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.

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