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William Stelling Von Arx papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-24

Scope and Content Note

The von Arx papers, dating from 1942 to 1977, consist of six boxes, two map folders along with 72 rolls of 16mm film, eleven folders of primarily black and white photographs and 40 glass lantern slides, comprising approximately 5 linear feet. The files contain correspondence, manuscripts, notes, proposals, data and charts. An index card bibliography of Von Arx’s publications along with information about some of his films was added in June 2007.


  • 1942-1977

Language of Materials

The records are in



Open: materials are available for research.


Copyright: Permission to publish material from the collection must be authorized by the Institution Archivist.

Biographical Information

William Stelling von Arx (1916-1999) joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in 1945 as a Research Associate in Physical Oceanography to work with Henry Stetson on Project 19. Von Arx took an undergraduate degree in geology and geophysics from Brown University and an M.S. in physics from Yale. While at WHOI he completed a Ph.D. in geophysical fluid dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He worked on Operation Crossroads early in his career and also Project I-88, the Barataria Bay Model for the Freeport Sulphur Company in 1949. His principal scientific interests were in primary circulations of oceans and atmosphere, heat balance of the earth and physical geodesy of ocean areas. He is known for his work with rotating basin models and his interests in the scientific uses of cameras and photographic technology. Later in his career he turned his efforts to long-range solutions to world energy problems and he pursued a new technique for the collection and storage of solar heat in natural or open ponds.

In August of 1950 the Executive Committee appointed him Physical Oceanographer and in 1956 the Committee appointed him Oceanographer.

Von Arx taught at Harvard in 1947-1949 and at MIT from 1956-1971. In 1963 he accepted an appointment at MIT as Professor of Oceanography and continued his research activities at the Institution. One of his students was Ferris Webster. Von Arx returned to the Institution, full time, in 1967 and was appointed Senior Scientist. He became Scientist Emeritus in 1979.

He was a Fellow in the American Geophysical Union, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Meteorological Society, among others. He was an honorary member of the Smithsonian Institution Council and was widely published in journals such as Deep-Sea Research, Tellus, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, Nature and the Journal of Meteorology.


5 boxes (2.5 lin. ft.)


The William S. von Arx papers span 1942 to 1977, and consist of maps, 16mm film, black and white photographs, glass lantern slides, correspondence, manuscripts, notes, proposals, data and charts relating to von Arx' work.

Custodial History

Several folders of correspondence and drafts of papers were retrieved from Von Arx's home after his death in 1999. In June 2007, the AOPE Department deposited an index card bibliography they found in Von Arx’s former work space.

Acquisitions Information

William S. von Arx deposited one carton of data and another carton of correspondence with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Data Library and Archives (DLA) in 1980. Also in 1980 he deposited numerous rolls of film from projects including rotating basin experiments, cloud camera, GEON and others. This acquisition also included ten boxes of glass slides. Historical instruments used in von Arx’s projects were donated to the DLA at various times. Several folders of correspondence and drafts of papers were retrieved from his home after his death in 1999. The index card bibliography was received from Sue Grieve from the AOPE Department in June 2007. It is believed to have come from Von Arx's former work space.

Related Material

A number of scientists worked on Operation Crossroads, also known as the Bikini Atoll project. An unprocessed document box located in the Archives Vault contains materials related to the overall project.

The Columbus O’Donnell Iselin papers (MC-16) contain references to von Arx. The Records of the WHOI Office of the Director (AC-9) contain material concerning von Arx and his projects including box 11, folder 64 and box 13 folders 12 and 55. Also in the Records of the Director see correspondence, individual and personnel and Office of Naval Research (Nonr) contracts.

Processing Information

Second-level processing completed by Melissa Lamont in March 2001. Processing of this collection was partly supported by a grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics.

Papers retrieved from the von Arx home in 1999 were mildew damaged, some beyond salvage including several log books from Chain , cruise 83. Damaged materials that could be salvaged were dried and dusted or photocopied. The photocopies of the cruise notebooks have been added to the Ships Files collection.

Papers were placed in acid-free folders and cartons. Photographs were placed in archival plastic sleeves. The film was placed in metal film canisters and labeled. The film is numbered and shelved in a climate-controlled film vault. The photographs are in the Archives' collection of scientists' photographs in alphabetical order in the Archives vault.

The original arrangement of the materials could not be discerned. Effort was made to arrange the folders by project and subject. The original titles of the folders were kept when known. No logbooks or other documentation were available to identify much of the film. Film from projects, such as the rotating basin experiments was sampled for various dates, techniques or subjects. From the GEON project, for instance, a roll of film each from Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon were kept. Finished products, such as the educational film "Laboratory studies of the wind driven ocean circulation" were retained. Film documenting the history of the Institution or the local area was also retained. A complete listing of the photography from the von Arx collection is located in the container list.

A Guide to the the William Stelling Von Arx papers, 1942-1977
Melissa Lamont
March 2001
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written inEnglish

Repository Details

Part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Data Library and Archives Repository