Westphal, James A.

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(b. Dubuque, Iowa, 13 June 1930;

d. Pasadena, California, 8 September 2004), astronomy, petroleum geology, instrument design and development.

James Westphal had careers in the petroleum industry and science, eventually becoming professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a leader in scientific instrument design and development in geophysics and astronomy. He was the principal investigator of the instrument team that built the Wide Field/ Planetary Camera for the Hubble Space Telescope and later became the director of Palomar Observatory.

Early Years. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, but raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until age twelve, Westphal moved with his parents, Henry Westphal and the former Katharyn Wise, to the Westphal ancestral home in a mountaintop community in central Arkansas affiliated with the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. The community was named Petit Jean and was located near the town of Morrilton, where his paternal grandparents lived. He was an only son and his father had been an accountant who was moved around by his company until retirement in 1940, when he ran a service station in Tulsa and ultimately settled on Petit Jean to take up family ranching. Westphal enjoyed odd jobs around the service station and learned both metal and woodwork from his father and grandfather, who he recalled was a respected local “jack-leg mechanic, or a shade-tree mechanic” (1982a, p. 2).

He attended a local one-room schoolhouse in Petit Jean for a year, but his unrest after his exposure to the larger Tulsa system led his parents to send him to Morrilton, even though it meant a difficult daily commute by bicycle, car, and bus. By the ninth grade, Westphal was sent to live with a recently widowed family friend so he could attend the better junior and high schools in Little Rock. He earned his keep by yard work and taking care of chickens.

Westphal haunted the Carnegie Library in Morrilton and gained local notice after he read all the books available there on aviation. He continued this trait in Little Rock, but after finding Albert G. Ingalls’s Amateur Telescope Making became a devoted astronomy enthusiast. He also joined the science club at Little Rock High School and fell in with a small group that decided to build a telescope for the school. By the time of high school graduation in May 1948, the group had built several reflecting telescopes and mounted the largest in a tower on the campus bandstand, making it available to the school almost every clear night. Although most of the fun was reading license plates in a nightclub parking lot a few miles away, Westphal also became an ardent member of the national amateur Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. He was also an avid science fiction reader and dabbled with friends in model rocketry.

After high school graduation Westphal decided to move back to Tulsa, a town he preferred for its good family memories. He stayed with another family friend and landed a job in a filling station while he looked for something better. His uncle had connections in a local Tulsa firm, the Seismograph Service Corporation (SSC), where Westphal was hired to join a geophysical exploration crew near Spearman, in the Texas Panhandle. He started as a “jug hustler” who placed the geophones and portable seismometers and then became a rodman for the crew surveyor. This experience convinced him to try to go to college, and the money he had saved that year made it possible.

His work experience exposed him to the value of geophysical training, so he entered the University of Tulsa in engineering physics with a geophysics option in the fall of 1949. Westphal worked through school, partly out of necessity, and in the summers did field work for SSC, becoming exposed to electronics when he was given the job of “junior observer,” assisting the leader of the seismic field crews who managed data collection using electronics in the recording truck. The company soon asked him to work throughout the year, assembling electronics at their home plant. As he worked through school, he worked up the company ladder, eventually leading seismic teams in the field all over the Midwest in the summers and acting as an acceptance-testing engineer during the school year. Westphal’s goal at graduation was to become part of the company’s research section, so he continued to hone his skills using ham radio as a medium. He recalled characteristically, “I wasn't so interested in gabbing with somebody with a radio as I was with making the stuff work” (1982a, p. 15).

Upon graduation, however, with a considerable amount of petroleum geology training under his belt, Westphal returned to the field rising to become a “party chief” responsible for planning out, executing, and then analyzing field observations. He was soon “farmed out” by SSC to a subsidiary, Wells Site International Services Inc., to develop expertise in radioactive well logging, using gamma ray and neutron penetration techniques. He quickly rose from party chief to project manager in SSC, leading teams throughout southern Mexico.

Petroleum Industry. In late 1954 Westphal accepted a more lucrative and better growth position with Sinclair Oil Research Laboratories, which also brought him back to the United States. His responsibility and research focus became exploration geology, and his specialty was recognized as instrument development and the problems of performing practical field work. He was delighted to be responsible for finding ways to build better amplifiers and craft more effective and sensitive exploration techniques, and soon drew around him an informal group of experimenters using an IBM 604 to refine techniques in gravity-field sensing.

During this time Westphal remained active in both ham radio and amateur telescope-making groups in Tulsa, finding in both of them a wide range of technical expertise that could cross-fertilize his growing interests. He also became familiar and comfortable working with more theoretically oriented PhD-trained specialists, both in Sinclair and in his club activities, sensing how his background and training could be an invaluable complement to their capabilities. Most of all he flourished in what he perceived as an open-ended laissez-faire research and development atmosphere maintained at Sinclair. Westphal remained at Sinclair from 1955 to 1961, ending up running a team whose task was to search out and test nonconventional techniques for finding oil. Among the myriad avenues of exploration, his team applied techniques in geochemistry, gamma ray spectroscopy, gravity detection, radio surface propagation, and aerial photography through colored filters, and even searched out and examined folk-methods of oil and mineral exploration. The gravity work brought him eventually to Caltech on a leave of absence to refine data reduction methods.

The problem Westphal addressed was how to refine techniques for determining the character of the vertical gravity field in a potential oil field. This was central to finding regions where oil was likely to be. Westphal devised a method of measuring variations in the gravitational field by sending sensors down a well shaft. As the shaft was dug out, the sensor would be sent to rest on the bottom to take measurements. It would then be removed and the shaft deepened to take the next measurement. In so doing, they always had a stable platform from which highly sensitive measurements could be taken. He discussed his ideas with C. Hewitt Dix, professor of geophysics at Caltech and a major name in the field of exploration seismology. He had been able to attract Dix to Sinclair after he organized a team to track large quarry blasts to see if they could detect the Mohorovicic discontinuity (the boundary between Earth’s crust and its mantle) in the earth. They sent their data to Dix, who became very enthusiastic about this clever technique and spent the summer consulting for Sinclair. With Dix at hand, Westphal began thinking about better ways to do seismic data processing using cross-correlation and Fourier analysis. Westphal devised a way, using film-strip data and photomultipliers, to digitize data to make it amenable to processing on an IBM 650. In consequence, Dix invited him to refine his analysis methods and to use Caltech facilities to build what was effectively an analog-to-digital data converter. Westphal took a leave of absence from Sinclair, and arrived in January 1961 to build his device, as well as to audit an applied mechanics course, again inspired and enabled by Dix.

As Westphal worked away at his device, geophysicists and other Caltech staff would stop by and discuss their interests. He became acquainted with Bruce Murray, who was working with Harrison Brown and was interested in thermal infrared techniques for doing lunar surface geology using ground-based telescopes. This interaction became something of a blueprint for a long and fruitful association for Westphal, who stayed at Caltech for the rest of his life, collaborating with a wide array of geophysicists and astronomers. As he recalled “Everybody in this division was starved for instrumentation types” (1982a, p. 72).

Caltech. Indeed, Westphal found himself in a place that keenly recognized his potential value. Although he returned briefly to Sinclair in the summer, he soon accepted employment at Caltech and returned in August 1961, accompanied by his wife and their newborn first child. “We settled in and I dug right in to all the nifty things that were laying around to do, again, mainly working with Bruce Murray by then.” Indelible in his memory were the words of the division chairman who hired him, Robert Sharp, “Anything that you do that decreases the resistance to accomplishing research by anybody at Caltech, and I don't even care if it’s in this division … I will support it entirely. I don't care what area it’s in, who it is, or anything else” (1982a, p. 76).

Westphal worked half-time on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant Murray had secured, and the balance of his time was supported by grants awarded to Dix as well as to a group of marine biologists who found his underwater photography techniques, another hobby, of great value. He performed a wide variety of functions centered on conceiving, designing, building, testing, and operating new tools and techniques for research. He sensed a greater freedom of action at Caltech, and was drawn to the academic environment there, including the astrophysics colloquia.

He worked with Murray to develop thermal-infrared systems for use at a variety of telescopes including the venerable 152-centimeter (60-inch) reflector at Mount Wilson. Although he was generally aware of how these different projects were funded, knowing that there were in effect unlimited resources available, he preferred to work frugally and creatively, employing his knowledge and expertise gathered from his amateur days and scrounging in the field. Westphal contributed to a wide variety of projects and programs ranging from monitoring volcanic activity and glacial ice flows to building special aquaria for sustained and systematic studies of deep-sea life for the paleoecologist Heinz Lowenstam, who used isotope chemistry to understand the environmental conditions under which shellfish thrived or starved. This was of critical interest to Lowenstam’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) sponsors, who hoped to find ways to keep their deep-sea operations free from fouling, or incrustation. Westphal worked for Lowenstam quarter-time for many years, helping devise both a means of capturing deep-sea life, using the bathysphere Trieste to bring samples back to the laboratory, and high-pressure aquaria for extended studies.

But his major contributions came in the field of astronomy, where he became both a source and a conduit for new infrared detector technologies and electronic imaging techniques, performing the latter function partly through contact with classified navy programs at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at Inyokern, and partly developing detector systems in his own laboratory on campus. His first association with NOTS in the early 1960s, working with Murray, was to design a mechanical interface for NOTS detectors that they could use on telescopes. As he recalled, the NOTS people were anxious for a critical evaluation of this technology, and so told Westphal that “We could stick it on a telescope and see what happens, without telling you what is in it, or how it works, or anything about it, because it is still classified” (1982a, p. 76). This kind of relationship continued for some time, but eventually Westphal began experimenting with new designs adapted from television technologies.

Starting in the 1960s, Westphal joined others who were keenly interested in developing electronic imaging devices for astronomical application. Increases in sensitivity were a primary goal, but also the ability to return images by telemetry from space-borne telescopes. He worked first with Murray and then with Gerry Neugebauer, Robert Leighton, and others building a survey instrument for assessing the amount and distribution of infrared sources in the sky. He contributed an amplifier design and assisted Dowell Martz to improve thermal-insulating vacuum bottles called “Dewars” for the instrument. In the early 1970s he teamed up with Thomas McCord and others to adapt a small Bellcom device from an experimental picture phone into what he called an integrating two-dimensional Silicon Vidicon photometer, or “SIVIT.” His goal was to couple the two-dimensional imaging capabilities of conventional photography with the high sensitivity and linearity of photoelectric photo-multipliers, especially for the red region, which was an important spectral range for planetary studies and studies of star-forming regions in external galaxies.

In what would be a signature style, Westphal parlayed expertise from Bell Laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as well as Caltech to develop the SIVIT. He also experimented with another variant of silicon-diode technology, the Silicon Intensified Target or “SIT” detectors, which he found more amenable to use in imaging spectrographs. Westphal and McCord tried these new devices on at the 508-centimeter (200-inch) telescope, achieving sensitivity gains for the SIT thousands of times more than photography. Naturally these new detectors created a great deal of excitement, but by the end of the 1970s it was clear that their magnetic sensitivity gave them limited “flat field” capabilities. As two-dimensional photometers they could not do better than about 1 percent accuracy over the entire field. Never fully wedded to any specific technology, Westphal was quick to appreciate the potential of another newly developed Bell Laboratories product, the charge-coupled device (CCD). By the late 1970s he and his colleagues were testing both SITs and CCDs in various instrumentation at the 508-centimeter (200-inch) telescope.

Westphal saw all sorts of applications for the CCD, none more so than in space astronomy. His entry into space astronomy proved to be the most dramatic of them all. In the 1970s Westphal had been approached on a number of occasions to participate in developing instrumentation for airborne and space-borne craft, but declined, preferring to remain working at a personal level, seeking out expertise wherever he found it. But after Gerry Wasserburg pushed to make him a member of a subcommittee of the National Research Council (NRC) Space Science Board in the mid-1970s, and he agreed because, as he recalled, it would put him in contact with real heroes such as James A. Van Allen, Westphal was drawn into space astronomy. His membership on the committee provided early access to knowledge of the CCD, ironically after he read through a JPL proposal for a new orbiter and probe to Jupiter, what became Galileo. Westphal tracked down the JPL staff who had made the proposal, to learn about the CCD, and soon realized it offered an enormous new potential for astronomical imaging. He and Jim Gunn at Caltech teamed up to adapt it to use at the 508-centimeter (200-inch) telescope, and with Maarten Schmidt put the CCD through trials on ultrafaint extended sources.

Instruments for the Hubble. Sometime in the summer of 1976, Gunn convinced Westphal to join in a proposal to NASA to build what came to be known as the wide field/planetary camera (WF/PC) for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Westphal recalls that he resisted for some time, because it meant working at a level that was not his style. He wanted always to be “very personally involved in the design, the construction, the checkout and the use of the hardware. When I’m building hardware, I am often in the machine shop, and I very often do the electronics, the wiring. It depends on the timing and who’s around to help and so forth; but I am very intimately involved in it at every level” (1982a, p. 147). He knew this would not be possible for any prime instrument that was to fly on HST. And indeed, it was not.

In the course of developing WF/PC, Westphal, Gunn, and Schmidt built a device for the 508-centimeter (200-inch) telescope; dubbed the “4-shooter,” the device demonstrated how one could take four small CCDs and combine their fields electronically into one wide field. Thus they overcame what was the one lingering concern about the new technology’s limitations, and with it proposed successfully for the HST instrument itself. When HST was launched in 1990, even though WF/PC was fully successful, its productivity and impact were severely compromised by the famous flaw in the HST primary mirror. A slightly redesigned WF/PC II, still closely based on the original but corrected for the flaws in the mirror, replaced the original in 1993, and began producing the images that made HST a popular revolution in astronomical imaging capability. Westphal also played a major role in many aspects of the development of the HST and was influential far beyond the construction of the WF/PC.

Westphal reluctantly agreed to assume the directorship of Palomar in 1994, at a difficult time in the observatory’s history, when its domain and operation were in a state of turbulent flux. Abruptly replacing his friend Neugebauer, Westphal was faced with a daunting task that included the management of the new multi-institutional Keck Observatory, a task he was grateful to share with Joseph Miller, the capable and unflappable Lick Observatory director. In the end, Westphal’s infectious enthusiasm, creativity, mechanical insights, and drive endeared him to an ever-widening circle of Caltech faculty and staff, and to the extent he was able to apply these virtues to his three-year directorship of Palomar, he managed to survive and, in terms of Keck instrumentation, to flourish. He agreed to undertake the challenge on the basis it would be a three-year tenure, and that he could write his own job description. When he stepped down in 1997 he retired a few months later, fully intending to keep working. One of his last projects was to devise a detector system that could penetrate the depths of the Old Faithful vent in Yellowstone National Park, yet another project that lingering revenue from an earlier MacArthur Fellowship had made possible.

Many awards and honors came to Westphal. Beyond the usual NASA encomia, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics recognized him for introducing the CCD into space astronomy. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His first marriage to Jean Wimbish ended in divorce. They had one son, Andrew Westphal. In October 1967 Westphal was remarried to Barbara Jean Webster, a programmer at Caltech working in chemistry. He thereby gained two step-daughters, Robin and Susan Stroll. He died at home after suffering a long illness and complications from a neurological disorder.


This essay draws extensively from two oral histories taken in 1982 and 2002, cited below, as well as from a third series conducted at Caltech by Shirley Cohen in 1998, and from the cited published works.


With Gerry Neugebauer. “Infrared Observations of Eta Carinae.” Astrophysical Journal 152 (1968): L89.

With Allan Sandage and Jerome Kristian. “Rapid Changes in the Optical Intensity and Radial Velocities of the X-Ray Source SCO X-1.” Astrophysical Journal 154 (1968): 139–156.

With Jerome Kristian, Natarajan Visvanathan, and Grant H Snellen. “Optical Polarization and Intensity of the Pulsar in the Crab Nebula.” Astrophysical Journal 162 (1970): 475.

With Thomas B. McCord. “Mars: Narrow-Band Photometry, from 0.3 to 2.5 Microns, of Surface Regions during the 1969 Apparition.” Astrophysical Journal 168 (1971): 141.

“Application of Silicon Image Tubes (SIVIT and SIT) to Ground-Based Astronomy.” NASA SP-338 (1973): 93–106.

With Jerome Kristian and Allan Sandage. “Absorption-Line Redshifts of Galaxies in Remote Clusters Obtained with a Sky-Subtraction Spectrograph Using an SIT Television Detector.” Astrophysical Journal, pt. 2, 197 (1 May 1975): L95–L98.

With Allan Sandage and Jerome Kristian. “The Extension of the Hubble Diagram. I. New Redshifts and BVR Photometry of Remote Cluster Galaxies, and an Improved Richness Correction.” Astrophysical Journal 205 (1976): 688–695.

With Peter J. Young, Jerome Kristian, et al. “Evidence for a Supermassive Object in the Nucleus of the Galaxy M87 from SIT and CCD Area Photometry.” Astrophysical Journal, pt. 1, 221 (1 May 1978): 721–730.

With Peter J. Young, James E. Gunn, et al. “The Double Quasar Q0957 + 561 A, B - A Gravitational Lens Image Formed by a Galaxy at Z = 0.39.” Astrophysical Journal, pt. 1, 241 (15 October 1980): 507–520.

With James E. Gunn. “Care, Feeding, and Use of Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) Imagers at Palomar Observatory,” Solid State Imagers for Astronomy SPIE 290 (1981): 16.

With William A. Baum, Tobias Kreidl, et al. “Saturn’s E Ring.” Icarus 47 (July 1981): 84–96.

Interview with James A. Westphal. Space Astronomy Oral History Project, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1982a.

“The Wide Field/Planetary Camera.” Space Telescope Observatory, Space Telescope Science Institute (1982b): 28–39.

With William A. Baum, Tod R. Lauer, et al. “Hubble Space Telescope Wide-Field/Planetary Camera Images of Saturn.” Astrophysical Journal, pt. 2-Letters, 369 (10 March 1991): L51–L53.

With James E. Gunn. “Care, Feeding, and Use of Charge-Coupled Device Imagers at Palomar Observatory (in Solid State Imagers for Astronomy 1981).” In Selected Papers on Instrumentation in Astronomy, edited by William Livingston and Brian J. Thompson, 506. SPIE Milestone Series MS 87. Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press, 1993.

With John T. Trauger, Gilda E. Ballester, et al. “The On-Orbit Performance of WFPC2.” Astrophysical Journal, pt. 2-Letters, 435, no. 1 (1994): L3–L6.

With Roderick A. Hutchinson and Susan W. Kieffer. “In Situ Observations of Old Faithful Geyser.” Geology 25, no. 10 (1997): 875–878.

Interview with James A. Westphal. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives, Pasadena, California, 2002.

With Eric E. Bloemhof. “Design Considerations for a Novel Phase-Contrast Adaptive-Optic Wavefront Sensor.” In Adaptive Optics Systems and Technology II, edited by Robert K. Tyson, Domenico Bonaccini, and Michael C. Roggemann. SPIE Proceedings 4494 (2002): 363–370.


California Institute of Technology Press Office. “Maverick Scientist and Instrument Builder James Westphal Dies.” Press release of Wednesday, 15 September 2004. Available from http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=15042.

Danielson, G. Edward. “James Adolph Westphal, 1930–2004.” Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society 36, no. 5 (2004): 1687–1688.

Preston, Richard. First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Smith, Robert W., with contributions by Paul A. Hanle, Robert H. Kargon, and Joseph N. Tatarewicz. The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, Science, Technology, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

David DeVorkin

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