The Car­bon­ear na­tive son who dis­cov­ered sonar

The Compass - - OPINION -

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

of sonar.

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 at­bur­

Photo by Bill Bow­man/ The Com­pass

There was no short­age of colour­fully dec­o­rated bi­cy­cles and riders on Wa­ter Street for the an­nual Car­bon­ear Day parade Mon­day, Aug. 6.

Sub­mit­ted photo

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