Image of Athelstan Spilhaus' Bathythermograph Athelstan Spilhaus' Bathythermograph
Bathythermograph, Athelstan Spilhaus, 1936

The development of the bathythermograph—an oceanographic instrument designed to continuously record temperature versus depth from a moving vessel—is a classic story of science and ocean engineering collaboration among MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the U.S. Navy. The origins of the instrument begin in 1935 when MIT Meteorology Professor Carl-Gustaf Rossby started experimenting with an early version of the instrument onboard WHOI’s research vessel Atlantis. Rossby turned over development of the instrument to his graduate student Athelstan Spilhaus. By 1938, Spilhaus had developed the fully functioning instrument on display and coined the term “bathythermograph.” His invention immediately proved valuable for submarine warfare operations during WWII, but the bathythermograph (the word is still in common use although modern instruments are far more sophisticated) has provided a key tool for understanding the ocean’s temperature structure and its physics.

On loan from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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