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Wayne Ross Dies

Wayne Melborne Ross died on December 24 1997 at the age of 77, surrounded by his wife Joan and children David, Jim and Elaine.



“There wasn’t a better father-son relationship in the world,” said Jim Ross, who has taken over the presidency of the family company Ross Laboratories. “We did all the camping, fishing and boating together that any boy could have wanted,” he said.



Known in the dredging industry since 1953 for pioneering hydrographic survey equipment, Mr. Ross was widely respected personally by his employees, customers and colleagues. He developed the first multi-transducer sweep sounding systems, which were specially adapted for work on rivers, and sold the systems to a number of Corps of Engineers Districts, including St. Paul, Rock Island, St. Louis, Tuscaloosa, Philadelphia, Savannah and Wilmington. His involvement did not stop with delivering the systems. He was generous with his time and expertise, offering his own personal support and that of his employees extensively to support the equipment he sold.



He once said that he was fortunate to have been born with an instinctive knowledge, almost a compulsion, in the two areas that had engaged him over his whole life – the marine environment and electronics, in combination.



His boyhood bedroom was filled with wires and parts from his father’s used car wrecking yard, wired together to do “something or other.”



In his early teens he built a waterproof metal detector and a diving helmet, made from a hot water tank with a hose connected to a pump on the surface. He spent many hours prowling the bottoms of lakes in his native Idaho, looking for outboard motors and other sunken “treasure.”



He was 18 at the beginning of World War II, and England was looking for American technicians to service the new and highly secret radar systems being developed. The technical challenge was too great for him to resist, and he joined a technical group attached to the British Air Force, and went to England in 1940. Some of the projects he became involved with involved the risk of capture by the enemy, and because of his confused political status, an American serving in a semi-civilian capacity, but wearing a military uniform, he was asked to join the British Navy for what was to be a one or two month operation.



This “temporary” commission lasted three years. Among his projects was maintenance and training on American-built anti-submarine sonar systems, which had been installed in British destroyers and submarines in the U.S.



Thus began his love affair with sound in the water, which led to the beginning of Ross Laboratories upon his return to Seattle, accompanied by his British war bride Joan.



The company began officially in 1953 with facilities at Leschi on Lake Washington. The leased space was a small boat storage, and Ross Labs grew by one boat stall at a time. The present building at 3138 Fairview Avenue East was built and occupied in 1964.



His first product was a small boat depth finder. This product was the first of many “firsts.” It was unique because the only other depth finders available were large war surplus machines, and were installed on only a few large commercial fishing vessels, which were leased at high prices. The unit was low priced, and at $169 became an instant best seller.



In 1968 he introduced the Fineline series of recorders, which were recognized as leading technology in fine detail, high resolution and paper recording. Initially introduced as a commercial fishing product, these recorders became popular for scientific and research activities. They were used by the U.S. Coast Guard on their buoy tenders and by other institutions for projects such as fisheries research and Arctic ice studies.



In 1969 he began to work with the National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Digital Equipment Corporation on a hydrographic survey system using a depth digitizer interfaced to an onboard computer. This system was installed and operated on the NOAA ship Whiting at Norfolk, Virginia. The introduction to automated hydrographic survey led to the installation of many similar systems designed to meet the needs of NOAA, the Corps of Engineers, the Canadian Hydrographic Services and many private firms doing hydrographic surveys. These were the first systems that combined computer hardware, software and data acquisition to provide fully integrated survey systems.



In 1977, he delivered the first wide path, multi-channel sweep survey systems. The customers were the Portland District, Corps of Engineers and the Canadian Department of Public Works at Vancouver, BC.



These systems increased dramatically the degree of bottom detail and information that could be collected in a very short time. They surveyed a path of up to 100 feet in width, with continuous track sounding at about six feet spacing. The floor of rivers, harbors and navigation channels could be surveyed and marked for hazards to a degree not previously possible.



The large volume of data collected by these systems required new editing and post processing software. Ross created and perfected the early software for presenting smoothed contours, finely plotted charts, three-dimensional plots and automatic volume computation.



In July 1990, at Savannah, Georgia, working with the Savannah Corps District and E.T.L. (T.E.C.) Ross demonstrated the application of GPS to hydrographic survey.



In August 1994, he introduced the “Smart” sounder, which eliminated the need for chart paper recording. The recorders collect the complete analog signal information, convert it to digital format and store the data on magnetic or optical mass media storage. The information may be plotted in real time or post survey on standard PC printers, and taken to the office and replayed for editing or stored on larger volume, permanent media for archival purposes.



At the Corps of Engineers Survey Conference in 1996 he introduced the “suitcase sounder,” a complete GPS sounding system in one compact case.



Mr. Ross enjoyed entertaining clients on his 75-foot survey boat Golden Dolphin, and was a generous host. Through the years he held on-board training workshops for Corps of Engineers employees and others who used his equipment, creating a good networking environment for the attendees in addition to the training.



The company will carry on under the leadership of Wayne’s son Jim, who has been active in the company for many years and is familiar to many in the industry.



“We have many friends and loyal customers in the Corps and survey community. We look forward to serving them in the same tradition that Dad built the company around for many years,” he said. “We will continue to bring new products into the survey field. Currently, a new 28 kHz transducer is under development that has a beam width that is about half the width of transducers now in use, and should result in better accuracy on side slopes. I would like to thank everyone for their comments and condolences over the last couple of months. The people and projects were a big part of his life that gave him a lot of pleasure and fond memories,” Jim said.



(Editor’s note: IDR has published a number of articles about Ross Laboratories in recent years. Please contact our office for complimentary copies of these articles: Ross Installs Sweep Systems on Four Tuscaloosa Survey Boats, February 1996; Ross “Smart” Sounder Eliminates Paper Record; Stores Hydrographic Data on WORM, March/April 1995; Ross Hydrographic Survey System Integral Part of St. Louis River Management Program, April 1993; Savannah Survey Group Testing SWATH Vessel, September/October 1988.


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