by Lou Mancinelli
In the 1980s, Bob Salomon, Ph.D., and former Temple University chemistry professor, who has lived in Germantown for the past 15 years, was sought out when nuclear meltdowns in the U.S. and abroad occurred. At the time he served as a consultant for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Now retired, Salomon’s biggest passion is sailing his wife’s 49-foot boat. At 82, Salomon still remembers with the passion of a boy the moment a little over 60 years ago the first time he caught a gust of wind on his sailboat. He remembers thinking: “I could sail anywhere.”
He was in his early 20s and had just returned to the east coast to pursue postgraduate work at Temple. Before that he’d made what he calls “the smartest move I ever made” by attending the University of Oregon (UO) for graduate school. When he arrived at his apartment, Salomon asked the landlady for the key. “The what?” she asked him. “Then she told me I was the first person to ever ask for a key.”
This laid-back open attitude was a stark contrast to the frenzy Salomon grew up around in Brooklyn. He’d studied chemistry at Brooklyn College (’54), and was drafted into the tail end of the Korean War (sent to Alaska) but never saw any fighting. He attended grad school on the GI Bill.
When Salomon finished his doctorate, he began his post-graduate work at UO, but the professor he was working with, a renowned theoretician, left unexpectedly, taking a position in England. Salomon decided it was time for a change and looked for a new position that would allow him to live within 100 miles of his mother in Brooklyn.
Temple University was the first place that met the requirements. Back then the school was small compared to what it is today, and mostly a commuter campus. Salomon began teaching at Temple (on a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission) in 1960. He earned $5800 a year, with which he purchased an 11-foot sailboat (his first). Salomon says he taught himself to sail as any academic would, with books. By 1970 he had become chair of the chemistry department.
Three years later Salomon had moved onto a 26-foot boat. And that year he went on the adventure of his life, sailing with a friend from Cape May to Bermuda. It was before GPS. They navigated by the sun and the stars, measuring the angle of the sun against the horizon. They braved 15-foot waves, an experience Salmon videotaped with an 8 mm video camera.
Outside of school, Salomon had gotten his start in science as a kid tinkering with a 10,000-volt transformer that his father, a plumber, had brought home from work. On the water, Salomon’s natural draw towards science continued to work on him. Salomon had been somewhat inspired to learn to sail when reading “The Odyssey,” the Greek epic. He merged his love for science with his love for the sea and began studying how the power of waves could be converted into energy.
He envisioned a turbine 10 miles off the shore from Miami from which energy could be transmitted to the shore through cables. Salomon holds a few patents in that field of alternative energy production, but said it’s not a practical thing to do yet because it costs too much, and presents numerous legal issues. One of the patents is for a modified sailboat that generates electricity and produces hydrogen. During his career, Salomon was involved with Project Coriolis, a data-assembly project surrounding ocean-generated power.
Power is an equation that Salomon has long understood. In that regard, part of his work helped to quiet fears in the last quarter of the century about the dangers of a fallout from a nuclear power plant. While still teaching at Temple, he consulted for the NRC. Online you can find him quoted in old Philadelphia Inquirer articles, like in one about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.
Before that, Salomon’s opinion had been sought out regarding the partial nuclear meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Dauphin County, near Harrisburg. Relying on the chemistry of the situation, Salomon always stated there was no chance of a nuclear explosion at Three Mile Island. And in our recent interview, he said no one was hurt in that meltdown and that the levels of chemicals released “never got close to radiation level.”
In early October Salomon was putting the 49-foot boat away for the season in Riverside, New Jersey. It’s out on the water from April through October. After more than six decades of sailing, he still remembers that first time catching wind in his sails as a young man on his first boat, a young chemistry professor at Temple. He said that day was the highlight of his sailing career.