Ralph Wyckoff

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Ralph Wyckoff
R. D. Wyckoff headshot.gif
President year 1943

Ralph D. Wyckoff was a pioneering geophysicist. He served as the 1943-1944 SEG President. Mr. Wyckoff served as Editor of ''Geophysics'' for the years 1939-1940, 1940-1942, and 1942-1943.[1]


by T. J. O'Donnell

Ralph D. Wyckoff, a pioneer in exploration geophysics and petroleum production, died January 31, 1975, at Oakmont, Penn.[2] An Honorary Member and former President of SEG and Editor of Geophysics, he retired from Gulf in 1963 as director of the Instrument Division of Gulf Research and Development Co. and vice-president of Gulf Minerals Co. and Dominion Gulf Co.

Ralph Wyckoff was born in Jacobsville, Mich., December 10, 1897. While still a student he worked for mining companies in his native Norther Peninsula of Michigan, where he developed an interest in mining that remained with him for all of his life. Following his graduation from Michigan State University in electrical engineering in 1920, he returned to Michigan State for a while as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. he then joined Lansing Electric Co. as an electrical engineer. Later he worked as a mechanical engineer at Ford Motor Co. and as a physicist at the U.S. Bureau of Standards. His long association with the oil industry began in 1925 when he joined the Marland Oil Co. one of the first oil companies to use geophysical methods of exploration.

In late 1928 he joined the research laboratory of the Gulf Oil Corp. in Pittsburgh. He continued to work on a project he had started at Marland---the development of a field pendulum system. The Gulf pendulum became a highly useful gravity prospecting tool, far superior in results and in ease of field operation to the torsion balance which was in use at the time.

He became head of the Physics Division and began work in two significant areas. He engaged in fundamental studies of permeability and the flow of fluids in porous media. He contributed in an important degree to the foundations of what has come to be known as reservoir engineering. At about the same time he began to direct the development of the Gulf gravimiter which was used successfully for many years in worldwide exploration.

In 1936 he began a three-year hitch as director of geophysical field operations in Gulf's Houston Production District. In 1939 he returned to the Research Laboratories near Pittsburgh. World War II was a busy time for Ralph. Under the sponsorship of the National Defense Research Committee, he headed a group charged with developing radio guided bombs and homing devices. Out of this effort came the AZON bomb, the only guided missile to be used successfully during the war. Other more advanced weapons were later used by the Air Force.

I worked under Wyckoff during this period and later had occasion to make a historical review of the project. I am still amazed at the skill and dedication with which he carried it out. His almost unfailing physical intuition led to the right decisions with a minimum of false starts. At a time of shortages of manpower and equipment, his ability at improvisation overcame obstacles that at times seemed insurmountable. As an example, earl in in the project we came up against the limits of knowledge of the aerodynamic behavior of bombs. Ralph converted an automotive testing dynamometer to a makeshift wind tunnel. He extrapolated results obtained at air speeds of 60 miles per hour to the range of 750 to 900 miles per hour. His conclusions did not agree with the then best expert opinion, but proved to be right in detail.

In 1945 he was placed in charge of geophysical research and development and later all instrument research for Gulf Research and Development Co. At this time Victor Vacquier had demonstrated the principle of the flux gate magnetometer and assisted in its application to an airborne detector of submerged submarines. Wyckoff now undertook to convert the device for petroleum and mining geophysics. The Gulf airborne magnetometer has flown millions of miles since then.

He continued to direct instrument research until his retirement in early 1963. During his later years with Gulf he also served the corporation in its entry into the mining business. Following retirement he was appointed research professor of of geophysics in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Here he studied earth tides and the free modes of vibration of the earth.


Wyckoff's list of services to the profession and to the industry is extensive. He was Editor of Geophysics from 1939 to 1942. Vice-President of SEG in 1942-1943 and President during 1943-1944. He was a member and Chairman of the SEG Radio Facilities Committee for many years. He was also Chairman of the API Radio Committee and contributed importantly to the report that convinced the Federal Communications Commission that the oil industry had justifiable requirements for allocations of in the frequency spectrum. In 1958 he as the SEG representative on the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

Honors and Awards

In 1965 Wyckoff won the Anthony Lucas Gold Medal Award of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers for his achievements in improving techniques and practice of finding and producing petroleum. In 1966 the SEG elected him to Honorary Membership. In 1971 he was named a distinguished alumnus of Michigan State University.

He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Grayce Heck Wyckoff of Oakmond, Penn., a son Robert J. Wyckoff of Boston, two daughters Mrs. Marjorie Breckenridge of Grove City, Ohio, and Barbara Heck Wyckoff of Oakmont, and eight grandchildren. Ralph Wyckoff was a man of imposing bearing. With a quiet and reserved manner, his commanding personality nevertheless came through at first meeting. He was friendly. His guidance was widely sought. His council, technical or on a personal level, was never given lightly or offhand. He set for himself a very high standard of integrity.

He well deserved the recognition, respect and friendship that came his way in good measure. His passing is a loss to us all.

Biography Citation for SEG Honorary Membership

Contributed by E. A. Eckhardt Delivered by Sigmund I. Hammer

Ralph D. Wyckoff who is about to be admitted to Honorary Membership to the Society of Exploration Geophysicists merits this distinction for many reasons. He has been interested in and contributed significantly to many developments which lie in the domain of this Society. He has been a pioneer among pioneers.

Wyckoff was born in a small town on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, December 10, 1987. He received a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering at Michigan State University in 1920. Following his graduation he served briefly as an instructor in electrical engineering at his alma mater, as electrical engineer at Lansing Electric Company, mechanical engineer at Ford Motor Company, and as a physicist in the Electrical Instruments Section of the U.S.

Bureau of Standards, attesting the versatility which characterized all his later activities.

In 1925 Wyckoff joined Marland Oil Company and became an important member of what is believed to have been the first geophysical department to be established by an oil company. His first assignment was to develop the then available gravity pendulum equipment, previously used for geodetic purposes, into a convenient and effective means for gravity exploration. This development was resumed at laboratories of Gulf Research & Development Company when Wyckoff joined that organization at year end of 1928. The objective was attained brilliantly and, although quickly superseded by the gravimeter in exploration programs, remains to this day among the best if not the best tool for establishing bench-marks for a global gravity map.

During the period 1931-1935 Wyckoff was chief of the Physics Division of Gulf Research & Development Company (GR&DC). Two important projects engaging the attention of the division during this time were pioneering researches in what is now known as reservoir engineering and the development of a portable precision gravimeter. The resulting instrument was among the earliest to be used in extensive field operations, with numerous discoveries to its credit, notably of salt domes in Mississippi and Burgan, Kuwait, world's largest oil field.

From 1936 to 1939 Wyckoff served GR&DC in Houston as coordinator of geophysical field operations for Gulf's Houston Division, a period of extensive field operations in the general Gulf Coast area. In late 1939 he returned to the Gulf Research Center at Harmarville where he served as staff geophysicist until 1945. This period included World War II during which the Gulf Laboratories engaged in research and development projects under the auspices of the National Defense Research Committee. In most of these Wyckoff played a prominent and, in some cases, a decisive role. Among these developments were the radio steerable bombs known as Azon and Razon, of which the former was the only bomb of this type actually used by the armed services in their operations of World War II. Another development of this period was a magnetic airborne submarine detector which was quickly adapted to serve as an airborne magnetometer. This instrument was a truly revolutionary development among geophysical prospecting techniques.

In 1945 GR&DC established a new Division of Geophysical Research and Development and Ralph Wyckoff was appointed its first director, a position he held until his recent retirement. Whatever he did, Wyckoff was always basically interested in the instruments involved. He realized that, almost universally, the progress in any field is critically dependent on the advances which can be made in the instruments available to its workers. The new division was made to order for him. Over the years it produced many instruments for getting more and better data from field operations and for deriving more and better information from the field data provided. In part, the instruments developed represented a form of automation. They covered data processing and data display. They went far beyond the field of geophysics and eventually the division served the entire laboratory complex and some of the operating divisions with their instrumentation problems.

As early as 1914 Wyckoff was the holder of an Amateur Radio Operator's license. He recalls contacting, from Lansing, Michigan, the amateur station of Dr. Conrad, at the Westinghouse Research Lab in Pittsburgh, before the latter converted his station to broadcast service on 1920 (the world's first broadcasting station, KDKA). With this background, it was only natural that he should be interested in the frequency allocation needs of the geophysical services from the very beginning. A radio facilities committee was established in the early years of SEG of which Wyckoff was a member and chairman for many years. When, later, other branches of the oil industry developed needs for radio communication, the American Petroleum Institute established a similar committee with which the SEG cooperated, and which it later joined. Wyckoff was successively chairman of the API central committee in 1956 and 1957 and chairman from 1958 to 1960. Under his chairmanship there was produced a comprehensive report on the geophysical uses of radio designed to acquaint the Federal Communication Commission with the nature and importance of such operations and the need of specific and dependable frequency allocations. In this matter, Wyckoff rendered an outstanding service to his profession and this Society.

The man being honored served the Society in many other ways. He served a three-year term (1939-1942) as Editor of its journal, GEOPHYSICS, and he also served as Vice-President (1942-1943) and President (1943-1944). In 1958 he was the Society's representative to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science.

Wyckoff retired from his position at GR&DC at the dose of 1962. He has since become Research Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Among other things, he has been occupied with equipping a geophysical observatory and is now gathering data on the free modes of vibration of the earth.

This citation can cover little more than the high spots of an illustrious career in geophysics. The awarding of Honorary Membership to Ralph D. Wyckoff is a token of admiration and respect that he has won from his fellow members for his talent and his very considerable accomplishments.

Biography for SEG Presidency

R. D. Wyckoff received his B.S. in E.E. at Michigan State College in 1920.[3] After a short period as M.E. in the plant engineering department of the Ford Motor Company, one and one-half years on the E.E. staff at Michigan State College, and two years in general electrical engineering work at Lansing, Michigan, he joined the staff of the U. S. Bureau of Standards, Electrical Instrument Section, remaining for a three-year period. In 1926 Mr. Wyckoff entered the geophysical field with the Marland Oil Company in Oklahoma, and in 1929 joined the staff of the Gulf Research and Development Company, primarily to continue development of pendulum apparatus, and later in charge of the Physics Division.

During the latter period he was associated with the development of gravimeters and general production research. In 1936 he again entered the Geophysics Division and from 1936 through 1939 was District Supervisor in the Gulf Research and Development Company's Houston office. Since that time he has been a member of the geophysical staff at Pittsburgh. He is a Fellow in the American Physical Society and a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers, the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Geophysical Union, and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He served as Editor of the Society from 1939 to 1942, in which year he was elected Vice-President.



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  1. Clark, D. (2010), Out of the past. The Leading Edge," 75(5), 75A263-75A271.
  2. Geophysics, vol 40 n 4 p715-716.
  3. Geophysics, VOL VIII number 1, January 1943 page 76.
  4. Whaley, J., 2017, Oil in the Heart of South America, https://www.geoexpro.com/articles/2017/10/oil-in-the-heart-of-south-america], accessed November 15, 2021.
  5. Wiens, F., 1995, Phanerozoic Tectonics and Sedimentation of The Chaco Basin, Paraguay. Its Hydrocarbon Potential: Geoconsultores, 2-27, accessed November 15, 2021; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281348744_Phanerozoic_tectonics_and_sedimentation_in_the_Chaco_Basin_of_Paraguay_with_comments_on_hydrocarbon_potential
  6. Alfredo, Carlos, and Clebsch Kuhn. “The Geological Evolution of the Paraguayan Chaco.” TTU DSpace Home. Texas Tech University, August 1, 1991. https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/handle/2346/9214?show=full.