A Brief History of Hydro Products

Hydro Products was a San Diego, California area oceanographic equipment company that was active from the 1960’s until the 1980’s. They were one of the first companies to market an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) with their RCV (remotely controlled vehicle) line, an acronym they trademarked.

Hydro Products was started in the late 1950’s by Roy Pruitt, who had worked for Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and John Day, an electronics engineer. The company was originally called Oceanographic Engineering Corporation (OEC). They incorporated in 1960 with the following executive team: Frank Gard Jameson (President), M. Roy Pruitt, and Joseph D. Granville. Their early products were underwater television cameras and various underwater sensors. Much of this early equipment was used on the Trieste I, and assisted in the search for the USS Thresher.

Product sheet from 1962 for OEC’s underwater television camera
Price list from 1962 for some of OEC’s products

By 1962, OEC had exhausted their working capital. They received an infusion of new capital, and were brought under the management control of Sharp Laboratories (headed by Dr. Rodman Sharp). Rod Sharp was made President of OEC, and Roy Pruitt Executive VP. Sharp Labs had ample space in their new building in Sorrento Valley – one of the first businesses to locate in what was then a largely undeveloped area north of San Diego. OEC moved from their location near Mission Bay into Sharp’s building on Sorrento Valley Road. At the time there were around 10 employees at OEC. In 1963, Robert Briggs, one of the Directors, tapped George Hatchett, engineer and former Navy submarine officer, to be General Manager of OEC. Briggs and Hatchett had previously worked together at United ElectroDynamics (UED), developing telemetry systems for both the Minuteman missile project, and target drone systems used in China Lake weapons testing.

Sharp Labs and OEC building at 11338 Sorrento Valley Rd., San Diego, CA

In 1963, Sharp Labs was purchased by Beckman Coulter Inc., and the following year, OEC was separated from Sharp. The management was restructured, with Robert Briggs as President, George Hatchett as Vice-President of the Sorrento Division, and Don Allen as Vice-President of the Hydro Products division. OEC moved to their own building about a half mile north on Sorrento Valley Road. The company began a period of rapid growth, especially the Hydro Products division, which eventually became the name the company was best known by.

In 1967, OEC was purchased by Dillingham Corporation of Hawaii. Robert Briggs moved up into the Dillingham executive ranks, and George Hatchett became president of OEC.

Hydro Products during the Dillingham years
The Hydro Products facilities, which included the various buildings on both sides of Industrial Ct. at 11803 Sorrento Valley Rd.

During most of the 1960’s, Hydro Products focused on their underwater television cameras, film cameras, lighting, sensors, and diver communication products.

First page of Hydro Products’ product catalog from the late 1960’s

In 1968, a new business area opened up. Hydro Products begun work on a project to develop a ROV name “ANTHRO” for the U.S. Navy’s Naval Undersear Center. While working on this project, the team was temporarily tasked to work on a related emergency project. After the sinking of the USS Scorpion, Dr. John Craven, head of the Special Project Office of the Navy asked Dr. William B. McLean (of Sidewinder fame), Technical Director of the Naval Undersea Center (NUC) to make an ROV to look inside the Scorpion’s torpedo tubes. The ROV was to be deployed from the Trieste II. Craven gave McLean very little time for the project. Dr. McLean and Will Forman, who had come to NUC from China Lake with McLean began making a prototype with Styrofoam and a garden hose. Over three days of the Thanksgiving weekend, McLean, Forman, and George Hatchett, who brought with him one of Hydro Products’ television cameras met at McLean’s pool and the three continued their work. By the end of the weekend they had a rough but functioning prototype. Cravens put together a contract for Hydro Products, and after six weeks with much overtime, the team that had been working on “Anthro” had produced the small, barrel-shaped “Tortuga”(1).

I remember as a kid, my dad (George Hatchett) and Hydro Products engineers testing out the prototype in our pool during the early development. I remember it as two slabs of Styrofoam sandwiching their television camera, with water pumps for propulsion. A cable led to a poolside monitor that showed the video feed as it swam around the pool. I thought it was pretty cool, but my older brother wasn’t impressed and thought it all looked hokey.

Envelope marking the Trieste II’s second dive during the phase II search to relocate the USS Scorpion.

After Tortuga Hydro Products resumed their work on “ANTHRO”, another project McLean and Forman had earlier tasked to Hydro Products. Anthrowas a sort of augmented reality device where the ROV was controlled by a headset that fed video and sound to the operator, who controlled the ROV and its camera by movements of his head. This also made an appearance in our pool and was much more impressive than the Styrofoam Tortuga prototype. Hydro Products was now in the ROV business, and within a few years released their first commercial ROV.

Trying out the ANTHRO ROV in Hatchett’s pool (captured from 8mm film)
Will Forman piloting the ANTHRO (captured from 8mm film)

In 1973, Dillingham sold OEC to Tetra Tech Inc., an engineering firm headquartered in Pasadena, CA. Hatchett transferred to the Pasadena headquarters, and Chuck Strickland, a long time employee of OEC, became president of Hydro Products. In 1977, Tetra Tech Inc. went public on the American Stock Exchange.

Ticker tape for Tetra Tech’s AMEX debut

In 1978, Chuck Strickland resigned, and taking Hydro Product’s film camera line with him, started Photosea, which developed 70mm and stereo underwater film cameras. Joe Hughes replaced Strickland as President of Hydro Products. Later, Bob Hittleman became President.

In 1982, Tetra Tech (and Hydro Products) was bought out by Honeywell, Inc., and Hatchett retired not long afterward. The purchase by Honeywell marked the beginning of the dissipation of the company, with significant pieces of Tetra Tech/Hydro Products eventually freeing themselves from Honeywell. The buildings OEC/Hydro Products occupied on Sorrento Valley Road are now gone. The Sharp Labs building has since been torn down and replaced by a much larger building. The multi-building complex where Hydro Products spent most of its years has been leveled to a dirt lot, awaiting a new building.

(1) Forman, Will. “The History of American Deep Submersible Operations“. 1999. Best Publishing.


One thought on “A Brief History of Hydro Products

  1. I worked at Hydroproducts in the 1960s Sorrento Valley during the time l was a San Diego City Lifeguard. At the time l had an A.S. degree in marine technology. We serviced underwater current meters and studied pollution runoff into Lake Tahoe . Don Hinds.

    Liked by 1 person

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