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spacer spacer spacer spacer December 11, 2003

Professor uses imaging technology to explore shipwrecks

“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.”

William Springer, RIT imaging systems engineer, describes a series of images produced during exploration of the Great Lakes’ shipwrecks.

The haunting lyrics from The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald are a tribute to 29 men that died in the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwreck. Canadian folk artist Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the vessel and its crew in song one year after their demise in 1975. Three decades later, an RIT staff member is playing a critical role in shedding new light on the fate of the Edmond Fitzgerald and various other shipwrecks.

William Springer, an imaging systems engineer in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, is also a member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. The organization is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the region’s maritime history. As his contribution to the society, Springer has spent the past few summers with a team of experts documenting wreck sites located at the bottom of Whitefish Bay, offshore from Michigan’s upper peninsula.

The group uses newly developed digital sonar equipment to produce single, large-scale images of these sites. Last year’s exploration of the Edmond Fitzgerald gave Springer his first look at the technology’s capabilities.

“I was in awe,” he recalls. “It managed to cut through 535 feet of water to come up with images that looked like TV quality—highlighting details of the wreckage that others didn’t know existed even after 20 years of research.”

Springer’s work with the Shipwreck Society is an outgrowth of his duties in SPAS’ Imaging Systems Management Laboratory. He says the goal is always to present information in a way that people can understand. In the case of the Lake Superior shipwrecks, Springer transforms the data from the sonar into composite images of the underwater landscape.

Exploration of the Samuel Mather shipwreck proved particularly successful. A 19th century wooden propeller steamer, the Mather became the first shipwreck located by the society in 1978. Springer and his team returned to the site last summer and found that the cold deepwater conditions had been optimal for preservation.

“The wreck was remarkably intact,” states Springer. “Our job was to document its current condition so that the state of Michigan would be in a position to manage the site—and others like it—in the future.”

A view of the Samuel Mather shows that the 19th century vessel remains largely intact.

The Shipwreck Society owns and operates a world-class maritime museum complex that features dramatic displays on area shipwrecks. Experts there estimate that more than 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred in the Great Lakes over the years. Tom Farnquist, executive directory of the Shipwreck Society, believes that Springer’s expertise and RIT’s resources are invaluable to the society’s mission to document and interpret underwater cultural resources.

“The technology and the focus that RIT brings to imaging science provides us the capability to do mosaic work with these images,” he says. “In some cases, we’re able to recreate the wrecking process to see why the ships went down in the first place.”

Farnquist expects that success will lead to grants that support further exploration. Springer and his team already plan to return to the water next summer.

Visit www.shipwreckmuseum.com.


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