George Elliott Sweet
George Elliot Sweet (1904-1997) was a pioneering geophysicist who also was a noted author of a history of exploration geophysics.
George Elliott Sweet, in his twin roles as pioneer and chronicler, almost assuredly knows more than anyone about the early history of geophysical exploration. If there is a doubter, it would be Sweet himself because he is increasingly distrustful of his memory. He would probably use “forgotten” as the verb in the first sentence.
George Elliott Sweet was born in Denver, Colorado, on September 26, 1904. The Sweet family moved to Norman, Oklahoma, in 1920. Elliott (the first name was abandoned for several decades) attended both high school and college in Norman and was prominent academically and athletically in both. He was on the track team, as a hurdler and quarter-miler, and earned outstanding grades. John Clarence Karcher wrote, in an autobiographical sketch (see TLE November 1987) that he had “the highest grades of any male student” in his 1916 graduating class. Eleven years later, Sweet did slightly better, earning the highest grades for any student.
Sweet became an exploration geophysicist in 1928 and remained a prominent participant in the industry, except for service in the United States Navy during World War II, until retirement in the 1960s. His postwar geophysical work was primarily in gravity exploration. He received joint credit for the location of two major oil fields in Alabama and for the drilling of discovery wells on three different gas fields in California. He was professionally associated with many of the major figures in exploration in the pioneer era and knew many of the others at least casually. These extensive contacts were the foun- dation for the prolonged interviews (during the period 1964-69) which provided the source material for Sweet’s two-volume work, The History of Geophysical Pmspecting, the first comprehensive account of the profession’s formative years.
Sweet married Mildred Thelma Robison, an attorney and playwright, in 1932. They had one child, J. Eric Flippin Sweet, an attorney and banker. Mrs. Sweet died in 1976 in Santa Monica, California, where Sweet still resides.
Sweet is a direct descendant of Thomas Drake, brother and heir of the famous Sir Francis. He has, as a result, been reading Elizabethan history since “about age seven” and admits to “knowing much more about the 16th century than the 20th.” He has, since 1956 when he first published Shake-speare, the Mystery, played a central role in the eternal debate concerning the identity of the author of the Shakespearean plays and poems. Sweet’s candidate is none other than Queen Elizabeth herself and his case is convincing. The late Erle Stanley Gardner, perhaps the best-selling mystery writer of all time and a Harvard law professor both endorsed his theory.
This book launched Sweet into a second career as an author (and resurrected his first name). He has since published two novels, a collection of seven plays, a biography of pioneer Oklahoma oil man Wirt Franklin plus the previously mention- ed work on geophysical history. The latest refinements in Shakespearean scholarship and some reflection on the early evolution of exploration were the main themes in a recent interview between Sweet and TLE Managing Editor Dean Clark.
How did you get into geophysics?
I was one of the few people at the time who had heard of exploration geophysics because my older brother Reginald was working for the Geophysical Research Corporation when I received my master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1928. That was about the best position you could get, with that educational background, at that time I was hired by Gene Rosaire and sent to New Orleans to work under Gene McDermott. I couldn’t have had a nicer person to be my first party chief.
We were working the lakes and bayous of Louisiana, and I was the computer. I’ve always been a sort of outdoors person, SO I loved it and thought it a wonderful way to make a living. After a year or so, I was brought into the Houston office and assigned to the theoretical department. The immediate job was to develop a mathematical analysis to find the flank of a salt dome. It was one tough proposition.
Did you have any idea at the time that you were in at the beginning of something big?
Yes. Everybody from holedigger on up thought they were involved in something important, and everybody, almost without exception, enjoyed the work. It was a great time If any one made a suggestion, it was listened to-which is not always the case in scientifically based business. Nearly everybody was young, just out of college, and not many were married. It was a little like a fraternity. They would ask you to think about particularly bright friends, and if you suggested somebody who came into the company and did well, then you were praised. They were probably lucky in getting such talented scientists and energetic people right at the beginning. I don’t remember a single lazy person in the whole GRC organization. Nobody griped, not even a little bit, about having to work ungodly long hours.
Rosaire is credited with making the first oil discovery via seismic in the US. What are your memories of him?
He had his fits of temper and could be a cantankerous cuss, but he still was a person that you enjoyed being with. He and his wife couldn’t have been kinder to me in my long sojourn as a bachelor in Houston. I once showed him something I had worked up that he thought was brilliant. Well, it was nothing more than pretty basic trigonometry, so I couldn’t claim he was a great mathematician, but he was a darn good executive. He was pragmatist who wanted to get things done, and the generally went pretty smoothly. He played a big part in getting the SEG started. The most important man was Donald Barton Barton and Rosaire were bosom pals, and Barton was always in Rosaire’s office talking about a society for geophysicists. After it got going, Rosaire was the guy who did the legwork to get people to join. I was a classic example. I attended all the preliminary meetings, but I guess I was out of town when they had the first official meeting because I’m not a charter member of SEC. Rosaire called me up a couple of years later and asked. “Isn’t it about time you joined ?” I immediately sat down and wrote him a check.
He was a real physicist. He was the first person that J.C. Karcher hired for GRC, and he probably built most of the original instruments. And if something went wrong with them out in the field, he was the guy who came out to repair them. When Geophysical Service Incorporated was formed in 1930, Karcher gave McDermott the job of making the new instru- ments, and he was instructed that they “had to be different from the GRC instruments.” It was probably a couple of years before they got all of the bugs out. I learned a lot from McDermott and found him a very likeable person.
A very talented person, particularly as an executive. He was a world class executive, probably the best and smoothest we ever had in any branch of geophysics. He was always very happy to listen to anything you had to say and never took you for granted. He once got me a raise during the depths of the Depression; I’ll always feel strongly about him just for that.
I spent days and days and days with him when I was doing my research, and he showed no inclination to put me aside. 1 had also known him at CRC, both in the field and in the theoretical division. He was not a “typical” scientist, if there is such a thing. He had a tremendous number of other interests. He was a likeable and cultured person.
He worked, as I recall, for GRC during the summer while he was still an undergraduate at Rice. He was probably the youngest person we had and the closest thing we had to a “fair-haired boy.” I think he learned a lot there that helped him later on. It was very obvious that he was tremendously gifted, and every- body knew that he was going to be a decided success in life.
A very nice fellow. I laugh when I think about him---not really about him but about the circumstances. Here he was a Nobel Prize winner and in charge of Britain’s whole sound-ranging effort in World War 1. So what did they do? They gave him a captaincy. It’s just like the television show M*A*S*H where the most stupid people are lieutenant colonels. The competent people, the real surgeons, are all captains.
He was one of the very few key people from the early days who died before I began my research. I believe the only others were Mintrop, Reginald Fessenden and Conrad Schlumberger.
I'm really sorry that I never had a chance to talk to Fessenden. It appears that he was a very practical guy and the classic product of a classical education. That did him some good because it taught him how important science was, and he started in on that. Of course, he had access to Edison’s library, and that was a great help.
Why did you leave GRC and start your own company?
Karcher had left to form GSl in 1930, and a lot of the GRC people had gone with him. That and the Depression made it pretty obvious to everybody by 1931 that the Houston office had a limited life. So my brother and I and another person decided to go out on our own. My brother Reginald was about as close to that hypothetical “typical” scientist as you can get. By that I mean somebody who reads pretty much nothing but scientific papers and thinks about science most of the time Reginald was a real physicist, much better than me---I was a physical chemist masquerading as a physicist and trying to learn some geology---and he was very talented at designing and building instruments. He came awfully close to duplicating the GRC equipment, and our American Seismograph Company was quite successful until the patent suit by Texaco put us out of business about 1940. At that point my brother designed and built a gravity meter, and we concentrated on that end of the business from then on.
The startup of our firm coincided pretty much with the arrival of reflection as the dominant exploration method. I didn’t have much to do with that, but my brother did. We actually had very little professional contact when we were both with CRC. Refractions were running into all sorts of difficulties as we tried to get deeper data. They were having to spread them out over long distance on the surface, determining them by blast phones, which were soon found to be quite a bit off. Pretty early on, they brought my brother out of Tulsa to do some reflection work in an area that they felt was a good prospect. He got yomc good data and condemned the whole place, but they didn’t believe him and drilled a second dry hole. Shortly after, he condemned another area, and this time Salvatori backed him up. Refractions hake some uses, but they are limited. It was pretty apparent that reflections were much better, and by 1932, when we started our company, that’s what everybody was using. We never used refraction at all. We never even made any instruments.
What do you recall about the early days of SEG?
It was founded during very bad times, the worst economic times of my life. Thank God, we’ve never had another depression that bad. It really didn’t end in this country until the US entered World War Il. The key man was Donald Barton. He was a very forceful, dynamic individual. His theme was that we shouldn’t worry about the bad times but should plunge ahead because we were going to need an organization when times got better.
It was tough getting members, though, and Rosaire made a lot 01‘ the contacts and probably hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves. The early conventions consisted primarily of techni- cal papers. Everybody was quite eager to hear them. I can’t remember any widespread policy talks. I think we avoided that because everybody was happy that we were getting along as well as we were.
'Because of economic considerations, a lot of critical information about geophysical exploration has been kept secret. Did you find this a problem when you were researching your book?
I found absolutely nobody that was not very cooperative. I spent days with some people like [J. Clarence Karcher|Karcher]. I had many meals with Wallace Pratt, who was a geologist, of course, but one with a keen appreciation of geophysics. He was one of those people who talked in a very low key manner but who was very impressive It was a real joy to talk to those people. Of all my assignments in life, one of the happiest was to visit with the pioneers and together reconstruct what we knew about the early days.
Now we know, in retrospect, that a lot of them were remarkable people-great geophysicists and great geologists. But none of them seemed to be enormously impressed with themselves. I have met some people in executive positions who thought they were God’s gift to something or other, but I never met a geophysicist who felt that way.
Of course, a scientist knows there’s so much he doesn’t know that it’s hard for him to get a big head. That’s particularly true when you’re dealing with the earth. In the early years it was rare to find somebody who knew a lot about physics and a lot about geology. There were a lot of people like me with a pretty good physics background, but having to be pretty humble about our knowledge of geology and having to read like mad to even learn some of the basics. All the people involved, whether they came from the physics side or the geologic side, pretty soon realized the enormous amount of stuff they had to learn. Consequently, I can’t think of a single person who thought he was a great geophysicist as compared to other people.
Was it really the queen?
I’ve changed my mind a little bit. Now 1 think it was a committee that included people like Christopher Marlowe, the Countess of Pembroke and Sir Walter Raleigh, but the queen was still the most important factor. So, now I think that she was 70-80 percent responsible instead of 100 percent. A lot of people think that idea is just incredible, but is it more incredible than believing that an uneducated, illiterate bumpkin was the A-No.
1 writer of all time A debate covering the authorship question was held in Washington, D.C;, on September 25, 1987, before three justices of the US Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens opined that concealment of the author’s true identity under the pseudonym Shakespeare would most likely have been “the result of a command from the monarch.” This reasoning from a learned judge would seem to add considerable credibility to my theory.
- Clark, Dean (1988). George Elliott Sweet. The Leading Edge, 7(12), 22–24.