Frank Rieber

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Frank Rieber
Frank Rieber headshot.png
Membership Honorary Member

Frank Rieber (March 12, 1891-June 30, 1948) was a pioneer in the field of automated seismic data processing.

Biography Citation for Honorary Membership

It may seem strange to award Honorary Life Membership posthumously but precedent for this action was set by such an award to Donald C. Bartonin 1940. Though meaningless in terms of freedom from dues for life, such awards provide the only present way for the Society to belatedly recognize the contributions of deceased members to the Society and to the art of Geophysics. Such awards may provide satisfaction to the surviving members of the honored one's family and we hope this is the case, but equally important is the satisfaction of the Society in being able to demonstrate its awareness of the stature of the men so honored in memory.

Early Years and Education

Frank Rieber was born in Placerville, California on March 12, 1891, the son of Dr. Charles Henry Rieber, esteemed long-time Dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Winifred Smith Rieber, a skilled professional artist, well known for her portraits of famous philosophers, educators, and scientists. Frank graduated from Berkeley High School and, in 1915, received his B.S. degree from the University of California.

In addition to a normal concern with his studies it is said his inquiring mind and already budding rebel tendencies led to a number of such quasi-scientific experiments as introducing skunkbombs into the ventilator system of the auditorium during a disciplinary assembly called by the Dean. Fortunately he survived these hazardous years to devote his energy and imagination to more serious pursuits.

Frank refused to conform to the standard curriculum, taking more of the type of class that interested him and ignoring some of the, to him, boring requirements. As a result he came near to not receiving his degree and only after a year's physical research for the Western Precipitation Company in Los Angeles, did he conclude it would be worth while to make up his deficiencies and graduate.

Frank's year with the Western Precipitation Company also taught him he was not cut out to be an employee and after receiving his degree he started his own business developing X-ray equipment in San Francisco and always thereafter operated his own companies.

During World War I, Frank was a secretary of the California War Inventions Committee and a member of the Submarine Defense Commission. It was during his war work with sonic submarine detection and depth sounding that he became interested in the application of related techniques to the location of oil structures.

In 1924 he began research and operations with the refraction seismograph in California where he developed and introduced methods and instrumentation for determining velocities of, and depths to strata of low velocity contrast in the sedimentary series. Out of this period came a number of determinations of velocity still listed as standards in the literature, and maps of many of the shallow trends in California which have since been confirmed by drilling and later reflection seismograph exploration.

Frank was more scientist than businessman and his companies were more than once among those which did not survive cut-backs in exploration by the oil industry. During such periods he employed his talents in some other phase of electronics with a weather-eye on ideas he could bring back to geophysics when the exploration pendulum swung high again. As might be supposed, one such hiatus in his geophysical activities occurred between 1929 and 1932 during which time, together with some associates, Frank developed a method of recording sound on film which was not covered by the RCA and Western Electric patents. From this venture he brought the idea of reproducible recording back to seismic geophysics when he returned to this field in 1932, though he by no means limited his research and development to this idea.

In 1932 the reflection seismograph was still in its infancy but was well established and accepted in areas of good reflections. One can only speculate on the fate of the method if its first several years of tests had occurred in areas of very poor reflections or complex structure. Perhaps another "Rieber" would have emerged in the Mid-continent. Be that as it may, it so happened that most of Frank's early experiments with the reflection seismograph were located in California areas known to this day as "trouble-spots." Thus, to "Lady Luck" and to the stubborn and resourceful nature of Frank Rieber, we can thank the events that led to the early development of reproducible recording and the occasion for this citation.

After investigating the nature of reflections in some of the seismically complex areas of California, Frank became convinced that interference of waves reaching the geophones was the principal cause of poor seismic results in such areas. With characteristic enthusiasm he set about finding the cause of, and cure for these interferences, turning his back on the lucrative commercial field to be exploited by others using conventional equipment in areas where reflections could be more easily obtained.

During the period from 1932 to 1935 Rieber investigated, and in some cases patented, methods of reducing surface disturbances at the shot and at the receiving point, methods of shortening wave transients, and methods of separating waves arriving from different directions. The method combining most of the results of his research he called the "Sonograph," which involved recording the seismogram traces as reproducible sound tracks and subsequently reproducing them in variably phased combinations and through various filters to reduce the several types of interference, particularly that due to waves arriving from different directions.

In 1934 Frank Rieber joined the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and in 1936 the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, and the next few years marked the height of his impact on the science of geophysics. He and his staff gave a series of papers on the Sonograph and on the complex geological conditions it was designed to evaluate. An effective speaker and a master of repartee, Rieber became a drawing card at any convention where he presented a paper, since his papers were always sufficiently controversial to elicit critical discussion. He introduced many novel features in his papers which added to their interest and effectiveness. Some of these were: spark photographs of reflection and diffraction of sound waves in the air to simulate the action of seismic waves in the earth, animated drawings of wave travel in the earth; and, as late as 1947, stereoscopic X-ray slides, with polarized glasses for the audience, to demonstrate a parallelism between the seismic art and the X-ray art.

Certainly, Frank Rieber made an impact on the exploration industry during these years, but the time was not ripe the new tool was not needed desperately enough for wide acceptance of his reproducible record method. In the last few years before his death in 1943 Frank made one last tremendous effort to open the eyes of the exploration brotherhood to the value of his method. He conceived the idea of processing the reproducible seismograms very rapidly by electronic means and displaying a completely corrected cross-section on a cathode-ray screen, coining the name "Geovision" for the process.

Though Frank did not live to see the complete development of "Geovision" and though his own organization could not, or at least did not, carry on his work after his death, this last effort was more timely. The publicity surrounding Geovision and the financial backing given Geovision by the managements of several oil companies undoubtedly helped those research geophysicists who had for some time been carrying on a modest program of research on reproducible records and their processing, to go into high gear.

In a remarkably short period of time the reproducible record "caught on." Undoubtedly a major factor in this revolution was the development in industry of reliable magnetic recording media such as tapes, discs, and strips and the simultaneous development of improved circuitry for magnetic recording and play-back, though at least one major company based its development on photographic film recording very similar to that employed by Frank Rieber.

Today, original recording on galvanometer-type paper records is almost obsolete. Only the vast file of past seismograms remains as a valuable factor in present-day exploration as a reminder of the heartbreaking campaign Frank Rieber continued to the end of his days. Ironically, we can now "reproduce" these old paper records electronically into more modern forms, and had this possibility been recognized in the early 1930's, Frank might never have been granted his basic patent on the reproducible seismogram.

The greater irony, of course, is that Frank Rieber cannot be here to receive this award and enjoy the recognition he never received in life. To Frank, wherever he may be, I would like to say sincerely, as an old associate and long-time friend, I am proud to have known you and feel much of the thrill I know you would have felt on this occasion.

To his son, Bill Rieber, here to accept the award on behalf of his father, I say as another old friend and associate, I am proud to represent the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in presenting this award and know I speak for all its members in assuring you of the sincerity of this award of Honorary Membership to Frank Rieber a man with true "geo-vision."


  • Farr, J. (2008). ”Frank Rieber: Obscure genius (part 1).” The Leading Edge, 27(5), 613–618 [1]
  • Farr, J. (2008). ”Frank Rieber: Obscure genius part II.” The Leading Edge, 27(9), 1098–1102. [2]