Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Sproull
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Interview with Dr. Robert Sproull
Robert Sproull; July 11, 1983
ABSTRACT: Interview focuses on Sproull’s career at Cornell University, his decision to become Provost, later President, of the University of Rochester, and his efforts to create ‘steeples of excellence’ in physics, notably the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE). Sproull discusses LLE’s founding years, including his assessment of Moshe Lubin’s ideas for laser ignition, attempts to raise state, federal, and private funds for LLE, tensions with other departments within the university, and LLE’s relationships with other laser laboratories, including Lawrence Livermore. Sproull considers the advantages and disadvantages of LLE’s approach, on a technical and a political level. He talks about LLE’s place in the community of optics at the university and in the larger Rochester community, and LLE’s role in terms of the National Ignition Facility.
Weart:This is Spencer Weart interviewing Robert Sproull on July 11, 1983 at the Essex House Hotel.
Sproull:I'll tell you about two things, really. One is the solid state sciences panel of the ONR, and secondly, was this particular import, kind of an offshoot of that. But if you don't mind, I'll talk at some length, because you're interested in the solid state physics and we're talking about the period right after the war.
Weart:Exactly, right. If we have time I'd like to ask you about Lasp and about the Materials Science Center, all that kind of thing, depending on how much time we have.
Sproull:Well, to go back to this time, there are two points that I want to make. The hero of this exercise, insofar as it has a hero, is Fred Seitz, and Seitz's name will come up again and again as we talk about this. He later, you know, became very active in the American Institute of Physics and so on.
Sproull:— I can believe that. The second thing is that, although this report and the work that went into it are in its own way sui generis, but then so is everything , everything was unique — but insofar as it had consequences, and I think it did, it came about because within a few days after I reported to the Naval Research Advisory Committee, Sputnik came on. (crosstalk)
Sproull:In your letter you say, "1957 ?” There's no way that I would ever put a question mark after 1957. I might forget my own name, but in connection with this exercise, the one thing I remember is that it was October, 1957.
Weart:Right, and of course in my mind was, which 1957 was it, before or after and it was before.
Sproull:It was before, and in fact, I was accused, jocularly I hope, of being a Russian spy and knowing that Sputnik was coming over, because it was the circumstance that Sputnik came that gave this report a seedbed, with full fertilizer, watering, weeding and everything else. As soon as Sputnik came over, the world was different, and instead of the situation now, where the name of the game in Washington is to see where you can cut, the name of the game for a few weeks or months anyway was, gee whiz, here's a marvelous opportunity, now is there any blueprint or guidebook on how best to spend money under these circumstances ? Well, there it was. So that was just plain fool luck, if you will put aside the accusations of being a Soviet spy for a moment. Well, I have to start back in I think 1948, and I hope that I can find some way of establishing that, and I can, not easily, but it can be done through ONR. If you recall, the Office of Naval Research was the real beginner of the modern era of government interacting with science and universities. Lloyd P. Smith and I at Cornell had one of the first ONR contracts. I don't remember its number, but it was a very low number. Lloyd, of course, was an established physicist then. I was just a young squirt, and had worked on radar at Princeton – RCA laboratories during the war, and then Cornell decided they would replace the string and sealing wax era of physics with the electronic age and so on. I left RCA when I went to Cornell as an assistant professor.
Weart:You were already more or less in solid state physics at the time.
Sproull:Yes. In fact, what I started out to do was to grow crystals for electronic applications. Crystals don't occur in nature and it was the obvious thing to do. They'd been done with the alk hallides in the pre-war era. And it was to try to get pure artificial crystals of interesting electronic substances. Now, very shortly after that, I think it was around 1948, the ONR — the second hero after Seitz is those ONR people during that period. That really was a different bunch.
Weart:— Mackenzie already?
Sproull:Yes, Mackenzie was there, and I think Gruner. The names are all in here. Shirley Silverman. Let's see, Mackenzie, Isaacs and Gruner, all three on that distribution.
Weart:I'll have to take a look at that piece of paper.
Sproull:You can borrow them.
Weart:All right, I'll borrow them and give them back to you, as soon as we get copies made up.
Sproull:Anyway, the ONR people — well, for example, one of the people involved in was an associate of Seitz out at Illinois to — sorry, he wasn’t at Illinois then, it was from Carnegie (crosstalk) before that whole circus they brought to Urbana.
Weart:I know Seitz spent about a month there also, about the same time.
Sproull:Oh, he was practically a commuter down there. I don't know that he ever spent — well, he was well involved in all of the Navy business. Anyway, they got the idea of setting up a Solid State Sciences Advisory Panel. It was just called the Solid State Panel at the start.
Weart:What I have here, it was under the Research Development Board. Which would have been —
Sproull:That's right, the RDB , which was, I'd forgotten that, that's right, the RDB was a kind of a dying institution then. It eventually died, I've forgotten now just when. But the ONR had the good sense to pick up the idea there and make it a Navy project. Later on, to jump way ahead, it went over to National Academy of Sciences. It was during the ONR phase when it really blossomed and flourished. The idea had several different parts to it. One was to get a bunch — we called it "The Chowder and Marching Society" — one was to get people who were interested in the budding area of solid state to come and talk to one another, and just enjoy being with one another and exchange papers and so on. They were all people who had some kind of ONR connection at the beginning. The leaders were Seitz and Harvey Brooks. There were others involved, but those were the two, and Seitz was the guy who really pushed it hard, hardest. Harvey was and is a marvelous character, but he had lots of other things he was doing on the Charles River all the time, and Fred was the guy who was at every meeting and did the work between meetings and really made the whole thing go.
Weart:How were you brought in, do you recall?
Sproull:Well, I was very flattered to be involved in this, because I had no reputation of any sort. I guess the answer is, there weren't all that many people working on Navy contracts on solid state materials of one sort or another.
Weart:First it was really the people who were working on Navy would be at contracts. But how many people would be at their meeting? This was back around 1950.
Sproull:Well, a dozen, maybe one or two more. What we would do — the second principle or the second idea was, to have these people come to various Navy installations, and there's no doubt that when we went to NRL or Inyoken or Naval Electronics Laboratory it was the biggest event in their lives that year. That wasn't because of Sproull. That was because of Seitz and Brooks and so on, the people that were really the people in the profession. It did give those laboratories enormous lift, and gave them a sense that they weren't isolated, and we were all a bunch of free consultants. We weren't paid at all for it, except insofar as we could do volunteer work for the Navy, maybe the Navy would look more kindly on us when our contracts came up for renewal, but there wasn't any honorarium. Our expenses were covered.
Weart:I suppose your travel, you could charge your travel to the Navy contract.
Sproull:That's right, yes. That's the way it was always handled, there wasn't anything — there weren't any expenses associated with it. It would always be at a Navy installation. Well, it was hard work but rewarding work. Everybody was about the same age in those days, young people just getting started at Navy labs, and setting the momentum back there for places as isolated as New London and Inyokern and so on was probably a useful thing. We didn't have any policy making role, anything of that sort at all.
Weart:Was there any kind of reporting back to the Navy about what you saw at a given place ?
Sproull:No. We were not spies or commissars. There was a lot of informal thing, going back to the boards, suggesting experiments they might do, people they might get. There was a good deal of trading of people that came up after that. Guys from the lab might come up to my lab and things like that, so that you, exchanges of people, exchanges of papers, of information — but there was — it could have been that the Navy called on Fred or Harvey or some of the senior people to advise on whether their lab ought to be cancelled or something. I don't think so. I don't think that was it at all. I think that would have poisoned the whole operation, made it much less informal, and made it impossible to get the free and easy exchange that was the vital part of the whole thing. So I don't think that happened.
Weart:If it did, it would have been a matter for individuals, certainly not for the panel.
Sproull:Yes. There was never any reporting of an official sort, writing and so on. In fact, that makes this a kind of biological sport in the whole thing.
Weart:You mean, never in the whole — you mean up to the point of your report?
Sproull:— no, no written reports that I know of. I'm pretty sure there weren't any.
Weart:Did the ONR people come along on these visits too?
Sproull:Yes. In fact, that's a third part of it, namely, that the Frank Isaacs of this world, the Lane Gruners and Mackenzies although Mackenzie was the secretary of the Naval Research Advisory Committee most of that period, and he had an entree to these various places, but the others would have no way of getting Inyokern say to put on a two day exposee of what they were doing. They just wouldn't bother themselves. If you were an admiral or their source of funds, they would, but not for somebody in ONR. ONR was new, and not very powerful in the Navy, and I'm sure that the other branches, like, branch and so on, looked at it with a little bit of skepticism and probably envy and so on.
Weart:These panels were pretty much limited to solid state physics? You wouldn't involve the electronic people necessarily?
Sproull:Well, it got into electronics insofar as solid state — got into electronics. It was perfectly clear to this bunch, and to the Navy, that one of the two big elements of solids that they were interested in was the electronics. The transistor hadn't been invented yet, when this got started, but everybody was looking for a solid state amplifier, and secondly, there were things like photoconductivity and infra-red detectors and so on, so the electronic solids were one of the two big foc, the other being advanced metallurgy of jet turbine blades and corrosion and things like that. There were two kinds of big emphases, distinguishing it from solids such as textiles and lots of other things, polymers and so on. We never got much into polymers. The idea being that polymers was the kind of area that would be switched to commercial circles. Anyway, I guess those were the three principal driving forces for this panel, and how it was defended higher up in the Navy, I don't know, but one of its magics, as you already caught onto, was the fact that it didn't have to have a budget, and therefore, it didn't raise its head above the grass and couldn't be chopped off by anybody.
Weart:But it’s not clear to me, if it didn't have any official status at all, how were the people appointed?
Sproull:You've got me. I think Seitz and Brooks probably just sat down with people like Shirley and Lawson Mackenzie and said, "Why don't we ask him to come along?”, that kid Sproull up there is doing some interesting work, why don't we ask him to come along?"
Weart:You might get a letter saying, would you come to a meeting, or something.
Sproull:I really don't know. I assume that's the way it was done. It certainly didn't come from anybody higher up in the Navy.
Weart:There's a membership list you have printed —
Sproull:Well, yes, there's a list there, as of one time.
Weart:Distribution of the other people, and —
Sproull:But people came and went. Paul Miller was a member of it for a while, ,but then he kind of dropped out, became less interested, and he left Penn and went out to General Atomics or whatever it might be, and he kind of dropped out. And then, the people like Jim Crawford from Oak Ridge were added on. He was in the AEC camp but clearly they were doing lots of interesting work on solids in the AEC offices, and in fact, that was a later phase, and comes almost up to ,the time of this report, because the people at ONR had the good sense to see that the ONR way of sponsoring research was becoming the paradigm for the other agencies, particularly , principally the AEC — NSF was much later, but the AEC virtually copied ONR in their way of doing business, and so (crosstalk ) pardon ?
Weart:Air Force too.
Sproull:That's right, OSR, and a thing called OOR for a while, the Office of Ordnance Research, which later became ARO. That's right, so, these guys — well, let me say this. I liked Mackenzie a great deal. I thought he was a very sharp guy, and had qualities of surviving in Washington and so on, and I liked the others, but I never thought of them as in any sense first rate scientists and so on. You know how when you're young in science you tend to deprecate anybody who isn't a first rate scientist. You have your heroes but they're all scientists. But in recent years I've rewritten completely my ideas about all those people. I think they really were very able people. Their abilities went in different directions. They were the kind of people that I just wish there were more of in Washington now. But they had the genius not only to help spawn things like the AEC, but then, when AEC started spending more money than ONR was on solids, they reached out and invited these characters to be part of —
Weart:— AEC did?
Sproull:No, no, ONR did — invited them to become part of the Chowder and Marching Society. That gave it reach and influence on the AEC program, in a subtle sort of way, not in any (crosstalk)
Weart:(crosstalk) Same kind of way? That is to say, the AEC people were there when you had these meetings ?
Sproull:Yes. Yes. And again the magic was having people like Seitz come around. The AEC wanted that just as badly as the Navy did. And the fact that he was willing to do it, and to paint on a somewhat larger canvas, you know, was in everybody's interest.
Weart:So you visited the AEC labs as well?
Sproull:We visited Oak Ridge in the spring of 1957, it must have been April.
Weart:That was the first contact that you had, outside the ONR? At some point you said, the Air Force, and —
Sproull:Jeez, I really don’t know. I really don’t know.
Weart:That was a hard question.
Sproull:It could be, because —
Weart:— Hears one that might be a little easier. Did you also start moving around at universities at that time?
Sproull:No. We didn’t meet at all at universities until much later. In fact, I think I was off the panel before much of that was done. I did a little of it. But the whole idea, you see, was not to meet at universities. Meeting at universities would have been self-indulgent, from our standpoint. We were trying to beef up the effectiveness of the Navy laboratories.
Weart:So for some years there you were basically going to the labs. How often?
Sproull:We’d meet two or three or four times a year. Earlier, in the early years, we met more often. Maybe never as much as four times a year, but two or three, I guess, is about the canonical numbers. Well, we met at Oak Ridge in the spring of '57, and there had been a kind of a — well, there'd been the initial wave at the end of the war, expansion of research support, but then that kind of tapered off, and then there was the Korean War. Things went up again. Then that had tapered off by the spring of '57. There were just about two time constants of that taper. And the arrival on the scene of the transistor, and especially the junction transistor and the injunction transistor, and the whole shebang in 1951 had been — you know, everybody had ideas as to where that field was going to explode, and almost all the ideas were correct. It exploded in all of those directions. And so by the spring of '57, we got into a rather frustrated position. People in Washington were always frustrated; they would always tell us about their problems and so on, and that's one of the reasons that, as I say, I didn't give them the credit that they deserved at the time because they were always bitching about the difficulty of getting money and so on. But by the spring of '57 you could be more and more sympathetic with them, and you could see that there was just a tremendously rich field of ideas out there floating around, and they weren't going to get much support. And the support in those days wasn't — you know, there were dollars. You know, we hardly think twice about it now but of course the dollar was different. There was a little science in small quantities. Lots of graduate students were being turned out. Going mostly into industry, but some of them to government laboratories and some to universities. And we, after the Oak Ridge meeting, the conversation went something like this: "Well, here we are again, a tired bunch of people complaining about not enough money, we've got all these ideas and we're so bright and we've got a lot of bright colleagues back at the university and we don't have enough money for them, so we're just sitting and bitching. I don't know. I don't know how the suggestion got made, but some fellow suggested, "Well, look, we don't accomplish anything by sitting and bitching. If we could put together a thoughtful paper which would suggest some of the open endedness in the field, on a for instance basis, and secondly, document the fact that the support is tapering off.” The basic documentation you'll find on that is that the way expansion of solid state occurred after the war was by having an agency created, and then taper off, and then another agency would be created, and so on, so that if you looked at it from the standpoint of the field, there was continuous growth like that which was much faster than any one budget, any one agency, because of the rising of new agencies. The latest, the last one I guess was the NSF. NASA hadn't been heard of at that stage. The basic thrusts were that this expansion of a field where the ideas were expanding very rapidly, and the possible usefulness, not just to the Navy but to defense generally, was still rising very rapidly, was going to be chopped off because the number of agencies wasn't going to grow, and in the absence of growing agencies, you could see all the forces at work, of Congress and so on, getting each one of these stabilized, and they might grow 5 percent or something, but that's all, and so, we were fighting out that circumstance, and — which was almost right. It was not quite right because NASA came along after that, but that was the only one. And the other thing — then we said, "Well, you know, what's so bad about that? Maybe the critics might say that the field doesn't deserve very much support.” Then we said, "Well, we'll put a bunch of for instances together, illustrating the open endedness of the field."
Weart:This is all taking place while you're meeting at Oak Ridge.
Weart:At these meetings in general there'd be papers given, but this is sort of, talk in the —
Sproull:Yes. that's right. The papers would all be presented by the people there. They wouldn't be presented by us. In this case they'd be by Oak Ridge people.
Weart:— but then you'd get together at lunch or in the evening, and talk more —
Sproull:Yes. In between times, I had been on sabbatical at Oak Ridge, at the solid state division, in 1952, spring of 1952, so I knew all the people down there, and by then —
Weart:— I'm trying to get a picture of the environment. You're sitting around a big table with all the Oak Ridge people there, or was this conversation just a few of you over a beer at night?
Sproull:It's certainly the latter, but that wasn't — the first part of it. There would be an agenda for these meetings, and they would start off with presentations by the people there. But then there'd be a business meeting, so called, of the panel, and whether we would excuse the working stiffs who presented the papers, but I don't know whether Jim Crawford and Doug Billington were members of the panel at that time. Doug was head of the solid state division and Jim was executive head or something —
Sproull:No, of Briggs? Good (?) Laboratory. And it would have been almost certain that they would have been invited into the business meeting. I think Jim by then was a member of the panel. Doug I don’t think ever became a member of the panel. So there would be a few senior people from the lab there in the business meeting. There wasn't anything classified or confidential about it, but it was just a meeting of the members of the panel, and this particular meeting, as I say, the talk got around to, "You know, there's no point in just frustrating ourselves by always coming together and bitching about not having any money." I don't know who made the suggestion. I got Mayall to be chairman of the thing. It may have been that I made an impassioned speech or it may not, I don't know. I just don't remember. All I do remember, and you will see it here, is that by the 1st of May, I was writing letters to a small group of the solid state panel, and their names are in there, and arranging a meeting of, we had a meeting in Washington and then we had a meeting at Ithaca.
Weart:This was not supported by anybody? This was just?
Sproull:Well, actually, also, you see, there, what we did was, — see, by '57, I didn't have any ONR money any more. I had AEC money, and maybe NSF money, or that might have come later, but mainly, my whole lab was AEC by that time, but Paul Hartman at Cornell had an ONR contract, and we worked out a way that ONR put some more money into his contract, for the expenses for this group, so that they wouldn't have to touch their contract.
Weart:It wasn't in your contracts.
Sproull:No. The way ONR worked then was a very nice way. It was that the contracts people worked out the contracts with all of the stuff and so on, and the only thing that wasn't there was the works paper, you know, what the whole thing was about, and the ONR people could write a work statement, and they would telephone you and ask, "I'm going to send you a new work statement tomorrow," and so on. It obviously has terrible implications if people aren't getting along with one another. They could task you to do something that you had no intention of doing, but that never happened. The work statement was always something you'd worked out in advance, so this was just added to Paul Hartman's contract, and so we paid with Cornell checks then to people to travel, and there was a meeting in Washington, you'll see all that in this paper, and then a meeting at Ithaca in the summer, and the summer meeting was kind of the key one, where people did writing and so on, and established what the thing would look like. Then the question came up as to, what do you do with this? And we wanted to give it the maximum amount of effect.
Weart:What was your mandatory…(off tape)
Sproull:All of us were tyroes in all this business, but I think Fred was then the chairman of NRAC, the Naval Research Advisory Committee. He was certainly a member of it, and he was well, you'll find that in the papers too. I forgot to look that up. I guess he was not chairman. But he was clearly a highly respected member of it. Well, he invited me to come down to the fall NRAC meeting in early October, to present in fact, that was in many ways the centerpiece of that particular NRAC meeting. I was invited to — we all were cleared, so that we could go into any Navy installation and so on and see classified problems. We weren't doing any classified work, at least I wasn't and I don't think anyone else was, but we were all able to see anything that the Navy had. So I attended the fall NRAC meeting and I presented this report, and was given a very polite courteous hearing, and in fact, sympathetic. They were a bunch of admirals and so on, gold braid all over the room. I was kind of frightened. Not seriously. I don't scare all that easily. But, we really didn't expect much to happen, you know. Reports had been written before, and you could drop a stone into a pool of water and not even make ripples. I guess, if we had been asked what our expectations were, we would have said, "Well, not very much, but we'll certainly do the best we can, and we would feel that we weren't really rising to any sense of responsibility if we didn't do something." That's what — well, then, in a few days, along came Sputnik, and the situation just changed just 180 degrees overnight. The ONR people had been in a way in the background, but nevertheless, sponsors of this whole thing they became the heroes of Washington, because here they had a paper, and they'd had all the staff work done for them, and each one of the agencies could have some reason why, with any increased funds that came along, they should put some of it into solids.
Weart:I see, so it went far beyond the Navy itself or the agency.
Sproull:And so it just accidentally had some effect. Then of course, there were two exceptions to what I said about agencies. I said that the growth had all been by new agencies and that had stopped. Well, it had stopped, but after Sputnik, the first thing that happened was that the Defense Department set up ARPA, as sort of the Defense Department's space agency. That's what it was for the first few months. All the space programs —
Weart:— I didn't realize.
Sproull:No, they were all started at ARPA. They were all started in the Defense Department. There was no NASA.
Weart:I didn't realize that was what ARPA was.
Sproull:That's what it was, it was a space agency. Its charter was broader than that. It was the Advanced Research Project Agency, and the idea was that it was to do things that none of the services could do by itself, worked with and through and by the services, but to have a more advanced tar out charter. You know, it was a huge embarrassment, particularly in the Navy, about the project called Vanguard. Whoever named that, deserves the oblivion that he, got, because it was later and poorer in every respect than Sputnik, and there was so much embarrassment over that, the Defense Department just turned things upside down and said, "Well, we can't leave this kind of thing, the space business, to the services. If the Soviets can throw up a thing like that, you can easily calculate what they can do with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and controls and everything else that go with it." So the consternation was extreme. The Defense Department response was to create ARPA. Within the next year NASA was born. NASA must have been born in 1958 some time. And then —
Weart:— Did you take on NASA people on the panel also?
Sproull:Well, that's another story and I'll get to that in a minute, but I got much less active on the panel at almost that same time, just a year after that. Yes, NASA people came in, especially NASA program managers. I don't know how many NASA contractors came in.
Weart:They were getting bigger and bigger.
Sproull:I know. By that time, the field had gotten so big that being a member of the panel was almost like being a member of the National Academy of Sciences. It was something that was very sought after, and people had to be very careful about it and so on, and you know, from my standpoint, that's about the time that the excitement goes out of it. But that wasn't the reason I didn't spend much time on it. The reason I didn't spend much time on it was I was doing other things. But anyway, the — about a year from October of '57, by the fall of '58 or certainly by early '59, the, all of those big booster programs and so on had gone over to NASA, but with a lot of the initial direction and some of the — even some of the personnel and so on, determined by the very short ARPA period. For example, one of the most, how shall I say, surprising aberrations of the whole military procurement system was that ARPA had 25 million dollars military construction authority in blank. It's the first time, I think, since the Revolutionary War that military construction authority had been given a blank.
Weart:A blank check, in other words.
Sproull:Yes, from Congress. Congress is so jealous of this prerogative, where to build an air base or something, because it means employment etc., and I don’t know if you have ever been to Milcon hearings, but they go on for days over just a few thousand dollars of construction, that’s so dear to the heart of Congress. Well, ARPA was able to, because of worry about Sputnik and the spirit of "Let’s get it done" and so on, to get military construction in blank — practically unheard-of. Well, I give that illustration just as an indication of what the spirit was at that time.
Weart:I understand that ARPA also took over, in a sense, the panel, not took it over, but the secretariat for it?
Sproull:Yes, for a while it did. Yes, because — that was later, when ARPA got a materials program under Charlie Yost.
Weart:The same time as the materials program.
Sproull:Yes, in '59 and '60. Summer of '59 was when the Materials Laboratory was started up, and when they did, ARPA became a big player in the game, which they had not been before, and so they did provide continuity in the secretariat of the panel. After that. I became the director of ARPA in '63, '65, and I think it was running it then though I'm not sure. But by then I was kind of out of it, out of the panel.
Weart:Right. I don't want to take too much of your time, but taking as an example, these material science centers, did you note any role the panel played in getting those things set up? Was it an outgrowth of this report?
Sproull:No. No, it was not an outgrowth of the report, but the materials science centers — well, there were lots of people had lots to do with those, but the biggest single contributor to that was a name that, unless you've studied it a lot, you probably would find surprising, and that's Johnny von Neumann.
Weart:No, I didn't know that.
Sproull:Van Neumann, you know, was an AEC commissioner, and a member of the General Advisory Committee and so on, was a very active worker during the war, and one of the half dozen most intelligent men of the 20th century, maybe among the three for all I know, most intelligent men of the 20th century. And he got fed up with being told that he couldn't do this and he couldn't do that because of materials, problems - - mostly in the nuclear reactor, but (crosstalk )
Weart:— (crosstalk)…I suppose, interest in ICBMs also.
Sproull:Yes, but everything, everywhere he turned, people would say, "Well, the materials won't stand it n or "We don't know enough about the materials.’” Then he said, "Well, why don't you do something about it?" "Well, we don't have the right kind of people," the people would say, or "There aren't people trained. They're a bunch of old time metallurgists, and they care but don't know, and a bunch of solid state physicists, and they know but don't care. If I'm making this up, because I wasn't there at those meetings.
Weart:This is hearsay, so to speak.
Sproull:Yes. But I have heard von Neumann talk about this, and I don't know if you ever knew him, but he can pack a lot into very a very bubbly sort of guy, always smiling and joking and so on— and he could deliver the thrust of what I've said in a rather wooden fashion, just in a couple of sentences. I think I'm being quite fair to what his position was. He had a very powerful position in the AEC, and they got a lot of work started in the AEC, and they got a laboratory, more or less like an IDL, started in Berkeley. But they couldn't — one of the big bins that all universities had then was buildings, where they couldn't do anything beyond the 50 year life of a building. One of the most stupid federal — well, I don I t know, the prize for the stupidest federal practice, I don't know who would get it, but the idea that you can get only a 2 percent use charge for buildings — on the other hand, if your research project went out and rented space, you know, you could get it for a ten year life. It's an incredible waste of money and so on. Anyway, that building limitation, many universities were still struggling along on pre-war buildings, trying to do clean work and so on, and so, von Neumann found himself up against problems in the AEC, where they couldn't get universities to build new space, the universities couldn't find the money for it, and so, — but what he did do, and Don Stevens in the AEC was another one of the heroes those days, Don talked and Don incidentally came to these Solid State Science Advisory Panel meetings, and where all these ideas were being kicked around all the time — So when they got the backing from von Neumann, and I don't know, they must have gotten some , the White House to some extent. It was just before the Kennedy election, which would have been the fall of 1960, right?
Sproull:'59, taking office in '60. Wait a minute, no, the election is in '60. Fall of '60. It was just before that, but there must have been — was Kistiakowsky the science advisor in the White House?
Weart:Or Killian? Not DuBridge. You mean, under Kennedy?
Sproull:No, this was before Kennedy.
Weart:Eisenhower was still in.
Sproull:The winter of '58, '59.
Weart:That would have been Killian.
Sproull:All right, anyway, during that winter, and it proceeded in large part from the leadership in the AEC, von Neumann and then Stevens on the operating level, and doing the work — they went out to universities and asked them, "What would you need to do this job? To bring together metallurgists and chemists and physicists and geologists and electrical engineers, but mainly physicists and chemists and metallurgists, the three disciplines of science, what would you need to do this? What's the great limiting step in your process?" They came to Cornell. I was on leave. I was in Brussels working for European Research Associates Laboratory, in Brussels. And they did there, they did all of their study, and then in the summer of '59, they started to see, you know, how can we do this? By the fall of '59, I was back in the act, but not really seriously, because the center, the locus was Washington in the fall of '59. They, the people in Washington had decided that the AEC could not do it because they, could not get, through their charter, the building support, and the NSF wasn't the least bit interested. It didn't have the idea. It couldn't see it for beans.
Weart:I never — I noticed that the NSF never had any real solid state thrust.
Sproull:No, they didn't see science, of solid state. It was dominated by different groups of people and they just couldn't see it. NASA flirted with it, but the NASA people didn't have the same leadership position. The ONR people, Julius Harwood was one of the people in ONR then who was very influential, kept pushing it, but ONR couldn't do it. But ONR was very important in goosing ARPA to do it, and through the, Yerb York was then the DDRNE, and so, there was a thing called the Coordinating Committee on Materials, Research and Development, CCMRD, which was the Don Stevens Julius Harwoods and Charlie Yosts and so on, met once a month in the Executive Office Building, and that group became the focus of this. You know, it was kind of, the President's Science Advisory office, and said, "We really ought to do something about this," and it settled down in ARPA because ARPA was the only agency that had enough of the light-footedness — they weren't involved with layer after layer of bureaucracy, and secondly, had a charter which allowed them to do experimental things with buildings.
Weart:This goes back to the blank check you referred to. Did they still have that?
Sproull:That's right, except it was never used, for the IDL.
Sproull:No. It was blank only from Congress. It still had to have the Defense Department people, and I remember, one of the weird events in my life is, I got that check rewritten for another 25 million dollars, and I'll still be blest(?) if I know how I did it. I went up to Congress — (crosstalk) — yes, it was sort of accidental. But we never used — that was very precious money. We used it for Kwajelein missile terminal range and things like that, and then our pockets were picked from time to time by other parts of the Defense establishment that needed something in a hurry. And it had to be something, for precious money like that it had to be something that you really had terrible urgency for, and —
Weart:— these labs at the universities could get money from a more normal place?
Sproull:That's right. But the point was that ARPA, since it was entrusted with that kind of authority and since it was supposed to be a light-floated agency, the contracting lawyers and so on were not uneasy about ARPA doing things other than this 50 year business. They had enough — well, those were the days when it was Bureau of the Budget rather than OMB, but mainly, the Bureau of the Budget was still afraid of the Defense Department. They would send only their most junior budget examiners over, and then for training, not the other way around. And so the combination of the Defense Department's position with respect to the White House, and the Bureau of the Budget, and the kind of charter given ARPA to do interesting new things, made it possible for them to do ten year amortization, write contracts. And obviously the money had to be put in from year to year and so on, but ARPA was the only agency that, as far as I know, ever got its courage up to do things like that. The law would permit you to do it. They just don't do it. It was with in the spirit of ARPA. It wasn't within the spirit of the others. And so that all focused on ARPA being the agency, and they ran a competition in the spring of 1960, and all of us were hungry. We all could see what we could do with new facilities. We were at Cornell trying to grow clean crystals, and put in control of doping, and we were doing it in an old wooden building, where they put cinders between the joists of the floors, between the ceiling of this floor and the floor of the next, because they were sure the building was going to burn down, so the idea was, the cinders would drop and tend to smother a fire.
Weart:Is this Rockefeller?
Weart:The old Rockefeller. I studied in Rockefeller when I was in the physics department there.
Weart:Well, it must have been class of '63.
Sproull:I must have known you then.
Weart:We may have met.
Sproull:You graduated, an undergraduate, in '63?
Weart:Not with physics. I must have taken some —
Sproull:— no, you wouldn't necessarily, unless it was an advanced lab. I was in the advanced lab almost all the time, but by '63, not so much. It was another advanced electronic lab. I was teaching, my principal course by then was a course for electronic engineers in solid physics, and since I was running the lab and so on, I was only part time as a teacher, I was also editor of the JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSICS in those days, so I wasn't doing a lot of teaching. I came back from — Let's see, though, the fall of '62, I taught the junior senior quantum physics course.
Weart:No, I had that from, I'm very poor on names, but an older fellow. Dyson, maybe.
Sproull:No, I don't think he ever taught that. Dyson. Anyway, back to what I was talking about, I got off the track —
Weart:— before you get back on the track, I want to ask you about your schedule.
Sproull:Well, you want to hear about these materials labs?
Weart:Yes, I certainly want to hear it, it's interesting. Basically this thing is: how solid state physics came to exist as a field. The labs in effect are the final step, in which you have to have a physical construction, dedicated so to speak to solid state physics. I really — this is a little broader even than —
Sproull:I hope you've gone back to Gouden and Pohl and the pre-war business and Seitz's book and so on. And Mott and so on.
Weart:This is part of an international project. There's been quite a lot of work done, in other places. But these were quite small groups and all of these were ephemeral organizations, if you like. A school would arise here. Seitz would move from one place, the whole school would go with him and so forth, and by the time you get to 1960 and have these labs, you have a very different order of institution. To begin with, the materials labs weren't exactly solid state physics, were they?
Sproull:No. In fact, the one thing that I think was wrong with them was, they tended to be too much solid state physics. And when I got to ARPA I tried to change that, but didn't succeed. I thought that the whole charter and spirit was to work from chemistry and solid state physics and other things, over to harvest the science, for the benefit of applied science and engineering, and that didn't do nearly as well as the basic science. Well, anyway, the competition was fierce, I guess that's what threw me off the track, and at Cornell we got one, in fact the biggest one, and the reason we got the biggest one, I think well, first of all, we had the grandest design, I guess the biggest. We were one of the first three. Let's see, it was Northwestern, Cornell, and was Pennsylvania one of the first three? Who was the other of the first three? Northwestern, Cornell, and I've forgotten the other one. We were not that strong. These were not gifts to the strongest laboratories. You had to put the strongest, metallurgy cum solid state physics, probably MIT, Berkeley, the Laboratory at Harvard and would have very strong solid state physics, certainly ahead of us and probably more, but what we had was the willingness of the chemists to come aboard, and we'd been carrying the torch for solid state for some time, though we hadn't nearly the accomplished people other places had. These were —
Weart:— Slater in his autobiography comments, sounds a little surprised that they didn't get it the first year, had to wait for the next.
Sproull:Slater is a little bit too, was a little too Olympian for my taste anyway. He can never look anywhere except down. Which is an awkward situation. You don't see a lot that way. But yes, these were not prizes for the best places, no question about that. They were charters to build, and you know, there's going to be a lot of hard building ahead, and a lot of money had to be gotten from other places. We had to keep trying other contracts and grants. What you did was, you took on a responsibility much larger than the amount of money would sustain, and you —
Weart:(crosstalk) And not what you put in it.
Sproull:— they gave a fair amount of support. That contract was six million dollars a year the first year. That was a lot of money, for us, for Cornell that was a lot of money, and really, $400,000 of that each year went into the building. Then we had to raise and did raise at Cornell another four million for the building. It was an eight million dollar building, but it had some other things in there, other than the lab. And so, it was a — we did a hell of a lot more work, and also, it really, you know, there were good reasons why interdisciplinary laboratories didn't just happen to grow. At Bell Laboratories, one could make it happen by administrative decisions, but at a university, you couldn't.
Weart:Maybe we ought to backtrack at this point, and talk about laboratories in atomic and solid state physics, in relation with the other departments, if you have the time.
Sproull:Yes. It isn't a question of taking time. I'm not sure how interesting that is.
Weart:Again, it's mainly from the standpoint of how solid state physics came to be, and how it related to things like high energy physics and nuclear physics.
Sproull:Well, VAS was a thing that was worked out by correspondence and a certain amount of transatlantic telephone, in the spring of 1959.
Sproull:When I was in Brussels, yes, but Dale Corson and Jim at Cornell were the architects. Jim was probably the principal architect of it. We had talked a lot about having a laboratory before. I was in Brussels and I shared an office, and we just talked. But the aftermath of Sputnik, the expansion of things in Washington, the noises that were coming, that there really was going to be a major opportunity for setting up the laboratory — VASS was set up to have a vehicle in being that might become the materials laboratory at Cornell, or at least the big competitor for the contract. It got to be a problem of some politics. The atomic in it came later. It started out as the Laboratory for Solid State Physics, and then, the problem came up, and it was entirely local to Cornell, that that would seem to isolate a couple of people doing some — I've forgotten now just who they were, but you see you had the Laboratory of Nuclear Studies, and then if you had just the Laboratory of Solid State Physics, there were some people — I guess Tom Bullion was one of them, who was doing the soft X-ray work with synchrotron radiation and so on. He felt that he was not solid state and he wanted to — and Parrott, I think, was also feeling that way. Anyway, there were a few people that thought that they would be kind of isolated if you had a Laboratory of Nuclear Studies and a Laboratory for Solid State Physics — so the idea was expanded to call it Atomic and Solid State Physics. That included everybody that was left. But did the major part of the design of it, and it really wasn't very well designed. It was more a kind of an ad hoc arrangement. What happened, in that — let's see if I've gotten my page correct — Dale Corson was chairman of the department of physics. He became chairman in'56. In the spring of '59, he was in the process of moving over to become Dean of the College of Engineering, which he did become on July 1st of that summer, so he was trying to leave the department in some kind of array. Bethe, who is the key figure, the guru of the department, and kind of held us all, the rest of us, together, was much too bright to take on any administrative work. He would never do that. Wilson was fully occupied with LNS, didn't want to be chairman of the department. There was a kind of — Lyman Parrott wanted to be chairman of the department so badly he could taste it. And most of us were perfectly willing to let Lyman do it, because it was a thankless job, but on the other hand, we were not prepared to have the part of the department which was not the Laboratory for Nuclear Studies have only a spokesman who was the department chairman, who was over both the Nuclear Studies Lab, which had their own, you know, bunch of people beating the drum, but then nobody beating the drum for the rest of us. So LASS was started up as a way of getting some support, some coherence for the solid state group , a kind of a way, like the Laboratory for Nuclear Studies, and reasoning by analogy, as you know there is no such reasoning that's why I say, it really wasn't thoroughly designed. What happened, I was asked to be the director of it. I wasn't party to those meetings, on the telephone. There were various times that fall when I thought that one of the principles of nature is, thou shalt not decide on anything on the trans-Atlantic phone. The expense and, you know, you were trying to save money and so on, so you just said, "Oh yes, to hell with it," which was a mistake. Nowadays of course it's a totally different proposition.
Weart:How did the nuclear and high energy people feel about it?
Sproull:They felt awful about it. In fact, we had to talk to them at every stage of the game. Bethe — the only disagreement I ever had with Hans was over low temperature physics at Cornell. He did not want it.
Weart:Not at all?
Sproull:Not at all. And he had not really thought this through. I thought that we simply had to have low temperature physics. We did it as an extension of solid state, just to get it on KT, but we also could see a lot of interesting things happening, and I, kind of on the QT, got Lily Haus(?) and what's his name, George Idema and later Dave Reed, as members of the faculty, but every single one of them was about a fight because, it wasn't Hans, Hans never gave it a second thought, but Hans and Bob Wilson shared an outer office, and Wilson didn't want anything to interfere with high energy physics. Anybody who didn't go into high energy — that's the way, Wilson is one of the most marvelously effective people of this generation, and he did it by being single minded. Not by being broad minded, by being single minded. And anything that got in the way of high energy physics just didn't matter, and so Hans picked this out and we just had to fight.
Weart:Fight for each faculty position?
Sproull:Each faculty position, every bit of space, and everything else. And of course LNS had gotten a new building, on faith after the war. Later on it was paid for by Floyd Newman, but it was done with university dollars, which could have been given for anything else, which of course made for a lot of resentment with the rest of us.
Weart:Bethe and Wilson thought there should be one big department in which most of the positions would go for high energy (?) [??? tape very dim here]
Sproull:Oh, all — and the thing about Wilson. And Bethe really wasn't paying any attention. He was not engaged in this intellectually. I've talked with Hans since, and I never tried to, you know, embarrass him about it, but it's clear that he takes as much pride as I do in the low temperature work.
Weart:Have you had to sort of become the anti-Wilson and become as single minded in your life?
Sproull:Yes. There was a certain amount of defensiveness and fighting here. We always — well, remained on speaking terms and so on. There weren't many — but, it was perfectly clear, the conflict of interest was extreme.
Weart:And the philosophy basically about the way the department should go.
Sproull:Well, not so much. We both, Wilson and I and and others on my side, believed in concentrating. We didn't believe you know, I inherited later the Rochester physics department which didn't believe in concentration. I don't believe in that at all. I believe in hitting hard a couple of fields, but I didn't believe that you could (should) have only high energy physics; and secondly, since there was already this solid state group which — you know, we all had tenure, he couldn't very well kick us out I believed very strongly that low temperature physics had to be added to it, for the good of the solid state group, and also for its own intrinsic interest. You know, I've never been a bit embarrassed by either one of those decisions. But with the philosophy, it was not all that different. I believe in concentrating too, but just not on a single field — particularly when it wasn't my field! So we weren't that far apart philosophically. It was on the practical level that we differed. I want to make it very clear that Hans never really engaged in the fight, but he just, he didn't want to be bothered with administration. Wilson was populating the place with synchrotrons, and doing very interesting stuff. Clearly the synchrotron builder of the age. And Hans, just stamped it, you know, "Of course,” and went back to what he really was interested in, which was physics. And that's — well, if I were as bright as Hans, that's exactly what I would have done. So I don't fault him in the least but he did make it kind of rough on the rest of us.
Weart:That continued when you wanted to put in the Materials Lab?
Sproull:Well, not so much, although there was a lot of that, particularly over appointments. The question of appointments became a very key issue. But it didn't, in some ways it was easier, in some ways it was harder. It was harder because of the appointments. It was easier because Wilson could see that this had its external source of money, and that it wasn't going to go against funds from university sources and we didn't hurt him. He didn't see what happened later, namely, that the interdisciplinary thing led to a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and that Saltpeter in astrophysics began to get interested in some of these things, and that people like Jeffrey Chester and what's his name, the guy that went to Los Alamos oh my god, I keep forgetting names. Anyway, it wasn't until later that he saw the richness of the field, when you put it all together, with chemistry, theoretical chemistry and the other things, and work that Reppe and Richardson and others did on liquid helium 3 — you know. I think Hans is as proud as anybody else of us, now. Well, back to LASS. LASS still exists but it was a way station. It was created so as to have a vehicle to work hard that winter to compete for these contracts, or in some other way. The challenge to me was, somehow or other you've got to get a building that we can do clean work in, where we can have modern facilities and have liquid helium and good supplies and so on. You've just got to do it. That was the challenge to me, and clearly, the first thing to try was one of these materials laboratories.
Weart:In general, although it includes physical chemists and metallurgists, solid state physicists were sort of in the lead for...? It could have been metallurgists.
Sproull:Yes. It wasn't. I don't know what to make of that. I saw that same thing. In part, it's kind of the tradition of ONR and so on starting it etc. and the fact that we were better connected in Washington than the metallurgists were. It may be partly also the fact that from solid state physics it was easier to see these connections and so on. For example, I hired a post-doc PhD chemist, in my laboratory in Rockefeller. I can't tell you exactly when. It must have been around, oh, 1950, give or take. That was a rare thing then, for a physics project to hire a chemist, PhD chemist.
Weart:You were already beginning to form what I guess we would call a solid state group now.
Sproull:Yes. But I knew that he had the analytical capability and the synthetic chemistry capability, and this guy was very good, very helpful. I eventually lost him to industry, as you might expect. But you know, I think everywhere that kind of move started from solid state physics. I don't think chemists would hire physicists to come into a laboratory. At least, I don't know of any. Metallurgists, I don't think ever did. So what you say was a feature of those times, everywhere, I think. I don't know. I don't want to claim that physics is in a sense a more powerful profession, but it maybe that one thought about the problems in a little more general way than looking at it from chemistry or metallurgy. I just don't know, but what you say is true. Well, then in the spring of '60, we really competed our heads off, and the local figure that really did most at Cornell was Henry Sach. Did you ever know Henry Sach?
Weart:I just don't think I ever — no —
Sproull:(crosstalk)… physics, now dead, unfortunately. I saw his widow last week at a party at Ithaca. Henry was I guess really a physical chemist by background. He had worked with Debuye in the Low Countries, and he had come over before DeBuye. Debuye came in 1940. He had come the year before that, and Henry is a very broad guaged guy, a very smart guy, but because he was outside of the American system, during the war, he was not really central to any work. He did some electronics at Ithaca and teaching, and nobody actively discriminated against him, because of his overseas birth, but Henry was not a promoter or a driver in organizations and so on. Very, very energetic. He was not the least bit lazy. One of the hardest working people you ever saw, but very gentle, I guess. So he was easily taken advantage of. Nobody tried to, but he did the things other people didn't want to do. Extremely able. His own special thing was essentially dielectric loss, did some interesting work with Debuye on that — in fact, Debuye's interest in that stemmed from the time that Sachs was a student of Debuye's. Sach did more to design and work through that than just about anybody else. Corson was also very helpful in bringing engineers on board. It was his first year as dean of the college of engineering, very highly respected by all of the engineers, and well-connected in Washington, mostly in AEC circles, and being a Seaborg student and so on helped quite a lot. So Corson and Sach and I, and [???] was extremely helpful but he didn't do much of the hack work. The other three of us put the proposal together and tried to get the chemists to sign up. One day they would sign up, the next day they wouldn't, the next day they would sign up again. Dick Porter in chemistry was the hero of that. He was a young guy doing high temperature reaction work, and he wanted very badly to have this kind of an association.
Weart:High temperature reaction work doesn't sound to me like it was close to you know —
Sproull:Well, it was surface reaction. It could be corrosion, protective coating, things like that, and his instrumentation was using metric [???]metry which was also of great interest to us, and all that stuff.
Weart:Would the chemists actually agree to move into the new building, was that it?
Sproull:They could see some need, for them. They had a good building of their own. It was small. They wanted to expand and so on. But they didn't begin to have the driving force we did, because they were much fatter cats than we were. We were poor, and greedy, I guess, but certainly poor.
Sproull:Hungry, OK. That's better. I used to share an office later, much later, with Frank Vaughn, when he was vice president of research and I was vice president of academic affairs at Cornell. But Frank, he was chairman of the department then he could never see this· for beans. He acted, He actively opposed the whole thing, and he admitted later that that was a mistake. But anyway, that was the way the competition was designed, and I think the reason — well, there were a number of reasons. I don't know what all of them were at Cornell. We worked very hard on it. We had a lot of experience by then in dealing with proposals to Washington. We knew all the people who were going to evaluate the proposals. We knew what they thought was important, etc. But I think the single most important element of our proposal is, we listed all of the PhD output from Rockefeller Hall in the postwar period, in, not the but solid state and related, atomic physics work, and we listed where those people were, and I think ours was the only proposal, first of all, that even knew where our graduates were, and secondly, the work that they were doing was extremely elegant. They were all in laboratories where they were using their PhD. A lot of them were doing solid state physics. A great many of them were doing work in laboratories which were either part of government-supported laboratories or on government contract, so that — yes, they were working in that area which was the whole purpose of this program, was to train more people. I think that was, insofar as there was a single thing that gave us a leg up, that was it. Now, there were probably lots of other things. I never saw any of the documents on the ratings of the proposals. This was before the Freedom of Information Act; anyway we didn't care in those days. We just wanted to get on with the work. We didn't want to find out "who shot John,” excepting, what? on whose back-porch. Various people have told me that that was the single most eloquent part of our proposal. So then we had the joint responsibility of designing and building a new building, meanwhile beefing up the solid state work, and bringing in new people in the borderlands. We tried to bring "in some people from industry in metallurgy. We were not very successful in that. Fellows didn't stay and so on. We did, one of the things I'm particularly proud of is, we got some young people , Les Eastman, George Wolga, from electrical engineering here. Electrical engineering was massively disinterested in us. Henry Booker was the head of electrical engineering. He was interested in radio propagation, a Britisher, fine guy, but very much his own man and couldn't see why any of this stuff had anything to do with electrical engineering. So if you go back and look now at the origins of the sub-micron facility at Cornell, Eastman is the guy that's running that, and the whole thing came out of the device work that electrical engineering did, (crosstalk).
Weart:(crosstalk) a lot of it has to do with —
Sproull:— but all of their work was sponsored by the Materials Science Center in the early days. We had to use precious ARPA dollars before they could get contract dollars from outside. But we thought that it was an important part of the whole thing, of the electrical engineering applications. Another thing we were not so successful with, although we did expand there to some extent, bringing it into the 20th century, was [???]. We tried geology, and at the beginning I guess— finally it began to take, but it was very slow. We tried to get synthetic crystals , geological type crystals, grown, high temperature for the most part and pressure. The high pressure work in mechanical engineering was all started by the Materials Science Center.
Weart:Some of these things can take centuries (?) and others like metallurgy still had to wait to see what's going on.
Sproull:Yes, but metallurgy at Cornell is still in a hell of a lot better shape than it was in 1960. Of course it should be. It's a generation later.
Weart:In a sense one sees the whole field as being an extension of physics towards metallurgy rather than the other direction.
Weart:A given point of physical understanding only goes so far toward metallurgy.
Sproull:Well, that's true, and I think year after year, there is more chance of the motion across the space between them in that direction. I guess occasionally you have a very spectacular example the other way. I guess the modern one is oil refining — whereas the metallurgist's segregation, understanding and so on, it allows the —
Weart:— it's useful.
Sproull:It's the other way, but there are relatively few of those, and tending more to the techniques and preparation, rather than understanding.
Weart:Now, were you drawing entirely on ARPA or did you also go to Air Force, AEC etc.?
Sproull:Oh yes. As I say, ARPA was just the nucleus of the thing, and one of the ways we competed was, how much you were willing to make a big grand design which would take quite a lot more money than the ARPA contract, and then, in other words, be on the hook to produce more results. And what we did was to set up central facilities, with ARPA money for the most part, and use ARPA money to grubstake junior people, people who got in from the very beginning, and the established people all used their own contact support from other agencies. Facilities like crystal for example, which was dear to my heart and still going low temperature, liquid helium, etc. — oh, I don't know, they must have had four or five of them all together.
Weart:At this point you're not going around too much with the Chowder and Marching Society. I guess it wasn't really a Chowder and Marching Society any more anyway.
Sproull:Yes, it became more institutionalized. It became much larger. It got representatives of all the other agencies.
Weart:Where would you go at this point to expect to find out what's going on in all the other agencies? What were the places to ask for money? Any particular people you were meeting with, or it just happened through a lot of separate contacts?
Sproull:I'm not your best answer to that question.
Weart:But you were thinking about it for the whole period.(?)
Sproull:If I were still doing physics, which I'm not—
Weart:No, no, I'm talking now as director in charge of a laboratory and so forth. I want to know what all was happening in the field, in the institutions. Did you meet people at meetings?
Sproull:Sure. But, I don't know — is the Chowder and Marching Society still going under National Academy?
Weart:Well, it's a very different thing now, nothing like... [There is great distortion on the tape at this point, in some places knocking out words]
Sproull:Sure, but wait a minute — I'm out of it. I'm completely out of it. I've been president of the university for 13 years now. People ask me, "Are you a physicist?" I say, "No. I was a physicist."
Weart:OK, anyway, back in this period — would you for example go down to Washington pretty frequently?
Sproull:Oh yes. That would be my job. I would have to know everything going on. I gave testimony, I talked with people, trying to see what their problems were, seeing if I could help them with their problems. I wouldn't just sit back and wait for things to appear. [???] daily or something.
Weart:Now, what about connections with other centers? …What about MIT for example? How would you find out what was going on there?
Sproull:Well, we started, with the ARPA labs, we started a twice a year home and home type of exchange. We went down, all the laboratory directors would meet at one laboratory or the other, look through — there were about dozen of them in the end and it would take something like six years to get through them with that kind of a cycle. So you wouldn't just see the other guy's lab, you'd hear presentations from everybody. We all shared each other’s annual proposals. The annual proposals gave all of the account of the work that had been published and a lot of unpublished work. For the last year. So the interaction among the IDLs was not bad. Particularly in the early days it was very close, and it was friendly, and in fact, the way I had funded these things, you didn't have to eat off the other guy's plate. So it was a friendly and orderly and cooperative thing, and we learned from each other a great deal. We learned what worked. And so that was —
Weart:—- was that a major part of… what about solid state physics within these labs?
Sproull:Well, it too. You see, there was a certain amount of at the beginning by the people who didn't get My answer to that was, "Expand the pot." It got a new grant from ARPA into the thing, something like 23 or something like that million a year, which was a lot of money in those days. Any time you get a new grant and expand the pot, it's a because then, that much less competition going, with the traditional agencies. And that was in fact true. That isn't an argument, that is true. So the resentment began to die down. [???] Slipkin, did you ever run across him, from North Carolina? I think North Carolina got one of the... but it was not in the original group.
Weart:IPL, what's that?
Sproull:I think that's the Laboratory. It was the term that he started with, and then it became what the program was called, the IDL… the main thing they wanted, whatever — the Materials Research Center — it got confused there.
Weart:Materials Sciences. It had Materials in the name somewhere.
Sproull:But Slipkin said the whole thing was a Russian plot to take the productive thing away from the [???] and commuters to Washington. [Severe distortion on the last several — minutes of this tape] But in fact, it helped everybody, and there was also some worry that it would make too much of an applied focus on things, and that turned out not to be right either.
Weart:In fact it was the other way around.
Sproull:Yes, in fact it was the other way around. In fact, when I was in ARPA we tried to start a new program called a coupling program, to try to harvest the IDLs in the direction of engineering. It didn't succeed. It did some good things but not nearly as much as it should have for the amount of money that was used on it.
Weart:Now, in all of this I still haven't heard anything about the National Science Foundation?
Sproull:Well, it was not a big player. Eventually, for each year that I was in ARPA, my boss Harold Brown would always beat me on the head and say, "Hey, what are you doing with those IDLs? You can't"— I would, you know, always be after them for more budget. Our budget was about 300 million dollars a year, but it wasn't enough to do… (malfunction). And he and others would always say, "Well, if you could drop…" (malfunction…) ARPA by its very nature needed to be able to drop things in order to pick up other things, and so clearly, once a thing was established like that, the urge was to transfer it, and why should not that be a federal responsibility, not just the Defense Department? The answer is, of course it should be a federal responsibility. Footnote: if we'd waited for the NSF to start it, it would never have started. ARPA had transferred over to the NSF the Arecibo Laboratory, the big radio telescope, and that was very, a very complicated thing, believe me, but —
Weart:I've heard all about that.
Sproull:Yes. But transferring the IDLs, I was perfectly prepared. I wanted to transfer them. I had a lot of talks with people problems trying to — we had various other kinds of transferring problems going on. For example, we were trying to transfer the 125 seismic stations around the world to the Department of Commerce. Because seismography and so on was part of their mission, and we wanted that to be a civilian operation anyway. The whole purpose was to get it into civilian sophistication. Transferring was very difficult. We had to get the concurrence of the Congressional committees. It would be easy to transfer something and just have it drop, but to transfer it and have it keep going — and as you know, much later it did transfer over to the NSF. But the NSF almost flubbed it. I was involved, not with the transfer itself so much as with some of the crises that occurred in the first year or two after the transfer. I went on site visits for the NSF. It's clear that the program almost was killed.
Weart:Was there anyone in the NSF who had this as —?
Sproull:— didn't want it, didn't have the idea of the open-endedness or the magic of it and so on. It wasn't their program. Not invented here. All of those things. So it was very, very difficult. It's much more fun to start things. That's what they wanted to do. And we started them, and so they said, "Naw, that's your —" Well, NSF, you know, that's another story, but you'd be kind of hard put to it to tell me the ten most prominent examples of NSF leadership… Don't do it now, but that's —
Weart:— OK, I hadn't really quite thought of it that way.
Sproull:It hasn't been an agency that has been known for its leadership positions. It talks about proposal pressure and lines of [???] and it doesn't get much money… and gets afraid of its own board and so on. It hasn't been the greatest thing that came down the pike. But that's, when you ask what happened, why didn't I mention the NSF, that's why.
Weart:OK, that's my question. And one other question about that period, the early sixties. I notice that at some time in there Roman became the head of this panel which I keep obsessively coming back to. Do you have anything about what role Roman played in the panel?
Sproull:Roman was a steady participant in the early years. He was an almost every meeting participant, but his own program at Princeton never really got off the ground. I can't tell you what happened to Roman. Is he still around?
Sproull:Is he retired?
Weart:I'm not sure he's retired. I just saw him a year or so ago. I'm curious because he was one of the people who founded the Division of Solid state Physics in the Physical Society. So he was clearly a kind of promoter of the idea that there should be such a thing as solid state physics.
Sproull:Well, I don't know. I don't want to say anything bad about Roman but he didn't really… I don't know he didn't — well, for example, at our little exercise, I think he agreed to participate but didn't show up at the meeting. He was always interested in lots of other things, and was quite different from Seitz. He was more like Brooks, who was interesting, had interesting ideas and so on, but didn't follow through and didn't do the hard work, the telephone calls late at night and so on.
Weart:Give a little push now and then but not the steady pressure.
Sproull:Yes. The business about being the head of it — God knows, I think I was the head myself some time.
Weart:The nominal chairman?
Sproull:It was very nominal. It really didn't amount to anything.
Weart:There wasn't any organizational...
Sproull:No. It’s guiding spirit and guru was Fred Seitz. Until the time he not so much lost interest as got so involved with other things that he couldn't keep going all the time.
Weart:Why, at one point he was (crosstalk).
Sproull:— sure, he was the creator of it. He was very conscientious about its build-up. He was, he did an enormous lot to make sure that people in universities were willing to work on national defense problems, and on government problems generally. Now, that's another story, but it's a kind of interesting one. And the difference between, for example — he was president of the National Academy of Sciences, and when Phil Hamburg took over and tried to spin it 180 degrees — interesting situation But Fred not only founded solid state physics almost single handed, but he, I think, deserves a lot of credit for making work for the federal government respectable, with universities.
Weart:Especially among solid state physicists.
Weart:Well, maybe we ought to wind down at this point. I wanted to ask you — what I normally do at this point is take it and have it transcribed, do some editing, and then if you're willing to, I'd send it to you so you can check it over, and then at that time, after you've read it over, we can discuss whether you will put it in a file for other scholars to use and so forth.
Sproull:I'd be flattered. It's a very interesting period.
Weart:There's a lot more I could ask you. [break…]