Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Athelstan Spilhaus: First U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO

In 1954, President Eisenhower named Athelstan Spilhaus to be the first U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He received 64 out of 65 votes, including 5 from Soviet delegates, to become his country's first Government representative on UNESCO's Executive Board. He represented the United States on the Executive Board from 1954 to 1958.

Dr. Spilhaus was a most distinguished scientist and a man of great influence in the scientific community, and indeed with the public at large. He was prototypical of the leaders from America who participated in the development of UNESCO in its early years!

Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus was listed in "American Men of Science" as a meteorologist and an oceanographer, and made contributions to cartography. He was the inventor of the bathythermograph, a divice to measure water temperatures in the deep ocean. That device contributed substantially to the success of sonar in WW II, and thus to America's victory in the war. He also developed balloons for meteorological and remote sensing applications.

Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus was born on Nov. 25, 1911, in Cape Town, South Africa. He graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1931, and soon afterward settled permanently in the United States, where he received a master's degree in science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Years later, he returned to Cape Town for his doctorate, which he received in 1948. He became a citizen of the United States in 1946. He died at age 88 in 1998.

In 1955 Spilhaus began writing scripts for “Our New Age,” a science-based newspaper comic strip which ran until the early 1970s. At its peak, an estimated 12,000,000 people each week read his educational strip, which was syndicated in 93 Sunday newspapers.

He became a research assistant at M.I.T. in 1933 and then an assistant director at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, he was named an assistant professor at New York University in 1937. There he started the meteorology and oceanographic department. From 1941 through 1945 he served in the United States Army, teaching meteorology and traveling in Europe and China, where he supervised a network of weather stations and met Mao Zedong. Dr. Spilhaus became director of research at New York University in 1946, but two years later moved to the Minnesota to become dean of its Institute of Technology. After leaving his UNESCO[related duties in 1958, he returned to the University of Minnesota, where he resumed his deanship and stayed until 1966. He then served as president of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia until 1969. Later in his life he described himself, accurately, as a "retired genius."

During his last years Spilhaus and his third wife Kathleen became known as authorities on antique mechanical toys. At the last count his collection of toys numbered three thousand! His home in Virginia had been enlarged by the addition of several rooms to be able to display his collection properly. Just as with all his other activities, special conditions apply. None are battery-operated—all are spring-wound or obtain their energy from some mechanical source like gravity-operation or a flywheel.

His most enduring contribution may well have been the Sea Grant program which he initially proposed and helped to create. It was started in the 1960's and continues today. Hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds and matching institutional funds have gone into a system—involving several hundred institutions—that focuses on the better use of our ocean environment. He also was Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the U. S. Dept. of Interior that planned the National Aquarium in Washington, D. C. He was a member of more than 20 scientific and other organizations, and was elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Spilhaus developed the idea of using covered skyways and tunnels to connect buildings, protecting people in severe weather. That concept was put into use in Minneapolis in the 1950s, when he was dean of the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology. He was also the inventor of the Spilhaus Space Clock which was manufactured by Edmund Scientific; today they are collectors items!

Dr. Spilhaus lead the creation of the U.S. science exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World Fair, which remains as the Pacific Science Center. President Johnson appointed him to the National Science Board for the term 1966–72. Spilhaus also served as chairman of the scientific advisory committee of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

Among his many honors, which included twelve honorary degrees, is the Legion of Merit awarded in 1946. The latter was in recognition of his wartime research, in addition to the bathythermograph, which contributed to and introduced into the battle zone radar and radio upper wind finding, spherics, and meteorological instruments for measurements from aircraft in flight. He was later (1951) director of weapons effects for Nevada atomic tests. For this and other contributions he was awarded the Exceptional Civil Service Medal, by the United States Air Force in 1952.

Dr. Althelstan Spilhaus is but one of many distinguished Americans who participated in UNESCO during its formative years. All Americans owe him and his fellow pioneers a dept of gratitude for that service.

July 29, 1955. Announcement of plans for the building and launching of the world's first man-made satellite. The then Presidential press secretary James Hagerty is shown with five scientists during the meeting at which announcement of President Eisenhower's approval of the plan was made. Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus is standing at the back on the right.