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Mr. Merrill is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and is a published author of several books
on the history of undersea technology. He is a retired engineer with lengthy experience at the New London Lab of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He currently lives in Waterford, CT.


Nicholas Christofilos was born in 1916 near Fenway Park in Boston. When he was seven, his parents returned to Athens, Greece, where his father, who had been proprietor of the Wellington Cafe in Boston, resumed ownership of a coffee house. Christofilos retained his American citizenship and returned to the United States in 1953, engaging in scientific pursuits until his untimely death in 1972.’ In his nineteen years of participation in the United States at the cutting edge of science, he made a difference. Held in high regard, he was an international figure in the scientific world. Two of his most imaginative defense projects known to the public are Project Argus and Project Sanguine. Project Argus in 1958, cited as the world’s largest scientific experiment:i. was proposed in 1957 by Christofilos while working at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory of the University of California.2 This successful geophysical experiment was conducted by the Navy under the supervision of the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission in August and September of the following year. The global scale endeavor involved civilian scientists from government, academia, and industry and participation from other branches of the United States Armed
Forces. In the summer of 1958, Christofilos attended a briefing by the Polaris Special Projects Office and became aware of broad, difficult, and unresolved Navy requirements to communicate from the continental United States to a deeply submerged POLARIS submarine. He proposed using electromagnetic waves in the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) range of I 0-100 Hz. The proposal provided the impetus for the initial research phase of the communication system development known as Sanguine, which later evolved into a Navy operational system in 1989. The system fulfilled certain needs of United States strategic and tactical submarines, primarily to send secure communications to a submarine at operating depth anywhere in the world.

Christofilos, considered the father of ELF communications, remained a strong advocate and partisan during the long system development until his premature death in 1972. Widely remembered by his Navy and industry associates on the ELF team, a modest memorial was established in his name with Sigma Xi. All of his scientific endeavors were large scale, on the cutting edge of science, and significant. Further, in general his work was classified. Today, some still remain so.

The January 1973 issue of Phvsics Todav noted, “Christofilos was intensely proud of his American birth and citizenship. He understood well the military needs of the Nation and conscientiously devoted a significant fraction of his life to improving the US strategic posture.” It seems that from the time Christofilos returned to the United States, his center of attention was science, frequently with a direct or nuanced military attribute. At the time of his passing, the New York Times identified him as “foremost nuclear physicist.” His participation in addressing solutions to military needs during the Cold War era warrants attention to his efforts.

About Christofilos

Current media provided a variety of ways to cite his talents. “One of the most original thinkers in physics of his generation” “An unconventional Greek Scientist named Nicholas Christofilos” “The right kind of nuclear detonation would threaten hundreds of satellites. That is because of something called the “Christofilos Effect.”

“Nicholas Christofilos suggested that a portion of the earth’s interior could be used as a launching pad to propagate ELF signals.” “Nicholas C. Christofilos is the lone-wolf genius behind Project Argus, a global experiment that has been called ‘the most grandiose single scientific venture in history”‘ “A Plasma Physics Pioneer”


A boy of 7 when he went to Athens, in those years Christofilos witnessed the post-World War I scene and in 1936 the establishment of a dictatorship followed by German occupation troops ( 1941-1945), and civil war ( 1946-1949). As a young person, in addition to an interest in building radio equipment, he displayed considerable talent as a promising musician. It is notable that when the German occupation of Greece ended in 1945, Christofilos composed the music for the celebration marking the end. Graduating in I 938 from the National Technical University in Athens with advanced degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, he worked for Wisk, Inc., an Athens company installing and maintaining elevators in apartments and office buildings. In I 941, the Germany army of occupation directed the company to repair trucks for the military. Christofilos was assigned as supervisor of a truck repair terminal. At the end of World War II, he established his own elevator installation business.3

Throughout the German occupation, demands on Christofilos’s time were decreased. At that point, he had no formal physics credentials. During this time and essentially alone, he began his private and continuing study of atomic physics. German textbooks were available in Greek bookstores, and his readings covered nuclear reactions, isotopes, and high voltages. The work of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where nuclear fission had been discovered in 1938, particularly interested him. This direction pointed to particle acceleration to relativistic speeds using his novel concept of the strong-focusing principle of magnetic co11tai11me11t for particle accelerators. In 1946, and with more detail in 1947, he applied for Greek and American patents for a particle accelerator of his own
On several occasions, during the later 1940s, Christofilos sent letters of his designs to the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley. The scientists here decided that the mathematics was not clear and the patent proposals were filed and half forgotten.

Christofilos continued to work on his design of accelerators to speed nuclear particles to significantly high energy levels. Then current accelerator technology used very large magnets. To achieve efficiency in the accelerator construction and to achieve very high energy levels, he developed the concept of strong focusing, reducing the need for large magnets and providing higher energy levels to the particles. A further patent application on March 10, 1950, proposed a particle accelerator with strong focusing providing energy a magnitude higher than that obtained with much larger and more expensive weak focusing magnets. The United States strong focusing patent 2,736,799 was awarded to Christofilos February 28, 1956.’

In the December 1952 Physical Review, several members of the Brookhaven National Laboratory proposed a strong-focusing accelerator. The scientists were unaware of the earlier work by Christofilos in developing a similar strong-focusing technique. Later, these scientists publicly acknowledged Christofilos in the July 1953 issue of the Phvsical Review. “Since Christophilos’s manuscript is known to have been prepared in early 1950, it is obvious that his proposal antedates ours by over two years. We are, therefore, happy to acknowledge his priority.”

In “A Tribute to Nicholas C. Christofilos,” T. K. Fowler of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory noted, “His early contribution to this mainstay of the accelerator art of today was all the more remarkable in that he conceived and worked out these ideas while in almost complete isolation from any modern, active, scientific community. “6

During the following years, strong focusing was successfully used in accelerators at Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Daresbury, Hamburg and Yerevan; and in proton accelerators at Brookhaven, CERN, Serpukhov and the National Accelerator Laboratory. As mentioned above, Christofilos in 1946 also independently invented an accelera-tor similar to the synchrotron. In 1963, the Franklin Institute awarded Christofilos for the synchrotron,8 contributions to highenergy beams, and other achievements. Recognition and wide application of his inventiveness came after his return to the United States.

As the 1940s closed, Christofilos was unknown in the United States. His credit as an elevator engineer eclipsed his unlettered abilities as an atomic physicist. He continued to write letters suggesting ways to build an improved accelerator. The scientists at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory still found Christofilos’s mathematics crude and in replying pointed out his errors.

Later in 1952, upon reexamination of his latest letter there was agreement by the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory scientists that the Christofilos design was a major contribution to high-energy physics. Further, there was also favorable interest in Christofilos at the Brookhaven, Long Island, New York, National Laboratory, then involved with the design and construction of an accelerator 1953.

In February 1953, Christofilos returned to the United States to meet with members of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and to press for consideration of his accelerator design. After meetings with AEC patent officers, in return for a $10,000 payment, a license and agreement were granted for use by the United States government and its contractors of the Christofilos “strong focusing” principle.8

The Brookhaven Laboratory was so impressed that he was immediately hired to work on the $29 million accelerator, based on his design, and under construction there.9 The Brookhaven Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, a proton accelerator, was the first application ofChristofilos’s strong focusing. Overall, the principles of the strong focusing techniques brought government savings of$70 million.


During December 1951, in addition to the government weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, a second weapons laboratory known as University of California Radiation Laboratory, Livermore (UCRL), was started. Research and development at the new laboratory were directed to the investigation of thermonuclear techniques for weapons and other purposes. By 1956, the laboratory was heavily involved in thennonuclear research. The Anny and Navy patronized Los Alamos for their weapons while the Air Force was oriented toward Livermore.

While at Brookhaven in the mid-1950s, Christofilos’s thinking returned to the concept of controlled fusion, at the time highly classified. His interest in fusion had begun eight years before when he was still in Greece. His idea considered one of the biggest problems in applied physics: how to use magnetic fields to contain high-energy plasmas and produce a controlled thennonuclear reaction. The purpose was to provide unlimited electric power from
controlled thennonuclear reactions. He filed for a patent for a device to achieve this by magnetic trapping of plasma to release fusion energy.10

Christofilos obtained a position at the Livennore Laboratory, directing the program to produce a controlled thermonuclear reaction called Astron, supported by the AEC and the Department of Defense. Astron-related research began at UCRL in 1956.

“In November 1964, Christofilos and two colleagues reported to the American Physical Society that they had observed trapping of the electrons in the Astron. The effect lasted for a thousandth of a second at a temperature of nearly 200,000,000 degrees.” It has been noted that the Defense Department’s interest “was no doubt related to its long-term concern with the practicality of using intense particle beams for military purposes. In fact, the electron accelerator designed by Christofilos has played a major role in the free-electron laser program at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, an important component of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative.” 12 In the following years, in addition to the Astron involvement, he continued to make important contributions to the accelerator field in the development of proton linear accelerations and collective accelerators.


Artificial Radiation Belts

Shortly after the October 5, 1957 successful Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik, Christofilos looked into creating an artificial radiation belt in the upper region of the earth’s atmosphere with a nuclear detonation at a high altitude, about 300 miles from the surface of the earth. The earth’s magnetic field would be used to trap
electrons released by the atomic detonations. These considerations were concurrent with the ongoing International Geophysical Year (IGY), July 1 1957 to December 31, 1958.

In January 1958, UCRL published Christofilos’s proposal, classified because of its military applications, to use the earth’s magnetic field to trap electrons injected at the proper altitude from detonated small atomic bombs. The very extensive experiment that followed to validate Christophilos’s prediction of results took place in late August and September of 1958 and was called Project Argus.

Christofilos postulated that electrons from the atomic bombs trapped in the magnetic field would provide an artificial radiation belt. Understanding would be gained regarding the impact of the trapped particles in various areas of scientific interest including radio communications, space flight, and knowledge regarding the magnetic and radiation environment in the near-earth space. Christofilos’s prediction about particle entrapment, proven by Project Argus, is now referred to as the Christofi/os Effect.

The military importance of Christofilos’s classified paper caught the attention of the Chairman of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). Under the aegis of PSAC, a February 1958 scientific working group convened for several weeks at the University of California Radiation Laboratory to assess the theory and its potential military applications.

Later, a presentation regarding whether the Project Argus trapping experiment should be undertaken was made to President Eisenhower’s PSAC. Support for the Project was encouraged by Van Allen’s recent discovery of the radiation belt of the earth. Christofilos vigorously discussed his theories about the “Christofilos Effect” to the Committee. On May 1, 1958 the PSAC recommendation to undertake Argus was made to the President who concurred.

Within four months Project Argus experiments took place involving the space encircling the entire earth. The operational and technological management of the project was the responsibility of the then new DOD Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARP A). As mentioned above, the Navy directed the experiment with participation by other branches of the Armed Forces. The goal of Argus was to examine the physics of the results from the three high-altitude nuclear bursts called Argus I, II, and III. The satellite Explorer IV was launched successfully on July 26, 1958. Operating as planned, it provided the principal body of observations of the artificial radiation belts. Analysis of Explorer IV data on the natural radiation belt as well as on the artificial radiation belts from the Argus bursts propelled the entire subject to a new level of understanding and broad scientific interest.

Prior to the Argus tests that took place in late August and September, in March 1958 (as part of the IGY) earth-circling Satellite Explorer I, recently launched, monitored the detonations of atomic weapons in space over Johnston Island in the Pacific. Examination of the data from the Geiger counter on the satellite led to the discovery of the radiation belt of the earth, a massive region of space populated by energetic charged particles (principally electrons and protons), trapped within the external geomagnetic field.” The radiation belt was named The Van Allen Belt to honor one of the Argus Project’s participating and contributing physicists, James A. Van Allen. Later in a 1960 lecture at Ohio State University, Van Allen referring to Argus said it was “one of the greatest experiments in pure science ever conducted.”

Navy Project Argus Task Force

TARAWA nircraft carrier COURTNEY destroyer escort
NORTON SOUND missile testing ship HAMMERBERG destroyer escort
ALBEMARLE seaplane tender NESHO oiler
BEARSS destroyer SALAMON IC oiler
WARRINGTON destroyer


“Task Force 88,” a fleet of nine US Navy vessels including USS NORTON SOUND, Navy’s floating missile launch pad, provided the support for warhead shots. The three tests made from this experimental guided missile ship were on August 27 and 30 and September 6 from a location in the South Atlantic east of Patagonia and south of the Falkland Islands about 1100 miles southwest of Cape Town, South Africa. The 1.7-kiloton atomic warheads were detonated at altitudes of 100, 182 and 466 miles.14

A modified version of the POLARIS re-entry test vehicle (RTV30) carried the bombs from the deck of USS NORTON SOUND. The launch vehicle was a set of solid-fueled rockets used to try out components for the missile that the Navy was developing for launching from submerged submarines. The entire assembly was about fifty-seven feet tall. All three shots were successfully launched from a pitching ship in an open ocean. 15

The atomic explosions sent electrons racing back and forth along the magnetic meridians extending about 4000 miles into space. Electrons created man-made aurora when they hit the atmosphere. Traveling with the speed of light, the band of electrons enveloped the earth in an hour and provided a man-made shell of radiation in August and September I 958.

Satellite Explorer IV. equipped with Geiger counters and successfully launched on 26 July I 958, provided the principal body of observations of the artificial radiation belts and natural radiation belt. Additionally, rockets sent up from the United States and other locations provided data. Worldwide conditions created by the detonations were monitored around the world in conjunction with the Geophysical Year activities.

Monitoring took various forms. For example, the Army’s Signal Research and Development Laboratory installed two huge loops designed to observe magnetic waves on frequencies as low as one cycle per second. A loop in a remote location south of the Grand Canyon enclosed twenty-six square miles. Two similar loops with
effective areas of twelve and twenty-three square miles were place in operation in Burlington County, New Jersey and recorded the pulses from the explosions until the completion of the Argus experiment. The results of the tests supported Christofilos’ predictions. The project was accomplished under careful secrecy and it was not until March 1959 that the media, including Business Week, Life. Newsweek, and Time weekly magazines;’ and importantly the New
York Times, provided news of the Argus experiment in sufficient detail for the public to grasp the scale and some aspects of the importance of the effort. The Christofilos Effect was proven and established.

A later assessment of Argus concluded that the purpose appeared to be to assess the impact of high altitude nuclear explosions on radio transmission and radar operations because of the electromagnet pulse (EMP) and an understanding of the geomagnetic field and the behavior of the charge particles in it.


The Problem

The Navy needed a communication system to transmit command and control messages to new Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) strategic submarines operating in a stealth mode globally. Initial research started in 1958; for the next four years the Navy sponsored a wide range of exploratory technical efforts towards a solution for the strategic submarine communication need.

At this stage in the Cold War and until the 1970s, the concept for this communication system included the additional requirement for ability to withstand a nuclear attack at the transmission site. It was intended that the system be able to send Emergency Action Messages (EAM) after absorbing a substantial nuclear attack. The impact of nuclear bursts over the transmission path also received attention. These needs, plus global coverage, a continental United States transmitter location and the other unique requirements presented a daunting task. For more than ten years, additional challenges to the researchers arose from the secret classification of all aspects of the work.

A brief review of the requirements brings out the extent of the challenge. The technology available then compared to current capability appears primitive. This is especially true regarding computer technology. Cold war expediency and secrecy were further obstacles. A radio communication system to match the remarkable stealth capability needs of the new strategic Polaris submarine was not at hand.

FBM Submarine Communication Requirements (circa 1957)

Error-free one-way communication
Hard copy in a specified time
Transmitter in Continental U.S (CONUS)
No severe reduction in speed, maneuverability, or
depth of the submarine
Coverage of the submarine’s operating areas
Resistance to jamming
Transmitter to withstand nuclear attack

Christofilos Recommends

In the summer of 1958 at the time of the Argus experiment, Christofilos, a member of the Polaris Command Communications Committee (PCCC) attended a briefing by the Polaris Special Projects Office. There, he became aware of Navy’s requirement to communicate from CONUS to a deeply submerged submarine. In August, he proposed a communication system to use electromagnetic waves in the range 10-100 Hz. Christofilos’s early classical music
training in Greece provided the metaphoric title for his proposal called Clarinet Bassoon (a low note). In this first approach, the idea was to resonate the earth-ionosphere cavity at its natural modes. The Navy gave immediate
attention to the Bassoon concept. The Navy pursued ELF (3-300 Hz) for the submarine communication system. Christofilos, considered the father of ELF communications, remained a strong advocate and partisan during the long system development until his premature death in 1972. His membership in the PCCC brought Christofilos into contact with senior personnel from a variety of academic, industrial, Navy, and government organizations. The Committee met
on a frequent basis and was apprised of the status of the evolving ELF system.
The Navy immediately took an intense interest in ELF transmission because of the following characteristics of such a system:

  • Low signal attenuation in sea water
  • Low signal propagation attenuation
  • Comparative! y low sens ti vity at ELF to atmospheric disturbances
    caused by nuclear blasts in the signal path
  • Better survivability against nuclear attack (ELF transmitters and
    antenna arrays lend themselves to dispersion and hardening)

Early ELF R&D/h4>
Similar to all of Christofilos’s interests ELF was also global in concept and on a scale of unusual magnitude. For example the first experimental transmitting antenna that was constructed in 1962 to perform ELF signal propagation measurements on land and on submarines was 110 miles long and reached from North Carolina into Virginia. Using ELF for global communications was unique. This brought with it the need to understand electromagnetic noise on a worldwide basis. Selecting a suitable location for a United States based transmitter required knowledge of the earth conductivity in many of the states. The challenges to creating and building a system were innumerable.

ELF Test 1963

In early 1963, January to April, the Navy conducted an extensive communication demonstration between a shore-based ELF (30-300 Hz) transmitter located in North Carolina and the nuclear submarine USS SEA WOLF (SSN-575) operating in the North Atlantic at a range of 2400 miles with its receiving antenna near keel depth. Signals were received at a range of 535 miles with the antenna at greater depths. During these weeks of communication tests, in addition to the submarine, fixed land, and mobile van measurements of signal propagation were made. Atmospheric noise measurements were made in the United States, South America, and on Malta. By June 1963, data from the submarine and land-based propagation and atmospheric noise measurements were analyzed. As a result, ELF became a candidate for a system to communicate to the Polaris submarines operating deep in global locations. Many important and
detailed questions remained to be resolved by theoretical, laboratory and field efforts.

ELF System Completed

After decades of advances in the technology applicable to the transmitting and receiving needs of an ELF system, solutions were found for a wide range of problems (technical, non-technical, fiscal, political, and environment-related) and the system was completed. Transmitters and antennas were constructed in Wisconsin and Michigan, submarines were equipped, operational use established and personnel trained. This initiative by President Reagan early in his first administration provided the driving force that culminated in the operational transfer of ELF in October 1989 to Operation Commander, Naval Telecommunications Command, from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. When the strategic and attack submarine communication system became operational, it provided reception by the submarine at depth and speed. The ultimate ELF system was different from the early concepts. As previously mentioned, the system and its performance were considerably enhanced by the advent of the steadily improving
computer capability as well as the creativity of the various laboratories involved. Except for the choice of operating frequencies, the Navy’s operating ELF system was far removed from the early 1960s
concept. Initially the system was designed for the FBM submarine. By the mid-1970s, based on data and experience from many tests aboard the strategic and attack submarines, a tactical and strategic operational concept matured.

Christofilos innovated; but the work to create a system to meet the basic requirements was a significant challenge and involved a great number of industrial, government, and academic organizations over a period of many years. ELF coming on line operationally took place almost thirty years after Nicholas Christofilos ‘s suggestion that ELF should be considered as a candidate for radio communication to submarines at depth and speed. The system as built was not one that Christofilos envisioned but it did operate at ELF as he originally suggested.


At the end of September 2004, after fifteen years of communication with strategic and tactical submarines, the ELF system was closed down and dismantled.


Particle accelerators, Astron, Project Argus and the Navy’s ELF program are not disparate. All have their roots in magnetic and electric fields. Further, each originated by Christofilos. Each also required unbridled thought and were on a scale that is always large and in some instances global. Perhaps the word unique would be appropriate for each of the three concepts. Certainly, Nicholas Christofilos was himself unique. As a citizen, Christofilos returned to the United States in 1953. For the following nineteen years, his contributions to science and the nation’s strategic posture were significant. His efforts bracketed most of the Cold War era.

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