Oral History Transcript — Dr. Joseph A. Burton
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Interview with Dr. Joseph A. Burton
Joseph A. Burton; July 22, 1974
ABSTRACT: Interview covers changes in the organization of physics research departments at Bell Laboratories during the period of Burton's career, from 1938-1958. Childhood and educational background. Early years at Bell Labs; study of photo-electron emission: history of relationsyhip between telephone company and television; work on radar bomb sights during World War II; origins of solid state physics research at Bell Labs; postwar organization and conditions there, design of physical layout of building 1; how Burton became director of semiconductor research ; delay of 1929 expansion by Stock Market crash.
Hoddeson:We are in Dr. Joseph Burton's office at Bell Labs, and we're going to have an informal conversation about Dr. Burton's career and his early experiences at Bell Labs. You were born in Virginia in 1914, got your BS in physical chemistry at Washington and Lee University in 1934, I was wondering, what brought you into physical chemistry?
Burton:I was brought up in a small town in Virginia, and the judge of the local county court had some very successful sons. One of them was a chemist with DuPont, and so my mother thought it would be great if I'd be like him. So that's what got me into chemistry.
Hoddeson:I see. Then you stayed with chemistry right through, and got your Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in physics?
Burton:No, I got my Ph.D. in chemistry. There was a time when I was tempted by physics at Washington and Lee, but I took a freshman physics course that was an utter disaster, so I stayed with chemistry. Because it was so boring.
Hoddeson:I see — and you never took any physics again until —
Burton:— I had a little bit at Johns Hopkins.
Hoddeson:But you got your degree in chemistry. The equipment you showed me a photograph of — we're going to have a copy made for the archives of the American Institute of Physics — that was for a chemistry experiment?
Burton:My thesis topic was to build a deuteron accelerator, to use a neutron source for radio-chemical experiments. So actually the thesis was building the accelerator, but it was a chemistry degree.
Hoddeson:And your thesis professor was —
Burton:Bob Fowler. He'd just come to Johns Hopkins, and I was his first graduate student. He and I sweated over building this accelerator on essentially zero money. We built everything: rectifiers, transformers, they were all homemade. Then he had several distinguished graduate students subsequent to that. Two of them were Dick Dodson, — who is in charge of the chemistry department at Brookhaven. Another one's Harrison Brown, who everybody knows.
Hoddeson:Then when you joined Bell Labs in '38, you were a member of — was that a chemistry group?
Burton:No, I came here to work on photo-electric emission in a department headed by H. E. Ives. I came to work with G. K. Teal.
Hoddeson:I see. I think I have the organization chart for 1940 here. Perhaps you have a — in my chart here, you appear here in 1940 under Wooldridge.
Burton:Well, that was later.
Hoddeson:Maybe we could look at the 1938 chart, and I could trace — let's see, this is a chart August, 1938. Under television research department, I see, and Bown was the director.
Burton:— television research department — yes, Bown and Ives were co-directors.
Hoddeson:Did they set you onto specific problems immediately at that time?
Burton:Yes, well, the general problem was to study the physical chemistry of photo-electric emitting materials. There was at that time, and had been for many years, quite a sizable effort on photoelectric emission and on television, within this group. Back in the 1920's, this group of people did some really pioneering work on television and on television transmission, and the climax of that effort was the transmission of a television conversation over telephone lines between New York and Washington, between Gifford and Herbert Hoover. And that must have been about 1928 or '29. At the time I came, there was considerable discussion under way as to just how the telephone company should be involved in television. I was hired with the expectation that the telephone company was going to be doing extensive work on camera tubes for picking up television pictures, and was going to have a very widespread television effort. Now, about six months after I arrived, that decision was reversed. I think Ralph Bown was the one who thought about this question carefully, and concluded that the business of the telephone company was the transmission of television programs, and that that's where the effort of the telephone company should be, in the transmission of television programs, and that the camera tubes that were for taking the television pictures were really the province of other people — and similarly, the picture tubes for viewing those pictures were the province of other people. Like RCA, just for instance. So that an extensive research program (applied research or development program) on television camera tubes was really not where the telephone company should be putting its efforts.
Hoddeson:How did you feel about it at the time? Had you done a considerable amount of work at the time?
Burton:No. This was all new. I was just beginning. It was a complete change of fields for me. Actually, I'd gotten started on some research on cesium antimonide, as a very sensitive photoelectric material. But after this decision was made, that's when I switched to Dean Wooldridge, who was really more of a research physicist, than the group here.
Burton:Yes, I started out under Kingsbury, but then I switched over to Wooldridge, in the physical research department, and I continued this research on photoelectric emission, until Pearl Harbor.
Hoddeson:I see. And then what happened?
Burton:Then I worked on radar bomb sights.
Hoddeson:What about the other members of the group? Did everyone stop working abruptly at that time and start working on wartime research?
Burton:Well, pretty much, yes, except a good many of the people in physical research, even before Pearl Harbor, had become involved with these things. In particular, Dean Wooldridge and Charlie Townes, who was in the same department, had — a few months before Pearl Harbor, I think — I know Dean Wooldridge had, and I think Charlie Townes had too, begun to work on radar bomb sights.
Hoddeson:We're now looking at the August, 1939, physical research department organization chart. While we're turned to this page, I'd like to just ask you about some of the working groups at that time. You were working with Wooldridge under Fletcher's group, and then, I see Brattain and Pearson and others here, under Becker's group, and there are others. These groups all worked together in New York, at the West St. Building —
Burton:— 463 West St.
Hoddeson:Were you in close communication with each other, the different groups?
Hoddeson:Could you possibly, just looking at this chart, recall what the focus of each group was, before the war, and then perhaps just after? That would help me get a little bit oriented.
Burton:OK. Well, let's see — Harvey Fletcher was the director of physical research, and his field was acoustics. He was then and had been for many years, even prior to 1940, been a renowned scientist in acoustics. He still is. He's still alive, and active. He's a Mormon, and lives now in Provo, Utah, and he's a fascinating individual. He did a lot of work on the acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle. He designed the auditorium here at Murray Hill which was a real classic at the time he designed it. It's had some modifications since, but then its acoustics were good, and so are the acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle.
Hoddeson:That's where I should be conducting my interviews.
Burton:So that was his field. And this group of people here, under E. C. Wente, were acoustics people. Wente was always Harvey Fletcher's right hand man, I think.
Hoddeson:The organization chart can be confusing — for example, over here we have W. S. Gorton under Wente, and he also has his own group.
Burton:Yes, that's pretty confusing. Now, this group under W. S. Gorton — you notice his title is executive assistant, and so he was an administrative assistant, in addition to doing some physics. This group reporting to him was the glass blowing group, under Weinhart. At this time, there was a heavy emphasis on vacuum tube research, and so glass blowing was an important function,
Hoddeson:I see, and they serviced all of the other groups, is that right?
Burton:This glass-blowing group under Weinhart provided glassware, and all sorts of specialized experimental apparatus. Most of the specialized experimental apparatus was in fact vacuum systems or glassware. But they provided all of that to all these other groups.
Hoddeson:Glass as well as other —
Burton:— specialized apparatus. Now, this group, under Joe Becker, was strongly oriented toward new kinds of electronic things, many of which had to do with vacuum tubes, but not all, and the notable names there are Walter Brattain and John Shive, — he was a physicist from Johns Hopkins who came about the same time I did. Gerald Pearson and these people associated with him were involved in things like copper oxide rectifiers. They were involved in thermionic emission. Becker himself and also Brattain were really quite noted surface physicists.
Hoddeson:How did the work in that group relate to the work in your group? The group under Fletcher?
Burton:Well, this group under Becker, was a group that had been in existence for quite a number of years. This group was a group of new people, for the most part —
Hoddeson:— under Fletcher.
Burton:Yes. Some of the new people in it were Dean Wooldridge and Bill Shockley and Charlie Townes, and Foster Nix. And then I was a newcomer to this group at this time. But this was a group of fairly new people — I guess it was true of all of these — Wooldridge, Townes, Shockley, Nix, were all people who had been brought up to some degree in modern solid state physics. These were — for the most part — research -physics -oriented young people. That's true of all of them at that time, Townes, Wooldridge, Shockley, Nix.
Hoddeson:I see. But you hadn't studied solid state physics.
Burton:No. I was doing some researchy kinds of things — before I moved to this group — in the television research department, and it turned out that this work on photoelectric emission —
Hoddeson:— related to the work on solid state.
Burton:It was solid state physics research. And after these changed plans in the television research department, it was no longer very appropriate for it to remain there.
Hoddeson:I see. You really got into solid state physics almost by accident.
Hoddeson:These others, I have to check on their education, of course, I haven't done any of that yet. I wonder —
Burton:Shockley came from MIT, and Wooldridge came from Cal Tech, I think. Shockley studied with Slater, and Charlie Townes from —
Hoddeson:— I can look that up, that's easy.
Burton:Foster Nix had been around a little bit longer. He might have been around three or four years. He was an experimentalist who worked very closely with Bill Shockley. He and Shockley had a number of joint papers on disordered systems, phase transitions and solid state things, where Nix was the experimentalist and Shockley was the theorist. Nix was a very energetic guy, and he was a real research physicist, as was Bill Shockley, of course. I think he had a fairly important impact on what was going on in solid state physics at this time in Bell Labs.
Hoddeson:Was the name "solid state physics" in use at that time already, do you recall? Of course the solid state physics group, with the name solid state physics, I don't think occurs at Bell Labs until the mid-forties.
Burton:I think that's right. There's no question that Nix and Shockley especially viewed themselves as solid state physicists.
Hoddeson:They did, and they actually used this term?
Burton:I'm not sure, but I think they probably used these words. See, at this time I was working on photoelectric emission. Dean Wooldridge was concerned with secondary electron emission and with wire recordings, as contrasted to tape recordings. Charlie Townes was really quite new at this time. You see his name written on the chart in ink. I don't know how long he did research before he got involved in the radar bomb sight activities, but I would guess, less than a year, before he became involved in the radar bomb sight. Wooldridge, Townes, and I became a team to make a universal bomb sight. That's what it was called. Wooldridge was the boss. Townes was the radar expert, and I was the electronic engineer, who designed the computers and things. And we did pretty well.
Hoddeson:Tell me more about it. Is this the first time that you did computer work?
Burton:Yes, I was a chemist up to then.
Hoddeson:You were learning both radar work and computer techniques, on account of the war, are that correct?
Hoddeson:How general was that? Both those techniques contributed very much to solid state physics in the postwar period, so it's interesting.
Burton:Well, when Pearl Harbor came, everybody here who had been doing research became involved in war-related things, and some people before Pearl Harbor. One of the groups — yes, this group with C. A. Lovell, was — through this chain, very closely associated with Harvey Fletcher, and was doing various kinds of research on acoustics, and one of the things that he did as a part of his acoustics research was to develop ways of making sine waves with potentiometers, by voltages whose amplitude was a sine wave. He did this by tapering the length of the turns of wire on the wire-wound potentiometer.
Hoddeson:What was that for?
Burton:He'd worked out techniques for making these, potentiometers with tapers of any kind, but in particular tapers like the sine wave, as a part of his acoustics research. When there began to be problems of designing fire control equipment for — I guess the first were naval fire control things. He must have gotten tangled up in this probably 1939 or early 1940. He used the same electronics techniques that he'd learned for acoustics research, in analog computer fire control equipment for naval fire control. At any rate, the thing that Wooldridge was first asked to do, and he began to form a group to do it, was to use similar analog computer techniques, together with radar techniques, to learn how to make a radar bomb sight. And so Wooldridge led that group, and Townes and I joined it, and —
Hoddeson:— are you able to talk about that, or is that classified?
Burton:I don't think I remember any classified information. No, this is not classified now although it was heavily classified at the time.
Hoddeson:But it's been declassified.
Burton:Yes. And so my job was to learn how to make servos and learn how to make analog computers that would be useful for radar bomb sights. And we worked on this so-called universal bomb sight.
Hoddeson:What does that mean?
Burton:It could be used either as a radar bomb site or as an optical bomb sight, and was supposed to permit planes to bomb quite accurately while they were maneuvering, doing loops and dives and stuff, and using either radar if it was overcast or the optical sight if it was clear weather. I think this work of Lovell's was really the forerunner of analog computers. I think they were really the very first ones. Certainly the first sophisticated analog computers.
Hoddeson:He's not around, is he?
Burton:He's not at Bell Labs, but he's still alive and still active.
Hoddeson:And then after the war, around 1945, I suppose, you returned to solid state work, non-war-related work, is that right?
Burton:Yes, that's —
Hoddeson:It was about this time — I wish I had the document here that I saw in Mr. Hamann's office, a solid state research group was organized. A number of cases were put together at that point, case numbers were consolidated to the case number that your group now has. We can actually see that. In 1945 there's a group for the first time that's called solid state physics.
Burton:Yes, that's right.
Hoddeson:And you're actually in the electronics group. We're now looking at July, 1945.
Burton:There were several new things that were set up, when people began to return from war work to physical research again. Let's see, I might just point out a few things here. See, here's Wente, who's still reporting to Fletcher, in acoustics. That's still acoustics with Lovell and so on.
Hoddeson:Fletcher was actually the head of the acoustics department.
Burton:Yes. I don't know to what extent these people were still doing war work here, but they began to return to acoustics pretty soon. But there were some new groups set up, in particular there were three that were viewed as really quite new and quite far-seeing, and they were these three: the one under Wooldridge; the one under Fisk; and the one here under Morgan and Shockley. And they were newly established, sure enough research groups. And with a strong impetus of modern physics in them, as — as contrasted to some of the groups before the war, where the emphasis was so heavily on vacuum tube electronics.
Hoddeson:On the applications.
Burton:But these three groups were — everybody viewed these as being the three really basic research groups, and something quite new that people were really excited about. This one under Morgan and Shockley was, as its name implies, the center for solid state physics research, and included magnetism here, with this group under Bozorth, — under W. P. Mason, there was a group with strong emphasis on piezoelectricity and crystals for crystal oscillators, and things like that. Now where are Brattain and Pearson?
Hoddeson:They don't seem to be on that chart in '45. I was looking for them, earlier today.
Burton:Yes, this is probably right at the very beginning of setting up these three new groups, the one under Wooldridge, the one under Fisk and the one under Morgan and Shockley, and they probably hadn't gotten reassembled yet. All these people were doing war projects of one sort or another at this time.
Hoddeson:Let's see, 1941, Brattain is here working under Becker's group, and he disappears in '43 back in '44 disappears in '45, and in '46, he's back. Yes, now we're looking at July 31, 1946 chart.
Burton:Yes, things had gotten re-assembled a little bit.
Hoddeson:Back to normal? Not quite! All right, we have the three new groups on the right side, electronics under —
Burton:— OK, Bozorth was concerned with magnetism. Goucher was concerned with contact and carbon microphones and such things as that. Mason with crystals. Morgan with essentially the physical chemistry of solid state. He was a physical chemist. And Townes is in that group with Morgan. Townes was doing microwave spectroscopy at this time, making use of the new radar expertise for doing microwave spectroscopy. Schockley was solid state physics and Fisk's group was electron dynamics. This was for all sorts of novel kinds of electronic devices, based on electron streams, analogous let's say to the magnetron, — or traveling wave tubes — it was that sort of thing that Fisk's group was aimed toward. And the notable person there was — a couple of them, several of them — John Pierce, and also Sid Millman, and also Al Clogston. This group under Dean Wooldridge was aimed at physical electronics; in particular the physics of electron emission, and secondary emission was Wooldridge's own specialty.
Hoddeson:What were you working on at a time, do you recall?
Burton:Yes, indeed I do. The question again came up of what should the Bell system be doing about television, and the decision as of about this date was that the Bell system really ought to get into all aspects of television once again. There was a period of probably six months, maybe even a year, when it was felt that research on luminescent materials for television picture tubes really ought to be pushed. And so I was involved in that at this time, for a few months. Then the decision was made that the Bell system really ought to be concerned with transmission of television pictures, and not with picture tubes and so forth and so on, so that —
Hoddeson:I see, they cut it out again. I notice that Conyers Herring's name was typed in here in 1946.
Burton:Yes. He was the theorist in this group under Dean Wooldrige, and things like thermionic emission and secondary electron emission and surface physics were his specialties at that time.
Hoddeson:Were there other theorists in the group, besides Conyers?
Burton:Well, see, each of these three groups had theorists at that time. Conyers was the theorist concerned with physical electronics, and Al Clogston and Larry Walker were theorists concerned with electron tubes, electron dynamics, and then Shockley and Bardeen were theorists in this groups. So each of these three groups had some theorists and some experimentalists, and it was only later that the theorists were reassembled as a single theoretical physics department. But that's the way this started. And it started with intent that way, too.
Hoddeson:Did theorists work side by side with experimentalists?
Burton:The experimentalists would bring them problems, and they'd make suggestions to the experimentalists. Yes, there was a lot of very good interaction between these theorists and the experimentalists, and still is, for that matter. I would say there was even more then. Of course Bill Shockley was a theorist, and he was a strong and forceful instigator of all kinds of programs, experimental programs and theoretical programs as well.
Burton:Well, he and this group, Bardeen and Brattain, Gibney, Moore, Pearson, he was certainly the supervisor and the leader of that group of people at that time. He and that group, in extensive discussions amongst themselves, and I guess with others as well, came to the conclusion that they wanted to do some really basic solid state physics, and that the thing that they would do would be to try to understand the simplest semiconductors in depth, and that they would devote all their attention to trying to understand silicon and germanium, to the exclusion of essentially other more complicated materials. So that was an important decision, and one that had a strong effect on the experimental programs of this group, getting back to the original point, that Shockley had a big influence not only on the theoretical work but on the experimental work as well.
Hoddeson:You suggested the interaction was not as good any more — on account of the —
Burton:I didn't say that, I didn't say that. I didn't mean to say that. The interaction was extremely strong at this particular time. But I don't think it was so much an organizational question as that here was this group of people, really very competent people indeed, who had been devoting all their energies to war-related developments of one sort or another, and were suddenly now freed to do basic research, and had the charter to do really basic research, and to pick what they wanted to do, for the most part. So this was a nice situation for theorists and experimentalists to be in, and they interacted with each other enthusiastically and well in that situation.
Hoddeson:I wonder, do you recall something about the day to day working conditions, the interactions? Were these three groups working all in the same building, all in the West Street Building? Or were they in different buildings?
Burton:No. Murray Hill was — this building we're in now, Building 1 here, this half of the old Murray Hill was constructed — was finished about 1940, I forget the exact date, '40, '41. So many of these people were doing their war-related work here in this building. These three groups, let's see now, certainly — yes, these three groups were all here at Murray Hill.
Hoddeson:All in Building 1.
Burton:All in Building 1.
Hoddeson:I see. And was the day to day interaction much the same as it is now? Were people spending a lot of time talking to each other in their offices and borrowing equipment from each other, and things like that, I imagine?
Burton:Yes. It was very similar to what it is now. The present format essentially of the building layout was essentially established at this time. There was a difference of opinion —
Hoddeson:— we're still looking at July, 1946 organization chart —
Burton:In about 1945, there was a difference of opinion as to how Murray Hill should be constructed, and M. J. Kelly, who may have been the president of the labs at this time — anyway he was either executive vice president or president — so the story went, —
Hoddeson:— executive vice president, yes.
Burton:He had been very much impressed by these large group offices that he'd seen in various military-oriented laboratories and so perhaps he, perhaps it was others, thought that Murray Hill really shouldn't be made up a lot of little rooms, it ought to be one great big room or a lot of great big rooms, with this group of physicists all in one big room talking to each other, interacting in a huge room. But that didn't happen, and I think Fisk and — perhaps Shockley and Wooldridge were at least three people who argued on the other side of that, and so the understanding finally came to be the following that there would be these little two bay rooms, which is what we have now, and the original idea was that there would be two experimentalists would share three little rooms between them. An experimentalist would have one two bay room where he had his desk and his experiment, the second experimentalist would have another two bay room where he had his desk and his experiment, and the third room would have two aides in it that did the construction of equipment and provided assistance to these two experimentalists. So that was the way the layout for this group of people began.
Hoddeson:I see, that's very interesting.
Burton:In some sense, it's continued more or less ever since. Anyway, Murray Hill is divided up into a lot of little rooms.
Hoddeson:I see — as are many industrial labs. No?
Burton:There were not many industrial laboratories, except those doing war-related things and a lot of the industrial labs that exist at the moment were patterned after Murray Hill.
Hoddeson:In 1958, you became director of semiconductor research, in Bell Telephone labs. How did that come about? I'm trying to track your movements through the organization; I don't have all the pieces.
Burton:Well, I guess they're all here.
Hoddeson:Yes, I have to put them together.
Burton:Well, let's see, after the invention of transistor, there was a considerable expansion of work on semi-conductors, and the chemistry and physical chemistry of that was in the department headed by A.H. White, and I was concerned with the research part of it. And then, that activity continued and grew some, and then finally, A. H. White became I guess executive director for research in the physical sciences, and I took his job.
Hoddeson:I see. OK. Now, I just want to ask a brief question — I want to go back to two questions from the earlier period. One of them has to do with something that you mentioned very briefly at lunch the other day, about something that happened in 1929, shortly before the Stock Market crashed. There was a tremendous expansion at Bell Labs. I didn't get that straight.
Burton:Yes, there were lots of people hired in 1929, lots of new employees hired in 1929, and there was a plan for considerable growth in the size of Bell Labs. It was about that time that this property here at Murray Hill was purchased, with the idea of building a big new lab here. But then the Stock Market crashed, and the recruiting of new employees stopped, and the plans for building this new building here in this location were delayed for ten years. Then finally when the Depression was over, this building was built.
Hoddeson:I see. Where can I learn more about that development? I'd like to know a little more about the underlying motivations for that rapid expansion. What went into the decision making at that time — what the goals were?
Burton:OK. Let's see, all right — the goals of BTL in the late twenties is essentially the question.
Burton:And what were the things that were being aimed for in building up.
Burton:Television was one, because there'd been this work on television in the mid-twenties. That was very successful. And so I suspect they were — well, I'm just guessing now — plans for expanding things like that, that were — but then the Stock Market crash came.
Hoddeson:— it would be interesting to know more precisely. Maybe we can figure out where I can get some of that information. The other question relates again to some remarks that you made at lunch about that study group that started in the mid- or late thirties, that studied the new developments in quantum theory as applied to solids.
Burton:Yes. After I was talking to you at lunch, I was talking actually Saturday night with Alan Holden, and he's somebody you ought to talk to him. You can get it first hand from him. He remembers some things about that. He said that, to the best of his recollection, that groups started about 1935 or '36, and that Foster Nix was a prime mover of it, of originally getting it started, and that the group used to meet at 4:30 in the afternoon, which was just shortly before quitting time, and then continue on.
Hoddeson:And met once a week?
Burton:Better ask him that. It was either once or twice a week.
Hoddeson:And he was in it from the beginning?
Burton:Yes, he was in it from the beginning.
I'll have to talk to him and find out more about that.
 See Organization Chart, March 1, 1940 and January 3, 1939 Physical Research Department. All charts can be found in paper transcript at Niels Bohr Library & Archives.
 Organization chart, August 1, 1940 Physical Research Department.
 still refers to May 1940 chart
 Case Authorization 35886, Jan. 1, 1945. Archives, Bell Telephone Laboratory’s Records Center, Warren, NJ
 See July, 1945 Organization of Physical Research Department – 1100
 see organizational charts following page 8 in paper transcript, Physical Research Department
 In 1945 M. J. Kelly was executive vice president and director of research. (see organization of BTL June, 1945 G.E.I. 1.2-1)