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 pioneering geophysicist, entrepreneur, inventor, and innovator, and made advances in many fields, and is known in exploration geophysics for his research in automated seismic data processing---decades ahead of industry.[1][2]

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. Barton in 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.

Professional Career

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."

== Memorial [3]

Frank Rieber, one of the most colorful and widely known of the pioneers in geophysics, died on June 30, 1948, in New York City. His death followed ten years of a serious heart affliction which caused no apparent decrease in his energy and enthusiasm for his work. His death thus came as a decided shock to many of his friends in the geophysical field.

He was not one of the big operators in geophysical contracting, nor were all the results of his research widely accepted. Nevertheless his activities in the field of geophysics served as an example and a goad to the industry to prevent complacency and stagnation. He was, of course, not the only such example, but was probably the best known and the most discussed rebel in the geophysical ranks.

To understand Frank Rieber one must understand his guiding principles. He was a supreme egotist and supremely self confident. Hardly a detail of his designs and never a complete design followed accepted practices or utilized accepted methods. To him there was always a better way of doing that which had been done before, and that which was considered impossible or impracticable was to him simply a challenge he could not ignore. On the other hand, once a method or a device was developed to a stage where it would perform a desired function, Frank's interest turned to yet unsolved problems. The profits from his geophysical contracts and his electronic construction were invariably plowed back into his research where, in truth, his heart lay. He was a prolific inventor with at least 48 patents in the fields of electronics and sound. Among his patents were some on bore-hole surveying and logging, magnetic, electrical and seismic exploration for oil and, of interest in view of his most recent activities, a pioneer patent in the use of radar for altimetric purposes.

Early Years and Education

He was born in Placerville, California on March 2, 1899, the son of the late Dr. Charles Henry Rieber, esteemed former 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.

Early Career

A year's physical research for the Western Precipitation Company in Los Angeles had preceded his degree, after which he was engaged in the development of X-ray equipment in San Francisco until about 1923. During World War I he 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.

Refraction Seismology

In 1924 he began research and operations with the refraction seismograph in California where he introduced methods of determining velocities of and depths to velocity layers of low 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, many of which have since been confirmed by drilling and later reflection seismograph exploration. Ironically, the greatest tangible reward from this refraction program is alleged to have come to the company which bought a parcel of land in what is now the Rio Bravo-Greeley field, not because they were impressed with the ?generally high area mapped by Rieber, but because, according to the story, it was cheaper to buy the land than to pay for the damages caused by the large refraction shots.

When the crash of 1929 closed down seismograph operations in California, Frank Rieber, together with some associates, developed a method of recording sound on film for motion pictures which was not covered by the R.C.A. and Western Electric Patents. Unfortunately before they could market the method the studios had signed long term contracts with these companies.

Reflection Seismology

Never one to be discouraged by set-backs, Frank returned in 1932 to the geophysical field where reflection seismograph work was in its infancy. After investigating the nature of reflections in some of the seismically complex areas of California, he became convinced hat 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 other 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 search 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 Geophysicist 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 complex geological conditions it was designed o 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.

Sonograph

Between 1934 and the end of 1938 Frank Rieber operated an average of about one and a half Sonograph crews in California and the Gulf Coast. One of Frank's handicaps was that no one oil company was interested in enough ?difficult? areas to justify the continuous employment of the Sonograph, and he thus was seldom able to achieve the close cooperation and understanding with his clients which is such a valuable asset in exploration. Nevertheless, enough shooting was concentrated in some of these difficult areas to permit a prediction of structure, and a substantial number of these predictions were verified by drilling-at least two of these structures eventuating in oil fields.

In 1938 a wave of economy hit the oil business and, with plenty of "easy shooting" areas still available, the previously limited demand for the Sonograph disappeared entirely. Rieber was unprepared and unwilling to shelve the Sonograph, even temporarily, for the conventional seismograph and preferred to go out of business entirely rather than make the change.

Other Interests

Between 1939 and the time of his death Frank Rieber pursued various interests in electronics outside the geophysical field. Among his developments finding both industrial and military applications were a long-playing disc recorder and a sensitive pick-up called the ?Vibrotron?, which was well adapted to telemetering.

Just before World War II he moved to New York where later he was a consulting engineer on war contracts and built large quantities of equipment for the Navy. Some of this work brought him in contact with the latest developments in radar and television, whose techniques he assimilated rapidly.

During the years since the Sonograph had been off the market, interest in difficult shooting areas had revived and much had been accomplished in solving the problems of West Texas and peat area shooting. No substitute for the Sonograph in separating interfering wave fronts had yet appeared, however, and geophysical interpreters were seeking more and more information from seismograms and better ways of converting all the information on the seismograms into usable subsurface data. Rieber felt the time was ripe to devote his energy to these geophysical problems.

Geovision

Utilizing his new familiarity with radar and television, he conceived a combination of these with the old Sonograph principle to speed up analysis of the reproducible seismogram to a practically instantaneous operation and to display the results as a cross-section on a cathode-ray screen. He made plans for such an analyzer and put into it every variable which a geophysical interpreter might desire. This new instrument he called "Geovision" and before he died he had the satisfaction of receiving the backing of at least one large oil company to help him develop this epic idea. Perhaps the time is now appropriate for the introduction of detailed electronic analysis of seismograms and if, as seems very possible, Geovision is developed after his death it will truly be a fitting monument to a man who clung to a vision ahead of his time in spite of disappointments and financial adversity.

Frank Rieber was by no means the single-purposed eccentric the above account may imply. To those who knew him well he was a mellow and entertaining companion, and his interest in the Humanities, derived from his philosopher father and his artist mother, was as great as his interest in the Sciences. His cheerful optimism seldom deserted him and his laboratories were always "happy work shops" in spite of all-too-frequent delays in the payroll. Frank took a fatherly interest in the members of his staff, inspired them in their work by his example, challenged them with unorthodox problems and answers, brought out the best in them with seemingly little effort, and built up an esprit de corps wonderful to behold. In 1947 this .spirit brought together in a reunion in Los Angeles over 9 percent of the staff disbanded in 1938. Most of those present at the reunion were pursuing successful careers in geophysics or in the electronics industry, an indication that Frank Rieber will have left his mark in his chosen field through his former employees as well as through his direct technical contributions.

Frank Rieber has been called a genius and he has been called impractical; he has been called a spell-binder and he has been called a bore; he has been praised and he has been condemned, but he has never been ignored. Whatever else may be said about him, all agree he was unique. There will never be another Frank Rieber, and his passing marks a severe loss to the geophysical fraternity in terms of stimulation and inspiration.


References

  1. Farr, J. (2008). ”Frank Rieber: Obscure genius (part 1).” The Leading Edge, 27(5), 613–618 [1]
  2. Farr, J. (2008). ”Frank Rieber: Obscure genius (part II).” The Leading Edge, 27(9), 1098–1102. [2]
  3. Memorial Geophysics, Vol. XIII, October 1948, No.4