First video-recording from a submarine

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The first successful video-recording from a non-military submarine was made in May 1969. The purpose of the recording was to document the inspection and condition of an offshore oil storage unit located in 130 feet (40 m) of water off the Louisiana coast.

During the mid-1960s and early 1970s, there was widespread interest in the United States in the topic of oceanography. Several major firms built small research submarines to explore the oceans. The major subs were Deep Star 4000, designed by Jacques Cousteau and built by Westinghouse Electric Company; Aluminaut, the first aluminum sub which was built by and operated by Reynolds Aluminum; Beaver, built by and operated by Rockwell International; Star III, owned and operated by Scripps Institute of Oceanography; and DOWB (Deep Ocean Work Boat), built by and operated by General Motors.

As part of their operations all of these subs attempted video-recordings. None were successful prior to 1969. The problem preventing a successful recording was in the output of the DC to AC power converted. This problem was resolved by using a different type of power converter.

This new approach was used on the Shelf Diver, owned and operated by Perry Submarine to obtain the successful video-recording of the inspection of Tenneco’s Molly Brown 32,500 barrel oil storage unit.

Fred Hartdegen, Gulf Coast Operations Manager for Hydro Products, and James Smith, Hydro Products Field Operator, reconfigured a Sony two-inch, helical-scan video-recorder to fit through the hatch of the sub (video-recorders in the 1960s were a relatively new technology and were rather large) and used a “frequency stabilizer” from Cubic Corporation for the power supply. The “frequency stabilizer” converted the sub’s DC power (which varied significantly during maneuvering) to a stable DC which was then electronically converted by crystal oscillators into an AC sine wave with a frequency accuracy of 1/100th of 1%.

The video-recording documented

  1. the footing conditions and bottom scour under the platform base of the structure
  2. the corrosion progress and condition of the sacrificial anodes, and
  3. the amount of marine growth on the structural members.

The success of this video-recording ignited an immediate interest in the oil field. Two months later the Shelf Diver was employed by Humble Oil and Refining Company to make a geological survey of the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The sub worked eight days on this survey, making 11 dives. Fifteen geologists were able to take turns observing the geology of the Gulf floor. The Shelf Diver was a four-man sub with diver lock-out capability.

The sub’s captain (Mike Adams), two geologists, and the TV-Video-Photo operator made up the crew for each dive. The deepest dive was to 460 feet and the longest dive was four hours. James Smith made the remaining ten dives.

This geological dive was reported in the Houston Chronicle as achieving the first successful video-recording from a non-military sub. The geological dive was the second, as the inspection of the Molly Brown two months earlier was the first.

One month later Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf of Mexico with enormous destruction. Underwater TV cameras hand-held by divers and video-recordings at surface became a required service in observing and documenting offshore operations.


  • "Investment in Knowledge". Houston Chronicle. July 7, 1969. 
  • Hartdegen, Fred (February 1, 1970). "TV documents subsea inspection". World Oil Magazine. 
  • Hartdegen, Fred (May 1970). The Application of Underwater TV and Video Tape Recording in Supervising and Documenting Offshore Operations (Report). OTC-1176. 
  • Hartdegen, Fred (November 1970). "Gulf well reentry made in 338 feet of water". Offshore Magazine.