Oral History Transcript — James Brown Fisk
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Interview with James Brown Fisk
James Brown Fisk; June 24, 1976
ABSTRACT: Born 1910 Rhode Island. Engineering interest at an early age; Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduate, aeronautical engineering; graduate studies in physics (John Slater, Philip Morse); assistant to Stark Draper, 1932-1934; fellowship at University of Cambridge (Professor Ralph H. Fowler); internal conversion of x-rays (with Geoffrey I. Taylor, 1934); MIT Ph.D. (P. Morse) scattering of slower electrons; William Shockley; junior fellow at Harvard University, 1936-1938; work with Ivan Getting on an electrostatic generator; Harvard Society of Fellows; Bell Laboratories, 1939 (Shockley-Fisk fission work); war work mostly electronics; interaction with industrial research and with universities, 1946 reorganization of physics department forming a solid state physics group; team representing various disciplines to study fundamentals of solid state (Fisk associate director); Director of Research, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1947; professor at Harvard, 1948; Director of Physics Research at Bell Labs, 1949; President of Bell Labs. Also prominently mentioned are: John Bardeen, Oliver E. Buckley, Karl Taylor Compton, Frank Jewett, J. B. Johnson, Ralph Johnson, Mervin J. Kelly, and Gerald Leondus Pearson.
Hoddeson:Before we turn to the main subject of this interview, The Development of Basic Research in Solid State Physics at Bell Laboratories, and, particularly, your own role in it, I would like to ask you a few brief questions about your early background. You were born in 1910 in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Were you raised in an environment where scientific exploration was stressed?
Fisk:No, not at all.
Hoddeson:What did your father do?
Fisk:He was in business generally, but having no relationship to any scientific things.
Hoddeson:Any interest in science deriving from relatives — sisters or brothers maybe?
Fisk:No, my forebears were mostly lawyers and judges and things of that sort.
Hoddeson:Did you attend the public school?
Fisk:I attended the public schools through high school, the Technical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, after having lived in the West after a number of years. And then went from there to MIT.
Hoddeson:I gather the Technical High School was a special school.
Fisk:Special only in the sense that while it did prepare for college and put a great deal of emphasis on manual arts of one kind or another — machine shop, carpentry, things like that in addition to the regular college preparation.
Hoddeson:Was there a special decision involved in going to this technical school on your part?
Fisk:Well Iíd always wanted to go to MIT and it seemed like a better choice than going to a classical high school for example.
Hoddeson:You say you always wanted to go to MIT, when did your interest in engineering or scientific subjects begin, do you think?
Fisk:Well I canít really recall; it had been there from an early age, mainly in engineering. My scientific interest developed much later.
Hoddeson:Were there other schools that you were interested in if MIT didnít work out?
Fisk:No, I decided if I could go to MIT I would, and I did.
Hoddeson:Had you heard about MIT in high school? Can you recall?
Fisk:Well MIT was, and had been, and probably will be for a long time, the premier engineering institution in the world. It interested me for that reason.
Hoddeson:Who supported you when you were in college?
Fisk:My grandfather. My parents were dead at this time. We were orphans. So we were brought up by my grandparents.
Hoddeson:When did your parents die?
Fisk:In the early Ď20ís.
Hoddeson:You mentioned you were out West for a while.
Fisk:We lived out West for awhile. We came back East at the time of my motherís death.
Hoddeson:Do you recall what your main interests in college were?
Fisk:I thought I wanted to be a civil engineer, but at arriving at MIT it turned out there was a new course that was highly specialized, very restricted in numbers, called aeronautical engineering and I thought I might as well get an education in some field of engineering and it turned out to be that. It seemed to me it made relatively little difference what discipline you exposed yourself to if you had the best instructors, and professors, that was more important. And so I opted for aeronautical engineering at that time.
Hoddeson:Do you remember any particular influential teachers at MIT when you were an undergraduate?
Fisk:Yes, a professor of mathematics who was rather a famous man.
Hoddeson:Who was that?
Fisk:By the name of Taylor, was very influential. I developed quite an interest in calculus and related things. Physics and chemistry were very poorly taught at the time, and it was rather dull. But later on, on graduation my interest — (Interruption)
Hoddeson:You just told me that your courses in physics were very dull. What then gave you the idea of going on to graduate school in physics?
Fisk:Well, towards the end of my undergraduate engineering training I focused primarily on internal combustion engines rather than on aerodynamics and began to work with Stark Draper, who is a rather well known character; I was his assistant in the engine lab for a while, and I realized then if I were going to do any really first-rate engineering, particularly of a developmental nature, Iíd have to know a lot more physics than I knew at the time. So I spent a graduate year as his assistant but taking all the courses in physics that I could. And I might observe that physics at MIT in 1931 and Ď32 was a very different thing from what it had been four years earlier. Karl Compton had simply changed the entire nature of the institution by focusing on science in addition to the classical engineering. And brought in people like Morse and Slater and a number of other very interesting and exciting professors, and they indeed had quite an influence on my subsequent interests.
Hoddeson:I note that particularly Morse influenced you a little bit later on when you were in the graduate program. As an undergraduate were you aware of these people like Morse and Slater?
Fisk:They werenít there at the time as an undergraduate.
Hoddeson:Oh yes, they came in about 1930 or Ď31, didnít they?
Fisk:Yes, but I was a senior at that time.
Hoddeson:So you didnít know about them?
Fisk:Well I knew that they were there, but I became actively interested really only in my last year and early graduate years.
Hoddeson:Did Draper suggest that you stay at MIT?
Fisk:I think he probably did. He at least persuaded me that I should take all the hard courses and that was a very significant thing, rather than the courses that were more of a survey kind of nature. And one of the earliest courses I took was the first time that John Slater taught his introduction to theoretical physics.
Hoddeson:You did, that must have been very interesting.
Fisk:Well it was. The book hadnít been published — we worked from manuscript. I remember two of the people in that course were Ivan Getting and Manson Benedict who subsequently became well known, later on, yes.
Hoddeson:Was Slater a good teacher?
Fisk:I think Iíd say yes, he was a very good teacher, very precise. I always thought of him as an excellent teacher.
Hoddeson:Who else was taking Slaterís course? Do you remember anyone in particular? Fish: Well those that I mentioned are the ones I remember particularly. There were quite a few others; it was thought of as rather a hard course. It didnít attract everybody.
Hoddeson:Do you still keep your notes from those days?
Fisk:No, I donít.
Hoddeson:Some people do, some people donít.
Fisk:I donít. I have some notes, I guess I gave them to my son, from a later year at Cambridge University, but (looking at bookcase) I donít see it now, notes of all the courses I had at Cambridge.
Hoddeson:If your son isnít using them - has no need for them — thatís just the kind of material that historians get very excited about.
Fisk:Well, Iíll get hold of them. I donít know whether he took them. He took everything that seemed at all interesting. I think heís got them in California.
Hoddeson:Now you spent Ď32 to Ď34 in Cambridge, majoring in theoretical physics, on a Proctor Travelling Fellowship.
Fisk:Thatís right. Well at MIT when I was a first year graduate student, this was in 1931 or Ď32, I was as I say working quite hard in physics and working in the lab with Draper. I developed a very strong interest in Slaterís course and various other courses of that general sort. And I was given this Proctor Travelling Fellowship, having failed to get a Rhodes scholarship, which was most fortunate for me. And I chose to go to Cambridge. I was accepted at Trinity College, and Professor Fowler accepted me as a graduate student. It was very presumptuous of me to think that I could move on into research without having had all the undergraduate physics that I should have had, and all the mathematics that I should have had.
Hoddeson:Nevertheless you submitted, actually Fowler submitted for you, several papers that (pointing to reprints) are here.
Fisk:Well thatís true. Well, actually I worked not with Fowler but with H. M. Taylor who is a coauthor. It was really pretty much of a calculation, mathematical exercise, based on ideas that came largely from Taylor, I may have hit a few ideas but Taylor was their primary source. And while I was doing this I was taking all of the usual courses that were available there and there were of course many. We had the — it was the center of the world in physics at the time with people like Dirac and Fowler and Rutherford, Eddington, and Aston. You name it. There were always seven or eight Nobel Prize winners at the high table at Trinity.
Hoddeson:Did you interact with them at all? Or were they somewhat removed?
Fisk:I interacted primarily with the younger people, naturally. I saw Fowler occasionally at their famous weekly colloquium. All these people gathered there, and that was an occasion where youíd meet them. I knew Mott quite well; I knew Cockcroft quite well; of the somewhat more senior people.
Hoddeson:Would you talk with them about physics?
Fisk:Yes — Cambridge was a rather unusual place — you talked lots of physics and mathematics when you were around the Cavendish. And otherwise, youíd talk about everything, theyíre a very broad gauged people traditionally.
Hoddeson:I interrupted you, you were listing some names of people you interacted with — Cockcroft...
Fisk:Well I knew Cockcroft quite well, and spent a week with him up in the lake district one vacation. He was a very interesting man. He hardly talked at all. We would go for an eight hour walk and we might exchange half a dozen sentences. He was that kind of person. Mott was very much more communicative.
Hoddeson:This is precisely the period when Cockcroft was working with Walton on the accelerator.
Fisk:Thatís right. I was not involved in that at all. I was trying to — I thought that the theoretical part of physics was the hard part and Iíd better learn that. So I did no experimental work at Cambridge at all. Part of that was because I didnít know that I would be able to spend the second year there. And the rest of it was that I thought I better take advantage of people like Max Born and Courant, who were there at the time.
Hoddeson:What did you learn from them?
Fisk:I took Bornís course on topics, I took Courantís course on differential equations. And I knew both of them personally quite well because they had children about my age and that was — sort of how I got to know them.
Hoddeson:Wasnít Born doing a little work in solids at that time?
Fisk:Not very much. I donít know what his research interests were at that time, really. I was more concerned with his actual courses that he was teaching.
Hoddeson:And did you keep in touch with the MIT program while you were in Cambridge or —
Fisk:—Not very much. I had an occasional letter back and forth but it was focused primarily on what was going on in Cambridge.
Hoddeson:And did the MIT program then accept the course work that you did in Cambridge?
Fisk:Well, when I came back to get a Ph.D. at MIT in the physics department the rules then were quite different from what they became later. The rule was that if you could pass the general examination you didnít have to take any course for it. So I took a crack at that and in preparation for it, Stark Draper and I worked every problem in Slaterís book, which had by then been published. We sat up long nights doing it, but we worked every single problem. And Stark was taking a Ph.D. in physics, he had degrees in almost everything else at MIT up to that time and he thought heíd add physics to it.
Hoddeson:I didnít know that! Slaterís book seemed to have quite an impact on your career.
Fisk:Oh, it did.
Hoddeson:And you were quite well trained in quantum theory in that early period, so that later on when you came to Bell you were —
Fisk:Well, I suppose in a sense, but not nearly as well trained as I should have been, not having had all the usual undergraduate courses that — most of what I learned I learned by myself, while in Cambridge, apart from Slaterís courses and some others at MIT prior.
Hoddeson:What for example did you consider a gap in your training?
Fisk:Well I hadnít had — I had engineering in thermodynamics, for example, and did very well in that, but I hadnít had the usual kinetic theory in thermodynamics. I hadnít had very much advanced dynamics, although I learned some later. I knew nothing about spectroscopy and really very little about radioactivity. Iíd done no work in X-rays or things like that. So most of that I had to pick up, and I didnít have the routine discipline in those subjects that would have been so useful.
Hoddeson:On the other hand you were right at the research frontier in nuclear physics.
Fisk:Well, when a field is brand new as it was then, itís very easy to have an occasional good idea. Itís a little harder now.
Hoddeson:Iíd like to learn more from you about the atmosphere at MIT in this period, for example, were there lots of visitors passing through, and colloquia?
Fisk:Quite a few.
Hoddeson:Do you remember any?
Fisk:Well there were some very interesting characters around MIT at that time. Bill Shockley was one, he and I — thatís when I first got to know him, we were students together. Iím talking about students now rather than others. The faculty of course was quite interesting, there were some of the old timers but some newer people who were active and exciting.
Hoddeson:For example? Morse?
Fisk:Well Morse, I did my thesis with Morse. He was a very dynamic person, very widely interested in all kinds of thing.
Hoddeson:And he came up from Princeton just recently.
Fisk:Yes. At that time we had interchanges with Princeton. The whole graduate department would go down to Princeton for a few days.
Hoddeson:The whole graduate department? How many people?
Fisk:Oh most of it, there werenít very many, maybe a couple of dozen.
Hoddeson:You went down by train?
Fisk:Or drive down. And then they would come up to MIT and would do exchanges of that sort. So weíd get to know all the people at Princeton including Einstein, Wigner, the others.
Hoddeson:Von Neumann was there too then, wasnít he?
Fisk:Yes. I didnít know him then, I knew him very well in later years but not then.
Hoddeson:Now Seitz and Herring and Bardeen were all graduate students of Wigner just in that same period.
Fisk:Thatís right. And Seitz — I got to know him then and have known him very well ever since. Of course Bardeen and I were in a room next to each other at Harvard a couple of years later.
Hoddeson:Was that your first interaction with Bardeen?
Fisk:My first interaction with John that amounted to anything was at Harvard, although I had met him earlier.
Hoddeson:Your own work in this period seems to have been all in the nuclear field, particularly neutronóproton scattering.
Fisk:Well I did some work with Phil Morse on that, some of which was pretty pedestrian.
Hoddeson:Did he suggest the problems to you?
Fisk:He actually suggested the problem that I did for my thesis, which was not nuclear it was — we used the same kind of mathematics, but it was scattering of electrons from diatomic molecules.
Hoddeson:(Reading from bibliography) ďThe theory of scattering of slower electrons by diatomic molecules.Ē
Fisk:Yes, that was my thesis at MIT and I did that with Morse. That is I did it under his general supervision. I got through a little early, so I didnít experiment. Some of my thesis examiners were a little critical of the fact that I hadnít done any experimental work. Having been an engineer I didnít think I needed to. But — so I did an experiment and tried to see whether or not the theory was right. It turned out to be fairly good.
Hoddeson:Was this experiment under Morseís supervision?
Fisk:No, no. It was officially under Nottingham, who was the guy who had been critical of my not having done any experimental work. I think, just slightly facetiously, he was the one that had challenged me for not having done any experimental work during his course work. I think he was probably a little disturbed that I had always carefully avoided all of his courses.
Hoddeson:How close did you work with Shockley in this period? Did you study with him? Did you do research with him?
Fisk:He and I and Morse published a paper together, as I recall. We did a little work together. But his primary interests were with Slater on theoretical calculations in solids. And I knew very little about it and wasnít terribly interested and I doubt if he was very much interested in what I was doing. But we knew each other and we both had some odd characteristics, like we were always interested in practical jokes. And I wonít go into that, but we had quite a lot of fun.
Hoddeson:If one just sticks out in your memory — itís not against the rules to tell it.
Fisk:Well IĎ11 reserve that.
Hoddeson:Did you plan to stay in academe at this time?
Fisk:I think that I wasnít really determined one way or the other. I had planned to go up and spend the summer at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, the summer between my two years at MIT, in Ď35, I guess it was. And I had a job offer but that somehow or other fell through which put me off a bit. I had no strong feeling one way or the other, it turned out that when I got through with MIT I was there were no jobs, but that didnít matter particularly at the time because I was given a junior fellowship at Harvard. And that of course was a very interesting place to be.
Hoddeson:That was from Ď36 to Ď38.
Fisk:It was Ď36 to Ď39 in the initial appointment. I resigned after two years because 1 got married and got, I think, the only job in physics in the university that was available in the country at the time. Thatís very nearly it. John Wheeler went to Princeton and I took his place at North Carolina.
Hoddeson:I was going to ask you how you happened to choose that school? I didnít realize that jobs were quite that —
Fisk:The reason to choose it is because thatís all there was.
Hoddeson:I would like to ask one or two more questions about that period at Harvard. There you appear to begin to get interested in applied work—
Fisk:Well Iíd always been interested in applied work but, as I said earlier, my concern was learning as much theory and as much mathematics and things of that sort, which I thought would be much more difficult to do satisfactorily later on. But Iíd always been interested in applied work; after all in this thesis, the experimental work that I did on that was after Iíd done the thesis proper which was a theoretical calculation.
Hoddeson:You wrote some papers in this period on electrostatic generation.
Fisk:Well, Ivan Getting and I worked together on an electrostatic generator at Harvard, for a while, and I spent some time at MIT with Van de Graaf and Bokren who was, I guess heís just retiring now as head he was head of the physics department at that time.
Hoddeson:You interacted with Bainbridge also, on ionic sources.
Fisk:Well Ken Bainbridge was a professor at Harvard while I was there and very active in various fields of nuclear physics. Particularly concerned with mass spectrographs and we interacted because you need ion sources for almost anything you do in this field.
Hoddeson:You became friendly with John Bardeen in this period and you worked with him some.
Fisk:Well John and I were both members of the Society of Fellows so I saw a lot of him. The junior fellows were spotted around the various houses at Harvard and we both happened to live in Lowell House and lived within a couple of doors of each other. So I would see him naturally at many of the physics affairs in the department, colloquia and that sort of thing. And I saw him naturally at the room of the Society of Fellows, because we frequently had lunch there. And we always had a Monday evening meeting with the senior fellows and some guests. And that was an extraordinarily stimulating period. The senior fellows were people like Alfred North Whitehead, and John Livingston Lowes and Gary Birkhoffís father, a great mathematician, and President Conant, and so on. So I saw a lot of John and after those meetings we would frequently go and have a beer or two. And then John would begin to talk, up to that time he was very quiet.
Hoddeson:I understand heís still quite quiet.
Fisk:Yes. Heís a splendid person and of course extraordinarily able. And it was that — my knowledge of him, my acquaintance with him there that led me to the conclusion some years later that he was the man we really ought to have in our solid state program here. And of course Bill Shockley had the same idea, so this is the way we maneuvered on that one.
Hoddeson:You also interacted with Kemble in this period. I notice your science article was submitted by Kemble.
Fisk:Well Kemble was — I think he was officially head of the physics department at Harvard at that time. And of course I saw him some at the normal things that you do at the physics department. He submitted an article for me because I was not a member of the, whatever it was — I donít remember where that was published.
Hoddeson:In the National Academy of Sciences.
Fisk:Well that was one of these little papers that you give and you have to have someone introduce you, if youíre not a member of the Academy. That came later.
Hoddeson:Did you get married while you were still at Harvard?
Fisk:Just as I left.
Hoddeson:I see. You met your wife up in Cambridge?
Hoddeson:And then you both went down to the University of North Carolina, where you were an associate professor of physics.
Hoddeson:And there you worked on this Zeitschrift paper with Maurer:
Fisk:No, after Harvard we spent a summer in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg and thatís where I did that work with Maurer. It turned out this had better be ignored, we made a mistake. We had an instrumental error in this that clouded the results. A counting error that neither one of us realized until too late. It was Morris Price that pointed it out to me later on. Incidentally, Morris Price was one of my friends in Cambridge while I was there, and of course heís been a very prominent physicist for many years.
Hoddeson:Well then what research did you work on in North Carolina?
Fisk:We were really just getting started and I decided after a half year that this was not for me. And I was offered a job at Bell Labs by Mervin Kelly, and was very much interested in it, for several reasons. One, the distinguished nature of the work here and secondly, because Bill Shockley and I had been friends for a long time and Iíd always enjoyed working with him and doing things with him. So when Kelly offered me this opportunity I decided it was time to come here.
Hoddeson:Had you kept in touch with Shockley during the previous three years while you were at Harvard and North Carolina? Or at least in touch with his work?
Fisk:Yes. We saw each other in New York occasionally. Heíd come to Bell Labs earlier. So I saw him in New York occasionally and we were in touch from time to time.
Hoddeson:Was Shockley instrumental in Mervin Kellyís approach to you? Or was the story much more complicated than that?
Fisk:Iím not sure. I suspect that Bill said something to Mervin. But I came up and was interviewed by Dr. Kelly, we went to dinner. He offered me the job, and that was that.
Hoddeson:Did he start off by sending you a letter offering you—
Fisk:I think—I donít remember just how it came about. But Iím pretty sure that Shockley had said something to Dr. Kelly, at least said, well, better interview him.
Hoddeson:And there was no doubt on your part after having dinner with Kelly, that this was what you wanted to do.
Hoddeson:It was really a chance to get into more exciting research.
Fisk:Partly that and partly, I suppose that having come from an engineering background, the idea of industrial research, particularly in a place like Bell Labs, had always had an appeal.
Hoddeson:Were your expectations fulfilled after you arrived that first year?
Fisk:We kept pretty busy. And when youíre kept busy doing interesting things with interesting people I guess your expectations are pretty well fulfilled.
Hoddeson:Did you know if Kelly— Iíve read in places but I donít know how to evaluate it—Iíve seen it mentioned that Kellyís hiring Shockley and also you and some others in that period was considered a departure at the Laboratories, in the sense you really were clearly research people. Were you under this impression at that time?
Fisk:Well, a departure really in the sense that there werenít many people being hired. And I know that Kelly was very anxious to build up a much stronger research organization—or a larger one, he had a strong one. I mean people like Davisson and all the rest, these are absolutely top notch people. And they would be wonderful people to work with, and of course that was one of the real attractions. I heard on one occasion that Oliver Buckley had said when Kelly told him he wanted to hire me, I think Oliver said, ďperhaps we have as many Ph.D.ís as we can really assimilate, and do we need another?Ē And Mervin said yes. So he hired me. I donít know whether thatís apocryphal or not, because Oliver never told me that, but I heard that somewhere, may be Mervin told me that.
Hoddeson:I was under the impression, but maybe Iím wrong, that Oliver Buckley was instrumental in Bell Labís research becoming oriented much more towards fundamental and less applied problems.
Fisk:Well, I suspect thatís true. I think Mervin Kelly was the dynamic leader of that general movement, and I donít think he had great problems in persuading Oliver Buckley that this was the way to go. But I think the real dynamic force here was Kelly. I donít think thereís any question about that, do you, Alan?
Holden:I wouldnít guess there was, but you would know much better than I.
Fisk:Well, Oliver was always enormously interested in the science behind any of the things that were going on. And some of his early work was very good research on vacuum gauges and all kinds of things. So he had a full appreciation. But I think it probably took Kelly to press the issue to go in this direction.
Holden:He was much more likely to be the ďcome on, letís do it!Ē man in this thing.
Fisk:Yes, Oliver was much more reserved than Kelly in these regards. If Kelly felt something was right he would just go slam bang.
Hoddeson:Did Kelly discuss his general philosophy of fundamental research with you then or later on?
Fisk:Oh, from time to time we talked about things like this, particularly after the war, when things that youíre primarily interested in—solid state physics—was getting its real start. Start in the sense that a whole new dynamic approach to it was being introduced although thereíd been solid state in Bell Labs from the beginning of time practically. But in isolated spots like Joe Beckerís work and Foster Nixís, and so on. Wouldnít you say, Alan, your work on crystals and so on?
Holden:The work in magnetics had a lot of continuity to it.
Fisk:Magnetics had been prime interest with Bozorth and McKeehan—Louis McKeehan— so magnetics had always been a primary interest. And the work for example, in magnetism, became more and more fundamental as time went on. Really getting down to basic principles.
Hoddeson:Was there a definite attempt to formulate a philosophy for doing more basic research?
Fisk:Well, I can tell you a little about that, but that comes at a later period. I would say, the time when there was a significant change there was in 1946, after the war. Although there was a good deal of work being initiated under Harvey Fletcher before the war with Shockley, with Dean Wooldridge, the work of Brattain and Joe Becker, the work in magnetism, not all of which is very fundamental, by the way. But the things that Shockley and Wooldridge redoing, I say, were pretty fundamental. Is that a fair statement, Alan?
Holden:I think thatís right.
Fisk:Iím not sure that Iím giving you a balanced view of all the names that ought to be mentioned here, but theyíre the ones that come quickly to mind. (Hoddeson brings out organization charts.)
Fisk:Well, these old organization charts are helpful.
Hoddeson:I think the most helpful, probably, is the chart in Ď46. Here we have the three famous new groups, the Wooldridge, Fisk and Morgan-Shockley groups.
Fisk:Well, you can see the kind of people that have been brought in: Joe Burton, Homer Hagstrom, John Hornbeck from MIT, Ken McKay, J. B. Johnson I reported to years earlier and of course he did some magnificent work. People like Molnar had been brought in. He stayed there for a while. And then over here, you donít have very many—at this particular stage— here we have Bardeen, Gerald Pearson, Bob Gibney, Brattain, Charley Townes
Hoddeson:Letís go back for just a minute. I want to ask you about your early work with J. B. Johnson.
Fisk:Well, I knew J. B. Johnson very well because I reported to him, but the work I started on had to do with gas discharges and I didnít stay with that more than a very few months.
Hoddeson:Did you do any klystron work?
Fisk:No, I didnít do any klystron work, Pierce was doing that and several others. Shockley and I got off on a calculation for a nuclear reactor as it turned out. And that took several months.
Hoddeson:I have a question about that. A colleague of mine who is working on the history of nuclear fission came across a report in Briggsí papers that you wrote in Ď39 with Shockley. He was very surprised because that report was apparently never seen by anybody. Is that so?
Fisk:Well, Briggs was so frightened of it that he put it in the bottom of his drawer. We did that for the committee of which he was the head at the OSRD, or its predecessor organization. And because Jewett, who was president of the Academy of Sciences and former president of Bell Labs, who was a member of that committee, had asked Kelly if he would ask some of us to see whether or not we thought a nuclear weapon could be made from ordinary uranium. And Shockley and I were asked to this, which we did, and we discovered very quickly that the answer was no. But in the process, we figured out how you could make a reactor if you hit a proper moderator to slow the neutrons down and proper dimensions of uranium, normal uranium, and moderator, and the proper impurities and so on.
Hoddeson:I understand that thereís a discussion of the critical mass and the four factor formula in there.
Fisk:Well, we did that. We worked very hard on it. And we applied for patents on it just in the normal course of events, and we were thrown out of court on every conceivable count after the war. And the reason, I think, was that Fermi and Szi1ard had had essentially the same idea and probably at about the same time. We may have been earlier, they may have been earlier, I donít know. I donít think that anybody will ever know. But they were working hard on this and we were doing this simply as an exercise to answer the question. And we went up to see Fermi one day, and incidentally thereís a little discussion of that in a paper that Bill Shockley is publishing shortly. We went up to see him one day, and I think he was a little suspicious of us. The secrecy surrounding this was fantastic. And I think that Enrico felt that there wasnít any real point in making this kind of a calculation now. What you have to do is know what the cross-sections are. But we thought we knew them well enough to know whether you were in the right ball park. So we submitted this report to Lyman Briggs, and his committee, and later got permission to send it, via Fowler who had been my professor and was then doing liaison work in this country, and Iíd seen him in New York. It apparently had a strong influence on the British program at the time, and the Canadian program. But almost none on ours because it never saw the light of day, or the people who did see it felt that some of our calculations were a little bit sloppy. And they were, of course, because when you get down into that high capture cross-section area for slow neutrons in 238, we had to do some approximations because thereís no way to handle it otherwise. Anyway after the war, the Atomic Energy Commission in the patent office connived to try to throw the application out on every conceivable ground. The book was thrown at it. And you can only conjecture that it was an embarrassment, because we had no connection with the Manhattan Project in any formal way, at that time. So I finally told Oliver Buckley that I thought we ought to assign any rights that might exist under this to the government and forget about it. So weíve done that. Actually, the work was very largely Bill Shockleyís genius. And Iím—the only thing that bothers me is that heís never had any credit for it. As far as Iím concerned I was riding along, whipping up the horses.
Hoddeson:Iím surprised that you worked on this at Bell.
Fisk:Well, thatís because of the Jewett connection, with the NDRC, and the fact that Jewett could turn to Bell Labs and say can you help me with this, he was in Washington at the time.
Fisk:Weíve got to get on because I have to leave at 11:00.
Hoddeson:Okay. Iím particularly interested in the Ď30ís when new ideas of the quantum theory of solids began to enter research at the Labs. It seems to me at this stage that that was one of the major influences from the outside,that fed into the beginnings of solid state research at Bell Labs.
Fisk:Well, I canít answer that question very well for you, except in a very general way, because I didnít come until Ď39. And— well, Bill was here earlier and he could give you—and Alan can give you a much better answer to this than I can. But itís perfectly clear that people like Slater—like Fred Seitz, Wigner, Mott, Wilson in England, and a few others were beginning to apply quantum mechanical concepts to the study of solids, and there seemed no doubt that in due course there would develop a far better understanding of solids as the whole subject advanced. Just as had been the case with spectroscopy and the simpler kinds of systems that could be handled more directly.
Hoddeson:Iíve heard that you were a member of a study group organized by Shockley and Nix,that Alan also attended, as did Wooldridge and several others.
Fisk:Well, there were eight or ten of us, Alan? Charlie Townes, Brattain, Nix, Wooldridge, Shockley, Ad White, and Williams. And Alan and I were part of that. And we would try to work through books like Wilson, and Mott and Gurney, and so on.
Hoddeson:Did you take notes?
Fisk:I donít remember that I did.
Holden:I donít think anybody did.
Hoddeson:Was this a typical Bell Laboratories activity in this period?
Fisk:I think it was typical of this particular gang weíre talking about. Prior to that time, the only organized activities were the kinds of things—what weekly or monthly seminars that Karl Darrow ran. Highly descriptive things, and not trying to get at the guts of the subject. They were very interesting but they werenít pointed in this direction.
Holden:I recall, and I wonder if you do—who it was— or how it was that Ed Condon came in to give a talk, very early on in the history of this whole business, to a bunch of people on quantum theory of solids.
Fisk:Well, I donít know. Ed Condon worked for Bell Labs at one time, you know that. That was a summer thing, as I recall, or maybe it was more. Anyway both Bill and I knew Condon—he was a professor at Princeton at the time—we had some interests in common and I suspect that one or the other of us—or maybe both had urged him to come and do this, and his earlier connection with Bell Labs and his acquaintance with a number of people there in addition to the two of us, I think, made it easy to get him up from Princeton for that purpose.
Holden:He was an awfully good speaker.
Hoddeson:Was this a colloqium talk?
Holden:No, this was a separate little issue.
Hoddeson:Do you remember about when—- what year?
Fisk:Well, I suspect it was Ď39 or early Ď40.
Holden:Yes, something like that. That puts it about right. More like Ď39.
Fisk:I think probably.
Holden:It was quite early.
Fisk:Because when the war really began which was—for me it was mid Ď40ís — everything else fell apart.
Holden:I think it was a kind of a key talk in the history of Bell Labs concerned with quantum theory of solids because it was early, it was an awfully well done job and it was clear and it was elementary in a way and it opened a hell of a lot of peoplesí eyes to the possibilities. People like Gerald Pearson and so on who werenít catching on to that kind of thing very easily.
Fisk:I think the transition to really understand the modern quantum theoretical ideas was a rough one for a lot of people. Some of us had kind of been brought up with it, we just happened to come into physics at the right time. But I think people like Gerald, who is very very able, but had no background of this kind, and the ideas were rather strange and new.
Hoddeson:Were these study groups modeled after similar groups that had gone on say at MIT? Shockley seems to have been behind a lot of this kind of effort.
Fisk:Well, we used to do a lot of these things at MIT. But they were very spontaneous and it was, Bill was always the stimulous in things like this, but there were others around too, who were just as receptive and innovative.
Fisk:Well, people like Ralph Johnson, up there Dave Langmuir.
Fisk:No, thatís Uncle Irving at GE, Dave was—
Hoddeson:Oh, Iím sorry, I got mixed up.
Fisk:Uncle Irving was GE.
Hoddeson:I found two letters that you wrote to the secretary of the colloquium who was then W. Shockley. (Brings out two letters from Fisk to Shockley that are obviously a spoof.)
Fisk:Thatís the way he always signed his name.
Hoddeson:These are from you in Ď39.
Fisk:All of this is just sort of fun and games—Bill and I and some others at MIT, founded an organization called the American Institute of Useless Research. And thereby hangs several tales, but we donít have time for that.
Hoddeson:Iíd like to ask you a question about the ďDirectors of Industrial Research.Ē I came across some extremely interesting papers that indicate that during the Ď20ís and Ď30ís there were regular group meetings of various directors of industrial research. Kelly was involved and Buckly was involved and—
Fisk:Well, I was a member of this at one time, but not then. It was later on perhaps in the middle Ď40ís and then again when I—after I came back from Washington and Harvard. I think that Frank Jewett really started this. And Oliver Buckly carried on, and then Mervin, letís see—
Hoddeson:Hereís a picture that was taken in Ď42 that was—
Fisk:Yes, well, thereís a lot of interesting peple in this picture. Thereís Peter Debye, Bill Martin, Harvey Fletcher, this is at Bell Labs, and thereís Oliver Buckly up there. And thatís one of our vice presidents; I donít remember his name.
Hoddeson:This indicates a direct interaction between the various industrial research laboratories. Or was it only a formal association?
Fisk:The people involved here were the research directors or heads of most of the recognizable industrial research labs in the country. GE, Bell Labs, RCA, IBM didnít exist at the time — and Dupont, and chemical companies—all the others. They used to meet once a month. Theyíd usually have lunch at the Century Association in New York. And theyíd always have a talk by either one of their own members or someone else they brought in from the outside. And the main point was to really keep in touch with each other and to discuss common problems. Usually administrative kinds of problems, because they were a little reluctant to talk about anything that was proprietary in any way. And I think itís been a useful thing. I belonged to it for a while and then Bill Baker after me and then I think Bruce Hannay is the present— Hoddesori: Itís still going on?
Fisk:Itís still going on. If you want information about it I would suggest that you talk to Bruce Hannay, who is I believe our current representative. Or Bill Baker.
Hoddeson:Well, Iím interested in it; if I could learn more about the other industrial laboratories, it would help me put the events that took place at Bell Laboratories in some perspective.
Fisk:Well, I think the one that you would be particularly interested in would be GE. And the guy to talk to there would be either Fred Seitz or Harvey Brooks. Either one; they were both there for long enough to know something about it, and were probably more influential in directing things in the solid state field than anybody else. Their predecessors like Irving Langmuir, and Saul Dushman, and Coolidge, Louie Tonks and the rest were really prior to this period and the guys that are there—the ones I mentioned, Seitz and Brooks had the modern training, were part of it, and probably had a lot of influence there. And I think that would probably be more important than any of the other organizations, at least in that early period.
Hoddeson:How about interaction with universities at this time?
Fisk:Well, we have always had strong interactions with universities, largely on a person to person basis. Weíve, over the years, and I donít know exactly when it started, but during the War we had a number of people working in Bell Labs, I had a number working with me on magnetrons including John Slater, and Arnold Nordsick, Sid Millman later on.
Hoddeson:You were interacting closely with Columbia at that time—
Fisk:yes, but these people I mentioned, not Sid because he was at Columbia, but Arnold Nordsick had come down from Columbia and worked in our Lab. So did John Slater.
Hoddeson:Was Slater at Columbia then?
Fisk:No, he was at MIT but he came down and worked with us. Larry Walker who came down from MIT and so on. We were working very very closely. And those kinds of relationships carry on forever. But I suspect that thereís hardly an active member of our technical staff that doesnít have all kinds of individual university contacts. And from time to time weíve had people here on what you might think of as a sabbatical, and from time to time weíve had people from our staff go out and spend a half year or year in the university giving courses, still on our payroll. And Alan has done this.
Hoddeson:In that early period —
Fisk:No, later — You did it later on, didnít you Alan?
Hoddeson:Was much of that going on in the Ď3O and Ď40ís?
Fisk:Most of that I think began after the war. Or for example, I tried to hire John Tookey, and the best deal I could make with him was that heíd spend two days a week here. Well, that was as good as full time. But thatís been going on now for thirty years.
Holden:I remember Howard Stabler was here for the summer. And that was way back, you may have run into him, you may not, because he was working with J. B. Johnson.
Fisk:I donít remember that. I think that was before my time.
Holden:That may well have been. Howard Stabler was professor of physics at Will jams.
Fisk:That was prior to my time.
Hoddeson:Letís go back to the beginning of the solid stateís group. I could ask you lots of questions on the war work.
Fisk:Well, that has no bearing on— although a lot of it was very interesting—it has no bearing on the solid state, I donít think. It was almost entirely electronics.
Hoddeson:You worked on magnetrons.
Fisk:My work was magnetrons.
Hoddeson:Well, some of the war work did feed into solid state later, work on materials and radar—
Fisk:Well, the only solid state experiment that I did during the war was to put a raw egg in front of a high powered wave guide was three cm radiation. We just had this great success of getting 50 kilowatts. And I put the thing there and walked away, and it was a good thing I did, because the front half of the egg was absolutely solid and the back half was gas and it exploded. (Laughter) So think that in a sense I invented the modern electronic oven. (More laughter.)
Holden:A bit of solid state physics in the front half anyway.
Fisk:Well, thatís what I had in mind.
Hoddeson:Getting back to the decision that was made shortly before Ď45, to set up the solid state group: Iíve gathered, from some things Iíve read, that Mervin Kellyís interest in developing a better amplifier was an important part of the story.
Fisk:Well, let me just ramble here for a little bit and I think I can cover some of the points that may be of interest to you. I think Mervin had had a strong feeling for a long time, undoubtedly influenced not only by his own broad knowledge and his acquaintance with what was going on in the university world in these areas, but also influenced by his conversations with people like Shockley and Wooldridge in particular. He had always had a feeling that there ought to be some solid state way of replacing relays. Relays dominated the telephone plant at that time. And theyíre large and bulky and noisy and all the rest of it, and he felt that there must be some way to do this. I think he had a strong feeling of that sort. At the same time Wooldridge was interested in certain areas of solids, and Bill Shockley was particularly interested, and had always had in the back of his mind that it may be possible somehow to make an amplifier using solid state ideas. His first thoughts were very largely along the lines of having something that looked like a strict analog of a vacuum tube with some kind of a grid. And none of those really worked out, they were all rather negative. But he at least had the backing of Harvey Fletcher and Mervin Kelly to spend some time and develop a group for this purpose. Well, after the war, in Ď46 I guess it was, Mervin reorganized the physics department in a great bigsplashing move I would say.
Hoddeson:Was there any resistance to that?
Fisk:Nobody resisted Kelly. Nobody resisted Kelly.
Hoddeson:It was very drastic —
Fisk:It was very drastic. And I became assistant director too.
Hoddeson:Do you think there is any place where I might find documentation for discussions that must have gone on along these lines in that early period?
Fisk:I doubt it. The only documentation you can find is that John Bardeen appears on this chart. And thatís the reason. Of course Bill Shockley is one of the ablest theoretical people around anywhere and always had been. But he recognized that we needed more and we decided jointly that there were probably only three people in the country that qualified here, and Johnny was probably the most penetrating of the lot.
Hoddeson:And Kelly of course was in on all of these discussions?
Fisk:Well, I went to Kelly and said I want to hire John Bardeen. And he said, well, we really canít raid the University of Wisconsin. Jack Tate was a great friend of his & of mine, but I talked to John and John wanted to come. So we made a friendly arrangement with Tate and indeed he did come. I think that some of these things might have happened without John, but I doubt if they would have happened as soon, or with the kind of understanding that emerged. But thatís how that happened. And from there on—thereís a big gap in my detailed knowledge of what happened because I went to Washington early in Ď47.
Hoddeson:To become Director of Research of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission.
Fisk:Yes. And then after as much of that as I could stand, I went to Harvard for a year as a professor and then came back.
Hoddeson:Now you were in Washington, I suppose, when news of the transistor arrived. Do you recall your response to this?
Fisk:Great jubilation. I said, well, Iíll claim 1 percent credit for that, having had something to do with setting up the team with the objectives we had in the first place.
Hoddeson:Did you get a phone call or a letter?
Fisk:I think Oliver Buckly told me about it first, in some meeting, I think I was up in Concord, Massachusetts at the time, at my wifeís familyís home. And he came by to ask me to come back to Bell Labs and he told me about this.
Hoddeson:Weíll skip the Harvard period today—and just a few brief questions more. What did bring you back to Bell in Ď49?
Fisk:Well, I suppose two things. Iíd always wanted to be a professor at Harvard and when the opportunity came it was hard to resist. But then having been shot down and spent a couple of years in Washington, getting back on the track as an independent researcher in physics is not the easiest thing in the world. But more importantly, it looked to me as though it would take a good ten years to turn the department at Harvard, which was applied physics and engineering sciences, to turn it around and I simply didnít want to spend ten years doing that. And IĎd always been extraordinarily fond of my associations here. So when the opportunity came I decided Iíd better return.
Hoddeson:And then you were made director of physical research, you came in as director.
Fisk:I succeeded Harvey Fletcher then.
Hoddeson:Then you remained in that position until Ď52 when you were moved up to director of research of physical sciences.
Fisk:And one thing and another. Foddeson: Finally president. I wonít ask you any specific questions about that today. Perhaps weíll end on a philosophical note.
Hoddeson:In a talk you gave in 1963 you listed three important and necessary conditions for optimum research that would ďnurture scientific research and its careful conversion to technology.Ē And the three factors were ď(1) bringing gifted men together in a community in which each feels free to follow his own interests. (2) Common understanding of purpose that is sufficiently important, suitably broad and technically meaningful so that gifted people will be inspired by it, challenged and rewarded. (3) The need for stimulating environment.Ē Can you comment a little bit on the evolution of this philosophy during the period that you were at Bell?
Fisk:Well, it seems to me to be almost self evident that there are these three things: people, purpose and environment. And you can elaborate on each one of these at great length. But all three are terribly important, probably in that order. And I felt that if a research director can keep those three things clearly in mind and base his actions on them, that heís pretty well on the road to a good strong organization. Iíve always adhered, or tried to adhere, to the principle of least words. One of the principles of physics. And the three words are people, purpose and environment. End of speech.
Holden:You and I differ on that philosophy. I believe it takes words to say something.
Fisk:Well, perhaps. Yes, I agree that you have to spend time with different people, more or less, but I like to think that if you canít put your own thoughts on the back of an envelope you havenít thought very hard.
Holden:You havenít put it to yourself clearly enough. We donít differ so much.
Hoddeson:Thank you both so very much. Iíve gotten a great deal out of our conversation today.