It had been a long day, and dusk was settling on the white gravestones and the khaki government buildings atop Point Loma. But for Carroll White it was a dawn, and he was filled with the elation he'd been withholding from himself for months. On this evening in 1968, as he was leaving his office in the Naval Electronics Laboratory Center (NELC), Carroll White was about to admit openly that he and a colleague, Russell Harter, had made a major discovery: they had found a way to test eyesight objectively, a way to tap into the brain’s vision center and ask it directly how well a person was seeing.
Though he didn't know it then, this procedure would open an entirely new field in ophthalmology, with international sweep. All he knew now was that the procedure worked, and he could allow himself the “Eureka!" that scientists and prospectors covet. When he arrived home that night he phoned one of his old mentors at the University of Arizona and said. “‘You know, we found today that we can actually refract the eye with this thing." The invention, and the subsequent patent which was issued in 1971, was honored by the U.S. Navy with an award of $11,235, the largest patent award ever given for naval research at the Point Loma Lab.
In 1977 NELC was merged with the Naval Undersea Center, which was located at the foot of Point Loma beside the Ballast Point submarine base, and the two became the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC). One of the navy's nine research and development labs, it's a haven for scientists, engineers, technicians, and administrators endeavoring to keep the navy at the highest possible level of technological capability. This particular lab specializes in communications, ocean surveillance, surface- and air-launched undersea weapons systems, and submarine Arctic warfare. By definition the work breeds new equipment and techniques.
The researchers produce about sixty or so patents a year, only a fraction of which carry the importance or command the cash of White and Harter's "Method and Apparatus for Determining the Effectiveness of Spatial Vision." Most are awarded less than $500 and have names such as "Pivotal Mono Wing Cruise Missile with Wing Deployment and Fastener Mechanism"; "Printed Circuit Card Hybrid Fiber Optic Connector"; "Atmospheric Transmissometer"; "Vector Summation Power Amplifier"; "Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Lightweight Cable Cutter"; and "Real-Time Ultra-High Resolution Image Projection Display Using Laser-Addressed Liquid Crystal Light Valve." (One can imagine the mind-numbing nomenclature of the secret inventions derived from the classified research at NOSC; such patents are not issued publicly.)
No invention is too esoteric or too mundane for the navy; NOSC's patent office employs four patent attorneys who constantly comb the lab's researchers for patentable new devices. In filing for every patent of potential interest to the navy, the attorneys arc mainly trying to protect the government. The U.S., after paying a person to do basic research, does not want to pay him again for the right to use the patent he produced on government time. So almost all the patents coming out of NOSC every year are owned by the government, though the person who invented the device or procedure has his name on the documents. The researcher must waive his right to collect royalties from the government or anyone else who uses his patent, but sizable cash compensations are awarded for inventions that are considered very important, such as the infrared guidance system for the Sidewinder missile or a new way to test vision (inventor W.B. McLean received $25,000 in the early Sixties for his work on the former).
Of course, in its way, every invention at any research lab, government or private, is of great importance to its users. And here is where a distinction must be drawn between inventors at NOSC (some of whom hold dozens of patents) and the stereotypical “mad inventor” who works nights in his garage and dreams of tinkering his way to instant riches. “I didn’t sit down and say, i want to invent a way to objectively measure vision,” explains Carroll White, who no longer works for NOSC. “One of the rarest things in the world is when someone sets out to invent something — and succeeds. . . . Invention is a by-product of what you’re doing.’’ It follows that by examining some of these byproducts, like an archaeologist fingering the discards of a lost civilization, one can discover something about the guarded work progressing on Point Loma.
Method and Apparatus for Determining the Effectiveness of Spatial Vision
“Why us?” repeats Carroll White.
“I’m sorry,” he answers facetiously, “I just happened to be the one to do it first.” It’s acknowledged in the scientific literature that White and Harter steered the study of vision onto a major new thoroughfare. Their work led to the blossoming of a professional association called the International Society for the Clinical Electrophysiology of Vision, and by today’s standards, what White and Harter did would be considered almost primitive. Like most breakthroughs — think of Bell’s telephone, or the Wrights’ powered, heavier-than-air flying machine — it really just laid foundation for others to build upon. Their discovery, combined with the work of others, helped science to lever itself toward advanced knowledge of the senses of hearing and touch, as well as sight (taste and smell remain elusive quarry), and it even foreshadowed current work being done on the nature of perception itself.
In the early Sixties White and Harter were working in the Human Factors I Division of NELC. White had begun his career as an electronics engineer, but had later become a psychologist. He was particularly interested in sensory psychology and for many years had studied the brain’s perception of time. As a naval researcher he’d been drawn toward studying the way the brain perceives images on radar and sonar scopes, and when the Human Factors lab received a computer in 1961 that could measure specific types of brain-wave activity, he began experimenting with it as a means to probe the area of the brain concerned with vision. White and Harter observed that by attaching electrodes to the back of the head, directly behind the brain’s vision center, they could record changes in brain-wave activity when the subject’s eyes were exposed to changes in illumination. They also observed that these brain waves changed even more drastically when the subject was shown differences in sharpness of contour, say on a checkerboard pattern. This in itself was no great discovery; others, unbeknownst to Harter and White, had observed the same thing, but nobody could understand just what these changes in brain waves really signified. The brain-wave changes looked like nothing more than patterned scribblings on graph paper. “The read-out was like hieroglyphics; it looked like nonsense,” says White, whose inner excitement is revealed by an unconscious closing and fluttering of his eyes. “The technology of measuring these visual evoked responses wasn’t the problem; the problem was interpreting these hieroglyphics.
What they needed was a Rosetta Stone, a key to deciphering the scrawled graphs. So they found a person at the lab who had perfect vision, hooked him up to the electrodes and the computer, and showed him checkerboard patterns that were perfectly in focus. The readings of his brain waves represented clear, perfect vision. Then, using a set of lenses they borrowed from a local ophthalmologist, they blurred the pattern. Comparison of the read-outs, using the perfect vision hieroglyphics as a base, gave them an understanding of how the brain waves indicated clear vision, and how they indicated different degrees of unfocused sight. After testing thirty subjects over the course of a year, from the eagle-eyed to the legally blind. White and Harter became confident that they knew how to read the signals coming from the brain's vision center. They could tell, without a word being said by the subject, if he was seeing clearly or fuzzily, with the same degree of accuracy attained by the subjective chart-reading vision test. They were entitled to a genuine Eureka!
Today the process is used routinely to fit eyeglasses for the mentally handicapped and for infants who can’t yet speak. It’s been used to test the vision of boxers and others whose eyesight may have been damaged in their work, and this has become its most common application. With this and other procedures, doctors are now able to narrow down just where in the eye-to-optic-nerve-to-brain connection a sight problem exists. It has also been used by the navy's Balboa Hospital as a diagnostic tool and as a way to test suspected malingerers who try to use alleged vision problems as a way to get out of military service. An advanced application of the procedure was used in intriguing experiments at Children’s Hospital a few years back. Researchers showed pictures of women to very young babies and found that their brain waves responded most dramatically to pictures of their own mothers. Part of the funding for this research was provided by the CIA (igniting a minor scandal at the time), because the procedure showed great promise as a method for exposing suspected spies. Why not hook up such a suspect to the electrodes and show him pictures of, say, certain obscure Russian officials in the KGB? Brain waves, unlike certain physical indicators measured by conventional polygraph exams, cannot be controlled at will.
Carroll White is now a clinical professor of pediatrics and ophthalmology at UCSD, and he runs the vision lab at Mercy Hospital, where he uses the procedure he developed at NELC to help doctors diagnose vision problems. Russell Harter is now a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. White is obviously proud of his achievement, but self-effacing at the same time. “We had a i brand-new toy, the computer, that | could measure responses in the brain,” he says, his eyelids fluttering. “We are | just playing with it.”
Light Burst Activity Analyzer
Hugh Copeland is an electronics engineer who likes to talk about things such as nanoseconds and digital logic families. So his invention of a device that could analyze the “flash kinetics” of microscopic bioluminescent organisms in seawater was no big problem for him. It took him about a week to design and another week to build the device for scientists who needed to know more about the nature of bioluminescence, and it contributed significantly to the advancement of knowledge about those tiny light-generating organisms.
Just exactly why scientists at NOSC wanted to know more about bioluminescence is itself an interesting question. According to Copeland’s patent, the reason involved certain “proposals which are presently being made for a system which is intended to communicate through an ocean body by means of laser light signals. Because light signals passing through a seawater environment are subjected to a high degree of attenuation, the effects of bioluminescence on signal reception at a receiver in the environment may be very significant.” But nobody around NOSC will admit to knowing much about underwater laser communications.
Regardless, Copeland’s device came in handy for scientists Jon Losee and David Lapota. They wanted to see a mathematical projection called a PDF — Probability Distribution Function — for bioluminescence. Which is to say, they wanted to know more about the structure and pattern of the light emitted by the bioluminescent organisms. Mathematical models for differing numbers of individual microorganisms might be able to tell the scientists whether light emissions occur continuously or in short bursts, and whether the intensity of the emissions is continuous or variable over time.
What Copeland had to do was assemble a device that would open a window for one millisecond (one-thousandth of a second), receive and measure the intensity and rhythm of individual photons of light, and record on a graph a statistical picture of the light emitted in that window or series of such windows. Most of the equipment needed to do this already existed. Photon counters have been used for years in various branches of science, and the other main component, a pulse-height analyzer, was also in common use. Copeland had to create the coupling device in between that would allow the pulse-height analyzer to receive signals of infinitesimal duration.
According to Jon Losee, the gadget worked. “The PDF for bioluminescence hadn’t been done before,” he says. “But I wouldn't call what we discovered with it a leap/ What we found was about what we expected. A leap in science occurs only when you find something that was totally unexpected."
What they proved was that bioluminescence emits light in short bursts, each lasting between ten and one hundred milliseconds, and some of those short bursts are extremely intense. Exactly how this may contribute to advancing underwater laser communications remains an open question.
One of the most remote and beautiful sections of Point Loma lies just over the ridge on the seaward side, and from underground inside one of the concrete-reinforced observation bunkers built during WWII electronics technician Gordon Cooke can enjoy one of the best views available at NOSC. After walking down long, sloping passageways, past rooms jammed with sensitive electronic instruments, Cooke can make his way to the bunker's small observation room and look through the narrow slit toward the open sea. Down the slope at the ocean’s edge is the section of NOSC that used to house the dolphins being used for various kinds of research. (They were recently moved to bayside.) Southward lie the lumpy specters of the Coronado Islands. Due west is the vast blue emptiness of the Pacific. Surrounding the bunker are serene rows of marble tombstones standing in peace above the nation’s honored dead in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The beauty of the place isn't lost on Cooke, a talkative but discreet company man.
His job has carried him out on research vessels conducting “hydro-graphic survey work,’’ which at NOSC is oftentimes a euphemism for “tracking Russian submarines,” but you won't get Cooke to admit to that. These research ships tow sonar arrays that project acoustic beams down through the water; monitoring equipment on board receives and processes data from the echo of those beams. The towed arrays are flexible tubes about four inches in diameter and up to a mile long. Since it's of crucial importance to know the exact heading in which the array is being towed, small compasses are implanted at intervals in the tube. Due to the haywire magnetic distortions produced by the steel decks, cables, and electrical lines aboard ships, it was almost impossible to check these small compasses for accuracy. So I Gordon Cooke got to thinking.
“I’m a Gemini,” says Cooke. “Creativeness satisfies me. When I see something that’s not right, it floats around in my head until I solve it.” He steps into a trailer outside the bunker and rummages around under a bench. Above him, tacked to the wall, a Playboy pinup leers down at the tangle of gear. He finally finds what he’s looking for. It's a small plastic apparatus, smaller than a bread box, shaped roughly like a horseshoe, with dials on it. He walks over to another trailer and pulls out a short length of sonar array tube from beneath it. He places the plastic device around the ! array and demonstrates his patented compass checker, for which he received a patent award of $200 in 1981.
It works very simply but ingeniously. Cooke's compass checker is designed to surround the compass completely in a magnetic field, thereby overcoming any other magnetic distortions generated by the ship. While underway Cooke or another technician stands on deck and, before letting the array play out behind the ship, holds the U-shaped checker around each successive compass in the array. The device has two sets of magnets that produce fields both above and below the compass. Cooke simply turns a calibrated dial on his compass checker, which spins these magnets, which cause the compass in the array to turn. As the compass turns it gives a digital read-out of its heading on sonar equipment below decks. Technicians call out these headings to Cooke via headphones. If the digital headings don’t coincide with the headings on the dial he's turning, then the compass is slightly off, and the variation is noted and compensated for by the technicians. Then the array is played out behind the ship until Cooke comes to the next compass, and so on.
“The patent office people call me all the time, asking about new stuff like this that might be patentable,” says Cooke, who holds four other patents for the navy and three for General Dynamics, where he used to work on mini-subs. “They have a list of the creative people at the lab and they keep tabs on what you’re doing. They like the simple stuff.”
Lift Sling Emplacement Device
An aircraft carrier is tooling along the coast of Lebanon and one of the flight deck sailors has a momentary lapse of attention, and then boom — an F-14 Tomcat, festooned with Phoenix missiles, rolls off the deck and sinks in the deep blue Mediterranean. It's a safe bet that certain powers other than the U.S. might be interested in that plane and its payload, and even though President Reagan might accept blame for the sailor's mistake, the navy would still very much like to get the plane back. It's deep, maybe as much as 10,000 feet down, half sunk in mud, and lying in total darkness. What now?
After trickling down through the chain of command, the navy's anxiety might fall into the lap of Bob Wemli, a mechanical engineer in the Ocean Engineering branch at NOSC who has thought about such a scenario and has patented a device that could possibly save some poor swabby's fantail.
As a manager of a research enterprise called the Deep Ocean Technology Program, Wernli, along with his cohorts, had to devise ways to recover large objects from ocean bottoms deeper than divers can go. “We looked at what the navy might want to recover from the deepest possible depth," ex- ; plains Wernli, a compact, sturdily built engineer with a thick black beard, “and the biggest thing we looked at was an airplane.'' That also turned out , to be one of the most difficult things to attempt to recover, because aircraft are relatively fragile and they’d probably have to be lifted with the help of “belly bands" placed around the fuselage. For Wernli the problems of depth, darkness, and lurking spies were secondary to the job of somehow slipping slings around the bottom of the plane. Getting to the site and illuminating it wouldn't be that difficult now; with a lot of early help from NOSC, private industry has taken the lead in producing Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) that now routinely ply the deep oceans for scientific and oil exploration; this technology is now for sale to the government. These underwater robots are dexterous enough to handle the most delicate task, two miles below their operators. (What’s stopping them from being able to work down to 20,000 feet is the “cable dynamics” of a tether that’s five miles long. Being limited to a depth of about 10,000 feet hampered the search for the flight recorder of the Korean Airlines jet shot down by the Russians last fall. The underwater robot that searched for the plane’s wreckage was the Deep Drone, operated by East Port International out of Lanham, Maryland on navy contract.) No, the major problem wouldn’t be getting to the plane, if it wasn’t more than 10,000 feet down. But attaching the belly bands and lifting it presented an interesting challenge.
What Wemli came up with was a simple little device that, when it was tested out at San Clemente Island in 1979, allowed the navy to recover an F-4 Phantom for the first time by using an ROV. The apparatus consists of a hollow steel water-jetting tube bent into an arc, a water jet nozzle attached to the end of the tube, a series of rollers through which the tube slides, a length of strap, and a lot of line. It looks about like a fishing pole bending under the weight of a doomed fish, with the rollers, strap, and line roughly equivalent to the reel. The ROV takes one or more of these things down to the airplane (belly bands would have to be placed both in front of and behind the aircraft’s wings), and the operator positions the robot alongside the fuselage, fore or aft of the wings. The robot’s grabber arm then places the end of the long tube into the mud next to the plane. The water jet — whose nozzle is at the end of the tube in the mud — is turned on, and as the water clears a path, the robot’s other arm forces the tube down under the fuselage. Since the tube is shaped in an arc, it follows the contour of the fuselage, and as it makes progress, the belly band is gradually pushed beneath the plane. When the end of the tube pops up from the mud on the far side of the plane, the robot hooks both ends of the strap together at a single point atop the fuselage. After hooking up two belly bands this way, the aircraft is ready to be lifted by a gas-filled balloon. Voila.
Though the device has been proven to work, it isn’t the kind of thing that will be mass-produced for the fleet. For one thing, it’s designed to be used with a tethered underwater robot, and the fleet doesn’t have any of those. “We have the capability to recover a plane from great depth if needed,” says Wemli, pride glowing in his eyes. “If something like that happens tomorrow — wham, bam — if they call you, and you go out and do it.”
SWATH (Small Waterplane, Twin Hull) Boat
Just south of the Hotel del Coronado, floating dead still beside the dock in Glorietta Bay, the sixty-five-foot, fifty-ton Suave Lino seems lost. With its twin underwater hulls that look more like torpedoes, its broad, flat deck, and overall boxy physiognomy, it would look right at home shuttling astronauts between space stations. But there it is in sunny Coronado, the only SWATH boat on the water in the continental U.S., and to its owner, businessman Leonard Friedman, it’s a picture of the future. “In ten or twelve years, SWATH boats will be all over the water,” predicts Friedman, sounding a refrain that’s been repeated since the turn of the century, when the radical design was first proposed.
The man who's credited with perfecting that design, Tom Lang, was head of the Advanced Concepts Division at NOSC when he retired in 1978 to devote full time to his Semi-Submerged Ship Corporation. He received the main patent on the SWATH concept in 1971, and while the navy has the right to use it without paying him royalties, Lang retains actual ownership of the patent. Lang’s work on the idea began thirty years ago when, as an engineer with a special interest in hydrodynamics, he became intrigued with hydrofoil boats. He designed, patented, and built several of them, and he received royalties for a time when the Upright Hydrofoil Company of Berkeley produced a $375 kit for modifying a standard boat into a hydrofoil. About eighty of these kits were sold around the world in the early Sixties, but Lang continued searching for a new way to raise a boat's hull above the water, and, in the same manner as hydrofoils, separate the boat from the forces of waves. As a navy researcher he had been working with torpedoes, so it was natural that he might try to combine the hydrofoils with torpedo-like hulls. What he created — a strange-looking vessel with two parallel underwater hulls, somewhat resembling a high-tech catamaran — would, in theory, drastically reduce the vessel’s reaction to high seas. In practice it did that and more.
The basic idea is simple and quite old: if you somehow separate most of a ship's hull from the sea surface, then the ship will pitch, roll, and heave much less. That idea was correct, but it took Tom Lang to add certain crucial finishing touches, such as underwater fins jutting out from the hulls. Without these, when the ship moves through the water it tends to porpoise; the fins improve its stability and hold it down on an even keel while the waves rise and fall. Leonard Friedman says, “It's uncanny how smooth the Suave Lino [“smooth line" in Spanish] rides in rough seas. You see a big swell coming at you and you brace yourself for it, but nothing happens. You go right through it, and the boat doesn't rise or fall or rock. You can set a glass of water down in six-foot seas and it doesn't spill."
In 1968 Lang was working on an undersea surveillance project for the navy and he needed a very stable, seagoing platform from which to work. That was his reason for taking his SWATH idea to the navy, and he was able to get funding to work on it. For about a year it was a one-man project, and then the navy got serious about it. Design of an actual vessel, eventually named the SSP Kaimalino (for semi-submerged ship; Kaimalino means “calm water" in the Hawaiian language), began in the spring of 1970. The eighty-nine-foot, 220-ton work boat was operating at its full twenty-five knot speed by 1973.
The Kaimalino is based at the NOSC lab in Hawaii, where most of her numerous tests and sea trials have been run. Navy reports have routinely concluded that the ship's stability and speed in rough seas, and its remarkable ability to keep a precise heading in large waves, make SWATH boats good candidates for several possible navy applications. Both the navy and Coast Guard have pushed money into formal SWATH development programs, and by the summer of 1985 the Coast Guard hopes to begin building a 500-ton SWATH cutter. That particular vessel is being designed to carry a helicopter and is expected to operate in much heavier seas than the chopper-carrying cutters now in use. The navy isn't moving so fast. At one point a 3000-ton, $125 million test platform made it into the preliminary design phase, only to be scrubbed because it was too expensive. But interest and activity remain high, and money is still finding its way into SWATH development projects. Design configurations have been proposed using SWATH vessels as small aircraft carriers for jump jets, and as missile and chopper- launching frigates. “We can build one now with reasonable technical risks," says Colen Kennell, a naval architect in the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington. D.C. “The dominant issues are: Do we know how long it will take to complete? And what will it actually cost?"
Many such questions have already been answered by the Japanese, who have built three SWATH ships that are operating now. and expect to have another one, an oceanographic research vessel weighing in at 3500 tons, finished sometime next year. The Japanese, who acknowledge the initial help given them by Tom Lang and his patents, have boldly adopted the concept. And almost everyone who has spent time on the Kaimalino and the Suave Lino raves about their performance. So why does the Suave Lino remain the only one afloat in the continental U.S.? “Tradition,” says Leonard Friedman, as if the word tastes like turpentine. “The navy just isn't receptive to new boat designs. What we need is another Hyman Rickover, the admiral who bucked tradition and created the fleet of nuclear submarines], but there was only one of him, and he isn’t in the navy anymore.”
Aside from the government market, SWATH devotees see several commercial applications. The Japanese are using a SWATH ship as a seagoing ferry, and this people-moving service is thought to be the SWATH’s chief commercial selling point. In 1980 Tom Lang signed an agreement to design SWATH ships for the huge conglomerate known as British Shipbuilders, which is interested in improving its shuttle capabilities in the North Sea oil fields. In 1981 Leonard Friedman and a National City-based boat-building company called RMI entered into a partnership to design and produce SWATH boats for commercial and military use. RMI designed one that closely resembled the Suave Lino (which was launched here in February of 1981), but shortly after work began on the new boat, Friedman and RMI dissolved the partnership and started suing each other. Friedman, who is part owner of the Hotel del Coronado and who spent a million dollars to build Suave Lino, won't say now whether or not he'll continue trying to build SWATH boats commercially. RMI is definitely in that business and hopes to have its first boat completed later this year. Since Friedman invested a lot of money in the early design stages of it, just who will have ownership of the RMI boat may be decided in a courtroom.
So the Suave Lino at dockside may be a picture of the future, but the picture of the present is all too familiar: the Japanese are building SWATHs like crazy and the Americans are suing each other. Tom Lang thinks his patent covers the Suave Lino and the new RMI boat, and he’s currency talking with Friedman about patent royalties. (Discussions with RMI will speed up when their boat hits the water.) Lang may also have to defend his patent against Lockheed, which recently started its own SWATH project. “I'm not worried,” he says, grinning confidently. “The patents I have are good, basic patents; my position is strong, and I plan to protect that position. Given enough time. I'll win.”
A Couple Contraptions the Government Would Rather Not Discuss
In 1981 a group of four researchers from NOSC received a patent on a method for detecting deep tunnels in the earth. The procedure utilizes a magnetic field generated between two parallel electrical lines on the surface of the earth. This field is warped or distorted by the presence of tunnels, and these changes can be measured and plotted to pinpoint the tunnel. Though the patent was issued publicly, the inventors declined to discuss it because they would be unable to avoid classified territory if they spoke in detail about the procedure. But scuttlebutt around the lab has it that the invention was used to discover deep tunnels traversing the demilitarized zone along the border between North Korea and South Korea. This information remains unconfirmed.
Security reasons were again cited by the investor as grounds for not discussing something called a Balloon Collector/Director Sunsubsatcom Concept. This gizmo addresses the major impediment for laser communications between submarines, satellites, and earth stations — namely, laser beams don't hold up well underwater. The patent involves a satellite that turns ordinary sunlight, which travels well underwater, into a concentrated beam. On-board instruments encode the beam with messages sent up via more conventional (i.e., microwave) means, and the beam is then directed down into receivers on submarines beneath the sea. The satellite would use two inflatable balloons, one for collecting the solar energy and one for directing it, and is fairly small, making for easy delivery into orbit. This nifty idea suggests a lot of questions, starting with why exactly we may need another way to communicate with our submarines, and just how exactly we're communicating with them now. And what are we saying to them, anyway? And what do they say back? And what happens to this communication system when the missiles start flying? NOSC to public: None of your business.