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Humans were listening to underwater sounds with air tubes as early as 1490, when Leonardo da Vinci wrote about it.

It was not until the mid to late 1800's that the science developed to convert acoustic energy into electrical energy.
Underwater echo detection systems were developed for the purpose of underwater navigation by submarines in World war I and in particular after the Titanic sank in 1912. Alexander Belm in Vienna described an underwater echosounding device in the same year. The first patent for an underwater echo ranging sonar was filed at the British Patent Office by English metereologist Lewis Richardson, one month after the sinking of the Titanic.


The first working sonar system was designed and built in the United States by Canadian Reginald Fessenden in 1914. The Fessenden sonar was an electromagnetic moving-coil oscillator that emitted a low-frequency noise and then switched to a receiver to listen for echoes. It was able to detect an iceberg underwater from 2 miles away, although it could not precisely determine its direction. The turn of the century also saw the invention of the Diode and the Triode, allowing powerful electronic amplifications necessary for developments in ultrasonic instruments. Powerful high frequency ultrasonic echo-sounding device was developed by emminent French physicist Paul Langvin and Russian scientist Constantin Chilowsky.


Echo sounding is the technique of using sound pulses to find the depth of water. The word sounding is used for all types of depth measurements, including those that don't use sound, and is unrelated in origin to the word sound in the sense of noise or tones. The echo sounder is the most common system for measuring water depth, and preventing collisions with unseen underwater rocks, reefs, etc., These sonar systems use a transducer that is usually mounted on the bottom of a ship. Sound pulses are sent from the transducer straight down into the water. The sound reflects off the seafloor and returns to the transducer. The time the sound takes to travel to the bottom and back is used to calculate the distance to the seafloor.



Basically an echo sounder has following components: Transducer to generate the sound vibrations and also receive the reflected sound vibration. Pulse generator to produce electrical oscillations for the transmitting transducer. Amplifier to amplify the weak electrical oscillations that has been generated by the receiving transducer on reception of the reflected sound vibration. Recorder - for measuring and indicating depth.


Illustration of echo sounding using a Echosounder


Water depth is estimated by using the speed of sound through the water (approximately 1,500 meters per second) and a simple calculation: Distance = speed x time/2

The product is divided by two because the measured time is the roundtrip time (from the transducer to the seafloor and back to the transducer). Echo sounders calculate water depth by measuring the time it takes for the acoustic signal to reach the bottom and the echo to return to the ship. The faster the sound pulses return to the transducer from the ocean floor, the shallower the water depth is and the higher the elevation of the sea floor. The sound pulses are sent out regularly as the ship moves along the surface, which produces a line showing the depth of the ocean beneath the ship. This continuous depth data is used to create bathymetry maps of the survey area.

Echo sounding used in a Ship

Common use

As an aid to navigation (most larger vessels will have at least a simple depth sounder)

Is commonly used for fishing. Variations in elevation often represent places where fish congregate.
To special purpose or scientific surveys. Used for the work of Hydrography. More recently, the acoustic data collected has been valuable in underwater habitat assessment and classification for the variables; seabed type (e.g. rock, mud, sand) and submersed aquatic vegetation and algae - with the appropriate software.


Specially written software is available for analysis of hydro acoustic data for assessment of underwater physical and biological characteristics. Scientific echo sounder equipment is built to exacting standards and tested to be stable and reliable in the transmission and receiving of sound energy under the water. Recent advances have led to the development of the digital scientific echo sounder, further enhancing the reliability and precision with which these systems operate. Modern scientific echo sounders are reliable, portable, and relatively easy to use. Collected acoustic data is "stamped" with geographic information for precise positional information (coordinates and time). This enables analysis and incorporation of the results into a Geographic Information System (GIS) for further analysis, correlation with other variables, mapping, and display.