Oral History Transcript — Dr. Gordon Hamilton
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Interview with Dr. Gordon Hamilton
Gordon Hamilton; March 15, 1996
ABSTRACT: Born April 20, 1923 in Orleans, Vermont; discusses family life and childhood. Describes entering Princeton in 1940 for undergraduate education in physics; discusses joining the Navy in 1943 as a radar specialist. Comments on how his Navy experience helped his later career at Lamont; discusses being convinced by his older brother to pursue geophysics at Columbia. Describes the research involved in the sinking of the Scorpion in May 1968; comments on the tensions between Maurice Ewing and Bruce Heezen. Describes the significance and frustrations of his Bermuda station work; discusses the formation of the Palisades Geophysical Institute. Comments on his retirement from PGI in 1972 and his subsequent classified projects for ONR.
Session I | Session II
Doel:This is Ron Doel. This is an interview with Gordon Hamilton. Todayís date is March 15, 1996. Weíre recording this at the ONR [Office of Naval Research] in Arlington Virginia. I know that you were born on April 20, 1923 in Orleans, Vermont, but I donít know about your parents or your family. Who were your parents, and what did they do?
Hamilton:My father was a congregational minister who died after a mastoid operation in 1928 when I was four or five. Mother took us back to New York City, where she went back to teaching high school. So I was brought up in Flushing, New York, with two brothers and a sister. My brothers were both much smarter than me. I learned to not play chess with them by the time I was eight, because I always got whipped.
Doel:They were older than you?
Hamilton:One was older and one was younger.
Doel:I take it when you say ďback to New YorkĒ, thatís where your mother was from.
Hamilton:Thatís where mother is from, right. Flushing, New York. Thatís where her sister and brother lived in an old family house. I went to high school in New York City, Bayside High. Went from there to Princeton. My older brother, who was a smart guy, suggested that geophysics was a field that would probably be interesting to me, and that it was largely outdoors. So I majored in physics, took some geology. World War II came along.
Doel:I want to cover all that in detail, but Iím curious, what kind of house did you live in when you were growing up in Flushing? You mentioned tható
Hamilton:In an apartment. In a row house, basically.
Doel:This was separate from the extended family, your motherís family?
Hamilton:My motherís family had another house a quarter mile away, where, in those days, they had a coal furnace, and I stoked it and I took the ashes out and used the ashes, often as not, to fill the potholes in the road. And you know, we lived in rather limited circumstances, mother with four kids.
Doel:Of course, the Great Depression started not long after that.
Hamilton:Of course, her position teaching school was a major asset in the Depression.
Doel:She was able to keep her job through the Great Depression? What subject, what grade did she teach?
Hamilton:She taught high school biology.
Doel:Did you have an interest, particularly, in that field when you were growing up?
Hamilton:No. I was quite proud of myself when about 1980, I finally took a course in biology, evening classes at Northern Virginia Community College. Mom would have loved it. But thatís the first time I ever took biology.
Doel:Did she talk about science often at home?
Hamilton:No. Hey, she was a single parent bringing up four kids on a limited salary. She was just busy with running a house and working. My older brother occasionally talked science. He was a physicist with a Ph.D. from [Isador I.] Rabi about 1939 at Columbia.
Doel:What were your main interests when you were growing up? Were they in the sciences? Were they in other areas, other fields?
Hamilton:No. There was a very active Boy Scout troop in the area, which I was a member of, Troop 1 Queens. As an indication of what a viable Boy Scout troop it was, Iím going to the Troop 1 Old-timerís sixty-second annual dinner next month.
Hamilton:They had a cabin out on Long Island—they trekked to out to it weekends, we had two standard Saturday night dinners, franks and beans or spaghetti and meat sauce— and a continued series of scouting competitions; signaling, first aid, knot tying, fire building (flint and steel, friction). I also played trombone in the church band and the high school band.
Doel:Was your mother particularly religious? Did you attend—
Hamilton:Religious enough that I went to Sunday school and to church each Sunday. And after I grew up and left home, I havenít been back to church since.
Doel:What do you remember reading when you were growing up? Did you read a lot?
Hamilton:Yes, I used to go down to the library regularly. The public library, that is.
Doel:The public library?
Hamilton:My older brother, Donald, was upset that I was reading the trash-paper novels and bought me off to read hardbound books, but they were still basically adventure stories type of things. You know, Treasure Island, The Nordoff and Hall, South Pacific etc.
Doel:Do you remember reading much about science? Was that an interest that you had at all, that you recall, in those years?
Hamilton:No, not particularly. The bottom line is, Iím a very average-type guy. I certainly was not a star in high school nor in college nor since then, except that Iím pretty good at managing people.
Doel:Did you take part in after-school activities when you were at Bayside High?
Hamilton:The usual science clubs. Tried running track and cross country, not very successfully.
Doel:Were you developed in other sports besides cross country?
Doel:What sort of things did you do in the science club back then?
Hamilton:I havenít a clue, long since forgotten.
Doel:Were there any teachers particularly memorable for you?
Hamilton:Oh, yes, I remember Mr. Pincus my physics teacher and Mr. Lev the lab assistant. I remember one or two of the French teachers Miss Skidmore and Miss Brooks and a math teacher. Iím going to go back to the Bayside Highís fifty-fifth reunion sometime this fall, but I guess none of those teachers will still be around.
Doel:Someone might surprise you, but I suspect it would be pretty extraordinary if it did. How did you come to decide on what schools you might attend for college? Was it always clear to you that you were going on to college, in high school?
Hamilton:Oh, yes. I came from a family that all went to college. I applied to several and was accepted at Princeton, so I took that since my brother had gone there.
Doel:This is your brother Donald who took the Ph.D.?
Hamilton:Thatís right. Donald had gone to Princeton.
Doel:When did he enter Princeton? What year was he in —?
Hamilton:He started in Ď31, so he was the class of Ď35.
Doel:And you were finishing high school at about that time, werenít you?
Hamilton:I was graduating from grade school in Ď36. So I finished high school in Ď40.
Doel:Thatís quite right. What had he told you about Princeton? Had you seen the campus already, by the time that you applied?
Hamilton:Weíd driven down there, taken him down, had gone down to see him several times. Really the thing I remember about those trips was not the campus so much as our old car, it used to boil over. We used to stop at the streams along Route 1 and get some water for the radiator.
Doel:That was very different landscape back then than it is today.
Doel:What were you thinking to—did you have an idea what you were going to major in when you arrived at Princeton, or did you find it a pretty open slate?
Hamilton:Yes. I had long since had decided to major in physics.
Doel:Because of your brotherís recommendation or through other reasons?
Hamilton:No, I enjoyed physics in high school, enjoyed science in high school generally.
Doel:You had taken physics. What else did you take in high school in the sciences? What courses were offered?
Hamilton:The usual— four years of math, two of Latin, three of French, the usual history courses, and the four years of English. In science, freshmen general science, chemistry, physics. One period for band and one period as a lab assistant in the chemistry/physics department.
Doel:Were areas like astronomy or geology offered?
Hamilton:No. There was something called physical geography. It was basically a gut course, but I didnít take it.
Doel:Where was your brother at the time that you went to Princeton? Was he already in the Ph.D. program at Columbia?
Hamilton:When I went to Princeton? Letís see. Thatís Ď40 to Ď43. He had received his Columbia physics PhD he was then a Harvard Fellow, Junior Fellow, and then he went to work in the radiation lab at MIT.
Doel:Oh, he did, I see. Had you been up to Columbia much?
Hamilton:Had I been up there?
Doel:Yes, with him as a—
Hamilton:To see what he was doing, see his laboratory.
Doel:What were your impressions of that? What was it like to see that when you were growing up?
Hamilton:I didnít really understand what he was doing. I was fascinated by the high- vacuum technology of his molecular beam research and the continued work to keep the high vacuum in place. For example, taking a shaving brush with soap on it, and running it around the various joints until he hit the one with the leak and the vacuum started to drop again, which meant he had found the leak. But no, I was not that informed on the research he was in. He was working quadra-pole beams.
Doel:You mentioned that you feel one of your strengths has been in managing people. When you were in high school, Iím just curious if you were involved in activities where you found you were already called on to do that?
Hamilton:No, I was a patrol leader in the Boy Scouts, and that was about it.
Doel:When you got to Princeton, as you say, you were pretty sure you were going to major in physics when you arrived there in 1940. What were your impressions of Princeton? How did it suit you at the time?
Hamilton:Suited me just fine. I enjoyed the course work. I was a bit of a grind, so my marks were good, which I needed because I had a scholarship.
Doel:Had you had to apply for that before going to Princeton?
Hamilton:Yes, just a partial scholarship. Mother was paying the rest of it. But I remember my bills that first year were $1,000 total. I didnít keep a record of later years. And I worked part-time.
Doel:What sort of things were you doing?
Hamilton:I was initially the gatekeeper at the football games, and then next year I was cashier, and as a junior I was one of the head cashiers.
Doel:Over at the stadium?
Hamilton:Yes. Which means I never really got to see any of the football games or basketball games. Of course, a major victory last night for Princeton in basketball, they whipped UCLA, last yearís NCAA winner, which is really amazing. An article in the paper a few days ago about Pete Carril the Princeton coach whoís retiring, 594 victories and zero basketball scholarships.
Doel:Iíve seen a little bit of that in some of the alumni magazines as well. Itís rather an interesting record. How much contact did you have with any of the physicists on campus outside of the lectures and the classes that you had? Did you meet any of them socially? Were there any informal meetings that you and your fellow students had?
Hamilton:Basically no. By then, the war years were starting. Certainly by my sophomore year, the war years were starting, and they were— the leading physicists were all departing. For example, my optics course was a man by the name of Professor [Helmut] Ladenberg, whoíd been a German scientist in World War I. So here he was teaching as, an American scientist but not part of the defense effort, but most of the professors had departed. Actually, my junior year— I was only there three years— I didnít learn much physics, because for a mediocre scientist like me, having a textbook where you can work through the examples and read the explanations is essential. The smarter ones could pick it up from the lectures without the textbook, and they didnít have them the good textbooks for sophomore and junior and senior physics that they have now. So the graduate student instructor or professor would come in and talk extemporaneously at the board, and you madly scribbled notes that didnít make much sense. But it wasnít until later that I learned to spend the next hour rewriting those notes.
Doel:Thatís an interesting point. Were there other friends who were also taking the physics program that you would study with at Princeton?
Hamilton:That I would study with? No. I certainly had friends there. We never studied together.
Doel:So essentially you were learning this by yourself in order to understand it. Indeed, many of the people were leaving Princeton during that time, many of the East Coast universities. Who were the main professors that you did take courses from, who were there?
Hamilton:There was a Professor [Hiram] Nichols with a background in—electronics and Ladenberg. There was a professor who eventually showed up at Rochester but whose name I donít remember.
Doel:I think I know who you mean. We can add that to the transcript later.
Hamilton:There was a good math professor, Solomon Lefschetz who had an artificial hand. He used to give me hell because he said I wasnít working hard enough.
Doel:How did you feel about that?
Hamilton:I was more of a grind than most of the people, so I just sloughed it off.
Doel:How did you find laboratory work at Princeton, the labs that you took?
Hamilton:Fascinating. They had some beautiful physics experiments such as the oil droplet experiment for determining the charge of the electron.
Doel:Were they in Palmer Hall at that point?
Hamilton:Right. And the chemistry labs— the quantitative chemistry labs were fun.
Doel:Who was there in chemistry at the time? Was [Hugh Scott] Taylor on campus, or had he left for the war effort?
Hamilton:I donít know. He was far removed from the freshman/sophomore chemistry courses that I might have taken.
Doel:Did you take any courses, say, from Hubert Alyea? Was that one of your instructors?
Hamilton:Alyea was my freshman chemistry professor,—a great showman. Though I guess in those days he hadnít quite developed into the showman that he developed into the next twenty years.
Doel:But you could see the evidence of it already?
Hamilton:Well, his lectures were certainly entertaining enough, but they werenít a bang a minute, the way they were later.
Doel:What do you recall from them, when you think back on it? What particularly interested you about it?
Hamilton:The fun of qualitative analysis in the laboratory where you were given an unknown, and you went through a series of steps trying to figure out what it was.
Doel:How did you find mathematics? Was that difficult for you or did it come relatively easy?
Hamilton:No, mathematics is one place where they usually had a good textbook, and so you could dig your way through it, so it came easy. The advice Iíve given everybody since is, ďFor Godís sake, donít take an advanced math course, take something that is well within your capabilities so youíre understanding it and enjoying it,Ē because mathematics is the essence of every science field. The best biologist I know is a very competent statistician, a statistician equivalent with the scientific officers in ONR who run the ONRís statistics program. Itís just essential that you get a good background in math for any branch of science.
Doel:Who is it youíre referring to?
Hamilton:Peter A. Jumars, Professor of Oceanography at University of Washington.
Doel:Did you have any courses in geology at the time? [Harry H.] Hess was obviously at Princeton then.
Hamilton:Yes, but he was a senior professor. I had a course in geology from Richard [M.] Field.
Doel:You did? Thatís interesting.
Hamilton:A fascinating course. The spring term was paleontology, first term was structural geology.
Doel:What were your impressions of those classes? What do you recall from them? Did you find that particularly interesting at the time that you were taking it?
Hamilton:No. Enjoyed them, enjoyed the mineralogy in the lab.
Doel:Who had taught the mineralogy class?
Hamilton:I donít know. I donít know who taught paleontology either. Basically this were just a smattering of background in the fields.
Doel:Yes. Which course was it that Field taught, that you took?
Doel:Did he touch on major questions in geology? Did he raise current research topics, or did he cover it in a fairly traditional classical way?
Hamilton:No, it was a traditional classical course. This was a freshman course, with the reputation of being a Ďgut courseí that all the football players took. It would be far below anything at the professional level of Harry Hess, though I guess by then he was skipper of a Navy transport.
Doel:I was going to ask, certainly he was in the Navy pretty early in the war. Do you remember meeting him at the time?
Hamilton:No. No. I met him years later.
Doel:How was Field as a teacher, when you think back? Was he effective?
Hamilton:I donít really have a recollection of how he was as a teacher.
Doel:Realizing fully that, as you say, Field was teaching a course for freshmen, one of the reasons I was asking that question, was wondering whether he was talking about the work that was going on, say, with [?] Ewing in that period of time, in exploring the ocean.
Hamilton:Ewing didnít exist in those days in terms of freshman geology courses.
Doel:Right. Except that Field, of course, did know about the kind of work that Ewing was doing through the personal contacts.
Hamilton:Ewingís work in those days was certainly not at the forefront of anything. And Ewing would just barely have moved to Woods Hole from Lehigh. I donít know, but I suspect that Richard Field, professor at Princeton, would have thought that this junior scientist at Lehigh was beneath him.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Do you remember going to any lectures that were done by others than the professors? Was that something that as undergraduates would attend?
Doel:Were any of the teachers at Princeton particularly memorable for you, particularly influential?
Hamilton:Professor Nichols was. It must have been his course in electronics. And Solomon Lefschetz, a math professor with the prosthetic device on his right hand for holding the chalk to write on the blackboard.
Doel:How would you say they were influential or helpful? In what way did you find that?
Hamilton:Well, the math professor certainly spurred me on to doing more math than I would otherwise have done. Nichols had lab experiments in electronics that taught me the fundamentals of vacuum-tube electronic design and so on.
Doel:You had a lot of hands-on experience building things in the lab?
Hamilton:No, we measured radio tube characteristics and amplifiers performance, this sort of thing. This all came in handy when I decided to get into the Navy to avoid the mud in the Army, get in the Navy where thereís always a bed and a hot meal. With that background I could make a pretty good case for training to be a Navy radar specialist or SONAR specialist.
Doel:Were you thinking of that when you took the class or was that apparent in retrospect?
Hamilton:No, itís probably apparent in retrospect.
Doel:You say that in 1943 you went into the Navy. How did that come about?
Hamilton:I was dodging the draft.
Doel:Very typical in that period.
Hamilton:The fellow across from the hail from me went into the artillery and spent a year in the mud in France. I spent a year or two on a destroyer in the Pacific, where I always had a sack, though I couldnít roll over without scratching my butt on the bunk above me.
Doel:Those were tight quarters. Did you work during the summers when you were at Princeton, or had the university gone to the calendar where one attended—
Hamilton:First summer, I was a Scout master in New York City Boy Scout Camp, Ten Mile River. The second summer, weíd already gone to an accelerated educational program, so I was taking courses of some sort.
Doel:Throughout the summer. You were actually finished with the bachelorís degree by 1943 under that accelerated program?
Hamilton:June Ď43. Right.
Doel:What kind of duty did you see when you were out in the Pacific?
Hamilton:I was the radar specialist officer on a destroyer squadron staff, which was a hell of a lot of fun, because I got rotated around among the various destroyers in the squadron. I was the only one that knew all the officers in the squadron. And if there was a major electronic problem on a destroyer, Iíd get high-lined over to that ship. The problem was usually solved by going down and talking to the chief petty officer for electronic for electronics. Usually it was some simple problem like water in the waveguide up on the top of the mast, and the skipper wouldnít let them climb the mast to drain it. So Iíd go talk to the skipper and say, ďHey, weíve got to climb the mast,Ē and if he was hesitant and didnít want to do it, I would blackmail him.
Doel:How did you blackmail him?
Hamilton:I would tell him that when Iím on the destroyer squadron flagship, I stand a flag watch, and invariably there will be occasion when it will be three oíclock in the morning, doing Zigzag Plan Six; the plan calls for thirty degrees left and your ship does thirty right. When the ships were making a big turn, I would always watch the radar to make sure, nobody made a mistake. At that point I had two options. Either I call the commodore and say, ďHey, that stupid ship over there has thirty right instead of thirty left,Ē or I can get on the radio without saying who I was, and say, ďHey, you asshole, come on, thirty left, not right.Ē And the result was, Iíd get permission to climb the mast, and weíd get it fixed. I had a couple of excellent destroyer squadron commodores, so I enjoyed it very much.
Doel:I can see where your electronics experience came in handy.
Hamilton:For example one fire control radar was always burning out a 3000-volt transformer. Iíd jerry-rig a 3000 volt line, hang it on string near the overhead from a cathode ray tube power supply in the adjacent radar. This would keep this fire control radar going until we got spares.
Doel:And that wasnít necessarily a skill shared by others who might know electronics, either. Youíve got to know how to jerry-rig a system to keep it going.
Hamilton:And you had to be willing to take the responsibility to do it.
Doel:That was probably as critical if not more so, wasnít it? Hamilton. Yes, right. I didnít go ask anybody, I just did it.
Doel:Can you think of any particular instance when you say that?
Hamilton:No. It was a tough war on my destroyer squadron. We lost about 40 percent of the officers of the squadron. The kamikazes would come down on the destroyer, and they would come through the bridge structure, which meant they would take out the two officers in the gun control topside. They would take out everybody on the bridge, three or four there. Theyíd go down, go on through the communication shack and the crypto machines, down into Combat Information Center, and finally down on the next deck where you had the computers for fire control as well as the forward repair party and the shipís doctor. So when a kamikaze came into and succeeded in hitting the bridge structure, youíd be left, really, with only the engineering officers below and the paymaster on the after 40 mm guns. That plus the fact that my squadron that was the destroyer screen for the small carriers, that were caught east of Leyte Gulf by a Japanese force coming through Suragaya Strait. The squadron took on Japanese cruisers with our five-inch guns against the cruisers had eight and twelve inch guns. In any case, come June of Ď45, our original squadron of ships got sent back but with only three ships left, to the States for overhaul. So we went back to Seattle. I went home for two weeks, then went out to radar school in Pearl [Harbor], and thatís were I was when the war ended.
Doel:Had that happened on one of the ships you were serving, that kind of kamikaze attack?
Hamilton:No. The ship I was on, when a kamikaze came in, the skipper Col. Fred Michael ran through the wheelhouse and spun the wheel so we were coming right, and the kamikaze hit ten feet off the port bow, close enough so that when I was on the third deck up, I was soaked by the splash. Close. But it was the skipper that saved us. He didnít bother shouting an order. He just ran through the wheel house and spun the wheel.
Doel:How many times did that happen?
Hamilton:That only happened once to me but many destroyers in ASW screens off Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima were hit.
Doel:That must have been quite a moment for you.
Hamilton:It was over so soon, I didnít know what happened.
Doel:You do get the chance to think about it afterwards, though.
Hamilton:Right. Almost more interesting was when the fleet would make a major change of course. And the destroyer screen would have to reorient to stay ahead. Our destroyer captain, Fred Michael was an Annapolis graduate. And in the course of changing seventy degrees to the left, a destroyer escort would come across our bow from right to left. The DE probably had a lieutenant commander reserve as a CO. And itís the only time Iíve heard five bells, which is a collision. It was kind of funny to watch Fred Michael, our commanding officer cuss at the DEís CO, because he knew he was senior to that guy. [Laughter] We of course were backing down full, the DE had the right of way. But that was more of a long, drawn-out incident, it took a minute or two, where you thought maybe you were going to be rammed. We had already run for our life jackets when we heard fire bells.
Doel:How close did that end up being?
Hamilton:Oh, you passed fifty feet apart, with my ship shuddering as it was backing down, all full on both screws.
Doel:What else do you particularly recall from your wartime experience?
Hamilton:I went to midshipmenís school in New York City on the USS Prairie State at 136th Street and the Hudson River. Had a ball. Went from there to radar school at Harvard and at MIT for a better part of eight months.
Doel:What did you learn at that radar school? What kind of training did you do?
Hamilton:Maintenance of fleet radars and fleet SONARs. Essentially at Harvard, the fundamentals of radar technology. At MIT, the hands-on-experience with the fleet radars and the fleet SONARs.
Doel:How big were the classes?
Hamilton:I donít specifically recall. Twenty or thirty.
Doel:Did you also learn about things like chaff?
Hamilton:No, chaff was not a factor then.
Doel:That came later?
Doel:Iím curious if, in looking back, you found that whole experience was particularly helpful for what you later did in science, the radar training or the wartime experience, generally.
Hamilton:Yes, because the primary thing it taught me was, donít get caught up in the sophisticated details of trying to fix failed equipment; itís probably something pretty simple. Years later on a cruise from Woods Hole down to Bermuda on the research vessel Caryn, it was three oíclock in the morning, and the FM radio for Tzers shot times between the two ships did not work. Sitting there, Iím about to replace what Iíve decided has gone bad itís one of the coupling coils in the receiver. I looked at it and I said, ďChrist, no, man, donít be stupid. Look for something simple.Ē Rather than attempting to rewind that coupling coil I found something simple. The antenna wire between the receiver and the antenna was broken. But it was that experience in the Navy where it saved me from really lousing up that experiment at sea abroad Caryn that time.
Doel:Do you find that to be a common trait of those who had gone through the Navy in those later years, who knew that sort of thing about equipment, or was that something that you felt youíd particularly picked up from your own experiences?
Hamilton:I donít think I ever ran into anybody else whoíd spent time in the Navy as an electronic technician, who had science and geophysics.
Doel:So your background, then, was fairly unique.
Hamilton:Yes. I had a much better background in electronics and such than most the other people had. And the practical details of electronics, like trying to troubleshoot a receiver by going in and tapping the grids to see where the clicks came through, where they didnít come through, where they stopped.
Doel:Were there any other aspects of the wartime service that you found particularly memorable?
Doel:When the war ended, did you already know what you wanted to do? Were you thinking already that you wanted to get into graduate school for study, or did that come gradually?
Hamilton:I wanted to use the GI bill for more education.
Doel:You had mentioned that conversation with your brother who had recommended geophysics. When did that happen. Was that still when you were at Princeton, or was it later?
Hamilton:No, it must have been while I was in high school, because in my high school yearbook where it says, ďWhat do you want to do?Ē And I said, ďGeophysics.Ē
Doel:Is that right? Thatís interesting. Very few people even know what geophysics is, coming into college as freshmen, but you already had that. That was nice. [W.] Taylor Thom was at Princeton, wasnít he, in the geophysical engineering?
Hamilton:I had no contact with him. You know, my freshman year I had electives, but by my sophomore year, I had a language requirement to meet. Then the war started, and I had no electives left. It was essentially take the required courses when you graduate in three years. I still think about taking a course, for example, in music appreciation.
Doel:One that you wanted to take, but you couldnít?
Hamilton:Well, that I would have taken.
Doel:It would have been difficult, since you already had a full schedule during the time that the curriculum had narrowed down to the required courses. How much did you know about geophysics? Your brother had recommended it.
Doel:What did he know about it?
Hamilton:He was a smart guy.
Doel:Did he know, for instance, the applied parts, geophysics applied to petroleum exploration?
Hamilton:He essentially knew geophysics as applied to petroleum exploration. Right.
Doel:Had you seen any of the textbooks at that time or talked to anybody who was active in the business?
Hamilton:No. There wasnít anybody at Princeton, in those days, active in the field. They are much more active in the field now.
Doel:That, of course, was common of many universities at that period of time. I was just curious, your brother, you say, had been at Harvard. I wondered if he had met or had spoken to you about any of the geophysical work going on there.
Hamilton:No. He was in physics, and L. [Lewis] Don Leet was in another department working in seismology.
Doel:And the seismology was certainly in a separate area, but there was still people there, like Reginald [A.] Daly, who worked in areas that overlapped geophysics.
Hamilton:Was Daly at Harvard?
Doel:Daly was at Harvard. And [Francis] Bridgman had started the high-pressure work, Francis Bridgman.
Hamilton:Bridgmanís work was background for solid earth theoretical geophysics, a far cry from exploration geophysics.
Doel:Leet felt it was geophysics, geochemistry, geophysics.
Doel:So you were thinking about going into geophysics coming out from the war. Where were you thinking you might go? How much did you find out about what was happening?
Hamilton:I am a very mediocre guy. I just plodded along.
Doel:But how did you find out about, say, Columbiaís program in geophysics?
Hamilton:I started in physics there and then shifted over to geology.
Doel:But what made you choose Columbia at that point, versus other possible schools?
Hamilton:Well, because my brother had gone there and I could live at home.
Doel:Did you apply at anywhere else besides Columbia?
Doel:How helpful was the GI Bill for getting into graduate school?
Hamilton:Well, it paid my way through.
Doel:Did it pay most of it? Did you find it was sufficient?
Hamilton:Oh, yes. I was living at home, as well, so—
Doel:All that you had at that point was the tuition, by and large, and expenses. Were you working at the time, outside?
Hamilton:No. It paid my tuition and expenses.
Doel:What do you remember from the physics department? When you went in, you were thinking of geophysics, or were you overlapping, thinking of physics and—
Hamilton:Kind of overlapping. Professors Willis [E.] Lamb [Jr.], Webb, 1.1. Rabi in physics. Over in geology, Marshall Kay. Maurice Ewing, of course.
Doel:Did you take any courses from Walter [H.] Bucher?
Hamilton:Yes, Walter Bucher, Structural geology.
Doel:How early on did you make the decision to go over to geology and start in geophysics? Was that the first year?
Hamilton:Essentially after a year, right.
Doel:Youíd taken a year of the physics, the graduate physics. How much of that was classical and how much of it was quantum physics?
Hamilton:I did not get as far along as quantum physics, quantum mechanics.
Doel:So the first year was still, by and large, the classical.
Hamilton:Yes. I was basically making up for what I didnít get in my senior year in college.
Doel:Do you remember what courses you had taken in that year?
Hamilton:Some math, some physical chemistry. I guess, mechanics.
Doel:Do you remember what you did that summer, that first summer that you were at Columbia?
Hamilton:Yes. I went to summer school, took a course in mechanics and something else. Ď46?
Doel:I should be clear. When you were finally released from the Navy, did you then start in the spring term, or were you already there for the start of the fall?
Hamilton:I was released about the end of June and started in graduate school the next month.
Doel:So you were able to get right in. And then Columbia was still on an accelerated schedule then, which is why you had the summer courses?
Hamilton:I donít know what schedule I was on. I had summer school, though.
Doel:So the first courses that you took in geophysics came that next year, the Ď46-í47 academic year.
Hamilton:No. It must have been a year later.
Doel:A year later than that? Ď47-í48. You mentioned Marshall Kay. What course do you remember taking from him?
Hamilton:He taught stratigraphy, which was the correlation of a sediment strata here and a sediment strata over there, and inferring from that what the sediments did in between, how they banded in and how they banded out.
Doel:Did that sort of approach appeal to you? Did you find that interesting?
Hamilton:Yes. Very interesting. You know, in those days, it was the essence of large-scale geology. Today we may have more bore holes, so you donít have to try and infer, but then we didnít.
Doel:Were there field trips with that class? Did you go out to see highway cuts or things of that sort?
Hamilton:No. The field trips were with Walter Bucher, not in stratigraphy.
Doel:What do you remember about the classes that you had with structural geology with Bucher?
Doel:You say you had the trips—was this, in essence, field camp that you went on, or was it daytime only?
Hamilton:It was daytime field trips up to the Palisades and North Palisades, where on a very short scale there are some highly folded beds. It must have been north of Nyack, but I donít recall where.
Doel:But clearly, you could go up and get back within the same day with no trouble. When you think back on it, were any of those courses particularly helpful for your later career? It was all more or less part of a—
Hamilton:No. There about Ď48, I started working more and more on government research contracts, Navy contracts, where the field was ocean sound transmission.
Doel:Was anyone teaching a course in underwater acoustics, things of that sort?
Doel:Had you had much training in acoustics?
Doel:What do you remember— you had a seminar with Ewing? Did you have the introductory—
Hamilton:I had a course in introductory geophysics. There was a good textbook by [L.L.] Nettleton.
Doel:Nettleton was the more or less applied to geophysics text?
Hamilton:Right. And a book by Daly.
Doel:Do you remember which one from Daly?
Hamilton:No, I do not. A book on seismology by— James B. Macelwane a professor at Washington [University] in St. Louis.
Doel:Did you talk much about the work going on in California, [Perry] Byerlyís work or [Beno] Gutenbergís?
Hamilton:No. We used to hear occasional disparaging remarks about L. Don Leet.
Hamilton:From the office, generally. Might have been from Joe [Lamar] Worzel.
Doel:Had you met Leet, did you know? What kind of remarks?
Hamilton:There was quite an argument in the scientific literature, in the late thirties on a paper Ewing wrote, where he had done some considerable extrapolation — legitimate — which Leet had criticized vociferously. I canít imagine Ewing having commented on it, but itís the sort of thing that Worzel might have. Being disciples of Doc Ewing we of course thought poorly of Leet as a result.
Doel:How well did you come to know Joe Worzel in that period?
Hamilton:Very well. Dirty old Joe. We were both working in the same lab. He was running the gravity program with the [Felix A.] Vening-Meinezís pendulums, and I went to sea on submarines a couple of times with those pendulums to get data for him.
Doel:When did you first go to sea?
Hamilton:Went to sea in the summer of Ď47 on the Atlantis, going to Bermuda and then over to the Azores. And off and on every so often after that, every four or five months.
Doel:Do you remember who the chief scientist was on that first cruise that you took?
Hamilton:Maurice Ewing, with Adrian Lane, the skipper; Mr. Carlson, the first mate; Chief Baccus, the chief engineer; and Sammy, the cook. That was an interesting cruise. They had loaded up the Atlantis freezer solid with meat, and the result was that the meat in the center never froze. So by the time we were six weeks out of Woods Hole and on our way back home, that meat had gotten pretty ripe. If you went through the galley at six oíclock in the morning, the meat stank But after they stewed it from six in the morning Ďtil six in the evening, it wasnít bad at all [Laughter] It wasnít bad at all.
Doel:It just didnít help to smell it at that hour in the morning.
Hamilton:Didnít help at all to smell it then.
Doel:What was it like to work with Ewing as chief scientist?
Hamilton:Oh, it was tremendous. If youíre running an experiment and there were four jobs to do, he would always grab the dirtiest job and do it.
Doel:And this was characteristic of him?
Hamilton:Yes. We were listening with hydrophones over the side. I would end up inside on the photograph oscillograph, making a recording. He would do what was actually the critical part of the job, but it was also the heavy work, which was haul hydro phones in close to the ship and then cast them off so that the hydro phone would remain still in the water as the ship drifted away. It was heavy work puffing these hydrophones in, letting it go for the next shot, and heíd do it twenty times. But he would do that job, which meant that the phones were quiet, which meant I got good records inside. But he was doing the heavy work, but he was always that way.
Doel:That was your task during the cruise? You were working on the hydrophones?
Hamilton:During that particular set of experiments, yes.
Doel:How often would it rotate during a single cruise like that?
Hamilton:How often would what rotate?
Doel:The task, the experiment that you were working on.
Hamilton:We didnít do that experiment that often, so it didnít rotate, really.
Doel:By Ď46, Ď47, when you were first getting acquainted and got to know Ewing and the rest of the people in geophysics, how much did you know about the sound channel work that Ewing had been involved in at Woods Hole during the war?
Hamilton:Didnít know much about it for another couple of years, because the book that he wrote on it, Memoir Twenty-seven of the Geological Society of America, is dated 1947.
Doel:Do you remember reading it when it came out?
Hamilton:Oh, yes. After it came out, yes, in great detail.
Doel:And you found the topic particularly interesting?
Hamilton:I found it essential to my profession, which was becoming long-range ocean sound transmission.
Doel:Thatís, in essence, what Iím asking you about. How did that become your particular area?
Hamilton:In Ď48, I did some ocean sound transmission work with ONR on two ships from the Gulf of Maine, down on the edge of the shelf. Basically seismic transmission study of the sea floor.
Doel:Joe Worzel was on that cruise, wasnít he?
Hamilton:No, I was the program director and chief scientist, Joe Worzel was somewhere else. These boats were the Lida and Dido, the shooting boat, and the receiving boat was a little schooner called the Reliance. I donít know where Joe was that summer, Ď48. That fall, the Navy decided they wanted to put a hydrophone on the sea floor off Bermuda, and so I did the planning and such for that. So in June 1949, I moved to Bermuda and set up the Columbia University Geophysical Field Station on St. Davidís Island at the east end of Bermuda. The Navy interest in the station was a very highly classified project, so they wouldnít tell me why they wanted this listening station. This was probably just as well, because I would have told them they were stupid.
Doel:And why is that?
Doel:Weíre looking at a map on your office wall.
Hamilton:Hereís Bermuda. And what they wanted to do was listen for possible Russian underwater nuclear depth charges up near Novala Zemla, north of Russia. And if you got a world Mercator projection like this, it looks like Bermuda has a clear path to listen but if you look on a Great Circle map, Newfoundland and the Grand Banks block the path. Thereís no transmission path. It was only after Iíd gone down to Bermuda and put in an underwater hydrophone and was monitoring it, that I realized what they really wanted, which was be able to monitor for USSR underwater nuclear depth charges. But we had a hydrophone there that was in about 2,500 feet of water, and over the next twenty years, we listened to various underwater phenomena, including, as it turns out, a simulated underwater nuclear depth charge, which resulted when the Navy scuttled a ship, loaded with overage explosives; mines, depth charges, to dispose of them and it detonated on the way down. It probably detonated on the way down because there was a cavity in the explosives which, under the hydrostatic pressure, collapsed causing that charge to detonate, and so the whole ship detonated.
Doel:How deep was it by the time the pressure detonated it?
Hamilton:It was probably 3,000 feet. It was like 800 tons of explosives. This started a program, sponsored by ARPA, as a convenient way to simulate underwater big explosions, by loading ships and towing them out to sea, and putting a SOFAR charge in there so they would detonate at 4,000 feet. A silly mistake was made, the last scuttling. They loaded a ship, took it up to the Aleutians, scuttled it so that it would detonate over the Aleutian trench. The ship had been checked over with, reinstalled the seacocks that worked fine. But at the last moment, when the ship was scuttled, with open seacocks, the topside hatches were closed, and the result was, the ship could not flood and did not sink. It drifted up there in the fog for about three days before it finally sank but in water too shallow to free the 4000 SOFAR detonators to fire.
Doel:Is it still there?
Hamilton:Yes. Itís still there, sure. A week or two later, they were up dropping deep depth charges on them, but by then the SOFAR charges which were supposed to initiate the detonation had leaked, so the mechanism wouldnít work. There was a bit of a rumpus about that.
Doel:Was that in the late sixties when that happened?
Hamilton:Yes, it was about Ď69. It was when Tom [Thomas B.] Owen had just taken over as Chief of Naval Research. At his first briefing over at the Pentagon, the CNO demanded from the junior admiral in the back row, ďTom, what the hellís that ship you have got up there in the Aleutians causing all these PR problems? Tom, what are you going to do anything about it?Ē Turned out, the program had been run by two or three civilians, and their report on Friday nightís problem had not yet gotten to Owen for his Monday a.m. meeting. In any case, the hydrophone we had in Bermuda opened a whole new view on the underwater world, because we recorded it continuously. From our background at Columbia in seismology, we were used to— recording things continuously, changing the paper once a day, and so we put in recorders of that sort. Actually, the ones we used a hot-wire recorder on a wax paper, thirty-six-inch sheet of paper, twelve inches wide, on a drum, for a twenty-four-hour record with a response to 80 Hz plus a slow tape recorder. In the mid-sixties, I was the Navy expert on ocean SOFAR signals. The TJSN was firing Polaris missiles southeast from Cape Canaveral in Florida to the open ocean east of Barbados. SOFAR signals were an obvious way to locate the impact positions. The Russians can test 3000 mile missiles from land. Essentially then put a tape measure down and measure the distance. We had to develop an accurate method of locating the missile splash point east of Barbados. To get high accuracy we put in a hydrophone station in the Canary Islands so we would have on all four underwater acoustic or so far hydrophones.
Doel:With triangulation from the different receiving stations?
Hamilton:Triangulation with these different receiving stations is required to compute a SOFAR position. In Ď67, the accuracy required was not that great. But there, too, we put in continuous visible recorders and continuous tape recorders. That was the facility that got a significant recording of the break up of the submarine Scorpion when it sank. This recording was good enough that we could not just triangulate on the loss position, but could make a good enough story from this series of sounds, that their origin couldnít be anything else but a shipwreck.
Doel:When did the Scorpion sink?
Doel:This may be actually a good time to cover that in a bit greater detail. I want to get back to some other points that youíve raised. What were you recording from the Scorpion? How quickly did you recognize what kind of a signal you had? How did you find out about the nature of the problem?
Hamilton:We were continuously recording the hydrophone in the Canarys that we had installed.
Doel:Canary Station or Bermuda, do you mean?
Hamilton:Canarys and Bermuda, with both a visible recorder, but also with a tape recorder. With the tape recorder we could analyze the frequency spectrum of the signals. The point is, an underwater explosion has initial shock wave, then a ďgas bubbleĒ forms which then collapses, and sends out a second acoustic signal. These two acoustic signals set up an interference pattern which controls the frequency spectrum of the received signal so you can go back and read off right away what the bubble pulse frequency was. And there is a simple relationship between the explosive charge weight and the detonation depth to determine the bubble pulse frequency. So in the Scorpion sequence, there was an initial signal with no frequency spectrum in it, which meant there was no bubble pulse, and then a sequence of about twenty signals with frequencies of the order of eighteen cycles, thirty-two cycles, fifty cycles, a range of frequencies, which you could duplicate with a series of explosions, a series of explosive charges, but you would have to go to some trouble to simulate that. So with that series of signals, with varying bubble-pulse frequencies, that followed a minute and a half, a signal that had no bubble pulse frequency, we could make this story. There was an explosion that ruptured the hull, and vented into the hull followed by the breakup sounds of the various collapsing tanks including the actual main hull as the sub sank. In a sub there are a lot of other smaller strong tanks. Thereís the tanks that have high-pressure air. Tanks that drain the water from a torpedo tube, where the torpedo has been fired. The escape trunks that are forwarded and back aft. It took us a week or so to get the tape back from the Canary Islands. These large signals could then be correlated with weaker signals at SOSUS stations, which you would not have noticed otherwise. Combined the signals could then be used to triangulate a source position.
Doel:Was that seen as critical in the history of the programs? Do you feel that the methods were applicable to the disaster such as the Scorpion, or was it simply one in a series, and one of the more visible in the series, the usages? How critical was it?
Hamilton:This one accomplishment in a long series. CUGFS [Columbia University Geophysical Field Station] was then 19 years old. Our data provided the Scorpion search position where the ship was finally found. The submarine community doesnít talk to anybody about anything, so this story has — never surfaced. Certainly never surfaced in the open literature, and doesnít surface in the Navy literature. I was at a conference five years later, and this Navy captain came up and said, ďGordon, glad to see you. How are you doing?Ē I finally said, ďWho in the hell are you? Where did I meet you?Ē and he laughed. He said, ďAt that Navy Investigating Board on the Scorpion. I was the aviator on that board, representing the rest of the Navy to make sure the submarine types didnít sweep it under the table.Ē [Laughter] One guy at a table with two admirals and ten captains. He said, ďI was the representative for the rest of the Navy.Ē And, of course, he had no question for me at all that day.
Doel:But youíd given the Board good ammunition.
Hamilton:Well, Iíd given them a good enough story, so they kept the NRL search team in that location for five months. In those days, the search was slow because they put a camera down and towed it along taking pictures at one knot, then you brought the camera up the camera developed the film.
Doel:Then repeat the procedure?
Hamilton:Repeat the procedure. And it was bad weather, you probably didnít get to tow the vehicle where you wanted to tow it, they eventually found the Scorpion. Of course, Iím sure the Navy has figured out what caused the loss, but nobody has ever put it in public domain. I donít know what caused the loss. Lots of theories. For example, the Scorpion was coming from the Mediterranean, and there were French and Israeli submarines lost in the Mediterranean the previous two years. So there was a rumor that some group over there was putting limpet mines on them. Not my problem, not my business.
Doel:I wanted to go back to something that was very much your business when you got started in that. When you said that you were involved in planning the hydro phones off Bermuda back in Ď48, what did that entail? What sorts of issues did you have to work through to get that to work properly?
Hamilton:What was I going to use for a boat to put them down? What was the cable I was going to use? Where was the cable landing going to be? What were the amplifiers on the hydrophones going to be? What was the hydrophone going to be? What was the recording system to be. None of those things existed in those days.
Doel:Iíll bet you that was actually developed and answered when you were at Lamont. How much time did you actually spend at Lamont?
Hamilton:Well, Lamont didnít exist as such.
Doel:It didnít exist as such until Ď49, clearly, and you were doing this by Ď48.
Hamilton:I was working out of a desk and phone at Schermerhorn Hall in the geology department.
Doel:Was it something that you were working on with, say, Angelo Ludas in fashioning any pieces of equipment?
Angelo made the submarine cable brake fashioned to in handling the cable going overboard. We laid the cable with a thirty-eight-foot boat that was designed for handling harbor buoys.
Session I | Session II