Elmer Eisner

From SEG Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Elmer Eisner
Elmer Eisner headshot.png
Membership Life Member

Elmer Eisner is known for having brought digital recording to the oil and gas industry. For his contributions to the oil industry and to the science of geophysics, Dr. Eisner was awarded the SEG Life Membership and SEG's Reginald Fessenden Award.

He passed away on 2 August 2016 at the age of 97. He died peacefully in his sleep. The funeral was held on August 4 in Houston, Texas, USA.

Biography Citation for SEG Life Membership

Contributed by E. Reitsch

It was 26 years ago that I met Elmer for the first time. I was fairly new to Texaco and he was a seasoned veteran. I have learned from him ever since.

Early Years

Elmer was born on 8 March 1919, in Poughkeepsie, New York. He got a bachelor's in physics, mathematics, and chemistry from Brooklyn College and, in 1943, a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University. After a brief stint at the National Bureau of Standards working on proximity fuses, he returned to academia: first at Johns Hopkins, then at Wesleyan, and as an assistant professor at Rutgers. His last stop before joining The Texas Company was the Argonne National Laboratories, where he worked with Maria Mayer in developing a Monte Carlo simulation of a breeder reactor on the ENIAC computer. He spent four years there and rubbed elbows with many of the people associated with the Manhattan Project.

Computing at Texaco

Texaco was a different company when he joined in 1951. This was a time when oil companies believed in the application of science to solve their exploration problems and believed in the benefits of R&D. They also believed in secrecy. And Texaco was the most secretive of all of them. It must have been a tough environment for someone accustomed to academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, scientific discussions with peers, knowing that there was much parallel development anyway.

The 1950s saw the emergence of electronic computers and digital signal processing. Always open to new ideas, methods, and tools, Elmer was instrumental in getting scientific computing into Texaco's geophysical research. It was the time for the all-around man and Elmer was up to the task, patenting a floating point A/D amplifier and, in cooperation with Mobil and Texas Instruments, developing the TIAC computer for digital seismic processing, writing operating systems, compilers, and scientific software. In the early 1960s, he achieved some celebrity as a "hacker" on the IBM 7094 computer, trying to make full use of its capabilities. His interest in and involvement with computers continued and culminated in his compiling and editing the book, Supercomputers in Seismic Exploration.


Elmer was not a prolific writer; however, knowing the attitude toward publications within the old Texaco, I consider it a small wonder that he published as much as he did. And when he wrote, his style was lucid and clear; he had thought a lot about the topic, had something to tell, and really wanted to be understood. Best remembered probably is his Geophysics paper on acoustic reciprocity, which posed what is now known as Eisner's Paradox. It is an example of his way of thinking and the way he provoked others to think by posing unorthodox or simple-sounding questions.


In my mind, Elmer never specialized in the sense of focusing on one area only. He is fascinated by too many things to exclusively devote his time to only one of them. Geophysics, and more generally physics, is just one of many areas in which he is interested and in which he keeps up to date. He has an inventive mind that tries constantly to improve the things around him. This resulted in a number of patents even at a time when the United States Patent Office frowned upon computer programs and took a dim view of inventions it considered "instructions to the human mind." Like many others with mathematical talents, Elmer is an accomplished musician. He plays the piano and the violin and even sang in the Houston opera chorus.


Elmer served geophysics and the SEG in many ways. He was an Associate Editor of Geophysics and he still is, after many years, a very active member of the SEG Research Committee, whose Annual Meeting Workshops owe much of their current form to him. He himself organized quite a few of them, frequently on rather unorthodox topics. Elmer Eisner has been very disturbed by the continuing loss of capable geophysicists that our profession is experiencing as a result of the persistent downsizing of our industry. He has devised a scheme that would identify otherwise uninvestigated yet meaningful research topics which could he addressed by those retired by their companies but not willing to retire from geophysics. He discussed his proposal with many colleagues and finally published it in The Leading Edge in June 1992; unfortunately, the response has been limited, since many of the retirees are at a stage at which they require income. Elmer has been elected a Life Member of the SEG. This is essentially an official recognition of what he would have been, anyway. He will be "Life Member" not only of the SEG but of the scientific community as a whole.

Biography citation for the Reginald Fessenden Award

  Contributed by John R. Rogers

Awards Citations of the SEG page 157       I'm honored and somewhat humbled to have been asked to write the citation for Elmer E. Eisner for the 1998 Fessenden Award for his work as a co-inventor of the floating point amplifier, the mainstay of digital recording of seismic data for more than 25 years. Most of Elmer's working life was spent pioneering digital methodologies at Texaco's Bellaire Research Laboratory in Bellaire, Texas.

Always a progressive visionary, Elmer's efforts (along with those of his research colleagues at Texaco, Mobil, and Texas Instruments) opened up a whole new era for our industry and made possible many of the technological advances that have generated so much prosperity for our industry. Those who know Elmer can appreciate the unfailing enthusiasm and intensity he has brought to geophysics.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of conversing with him knows well how he looks one straight in the eye, up close and personal, face-to-face not six inches away, intense and concentrated on the technical topic of current interest.

Early Years, Education, and Early Career

Elmer Eisner was born on 8 March 1919, in Poughkeepsie, New York. He earned a B.A. in math and chemistry from Brooklyn College and then a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1943. After a brief stint at the National Bureau of Standards, he returned to a rather unsettled academic career first at Johns Hopkins, then at Wesleyan, and then at Rutgers. Still unable to find an area where he could make a real impact, he finally went to the Argonne National Laboratory, where he worked with Maria Mayer in developing a Monte Carlo simulation of a breeder reactor on the ENIAC computer, one of the earliest computers which were then known as "electronic brains." Elmer immediately recognized that he was working in the dawning of the digital age and that he'd finally found the discipline which could absorb his interests and talents for a lifetime. After four years at Argonne, he responded out of shear curiosity to a recruiting effort by Texaco. Though colleagues assured him it was a waste of time, Elmer found the Texaco story quite fascinating. His always active mind saw the possibility of a great opportunity for computers in this unfamiliar inndustry of exploration, and so he gave it a try and joined Texaco in 1951.

Texaco Research Laboratory

He moved to Bellaire and reported to work at the laboratory not knowing exactly where to begin as everything was new and quite different from anything in his previous experience. So he boldly went to the general manager's office and asked in his always forthright mannner, "What is it exactly that you want me to do here?" The CM looked at Elmer rather incredulously and replied, "Dr. Eisner, that is exactly what we hired you to do. Tell us what we should be doing!" That was just the green light Elmer was hoping for and so began his career of bringing the digital era to Texaco and the oil industry.

Digital Seismic Data Recording

Working with computer processing of seismic data for the first time, Elmer realized that seismic recording was fundamentally incompatible with the floating-point reppresentation of the data required by the computer. Tired of the slow and tedious method of hand-digitizing paper records, Elmer concluded there had to be a better way. He wrote a patent memorandum on 23 June 1953 titled "Method for obtaining an integrated rectified geophone output directly in numerical form." The memorandum was translated into proper patent examiner language and filed on 6 September 1955. The patent was finally issued on 3 January 1961, as patent number 2,967,292 titled "Data processing method and apparatus." The patent was slow to be issued because the topic was new and unfamilliar to the patent office. The "right" examiner had to be found before the patent finally issued. However, with the issuance of this key patent, the Texaco lab engineers were ready to begin to turn the idea into reality, first as an elecctronic device for automatically digitizing data on analog tapes and then as a full-blown digital recording system for the field.

Elmer Eisner is now retired from Texaco but remains an active member of SEC. Although no longer with Texaco, he has become a rather legendary figure as a great visionary and an intelligent and engaging geophysicist. He and his pioneering work inspire not only young Texaco geophysicists but also geophysicists throughout the industry. His legacy is his instruction by example to think not only of today, but also how things might be made better for tomorrow.


Contributed by Ray Brown (2002)

The exploration industry has gone through several gigantic steps in technology throughout its history. One of these steps was the move to digital computing. This story is about Elmer Eisner and his participation in moving Texaco into the digital age.

The Beginnings

Elmer Eisner was born March 8, 1919 in Poughkeepsie, New York. He is married to Edith Dubow Eisner and they have three children: Julian Russell Eisner, Diana Eisner and Sharon Alice Gillett. Elmer s father, Moses Eisner, taught Hebrew and his mother, Lena Weiss, was a housewife. Elmer grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

Early Sign of an Interest in Science

On one occasion, when his bicycle brakes seemed inadequate, Elmer used a pair of pliers kindly supplied by a postman to disassemble the coaster brake. When many pieces fell on the ground, he was faced with either no bicycle or learning how the thing worked. Success here sparked interest and confidence.

First Impression of Physics

When their only radio started to smell and smoke, Elmer and his older brother were faced with learning how to repair it or do without. They successfully undertook replacing the power transformer. This encouraged Elmer to take a high school class in building a radio. Most of the class had previously done this, but it soon became apparent to Elmer that he was the only one in the class who understood what was going on. He took physics the next semester, but unfortunately soon embarrassed the teacher (clearly not versed in physics) by solving the problems the instructor said were too difficult. This first class in physics left Elmer with a bad impression of the subject.

Changing Directions in College

When Elmer got to college, he had no intention of majoring in Physics (after his experience in high school). He took chemistry instead. The first half of the course involved experiments and Elmer enjoyed that portion of the course. Unfortunately when the second semester veered towards memory tasks, e.g., "what is chemical formula for Prussian blue?" Elmer was not happy. He asked when the class would get back to what they had been doing, and he was politely informed that was physics . As a result, Elmer wound up majoring in chemistry, physics and mathematics.

The Violin, a Key To Physics?

As a side note, all three of Elmer s brothers wound up with a PhD in Physics. Their routes to the study of physics were different, but the results were the same. However, all four of the brothers play the violin.

Graduate Work and Important Experience

Elmer obtained a Quincy fellowship at Johns Hopkins University and was a elected to Sigma Xi. His graduate degree was in theoretical nuclear physics. World War II dictated working on proximity fuses at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC. Since he was the only physics graduate student in his class, he had very limited opportunities to interact with contemporaries. As an entering graduate student in physics at the Johns Hopkins University in 1939 Elmer was told that there were three important things to remember:

If you are the last to leave the Physics-Mathematics library, lock the door. When your turn arrives, you are to tidy up after the weekly coloquia. There was an arrangement with the Enoch Pratt public library, that the department would accept responsibility for handling questions which the library got dealing with physics and mathematics. If the department secretary asked you to respond to a particular inquiry, you did not have the option of refusing. Regarding the third responsibility, questions arrived in profusion, so Elmer was faced with the task of dealing with such issues as the validity of special relativity and quantum uncertainty without offending the questioners, whose level of understanding was usually rather dismal. When Elmer later arrived at the Texaco lab he was well prepared to respond to the rather frequent proposals for improvements in exploration technology. These types of questions were often referred to Elmer by front-office types asking his advice. Very rarely was there even a glimmer of valid physics, but the person making the proposal of the benefit of a 100.6945Hz signal for example, was to be treated in such a fashion as to prevent making them an enemy of Texaco. Elmer s experience answering questions for the public library was a very useful preparation for his work at Texaco. This early exposure to answering questions for a non-technical audience should be included as a fundamental part of educating geophysicists today.

Transition from Argonne to Texaco

Elmer Eisner was working at the Argonne National Lab in Chicago when he was invited to visit the Texaco Lab in Houston, TX. He was not particularly interested, but the visit made clear to him that the time was ripe for introducing digital computers into this application. The interview with Texaco changed Elmer s life. Although Elmer s early direction was in nuclear physics at the Argonne National Lab, his fate was destined for the oil industry.

The Texaco Interview

Elmer Eisner may have been the first to introduce digital computing to the Oil industry. He was definitely the person who introduced the idea to Texaco. At Argonne, he had worked with Maria Mayer using the Eniac computer to try to validate proposed designs for a breeder nuclear reactor. When he visited Texaco, after the visiting was over he met with the manager of the lab, and asked what they had in mind for him. Since Elmer was a theoretical nuclear physicist and had not met any others with this background during his visit, the question was a valid one. The reply really caught Elmer s attention-- They wanted Elmer to tell them what work he should be doing! This is a dream come true for any scientist. Naturally Elmer took the position. The manager was interested in nuclear -magnetic -resonance well logging, but although Elmer helped with his patent application, digital computing seemed to him the most important direction for research. In this respect Elmer was moving the industry towards a giant step in technology development.

Texaco Beginnings

"Before digital computers ruled the roost, I think there was more familiarity and appreciation of the actual data than today Elmer concludes. When Elmer asked why shooting seismic lines were not straight he was promptly sent into the field to shoot through a pig sty! Early geophysical training was rather difficult in those days and convincing people to change to a new technology was even harder.

Bits and Pieces of a Great Idea

When Elmer came to work he found that at the lower levels of Texaco there was quite a bit of resistance to the idea of digital recording and processing. An early problem faced by the Texaco was the task of performing normal moveout corrections (NMO). One of the Texaco employees with an electrical engineering background was trying to design equipment to perform NMO. A young MIT graduate was given this task, and Elmer was able to persuade him that writing a computer program was a more sensible approach. The young man told this to his supervisor, but this did not persuade the supervisor. Elmer and the MIT graduate then undertook a campaign to feed the supervisor bits and pieces of the idea, so that eventually the supervisor was persuaded that it was all his own idea, which naturally he supported.

Texaco Moves to Digital

Once the idea of digital recording and processing was sold to management, the job of getting an appropriation to buy a digital computer was faced. The supervisor took advantage of a (then) five-hour air trip from Houston to NYC, accompanied by the gentleman recording history.


In summary, Elmer Eisner played a pioneering role in bringing digital recording to the industry. Can you imagine where the industry would be today without digital recording?