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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Gordon Hamilton by Ronald Doel on 1996 March 15,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
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.
We’re resuming after a brief lunch break I think we had just begun speaking about the general design of the recording instruments on the project. You had mentioned contributions from Angelo Ludas when you were in Schermerhorn.
Well, you know, I was working out of Schermerhorn, planning to go to Bermuda and put down 35,000 feet of submarine cable. So I had gone to Angelo, and he made me up a brake I could mount on this thirty-eight-foot buoy boat to handle the weight of the cable as it went over the side so we could control the cable payout. That was about all the equipment we got from Angelo. I got the buoy boat from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Had you located it yourself?
Probably ONR, NY located it. We got 15000 surplus harbor mine-defense cable in 5,000-foot lengths and ordered so 20,000-foot length of Simplex four-conductor power cable designed for use in quarries and mines with a tough neoprene jacket. All was shipped to Bermuda. I guess Angelo made the case for me for the geophone. In those days, there were no hydrophones with low impedance that could drive a segment then 35000 feet of cable, and so we used a geophone which would depend upon the sea floor shaking. They were low impedance, 100 ohms or so, that could drive a 35000-foot cable. That was the hydrophone we used on the end of this cable but it meant we had no calibration of the acoustic sound pressure levels. Had it all shipped to Bermuda. Built a beach shack on the east end of the Kindley Air Force base. Coiled the cable down in the buoy boat, 5000 feet of the harbor defense cable at a time then 20000 feet. The heavily armored mine-defense cable was used out on the edge of the shelf, buoyed it off, and then coiled down the 20,000 feet of quarry power cable in the buoy boat. Essentially we went out — ran the buoy boat from underneath the cable. When we came to the end, we threw the hydrophone over. Kind of haphazard, but it lasted twenty- five years. The only cable breaks we had during these twenty-five years were in shallow water where the armored cable was draped over a coral head and gradually chafed through. We had to lift it up and splice in a new piece. Then over the following years, we put in a couple of more hydrophones at the other end of the island down to the southwest. So we had two phones gave us some directivity on signals coming in.
It was just far enough that you could get baseline?
Well, they were twenty miles apart. But we monitored these phones continuously. They pinned down some of the early work on the tsunami earthquake signals from earthquakes. While we were there, we also operated a seismograph station over in the town of Saint George with a Texan named D.H. Sherbert. We also did a lot of work with tracking whales—they used to migrate through the area in the springtime, March, April. Again we’d get these strange signals on the hydrophones which were also bothering the SOSUS stations at the same time.
Let me ask, when was this occurring that you were doing the whale tracking? Was this already in the seventies?
No. This was mostly in the fifties and sixties by the seventies I was a government clerk in Washington.
Yes. Very interesting sound, because it’s at 20 hertz, 18 hertz. It would go on for fifteen minutes and then stop for two or three and then go on for fifteen minutes again. We eventually associated these with the humpback whales that were moving through the area. Lots of speculation then and now as to—oops, I’m not so sure it was the humpback whales. It wasn’t the humpbacks. It was another whale. Speculation as to what the whales are making this very low-frequency sound for. Everybody today talks about they use it for communications and for navigation and so on. I think they’re echo-ranging on the small bait fish, the prey they want to feed on. At 20 hertz, you can’t echo-range on something this size.
You’re holding your finger out.
Yes, holding my finger out. But the point is, if you’ve got a cloud of small fish or shrimp, their air bladders cumulatively change the impedance of the water of the fish school. They change the compressibility of the water as a cloud. Twenty hertz would be just fine for echo-ranging off a cloud the size of a fish school.
Did you talk with marine biologists at the time that you were first finding those signals, once you began to realize they were associated with this?
No, they weren’t interested in—cetacean biology was then a very small field— Bill Cheval at Woods Hole without much connection to underwater acoustics. It is now. There’s quite a bit of interest in it.
There really wasn’t communication once you found these signals?
Yes, we published in a book on marine bioacoustics and underwater acoustics, a book by [William N.] Tavolga, where we tracked these sounds going by Bermuda. There was much more discussion in the underwater acoustic community as to what these sounds could be. What was their mechanism? What was the purpose? It’s only in the past two or three years that I’ve come to the conclusion that they use it for echo-ranging on bait fish or shrimp, where the cloud of these bait fish or shrimp change the compressibility of the sea water so there was a large target. Nobody could imagine how at 20 hertz you were echo-ranging at anything. The wavelength was too big. The wavelength is about 250 feet. [Note added: Since then the source has been identified as the fin whale. Since 20 Hz signals are only heard during the fin whale’s breeding season that signals are apparently a mating call.]
That’s a very interesting observation. From the time that you first got involved in this work until, say, the 1960s, how big did the underwater sound community become? How many people were involved in it?
The Navy has had an Underwater Acoustics Symposium roughly every year since the fifties with 600 people attending, something like that.
More or less all of them military?
No, they’re mostly civilians. The Navy had an underwater acoustics lab in San Diego, one in Newport, one in New London, one out here at Silver Springs, Maryland, one at Dahlgren, Virginia, plus four or five academic labs— University of Washington, Scripps, U. Tex., Penn State, Johns Hopkins, all of whom had sizeable programs in underwater acoustics either in torpedoes or mines or sonar. So there were a lot of people in the field.
And these meetings, you say, were annual after the 1950s.
How much of it was classified?
Most of it, all the work on torpedoes, certainly the work on countermeasures. The work on SOSUS was so highly classified, it never got to these meetings.
One thing I’m curious about, in general, was how much was known about the factors that would affect the sound channel at the time you first got into the work. Clearly one’s thinking of salinity, temperature measurements. How much of that work needed to be cultivated for you to proceed effectively with the sound channel work that the Navy wished to see done?
By the time I got into it, the sound channel and such work was well understood. The thing that wasn’t understood were the variations of the sound velocity, the variations caused by ocean fronts that cause loss of signal coherence. Then you can’t use an array to improve your signal. In other words, you can’t use an array to get an accurate bearing. And, of course, the work in the sound channel is all the low-frequency work. All of the high frequency work on mines and torpedoes and such is not related to the sound channel work at all. Sonars are 1,000 to 10,000 Hertz. Mine countermeasures and torpedoes are 20,000 Hertz to a 100,000 hertz. Different field entirely.
How did it come about that you took on these contracts? Was it something that Ewing had asked you particularly to do or was it something that you found was that you were naturally inclined to?
Well, it was fun.
You found it fun?
Yes. I probably shouldn’t have done that. I probably should have stayed at Columbia and got a Ph.D., but—
How far towards the Ph.D. were you when you started taking on the work?
Oh, not very far.
Had you already started working on a possible thesis topic?
Nope. Hadn’t finished the course work.
How much was left? What you would have had to take?
Oh, probably a year’s course work and a thesis.
Who are the others who you consider to be in your class moving through? I’ve heard that was often defined as being those who were in Ewing’s graduate seminar in geophysics.
Let’s see. The people there were Joe Worzel, Jack Oliver, Frank Press, George Sutton, Ivan Tolstoy, Chuck Drake, Milton Dobrin, Dick Edwards, Sam Katz, and myself. This is in the ‘48, ‘47 time frame. Dick Edwards.
That can be added. At any point after you found yourself getting more involved in the undersea acoustics, were you tempted to get back to Columbia to finish the course work on the Ph.D. or did the rush of responsibilities make that seem increasingly—
No. I was excited with what I was doing, and I guess by then I had a family.
When did you first get married?
I got married in ‘48.
How had you met your wife?
She was my sister’s roommate when they were both dieticians working for Stouffer’s Restaurants in Philadelphia. She died three years ago, and I have since remarried.
What was the name of your first wife?
How big by the 1950s did CUGFS, the Bermuda Station become? How did it grow from the time that you were put in charge of the work there into the 1950s?
In the early fifties, we probably had five technical personnel, two electronic types, and a boatman, and a $200,000 per year budget. By 1970, the payroll was about fifty and the budget had increased to $1 million per year.
Fifty people. What caused the growth? What were these other new people doing that wasn’t done earlier?
One was a sizeable program 1962 through present day for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident Navy Missile Program where we were doing the work locating the missile splashes, precisely locating the impact positions and evaluating or scoring the re-entry body separation or MIRV systems.
This is what begins in the 1960s.
Oh, and there in the sixties, we— I, together with George Sutton— installed a seismograph on the sea floor off Point Arena, California. There were various survey jobs that came up surveying the sea floor at Eniwetok. On that missile impact location, the key work I did in 1964, neat idea. The Polaris A-3 had three re-entry bodies, and we wanted a system to locate where one splash was relative to another.
Are these the stages of the—
Or is it the missile itself?
This is in the final stage. They essentially had three small nuclear weapons, putting in three small had more yield than one large heavier weapon. The problem was to locate the triangle of impacts. We had a SOFAR bomb in each one. I had the brilliant idea of discriminating one SOFAR bomb from the other by making one four pounds, one two pounds, and one pound. And as you might expect, the signals are big, small, and smaller, about six decibels apart in amplitude.
Do you remember when that idea first came to you?
No, I don’t. But it was particularly neat for a lab like ours because it was too sophisticated for the Air Force Eastern Test Range to be able to use reliably themselves. They realized the reason that it was too sophisticated was that occasionally the signals would overlap. Then I would fall back on the bubble-pulse frequency spectrum to let me separate the two signals so I could determine the precise arrival time of each signal. The Air Force couldn’t do that.
In terms of their equipment or in terms of the understanding of their personnel?
Oh in terms of their personnel and their understanding and so on. It meant that the Navy kept CUGPS on its payroll, and, as a matter of fact, the station is still  on the payroll doing that sort of thing. The Navy also wanted a quick answer within twenty-four hours. Did the missile perform properly or not? They were firing a missile every month. Did the missile perform properly? They weren’t particularly interested in whether it was precisely on target, just whether or not the re-entry body separation systems worked. We could do that. In particular, on one occasion there was a cryptographic error from one of the outlying stations on the SOFAR signal arrival time. I was working the solution by hand on a grafting board. It was immediately obvious to me because the error ellipses, instead of being that small, suddenly became that large. And I knew there was something wrong.
Right. You’re holding it almost three times as big apart.
You know, and I could see, hey, all I got to do is change one arrival time by one second and we would go back to this. So I sent a message saying, “Missile performed properly here, here, and here,” and the Air Force says, “No, no, no. It didn’t. That’s wrong. Hamilton’s all wrong.” So I spent the weekend working on it, and I finally put a message on the wire saying, “Nothing wrong with the missile. The problem is the Air Force can’t compute intelligently.” So that Monday, there’s a big meeting where an Air Force general is saying, “We’ve got to fire that guy. Fire him!”
Pointing at whom?
At me. And my scientific officer said, “Well, let’s think about it. You know, he has never been wrong. He’s sure enough of the result here he’s putting his job on the line. I suggest we just go along and see what comes up.” A buddy of mine.
That’s interesting. Who was it? Who is that?
Well, the guy who said, “Don’t fire him,” is a fellow named John Kane. The Air Force types all friends of mine and were furious at the time.
What sort of background did John Kane have?
John Kane was a scientific officer in ONR, with a background in chemistry and a willingness to take responsibility. For example, he was always running one big program or another. It comes a Friday afternoon and he’s got a program in the UK that’s got to go, he’s got to charter a plane to fly it over there, and there’s nobody to authorize the plane, so he signs it. “Go. Monday we’ll straighten it out.” Great guy. He was my scientific officer for twenty years—twenty-five years— who did a lovely job of keeping the administrative bureaucrats off my back. We’d have an ONR NY inspection by the Navy bureaucrats in Bermuda, and he’d come along to babysit the inspectors and sit down. He would arrive in my office to chat. The administrative-type would come charging in saying, “I just passed a desk out in the front office that doesn’t have a serial number on it. We can’t have that.” Kane would already be seated, and he’d say, “Here, Phil, have a drink and shut up.” I used to— till he got wise to it—keep a C02 fire extinguisher underneath my desk, so that when he came and sat down next to harass me on some detail, I could reach down and surreptitiously get the thing and release it with a tremendous roar under him. Jack would jump two feet. It worked twice. [Laughter] Later when Jack came in, he would take the fire extinguisher out. A few years later when both my son and daughter were working for me one summer, typing in my office on some reports — and as you might tell by my belt buckle, I smoked pipes for a long time, (my belt buckle has crossed pipes as an insignia.)
I can see it now, indeed.
Suddenly my children were saying, “Oh, oh, oh, look, look, look!” I had knocked my pipe into a wastebasket. It was burning. “Calm down, no problem! No problem.” I took out the fire extinguisher and whoosh no fire. The kids were really impressed with that.
Clearly personalities plays a major role in organizations of that kind, whether they work smoothly or whether they don’t.
Yes. I was not very effective at hiring brilliant people, but for the kind of mundane, steady chores that we did, it worked fine.
But that was the principal task for the Bermuda Station wasn’t it, people who would monitor the equipment?
In practice, the principal task of the Bermuda Station was to find chores to do to stay alive financially. I made a profession of staying out of Maurice Ewing’s way in the fifties and sixties. I wrote the funding proposals maybe five to eight per year. He put the final signature on them, and once or twice he called up to say, “Hey, what is this proposal all about? I can’t understand it.” I said, “That’s right, Doc. You’re not supposed to. I’ll stop by and tell you about it sometime.” He’d sign it off and it would go forward. We were strictly on our own. We were responsible for finding our own money and doing the work to justify it, just as in those days everybody at Lamont pretty much was. Lamont was a whole series of independent fiefdoms. You know, Bruce Heezen came a cropper with Maurice Ewing primarily because of that big world map.
Right. That he and Marie Tharp had done.
Well Maurice Ewing thought he had done quite a bit of it, too, that his name should be on the credit line at the bottom, too. So when it wasn’t, he and Bruce never got along together afterward.
How did you feel about that matter?
Yes, I think Doc probably should have been on the map credit line. After all, he was the guy that was organizing and directing the cruises as well as chief scientist on many. The key tool that made that map possible was a precision-depth recorder which Maurice Ewing saw the need for based upon the work we did on that cruise to the Azores in ‘47 where we went over a long stretch of ocean but the ocean floor was absolutely flat, flatter than a pool table.
The Abyssal Plains.
The Abyssal Plains. So he wanted something that would map those Abyssal Plains. He gave the chore to develop the precision-depth recorder to a fellow who worked for me in Bermuda.
Who was it?
Bernard Luskin, who very cleverly went to the facsimile people who, when they wanted to transmit a picture over the telegraph wires, they didn’t want it to send a synchronizing signal from one recorder to the next drum reproducing the photo, and so they made the drums perfectly, superbly steady in rotating so they didn’t have to send a synchronizing signal and use band width for the synchronized facsimile. Bernie took that drum and made it into a recorder for an echo sounder. It was this one that showed the perfectly flat Abyssal Plains and the extent of them which is one of the guiding principles on those charts that Heezen and Tharp made. Basically there were enough soundings in the North Atlantic so they could see what the bottom bathymetry was like generally. They could then use that as a model to extrapolate that all over the world with a lot of guidance from Ewing’s seismology knowledge as to where the mid ocean ridges were. Knowing the location of the ridge, North Atlantic bathymetric could be extrapolated to the remote ocean area with very sparse of no surroundings. But in ‘47, on the Atlantis cruise to the Azores, when the echo sounder showed a perfectly flat seafloor and somebody pushed down the toaster, the power line frequency dropped a bit, the water depth reading changed. It was the precision depth recorder that Bernie Luskin developed that clarified all of this.
That yielded all this bathymetric data that were critical.
That’s a very interesting point.
Bernie has just retired. He took a tool, a seismic air gun developed at Lamont, developed it commercially, has been essentially been building air guns for the oil exploration industry for the last thirty-five years.
What sort of person is he?
Great guy. He lives in— Westport, Connecticut, (203) 226-3209. Yes, his wife and my wife were very good friends. So we stayed in touch all this time.
What kind of relationship did you have with Ewing during the fifties and sixties when he was still running Lamont? You say you worked hard to stay out of his way.
I didn’t work all that hard to stay out of his way. I just did not drop in asking questions or seeking advice.
It wasn’t that hard to do?
No, no. He was very busy with science he wanted to do himself. If you weren’t standing in line for an meeting, the meeting never happened. And, of course, I got along great with Angelo Ludas in those days, because essentially we gave him an open checkbook for purchases for his machine shop as he moved from the Columbia campus to Lamont.
So that the Bermuda contract, in effect, aided all of Lamont because the funding was there.
Yes, the funding was, $200,000 a year on our basic contract.
How much of that went to the machine shop?
Oh, twenty thousand a year or so. You know Angelo was the type you if gave him a nickel, he took a dime. Great guy, though— don’t misunderstand me. I still have tools in my toolbox that I got from his supply room.
How often would you go back to Lamont, once Lamont was founded and, of course, the Bermuda Station was founded? Bermuda Station was founded roughly the same time as Lamont. How often would you be up at Lamont in the fifties and sixties?
Once a month in the early fifties, twice a year in the sixties.
What did you do on those trips? What happened?
I don’t recall offhand. In the fifties, Bruce Heezen was living on the third floor in the attic.
Of Lamont — the big house?
The big house. Right. In what was probably John Ewing’s office under the roof eves during the day. Joe Worzel was incoherent one time when he realized that I was sleeping on his office couch nights when I passed through Lamont. The couch had a slope like this, I would take three books off his shelf and put them underneath the outboard legs of the couch to level it up. He kept seeing these depressions on his books. “Where the hell did they come from?” When he finally learned I was the cause, he was furious.
How did you resolve it?
I quit sleeping on his couch.
The office for him was also in the big house?
Yes, but he was living in a house nearby on the Lamont grounds.
Where did you stay? In his office?
Yes, I’d sleep in his office at night.
And the office was in Lamont?
Joe Worzel’s office was on the third floor of Lamont.
Which, of course, was unnecessary because I was on a government travel order with a rental car.
You usually didn’t rent a car, though, to get up to Lamont?
Oh, yes, I always rented a car. It’s the only way to get up to Lamont from the New York airports.
But under that contract you would have had accommodations, too, wouldn’t you?
Oh, yes, I had travel orders with a per diem allowance.
Did you prefer to stay at Lamont?
I was probably up there shooting the breeze with Bruce Heezen, Jack Oliver, George Sutton or something of that sort.
What do you remember particularly about Bruce Heezen or any of the people that you felt close to at Lamont?
Bruce Heezen was a little bit wild. He had a convertible he used to drive around all winter with the top down. Then he, of course, got an apartment there in Nyack. Never went to sea with him. He went to sea many times, fifty to eighty times. Time went along there in Bermuda, we started out with that thirty-eight-foot boat, buoy boat for laying the solar cable. We then got a sixty-five-foot Army T-boat which was a very rugged little boat which rolled like the devil. I remember because when I modified it and I put the ballast too deep. On the T-boat I was always seasick. I took data lying on my back on the deck looking up at recorders. Then we got a 137-foot minesweeper which we tied up at the town of St. George, I improved local relations by naming it Sir Horace Lamb. Everybody knew that Sir Horace must be an Englishman. So they always kind of liked seeing that name on an American research vessel.
Very interesting. Whose decision was that to rename it that?
Me but I knew Doe would love the idea.
One thing I guess I’ve learned over the years, there are an amazing number of things you could do if you just go ahead and do them. Don’t ask anybody, just do them. We started out down there with 800 square feet of lab. We just modified and built buildings and ended up with 10,000 feet. Wouldn’t ask anybody. We’d just used our boat crews in the winter to build and bought materials locally. Of course, the real shocker was about three months ago when I was in Bermuda, we had this series of building on top of a bluff overlooking the ocean on ninety-nine year lease territory. The Navy was going to give that land back to Bermuda, so they had completely leveled our buildings, which must have been a chore because we had a couple of vaults in there for storing classified documents and recordings. They were three times the size of this room.
And this room is what about ten-by-twenty.
Yes, something like that. Those vaults had twelve-inch concrete walls with double reinforcing rods in them. Would have been a chore to take down, but they absolutely leveled then. Beautiful site right on top of a bluff overlooking the ocean. As a matter of fact, the finish line for the Newport-to-Bermuda yacht race went right over our building. They used one of our telephone poles as a line of sight.
Interesting. Where did you live when you were down there?
I lived in St. George for ten years. Then when we wanted to get our kids in the best schools in Bermuda which were in Hamilton, so we moved into Hamilton for the last twelve years. In those days, there were lovely homes available for rent in Hamilton because before the war, the best merchants and businessmen in Bermuda lived as close to Hamilton as they could get because they had to walk to work. After the war, they had cars, so they could live way out overlooking the ocean. So their original houses were available for rent.
How did you like living in Bermuda?
Well, realize that I was traveling 160 days a year. One year I commuted every other week to Honolulu.
When was that, in the sixties?
In the sixties. On some project out there. So, yes, I liked Bermuda, but I like Washington D.C., too. I like any place. When I was home, I did a bit of gardening and a bit of golf. But I was on the road a great deal. I was on a first-name basis with all the Eastern Airline stewardesses on the flights to Bermuda.
Just because you’d be on them so often.
I was on them so often. I would get on the aircraft and get seated, and Ida would come walking along and say, “Here, don’t you need a glass of water?” And it’d be a martini about that big.
So you did get to know them well. Who did you feel particularly close to when you did go back to visit Lamont? Who did you seek out to have a drink with or have a talk with?
Generally, how much did Lamont exert authority over the way that you ran the Bermuda station, or did you really find that it was pretty autonomous? You’re holding you fingers in a big zero, ie Lamont exerted zero authority except my salary. How important was the Bermuda station to Lamont?
It was not of importance to Lamont except for the support we gave Angelo’s machineshop. Once in a while, when a Lamont ship came through, we would help them out, or we would refurbish their supply of explosives from our stores, would provide them spare parts, very insignificant help, though in the long term.
Even on the research programs, there wasn’t much overlap between Lamont and Bermuda?
No. Everybody at Lamont had an independent fiefdom, just as I had.
Was it ever hard to get enough explosives to do the work that you needed to do at Bermuda?
No. We probably had twenty tons, something like that, in the early fifties there were lots of surplus explosives from WWJI.
Who came to visit from Lamont down to Bermuda?
Very few, as a matter of fact.
Ewing didn’t come very often, or Joe Worzel?
Initially, Ewing came once a year. By ‘55, that had dropped off, so it was just once in five years. We saw Worzel once in 20 years. He came down as a relief chief scientist for research vessel Vema in 1954 after Vema was caught in the winter storm and beat up with both John and Maurice Ewing washed overboard. Joe and I replaced them as Vema continued to San Juan and Tampa.
Did any of the folks from administration, like Alma Kessner [phonetic] or Arnold Finck, come down?
I don’t recall ever seeing either of them there. Arnold Finck was in a position to. Alma Kessner was not. We used to occasionally get the people from the ONR New York office who would come down. But my science friends in ONR Washington would always come down or sent somebody who would want to be a chaperone, primarily because they were afraid I would blow up at these people were only concerned about the custody of property, things like furniture.
Did you find it hard to hold back sometimes?
No. I didn’t find it hard, it didn’t bother me in the least. They figured they had a job to do. We were just enough different from everybody else that there was bound to be some friction between us.
Did the IGY affect your work at Bermuda in any significant way, or did it really not matter?
No. We were essentially working for the applied ONR codes, not for the basic geophysics codes associated with the IGY.
When you look back on it, what were the main frustrations of working at Bermuda or doing the SOFAR work, particularly, say, during the fifties and the sixties?
The only possible frustration I might have had was my inability to hire a competent idea man like myself.
You mentioned that a moment ago, and I was curious about that. You wanted to bring someone else to work with you at Bermuda?
No. I wanted to expand our financial basis of support.
I see. Which people were you trying to bring down?
Bernie Luskin would have been a find but he moved on in two years. But that was the only frustration I had. I had no problems. And I didn’t worry much about that one.
And you found it fairly easy to work with ONR?
Yes. Great. You know, it’s a great organization.
One of the developments that did affect Bermuda station, with regard to its relationship with Lamont and Columbia, was when the university began rethinking its policy toward classified research in the late 1960s, leading ultimately to the development of the Palisades Geophysical Institute.
They could have said, “We don’t think Columbia University should be doing classified work. Take a year, go find another home.”
How did you first begin hearing about Columbia’s policy and the debates about it?
I don’t know. Probably Maurice Ewing and I discovered it on one of our infrequent conferences.
Is that what he told you, find another home. Did it rest on you to find it?
What ideas did you have at the time?
Form a nonprofit. There was initially some idea of going commercial. I’m not very smart, but I’m not stupid. I realized that the wear and tear on the body, if we went commercial, would be appreciably greater than going nonprofit.
What examples did you have of commercial outfits that you had for comparisons when you made that judgment?
IT&T would have been interested in buying a lab, giving us some sort of a stock option.
Did you know folks in corporations like ITT?
No, I just knew this fellow Jack Kane, who had several programs with people at IT&T.
How did Palisades Geophysical Institute come about? How did that idea come into—
Talking with Ewing, I guess we decided, “Hey, let’s think about forming a nonprofit organization and continue doing what we’re doing. In particular, let’s get Frank Mongelli from Hudson Labs at Columbia University, across the river, which was closing up the time. Let’s get him on board as the business manager.” Maurice Ewing went to— I assume it was the Vetelsen Foundation and got $25K essentially for start-up money.
Yes, I was curious about that. Vetelsen was identified as the source for that initial funding. How close were relations then between Ewing and Vetelsen?
They were very close, because the Vetelsen Foundation had already established the Vetelsen Prize, which was given every couple of years, with a big dinner.
That hadn’t been that long before this period that the prize was founded.
It must have been the previous five or eight years.
How was Palisades Geophysical to work? I know that Ewing would be the chair of the board and the president and the formal structure, and Joe Worzel, a director.
Bullshit. Worzel had very little to do with forming PGI.
Tell me how it worked. Who were the people who actually carried Palisades Geophysical through?
My Bermuda ONR contracts carried PGI through it’s first years. I don’t think Joe had any participation in Palisades Geophysical until Maurice Ewing died. Frank Mongelli did a nice job of getting ONR to transfer our contracts from Columbia to PGI, having PGI already set up with the Vetelsen money. So we just continued on without a break.
What was the Vetelsen money needed for? What were the major start-up costs that you were incurring?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask Frank Mongelli. But, for example, we were initially going to incorporate as Palisades Institute of Geophysics, and then we realized, “Oh, my God, these initials spell PIG.” The legal papers associated with the corporation, the secretarial cost of writing a proposal, submitting a proposal, mailing it.
In some ways, the incorporation fees that were required.
Who else was involved with it at the time? Clearly, you were in it.
In the first few years we had a couple of other divisions. One was down in Miami, a program under Mort Croningold [phonetic], which gradually folded, and a program in Texas under a brother of Doc, Bob Ewing. After I left PGI, nobody at PGI had the common sense or interest to nurture these divisions and make them grow. I resigned from PGI when I joined ONR.
When was that?
‘72. Those other divisions gradually folded. They didn’t get the guidance they needed to stay alive, and they were basically doing the same type of applied acoustics work we were doing in Bermuda. In Bermuda we were the Navy consultant on locating Navy ballistic missile impact position at sea. I assume the Bermuda group has also done some work for the intelligence community on Russian missile impacts since I left PGI, and probably now and then work on some Air Force missiles, when they wanted to fire into a unique area.
This was broadly in the 1970s.
Seventies, eighties. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that PGI were out monitoring those Chinese missiles off Taiwan.
How much time did you actually have to put into running PGI?
None. Frank ran all the administrative details, as a director I attended the PGI annual meeting and I rubber stamped Frank Mongelli’s ideas. I spent my time running CUGFS [Columbia University Geophysical Field Station] as a working scientist.
Was he essentially a full-time employee of the corporation? Were there other full-time people?
He had a staff of three or four in West Nyack. He did a marvelous job of running the corporation, managing the financial details and contracts. We were a nonprofit, which meant that there was a 5 percent fee on our funding to handle costs. Frank would always be on such good terms with the Navy auditor that he would whip through the paper bills in two days and get it over to the Navy pay office the same day. If the Navy pay office had a question, they didn’t write a letter, they would call him up and asked over the phone, which meant that that of the 5 percent fee, 4% was profit and accumulated to big money, so that PGI could endow a professorship at Columbia, donate to Woods Hole, donate to the National Academy of Sciences, donate to U Tex, set up endowed fellowships at Lamont etc. Dr. Worzel’s principal duties in the past twenty-five years seem to have been who to endow with PGI money.
And it did all these things that you’re mentioning. How important was it for your own financial well being, participating?
Only that the employees at PGI have thanked me many times since. I set up a good retirement system for the PGI employees, with a major retirement account at Teachers Insurance Annuity Association for everybody, professionals, and non-professionals. So that a bunch of people—my machinist, who never had a job before they gave him retirement, has a comfortable retirement. As I set up the retirement account the PGI contributions doubled when he passed sixty-five. This was the same professional retirement account that I had when I was at Columbia, and that retirement account will just continued without interruption as we moved to PGI.
That was one of the benefits of being under both initially the broad umbrella at Columbia then, that you were able to continue that. What made you decide to go with ONR in ‘72?
I lived in Bermuda for twenty-three years. My children were growing, going through college. They could not work in Bermuda because they were American citizens. And my wife, who was a pretty good violinist— violinists always like to play in string quartets—she was tired of playing in string quartets in Bermuda, where she was always trying to bring the other people up to her level of playing. She wanted to go someplace where they would lift up her playing. So I applied for a job at ONR, got it, been here ever since. Had two jobs in my life— one in Bermuda, one here in ONR.
How different was the experience in ONR compared to your experience with Bermuda, Lamont, in general?
Just the usual trivia. In Bermuda, essentially, I had a telephone credit card and could travel whenever, wherever I wanted, subject to the usual federal per diem financial guidelines, but I didn’t have to ask anybody. Now I no longer have a telephone credit card. I probably could if I worked on it. And in ONR, I still traveled as much as I wanted to, when I wanted to, more than I want to.
What area of responsibility did you have in ONR?
I came in as the ocean science department head managing a basic science contract research program in academia, and that job went through six different name changes and locations but always supporting 500 principal investigators in a program that grew from $12 million to $70 million from 1972 to 1994.
As you began to, through ONR, look over the landscape of the different institutions involved in physical oceanography and all those related areas, how did Lamont stand in relation? How did it compare to the other big centers of geophysics?
Lamont was primarily engaged in sea-floor geophysics, very little in straight oceanography, no oceanography that we in ONR funded. The primary oceanographer at Lamont is Arnold Gordon, working in Antarctic, and ONR had no funding interest down there. They were by far the best of in the field of sea-floor geophysics. They were definitely secondary in oceanography, ocean engineering etc.
You’ve covered a number of areas of the SOFAR system. You’ve mentioned the SOSUS system. Are there areas that you haven’t covered in detail that you wanted to make sure were included?
Other projects that we took on, not described today. I guess I mentioned the ocean-bottom seismograph George Sutton and I put in off Point Arena?
Yes. How successful did you feel that effort was?
After a couple of initial failures, it worked fine. Great installation. Worked at, one time or another, on undersea warfare problems, submarine detection.
How involved in that did you become?
Not very involved. There was a big Columbia University project in Bermuda under Hudson Labs, called Artemis. Artemis had a Texas tower on a shallow bank thirty miles south of Bermuda. We provided quite a bit of ancillary science for them, and ran a supply boat in and out etc.
And what was it that they were investigating?
Texas Tower was the shore terminal of a SONAR array offshore that was a prototype for a 400-mile echo-ranging system. This was the receiving array. The transmitting array was a 400 hertz transducer about the size of a house, that was carried by a 16,000-ton tanker. The tanker would lower the transducer down about 2,000 feet for echo-ranging at hundreds of miles.
That was anti-submarine?
The ONR types that funded it and built it are certainly glad it was not an outstanding success, and the admiral, who was in charge of the program, was just as glad it didn’t work superbly, because then he would have tried to fund it to have operational system, which would have been horrendous.
In terms of scale and operational logistics?
In terms of cost, that sort of thing. It would really bother him. He wasn’t worried about the logistics, or the scale, or the work involved. He was worried about finding the money to—
I was curious, did you get to any of the undersea warfare conferences in the 1940s as a graduate student? Ewing, of course, would attend those.
No, I was not invited to those National Research Council meetings. That, of course, is where, I assume, the idea for a shore-mounted hydrophone came from. No, they were far above my level.
What classification level did you hold when you were active at Bermuda?
Normally, secret, once in a while at the TS.
You never had reason for a “Q” clearance?
Once or twice, on a specific satellite program, but usually just “secret.” When I did have a special security clearance for five years, I never used it.
When was that, roughly?
Actually, that’s when I was here in ONR. Because the Navy captain came in and debriefed me, essentially said, “If you tell anybody anything, I’ll put you in jail.” “Yes, sir.”
Let me just ask one last question in this moment. You’ve already made some interesting comments about your personal outlook. I’m curious, in looking back, if you find there were any very strong convictions that helped to guide you either professionally or personally.
Any very strong convictions? No, I do not believe so. Except maybe think about it and keep it simple.
You did point to that a number of moments in the interview. Let me thank you very much for this long session. You will be receiving, from Columbia, a copy of the transcript once it is prepared from our interview. Thank you again.