James Vanderford

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James Vanderford
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Biography Citation for the Reginald Fessenden Award

Contributed by Cloy Causey

Jim Vanderford developed an early interest in electronics as a radio operator in the Air Force before and during the Korean War. After discharge, he earned a B.S. in electrical engineering from Texas Technological College in 1957 and an M.S. from Southern Methodist University in 1960.

He joined the Texaco Research Laboratory in Bellaire, Texas, in June 1960, and was assigned to the seismic instrument development group, headed by Bob Loofbourrow. Bob's insight into the world of developing digital technology was the major inspiration behind most of the work Jim would do during his seven years at the Bellaire Lab.

The early 1960s was a period of major transition in seismic instrumentation. Digital computers were looming on the horizon, but few if any had the capacity required for commercial seismic processing. Field recording instruments were dominated by analog techniques, although the ideas behind a precision gain digital field system were described in early patents by Texaco's Elmer Eisner and Bob Loofbourrow. It was well known then that digital computers would open up analytical techniques of seismic signal analysis that were impossible to achieve in any other way. The true value of such new techniques was yet to be determined.

The key parameter missing from all field recordings was the "true signal amplitude" existing at the detector or geophone. The peak amplitudes of this signal varied widely, from a full volt immediately after detonation of the energy source, to near one-tenth of a microvolt some seconds later, a range of 10 million-to-one.

At that time the best amplifiers, whether analog or digiital, had inherent noise levels around one millivolt, thus amplitude distortion of low-level signals was significant. Analog amplifiers boosted these low-level signals up to levels in which waveforms were recorded without regard for the true signal amplitude at the detector. The accurate measurement of true signal amplitude is what Jim hoped to achieve. Using the new transistor and solid state devices that were becoming available in the early 1960s,Jim set out to design a system that would represent the true and accurate seismic detector's instantaneous signal as a series of digital numbers in numerical floating point format, such that the signal could be recreated accurately in subsequent digital data analysis. Seismic exploration at that time required a minimum of 24 detectors to be recorded simultaneously in time sequence encompassing all such signals.

Thus anyone true signal was required to be totally and independently resolved and recorded in a few microseconds. The first laboratory model to achieve these objectives emerged in Texaco's Bellaire Lab in the mid-1960s. Working with Texas Instruments and another oil company, Jim and other Texaco engineers developed the first digital recording system and office computer suitable for commercial processing. Texaco chose to make this new technology available to the industry through licensing agreements with instrument manufacturers. Commercial development followed, with Texaco's Don Howlett and Texas Instruments' Ralph Harris deserving much of the credit.

Jim's career took on a new dimension when he was transferred to Texaco's Corporate Office for Strategic Planning in New York in 1967. For the next 20 years he would specialize in a number of worldwide business activities such as real time oil and product inventory systems, crude oil fleet planning, worldwide oil flow logistics, long range capital budgeting, and emerging computing and telecommunications technologies. Jim is now retired and living with his family in Austin, Texas, where he is active in municipal affairs and is a citiizen volunteer for capital planning for Travis County, Texas.