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Oral History Transcript — Eugene Feenberg

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Interview with Eugene Feenberg
by Charles Weiner
April 13, 1973

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Eugene Feenberg; April 13, 1973

ABSTRACT: The interview is almost entirely concerned with Feenberg's early career through 1939. It covers his midwestern background, education at the University of Texas, graduate work at Harvard in theoretical physics under Kemble and Van Vleck (1929-1933), traveling fellowship (chiefly in Germany, 1932), and positions at Harvard, University of Wisconsin, Princeton, and New York University. The nature of theoretical nuclear physics work in the thirties is reviewed, including nuclear models and Feenberg's work with E. Wigner on nuclear forces.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Weiner:

I'm curious about your family life, how large your family was and what the occupation of your parents were.

Feenberg:

Well, my folks came from Poland. My father was somewhat older than my mother, of course. They both came over without companions. They had relatives in New York. They were kids, I guess my father was about 13 or 14 when he came over. They came from the same village, but they didn't know each other at that time. They lived in New York for a while, but not very long. He was pretty well educated for a man who never went to what you'd call a high school or college. He knew a number of languages. In fact, he told me that before he came to this country, he earned his way by writing letters for the peasants, when they came to market in the small town in Poland where he lived. His parents must have died early. He isn't alive now and I never asked him all the questions I should have asked him. Anyway, he wasn't in New York very long, and he started out travelling around the country, as a peddler. I never found out more about this, but he wandered around the country and throughout the West also, as far as Denver. After many years, I guess he must have been about 30 years old, he was located in Deadwood, South Dakota. He went back to New York to look for a wife, and through family connections he met my mother. So presently they were married, and she went back to Deadwood with him. Then they were in a number of places, Denver and Fort Worth and several others and finally settled in Ft. Smith, which was a very lively community at that time, being on the border and Oklahoma just getting ready to open up. So he went into the junk business in Ft. Smith and did very well for quite a while. When I was in high school I know he had a big building and several lots, and he was advertising as the largest junk dealer in Arkansas. Nowadays that kind of business is in good standing, we're saving the environment -- in those days, it was at the low end of the scale. Anyway, he prospered for quite a while. But it went sour in the twenties, when I graduated from high school. A funny thing that I've often thought about is that in that area, when a person finished high school, the universal thought was that he'd obtained his education. College was never mentioned in my experience, not by my teachers or by my family or relatives, or even the kids I talked to. It just didn't exist. Very few students went to college. I think it's really very strange. But anyway, --

Weiner:

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Feenberg:

Yes, I had a younger brother and two sisters. I had a younger sister who died. I had an older sister, then later a sister now dead, who died about ten years ago. So I have a brother living and an older sister.

Weiner:

I raise that because talking about college, I wonder whether within the family, with brothers or sisters, this question had come up.

Feenberg:

Well, it came up later. My brother and younger sister went to college. They both went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. And my sister also went to take some courses at Washington University, where I teach now. That was long before I was there. She studied at the social work school.

Weiner:

How did you get interested in pursuing further education, and what did you have in mind when you decided to go on?

Feenberg:

Well, after I got out of high school I worked for a while.

Weiner:

In the junkyard?

Feenberg:

No, I didn't work for my father. I guess. I'd demonstrated I had no talents for business, but anyway I didn't. I didn't want to stay in Ft. Smith. So I went to work for an uncle in Rock Island, Illinois, in the fur business. I stayed there eight or nine months. It wasn't too good for my health so I quit. I went to business school, learned how to keep books. My father sold out his interests in Ft. Smith and removed to Dallas, and for a while I worked in an enterprise he set up in Dallas, to deal in steel and rails and supplies. But that didn't prosper. He went out to Odessa, Texas, in west Texas, where there was oil, and set up an oil supply business. I had a few odd jobs in Dallas. They were hard to get and didn't last very long. And I was thoroughly convinced that I didn't want to continue that sort of work. I had no talent for business or dealing with people or selling or doing anything useful there. And I had always been interested in the sciences. I had, I think, $150 which I had saved from my work for my uncle. So I went to college. That's all one needed to go to college in those days. I couldn't go to SMU because the tuition was $400. So I went to the University of Texas where the tuition was much less, just a fee, I think, maybe $50.

Weiner:

This was in Austin?

Feenberg:

In Austin.

Weiner:

How about your work in high school, had you shown academic promise?

Feenberg:

Oh, I did very well in the sciences and mathematics. Things like English and French, I could struggle through to a fair level. So I had a good record.

Weiner:

Had you shown any interest in science prior to high school? Just because you did well doesn't mean you had an interest in it.

Feenberg:

Oh, that was my preoccupation. Fooling around with gadgets and motors and such things, building radios, just generally fooling around with apparatus and gadgets.

Weiner:

How early did you start?

Feenberg:

Oh, I guess high school.

Weiner:

Did it have anything to do with the availability of such gadgets in the junkyard?

Feenberg:

Well, yes, I had a large supply of copper wire and magnets and parts from old transformers and motors. That had something to do with it.

Weiner:

Was there anyone else in the family -- parents?

Feenberg:

Oh, they didn't discourage me. They accepted it. They didn't know what it was all about but it was all right.

Weiner:

The knowledge one would need to know what to do with copper wire, and parts from transformers, did that come from your high school courses or from reading?

Feenberg:

It must have come from books and reading.

Weiner:

Was this interest a result of your high school courses?

Feenberg:

No, it wasn't a result. It was independent of that. Just general reading. But there were some good teachers in the high school. The one who taught chemistry and physics -- she allowed me to do two years of chemistry in one year or something of the sort. She allowed me to work in the lab at my own pace. She also taught the physics course for seniors which I took. And there were some good teachers in mathematics. In mathematics, one teacher would send us to the blackboard and give us problems, then he'd walk around and help us a bit if we needed it. It was about as good a way of teaching math, physics or math, that .I know. The only difficulty in college is the classes are usually larger than the number of blackboard spaces. But it's a lot better way than just talking to them.

Weiner:

How far in math did you get in high school?

Feenberg:

I took four years. There was algebra and we started plane geometry, algebra and trigonometry and solid geometry -- I guess that's all -- but anyway I had a math course every year.

Weiner:

The woman taught general physics, magnetism, electricity?

Feenberg:

Yes. All of that stuff, yes.

Weiner:

What year did you graduate from high school?

Feenberg:

Well, it must have been '23, I think.

Weiner:

It was a general introduction to physics. You weren't keeping up with the physics literature at that time, you hadn't looked it journals, etc.?

Feenberg:

No. I didn't know anything about what was going on in the world. The great man in my mind was Edison. I read POPULAR MECHANICS, and radio magazines.

Weiner:

I think Hugo Gernsbach was the publisher of some radio magazine --

Feenberg:

Yes, I guess so -- yes, I guess I did read that. But I don't remember it. Then, of course, there was the Amateur Radio Operators Association, they published QST.

Weiner:

Right, I remember, I've heard of that from many people. With all of this and your interests, it still hadn't occurred to you when you graduated from high school that you would or should go to college?

Feenberg:

No. If someone had suggested to me that I might go to college, I might have done something about it. But it just wasn't part of my world.

Weiner:

So this remained something you were interested in -- you said it was a preoccupation, yet when it came time to graduate from high school you had no intention apparently of doing anything about it?

Feenberg:

I had no notion that one could do anything that way.

Weiner:

It was necessary to think what you'd do to earn a living.

Feenberg:

Yes. I didn't think about it, I didn't give it any thought, I'm sure.

Weiner:

So you finally decided in Texas when you lived there to go to school -- did you go with a science program in mind?

Feenberg:

That's what I wanted to study, yes, sure. But I had no idea of how one could earn a living that way. My father asked me that, "What can you do for a living if you study science?" I didn't know. But to me there wasn't really any alternative. I wasn't interested in anything else. I guess that's really all this is. I realized, at least I felt I wasn't fitted for the world of jobs and making money or business or selling or what not. It just wasn't for me. So that was the only road open. Well, a young Catholic boy with that temperament in a pious community would have gone into the church, if he could have made peace with the sex problem. A Jewish boy in an earlier time would have become a rabbi or something like that. Fortunately for me, there was another possibility.

Weiner:

So you acted on these feelings. When you started out at the University of Texas, you hadn't selected a field. When did you begin to go toward physics?

Feenberg:

Oh, I went into physics right away.

Weiner:

You did? So that had clarified itself enough in your mind in high school.

Feenberg:

Yes. I did a lot of chemistry in high school and was interested in it for a while. But I guess physics was more fascinating for some reason.

Weiner:

How about the courses there?

Feenberg:

Oh, they were excellent. I took elementary physics with C. P. Boner. Do you know him?

Weiner:

Acoustician, wasn't he, he went into acoustics in later years.

Feenberg:

While I was a student he went to Harvard for a few years and got a PhD. I know they wanted to give him a job at the Cruft Laboratory, but: he decided to come back to the University of Texas. And I guess it was his recommendation that got me to Harvard.

Weiner:

Who else did you have besides Boner?

Feenberg:

Well, there was Brown. The other faculty there were Brown and Kuehne and Romberg, the three senior members of the physics department.

Weiner:

Did you get into any of the current work? When did you enter, '25?

Feenberg:

I entered I think in January, '27.

Weiner:

Your BA and MA is '29 --

Feenberg:

might have been in '26. I entered in January, '26.

Weiner:

Then all the more reason for my question.

Feenberg:

I found the academic world congenial, and the outside world had no attractions for me, so I went to summer school every summer, so I got through quicker.

Weiner:

I notice if my facts are right that you had' a BA and an MA in 1929.

Feenberg:

Well, I took a lot of mathematics and I got an MA in mathematics. With Hiram Ettlinger. He's still living, about 85 or more, maybe 90. As a young man he was a good football player. He must at one time have been in the headlines. Anyway he had an interest in football and often served as referee at games.

Weiner:

The MA was in mathematics, the BA was in physics, simultaneously awarded?

Feenberg:

Yes. Which means you really doubled up and apparently did quite well in those three years.

Feenberg:

Yes, with the summers, three summers which added up to a year.

Weiner:

In the physics courses or even the mathematics courses, did anyone get into the new developments that were appearing in quantum mechanics?

Feenberg:

Yes. There was a little mention of it in Professor Kuehne's course in modern physics, not much, but the Bohr atom and things related to that. But the last year I was there, the last summer maybe, it must have been the last semester of the regular sessions, Ettlinger gave 'a course on the quantum theory which was -- his field was differential equations, and so it was mainly Schroedinger equations and clarifications. So we didn't really learn anything about the physics of the quantum theory but we learned something about the mathematical problems. That, I think, was the only course that touched on what was actually going on.

Weiner:

How about relativity theory as it was developed prior to that time?

Feenberg:

Well, we heard about it a little but not in courses. As a matter of fact, I never was exposed to a formal lecture on relativity. Either at Texas or at Harvard.

Weiner:

Did you learn about it at that time through reading or did that come later?

Feenberg:

Through reading.

Weiner:

Was there any special orientation towards experimental versus theoretical physics?

Feenberg:

Oh, of course the orientation was almost completely experimental at Texas.

Weiner:

Did this make a difference? Could one choose an option, say, "I'm Feenberg -- 10 more interested in theoretical, therefore I'm not going to take certain courses?"

Feenberg:

Well, there wasn't much choice of courses. One took them. I took them all, except maybe one or two courses that were essentially experimental, I don't recall. I think I took practically all the courses.

Weiner:

Within the courses offered you say the emphasis was experimental.

Feenberg:

Yes.

Weiner:

There was no theorist on the faculty?

Feenberg:

No. I mean, they used mathematics a a tool. They gave you the mathematical analysis that was required, we used Maxwell's equations and thermodynamics and all that, but there was nobody whose primary interest was theory.

Weiner:

Was there any journal club or colloquium series that would bring in outside information?

Feenberg:

No, I don't recall it. There was just not. I guess there really wasn't.

Weiner:

How about discussion with other students? Was there any circle of students, informally?

Feenberg:

There were a few students. We talked. But not a great deal. There were a couple of students, they were a year behind me -- there was Noyes Smith and Charles Fay. They were quite capable, and I guess primarily on Boner's recommendation they got to Harvard. Smith -- ten years ago he was head of a laboratory -- Shell Oil Company has a laboratory in Houston and he was head of that. Fay was working in the same place. They were good physics men.

Weiner:

Once you started in the academic cycle at Texas --

Feenberg:

There was a third one who also got to Harvard. That was Romberg. He was the son of the physics professor. He went into geophysics also -- they do in Texas. His father left the university and organized a company to exploit a seismograph that he'd invented. It was used in exploring for oil. I think his son took over that patent.

Weiner:

Did they all get PhD's at Harvard?

Feenberg:

That's right.

Weiner:

The time they would have come out would have been in the Depression period in the thirties when there was not much opportunity, and there were opportunities in geophysics compared to lack of opportunity in other fields.

Feenberg:

That's right. They had connections and there were possibilities.

Weiner:

They had roots in the area. I started to ask about the decision to continue on. You implied before that once you entered the University of Texas it was clear.

Feenberg:

Yes.

Weiner:

And you did well enough.

Feenberg:

I found the physics easy and most of the mathematics was easy also. Not all of it. I bumped into a real tough course in my second year and discovered that I wasn't a mathematician.

Weiner:

What was that?

Feenberg:

It was advanced calculus taught by a man who is well known, a prominent mathematician -- R. L. Moore is his name. He might still be alive. He'd he very old. But he was a tough customer. His method of teaching mathematics was to tell students about some theorem -- he was interested in point sets, quite abstract things -- tell them the theorem and tell the students to go out and figure out how to prove it. And he had one bright boy in the class who could do that. A man by the name of Roberts. I don't know what became of him, but he had started out in an orphan asylum somewhere. That's all I know about his history. He took to that regimen very nicely and he always came up with proof and stepped to the board and worked it out, and there was an animated discussion between him and the professor. Some kind of insight into logical distinctions that was quite different from having facility with just usual mathematics as a physicist uses it.

Weiner:

And this you didn't identify with.

Feenberg:

No. That wasn't the way I worked.

Weiner:

Did you have to produce any thesis for bachelor or master's?

Feenberg:

Yes, there was a master's thesis which I wrote.

Weiner:

Do you recall the subject?

Feenberg:

Well, it was something about differential equations with an infinite number of variables. It wasn't anything of any consequence.

Weiner:

Straight mathematical thesis, not one with application to physics.

Feenberg:

No.

Weiner:

Although potentially perhaps. One other question before I get you to Harvard. You say in the courses they barely touched on the new developments) and they talked about the Schroedinger equation in terms of its mathematical application.

Feenberg:

Just in that one course.

Weiner:

Did you keep up with what was going on, reading journal literature by this time?

Feenberg:

No.

Weiner:

So you still didn't -- you knew more than Edison but you didn't know --

Feenberg:

I'd graduated from Edison to Einstein, Bohr and Rutherford.

Weiner:

You're up to the Trinity by now. Did you think of other places as graduate schools?

Feenberg:

Sure, I applied to Princeton and Cal Tech.

Weiner:

Did Boner recommend those places as well?

Feenberg:

I don't know how come I applied to those places. Well, I heard from Princeton and Cal Tech first and they had nothing for me, so as I recall, I got a letter from Harvard, I was scared to open it. I went into the dark room and turned on a light -- So they accepted me and gave me a scholarship for $500, I think, which was $100 cash and $400 tuition.

Weiner:

You would have needed that, that would have been an important factor?

Feenberg:

Well, yes.

Weiner:

Of these three schools that you applied to, do you recall any specific interest you had in any of them -- any faculty, field of research, facility?

Feenberg:

No, I don't think so.

Weiner:

You knew they were good in physics.

Feenberg:

That's about all.

Weiner:

And Boner had recommended Harvard, you say. Because of his own work there.

Feenberg:

He may have recommended other schools too.

Weiner:

I have information you were a Parker Traveling fellow at Harvard,

Feenberg:

-- oh yes --

Weiner:

-- from '31 to '33, but I assume you went there after your graduation from Texas directly?

Feenberg:

Yes.

Weiner:

That would be 1929 some time?

Feenberg:

That's right, fall of '29, which is a well known date.

Weiner:

The Fall, right. Did that affect your fortunes, the Depression?

Feenberg:

Yes, it did, because my father had promised to send me -- well, he had said he could send me $50 a month which was enough to live on. After a few months, he wrote that it was impossible to continue. So the Harvard people -- Franz Crawford was on the Harvard faculty at that time, had some connection with Raytheon. They did consulting for Raytheon. He had a laboratory in Cambridge, and I think he must have been responsible; he got me a job working 50 hours a month for $50, which was good pay in those days.

Weiner:

What did you do?

Feenberg:

Well, I didn't do very much. Fooled around, I guess. I didn't do any good trying to do experiments, although it was suggested that I try depositing special coatings by evaporation processing on surfaces, to see if they had properties as electron emitters. But I don't think I got anywhere with that. At any rate, there was a man in the laboratory, C. G. Smith -- I think he must have been one of the founders of Raytheon. He had invented some electronic devices that had made some money. He was a man who had ideas. I guess he didn't have a great deal of formal education. I don't know where he'd been educated. But he had ideas. At one time he asked me to figure out how much energy you could give electrons by circulating them in a device that would give them a kick every time they passed a certain spot, and I think this was essentially the cyclotron. This was before there was any public information on what Lawrence was doing. Anyway, I made a few calculations and came up with a very stupid answer. I told him that it wouldn't do much good with electrons, they wouldn't stay in step because of the relativistic change in mass. Of course, that's just another missed opportunity in a lifetime of missed opportunities. It should have occurred to me and I should have told him, "Well, it won't work for electrons but it might be very good for protons or alpha particles, even nuclei." But I didn't. It's a fact, I didn't think of it.

Weiner:

What was his interest in this?

Feenberg:

I don't know.

Weiner:

I wonder what he had in mind with such a question, interesting.

Feenberg:

Vannevar Bush was connected with this lab too. I remember he came in occasionally. I remember one afternoon, we were having some trouble with a particular kind of rectifier tube. It was behaving in a very odd fashion and nobody could figure out how it functioned that way. So Bush was told about this, and he looked at it, and decided, I don't know, maybe he made a test and told us what was wrong. It checked when we opened the tube.

Weiner:

It pays to have a stockholder who knows to look where he should -- let's see -- we probably only have a few more minutes before we have to break but I just wanted to complete this part of it -- you did this while you were a full time student. Did you have any responsibilities at Harvard itself, laboratory, anything like that?

Feenberg:

No, I didn't.

Weiner:

When you got there did you immediately start taking courses, or start looking for a research problem while taking courses?

Feenberg:

No.

Weiner:

Courses first.

Feenberg:

I took courses for a year. The second year, let me see -- suppose I was doing research toward the end of the second year. I don't remember the details.

Weiner:

How about courses, what kinds of courses did you get into?

Feenberg:

All. There was a course in theory, Slater taught that, and Bridgman gave a course in thermodynamics, and Kemble gave quantum theory. Then I had a course with Oldenberg. I suppose it was called an introduction to quantum mechanics or something of that sort. And let's see, I must have had a course with --

Weiner:

Van Vleck?

Feenberg:

I don't think I ever had a course from Van Vleck. He was not there. He was not at Harvard my first year. I guess maybe he came --

Weiner:

I think he was over in Europe that year, as a matter of fact, stayed over for the Solvay Conference in 1930.

Feenberg:

No, I didn't take a course from him, unless it's slipped my mind. Oh yes, I had a course with George Washington Peirce. I had electromagnetic theory with him. It must have been an advanced course, a second year course in electromagnetic theory that Slater taught.

Weiner:

There's a lot I'd like to get into. Maybe we'll have time to continue tomorrow. I want to get into more detail, talk about research and electromagnetic theory in the thirties.

Session I | Session II