Former dean served 3 presidents,

Andrew Donohue

Former Institute of Technology dean and mastermind of covered skyways Athelstan Spilhaus died Monday at age 86.
Spilhaus served as IT dean at the University for 18 years, spanning the 1950s and 1960s. He was also a nationally renowned and outspoken geophysicist who filled posts under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Spilhaus was an early innovator of man-made islands and experimental domed cities.
“He was a visionary,” said Warren Ibele, a mechanical engineering professor who was also a graduate student and junior faculty member at the University during Spilhaus’ tenure. “Ideas just sort of tumbled out of his head.”
During his nearly two decades as dean, the University chemical engineering department became a national leader and mechanical engineering blossomed. Spilhaus integrated more mathematics and science into the curriculum, Ibele said.
Taking a leave of absence from his deanship, Spilhaus created the U.S. science exhibit at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. The exhibit is now the Pacific Science Center.
While at the University, Spilhaus conceived the idea of covered skyways and underground tunnels connecting buildings and sparing people from inclement weather. The skyways and tunnels were first put to use in Minneapolis under his lead.
Not all of Spilhaus’ ideas had the mainstream logic of covered skyways.
He envisioned building an experimental city to serve as a national proving ground for social, economic and technological innovation. The city, most of which would be domed, would be constructed over a small, non-incorporated town and would suit a population of 250,000.
Spilhaus’ vision, which became the Minnesota Experimental City Authority, spent about $1.5 million in the late 60s and early ’70s in planning, but was eventually cut by the state Legislature.
“We are inventing the future, not merely predicting it,” Spilhaus was once quoted as saying.
A native of Cape Town, South Africa, he received degrees from the University of Cape Town and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Spilhaus would go on to do much work for the government in his youth.
As a young scientist, Spilhaus made his major contribution to geophysics by increasing people’s ability to measure things in the ocean and the atmosphere. His invention, the bathythermograph, was used heavily in World War II by American forces, enabling U.S. ships to locate areas where sonar would not detect enemy submarines.
Spilhaus continued his governmental work in 1951, when he became an adviser for the scientific director of the country’s atomic bomb tests in Nevada.
In 1954, Spilhaus was named the first U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization by President Eisenhower.
He was also known for his collection and invention of toys and gadgets. One of the most famous creations was the space clock, a clock that gives out a wealth of information such as the position of the sun, moon, stars and tides. President Johnson gave the clock out for presentation gifts during his presidency.
The outgoing dean also filled his time through writing a syndicated comic strip that was based on serious scientific topics named, “Our New Age.”
“The joke when he was dean was that you could keep up with him each and every day because he had a comic strip published 365 days a year,” said Richard Goldstein, professor of mechanical engineering.
Funeral services for Spilhaus are scheduled for Saturday in Middleburg, Va.