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Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-46

Scope and Content Note

The Athelstan F. Spilhaus papers consist of biographical material, correspondence, publications, writings and notes about instruments.


  • 1942-1998

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

Dr. Spilhaus is well-known for inventing the bathythermograph (or BT), a temperature measuring device which played a major role in defense against German submarines during World War II, and as the "father" of the Sea Grant College program.

Active at WHOI throughout his life, Spilhaus was a WHOI employee from 1936 to 1960, serving in what is now the Physical Oceanography Department, where he is an honorary staff member. He was elected a Member of the Corporation and a Trustee in June 1950, and was named an Honorary Member and Honorary Trustee in 1982. He served on the Nominating, Audit and Advisory, and Scientific Advisory Committees, and was a Trustee of the Employees' Retirement Trust Committee. He was an Associate from 1959 to 1994.

Spilhaus, fondly referred to as "Spilly," was born in Capetown, South Africa, November 25, 1911 and spent his early years on a farm near Natal. He later attended schools in the United Kingdom, but returned to South Africa and was admitted to the University of Capetown at age 15. He exhibited a taste for invention early on, when as a student at the University he built a sand yacht out of an old automobile and sailed it on nearby salt flats, much like an ice boat with wheels. He received his B.S. degree from the University of Capetown in 1931. After summer jobs as an apprentice engineer on a cargo vessel in the Indian Ocean and a volunteer job in a German aircraft factory, he emigrated to the United States to study aerodynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was a student of Charles Stark Draper, Carl Rossby and others. He received his master's degree in aerodynamics from MIT in 1933 and, believing that good engineering is the ability to understand both the medium and the machine, he went on to study meteorology for two years, finishing his degree work in 1935. He received his doctorate from the University of Cape Town in 1948.

His long association with the Institution began in 1934, when as a student of Carl Rossby he started work on a model of a rotating ocean with a jet stream somewhat like the Gulf Stream in it. He accompanied Rossby on a summer cruise that year on R/V Atlantis , helping Rossby with a device called an Oceanograph meant to get continuous tracings of temperature versus depth in the surface layers of the ocean more easily that the standard practice of using a series of reversing thermometers attached to Nansen bottles. The Oceanograph didn't work very well, and Spilhaus thought about it during a year in South Africa. He returned to MIT and began building a better device. Henry Bigelow and Columbus Iselin provided him with some ship time in 1936 and 1937 to test his instrument, and by the summer of 1937 he had a workable device he named the bathythermograph (BT). Its initial application was for biologists and oceanographers, but Iselin saw an application in the detection of submarines in conjunction with sonar. Tests aboard Atlantis in 1937 in conjunction with several Navy vessels were promising, and in 1938 a patent was filed for manufacture of the BT by the Submarine Signal Company of Boston, which later became a division of Raytheon. Manufacture was slow, and Iselin assigned the task of building a newer design to Maurice Ewing and his student, Allyn Vine. The BT was redesigned to be used from moving ships and submarines, and about 200 were made in WHOI shops. Vine and other WHOI staff went on to teach hundreds of U.S. submariners how to use the instrument to avoid detection.

Spilhaus, who became an Assistant Professor at New York University (NYU) in 1937 while continuing to work summers at WHOI, also aided U.S. forces in World War II. By special act of Congress in 1943, he became a temporary officer in the Army Air Corps although still a British citizen. In 1944 and 1945 he ran weather stations in northern China, living in caves near Mao Tse-Tung's headquarters behind Japanese lines, supplying weather reports critical to U.S. bombers out of Guam and Saipan. Spilhaus became a U.S. citizen in 1946, and that same year was named Director of Research at NYU. With a knowledge of German, he played a role in bringing German rocket scientists to the U.S. after the war to participate in the Vanguard Program.

In 1948 Spilhaus left NYU to become Dean of the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota, a position he held for 18 years. While at Minnesota he launched a weekly science-oriented comic strip called Our New Age, syndicated in more than 100 newspapers around the world from 1957 to 1973. He also developed the concept of experimental cities with fixed occupancy, waste management, and state of the art communication, adopted in Sweden, Scotland and France. A futurist before the term was created, Spilhaus conceived the idea of covered skyways and tunnels connecting city buildings and allowing easy passage in inclement weather. The concept was first put into practice in Minneapolis in the 1950s.

In 1951 Spilhaus was named Scientific Director of Weapons Effects for two Nevada atomic tests, and the following year became a consultant to the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project under the Department of Defense. He was awarded the Exceptional Civilian Service Medal by the U.S. Air Force in 1952. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Spilhaus the first U.S. Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He served on the Committee on Oceanography of the National Academy of Sciences in 1958-1959. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed him United States Commissioner to the Seattle World's Fair, where he created the U.S. science exhibit, which endures today as the Pacific Science Center. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the National Science Board, which he served as a member from 1966 to 1972.

In 1963 Spilhaus called for the establishment of Sea Grant Colleges at a meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Minneapolis; the Sea Grant College Program became a reality a few years later and is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the awarding of its first research projects this year. Spilhaus left the University of Minnesota in 1966 to become President of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a position he held until 1969. During the 1970s he served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and was a consultant to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was awarded 11 honorary degrees and received many honors, including the French Legion of Merit and Sweden's Berzelius Medal.

A man of many talents, Spilhaus was also a sculptor whose work demonstrating geophysical principles is in several cities across the country. To relax, he collected antique mechanical toys and had more than 5,000 from many countries, displayed in his "toy museum." He wrote 11 books, published more than 300 articles, and is credited with many inventions, among them the Spilhaus Space Clock and a jigsaw puzzle of the Earth's surface. He once said his life could be summed up in one sentence: "Work and play should be indistinguishable."

Spilhaus spent many summers in Woods Hole, where he often lectured on a variety of topics. In 1990 he was a summer fellow at the Marine Policy Center, continuing work on a new series of world maps and on the idea of future colonization of the seas, which he said would happen within the next 50 years. He came aboard Research Vessel Atlantis in May 1997 when the vessel visited Alexandria, Virginia, during its introductory tour.

At the time of his death in March 1998, Spilhaus was President of Pan Geo, Inc. and the National Maritime Center Foundation, a Trustee of the Aerospace Corporation and a Director of Science Service, Inc, American Dynamics Corporation, and Donaldson Co. He was Chairman of the National Fisheries Center and Aquarium Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and was a member of the Committee on Oceanography and Committee on Polar Research of the National Academy of Sciences. He also served as Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the American Newspaper Publishers' Association, and as a board member of the Year of the Ocean Foundation. He was a member of the Royal Society of South Africa, American Meteorological Society, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, and the American Philosophical Society, and was a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Taken from Spilhaus' WHOI Obituary.


1 box (.25 lin. ft.)


The Athelstan F. Spilhaus papers consists of biographical material, correspondence, publications, writings and notes about instruments.


Arranged in a single series:

List of Series:

Custodial History

The custodial history of the papers is undocumented.

Acquisitions Information

The materials arrived in the WHOI Archives in November 2000 (acc.2000-26), except for the workbook, which was in the Archives biographical file.

Processing Information

The papers are unprocessed. A folder listing was created at an unknown date.

A Guide to the Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus papers, 1942-1998
David Sherman
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