World War I and the U-boat provided a catalyst that accelerated American naval oceanographic studies, dramatically altered scientific practice, and profoundly affected the selection of new subjects for ocean science. Wartime projects under the aegis of the Naval Consulting Board and the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (or NRC) drew scientists from a great many specialties out of their normal academic or industrial environments to address the critical needs of the operational forces.
Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and pro-submarine investigations provided considerable incentive and added new avenues to the study of the ocean depths, avenues that some scientists continued to pursue after the war ended. In the course of this work, oceanography came of age in America and demonstrated its value to the United States Navy.
Between 1914 and 1918 oceanographic ASW research, as opposed to pro- submarine investigations, dominated the attention of the allied scientists who were asked to devise an effective way to neutralize the German submarine threat. In the United States this effort was organized along two parallel lines, one directed by the Navy and the other by the civilian scientific community at the request of the Navy Department.
In the Navy, the primary effort to draft scientists into the war effort was represented by the Naval Consulting Board (NCB), created in July 1915. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who established the Board, placed it under the direction of the famous inventor Thomas A. Edison to evaluate suggestions and inventions offered to improve the Navy's performance should America become involved in the war. Throughout its existence, the Naval Consulting Board remained an advisory body to the Secretary of the Navy. It could encourage research into and development of systems like the magnetic submarine detector invented by physicist Vannevar Bush. However, having no research and development money of its own, the Board and its committees remained merely advocates, urging Secretary Daniels to support promising developments in the private sector.
To focus naval resources on the best areas of inquiry, Edison's staff invited a group of experts in ASW-related fields, nominated by the NCB, to gather in New York at the Engineering Society's building on 3 March 1917. In their conclusions these specialists recommended underwater sound and echo-ranging as the most promising avenue of exploration. Physics and physical oceanography immediately became vital to the national war effort. One month later the Naval Consulting Board recommended that Daniels divert $10,000 earmarked for the establishment of the new Naval Research Laboratory to the use of the Committee on Special Problems. The U-boat threat had become so important that the Board voted unanimously to place research on submarine detection above the creation of the long-desired NRL.
After the New York conference, the NCB's Subcommittee on Submarine Detection by Sound gave its support to the promising work of the Submarine Signal Company of Boston, a specialist in underwater sound. This firm had incorporated the powerful oscillator developed by Reginald A. Fessenden into a practical device for detecting icebergs and had demonstrated the possibility of determining ocean depth by means of echo-ranging. When the company's first U-boat detection device failed to impress the Navy Department, the NCB encouraged cooperative research by Submarine Signal, General Electric, and Western Electric at Western Electric's facility in Nahant, Massachusetts. Armed with the most complete knowledge science had to offer, the three firms explored various methods of submarine detection, including echo-ranging and promising hydrophone listening devices.
On the civilian side, the National Research Council furthered cooperation and education on the U-boat detection problem by arranging an international conference in June 1917. The council brought to Washington British experts, including the 1908 Nobel laureate physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford, and their French military counterparts, Majors Fabry and Abraham, and Captain Dupray, who were all trained in the pioneering underwater sound techniques of Paul Langevin and the Swiss Constantin Chilowsky. Like the Naval Consulting Board, which had set three commercial firms to working together in Massachusetts, the NRC supported the creation of the Naval Experimental Station in New London, Connecticut, recruiting for it, among others, Robert Millikan of the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin's Max Mason to apply their skills to the ASW problem. Mason was to provide the creative genius behind several generations of the Navy's "M," or multiple-tube, passive submarine sensors. This apparatus focused sound to ascertain its source; to determine the direction from which the sound came, the operator needed only to seek the maximum output on his earphones by turning a dial.
Days before the Armistice, American naval representatives journeyed to Paris for a conference on "supersonics," a term which then referred to underwater echo-ranging. Meeting with the French and British between 19 and 22 October 1918, the Americans received more complete information about Langevin's progress in piezoelectric research as well as an underwater sound transmission device that the French had designed to apply the theories developed by Chilowsky and Langevin.
Reports on the conference were prepared by both the American associate scientific attaché in Paris, Karl T. Compton, and one of the leading scientists in the American effort to build an operational "supersonic" device, Professor J.H. Morecroft of Columbia University. They not only described in great detail the performance of the Langevin device but also demonstrated a heightened appreciation of the properties of the ocean that affect undersea sound transmission. In the course of American experiments in underwater signaling, Compton "noticed, as have all those who have been engaged in listening under water, great irregularities in transmission due certainly to the influence of the water medium." He went on to discuss the viscosity of the water, its temperature, the presence of marine life and debris, and the effect of bubbles on sound transmission.
Oceanography had quickly become indispensable to modern ASW. In the short period of time America actually participated in World War I, scientific research helped keep the U-boats at bay. When the advent of convoys in 1917 required some capability for detecting U-boats, industry in the United States rapidly manufactured three thousand SC hydrophones, with their characteristic rotating T-bar and stethoscope listening set. Although primitive, these detectors, protruding from the bottom of American and British submarine chasers, forced German submarine commanders to take greater care in approaching convoys. In many instances, however, developments took longer to reach the operational forces. Vannevar Bush's device for detecting a U-boat as it broke a magnetic field was barely installed in British minesweepers for testing before the conflict ended. Nonetheless, these and other wartime experiences identified science as an important partner in modern naval warfare. As historian A. Hunter Dupree observed many years later, nothing would replace effective weapons, doctrine, and seamanship, but "the very approach to the problem as one that could be solved only by massed and coordinated scientific resources demonstrated clearly that a new era of warfare had arrived and that science had an essential place in it."
Adapted from an essay "Surviving the Peace --The Advent of American Naval Oceanography, 1914-1924" by Dr. Gary Weir, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland University College and head of the Contemporary History Branch of the U.S. Naval Historical Center in Washington.