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Meet the maker of a deep-sea vehicle

Ray Meinhardt

Picture young Raymond Meinhardt inundated by 6 1/2 sections of waving grain fields near Gwinner, N.D. While Ray appreciates his father's efforts to help feed a hungry world, it is not for him. Ray's dreams take wing, go aloft each time a plane flies over. He see's himself in the pilot's seat of one of those behemoths that fly over their farm.

In college, when eye tests did not measure up, Ray knew he needed to get a degree in something else. He had a young family. The Meinhardts were musical, with his father playing the violin and he and his mother the piano. The choice would be either a career in music or engineering. Engineering won by a nose so four years later Ray had a mechanical engineering diploma in his pocket.

Ray's first job took him to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he designed big antennas. Next came work in Texas, then it was to General Mills in Minneapolis, which seemed to be headed in the direction he wanted to go.

Those in command at General Mills were visionaries, looked to the future. For instance, they asked themselves if there was something that could be done to rescue men trapped in one of those iron coffins on the ocean floor?

The concept of a submersible had been kicked around, but nothing concrete. When Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute was requested to work on the project, with their full compliment of scientists and designers, definite things began to happen at General Mills where plans took root.

The plan called for a submersible that could go down 6,000 feet, and carry a pilot and two scientists. There were to be four plastic portholes, one in front for the pilot, two on the sides for observers and another looking straight down on the sea floor. Lights were needed and a sonar would aid navigation in murky water.

Maneuverability was to be provided by one large propeller in back and two smaller side propellers. A mechanical arm would allow samples to be placed in a basket attached to the front of the sub. Tanks of oxygen and canisters of Lithium hydroxide to absorb carbon dioxide provided two-days-worth of livable atmosphere within the 6 foot sphere. Most dives would last 6 to 12 hours.

Knowing all that is needed is a world apart from having it there; a far cry as yet, from what is required of a container. Without proper strength and buoyancy all is for naught. Nothing to date could fill the bill.

They were stymied, but at one of the "think" sessions Aeronautical Engineer Harold Froehlich pointed at Ray, saying "Go to work on it!"

Following hours of intense study, experimentation, and planning Ray came up with a structure still used today. A piece taken from a company paper reads: Ray Meinhardt did an excellent three-dimensional design job of providing the required strength to hoist 15 tons in the air, avoid interference with essential components, and provide an attachment foundation where needed.

One of Alvin's first successes saved an unsuspecting public the time a hydrogen bomb, with three times the power of the one dropped on Hiroshima, somehow fell off an American B52 bomber over the sea near Spain. Russia was most intent on finding it. However, it was the Alvin who made it possible for a world to sleep without knowing it had been in danger.

It was the French who, after many monotonous hours spent scouring the ocean floor for the Titanic, finally backed off so Alvin and the crew could take over. Early in the search the Alvin nearly ran into the high iron wall that was part of the Titanic, 2 1/2 miles down.

The Alvin is especially adept at searching out sea mounts. Sea mounts are undersea mountains, of volcanic origin, rising from the sea floor. Hawaii and Bermuda began life as sea mounts. Some 30,000 mounts have been discovered, with Alvin regularly discovering new ones.

Life has not been all accolades for the Alvin. There was the time her cables broke while she was being unloaded for a dive, dumping her unceremoniously into 5,000 feet of ocean. She stayed on the bottom for 11 months before she could be brought up, restored, and put back to work.

There was the time in 1967 when the Alvin was attacked by a Swordfish during a dive 2,000 feet below the surface. The fish became trapped in Alvin's skin, forcing her to make an emergency surface. Rumor has it the fish was recovered and cooked for dinner.

As interesting as playing a significant part in the development of the Alvin has been, taking Ray to Japan as well as other places, there is more to the Meinhardt family's world. Marrying young and having three children did not keep Ray and Cora from getting educations.

Cora has been kept busy following and rooting for the achievements of her busy husband, along with family and her own interests. Now Ray tunes pianos and has a shop where he sometimes repairs them. They enjoyed sailing their three-hull catamaran on Howard Lake.

Wadena was their choice of a retirement home because it is midway to places on their agenda. Menagha is Cora's home town and Carl Meinhardt, Ray's father, lives in a retirement home in Wadena.

Ray expects new strides will come in the field of energy, as in harnessing wind power. It pleases him that General Mills, a Minnesota-based company, played so vital a role in developing the first successful submersible, the Alvin. Dignitaries were on board in 1996 when she completed her 3,000 dive.

It was also GM who came out with high altitude balloons, spies in the sky. It was Aerospace Engineer Harold Froehlich, a Minneapolis native, working for Wood Holes Institute, who designed them.

An especially memorable event was being among the crew in 1989, sited by the Elmer A. Sperry award in recognition of invention, development and deployment of the deep-diving submarine, Alvin.

Ray recalled, "This was my first trip to New York City, wearing a tuxedo and all, very expressive!"

After 33 years of providing spectacular service, Alvin has been donated to the Science Museum in Virginia at Richmond, with the structure Ray Meinhardt designed 40 years ago still on the job.