Retrotechtacular: An Oceanographic Data Station Buoy For The 1960s

When we watch a TV weather report such as the ones that plaster our screens during hurricane season, it is easy to forget the scale of the achievement they represent in terms of data collection and interpretation. Huge amounts of data from a diverse array of sources feed weather models running on some of our most powerful computers, and though they don’t always forecast with complete accuracy we have become used to their getting it right often enough to be trustworthy.

It is also easy to forget that such advanced technology and the vast array of data behind it are relatively recent developments. In the middle of the twentieth century the bulk of meteorological data came from hand-recorded human observations, and meteorologists were dispatched to far-flung corners of the globe to record them. There were still significant areas of meteorological science that were closed books, and through the 1957 International Geophysical Year there was a concerted worldwide effort to close that gap.

We take for granted that many environmental readings are now taken automatically, and indeed most of us could produce an automated suite of meteorological instruments relatively easily using a microcontroller and a few sensors. In the International Geophysical Year era though this technology was still very much in its infancy, and the film below the break details the development through the early 1960s of one of the first automated remote ocean sensor buoys.

Perhaps our last sentence conjures up a vision of something small enough to hold, from all those National Geographic images of intrepid oilskin-clad scientists launching them from the decks of research vessels. But the technology of the early 1960s required something a little more substantial, so the buoy in question is a (using the units of the day) 100 ton circular platform more in the scale of a medium-sized boat. Above deck it was dominated by an HF (shortwave) discone antenna and its atmospheric instrument package. Below deck (aside from its electronic payload) it had a propane-powered internal combustion engine and generator to periodically charge its batteries. In use it would be anchored to the sea floor, and it was designed to operate even in the roughest of maritime conditions.

The film introduces the project, then looks at the design of a hull suitable for the extreme conditions like a hurricane. We see the first prototype being installed off the Florida coast in late 1964, and follow its progress through Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The mobile monitoring station in a converted passenger bus is shown in the heart of the foul weather, receiving constant telemetry from the buoy through 40 foot waves and 110 mph gusts of wind.

We are then shown the 1967 second prototype intended to be moored in the Pacific, this time equipped with a computerised data logging system. A DEC PDP-8 receives the data mounted in the bus, and are told that this buoy can store 24 hours at a stretch for transmission in one go. Top marks to the film production team for use of the word “data” in the plural.

Finally we’re told how a future network of the buoys for presumably the late 1960s and early 1970s could be served by a chain of receiving stations for near-complete coverage of the major oceans. At the height of the Cold War this aspect of the project would have been extremely important, as up-to-the-minute meteorological readings would have had considerable military value.

The film makes an engaging look at a technology few of us will ever come directly into contact with but the benefits of which we will all feel every time we see a TV weather forecast.

Thanks [KB1LQC] for the tip.

15 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: An Oceanographic Data Station Buoy For The 1960s

      1. However I was watching a video on Netflix about the construction of the freedom tower, and they used a safety net of sorts. Unfortunately the video did show any detail of it. Yes the same video showed iron workers strolling on the beams as usual. I don’t believe for a moment no one of them would make use of any safety net present in the manner they would have been trained to use it. That would be like the derrick hand on an oil well rig not using the Geronimo line to save themselves. only the insane who have a family and/or a long life ahead of them would save themselves. And yes the Geronimo line is an actual thing.

    1. Back in the 1930s depression my grandfather worked on the Grand Coulee Dam in the US state of Washington.
      Everyone got a benzadrine(amphetamine) dose at the start of the night shift and again at the midnight-ish lunch. They lost people all the time and apparently there is a memorial to all of the men buried alive somewhere at the concrete of the dam. Grandad broke under the stress and drugs, had his freakout and became an apple farmer.

    2. As soon as I seen the apparent HF discone antenna I had a sense of the size. In my imagination I see the engineers specifying the mast guy lines going “hey we can make an HF antenna with these”. Simple shor based HF antennas will increase the communications rang at lest cost than highe towers fr VHF

      Yes those where different times. I’m confused; do those making note of the lack of safety gear believe society should return to those times. In they event they do. In they event they,they should hold their breath. safety items add the the black line for the insurance sector at no cost to that sector.. Who does Joe Public believe who writes safety regulation?

      1. I have had tools that had a lot of force on them slip of fail and hit me on the side of the head, hard, and seen that happen to others. As far as the buoy goes it had equipment near the top that that may need service.. While it doesn’t seem that high it’s probably high enough for a dropped tool to cause an injury.

  1. Thanks for the share Jenny! It’s pretty amazing some of the effort that went into making this survive. I love the idea that there are floating platforms in the middle of nowhere monitoring expanses of the Earth that humans rarely venture to.

  2. That’s a great video! Love the old PDP-8 and ASR-33 Teletype.
    Real Computers have switches and lights. And sit inside buoys in the middle of the ocean, apparently.

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