How a far-sighted Minnesota scientist pointed America toward the future

Athelstan Spilhaus in 1950
University of Minnesota professor Athelstan F. Spilhaus in his office in 1950.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives

What do an experimental domed city in Aitkin County, the Minneapolis skyway system, a device that helped locate enemy subs in World War II, and the National Sea Grant Program have in common?

They were all the brainchild of a far-sighted futurist and former University of Minnesota Dean named Athelstan Spilhaus.

But that's not all he's done.

"He was part of the atomic bomb testing, he designed the Seattle World's Fair science expo, and he wrote a syndicated comic strip for fun, as a hobby, for 15 years," said Sharon Moen, communications coordinator for Minnesota Sea Grant and the author of a biography of Spilhaus called With Tomorrow in Mind: How Athelstan Spilhaus Turned America to the Future.

But, as it turns out, one of his less provocative ideas — the Sea Grant Program — may be his most enduring legacy. The program is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

Spilhaus conceived of it as a parallel to the land grant university system. He envisioned a future where we desalinated sea water for drinking, hybridized sea plants to produce sea fruits and vegetables, and farmed fish and even whales.

It now has offices in 33 states, including at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Last year, it leveraged about $67 million in federal funding into all kinds of water related research in communities on the coasts and the Great Lakes. In Minnesota, research and outreach focuses on issues like climate change, invasive species, and water quality.

Spilhaus foresaw the critical importance of protecting water, said Minnesota Sea Grant College Program Director John Downing.

"We treat it as a commodity, without very serious care I think," Downing said. "And his idea 50 years ago, looking to the future, was we need to look after these water resources."

World's first man-made satellite announcement
Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus stands at the back right during the July 29, 1955, announcement of plans for the building and launching of the world's first man-made satellite.
Courtesy of NASA

Spilhaus achieved many of his accomplishments while dean of the University of Minnesota's Institute for Technology from 1949 to 1966. He came to the U.S. from his native South Africa and literally talked his way into M.I.T., where he invented the bathythermograph — a heavy, torpedo-shaped device that measures temperature as it falls through the water.

The device was installed on destroyers and submarines throughout the Allied fleet, Moen said. By mapping layers of cold water under the ocean's surface that could distort sonar, Spilhaus's invention helped locate enemy subs, and protect Allied vessels.

"Winston Churchill wrote him a personal note of thanks for inventing it," said Moen. And since Spilhaus had a patent on the device, it also made him rich.

Then in the 1940s he experimented with high altitude weather balloons to spy on Soviet atomic weapons testing. When one of those balloons went down in Roswell, New Mexico, it sparked a UFO conspiracy.

But what probably brought Spilhaus the most fame was a comic strip, called Our New Age, which he launched in 1958.

"One of my favorite quotes of his is that science is intellectual entertainment, but the entertaining part has been largely overlooked," said Moen.

The comic was his attempt to make science fun. Spilhaus worried American kids weren't interested in the subject.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, in 1957, "he said by golly, I'm going to wage war against what I believe is a scientific travesty, through the Sunday newspapers," according to Moen.

The comic bordered on science fiction, but it was also at times eerily prescient. It predicted email and the internet. His very first strip foretold how the greenhouse effect would someday melt polar ice caps.

Our New Age
Photograph of 'Our New Age' comic that ran in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune on Feb. 28, 1971.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives

It was syndicated by 137 papers around the world. A reader of the comic recently approached Moen after a talk in the Twin Cities.

"You know he couldn't wait to get up on Sunday mornings just so he could read the Our New Age comic strips," she said. "It was that important at that time of America's history that kids were anxious to get up and read about what the future might hold and how they could be part of it."

Our New Age
Our New Age comic, by former University of Minnesota professor Athelstan Spilhaus
Courtesy Spilhaus family via Sharon Moen

Later, when President Kennedy asked Spilhaus to head up the science expo at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, he told him all he knew about science came from what he read in his comic strip in the Boston Globe.

Spilhaus stopped writing the strip in 1973. By that time, he had been pushing perhaps his most audacious idea for nearly a decade, something called the Minnesota Experimental City.

He envisioned a domed city of a quarter million people in Aitkin County, two hours north of the Twin Cities, where there were no cars and everything would be recycled.

Experimental City sketch
A sketch of Athelstan Spilhaus' Experimental City plan by Russell Habermann of the Minnesota Sea Grant.
Courtesy of Sharon Moen

As he told MPR in an interview in 1972, he wanted to reinvent urban systems like mass transit and waste management to help plan for future population growth and stem the tide of urban sprawl.

"It is not only to be a viable city in itself," he said, "but to be a laboratory for the testing of both technological and social innovations that once proven can be introduced into the older cities."

A futuristic fantasy, right? But the Minnesota Experimental City had powerful political backers like Hubert Humphrey, and corporate supporters, including Ford and Honeywell. Plans called for breaking ground in 1976, before it was scuttled by local opposition and concerns about environmental impacts.

"If it had come to pass, and it almost did," said Moen, "it would have been the thing that Spilhaus would be remembered for."

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