exactly that—the coiled tube and the temperature element with bourdon pressure sylphon. In those days, because there wasn't any support money to build a thing, when I got the prototype built, I took it to the Submarine Signal Company and they agreed to build it.
I remember talking to them, talking to Mr. H. J. W Fay, the President. And I said, "Every oceanographer will be wanting one of these." And he said, "Yeah. All six of them." He didn't envisage what would happen in the War. So they built it. They wanted to complete their line. It was a fine old company. They built a few that weren't terribly good. And then when we got to the wartime thing with a hurry up order from Britain for 200 even before Pearl Harbor, that's when Ewing and Vine got going in Wood's Hole to further the production. They got plenty of money and ran away with it.
Doel:It was a major change by then. You mentioned about financing—I'm curious, did Bigelow ever talk to you about the 1929 report that he'd written for the National Academy?
Spilhaus:I knew about that report, of course, which ultimately set up Woods Hole. No, I don't recall ever discussing it with Bigelow. No, in those days, I was just a little working guy and I guess I hadn't become involved or interested in policy or those kind of things. I didn't know much about that. What particularly did you have in mind about my talking to him about that?
Doel:Well, the Bigelow report was very important for the development of oceanography in the U.S.
Spilhaus:Oh, yes, tremendously important. Yes, it established Woods Hole. Later on, of course, when I got on to the—well, after the War, the Joint Research and Development Board of the military—and then the RDB, followed by the National Science Foundation. And I got into all these committees. Later on, we wrote the NASCO Report, following the Stratton Report. You know, then I got into this kind of thing, but much later. In fact, I often wonder about the young people who go immediately into marine policy as it's called as a field. If they haven't had their feet wet in research and going to sea and all that, I'm not too sure you can go too early into formulating marine policy unless you've had a little taste of the marine world.
Doel:Right. What was the relation then after the Oceanographic Institute was built between the biologists at Wood's Hole and the Marine Biological Laboratory.
Uh, very cordial. Absolutely friendly, but with not much interchange. Even the biologists at Wood's Hole, of course, the were all so grateful for the great MBL Library. That was fine, fine library; we all used that library. But apart from that, I don't think too much interchange. And understandably so because MBL was a summer institution that didn't have a permanent staff. It was a research Hilton. I mean, people came and did their work in the summers. Redfield and these people must have been very close to certainly the same kinds of people that were on the boards of the two institutions and must have been extremely close. But there was no, absolutely no working relationships at my level.
Oh, I'm sure I borrowed the MBL boat on occasion and they would maybe borrow the Asterias—completely cordial relations, but I don't think any close working relationship. And I think that's true to this day. My son-in-law is a microbiologist. You know, an electron microscope kind of a guy at the University of Pennsylvania. He goes to Wood's Hole every summer. An he simply works in his laboratory and I don't think he bothers—I don't think he has much contact with other people at MBL or Wood's Hole. They simply work—distinguished people simply work in their laboratories there for the summer.
Doel:They were physically separate, too. It was up the street from the other.
Spilhaus:Now they're not very much physically separated because Wood's Hole Oceanographic has grown. Today its various buildings are far more separated than the old building was from MBL. I always wondered about—you see, we really had three institutions there. We had MBL, Wood's Hole Oceanographic and then fisheries. And again, with the U.S. fisheries, we had very good relationships. After World War II, I borrowed the Albatross, the ship. They gave us a cruise, but there wasn't much direct exchange of science at a working level.
Doel:Had there been people interested in physical oceanography at Wood's Hole prior to the time the Oceanographic Institute was formed? Again, this is before your time there, but I'm curious if you recall any discussions of that?
Spilhaus:You know, when you come to think of it, at Wood's Hole Oceanographic, there wasn't much before my time. I went down there in 1934. When was Wood's Hole first established?
Doel:The Oceanographic Institute was created in the early thirties.
Spilhaus:Early thirties and in 1934 I was there. So when you say what went on before, it was only a few years. But certainly, Columbus Iselin was there—a physical oceanographer, not a theoretical type at all, but a practical seaman type, natural observer type, physical oceanographer.
Doel:Where had Iselin trained?
Spilhaus:He had been to Harvard. I'm not sure I know what his background in studies were. I mean, he'd always been interested in the sea, just kicking around the sea. And I suppose that he'd taken kind of a normal Harvard degree. I really—funny, I don't know about that. We should look it up.
Doel:We can add that to the record.
Spilhaus:I always admired Columbus because I like the combination of a fellow. Although I realized him to be a studied academician, his lack of some formal academic training (was evident). He didn't really understand mathematics or any of that stuff with seemed important to me, but I so admired his deep interest in the sea and his knowledge of the practicalities. I realized that academicians like Rossby needed the Iselins. And you could say that Rossby and Iselin got along like wild fire. Well, Rossby got along with everybody, he was a fine fellow. And anybody good—Bigelow, Rossby, Iselin, got along like wild fire.
Doel:Did you have much contact with any of the people at Scripps during those early days? I'm curious if you have a sense of how the two institutions compared then?
Spilhaus:I got so busy in the training of meteorologists at New York University prior to my own going into uniform in 1942, that I really almost lost touch with oceanography entirely. I was training thousands of military cadets. I'm trying to think of contacts with Scripps prior to World War II. I knew Roger Revelle, but he was a young student a little bit older than I was.
Doel:Then you wrote a review later of Sverdrup's work. You wrote a review in the early 1940s....
Spilhaus:On Sverdrup—oh, I knew Sverdrup fairly well, but wasn't that after World War II?
Doel:I think it was during. It was in the 1940s, early.
Spilhaus:Oh, well, then I must have had contact because I knew Sverdrup well and I knew.... You see, I just don't have the timing right. Of course, Sverdrup and I had close relations with Revelle when they were writing their great book of theirs together.
Doel:Right. In fact, that was 1942 that you'd written that review.
Spilhaus:Ah. Well then I certainly had contact with Sverdrup. He probably visited Wood's Hole. I'm sure I hadn't then traveled out to Scripps. We, the younger fry, didn't travel quite so much in those days. I had a great admiration for Sverdrup. I think in the early days there was far less of a competitive spirit and more of a cooperative spirit between Scripps and Wood's Hole. Later on, when the two became big after the War, there was rather a competitiveness.
Doel:Was that because of the competition for federal funds, do you think?
Spilhaus:I would think that was part of it. Yes. Federal funds are a two-edged sword. I had contact with MIT. This is when we were talking about contact between the two great institutions. MIT and Caltech of course. I had contact with Von Karman at Caltech and quite a lot of contact, and with Milliken at Caltech when I was in the aeronautics thing.
Doel:Had you been out there to visit?
Spilhaus:No. They visited MIT. I hadn't—as I said, there wasn't money for travel in those days, except for the more established people. That's why I'm sure—I'm not sure. I probably did visit California prior to going into uniform because I was on one of the National Research Defense committees before I went into uniform and I probably did visit California a couple of times because then, you see, military money was beginning to come in.
Doel:That's when you were involved training meteorologists?
Spilhaus:Right. And I was also brought into the NDRC Division 6 Committee and creating fog, stimulating from the smog of Los Angeles. That was the problem because they were dead scared about Jap submarines off the coast there. And we created fog out there. I don't know—it was one of the war-time things that you all go through.
Doel:How did the offer come about for you to go to NYU to teach?
Spilhaus:Well, the dean came up and interviewed me—came up to MIT and interviewed me. And I was very young. In 1936, I was interviewed. I was 25 years old. And he offered me an Assistant Professorship and he told me of his plans. It was in kind of an off-shoot of the geology department.
Doel:So who was it who had come up to interview you?
Dean Thorndike Saville, a hydrologist and that type of engineer. And he told me of his plans to build a meteorology department. I think it intrigued me. First of all being an Assistant Professor at the age of 25 in those days was pretty good. The salary was attractive; I mean everything was attractive. Gosh, I must have got a salary of $2,500 a year. That was a lot of money in those days. You can't believe it now! Anyway, I talked it over with Rossby. He said it would be a great idea to establish another school. And all through the thing they gave me all kinds of help.
And I then went down there. I found this absolutely, pretty defunct geology department and an old-timer in charge of it. And a young man there—I don't want to mention his name, but who didn't know meteorology or anything. So I had two pieces of dead wood that were difficult. And somehow that worked out. The geology thing was transferred. And in I guess a couple of years or so, I was given the headship of the department. They made me an Associate Professor, ultimately a Professor at the age of 29, which people joked about because they said that only Maynard Hutchins and I had become full professors at the age of 29. I don't know whether that's true. Today it's not unusual, I think. But then, that was very unusual.
Doel:It was indeed. Do you recall discussions about what responsibility you'd have in starting the department—to expand it? Did you come to the job with any conditions of your own?
No. I don't recall that. I came in with the blessing of this dean who realized the deficiencies of these people, at least in meteorology, which was nothing cased in—they weren't meteorologists. I think I had his backing. And I think I more or less stimulated meteorology, so it kind of took over. It was after—the first year or so after the geology thing went away and I was given the space that I got Gardner Emmons up there as my cohort on the forecasting side. Conned the Weather Bureau into giving us two Weather Bureau salaried employees to do the map plotting an so forth—the teletype facilities and so forth. And from then on, it just rolled. And it was very shortly after I was head, and I don't remember which year, but not too long after that, I coaxed my old friend Ray Montgomery down.
Because there immediately was Seville that said Department of Meteorology—he was interested in that. I said, "I want to make it a Department of Meteorology and Oceanography." He wasn't too keen on that, but he let me do it. And I got Ray Montgomery, splendid fellow and splendid for me to work with and added to our.... You see, we had Emmons and these two Weather Bureau people on the synoptic side of it. And now I had myself and Ray Montgomery and we began to get good students in mathematics and developed the analytical side.
And we were the Department of Meteorology and Oceanography. Probably thefirst department of both—I'm not sure. I think it could very well be. MIT was strictly—it was called the Department of Meteorology, although Ray Montgomery got his doctor's degree in oceanography there, but that doesn't matter; at MIT you can get it in anything. I think I was the first one to formally designate it. And that came from what I referred to before as my idea that things couldn't get along separately.
Doel:So the experience you had at MIT was very important in the way that you saw the nature of this new department?
Spilhaus:Colored my whole life. Of course, yes.
Doel:And there were sufficient funds available at NYU for you to do the kind of work that you had in mind?
Spilhaus:I think that when Saville saw the success that we were making, that within the strictures of his own budget, he was quite favorable to us. We got the whole top floor of the Civil Engineering Building. I think we were treated well within the limits of NYU. It was a financially poor university.
Doel:And that was still the Great Depression, of course.
That's right. NYU made a great impression on me. I guess I was sort of an intellectual snob coming out of a great institution like MIT. And I wondered about night classes at NYU. But part of my duties that I didn't relish at first was to give an evening class in meteorology down at Washington Square. I'd have to drive all the way down. It changed my whole view. It removed a lot of intellectual snobbism, elitism, from my makeup. Here were kids who worked all day, hadn't a nickel to rub together, came into the evening class and were some of the best students I had compared to those who were fortunate enough to be able to go to school full time. And it's very interesting that this colors my view even today. I find that with the exception of many,many fairly good students, there are many people who feel that the world owes them a college education.
And if they think that way, I don't think they get a very good college education. I'm just going off the top of my head—I think if you really believe that a college education is a privilege that you're apt to take more advantage of it. I don't know whether that's true or not. And, of course, my idea of elitism—when I saw these kids, they became the elite. In other words, the scholarship in itself creates it elite. There's nothing wrong with an elite as long as it's an elite for the right purpose. Wealth isn't a very good reason to be elite, but intellectual ability is. So this tempered my view. And later on, when I got to Minnesota, you know, we used to talk about cow colleges, and I began to see that if you were going to have a great university with all the basic sciences, as I had in my Institute of Technology, you had to draw out from those basic fields to serve the state that was paying you for the basics. Therefore, a cow college. And an excellent cow college, incidentally. And, of course, that then later on—I'm jumping—led to my whole concept of sea colleges.
Doel:There's a link in all of that.
Spilhaus:But it was also part of my education because I changed my idea. I thought full-time study was the only thing and night classes were some scrubby thing. And New York University changed my view on that. Al Flacks, later on Secretary to the Air Force, I think was one of my evening class students, then came up and became a full-time student, certainly from poor circumstances. From the East Side of New York he became Secretary of the Air Force. I can remember when I was trustee of the Aerospace Corporation and all these big shots there. Al was Secretary of the Air Force. He was out there and I was standing in line at the reception. He looked across and saw me. He stepped out of the receiving line and came over and said, "Hello, Professor." He said, "Look where I got!"
Spilhaus:These are the pleasures!
Doel:That's great. How many people did you have then in the courses in the evening and daytime?
Spilhaus:Evening course was a big one. You see, that was in the very early days, 1938-39, and we didn't have big classes in our own department, except that the aeronautical classes, which were bigger, had to take some meteorology which was quite right. In fact, I made it a point to talk to Klemin and discuss with him and he was agreed completely that—you see, aeronautics as a Guggenheim school, a small Guggenheim school at NYU. And I told Klemin of my idea that aeronautical people had to know something about the darn medium. And so he made it a required course. That helped us pay our freight in the university, if you know what I mean.
Doel:Indeed, yes. Did you feel then that you had good relationships with the other science departments and engineering?
Spilhaus:Yes. I had wonderful relationships. Strangely enough, very good relationships with physics, which was unusual because I think physics—with some in physics, let me say. The head was a man that ultimately ran the nuclear facility in the mid west—Joe Boyce. Joseph Boyce. Joe Boyce was a great friend. Serge Koeff, he was a great experimentalist. But I think some of the lesser likes in the Physics Department regarded the success of meteorology as a kind of threat at the Heights Campus. Because there was also a physics Department downtown at Washington Square run by a South African, incidentally, von der Merue from Stellenbosch.
Spilhaus:Yes. So they were bifurcated. But my greatest and pleasantest relationship was with the mathematics people downtown at Washington Square. Courant and Friedrichs—great school of mathematics. I mean the jewel in the crown of New York University in my opinion.
Doel:I'm curious what you meant by the threat of dynamic meteorology. Was some concern about the success of the dynamic meteorological program that you were developing?
Spilhaus:No. These are the physics?
Spilhaus:Oh, no. No, no. I didn't say dynamical meteorology; I said the success of the meteorology department was regarded, I think, as a threat to some of the physics people. Because they were probably kind of intellectual snobs like I used to be, and probably thought of meteorology as just a branch of physics, you know. Which certainly it is indeed.
Doel:So the fact that it was autonomous was....
Spilhaus:The fact that it was autonomous and successful. That's the trouble. Of course, the success came before the wartime. And I must say, I felt generated as soon as I got Gardner Emmons. He had a very great reputation as a forecaster. And I've always been a kind of a ham as well as a scientist. I started the practice of preparing forecasts and circulating them around the University. They pinned them on the bulletin board. Well, the press got hold of us and used to compare our forecasts with the Weather Bureau forecasts. We'd often beat them. Oh, we played that up. And, of course, the University enjoys the publicity and all that kind of stuff. The Weather Bureau didn't particularly enjoy it, but it had a good effect on the Weather Bureau. The reason that we could forecast better for New York City was that in those days, the New York City forecast wasn't prepared locally. It was prepared in Washington. Well, perhaps that's true today—the computers in Washington. I don't know. But Emmons was a weather artist. He looked at his weather maps and things and then he looked out of the window. There was an advantage to looking out of the window. So there was success in that way. It became known.
Doel:Was the Weather Bureau very centralized then as well, in the 1930s?
Well, the Weather Bureau was the stuffiest outfit you've ever seen. We had a fellow, Marvin, was the head of it. I think some journal probably picked up from me the phrase, which wasn't very complimentary—I remember I was embarrassed when they published it, "Mossback Marvin." The Weather Bureau was deadly, deadly dull if you want to be honest about it. But then Reichelderfer succeeded Marvin. Reichelderfer and I got along with just like that and we worked very closely together. Even under Marvin. I think—I'm not sure whether Marvin was still Chief of the Weather Bureau when I started at New York University, but even so, we got cooperation from the Weather Bureau. Reichelderfer came in—we got great cooperation from them.
But it was a kind of a backward outfit. I know it's become very great today and they've got some great people in it, but I don't think forecasting has improved very much. Ha, ha. My friends will kill me! Oh, forecasting, of course, has improved, but it's improved because two technology advances have taken place. Nothing to do with the thinking part of the analytic dynamics of anything. Telecommunications. You can quickly find out what's to the west of you. And observations in general. First of all, the upper air observations—the radio sondes and the upper air winds above the clouds and all those things we developed during the war. And then finally, satellite meteorology, which is also the thing I was in on the beginning of." I was one of those who was beating the drums for satellite in IGY. I was one of those that announced it from the White House lawn in 1955. So those two things, communications and observations, have improved forecasting. But it isn't forecasting.
Doel:How do you feel about the role of the high speed computers after World War II in numerical forecasting?
Spilhaus:I was involved in that with von Neumann.
Doel:Right. The Princeton Project.
Spilhaus:Yes. The Princeton Project. How I became involved is a story that really hasn't been told. I wonder if I still have the papers on it in my files?
Doel:If you'd like, why don't you talk about that now? I do want to ask you some more things about New York University.
Spilhaus:You want me to talk about von Neumann?
Doel:Why don't we talk first about New York and the wartime and then let's get into the von Neumann project and your role in that. How quickly were you able to establish graduate training at NYU? Did you have graduate training at NYU?
Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely. My whole idea, and I must say it persists with me to this day and again comes from my MIT experience, was that you shouldn't waste an undergraduate's time on specializations like meteorology or oceanography in undergraduate work. I was also drawing on my own experience that I told you about at the University of Capetown—we didn't have facilities for those things. I am still not sure that I agree with having undergraduate courses in oceanography and meteorology. I certainly believe in have survey courses of those things as part of a good basic undergraduate curriculum.
But I believe these things are inherently graduate work. I believe that to this day, and I believed it then. And we immediately went to graduate work. Of course, our graduate students were two Weather Bureau plotters, the first two. They had degrees and so they were automatically graduate students. That's how we weaseled it in. And then somebody switched over from physics. Something like that. I don't recall the details. Oh, from the very beginning, I was interested in it. In fact, I was much more interested in the graduate work than undergraduate. The undergraduate was a thing we did for the aeronautical engineering students because we believe they should know about it; and because, as I said, it helped us pay our freight in the University.
Doel:That legitimized you within the University?
Spilhaus:That's correct. Yes. And the University like then, any university, if you're doing solely graduate work with two students and four faculty—MIT could afford it perhaps—they look a little scarce. So we had to build up our undergraduates.
Doel:During that first period during the war, did you also think about expanding to other areas of geophysics besides meteorology and oceanography?
Spilhaus:No. I think I can say no. I think really that engrossed our interest. My own interest in geophysics continued in reading and so forth, but I can honestly say no, and not in the makeup of our department. I didn't get back to that until I got to Minnesota later.
Doel:Right. Okay. I'm curious, did you feel there was much direct movement between those who were primarily interested in meteorology and those involved in oceanography at NYU? Was there as much interaction between those two?
Spilhaus:We only had about a couple of graduate students, both were on the staff, who were primarily oceanography. Willard Pierson, if you know his name, probably he's in waves. Look up that name. Willard Pierson was one. And another on was Spar. I wonder if Spar was in oceanography. But really we didn't have any. While we were a department of meteorology and oceanography, we justified our oceanography by my belief you couldn't teach one without the other. I don't think we had special students in oceanography. Except Willard Pierson. He was a very good tide and wave man.
Doel:Were there any contrasts between the work that was going on at MIT and at NYU with European institutes in meteorology? Did you happen to have contacts internationally then see differences in approach or scientific content?
Spilhaus:As far as the one question, yes, we had plenty of contacts. Prior to and even during World War II, plenty of contacts. And we got all the journals and we read the journals. The answer to the other question is no. I think that the developments went in very similar directions in most of the countries in the advanced institutions of oceanography in most of the countries. That's my own view. I can't think of any special things that we did in the United States that didn't have counterpart research in other countries. Certainly the United States in its applications of meteorology was unique because we had a great country and a huge, burgeoning aircraft system.
Spilhaus:Industrial support led the world there. The British, as always, were.... Ah, I can't say that. The British meteorology was strong in the natural observer type of synoptic meteorology, stronger than we were. The Germans were very much advanced in the analytical work—Ertel from Berlin and so forth. Ertel visited MIT. And then, of course, Rossby had sort of integrated us in the Norwegian school, which was both dynamical and synoptic theory. So really, I don't think there was too great a difference.
Doel:Of course, this was the time, and I'm very curious to hear about this, that you were developing the ozone research project at NYU. How did that come about?
Spilhaus:I think it came about because I'd been reading and realized that ozone was a pretty important sort of buffer element, I thought, in the radiation balance. I wasn't thinking of cosmic radiation, ha, ha. But I used the word radiation. Because of my interest in meteorological instruments, I read of Dobson's ozone spectrometer. He had built one and he was observing ozone from Oxford. I did con a foundation (and Saville helped me) in getting money to purchase a Dobson ozone spectrometer.
Doel:Was this from the Research Corporation that the money came?
Spilhaus:Could have been. How did you know that?
Doel:There's a mention of that in the 1941 paper.
Spilhaus:Oh, well, if it says that's where the grant came from, that's where it came from. Yes. And Research Corporation, wasn't that the corporation that MIT used for its patents?
Oh, well, then undoubtedly my old friend Hunsucker was probably putting his very influential hand in the door. Because I recall—he was such a great friend, a great friend—I recall that when I invented the BT at MIT, I'd submitted it as one should, although I'd bootlegged the thing and wasn't even being paid by MIT, I submitted it to their committee of patents. Hunsucker wrote back and said, "I don't think we're interested in this." Later on, he told me, "Boy, how we goofed on that." And I said, "Well, you could have helped me, too." So he said, "Take it and peddle it privately because I'll help you." That's when I took it to Submarine Signal to get money, you see, because had they taken it, I would have gotten help form the Research Company.
I didn't get it. I couldn't get it from the government; couldn't get it from anything. I was criticized later on by the people who didn't know the story about patenting the thing. They thought an academician shouldn't. It was the only way you could get the thing developed. And the patents ultimately paid off a little, but that wasn't the reason. The reason was to get it built. But anyway, I got money, and I'm glad you reminded me, from the Research Corporation. And this ozone spectrometer came over. I was then very fortunate.... Oh, the Weather Bureau then not only gave us the assistance of plotters, but at that time they were sending specially selected Weather Bureau employees for graduate study at the different institutions—MIT, NYU. And I got a couple of students from the Weather Bureau and one was a very, very good student—a good mathematician and just a first rate fellow by the name of Carstinson and you'll see his name on that paper.
Doel:Right. L. Carstinson.
Spilhaus:That's correct. And he took over for his thesis work the measurement of ozone. He did the work in that paper. I just got the instrument.
Doel:There's also a C. Hall who appears as an author of that paper.
Spilhaus:He might have been the other Weather Bureau graduate student. I don't know. That's how we worked, you see. I don't recall him, but Carstinson was really... I couldn't have trained anyone to use that instrument. Couldn't even have set it up.
Doel:He was very skilled, then?
Spilhaus:Well, he learned. He was a graduate, but the instrument arrived, he set it up. We were in correspondence with Dobson himself, who was very pleased and helped us a lot to get the first ozone measurements in the United States.
Doel:There were no other ozone spectrometers then in the U. S. at that time?
Dobson invented this ozone spectrometer, as far as I know. As far as I know, Dobson's instrument was the first instrument to measure ozone in the atmosphere. You ought to check on that. But I may be wrong. Dobson, you know the name, Oxford. I visited him later on during the War. Well, I wonder what ever happened to that ozone spectrometer? Anyway, we measured ozone for a year and published that little paper of the annual fluctuation of ozone and height. It was a very interesting thing, in a way, because it related in a reverse way to the BT and the bending of sound waves. How you measured the height of the ozone was to take two or three measurements a day with different angles of elevation of the sun. And then, do that backwards kind of mathematics that you could tell where the ozone was absorbing from the bending of the ray.
In other words, it would be like a backwards BT using the deflection of sound to measure the mean gradient of the temperature of the ocean. The reverse of what we used it for. And which Munk is working on now, which I urged a long time ago. Now Namais' work being the forecasting from the temperatures in the ocean. Munk is now working on long, long range SONAR bending to try to get mean temperatures in the ocean's storage of heat to help Namais in his forecasting. That kind of forecasting makes a lot of sense. Yes, I think that was the first ozone measurement. And I think that thanks to Reichelderfer's and my closeness, because then I was very close to the Weather Bureau, I believe the Weather Bureau got an ozone spectrometer. I'm not sure of that,or whether we actually loaned our machine to the Weather Bureau. But I do recall later out in Boulder, Colorado, they had ozone measurements. Now we must have stations all over the place. I just haven't followed it. Now even the public is interested in atmospheric ozone!
Doel:I'm wondering who you had contacts with to discuss these problems, the ozone problems. Do you recall who else you would talk to about that?
Spilhaus:I really think on the ozone thing I was a complete loner. I don't think Montgomery or Emmons or anybody was interested. I was an instrument man. As I say, I approached the thing as here is an instrument that measures some new thing in the atmosphere. I don't think I was omniscient enough to see the importance of it. I just thought if you can measure a new thing, it's worthwhile. Which is not a bad philosophy.
Doel:It certainly isn't. Was Reichelderfer interested in that?
Spilhaus:Reichelderfer was one of the fellows who always backed me up. I don't know—he just backed me. If I had an idea, he'd kind of back me. He was the one who proposed me to the State Department to go to South Africa to go to fix up their meteorological services.
Doel:Right after the War?
Spilhaus:Yes. I was sort of a temporary assistant to the Chief of the Weather Bureau. And he just kind of backed me. He must have backed the ozone thing. I don't think they gave us any money for it, probably selected costs.
Doel:Logistic support in a way?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Logistic support for the students they sent.
Doel:Wasn't Viktor Regener in Germany also working on ozone at about that time?
Spilhaus:It's silly for me to say this, but I don't know. I think my contact was by correspondence with my friend Dobson—writing back and forth little troubles, you know, and I think his encouragement. Dobson, even then, was well known and respected and I think his interest probably influenced others—Reichel Derfer and perhaps I was too. Here were two fairly smart guys that think its important. Let's measure it. It's just that simple, I guess. No claim on either Dobson's or my part of how important ozone might become. I'm sure we were just interest in ozone. Oh, the funniest thing on ozone is after we wrote that little paper, I got a letter from.... What was it? Elsworth Huntington of Yale wrote a book called Climate and Cycles or Climate and People. I forget what the book was, but it was sort of relating social things to climatic events.
Doel:He wasn't trained as a meteorologist?
Spilhaus:Elsworth Huntington? I don't believe so. He's sort of a climatologist. But you'd better look up that name. There are big question marks, but he was at Yale. He wrote me a letter (I probably have it in my files) and he said how excited he was about the annual variation of ozone that I'd measured. And he congratulated me. And he was always correlating everything to everything else. I mean, it didn't matter if there was any physical reason for the correlation, he just was interested in correlations of climatic events or natural events with human activity. And he said, "It is fascinating to me because the only annual distribution I know of that has a peak in the spring," and you remember the ozone thing had a peak in the spring, "is the circulation of libraries." And he said, "I believe the ozone increase in the spring must be connected with the increased circulation of libraries." I couldn't write him back and say I believe it's absolute tommyrot, but I did write him back and I said, "I appreciate your kind letter," and all this sort of thing, "but I must point out to you that this ozone concentration that peaks in the spring is 40 kilometers up and I don't understand how it could affect the library circulation." This is absolutely true—I'm sure it's in the files. Elsworth Huntington. Pretty sure.
Doel:Okay. We'll check on that.
Spilhaus:It's a good one. And it's a good lesson for some people still to learn today. Correlating the stock market with all sort of sun spots and stuff. I mean, what absolute rubbish it is. And I can say that categorically. To try to correlate an inherently chaotic system, which is the stock market. It has so many non-linear inputs that feed in that it must be chaotic. So when you talk about a stock market crash, don't get excited, because it's only a chaotic event, but it will go back up. I did that in this recent stock markets crash. I just said, "Don't do anything about it unless you're in the business of trading." Actually the paper price of stock went down. The earnings didn't change at all and they just went up again. So if you just didn't panic, you lost nothing. Of course, if you were a trader, you could win or lose, and I don't understand that kind of thing. But anyway, there are people still who are correlating things without looking for at least a glimmer of a physical reason.
Doel:And he ultimately published this—Elsworth Huntington—this correlation?
Spilhaus:I don't know. I wouldn't be at all surprised. He published the damndest things.
Doel:One thing I'm curious about: during this time Charles Abbot at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was measuring the solar constant. Were you in touch with him at all about the ozone problem and how that might affect it?
Spilhaus:No, no. I wasn't in touch with Abbot, but I was in touch with a man by the name of Helm Clayton. Do you know that name?
Doel:I know the name.
Spilhaus:By golly, you really do know your history, boy. And I'm so impressed with the way you've prepared yourself. Clayton—I've got his book in there. He wrote a great tome which was extremely useful at that time before computerized records and all this—World Weather Records. And Clayton, like Abbot, was interested in weather and climatic changes as influenced by solar events. That was Abbot's. But I don't recall that they considered that the ozone was enough of a factor to worry about. You know, the reduction of the radiation of the sun by increase or decrease of the ozone. And as a matter of fact, as far as the primitive heating and so forth, the ozone layer is not very important. The ozone layer is not important, I believe, as a factor in the Greenhouse Effect. It's the Greenhouse Effect or the stuff we put into the atmosphere that punctures holes in the ozone layer, and it's the cosmic radiation we're worried about. Not the ordinary heating of the sun in the ordinary way. I believe that's the case. So I don't think Abbott and Helm Clayton were too much interested. Clayton worked at Blue Hill at Harvard.
Doel:Well, you knew him before back in 1934 because you had published then numbers on estimative skill in forecasting.
Spilhaus:Did I refer to him there?
Spilhaus:I must have known him then. But we had lots of time. I told you we worked at MIT closely with the people at Blue Hill. I think that was a very simple minded little paper where I just tried to subtract the percentages of success that you get automatically from persistence of weather.
Doel:In the very early 1940s, before you started the war work, you were also involved again in the Gulf Stream, the shear problem.
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Yes. I was involved in that as my own project. I had then developed the bathythermograph. I now wished to demonstrate to oceanographers its use. And so I naturally used my mentor's interest, the eddies, and I tried to show it by making rapid measurements. I could actually delineate an eddy. And I think that that was a paper that very few people paid any attention to. But as far as I'm concerned, it was the first example of semi-synoptic oceanography. Visualizing an eddy—not at one time, we had to get around the thing—but at least as an entity, with rapid measuring instruments. And actually, I think I used a sea sampler, too, which was a companion piece to the BT, and occasionally let it down and it triggered the water bottles and we got salinity every now and then. So I actually got isopycnic lines as well as the isotherms and so forth and found the eddy. I think there's a gross error in that paper of mine in the analysis of the eddy. I think I have it going the wrong way around. But that was not important really, because the important thing was that here was a rapid measuring instrument which could measure an eddy. The only way you could see an eddy other than that was to put up satellites. Now you can see the eddies with the infrared sensing satellites.
Doel:But of course, you couldn't visualize them.
Spilhaus:But I believe in that paper. I had the Gulf Stream going up here and the eddy off Cape Cod going that-a-way.
Doel:I believe that's right.
Spilhaus:And I think that is absolutely wrong and I should have known better. I should have had the thing going up there and the eddy should have gone like that. And of course the observations, it would be easy to redraw the thing either way because the main thing was the spiral core of the eddy. It was where I connected it to the Gulf Stream that was wrong.
Doel:Why do you suppose that others didn't pick up on that when you published it?
Spilhaus:I don't know. The War came along. That was probably very shortly before the War. In fact, I think the paper was published in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Transactions.
Doel:It was published in the '41 issue of AGU.
Spilhaus:Yes. The BT was put under wraps of secrecy soon after—well, right after Pearl Harbor. And the War intervened. Perhaps it was wartime intervention because I would have certainly thought Rossby and company would have seen what I think was my gross error. But nobody picked it up.
Doel:Rossby was starting the department in Chicago.
Spilhaus:Rossby was starting in Chicago and a number of events went in. Another paper of mine which I was surprised wasn't picked upon was when I did that study from the Albatross where I'd made sea sampler measurements and BT measurements throughout a day, diurnal measurements. I analyzed them statistically and found that there was a lunar cycle to the instability—there was a zone of instability during the day. And I must have done it over several days to have some means. But that occurrence of that instability followed lunar time and not solar time. I wondered why. Well, of course—and I think I speculated why, but I wondered why nobody ever picked it up—it was simply that this was on the shelf. And the tidal effect of the deep ocean, coming up the steep slope of the shelf, injected cold water from the bottom into the middle of the warm shelf water. And so that instability was a tidal period. Nobody has ever commented on that paper to my knowledge. And yet, I think it's a quite fascinating thing.
Doel:Because you're talking about gross movements and circulation patterns. When was that paper published?
Spilhaus:I believe it was about the year after the war. Kathy will look it up for you.
Doel:We can check on that later, but it was in the middle or late forties.
Spilhaus:I think it was probably 1946 or 1947. I don't think it was before the War. I was certainly before I went to Minnesota and after the War, so it was '46, '47, '48.
Doel:Okay. That's good to know. Was it also the War that put an end to the ozone work? Did you have an idea to continue that?
What interrupted my work was when I went into uniform. I don't know. I had a sort of feeling—I was pretty young for a professor and I had a sort of feeling I wanted to go into the real part of the War. Of course, they had all kinds of laws then that if you were in a reserved position, you couldn't go into uniform. They had the draft that said you must. And they had exemptions that said you were excused, and they had others who were not allowed to and I was in that category because they thought I was important in the training of the weather people. But I was British. I was still British. Finally in 1942, I said—I'd gotten the school started, it was running, carrying on fine and I said, "Well, now I'm just going to go in." I went first of all into the Signal Corps. And the Air Corps borrowed me immediately and put me out in Grand Rapids because they were starting a school for meteorologists there. I said, "Listen.
I didn't go into uniform to be a professor at Grand Rapids." And so my friends down there took me out and I was made part of the liaison office with the Signal Corps on instrumentation. And that's when I got my wonderful wartime job of going all over the world to the fronts. The purpose being to take the new instruments that we developed—and we developed a lot down there, a lot of meteorological instruments that paid off later on. Radar wind. We developed the targets that we sent up so that the anti-aircraft artillery radars existing could use them to measure winds above the clouds. I introduced that in Iceland. And the reason for introducing it into the field was the Army regulations were such that a thing couldn't go in the field without extensive testing down in Fort Bragg and all over hell. And we were fighting a war. But the one way of getting a thing in immediately was to take it into the field, demonstrate it to the Commanding General, and if you could sell him on it, he would make a theater request for it.
A theater request for anything got absolutely top priority. So we in the Air Force were essentially goosing the Signal Corps and the Army to loosen up its standard practices. And I was the guy who did all of the work taking these new things into the field. And requests would come back to the poor old Signal Corps and they would say, "Spilly must be away again on tour. Rush, rush, rush." And then on the tours, I would bring back other ideas. I brought back from England the idea of spherics. It was spelled S-P-H-E-R-I-C-S. That's what we called it in the United States. It was Watt's and Watt's long range direction finding on thunderstorms. The electrical flash of the storm was recorded by stations hundreds of miles apart. These were extremely important in those days because it was the only way in the Pacific, over vast expanses, largely enemy held, that you could get any idea of the kind of weather by just detecting thunderstorm flashes. So I brought spherics back into this country, dashed out to the Pacific. And then asked Admiral Halsey and a few other characters out there to make a theater request. Back it came and we had spherics. I introduced spherics into China after the bombing of Japan.
Doel:Right. You were along the enemy lines?
Spilhaus:Actually, the spherics sets were put in in the losing part of China, Chiang's China. I was on the winning side, Mao Tse-Tung. The thing I did up there was not anything as fancy as spherics, just ordinary weather observation, but from Shantung Peninsula, as close as we could get to Tokyo to radio Guam for bombing of Tokyo.
Doel:I know some of that is covered very well in the interview you did with Peter Jessup. One thing I'm curious about though, did you also talk about weather modification during the time that you were in the service on these projects? Did that come up then?
Spilhaus:I'm not sure when I first got into weather modification. I had talked about it and everybody thought that Spilly had gone off crazy again—weather modification. But when I got into that is when I got back from China just in time for Christmas in 1945. War ended in August or something, but I was sent over to Switzerland on Project Paperclip to get scientists to come here. So I only got home before Christmas in 1945, months after the War had ended. I found waiting for me, a letter from Vannevar Bush, who was the head of NDRC. And Vannevar Bush, of course again, an old professor from MIT.
Doel:Did you know him from MIT days?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. He was the Vice President or something at MIT. Even students knew vice president in those days. I'd known him not as closely as I'd known Hunsacker, but Bush was electrical engineering. But he knew me from NDRC and from my work on the BT and MIT and so forth. And he wrote me and told me that a man that he respected at RCA named Zworykin had written him a letter about the possibility of controlling the weather, which would be not only a very important tool in wartime, but a very important thing to do in peacetime. And he said, "I did not know which meteorologist." He said, "I only know one meteorologist that is broad minded enough to entertain such a project." This was perfectly true. Meteorologists absolutely pooh-poohed controlling the weather. Langley with GE was later on interested.
Doel:Right. But he was not involved by then, was he?
Spilhaus:He was not involved in Zworykin's thing. Langley may have been working on it. I don't know. I'm not sure. Vincent Schaffer and Langley were working together. Vincent Schaffer is still alive, I think. Anyway. No. Let's just talk of Zworykin. And Vannevar Bush said, "You're the only one broad-minded enough." He said, "I want you. When you get back, get in touch with Zworykin." And he said, "I've also asked Dr. Johnny von Neumann to join in on the discussions at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton." So I had relations with Princeton then because when I got back my civilian job was Director of Research at New York University. And I had cooked up a project involving Professor Courant's mathematics group and Princeton people called Project Squid. I forget what it was all about. And this brought me, through Courant and Vannevar Bush, into contact with Johnny von Neumann, which was the most wonderful meeting—again, the most wonderful man. Zworykin, too, was a wild genius.
Doel:What kind of background did Zworykin have?
Spilhaus:I have no idea. Easily you can look him up. But I mean an inventor par excellence, a man who.... Nobody tossed away even a crazy idea he put out. And the three of us got together at Princeton. RCA`s lab was just outside of Princeton. And Zworykin proposed his control of weather. And then Johnny was the outsider in this thing. We were the two in the weather business. Johnny was not in the weather business. Johnny turned to me and he said, "What do you think, Professor Spilhaus, about the control of weather?" I said, "It doesn't surprise me at all. Zworykin's proposal has been perfectly sensible. It may be an extreme extrapolation, when you talk about controlling global weather. But," I said, "man has been controlling weather for years—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes on purpose." And he said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, Paris has its own private little thunderstorm in the summer because Paris is so paved over and it's a preferred point of convection."
Doel:A heat island.
A heat island. I said, "In South Africa when I was a boy, we used to burn the grass in the early spring in patches, not all over." I said, "I don't think the primitive farmers knew the physics of it, but what they were doing was making on the high plateau where the sun beat down, preferred points of convection so that the thunderstorms, which would naturally occur at random, would occur over their patches." I said, "That's control of weather." Winophiles, or whatever they call them—my father was one. He'd sniff at a bottle of wine and he would—I don't know; I can't say of my good old father that he pretended—but he'd say, "This was grown on the wrong side of the hill, north side of the hill, not enough sunshine." Well, it is true that the south side of the hill in France.
Uh, that's not weather control, but it is taking advantage of weather knowledge. I said, "The French men went on to building walls facing south and that let to the espalier trees that grow along hot brick walls and ripens the fruit." All weather control. I said, "The smog problem in Los Angeles," which was then a terrible thing, "this is an example of man-made weather control." I said, "I think this thing is well worth exploring." Zworykin beamed. I always like exciting projects. I think my idea has always been that the quality of a new idea should not really be judged by its practicality.
This is a crass materialistic thing that's unfortunately used and they kill a lot of good ideas. We weren't worrying about the practicalities. Neither was von Neumann, but he said—he said the wisest thing and endeared me to him and we became very close friends. He said, "Good. We think it worthwhile to explore ways to control the weather. But, gentlemen, how do we know if you've been successful?" What a simple question! How do we know if you've been successful? How do we know that that weather wouldn't have taken place anyway unless we can forecast successfully. I mean a sage, simple remark. And he said, "I've been working these computers in Princeton. I think we must divide up Zworykin's proposal into two parts—the prediction of weather...."
Doel:The numerical forecasting.
Spilhaus:Numerical forecasting of weather, which von Neumann started, absolutely. He and I were in the very beginning. Now we carried on by Smagorinsky and people at Princeton. Nobody remembers the origin of all this. I kind of regret the monster I unleashed at the taxpayers' expense. But anyway, we then worked on—oh, I didn't work, I just chatted very often off and on with von Neumann, visited him at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Doel:You weren't formally connected to that project?
I was not formally. No. I was Director of Research at New York University, but I was frequently in Princeton because of mutual interest in Project Squid which was a totally different department. But I'd visit them often. And he was then busy on it and he did the work, of course, on all of that, on the prediction of weather by numerical process, which was after all, simply computerizing one of my absolute hero's work in meteorology, L. F. Richardson. L. F. Richardson, a Quaker who'd written a marvelous book, Numerical Weather Process, way before his time. And he concluded in his book that the whole thing was completely feasible. A conclusion I don't agree with now because I don't believe the basis of dynamics of that sort is correct.
But nevertheless, if you believe in that, this was completely feasible, but you would need 5,000 people working six months to do the computations to predict for the next few days, and that made it rather impractical. Nevertheless—this is what illustrates my thing that the practicality is not important—Richardson's germ of the idea of numerical forecasting was exactly what von Neumann picked up, and with computers, we could get the 5,000/6 month period down to a feasible thing and it's where the computers came into weather forecasting. It's just that simple a story. Now, you asked further about weather control.
Langmuir was then working at GE on seeding clouds with potassium iodide or other crystals. GE kind of put a hiatus on it because everybody, the Weather Bureau included, was putting a hiatus on weather control, either pooh-poohing it—the stimulation of rainfall—or the industrial people saying, "Look, we're going to be liable for all kinds of suits." So that weather control, apart from people like Krick who were doing it out in the west and various others were doing it and getting away with it—and some people believe in it, subscribe to the Krick service. Most meteorologists thought it was sort of phony. But the point is, you couldn't tell because they hadn't read von Neumann—How do you know? How do you know? I got into the thing through the back door.
I simply was interested from my wartime experience with radar. We'd had during the War troubles of getting aircraft signatures through intense rain, or rain with a different intensity, and through clouds. But it was rain that particularly was bad. We had discussions at that time—I forget who I discussed with—but we said, "All right, let's turn the thing around," just like turning the BT around. My mind works that way. Why don't we use radar to measure the intensity of rain? And I think my discussions were mainly with English people, British meteorologists. Well, I began to know enough about radar to know that in order to really measure intensity, you have to know the size and shape of rain drops. And so I did a simple, little theoretical study which was one of the things I'm really most proud of although it's so darned simple. It's called—you'll find it in there—"The Size and Falling Speed of Raindrops." It's a beautiful little thing. It was simply taken from my aerodynamic days. What have you got? You've go a chunk of rain, a drop of rain.
It essentially has a skin on it; that's surface tension skin. As it drops, aerodynamic forces—the air is forced around it. You get suction on the sides which pull it out. It becomes hamburger shaped. It does not drop like a tear drop; it drops like a hamburger. And ultimately, if it grows big enough, the surface tension forces pull it apart so that there is a maximum size for raindrops. This was one of the first studies. I just did it theoretically. I got some rainfall statistics and put a little observational data in there, but it was just a beautiful, theoretical study. GE had people, and this was probably Langmuir's influence.
GE put some of their people on—as I say, it must have been through Langmuir's influence—to actually photograph falling raindrops. And sure enough, after my paper, they had the first pictures of raindrops falling like hamburgers. So I gave a little paper shortly after War at the American Meteorological Society meeting in New York. I don't know which year. I was on after Langmuir. And Langmuir was talking about flying above the clouds and seeding them and causing the formation of rain. Perfectly sound physical principle of weather control. Absolutely sound. We know that for the condensation to start, we need a certain number of nuclei in the atmosphere. Well, if you artificially increase the number of nuclei, granted the condition is almost ready to rain anyway, you can cause it to rain over a certain spot instead of over the next spot.
I think Langmuir's this was absolutely sound. And it backed up what Zworykin and I had said about weather control in a minor way. My paper came after his on the size and falling speed of raindrops. And I point out toward the end of paper that there's a maximum size where the surface tension of pure rain water is insufficient and the drop of that size breaks apart in smaller droplets. And so, you don't get the intensity of rain that you would get if the drops could grow indefinitely. I said, "Professor Langmuir's paper has given me a thought that not only can we stimulate rain, but we can inhibit rain." I said, "I can imagine Professor Langmuir flying above the clouds in his little plane,seeding them, causing the raindrops to coalesce; and I will fly below, and I'll throw out detergent, a surface tension reducing agent." I said, "If you reduce the surface tension in these equations, the maximum drop size becomes very small." Ha, ha, ha. It's the marvelous juxtaposition of two things. And fortuitous, I think.
Doel:How did other meteorologists react to these ideas that you and Langmuir were developing? You mentioned the Weather Bureau was very conservative and worried about litigation.
Yes, I'll sort of go off-the-record on this. I don't want to insult my meteorologist friends. But I'll leave it on-the-record; we can expunge it. Frankly, the jobs in meteorology were few for true atmospheric physicists. And many, mostly in the government and airlines, were what I called "weather jokers," the guys who think they can predict. These guys, at least in those days, were not aware enough about the exciting things of atmospheric physics and science to really think one way or another. I think that if they thought of these things at all, they thought of them as perhaps a threat to their business or something like that. The Weather Bureau was definitely against any weather control experiments. The Weather Bureau then was against private meteorology. They'd rip out the guy's teletype connection. Because, you know, you got your thing by teletype and you had to be licensed by the Weather Bureau to have a teletype connection. And they were protecting themselves, as indeed they still are today.
Protecting the jobs of this large corps of weather forecasters. The strange thing is that within the last few year, I've been on a committee on NOAA which was called a very good little committee in which we went into the privatization of weather forecasting. Should the government be spending these tons of money, taxpayers' money, to supply the television and media with forecasts when the television and media spend so much money, and can afford to spend so much money on the presentation and so forth? Why can't they take over the forecasting of weather for the ordinary—privatize the thing—for the ordinary consumer? It's a very good question. Granted the government must retain the observational system and a certain amount of forecasting to meet its treaty obligations and navigations in both air and sea and so forth. This was a question we discussed and we, this little committee, recommended during John Byrne's time in NOAA, that lots of the expense, federal expense of the weather system, could be taken over very easily by the TV and the media. Well, this was the thing that the Weather Bureau was fighting way back then and is still fighting today.
Doel:Well, I know you helped write the report in 1953, "Weather is the Nation's Business." You were addressing those same issues of what role the Weather Bureau would have.
Spilhaus:Yes. And I think the flavor of "Weather is the Nation's Business" was in allowing the privatization to the largest extent possible.
Doel:That was one of the recommendations in the report. Yes.
Spilhaus:Yes. And I still believe that.
Doel:Do you remember the reactions of Weather Bureau officials to the report?
Spilhaus:Yes, not favorable.
Doel:You were also recommending that the research staff, Reichelderfer and Wexler, be given more funds, and emphasized that that was such a small part of the Weather Bureau's budget.
Spilhaus:Yes. If I recall correctly—but you've read it more recently than I—if I recall correctly, we thought we could save funds by allowing the privatization and thereby put more funds into research, which was perfectly fine with me. I wish we could do that now in NOAA. Get them to privatize the forecasting and let these great seventh generation computers, which are doing nothing but giving bum five-day forecasts, be used for research. I thoroughly approve of Smagorinsky's group in Princeton and these kind of people. So there's a sort of consistency.
Doel:While we're talking about this, I'm curious about how people in the Weather Bureau after the War felt about the possibility of such research. Did Harry Wexler feel very much constrained by the limited funds that the Weather Bureau had after the War?
Spilhaus:No. I don't think so. I think Harry as very happy doing his work. He was a fellow who was bound up in his work. I think everybody in government is saying, "I could do more if I got more funds." I'm not ever sure that that's correct. I sometimes think that being a little spare gives people a little more time to think and refine their ideas before they spend a lot of funds. I believed that when I was administering a university. But, on the other hand, I really believe in oats to the winning horse. I don't happen to think forecasting is a winning horse. I do think atmospheric research is a winning horse.
Doel:That's interesting. It comes to mind that one of the recommendations in that 1953 report was establishing a national climatological laboratory, that there really had not been a center for research and climatology, a national center.
Spilhaus:That's correct. And that led to—after the Wakelin Committee, which I was on later, formed NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) or perhaps even before when ESA was formed—it led to the establishment of the Weather Bureau's Asheville Center, which was a climatic data center at least. It led to a great expansion within ESA, and then in NOAA, of the climatic data thing that that handicapped friend of mine, very good fellow, was head of at NOAA. Well, it doesn't matter, his name.
Doel:We can put that on later.
Spilhaus:He's a very fine fellow and he's retired now. He built up the climatic record. And I was always for the climatic records because in "Weather is the Nation's Business" I think we tried to emphasize that much of the nation's business would be wiser to look at climatological probabilities rather than doubtful forecasts. And funnily enough, in the British publication, Weather, there's an article right along those lines in the latest issue.
Doel:Is there really? How did you get on the 1953 committee?
Doel:That led to "Weather is the Nation's Business"? I was curious how you were appointed to it.
Spilhaus:Was it an Academy idea or what was it—I forget.
Doel:I don't believe it was an Academy, I'd have to check. I was just wondering if you recall any striking details about that.
Spilhaus:I can honestly tell you, and it sounds self-serving, that I think I was asked to be on every damned committee that had anything to do with anything in those days, and if it was interesting, I went on it. But I forget who sponsored that report. Easy enough to look up.
Doel:That report also stressed that the climatological program had fallen a great deal within the Weather Bureau.
Yes. Fortunately, that report did do something to strengthen it again. Those of us who were doubters about the emphasis on forecasting, felt that as far as weather being a business interest of the United States, the bucks would pay off far more by being put into climatology than by being put into the ordinary day-by-day forecasting. Now, later on, when I was Special Assistant to Bob White in NOAA, I came up with a thing that kind of shook the weather jokers to their foundations in NOAA; it reverted back to the old idea. It was in a meeting. I said, "You know, if you look at the climatic maps of the world, you'll find that the weather jokers not only confine themselves to," (this was a little extreme statement, but you do make these things when you want to make a point), "not only confine themselves to weather and neglect the fact that the ocean's interaction is so very important...." So that even in NOAA, the interaction between oceanographers and meteorologists, which we who formed NOAA, or recommended the formation of NOAA, had hoped for, doesn't exist and it doesn't to this day.
The interaction is only the common basis of hydrodynamics. And I have always considered, this is parenthetical, I have always considered that on the Wakelin Committee that recommended the establishment of NOAA, I made a mistake. I was for the combination of the oceans and the atmospheres in one agency because I went back to my idea that the scientific foundation of both are so interrelated. What I didn't realize, that I have fancied was a mistake of mine, was that in government, the thing is it's not the scientific basis that makes the thing work, it's something else, it's a political and practical thing. And the fact is that the real great difference between weather as a governmental concern and oceanography as a governmental concern, is that the oceans have great resources, products, value from an real point of view and you don't eat songbirds.
Weather's salable value is solely—apart from picnics and things and the construction business which should be climatic—is solely flying. So that looking back, I believe we should have recommended the weather business go into the Department of Transport and forget about giving information to farmers and to construction engineers. Let that be privatized, which is consistent with the other idea. And discharge our obligations, treaty obligations and whatever, and obligation involving life and limb of American citizens—that's the government's concern properly—but that should be in the Department of Transport. To me it's utterly logical.
Doel:There's a different constituency then.
Yes, exactly. And actually this difference in constituency worked against NOAA's efforts in oceanography. If a tornado blasts down a few houses in Kansas, you get a hell of an uproar in Congress and they've got all kinds of money for the weather jokers. We don't get cataclysmic events in oceanography except oil spills, in which case they come down hard on the poor old oil companies. So we don't have these disastrous scare things to raise Congress in its infinite ignorance to act in the right direction. I was one of those who proposed to protect the endangered sea mammals. We got that into Congress and Congress barely knew what a sea mammal was.
If they did, they didn't want to bother between the distinctions of those that are prolific and those that are really and truly endangered. The whales—they exempt the bowhead whale and make us a laughing stock in the national community. And they write the Act of Protection of all sea mammals. Consequently, Bob White (and even though I was his advisor and great friend, I criticized him like hell to his face for this) started over-protecting porpoises. I don't say you shouldn't protect porpoises, but whereas the Japanese eat porpoises and porpoises are not indeed endangered in the seas (we should be eating them too), we should limit the catch by accident that the tuna fishermen take and we certainly shouldn't waste those porpoises, we should eat them.
I proposed that to Bob White. He said, "Government policy: that Act is for the protection of sea mammals." I said, "But you're making all your scientists tell lies. Your scientists, privately, will tell you porpoises are not endangered." I said, "the great administrator interprets them and he has wide latitude in the interpretation. He interprets them either strictly or intelligently." And Bob and I had a thing. He was not entirely wrong, and I was not entirely right so, now their coming down to a sane thing about the release of porpoise protection devices and so forth. How did I get off onto that Act, I wonder?
Doel:We were talking about NOAA.
Yes, well. You see, the point is the weather thing interfered rather with the support of the ocean thing. I'm now sure that I should have held out for what I wanted and that was what we used to call a wet NASA. A SEA-a Sea Engineering Agency. Government shouldn't be in oceanographic research, really. The universities are really so much better equipped to do that. But where research comes to prototype and large engineering size in geophysics, one then needs government agencies. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is such an organization. It's an engineering organization which, quite properly, takes the research from many universities and sticks them in their things and does a thing. It's fortunate they have outfits like JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the industrial contractors that do the things.
NASA's pretty good, pretty good job, pretty well set up. We ought to have a sea engineering agency like that. And if I can just go on drivelling while it occurs to me, I'm now involved in an immense project which I have been pushing for years. That is what I call the inevitable colonization of the oceans. Bush is talking about colonizing the moon and we haven't even colonized three-quarters of the Earth. And the thing that happens to be psychologically important at this time because you heard on the news yesterday about the problems of renewing our leases of military support bases in the Philippines and foreign countries.
You don't need military support bases in foreign countries if you can build floating islands on which any jet can land or which naval ships can come into, Army support can go in, and which can also be private enterprise free ports. I emphasize that again because I know that the public, nobody is going to stand the immense expense of these multi-million dollar structures unless there's private enterprise backing for it. I'm a practical man to that extent. And this is a thing I'm pushing with some success. I've got tremendous support from the Navy and some of my friends have approached Trump. How would you like to have real estate that's not taxable? Free port? I gave a speech in which I referred to having recreational facilities. If you've got a multi-base, you've got to have somewhere for the fellows to go. I said, "Let's have Disney Seas instead of Disneylands." And all these wonderful oceanographic projects like OTEC which is thoroughly impractical if you have to build its own platform, but which becomes thoroughly practical if it becomes one of a multiple purpose structure which works synergistically together, you see.
Doel:That's very interesting.
Spilhaus:Even right up unto today, I'm following my same lines. Now this colonization of the sea, I guess I proposed that in 1960 and I've been hammering on it ever since, but it's now maybe fruitful. These are the fun ideas. And that's why I said earlier I'm not really much of a scientist, a geophysicist, I'm maybe a very large-scale geophysical engineer.
Doel:That's an interesting way to put it.
Spilhaus:I mean, I think in geophysics and try to put it to work for people.
Doel:In fact, I wanted to get back a little later to talk about the competition between NASA and oceanography when federal funds for that work began to expand. But there are a few things I wanted to cover yet from the late 1940s. At the end of the Second World War, were you involved in and aware of any of the research programs aimed just at the upper atmosphere, such as Fred Whipple's investigations by use of meteors of the density of the upper atmosphere?
Spilhaus:Yes, I was aware of that. We used to call it observation of the atmosphere by remote sensing; that was the later term we used. But when you come to think of it, my ozone measurements were exactly that. And I was always interested in the idea of not having to send instruments into the thing. In fact, I once made up kind of a poetic term about remote sensing. I said, "We wave," I meant send waves, "we wave at the atmosphere and it waves back." I mean that's a nice way of putting that remote sensing which, of course, is an ideal way to do it. And the BT and the sound waves, that remote sensing. The beauty about remote sensing in a complicated stratified medium is that it very often inherently gives you an integration, which is what you want anyway. And if you make a lot of spot measurements, you've got to go through a lot of trouble to make an integration.
Doel:Do you recall how Whipple's work was received by meteorologists who were interested in the upper atmosphere? Of course, there were other upper atmospheric measurements being done by the people connected with the B-2 project firings in White Sands.
Spilhaus:I wasn't close enough to it. I couldn't comment on that.
Doel:Okay, fine. I was wondering, just in general terms, how strongly you felt the military's interest in ceratin parts of meteorology affected the way the field developed after the Second World War?
Spilhaus:I think I would say categorically that the principle military influence on meteorology was the rapid development of observational means and devices and, of course, the general great development in communications right after World War II. After all, radiosondes, radar wind, all of these things, wartime necessity pushed them in. The Weather Bureau would never have afforded or really gone ahead and done those things. The Weather Bureau has always been a follower in instrumentation, not a leader.
Doel:Do you feel that's also the case for the Weather Bureaus of other nations or do you feel that that's been uniquely an American situation?
My judgement would be that... and this is also from wartime experience where part of my job was to see what the British and our allies were doing and bring it back. In fact, my job was even sometimes a great danger to go into the first waves, capture a German meteorological station, see what the Germans were doing and bring it back. My impression was that the British were, in their meteorological service, which was, of course, integrated then with the military. We had our old Weather Bureau on one side. And of course, a lot of Weather Bureau people went into uniform; that was great. But we had our separate military meteorological establishments. In Britain, the meteorological business was—Captain Star, for instance, he was a Captain in the Royal Navy. We had Orville and Meriweather and the Army fellows.
General Zimmerman, very smart guy. We had very clever people, but they didn't stay in weather after the War. Whereas, these other countries had professional weathermen who went into uniform and then stayed in. My impression is that because of the differences of the set-up, and I'm not saying for the difference of the quality of the people, that the British were pretty imaginative, started a lot of things. They had ASDIC pretty well developed right at the beginning of the War. We had SONAR pretty primitive. It was the British that grabbed onto my BT, when I drew it to their attention, and first ordered them. It was from the British that I got spherics. Now none of these things are very big in single things, but taken together, it showed the kind of imaginativeness.
I don't recall a device having been developed by the Weather Bureau—and maybe it's just my ignorance or lack of contact with the modern field—that was developed by the Weather Bureau for its own use. Refined, perhaps, or adapted, but I don't recall developed. Radar, which is used extensively by the weather services and the remote sensing of this great fellow, Little, out in Colorado. (It was about him that I said he waves to the upper atmosphere and it waves back. I have great respect for his work.) But those were adaptations taken from others. The point perhaps being again the fact that we didn't have a good balance, and perhaps don't have a good balance, in our weather services of atmospheric physicists compared to the kind of practical side of the thing which gets all the money. I think perhaps that's the difference.
Doel:One of the interesting projects you were working on after the Second World War, when you were back in South Africa, was the constant altitude ballooning project.
Spilhaus:Yes. It was—my South African visit had nothing to do with that.
Doel:Well, that's good to know.
No. It had nothing to do with the constant altitude of balloons. My work on the constant altitude of balloons, which was really the first work done in the United States (when I say my work, I'm really not—it shouldn't be that way). I was Director of Research at New York University. I had these very close contacts with the military through my military service. I automatically became sort of Chairman of the Geophysics Committee of the Research and Development Board of the Defense. I was in the ideal position to bring these kind of projects. The constant level balloon, again, came out of the military. The Japanese had firebombed the Oregon forest with balloons from Japan. That was psychological scare thing that didn't do heck of a lot of damage, but as a psychological weapon, it was pretty effective. People wee pretty scared about getting their forests burned down. So after the War, at New York University, I put together a team on contract with the Air Force, Cambridge Research Laboratories, to fly balloons across the Atlantic. We were going to fly them from where we were on the east coast and we'd fly them across the Atlantic. That had an advantage that people might be scared of flying balloons, it was quite unnatural.
People were even scared when we first sent up radiosondes. And there was a law at one time that you had to put a parachute on the radiosonde instrument so it wouldn't come down and clunk a guy on the head. The military actually put parachutes on. I thought (I'm digressing again, but you can sort it out), I thought and said at that time when I was military liaison officer—I said, "do you realize what these parachutes are costing the war effort?" I said, "I've worked out the statistical probability of one of these hitting anybody who'd sue the government. We could pay them off a thousand times and save on putting these parachutes on." I think my advice was accepted and they quietly dropped the parachutes without telling anybody. But these scare things are silly, you know. Of course, before radiosonde, in the olden days when we sent up a meteorgraph and had to get back its little record like the BT, they were on parachutes, the balloons. And then you had to wait until somebody found it; it had a card attached to send it in. But the idea of somebody being hit by a meteorgraph falling down is sort of ridiculous. I digressed. Where were we?
Doel:We were talking about the research work you were doing at NYU.
Spilhaus:Oh, the constant level balloon. So under this contract with the Cambridge Research people, I got a chap by the name of Moore. Moore had worked with Vincent Schaffer. Charlie Moore. He's still working; I heard about him recently. And he was a go-getter. And we put together this constant level balloon with an automatic ballasting thing. And we actually flew one from the east coast that landed in Norway. Well, we'd just accomplished a little more than what the Japanese had done. And this led ultimately to—and I was not involved in the ramifications of it later on. While that balloon work went on, I was then appointed dean at Minnesota. And the Air Force's General Mills then set up a balloon group and I brought Charlie Moore and my whole gang out to General Mills.
Doel:That would become quite a center out there.
Spilhaus:They just followed me. Yes, it became quite a center. And it had an impact. My great friend and a fellow I admire greatly in physics, Ed Nye, at Minnesota—a great experimenter. He, of course, wanted to hang his things on Charlie's balloons. And he was flying balloons all over the place. And I'm sure Ed did some very good work which physicists would know better than I. But I've been with Ed, Ed and I, to the middle of the Sahara on an eclipse expedition and so forth. So the balloon business kind of followed me. And then it led to—I'm not sure how it got out of just our little family thing in the United States, but perhaps NCAR.... Oh, NCAR, yes, because later on, like the satellites, everybody wanted to hang instruments, their own experiments, on the balloons. NCAR decided to have a balloon flying facility. They'd also decided that because meteorologists wanted a lot of airplanes and you couldn't supply an airplane to each experiment, they'd have a pool of airplanes. I think they had a pool of balloons; I'm not sure on that. And I believe that led to the GHOST (Global High Observation Stratosphere) experiment.
Doel:I'm not familiar with that.
Spilhaus:I think GHOST—I think they were flying constant level balloons from New Zealand or Australia and trying to encircle the globe with instruments on them. And I believe they did it in the souther hemisphere because again they were, I think—although not as silly as the parachute and the radioson—they were worried about air traffic running into these constant level balloons in the northern hemisphere. GHOST started in the southern hemisphere. What happened to the GHOST project, I can't tell you. But you could look it up. That's the way the constant level balloon business went. I don't know where it is today. What are they doing today? Do you know?
Doel:I'm not certain.
Spilhaus:It was an exciting thing if you go back to the dynamical and mathematical point of view. If you have instruments in a thing which travels with a parcel of air, you're working on a Lagrangian system of mathematics, not on an Fulariam system. And I guess Lagrangian systems are probably used today in the weather forecasting analysis. But to use observations from a Lagrangian system is a very different method of analytical analysis because you've got the trajectories, you know. Not spot observations, but trajectories. It has some great advantages, some great advantages. I don't know where it's gone.
Doel:I'm not certain of that either. One other thing, both after the Second World War and the 1950s, did the government funding greatly help any oceanographic or geophysical work at the Coast and Geodetic Survey? Were there any plans for them to expand into such studies that you are aware of?
Spilhaus:Government funding, and I claim a little bit of credit for this, I believe that the advent of the BT kept an awful lot of people employed, both at Scripps and at Wood's Hole, not only in preparing charts of mean BT conditions so that even if they didn't have BT records or somehow a destroyer could tell when it was in danger-prone waters. And a lot of people did this analysis. I was in the war so I didn't know what was going on at Scripps and Wood's Hole. And this brought in vast amounts of government funding. And this government funding then, as with everything, continued—like the funding of the radiation lab at MIT, continued funding of the Draper Lab and everything. And I think unquestionably, if you're speaking about oceanography, that initiation of government funding at Wood's Hole and Scripps had a profound effect of the stimulation of the amount of work that could go on at those two institutions and was responsible for their immense growth and the springing up of others.
Doel:I'm curious. It was in 1949 that the National Academy after Frank Jewett had pressed, planned for another oceanographic review panel similar to the Bigelow report panel. Do you know how that came about and what was sought at that time?
Doel:1949 was when Frank Jewett had organized the second panel.
Spilhaus:I don't recall that one.
Doel:You were involved in the third one which came later.
Spilhaus:I was involved in NASCO. 1949 was the year that I moved to Minnesota. I was heavily involved at that time—quite apart from my new duties at Minnesota—in 1951 I was director of the first military atomic bomb tests. I guess that's one committee that I didn't serve on. And I don't know the report. What was the outcome of the report?
Doel:It was a call for added facilities in oceanography. I'm not certain what effect it actually had.
Well, of course, what happened shortly after 1949 was that we had the demise or—no, no. We had the idea of the Naval Research Lab, which is a very excellent government lab. And the Air Force had begun to set up its Air Force Cambridge Research Lab. I served on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. Von Kármán and Jimmy Doolittle and these characters were on it. What I'm trying to say is that the Naval Research Lab supplied Waterman, and the government became convinced that there should be a National Science Foundation.
And so the basic research which ONR had supported so wonderfully in the Scripps and Wood's Hole continued to be supported by ONR, but the National Science Foundation took over much of the basic work. And Waterman, who'd been the leader of ONR, became that. I went on the board of the National Science Foundation in 1966. But those things were happening so that if this is still an extension of how much government funding affected it, the military experience, which was the first time in which civilian scientists were heavily organized in the war effort. That was so successful, which you've seen, that it was continued and led, I think, to these very good steps—the National Science Foundation and other things. Some bad things took place, too. Later on, the National Science Foundation in its initial stages supported pure science. That was its function.
The military was very good at supporting applied science. The military had by its very nature, to point out to its practical generals and admirals, the application of the thing. It was amazing that ONR was so successful for many years in supporting absolutely pure science. The Air Force, too—well the Navy, I think, supported Rhine. The fellow who did mind reading with cards, Bert Rhine of Duke University. The idea of supporting that was to have at least the glimmerings of a way to communicate with a submarine that was submerged, a submarine that was otherwise completely out of communication. I thought it was rather far-sighted to go to these extents for the military. However, these things were taken over from the military and quite properly put in NSF. However, then a dreadful thing happened. A fellow by the name of Mansfield—he may have been very good at other things, but we got the Mansfield Amendment. And the Mansfield Amendment limited the military from doing anything that wasn't of direct military application. By that time, I think I was on the board of NSF.
I was incensed, having been a military guy and seeing how my little theoretical study on the shape of raindrops had enabled us to measure rain intensity from radar, which I had never envisaged. How can you possibly tell? And I remember beating my fist on the table up on the Hill saying, "Gentlemen, anything...." First of all, anything we find out, as was said long ago by Mr. Faraday to Disraeli when he asked what use his fiddling around with electricity was, he said, "Someday you'll tax it." I said, "Anything research finds out is going to ultimately be useful." I learned that from my grandfather, Sir Thomas Muir, who wrote tremendous treatises on determinants. I said, "What use are they?" He said, "I don't know, but someday they'll be of use." Well, in very few years we wouldn't have had any switching gear in the telephone company if it hadn't been for determinants and matrices. I mean, here was a man saying we must know where we're going before we investigate the unknown; we must already know before we investigate the unknown.
A ridiculous thing. I was also a firm believer that applied research only flourishes in an atmosphere of friendship and close collaboration of pure research. I've learned that from my Minnesota connection and running an engineering school and the basic science; together the pay-offs were tremendous. This was a great step backward. NSF then got into the kind of engineering things. The Air Force as chided for its support of Arecibo, the great radio astronomy antenna in Puerto Rico and I think that had to be turned over to NSF. Many things like that which were very expensive were turned over to NSF. NSF then couldn't afford these huge engineering things. So its basic mission—which only it could do and we were all thoroughly for—the support of pure science, was eroded by the Mansfield Amendment.
Doel:Put into direct competition for funding?
Doel:Some people have argued that in practical terms the military was able in many instances to support pure research by calling it other things.
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. We used to cheat all the way through. Oh, absolutely. And I did it when I was Dean. I mean a good dean who raises money for his institute has to be a wonderful dissembler—I want to say liar or cheat—but dissembler. He has to play the game. And having been in the origins of the space program, as soon as I got back to my institute of technology, I said to all these fellows who'd put in proposals for very esoteric research, "Look," I said, "call it space science and I'll get if funded for you." It doesn't matter what it is because there is no such thing as space science. Space is a locality. There's no such thing as Antarctic science, or Arctic science. Even oceanography is not a discipline; it's a place. I said, "Any scientific project that you want, just for the moment, call it space science because that's where the money is." Oh, we cheated all the way through that. Any smart guy did that. Later on, they used to call everything ecology. It makes me laugh. But it was all done in a good cause. And my professors were so delighted, you know, when just by putting in the space science thing, they got a project that had been turned down before. Of course, it's also a commentary on the idiocy of some government practices.
Doel:It's probably as good a time as any to talk about your going to Minnesota but let me ask first: is there anything you're recalling from the time you were Director of Research at NYU that we haven't talked about that you wanted to mention?
I don't think so. We've talked about the constant balloon thing. Another big project which I was very interested in was a project sponsored by the Veteran's Administration for the improvement of artificial limbs—all the people who had lost legs in the War. And we had a big prosthetic laboratory with walking platforms and things. And this, I think, led to much of the very clever research IBM and all kinds of people did on very ingenious prostheses. That was one of the other interesting projects there.
No. I can only say that I did not enjoy being Director of Research. The same dean who'd backed me in meteorology and made me Director of Research when I came back from the War and was a big backer of mine, demanded reports on these things. Some of the things were extremely sensitive and he wasn't cleared. He was a little bit upset when I told him, "You know, I honestly can't write reports," other than put in the titles on certain of the things because they were still under security. And I didn't like it.
I like to do things; I'm not very keen on writing reports. So while the research thing was immensely successful, when I became a dean myself, I remember my experience. I was able, because of the funding I got from the military and others, to hire the very best professors for the summers and so forth, and during the year, and take them away from their duties to the students. It was more rewarding to them to be working for the research director. Well, I was a very strong research director. I did all kinds of things that they should have stopped me doing in order to get the best people on my team then these good scientists were taken from the students. I vowed when I got to Minnesota that when I was dean, I would not have a research director. That research, that belonged in the university, must be an integral part of the teaching and public service functions. The public service function was also being integrated with the teaching. And so I learned from my own job.
Doel:How did that offer come about for you to go to Minnesota?
Very strangely. I'm trying to get the timing of it. I think it was early in 1948, perhaps in the winter, February or so, that a very fine man I got to know and like very much, Dr. Henry Hartig, Head of the Electrical Engineering Department at Minnesota was dispatched by Lew Morrill, the President, to talk to me about the possibility of becoming Dean at Minnesota. How they found my name, I have no idea, except I have a kind of an inkling—Johnny Williams, a physicist who had a small linear accelerator down the river in Minnesota. Johnny Williams had been in atomic bomb work during the War and later on many things. And he knew me very well.
He was part of the five-man committee that Minnesota had appointed from the faculty for the search for a dean. I suspect Johnny might have been the one who knew of my work and put in my name. I'm guessing; I never asked anybody because I did not know the others. The other on the committee were Hartig, Head of Electrical Engineering, who was the one who came to visit me, but I'd never met him before; Straub, whom I did know. Straub was a very, very well known hydraulic engineer, ran the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory through which the whole of the Mississippi ran. Straub I did know, and Straub probably would have, again, joined with Johnny on my name. I didn't know the others. Lee Smith was very good, I think he was a Nobel Prize winner. And that was about all, a five-man committee.
No. I just had this nice gentleman visit me and ask me to think it over and would I accept. And I gave an answer, well, after I talked it over with Mary, my wife at that time. It was a wrench for both of us. We were confirmed Easterners. She was a born and bred Bostonian. And the idea of going to the midwest, the middle of nowhere, you know. I remember, even joking when I got to Minnesota and saying, "I used to just think Minneapolis was just a place you flew over going from MIT to Cal-Tech." And we decided and I communicated with Hartig and said, "If you would like to make me an offer, I think I would seriously consider it." Nothing happened. I had been apprised of what the general terms would be if I was elected (and they were perfectly satisfactory), but nothing happened.
I was on a trip for the Air Force and General Tom Reeves and whole bunch of other people. We were still working with the Ministry of Transport in England, I think, and a whole bunch of us went over in an Army aircraft directly to London. It was a high level kind of a mission. They gave a reception for us and I was given a Lt. Commander in the British Navy as a kind of a chap to look after me during my stay in London. And we were at a party having drinks and things and he came up to me and he said, "Here's a letter for you. It was a letter from the President of the University of Minnesota and he stated they were offering me the job of Dean of the Institute of Technology." He asked me to reply in time for a meeting of his Board of Regents on a certain Friday.
And so I was at this party and I said, "Can you get him?" It was that very Friday we looked at the time and the time in London was about eight o'clock or so, party time; one or two o'clock in the afternoon or so in Minnesota. I said, "All right. Call him up." He said, "Yes, sir." He went into a little room, picked up a phone on Her Majesty's service, urgent, and it went through like that. Morrill answered. I said, "I just got your letter forwarded. I'm in London." And you know, Minnesota wasn't in the big stream in those days where their professors dashed all over the world like I was accustomed to doing. And he kind of chuckled. (I later got to love the man.) He said, "Well, my letter stated we're offering you the deanship. The Regents meeting is still in session, Do you accept?" And I said yes over the phone. And that was it. That was in the summer of 1948.
Doel:Were there any particular conditions that you had put on accepting the position—things that you wanted to do at Minnesota in organization or anything else?
Spilhaus:No. I don't believe in that. However, that came back to bite me later on. No, at Minnesota, I never thought about putting on conditions. I thought if they were going to make me a dean, I was going to run the show. I always just assumed that. That had been my experience at NYU. And I was lucky enough that this turned out to be one of the finest college presidents I've ever worked under. He said, "You're a dean. My job as president is to get you the support for what you need to do." He backed me every point of the way. If I hadn't done well at Minnesota, it would have been my fault. Of course, the next president at Minnesota was an absolute disaster, old Meredith Wilson. He quite differed from Lew Morrill. Lew Morrill was a modest man who said, "My deans know about it." I was a kind of modest dean, semi-modest, who tried to pick as my department heads people who knew about their business, and just delegate to them. There was delegation right down the line. Meredith Wilson came in and he built up a bureaucracy of assistant deans and things around him. The deans' meeting which used to be ten people—they had to enlarge the room—fifty people came. And how the hell you can do business that way—I was disgusted with him and I'm afraid I showed it. And so shortly after then, I left.
Doel:So this is in the mid-to-late sixties?
Spilhaus:That's correct, 1967. But I had many years of a very, very good time at Minnesota. They allowed me all kinds of latitude to be Ambassador to UNESCO, to run atom bomb tests, to be away, travel anywhere because my shop was running. And I really believe that what had been a parochial state university, even though it was large and in the middle of the country, benefitted by its people getting out and around. It helped Minnesota. And I practiced the same in my policy to my faculty, urging them to take on things. Because the best ones can do an awful lot of work. You don't need them sitting at their desks all the time.
Doel:There already was quite some talent out there in physics. Tate was out there.
Spilhaus:Tate! Oh, of course, Tate was on the committee. There's the other name, Jack Williams, Tate and Straub were the three who knew me. Oh, yes, that's it. Straub I'd known because he'd been at MIT when we both took a course in hydrodynamics with a famous German, Schpurnharker. This was way back in the MIT days. And Tate, Jack Tate. It was Jack Tate and Johnny Williams and both of them were one the NRDC. Johnny Williams was associated also with Los Alamos. Yes, that was it. So we were all tied up together. That's how it must have come about, yes.
Doel:Do you recall what plans you had for organizing research at Minnesota when you arrived or after you were there for a measure of time? The things you wanted to do?
You know, I don't formulate things in a blueprint form. I had firmly in mind that I didn't want a director of research. I wanted the direction of research to be under the departmental heads so that it was indeed completely coordinated with the teaching. I wanted the research assistants to be hired not from outside, but from among the students in the department. That I was sure of. And I found that as in many land-grant colleges, it was the custom to have a thing called an engineering experiment station, much as it is to have an agricultural experiment station. I found that thing to be too pedestrian for where I wanted the school to go. It was doing useful work, but a kind of testing roofing, testing the heat loss through windows and gutters and this kind of stuff which I thought commercial interests could do on their own—commercial laboratories could do. I thought, even though we were dedicated to service to people, that this was not the best service the university could give. So I abolished the engineering experiment station. And don't think that didn't take a funeral. It was lucky I had a president like Morrill backing me up. I abolished the engineering experiment station. It didn't hurt anybody. Everybody was just put in the appropriate department.
And the space in the station was parceled out so that the departments had more space for their research. It was simply a re-organization of who was responsible. It was me, the department head, his full professors, their assistants and down the line. The academic line and research line were the same line—which is what I firmly believe in to this day. I know this has gone out of style—this kind of thinking in universities. And perhaps I'm out of date, but very often we have now separate institutes that have now not much relationship with the teaching. I think many of these are very good. I mentioned The Jet Propulsion Lab. Stark Draper's lab at MIT. Many are pretty good, and yet, in a way I have a feeling—I'm so old fashioned that I truly believe that university's primary business is purely and simply the training of the mind. And if the service research and other things that a university does is not intimately woven in its main job, the training of the mind, then it shouldn't really be doing it.
Doel:This makes me curious. Did you ever have a conversation later with Stark Draper about the post-war development of the lab at MIT and what he thought about that?
Yes. Stark would not have agreed with my purist attitude, although Stark involved all kinds of students in his lab. There's no question that Stark was a scholar, no question. But Stark was also a pretty practical engineer, so the Draper lab, the gyro labs there (it wasn't called the Draper lab until later, until he died, I think), it was a tremendous thing. And it was not completely integrated with the teaching. In fact, it was rather remote from it. After I left the lab, I had nothing but just friendly relations with Stark. He asked me to come back at one time. I didn't. After I was at Minnesota, he wanted me to come back because his thing had grown so much. I'm sort of glad I didn't because I wouldn't have been very happy in that thing. But it was a tremendous lab.
And Stark was a broken man because then the Vietnam War student things came up. And Howard Johnson—who was not really a scientist or engineer but was President of MIT—did not stand up for Stark Draper, in my opinion. And Stark felt very bitterly, you know. And they gave in to the demands of students not to accept government funds, which was sort of a ridiculous thing to do. Of course, you can accept government funds. You can have differences like mine of integrating them into the system, or not integrating into the system, but universities, part of their job is service and you do it. And that was MIT's service. Stark was a broken man after that happened at MIT because he had done an awful lot for that place and somebody ought to have stood up for him. Oh, of course, there were many. It was a great division at MIT, too.
Doel:It was quite a conflict.
Spilhaus:A lot of people felt the way I did.
Doel:Of course, Stark Draper was very involved in teaching in the pre-World War II period.
Spilhaus:He was an excellent teacher.
Doel:Did he have as much chance after the War?
Spilhaus:You see, I wouldn't know because I didn't have much contact. I would think not. I would think that he probably was terribly busy and it was a great loss; he was a tremendous teacher. I took all his courses, his instrumentation courses. His instrumentation courses didn't deal with a specific instrument. They dealt with the fundamentals of instrumentation. The kind of thing I learned from was that what we call a transducer today, we didn't use those funny words in those days—or a sensor. A sensor very rarely senses only one thing; it senses a number of things. And what you do when you use a sensor to create an instrument is, you've got to compensate for the things that you don't want to read out of it. This is lovely because it took me back to—let's go back to—geophysics. Vening Meinesz, gravity surveyor of the Red Sea. Meinesz measured the Red Sea with a mercurial barometer. Did you know that?
Doel:I didn't know that was the technique.
Spilhaus:Look it up. And why? It's such a lovely story to tell students because the height of a mercurial barometer is a function of barometric pressure, which we usually think of it as telling, but also of temperature-the mercury expands-and gravity. If you measure precisely the pressure independently with a hypsometer, if you measure the temperature independently with a highly accurate thermometer, and you eliminate those two things, you've got a gravimeter that could be used at sea. They didn't have stable problems then. And it's a beautiful thing but for Vening Meinesz must have been so terrible, because gravity is the smallest correction you make if you're using a barometer for pressure. You have to make the temperature correction and the gravity you put in because the gravity is presumably constant at the place where you've got the barometer, but at sea it isn't. I thought that was a wonderful story and fundamental in the instrumentation business. In the BT, I said how to eliminate the difference in temperature of the stuff enclosed around the bulb and that outside by a compensating device that takes the temperature of the stuff inside and corrects it. Stark was a great teacher. He taught me that kind of thing.
Doel:There were a few points I wanted to talk to you about in this period after you had arrived at Minnesota. You mentioned that you were involved in the Research and Development Board and, of course, you became involved in the debate about atomic weapons testing. A lot of that is covered in some of the other oral history interviews that you've already done.
Spilhaus:I think probably the Claremont history has a lot about the atomic testing.
Doel:Right. I'm curious though what you recall of your interaction with the Geological Survey and its people during this time.
I had very little interaction with the Geological Survey, but very important interaction, let me say it that way. My interaction with the geologists was that when I was made director of Special Weapons Effects, they called it because it was all very secret. At AFSWP, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project was in the basement of the Pentagon—barred off, all kinds of guards. And it was, of course, atomic weapons. You remember that Truman had said that atomic energy will be in civilian hands? We had the Atomic Energy Commission. There was a military liaison to the Atomic Energy Commission, Jim McCormick. General Jim McCormick later became Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Aerospace on which I served. But my boss for cover purposes was Secretary Matthews of the Navy. It was the Navy because then they could give out that Spilhaus has gone to work for the Navy in Washington.
And, of course, everybody knew that I was an oceanographer, so everybody accepted that I'd gone down to Washington to work on some classified oceanographic business. Very good cover. It bluffed everybody except my daughter who was about six or seven in the elementary school and they were having a show-and-tell or something and the teacher said, "I hear your daddy's gone to Washington." She said, "Yes." What's he doing there?" "Oh, he must be in on the bomb business." I mean, out of the mouths of babes. You know, that was the only thing she knew about that was exciting then. It was really funny. Of course, it didn't matter at all. That was when—well, you don't want me to go over this because it was probably in the Claremont papers—but that was when I had Admiral Tex Settle, who was the great balloonatic. He made the ascent, vying with Piccard, the highest balloon ascent in the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Great Admiral.
He had the task force which was set up under the Truman Doctrine of that time. There would be no more tests in the United States and we were supposed to set off these bombs in Amchitka. Tex and I made a controlled crash in Amchitka because the wind blows a hundred miles an hour in both directions. We took along some Geological Survey people, and a great guy by the name of Dave Griggs from UCLA. A great geophysicist. Dave and the Geological Survey came in and said to me, "This island is so inhomogeneous, we really don't know whether we'll get the effects, underground effects, of an atomic bomb that will make any sense here." People were worried abut the bomb setting off these landslides that do occur in the Aleutians and cause tsunamis. I wasn't too worried about that because we had a rough idea of the scaling of the thing that we had. But, nevertheless, that was a public concern. The Amchitka thing was well-known that it was going on.
Other people were interested in the effects of the atomic test on their beloved sea life—the beginning of the ecological thing. So Tex and I said, "All right, we've got some of the public on our side, the lunatic fringe at least." And he said, "We've just got to convince the AEC." But I said, "Tex, you're close to retirement. You're wiping out your task force if we take it back to Nevada." He said, "My task force is not important. We've got a job to do in the military effects thing." I have the greatest respect for an Admiral close to retirement, his last job a huge task force like the Bikini task force, wiping out his own thing because of some scientists opinions.
Doel:I suspect it took a bit of courage to see that.
Spilhaus:A lot of courage and dedication. So he and I convinced AEC to bring it back to the United States. We had to convince AEC, Strauss—his committee.
Doel:He was chairman back then, right?
Spilhaus:The chairman was Strauss. And the man who impressed me most was a character from Maine, a very sharp man, Sumner Pike. He was no geophysicist, no scientist, no nothing; except he was everything. A great man.
Doel:Right. He was later on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography—NASCO
Spilhaus:Of course, well, this was my introduction to him. That's how he got on the academy committee later on. He got into a lot of things through our friendship. I'd been talking there and the AEC was glumly listening because they didn't have too much hope of convincing Mr. Truman. And finally Sumner spoke up. He said, "Gentlemen, we've had three sessions with Dr. Spilhaus. Both he and Admiral Settle, he particularly on the scientific side and Admiral Settle from the logistic side, tell us to go to the president." He said, "I was against atomic tests in the United States. I'm now going to eat crow, feather end first." And that blew the thing.
Doel:How much contact did you have with Dave Griggs at that time?
Spilhaus:A lot of contact. A lot of contact. He was the fellow who was most knowledgeable, I think, about scaling of underground tests. You see, my tests were one air shot before they'd destruct and where we had sort of a mock village set up, troops nearby, and everything. And then we fired the first underground shot that had ever been fired. The underground shot was almost more important because there'd been lots of air shots at Bikini and so forth. They'd never had troops as near. We were within three miles of ground zero. And incidentally, (I don't know if I mentioned it in the Claremont thing or not), we did fire the first atomic misfire.
Doel:That's right. It is mentioned in there. That was the one fired the next day.
Spilhaus:Yes. It all went off all right.
Doel:Was he already at UCLA at that point?
Spilhaus:Yes. He was at UCLA.
Doel:In the institute that Louis Slichter had set up.
Spilhaus:That's correct. And it was my first contact with him, I think, through the atomic tests, funnily enough. You see, although I was a fairly wide-ranging geophysicist in the sense of air, water and space (space came later), I didn't have much to do with the solid earth. Not until these tests.
Doel:Did you have much contact with Slichter at that point at all?
Spilhaus:No, no. I had more contact at... I didn't have contact with Slichter; my contact was through Dave. Slichter must have been quite old then. He was getting on. He'd left MIT and gone to UCLA. I had a good deal of contact with Benioff and his cohorts, the seismic business at Cal-Tech. But in actual fact, my business was to run these tests and we co-opted the scientists to come to us. I did not visit around the United States for many reasons—security reasons, as well as the fact that I was darn busy. I told you how important the U. S. Geological Survey's advice was about Amchitka. Of course, they were intimately connected with a lot of the work of the underground tests in other ways which you can probably read about in the Buster-Jangle reports if they've been declassified. I don't know.
Doel:I believe some of them are. Certainly some of the results are widely known.
Oh, yes. I want to look into that and see if the reports are declassified because I've never seen them since I wrote them. But the other amusing thing of the U. S. Geological Survey.... Having brought back texts to the U.S., I set up Camp Mercury, which was just a spot in the Nevada desert. There were no telephones, no roads, no water, no nothing, but we went out there and got to work. The AEC, which had been in command, was under the strictest orders to use civilian contractors wherever possible. Well, I went along with them for a while and the telephone didn't get in. So I figured, "I'm military. I've got everybody in the Pentagon behind me." I pick up the phone. And I had the authority. I had a very good general as my aide. I pick up the phone to Signal Corps.
I got General George on the phone and I said, "I want a squadron of wire-laying planes out here to put in the telephone just as soon as possible." General George chips in and says, "General Earl can you do it tomorrow?" "Yes, sir." A squadron of wire-laying planes came out and laid the wires, propped up the poles. We had telephone service before they were on the poles, the way they do it in wartime. Breaking all the rules. Caught hell from Graves, the AEC fellow. Well, he was under his rules. He was a decent guy, but I was under my rules. I was running a military operation which I understood. Okay. The roads didn't go in. The civilian contractors simply dragged their feet. I'm very well versed in military affairs, but I pretended as a civilian director not to know the rules. So I call up Fort Humamie, California the Sea Bee base. I had an admiral, Admiral Mendenhall, part of the team back of me because I always had a military guy back of me.
And I call Humamie pretending. He said, "I can't do it—I'm military." I told them who I was (well, they knew my authority by the Secretary of the Navy) and I said, "Can you send CB's"-I had estimated the mileage of roads to be put in-"to put in roads all over this place?" By air these great big flat bellied planes arrived with their ground-moving machinery. I didn't consult Graves, he just saw them fly in. Those roads were in in about three weeks. Again, a military operation. That was fun. Well, we needed water. Of course, the geological surveyor doing his job properly looks for water at the shallowest level it can find it because drilling is expensive. Well, gee, with a military operation like this where you're moving CB's and squadrons of airplanes, firing off Air bombs, you don't worry about a little expensive drilling. Tom Nolan was the Head of the Geological Survey staff then. I said, "Tom, I need water. Your fellows have been drilling." He said, "We can't find it at any reasonable depth." I said, "I didn't say reasonable depth. I need water."
He said, "Where would you like us to drill?" I said, "Well, as long as you don't know...." And he said, "We have no idea." I said, "Why don't you do it outside my tent—the corner of my tent and go down until you get water." They went down 5,000 feet and got a hell of a lot of water. Of course, it's ridiculous in any normal operation to do that. But in a military operation that has to go up on time, I was just brought up to do that kind of thing. Those were the things I enjoyed about it, you know?
Doel:How well did you come to know Tom Nolan through that work?
Spilhaus:Fairly well. Why?
Doel:I'm curious if you talked with him about the way in which the atomic testing program and the AEC funds affected the way the Survey operated after the War. Clearly they got quite a bit of money to do this particular kind of research in support of the military projects.
Spilhaus:I think that's why Tom was perfectly willing to help us any way he could. I think they'd benefitted for the very reason that we were doing the underground tests—our experience during World War II. Even with our great bombers and saturation raids, we found it was damned difficult to knock out a concrete structure or a submarine pen. You remember in World War II, the submarine pens? It was extremely difficult to knock those things out. Our interest in underground tests was how would an atomic weapon that exploded underground do to these things. That's where we needed guys like Dave Griggs and Geological Survey. And I'm sure that this had permeated the thinking before the actual tests. And I'm sure that's how Geological Survey got a boost from the military. And they were a very good outfit too.
Doel:You felt it strengthened geophysical research then?
Spilhaus:I didn't call it geophysical in those days. I felt that they were—there were certain government laboratories that I felt were very good. I've mentioned ONR. I felt Geological Survey was very good, but I was thinking more in the conventional geological way. In fact, they were doing more conventional work in those days. I find USGS now to be a very, very excellent government scientific service. I'm working with them on maps. They bootleg stuff for me to this day. Those are the good people in government science. They always have been. The Coast and Geodetic Survey use to be one of the very good scientific services in government. They got into NOAA and they were still very good, but they became NOAA's fleet, you know. And the administrator of NOAA was so proud of his navy, his independent navy. They've still got it. It's probably a necessary thing for a sea engineering agency to have a bunch of ships like that. On the other hand, they lost the great people in cartography that they had in the early days. These were people like Deetz and Adams, two names.
Doel:Bob Dietz, you mean? Which Dietz?
Spilhaus:I mean the older Deetz. Charles H. Deetz and Omar S. Adams in the '30s.
Doel:I didn't think so.
Spilhaus:No, no. Although he was a good scientist, but very different ilk. No, this was a great mathematic cartographer. Deetz, Adams, and very good people in the mapping business. They had a few left in NOAA that I worked with when I was there. But that side of the business, simply because the administrators in NOAA didn't seem to appreciate the value of geodesy.... In fact, I remember telling Bob White that they should have put—that Coast and Geodetic Survey had lost the great strength of its mathematical theoretical arm. And he said, "Well, why do we want geodesy?" I said, "What's the use? You're measuring things all over the atmosphere and the ocean. What is the use of making a measurement unless you know where it is?" I said, "That's the essence of geodesy." And he got the point. He's a good fellow.
Doel:When was this happening, roughly?
Spilhaus:Well, when I was criticizing the demise of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, or the decline of the mathematical side of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, was when I was special advisor to him about 1974 to 1978 or 1979.
Doel:To go back to an earlier period, one of the things we mentioned very briefly when we began the interview was when you were at Minnesota, you wanted to help introduce more mathematical kinds of analysis—physical analysis—into geology and biology. I'm curious about this.
Spilhaus:I wanted to integrate what I called the good departments, and they were good departments, of field botany, and I used to talk about field biology, and field geology, which were good strong departments. I wanted to bring them into the fold without decreasing the good people that were there to add the dimension of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, to their work and bring them into the Institute of Technology. I succeeded with geology and I immediately—without hurting the Geology Department which was strong in Minnesota because of mining and so forth—I got Zoltai first of all, a geophysicist (you may know the name). Later, Preston Cloud from USGS, I think. Yes, Pres Cloud. And we made it a department of geology and geophysics, which it is to this day. (Now in 1991 it's called Dept. of Earth Sciences.)
Doel:Of course, similar things were happening at other universities. CalTech was attempting to build up work in geophysics also.
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. I wasn't unique. I think the surprising thing was that it was going on at a state university.
Doel:That's a good point.
Spilhaus:Yes. And I think that was my MIT heritage again. The biology I failed in and the failure of that was because we had a change of presidents. Even physics was in the College of Literature and the Arts. I brought it into the Institute. I brought geology into the Institute. Wanted to bring biology and botany, but this old Meredith Wilson, the know-it-all, he thought biology and botany must have something to do with agriculture. Well, of course, every science has everything to do with agriculture. That was the beauty of the land grant college system—to have the agricultural college associated with the basic sciences. He couldn't see that the basic biology and botany should have been at electron microscopes and been right in there mixed up with the physicists, chemists, mathematician (and engineers to provide instrumentation. So I failed there. They got a very good man running biology. And I understand now that it's still over in the agricultural campus. So biology is one thing that I never succeeded in doing at Minnesota—getting it into the mix.
Doel:Were the biologists interested in becoming more involved with this, do you think?
Funnily enough, I had no trouble at all in Morrill's time because, I guess, success attracts people. I had the backing of the president. I'd obviously improved the things I.... Oh, mathematics used to be in the Arts College and it was such poor mathematics that I started my own mathematics department and it turned out to be excellent. I got a Japanese that solved Hildriu's Fifth Problem and we really became known. And I think that faculties and universities begin to see where their bread is buttered. Botany and zoology would have gladly come in.
I knew the people well, worked with them, just as physics was so happy to come in. The Arts College was fine. But a dean of an arts college, he can't be expected to understand everything under his control, including science. It's sort of an unnatural thing. We believe, of course, in the support of a strong arts college. Literature and the arts is one thing, but science, literature and the arts, the science has to be cohesive. In fact, one of the things I did there was they used to have what they called for the Institute of Technology the requirement for English for our students was they take a special course called Engineering English. I said, "What is Engineering English?
I don't understand what that is. Is it broken English of some kind?" They said, "No. It's a less demanding course than our freshman English." I said, "Well, my students are going to take the course in English." And so, in a way, I had a lot of backing from the best people in the Arts College, too, because they enjoyed getting the good students from the Institute of Technology, who were good students. We had far higher standards of admission than other colleges, which was lucky. I mean, it's lucky in a big university. When you have a general college, as long as kids can get into the college somewhere, you could get away with having high standards in certain places, like in medical schools, Institute of Technology, and that's a good thing.
Doel:How much time do you think you were able to spend in research during that time during your administration?
Spilhaus:My own? Very little, very little. I must say that I think if you look at my writings, there is virtually no research.
Doel:The break seems to come around that time.
Spilhaus:The break comes—right, right. It's understandable. I had to be happy supporting other people's research, enabling them to do it. And that's probably also, because I was out of research of my own, I probably got more and more into the thing that fitted into the administrative kind of business, seeking out ways in which to take ideas and make big projects out of them which were beneficial to people. I think that's what I did. And you'll find my writings are not uninteresting; they're about experimental cities. I mean, you know real problems. I had a school of architecture, why not? and Sea Grant College ideas and these kind of ideas where I was better able to formulate those, because it's very difficult to do research and be an active administrator and do all the other things I was doing at the same time.
Doel:Yes, that's understandable.
Spilhaus:Yes. Because I said, actually, I said in the beginning my disclaimer was that maybe you're interviewing the wrong guy.
Doel:You still plays an important part of geophysics.
Spilhaus:You see, I'm not a geophysicist!
Doel:Sorry to disagree with that. These are just as important to understanding how geophysics came about.
Spilhaus:Well, I think so too. And I think most geophysicists appreciate the efforts of people like myself and my son, because it enables them to be free to do their research.
Doel:Right. Actually, this leads us very well into the next set of questions that I wanted to ask about your involvement in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), clearly one of the major geophysical organization to come about in the post-war period. You were appointed to the U. S. National Committee, as I recall, about 1955?
Spilhaus:Yes. At the beginning, when it was formulated.
Doel:Do you recall what you hoped to do when you came on? Or discussions about what you might do?
When we came on, our sole purpose was to do what is still a fundamental thing in geophysics, to understand the physics of the Earth. And our job, my formulation of the IGY was it's impossible to study the physics of the Earth if we don't at least make an effort to get a coherent picture, a synoptic picture, if you like of the Earth as a whole, at least for one year. This requires international cooperation. I was pretty good at that by then because I had been Ambassador to UNESCO, you know, and I knew an awful lot of people in an awful lot of countries. I was useful from that point of view.
And that was the simple idea. Now, of course, when we got talking about things it was how to get various countries in. My input was logic from my own experience. They were very worried about Russia's participation. I said, "You've got to have Russia in." But this was the height of the Cold War. You've got to have Russia in it. And then they said, "What about Mao's China?" Well, of course, I'd served with Mao during World War II. I said, "You've got to have China in We're not talking politics here." And they said, "Well, what about the State Department?" I said, "Let's not even discuss it with the State Department because their automatic reaction will be `no.'" And it was when they found out.
So we brought Russian and China in in our part. It was very strange, but when we had a meeting of IGY in Moscow, the Russians did not invite the Chinese. They wouldn't. They were annoyed. In this they were on the side of our State Department. Although Dulles thought he was against Russia, the Russians were unhappy with the Chinese. I mean, the point is that when you think about science, you put politics aside. You've got to put politics aside. You've got to know it's there, but you've got to put it aside. And hope. And IGY was so successful, I believe, in that way, in putting politics aside. And we could never have made the assay into space had it not bee that we already had the ground work, open ground work, of scientific cooperation among nations in the other aspects of IGY.
Doel:Do you recall who, in particular, in the U. S. National Committee was concerned about admitting Russia and China into the IGY? Do you remember discussions about that with particular individuals?
Spilhaus:Yes. I'm quite sure I was probably the most vociferous to admit them both. I think as a matter of fact that only people like Waterman, and because of his government position, he probably was a less talkative one for that. But those of us who were not attached to government, I'm sure were good enough scientists to say of course we've got to admit them.
Doel:Do you remember what Lloyd Berkner was saying in that period?
Spilhaus:No. I don't recall Lloyd's position. Sometimes he was very difficult on most topics.
Spilhaus:Sometimes Lloyd would worry about what the State Department would say. And if we worried about what the State Department would say, we could have scrapped Russian and China; and that's a large fraction of the Earth's surface. I'm sure that, although, as I say, I think everybody probably on the commission was for, but some had misgivings because of what the State Department might do to the rest of the program. Merle Tuve too, might have been that way. Merle was worried because he thought the rest of the program was so important that he said, "Don't throw the baby out of the bath water." And I took the opposite, also exaggerated view by saying, "Without Russia and China it isn't an International Geophysical Year." But we all got along beautifully. And Merle took the same attitude when I was the great proponent for the satellite. I'd gotten my information about satellites, of course, I knew about rockets and things from my military experience post-World War II, and about satellites. Singer had published a thing in Life magazine called "MOUSE," Miniature Orbiting something or other. And I just thought, I knew rockets worked, and I thought Singer's ideas were good and so I plopped for putting up a minimal orbiting object. And there we had really quite great division on the National Committee, quite great divisions.
Doel:One reason, I've heard, was that some people were worried that the cost of doing this would overwhelm the rest of IGY.
Spilhaus:That was Merle Tuve. Not only that, but the excitement also. They realized this was a very exciting program. And they realized the cost was great. And I respect their judgement. I can remember Merle saying, "It's a marvelous thing." But he said, again, like about the Russians and Chinese, "We shouldn't do something that jeopardizes the good parts we already have in place." It was a very valid argument. Merle was a wonderful man.
Doel:I'm curious who else felt the same way as Merle Tuve did?
Well, there was another man who was a dim viewer, I'd call it. Merle wasn't a dim viewer. I considered his argument very well worth considering. Although, I considered the pay-off of going into space important. And, of course, I was swayed by a totally different thing, which I didn't tell people. I felt so, having been an ambassador in foreign countries in the Cold War, I felt dejected about the state of the human spirit in the United States at that time in the late fifties. And I remember saying publicly in the newspapers, "America needs a first." This was after we'd announced it. "America needs a first." And they said, "Well, what good will it do? It will cost us these millions of dollars put up."
Vanguard, which fizzled. I said, "If the only thing it does is lift the American spirit," I said, "well, it paid off." And I was convinced of this. America hadn't been doing anything, you know. And being in the international affairs so much, I'd sensed this, so that I was motivated, perhaps by the wrong motive. I said, Let the rest of IGY take care of itself. Let's put up the damned satellite and lift the American spirits to something new." I didn't really think that way because I didn't think it would detract the other. I thought it was an important thing to do. And I also knew from my diplomatic experience that it was the only time to do it. The Cold War was so intense and I'd had this four years with Russian antagonists in UNESCO, that had we proposed to go into space without the cloak of science and IGY, it would have been absolutely, bitterly fought by the Russians. As it was, of course, what the Russians did was they simply beat us to it.
This was not a bad thing, funnily enough. Everybody was moaning. But the Russians came over to the Academy and talked with others. (This is all in the books; it is written.) And everybody was moaning. And their old Sputnik was going around beeping. I never thought it was too bad a thing because it was in IGY, it had been done. It was in the international spirit of IGY. It was inevitable; had we put up one at any time, the Russians would have put one up. So, there's no reason for not doing a thing because others are going to do it to copy you. The same argument I get in the colonization of the seas. To this day, when I'm talking about putting out these military support, free enterprise bases, they said, "Well, the Russians will do it, too. Won't that be terrible. They'd be fighting at each other."
I said, "Quite to the contrary, the Russians will do it and they'll probably beat us to it. With our present laggardly way of entrepreneurship in the United States, the Japs will probably be there first, then the Russians, and then we might tag along. But," I said, "that doesn't matter. The point is, I believe, the colonization of the sea is far from," (I've got into the future now), "far from exacerbating the international tensions. It would diminish them." Because sea-faring people are always the kind of people who help each other in times of need. And if you have a lot of floating communities, you're not going to have them firing at each other. That's my view from the present. And it will come about, just like Columbus Iselin said, "You're always twenty years ahead of your time. That's your trouble."
Doel:Did you say you didn't raise that argument when you talked with other members of the U. S. National Committee of IGY?
Spilhaus:Didn't raise what argument?
Doel:On lifting international barriers.
Oh, yes. I certainly must have mentioned that. I think that was one of the most persuasive things in my mind. I didn't mention that it might be more important than the rest of the International Geophysical Year. I'm not sure I believed that anyway. And it certainly wasn't a good thing to say. I didn't really believe that putting up the satellite would interfere with the progress. The Year had gone too far. It was, let's see, we must be talking about 1958 because we all went over to Rome in 1958 and we announced openly and internationally, well, in addition to the announcement from the White House lawn, which was in the summer of '55 when Waterman and I were there. In 1958, I believe it was, 1957 or 1958. In 1957, we had a meeting in November in Rome.
And there we had everybody and discussed the plans for the thing. And the Russians were probably well along by then. And they told us. They were quite open about it—now, I'm not sure about that. I was convinced that they were working on putting up a satellite. I thought they'd be foolish not to. We knew they had the rockets. We knew they had the—they grabbed German rocket people. I couldn't conceive they wouldn't be doing it. And yet, I think when Sputnik—after our fizzle with Vanguard—when Sputnik actually took place, there was a reception going on at the National Academy and many people were surprised that the Russians had done it. I was not at all.
Doel:Do you recall the reaction of others who were there?
Spilhaus:Deep distress. I wasn't as distressed as they were. I was disappointed we didn't do it first, but I think it was less important, if we're thinking in the context of science. Our idea to go up there had not been bad. Here the Russians had done it. That proves we were okay. We just screwed it up because of arguments between our military services. That's the fact of the matter. We should have given it to Werner von Braun to do from the beginning, but the Navy got the job.
Doel:Do you remember any conversations with Tuve or Berkner or Joseph Kaplan about their own feelings about the Sputnik launch and the implications of it?
Spilhaus:Well, I'd answer this about Joe Kaplan. Joe Kaplan was the chairman of the National Committee. He was rather careful, and probably rightly so, to keep pretty quiet during the controversial things. Maybe it was because he didn't want to identify himself on one side of the fence or the other. Smarter man than some of us who expressed our opinions violently, or maybe he was just being a good chairman. I don't know.
Doel:What sort of leader was he of the U. S. National Committee?
Spilhaus:I don't know what to say to that. I don't know what to say to that. I can only say he was awful lucky if he had to chair that commission to have great scientists like Tuve and others, Waterman and others, on the group because I think that generally the stature of the others was, well, you know, Kaplan hadn't done too much in geophysics that I know of. Oh, he did something about the green flash. I don't remember. Maybe it's my ignorance and this shouldn't be on tape, but I don't really know what Kaplan did in geophysics. All the others had records, track records. But he was a good chairman. He kept quiet. He was a very egotistical man; later on he always complained to me that he never got the credit for what he did in leading IGY. I think it was probably good to have a weak chairman and an awful lot of strong, open spoken committee members. That's the way I'd put it.
Doel:Including yourself, who do you feel really played major roles in determining the policy of the USNC? You mentioned Berkner and Tuve.
Spilhaus:Oh, Berkner obviously played a major role. I'm not sure about policy because my activity was sort of working from project to project. If there was a thing that intrigued me that I hadn't already done, this is not a policy, this is just to say let's do the things that are best to do and that need international cooperation. Hence, the satellite. Lloyd was much more politically educated, you know. I believe Lloyd Berkner was the one who worked with good old Larry Gould who wasn't on the Commission. I don't believe he was on the National Commission, but he was on a subcommittee, I think. But Larry Gould deserves a tremendous amount of credit for IGY's success in Antarctica, for the Treaty and everything.
Doel:Right. Well, you knew him from—he was nearby in Carlton?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. He was in Carlton when I was at Minnesota. Yes.
Doel:So you knew him then well before.
Spilhaus:Yes, oh yes. I wanted to ask you, do you remember Homer Newell? He wasn't on the International—on the Committee, was he? He was on the subcommittee.
Doel:I don't believe he was. He would be, I think, on the subcommittee.
You see, later on, I worked on the satellite subcommittee and there we had excellent people. There we had Friedman and Homer Newell. Then we got down to the nitty-gritty of a satellite, after we set up the subcommittee. And I was just gung-ho for it. And Friedman knew a hell of a lot more about it than I did, but I was just the support from the central committee. We put central committee people on the different subcommittees. Now here's the most amazing thing. Homer Newell was very wimpy about it. He said, "How do we get a transmitter to put out up there?
The batteries are going to boil." And I pounded the table, I said, "Homer, we've got great engineers. We can invent batteries that won't boil." I didn't know a damn thing about batteries, but I knew damn well somebody could do it. I just had the confidence in this thing. We did get batteries that don't boil—now we don't have batteries at all. Later, Homer became the Director of NASA. That's terribly funny. I kidded him about it before he died. I said, "What would have happened, Homer, if I hadn't said you can get batteries that won't boil? You wouldn't have had a job!"
Doel:Who else was on the panel with you besides—do you recall?
Spilhaus:I don't remember. It's all in the literature.
Doel:You don't recall any direct interactions with Jim van Allen?
Oh, Jim van Allen. Sure. I remember Jim, very much so. And Jim was quite a close neighbor in Minnesota. He was down in Ames, Iowa. And I saw Jim many, many times before and after. Jim was, I'm trying to, (my wife`s idea of my memory is a fair criticism), I'm trying to remember Jim's hang-up. Oh. No, I don't remember. Jim, of course, did that marvelous experiment, the Van Allen belts, on the satellite. I think Jim was one of those of us, and I say us, who were dead against man in space at the beginning. However, they stayed dead against man in space. I was very much with the space program and I wrote a paper once about the uselessness of man in space unless he lands somewhere. It was purely an observational thing that said man is only useful if there's something he can observe going on. And, you know, being on the spot, can change the experiment to take advantage of what he sees.
I said that can't happen is space, but he's very important if he landed on the moon or something like that. So the man is only useful when you land somewhere. This was why I wrote the paper. Later on, I got mixed up with Jim Webb. Jim was not a scientist but he was a blessing to the space program. I said to Jim, "You know, I wrote a paper on the uselessness of man in space." And we sent up a monkey with a banana. And I said, "That's alright because nobody really worries if the monkey gets killed. But the redundancy we have to build into these things and the expense to send man is tremendous. And we can do all the science without this man." The standard line that I think Van Allen carried on even to the end of his life. But I changed my mind because Jim Webb said, "Spilly, the taxpayer is paying a lot of money for the space program.
It's very important that he can identify with something that's going on. He can't identify with your scientific experiments, however important they are. We've got to have man in space, if for that reason alone." Of course, he was right. If we hadn't had the—by then I was on the trustees of the Aerospace Corporation—if we hadn't had the Apollo program, we never would have gotten the support for the space program. So I was willing to change my mind; Van Allen wasn't.
Doel:Right. But Merle Tuve stayed against it, as I recall.
Spilhaus:He stayed against it. Well, he stayed, more or less, against all space stuff.
Doel:Is that so?
Spilhaus:Well, particularly manned. Oh, yes, yes. But you see, for a pure scientist, they're right. But they didn't understand what I hadn't understood the practical politics for public support that Webb explained to me. Even though I tried to pass it on to them, they were not willing to change their minds the way I was.
Doel:Earlier in the mid-fifties, Bill Rubey was also involved.
Spilhaus:Oh, Rubey was a great man. Yes.
Doel:What role was he playing in the Committee, the National Committee?
Spilhaus:Was he on the Committee?
Doel:I believe so, briefly. He was off, perhaps, by the time you came on in 1955, but he had been involved.
Spilhaus:Well, when was the Committee formed? I thought I came on early on.
Doel:I think it was the year before. I'll check on that.
Spilhaus:Hugh Odishaw wrote a history, didn't he, of IGY or something? Do you remember Hugh Odishaw?
Doel:Yes. I know who he is.
Spilhaus:He was the Secretary of the thing.
Spilhaus:Executive Secretary. Rubey might have been on it. I just don't recall.
Doel:His name was on one list I got.
Spilhaus:It was only a six or eight man committee. Oh, Rubey I knew very well, and probably he was on the committee, but you know, you can't distinguish where you saw people; you were on so many damn committees.
Doel:Where else did you come in contact with Bill Rubey? He was in the Survey at that point, wasn't he?
Spilhaus:Geological Survey? Yes. Well, as I said, I didn't have much contact with the heartland people. And I don't think I really was in contact with Rubey—only with NOAA and then at the tests as I described. I don't think I really had—it must have been only in the IGY that I really knew Rubey well. Although, of course, you see these people at all kinds of meetings anyway. I liked Bill Rubey; he was a great guy.
Doel:He used to be a neighbor at King Hubbert's. There were quite a few of the Geological Survey people all living together in Bethesda at that time.
Doel:I'm curious, too, about the way in which decisions were made within the National Committee and coordinated through the NSF to seek funds for the IGY program. Clearly there was interest at first in seeing what money might be available from the Department of Commerce, from foundations, from industry, and increasingly it became clear that much of the logistic support was going to come from the Department of Defense. Were you involved in any discussions on that policy?
Spilhaus:I never got involved in those inter-governmental things, how you split the monies. I think I was, just because of my natural connections and the friendly relationships I had with the military, I mean all services—Air Force, Navy and Army, all of them—I think I was probably the one that pushed for involving the military to the extent of giving us all the money they could. And I think there was resistance from some of the members who said, "Oh, no. But this is an international thing. We don't want to give it a military coloration." And I said, "Baloney. We've got Russia in here. Everything in Russia is government, military. Absolute baloney. It's wonderful if we can use our military services when they're not employed in war for a good think like IGY. I don't think anyone is going to criticize us." I do recall being pretty outspoken about the involvement of the military where they could help in the thing.
Doel:Were those who were concerned about that the people, again like Waterman, who were involved in other funding agencies?
Spilhaus:Waterman that time was ONR.
Spilhaus:Wasn't he head of ONR at that time?
Doel:I thought he had already gone over to the NSF.
Spilhaus:Oh, he'd gone over to NSF?
Spilhaus:I simply can't answer that.
Doel:But there was a division, you felt?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. There were some, some who were very much against it. Waterman might have been one. He might have been one. He was a very thoughtful man and he might have felt in his new position in the National Science—he was a very loyal man—in the National Science Foundation that the government had spoken and that science should be done by civilian agencies, and that it was his duty, therefore, to oppose military involvement. I can't say that as a definite recollection, but now that you bring it up, I suspect that was the case. There were others who were much more vehemently against it, who were not connected, you know, with anything.
Doel:Do you mean on the Committee, or outside?
Spilhaus:I believe on the Committee there were people who said, perhaps even Tuve, who—again, the argument—let's not alienate those that we've got working with us. Same old argument, and a valid one, by giving military coloration to it. I believe, I wouldn't put words in Tuve's mouth, but I do remember that discussion. I do remember that when you talk about policy—I don't deal with policy much, I just speak to issue by issue. Because of my national [connections], I was the one on the Committee that probably knew more about the military side of the military as opposed to the scientific side, (Waterman knew a lot about the scientific side), to urge the use of the military. And I knew that I could persuade the military to take part. In fact, you could hardly keep them out. Did you know about, (I hope I'm not going out of your order), do you know about how dilatory the oceanographers were in getting into IGY?
Doel:I'd be glad to hear what you recall about that.
Spilhaus:It's a very extraordinary thing. In the early stages of IGY, even great people like Columbus Iselin, we talked about getting in. And generally, the attitude of the—and I can't pinpoint any individuals—but generally the attitude of even... I do remember Columbus Iselin saying, "Oh, but I'm drumming it up there," at Wood's Hole. My great friend Columbus saying, "But Spilly, we don't need IGY. You know we oceanographers, we work internationally anyway." This was their view.
Doel:Why do you suppose they had made that argument?
Spilhaus:It was a very good statement. In fact, it was absolutely true that oceanography, of the geophysical sciences, was probably the most international at the time because we did all work together.
Doel:Right. But did they see particular disadvantages in becoming involved in IGY?
Spilhaus:No. They just didn't think it was necessary. I think it was lassitude. Well, later on, when they saw that there were advantages in getting into IGY, they did come in. And some of them said, "Yes, we can cooperate." And, of course, IGY let to some very good things in oceanography. I think that, wasn't it in IGY we had the first massing of ships of different nations so that we could get a real synoptic view? And as I recall correctly, it was off in the Atlantic, North Atlantic, off Gibraltar.
Doel:Right. Well, that was a great advantage, doing this.
Spilhaus:Well, that was the point. And then the oceanographers did see this and came in. But I do remember—I'm very sure other people will remember—the dilatory attitude of the oceanographers at first.
Spilhaus:Yes. And it was also reasonable because it was indeed true that from long before World War II, the oceans were so difficult, they belonged to nobody, there were so few oceanographers that they had to cooperate internationally. There was a cartoon once of an encyclopedia salesman, in the New Yorker, who had his foot in his door and he had the encyclopedia open and he said to the woman, "For instance, what do you know about oceanography?" I mean this is the state it was in. So Columbus was right. But a long tradition of international cooperation existed in the oceans. The fact that the Atlantis was built in Copenhagen. We talked about Eckman, Bjerknes. Bjerknes was also, you know, quite an oceanographer. I mean, dynamics, his dynamics applied to the ocean's as well as the atmosphere. Well, I thought that would interest you.
Doel:That is an interesting point. And Iselin, of course, by then was I would imagine considered one of the leaders of American oceanography. He was director of Wood's Hole by then.
Spilhaus:Well, Iselin, you know, never wanted to be director of anything. Iselin took on the directorship of Wood's Hole reluctantly. He only held it a year or so after Eddie Smith passed away, I think, and just before Paul Fry. Columbus would have been a wonderful director because he wouldn't have directed at all. And that's much better than Paul Fry who tried to direct too much and alienated the scientists. There's a fine line, you know, in organizing scientists. On the other hand, Paul did a wonderful job of accumulating money, getting people on the board who didn't know a damn thing about science but knew a hell of a lot about money. That's important, too.
Doel:When did he become director, roughly?
Spilhaus:I really can't remember. I know I was a trustee in Bigelow's day and carried on as a trustee through Columbus' and into Fry's. But I did not go to many board meetings in Paul Fry's time because I felt that the board was doing more about fundraising and all that stuff I didn't understand about and wasn't interested in. And it wasn't the old board of the Bright Wilsons and the Spike Coles and the scientists that were there in Bigelow's time when everybody was a scientist. And that was the business of Wood's Hole. Now, that's a thoroughly impractical view I've just stated. But I loved it when the board was under Bigelow; it was all science. Paul Fry probably made it practical, but I didn't like it anymore.
Doel:There certainly have been major changes in style of science funding.
Spilhaus:Well, in the style of universities, too.
Doel:Well, you raised an interesting point about the lassitude of the oceanographers and I'm curious if you felt that was a general feeling among the U. S. community, or was that more a minority opinion of people like Iselin at Wood's Hole?
Spilhaus:In the early fifties, even though oceanography got a big boost and we had the Friday Harbor Laboratory, we had Rosenstiel School in Miami, you could hardly talk about a community of oceanographers. I don't really think there was a community of oceanographers. Old Walton Smith never agreed with anybody in his life; I loved it. He did a tremendous job for that place. An absolute character. And most of the oceanographic leaders, who went to sea and so forth—I don't mean the later leaders who came out of physics departments—but the real oceanographers were characters. They were like a bunch of artists who get together. You can't have a union of artists; everybody hates each other's work and they're all as competitive as hell. I believe oceanography was at that stage at that time. All great friends, but all opinionated, like I am still.
Doel:To restate that then, did Roger Revelle also feel that participation in IGY wasn't necessary?
Spilhaus:No. Roger Revelle, and I stated it categorically no, not from my recollection of what happened at that time, but from my knowledge of Roger. Roger would believe in any effort, like the International Geophysical Year, whatever it was doing. Roger was that kind of a guy; he just believes in international things. I'm quite sure that he would have been for it, but that is my opinion, not from knowledge.
Doel:Do you recall, by chance, what Maurice Ewing felt?
Spilhaus:I never knew what Maurice Ewing thought. I thought he was a good scientist and a different person and I tried to keep from talking to him as much as possible. Very good scientist. When I left and went into uniform, Wood's Hole had this order from the British, which I had organized by leaking the plans for the BT. I was British. I could have been shot for a spy. We hadn't even gone in the War and decided which side we'd go on. Wood's Hole got this order for 200 for the British because they were losing ships off Gibraltar. Ewing was given the job, and I don't say he didn't do an excellent job of taking that BT and making it practical. But after all, I'd given him the whole thing on a silver platter. He had all the money in the world, which I'd never had. His main gripe was he couldn't break my patent. He even took out a patent, and it was called a bathythermograph, which was a word I invented. And it was a patent on Vine's compensating device, which I've always given credit to, to correct for the temperature inside. Al Vine deserves a major share of the credit for the Wartime BT. Now, you'll get the completely other view from my great friend Allyn Vine. Ewing's students and people just thought he was great.
Doel:Well, of course, he was working very closely with Vine.
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Well, Vine did the BT work. Vine is a great engineer.
Doel:One other question—I just wanted to get back to it to be a little clearer about was the debate within the National Committee. In the National Committee, on the debate over whether to involve the military funding or not—I'm curious if you sense is that it was a minority or majority of people who were concerned about asking for military funding for IGY?
Spilhaus:You're asking me questions, and I hope you'll consider that I'll give you the best answer I can from my memory. I would suspect—and as I was so intimately involved in pushing the one side—I would suspect that if you counted heads, the majority were worried about military involvement. But I like fighting majorities. And it was so clear to me, having used the military in Nevada as I described putting in the thing, my experience using the military for the proper purposes in peacetime was such that I was so convinced that I was right, you know, that the minority I was with just prevailed. I think if you talk to any of my colleagues of that day, they'll tell you Spilly was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. He pushed his ideas. And yes, I did; I think I pushed them through. Why do you harp on that? Is there a question in this?
Doel:No. It's an important issue because the question of how funding comes about for the pursuit of science helps us understand the development of science.
Spilhaus:The thing about which they objected to in the sixties, in the Vietnam War, the Draper lab, as we spoke about. But you see, I don't really believe that the source of the funds affects the quality of the research.
Doel:Right. It might have had an effect, though, on what was done or what wasn't done. And in that sense....
Spilhaus:Oh, oh, oh, oh. In accepting military money, you accept military control?
Doel:Certain people were clearly worried about that.
Spilhaus:I wouldn't worry about that. I wouldn't have accepted that at all. I would have fought back just strongly as I'd fought for military support.
Doel:Right. Do you feel though that others on the Committee were worried about autonomy?
Spilhaus:I think so. I think so. I don't think they'd had nay experience with the military as I'd had. My experience in the military was good.
Doel:Did you have an absence of experience then, with such problems?
Spilhaus:For instance, I told you about bringing in the CB's report from Wynemie. This was an illegal act. By act of Congress the CB's are not allowed to work within the zone of the interior of the United States. I brought in the CB's. I knew damn well they weren't allowed, but the Navy was exonerated; they said, "Oh, he's a civilian director we had. He didn't know the rules. But," they said, "he did get the roads in." I knew damn well I was sticking my neck out, but the damn bomb went off on time, except for the misfire.
Doel:I'm curious because it simply was a major issue for many scientists of the time. And it's very interesting to hear your perspectives on it.
Spilhaus:I think I pushed that thing through over possibly quite a large majority. But I think that while they were against me on that issue, we were all friends, you know, and they knew damn well that I had more experience. Well, there wasn't anybody else on the committee—Waterman, of course, had had lots of contacts with the military, but he was never in uniform. I'd been in the thing and knew how the military functioned. They knew about me running the atomic tests and they said, "Well, Spilly's the expert on that thing," and they gave in. I think that was the way. I don't want to claim credit that's not my due. But I think it was a damn good thing that we brought them in. It had no adverse effect at all. Do you remember any adverse effect?
Doel:What I have read involved worries of autonomy, or losing autonomy. I believe that Larry Gould was a bit concerned about one of the bills concerning Antarctica, for example. How that would be administered after the IGY period ended.
Yes, but Larry Gould, who was on one of our subcommittees, handled that very beautifully. And I was very close to Larry. And Larry certainly never worried about the fact that we had Suczech, Admiral Suczech, running the logistics in Antarctica. That was due to my insistence. We never would have got to Antarctica with Admiral Suczech. Larry Gould went to Antarctica through the courtesy of Christchurch and Admiral Suczech. I took the whole party down there and had a hell of a party down at little America. But being a showman, I took the Prime Minister of Australia, our ambassador, the ambassador from Australia came over. Well, why not take the big shots and show them what we're doing; get them behind IGY.
No, that was maybe one of the good things I did. I don't know. But, of course, in the temper of the times, it was the sixties, you see. You see, I had no sympathy with these—I didn't think much of the Vietnam War, but I also didn't think much of all the protestations. I didn't think much of the action, as I said, about the Draper lab. It was very fortunate that I was mostly away during those times in Minnesota. And we had very little of that at Minnesota. We certainly had none in the Institute of Technology. But it was a factor in my choice to leave academic life in 1967, that I found that things were going so that everything was run by committee. You had to have a student on the committee; you had to have non-academics on it. I really don't believe, as I said about boards' trustees in scientific institutions, in making your advisory board out of people who don't know anything about the subject. I haven't been convinced of the validity of that. I think that's a political decision, both in the case of what I said about Wood's Hole and in the case of what universities did. It was politically—perhaps they had to take students on in all this stuff, and faculty committees. I mean, my idea was that the administrators like I, who had to give up his research and so forth, were there to take the burden of administration from the good scholars who were doing scholarly work.
Doel:I'm curious, too, about one other committee that you were involved with in the 1950s, the Special Committee on Oceanographic Research at Wood's Hole. You were involved in that, weren't you?
Spilhaus:That's correct. I think I was involved in that. I think I was still a trustee then. Was that before Fry's time?
Doel:I'm not certain when he came on, but we can check on that.
It probably was because I was on—the origin of that committee was E. Bright Wilson, Spike Coles and myself; we were a committee of three, I believe, in the Bigelow and Iselin days and we carried on into the Fry days. It was this little committee of E. Bright Wilson, Spike Coles and myself, who recommended and got through the MIT fellowships, where people from Wood's Hole got fellowships to go and do their academic work at MIT. Stommel—did Stommel go to MIT? I don't remember. But von Arx was the first fellow in this program. And our idea at that time was to have Wood's Hole stick to its knitting.
My idea, and I'm sure that Bright and Spike agreed with me at that time, to have Wood's Hole stick to its knitting and be the oceanographic facility with MIT as the degree-granting institution. They weren't wise enough to stick to that. Unfortunately, during the high and mighty times, they wanted to be autonomous, have their own educational program. I was up there at a trustees' meeting last summer, the first one I went to for years as an honorary trustee and I was distressed about the impossibility of running a degree-granting program when you have one thing you're talking about—the ocean. You can't do that. It's the same thing I talked about earlier—there's no mixing, there's no interdisciplinary mix.
To be a laboratory only an hour from a great center of learning and have them grant the degrees made complete sense. So I consider it unfortunate that they didn't follow the original plan and be so closely affiliated with MIT, but allow MIT to grant degrees. Now they have joint-degrees—that's OK I suppose.
Doel:Now, to be sure, this was an issue that was coming up in the late 1950s? Or was this later?
Spilhaus:Oh, in the late 1950s I didn't go to Wood's Hole trustee meetings at all. I got out because I was busy. In 1954, I was the Ambassador to UNESCO. I couldn't go to trustees' meetings and they kept me of the board for a long time and then they made me an honorary trustee and I didn't go because at that time was when Wood's Hole was doing this great real estate expansion which I wasn't really interested in. The ship expansion was great—getting the Knorr and Atlantis II and so forth.
Doel:Also, I'd like to hear about the 1959 Committee on Oceanography.
Doel:Yes, within the NAS Committee. Harrison Brown had been chairman and you were actively involved?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Very much so. Harrison Brown was asked by Det Bronk, who was then President of N.A.S. a great guy and a close friend of mine. Det had asked me much earlier. In fact, right after World War II he asked me to come to Johns Hopkins to be Head of the Geography Department. I would have liked to have had the chance to give geography a different turn. Yes, because geography—I am terribly distressed about the demise of geography in universities and geographic illiteracy, generally, in the United States. But I didn't accept that for some reason; I don't know why. It was a wonderful offer. But Det was a great friend. Det appointed Harrison Brown to be Chairman of the Oceanography Committee. Harrison Brown was a member of the Academy, not an oceanographer—very smart of Det. Very smart.
Doel:Yes. I was curious about why he was appointed.
Spilhaus:Very smart of Det, and Det and I talked about it over drinks. Of course some people said, obviously, "Why didn't you appoint Spilly?" Of course, Harrison Brown immediately came to me and said, "Spilly, will you be the Vice Chairman of this? You're the first man I've asked who's an oceanographer. Then I can go on throughout the list and I want your advice on who to ask." So really, I was in from the beginning of NASCO. Det was very smart in appointing Harrison Brown because he said, "Spilly, your views on things are so well known that, from the National Academy point of view, it might be considered that this was not an even-sided committee if you were chairman." And I said, "You're quite right." So it was a splendid committee. We had—I suggested to Harrison—we had Columbus Iselin, Roger....
Doel:Revelle was there, and Milner Schaefer....
Spilhaus:Milner Schaefer came from Scripps. That's correct. He was the Scripps representative. Yes.
Doel:And Richard Vetter.
Spilhaus:Dick Vetter was the Academy employee, the Executive Secretary. But I put in the name of Sumner Pike, who goes back to the bomb test. And Harrison roared with laughter. He said, "He's another one who knows nothing about oceanography, like myself. I'm glad to have company."
Doel:I'm sorry to interrupt, but why Harrison Brown? Was it because of his writings on resources at that point?
I don't know why Harrison Brown. I don't know why Det appointed Harrison Brown. He didn't want to appoint an oceanographer who's view—because the oceanographic community was so small that any distinguished oceanographer, his views were already known to his colleagues. I thought it was a fairly smart selection. I happen to think Harrison Brown was a very smart man. He was certainly an excellent chairman of that committee. And the reason he was, was that he did know nothing about oceanography.
He knew a hell of a lot about science and was a very distinguished man in his own field. I suggested Sumner Pike because I said, "Harrison, we've go all these big shots, heads of all the institutions, we need a connection to the legislature. If this report's going to do anything but just be put in file drawers, we've got to draw it to the attention of Congress." And I said, "I know just the man, Sumner Pike, Lubec, Maine." And Sumner always represented somebody. He'd been SEC Commissioner, AEC Commissioner, legislator of Maine, Senator from Maine, and he always described himself as a sardine fisherman from Lubec, Maine. And Sumner was a very valuable addition. It was a marvelous committee. And I think that the report they put out was excellent. I wrote a little book which was printed in seventeen languages ultimately, called Turn to the Sea. Do you remember that?
Spilhaus:A little children's book, in a way. Well, I wrote it for Congress because I knew that they wouldn't read the big report. And so, I just wrote it on my own as a summary of the report, which Congress would read. And the somebody said, "Gee, this is a marvelous, young, juvenile book." I said, "Yes. It was written for them." UNESCO (because I'd just come out of UNESCO) published it in the UNESCO journal or whatever, which was put out in many, many languages. It had a good effect. It was a very good committee and a very good report. It was at the time of—one of the things in the report was, due to Allyn Vine, I think, who we invited down to consult with us in the Academy—we pushed for deep submersibles for research purposes. In fact, we pushed so hard for that, that all the aerospace companies went into the deep submersibles and lost their shirt. Lockheed, everybody. Because the aerospace business was down at that time. And finally, we had to admit that we'd pushed a little bit too hard. And I said, "All these new research vessels are searching for is something to do." The one guy who emerged from that was Perry of Florida. He was successful.
Doel:You were also, at that time, the Chairman of the Panel for New Devices for Exploring the Oceans, as part of the 1959 Committee, the NAS Committee.
Spilhaus:New devices. Yes. I was Chairman of the Subcommittee on New Devices. That was where I got Allyn Vine down and other people. Yes, because I was an instrument man from way back.
Doel:Do you remember—were there particular devices that you hoped to find funding to build?
Spilhaus:The one that dominated was the submersible. Yes, because contrary to my view that I'd made a couple of years earlier in space, about man in space, I thought that a hell of a lot of the sea, where you've got to take action—I said, "Man in the sea." And I think I wrote a thing for McGraw-Hill called "Man in the Sea." And I suppose my childish excitement about going into space was the same as going into the depths. And I believed there were things to do down there. Of course, success of the submersibles that were developed was quickly exploited by the petroleum industry. And so in a way, that committee justified itself by the commercial advantage that our petroleum industry got in deep sea work over—where we're the best in the world, I think. Probably still to this day.
Doel:It was also interesting in the question of radioactivity in the oceans then, too.
Yes. Yes. I think they came to our subcommittee—I don't recall how—but the Navy had its perennial problem about where to dump radioactive wastes. And AEC had it problems. And they came and said, "Can we dump them in the sea?" I had talked in Turn to the Sea, as a result of NASCO, about mining the sea bottom. I was dead against dumping in the sea. I said, "These things are very long-lived. How can we envisage what we're going to do to the bottom of the sea. We may mine it and dig up the damn dangerous things." I was dead against dumping in the sea.
Then, the Navy came back after that answer and said, "Can't you hot-shot oceanographers tell us where sedimentation is vast and great in the sea, so we can put it down in our everlasting canisters," (which aren't going to last the half-lives of the radioactive things), "so that they'll be covered with sediment?" That was not a bad reply. I don't know whether it was the AEC or the Navy or who it was; I think it was the AEC at that time. I said I was still against it because again, I said, "You're going to mine through those sediments. We don't know what's going to happen in the future. You cannot condemn an area for 200,000 years with highly active radioactive materials." That is still my view today. That question has been perennial. Does that answer your question? I forgot the question.
But that led to a lot of other things. Later on, Det Bronk or Fred Seitz asked me to be Chairman of the National Academy committee on the disposal of another lethal waste, nerve gas. And I said, "You know, I don't think you want me as chairman because I have already a fixed opinion that what we ought to do is get an international agreement." (For what international agreements are worth. I'm a realist on them, too.) But nobody should synthesize a lethal substance, unless before manufacturing it they also produce the method of taking it apart into the harmless ingredients.
I said, "Had you done that with nerve gas, you wouldn't have a problem with disposal." I said, "Once you've got these things and you say you can't take them apart and make them harmless," which is what they told me about these darn things, "I know nothing about them. I really can't help you much. There's no such thing as an everlasting container. There's no place on Earth where man may not need to go in the future."
Doel:So you did not serve, then?
Spilhaus:I refused to take on that. I gave them good advice. I said, "Why don't you press for a conclusion to your report that says to Congress that we don't put together things that we can't take apart." I don't know. It may be a naive idea, but most of my ideas were naive.
Doel:You certainly have logical opinions.
Spilhaus:It's obvious, but perhaps not practical.
Doel:You were also the, I believe, you were Chair, in fact, of the 1963 NAS Committee.
Spilhaus:I was Chairman after Harrison Brown. Yes.
Doel:And that's the long-range report, for 1963 through 1972.
Spilhaus:That's correct. Yes.
Doel:And I'm wondering what it—that was, of course, only four years after the first committee report.
Spilhaus:Yes. It was not an important report, in my opinion. I don't know who demanded that report. I was never enthusiastic about it because I said, "The first NASCO report was so important and we haven't even implemented it yet. Why do we want another report?" I think it was the National Academy, Dick Vetter, trying to keep us in business. I don't believe in committees that don't have anything to do. I wasn't enthusiastic, although I was Chairman. I thought it was important to keep the NASCO Committee in being, but I didn't think that report was important. I don't even recall what it said. Do you have any idea?
Doel:Well, the 1966 report said that one purpose was to reinsert and extend the recommendations made in the earlier report. Do you have a sense that funding for oceanography was not growing as fast you wanted it?
Spilhaus:Oh, yes. Yes. You're absolutely right and perceptive. I had then, you see, been very instrumental in starting the space program. The space program was going great guns. I was very disturbed that all the money was going into space and none into my oceans. I recall going to the Hill and the remark that's been quoted all over the world, and pounding the tables with the appropriations gang up there. The Russians had just taken pictures of the back of the moon. And I had been instrumental in the space program and all these old guys knew me up there at that time. And I pounded the podium and I said, "Gentlemen, we now from the Russian pictures, know more about the topography of the back side of the moon than we do about the oceans. Isn't the ocean's bottom at least as interesting as the back side of the moon?" That was quoted all over the world.
Doel:Was that spontaneous or had you thought of that before?
Spilhaus:Well, that remark was—the wording was spontaneous. But I was disturbed for a long time. I said that I had, in supporting the space program, let loose a Frankenstein, and here it was coming back to haunt me. I'm still thoroughly in favor of space, but I want equal time. I'm very much disturbed, as I said, that Bush was talking about colonizing the moon and I'm worried about colonizing the oceans right here on Earth. I'd just like to see a balance. I'm not against anything. I'm just for.
Doel:How successful did you feel the 1966 report was?
Spilhaus:I thought it did nothing. I don't even remember what it said, even though I was Chairman. I didn't think it was necessary in the first place. Have you read it? Doel: I've read through it.
Spilhaus:What does it say? I don't think I even have a copy.
Doel:It repeats many of the issues raised in the '59 report and emphasizes that these have not yet been fulfilled.
Spilhaus:There you go. That was probably my exact view—that the report was totally unnecessary. Why write another report when—gosh, the Stratton Commission's report has several many good things, many good things in it that haven't been implemented to this day. I'm against reports that are unnecessary.
Doel:A great deal of the origins of the Sea Grant College program are in the oral history interviews that you have already conducted. What I wanted to ask you about more generally was whether there was anything else connected with your service with the Academy, with the NAS, that you haven't spoken about yet that you wanted to discuss? Any particular issues that you raised regarding science policy or science development?
Spilhaus:Yes. There's one thing, only one thing. Because after Det was Fred Seitz and then Phil Handler. And I was a great friend of all of those and worked with them. However, who was it that asked me to chair the committee on pollution at the National Academy? I don't remember which. It could have been Det Bronk. King, (Hubbert) as I mentioned, was on my committee, splendid committee. It was in Kennedy's time. Ah, well, that's Bronk.
Doel:That makes it Bronk.
But anyway, whether that was before or after NASCO, I don't know. Possibly after NASCO. I've got the report and you should look it up. It's called "Waste Management." Paperback Academy publication. "Waste Management and Control," I called it. Well, Kennedy becomes worried about pollution. And so, Det appoints me Chairman of this committee on pollution—alright, they called it the Committee on Pollution. And when they wanted to write report, I said, "I don't like the negative thing—Committee on Pollution—I'm against pollution. And if the report's going to do any good, it's got to talk about the management of waste and the control of pollution." So we called it "Waste Management and Control." And as Chairman of that committee—that's why they didn't make me, or why they did; I don't know—I had a tremendous influence. I mean, that committee had very strong, great people; but in the formulation of the policy in that report, I was stressing the fact that you don't just kick around the dirt and then clean it up. You formulate things to re-use waste as a resource to control waste at the source. It's the management of waste. And then I wrote papers on waste as a resource, which we've got now, and recycling and all these things again. That was a very important report. In fact, as Chairman of that committee, we formulated our thing at the Whitney Estate in Wood's Hole, the last report. NASCO and that committee were extremely enjoyable jobs for the Academy. After that, I didn't take on any more because they offered me this nerve gas thing, which would have been interesting, but I thought futile because I knew I couldn't get through this simple idea.
But the point was, the important thing about the pollution report—Harvey Brooks was a very big power in the Academy and a wonderful man. And, of course, I'd asked him—he was at Harvard, a dean then. When we were meeting to write the report in Wood's Hole, I said, "Harvey, you're the guy who looks over these reports prior to the National Academy's application of them. I'm not going to have a report that I put together with a splendid committee edited by somebody who doesn't spend time listening. Even a bright guy like you." And I made a very big point in that. It wasn't an ego thing. It was simply that I thought that this committee was so good that even a bright guy like Harvey Brooks shouldn't spend fifteen minutes reading over a report and then trying to edit it.
Doel:We're looking now at the "Waste Management and Control" publication from the National Academy.
Spilhaus:That's correct. And look at those names.
Doel:First printed in March, 1966. So, of course, you are the Chairman of that committee. Daton Carrot, from MIT, was involved; and Allen Nice from Resources for the Future; Howard McMann from Arthur D. Little; Sumner Pike was involved with that as well; Timothy Shay from Summit, New Jersey; Benjamin Stevens from the University of Pennsylvania; and Abel Wohlman from Johns Hopkins.
Spilhaus:Yeah. It was a fine committee. I know you know some of those names.
Doel:Some of them I do know. Timothy Shay is not familiar to me.
Spilhaus:I don't place him either, but he was a very distinguished engineer. And we also had on there—let me look at those names again. I thought I had on the committee—well, not on the main committee, but I had among the subcommittees, the President of the Los Angeles By-product Company. In those days, this private enterprise gathered up the dead cats and dogs, and people separated their garbage in Los Angeles. And they gathered them up for nothing, saving the taxpayer, and reprocessed them. I thought, "here was a real garbage collector." And I had him on one of our subpanels. He was an excellent man. Well, the sad thing was that later on a mayor came in, Mayor Yorti, I think. And he won the mayorship out there in Los Angeles by saying, "Why should you housewives have to separate your organic and inorganic garbage?" Because the only thing that was required was the separation, and then the By-products Company picked up both. They picked up the dead cats and dead dogs in the streets, rendered them into perfectly edible lard for dog food and cat food, processed the metal, particularly tin cans, for some special purpose, and the organic garbage they burned. The whole thing was a beautiful thing and this mayor beat it out. The company went out of business, of course. And the taxes went up.
Doel:That was fairly unique at that time, wasn't it?
Spilhaus:It was indeed unique at that time. It was in my mind the only thing. It's come back now. And possibly this report had a little to do with it. But I got that kind of practical guy on the subcommittees. Well, to get back to the Academy, and to what the important thing that you asked me was.... Harvey did come down to Wood's Hole—he could have come down from Harvard—and did not attend. Afterwards, he spends a few days, bright guy as he is, and goes through our report in detail; comes back with comments to me that this would be very distasteful to the government, but the government was paying for the job. I then said to Harvey, "The Academy has lost its status. It's lost its independent status. It was invented by (whatever president) to give independent advice to the government. Now because all your resources come from the government, you've lost your independent status and you are criticizing my report, not for the substance, but because it's unpalatable on the Hill." And they invented a thing called a COSPUP, a committee for the—what did that stand for in the Academy?
Doel:I know of it. I can't think of what the acronym stands for.
Spilhaus:Well, it's a review committee for people who write reports. If you get Academy people together, and you get the best darned committee in the United States who give their time to the thing, to have a review committee say what's distasteful to the government, and might offend the Senators and cut off their funds, you're prostituting yourself, in my opinion. That was why after that I never took on another job for them. This was 1966. You see, this was after my service with... And both NASCO and this were wonderfully rewarding things, but I had this argument with Harvey Brooks. And the reason for the creation of COSPUP was that after the report of NASCO, Harrison Brown, with my blessing, was not willing to just let the report mold there in the Academy files. He took it up to his friends, and he had plenty on the Hill. He saw that the politicians got this report on the oceans. It seemed to me that this was what the report was written for. And the Academy—was worried about their people independently getting the report out to political people—worried about their funds.
Doel:So Bronk felt that it ought to go through his office?
Spilhaus:Not Bronk. I don't believe Bronk—I think this must have been Seitz in 1966.
Doel:Seitz. I think that's right. Okay.
Doel:We'll check on that.
Spilhaus:Check on it. Maybe Handler. It certainly wasn't Bronk; I have too much respect for Bronk. Bronk would have agreed with me. He said, "Write truthfully. Let the buggers take it." That's what Bronk would have said. I know him well enough. And Fred, being on the side with Bronk. would have been not as strong in his language, but Handler was a much more political person. Possibly, I think this was the beginning of Handler's time. I'm rather sure it was because Handler, at that time, had bought this house by the Academy. His own house up there, as well as having the Whitney Estate. That was Handler's time. And this was when the politics got into the Academy. And I'm not sure—one hates to criticize a great institution like that, but it's never accepted me as a member, and it's not sour grapes at all—but I do believe that when you have only one source of support, federal support, and you're supposed to give independent advice, you are in a difficult position.
Doel:Did other scientists begin to feel the same thing that you felt about the drift of the Academy?
Spilhaus:I don't know. I haven't discussed it with many people. It's just my own view that as things get bigger and grander, they have more overhead to support. And while the great scientists, the members of the Academy, who we all respect, who give their time, are not the cost of the Academy. They don't cost a damn thing. It's the fine buildings and all the equipments that cost. And thus, the Academy does tend to lose it's independence. It's got to keep going. It's an important institution. But if it prostitutes itself to keep going, it ceases to be an important institution.
Doel:I would just like to ask you, briefly, if there are any other issues if your scientific career that have not been covered, either in this interview or in other oral history interviews?
Spilhaus:I can't even remember what we've covered. I think you've done pretty well.
Doel:There's been quite a bit of writings you've done and what others have written about you, about your personal outlook and your wider views. I would just like to ask briefly if you have any strong religious convictions or other convictions that you felt have played an important part in your life?
I have—it's a very difficult question, you realize that, don't you? I have very solid religious convictions. I was brought up in the Church of England. And nominally now, I am Episcopalian. But these religious convictions are not denominational, they're rather philosophical convictions and religious. I can't really distinguish between the two.
I have to believe—I've said I don't believe in weather forecasting. I don't believe in the ability to predict when a whole bunch of non-linear operations interact. And earlier on, before the new mathematics of chaos, the uncertainty principle, the fact that you can't predict—when you get down to the end, you can't predict everything, reinforced the thing that I got from childhood that you have to have faith in something.
I think I said that these kind of things in science reinforce my idea that if you can't predict what's going to happen day by day in your life, you can't plan day by day. So you do the best you can with planning yourself, but I think you've got to leave the other to faith. And I think faith plays a very important role in many people's lives. Perhaps more in the lives of the less tutored, but I don't think it's necessarily so that if you're a smart guy and you know all about science you should negate faith.
I have at one time when I was in Minnesota. We had a little church and we used to go there. Not that I'm an avid church-goer, but we used to go there. The parson, on Easter Sunday, was taken very ill—and I was asked to pinch hit for the sermon. I wrote a little talk as simple as this, or even simpler, about the unity of science and religion. I feel there's no conflict at all. I don't know whether you'd use the word religion or the unity of science and faith.
I really believe when I said to Homer Newell, "We'll get batteries that won't boil," I didn't know how to do batteries that wouldn't boil. I had faith that engineers could do it.
I really think that faith is a very useful thing in life to many people. And those who are fortunate enough to be so intellectual and wealthy enough so that they can do without it are fortunate, but I think they make a mistake. That is a statement of faith.
Doel:Indeed. Well, I'd like to thank you very, very much for this long session that we've done today. And we will, of course—and this should go on the tape—not make the tape available to anyone or this transcript without your express knowledge and approval, as defined in the permission forms that we'll be sending to you once the edited transcript is prepared.
And thank you very much.
 Marine Biology Laboratory.
 Iselin received his A.B. from Harvard University in 1926 and an A.M. from Harvard in 1928. RD.
 Minimum Orbiting Unmanned Satellite of Earth. AS.
 Newell was NASA Associate Administrator from 1967 to 1973, when he retired from NASA. RD.
 The first meeting of the U.S.N.C. (IGY) occurred in 1953. RD.
 Frederick Seitz was president of the NAS from 1962 to 1969. RD.