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nicholas heck Nicholas Hunter Heck
was born at Heckton Mills, a small settlement on the Susquehanna River six miles north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on September 1, 1882. He died at Washington, D.C., December 21, 1953, at the age of seventy-one. Heck was the son of John Lewis and Mary Frances (Hays) Heck. The ancestral Hecks migrated to America from Germany in 1753. The village of Captain Heck’s birth was named for his grandfather. Several of his ancestors served with the Continental Army in the American War for Independence.

Heck’s early education was in private schools at Harrisburg, whence he entered Lehigh University. Despite an attack of typhoid fever, he was graduated with his class in 1903 with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He remained another year at Lehigh and, in 1904, received the degree of Civil Engineer. Subsequently, he achieved further academic recognition by his alma mater which conferred an honorary Doctor of Science upon him in 1930, and by Fordham which awarded him the Doctorate in Science (honorary) in 1941. Other honors included Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. The American Geophysical Union presented Heck with the William Bowie Medal in 1942. Parenthetically, William Bowie was also a Lehigh alumnus. Heck served as President of the Seismological Society of America from 1937 to 1939, and he was President of the District [Washington] Philosophical Society and the District [Washington] Chapter of the Society of Sigma Xi and held memberships in the Federal and Cosmos Clubs, both at Washington.

Besides honorary and nontechnical societies, Captain Heck was a member or fellow of the Seismological Society of America, The International Geodetic and Geophysical Union , the Washington Academy of Science, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Society of American Military Engineers, the National Geographic Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the Geological Society of America (1935).

Heck’s professional career commenced officially immediately after finishing college, when he joined the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey with which organization he served continuously for forty years until his retirement. For twenty of those years he was Chief of the Division of Geomagnetism and Seismology, subsequently designated the Division of Geophysics.

His technical interests, though dominated by geophysics, were broadly distributed within that area of investigation. In seismology, he carried out research on the energy consumed in the production of earthquakes. His work on acoustics contributed particularly on the velocity of sound in water at depths as great as five miles. He developed ways for determining ship locations and water depth by radio acoustics. [Sic: he developed radio acoustic ranging, the first non-visual means of navigation developed in human history; he introduced acoustic sounding into the C&GS in 1923 and helped develop velocity tables for use in establishing “true depths.] Captain Heck contributed to methods of magnetic compass compensation. In the realm of oceanography, Heck made some of his best-known additions to science. Cruising off the coasts of Maine and Alaska and in Caribbean water, he developed revolutionary electronic techniques applicable to oceanic surveying. His (1906-1916) work with wire-drag methods for locating dangerous, submerged rocks and other obstructions to navigation was highly significant, particularly in its application during the First World War.

Doctor Heck served with the United States Navy in both American and European waters, particularly in the vicinity of the British Isles, during World War I. He was commissioned successively Lieutenant and Lieutenant Commander and Captain. Much of his time while assigned to the Navy was devoted to research dealing with the detection of submerged submarines.

Captain Heck never married. His most immediate surviving relative is a brother, Mr. Lewis Heck of Washington, D.C. Mr. Heck, also a Lehigh alumnus, is with the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Doctor Heck never forgot Lehigh, as is evidenced by visits to the campus and lectures on seismology and allied fields. He contributed to the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin. His long and diversified list of publications speaks far more eloquently than any memorial can of his versatility and ability. Captain Heck’s name may be added to the list of distinguished Pennsylvanians who have contributed to the advancement of the sciences of the earth.

In: Offprint; Proceedings Volume of the Geological Society of American Annual Report for 1954. Pp. 111-118, Pl. 8. July 1955.

Captain Nicholas H. Heck
, retired Scientific Assistant to the Director, and former Chief of the Division of Terrestrial Magnetism and Seismology (now Division of Geophysics), passed away here December 21, 1953, at Mount Vernon Hospital. Services were held at Ft. Myer Chapel and interment in Arlington Cemetery on December 24. Honorary pall-bearers were Admirals Studds, Knox, Colbert, and Hawley; Captains Hoskinson, Roberts, Borden, Garner, Hemple, Luce, and Rude; and Mr. Raymond Swick.

Captain Heck was born in Heckton, Pennsylvania in 1882. He was graduated from Lehigh University with an A.B. Degree in 1903, and received a degree in civil engineering from the same university the following year and an honorary ScD. Degree in 1930. Fordham University also conferred an honorary ScD. Degree upon him in 1941.

Captain Heck entered the commissioned service of the Bureau in 1904, and served continuously for more than 41 years. During that period he commanded several of the Survey's largest ships and distinguished himself in several scientific and engineering fields. He made significant contributions to the development of wire drag and the initial development of radio-acoustic ranging, and became an international authority on seismology and terrestrial magnetism. He retired from active service in 1945.

Among the many publications to his credit is a popular book entitled Earthquakes. He was author of numerous Bureau publications on the subjects of wire drag, compensation of the magnetic compass, velocity of sound in sea water, radio-acoustic method of determining position in hydrography, and earthquake history of the United States. He also wrote many other articles relating to magnetism and seismology which were published in this country and abroad.

He was also a member of many professional societies. He served terms as president of the Seismological Society of America, the Philosophical Society of Washington, D.C., the Seismological Association of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, and the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Sigma Xi. He was also a member of the Washington Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of American Military Engineers, Cosmos Club, and the Geological Society of America.

During World I he was assigned to the United States Navy and assisted in research projects in London, England and New London, Connecticut for developing means of detecting submarines by underwater sound waves. It was from these studies that he was able to participate in the subsequent development of our present system of hydro surveys.

THE BUZZARD, 1/5/1954

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.
Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:27 AM

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