Robert J. Loofbourrow (1921-1987) co-developed the floating point amplifier, which permitted the recording of weaker seismic signals, revolutionizing exploration seismic prospecting.
Biography Citation for the Reginald Fessenden Award
Contributed by J. Peter Johnson
The Fessenden Award is presented for "a specific technical contribution to exploration geophysics." No one could be more deserving than the late R. J. "Bob" Loofbourrow for his co-development of the floating point amplifier.
Bob was a native of Missouri but grew up in Abilene, Texas. He graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in electrical engineering in 1943. Like many twenty-something men of that generation, he was soon in the U.S. Army. He completed officer candidate school and, after further training at Harvard and MIT, was posted to New Guinea to command a radar installation monitoring movements of the Japanese fleet.
After the war, he returned to Texas A&M where he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering. In 1947 he joined the Texas Company's Bellaire Research Laboratory. His initial investigations were in well logging, particularly in sonic methods.
Bob arrived at the right time because the mid-1950s was the age of analog recording systems and vacuum tube computers. Development of a digital recording system was a high research priority. Bob played a significant role in a joint project with Mobil, Texaco, and Texas Instruments which developed such a system by using the then-emerging transistor technology. It recorded 24 traces of multiplexed data at a sample rate of 1 ms.
The large dynamic range encountered in seismic data made it necessary to record in a floating point format. At a sample rate of 1 ms, each individual data point would need to be captured and converted to a floating point digital format and written on magnetic tape in less than 32 microseconds.
Bob played a key role in this development, which became known as the floating point amplifier (or, more commonly, FPA). The team of Elmer Eisner, Jim Vanderford, and Bob Loofbourrow powerfully combined solid theoretical knowledge and the ability to develop practical solutions.
Bob was an "electrical engineer's electrical engineer." He had an amazing ability to think in electrical terms and then develop an application. His hobbies included ham radio and the design/construction of his own test instruments and radios. During the Korean War, he worked with the Department of Defense to develop mine detectors.
I first met Bob at Texaco when, as a young programmer, I was given the task of generating processing software for the TIAC (Texas Instrument Automatic Computer), which had been developed in parallel with the DFS 1. We affectionately called the TIAC the "tic" because no one could figure out what was automatic about it.
Bob and his group were responsible for the maintenance and operation of this new and amazingly fast technology. Developing methods for daily operations required a keen sense of what would work on a continuing basis. Bob was a master at this.
Bob was recognized by the Intellectual Property Law Section of the Texas Bar in 1986. The citation stated: "For more than two decades, the floating point amplifier system, developed by R. J. Loofbourrow and others, has been at the heart of seismic data acquisition." The technology has been licensed to 121 seismic equipment manufacturers and produced more revenue for Texaco than any other invention at the Bellaire Research Laboratory.
Bob passed away in 1987 at age 66, leaving a legacy of significant contributions to geophysics. His many innovations and creative solutions helped make his company, Texaco, a leader in the early days of the industry's digital revolution.
His widow Nancy says her favorite story about Bob is when one of his colleagues asked: "Is Bob as wonderful to live with as he is to work with? We all think the world of him."