Oral History Transcript — Drs. Leon Fisher and Robert Varney
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Leon Fisher and Robert Varney; July 26, 2008
ABSTRACT: In this interview Leon Fisher and Robert Varney discuss topics such as: Leonard Loeb; Willliam Allis; Sandy Brown; New York University; Wayne Nottingham; Julius Molnar; Phillip Morse; people from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Bell Laboratories; Brookhaven National Laboratory; Norris Bradbury; Dan Alpert; Gerhard Weissler; Lockheed Corporation; John A. Hornbeck; Ben Bederson; Homer Hagstrum; microwaves; radar development; T. D. Lee; Alfred Von Engel; Army Research Office; Office of Naval Research; Air Force Office of Scientific Research; ionized gases; Ted Holstein; cosmic rays; neutrons; Lester Germer; Ronald Geballe; gas discharges; American Physical Society; Karl Darrow; William Shockley.
Varney: I don’t have all those, but I’ve seen them around. All they’re saying that Leon did a major part of the work of getting the Gaseous Electronic Conference going. I would like to say a few things of what started there. In 1946 we got the first influx of graduate students after the war, and they eventually came to see me (among other professors) to find research projects and what to do. I was in gaseous electronics work, and they all said to me, “It sounds interesting to me, I’d like to do it, but I’m afraid I won’t get a job if I don’t work in nuclear physics.” It was a 2 big shock in those days. But anyway, there was interest in gaseous electronics. It wasn’t out of date at all, and people got jobs.
There were three names that are involved with the start. One of them is Will Allis, who was a professor at MIT. One was Leonard Loeb, who was a professor at Berkeley. The third one was Leon. I have to take a moment to tell you about Will Allis. He was a wealthy man. He came from the Allis-Chalmers family, and he owned something in France. He was a theoretical physicist not experimental. He, as I thought, never actually had a graduate student himself under him. He just looked benignly on, and other people did the work. Sandy Brown from MIT took over most of the active — he didn’t have much to do with the Gaseous Electronics Conferences.
Then there was Leonard Loeb at Berkeley who was a very active man and very aggressive. I think he’s written 14 books. He was in a funny situation. He wanted to run it, but he didn’t want to have any of the responsibility for running it. So whenever there was a meeting, he would nudge me as one of his former graduates and, “Be sure and nominate me now,” so he could get in on this. He was by far the most active research man in the field. I think he had 64 PhD students under him (I may have the number wrong). Then of course there was the work of having to do all this. This is where Leon came in. He can tell you more, of course, about the details of organizing and finding a meeting place and how to run things. I don’t know whether Will Allis actually had a title at that first meeting.
There were three people who were running it. It was Will Allis, Julius Molnar from Bell Labs, and me. I was the chairman of it. I can explain why I came to be the chairman.
It was necessary to organize things and to get things going, and also to know the subject matter. The first meeting came off in '48, and those of us in the field had been invited to submit papers. That was usually the work that their students had been doing. At this point I’m going to get Leon to start talking.
You’re doing very well.
Varney: After that (let me just jump around a little bit), we had a meeting every year. Interestingly enough, the attendance stayed surprisingly constant. There is a tendency (I guess not just in physics; anywhere) that if you got something good going, you have to make it grow and get bigger and bigger. I think around 300 people attended these conferences every year.
Maybe it was 320 one year and so on. But right from the beginning it was decided how to regulate the subject matter. We were not going to get into industrial or commercial work. It was supposed to be on new work in the field.
Cameron: Theoretical work?
Varney: Experimental. There were theoretical papers. I don’t remember. I feel that I haven’t organized myself any further than this. This fits in with what you wanted to say.
Would you like me to say a few words?
Okay. I was a young professor at NYU at that time in 1948. There was a meeting being held every year called Physical Electronics at MIT. It was run by Professor Nottingham, Wayne Nottingham. He ran that meeting sort of the way Hitler ran Germany: he decided who was to talk, and for how long. Your name might be on the program, but you might not get to talk because he would have five people talking about how they put their samples in the oven for eight hours, and did this and that. People who were in gaseous electronics were supposed to cover that field, but it was very much ignored. So people were a little bit dissatisfied with the conference.
You could never tell if you were on the program whether you’d get to talk. During one intermission I was out in the lobby. There was Will Allis from MIT and Julius Molnar was from the Bell Labs, and I happened to be around. They were discussing their displeasure with this conference, and that people who worked in electrical discharge and gaseous should have their own conference. I remember saying, “But who would come to it?” They said, “Well, let’s go ahead and see if we can arrange it.”
At any rate, at that time Brookhaven National Laboratory was just getting started and they had a director there from MIT by the name of Phillip Morse. He was a theoretical physicist.
Apparently they were looking for things to do. They weren’t the famous, big laboratory that they are now. They were just starting. Then, I think probably through Allis knowing Morse (they had written a famous paper together) arranged that maybe Brookhaven would be a good place to have the conference, which was in the spring. It was March of 1948 that this conference at MIT occurred. It was always very rainy and dismal and cold in Cambridge at that time so I remember the season very well. Then they said to me, “You’re closest to Brookhaven, why don’t you be chairman?” Here it was Molnar, who was quite a big sneeze at Bell Labs, and Allis who was an associate professor at MIT, and I was really an unpublished and unknown assistant professor at NYU. So I got saddled with this job.
What happened is that during that summer I had a job teaching at USC, so I wasn’t in New York for the whole summer. Brookhaven assigned two ladies to organize the conference. One was Marietta (Kövesi) Kuiper. She was John von Neumann's first wife. They got divorced, and she married a physicist by the name of J. B. H. Kuiper, who was editor of the Review of Scientific Instruments. Actually, kind of as a courtesy, Kuiper was put on the committee so there’d be four people on the committee. He was not in the field, but he was at Brookhaven. At any rate, the conference got organized. It was fairly successful. There were a lot of people that came (a lot of them have now passed away) that were rather famous people. There was Slepian from Westinghouse. There was Leonard Loeb from Berkeley. There was Weissler from USC.
There was Varney from Washington University in St. Louis. There were a lot of industrial people there too. Slepian was from Westinghouse. Norris Bradbury was the director from Los Alamos and he came. Norris Bradbury had been a graduate student of Leonard Loeb, as Robert
Varney had been and so had I. Actually, Weissler had been a student of Loeb. Charles Miller was there, who also was a student of his. There were a lot of people from Westinghouse there.
There was Dan Alpert, who became dean of the graduate school at the University of Illinois at
Anyhow, things went pretty well. There was just a loose organization. People that wanted to know what to do, so somebody suggested that we have a nominating committee for the executive committee for the following year. Leonard Loeb, as Rob indicated, was behind the scenes always manipulating. He nominated everybody to be on the committee for next year. The one person he didn’t nominate was me. He had some sort of score to settle with me. At any rate, I was the chairman of that conference for the first year. Will Allis took over as chairman and he stayed on for, I think, 20 years or so?
Varney: Longer I believe.
Maybe longer than that. Eventually I came to Lockheed in 1961. Robert Varney joined me there so we could work together. I think it was in the '60s that there was a Gaseous Electronics Conference that was going to be held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
I said, “I don’t think I’d go.” My boss at Lockheed said, “I want you to go.” They had this business meeting and I was sitting out in the lobby because I was kind of wasn’t involved very much, and Fred Biondi came up and said, “You better go into the business meeting. You’re going to be nominated to be chairman for the next two years.” I talked to him and said, “Really?” He said, “Yes, some of us feel you’ve been treated very, very badly by the conference.” So I did become chairman for two years in the „60s. That’s about how many years later, twenty years later or so after. But I did take care of the money. I became the treasurer for many years. I put the conference on a good financial basis. I think the registration fee at that time was two or three dollars. I don’t remember. But anyhow, I was living in River Ridge, New Jersey at that time, and I opened an account at a savings and loan a few blocks away from us. I think that account stayed there for very many years.
Another thing I can remember is that the conference eventually went to NYU, and then I became what was called secretary to the conference to arrange things locally. At that time Will Allis arranged to have a rather famous man from Wales come, Llewellyn-Jones, give an invited paper. Leonard Loeb was supposed to give an invited paper, and because those two were archenemies scientifically, I was supposed to give a talk in between to try to adjudicate between the two. Allis said that he was going to have an ambulance ready outside in case any physical violence occurred.
Varney: If I may interrupt for just a moment. You were speaking of Minnesota being difficult. I think it was about the fourth conference that was at Westinghouse. Maybe it was the fifth or maybe it was earlier. Alpert, who was local secretary, and he took a map of the United States and he put a dot on the map and every point that everyone came from to attend the meeting. Then he figured out where the center mass of this map was. It fell sort of half way between Schenectady and New York City. In other words, there was nobody as far west as Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh. Okay, Professor Loeb had to come from Berkeley, and I had to come from St. Louis. Then as time went on it did spread out. There was more gaseous electronics work being done throughout the country.
At the first conference there was a man by the name of Lester Germer, who was there from Bell Labs. He was quite a famous man because there’s a famous Davisson and Germer experiment for which Davisson got the Nobel Prize. Germer was an older man; very sweet, very kind man. There were some young Turks from Bell Labs: Molnar, the man that I mentioned, and Hornbeck, and maybe one other person. They were very anxious for Bell Labs to be on top and not to be criticized and be the leaders. They felt they were better than any university, and so forth. This man Lester Germer gave a talk, and Slepian from Westinghouse, great critic, lambasted Germer. Hornbeck and Molnar were very upset that Bell Labs was being humiliated by the fact that Germer was being criticized. It turns out that Slepian was absolutely wrong and Germer was right, but that didn’t get settled at that meeting. At the banquet Germer was so upset that I had to help him out and he threw up outside. Those young Turks upset him that much. I don’t know if you ever heard that story or not.
Varney: I would have forgotten if you hadn’t mentioned it.
So that was one interesting thing. Of course Molnar and Hornbeck were just going to be great researchers and so forth. Within a few years they were in administration with high salaries and things of that sort. Actually both of them are dead now so we shouldn’t — I’m not speaking ill of them; I’m just telling you the truth, right? Let’s see, what else? At that first meeting there was also a graduate student of mine by the name of Bederson. Is he on your list?
Cameron: Oh, yes he is.
He was my graduate student. As a matter of fact we both gave papers there. Two papers on something with which was really, I don’t want to be immodest, but it was really quite important about the nature of electrical breakdown, which contradicted everything that Loeb believed and thought and everything that Slepian believed — at any rate, Bederson was there. We weren’t on the program because I’d come back very late from USC, and we were in the lab the night before with these results, and so it was kind of added on later.
Another person that was there, the first person who gave a talk at the program was a man by the name of Harry White. Harry White was a student of Ernest Lawrence, the famous nuclear physicist, who worked for a company called The Research Corporation. He worked on electrostatic precipitators for cleaning. You hear an awful lot about that now.
Varney: The rest tends to be more detailed. I think one interesting thing is this. Bell Labs was one of the biggest in the country. I don’t think there’s anything today going on there.
No, it was a great laboratory, and they thought that if somebody was hired to be a professor at someplace like the University of Oregon, that they wanted to get rid of them because they had higher standards than the university. It was really quite a wonderful lab.
Varney: Westinghouse Laboratory doesn’t exist anymore.
Neither does Bell Labs, really.
General Electric long ago stopped all what we called secret work. Not that there was anything secret in it gaseous electronic, but they couldn’t patent it so they weren't interested anymore. In 1967, Lockheed had the largest number of papers on the program, I think seven.
Actually there was a conference in San Francisco of which I was secretary again in the ‘60s.
Lockheed hasn’t had any papers for some years. The trouble with Lockheed is if the job doesn't do at least a billion dollar contract, they are not interested. Things have changed. You couldn’t tell very much about what’s going on in these days.
Well at that time there was strong industrial interest in the subject. There were telephones with relays in the arcs and light sources and stuff like that. So General Electric was interested, Westinghouse, RCA was interested. Let’s see, in those early days — what about this fellow at Bell Labs who did this beautiful work? Hagstrum. I think Hagstrum was at that first meeting too.
Varney: Homer Hagstrum. He’s no longer living.
No, he’s no longer living. He was another brilliant fellow from Bell Labs that was there.
Cameron: Would you say that at the early meeting the people from industry saw themselves more as leaders than the ones from universities?
Well, there was very little going on in the universities, really. There were microwaves. There was the whole radar development during the war, which led to microwave breakdown and microwave properties of gases. There wasn’t very much going on in the universities. Leonard Loeb had a big school. But other than that, I think there was something going on at Northwestern. Do you remember Huxford and Engstrum from Northwestern?
Varney: Yes. There was the Chinese.
There were two guys from Northwestern, but outside of Berkeley and a little work at Northwestern, at NYU we were just getting started. MIT had a lot of work. Other than that, there was very little work in universities at that time. It was mostly industrial. It was Bell Labs, it was Westinghouse, it was RCA, and it was General Electric. Would you say that was a fair statement?
Varney: I think it’s true that industrial people greatly exceeded the university people in the activities. They were doing good work, and they were reporting it, but…
One interesting thing, we were invited one year to have the conference at Duke University, and I was on the planning committee that year. Will Allis was chairman as usual. We were informed by Duke University that they’d be very glad to have us, except that any black people that came would not be able to stay on the campus in dormitories; they would have to stay off the campus. There was a black university. I’ve forgotten what the name of it is. It was North Carolina State or something like that. Allis said, “Well that’s okay.” And I said, “No, I disagree.” I did prevail, and Duke was told that they would not have the conference because of that. At that time the army research office was based at Duke. It was called AROD, Army Research Office in Durham. Do you remember that?
Varney: I remember a research office in Durham.
At any rate that’s just a little interesting vignette. Actually the people at AROD told me they were glad we’re not having the conference, because it was brought to the attention of the authorities. Later I heard that there was a Nobel Prize winner from Columbia, I think it was T. D. Lee, who was visiting. There was a program with the APS to have famous people come to universities. He went to this black university to give some lectures, and then Duke invited him to give a lecture at Duke because he was right in the neighborhood, and T. D. Lee said he’d like to bring the chairman of the department along, who was black. So the authorities of Duke University went all the way up to the top of the administration, and made an exception and allowed this black physicist to attend T. D. Lee’s lecture at Durham.
Cameron: Do you remember about when that was?
That must have been in the '50s sometime. Things have changed since then. At the American Physical Society, anybody who is a member can give a paper at a meeting. They are not censored or refereed or anything. You give an abstract; you read a paper. Well, at the Gaseous Electronics Conference that wasn’t true. If the committee didn’t like a paper they rejected it. Allis was very strong about that. He had very strong prejudices about what papers were good and what papers were not. He got into a fight later on with a man by the name of
Slepian, who I mentioned before, I think he was vice-president at the research laboratory at
Westinghouse. He was quite a famous man. He had some difficulties, and Allis began to reject his papers, and there was kind of a feud about that. I always felt that there was no harm in letting him give a paper, but Allis didn’t like him.
There was another fellow there by the name of Goldstein from the University of Illinois.
Allis didn’t like him either. Allis gave him trouble. He was at the University of Illinois at
Varney: Papers were generally rejected if they were too industrial even though industry was supporting the whole thing. If it was too much applied, it wasn’t acceptable.
There was one interesting incident. There was quite a well-known man by the name of von Engel from Oxford in England, who worked in gaseous electronics. Incidentally, the first conference was called the Gas Discharge Conference. It was Leonard Loeb who decided that electronics was the coming thing, and among the engineers wanted to be practical, so he invented the term gaseous electronics. At any rate, we developed a plan whereby every year somebody gave an invited paper — maybe one, maybe two. Generally it was somebody who was very good and very well known. He got to speak for a half of an hour or so instead of ten or twelve minutes. They invited von Engel to give a talk. He came all the way from Oxford and he gave a talk. He was kind of an interesting character, laid back, and tried to be very British (although he was from Vienna). He used to be criticized by his English colleagues by saying he was trying to be more British than they were. A few years later I was in England and I called on von Engel and he said, “Well, I’m going to give my second invited paper at the Gaseous Electronics Conference this October.” I was on the committee and I knew what the program was, so I knew he hadn’t been invited. I didn’t say anything. Then when we had a committee meeting and people had responded and so forth about their papers, so I told Allis, “You know von Engel thinks he’s giving an invited paper.” He said, “Oh, no he isn’t.” I said, “Well, look at his card.”
He picked up his card and it says, “Giving an invited paper.” He hadn’t been invited, so Allis said, “Let’s let him do it. We don’t want to quarrel with him.” So when von Engel got up (I think it was in Schenectady), he said, “To be asked to give an invited paper once is a great honor, but to be asked twice is just an incredible honor.” I was the only person with Allis in the audience and the committee that knew what was going on.
Varney: There was a mixture of politics, but there was relatively little of that sort of thing. Enough that this had become a common feature that some of us knew about.
The other thing is that there was this Sherwood program, this classified program to use plasma physics to develop energy to — Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was a secret after that. Then I think in the '50s it became public, and so a lot of work had been done in secret on plasma physics. Actually gaseous electronics is related to plasma physics, and so for a while we got papers from Livermore and places like Princeton on plasma physics. There was a man by the name of Gottlieb who was at Princeton. I spoke to him and I said, “Maybe we ought to get together and have gaseous electronics and plasma physics be one conference.” He said, “Oh no, we want our own conference.” Now there is a plasma physics conference. They split off. They became very much larger than gaseous electronics.
Cameron: I actually noticed several attendees of the first GEC were funded by the military.
You mentioned a little bit about that.
Everybody was funded by the military. All university work was. ONR, Office of Naval Research, really supported university research. If it wasn’t for the military, there would have been no physics research at the universities in the United States of any kind after the war. That was one of the tremendous things that the military did. The Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Universities had no money. Leonard Loeb I think in the '30s or so had a budget of $400 per year for his research. Is that correct?
Varney: I think it was $800.
Cameron: The Second World War really changed things.
Absolutely. I think before World War II, the complete salary budget of the
University of California Physics Department was around $20,000 for eight or ten professors and assistants and so forth. It wasn’t very much. People like Leonard Loeb were getting $4,000 a year before the war, and I think Lawrence was getting $8,000.
He got $8,000, but he was a very famous man even before the war. He got the Nobel Prize, and so on. University budgets were meager. My work at St. Louis was supported by the Office of Naval Research. Without that I couldn’t have done anything. I think even at Lockheed I got a $10,000 grant from the Navy for my research projects. That was a lot of money in those days.
Actually, places like Lockheed had huge contracts, and a certain percentage of it the government said, “You can do whatever you want to do research.” Lockheed at that time decided they were going to do basic university research. For maybe 10 or 15 years it was a really outstanding academic research organization. Now, places like Bell Labs paid for their own research pretty much, is my understanding. Maybe that was true with Westinghouse and GE. For example, you had this company in St. Louis, McDonnell Douglas. They had the same money and they didn’t use it for basic research. They used it for improving paint on airplanes and stuff like that. You can’t overestimate the importance of military in terms of research in this country after World War II.
Cameron: I know you did some more work. Weren’t you at Los Alamos?
I was at Los Alamos. Yes.
Cameron: Can you talk about what you did?
Well, actually I worked on the detonators that put off the Nagasaki bomb. Actually, I think I was the first person to ever know it was going to work because all these detonators had to go off at once. I was doing the testing and after years finally they all worked. They have to go off within a very, very short time because it was a so-called implosion. Actually my work there, I don’t think it had much to do with gaseous electronics. It had to do with explosives and things of that sort. There were about 60 people working on the problem, so I was a very small part of it.
Cameron: What about you, Dr. Varney? What kind of war work did you do?
Varney: I was in the Navy. I was onshore duty at the Naval Proving Ground where we’d do research on projectiles. If there was an accident in the Navy they were likely to send it to us to see if we could duplicate it to understand what happened. One of the funniest things there was — not funny, I must say. There was an explosive that had been invented called RDX, which had the characteristic that it was twice as powerful as TNT. Don’t pin me down to what powerful means, but at any rate —
Cameron: Did it come in ropes? Did it come in tubes? RDX?
Varney: It was used in depth charges and torpedoes and things like that where an explosion was needed. They had several accidents where two people got killed. There was an explosion off the port Chicago on the operations of San Francisco Bay. I think 130 people were killed at once. The Navy still didn’t think there was anything dangerous about it, until finally at Okinawa, an ammunition ship was anchored, and was loading to as many as 13 different ships around loading this. By a strange piece of luck, a signal man on a ship, a Navy vessel about 10 miles away, didn’t have any details, was watching through a telescope, and he saw a sailor on a ship moving an RDX bomb and he tripped and fell, and the thing blew up and sank all 13 ships. They still didn’t believe it was — At any rate, they sent it to us. They sent 600 bombs to us with no fuses in them; just instructions of dropping them to see if they would blow up. The fourth one we dropped blew up and destroyed the whole setup we were using. Of course we took cover every time we dropped one, but that was not a very scientific outcome. Many of the things were much more scientific than that.
Cameron: Before I came out here, I had written 14 different questions to ask the two of you. You’ve answered almost all of them without me prompting you.
You might be interested to know that Rob Varney was a student of Leonard Loeb. So was I. Rob Varney’s first academic job was at NYU and my first academic job was at NYU but not at the same time, a little bit later. Eventually I went to Lockheed, and then he came to Lockheed. So our paths have been intertwined. I remember him when I was a freshman at Berkeley, and he already had his PhD and was an instructor of physics, so he was kind of a star in the department. I never had been able to talk to him the way we’re talking today.
Cameron: One thing I had not been sure of before I came out here and heard what you had to say was the GEC was intended from the first to be an American conference. Or was there an international component?
No. Not international. As a matter of fact I’m not even sure how we got the notices out. We certainly didn’t invite anybody from abroad. Absolutely not. It was only later that we actually had people from Germany and from England. Didn’t Raether come once? Do you remember? Raether came from Germany? von Engel came a number of times from Oxford.
Llewellyn-Jones came from Swansea, from the University of Wales at Swansea.
Varney: There was another conference.
Yes, in 1953 this man von Engel organized an international conference on electrical discharges in gases. They called it the International Conference on Phenomena in Ionized Gases. That was first held in Oxford in '53. That was held every two years. The next one was in Delft.
The next one was in Venice. The next one was in Uppsala. Then there was one in Munich is '61. In '63 it was held in Paris. Those were every two years. Actually Allis was not very enthusiastic about having the Gaseous Electronics Conference every year and he voted to have it every other year, but he got overruled, so it has been kept as an annual meeting. But this international conference has been every two years. At that first International Conference on Phenomena in Ionized Gases I think there were five Americans there. I was there. Sandy Brown was there. Nottingham was there for a free trip because he wasn’t in the field; he just got a free trip on his contract to come over there. Gerhard Weissler was there. There was a fifth man, a man that was at the Naval Postgraduate School. Was his name Olsen? Do you remember?
Varney: Yes, I think that’s the name.
Then at the next International Conference on Phenomena in Ionized Gases there were perhaps more Americans. Leonard Loeb was invited to go to that first conference, and von Engel wrote him and said you can talk for 15 minutes. Leonard Loeb said he wasn’t going to cross the Atlantic to talk for just 15 minutes, so he didn’t go. Did you know that story?
Varney: Yes, yes, yes.
He did go to Munich, I know that. Actually I was flying from New York, and somehow Leonard Loeb and I were sitting next to each other on this plane that landed in Munich. He said, “You know, I’m being met by a chauffeur, and I’m doing this that and the other and they’re putting me up in a palace, the Schonberg Palace, because I’m so important,” and so forth and so on. And so we got off the plane and we walked, and this physicist, was he German? I guess it was a German fellow, physicist, greeted him. Then he greeted me, and he said, “Oh! I didn’t know you were on the plane.” I got a ride in the same limousine that Leonard Loeb did. I think he was a little surprised that they’d given me a seat next to him. He did go to that conference, but he didn’t go to the first one. Did you go to the one in Delft, in Holland? Were you there in '55? I don’t think so.
Varney: I don’t think so.
You were in Munich, though, I know that because you invited me to dinner at your hotel there. Do you remember that? You were staying at a different hotel than I was, and you invited me to have dinner with you.
Varney: That was Vienna. No that wasn’t Vienna; it was Munich.
That was Munich. Actually there was a conference also in Pacific Grove too at the Postgraduate School. The interesting thing was that the heavy weight of research in physics was all nuclear physics. It took a funny turn, which I can describe best by what happened at MIT after the war was over. For the first time in their history, they found that people working on PhD could not publish the work because it was secret. It was just unheard of that a doctor didn’t have a final doctor oral examination that was open to the public. MIT had to make some changes in the rules so that people could get PhDs from MIT in physics. There was a man by the name of Holt at Harvard. Well, he was working in gaseous electronics, and he was a young faculty member there. They had a visiting committee to evaluate how the physics department was doing. Robert Oppenheimer was on that committee. Robert Oppenheimer said, “Why are you having that young man waste his time on gaseous electronics?” So he had to change his field. That was the attitude. Gaseous electronics was a very old field that started in the 1880s, and people felt it was old fashioned at that time. There was a lot of snobbery against this particular kind of field. Now with lasers coming in, and all these industrial applications — Oppenheimer was wrong because there was a large activity, but that was the attitude that they had.
You know it must have been about 20 or 30 years ago at Stanford they made a rule that if it wasn’t relativistic and if it wasn’t quantum mechanical, then it wasn’t physics. There was actually a separate department at that time, Applied Physics.
Fisher:Potentially a lot of physicists went into electrical engineering departments after the war. They were PhDs in physics, but they found the physics department very controlled by theoretical physicists and by quantum mechanics. And a lot of these people were very bright and very able. A lot of the laser work has really been developed in engineering departments.
Well do you have some other questions there?
Cameron: Let me see. I think I’ve just about run out of questions that I originally had. I’ve asked you about the military.
Varney: The military didn’t have anything to do with this conference.
Cameron: Right, but they were interested in the research. I remember one question I wanted to ask. You’ve already said that the conference was meant to be more towards the experimental and theoretical side as opposed to applied. Were there any arguments amongst people as far as whether one was more important than the other?
I’d say no. It was pretty uniform that it should be of scientific interest rather than just a new practical device or something. It had some basis. It had some scientific interest, basic interest. Would you agree with that?
Varney: Yes. There were a few papers about lightning near the end of the year, I think. There was some fairly important work got done and got reported about lightning.
Ted Holstein was a very active member. Do you remember him? He is dead now. He was a real live wire. Cross examined every speaker. Couldn’t let anybody get away with anything. He was quite a character. Very bright, brilliant man. Worked at Westinghouse then became a professor at UCLA.
Varney: There was a man from Australia. My memory lapses so much.
Australia. Oh, yes. You’re talking about a very good friend of ours, Crompton.
Varney: Crompton. He came for a year or two.
After a while he came. He was a very active person. Crompton came, but not at the first one. He was at Australian National University in Canberra. Let’s see. There were some obscure people there too at the first conference that we never heard of again. There was another guy by the name of Finkelenberg from Germany. Do you remember him?
Varney: Oh, indeed I do.
He worked on arcs. Finkelenberg. Have you ever heard of Project Paperclip?
Cameron: Oh yes, after the end of the war.
The Russians took half of the German physicists and we took the other half.
Sometimes I think we got the worse end of the deal.
Varney: He was at Nuremberg, and I asked him if I could visit his lab, but he refused. He refused to do it.
Nuremberg in Germany? What year was that?
Well, I didn’t go to Europe until '57, if I recall, way early.
Finkelnberg was a German physicist. They brought him over here on Project Paperclip and they put him in Ft. Belvoir. He worked in arcs and gas discharges, and came quite early to our conferences. Not the first one, but after a while. He tried desperately to get a job in an American university. One of the things was that before World War II he was sent by Germany to the US to visit laboratories to kind of keep up the image of Nazi Germany. The head of RCA was David Sarnoff. David Sarnoff wouldn’t let him in the laboratories. Did you know that? Anyhow, he worked during the war in Germany. Many of the scientists that came over here did do well. But Finkelenberg somehow or another tried to get a job, but he just couldn’t get one. He visited me at NYU once in my laboratory. We had the Cold War with Russia going on. He said, “You know, you Americans made a mistake. You should have been fighting with us against the Russians.” Then he asked me if I could help him get a job at NYU. The student body was 90% Jewish. Anyhow, he couldn’t get a job. He did eventually go back to Germany. I think he’s dead now. Actually when we worked with Lockheed, there were lots of
German scientists, especially down in southern California it was thick with them. We had one of them. Remember the fellow who worked at Lockheed? He had been a German scientist. I’ve forgotten his name. Yes, life is complicated.
Cameron: I happen to have the list of attendees here at the first conference. Now you said a bit about NYU. I think you said the gas electronics had a specialty and was just getting started at NYU?
Yes, just getting started. As a matter of fact, I had been there just two years with very poor laboratory facilities, and until I got a contract with the Office of Naval Research, nothing much happened. I was just one man. As a matter of fact, I had a man by the name of Raether who was a big shot in Aachen, Germany. I think it was in Aachen. He came up to me at an international conference and said, “Dr. Fisher, how many people do you have in your institute?” I said, “My institute?” I said, “I’ve got myself and two graduate students. That’s all I have.” Compared to Germany which was supporting the science so much, even though they were poor, they were doing much better than we were. He said, “How many do you have in your institute?” Do you have an institute?
Well, I went to Austria in '71 to the University of Innsbruck. My being there, the department had two professors instead of just one — I doubled the staff by coming there for a year. If I’d gotten a professorship at Stanford — they had 58 full professors of physics at — you wouldn’t have known whether I was there or not.
Fisher:[Looking through the 1948 list of attendees] Here’s Rothstein. He was a very active, very bright, theoretical person. Shamos at NYU. He was in cosmic rays. He didn’t work in the field. Here’s A. G. Shenstone from Princeton University. He’s a famous spectroscopist. He didn’t work in the field either. I didn’t even know he was there. Here’s Slepian that I mentioned.
Cameron: It’s interesting how many of them work in cosmic rays.
Yes. Well NYU had a pretty big — this man Korff, he worked in cosmic rays. He had a rather large school. He had eight or ten graduate students. He used to fly balloons and birds all over the world.
Cameron: Of course, I took history of astronomy, so I know at the time they didn’t really know what the origin of cosmic rays was.
He was studying neutrons. He would use Geiger counters; he was an expert on neutrons. Actually when he died, there was a booklet (I have at home) of papers that people wrote about him. That was the biggest activity. NYU had two laboratories at that time. One was in Washington Square and one up in what was called University Heights. At University Heights, the biggest activity of research was cosmic rays. Here’s another, W. O. Davis at NYU. He was in cosmic rays too. So I guess that NYU was involved in it and everybody came up. Here’s that Lester Germer that I was telling you about, the man who threw up. Here’s Ronald Geballe, University of Washington. He’s Phyllis' stepbrother, and he was a student of Leonard Loeb’s too. He was a very outstanding research man. He became head of the department there and also became dean of the graduate school. He has a lecture hall named after him. Here’s Frohman from Los Alamos. He’s kind of an administrator. Here’s this fellow Finkelenberg. He was there for the first conference. I told you the story about him. Here’s W. N. English, Bill English. He was a student of Leonard Loeb’s too.
Cameron: Was he Canadian?
Yes, he was Canadian. Here’s the guy from the Phillips Laboratory, they did some work too. Sylvania was pretty active. Donahue from Johns Hopkins was also very active. Diekeand Donahue. Timoshenko from the University of Connecticut gave kind of a crummy talk. I never heard of him again. Herlin was a graduate student at MIT. Wainfan I think I mentioned to you, and actually worked in spectroscopy. These names of attendees, a lot of them I don’t have much to say about. Maybe as you go by, you may know something about them at the first conference.
Varney: I recognize the name of Stebbins but I can’t —
I know I don’t know him. That’s very funny how —
Cameron: I suspect — I haven’t had a chance to check yet, but I think Stebbins might have been with the electrical engineering department at Iowa State. It lists him as coming from Ames, Iowa.
This thing with Timoshenko.
Varney: We knew him, didn’t we?
Yes, we did. Was he listed as being from Columbia?
Varney: Connecticut — University of Connecticut.
Connecticut. I think his paper wasn’t a very good one, if I remember. We never heard of Timoshenko again. He was a famous Russian general. It was also the name of a dog up at Los Alamos. I don’t remember von Gogelberg. He came to lecture at NYU. He worked on spark time lags of spark breakdown at low pressures. Von Gogelberg was a very wealthy nobleman, Swiss nobleman who had his own palace or something and died in his 30s in his own airplane crash. It’s really not a good idea to be rich. I remember getting a letter from Leonard Loeb saying, “I’m awfully sorry to tell you that von Gogelberg has scooped you in your work.” And as usual, Leonard was not quite accurate. Do you remember Carl Kenty? He was a wonderful person.
Varney: Yes, yes, yes. I’ll just comment on the normal process. While the contributing papers were limited to ten minutes, Kenty almost invariably brought a demonstration with him on some strange discharge occurring. How he could bring this apparatus and everything with him — of course it worked perfectly for him.
Every time. You know that when he retired from General Electric in Cleveland, Ohio, he set up the laboratory in his basement and he continued doing his discharge work in his basement. He had all these strange effects that nobody could understand.
Varney: Korff is down here.
Yes, Korff. As I was explaining to Gary, he wrote a book on Geiger counters, but he really was not in electric and gas discharges. He used to build boron Geiger counters to measure neutrons.
Varney: I can’t place Madansky.
Medansky. I think there was another man by the name of Pidd, Pidd and Medansky, is there a Pidd there?
Varney: No. Just Johns Hopkins is all it says there.
I don’t remember much about Madansky.
Varney: Malter. Do you remember Malter from RCA?
Malter, sure. He worked on his so-called famous double forum with Johnson.
Varney: Molnar from Yale was there. Whatever became of Molnar? Do you know?
Molnar died. He went into administration a long time. But he died. He died at a quite early age. So did Hornbeck. They were the two rising stars, Hornbeck and Molnar, from Bell Labs in this field. They actually continued work that this man Huxford at Northwestern did. But they were very good. You know it’s one thing to do good work, and it’s another thing to get credit for it. Its two different talents. Just like if you hit a homerun, then you have to run. If you do good work and you’re not a good public relations person, you don’t get credit for it. It’s two different talents. A lot of these people had both talents.
Varney: What was it that Slepian did that he was so famous for?
Slepian actually got a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard. He decided that mathematics didn’t have much to do with the real world, so he got a job winding transformers at
Westinghouse. They soon discovered that he was pretty bright. I’m not sure that he worked in electrical discharges. He was quite a philosopher and he wrote hundreds of papers on electromagnetic theory. Did you ever see any of those papers where he invented conundrums for you to figure out? He was a very brilliant man. Apparently he made a lot of money for Westinghouse inventing I’m not sure just what, I can’t remember. But then he got this idea of separating isotopes using some device. He got Westinghouse to spend a lot of money on it, and it didn’t work out. So they finally stopped him from doing it and he was very upset.
Varney: One of the famous things that happened was there was a very famous lawsuit about electric power companies with lines across the state — was that an import to the state or was it an export from the state? In the process, they called on Slepian as an expert witness. He talked for seven days. When he finally got off the stand the judge said, “There is one thing we have learned from this. We’ll never call an expert witness again.” [Laughter] Was power being transmitted? What was being transmitted?
It’s interesting, the list of names you have here. Lots of them just came for the ride. A lot of them are not in the field. They just happened to be around. I think the registration fee was one or two dollars. We all stayed in dormitories there at Brookhaven. The meals were from a cafeteria. It was very small potatoes. There was a lot of drinking at the banquet, especially by the Bell Labs people. Molnar got drunk. So did Germer.
Rita Varney: I remember Molnar because he would come forth the year Rob was at Bell Labs.
Was he divorced?
Rita Varney: I have no idea.
Varney: His wife had had a stroke quite early. [Later note: Julius Molnar’s wife frequently appeared at lunch groups or informal group assemblies; I think her health made it necessary in Julius’ mind to stay closely near to her. She had clearly suffered from a stroke which severely limited her speech and participation in our occasional fun games.]
Oh really. I didn’t know that.
Varney: Her mind was very limited. She came to visit and everything, but she had very limited memory.
I had no idea. He was a rising — He was quite an important young man at Bell Labs in many ways. He was very arrogant. You know, at Bell Labs if you were going to give a paper at a scientific meeting, they rehearsed you and rehearsed you and rehearsed you and were criticized. If you were in a university or something, you just got up and talked. It was like a Hollywood production there. They really wanted to embellish their image. If one of their people made a mistake, they just considered — they considered themselves better than most universities.
Cameron: Why do you think that was?
Fisher: Well, there was a spirit there you get it in a famous laboratory. It had a Nobel Prize winner, this fellow Davisson. They were making a lot of money. It was AT&T. They pumped a lot of money into research. They supported pure research and applied research. It was after the war. For example, if people come to a university, and it's not first class; maybe it's third class, or they want it to be second class or they want it to be first. So they really worry about the impression they make on the outer world. I think Bell Labs was very anxious to maintain its prestige and its image as the greatest laboratory in the world.
Varney: I think this will be of interest to you. I have the numbers approximately correct. AT&T in the time I was there, which was '51, was operating on ten billion dollars a year. The Western Electric company [of AT&T] was operating on one billion dollars a year. Bell Labs was set up largely under Western Electric, and with a gross of a hundred million dollars a year. The basic research divisions got one million dollars a year. Basic research at Bell Labs was one part in ten thousandth of the company's gross profits. And those numbers are rounded off.
Fisher: Papers at Bell Labs were published in the Physical Review. There were lots of them. They were high quality. Actually the secretary of the American Physical Society, Karl Darrow was an employee of Bell Labs, wasn't he?
Varney: Yes, he was. He was secretary of the American Physical Society for many years.
Fisher: They paid him just to be secretary. I don't think he did any work for Bell did he?
Varney: Probably wrote the reports and things like that. Bell Labs was one of the great institutions.
Fisher: It's just gone now, wouldn't you say? Stanford was filled with professors that came from Bell Labs especially in electronics and applied physics. There was a Swiss who was a brilliant theoretical physicist. He was working for Bell Labs and he took a job at the University of Oregon. Somebody at Bell Labs said, “Well…” The implication was it improves the standard at both: “It helps Oregon, and it helps us get rid of
him.” He was brilliant I thought. They were really pretty arrogant, and they were very fussy about people they hired. You spent a year there at Bell Labs, didn't you?
Varney: Yes, that's right.
Fisher: They would take people from universities and bring them for a year. Was that a standard practice?
Varney: No. I don't know of any others at the time I was there.
Fisher: How did that happen?
Varney: I can't remember. It's 33 years since I retired from Lockheed, so… [chuckles]
Fisher: Well, I think his memory's pretty good don't you?
Cameron: Oh, yes.
Varney: I wrote a letter to Shockley asking if I could —
Fisher: There's another example. Have you heard of Shockley?
Cameron: Oh, yes.
Fisher: Invented the transistor. Where do you think he invented it? At Bell Labs. Then he came out here and worked for Fairchild Semiconductor. He became a professor at Stanford. There is another example of the kind of people they had. Who else was there? Shockley, Brattain?
Varney: Shockley turned my letter over to — I can't remember names.
Fisher: That's another example they had there. He got the Nobel Prize eventually.
Varney: It was an interesting experience for me. A man named White was a head manager. Interestingly enough, the manager did not take it upon himself to tell me I was to do. I was to tell him my role. So one day he asked me, and the laboratory had a total of ten glassblowers — more than any university then — and they couldn't do something for me for three weeks. So I told one manager, and he promptly went around to the glassblowing shop and told them my work had high priority and to do it right away!
Fisher: At Bell Labs if you wanted to write a paper, you had to write it as a manuscript. Somebody else typed it. They had an editorial person to correct your grammar. It went through a complete — it was amazing the support that they had. If you were a professor working with your own hands in a small university... At Bell you had 20 people who were available to draw your graphs, to make your calculations, to do this. David Rose was also at Bell Labs. He became a professor at the University of British Columbia eventually.
Varney: Speaking of taking care of papers, every paper that was submitted had to be submitted to three different divisions to determine whether there might be a patent violation involved.
Fisher: That was true of most places. You also had to have four or five scientists go over it to see that you weren't making a fool out of yourself. I know a friend of mine who had a girl who checked all the references to his papers. She actually went to the journals to see that they were correct. That was done for them at Bell Labs. That's the kind of service they had for them. It was an easy life in terms of the scientists did not have to do their bookkeeping.
Varney: I was thinking of a story about these papers. If you were going to give a paper at the International Electronics Conference, there would be a committee of usually three people and you'd give the paper for them. Wannier gave a paper on theoretical physics. It can be pretty intricate mathematically. He got through his presentation, and the committee was silent for a
moment, and finally one member said, “I don't think there's a single word that can be presented at a meeting.” [Chuckles]
Fisher: I was an associate editor of Physical Review for a while. I got a paper from Bell Labs that I didn't think was right, so I wrote that back. What do you think happened to that paper? It got published as it was — they had that kind of power.
Rita Varney: Were there any reactions to it in letters to the editor if it wasn't right?
Fisher: No. Most papers at the Physical Review weren't read by anybody. [Laughter] At Los Alamos at the end of the war, Bell Labs was recruiting. They came around. One of the guys that recruited us was a man by the name of Shockley; the other one was Wooldridge. Two world-famous names. They interviewed me and they offered me a job at Bell Labs. First of all, I wanted to be an academic. So I told Shockley, I said, “You know I want my summers off. I want to be an academic.” He said, “If you think you're going to get your summers off in an academic job, you don't know much about academic life.” That was it. Actually, Bell Labs had an arrangement with NYU where physics professors would come down and lecture them on theoretical physics. I was asked to do that one year. I felt I just couldn't do that. They would actually bring in people to train people who were technicians. It was really a very paternalistic organization. Sounds like it was a good place to work, right? I remember Germer telling me when he worked on arcs. He said, “Do you know every time you make a telephone call in New York how many contacts have to be made?” Well, you can imagine how out of date that comment is now, right?
Varney: There were interesting things that we were working on. I think one feature of what I was working on has been incorporated into the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable about 1950 or thereabouts. The Bell Labs was in charge of making a cable for telephone. You couldn't talk on the telephone to England, for example, before it. There were fantastic differences, as I remember. When the first cable finally got laid across the ocean, there was a potential difference between the two ends of the cable — fifteen hundred volts, which they hadn't counted on at all. I've forgotten which continent was the higher voltage.
Fisher: We may have told you more than you want to know.
Cameron: No, that's fine. That saves me from asking the questions. This is what I was hoping for is to have the two of you going back and forth.
Fisher: Well, you heard the story about the movie star who had a friend visiting her, and said, “I've been busy talking about myself for two hours. You talk about me for a while.” [Laughter] I hope we haven't done too much talking.