A look back with oceanographer Steve Gill
For NOAA’s 50th anniversary, we are highlighting oral history interviews from 24 employees — some retired, some still working — who have made a mark on the agency. Oral historian Molly Graham walks us through their NOAA legacies and the life experiences that led them here.
NOAA oceanographer Steve Gill studied under oceanography legends Walter Munk and Bernard Zetler, but if you ask around NOAA, Gill is a legend in his own right. He led a 40-year career with NOAA’s tides and currents office, where he helped stand up and maintain the largest water level observation system in the country. He started with NOAA’s National Ocean Survey (now National Ocean Service) in 1973 logging tide data at a time when the data came from the field on punch paper through the mail. Over his career, he contributed to a massive transformation in how NOAA and our global partners measure, distribute, and analyze tide data. Gill retired in 2016 as chief scientist of the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services.
Hear a snippet of the interview recorded November 8, 2019:
On becoming interested in oceanography:
SG: In high school, I took all the regular classes and so forth. The main one that got me interested in my career is I took an earth science course, fundamentals of geology, weather, and the earth. No other course before that caught my mind like that one. I thought that was really interesting, and keyed my interest in – for the first time, in thinking – I took that as a junior in high school. That got me thinking about what I might want to do as a career. Before that, I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do. That was the most important one.
I wanted to be a meteorologist, like a weatherman on TV. I don’t know. [laughter] But that interested me from the earth science class. But in my undergraduate degree, you take a combined degree, meteorology and oceanography, because essentially all the physics are the same except the Z direction. The vertical direction is up or down. It’s down for the ocean. But the formula and the basic concepts are very much the same in terms of fluid movement. A lot of our courses were – I took oceanography and meteorology as an undergraduate, but then I became slowly more interested in the oceanography part of it.
On transitioning historical tide data from paper to computers:
SG: When I inherited the branch, we had all these marine boundary stations. Hundreds and hundreds of [tide] stations were put in in the mid to late 1970s. Those data all came in or were continuously coming in from the longer-term stations. Well, we didn’t have the people or the system to handle that data. All these marigrams, these punch paper monthly tapes came in and were put in a cupboard. It was a very slow process of getting them done. I had to develop a program and work with the folks that I had to decrease that backlog and get rid of it. I managed to do that [by] treating people nicely. [laughter]
MG: [laughter] You shifted into the digital era during this time.
SG: Yes. Of course, in 1973, we didn’t have personal computers or desktops or internet or anything. So when I gave – we used to have to write project instructions, telling the field parties what to do, where to put stations, how to maintain them, how long to put them in, where to put them in, detailed instructions to the field parties. We used to do that – we have to write them out by hand and give them to the secretary who had a typewriter that would type them out and retype them out. Maybe we had a correcting typewriter; I don’t know. So I ended up writing instructions a lot by using previously typed pages and cut and paste.
MG: Literally cut and paste.
SG: Literally cut and paste and tape to get something written. We did that for several years. That was a big deal. Everything was just manual, so we had adding machines, or the computers were very – IBM 360 type or what PC could do now – we had a computer back then that might be able to what a PC can do now – computer systems that had to be handled with care, and you couldn’t do anything fast. You had to really maintain them. It was a real difficult transition. In 1983, when I became the chief of the analysis branch, we finally got – the internet was just coming on board, so we finally got some computers to put on our desk that we could do some Microsoft Word type things. But nothing hooked up to the internet or anything, except eventually for email – nothing to a database, so you couldn’t use them to process data. Our processing section always had single purpose terminals that talked directly to the computer to process data. So you had to go to a section of the office and work. You couldn’t work at your desk and do any analysis or processing work. The data that we got in from the punch paper tapes and analog marigrams were converted to a digital form and put on eight-track tapes in the office.
The digital punch paper tapes were optically read and put on a tape. You would have to create that tape and walk it down to a building nearby to get it mounted on the computer to get processed. You would have a printer, maybe in the office. So everything was done highly manually.
It was a real interesting transformation. I was trying to get the PC in and getting the data handled. Eventually, of course, those workstations software became mounted onto your PC and became part of your workstation on your desk to process the data. That was the transformation that took [from] 1975 to 1987. That was a slow process. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, but it was incremental improvements. By the time we moved to Silver Spring in ’97 – I think we moved here in ’97 or ’96 from Rockville – we still had our old computer, but we had a new system coming on board, a whole new database system and new terminals. So we ran two systems simultaneously, and then got rid of the old system after assurance that we had continuity. So the continuity aspect of everything we did throughout time was important to run parallel systems. We didn’t change water level gauge technology without running them new and old simultaneously for a long period of time to understand the differences and then move on to new technology. That was a really important part, throughout my career, of maintaining the integrity of the data over time and not losing the continuity of the record.