Charles C. Counselman III

2008 Charles A. Whitten Medal Winner

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge

Charles C. Counselman III was awarded the 2008 Charles A. Whitten Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held 17 December 2008 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “outstanding achievements in research on the form and dynamics of the Earth and planets.”


Rarely does a scientist create an instrument that has a profound effect on a field of research. Chuck Counselman is such an exception. Between late 1978 and 1980, he was the principal inventor and leading developer of methods and systems for determining baseline vectors on Earth with millimeter accuracy, from radio signals broadcast by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. Soon baselines thus determined with interferometry were 3 orders of magnitude more accurate than GPS designers had believed possible. Today, GPS receivers embodying Chuck’s technologies are portable, inexpensive, and ubiquitous. Look under the hood and you’ll find many of his basic patents inside.

After initial skepticism, geophysicists saw the dramatic potential of Chuck’s techniques and in droves began applying them to study many aspects of the Earth. The list includes episodic and continuous plate tectonics; crustal deformations due to volcanism and glacial rebound; the flows of glaciers and ice sheets; sea level changes; Earth’s viscosity structure; and much, much more.

Chuck’s contributions were by no means restricted to geodesy. His triple-threat abilities—in theory, experiment, and data analysis—led him far and wide. For his Ph.D. thesis, he elegantly demonstrated the effects of Mercury’s changing orbital eccentricity on its spin-orbit resonance, showing that the probability of capture into this resonance would be markedly enhanced were there a liquid layer between Mercury’s core and mantle. Later, Chuck used differential very long baseline interferometry first to study lunar motions and subsequently to track the Pioneer Venus descent probes to determine the global circulation of the middle atmosphere of Venus.

Chuck excelled as a teacher. His crystal-clear lectures inspired many young scientists to pursue careers in Earth and planetary sciences. As a mentor, he instilled, by example, the drive to find more clever, more accurate, and less expensive solutions to scientific problems. Chuck’s ability to get quickly to their essence was awe inspiring, if a trifle intimidating, to his students and colleagues.

So in partial payment for the debt owed, it is most appropriate that we of AGU have chosen Chuck Counselman to receive this year’s Charles A. Whitten Medal.

—IRWIN SHAPIRO and PETER G. FORD, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge


Thank you, Peter, Irwin, Tim, and the AGU Honors Committee. I am most grateful to my collaborators, especially Don Steinbrecher, Sergei Gourevitch (deceased), Jon Ladd, and Rick Abbot, without whom I could have accomplished very little. I’m also grateful to my mentors Walter Wrigley (also deceased), Irwin Shapiro, Gordon Pettengill, and Alan Rogers; and to my father, who set me on a track leading straight to this stage 65 years ago.

When I was born, my father was teaching Army Air Corps crews to use a new antisubmarine weapon called radar. Without radar, the Battle of the Atlantic and ultimately World War II might have been lost to Nazi Germany. Radar technology so impressed my father that he knew what his son should do, including going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the center of its development.

So I was born to determine the positions of things by radio. I was set on this track with a strong wind behind me. All I had to do was stay on the track.

After World War II, through the cold war and the post-Sputnik space-race years, MIT continued on a roll. When I arrived at MIT in 1960, there was no better place to be.

While I was a student there, the Haystack Observatory was breaking new ground in planetary radar astronomy, and the Department of Geology and Geophysics became the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The new department head, Frank Press, hired Irwin, Gordon, and me, among others.

There was no better place to be. The environment was so fertile that by 1978, when I proposed Miniature Interferometer Terminals for Earth Surveying (“MITES”) to determine position vectors with millimeter-level uncertainties from GPS satellite signals, the necessary engineering development work would be easy. The hard work would be political.

The idea of compact portable instruments determining positions so accurately over long distances was almost universally rejected. Prominent engineers and scientists explained why it was impossible, and a U.S. government official denounced it to the International Association of Geodesy and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics as “snake oil.”

Fortunately, Don Steinbrecher and I were able to muster resources privately to build a system that proved the concept. Jim Collins (retired from the National Geodetic Survey) and Jon Ladd (for-merly with Western Geophysical) joined us; and Don Eckhardt and Ted Wirtanen convinced the director of the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory to support construction and deployment of a second-generation system. Buck Mateker initiated and led Litton Industries’ development and deployment of further generations; and John Bossler’s National Geodetic Survey adopted our third-generation systems.

Our methods and systems found their way into all but one of the many geophysical applications I proposed in 1978 (even the monitoring of ice flow), and of course into others I never imagined. I’d nearly forgotten this ancient history and was amazed to hear from Tim Killeen that anyone else remembered it and that I’d been selected as a Charles A. Whitten medalist. Believe me, the elapsed time has greatly compounded my joy. Thank you again, all of you.

—CHARLES C. COUNSELMAN III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge