Oral History Transcript — Dr. Jason Nassau
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Interview with Dr. Jason Nassau
Jason Nassau; September 13, 1961
ABSTRACT: Topics discussed include: his education at Syracuse University, Charles Brush, Case University, Royal Observatory in Great Britain, Professor Eddington and Professor Turner from Oxford, Western Reserve University, growth of the observatory at Case University, Dayton Miller and the Michelson Morley experiments, McCuskey, and the courses he taught throughout his career.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Weiner:When did you first meet him?
Nassau:Well of course I don't recall exactly but it seems to me around the early 20's. I do remember that there was an eclipse in the year 1925. I think it was '25 it might have been '24 but you can check that very readily. There was an observable total in Buffalo so at the Cleveland Astronomical Society which I was President I had an exhibition and I think we had one or two cars leaving early in the morning from Cleveland. And Mr. Brush joined the group. Also in the group was the President of the college Charles Howe that came along and we went out of the city of Buffalo. I don't now recall how we got there. There was a barn there and we watched for the eclipse. And it was over clouded. Hopeless. And the only thing I remember very clearly was Mr. Brush was keeping the group amused with an awful lot of stories.
Weiner:Was he a story teller?
Weiner:This I didn't know.
Nassau:And some of them were slightly off color.
Weiner:Do you remember any of them?
Nassau:No I don't remember any of them. And that's it. Now later on in the period of the 20's he was active in tiresome experiment with tangula the name of different metals. Bronze, steel and things like that. His aim was to show that the law of gravitation acts differently on different materials and was due to the tangula. As I recall when I visited his laboratory he had rather extensive equipment to do this and he was active writing papers for the Philosophical Society. Incidentally, let me say that he was the principal supporter of that publication during those years and they had to publish them.
Weiner:Yes. I've come across that in your copies of letters he's sent that he has offered to pay for a particular issue if they'll print his article.
Nassau:One of the meetings of that sort was when he asked Professor Dayton Miller and I to have dinner with him one evening because he wanted to have us criticize what he was going to present to the Philosophical Society. For the life of me I don't remember the ladies were alone. They might not have been alone or they might have separated during the private meeting that we had after dinner. But instead of giving a chance to Professor Miller or myself to have very much to say, he just loaded us up with what he was going to say and showed an amount of enthusiasm of what he was going to do and the meeting was a lovely one. But the chain was not met. So that's Mr. Brush if I recall.
Weiner:What about his you mentioned before we started recording about the laboratory that the location of this andÖ
Nassau:The laboratory was in the basement and if I recall in the basement of his home. His home was connected with the Brush laboratories which were next door to it. That particular work was there and I'm certain I think Mr. Sayers was in charge of the laboratory.
Weiner:Yes and he and Charles Jr.
Nassau:Charles Jr. was a great big tall fellow and very modest; the impression that you get from Charles Brush. He was of course in an age where he liked to talk about what he has achieved and that was there in my contacts with him which altogether are forgivable I'm quite sure.
Weiner:I take it this [???] theory of gravitation of his was not very sound or at least was not accepted by most members of the faculty.
Nassau:Thatís right, that's right. Although he was not the only one that has doubted the gravitation theory even to this day. A fellow was sitting right where you're sitting. The other day Mr. Glennan sent it to me. Iím supposed to get rid of him. It was a Priest; President of one of the universities, Catholic University, with him was a great supporter of the Case Institute — Edward Moore. He had some ideas about gravitation and I learned in my contacts with people like that really to receive rather than to give. That is if they ask a question, I answer them. But I donít begin challenging them because I donít think they would do me any good or science would do any good.
Weiner:Was this the type of relationship with Brush when at the one meeting you mentioned you didnít get to discuss this question. Did you have any other occasion to work with him in details of it?
Nassau:No, absolutely and Iím quite certain that Prof. Miller likewise was not in any detail or contact with him with reference to gravitation. However, both of us before going to Brush for this particular meeting that I recall we were prejudiced.
Weiner:In the other direction?
Nassau:Yes in the other direction. Amazingly enough and perhaps this need not be taped but a very similar condition has risen with George Crile the founder of the Clinic. There we met a number of times at lunch. Dayton Miller and I are on the same pretense and for the Philosophical Society as well.
Weiner:What was this?
Nassau:He was talking about some magnetic theory he wrote a book on that of the functions of the body. And I don't think he went very far in it and he again acted very much like Brush that is he is more enthusiastic to tell you how this theory works rather than to accept any criticism from it and I dare say that we were not in a position to criticize anyway because it was mostly medical.
Weiner:How did Brush get started?
Nassau:No, I do not but I dare say that he was successful financially and I think scientifically he had background of definite technological success there's no doubt about that and he wanted to get to other fields and the field is appealing because it has to do with a lot of gadgets and he was interested in gadgets pangula was a means for gadget gathering and he went to that and that's the way I translate it.
Weiner:What's this word used?
Nassau:Pangulum and panguli — plural and the Latin of it.
Weiner:In his relationship to Case he was a trustee or member of the corporation I believe too.
Nassau:Yes that's right. I remember the early years, early — I'm talking the 20's. There was the trustee meeting which came coincident with the commencement. The trustees have a dinner with some members of the faculty about a certain rank. And at those meetings Brush was there and of course Dow was there as well and I remember one year with Mr. Dow where he wanted a student to help him and he asked Professor Miller to suggest a graduating member of that particular class and Dayton Miller told him that I knew his students better than he did because he was not very active with courses at that time and he asked me and I made a proposal of which turned out to be a marvelous contact between Dow and this fellow by the name of James J. Cribley. In a few years Dow and Cribley cooked the idea of getting magnesium out of the sea and getting gold out of the sea and they got it and one of the big business of Dow Company now is getting magnesium out of the sea and they have a factory, I mean a plant in Texas for that so there was a contact between the faculty in things like that and the trustees in that period now of course things are different.
Weiner:Didn't this position as a trustee — can you recall any particular attitude that he might have had — could he have been counted on as a supporter of the scientific trend of the technological institutions considering that there might be a conflict between the departments of astronomy and the engineering departments?
Nassau:No, the Institute at the time was deep into you might say 19th century teaching. Not only Case but there were other institutions. Certain courses necessary for engineers they were supposed to get out as engineers and so on. The open view, the broad view that you have at the present time about culture and engineer was not thought of by the trustees or the administration or and I think with the faculty. Thatís the [???]. I remember very well when in the 30's there was an awakening by the engineers to be an educated person rather than a technician. When Mr. Swasey was a trustee at MIT and he told me that place is going to the dogs because they got physicists as head of that institution. Not Carl was it? Carl. It was Carlton. I forget his first name just now but the place was going to the dogs because of a physicist was made the president of the institution. They had spoiled the institution. We diverted from Brush but perhaps I like to say that my contacts with Brush as I indicated there were very, very limited.
Weiner:What about Brush's contacts with Warner Swasey Company or the individuals connected with it? I know we've come across some others from I don't know I think it was from Warner and some other people. Brush contributed to a fund to send Morley — this is in an earlier period to send Morley on a vacation to Europe so there was an early association between Brush and the Warner Swasey people. During the period that you know was there any carryover of this other than the fact that they were on the same trustee?
Nassau:No, and if there were, the chances are that I was a young member of the faculty and I wouldn't be on the ins of the trustees in that respect. Seems to me Brush was also a member of the Board at Reserve. Am I correct on that?
Weiner:I donít know.
Nassau:Well, you can readily check that.
Weiner:I think we checked everything that I was interested in.
Nassau:One point you said that it was abrupt and things like that. Well the limited contacts I had with him were far from that. He enjoyed the fact that he was really a person that achieved in life and that was evidently even in discussions with people like Professor Miller.
Weiner:He had a connection with the Cleveland Astronomical Society other than going on this eclipse? Was he a supporter of it?
Nassau:No, he was not. I don't recall if we have made him an honorary member but I doubt very much. We made Mr. Swasey an honorary member and the society was young and not very influential in the early years. My impression is that while he was doing the experimental work for gravitation he had left Mr. Sayers and his son to do freehand whatever they wanted to do in the laboratory and indeed they started doing some very nice things so he did not interfere or dominate the laboratory.
Weiner:Just as a point of personal information do you know how his son died? Was this a natural death, an accident or what?
Nassau:Now I don't recall but I think he died a natural death and very abruptly.
Weiner:It seemed to be a great shock to everyone.
Nassau:Yes it was a great shock to the community. I remember that.
Weiner:Then you would say as a scientist he wasn't perhaps as well qualified as he would have been an engineer in today's sense of the word or organizer?
Nassau:I don't think I'm in a position to tell you because I have not followed what he has done originally. He worked with the arch light at length in the field; done a number of other things but wasn't the type of Edison whose aim was to try this try that try that until he found something that will work or he went through a theory to develop the idea. That I doubt I'm more inclined to say that he was an Edison type of scientist or experimentalist.
Weiner:Did you find anything on this? I don't know — you see this I'm trying to determine.
Nassau:Yes, that's my feeling.
Weiner:Again, the part of the problem is that most of the papers I have are in the 20's when he was working on the gravitation. I have nothing in the beginning when he was working with the arch light system so I don't know if he tinkered around till he found something that worked or if he had a theory that he tried to follow. His education was in mining engineering and a strong background in chemistry so I don't know how much theory he knew about and magnetism.
Nassau:As I said I was inclined to say there was an Edison type of inventor but.
Weiner:This stage of the game I tend to agree with you although I really donít know.
Nassau:Did you call the Western Reserve Historical Society?
Weiner:No. Iíve been after him to take me over and introduce me to the place since Iíve never been there.
Nassau:I think they might have things there. I remember at the very end there was talk of moving the tower and perhaps you have the story of that. And I have a feeling that some of the material went to the Reserve Historical Society. I think that is your best bet.
Weiner:Mr. Sayers is a great source of information too. Heís interested in having me talk to other people and I tell him Iíd like to sit down with him for some of the earlier tapes we talked about; experiences prior to coming to Case and the first experiences at Case including the circumstances of going from Syracuse to Case. Some of the material didn't come through so Iíd like to review part of it. Prior to receiving your PH.D. at Syracuse you studied with Sir Edmund Whittaker under his supervision at Edinburgh and you mentioned that you and another student a girl student were his students here. Is this right? Perhaps if we can review briefly those circumstances; some of your work at the Observatory there ok and then we can then bring it up to date.
Nassau:I went to the University of Edinburgh right after the war. As a matter of fact I was in Europe at the time and I went to Edinburgh rather than going to Cambridge. I had a choice because Professor Whittaker who I had previous contacts but knew of him well and when I went there that was Christmas 1919 I believe it was and I started work. Professor Whittaker was the Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University; much interested in mathematics and as you know very much interested in all branches of the physical sciences and was very active in it. I may say he was, after Eddington died, he was the most brilliant man in Great Britain. But at the same time I went to the Royal Observatory and I came in contact with Professor Sampson and I spent very much time at trying to work on theory of the energy generation of the sun. And I remotely remember at the time reading a paper by your friend Shapley in which he was proposing a theory that energy generation of the sun was through the impact of meteor material in the atmosphere of the sun.
Weiner:This was 1919?
Nassau:So that was that. Sampson was very good but not anywhere near to my estimation as charming and learned as Professor Whittaker. I attended a lecture of Whittaker and I have done some research. It was right after the war through the lectures of Professor Whittaker.
Weiner:Were his lectures to a large group?
Nassau:I don't think there were four or five. There were only two constant comers namely Miss Shepard and myself and after the lecture we would sit down and have tea together. I do remember the incident that Professor Whittaker would come to the lecture room with his gown and the janitor of the building will come and lock the door after him so he wonít be interrupted by somebody coming into the lecture late. And I do remember that Whittaker had fondness of stories and jokes but the elements of his jokes were exaggeration. There are all types of jokes; exaggeration was his.
Weiner:Itís appropriate for a man concerned about the universe.
Nassau:I do remember that I had helped as perhaps part of the course in some of the things he was writing at the present time in a book Calculus of Observations, as well as the other student, has helped in another chapter of it but I think I wrote two or three papers while I was there and all the outcome of my contacts with Professor Whittaker.
Weiner:I think you mentioned where I could find those certain journals. I think I have a record of that. You mentioned at the observatory there they had a new type of clock and the type of observation tower.
Nassau:That right, that's right. There were experiments with the short clock if I remember which was a combination of two pendulums. I'm using the word again. One of them was a sway pendulum and then the main pendulum of that and that turned out to be very, very good. It has been used in this country and has enabled the observatory and Dr. Green's observatory and I think at other places as a standard clock but of course as you know right now the atomic clocks are taking the place.
Weiner:At that time though did you participate in the observations that were being used?
Nassau:I did do some very difficult per-time determination for the fellow by the name of Gregor who is a good friend of mine and also there I have played double handed chess. I don't know if you played that. It's a marvelous game. Two sets of pawns on the board and things like that and four players the opposites playing partners; very interesting game. I introduced that to this country and we played it for a number of years with students here and usually they used to come to my house and I made a board and we played the game. It's very interesting game. I'd like to get some people reacquainted on that type of chess. Four handed chess. You have to checkmate four kings to win the game. And when you checkmate one king then that particular player is out of the game and there are two against one you see and the aim of the one is to release the checkmate on the other kings so the other kings so the other player can come into the game.
Weiner:Evidently it didn't become the national rage?
Nassau:No, I would like to say before I forget it that if you go to the catalogs of the twenties you will see that when I came to Case I started to introduce the graduate courses and that was the first graduate course introduced at Case.
Weiner:When the first authorization for a graduate degree was somewhat later.
Nassau:Oh, yes much later although we were given Master's Degree. It turned out while I was Chairman of the Graduation Division which was really at that time the Director of the Graduate Division of the college I was the one that introduced the first Ph.D. of the Case Institute.
Weiner:I have a record of the person and the name of year and so forth. Well one other question, back in Scotland you had mentioned earlier about spending the weekend with a man whoÖ
Nassau:Yes, John Gross who was the head of the Carnegie Foundation who was a personal friend of Carnegie. And I spent the weekends with him particularly because of such a marvelous library. At the same time I got acquainted with what he was doing in a little town the workplace of Carnegie and Ross. Dunsherman was the town. We used to go weekends there.
Weiner:How did you come to know Mr. Ross?
Nassau:I think Professor Whittaker.
Weiner:After you returned to Syracuse, I'll review, you received a Ph.D. shortly thereafter your return and then two weeks after the Ph.D. you married.
Nassau:It was one week or two I donít remember, June 27th.
Weiner:Short time after then and then you went for a honeymoon in the Adirondacks.
Weiner:And returned — one daughter and a wife.
Nassau:And no place to live.
Weiner:But you got a job teaching there for a year.
Weiner:What courses were you teaching or what level anyway?
Nassau:Well I was teaching the college of liberal arts and I was teaching elementary mathematics and at the same time I was teaching the senior course to engineers and Calculus of Observations id or lee squares what you would like to call it you see. As a matter of fact I was getting additional salary for doing this. That's right.
Your PH.D was on determinants on mathematical determinants and — part of it was included in your teacher's thesis of Thatcher's book he had been working on this subject. Did you continue?
Session I | Session II