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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Karl Darrow

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Interview with Dr. Karl Darrow
By Henry Barton and W. J. King
At American Institute of Physics
April 2, 1964

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Karl Darrow; April 2, 1964

ABSTRACT: Studies in Europe, 1912; graduate study under Robert A. Millikan at University of Chicago; employment with Western Electric Co. and Bell Labs, 1917-1956; brief time doing experimental work on the “carbon microphone” and long distance sound detectors; review articles on contemporary advances in physics, l920s-1930s; description of early meetings of American Physical Society (APS); 1933 visit to European centers for physical research; work on the relationship between commercial and basic research in physics. Organization and growth of APS, his terms as Secretary, 1941-1956, during which he introduced “invited papers” to major meetings; problems within APS and within the area of physics in general; his role in fostering international cooperation in physics. Outside interests. Also prominently mentioned are: Hans Albrecht Bethe, William Lawrence Bragg, Percy Williams Bridgman, J. J. Carty, Arthur Holly Compton, Clinton Joseph Davisson, Arthur Jeffrey Dempster, Enrico Fermi, James Brown Fisk, Harvey Fletcher, James Franck, Lester Halbert Germer, H. E. Ives, Frank Jewett, Arthur Lunn, Albert Abraham Michelson, George Braxton Pegram, Isidor Isaac Rabi, Frances Orr Severinghaus, William Francis Gray Swann, John Hasbrouck Van Vleck, Harold Worthington Webb; American Institute of Physics, United States National Bureau of Standards, and University of Chicago.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Barton:

I first remember seeing you when I first went to Physical Society meetings. I remember that you asked questions which helped all of us to understand what the speaker had said, without which we were somewhat in the dark, figuratively. But before that I know you had your Ph.D. in Chicago. Didn’t you have a little time in Europe? Was that in between your undergraduate and your graduate study?

Darrow:

It was, in fact.

Barton:

Was it physics that you were studying in Europe?

Darrow:

I did hear lectures in physics, but I went to Europe too early, because my father was in failing health and we thought that we should go at once, as soon as I had my undergraduate degree. But for that, it would have been much better for me to wait another two, three, or even one year. So, while I sat in lecture halls in Paris and Berlin and heard a few men of whom the names are still remembered, such as Poincare and Appell, I really learned very little.

Barton:

You were not advanced enough to become well acquainted with the people of that period.

Darrow:

Quite so.

Barton:

So that your real contact with contemporary physicists of the day was in Chicago for the first time, and subsequently in the Physical Society.

Darrow:

Right.

Barton:

Who was the man that you consider you worked with most in Chicago?

Darrow:

There could be only one answer to that question: Robert Andrews Millikan, who was then approaching the peak of his career. It was while I was an undergraduate that he made his first accurate estimation of the charge of the electron, and it was when I was a freshman that he gave, in my belief, the last course in freshman physics that he ever gave. And by freshman physics I mean physics for students who had already had high school physics. Thus I did experience a historical event: Robert Millikan’s last introduction of freshmen to college physics.

Barton:

Was Harvey Fletcher there when you were?

Darrow:

He was probably there as a graduate when I was an undergraduate, and I would not have known him. I’m pretty sure that he was gone when I returned to Chicago as a graduate.

Barton:

Did you have much to do with Michelson?

Darrow:

I attended his courses, which were required of all graduate students. There were three of them. I realize now, as I look back at the University of Chicago, that it was really rather remarkable in that already at that distant time what we now call a teaching burden must have been very low. Michelson lectured twice a week and gave one quiz a week -- three appearances a week before a single class. Millikan, as I recall, in that last year of his undergraduate teaching, must have met the class four times a week, and perhaps he had an advanced course in addition. But six hours a week of teaching would have been, I think, rated as considerable in the higher echelons of the Department, even fifty-five years ago.

Barton:

Who else do you remember that was there at that time? Was Gale there?

Darrow:

Yes, one should remember Dean Gale, who was a spectroscopist, and in my opinion, an excellent one. He was not Dean at that time, so I should just have referred to him as Dr. Gale. Harvey Brace Lemon who was doing research in photography and who alone among the people of that era is still living; that is, he among the teaching people of that era. So was a gentleman named Carl Kinsley, a physicist and electrical engineer, who taught electricity? He soon left the Department, but died in Washington not many years ago. Let me see whether I can think of anyone else…

Barton:

Dempster?

Darrow:

Dempster came in the fall of 1914, having left Germany by the last train which British subjects would have been allowed to take out of that country. He had been preparing his doctorate at Wuerzburg, I think for two years already. At Wuerzburg was also Elizabeth Laird (still living). She and Dempster were Canadian nationals, and I recall his telling me that he went to her and warned her that she, too, should get out immediately. Of course for a woman it would not have been serious to stay over, but had Dempster remained one more day in Germany, his fate would probably have been like that of a fellow student of his, who remained for four years and a half in the Camp of Ruhleben because of that one day. This man stayed, deciding to risk it because he was so near to completion of his Doctorate. Dempster, of course, forsook all he had done toward the Doctorate and started afresh in Chicago. He was so very good that he came through very quickly with a doctorate and was said to be only the second person ever to receive from that Department Suma Cum Laude, Harvey Fletcher being the first. A few years later they abolished the gradations in doctorate and I do not know whether there was ever a third.

Barton:

Miss Laird -- did she stay in Germany? Was she guarded? Did she get out?

Darrow:

No, she went on out. Dempster gave her the imperative warning.

King:

What was your impression, Dr. Darrow, of Robert Millikan as a teacher?

Darrow:

He was good -- as I remember him he was a good teacher. And a vivacious and energetic lecturer, as everyone would expect who remembers him at all. I suppose also that already in those early days he had his habit of seldom finishing a sentence the way that the beginning of the sentence would have led you to expect, but he was certainly a vital and interesting teacher.

Barton:

Did he give experimental lectures? Demonstration lectures, I should say -–

Darrow:

Oddly enough, I do not remember them. I know that there were required experiments. The class members paired off two-by-two to do most of them, but I do not have any mental picture of Millikan standing in front of the class and performing a demonstration experiment. This does not, however, prove that he did not. There was another professor C. Riborg Mann; who I believe did give a demonstration course which I never took.

Barton:

Possibly some schools did that more than others in that period.

Darrow:

That may be.

Barton:

How did Dr. Millikan work with graduate students? As I understand he had quite a few.

Darrow:

He had more than anyone else, and I have a story in that connection. In fact, I have two which Millikan told me in the very last years of his life, sitting in the office of his retirement at Cal Tech. The first of three consecutive stories was of a man whom some of us remember -- Harold Arnold. Arnold was trying to make his doctorate under Michelson. This was something that had been attempted by others. I do not recall any who succeeded, though there were probably such people in the nineties and even ten years later. Michelson, from what I heard second and third hand, was really not interested in graduate students. Eventually, the young Arnold came to Millikan and said he was going to commit suicide because he knew that he would never be able to satisfy Michelson’s requirements. Millikan made no joke of this. He took it with absolute seriousness. He asked Arnold to wait awhile and then he rushed to Michelson and asked Michelson to allow him (Millikan) to take over the conduct of Arnold’s research. He asked it with trepidation -- he thought he was probably going to offend Michelson -- but Michelson said, “For God’s sake take him off my hands.”

Barton:

Was this H. D. Arnold, who became the Bell Labs director?

Darrow:

The very man.

Barton:

That’s interesting. He was not there at the same time as you.

Darrow:

No, that must have been several years before. The second story -- of this cycle of the three that Millikan told me in his office at Caltech sometime in the late 40’s -- was that Michelson came to him one day and said, “I just had a wonderful idea. I’m going to set my graduate students to making new alloys -- there must be thousands of alloys that nobody has ever made, and students can make them and not bother me.” And the third and final story of the cycle is -- once more Michelson came to Millikan and said, “I am finished with graduate students. Either they don’t do what you want done, and then it doesn’t get done, or they do do what you want done and then they take the credit. Hereafter, I work with paid assistants and you take the graduate students.”

Barton:

That’s very illuminating.

Darrow:

I know I have given these three stories in almost exactly the words Millikan gave them to me, because they made such an impression on me, and also I noted them down. So if they are wrong it could only be because Millikan’s memory was beginning to distort things at that time, and this I have no reason to suspect. I think we may take these stories as authoritative and authentic. And it was certainly true that when I came to the University of Chicago as a graduate student in 1912, Michelson had no graduate students, but there was still one man around, a Chinese, who was working as an assistant or an instructor, of whom it was said that he had tried for many years to get a degree under Michelson and had never succeeded. Gale had a very few students of whom Ralph Sawyer must have been one. Harvey Lemon had one or two and the rest were all Millikan’s.

King:

Why was Millikan such an influence among the graduate students? I get the impression that they seemed to cluster about him --

Darrow:

I suppose his personality was very attractive to a graduate student. I also think he had little rivalry, because Michelson pushed them away and Lemon was a very young man. Of the others, only Gale had students working under him for the doctorate, and he not many, though in later years Sawyer was to be one. I do not know why the others had none. The major fact is that Millikan was the magnet. I think that Millikan attracted the graduate students partly because of his own agreeable and ambitious personality, partly because he had little competition.

Barton:

How was Michelson as a teacher?

Darrow:

Pretty poor. He had three sheaves of notes made on small three by five cards. They may well have dated from the beginning of his Chicago years in the early nineties, and the extent of his preparation for a course may be gauged by the following story. Once, when half a dozen of us were waiting for him to begin the first lecture, we talked among ourselves and discovered that the majority would rather hear him give another of his three courses than the one he was about to give. I was delegated to go into his office and put this proposition to him, which I did with some timidity. He was sitting with his little bunch of cards in front of him on the corner of the desk, and I had made the request in the name of the class. He said, “Why, certainly.” He then opened the drawer, put the bunch of cards back into the drawer, took out another bunch of cards, and he was all ready to begin a course which sixty seconds before he had no idea of giving. His course on Electricity was largely based on the once famous French book of Mascart and Joubert, [1] of the 1880’s I think, and once a graduate student had been told this by his elder colleagues, he didn’t have to take notes any more if he could read enough French to look up the passages in Mascart.

King:

What was the basis for the Optics Course he taught?

Darrow:

That was the only course, I think, that depended upon his own researches to a considerable extent. The third course was Mechanics. There was a fourth course called Light Waves and Their Uses which he gave principally in summer when students, perhaps, of somewhat lower grade of preparation came in from all different directions. I never heard it myself, but in his Optics course he really did describe work that he had done himself. And at the end he would speak of the Michelson-Morley experiment and then say that this had been interpreted by Einstein. There the course would end.

King:

Did he try to evaluate the -–

Darrow:

He would not try to evaluate the interpretation.

Barton:

In the work that you did later with the Bell Labs you required a better mathematical background, certainly than I had, and I wondered how did you get that in Chicago?

Darrow:

There was a man by the name of Arthur Constant Lunn, a singular type -- I wish I had been more nearly of his age, for I think of him as a personality of great attractiveness -- he was one of these men like Swann to whom music was an avocation which was almost as much of an occupation as his vocation. And his lectures were very poor, but he would lend a student his lecture notes, which were beautifully written -- and if we had had Xerox machines then we could have photographed them and been very well-equipped with a complete course of lectures on Mathematical Physics, but he published very little, almost nothing. Much later I heard a story about him which it is now impossible to check; I wish that it were not. The story was that he had formulated a theory which was essentially that of Schrodinger, and Schrodinger had published it before Lunn did, and this practically ruined the rest of Lunn’s life. More definitely, I know that in 1924 he wanted to give a twenty or a thirty minute paper before the American Physical Society in Washington, but then authorities of the Society refused him more than ten minutes, and that was the end of the Society for him.

Barton:

In those days mathematical physics, I suppose was mechanics.

Darrow:

And statistical mechanics.

Barton:

Oh, you had statistical mechanics.

Darrow:

Yes, I think Lunn was perhaps unusual in that era, and in his understanding of statistical mechanics. And he taught vector analysis with the notation which I believe is associated with the name of Gibbs -- using for instance the symbols ∇ (“nabla-dot”) and ∇x for what the British mathematicians designated by “DIV” and “CURL.”

Barton:

Did Planck’s name come up in his course?

Darrow:

In Lunn’s course -- I do not remember that it did, but I don’t see how it could have failed to. It was Millikan who spoke mostly of Planck in my graduate years. He had gone from the determination of e over to that of h, or as Birge would be very careful to say, “h over e”. I suspect that Millikan was one of the first in this country to have mastered Planck’s book Warmestrahlung, of which I have possessed a copy since 1913. I doubt whether anyone else in this country was lecturing on that.

Barton:

When you left Chicago, did you go right to the -- I guess it was called the Research Laboratories of the Western Electric Company?

Darrow:

It was something or other of the Western Electric Company. Perhaps it was Western Electric Research Laboratories or perhaps it was just Engineering Department. But the name Bell Telephone Laboratories, as you have already said, did not then exist nor did it exist until 1925.

Barton:

In fact, not until after I was employed by the Telephone Company. Well, then, did you go right there from Chicago?

Darrow:

Immediately. I think the gap was only two weeks.

Barton:

Who did you see? Who employed you?

Darrow:

My first contact was made through a man now long dead, a rather brilliant mathematician, Harold W. Nichols. He had gone to Western Electric some three years before and was certainly rising rapidly, when some eight years after my advent, his heart disease got worse and worse to the point where it took him off. I used to see Nichols in the Colloquium at the University of Chicago because he would come to it from Armour Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he was teaching; and there was a story of his departure which I believe he told to C. J. Davisson and Davisson to me. He went to the President of the Armour Institute to ask for a raise. The President, a theologian named Gunsaulus, heard him and then said, “No, Dr. Nichols, if I give you a raise the money will have to be taken from somebody who needs it more than you do. You wouldn’t want me to do that, would you?” To which Nichols replied, “Oh, where you get the money is your problem. I only know that I need it.” But he didn’t get the raise, so he came to Western Electric, as it was called, and when the First World War commenced, or rather when the United States entered the First World War, I wrote to Nichols to ask whether there was a position in Western Electric and the answer came from E. H. Colpitts. That was how I came to Western Electric and to New York.

King:

Had you been considering an academic position, Dr. Darrow?

Darrow:

I had, although I had never had an offer. But I had never thought of leaving the academic world.

Barton:

Was Arnold in a high position by that time?

Darrow:

I don’t know. I’m almost sure he was Director of Research.

Barton:

He came after Jewett in that line, is that correct? I mean, was Jewett his immediate predecessor? Or wasn’t Jewett ever the head of that laboratory?

Darrow:

I would assume so without positively knowing. I believe that when I came, Jewett was Vice-President of AT&T and also had some position in Western Electric. But for such questions you should find the history from the records of Bell Telephone Laboratories which would be perfectly correct. All I remember distinctly was that in 1917 Jewett was at so high a level above me that I never approached him. In fact it is probable that I never saw him for the first few years of my life in New York.

Barton:

Did you ever see J. J. Carty?

Darrow:

Just once. I was taken into his office for some reason that I have forgotten. And that was that. I remember nothing that he said to me and I would not have been likely to say anything to him.

King:

This Nichols, was he concerned with crystals?

Darrow:

Not in the least. His field was electrical transmissions, as I recall it now. Crystals, I think, were not known in the Bell Laboratories at that time.

Barton:

The idea of using them for filters and so forth was quite a bit later, as I recall it.

Darrow:

Yes --

Barton:

Circuit elements, I’d better say. Among the people you think of in the Bell Labs or at least in the Telephone Company was G. A. Campbell -–

Darrow:

Whom I never met. Or did I? I tend to confuse Campbell and Carson for no better reason than both names begin with Ca. I think that I never met either.

Barton:

Campbell was sort of a myth when I was there. He was the man who was always right, but you never saw him, and anything that was suggested that was contrary to the theory that he left was hardly considered seriously, even if it turned out later to be right. He was certainly very highly regarded. Would you say that Buckley was the next man after Arnold?

Darrow:

When I arrived, and for quite awhile thereafter, Buckley was in France on war work. Thus I did not meet him for quite a while after I met most of his contemporaries.

King:

What fields were you working on when you first went to work for the company?

Darrow:

First on the carbon microphone, then for a little while on apparatus to detect the sound from distant airplanes. But as soon as I was able to get out of experimental work, I did, and after that the first thing I did was to arrange in order and classify the rather large deposit of scientific and engineering memoranda which constituted the internal, the non-printed, literature of Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Barton:

Yours was rather a staff function in that respect, wasn’t it, rather than in one of the research divisions? You covered the waterfront, so to speak. Who was your immediate superior?

Darrow:

Joseph P. Maxfield; still living in retirement in California. I still hear occasionally from him.

Barton:

Fletcher was not one of your line of superiors, was he?

Darrow:

Not at that time. There was a period rather in the midway of my career when he was -- what could his title have been -- he was not Director of Research, I think, for that title passed from Arnold to Buckley, and from Buckley to Kelly. I think that Fletcher was essentially an Assistant Director for Physical Research, but I do not think that was his exact title. But for a number of years in the thirties, perhaps in the twenties, he was two steps above me. After Maxfield, Ives was the man who was one step above me.

Barton:

I remember that you sat in the same room with Davisson some of the times that I visited you there.

Darrow:

For a good many years, I would say, from 1927. I was going to say 19 years, because it was in ‘46 that Davisson retired, but he went out to Murray Hill earlier than that, perhaps around ‘43. I must have shared that office with him for 16 years.

Barton:

Where was Germer? Was he down the hall somewhere?

Darrow:

All the way down the hall and in the laboratory. He must have had a desk somewhere, but I have no recollection of seeing him sitting at a desk in an office with desks only.

Barton:

Germer was an apparatus man, would you say?

Darrow:

I don’t think he was. He got his PhD at Columbia during those early years on some sort of part-time arrangement, [2] but I do not think that he was just a technician, if that is what you mean by apparatus man. I think that he was a full grade, and full-time physicist.

Barton:

No, I didn’t mean he was a technician, but of the two of them, I wondered if he was the one who was more experimentally inclined.

Darrow:

Davisson also was experimentally inclined but Davisson probably had a better grasp of theory than did Germer, though Davisson was never a theorist in the sense that Dirac and Heisenberg, or even A. G. Webster were theorists.

Barton:

I know you were very closely associated with H. E. Ives. He was an influential man in the laboratories in those days, was he not?

Darrow:

His career in the Laboratories was rather strange and was in one respect, at least, a severe disappointment to him. It may not be on record elsewhere, though it certainly is recorded in the biography that I wrote of him for the National Academy of Sciences, that before the First War he had a position with a gas company in Philadelphia where he worked on problems of illumination, color vision, and associated problems. And when Millikan sent for him and asked him to drop the job and go into war work, Ives’ superior told him they could not guarantee that they would hold the job for him. Ives, nevertheless, went to war, and left his family to live on his salary as a major, which was very low, and after the war, indeed, the job was not waiting for him. He spoke in late years of the search he had made for a new position, and I remember remarking, when the Prince of Wales (now Duke of Windsor) was a young man very much in the news, that he seemed to have had every possible experience, to which Ives drily replied, “He never had to hunt for a job.” When he came to the Laboratories, it seems to have been intended that his role should be the development of television. He went a long way in this direction when suddenly, owing to a change of policy in the very highest reaches of the Bell System, television was discarded, and left open for other companies to develop. I believe I heard at the time that it was thought that the rate commissions of the various states would object to money being spent by the Bell System to develop television, but however that may be, it was discontinued. Ives, of course, was not laid off, but he spent the rest of his career with the Bell System just doing pure research of the purest order. This included the photo-electric effect, reflection of light from metals, and in his last years, an experiment on identification of the theory of relativity. I remember that at a retirement dinner of this long time employee, E. F. Kingsbury, he made some pretty bitter remarks about the brass hats of the company, and as some of them were sitting there at the speakers’ table, it was an experience singularly pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.

Barton:

I remember he had a working television system. I saw it.

Darrow:

Yes.

Barton:

At least, a person-to-person television system.

Darrow:

There’s a photograph somewhere in the archives of the Bell System’s house organ showing him and Herbert Hoover, probably at opposite ends of the wire between Washington and New York.

Barton:

Well, I’ve mentioned a number of names. Whom have I left out that you would like to mention?

Darrow:

J. B. Johnson.

Barton:

I have his name down.

Darrow:

Well?

Barton:

Yes, but not any more than just his name.

Darrow:

His name is still attached to a phenomenon in physics. People still speak of the Johnson Noise of the electrons in a conductor.

Barton:

I didn’t know it was that Johnson.

Darrow:

It is. Now we’ve got F. S. Goucher. He was in the company when I arrived in 1917. He then joined the Army and went to England, worked there for General Electric in Wembley, came back to the company in 1926 or thereabouts, and for a good many years did a great variety of problems.

King:

Dr. Darrow, would you want to say anything about H. D. Arnold? What was your impression of him as a man and as an executive?

Darrow:

I have very grateful memories of him. I think he was a wonderful person. Whether he was a good executive, I wouldn’t know, because I was always either two or three steps down from him. I have heard people say in later years that Buckley was much better as an executive. I do not know this of my own knowledge.

King:

You moved from your work on the staff which you had earlier to a role which was something like that of an intelligencer to the community at the laboratory. This was rather unusual, wasn’t it?

Darrow:

It was at the time, perhaps, unique. What happened was that for several years I had been going to Physical Society meetings and writing typed reports of what I heard there. The then editor of the Bell System Technical Journal, Robert W. King, (also still living) had the idea of asking me to write a series of articles on contemporary advances in physics. This I carried on for something of the order of 12 or 13 years, and such reputation as ever had was based mainly on those articles, which were printed and circulated in considerable numbers and were much read in Europe, especially Germany. Even now, I occasionally hear people speak of the pleasure they got out of reading them. Some people called them the “blue books” from the color of the covers of the reprints.

Barton:

Did you have to take notes at the meetings, or did you remember?

Darrow:

I think I must have taken rather elaborate notes. But that, of course, was easier then than now. Just at the beginning of this interview, and perhaps before the recording apparatus was turned on, you mentioned that I used to ask questions at the sessions of the Society. This was then possible and is now impossible for the following reason: in those days there was only one session at a time, and pretty much everyone went to it. The speaker either gauged his exposition to the majority of those in attendance, or if he didn’t, he was caught out by somebody in the audience like myself, who was not familiar with his subject and wanted to understand what he had said. But now it’s five to ten sessions at a time, and neutron papers are attended entirely by neutron physicists; the strange particle papers entirely by strange particle physicists; the ferromagnetism papers entirely by ferromagnetism physicists; and the result is that anybody coming in from outside and asking a question would find himself very much out of place. The speaker would have attuned his speech to his fellow specialists, and the non-specialist coming in would be considered to be wasting the time of the others present by asking questions based on ignorance of ferromagnetism. And this, I think, is one of the major changes in the character of the Physical Society.

King:

Well, I wonder, weren’t you performing a role which was breaking down these partitions at the time you were carrying out this function at the laboratory? You were acting as a mediator between the immediate advancing part of research and the industrial laboratory. Would this be a fair way of stating it?

Darrow:

Perhaps to some extent. But I was thinking of other partitions, not the partition between industrial physics and pure physics, but the partition, let us say, between nuclear physics and solid state physics. In the twenties and the thirties, that partition was still bridgeable, but now everybody at the big Physical Society meetings sits within his little wall enclosing himself and his fellow specialists and the partitions have become practically unpierceable.

King:

Well, at that time, the Laboratories were not too concerned with basic research and yet, much of the material which you reported upon, if one can judge it from the articles you wrote for the Laboratories, nevertheless was concerned with the immediate forefront of research.

Darrow:

[I deprecate the phrase “not too concerned,” which is often taken as a devious way of saying “not concerned enough,” or “not concerned as much as it should have been.” In that pioneering era when industries were just beginning to support research, the degree to which Bell Laboratories supported it was very creditable.] [3]

Barton:

I suppose there really wasn’t any other laboratory in the country, unless it was General Electric, who would have paid the salary of a man to do what you did.

Darrow:

I think this is so.

Barton:

I think it was to the credit of somebody, Arnold, or somebody, that this was done.

Darrow:

It was to the credit of Arnold, primarily, and I should certainly put it on record that in 1919, when the War was over, and I was thinking that I ought to look for a place in the academic world, he told me that I might remain and do what I pleased, but that I must not expect my salary to rise as high as would the salaries of other people whose work was determined by the exigencies of the company. It was also at that moment that I put in the stipulation that I should be free in the summers to go to Europe, and this agreement -- though never in writing and though the man who made it with me soon died -- was maintained ever since. My salary never rose high, but I always did what I pleased, and I always took the summer off.

Barton:

When did you begin taking the summer off, Karl?

Darrow:

Well, already in ‘21 and ‘24 and ‘26 I went to Europe for periods of ten to twelve weeks, and it was in ‘28 that I began going alternately to Europe and California.

Barton:

But that was a long time before you became Secretary of the Society?

Darrow:

I became Secretary of the Society at the beginning of ‘41.

Barton:

I think I met you once in Cambridge at the Cavendish before you were Secretary of the Society. Perhaps it was afterwards, but as I understand it, when you went to Europe, you did go to laboratories a good deal, and visited physicists.

Darrow:

Yes. The occasion you have in mind may be the year of your marriage, am I right?

Barton:

‘33, yes. That’s the one. I remember we went together to see Rutherford and possibly others at that time, including Aston. But what I was getting at is: was the purpose of your trips to Europe to visit laboratories and physicists, or would you say it was more general than that? I know that you’re interested in art galleries.

Darrow:

That was one of the purposes.

Barton:

Yes. And did you do it systematically with the idea in mind that later that year you might be writing more on the advances of physics, and that you would use this opportunity to become acquainted with people who were doing the work that you were going to talk about?

Darrow:

That must have been to some extent in my mind, but I do not remember that it was ever the dominating motive. Certainly I did not go around Europe in the systematic way a person now goes who is sent over on a mission to see whatever is being done in, let us say, crystal structure of ferro-magnetics. I went to London and then to Paris and to Cambridge and to Oxford, and in the old days, to Berlin and Leiden and Amsterdam, and those were about all the places --

Barton:

Not Gottingen?

Darrow:

I was in Gottingen only once. That visit is associated in my memory with a story also worth putting on record. It was on that occasion that James Franck told me that he thought the great days of physics were over. In my lecture -- oh, when was it -- perhaps 15 years ago, I spoke of the periodic recurrence of that belief in the history of modern physics, and the latest occasion on which it was expressed to me by a great man was precisely that one in Gottingen by Franck in 1930.

Barton:

Miss Sponer was there, I guess.

Darrow:

I do not remember meeting her then. I have met her many times since.

Barton:

Franck, I believe, at one time thought that the two Comptons were one and the same person. He was quite a physicist. But you certainly founded your very wide international acquaintance with physicists there during those years, and I’m sure you found it very valuable in your secretaryship of the Society. Just as a parenthetical thing: when did your interest in art and in music begin? Did it begin way back when you were an undergraduate student?

Darrow:

Yes, it began, roughly speaking, from 1908 to 1911.

Barton:

And you were able to cultivate those two things in addition to physics in all of your summer trips.

Darrow:

Yes.

Barton:

The Secretaryship of the Physical Society came before your retirement from the Bell Labs?

Darrow:

Fifteen years, or was it sixteen, yes, nearly sixteen years.

Barton:

And did the company donate part of your time for the Society, or was that not necessary?

Darrow:

Well, that was what it was in effect. It seems to me that we used to fill out cards in which we designated weekly how much of our time had been given to each of certain cases, as the terminology was, and there must have been a case number for general activities to which I charged most of my time. In my last years, I had little activity other than the Secretaryship and that of giving lectures in various places for whatever societies or organizations invited me.

Barton:

Did you give those in your capacity as a Bell Laboratories representative, or as Secretary of the Society?

Darrow:

As the former. I realized after my retirement that most of those invitations arose from the fact that people knew they could get me for nothing. Not only would there be no fee, but even my travelling expenses would be paid by the Laboratories.

Barton:

Well, this is an activity that a company like that does. And they still do it.

Darrow:

Perhaps more so now than then.

Barton:

Strieby did some work like that later on, going out and speaking to various groups. Perhaps you didn’t know Strieby.

Darrow:

There was a Strieby who was representative of the Bell System in Britain in the 1920’s. Could that be the man you were thinking of?

Barton:

I didn’t know that.

Darrow:

He would, therefore, have been a man at least as old as I. Possibly older.

Barton:

He’s retired now?

Darrow:

Indeed, if he be still living, he must have been retired for quite awhile.

King:

Dr. Darrow, I wonder if I could ask you a rather general question, and this is on the relation between an industrial laboratory and basic research in physics. What would you say should be the proper relation between an industrial laboratory which is necessarily focused upon applications, and basic research, which is necessarily open-ended?

Darrow:

My observation at Bell Telephone Laboratories and this is confirmed by what people like Buckley wrote and said orally, was that the Laboratories had decided to hire a certain number of people who would be allowed to do what they pleased. I think that not many companies were like that then. I think not very many companies are like that now. But what would be the attitude of a company that felt that everybody working for it must actively prosecute its own developments, I just do not know.

Barton:

I remember that President [Ralph] Cordiner of the General Electric Company had an advisor on his staff on the subjects of engineering and science, and this man came to see me one time during the drive for funds for this new building at the Institute of Physics. He brought a question from Cordiner which was to the effect: why didn’t the General Electric Company have more Nobel Prize winners like Bell Laboratories did? I referred him to Mervin Kelly, but I think this question is very pertinent to what you were just saying -- the laboratories had a very enlightened attitude on the matter of fundamental research.

Darrow:

One argument that I used to use when somebody questioned me in the course of my lectures out of town was that since one could not tell in what direction any particular research would eventually lead, there was at least a reasonable prospect that it might lead in some direction advantageous to the company. Another argument that was frequently used at the time was that better men would be attracted to work for the company if the company gave freedom to them all, even if it should turn out that some of them worked on things like general relativity. I remember, too, and you will, how often we used to make use of the fact that X-rays, with all their eventual medical, and metallurgical and other applications, were discovered by a man whose only interest was in the conduction of electricity through gases. I expect thousands of people have made use of that comparison millions of times. It may be that many many people have asked their audiences to consider what would be the likelihood that anyone starting a cancer research laboratory would have hired a man to work on conduction of electricity in gasses -- and then have stressed that what Roentgen discovered in the course of such research has probably done more for cancer sufferers than any investigation made with a deliberate view to finding a cure for cancer.

Barton:

Are you aware of Jim Fisk’s disappointment that the company would not go into the development of a nuclear reactor?

Darrow:

No, I don’t think I ever head of that. If I have, I have forgotten it.

Barton:

That, I think, should be another subject, then, to look into at another time. All right, I think we might pass on to the Physical Society, Jim, do you think this is timely?

King:

All right. Do you want to move on to that subject now?

Darrow:

As you will.

Barton:

We can always add to anything in case we think of it later on. We can review the tape as I understand it.

King:

I should like to ask one question. This enlightened attitude, as far as basic research, seems to have been first set forth by H. D. Arnold. Am I correct on that?

Darrow:

It may have been first set forth by him, but I think F. B. Jewett was probably its originator.

King:

Who continued this attitude after Arnold left?

Darrow:

Conveniently, let’s say the people in high positions were in sequence: Buckley, Kelly and Fisk.

King:

So that this essentially became company policy?

Darrow:

To repeat, I believe that this attitude and policy were initially those of Jewett. But probably there is now nobody living who was intimate with Jewett in his earlier days, and the only possibility of confirming (or confuting) my belief would be to search the archives of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, something which I recommend as a project to some young student of the history of science.

Barton:

I got acquainted rather well with Jewett in connection with war things as much as anything and I think it’s just like him. I’ll bet it was Jewett from what I knew of him.

Darrow:

I’ve always heard that somebody in Western Electric consulted Millikan, and Millikan recommended Jewett. I would like to know what the consultant asked Millikan and what Millikan said, but there again, that is lost in the mists of the past.

Barton:

Did Jewett come from Chicago?

Darrow:

He did, yes. He was one of Michelson’s PhD’s in those very few early years when Michelson still took the trouble to form PhD’s.

Barton:

I hadn’t realized that Chicago was so much a fountain and a source for technical Bell Laboratories before. Mervin Kelly was also from Chicago.

King:

Before we go on to the Physical Society, I would like to bring up an event which had some bearing on the Physical Society itself. This was the revelation of a new kind of phenomenon; that is, the matter of the fission of atoms, of nuclei. There have been many accounts of how this occurred. Do you have your own account of how this happened within the Physical Society? Were you present when the historic announcement was made that nuclei can be split?

Darrow:

I have no recollection of it. But I have heard through William Laurence of, until lately, The New York Times, that there was an informal discussion[3] of it at an evening session, which seem to have missed since I doubt whether I would have forgotten it had I attended it.

Barton:

There was some kind of rump-session, outside of the Physical Society meeting at Washington, in the spring as I recall it, and I’m sure Dunning was there. [Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics held at George Washington University under sponsorship of the University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, January 26, 1939.]

Darrow:

Something that I clearly remember is Dunning showing to me either the cloud chamber track or, more likely, the track and an emulsion of a particle resulting from uranium fission.

Barton:

Fermi must have been there. Fermi was over here by that time, wasn’t he?

Darrow:

Fermi, if I remember correctly, and I think I do, made his Nobel Prize in ‘38, and came here immediately from Stockholm.

Barton:

He didn’t go back home?

Darrow:

He did not go back home. There is a story, by the way, that he sneaked off, as it were, from Stockholm without telling the Italian Government that such was his plan, but Mrs. Fermi tells me that this is not so. The Italian Government was quite willing that he should go to America with his family. And she, herself, suspects that perhaps there were people in the Italian Government who were rather ashamed of the increasing anti-Semitism in Italy, and thought it very desirable that this great man, with his Jewish wife, should be safe from it. To repeat: Mrs. Fermi said clearly and unmistakably to me that Fermi did not sneak off, as I had often heard. He went with the tacit consent, if not the explicit encouragement, of the Italian Government. [4]

Barton:

That’s interesting, because I thought the same as you.

Darrow:

I did until asked her. One frequently gets, as you have doubtless experienced, entirely different ideas when one approaches the source of a famous story.

Barton:

You became Secretary of the Society at the time that W. L. Severinghaus’ health began to fail?

Darrow:

Later than that. Harold Webb had been doing the work for three or four years, but I suppose under the title of Acting Secretary. Webb had been actual Secretary from 1923 through 1928. Then there was a period during which Severinghaus was elected year after year as Secretary, and sometime about that period, as I later learned, Webb began to resume more and more of the work. And finally when it became obvious that Severinghaus would never be well again, the problem arose of finding someone to replace Webb, who was tired of it. Webb is still living, of course, so you can get this from him at first hand. [5]

King:

Dr. Barton, I think since it is 3:15, perhaps it may be better if we postpone this topic, which is a rather large one, for a later date. How do you feel about it, Dr. Darrow?

Darrow:

Quite all right. Whichever way you like to handle it is all right with me.

[1]Lecons sur l'Electricite et le Magnetisme de E. Mascart et J. Joubert, Paris, 1896.

[2]German obtained a doctor's degree in 1927 from Columbia University on a part-time basis while working in the research laboratories of Western Electric.

[3]Wm. L. Laurence describes this meeting which he says took place on Friday, February 24, 1939, in Columbia University's physics department in Men and Atoms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959). When this information was conveyed to Dr. Darrow, he commented: "I have checked adn found that ameeting of the Physical Society was indeed going on there and then. Accordingly, this session must have been hastily and unofficially convoked, and the news of it spread as rapidly as possible among the nuclear physicists, of whom I was not one."

[4]He came as a visiting professor at that time, and did not officially emigrate. C.W.

[5]An interview with Dr. Webb was conducted by Charles Weiner on April 24, 1970 but Dr. Webb was not able to recall the circumstances. Dr. Darrow later commented that he had heard that Pegram and Kelly proposed him for the post.

Session I | Session II