Monday, November 09, 2009

R.I.P.: Say goodnight, Nessie.

In a biography of firebrand revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, I once read the theory that, prior our modern moment, it was simply easier to be an accomplished Renaissance man. Paine, who not only gave voice of aborning young republic's revolutionary ideals but was also an engineer and architect of minor significance, was downright myopic compared to some of his contemporaries. To explain this riot of talent (and, perhaps, to assure readers like myself - a man who gets tired pondering a trip to the bank a mere five blocks away - that we're not inadequate in some way) the author proposed that it was easier to make lasting achievements in a broad range of fields back then because, in the late 18th Century, so much still had to be done. The bar to entry in to, say the physical sciences was lower because a man with homemade equipment and a few clever insights was on the cutting edge; as opposed to now, when particle colliders the size of small towns are making the breakthroughs.

As reassuring as this idea would be to somebody like me - whose life is not only not-revolutionary, but perhaps falls slightly short of mediocre (though I've come up with some really funny t-shirts designs that, somebody, I'll maybe put up on Cafepress or something) - I don't think its accurate. After are, the modern age still mints the occasional polymath.

Here's the NY Times obit of Robert Rines: inventor, educator, legal innovator, composer, and monster hunter:

Dollars to doughnuts, Robert H. Rines will be mainly remembered not for holding more than 800 patents, starting a law school or writing music for the stage, but for his dogged pursuit of the Loch Ness monster.

But Dr. Rines, who died on Nov. 1 at his home in Boston at 87, may have outlived the fabled Scottish creature he pursued for more than a quarter century. He had come to suspect that the beast died during his hunt, leaving him to search for a skeleton.

Dr. Rines died of heart failure, said his wife, Joanne Hayes-Rines.

Dr. Rines took the most convincing underwater pictures of what might or might not have been the Loch Ness monster, so convincing that in the mid-1970s scientists from Harvard and the Smithsonian expressed serious interest. Others were intrigued by his innovative search tactics: He hired a perfumer to concoct a scent to attract the creature and trained dolphins to carry cameras.

In the end, Dr. Rines, a lawyer, said that though he had failed to meet the standards of science, he was sure he could persuade a jury of the monster’s existence.

"They can just call me crazy, and that's O.K. by me," he said in an interview with Boston magazine in 2008. "At least I won't go to jail for it, like Galileo."

Dr. Rines was far more than a garden-variety monster hunter. He was spectacularly polymathic.

He developed electronic gear to improve the resolution of radar and sonar images that is used in Patriot missiles, found the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck and helped pave the way for ultrasound imaging. His patented hinge for chopsticks is less noticed but quite clever.

"Few Americans have made such a sweeping contribution to the process and business of inventing as Robert Rines," said a biography prepared by the Lemelson-M.I.T. Program, which recognizes outstanding inventors and is run by the engineering school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a prominent patent lawyer, Dr. Rines greatly influenced the Congressional rewriting of patent laws in 2000, according to Fortune magazine.

In 1973, Dr. Rines founded the Franklin Pierce Law Center to train law students in intellectual property law. It is the only law school in New Hampshire.

Dr. Rines's first love was music, and his family cherishes his story of playing a violin duet with Albert Einstein at a summer camp in Maine when he was 11. He said he played better than Einstein.

As an adult, Dr. Rines combined with the director and actor Paul Shyre to form a theater company to stage plays by Eugene O'Neill and others. He wrote music for most of their dozen or so Off Broadway productions.

He wrote the campaign song for "Hizzoner!" — a one-man play about Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, written by Mr. Shyre and starring Tony Lo Bianco. The play was shown on public television in 1984 and ran on Broadway in 1989.

Robert Harvey Rines was born on Aug. 30, 1922, in Boston. His father, David, a patent lawyer, helped him try at 6 years old to patent a pocketknife with a fork, spoon and other things. But the idea was already patented.

Robert fell in love with music even earlier and began to play the violin at 4. By high school, he had formed a band, the Six Aces of Rhythm, and was taking composition classes at Harvard.

He left high school early to study physics and engineering at M.I.T., but soon decided he would rather go to Harvard. His father said no, and so he deliberately flunked out. His father kicked him out of the house. He reconsidered and graduated near the top of his M.I.T. class in 1942.

He joined the Army Signal Corps, where his experience in M.I.T.'s radiation laboratory proved critical in helping develop the Army's top-secret Microwave Early Warning System. His radar and sonar patents grew out of this work.

He later worked as an assistant examiner at the patent office in Washington while earning a law degree from Georgetown in 1947. In 1972, he received a doctorate from National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, since he was there anyway to help Taiwan develop a patent system. He later helped the People's Republic of China regularize its patent process.

Dr. Rines's passion about the Loch Ness monster was kindled in 1972 when he was in Scotland on his honeymoon with the former Carol Williamson, his second wife.

They were enjoying tea with a friend whose home overlooked the loch. Their host remarked, 'I say, is that an upturned boat?"

What they saw was a big, grayish hump with the texture of an elephant’s skin. It rose four feet out of the water and seemed to be about 30 feet long. They stared at it for 10 minutes.

"I don't care what anybody thinks, you have to find out what that was," Mrs. Rines said.

The obsession had begun. There were many trips to Loch Ness, with Dr. Rines applying his sophisticated sonar techniques to find "Nessie." In 1976, the Academy of Applied Science, an organization Dr. Rines had founded, teamed up with The New York Times in 1976 in a joint quest. Results were inconclusive but made interesting newspaper articles.

Dr. Rines later found evidence that the loch may overlay what was once an ocean floor, suggesting to him that a seagoing dinosaur may have adapted to freshwater. But after the 1970s, Dr. Rines and other seekers stopped seeing monstrous manifestations. He thought his quarry may have died.

Dr. Rines taught at M.I.T., Harvard and Franklin Pierce, started a salmon farm and set up several companies to market his inventions. His Academy of Applied Science shifted focus from aiding unusual experiments, like hunting down Bigfoot, to encouraging students to invent.

Dr. Rines's first marriage, to Dorothy Kay, ended in divorce, and his second, to Miss Williamson, ended with her death in 1993. He is survived by his wife, the former Joanne Hayes; his sons, Justice and Robert; his daughter, Suzi Rines Toth; his stepdaughter, Laura Hayes-Heur; and four grandchildren.

His inventions that live on include a way to use ultrasound radiation to treat cataracts that he conceived while having his own eyes examined several years ago. His dream of inventing something to stop tornadoes never materialized.


Wings said...

Wow. Quite a dude! And a life really, really lived!

zoe said...

i think i need another cup of coffee :D i can hardly keep up with a list of his accomplishments...

5 whole blocks, huh?