In Memoriam: Willard Dow


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death May 27, 2006 of retiree Willard Dow at Harborside Healthcare in Falmouth, MA. He was 89.

Born June 23, 1916 in Cambridge, MA, Willard Dow grew up in Waltham, MA and attended Tufts University, graduating in 1942 with a B.S. degree in physics and an emphasis in electronics and radio.  He took a number of postgraduate courses and served as an instructor at Tufts from June 1942 to June 1944, teaching the physics lab for the Navy V-12 officer training program and working on the college’s Signal Corps research project. He joined the staff at Sylvania Electric Co., in June 1944 as an electronics engineer, designing and fabricating high-gain microwave frequency amplifiers for the early military radar systems for the MIT Radiation Lab.  He built aviation radar for the Royal Air Force and for the US. Army and Navy Air Forces, equipment used extensively in Europe and the Pacific. He also helped develop and produce the transducer for the Navy, used in the atomic bomb experiments in the Pacific.
Willie Dow began his long career at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1946 when he responded to an ad in The Boston Globe for a research associate, working on a casual basis weekends only beginning December 21, 1946 on Project B-16. In May 1947 he was hired on a full-time basis in the underwater acoustic group headed by J. Brackett Hersey.  With much of the Hersey group’s work Navy-supported, Willie and other WHOI employees made many cruises in Navy ships, including one on the USS Maloy with then WHOI Director Admiral Edward Smith, Columbus Iselin, Bill Shultz, Stan Bergstrom, Al Vine, Carlton Wing, Tom Rennie and J.B. Hersey, among others.

A licensed radio amateur since 1936, Willie Dow combined his interest in electronics and radio to make many contributions to ocean sciences and engineering.  He designed the famous “suitcase amplifier” which facilitated calibrated measurements of underwater sound. These portable, broadband, high-gain amplifiers had very low microphonics and were used for a wide variety of pioneering sound transmission measurements at several research facilities.  Hersey and Dow introduced the technique of an “inverted echo sounder” for accurately positioning tethered instruments.  Dow also developed shock-excited sound sources that were used to make high-resolution travel time measurements of the seafloor reflections, particularly effective in delineating sedimentary structures in the first few meters of the seafloor.  He worked on some of the early underwater acoustic telemetry systems and deep-towed hydrophone arrays.

He was promoted to research engineer in 1950 and to electronics engineer in 1952. In 1963 he was promoted to research specialist, transferring to the Ocean Engineering Department in 1972, where he remained until he retired in 1979.   Despite enduring chronic sea sickness, Willie Dow sailed on research cruises on the ketch Atlantis, the Bear, and the Chain. When his prototype sound source was lost in an experiment on one Chain cruise, he built an entire replacement from spare parts.  He was the author or co-author of 14 publications in oceanography and underwater acoustic instrumentation, and held four patents.

Active in the community, Willie Dow founded the Sippewissett Association in 1965 along with Philip Hamilton, Carolyn Miller and Andrew Wessling, and he served as its president for 20 years.  In addition to its social activities, the neighborhood group was involved in zoning and conservation matters.  

His great interest in light opera led to his introduction to Evelyn Parker, a talented pianist who taught and played professionally. They were married in1954 and celebrated their 44th anniversary shortly before her passing in 1998. The Dows were part of the Trysail Chorus that produced four Gilbert & Sullivan operettas from 1949 to 1953 in Falmouth, and they had season tickets to the College Light Opera Company from its founding in 1968. Willie was a regular at the Wednesday folk dances in Woods Hole for forty years, and was particularly fond of the Greek dances.  He was a sharp word punster, and was an unbeatable Scrabble player (word has it that the late Captain Emerson Hiller was a favorite challenger). The Dows were longtime members of the Falmouth Unitarian Fellowship.

Willard Dow is survived by a niece, Susan Evans of Dade City, FL; a nephew, David Healy of Arizona; and two cousins, Laura Parker of New York City and Janet Parker Osborne of Lynnfield Center, MA.

A memorial service will be held August 7, 2006 at 7:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship,  840 Sandwich Road, in East Falmouth. A reception will follow the service.


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Willard Dow aboard the Blue Dolphin, circa 1953. (?Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)