James Rickenbacker

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James Rickenbacker
James Rickenbacker headshot.png
Latest company Exxon
BSc Electrical Engineering
BSc university Clemson University


SEG is honoring Jim Rickenbacker and John Sallas with the Fessenden Award for developing ground-force control for seismic vibrators, technology that resulted in deterministic source signatures and caused a step change improvement in vibrator seismic data quality. Ground-force control virtually eliminated the persistent problem of vibrator decoupling and led to a significant improvement in bandwidth. Jim Rickenbacker at Exxon Production Research Company developed and patented a system for controlling the peak force of a vibrator using the weighted-sum method for force control. This effort marked the first use of closed-loop vibrator force control in the industry. John Sallas, who began his work at GSI, was responsible for refining ideas and developing new methods for ground-force control that led to wide commercialization.

Biography Citation for the Reginald Fessenden Award

Contributed by Michael Schoenberger

Today’s vibrator data quality is excellent. In most parts of the world, onshore vibrator seismic data are as good or better than that generated by explosive sources.

Thirty years ago, such was rarely the case. Vibrators were used only when safety or environmental considerations precluded the use of explosives. Much of the improvement is due to the use of ground force to control vibrators, a procedure developed by an Exxon Production Research Company team led by James E. (Jim) Rickenbacker, recipient of SEG’s 1999 Reginald Fessenden Award. During the mid-1970s, Exxon was constructing a Broad Band Vibrator (BBV), in order to obtain high-resolution land seismic data. Conventional wisdom limited the output force of a vibrator to its hold-down weight. Jim recalls, “We needed a way to measure how hard we were driving the vibrator. It bugged me that all of us working together could not come up with an answer to our problem.” After months of reasoning and analysis, “I had drawn the figure of a vibrator base plate on the chalkboard and had put in the known variables. I leaned back to take a look. All of a sudden, ‘Eureka,’ there it was. I thought ‘you dummy.’ It had been there all the time!”

“It” was a new way to drive a vibrator. A vibrator uses a feedback system, which differences the input signal and a measure of the output signal. Instead of feeding back the signal from a geophone on the baseplate, Jim combined signals from the reaction mass and the baseplate to form a measure of ground force. Jim filed a patent on this technique in 1977, and, in 1980, the patent was awarded. Clearly, the technology had application far beyond Exxon’s BBV, and, since Exxon was not in the business of building vibrators, the technology was licensed to Pelton in 1983. During the following decade, force control became a part of virtually every operational vibrator system. Jim Rickenbacker does not take sole credit for the success of vibrator force control. The invention incorporated learnings from earlier Exxon research and was implemented and used successfully by a talented team of vibrator researchers at Exxon. In particular, Jim cites Ken Andersen who designed and integrated the first production-quality force-control system into the Texas Instruments vibrator electronics and subsequently into the Pelton electronics system.

Jim began his career with Exxon in 1964, working on a seismic field crew based in Lafayette, Louisiana. By 1968, he was seismic field supervisor in Sumatra, Indonesia. Data acquisition research was the next phase of his career and the one during which he performed the work for which he is being honored by the Fessenden Award. It commenced in 1973 and continued through 1984. For the next eight years, Jim supervised processing research, before commencing the computing phase of his career in 1992. He led the Exxon Exploration Company team that designed and implemented Exxon’s standard geoscience computing system worldwide and is currently Computing and Information Technology Manager for Exxon’s Production Computing Standardization project.

Jim grew up in Cameron, South Carolina and obtained a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Clemson University. He is married to the former Jeanne Rembert and is the father of Evelyn and Robert and the grandfather of H. R.