Boynton G. Hagaman, 88; Engineer Designed Antennas

Boynton G. Hagaman works on an antenna tower in Hawaii. His very low frequency antennas enabled the Navy to better communicate with subs.
Boynton G. Hagaman works on an antenna tower in Hawaii. His very low frequency antennas enabled the Navy to better communicate with subs. (Boeing Corp.)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Boynton Glenn Hagaman, 88, a self-taught engineer who designed antennas that allowed the Navy to communicate with Polaris missile submarines and who invented the first tachometer that gave physicians an instant way to measure patients' heart rates, died of a heart attack Oct. 20 at his Alexandria home.

The very low frequency, or VLF, antennas that Mr. Hagaman designed helped submarine crews navigate and communicate using the Omega navigation system, the predecessor of satellite-controlled global positioning systems. His antennas were built all over the world, including in Norway, India, Australia and the United Kingdom. One of the first, a horn-style antenna that was more than 900 feet long, was constructed in the early 1950s near La Plata.

His first VLF station was built in Cutler, Maine, and covered 12 square miles with 23 towers nearly 1,000 feet tall. Later towers exceeded 1,500 feet.

"He's right at the top of the list of experts in submarine communications and navigation," said former business partner Stephen Kershner. "A lot of the navies in the world know about him. . . . He was just good at everything he did."

Mr. Hagaman, who wrote the chapter on VLF antennas in the McGraw-Hill Antenna Engineering Handbook, also designed high-frequency antennas that relayed signals for radio and TV stations, including Voice of America and news and entertainment broadcasters.

One of his more dramatic designs is the radio transmitter for the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center's famous radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, which hangs like a spider in a web 450 feet above its reflector. The Arecibo model is the largest and most sensitive single-dish radio telescope in the world.

Mr. Hagaman's interest in electronics was piqued during his childhood in Rochester, Minn., where he played with ham radios and earned his first radio license at 13. He designed and built a radio station in his home town and the radio system for the local police department. As a teenager, he learned to fly and soloed before his parents knew he had taken a lesson. He attended a local junior college but did not receive a degree, turning down a music scholarship to follow his fascination with ham radios, electronics and flying, his family said.

During World War II, Mr. Hagaman worked for a Rochester electronics manufacturing company that built military signals equipment. While working there, he developed the circuit for the first instantaneous cardio-tachometer, for which he received a patent. He moved to Northern Virginia in 1951 to become principal engineer for Development Engineering Co., known as DECO.

At DECO, he designed the horn antenna near La Plata. The Navy then hired the firm to create a way to communicate with its nuclear-powered submarines. Once the antenna was designed, Mr. Hagaman and the company were asked to build more VLF antennas, and he began working all over the world.

In 1971, after DECO was sold to Westinghouse, Mr. Hagaman became vice president and partner with the consulting firm Kershner, Wright & Hagaman. He continued to design antennas that were built in Hawaii, North Dakota, England, India and France.

Mr. Hagaman, a well-known aerobatic pilot, owned two planes at the time of his death, including a Pitts Special, which he built from schematics in his garage. He was also a licensed airframe and power plant mechanic with inspection authorization.

Mr. Hagaman was also an amateur musician and played the drums and tuba in dance bands. For a time, he played his favorite instrument, the euphonium, in the Washington Redskins band.

His wife of 59 years, Gertrude Waldron Hagaman, died in 1998.

Survivors include four children, Annette Steucke of Seattle, Charlotte Watson of Martinsburg, W.Va., John Hagaman of Alexandria and Craig Hagaman of Berryville, Va.; and eight grandchildren.

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