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Robert Boyle

Robert William Boyle was born October 2, 1883 in Carbonear, Newfoundland to parents Sophie B. (Madelock) and Albert D. Boyle.

Before engaging in post-graduate studies with Sir J.J. Thompson at Cambridge and with Lord Rutherford at the University of Manchester, Boyle attended McGill University, graduating with a BSc (1905), an MA (1906), and a PhD (1909). A brilliant scholar, Boyle received the Scott Prize, a General Electric Scholarship, a British Association Prize and Medal, and in 1909, the 1851 Exhibition Scholarship.

Over the course of seven years with McGill University, Boyle served as demonstrator of physics (1905-07), lecturer of mathematics (1907-09), lecturer of physics and mathematics (1911-12), and assistant professor of physics and mathematics (1912).

He was approached by University of Alberta president Henry Marshall Tory to head up the U of A Physics Department starting in 1912, a position he held until 1929. Boyle also held the position of Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science (now the Faculty of Engineering) from 1919-21. He also served as a member of the Senate (1920-29).

His most notable achievement, however, stems from his work in the development of sonar (sound navigation and ranging) technology. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Germany attacked Allied shipping with submarines, with devastating results. In 1916, Boyle was called to apply his research in acoustics to the problem of creating a practical means of detecting submarines underwater. In late 1917, while working with the British Royal Navy's Board of Invention and Research, Boyle and a small team of British researchers studied the earlier work of French physicist Paul Langevin in acoustic underwater detection, and produced an ultrasonic quartz transducer that could be fitted to the hull of a warship, the first practical use of sonar in warfare. The following year, the transducers were ordered into production, though they did not see much use in the war. Sonar has since become an important method of underwater detection in both military and civilian use.

Boyle received little credit for his work at the time. He did not patent the transducer he and the British research team developed, published no research papers due to the covert nature of the project, and did not continue his work in sonar with the Royal Navy at war's end, preferring to return to his post at the University of Alberta.

Boyle’s professional affiliations include work as a researcher with the Admiralty Board of Inventions and Research, Anti-Submarine Division (1916-19); a Fellowship in the Physical Society; and Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada for which he served as president from 1924-25 and from which he received the Flavelle Medal in 1940. Boyle also served as president of the Association of Professional Engineers of Alberta and chairman of the Association’s Board of Examiners, member of the Engineering Institute of Canada and of the Acoustical Society, and board member and chairman (1935-38) of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.

Boyle passed away in April, 1955 in London, England.

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