Marine Electronics Pioneer Dies

Friday, December 19, 2003
Willy Simonsen in 1963.(Photo credit: Aftenposten/Scanpix)

The marine electronics world lost a pioneer with the passing of Willy Simonsen on December 4, 2003. Simonsen, who was 90 years old, was the co-founder and driving force behind Simrad, a company that is today part of the Kongsberg Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of marine electronics. It was in 1947 in postwar Norway that Simonsen joined with John Mustad (of Mustad fishhook fame) to form Simonsen Radio AS in Oslo, Norway. In the beginning, the partners focused on manufacturing high quality radio telephones. Within a few years, the company expanded into development and production of echo sounders and sonars for commercial and military use, gaining a worldwide reputation for quality and superior technology. In 1957, the company opened an office in Horten, Norway and officially changed its name to Simrad, a combination of Simonsen and Radio. Simonsen headed the company he helped form for 21 years, leaving in 1968. He had grown his company from a handful of men into a world-leading manufacturer with 500 people (today the Kongsberg Group employs more than 4,000 worldwide). Looking back at Simonsen’s life, it is interesting to see how his talents -- and unfolding world events -- combined to make him a seminal figure in marine electronics.As a scientist in Bergen when World War II came to Norway, Simonsen became actively involved in the underground resistance. He spearheaded a project to eavesdrop on German telephone communications between Oslo and Bergen and provide this information by radio to allied forces in England. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, and was later moved to a hospital after intentionally swallowing a “sickness pill.”Simonsen was rescued from the hospital by Norwegians wearing German military uniforms, and after escaping to England he worked in the Radio Production Unit of the British War Office. It was here that Simonsen developed a tiny shortwave radio receiver – dubbed the “Sweetheart – of which 50,000 were built and distributed to resistance forces around the world.By providing a communications link between scattered international resistance forces, Simonsen helped win the information war and turn the tide in favor of the allies. “Willy Simonsen was more than a marine electronics legend, he was a hero who used his communications skills to protect others at great risk to himself,” said John Caballero, Vice President of U.S. subsidiary Simrad, Inc. “He will be missed by the entire industry.”

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