Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 8

This is the eighth volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.


This is the eighth volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.


Read More
Tribute Author
Membership Directory

Search this Publication

Table of Contents

  • Previous
  •    Table of Contents
  • Next
  • ALLYN COLLINS VINE 1914-1994


    An energetic person, yet kind in his relationships with everyone, bubbling with his own ideas, yet always willing to listen to those of others, Allyn Collins Vine enjoyed a long career as a key member of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), a career that ended with his quiet, unexpected death at home in January 1994. From his first summers with Maurice Ewing at the Oceanographic in the late 1930s, he was a sea-roving innovator based on Cape Cod, but as likely to appear in Washington, D.C., in Hawaii, or somewhere on a Navy ship as in the corridors of WHOI's Bigelow Building or on the WHOI piers.

    Al was born June 1, 1914, in Garrettsville, Ohio, the second of four sons. He enjoyed school and recalled several great teachers. While his early life in Ohio did not presage an orientation to the ocean, it clearly had the beginnings of a love of, and aptitude for, creating new devices. He is credited with adolescent raids on the local telephone company junk piles for wires and electrical equipment to build contraptions such as burglar alarms. Characteristic of his approach to ocean engineering, his comment on this aspect of his life was that engineering education today lacks adequate exposure to junk piles. "Too many engineers are designing from catalogues, while not enough are doing innovative work," he said. "This doesn't ... inspire creativity."

    Completing high school in 1932, Al entered Hiram, a nearby small liberal arts college, because it was the least expensive option. Fortunately, it was a very good school. He majored in physics, earning part of his expenses as an assistant, setting up experiments for his professor. In 1936, upon completion of his bachelor's degree, he was accepted in the physics graduate program at Lehigh University. At this point the ocean entered in the form of his professor, Maurice Ewing. Ewing was in the early stages of his own role as a leader in marine geophysics (not a well-known term in those times). Working from his Lehigh base, Ewing would go with his students for the summer to the fledgling WHOI, working on the early developments of reflection seismology and seafloor photography. Vine, with J. Lamar Worzel and others, spent the summers of 1937, 1938, and 1939 on the Cape and at sea in Woods Hole's ship Atlantis, developing the first deep-sea cameras and learning how to handle explosives for seismic studies.

    In 1940 with war raging in Europe, Ewing's group, among others, began year-round, National Defense Research Council-sponsored operations at WHOI with antisubmarine problems as the major focus. For Al this was a time that determined the course of the rest of his life. With his master's degree and a full- time job, he proposed marriage to Adelaide Holton, a young woman he had come to admire while at Hiram, and the two of them settled in Woods Hole, raising three children, converting a barn into a comfortable house with a view of Vineyard Sound, and playing their considerable part in the hospitable Woods Hole community.

    The war years brought physicists from many places into ocean-oriented laboratories in San Diego, New London, and Woods Hole, collaborating to understand the propagation of sound in the sea and how to use that understanding to improve Allied abilities to carry out antisubmarine warfare. Vine was particularly involved with improving instrumentation to measure and record the speed of sound (as characterized by water temperature) as a function of depth, in order to understand the performance of ship-mounted sonar systems. The basic instrument (BT, or bathythermograph) had been devised by Athelstan Spilhaus for research and was quickly adapted by Vine and his associates for use from destroyers and other ships engaged in antisubmarine warfare.

    After the United States became involved in the Pacific, a significant part of that effort quickly moved into the pro-submarine arena. Vine was at the forefront of that change, modifying the BT to be mounted on submarines, and ingeniously providing additional displays to help diving officers know how their boat's buoyancy as well as sound propagation would change with depth. Most important in this were the interactions that Vine developed with the operating forces. Since most submarines were being built on the northeast coast of the United States, he and his colleagues arranged to ride nearly every new boat on its initial trials as instructors, ensuring that crews went to the Pacific with full understanding of the environmental factors that would help them to be effective, and even in many instances, to survive.

    While his instrumentation development and sound propagation studies were the tangible engineering activities of his World War II period, a much more important and enduring contribution came in the form of the friendships that he fostered between members of the science community and the submarine operators. He epitomized the atmosphere of cooperation and mutual concern between the civilian ocean science community and working submariners, an atmosphere that prevailed on into the Cold War era.

    It was this cooperation that accelerated the exploitation of the "convergence zone" effect in underwater sound propagation. In 1947 Vine and his close friend Bill Schevill realized that the permanent deep sound channel, already studied for several years by Ewing, Worzel, and others as a means for long-range sound transmission, also meant that sound from near-surface sources would be strongly focused at range intervals of about 70 km. After a few confirming controlled experiments, according to Al, "we started working with the submarines listening to each other in snorkeling, and so for the first time they could count, they could plan on listening to other people's submarines . . . thirty-five miles away, seventy miles away. This changed the tactics, because you didn't go to general quarters just because you heard someone. They might not be in sight for another hour or two." Not long after, major sonar system and weapon development projects were under way at the primary Navy in-house laboratories.

    In the late 1950s the National Research Council Committee on Oceanography carried out a major study to chart the course of that discipline for the decade of the 1960s. Vine's stature in the community can be measured by the fact that he was chosen to chair the panel producing the chapter on engineering requirements for ocean exploration. This group underscored the needs for small, deep-diving research submersibles and manned, spar-buoy laboratories (inspiration for Scripps' Floating Instrument Platform, or FLIP), moving ideas of the 1950s into reality a few years later. Still another development that he espoused—narrow-beam echo sounding array systems—led in the 1960s to development of the swath mapping equipment that has revolutionized studies of seafloor morphology.

    Vine's persistent pushing to put oceanographers down into the medium that they study began to pay off in the early 1960s. First, as an outgrowth of Ed Wenk's 1950s engineering studies, J. L. Reynolds decided to build a deep-diving aluminum submarine, which the Navy (in the person of Captain C. B. Momsen, Jr., of the Office of Naval Research) in turn planned to lease. Primarily at Vine's urging, WHOI was chosen to be the operator of the craft—Aluminaut—for the oceanographic research community. With typical pragmatic concern for the usefulness of this new tool, Al and his colleagues built a full-scale mockup of the forward part of the sub and immediately suggested alterations, eventually adopted, to make it more effective. When lease arrangements with Reynolds fell through, Momsen was able to shift the allocated funds to WHOI for construction of a smaller, shallower-operating, but more maneuverable craft, and the Oceanographic became the developer as well as the operator, with Vine playing his usual part as critical adviser. His role in bringing this new instrument into being was immortalized by his colleagues, who insisted that it be christened Alvin. Typically, at the time of the christening ceremony, Al was at sea diving in the new French bathyscaphe, Archimede, in the Puerto Rico Trench.

    Beyond these many specific contributions, Al played the role of adviser on unnumbered committees and studies, often being the participant who would ask what at first seemed to be an irrelevant question, or make the key irreverent remark, that would turn the discussion in some new and fruitful direction. No matter what the venue, he could be counted on to have some sort of bright idea. His style is best captured in a passage from Kaharl's book about Alvin—"Vine always had an idea. He passed them out like a gentleman farmer with a bumper tomato crop, needing no credit for the sauces they went into. He was just glad to grow them, the strikingly perfect ones and the bruisers." Unlike many idea generators, however, he also was always ready to listen, to learn about what others were doing, and to let them tell of their bright thoughts as well. Beyond having new ideas, he also had a knack for coming up with the quotable phrase, such as "Even rescue submarines don't pack them in as tightly as we did on double dates in a model A roadster," or "The one chance in a thousand that happens nine times out of ten."

    His wide-ranging contributions were recognized in 1972 with the awarding of a Navy Oceanographic Commendation and in 1982 with his election to the National Academy of Engineering for "contributions to oceanographic engineering and design of deep submersibles for research." He will always be remembered as a kind, trusting, very imaginative person who made our science fun.

    • Previous
    •    Table of Contents
    • Next