The Carbonear native son who discovered sonar
Sophie B. (nee Madelock) Boyle of Carbonear gave birth to a son on Oct. 2, 1883. She and her husband, Albert D. Boyle, named him Robert William Boyle. His name may not be readily recognized in our province today, but in the early twentieth century, this Conception Bay native was very well known, widely acknowledged as a pioneer of modern ultrasound. Joey Smallwood called him a “distinguished scientist.”
Because of his academic achievements, Boyle received a scholarship to Montreal’s McGill University. Enrolling in engineering, be became a protégé of Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), who was researching the field of radioactivity and who became known as the father of nuclear physics.
Following graduation, Boyle taught at his alma mater, continuing his research under Rutherford. In 1909, he received McGill’s first Ph.D., along with another scholarship, to enable him to continue his work on radon and thoron in England for the next two years.
In 1911, he returned to McGill, but not for long. Henry Marshall Tory (1864-1947), the first president of the University of Alberta, invited Boyle to become the first head of the department of physics, a position he assumed in 1912.
He faced the many challenges of establishing a new department at a new university, at the same time finding time to continue his research on radioactivity. He wrote and published many papers.
In 1916, during the First World War, he joined the British Navy’s Board of Inventions and Research scientific research team. His work led to the discovery of sonar for use in anti-submarine warfare.
He returned to the University of Alberta in 1919, establishing a research program focused on ultrasonics. Two years later, he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. In the same year, he was named dean of the recently established faculty of applied science, a position he held until 1929.
He is also credited with creating a research hub in western Canada during this decade. His own research included a detailed study of acoustic cavitation resulting from the passage of ultrasonic waves. In addition, he investigated the transmission and reflection of waves, new methods to detect and visualize ultrasonic beams, and the diffraction and scattering of ultrasonic beams.
Boyle and his team at the University of Alberta were interested in knowing whether or not the speed of sound depended on the frequency of ultrasound waves. To provide his own answer, Boyle wrote, then published in 1928, an extensive review of the new field of ultrasound that summarized much of his work.
One year later, Tory offered Boyle a post with the newly formed National Research Council of Canada. There, he headed the division of
Robert Boyle has at least as good a claim as any other individual to be the inventor
physics and electrical engineering. In 1940, he was awarded the Flavelle Medal, which is awarded for outstanding contributions to biological science during the preceding 10 years or for significant additions to a previous outstanding contribution to biological science.
He retired in 1948, traveling extensively for the next seven years. He died at 72 on April 18, 1955, in London, England.
As a footnote to this story, though Boyle could hardly have known he would develop the most important military innovation of World War I, his story becomes, in the words of historian Rod McLeod, one of the most “fascinating and completely neglected” in the history annals of the University of Alberta. Obviously Robert toiled in obscurity.
McLeod writes, “Robert Boyle has at least as good a claim as any other individual to be the inventor of sonar. He took out no patents...and because of the secrecy imposed on the invention by the Royal Navy in the 1920s, he published no papers on it.”
And yet, “it has a greater impact on the subsequent military history of the 20th century than any other piece of military/scientific research carried out by either side during that conflict. It stands out as the most important new piece of military equipment developed by any Canadian scientist during the First World War.”
Andrea Collins adds that “perhaps (Robert Boyle’s) most lasting legacy, familiar to Hollywood moviegoers for decades, is the recognizable submarine ‘ping, ping, ping’ sound that means the enemy has been found.”
Robert William Boyle is credited with inventing sonar.
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
There was no shortage of colourfully decorated bicycles and riders on Water Street for the annual Carbonear Day parade Monday, Aug. 6.