Of Seas and Ships and Scientists: the remarkable story of the UK's National Institute of Oceanography 1949–1973 edited by A. S. Laughton , W. J. Gould , M. J. Tucker and H. S. J. Roe (Eds) with 10 Contributors 360 pp., 120 b&w photos and diagrams James Clark & Co, The Lutterworth Press, PO Box 60, Cambridge CB1 2NT, 2010, £26.25 (sbk), ISBN 978-07188932302
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 237–238, March 2014
How to Cite
Rice, T. (2014), Of Seas and Ships and Scientists: the remarkable story of the UK's National Institute of Oceanography 1949–1973 edited by A. S. Laughton , W. J. Gould , M. J. Tucker and H. S. J. Roe (Eds) with 10 Contributors 360 pp., 120 b&w photos and diagrams James Clark & Co, The Lutterworth Press, PO Box 60, Cambridge CB1 2NT, 2010, £26.25 (sbk), ISBN 978-07188932302 . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 237–238. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12050_23
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the three-and-a-half-year circumnavigation of the Royal Navy's HMS Challenger from 1872 to 1876 introduced the world to oceanography, the study of all aspects of the science of the deep oceans. On the other hand, nor would it be too unreasonable to suggest that the British Government was so shocked by its own largess in financing this first example of ‘big science’ that it was reluctant to enter the oceanographic fray again until it was more or less forced to by events surrounding the First World War. In fact, despite its proud maritime traditions and history, Britain had no organization entirely devoted to the study of the deep ocean until the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) was established in 1949 under the leadership of Dr (later Sir) George Deacon in 1949. This book tells the remarkable story of the hugely productive first 24 years in the life of the new institute up to its change of status and name in 1973, by then within the relatively young Natural Environment Research Council. Written and edited almost entirely by ex-NIO scientists, it provides a fascinating, and surprisingly entertaining read, combining lots of science and technology with fairly hard-nosed politics overlain by a genuine pride and affection for Dr Deacon and his inspired leadership.
The first four chapters, written or compiled by Dr Deacon's historian daughter, Margaret, one of his successor Directors, Tony Laughton, and long-time wave guru Michael Longuet-Higgins, place NIO into its historical context. They describe how NIO brought together the staff of three pre-existing organizations: the Discovery Investigations established in the 1920s to study the Southern Ocean and prompted by the economics of the Antarctic whaling industry; the oceanographic branch of the Hydrographic Office; and finally the Admiralty's research Group W, set up in 1944 to study waves, initially in relation to the anticipated amphibious landings on enemy-defended shores. The natural Director of the new institute was Dr Deacon who, initially as a chemist, had broken his oceanographic teeth in the Discovery Investigations in 1927, and had been leading Group W since its inception. Initially, NIO's disparate parts remained geographically separated, but in 1953 they all moved into buildings at Witley in Surrey, originally built by the Admiralty in 1943 for Radar research. These buildings, with many changes and additions in subsequent years, were to be the home of UK Government oceanographic research for more than four decades until it moved to its current site in Southampton in 1995.
The bulk of the book consists of a series of chapters summarizing some of the remarkable advances made by NIO staff during this fascinating period, often in collaboration with other organizations both from Britain and overseas, and including participation in major international programmes such as the International Indian Ocean Expedition, the International Geophysical Year and the Deep Sea Drilling Project. They document the huge contributions made by NIO scientists to our understanding of ocean biology, of waves, tides and ocean currents, of ocean chemistry and, of course, of geology against the exciting background of the development of modern ideas on plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading. All of this stuff is reported with universal enthusiasm, though with varying degrees of accessibility depending on the reporter. But fascinating as it is for anyone interested in the history of oceanography, little of it will be of direct interest to most readers of IJNA apart from a few rather brief references to the early days of Nic Flemming's classic work in using Mediterranean nautical archaeology to decipher recent sea-level changes.
However, pervading the scientific chapters and reinforced by the final section ‘Support for the scientific vision’ is a theme that will be familiar to all nautical archaeologists, the dependence of front-line scientists on the skills and commitment of support staff. In the case of NIO this relationship manifested itself particularly in the design and development of all manner of seagoing instruments to solve scientific problems, ranging from the small and relatively simple to the large and extremely complex. Some of these developments, especially in acoustic telemetry and submarine photography, have already had significant impacts on nautical archaeology. But in the long term surely none will be more relevant than NIO's seminal contribution to the development of sidescan sonar with its huge potential for sea-floor imagery and the identification of human artefacts. In this context, the three chapters by Arthur Stride (‘Sidescan sonar—a tool for sea-floor geology’), Tony Laughton (‘The rocks beneath the deep ocean’) and Tom Tucker and Brian McCartney (‘Engineering and applied physics’) are particularly interesting. They describe how, after initial reluctance on Deacon's part for NIO to get involved with sidescan sonar, an in-house designed, hull-mounted system was first developed 1958, and produced a wealth of continental shelf sea-bed imagery over the next decade or so, even encouraging a German archaeologist to ask if NIO could detect the remains of ancient hut circles on the sea-floor of Mounts Bay, Cornwall (p. 203). In the meantime, by 1965 Deacon was so impressed by the success of the shallow-water system that he supported the development of a scaled up and longer-range version to be used in deep ocean depths. The eventual result was GLORIA, (Geological Long Range Inclined Asdic) in which the acoustic array was (and still is) mounted in a vehicle towed some tens of metres beneath and behind the ship to avoid a variety of surface effects. In purely commercial terms, GLORIA was by far the most successful of NIO's products resulting, inter alia, in a major contract to survey the whole of the US Exclusive Economic Zone in the late 80s and early 90s. But furthermore, as Tony Laughton writes (p. 221), ‘It is hard to overestimate the role that sidescan sonar has had subsequently, not only in marine geology but also in marine engineering, wreck identification, site surveys for production platforms and commercial exploitation of the sea-bed’. To this list he could easily have added ‘nautical archaeology’.
It is a good read.