Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert King
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Robert King; March 8, 1992
ABSTRACT: Born in 1908 in Pasadena; recalls his childhood spent in and around the environment of Mt. Wilson observatory with his father. Undergraduate education in physics and astronomy at Pomona college; graduated 1930. Graduate school at Princeton, working with Russell and others on spectroscopy; PhD in 1933. National Research Council post-doctoral fellowship at Mt. Wilson; describes his research on line spectra. Describes the split between spectroscopists and the “direct” program at Mt. Wilson; MIT position as instructor in 1935. Explains his absolute f-values research; hired back at Mt. Wilson in 1938. Comments on war effort research on rockets and fuses; comments on Bowen as new director of Mt. Wilson. Describes his move to Cal Tech; comments on the location and conditions of his father’s letters; recalls time spent with Russell over the years.
DeVorkin: I would like to start the interview by finding out more about your early life and your schooling. When were you born?
King: 1908 here in Pasadena at Huntington Memorial Hospital, which was called the Pasadena Hospital then. My father was on the staff at Mt. Wilson. He joined the staff in 1907. He had been at the University of California, teaching physics prior to that.
DeVorkin: Was that Berkeley?
King: Yes, there wasn't any other branch at that time. Anyway, I was born here in 1908 and I went through the city schools, grammar school and high school. Then I went to Pomona College in 1926.
DeVorkin: Let's not move quite that far. Let's find out a little bit more about what your early life was like growing up in Pasadena.
King: It was a wonderful place for kids in those days. There were lots of vacant lots and no traffic to speak of. Street cars ran everywhere you'd ever want to go, but you'd always go on your bike anyway.
DeVorkin: You lived on Topeka?
King: Yes. The latter part of it. I think we moved there in 1920.
DeVorkin: Do you recall where you lived before that time?
King: Yes, on Locust Street.
DeVorkin: How far was that from the Santa Barbara Street?
King: It was only two or three blocks and my father used to walk, usually, to work. He would cut across fields. I went to the local schools, starting at Columbia School in Longfellow and then finally Pasadena High School.
DeVorkin: When do you recall becoming aware of what your father's employment was?
King: I don't know exactly because it sort of happened very gradually. I certainly knew it quite well because he was friendly with most of the staff and I knew most of them pretty well.
DeVorkin: Could you count any of them among your early friends, such as maybe the children of other Mt. Wilson staff?
King: Not special friends because they were not neighbors. Horace Babcock was my age or maybe a couple of years younger. He was about the only contemporary, I guess. There were others but they were a little older, or a little younger. My brother, of course, came along three years after I did.
DeVorkin: What is his full name?
King: Ralph M. King, but he died last August.
DeVorkin: What is your mother's maiden name?
King: Louise Burnett.
DeVorkin: Where did she come from?
King: She was born in New York State. Her father was a minister, a Presbyterian minister. In those days they moved around a lot and they came to California in the early 1890s. My father came in 1883, incidentally.
DeVorkin: Did he come to the Los Angeles area?
King: I'd say he went to Santa Rosa first, then to Fresno, and then to Berkeley.
DeVorkin: Was he always interested in physics?
King: As far as I know. He got interested in it at the university as an undergraduate. In fact, he published a paper almost immediately after he became a graduate student. I guess he'd been working a bit in the physics department.
DeVorkin: Do you know who he worked with?
King: Percival Lewis was his major professor. He was a spectroscopist. I don't know the others at that time.
DeVorkin: Did your father ever say how he was hired by Hale?
King: I think Hale was setting up a laboratory and started it on Mt. Wilson but Mt. Wilson wasn't at all suitable for it so they built one in Pasadena. What he had to do in the deciding, I don't know but he had something to do with it. He came in about the time it was built so Hale, I think, laid the general outlay of it.
DeVorkin: Did he ever say how Hale knew of him to hire him?
King: I think it was the papers he published. My father spent two years in Germany, in Bonn and Berlin. At Bonn there was Henry Kayser, who was the leading spectroscopist at the time. He published a couple of papers while he was working there. One of them was on an electric furnace. I don't know exactly what the design of it was, or whether it was just a design he talked about. Not handling German very well I hadn't read the paper. Anyway, shortly after that he came back to the University of California as an instructor on the staff and that was when he started working seriously on a furnace. In 1908 he published a paper on it, but by that time was at Mt. Wilson.
DeVorkin: Do you know if he had any contact with the astronomers at Berkeley?
King: He knew them and all that. I don't think he did any work with them especially. He was in physics, really.
DeVorkin: He considered himself a physicist?
DeVorkin: Let's go back to your childhood, growing up in Pasadena. I am very interested in the life surrounding the observatory and the staff. It was a large staff and a lot of families I would imagine. Were there social activities that involved the families.
King: There were in the early days of the observatory, when I was a small child. There were a lot of parties and things that went on. We visited various, they took me along sometimes to visit these people. I got acquainted with them.
DeVorkin: Do you remember any in particular whom you met that made an impression on you?
King: They all did. I met most of them who were on the staff at that time, even Hale. There was Adams and Seares, Merrill, Joy. Those were the ones I knew well.
DeVorkin: Did you know them when you were a child?
King: I got acquainted with them later, really. When I was a kid, a little kid doesn't really know grownups that well.
DeVorkin: Did you ever visit your father's laboratory?
King: Oh yes. I remember it had a sort of gadget on rollers, sort of so high [1 foot] and heavy wooden frame that came up from one end. It was built to run one of the instruments. I guess it was one of the furnaces, to run the tank of the innards of it. I used to run around and use it as a skate board thing on the laboratory floor, which is concrete. That was the few times I went down there. I didn't frequent the place or anything.
DeVorkin: As far as you know children did not do that?
DeVorkin: Did it strike you as a serious place or as a rather relaxed place?
King: It's always been a relaxed place. It was always very friendly, as far as I was concerned. The staff was always friendly, even when I was on the staff. I was friends with everybody, I think.
DeVorkin: Let me ask you. This will be a long process of recollection, but what I would like to know is how you would typify what got you interested in going into science yourself.
King: It's hard to pin it down really. I think it was mainly the atmosphere of the place. The great telescopes and how nice it would be to work with those things and so on. I enjoyed the laboratory.
DeVorkin: But it did surround the observatory, it wasn't some other interest?
King: No. I never had any interest in any other kind of science except astronomy and physics. I have always been interested, as a layman, in geology. I should have perhaps gone into geology because we had an excellent course at Pomona College, where I went.
DeVorkin: Let me ask, did you have any particular important teachers in high school that you feel we should talk about?
King: I had some good ones, but I can't say that they did anything as far as influencing me or anything.
DeVorkin: Did your Dad ever give you books to read when you were a child?
King: They gave me books, but they were child books. I don't think they were, he didn't try to influence me at all as far as I can recall. He was always very supportive in anything I wanted to do that was worthwhile. He never tried to get me into science.
DeVorkin: Were you interested from an early time?
King: I think I was interested but it never occurred to me that I might be a scientist some day.
DeVorkin: Did you have hobbies?
King: Let's see. I had no very productive hobby that I can recall. I liked sports very much and was always very interested in sports and what not. There's no hobbies that I had as a child or kid.
DeVorkin: Building things — did you build things? Even a radio later on?
King: Yes, I did that. I built radios back in the early 1920s when I was about 12 or 13. I never got into it as much as some other kids did. Some of them really knew what they were doing. I didn't understand too much about it. I would ask my father about things once in a while and he would explain them to me, but I never was an expert at putting together radios
DeVorkin: Let's talk about how you ended up at Pomona.
King: I had a very good friend in high school who went to Pomona and he was a year ahead of me in high school. He went to Pomona and felt it was a wonderful place. When I started to think about colleges it was the place I thought I would like to go. My father thought I ought to go to Stanford but he never told me that until afterwards.
DeVorkin: Why Stanford do you think?
King: I don't know. I really can't say.
DeVorkin: No question of going to Berkeley possibly? His alma mater?
King: He never mentioned it, or tried to persuade me, or even talk about it, going to Berkeley. Of course Berkeley was a great big, impersonal place by that time as it is still. One of our daughter's went to Berkeley and I know you could easily get lost in the shuffle. She was just lucky she didn't because she was a very outgoing kid and made friends with some of the faculty that other kids wouldn't be able to do.
DeVorkin: Did you know of Professor Brackett?
King: Yes, I had courses from him when I was at Pomona.
DeVorkin: You think your Dad knew about him before?
King: Yes. He knew Brackett.
DeVorkin: What is Brackett's full name?
King: Frank Parkurst Brackett. There is an airfield out near there that is named after him.
DeVorkin: How so?
King: He was a famous person in the area. He was one of the founders of the college, you know; one of the original faculty.
DeVorkin: I didn't know that. Could you tell me a little bit about your recollections about him?
King: He was a small man, but very vigorous; not nervous, but very active. He was very much interested in astronomy and tried to convey that to the students, which he did very well. He was a good teacher. I don't know what else I could say about him except he was a very nice man.
DeVorkin: Did you know the difference at that time, since you were beginning to take physics at that time, between physics and astronomy?
King: Oh yes.
DeVorkin: Did the astronomy still stand out as something?
DeVorkin: Did Brackett teach the physics as well?
King: No, he just taught astronomy.
DeVorkin: Who were your physics teachers?
King: Rowland Tileston. He was the only physics professor at the time I was there. He had some lab assistants, but that was about it.
DeVorkin: Did you know you were going to go into physics or astronomy as you were at Pomona?
King: Yes, I thought I might. I don't remember when I actually began to concentrate on being an astronomer, but it was sometime in the latter part of college. Rowland Tileston was an excellent teacher and had quite a few students who went on in physics or related subjects.
DeVorkin: You got your degree from Pomona in 1930.
King: That's right.
DeVorkin: You must have gone there around 1924.
DeVorkin: By this time, when you were at Pomona and just before that time, were you still in reasonable contact with what you would say was going on at Mt. Wilson? Did you know what was happening?
King: Yes. I think so. I wasn't familiar with everybody's research program or anything like that, but I knew in general what they did, what was going on, and who did what.
DeVorkin: Was there any particular type of astronomy that stood out above all the others that you wanted to do?
King: I wouldn't say so.
DeVorkin: Now let's put you around 1929-1930. You are a senior. What were your thoughts about graduate school, a job, or what?
King: I was deciding on whether to go to graduate school at that time. I was lucky to be able to go to Princeton.
DeVorkin: Did you have any other places in mind?
King: Not very seriously. I might have gone to University of California or Cal Tech, but probably no other eastern school.
DeVorkin: There was one thing. And I will try to refresh your memory here, Brackett's alma mater was Dartmouth. Apparently there was some correspondence between your father and Raymond Dugan of Princeton.
King: Yes. I think Dugan is probably one of the reasons I went to Princeton because my father and he hadn't known each other before, but they attended a meeting of the IAU (International Astronomical Union) in Holland in 1928 and he met Dugan on the ship. They got very well acquainted and became good friends. I think that's where I got the Princeton influence.
DeVorkin: There was also some correspondence of the possibility of your going to Dartmouth as a teaching assistant and then taking courses as well. That's where Brackett came from. Do you remember any of that?
King: No, I don't.
DeVorkin: So that was never a big issue in your mind?
DeVorkin: Dugan and Trowbridge and Compton all said "no" that Dartmouth physics isn't very strong and you should go to Princeton. You don't remember any of that?
King: No, but I felt my father thought I should.
DeVorkin: Go to Princeton?
King: Yes. I had a chance to do it and thought I better do it.
DeVorkin: Did you know Russell's work by the time you went to Princeton?
King: Not very much about it, no. I took a course the first year I was there in spectroscopy from Shenstone.
DeVorkin: At Princeton?
King: Yes. I began to understand what he was doing. He only gave one course while I was there, a lecture course.
King: Yes, that was on the internal constitution of the stars which he was interested in at the time. It went over our heads, really a lot of it unfortunately. He was a good lecturer. I remember one lecture he'd gone through this long derivation on something about the internal constitution of the stars, on the boards, and he was very conscientious about always saying what he was going to write down because his writing was atrocious. You are probably aware of that if you have seen his letters. He would get finished with this and then he wouldn't say what he had done in the last line or two. He would turn around and had the habit of flapping his hands, because he was a very nervous person. He would turn around and grin at us, flapping his hands. He had written down the last thing, some equation that was the moral of the whole derivation of the final result and he expected us to appreciate it. None of us could read the darn thing. Finally he would turn around and read it to us. That was one of the special things I remember about Russell. There were three or four of us in astronomy at the time.
DeVorkin: Who was with you?
King: John Merrill, Louis Green, Sidney Hacker, and Melvin Skellett. Have you seen or talked to Skellett?
DeVorkin: I've heard of him.
King: He was working for AT & T at the time, the installation at the ocean there. The big station they have for overseas communication. He was trying to get a degree in physics, which he did. I guess Merrill had graduated by that time.
DeVorkin: He was there, off and on, sitting in?
King: No, he wasn't at the time. I shouldn't have said he was in the course at that time because he wasn't. He had gotten his degree the year before I came.
DeVorkin: Those people sound right. Did you work with them on the courses or were your studies rather solitary?
King: They were usually solitary. We discussed them some. I don't think I worked with anybody particularly, no.
DeVorkin: There was also another question about your support. Was your father economically well off to support you at Princeton, or was it a serious issue?
King: I don't know really; enough to support us comfortably, but I know he was not wealthy and never was. I had an assistantship.
DeVorkin: That's right. A department assistantship.
DeVorkin: Because there was something wrong about the application. The applications for the fellowships, your first one must have been a bit late if I recall. You don't have any recollections of that?
King: No. But I did have a Thaw Fellowship later.
DeVorkin: That was a recollection you had of Russell's lecture style. You must have had courses from Stuart and Dugan as well. Could we take them in some turn?
King: I don't recall that from Stuart but Dugan, yes. He gave a course in what he called practical astronomy. It was interesting. It was stuff all astronomers need to know; just the mechanics of finding stars, most of the planets, and all the rest of the observational techniques and so on.
DeVorkin: So Dugan taught mainly classical topics?
DeVorkin: And Russell this one course, which was internal constitution that you recall. Then you had courses from Shenstone.
King: Yes and others in physics. Wigner — I took quantum mechanics from him. From Smyth I took a course.
DeVorkin: Was that W. D. Smyth?
King: He was a physicist and there was a chemist who was H.D. Smyth. His brother was in chemistry.
DeVorkin: But you took a course from the physicist?
DeVorkin: Fine. I will get the right name. It sounds like you took more physics than astronomy.
King: I did. Actually the astronomy courses were few and far between. You almost had to take physics courses because you needed courses.
DeVorkin: Did you choose the courses yourself or did someone else tell you what to take?
King: I think I chose them.
DeVorkin: Did you ever consult your father?
King: Yes, sure. But he didn't tell me what to take or anything like that.
DeVorkin: I have a record also here that during your years at Princeton you assisted in the work of the observatory itself, since you had an observatory department fellowship.
King: Yes, but I didn't actually do much.
DeVorkin: Maintaining chronographic transit observations, things of that sort?
King: Yes, I guess I did a little of that sort of thing. I wrote things down for Dugan a few times, for the 23 inch telescope — the big telescope. He was observing eclipsing binaries. I did some recording for him and that's about all.
DeVorkin: You mean he would call out his measures?
King: Yes, something like that. I think he didn't really need me. He just did it so I would learn something about the business. He never pursued it. I was busy taking courses and trying to read stuff.
DeVorkin: What interested you the most as your studies continued?
King: I guess spectroscopy.
DeVorkin: So Shenstone became more important to you?
King: Yes. Of course Russell was a spectroscopist by that time. His major work was in that during the 1920s.
DeVorkin: Did you have a lot of contact outside of course work with Russell about spectroscopy?
King: No, not a lot. Mainly social. I don't remember now just what the contacts were but he was always available if you wanted to talk about anything, or ask him questions.
DeVorkin: Where would you usually find him?
King: In his office.
DeVorkin: Did you socialize with the family?
King: Yes, quite a bit.
DeVorkin: Do you have recollections of that?
King: Oh sure. They were an interesting family. They all had their own lives, so to speak. They were all nice people. Mrs. Russell was very hospitable and nice.
DeVorkin: What do you mean that they all had their own lives?
King: I mean they had their interests. Sometimes you wondered. We got pretty well acquainted. Russell used to come out here in the winter and the summertime — either here or the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff. He spent two or three months every summer one place or the other, or both. After I graduated from Princeton I came out here on a NASA research fellowship. He sent his family out here anyway, at least his daughter. He had two daughters. One of them was a spastic — Elizabeth. She was out here with her nurse or companion, Miss Haverington. They had a house up in La Canada I think. We felt as though we should entertain them a bit and take them around to places, which we did. I remember taking them up Mt. Wilson. I guess Russell realized this and he and Mrs. Russell were very kind to us. I got married after my first year there at Princeton.
DeVorkin: Let's make sure we do record that. How did you meet your wife?
King: We met at Pomona College.
DeVorkin: So you knew her from here.
King: Yes. She was born and raised in Redlands, which is a town out in the valley.
DeVorkin: So after you were married did she then come out to Princeton and join you there?
King: Yes she did.
DeVorkin: Did you live in the observatory?
King: Yes we did. We lived over at the old observatory on Prospect Street, upstairs in a two-room apartment. The Merrills had lived there before we did. Prior to that it had just been graduate male students. We lived there and it was fine as far as I was concerned. Helen didn't enjoy it too much because if she had to go to the bathroom it was down on the first floor and way down the hall, right across from the lecture hall. There was always men students and no women there at the time. I guess Charlotte Moore was there, but I think she was a sort of exception. She was kind of illegal. I mean, Russell had gotten a job for her because he wanted her. It was very unorthodox and there were no women on the faculty and no women students. Even Charlotte Moore, who didn't do any teaching, was not a student. She was sort of an illegal you might say, in the eyes of the university.
DeVorkin: She got her degree from Berkeley.
King: Yes, I know. I think so.
DeVorkin: It was about the time you were at Princeton.
King: Probably. I guess she had been working for Russell before that.
DeVorkin: You must have been invited over to the Russell family for dinner?
King: Yes. A number of times.
DeVorkin: I wouldn't expect any detailed recollections of any particular dinner, but I would like to know what your impressions were like going over there and eating with the family.
King: It was always a treat. In the first place, their house was an old house his grandfather had built. At least I know his grandfather had lived in it and his father. Russell inherited it. Mrs. Russell was very friendly. It was always a pleasure to go to their place, I thought.
DeVorkin: Was he formal at the dinner table?
King: No, he was quite informal. He could always talk about anything and he talked all the time.
DeVorkin: What would they typically talk about?
DeVorkin: So it wasn't only astronomy?
King: Oh goodness no. Hardly any astronomy. Russell was the most personable person I have ever known. He knew more about more things and that was something a lot of people — his contemporaries — didn't like about him. He knew so much more than they did about everything.
DeVorkin: Not just astronomy?
King: Not just astronomy, no. Everything. He really did, he could talk on any subject almost. To a young fellow it was wonderful, but I can understand why some of his contemporaries could get a little miffed.
DeVorkin: Do you remember any of those people?
King: I can remember Sinclair Smith who worked in the lab up here. He is long dead (1938). He never was a pal of Russell's, or anything. He told me once that Albert Michelson said about Russell "damn the man, he lectures to me." He did lecture to people, but students and so on thought that was a wonderful thing, but I can understand why some of his contemporaries might not appreciate it.
DeVorkin: What about Dugan? What was the relationship between Russell and Dugan that you saw?
King: Dugan ran the place. He was the one who had contacts with the students mainly, in their comings and goings and problems, or whatever. He ran the observatory, but they always got along very well, as far as I could make out. Dugan realized that Russell was a genius and he just let him be a genius. He went on running the astronomy department.
DeVorkin: Was there any kind of talk around the department that Dugan didn't get the credit that he deserved for running the department?
King: I never heard any. People just realized he did it which was fine, but I don't remember anybody. There were only students and Miss Moore.
DeVorkin: What about Stuart?
King: I think Stuart had some resentment toward Russell, but I never found out exactly why.
DeVorkin: While you were there, there must have been plenty of visitors. Was Robert Atkinson a frequent visitor?
King: Not that I recall. He may have been, but I didn't know about it.
DeVorkin: But can you think of anyone who was?
King: Let me see. Shapley used to come down quite a bit from Harvard. Then there was a man at Yale. I have forgotten his name. He was an elderly fellow even then.
King: It was Brown.
DeVorkin: Do you know why he was there?
King: No, except that he seemed to be a friend of Russell's. They would have parties when he would come down, and we got invited to parties.
DeVorkin: Were the parties in the observatory?
King: The ones that Dugan gave were. Brown seemed to be a friend of Dugan, more so than Russell. I don't know. Anyway, he and Dugan were good friends.
DeVorkin: What was the atmosphere at the observatory? Was it a friendly place?
DeVorkin: Who was responsible for that?
King: I don't know any one individual but I think most everybody was responsible for it probably. Mrs. Dugan was always very helpful to the graduate students, especially if they were married. I wouldn't say that she was the one who made things go or anything, but she was very helpful. Dugan was too, of course. Russell just wasn't aware of a lot of things that went on, which is alright. Whenever you asked him for something he would always try to help you.
DeVorkin: How did you spend your summers?
King: I came out here and worked in the lab at Mt. Wilson.
DeVorkin: You said this is when you became more interested?
DeVorkin: Could you describe what prompted you and how you got more interested in laboratory work at that time?
King: As I told you, I had gotten more interested in spectroscopy. The spectroscopic lab was at Mt. Wilson and there were all sorts of possibilities to do things there. Russell encouraged it. I didn't do anything very spectacular when I was a graduate student. I did do some measurement of wave lengths and one of the rare earths. That was about the only thing.
DeVorkin: Did you work with your father?
King: On that, yes.
DeVorkin: Were you a regular member of the Mt. Wilson staff at this point?
King: No, I was just a guest you might say.
DeVorkin: Living with your parents?
King: Yes. I guess we were. I sort of can't distinguish at what time I was a student as far as Mt. Wilson is concerned, or when I was on a post-graduate fellowship.
DeVorkin: Let me ask you about your ambitions after the first year or two of graduate school. You said you were getting interested in spectroscopy. Is it fair to say it was largely because of your father, or as well because of Shenstone?
King: I think it was both. Like all those things you can't pin it down to one person. Also, Russell's main work in that period was spectroscopy.
DeVorkin: So you would say he was influential too?
King: Yes. Russell incidentally, my father had said, had turned a spectroscopy there in the 1920s because he'd had a rather disappointing experience with some theories he had made on the evolution of stars that didn't work out at all. I guess it was the teens or early twenties. According to my father, he wanted to get into something he could get his teeth into and produce something that was real. He turned to term analysis of spectra in which he got to be an expert. This suited his mind, it seemed to me. He had a photographic memory, which is very helpful in sorting out terms or comparing energy levels. I think he could do a lot of that in his head. Other people would have to write it down on paper. He was very well equipped to do that and he was interested in it. It was quite important at the time.
DeVorkin: That is a very interesting recollection of your father's. Did he say that — of course your father would have gotten to know Russell starting around 1921. Did he every talk about the visits that Russell would make to the lab and how he got there?
King: As I told you, Russell used to come out and spend time at the observatory every year or thereabouts.
DeVorkin: My interest was how did he get there and if your father ever talked about Russell?
King: You mean how did he start doing it? I don't know.
DeVorkin: This is Tape 1, Side 2. We were talking about possibly if your father ever talked about Russell's influence and if Russell ever recruited your father or anything like that. Do you have any recollections like that?
King: Not specifically, but generally I think he made suggestions that my father might do to help the cause. That's as far as I know. I don't remember anything specific that Russell did.
DeVorkin: Let's talk about a very important decision for you and that's a choice of a thesis. Can you remember the process that led you to your thesis?
King: It was sort of dumped on me, you might say. This was fine with me because at that time I had no special yen for any one topic. Russell suggested it primarily, but my father might have had something to do with it also. Back a number of years before that Hale had — of course he'd always been interested in the sunspot spectra because he had discovered the magnetic field — these plates of a sunspot group that had been very prominent. I have forgotten the date now. There was a sunspot maximum. They took these series of spectra of a sunspot, a large spot, because it showed the magnetic splitting in the lines. They had ordered a couple of computers there. You might say they had a class of people in those days that I would call computers. They were mostly women, except this one. They called them computers because they would help in computations and things. A couple of them, including this man (actually he was a brother of Walter Adams) measured up these Zeeman splittings — all that they could see. It's all written down. Russell or my father, or both, thought this was a good thing to write a thesis about. Hale was interested in somebody doing something with it. Nobody had ever done anything with this data. So, I undertook it. I'd forgotten all about it. I will have to reread it someday.
DeVorkin: There is some interesting correspondence between Russell and your father that I have found that you would do a thesis on Zeeman patterns and lines and spot spectra, and there was a question at this time — I think it was on your father's part, but maybe you never were aware of this — that Hale himself was interested in pursuing some of his spot work again. There was a concern that you might be duplicating or somehow competing with Hale. Do you remember anything about that?
King: Not about that specifically, no. I do remember that Hale was interested in it because I had a couple of interviews, which was very unusual because at that time he was suffering and was not in good shape at all. Actually, it would have been very unpractical to do that himself. But anyway, I was lucky it was that way because I had two nice interviews with him in which he was very helpful in suggesting things to do and so on.
DeVorkin: So you never felt any competition with him?
King: No, goodness I couldn't compete with him. I was just a graduate student.
DeVorkin: As you were still working on the thesis, were you still in residence in Princeton, or were you working mainly at Mt. Wilson?
King: No, I was in residence at Princeton, although I didn't stay there in the summer time. I don't remember just when I started on the thesis work, but it was the second year I guess. I was at Princeton as a full time student.
DeVorkin: During your thesis work, would you say that Russell worked with you closely on the thesis, or did you get more advice from Shenstone, or from your father?
King: Russell made a lot of good suggestions of how to word it, you know, but that's about the extent of what he did. None of the others really had very much to do with it. I got the spectroscopic background from Shenstone fortunately. I think that's mainly just trying to get something out of those measurements. I don't know whether I succeeded or not, but I tried. It was apparently enough to get a thesis out of.
DeVorkin: After you went back to Mt. Wilson, you went back as a National Research Council Fellowship person and I think you had that for two years.
DeVorkin: During that time there is correspondence between Paul Merrill and Russell because people at Mt. Wilson were concerned that what you were finding, the relative relationship between the splitting, the magnetic field, and the intensity of the lines was different than what St. John had found and there was a question as to who was right. Do you recall that controversy?
King: No, I don't.
DeVorkin: It was resolved completely in your favor. The letters show that Russell was the one who did the convincing. Does that sound reasonable to you?
King: Sounds reasonable, yes. Russell knew about what I was doing and he suggested many of the things that I did. It sounds reasonable.
DeVorkin: As you were coming close to graduating and applying for the NRC post-doc and everything, I have to ask you the question. You were married. I don't know if you had any children yet.
King: No. We didn't have any until long afterwards.
DeVorkin: Was Mt. Wilson the place you wanted to work, or did you want to try something else?
King: I wanted to work there. I knew there were things I could do there. I didn't think that really I would consider any other place.
DeVorkin: So you got the post-doc there —
King: I was lucky. There weren't very many to give out at that time. All jobs were tough to get. I was just lucky never to be unemployed.
DeVorkin: There was one reference here, and I would like to know more about it if you have any recollections. This may have even been before you were an undergraduate. You got your Ph.D. in 1933. This dates back to 1930. You apparently worked in the summer for Anderson on the 200-inch project.
DeVorkin: Do you have any recollections of what you did?
King: Oh, very much so. It was the most fun job I ever had. Anderson was in charge. He was the executive officer of the 200-inch project. One of the first things to do was to locate a place for the project. Anderson devised this simple program to explore places for possibilities. He had made a bunch of 4-inch telescopes. You had a high power eye piece that you would put in this. It had a framework that you'd put the mounting — just a frame that was at an angle of the north star. You'd set this telescope on this framework and tie it down with clamps. You'd find the north star with a finding eye piece and then you'd put in the high power eye piece and if the seeing was very good you could see a diffraction disk; a telescope objective with the rings around it. This was a theoretical diffraction pattern of a point source and stars are point sources, as you no doubt know as far as our telescopes are concerned. Then they had some cross hairs there, you'd move the telescope just enough to get the image of the stars on the cross hairs and then you'd estimate how much the motion of the star was due to the atmospheric condition. You were supposed to do it in terms of a fraction of a tenth of a diameter of the disk. The seeing had to be awful good to even see a diffraction disk. Lots of times you couldn't.
DeVorkin: Sometimes the rings.
King: You had to see the rings. The seeing had to be very good to see the rings, or even to see a diffraction of the disk. At least half the time, at various sites, there would just be a big mass of point light dancing around. They'd located some possible sites to investigate all over California and Arizona and then he sent out individuals. He'd hire people and I don't know who they all were. One was a retired major from the British army and there were other people, local people in some cases. He furnished them these telescopes and showed them how to use them, I guess. He and Sinclair Smith largely worked on this and set the program up. They would make observations during the night and write them down, as well as the temperature and weather condition and so on. They needed somebody to go around and check on these people. Smith and Anderson didn't want to take their time to do that so they selected me to do that. I was one of the ones hired for the program and they had four of us up on Mt. Wilson. We were there for 2-3 weeks observing and using the little telescopes to measure. We'd move around to various points on the mountain and we'd shift telescopes during the night.
DeVorkin: This was all at Mt. Wilson?
King: This was on Mt. Wilson. We were training for the job, I guess. He selected me, for some reason, to go out and check on all the rest of these people. I guess I was consistent enough and my readings were so good that they knew what they meant. They could compare these with the regular observer's readings and they could calibrate them. It was a good idea because some of them were quite different. I remember one poor guy who was located on near the top of San Jacinto Peak. He was a Cal Tech student, a good solid fellow, but he'd never seen any diffraction disk. He thought he had, but when I was up there with him, he thought his diffraction disk was just one of his messy pinpoints of light. The seeing was so bad up there. They thought they would investigate a place like that and find out what it was like near the top of a high, single peak. That was San Jacinto. I went various other places, like up on the Sierras to June Lake. I would spend about a week at each place or 5-6 days, hoping to get every night clear. Maybe I spent a little longer. For example in Prescott, Arizona, we had cloudy weather most of the time I was there. I spent a little longer there. I telephoned Anderson and asked him what I should do. He said to stay for awhile. So, I did.
DeVorkin: Did you go to Palomar?
King: No. Anderson and other people had already — Milt Humason and other astronomers had already checked out Palomar. That was one of their favorites to start with. Other places were just possibilities. Part of the program was to determine, more or less as well as you could, what the characteristic seeing was at various types of topography like the desert, or the mountain peak. You know, the high table land like Prescott, Arizona and so on. They even had one on Catalina Island and on the beach in the Santa Monica mountains. I didn't go to those. The fellows that were on Mt. Wilson with me were manning those stations.
DeVorkin: Was this the summer of 1930?
King: 1929 and 1930. It was 1929 and then the next summer they narrowed it down to a few places, one of which was most favorable at Holcomb Valley. That's the valley parallel to Big Bear Valley. It's just over the mountains to the north. It is about 500 feet higher than Big Bear Valley. It's not as big a valley, but similar. It is a miniature, you might say, of Bear Valley except it has no lake. It has a stream base in it and goes down Holcomb Creek. It was an old mining area in the 1860s.
DeVorkin: I am quite sure I hiked in that area. I remember hiking from the YMCA camp at Big Bear up into a mining area. That sounds familiar.
King: Baldwin Lake was the mine that lucky Baldwin had with a mill. At that time in 1929 and 1930 — I was there both years, just as a checker in 1929. In 1930 he had four or five of us up there all summer, including the regular observer who had built a cabin there. We had our tents and telescopes around in various places within a mile of the main cabin.
DeVorkin: That must have been fun.
King: It was fun.
DeVorkin: Did you like camping?
King: Oh sure. I always have.
DeVorkin: I can appreciate that.
King: Actually, we had pretty luxurious camping because we had these nice tents with cots to sleep in and our telescopes outside. We'd just duck out at various scheduled times during the night and make our observations and then go back to bed. The main cabin there had a permanent observer who had been there for a year. They had to operate it. He was an excellent cook and we had good meals. He did all the cooking. The meals were all paid for by the observatory. It was a great summer — both summers — but the first summer was more interesting because I was traveling around all these places.
DeVorkin: That is a very nice little story.
King: Anyway, it was fun.
DeVorkin: Let me ask, when you did spectroscopy work — let's go back to Princeton for a minute — with Shenstone.
King: I didn't do any work with Shenstone.
DeVorkin: You just took courses?
DeVorkin: Your laboratory experience then you would typify as being limited to your father's lab?
DeVorkin: I would like to have you go through the steps of setting up a particular experiment and what all the procedures were to the extent you can remember them. Not any one in particular, but just generally what was the lab procedure like?
King: I can tell you how the middle 1930s were when we developed this method of measuring not the absolute intensities but the relative intensities, quantitatively. This was something Russell suggested would be a good idea to do.
DeVorkin: The relative intensities?
King: In the furnace.
DeVorkin: This was to get relative f-values?
DeVorkin: Give me that procedure. I would love to know that.
King: What we did was to, well the furnace of course was basic to it and the spectrograph was a concave grating. It was a 15 foot focus spectrograph used on almost all of it. The things I worked on were the metals because you could handle them conveniently in the furnace. You could get good results.
DeVorkin: What did you have — actually a sample of the metal you would vaporize in the furnace?
King: That's right. You would stick it on a little shovel. It was a piece of tubing that had almost half it filed off so there was just a trough and you'd stick the metal in the trough and feed it into the furnace and then twist it in the furnace, and there it was. When you would heat the furnace it would vaporize and the vapor seemed to fill the whole tube there. Absorption spectra were the type where you could get the most quantitative.
DeVorkin: You must have had a brighter source behind the furnace?
King: Yes, usually a Tungsten Lamp that you could overload. Later on I used a mercury vapor high-pressured mercury arc. That had a pretty good continuum. You needed a continuous spectra for a discharge of that type.
DeVorkin: How did you go about getting relative intensities or relative f-values out of this?
King: Just photographic photometry. They'd get this absorption spectrum and you had to have a intensity vs. density scale.
DeVorkin: Who would provide that?
King: The person who was doing the experiment would have to provide that, to measure what the absorption was.
DeVorkin: How would that be derived?
King: The microphotometer that Dunham had built. There was a recording drum and light came through the spectrum focused on the spot. Down below there was a photo cell and it measured the strength of the light coming through the slit. You ran that across the lines and it was recorded on the photographic paper. Of course, you also had to record the density spots you put on the strips or whatever that was done during the calibration. You'd measure the strength of the lines, the absorption lines. It turns out that theoretically, that in very weak lines, there is a linear relationship between the total absorption of the line and the strength. This method is dependent on the linear relationship in order to get the strength of the lines. Once you had the particular plate[s] made at the different temperatures, you could calculate the relative number of atoms in the lower energy levels involved in absorption and calculate the f-values.
DeVorkin: What were the sources of error in your experiments that you recall having to deal with, to guard against?
King: Temperature, of course, was the possibility of error; the temperature changing in the furnace during the experiment. You just had to be very careful to regulate it.
DeVorkin: These were electric furnaces?
King: Yes, all electric furnaces — my father's furnace, graphite tube. It was all done with that.
DeVorkin: Were these standard laboratory devices that were simply purchased from companies?
King: No, everything was rigged up specially, except the microphotometer which Dunham had built.
DeVorkin: That was his responsibility, I take it?
King: Yes. He was still there then. If anything went wrong with it he would have it fixed.
DeVorkin: Before the microphotometer, I take it your father used straight photography?
DeVorkin: He had rigged it up so the microphotometer read the density directly, so this is more like a spectrophotometer?
King: Yes, really what it was. It didn't have that name at that time. That was a newer name.
DeVorkin: Was it one of the first spectrophotometer to your knowledge?
King: Yes, to my knowledge. I think it was one of the first. Astronomers used it for measuring the relative intensity of the lines in the stars.
DeVorkin: That was of course later.
King: No, it was that time that Dunham built it for, really. He didn't build it for me. I just happened to use it.
DeVorkin: He built it for the telescopes, directly for stellar stuff?
King: Yes, not directly but the photographic plates.
DeVorkin: He'd measure photographic plates?
DeVorkin: But in your case it could measure the densities directly, without going through the photographic process.
King: Oh no. It was all photographic.
DeVorkin: So you still took photographs?
DeVorkin: And then you took the photographs and put it in the microdensitometer?
DeVorkin: I see.
King: That's the way it was built. It was not built to work directly with anything.
DeVorkin: Was there any discussion at that time of eliminating the photographic part of it and doing it directly?
King: Oh yes, we did later on. Some of my students did that.
DeVorkin: That must be after World War II then?
King: Yes, right after World War II; using photocells.
DeVorkin: Exactly. OK, you have given me a description of at least the nature of your work in the 1930s. You were there on an NRC post-doc for two years. During that time, of course, Russell came out to the observatory on a number of occasions. I know you were working on iron, on titanium, and a lot of these things were suggested by Russell. Do you recall these conversations?
King: Nothing specific about them, no.
DeVorkin: Was there any time that he ever came out and was just overly excited that this had to be done, or that had to be done?
King: No. Not that I recall.
DeVorkin: Did you cooperate with other laboratories?
King: Yes, any way we could. It is hard to say how we did, but we could help visitors, telling them all about it and that sort of thing.
DeVorkin: But at this time Russell was the chairman of the NRC commission on line spectra. I know your father was on the commission as well. This was a big collaborative operation to do as much term analysis as possible. I know Meggers lab was involved and there was a man named Dobe in Oxford working on iron. The iron spectrum was the big campaign. Were you aware that this was considered a campaign at that time?
King: I didn't think of it that way. It was important. The rest of them thought it was very important and that is why I did it.
DeVorkin: What was important about it? What was the goal?
King: Iron is very prominent in the spectra of the stars and the sun; the sun especially. Most stars have iron in their atmospheres. The spectrum is full of iron lines. That is why it is important.
DeVorkin: Do you feel you were doing astronomy by doing this?
King: I was doing it for astronomy, really, but I didn't think of it as doing astronomy.
DeVorkin: You didn't feel like this was maybe changing the way astronomy was done?
King: No, I didn't think of it that way.
DeVorkin: Let me ask you about one item — this is 1934 — that came up where Russell, I believe, is talking to your father again and he is talking about cobalt. You were working on cobalt, I think, for awhile. He was happy with your progress and your work, but then he added "that Hindu has stolen the march on us again in the term analysis which looks to me pretty good." Do you know who he is talking about? Who would be called a Hindu at that time?
King: I don't know. I just don't know.
DeVorkin: Could it be Saha?
DeVorkin: Saha wasn't working in this area?
King: No, he wasn't. I just don't remember now.
King: Incidentally, Raman's nephew is my retinologist doctor.
DeVorkin: That is a coincidence. So you don't have any recollection who that Hindu would be?
King: No, I don't know.
DeVorkin: Is it safe to say you worked closest with your father at Mt. Wilson while you were there those two years?
King: Yes, I think so.
DeVorkin: Who else?
King: Really not anybody else. There was serious work. I think I went up Mt. Wilson a time or two and helped Sinclair Smith make observations with the photometer that he rigged up with a 60 inch, but I was just an extra hand there. I didn't have anything to do with the design or anything like that.
DeVorkin: I would like to know — and of course I have a lot of names here, many of whom you have already named like Adams, Sears, Merrill, Hubble — if any of these people stand out as people that you would like to say something about. Let's say Adams to start with.
King: Adams was the director, of course, and he was an old New Englander in character. He was very much conservative in his thinking and so on. He was a good man and was always nice to me. He was more like Joe Boyce. Is Joe still living?
DeVorkin: Not to my knowledge, but I certainly want to get you to talk about him.
King: Anyway, Joe said that Adams was more like chairman of the board than the director of the observatory.
DeVorkin: That's an interesting statement.
King: I think that is right. He didn't try to direct people's research. He just made it possible for them to do it.
DeVorkin: He, of course, had been involved with St. John and others in the revision of the Rowland spectrum. That was all done by the time you got to Mt. Wilson as a staff member. But St. John was still there. Could you describe St. John?
King: He was an old man, I thought, by that time. He really wasn't doing very much that I could recall.
DeVorkin: He certainly was quite senior to everyone else and he passed away sometime in the middle 1930s. Did he ever talk to you about the sun spot work and about Russell?
King: No, I don't think he ever did.
DeVorkin: So would you say that you didn't have too much contact with him?
King: I didn't, no.
DeVorkin: There are plenty of others. What contact did you have with people like Joy, Pettit and Nicholson?
King: Mainly, they were always nice to me. You would meet them walking between buildings or something like that and you would chat with them a bit. Then several observatory people, including Merrill and Joy, used to go up and eat lunch at the little restaurant at the corner of Orange Grove and Lake and I went with them quite frequently.
DeVorkin: That was sort of like a watering hole?
King: It was just a plain little restaurant run by a family. There was no watering or anything else.
DeVorkin: You mean no liquor?
King: No liquor at all.
DeVorkin: Did they tend to talk shop up there?
King: Somewhat. That wasn't the only thing they talked about. They were fairly versatile people. Merrill was city director at Pasadena for a number of years. Joy was the secretary of the observatory, which means he was Adams right hand man as far as administration and all the stuff was concerned. This job Milt Humason inherited.
DeVorkin: After Joy?
DeVorkin: When you look at the history of Mt. Wilson you look at two large groups. You have the spectroscopists and then you have the people who you might think of as extra-galactic.
King: The "direct" people as they used to call it.
DeVorkin: Who used to call them the "direct" people?
King: The spectroscopists. There were two phases of the moon. There was the dark run and the spectroscopic run, about two weeks each in every month. Sometimes the darker moon run was called the "direct" run because they were mainly taking pictures directly. The extra galactic nebula was part of the "direct" program of the moon.
DeVorkin: How did the two groups get along?
King: Reasonably well, I guess. I felt sometimes there was ill feelings between them, but nothing that you would notice.
DeVorkin: I have heard that there was sort of an upstairs and a downstairs in Santa Barbara Street, where spectroscopist had one floor and —
King: That was probably correct. The "direct" was downstairs and upstairs were the spectroscopists. Adams' office was upstairs. Hubble and other "direct" people were mainly on the first floor. The solar people were there too — Richardson and so on. There was also van Maanen who did stellar parallax work.
DeVorkin: How did he get along with the rest of the staff?
King: He and Hubble didn't get along at all, but I don't know about the rest of the people. I think most of them got along with him alright. He was always nice to me and friendly.
DeVorkin: Let's move on a little bit. By 1935 you were on your second NRC fellowship. There is correspondence during 1934 and 1935 between Russell and your father, and I think some others, about possible jobs for you. One was to fill the vacancy left by C. L. Coor at Dartmouth, and the other was a possibility to work under Oliver Lee at Northwestern. Are you aware of any of these?
King: Not really. I don't think I knew much about them.
DeVorkin: Russell said one very interesting thing to your father in 1934. He is ready to back your application to fill that position at Dartmouth, but he felt that several more years of research in your present position at Mt. Wilson would be of great value to your career. But you are a family man and you have obligations and have to hunt for a good job. Did you ever talk directly with Russell about that?
King: I don't think so. I know when I got this job at MIT, in 1935, I thought it was through Joe Boyce.
DeVorkin: How did that happen?
King: Joe was at Princeton when I first started and I got a little acquainted. He was really friendly to me. When Compton moved to MIT from Princeton then Joe went with him and worked under him up there. He did conduct research because Compton I don't think did any himself at MIT. He was president. Anyway, Joe got me the job I think.
DeVorkin: What was that job?
DeVorkin: You were an instructor. I know that Harrison was involved in getting you the job, too.
King: Harrison was a professor and I was a lowly instructor on a three year job.
DeVorkin: Was Boyce an instructor?
King: No, he was a research associate I think.
DeVorkin: So you were an instructor there, but did you do spectroscopy in Boyce's lab?
King: It was Harrison's lab. Yes, I did some. I took some pictures there, but the main work was done at Mt. Wilson.
DeVorkin: What I am trying to determine here is that it seems like you got interested in absolute f-values while you were at MIT. Is that correct?
King: I have forgotten now just when I did.
DeVorkin: Do you remember what got you interested in them and how you knew you could tackle them?
King: It is obvious that they would be a good thing to do — to find the absolute values, and not just relative. It seemed to me, at least, more useful. I tried to do it.
DeVorkin: Did you take any, or sit in, on any additional physics courses when you were at MIT?
King: No, I taught Freshmen. That kept me busy because I hadn't done any teaching before.
DeVorkin: And that was Freshmen physics. How did you like that?
King: It was fine. I worked hard on it. We had a new textbook. It was written by Nathaniel Frank who was a professor there, or assistant professor at that time. It was a tough book — at least people thought it was. Even the professors who taught Freshmen thought it was tough. They started a system of hiring professors to teach sections on the Freshmen level and this had been something new for MIT to do this. A lot of people were teaching Freshmen sections. I had three sections, but I was just an instructor. Anyway, they all thought this book was pretty tough. We had to work the problems out, you know! Afterwards, at Cal Tech and teaching Freshmen there from time to time, I thought it was really a pretty elementary type book.
DeVorkin: By then.
King: Yes, by then because we had a lot more sophisticated things at Cal Tech for the Freshmen course than they did there, especially when Richard Feynman started to write his book.
DeVorkin: Oh yes, that is a bit later.
King: That was much later.
DeVorkin: In 1937 (July) you were certainly at MIT and Russell wrote to you saying that he was going to be at the MIT spectroscopy conference. That is something I think Slater was running at that time. I was wondering if you had any recollections of those conferences?
King: No, I really don't.
DeVorkin: Do you have any of the Harvard summer school that Shapley ran at that time?
DeVorkin: So you didn't involve yourself too much. I do know here there was a question of whether you would go to the conference because in the summer you were going to come back here. Did you continue coming back here a lot in the summers?
King: Yes, I did.
DeVorkin: Did you see Russell mainly at those times?
King: During that period, yes. I was not at Princeton anymore.
DeVorkin: I take it you saw him either at MIT or here?
You talked about getting interested in doing absolute f-values. I guess what I was asking you there is whether you were learning more physics at MIT, which allowed you to do that.
King: That's true. I did learn a lot of physics there.
DeVorkin: What was Joe Boyce like to work for or, did you?
King: I didn't work for him. He was just a friend of mine is all. I didn't work for him. I didn't know of anybody who worked for him. He was supposed to work for Compton. He had Compton's name on the door. You know they put professor's names on the door and Compton's name was there, but Joe was the guy that was in there with the equipment.
DeVorkin: Did he have a furnace set up as well?
King: Harrison did. I worked with Ed a little, but I never got anywhere with it. I mean I didn't take any of the final photographs.
DeVorkin: Russell heard, in February 1938 through Boyce, that you got a job back at Mt. Wilson. I would like very much to know how that happened.
King: I think Russell probably had something to do with it and my father, no doubt. In fact, I guess I had been around there a bit already so they knew who I was. I was not too objectionable to have around. I was just lucky that I got the job. Jobs were scarce still in 1938.
DeVorkin: Very scarce. I happen to know that they finally got money to bring you back partly by transferring Sinclair Smith to the 200 inch project. The money was made available that way. Your father apparently needed more help in the lab.
King: Yes, the lab was a big lab for those days and nobody but he was using it. Really, that's true. Anderson had a set up there for exploding wires, but he rarely used it.
DeVorkin: What was the exploding wires for actually?
King: It was to duplicate stars, I think, in its original idea. It was to try to simulate a star.
DeVorkin: Was this a spark or hotter than a spark?
King: Hotter than a spark. The excitation was largely, well you got a continuum with absorption lines on top of it. It was like a star spectrum or solar spectrum, more or less.
DeVorkin: And he didn't work on it too much?
King: He did most of his work before I got there. He was still involved with the 200 inch all the time.
DeVorkin: So you got back in 1938. You must have had about three good years in there where you were doing lab work primarily. I would like to know how you and your father worked together. What was the set up?
King: His office was down there at the lab and I had an office up in the so-called government building. We'd just work together at first because I learned the furnace with him — most of the developing plates and processing plates and so on. He was old hand at this and so I'd come down in the afternoon. Usually he spent the mornings doing paperwork or measuring things and then he would work in the lab in the afternoon. It's a pretty good way to do it because you are fresher in the morning for doing something like paper work, and in the afternoon it is good to be on your feet for awhile. It's not so intensive work.
DeVorkin: Did you work in parallel, on separate projects, or did you work on the same projects?
King: The same project. He was working on his own things all the time too.
DeVorkin: He'd done his temperature classification quite some time ago and all of that.
King: He was still doing it. He was working on the rare earths. That was in the 1930s.
DeVorkin: They were all temperature classifications?
King: That was one of the primary things he was doing. The rare earths hadn't been worked on hardly at all and the intensities. He was fortunate in that he got contact with a retired chemist named McCoy who had a hobby of purifying rare earths in his garage.
DeVorkin: This is something I haven't read anywhere.
King: You wouldn't.
DeVorkin: Was he a Cal Tech chemist?
King: No, he was an industrial chemist. After he retired he did this as a hobby. He'd give my father these samples. I guess he would provide other spectroscopists with them, too. That was one of the troubles with the rare earths, the arising spectra which were usually mixtures. Samples were not pure.
DeVorkin: Did you continue on with your f-value work?
DeVorkin: So in a way you were doing different things.
King: That's right. I kept that up pretty much a long time. I worked with different methods and so on.
DeVorkin: Let's move into the period around 1940 to 1942, with the coming of the war. How did your life change and life in the lab change?
King: I just deserted the lab. My father continued on there until he retired, which I think was in 1943. He went down to work at Cal Tech. He was on a different project there then I was.
DeVorkin: What project were you on?
King: I was on the rocket project.
DeVorkin: So you went to the rocket project.
King: Yes, we made all the rockets and designed them.
DeVorkin: What was your particular responsibility?
King: At first there were just a few people and we did everything.
DeVorkin: Was this with Tolman?
King: No. Tolman was back in Washington. I went back there two or three times to demonstrate our rockets. Tolman was very nice to me. He had an office in the National Academy building and he let me use a desk there.
DeVorkin: Who did you work for?
King: Charlie Lauritzen was the head of the project. It was a strange project. Its first mission was an anti-aircraft rocket. The British were doing that. The British had lost most of their aircraft guns in France and they were usually developing rockets to shoot at airplanes. I guess the powers at be in Washington decided that was a good thing for these guys to do too. Charlie realized that we never needed the rockets for that. It would be more useful to make them for other purposes, which we did. I worked there for four years. At first, all of us did everything. We'd machine the powder and other things. We would make the tubage and make the nozzle. We did everything. Then we would go out to shoot them.
DeVorkin: How many were there?
King: Oh, maybe a dozen guys.
DeVorkin: I see. This was in the first few years. I am sure it got bigger than that.
King: Much. At the end there were about 3,000 people.
DeVorkin: Where did you put them all?
King: Most of them worked up in Eaton canyon in the powder plant. The campus never got to be overcrowded, although the Norman Bridge lab was full.
DeVorkin: As the project got larger, what were your responsibilities?
King: I worked into the fuse business gradually. I remember Charlie Lauritzen worked on the design for the first couple of fuses, the first couple of rockets that were made. We had an order from the Navy for 3,000 rockets. They wanted some of these Barrage rockets for landings in North Africa. They needed them by September and this was about April (1942). We had the thing pretty well developed but the fuse needed a lot of testing and so on. I sort of worked into the fuse business. It just sort of worked out that way. I ran the fuse business. I got into it really when Charlie told me, when I went back to Washington to shoot some rockets up into the atmosphere. We were salesmen to begin with, I guess, or Charlie was. I remember one of the best selling times was when a Vice Admiral named Wilson Brown, I think his name was, came in from the Pacific. He'd been charged with the attack on one of the first Japanese islands. It was not too far away. He'd been in charge of that expedition. Someone had persuaded him that it might be a good idea to come around and see us and go see one of our tests. We were shooting rockets, mainly British and some that we had made, at Goldstone Lake. None were with high explosive or anything. He went out and I went out with some other guys. He saw us shoot these things we were making for the chemical warfare service or trying to. They never bought any until the end of the war. They always kept wanting a little something else; making them shoot another 500 yards, or something, and that sort of thing. Sure you could, but why didn't they say so in the beginning. So we never got to get into that like we did with the Navy.
DeVorkin: So the specifications changed all the time. But the Navy was better?
King: The Navy was much better. They needed things. The chemical warfare service wasn't fighting — the Navy was. We got along great with the Navy.
DeVorkin: Did you make any friends in the military service during this time?
DeVorkin: Did you stay in contact with them after the war?
King: Only one really. He was retired even before the war. He was a retired naval officer who worked with us on the project. He worked with me. He's dead now.
DeVorkin: He must have been a bit older if he was retired already.
King: He had been retired because of tuberculosis which he pretty well had gotten a hold of so he was in good health during the war, but they wouldn't take him back into the service. He tried to get back. One of his friends was very valuable to us in the fuse business which I got into there. I sort of grew into it. He knew most of the key people in the bureau of ordinance in Washington. One of his best friends actually was in charge of ammunition there.
DeVorkin: Were these proximity fuses?
King: No, these were mechanical.
DeVorkin: Mechanical ignitioned.
King: Impact fire. We didn't make any proximity fuses. That was done at DTM in Washington. Ours were just hooked up the simplest way possible. You know a rocket doesn't have much in the way of forces that you can use to arm a fuse or like the projectile which rotates like crazy and also accelerates. We had acceleration but not very much. We'd only use it as a sort of secondary arming. They actually were nose fuses. We used the wind. We had little propellers that would come out and would rotate out to release a detonator which would then flop over into place and then would fire on impact. It would drive the firing pin back into the detonator. For base fuses we would use the pressure from a rocket motor to collapse a diaphragm. Of course both of them used acceleration as a sort of secondary factor, but not the primary arming. We had a rather difficult job, but we did pretty well with it. We made at least 100,000 fuses for the Navy with pilot production. We got into the production business.
DeVorkin: What production firms did you work with?
King: Most of them you've never heard of and they don't even exist anymore. They were just shops that were set up during the war. One of them was Buelly Allen who sold Cadillacs and had a garage down in El Hambra. He was a very sharp guy. Getting into the war he decided the automobile business was caput. He still had some cars to sell, but he quit being an auto dealer and built a shop there in his garage. He hired good people and had a good foreman. We used him a lot. It was one of our three best shops in the fuse business. There were little places like that we used. The system was that there would be a need for this type of rocket and the rocket need diffuse. So we tried to develop a design and cobble up a fuse for that particular type of rocket. Then we check test them. We built a few — one or two — and took them out to Inyokern where we could shoot — this is now called the Naval Weapons Center — live ammunition and do the testing. The Navy would ask us to supply them with 50,000 or something like that.
DeVorkin: So you did the contracting for the actual production work too?
King: Yes, we would sort of go in between. We would contract with these people to build the things.
DeVorkin: Were you responsible for something like quality control, going around to these small production facilities to make sure that they were —
King: We set up inspectors in the principle ones. I was in charge, I am afraid. Actually, we got to be in charge of the whole Navy fuse business eventually, for rocket fuses at least. The procedure was to start them, to develop them, and do the testing. Then we would make our drawings and hand them over to the Navy. They would then make their drawings using their conventions and then they would contract for big production. This was when they decided they were going to use this rocket. That didn't work out very well. One time there was a really very minor thing involving only one extra operation, which we did and they didn't. It made the fuse unsafe. There was a launcher used from the ground and on ships they had what you call an automatic launcher where these rockets were stacked. One of them would be fired electrically and the next one would slide right down in the same place and it would then fire and so on, until a whole stack of them were fired. The trouble with it was that the blast of the first rocket was very strong on the next one and so on, as it came out of the launcher. What was happening was that some of the fuses sometimes would arm. They detected this in their testing back east. The fellow who was in charge of launchers and I went down to Camp Pendleton where we had a range so we could shoot out over the ocean with live ammunition. In fact, we had one run where we shot live ammunition, too. We got some of the Navy around ready to fire and we put two of them in the launcher and fired the first one. Then we let go to see what happened to the second one. Sure enough, every once in a while one would be armed and this propeller that was on the front would have spun out. You could tell that without taking it apart or anything. We told the Navy that they had to do this extra operation on this little part or they would have trouble.
DeVorkin: Did they listen to you?
King: They listened to me. In fact, they did more than that. They took their chief fuse draftsman and sent him out here to work with us. He was then to make the final Navy drawings. We drew up the specifications for everything and the acceptance test and all the rest of it. In other words, we were in charge of the whole darn thing, except actually giving out the contracts which they did still. We were in no position to do that.
DeVorkin: Did you have any choice as to whether you would work on the rocket project or some other project or was this simply —
King: I'll tell you how it came out and you'll say I didn't. War started there on December 7, and shortly afterwards, around the end of the month, Olin Wilson went down to Cal Tech. He was my contemporary. He thought I should come down there, too. I thought that was a good idea to be patriotic and see if there was anything I could do around there. I went down and talked to Ike Bowen. Ike later became director of the observatory. He was a physicist. He was Milliken's favorite man, you might say, in the department. He came from Chicago with Millikan. He thought surely there would be something I would do. I got a leave of absence, which Adams was perfectly willing to grant. I went down there to work at Cal Tech.
DeVorkin: So that's how it happened.
King: That's how it happened. I didn't even know what they were working on for sure. I guess I did get hints that it was rockets.
DeVorkin: Did you get to know Bowen at this time or did you know Bowen earlier?
King: Oh yes. I knew him but I didn't know him well. I got to know him well during the war. He was in charge of all the data gathering. He invented a camera that he used for measuring rocket acceleration and so on. How did you find out about Bowen?
DeVorkin: What do you mean?
King: How did you run into Bowen?
DeVorkin: I have been reading his papers.
King: I see.
DeVorkin: I am very interested in how he became director. I know that Russell was delighted to hear that you were coming back to the observatory in November of 1945. Was that about the right time?
King: Yes. It was after the end of the war. Actually, I didn't come back until after the first of the year because I took a leave of absence there; unpaid. At that time, we had an orange grove out at Redlands. We always had the idea of building a house on it so we could go out there. I just took off three months from October through the end of the year. I did that and we built a house. I did most of the work on it. I learned something about building. I went back to Mt. Wilson at the first of the year.
DeVorkin: By this time Bowen was already the new director. Did you have any knowledge that he was going to be the director before that time?
DeVorkin: How did you feel about it when you heard that?
King: Fine. I liked Bowen and I admired him very much. He was a good man. Actually, I think I was considered for the job. I heard that through the underground. I was one of four or five that they were considering. I think Bowen was a much better selection.
DeVorkin: You were still pretty young at that time.
King: Yes, it was 1945.
DeVorkin: So you were 38?
DeVorkin: That's pretty young. Bowen was maybe a little older.
King: He was at least ten years older.
DeVorkin: What were the underground rumors about?
King: I don't remember hearing any really. I wasn't around the observatory at that time. I was either working on the project, or on building a house.
DeVorkin: But you were happy to hear that Bowen had gotten it?
DeVorkin: Were people surprised? Was there anyone you talked to who you might say was surprised?
King: I don't remember now. I think there probably were, some of them.
DeVorkin: I know that Hubble was a bit upset.
King: I think he wanted to be director probably.
DeVorkin: But you had no direct knowledge of how people felt?
King: No. I never went around asking them.
DeVorkin: Did your dad have any opinions?
King: He thought well of Bowen all the time. He was retired by then.
DeVorkin: How did observatory life change under Bowen?
King: Not much. I think everybody went their own way, just as they'd always done. Bowen was something like Adams as far as being a director is concerned. He wouldn't tell you to go do that.
DeVorkin: I know by the late 1940s your dad's lab — which is your laboratory now — moved to Cal Tech.
King: I sort of shifted out there. I spent more time.
DeVorkin: How did that happen? Is this something you wanted to do?
King: I did it. I don't know if I wanted to very much, but it just seemed as though I was spending more time down there all the time. Actually, it didn't shift down there. The laboratory stayed open and was used. I had three students there almost immediately there after the war that all got degrees, working the lab.
DeVorkin: Who were they?
King: Bill Carter was one of them. He is retired now. He worked in the atomic bomb business down in the south some place, most of his active life.
King: Oakridge or one of those places. Frank Esterbrook is still up at JPL. He is officially retired, but still works there. Armin Hill was a Mormon and he went up to teach at Brigham Young University. The last I heard of him he was a Dean of Engineering in science.
DeVorkin: These are all people who are indeed in physics or engineering. I had about thirteen or so fellows go through graduate school and get degrees. Some of them I hardly remember.
DeVorkin: Who were the more prominent ones?
King: Those three I kept in touch with, except for Hill. I lost track of him. I still get cards at Christmas from Carter and Esterbrook. He asked me to come up just a few months ago and he'd give me a tour of JPL, which he did.
DeVorkin: I know that you did one thing with Bowen, but I don't know how much you really did. I'd like to ask you about it. In late 1947 and 1948 you and Bowen got involved in an ONR program to analyze ultra violet solar spectra from V-2 rockets.
King: I don't remember it even. That's how much I had to do with it, I guess.
DeVorkin: Apparently, the idea was that you would do ultra violet term work here and it would support the interpretation of the spectra. Charlotte Moore was doing her multiple t work and she needed data. Your furnace might provide that data, but when the rocket spectra continued to be very poor there was nothing to do. Does that sound right to you?
King: I just don't remember it. It must have just slipped my mind entirely.
DeVorkin: Bowen finally decided that nothing was happening.
King: That's reasonable. Bowen was always very sensible about everything.
DeVorkin: He said, I think to Leo Goldberg, that you guys have plenty of other things to do.
King: I can imagine what he said.
DeVorkin: Can you sort of give me an overview of what it was —
King: No, I can't.
DeVorkin: Not the rocket stuff, but all the other stuff you were doing.
King: I was continuing measuring f-values and worked out a couple of ways of measuring absolute values. I built the apparatus and actually measured a few. Then I had graduate students who did thesis work on the same general line of work. Some of them did relative values. Armin Hill measured one of the metals. Some others built apparatus to measure absolute values. Near the end of the time I was at Cal Tech, I got involved with Ward Whaling. He was a nuclear physicist. We started measuring and observing — what do they call that? There is a particular name for that technique or line of work. Using one of the high energy machines you'd shoot some high speed ions — oh! beam foil spectroscopy. We got into that. He's still doing some of it I think. When I left he was working on it.
DeVorkin: It's a very big field.
King: He's still in it. We had a graduate student or two who did theses on it before I left.
DeVorkin: It sounds like your work after World War II certainly got further and further away from the work of the observatory. Is that a fair assessment?
King: I don't know. It was all directed at getting data which would be useful for astronomers. From the beginning that was the idea. I don't think we got away from that, really.
DeVorkin: Did you ever write grant proposals to ONR for support?
King: Yes, I did. They supported the project there at Cal Tech. They supported the work I was doing in the lab; not only the beam foil but the furnace and the work of the graduate students during that time.
DeVorkin: Was Bowen very supportive of that? Were you still technically working for Bowen or were you working in the physics department?
King: I was working in the physics department technically.
DeVorkin: Your boss was who?
King: Actually, I was head of the department.
DeVorkin: So it wasn't Bowen?
King: Bowen was never much of a boss anyway, but by then he was sort of chairman of the board.
DeVorkin: Did you find working at Cal Tech more acceptable to you? Was it more enjoyable? I was just wondering why you didn't go back to Mt. Wilson?
King: I got transferred. When Bowen became director at Mt. Wilson he had to leave Cal Tech. He had been teaching courses there in spectroscopy and optics. Cal Tech needed somebody to do that and Bowen thought I could do it, I guess. He sent me down to Cal Tech.
DeVorkin: So that's why you were spending more time down there?
DeVorkin: As a Mt. Wilson staff member you were actually teaching and then you became a faculty member.
King: I never did any teaching while on Mt. Wilson staff.
DeVorkin: So you actually transferred.
King: I actually transferred.
DeVorkin: Did you have any choice in this matter?
King: I didn't think I did. Nobody pressured me or anything, but Bowen thought it was a pretty good idea and it seemed to me to be reasonable.
DeVorkin: Did you stay in reasonable contact with Bowen?
King: Sure, when there was occasion to.
DeVorkin: We've come a pretty long way here.
King: Bowen, I had to teach his courses; spectroscopy courses. He had notes on them, which he gave me. He loaned them to me.
DeVorkin: Do you still have those lecture notes?
King: I don't think so.
DeVorkin: Have you kept letters and correspondence with your father or materials like that?
King: I don't think I have much like that. I might look through my files and see if I do, but I don't think there's much of an account.
DeVorkin: There is an archivist who works close here in Huntington who asked me to ask you that question. You may not know, but he is collecting all of the papers from Mt. Wilson staff members. He does not have any letters in his collection of your father's. The question is, where would your father's letters have gone and would they be with you maybe or would you know where they would be. If you did know, would you be interested in donating them to the Huntington Library.
King: Sure I would, if they are useful.
DeVorkin: Do you have such things?
King: I will have to look through. I may have a few, but not many.
DeVorkin: Could I say to him — his name is Ronald Brashea — would you mind if he called you sometime?
King: No, that would be fine. I will rummage around my files and see if I can find anything.
DeVorkin: Yes, if you have something in a box in the garage you haven't thought about.
King: Most of the stuff I threw out. I kept it for a long time, but —
DeVorkin: I know you have moved up to northern California, and back. Is there anything you would like to add about your career or the people we have been talking about or your dad? Something you feel should be recorded about your father?
King: I don't think of anything. You've got a pretty good slant on his activities.
DeVorkin: I think we have come a long way and I want to thank you very much.
King: I want to tell you something about Russell. You know they used to spend time during the summer at the Lowell Observatory. They would get an old second hand car of some sort and go tooting off into the Indian country north of there. The whole family would go. We always thought the traders up there must have got a real kick out of the Russell family.
DeVorkin: How so?
King: They were different.
DeVorkin: How were they different?
King: Russell was different from most people. He had a tremendous range of interests. He was interested in anything and everything. They weren't that different, I would say, but not like your ordinary tourist really. They weren't the persons the Indian traders would have come in contact with.
DeVorkin: What would Russell do when he encountered maybe a merchant?
King: He got along fine with them, I gathered.
DeVorkin: Was his whole family like that — really actively interested in things?
King: Yes. They just went along for the ride, but they did it. I remember one of the times Helen and I went east. We drove and stopped off at Flagstaff, at Russell's invitation, and spent the night there at the observatory. Russell insisted on taking us up to Sunset Peak. It's an extinct volcano. It's a volcanic cone out there in the desert northeast of Flagstaff. It is on the edge of the desert with forested country more or less around it.
DeVorkin: But it's a cinder cone?
King: Cinder cone, yes. We climbed up that and there is a trail. We got a beautiful view of the surrounding country with the desert and the Indian country to the north. I remember his coming down, sort of running in a suit coat. He looked like a big bird prancing down the trail.
DeVorkin: You were married and this must have been in the late 1930s by then?
King: Middle 1930s.
DeVorkin: Why did Russell stay at Flagstaff?
King: I think he just liked the summers there. He wasn't doing any special work with the instruments there or anything, I don't think. It was a nice place to spend the summer. They enjoyed having him, so he did that.
DeVorkin: Did you meet Frank Edmundson while you were there?
King: I don't think he was there then.
DeVorkin: This was before he got there.
King: I met him. He married one of Russell's daughters. I don't remember where it was. It must have been at Princeton or some place.
DeVorkin: That's an interesting story. It especially gives me a nice flavor for Russell.
King: He was interested in everything.
DeVorkin: You would certainly say, as far as the most important thing is, that he did have a substantial influence on what was done in the lab throughout?
King: Yes he did. He had ideas about things that could be done and that you should be doing.
DeVorkin: Thank you very much.
King: I didn't really tell you much about Russell, unfortunately, but I didn't have very much more to say.
DeVorkin: If there is anything else I would be delighted to hear about it.
King: I can't think about anything right now.
DeVorkin: You gave me very good insight into the fact that he was accessible to you when you were a graduate student. You could get advice from him. He pretty much gave you your thesis topic through your father; they kind of worked as a duet helping you with your work. It sounded like you got a tremendous amount of advice and direction from him. Other students of his, at about the same time, didn't say this by the way. I can tell you that I have interviewed Louie Green. He said that he felt Russell was a little distant.
King: Russell wasn't chummy with people. He never was with anybody that I knew of. He was always very nice to us, the graduate students. Any questions he was always very happy to answer.
DeVorkin: Did you know that Green worked in Shenstone's lab on his thesis about three or four years after you?
King: I think so but I'd forgotten it.
DeVorkin: He was working on iron. I take it you didn't have any direct contact?
King: No. We overlapped there as graduate students so I knew him, but I didn't know much about what he was doing. I guess they started that after I left.
DeVorkin: Yes, it was by 1936.
King: I guess he was still an undergraduate when I was there.
DeVorkin: That is quite possible. He started taking some graduate courses when he was a senior. If anything else occurs to you when you read the transcript, I would be delighted if you would just sort of pencil it in. I will say, for the tape, that this interview will now be transcribed. I will edit it and send you a rough copy with my edit so you can see how it is edited. It won't be smooth or anything. You can make comments as you please and at that time let me know how I can use it.
King: That's fair enough.
DeVorkin: Thanks a lot.
King: I think I talk too much about myself, but when you ask the questions —
DeVorkin: That's right. I wanted to know.