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The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: The Dazzling Dr. Spilhaus

The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: The Dazzling Dr. Spilhaus

NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program was conceived in the back of a taxi speeding through Minneapolis in 1963

Laura Wilson
/ Categories: Minnesota, 50th Anniversary

By Jennifer Kimball Gasperini

NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program was conceived in the back of a taxi speeding through Minneapolis in 1963. This backseat origin story is one of many startling and awe inspiring tales relayed throughout the pages of With Tomorrow in Mind: How Athelstan Spilhaus Turned America Toward the Future. In honor of the momentum that began that day in a Minnesota taxicab and in celebration of Sea Grant’s 50th anniversary, Minnesota Sea Grant is proud to present the biography of Dr. Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus.  

Sharon Moen, science writer for Minnesota Sea Grant, spent years piecing together the vast and varied accomplishments of Dr. Spilhaus, a Renaissance man whose lifework involved oceanography, aeronautical engineering, public policy, public art, America’s space race, a syndicated comic strip, international relations and an extensive mechanical toy collection, among other pursuits. 

“Walter Cronkite called Spilhaus the most interesting person he ever interviewed,” said Moen. “Other’s called him ‘genius,’ ‘gadfly,’ ‘the ocean community’s Michelangelo.’”

Born in South Africa, Spilhaus appeared at the admissions office of MIT and asked to be accepted into the graduate program without having applied. He was admitted on probation and earned a master’s of science degree in aeronautical engineering. 

The book is a page-turner. Readers will be surprised to learn how Spilhaus’s invention of the bathythermograph during graduate school aided Allied troops during WWII to the point where Winston Churchill wrote Spilhaus a personal thank you note. Maybe even more dumbfounding is Spilhaus’s part in creating UFO hysteria. As stated in The Economist (1998), “It would be unfair to blame Athelstan Spilhaus for what came to be called the Roswell Incident. All the same, ....” 

Outraged by the surprise launch of Sputnik, Spilhaus authored a syndicated comic strip called Our New Age that ran weekly for 15 years, reaching 5 million readers in 19 countries. This was only one of his efforts to improve the average American’s knowledge of science. When Dr. Spilhaus met President Kennedy in 1962, JFK told him, “The only science I ever learned was from your comic strip in the Boston Globe.”

Spilly, as he was known by friends, was a character; he spoke off-the-cuff and liked a good time. Yet, he served as the dean of the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota, a superintendent of a school district in Florida and as one of NOAA’s first advisors. He conceptualized the Minneapolis skyway system and the Triangle of the Sun installation that still graces the entrance of the McGraw-Hill Building in New York City.

Concerned about over-population and the troubling tide of people vacating cities for suburbs, Spilhaus collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on the planning of an experimental city that would have been one mighty research laboratory. Designed with complete material and water recycling and no internal combustion engines, the city, which was close to being built, was to thrive on a constant flow of research and technological development. 

As the NOAA Sea Grant Program continues to demonstrate, Spilhaus’s legacy is one of creative problem-solving.  “I’m impatient with the past and irritable with the present,” he said. “The future is where my concern lies, and I’m very optimistic about it.”  

For more information on With Tomorrow in Mind:  How Athelstan Spilhaus Turned America Toward the Future, please visit Minnesota Sea Grant.

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