A Tribute to Vernon C. Westcott, Inventor of the Ferrograph

Teresa Hansen, Noria Corporation

Late last year, the oil analysis community lost one of its early pioneers. On September 26, 2003, Vernon C. Westcott, who is credited with inventing the ferrograph, died at the age of 84. While Mr. Westcott held many patents in various technologies, his work with ferrography was one of his most notable accomplishments.

In the late 1960s, United States military aircraft were experiencing failures due to fatigue in rolling element bearings. At the time, the military was using ferromagnetic chip detector technology and spectroscopy to detect wear particles in the lubricant. However, these technologies did not detect small particles or the onset of large particles, both of which are important in determining severe wear. Therefore, by the time the particles were discovered, much bearing damage had occurred and the aircraft were already into the catastrophic failure mode. The military needed a more sophisticated method for detecting wear debris, so they contracted with Mr. Westcott to develop the new technology. Thus, in the early 1970s, Mr. Westcott invented the first ferrograph for used oil analysis.

Initially, the ferrograph was used mainly by the military and universities. In the early 1970s, Douglas Scott of NEL Scotland and professors Freddie Barnwell and Mervin Jones of the University of Swansea (Wales) took delivery of Mr. Westcott’s first exported ferrography systems. One of the ferrograph’s first practical uses came in the early 1980s when it was used to predict failures in helicopter transmissions by the British during the Falklands War with Argentina. Eventually, other industries began to realize the important information that could be learned from ferrography and they began to invest in it. In 1982, the first “International Conference on Advances in Ferrography,” organized by Messrs. Jones and Scott, was attended by people from 29 different countries. Today, ferrography is a fundamental tool of oil analysis and reliability maintenance.

Mr. Westcott’s early research and development with ferrography and used oil analysis paved the way for the development of more sophisticated ferrography. He, along with several colleagues, developed analytical ferrography and later, direct reading ferrography. Direct reading ferrography proved to be an excellent tool for detecting severe wear because it showed the ratio of large particles to small particles. Because severe wear is characterized by a sudden onset of large particles, the direct reading ferrograph was able to detect when large numbers of large particles suddenly began to show up in the oil. Mr. Westcott’s work in ferrography led to a greater understanding of the wear process. It supported the delamination theory of wear in oil lubricated conditions, which is a theory developed to describe the wear surfaces in sliding contact. With Mr. Westcott’s inventions, the oil analysis community has been able to determine not only the size of wear particles, but also the different types of wear particles and the processes that generate each type; and it doesn’t end there, for the research in this area continues.

Pictured here is one of the early dual ferrographs
developed by Mr. Westcott in the 1970s.
Photo courtesy of Predict.

In addition to being an excellent oil analysis tool, Mr. Westcott’s ferrograph proved to be valuable to the medical community as a way to monitor particles in fluids in the human body. In the mid-1980s, Mr. Westcott began concentrating on extending ferrography to applications in the medical field. He developed the Bio-Ferrograph, which is used in the fields of orthopedics, bacteria detection, and most recently in research for early detection of cancer cells. Detection of E. coli in ground water and wear in artificial hip joints are scientific applications that are being developed. The Bio-Ferrograph is also being used by researchers to capture breast and cervical cancer cells, along with a variety of lymphocytes from whole blood.

Mr. Westcott’s career as a scientist and inventor began long before his work in ferrography. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a physics degree in 1940, he went to work for Raytheon Corporation. While there, he worked on radio technology and the development of microwaves. In 1948, he founded the Trans-Sonics Corporation and with a group of colleagues, began manufacturing telemetry systems, marine navigation instruments and monitoring devices that were used to measure oil pressure and temperature. Some of these devices were later used on the Apollo rockets.

It was during his later years at Trans-Sonics that Mr. Westcott began his work with ferrography and oil analysis. According to some of his colleagues, for many years Mr. Westcott had, on an amateur level, studied microscopic organisms in nature. It is through this study that he became interested in microscopic particles and ferrography.

In 1983, Mr. Westcott sold Trans-Sonics to the Foxboro Co. and worked for the company as a scientist for about a year. He then founded Guilfoyle Inc., a research company named after his mother’s family. It was at Guilfoyle Inc. that Mr. Westcott and a team of scientists developed the Bio-Ferrograph.

Mr. Westcott is described by those who worked closely with him as a true scientist, as well as a lover of nature. “He had a great curiosity about the world, but was very practical and modest when it came to living in it,” said Dan Anderson, vice president of sales for Spectro Inc. and an associate of Mr. Westcott’s in the 1970s and 80s.

Roger Rotondi, another of Mr. Westcott’s former associates, echoed Mr. Anderson’s statement. “Vernon had an office right next to mine at Foxboro. He was a true scientist, a deep thinker and very inquisitive. He had an extensive list of patents,” Rotondi said. Rotondi also recalled Mr. Westcott’s love of nature. “He had a cottage in Christmas Cove, Maine, not far from a marine research center. He loved to spend time there enjoying nature and sailing.”

In addition to being a scientist and inventor, Mr. Westcott was an honorary trustee of the New England Wildflower Society. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Alice Coffin Westcott and a son, Robert James Westcott. He is survived by his wife, Louise Minot Westcott; daughter and son-in-law, Elena and Robert Cronin; a son Charles Westcott; three stepsons, Edward Minot, David Minot and Hal Minot; and eight grandchildren.

The author would like to thank Dan Anderson, Roger Rotondi and Mervin Jones for providing much of the information used in this article. Their knowledge of ferrography, as well as their personal knowledge about Mr. Westcott was invaluable.


  1. Krauss, A. (2003, October 10). Vernon Westcott; aided Apollo missions. The Boston Globe.
  2. Obituary of Vernon C. Westcott (2003, October 3). Lexington Minuteman.

Subscribe to Machinery Lubrication

About the Author