The Invention of SASS

Eugene Weisberger was General Manager at General Instrument in the early 1960's when SASS was invented.  His recollections of those times have been published in a personal biography: "LAZARUS: FROM SEVEN TO SEVENTY-SEVEN" by Eugene Weisberger.  Gene has been kind enough to lend his permission to the TAGS site to reprint those recollections here.

In a personal communication with the TAGS site Admin., Earl Adams, Gene writes:

"The engineering team headed up by Art Rossoff (recently passed away) had come up with an idea to develop a multibeam radar. The idea was to install it on a spy plane and fly it over Russia and map that country’s terrain to determine the location of missile sites.
We received a lot of interest from the Air Force and wrote a proposal for this multibeam radar mapping system.
Then, lo and behold, a US airplane flown by one Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia and there was a great deal of negative publicity.  The Air Force people came to me and told me that they decided to cancel the multibeam radar program because it had become too politically sensitive.
So there we were with this multibeam idea but with no place to use it. Then several engineers from our Boston facility, Howard Lustig and Harold Farr, together with Art Rossoff came up with the idea of using the multibeam concept with sonar instead of radar. Our Boston facility made hydrophones and projectors (receivers and transmitters) that were used by the US Navy in sonars. But of course they did not make the electronics to go with it. The Long island facility that I was running made the electronics.  So it was that the idea was transferred from radar to sonar.
A proposal was written by Howard Lustig and Art Rossoff for the development of such a system. It was called Sonar Array Sounding System, SASS for short.
We received the first contract for SASS about six months later.  The first ship to have SASS installed was the USS Compass Island.  The program was monitored by a Navy engineer named Steve Kochansky who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in a building called the Material Laboratory.
Now for a real coincidence! When I first graduated from Brooklyn Poly in 1950 it was difficult to get a job in industry. So I took a Civil Service job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Guess who became one of my good friends? Steve Kochansky!
I left the civil service in 1951 to work at a company named Radio Receptor. Radio Receptor was bought by General Instrument where I later became General Manager, then President. General Instrument also bought the Harris Transducer company which made Projectors and Hydrophones for the US Navy.  The man who ran that business for me was Donald White.  
After the SASS systems that we made for the Navy we looked for ways to continue the business. We planned to make a smaller system for civilian use and for which we could also get an export license from the State Dept.  There was a French-sponsored program to try to find the North Atlantic Trench. The French Hydrographic office came to us to buy a system to study the ocean bottom. Don White and I spent a week negotiating a contract for the system.
Now we had to find a name for the system. I came home one night and discussed the dilemma with my family. What should we call the system? We sat around the table at dinner and one of my kids, Marc, came up with a name that just sounded perfect. That was how “Sea Beam” was born."

Excerpts from: LAZARUS: FROM SEVEN TO SEVENTY-SEVEN,  Eugene Weisberger

by Eugene Weisberger
Copyright ©2004  by Eugene Weisberger
iUniverse, Inc., New York, Lincoln, Shanghai

Used by permission.

Chapter 1, Section 5, pp 44-47


Each evening I would sit around the dinner table with my wife and four alert children, and often talk about the happenings at General Instrument. I was so lucky to have an exciting job to share with an interested family. Some evenings I would come home and talk about the functions of a radar warning receiver; other nights, the discussion revolved around an upcoming trip to a Defense Electronics Show in Paris.

 At times I would bring home information about the undersea mapping systems. I found this project an exciting one that started with the germ of an idea from two innovative engineers, Howard Lustig and Arthur Rossoff, in our Hicksville, New York facility. Their original concept was to develop a multi-beam radar system and install it into a U. S. Air Force airplane. The aircraft would then be flown over the Soviet Union to map the contour of their territory. This happened at the beginning of the cold war, almost one-half century ago. However, the program did not continue due to circumstances that discouraged the Air Force from proceeding.

 At that point we had a brilliant idea without a home. Fortunately, our ingenious engineers from the transducer facility, Don White and Harold Farr, came up with a clever variation to this multi-beam concept. Their idea was to have it used with a multi-beam sonar system. It would be installed on a ship to map the ocean bottom, instead of an airplane.

 General Instrument fortuitously purchased a small division in Boston started by a sonar engineer named Wilber Harris. This division was the basis for the multi-beam system. The unit, Harris Transducer Division made projectors and receivers for the sonar industry. On a memorable day in early 1960, Howard and Arthur paid a visit to the key engineers at Harris, Harold Farr and Donald White. They discussed the possibility of using the latest in computer technology to invent a system that would be able to make real-time maps of the ocean bottom.

 They approached the U. S. Navy with this extremely creative concept. After six months of proposal writing and making presentations to key Navy officials, the idea was finally funded. The Navy gave the project to a young, aggressive engineer at the Naval Material Laboratory, Steve Kochansky. Coincidentally, I had worked with Steve ten years before in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Although I had nothing to do with the design, my relationship with Steve was helpful when the program would get bogged down.

 Two years later an initial system was installed on a research ship called the Compass Island. The concept worked even though the computer was unreliable. This system would automatically generate maps as the ship steamed along, instead of requiring dozens of cartographers to draw contour lines of the ocean's bottom. After the initial program, a new contract was funded for four additional systems called the Sonar Array Sounding System.

 As these four systems were delivered during the late 1960's the ocean began to get mapped in earnest. It was now possible to get accurate detailed data of the ocean bottom. Hundreds of maps were created that made layers beneath the ocean visible to scientists and military people alike. Initially, the systems were used for highly classified projects. During the Cold War they were used to track the path and location of Russian submarines throughout the world. (1)  The U.S. Navy forbade us to discuss the concept with other nations because of the very sensitive nature of the data.

 There was continued disagreement between the scientists who wanted to use the data for oceanographic purposes, and the military people who wanted the data to remain classified because of its military significance. Ultimately, General Instrument personnel convinced the Navy that if we did not sell it to other countries, they would eventually develop it themselves. It was clear that multi-beam technology was here to stay with the advent of more powerful computers.

 For years there were problems with the hand drawn charts of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There were so many irregularities that the work of the cartographers was stymied. The year 1974 was designated as FAMOUS, which was symbolic for the French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study. It was a year dedicated to increased understanding of our ocean surfaces. The French were given the challenge of getting the mapped data about the entire middle Atlantic ridge. The French had the macro responsibility while the Americans had the micro responsibility.

 The only way to see the overall bottom of the ocean surface was to use a multibeam sonar system and General Instrument was the only company to have such a system. We were called to Paris to negotiate a contract for our system. The French were egocentric about their technical abilities and were also very sensitive about the fact that they needed to buy such technology from the United States. (General Instrument had the patent for the technology.)

 The program manager, Don White, and I spent a long week in Paris trying to negotiate an agreement with their Hydrographic Office. To make matters more difficult, the office at Idlewild Airport (renamed John F. Kennedy Airport) passed a ruling that limited the number of planes allowed to land at that airport. The ruling annoyed the French even more because the U.S was squeezing Air France out of the airline market. So they were not happy about purchasing a Sea Beam from an American company. In fact, the French negotiator told me off the record that if the technology could have been bought "anywhere in the world other than the United States, they would have done so."

 Although they hated us that week, we just hung in there. When I reported back to the General Manager, he said something I have quoted many times since I became a General Manager.

 He said, "the art of negotiation is the art of keeping the seat of one's pants upon the seat of one's chair."

 The negotiations were made more difficult by the fact that they insisted on keeping it in French, so we needed the contract translated line by line. We later discovered over dinner and a few bottles of wine, that the French negotiators were instructed to give us a hard time. We all laughed about this, and a while later we had our contract.

 For years, two divisions worked on this multi-beam sonar system. The Hicksville division worked on the electronics, while the Boston division worked on the sonar portion of the system. Because this was a very sophisticated and highly classified project, I always had to be careful not to release any classified material. Typically, I would tell others the name of the system (Sonar Array Sounding System) and that it was used to find things in the bottom of the ocean, like treasures. I never actually said anything about its real purpose.

 Years later the security classification was downgraded and our company received permission to sell comparable systems to friendly foreign governments. The U.S. government insisted that the system sold overseas should be significantly downgraded in performance.

 In order to separate the high performance system used by the United States Navy (referred by its complicated name, Sonar Array Sounding System or SASS) from the commercial version, we decided to create a new name. General Instrument was looking for a catchy name that distinguished itself from the Navy's, but that was also descriptive of its function. At that time, both the electronic and sonar portions of the commercial version were being built in Boston. I visited the Boston facility once a month to check on its progress.

 One night after a monthly trip to Boston, I told my family that the project managers of the commercial version of SASS were looking for a new name. This task fascinated my kids and they started to ask questions about the systems' function. I explained how the system worked under the ocean to send many sonar beams to the ocean floor. After several minutes on the subject, the kids started to throw out suggestions. Among the many suggestions one potential name was Ocean Mapper and the other was Sea Mapping System. Suddenly, our youngest son who was nine years old, but very good with words, came out with the name SEA BEAM. Immediately the others repeated "Sea Beam, yes that sounds good. Sea Beam! Yes!" They said, "That sounds good." And so Sea Beam was born.

 We delivered the Sea Beam to the French in time to meet the "1974 Year of Exploration" and several of our engineers were there to use the system in the mid-Atlantic. They returned with stories about what they found. In the middle of the Atlantic we saw a huge gully that was later called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It was this data that showed that the plates under the ocean were actually separating causing Europe and North America to move apart.

Over the next forty years hundreds of scientific discoveries were made possible with the use of Sea Beam. Sea Beam systems were delivered to Australia, Japan, Korea and others. Eventually, our patent ran out and the French and Germans started to manufacture Sea Beam type systems. But the name Sea Beam began at a kitchen table when a young boy thought of a catchy name for this very important system.
(1) - Here Gene unaccountably confuses the use of SASS with that of SOSUS.  [Admin.]

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