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Athelstan Spilhaus

Who in the world but Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus would seriously suggest resolving the global conflict over endangered whales by breeding them like cattle?

While million want to save the majestic leviathan, Russians and Japanese still insist on decimating them. At the same time, the Soviets are building a ship to go down to the Antarctic to gather up krill (the thousands of little shrimps on which whales feed) and make it into an edible protein for people.

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"This is such a silly thing," Dr. Spilhaus, the Buckminster Fuller of geophysics, says.

"The Russians are just reinventing the whale. The whale itself is taking these thousands of shrimp and making them edible protein. What the Russians should be doing instead of inventing a ship is learning how to husband whales and take the renewable crop of them, once the stand is up to a level where they can harvest it -- and not worry about engineering something to replace the whale , which is irreplaceable."

That's a fair sample of the outrageously orginal stand- point from which this logical dreamer lobs solutions to a startled world.

A genial import from South Africa, Dr. Spilhaus has been launching ideas into orbit ever since the '30s, when he commandeered a subterranean washroom of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while he was working for a master's degree in meteorology, and surfaced with the bathythermograph (deepsea the rmometer).

In contrast to that enormously valuable contribution to oceanography, this yeasty, whimsical thinker has recently invented the comfortometer, a device of little use except that it "tells you if you are comfortable or not."

His space clock, which ticks off 14 kinds of handy information -- position of sun, moon, stars, tides, etc. -- is for the man who has everything. President Lyndon Johnson used it for presentation gifts.

Among many imaginative projects, Dr. Spilhaus has proposed using porpoises as seagoing sheep dogs, training them to herd fish into nets, and making the deserts of the world habitable by towing in icebergs and melting them down. For a proposed national aquarium in Washington, he envisions a walk-in model whale exhibit.

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In 1966, he proposed building an experimental city from scratch -- as one would build a prototype of a jet plane -- to see if it would work. His city prototype would have included free transportation in computer-controlled "private people pods." After all, the former dean of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology says, we ride free on elevators in office buildings and free on escalators in department stores, don't we? "At what critical angle do we have to start paying a fare?"

As far out, even playful, as some of Dr. Spilhaus's proposals may seem, they are not taken with a grain of salt.

"He has about an idea a week," Dr. Kenneth C. Spengler, executive director of the Ameican Meteorological Society in Boston, says, "I would not take any of them lightly. He is widely respected, an innovative thinker. He likes to shake people up and dramatize things. But he is a sound scientist. He's such a diversified fellow. He pops up everywhere."

"Spilly is sort of a universal man," adds Dr. Robert M. White, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and currently president of the American meteorological society. "He's been one of the great idea people in the field of oceanography, atmospheric sciences, and related things. He is an enormously innovative person, with interests that extend to almost all aspects of these fields and far beyond them.

"He is a futurist, a man who is always thinking about 20 years ahead -- at least 20 years ahead. And sometimes it takes quite a bit of time before we all catch up."

Dr. Spilhaus sees himself as a practical idealist. "I am not really much of a futurist. I like to look ahead pragmatically and realistically. . . . I say I'm willing to look ahead for one 'granny.' A 'granny' means you can plan realistically for your grandchildren's lives -- 100 years or so.

"The others speculate about the extinction of the sun and everything like that. They're having fun. But from a practical planning point of view for people, I think a granny's a pretty good unit."

He once was quoted as saying: "We are inventing the future, not merely predicting it."

Not long ago, when Dr. Spilhaus went to Texas to give a speech (one of his more enjoyable indoor sports -- both for himself and his audiences), he was presented as a man who needs no introduction: "He's Fred's father." It was a pleasant put-down that made him proud of the eldest of his five children.

Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus Jr., executivie director of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, says of his famous father: "From my perspective , his major contribution -- other than his contribution to oceanography, which was very large -- has been to come into different fields with a fairly broad perspective and stir things up.

"I think his experimental city idea is an example of where he sort of sat back and looked at it and then came up with an explosive idea that set other people thinking. He acts as a catalyst. That city idea comes up again and again. It has gotten into the system and it makes people think.There are examples now of motion in that direction."

In the '60s, when everybody else was excited about urban renewal, Dr. Spilhaus dropped another of his idea bombs. Urban dispersal, not urban renewal, he declared, is the answer to the problems of today's megalopolis. He visualized his experimental city as one of many built across the country to keep pace with the 2 million-a-year increase in the US population.

"I would say," Dr. Frederick Spilhaus says of his father, "that he is not thought of primarily as a research scientist generally but as an idea person, a stimulating individual."

Dr. White agrees, but cautions, "You cannot minimize his contributions to our technology."

As many-faceted as a multinational conglomerate, Athelstan Spilhaus Sr. has already had enough careers to satisfy several people, and is still developing new ones.

He feels he has been very fortunate, since "my works and my play are indistinguishable. That really should be the aiming point of everyone in life -- to get oneself in a position where you can select your works so that it becomes play.

"I really worry about the increasing leisure of people, because I don't know that we are educating them to occupy their free time in creative ways . . . If we could make work play, there wouldn't be any need for leisure. Oh sure, we could take some time off to watch a football game on television. Certainly I'm not going to dictate what people should look at, but when I think of the waste of human resources over a weekend when there's a big football game, if you could add it up, it's sort of shocking. And it's passive viewing. It doesn't seem to me to have many socially redeeming features. But I'm showing my bias."

His latest venture is even more like play. A year ago he quit as consultant to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to give full time to his toy collection. After years of seeking them out in his travels, he now owns one of the world's most enchanting collections of mechanical toys, mainly hand-held wind-ups. A crocodile waddles, an elephant ambles, and a beloved furry lion crouches down and roars just before pouncing. He owns what must be the only championship billiard table (no pockets) used exclusively for mechanical toy parades. His menagerie is housed in three museum rooms he added to his home in Middleburg, Va.

In an article on his toys in the December 1980 Smithsonian, he writes: "I have quite an investment in toys that pays interest daily in the golden coin of joy."

Dr. Spilhaus is now inventing mechanical toys of his own, with an eye to marketing them. But he has interrupted his work on toys to do an oral history of "my American experience" for Columbia University.

This in turn has been suspended while he devotes the next six months as scholar-in-residence at the Center for Study of the American Experience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His only programmed responsibility there is to take part in a conference on "The American Mariner -- Past, Present, and Future." The rest of the time is his to carry out whatever research intrigues him.

"Spilly's" global outlook began to develop when he was 16, studying engineering at the University of Cape Town. While his classmates were gaining their "real life" engineering experience from the local waterworks and highway departments, he opted to use the long vacations to sail the high seas on little cargo vessels called "ships of opportunity."

The latest fruit of that early adventure is a revolutionary set of maps -- the first to show that planet Earth has a single great ocean that covers nearly three-quarters of its surface. While conventional rectangular maps focus on land, cutting up the water along it edges, these wildly irregular Spilhaus maps, shaped, as he says, like "a crazy tulip," reveal the predominance of water and dramatize the fact that "land is just an island."

When Dr. Spilhaus was a young research scientist, his major contribution to geophysics was to vastly increase man's ability to measure things in the ocean and the atmosphere. His bathythermograph was a lifesaver for American forces during World War II. By allowing one to make a deep profile of ocean temperature layers, layers that determine how sound waves travel in the water, this simple instrument enabled US destroyers to locate areas where sonar would not be able to detect enemy submarines -- areas where German U-boats could lurk. Conversely, US Navy submarines used the instrument to thwart enemy detection by hiding under temperature layers where sound waves would bend away from them.

Dr. Spilhaus served in the US Air Force during that war even before becoming a naturalized American citizen. His zest for adventure led him to volunteer for duty in Yunnan in northern China, where he set up meteorological stations to predict weather for bombing missions over Japan. Living in caves with Mao Tse-tung and his Chinese Communists gave him a chance to add what he calls "kitchen Chinese" ("how to ask for food, how to find your way, how to bargain with money") to the five other languages he speaks.

When New York University took him on as an educator and administrator, it got some energetic and imaginative ideas into the bargain. Thanks to him, the university was one of the first in the nation to have a department of meteorology.

In 1963, he realized that something needed to be done so that knowledge gained from the scientific exploration of the sea could be put to practical use. So he proposed to Congress establishment of sea-grant colleges along the lines of the successful land-grant colleges it set up up about a hundred years ago.

Washington heard what he was saying. Thanks to that one idea, congressional action three yeas later set in motion a multimillion-dollar program that is now promoting marine research in some 200 institutions throughout the country. In its first 14 years, the program has spent more then $400 million in matching federal and state funds.

One of the mind-boggling suggestions Dr. Spilhaus floated at that time was: "An expedition across the bottom of the Atlantic and Pacific in crawling vehicles containing men to survey the terrain."

He has piled up enough careers to satisfy severl people and is still adding to them.

The year 1951 saw him advising the government as scientific director of this nation's atomic bomb tests in Nevada. Son Fred says, "I think he had a glorious time setting off those big firecrackers."

When 55 nations collaborated on scientific experiments during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), he was a prominent member of the American committee, sharing in planning that put in orbit the Vanguard scientific satellite, America's answer to Russia's sputnik.

Just as everybody started staring skyward, Dr. Spilhaus branched out into yet another career as a scientific cartoonist. For 20 years he syndicated (with artist Carl Rose doing the drawing) a comic strip on serious scientific subjects which ran in the funnies in papers all over the country. With such a gift for popularizing complex scientific subjects, he was an obvious choice for commissioner of the spectacularly successful US Science Exhibit at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.

After 18 years at Minnesota U's Institute of Technology, Dr. Spilhaus accepted the presidency of the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia.

In later years, the career of this one-man think tank has mellowed into the philosophical and theoretical. As Dr. Robert White points out, "His recent contributions have been more on 'Where should society be going?'"

Society is beginning to catch up with some of the imaginative Spilhaus projects.

Sea cities: As early as 1964, he confidently forecast that "man is going to colonize the oceans." At present, America's sea power is very shaky, Dr. Spilhaus maintains. Little cargo travel on US ships.

"But the one thing we do superbly, better than anyone else in the world," he says, "is march out to sea on Texas towers and drill for oil. Some of these drilling platforms are small villages, where men live for a week or so at a time." Why don't we, he asks, use those platforms, where the power is, for preliminary processing of fish?

Continuing his "logical dream," he would use these sea platforms for smelting aluminum from bauxite, dumping the sandlike silica waste overboard to create an artificial island -- the beginning of a sea city.

He would float such products -- processed fish and hollow aluminum ingots -- to land by pipeline, the cheapest way.

Japan, for one, is moving in that direction. It is considering developing coal-fired power stations that would float some 40 miles off its coast. The mountains of cinders generated would be deposited inside a breakwater to form a man-made island.

Experimental cities: An entirely energy self-sufficient city now being planned by developers in Jamul, Calif., is faintly reminiscent of the utopian, nuclear-powered, pollution-free prototype city Dr. Spilhaus nearly got through the Minnesota Legislature in the late 1960s.

He still argues for building such an experimental city and callingm it that. "If we goof, change it! And learn from it." Ban all fume- producing traffic to underground levels. Limit the city's size to, say, 250,000, the way ships and elevators are designed to carry a specific capacity. And, to further avoid urban sprawl, surround the whole with many miles of green space.

Waste management: He helped ignite the waste-management furor in an article called "Waste Management and Control" which he wrote in 1966 for the National Academy of Sciences as chairman of its committee on pollution. A decade ago he warned industry that if it did not clean up the solid and chemical wastes it was spewing out as products and by- products, government would force it to do so. In December, Congress passed the Carter "superfund" legislation requiring industry to do just that.

"Waste," Dr. Spilhaus explains, "is a useful material we do not yet have the wit to use."

He calls "consumers" a misnomer. People don't consume anything. The same mass of matter persists after as before use. The correct term, he insists, is "users."

Recycling: "We haven't even cycled yet! What we should have ideally is a new industrial revolution where industry not only puts the thing into the user's hands but takes back the used thing and puts it into the cycle again for remanufacture and reuse. Then the only thing industry would use is energy. There is no way of recycling energy."

"The Proper Use of Land and Sea" is a favorite topic for Spilhaus lectures. But recently speaking at the New England Aquarium in Boston, he noted with a sly smile that he would "rifle in" on a much narrower theme, namely, mankind's predicaments. These he has synthesized into two main woes: too many people, too little energy. So it is "energy economics" that will dominate the future.

"As long as there is a sizable proportion of the population in any country that does not receive minimum humane treatment, there are too many people." We should slow down the population increase, he contends, "until we get humane treatment for the majority. . . . If overpopulation is the cause of the world's problems, energy is the solution."

How many grannies ahead can Spilhaus see?

Solar energy: It will come. Very promising for heating and cooling buildings; not so promising for high-process heat for factories and running motors.

"To get the price down, we need some big company to invent a way of rolling out [solar- collecting] roofing the way they roll out galvanized iron from continuous sheets."

Nuclear waste: "I'm concerned less than some people, because I know it can be managed. I am worried quite differently from others. I don't want to see it put in my ocean, or out of sight in salt mines. I think we should put it on the earth's surface, because you never know when a smarter future generation may find out what to do with it."

He does "worry about" the breeder reactor, however, and about the combination of nuclear fuels, terrorism, and lawlessness. That potential, he believes, is the major worry.

Water shortages: In cities of the future, a small pipe will bring in ultrapure water for drinking, and a big pipe much more water of a lower quality.

"Why on earth," he demands, "do we need pure water for bathing, flushing toilets, washing cars, and watering the lawn?" Windhoek, a desert community in Namibia, already has such dual piping, the says, and recycles its water to boot.

When he was visiting a city on the Mississippi he was told there was a water shortage. Indicating the billions of gallons of water that were dashing by, he shot back, "What you have got is not a shortage of water. You have got a shortage of pumps and pipes, and brains on your city council."

The fishing industry: "single-family or small-group fishing, like the family farm, will disappear, because it is so terribly inefficient." This will be replaced by the kind of factory ships that the Russians and Japanese are already using to "outfish" the United States on its own doorstep.

Conservation by inefficiency: This, too, will disappear, he hopes.m "A stupid conservation method in the past has been to insist that fishermen fish inefficiently," he says, laughing at his inadvertent alliteration. Requiring net holes to be large enough so that a lot of fish can escape is "nonsense -- planned inefficiency, like permitting the cutting of as many redwoods as you want, but with a pocket knife.

"What we should have is simply an allocation of how many fish of a species can be caught. Let them be caught as fast as possible. Then let fishermen go on to other jobs for the rest of the season."

Zero-risk and the welfare state: "There is no such thing as zero risk. That myth has cost this government millions of dollars. There is a risk-benefit ratio. . . . We have got to get back to giving people individual responsibility and saying: 'You are an individual. You make the decision as to the risk you take for the benefit that you will get.'"

Welfare, he says, "is a shabby thing. Some people must be taken care of by society, but the trouble is, welfare gets abused. To dissect the word, to fare well in life requires work, rewarding work, hopefully, which requires continued learning. Thatm is when you fare well. So-called welfare does not contain the ingredients of rewarding work and continual education."

A national planning board: The US already has a National Security Council to deal with emergencies. What America needs is a national planning board to set long-range goals for the nation. "In planning and working toward the future, we enjoy the future now."

Well, Dr. Spilhaus, we asked, what about retirement? "I don't object to a little leisure. Maybe a late-late movie, if it's a good one, or something like that. But I wouldn't appreciate that leisure if I didn't have to work.

"I wouldn't appreciate summer if I didn't have the juxta- position of winter and different seasons. I hate a place where the climate is even. I lived in Palm Beach [Fla.] for a time. I couldn't stand it. The climate was perfect. The intellectual climate was impossible, because rich people had leisure and they had nothing to think about. They played golf and sat around the tennis club.

"I thought, what a waste! And many of them were very successful men. Captains of industry who must have been great entrepreneurs. What a waste of their minds. That's a tragedy.!"

Dr. Spilhaus himself is at what many would regard as retirement age. But the likelihood of his creative genius shifting into neutral is as remote as -- how shall we put it?-- one of his orbiting ideas.

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