Arnold Romberg

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Arnold Romberg
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Latest company LaCoste and Romberg

Arnold Romberg (1882-1974) was a professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and later, at the University of Texas at Austin. He was co-founder (with Lucien J. B. LaCoste) of LaCoste and Romberg. The company was later owned by Tom LaFehr. The company was acquired by Micro-g in 2006 and is now Micro-g LaCoste.


(Much of this is quoted verbatim from the University of Texas, Austin web page[1], reproduced here with permission.)

Professor Romberg was born on July 7, 1882, in Muldoon, Texas. He was the fourth son of farmers, Bernhard & Caroline “Lina” Perlitz Romberg, who as children had immigrated from Germany in 1847. They were married in 1867 and lived in Black Jack Springs, Fayette County, TX. Arnold’s brothers were John C. “Hans”, Ernst, Bernard and his older sister was Helene. Arnold was married in Cuero, TX to Margaret King of Lizzie, TX on December 26, 1908. They had two children Frederick (b. 1910 Austin, TX) and Helen (b. 1914, Black Jack Springs, TX). Romberg earned a bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 1910 and master's and Ph. D. degrees from Harvard University in 1913 and 1915, respectively. In 1914, Harvard lists Romberg as a Whitting Fellow and Bayard Cutting Fellow. He was also designated the John Tyndall Scholar. His thesis was titled “The ratio of the calorie at 73 degrees to that at 20 degrees.” The work was supervised by Professor H. G. Davis and financial support came from the Rumford Fund. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. P. W. Bridgeman “presented” the paper.

Following graduation Romberg was offered a full professorship at the University of Hawaii, where he was asked to develop the department at the new university. While there Dr. Romberg was active in astronomy and in the use and design of seismographic devices. He worked with Dr. Thomas A. Jaggar, Jr at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HWO) to improve these devices.

This work by Romberg introduced him to seismic devices and would serve him well in future years as he pursued the study of torsion balances.

In 1916, Romberg joined forces with Frank E. Midkiff, science instructor at Punahou School, to make observations of Mars at its close opposition. They moved the superior Punahou telescope to the Kaimuki Observatory (at right), and there it stayed for the next forty years. It was used periodically by persons from the College of Hawaii, and others as well.

In 1922, he visited the Eötvös Institute in Budapest Hungary where he studied the use of the torsion balance for gravity measurements. According to Dezsö Pekär, the Institute Director, he stayed several months. This information provided by Zoltán Szabo. California Passenger list shows him sailing from Honolulu alone February 1, 1922, on the Wilhemina and arriving San Francisco on February 7. His return, with family, from San Francisco on the Manoa, was Aug 16, arriving Honolulu Aug. 23, 1922. Eötvös had promoted the use of precise gravity measurements for mineral prospecting. Eötvös died in 1919, so Romberg would not have met him, however they might have corresponded.

Romberg joined the faculty at UT Austin in 1923. In 1925, Humble Oil Company ordered two Süss [sometimes spelled Suess] torsion balances from the Süss Nádor Company of Hungary, and Professor Romberg was sent to Europe to obtain all information possible on their use and the interpretation of the data from Director Dezsö Pekár of the Eötvös Institute. Pekár is pictured here with the torsion balances ready for export. The Board of Regents approved his absence without pay from February 15 to September 15. In February of 1925, he applies for a passport for him and his family stating their intention to tour Europe. In May of 1925, he is recorded as arriving in New York from Southhampton. In that same year, records show his wife Margaret and his son, Frederick(14) and daughter, Helen(11) returning separately on August 31 from Southhampton. Romberg taught at UT until 1940, when he left to establish the LaCoste-Romberg meter manufacturing firm.

In the fall of 1932, Romberg gave each student in a graduate mechanics class a different technical problem to solve. One of his students, Lucien Jean Baptiste LaCoste, was to design a vertical seismograph. LaCoste's idea was that a spring whose physical length equaled its stretched length would exert a force proportional to its entire length, not just the stretched length. His calculations showed a weight correctly suspended from such a spring would theoretically have an infinite natural period of oscillation. This would be ideal for vertical seismographs because they are well adapted to measure only seismic displacements with periods shorter than that of the suspension.

LaCoste called this spring zero-length because its initial length, when there is no stress in the spring, is zero. He approached Romberg with the idea the next morning. They immediately went to the physics lab to see if it would work. LaCoste suggested the spring be made with its coils winding in a spiral in a flat plane. But Romberg preferred a helical spring whose coils pressed against each other like many common screen door springs. Such springs, though obviously of finite length, do have initial length less than their physical length because there is force between the turns even when the spring is supporting no weight. To attain a zero-length spring, it would be necessary to increase the force between the turns of the unstretched spring.

LaCoste made the first one by reversing the ends of an ordinary spring with his thumbnail. When he finished, he didn't have a zero-length spring; the coils pressed so firmly against each other that he had a negative length spring. That was no problem. It was easily adjusted to zero length by adding pieces of wire at both ends.

After deciding to use that type of spring, the two men needed only a few hours to build a crude seismograph, the first of many instruments they would make together. It did not, of course, have an infinite period because of elastic imperfections in the metal, but it did have a longer period than any vertical seismograph that the experienced seismologist Romberg had ever seen. Two days later, they built a more sophisticated version which had a natural period of one minute, an order of magnitude greater than anything else around.

At the time, the seismograph meant nothing more to its inventors than the conclusion of an interesting experiment. It was an elegant solution to a challenging problem. No attempt was made to commercialize it because both assumed the market would absorb only a handful of them, "an error we made," LaCoste says, "by a factor of about a thousand." He didn't even apply for a patent; he was planning an academic, not an Edisonian career.

LaCoste received his doctorate in physics in 1933 and went on to the California Institute of Technology to study quantum mechanics. While in California, LaCoste, wrote an article, “A New Type Long Period Vertical Seismograph”, and sent it to Romberg for review. Romberg made only one change, deleting his name as co-author ("That shows you the kind of man he was," says LaCoste), and forwarded the manuscript to Physics where it was published in July 1934. In a few years, the lives of both men would change completely and permanently because of that paper. (Information excerpted from “ Biographies \ Virtual Museum, Society of Exploration Geophysicists, 2/9/2006-Lucien LaCoste” By Robert Dean Clark. For more information see Lucien LaCoste.

The LaCoste-Romberg gravity meter became an industry standard. Members of the 1972 Apollo 17 team left a LaCoste-Romberg meter on the moon to measure the effects of the sun's gravity on the moon. A similar meter was used at the South Pole to measure the moon's gravitational effects on earth tides. In addition, the meter became an important tool in oil discovery. The Palais de Découverte in Paris, France, included the work of Professor Romberg and Dr. LaCoste in recognition of their groundbreaking work. The meter continues in use today.

Professor Romberg was a member of the Seismological Society of America, the American Physical Society, and the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association.


Memorials, Lucien LaCoste Chris, H. (1995). ”Memorials.” The Leading Edge, 14(9), 1002–1003. doi: 10.1190/tle14091002.1 [2]

Arnold Romberg [3]