In 1916, under the British Board of Invention and Research, Canadian physicist Robert William Boyle took on the active sound detection project with A B Wood, producing a prototype for testing in mid 1917. This work, for the Anti-Submarine Division, was undertaken in utmost secrecy, and used quartz piezoelectric crystals to produce the world’s first practical underwater active sound detection apparatus. To maintain secrecy no mention of sound experimentation or quartz was made – the word used to describe the early work (‘supersonics’) was changed to ‘ASD’ics, and the quartz material to ‘ASD’ivite: hence the British acronym ASDIC. In 1939, in response to a question from the Oxford English Dictionary, the Admiralty made up the story that it stood for ‘Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee’, and this is still widely believed, though no committee bearing this name has been found in the Admiralty archives.

ASDIC (Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee)

By 1918, both the US and Britain had built active systems, though the British were well in advance of the US. They tested their ASDIC on HMS Antrim in 1920, and started production in 1922. The 6th Destroyer Flotilla had ASDIC-equipped vessels in 1923. An anti-submarine school, HMS Osprey, and a training flotilla of four vessels were established on Portland in 1924. The US Sonar QB set arrived in 1931.
By the outbreak of World War II, the Royal Navy had five sets for different surface ship classes, and others for submarines, incorporated into a complete anti-submarine attack system. The effectiveness of early ASDIC was hamstrung by the use of the depth charge as an anti-submarine weapon. This required an attacking vessel to pass over a submerged contact before dropping charges over the stern, resulting in a loss of ASDIC contact in the moments leading up to attack. The hunter was effectively firing blind, during which time a submarine commander could take evasive action. This situation was remedied by using several ships cooperating and by the adoption of “ahead throwing weapons”, such as Hedgehog and later Squid, which projected warheads at a target ahead of the attacker and thus still in ASDIC contact. Developments during the war resulted in British ASDIC sets which used several different shapes of beam, continuously covering blind spots. Later, acoustic torpedoes were used.
At the start of World War II, British ASDIC technology was transferred for free to the United States. Research on ASDIC and underwater sound was expanded in the UK and in the US. Many new types of military sound detection were developed. These included sonobuoys, first developed by the British in 1944 under the codename High Tea, dipping/dunking sonar and mine detection sonar. This work formed the basis for post war developments related to countering the nuclear submarine. Work on sonar had also been carried out in the Axis countries, notably in Germany, which included countermeasures.

At the end of World War II this German work was assimilated by Britain and the US. Sonars have continued to be developed by many countries, including Russia, for both military and civil uses. In recent years the major military development has been the increasing interest in low frequency active systems.

SONAR In World War II, the Americans used the term SONAR for their systems, coined as the equivalent of RADAR.