Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
The University of Texas at Austin
Sid Richardson Hall 2.101
1 University Station D1100
Austin, Texas 78712-0335
Scientific and popular writings, research reports, autobiographies, diaries, correspondence and transcripts concerning 20th century oceanography, meteorology, cartography, science education, environmentalism and resource management. Scientist, administrator and educator Athelstan Spilhaus (1911-1998), made recognized contributions to oceanography, meteorology and cartography, served as a dean at the University of Minnesota, and worked to promote science education and science-based management of the earth’s resources. Born in Rondebosch, South Africa, he held degrees in mechanical engineering (University of Cape Town, 1931) and in aeronautical engineering (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1933). In 1936 Spilhaus joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, where he developed the bathythermograph, a device that made possible the measurement of ocean depths and temperatures from a moving vessel. This invention established his international reputation. 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. In 1949 Spilhaus became dean of science and technology at the University of Minnesota, a position he held until 1967. While at Minnesota he promoted the establishment of a Sea Grant Universities program for oceanographic education and research. This program was formally established by the United States Congress in 1966. In 1955 Spilhaus began writing scripts for “Our New Age,” a science-based newspaper comic strip which ran until the early 1970s. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed him United States Commissioner to the Seattle World’s Fair (also known as the Century 21 Exposition). In 1967 he became president of the Franklin Institute museum in Philadelphia, but left in 1969 after difficulties with the museum directors. During the 1970s he served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as consultant to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and in other scientific and cultural roles. He championed improvements in environmental science and urban development, and promoted the Minnesota Experimental City, a project envisioned as a venue to test new urban designs in real-world conditions. From 1977 to 1978 he was a distinguished visiting professor of marine sciences at the University of Texas. During the 1980s and 1990s Spilhaus designed new map projections highlighting the earth’s oceans, as well as map-themed puzzles. During his last years Spilhaus and his third wife Kathleen became known as authorities on antique mechanical toys.