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The international reputation of the NIO/IOS was mostly recognised through  published research papers.  However these papers were often based on equipment  designed and built at Wormley.  The description of these developments were often only described in technical and cruise reports that received limited visibility and did not describe how ideas came into being, how equipment was designed, made and used, and how things failed at times. Here we describe some of these key developments.


Top. John Swallow with a prototype float aboard RRS Discovery II, 1950s. Right. On RV Erika Dan, 1962. Below. The present global array of floats dereved from Swallow's invention.

 These were arguably one of the most important technological developments in marine science.  John Swallow developed the float in the mid 1950s as a means of measuring currents deep below the surface of the open ocean for the first time. They were used to confirm the prediction of an undercurrent beneath the Gulf Stream (1958) and gave a first glimpse of the energetic mesoscale “weather” in the 1960 "Aries" Experiment off Bermuda. In 1970s floats were developed that recoverable and others were tracked using lower frequency sound and independent of an attendant ship.  These allowed the ocean mesoscale to be mapped across entire ocean basins. In the 1990s during the World Ocean Circulation Experiment a float that surfaced at regular intervals to be tracked by satellite led to global scale deployments and to the collection of temperature and salinity profile data. These 4000+ floats of the Argo array are now used to monitor ocean heat content.   A description of float developments in the UK is available here. A more complete narrative was published in 2005.   Material contributed by John Gould.

In 2019 Gwyn Griffiths reconstructed Swallow's original float electronics.  It is described here.


Autosub was a programme to develop the technology and science applications of autonomous underwater vehicles began at Wormley.  In the 1980s Brian McCartney, Stuart Rusby, Nic Flemming, among others, were taken with the potential to harness then-new technology developments in high capacity batteries, microprocessors and navigation to develop untethered underwater vehicles for geological, geophysical and physical oceanographic observations and measurements. With the strong support of John Woods and NERC, the Autosub programme was born. Peter Collar, as Project Manager, with many colleagues at Wormley and outside, undertook a series of studies followed by specific development projects on sub-systems including propulsion, command and control and hydrodynamic design. The vision became reality after two decades of persistent effort by engineers and scientists at Wormley and then Southampton; their story is available here.

Today, the  Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems group at Southampton operates a fleet of over 30 vehicles including the Autosub vehicles, Slocum undersea gliders from Teledyne Webb Research, Seagliders (initially from iRobot, then Kongsberg Maritime, then Huntington Ingalls), autonomous surface vessels from Liquid Robotics,  and the Isis Remotely Operated Vehicle.  The TOBI deep-towed sonar platform, whose development started at Wormley, was a major facility at Southampton. On retirement, TOBI was accepted into the collection of the Science Museum, joining GLORIA.

                                       Material contributed by Gwyn Griffiths.

Images Top. An AUTOSUB launch in the North Sea off FRV Scotia. Middle. Painting by Polly Williamson in the 1980s envisaging  an Autosub returning from a mission under a polar ice sheet, Bottom. Outside NOC Southampton the array of autonomous vehicles now available.

GLORIA - Geological Long Range Inclined Asdic

Top. The  Mk I GLORIA vehicle on the initial trials cruise together with the development team.

Bottom. Recovery required the help of divers.

GLORIA was designed to map seabed structures using sound signals transmitted from a towed vehicle.  The trials of the first GLORIA vehicle (10m long, 2m diameter) were carried out in 1969  from RRS Discovery (the only ship capable of operating the vehicle) and full operation started later that year. GLORIA soon started to reveal new seabed structures.  The cumbersome vehicle was replaced with a more capable Mk 2 version in 1977 that could be fitted to almost any suitable ship, had longer range and could be towed faster.   It could map around 10,000km2 per day . These capabilities led to the 1984 to 1989 survey of the US Exclusive Economic Zone carried out from the RV Farnella. (See the Introduction page).
GLORIA design, construction and operation were substantial undertakings but GLORIA images had a major impact on our understanding of deep ocean structures.   Eventually GLORIA capabilities were overtaken by commercial towed sidescan and shipboard multibeam sonar developments and operations of the vehicle ceased in 1997. The Mk 1 vehicle is now in the Science Museum.
A fuller description with particular focus on the science results can be downloaded here.

gloria and divers.jpg

Ocean Botton Seismographs

The project to build the Pop-Up Bottom Seismic Recorder (known as PUBS) started at NIO in August 1967. It continued work begun in the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics, Cambridge University by Bob Whitmarsh for his PhD. The rationale for building an instrument that could record near-surface explosions on the sea-bed in oceanic depths was that it would provide a fixed and quieter sensor location, contact with the ‘solid’ Earth and the ability to observe first arrivals from the sediment layer. A few very expensive US instruments, designed for long-term monitoring of nuclear explosions, existed at the time but no ocean-bottom seismic recorder was known to exist in the academic world.
After various minor improvements, by May 1970 twenty-three PUBS launches had been carried out with the loss of only one instrument out of the three that had been built by then.
Probably the most significant improvement in the PUBS’ design occurred in 1985 when Ken Peal, from WHOI, spent a 12-month sabbatical at IOS working with Bob Kirk to develop a digital tape-recording system to replace the analogue tape recorders. The first data with the new Digital Ocean Bottom Seismographs (now called DOBS) were acquired at sea in April 1986.
Over 27 years, from 1968 until 1995, the PUBS/DOBS became the UK’s workhorse for wide-angle seismic measurements at sea; a total of 268 deployments had been made with very few losses. The PUBS/DOBS provided the basis of many publications by Bob Whitmarsh and colleagues both within NIO/IOS/IOSDL and from other labs in the UK and abroad.
A consortium, led by the Southampton Oceanography Centre, secured funding from NERC to acquire 28 OBSs which were delivered in 2003 from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Since 2003 the OBS pool has been operated jointly by the Universities of Southampton and Durham; in 2007 it became a NERC facility and since then it has grown to around 50 instruments.
A more complete history can be downloaded here.

Open Ocean Tide Gauges

In the late 1960s David Cartwright’s work on tidal theory had reached the point at which there was a need for tidal measurements from the open sea.  So a seabed hydrostatic pressure-recording gauge was developed that could be deployed for minimum periods of 29 days around the edge of the continental shelf.
The prototype instrument was deployed in 1969 and there followed a series of deployments around the shelf edge. In 1973 the formation of IOS led to the concentration of UK tide research at Bidston on Merseyside. The Bidston team  built on the experience gained at NIO, making use of advances in microprocessor and data storage technology to develop successful deep ocean gauges with greatly increased endurance and capable of recording not only deep-sea tides but also long-term changes in ocean bottom pressure.

You can find about the most recent derivatives of this development here.

A description of the early delopments  can be found here.

TOBI - Towed Ocean Bottom Instrument.

TOBI was developed in the 1980s. At that time GLORIA was at the height of her powers, but it was  clear that there was a need for higher-resolution data (GLORIA’s pixel size was ~50 – 100 m). TOBI’s core instrumentation comprised a 30 kHz sidescan sonar, three-component magnetometer, ~7 kHz broad-band sub-bottom profiler, and CTD. It was towed about 400 m above the sea floor.
Initial testing in October 1984 concentrated on developing safe procedures for launch and recovery, and towing stability. TOBI’s first deep-sea test deployment was dramatic! With the vehicle at a depth of 4000 m, all signals were lost. After a difficult recovery it was discovered that the vehicle had been completely destroyed by an implosion of its glass sphere buoyancy. A revised design used syntactic foam for buoyancy and this proved incredibly robust.
TOBI’s  30 kHz sidescan, (wavelength of 5 cm), was ideally suited to imaging a great variety of volcanic, tectonic, sedimentary, and biogenic structures on the seafloor and the data have provided new insights, and often paradigm shifts, in many areas of seafloor geology.
A complete description of TOBI development and of the research it has enabled can be downloaded here.  A TOBI vehicle is now in the Science Museum.

The Double-Barrelled Mooring Winch

This winch was developed by Dennis Gaunt at Wormley in the late 1960s so as to safely deploy current meter moorings made up of sections of wire joined by shackles and under tensions of up to 1 tonne.
Eventually the winch was marketed by Lebus International and is still in use today, not only on NERC vessels but on research ships in Europe and the USA.
A more complete description of how the DBC came to be developed can be downloaded here.  A description by Bob Wallace of his driving the DBC on his first cruise with NIO is on the "People" page of this web site. 

Ship-Borne Wave Recorder (SBWR)

On February 8/9 2000, RRS Discovery (in her post-lengthening 90 m guise) was hove-to in the Rockall Trough waiting for the weather to abate to be able to resume CTD stations on the so-called “Ellett Line”.  The wind was averaging between 21 and 25 m/s (Force 10 -11) and between 19:00 and 01:00 the ship encountered some extremely large waves*.  Fortunately Discovery has always been fitted with a shipborne wave (SBWR) recorder so it was possible to tell how big. The largest was 29.05m peak to trough and may have been the largest wave ever recorded at sea.
The SBWR had been developed at NIO in the early 1950s and subsequently it was used extensively, particularly in UK waters, to record data that became vital to the definition of wave climate for the offshore oil industry.  The story of the development of the SBWR can be found here.

Holliday, N.P. et al. 2006.  Were extreme waves in the Rockall Trough the largest ever recorded? Geophys Res Lett, 33, L05613, doi:10.1029/2005GL025238. Available here.

Data Buoy DB1

In the early 1970s, hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation, fisheries, meteorological forecasting, pollution control and coastal protection engineering drove a demand for operational meteorological and oceanographic data.   The development of arrays of moored  data buoys was seen as a way to gather  operational data from the open sea. Buoy technology was most advanced in the USA and work was underway in West Germany, France and Norway.  In the UK, the NERC Standing Committee on Ocean Data Stations (SCODS) expressed a need for the UK to be active in this area particularly for data in the North Sea. The Department of Trade and Industry commissioned a feasibility study by NIO that led to the construction of a 6 m diameter experimental data buoy, DB1.   The buoy was to provide experience in gathering data and making it available in real-time i.e. a fully operational measurement system. It would also provide a test-bed for oceanographic and meteorological sensors and associated sub-systems.
A team at NIO, which included Mark Carson, Peter Collar, 'Dickie' Dobson, Jack Langford and 'Tom' Tucker submitted its report and outline specification in September 1972 and the prototype buoy started sea trials in November 1975.   It incorporated many innovative ideas and became the forerunner of the ocean buoy network now operated by the UK Met Office.   An article by Peter Collar on the buoy development is available here.



From the earliest days of NIO and Henry Charnock’s pioneering work on air-sea interaction, the lab at Wormley played an important role in marine meteorology.  This is typified by the development and deployment in the 1980s and 1990s of the Multimet suite of meteorological sensors with associated data acquisition and processing systems.  The attached document describes the package and its development.  Multimet and a similar i-Met system developed at Woods Hole set the standard for ship-borne meteorological measurements  during the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) in the 1990s  and provided a firm foundation on which modern day ship-borne meteorological observations are based.

Acoustic Releases

Having reliable acoustic releases has been the key to enabling a wide range of oceanographic observing to be implemented from the 1970s onward.  With none available commercially the development of acoustic releases at NIO was started by Dennis Gaunt and Mac Harris in the mid 1960s and was then carried forward by Mac working with Greg Phillips and Mike Sawkins.  The small size of the CR200 releases (seen on the left) meant that they could be used in a wide range of applications and they served the community well for 20 years until superceeded  in the 1990s by commercially manufactured systems that had the advantage of integrated transponders giving acoustic ranges.  The attached document gives a detailed description of the development and manufacture of the CR200 releases.  

Current meter moorings

It has become quite routine nowadays to deploy large arrays of moorings carrying current meters and other recording instruments for periods of many months and with a high rate of instrument and data return.  It was not always so. 
From the mid 1960s onward engineers and scientists at Wormley  worked doggedly to learn how instruments behaved when hidden for weeks and months deep in the ocean, to chose materials that would withstand corrosion, and to develop the means to deploy and recover moorings reliably and safely.
There were many early failures; many of these still lie on the floor of the North Atlantic.  But that persistence ultimately bore fruit and is reflected in what we can now achieve.  The story of the development or our mooring capability is told in the attached document.

Innovation in Navigation

Are we there yet?  This is not just a question from bored children in the back seats of a car.  For many years it was a question that ocean-going scientists asked themselves, and the officer-of-the-watch, when faced with a vast and featureless ocean.
Edward  Cooper and Gwyn Griffiths have taken the lead in documenting how our ability to answer the question “Are we there yet?” has developed since the era of celestial navigation.  Our demands as scientists pushed the boundaries of what was possible and so the early adoption of new technologies was paramount, even if it did lead us down a few blind alleys.  The story can be downloaded here

Scientific Diving

To many people the science of oceanography conjures up images of scuba divers on coral reefs  surrounded by colourful tropical fish.  Indeed, recreational diving provides many people with an intimate knowledge of the ocean. Although most ocean science is now done from ships, using data from satellites, and from robotic instruments and moorings scientific diving also has a role to play.
Dr Nic Flemming from NIO/IOS was a pioneer of scientific diving and played a key role in establishing safe practice in this field.  Following the publication of an extensive biographical memoir, Apollonia on my Mind,  he has produced  a short summary of the development of scientific diving in the 1960s and 70s and the role that NIO/IOS  played. The paper can be downloaded here.

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