Oral History Transcript — Dr. Humboldt Leverenz
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Interview with Dr. Humboldt Leverenz
Humboldt Leverenz; July 10,1979
ABSTRACT: This interview focuses upon Leverenz’s research career, where he made important contributions to TV and fluorescent lighting and his subsequent transition to management which culminated in a stint as Director of Research for the RCA Laboratories in Princeton. Problems he had to deal with are described, including tension over the issue of how much undirected research to permit. The research atmosphere during the Depression and World War II is recalled, along with insights into Vladimir Zworykin, David Sarnoff, trying Langmuir, and William Coolidge.
Wolff:This is Michael Wolff interviewing Humboldt Walter Leverenz on July 10, 1979, at his home in Princeton, N.J. I want to start with how you got into chemistry; physics and then we’ll go into your industry career. I know you were born in Chicago on July 11, 1909. And from this family history you’ve just given me, I know that your father was Paul Christian Frederick Leverenz, and he was born in Chicago, and your mother was Lydia Ophelia Emma Humboldt Leverenz from Watertown, Wisconsin, and you’re not a descendant from the famous Alexander von Humboldt, who never had children.
Wolff:I also know you grew up on a ranch in California, but that’s really all I know, so I will start off by just asking you to tell me briefly what did your parents do?
Leverenz:My father was a young electrician, really, with some night school study that he had at the Lewis Institute which is now the Illinois Institute of Technology. Night courses that he took to upgrade himself. He worked for the Commonwealth Edison Co. in Chicago, where he was, I believe, a foreman on a crew that built several substations for that utility. As time went on, being young, he grew impatient, because he realized that one or another of his superiors would either have to get run over by a truck or be fired in order for him to advance His brother Walter, who was a professional baseball player, persuaded him to go into a partnership on owning and running an almond orchard in California, this so called ranch which was initially 40 acres and later became 50. In 1915 the whole family, plus my paternal grandfather Carl, went out there, and we lived in a tent for a couple of years. Then my father designed and built a house, and eventually ran piping up from the well in the valley, and we settled down waiting for the almond orchard, which we’d planted after we cleared the land (it was completely unclear when we first went there) to produce something worthwhile. It takes almonds four years to bear, and we tried to grow pumpkins and beans and all kinds of things, but really we made our living by working for the neighbors. When I got into high school the first course in chemistry that I took was taught for the first time in the high school of Templeton, California, which had a total enrollment of 56. It was taught by a retired architect, and we used alcohol burners to heat test tubes, and I detested chemistry. When. I graduated from high school, which was from a nearby high school, Paso Robles; I thought that I would go into electrical engineering, somehow following in the footsteps of my father. I’d become fascinated with electrical engineering by reading some of the texts that we had in the house. He heard about that about two weeks before I went to Stanford, and he took me aside. He said, “Son, there’s no money in electrical engineering. That’s the reason I went to California from Commonwealth Edison. I was talking with a couple of Stanford graduates, neither of them was a chemist, and both of them said if they had to do it over again, they would take chemistry, that being a more basic science, the coming field.” Coming from a poor family I thought, well if that’s going to be a real coming field, I want to get out of the kind of economic straits we were in, and so I opted for chemistry even though I had a very great distaste for it. Fortunately, as time went on, by adding enough physic to it and later on in my industrial career, electronics, the whole thing became very appetizing, and being in a pioneering venture, altogether a very stimulating matter.
Wolff:Let me go back to your growing up. First of all did your mother work in any kind of business?
Leverenz:Before my mother and father married, she worked in, I think in one case it was in a millinery shop in Chicago, in some capacity. She worked for Marshall Field in Chicago, a large department store, and was a cashier, I believe, toward the end of that career. But out on the ranch, it was my father and I who worked for the neighbors primarily and she had the household to take care of, with two boys and later on my sister to take care of. She worked essentially as a ranch hand right on our own place. I can still remember her working long evenings with us, picking the hulls off the almonds and separating them out, just working the same as the rest of us did. During the almond harvest, she was a paid worker at an almond huller owned by a neighbor. She had a knack of taming some of our horses that was very much appreciated. We had a white horse, an elderly one, with the abbreviated name of Shappo which is short for Chaparajos the so called chaps that cowboys wear. In any event, this horse was very useful in training the young ones, but it was also very smart, and when we came out and tried to round him up in the corral to put saddle or harness on him, he was just so skittish we couldn’t get anywhere near him. But my mother go out with a piece of store string, put the string around his neck and he’d follow her docilely.
Wolff:What kind of formal education did your parents have?
Leverenz:My father and mother went through high school. My father had only the courses that he took in the evenings at the Lewis Institute, beyond that.
Wolff:Didn’t your father work with Millikan or know Millikan?
Leverenz:That was simply an incident at the Lewis Institute when I gather it was not long after the famous oil drop experiment but according to my father, Millikan came to the Institute and gave a lecture on the determination of the charge carried by an electron, and he filled the blackboard with equations, and when he got it completely filled, he stood back admiringly, pointed to it and said, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
Wolff:Do you recall your father ever talking about Millikan how he reacted to him, or what he thought of the lecture?
Leverenz:I don’t remember that he had any comments in a personal vein, because I believe it was a lecture where it was simply a delivery of the topic, and perhaps a few questions, without much of an opportunity for socializing.
Wolff:Now, you had two brothers and a sister?
Leverenz:No, one brother and a sister.
Wolff:Were you the oldest?
Leverenz:Yes, I was the first.
Wolff:Can you think of anything in your early home life that prepared you in any way for a scientific career? You mentioned reading the books about electrical engineering, for instance. Was there any one that stands out in your memory? Were there any other influences?
Leverenz:I don’t have a recollection of a particular person being the prime mover of my eventually going into science A partner that my father had in a rather ill-fated venture, of mining diatomaceous earth out in California near Lompoc, was a chemist, but he was primarily an assay type chemist He used to work for the quicksilver mines in assaying the ores for quicksilver and other contents Again, I think that my association with him simply deepened (this is during my high school days) my dislike of chemistry at that time. So it was a negative influence rather than a positive one. I believe I was probably fascinated perhaps over fascinated by just wishing that I could master all, the difficult equations that go with Steinmetz’s work, for example. We lived for one year in a rented house in Paso Robles, after we’d left the ranch, and in that house which was, owned by a very, elderly man, he had a complete set of Steinmetz’s works. I went through those in just a hasty fashion, because I was working, that sinner, but I so admired the series development of equations for electrical circuits that I longed to achieve some sort of mastery of that kind of thing.
Wolff:Did you have a lot of mathematics in high school? This was a small school you went to, right?
Leverenz:The first three years I went to Templeton High School. I had just the normal amount of algebra and geometry, and I don’t believe that I took anything additional. The teacher there was a fine teacher — a Miss Dumoulin — and I do remember that when the school inspectors came through, one girl and I were always selected to be the ones to show off on behalf of the class. So apparently I found it fascinating enough to stay on top of those subjects. From that school of 56, I went to the Paso Robles High School just a few miles away, which was an enormous school for me at that time. It had 300 enrollments. And I found to my amazement and I think the schools that I was at the top of the entire student body. They had a ladder system, so many points for a B or a C or an A in a course and then they would add all these together for points and show on a ladder at the end of every marking period who had the most, and they had to add an extra sheet of paper for me. Despite that, when I made application to Stanford, I was promptly refused. And it was good fortune that my father’s partner George Langley had sent specimen of fossil fish that he had found in the diatomaceous earth deposits to David Starr Jordan when he was chancellor of Stanford. George Langley wrote to David Starr Jordan, and two weeks later I was admitted to Stanford. So he was helpful.
Wolff:He certainly was. What were your favorite subjects in high school? Was there any one that stood out?
Leverenz:I believe the favorite subjects that I had were in the technical vein. I enjoyed mechanical drawing. I had a thought of being an architect. I really was very serious about becoming an architect. I really was very serious about becoming an architect without really knowing very much about what architecture involved, but my eyes found that kind of thing rather wearying, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I shied away from it. I always enjoyed reading, but I detested English and I got very, poor marks in it. I had to take bonehead English in Stanford, as I also had to take the very elementary physics and elementary chemistry courses because the quality of science taught in those high schools was very poor The valedictorian of my class at Paso Robles came to Stanford a year later and flunked out the first quarter, the same as two other students from Paso Robles had flunked out the first quarter in previous years. It was a rather poor quality of education.
Wolff:I gather you did a lot of reading of your father’s electrical engineering books?
Leverenz:Well, they weren’t very high powered. They were things for example, from the Alexander Hamilton Institute — correspondence course type of things.
Wolff:But they did intrigue you when you read them?
Leverenz:They did. Yes.
Wolff:One thing that particularly interested me on the tape that I listened to from the Smithsonian Institute is your recollection that as a young boy you were intrigued with the light that came from nearby farmhouses, when you were growing up on the almond orchard.
Leverenz:We were on the top of a horseshoe-shaped hill, looking outward from the open prongs. We were on the right hand side. We had a view for about 40 miles in almost a 360 degree circle. There were very few dwellings around there and most of them were a mile, two miles apart. On a still night, you could hear voices from some of them, and you could see a lone speck of light off in the distance In later years, I contrasted that with flying up over, say, Chicago and seeing that sea of lights, with the silhouette of Lake Michigan carved out of that, and thinking of the tremendous contrast in my short lifetime of just seeing a little light here and there, with the strides that technology has taken, thanks to Thomas A. Edison and others, towards having that wonderful night time illumination that has made us really around the clock operable.
Wolff:But as a young boy you were apparently fascinated with this light from the other farm houses. That was the impression I got from your reminiscence.
Leverenz:Well, I think that I had a fascination that was mostly a matter of wishing that I could do something to make more light, because there was so little of it. We didn’t have electricity on the ranch. We had kerosene lamps. Later on we had some gasoline lamps, one of which we had to throw out of the house in a hurry when it caught fire. And it just seemed that there should be a much greater availability of adequate lighting, and I think that even then I wanted to be part of doing that, without having anything specific in mind.
Wolff:Did you try to pursue it to the extent of trying to make any kind of light when you were a boy? Were you an amateur chemist or experimenter?
Leverenz:No. No. With very meager belongings, about the only thing that I had to work with were my father’s tools and he was very adept mechanically. I was less adept. And as far as doing anything in the field of producing light, apart from cutting and splitting fire wood, there wasn’t much to work with.
Wolff:Did you have formal religious training?
Leverenz:Yes. I was brought up, as my parents both were, in the Lutheran Church, the most rigorous branch, the Missouri Synod branch. We went to a little church about four or five miles away, by horse and buggy, and the minister gave two sermons a day, the first in German, the second in English In the early years I remember some of the farmers coming, literally barefooted, with straw hats, faded jeans, elbows worn out, and yet they had a degree of almost fervor and resoluteness about their faith that was very impressive. And I used to go to both services, which helped me later with English and German. I was saddened later on when more and more city folk moved into the area, and some of the ladies came in, in more finery, and started raising a movement and successfully suppressed the farmers who wanted to come in just their ordinary workaday clothes. I felt that the most important thing to come in was with the mind and the spirit, and the clothing was of no consequence.
Wolff:Did you expect from an early age to go to college, or if not when did you begin to think about going to college?
Leverenz:I don’t think that I was ever really convinced that I would go to college until almost the end of my high school career when I knew that some of my classmates from both of the high schools had been or were going to go to college, and I knew that academically I was at least their equal if not their better The chief problem was the matter of financing, and with the family finances being at such a perpetually low ebb I think I was almost resigned to not going to college, maybe staying out a few years and working in order to get enough money to be able to. But I believe it was my mother who was resolute in insisting that I go. I was stupid enough to apply to only one school, and as I said, Stanford promptly turned me down.
Wolff:But you did get in there. How were you supported as an undergraduate? Did they charge tuition then?
Leverenz:They charged $85 a quarter tuition at that time. And. I had earned enough money to pay for the tuition for the first two quarters, and after that I could apply, which I did, for interest-free tuition loans which lasted for seven years, after which they had to be paid back. So I had to go to the dean of men and persuade him that family finances were truly in a bad way. I must have been a fairly good salesman, because at the end of the interview with him he agreed that I could have the tuition loan made available and he wanted to give me two of his suits, and since he was stout and a head shorter than I was, it was a little awkward to say “No thank you, I have enough clothes.” I finally paid those loans back, and since then I’ve given Stanford several times what they loaned to me. I’m grateful to them. Nowadays the cost of one quarter at Stanford is greater than the entire four years of tuition loans I took out, which was $850.
Wolff:Let’s see, this must have been 1927 that you started at Stanford, is that right?
Leverenz:1926, and I graduated in 1930.
Wolff:Did you live on campus or live at home?
Leverenz:I lived on campus the first year in the freshman dormitory, Encina Hall. Then I became a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, but in the last two quarters I lived with my parents in San Jose some 20 miles away.
Wolff:Now, you majored in chemistry. Did you start right out in chemistry at Stanford?
Wolff:And you went into that because it seemed more promising.
Leverenz:I started chemistry and I did not do very well. I had to take the lowest quality course in chemistry, and I did get a B in it, probably just barely. But as I went on, I think I went straight A in the last quarter at Stanford, with advanced courses.
Wolff:Your subsequent professional work was heavily experimental. I wonder what kind of laboratory courses you took at Stanford. Were they well equipped up to date lab courses?
Leverenz:For that time, in chemistry, I think they were rather well equipped, and I was fortunate enough to win a kind of junior instructorship in my last year, and so I had to actually run a laboratory course in inorganic chemistry and demonstrate to students and help students, which gave me a facility in experimental matters In addition to qualitative analysis I took advanced quantitative analysis which required some very delicate techniques. So that tuned up the experimental abilities.
Wolff:Were there any undergraduate teachers or any courses at Stanford that made a particularly strong impression on you?
Leverenz:George Sutton Parks, who taught physical chemistry, made a very profound impression on me. He was able to get across, in meaningful fashion, without being alarming about the complexities, the concepts of entropy and enthalpy and like terms in thermodynamics, which so many find to be great stumbling blocks in making advances in their educations. In physics, the head of the physics department, David Locke Webster, was a very impressive man. And Peirson Asley Ross (who, by the way, was the person who led Bill Shockley into physics because they were next door neighbors and as a professor Bill became acquainted with him in Palo Alto, and hence went into physics) was a person who was able to get students, even at the undergraduate level, to think on the graduate plane, sand be much bolder in terms of coming up with concepts, defending them, and so forth. I owe a great deal to him.
Wolff:What kind of grounding do you feel you got in physics, in preparation for a later career which was really a blend of chemistry and physics?
Leverenz:I think I had a good grounding in classical physics. The concepts of quantum mechanics were so new that professors themselves were still essentially fumbling with how to portray them in a useful fashion at the undergraduate level.
Wolff:Now, you graduate in 1930 and you go to the University of Muenster as an exchange fellow of the Institute of International Education. What motivated that move?
Leverenz:At the end of my senior year at Stanford, I made application to several universities, among them MIT, Cal Tech and Stanford, and I was accepted at least those three. Stanford offered me a graduate fellowship. Then somehow or other I became aware of the Institute of International Education’s fellowship for study abroad, and specifically, I was interested in studying in Germany. So I made application, and as I remember, I was told that I had not won, but I was second for the particular award, and then I was later told that the person who had won... (off tape).
Wolff:You were saying that the winner crashed his plane.
Leverenz:Right. So by that very large stroke of bad luck for the person who really won, I came in second best but took advantage of going to Germany. The choice of university there was not up to us. We had to take whatever the Institute of International Education sent us to. And they sent four of us to the University of Muenster, in Westphalia, for the first time that they’d ever sent any students there.
Wolff:You didn’t have your choice of where to go?
Leverenz:In that respect, the University of Muenster physics department was a letdown, because I had done some advanced work under Professor Maurice Huggins at Stanford on X-rays in chemistry, and I had a dream at that time of using X-ray techniques for quantitative analysis, anon-destructive analytical method. The X-ray equipment that we had in the Stanford chemistry department had come from Germany, so somehow I just assumed that when I got to a German university, I would find excellent X-ray equipment to pursue that topic. Unfortunately the University of Muenster did not have even as good equipment in the X-ray field as Stanford had, so I had to give that up. The net result was that I didn’t do any experimental work in Germany at all. Instead, I took review courses in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and several advanced courses as well. In retrospect, I believe that that was one of the most useful things I could have done, because it reinforced some of the basics that I think otherwise would have just slipped through my memory, and it advanced my understanding of a number of things that otherwise I might not have acquired if I’d immersed myself in experimental work.
Wolff:You were there a year, I believe?
Leverenz:Just one year. Right.
Wolff:In your year there, did you have contact with anyone who was particularly influential, or who may have subsequently turned out to be important in science?
Leverenz:The head of the physics department, Professor F. Schmidt, was a person who impressed me, but he didn’t become a famous name in physics He, by the way, had a very squeaky voice He would start out in a baritone, and at the end of his sentence, as he seemed to run out of wind (he had a rather spare build) his voice would go up into a falsetto that even after many many years of knowing him, other faculty members and graduate students would just have to break into laughter. He just had to become accustomed to that kind of behavior. The other heavyweight in the physics department was Professor Kratzer, who was a theoretical physicist, and he’d been shot through the throat in World War I and had a very deep voice. So when the two of them were in a seminar together, it was a bit of a fife and drum corps — and got even more hilarious — but neither one of them became famous. I took a course from the head of the chemistry department, Professor Rudolph Shenck, but he unfortunately had had a serious accident before I’d gotten there. One of his graduate students had prepared a brand new organic compound, and even though Shenck knew it was explosive, he brought it in triumphantly and showed it to a filled chemistry lecture hall. The thing exploded. The concussion wave killed several students, and where before he’d been a very strong personality with a strong voice, he appeared so meek and sort of beaten down after that that he was rather unimpressive. He, by the way, did some work on luminescence, and I was unaware of it at the time when I was at Muenster.
Wolff:At the end of the year, you come back to the, United States?
Leverenz:I wanted to stay over there, by the way. One of the professors that I had in the physics department was one of the Siemens brothers from the Siemens Co and I became well acquainted with him. At the end of taking a course in electricity theory, I asked him if I could have a summer job with the Siemens Co. That was 1931, and he said that he was very sorry, that he would like to do that but that he owed it — and the other companies in Germany owed it — to the German youth to give them the employment opportunities in the companies. So I had to come back.
Wolff:Tell me now how it was that you got to RCA?
Leverenz:That came about because at the SAE fraternity in Stanford, a transfer student from Washington University in St Louis by the name of Loren F Jones came and spent a year in graduate work. He had majored in electrical engineering in the university, but was then going into business school at Stanford. He and I became well acquainted. He had worked for a year or two at General Electric, and what he could tell me about his own experiences was of great consequence to me. We parted ways when I went to Germany, but I got a telephone call one day in the studentenheim in Muenster from him in Berlin, saying he’d like to come and visit me, which he did. I showed him around the town. He’d just come back from a visit to Russia. He had I believe been transferred from General Electric to RCA, which was an offspring of General Electric-Westinghouse, and was involved in the beginning stages of work on television. When he went back, we continued some correspondence, and when it became apparent that I would have to go back to the United States, I inquired of him as to whether there would be employment opportunity in RCA, particularly in the television field, which sounded very exciting. Well, he couldn’t promise anything, but he said he would do what he could to introduce me to people. So when I returned, I went down to Camden, was interviewed, and the key interviewer, Dr. Vladimir Zworykin, asked me whether I would be willing to work on fluorescence and phosphorescence I said yes. Then I went back to New York where I was staying with some friends, and I went to the N Y Public Library and I looked up those terms. I don’t think I’d ever heard of them. At least it hadn’t stuck with me.
Wolff:We’ll come back to that. Was RCA the only company you investigated?
Leverenz:No. Before I graduated from Stanford, I’d been interviewed by a personnel man of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. He represented the Bell Laboratories. He offered me a job at $35 a week before I went to Germany, but the trip to Germany, of course, came in And when I came back to see him, he indicated that employment opportunities were very tight, and when I got the firm offer from RCA, I just took that which was readily available.
Wolff:I think you indicated on that other tape that you were also influenced by somebody named Cummings.
Leverenz:Oh yes. B.R. Cummings had worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories, and was then with RCA when he interviewed me. He was in electrical engineering, electronics, and when he heard that I was considering going with Bell Telephone Laboratories, he said, “Well, I’ve been with them I can’t say anything detrimental about them. They have better equipment than we have. They’re bigger than we are. They’re better established. But there’s one difference. If you go with Bell Telephone Laboratories and they put you to work on,” as I remember, he said, slow-acting relays, “you’ll probably retire as the world’s outstanding authority on slow acting relays. If you come with us, we’re small, and we have to be versatile. You’ll have to do things not only in chemistry but in physics and electronics, and you’ll have an opportunity to do things on many different projects in many different fields.” Well, that appealed to me.
Wolff:Looking back on it in later years, do you think what he said was valid?
Leverenz:Oh, that’s absolutely correct. In my case, for example, the work that I did had a direct bearing on such things as fluorescent lamps, television and radar obviously, and those are just in the luminescence field. Then, non-metallic magnetic materials used in computers and television, and some work bearing on secondary electron emitters — just to name a few of the rather varied things.
Wolff:On the other side, though, do you feel what he said about Bell Labs was valid, from what you learned about them in later years — if you had gone to Bell Labs, do you think you would have been in a narrower specialty during your career there?
Leverenz:I’m not positive about that, because if I’d had the good fortune to become as well acquainted with people like Bill Shockley as I did later on, I think that the explosion in the solid state field would have found me enmeshed in it.
Wolff:So you’re interviewed by Zworykin, and he asks you to work on this area you’ve never heard about before. I gather you said yes.
Wolff:So then you start work there. Did you indeed initially begin working for Zworykin on fluorescence and phosphorescence?
Leverenz:Well, Zworykin was oriented towards electronics and physics, and by his own admission he had not very much depth in chemistry. So in some respects I think I was fortunate in that I was about the only person with much of a background in chemistry in the entire group. The person they had had working on luminescent materials up to the time that I came there was an electrical engineer, Charlie Banca from the University of Illinois, and he’d picked up a bit of the technology of making some elementary luminescent materials and was making some attempts at doing other things, but he was also involved in circuit work, so it was only a part time occupation. Well, I learned a little bit from Charlie about the facilities they had and what use he’d made of them, and the facilities were very, very meager. As I remember, I was given a corner of a laboratory room, with a wooden bench and a piece of drainpipe sticking up out of it — that was the sink, a pan balance, not in a case but one of those crude pan balances that had a sensitivity of maybe a quarter of a gram, and a furnace that was located about five, six doors away, where you had to walk along the side of an auditorium to get to it. With that kind of meager equipment in those Depression days, one of the tasks was to build up more adequate supplies of chemicals and of facilities with which to synthesize new materials and test them. I think I probably disrupted a fair number of RCA sales meetings when I came out with white-hot glowing crucibles held in tongs and walked through that auditorium while they were having slide presentations, with that crucible glowing all the way down to the laboratory I was working in.
Wolff:There was one question about your search for a job I want to pin down. You said that Jones’s experience at GE had been important to you. What did you mean by that?
Leverenz:I became fascinated with the prospects of going into something involving electricity, because I think I still had a lingering desire, going back to the days when I wanted to go into electrical engineering before going to Stanford. When Larry, who was still affiliated with General Electric, was out in California, he went to a radio station in Oakland and became involved in an experiment there of timing the difference in arrival times of radio waves that went around the world one way from Schenectady, the long one around the world, another the short way from Schenectady, and the third went through the earth to Oakland. That kind of thing, while it seems no great shakes these days, really intrigued me as an undergraduate.
Wolff:Did you think about going to work at GE?
Leverenz:Yes. In fact I was interviewed by the General Electric recruiter in the same era in which the Bell Laboratories person had made me an offer. But that GE person and I, I presume, just didn’t hit it off I was the last person he’d seen that day, and really the only thing he wanted to know was where the nearest facility was. So I didn’t get an offer.
Wolff:Now, you’ve described here the very crude laboratory that you had at RCA. How did this equipment and this facility compare to, say, the equipment and facilities at Bell Labs or GE? Do you think they were on the same level?
Leverenz:GE and Bell Laboratories were well established and had much better equipment than this fledgling operation at RCA had, which was being built up in the crumbling buildings of the old Victor Talking Machine Co in downtown Camden on the banks of the Delaware.
Wolff:So RCA was really just starting and was at a much cruder level of development than the other electrical companies.
Wolff:So you come to work there on this wooden bench and you’re working for Zworykin as the only chemist in the group, right?
Wolff:What was your initial assignment specifically?
Leverenz:The initial assignment was to attempt to provide more efficient luminescent materials for television cathode ray tube screens And harkening back to those early days, I think if I’d really stopped to think about the challenge of taking the kind of electron beam power that was available, it seems as though, at the outside, it would be maybe 10,000 volts if we could get up that far, and maybe 300 microamperes, which I think works out to be about 3 watts of electron beam energy Well, if you take a 3 watt electric light bulb, it doesn’t give an awful lot of light, and the challenge was to provide from 3 watts of electron beam power, a great big screen with lots of brightness. Even if you’d had 100 percent efficiency, it wouldn’t have been very much. But Zworykin was a man who had more ideas than umpty ump laboratories could cope with, and he would read the literature, hear from other people about new developments, and in addition to having, me work on luminescence, he would come in, as he did on one occasion, and say he would like to have some work done on new secondary electron emitting materials And specifically, as I remember it, he’d become acquainted with someone in the aircraft field, who gave him a sample of a copper beryllium alloy, In conjunction with John Ruedy, a physicist from Cornell, he wanted us to see whether this copper beryllium alloy would show unusual secondary electron emitting properties. It turned out to be only so-so, but the result of that was that I continued working on devising other alloys, and eventually came up with the silver magnesium alloy, which was quite prominent as a secondary electron emitter in the era going up to, oh, the time that the transistor came along.
Wolff:On this list of your patents, is this 1938 patent your first one?
Leverenz:No. Those two patents, one was issued in 1938, the other in 1942, were about the tenth and eleventh, something like that.
Wolff:I gather, though, that these were the first which you would consider major patents.
Wolff:And am I correct that they also are the subject of your first paper, which was, “Problems Concerning the Production of Cathode Ray Tube Screens.”
Wolff:Looking at your publications list, are these your first two papers?
Leverenz:That first one is the first presentation I made. That was given at a joint meeting of the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America in New York.
Wolff:And this is “Problems Concerning the Production of Cathode Ray Tube Screens.”
Wolff:That describes the cathodoluminescence work you had done, right?
Leverenz:Except for the most important part of it, going back to those two patents I was prohibited by the Patent Department from specifically mentioning the zinc beryllium silicate manganese materials, because they were too important and new to warrant release by the Patent Department So the best that they would let me do was to include simply beryllium silicate alone, and compare that with zinc silicate in some calculations made of electron penetration into the two materials, without any reference to their luminescence.
Wolff:Let’s talk now just about the period from 1931 to 1937. That’s when you worked at Camden, in the Electronic Research Group.
Wolff:And you worked there for Zworykin. So I’d like to, for the next few minutes, confine the conversation to the work you did there, before 1937. You had come there to find more efficient materials for the television work Zworykin’s group was doing. But your work resulted in these phosphors, for TV, as well as fluorescent lamp materials.
Wolff:Now, did that all come out of your work there in those first few years? Did the work that resulted in these two patents and this first paper, did that come out of these first years?
Leverenz:All of that was done at Camden. That’s correct.
Wolff:OK. You have two major applications of your materials, the fluorescent lamps and the TV kinescopes. Was that work separate in any way, or did it just all come out of the same materials?
Leverenz:The thrust, the intent of our work, of course, was to provide more efficient materials for television picture tube screens, and also to provide a gamut of colors which could, as it did eventually, lead to white emitting screens, which we now call monochrome, and eventually go on to the present-day color TV. The initial television picture tube screens were zinc silicate manganese, which had a green emission, and also a zinc sulfide copper material which also had a green emission and a very long after glow, so that for instance a baseball moving across the screen would have a comet-like tail.
Wolff:And these were not satisfactory?
Leverenz:Well, as one mayor of Philadelphia who came over and witnessed some of our early demonstrations of television, said, “I could get awfully tired of seeing a green Mickey Mouse, a green mayor of Philadelphia, a green everything.” In the early days there was even an effort to just have a yellow screen instead of green. The Germans came out with sepia colored screen, because there were no means at that time for providing efficient white emitting screens, let alone going on to the full gamut of color that we now have. The zinc beryllium silicates had the happy feature that, by putting in beryllium and varying that proportion, and varying the proportion of manganese, the color could be shifted all the way from that green clear up into the orange-red, and it was good efficiency all the way throughout. That was a major feature, that you could then essentially just tune the color to anything you wanted, which was not available in the past.
Wolff:This was a significant materials discovery that you made in those early years. How did you come to find that particular compound?
Leverenz:The first move I made in that direction was to substitute germanium for silicon in zinc silicate, and I got a somewhat more yellowish color, still with high efficiency. That was my first invention, as I remember. Its chief advantage turned out not to be for cathode ray tubes, although it was adequate for that rather that it was, but very efficient under alpha particle bombardment, and so could be used for so-called radium watch dials, for example. There were a number of attempts that were made — just sheer trying this, trying that, and I’ve forgotten how I got onto the notion of substituting beryllium in part, other than the fact that I had devised a form of periodic chart of the elements in which I segregated certain subgroups in such a way that it highlighted that beryllium and zinc had kindred features When I made the substitution for the first time of some beryllium — not all — for some zinc in zinc silicate manganese, and saw strong yellow glow under cathode ray bombardment, I remember the laboratory assistant, Harold Rhoades, and I (this was late in the evening when we finished that experiment) just solemnly smiling and shaking hands.
Wolff:What was it that you substituted germanium for, again?
Leverenz:Germanium for silicon. That wasn’t the first thing I did. There were thousands of experiments. One thing that should be made very clear is that as the years went by and I gave many many lectures on the field of luminescence, I would stress repeatedly that if I had one successful experiment in one thousand — and by successful I mean that would produce either a material that was superior for some practical purpose, or that cast some substantial new insight, light, on the interiors and the workings of luminescent materials — if I could get just one out of a thousand, I felt that I was fortunate. In other words, most of the experiments were on the failure side.
Wolff:Would it be fair to say that your work involved more seek-and-find than the creation of theories?
Leverenz:Absolutely correct. There were people, such as Fred Seitz, and some others, who were trying their very best to attempt to provide theoretical insights that could be useful to experimenters. But unfortunately the subject was so complex that even today I don’t know of any theories that are helpful in devising really new luminescent materials that would give you an insight as to how those materials would perform, in the absence of having prepared a material that’s very close to it already.
Wolff:Was there any kind of guiding method? How did you approach the work? You’ve said that you substituted materials, but did you have a strategy?
Leverenz:I think it’s very similar to what people in the drug research field do. You substitute this kind of organic radical group for another one, you see the effect on whatever it is that you’re concerned about suppressing, and then you try putting something in a chain that hasn’t been there before and seeing what effect that has It was an empirical, experimental approach, and the chief disadvantage, in our case, was that the number of building blocks available, the useful atoms in the periodic system, are so small in number. In the organic field, you have over 10, maybe 100 times as many known compounds as there are in the inorganic field, and even though I tried quite a few organic materials, none of them then or now was of any consequence for efficient light emission under electron beam bombardment. So I explored in the organic field as well. I don’t want to give the impression that the first day I came in I made the substitution of germanium for silicon. That happened probably after about a year of trying all sorts of failures in other systems — simple oxides, halides and so forth. Well, coming into the picture back in Camden was also the ultimately successful attempt to purify zinc sulfide to the point where silver activator and a bit of chlorine co-activator could be put in, and make the most efficient blue emitting material that there is even today for electron beam bombardment. That blue emitting component was the chief ingredient of the double layer radar screens during World War II, and that blue emitting zinc sulfide silver chlorine material is still the blue emitting material in all black-and-white and color television screens. But the task of purifying zinc sulfide was a tremendous one, particularly in the dirty conditions that we were working in.
Wolff:When you came up with the purification scheme, it was still before ‘37, at Camden? Leverenz; The basic features of it, we had fairly well in hand when we went to Harrison in ‘38, I think it was, and a co-worker, Elton J Wood, put the finishing touches on the purification of zinc sulfide. When World War II broke out we had a small pilot scale operation using, I think it was, five gallon Pyrex vessels over in the factory. Then I designed the first phosphor factory for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to turn it out in large quantities.
Wolff:Tell me how you approached the problem of purifying the zinc sulfide. What was your strategy there?
Leverenz:That was a matter of going to the literature, looking up the various methods that had been devised for producing zinc sulfide, after having found that there was no zinc sulfide pure enough available from any supplier. The number of techniques is enormous, but finally it boiled down to two, one of which became the accustomed method in Europe, and the other of which I devised with Elton Wood, the one that we use. The one that was adopted in Europe, because they had supplies of fairly pure ammonium sulfide, was to precipitate zinc sulfide, after various purification techniques, in solution from a zinc chloride solution with ammonium sulfide, the zinc sulfide would come down and the rest would be ammonium chloride which leaches out. Our technique initially started with zinc sulfate, which we could treat with peroxides and precipitate out trivalent iron hydroxide, for example, and electrolyze. To my amazement, I found that, where I was expecting to get copper out by electrolysis, it was the other electrode that got a coppery color, and time and time again I wondered whether I had hooked this thing up wrong to the battery. But it turned out that the coating was really manganese complex oxides that were coming out not at the cathode but at the anode. And then, also, precipitating with hydrogen sulfide from tanks, and in our case, contrary to the European case, our hydrogen sulfide in tanks is much purer than what they had in Europe. Well, we used a variety of attempts on that — including fractional crystallization — but the bulk of the purification now is done in solution, with fractional precipitation, where you precipitate part of the zinc sulfide, along with a lot of impurities, precipitate a bit more, and then the final precipitate is of sufficient purity so that if you add one part in 100,000 of say silver or copper, it produces a remarkable change in luminescence.
Wolff:So we have this purification scheme for zinc sulfide, and we have the development of the zinc beryllium silicate manganese phosphors, which became used for fluorescent lamps and for TV kinescopes.
Leverenz:Yes, though it should be stated that RCA did not develop the fluorescent lamps. Under the terms of the agreement between RCA and General Electric, and I suppose Westinghouse, RCA was not permitted to go into the X-ray or the lighting field as such. And they had cross-licensing agreements with us, so that they could use our inventions for their own commercial purposes.
Wolff:I see. But I just wanted to pin down, would you feel that these were the two major discoveries you made say there in those Camden years?
Leverenz:That along with the secondary emitting silver magnesium alloy.
Wolff:You mentioned that earlier. What was that used for?
Leverenz:That was used for electron tubes in which, for example, you would bombard one electrode, a photo-emitter, with light, and it would emit electrons. One electron would strike another electrode, and each electron would splash out maybe half a dozen electrons. Those half a dozen would strike another electrode, and the half dozen would be multiplied by six again and so forth, and you’d come down to the other end where one initial electron at the front end could turn out to be a billion electrons at the other. This is an amplifier device. And that kind of device was used in automatic headlight dimmers, for automobiles, for many years.
Wolff:Now, in all of this, you couldn’t really predict what would be a good luminescent material, it was empirical work?
Wolff:Were you guided in anyway by the theoretical advances that were being made in solid-state theory at the time? Was that of any help?
Leverenz:I think it became an increasing comfort to become acquainted with the band theory of solids, and the concept of the forbidden band and the Fermi level and all that kind of thing. But it was of no help whatsoever, in choosing compositions of matter that would give us better materials.
Wolff:Did you have any relations with university researchers during the thirties? I would assume that what they were doing wasn’t too helpful to you so I would assume you didn’t.
Leverenz:I think the chief connection during the thirties was in the early years; Professor Burt Warren of MIT made some X-ray diffraction plates of some of our luminescent crystals and provided them to us. We had no X-ray equipment whatsoever, and that gave us an opportunity to look at some of the lattice spacing’s of, for instance, zinc silicate, zinc germinate, and some of the zinc beryllium silicates, but beyond that, I don’t remember anything, other than the get together that Fred Seitz and I had, — let’s see, I think he had just gone from General Electric to the University of Pennsylvania, or maybe it was just before then, but in 1939, he and I had a joint article in the JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSICS. By that time, I was already in Harrison.
Wolff:Let’s come back to that later, then. So basically, you didn’t have too much to do with University research?
Leverenz:Well, chiefly because there didn’t seem to be any appreciable amount of research going on in universities, in the luminescence field. I remember that Cornell University had had some work in that field, and I think there was a man by the name of Tomboulian, Professor Tomboulian, who was doing a little of it. But they had practically nothing going that was of any useful consequence at that time.
Wolff:Again, to get an understanding of the experimental difficulties you had at the time, in discussing one of these projects on that Smithsonian tape, you said the technique was like trying to take fly manure out of pepper. That’s an interesting image. Could you tell me what that related to specifically?
Leverenz:Well, that goes back to our attempts to provide a different color than just plain, strong green, and one of the things that we did was to follow up on a lead that we ran across in the literature; by Professor A. Schleede in Germany. He had melted zinc silicate manganese and quenched it very quickly, and found that some of the material glowed yellow instead of green. So we developed our own techniques for doing that in small platinum dishes. And then when we had this mixture of green and yellow emitting material, which we broke out of the platinum dish, it came out in very tiny little particles, and they were mixed up amongst each other, and under ultraviolet light, in the dark, we took tweezers and we’d pick out the minority of whichever color there was in that particular batch. And that’s where my laboratory assistant, Harold Rhoades, came up with that very appropriate comment that this was like trying to pick fly manure out of pepper. (Laughter)
Wolff:Now, to make this crystal clear, the point is that when you started at RCA, the only luminescent material you had for kinescopes was the green zinc sulfide.
Leverenz:And the green emitting zinc silicate manganese, which Dr. Zworykin had brought along from Westinghouse. That material had been synthesized in this country first, I believe, by W. S. Andrews of General Electric, and from the information he published about how to make it some was made at Westinghouse. Andrews, by the way, was a man who had worked with Thomas A. Edison. And then when that became part of the General Electric empire, he became a researcher on luminescence, part time at least, and there was a feeling at General Electric — this was confirmed to me by some of the people I got to know very well later on, Dr. Gorton Fonda, Saul Dushman and some others — that luminescent materials were fascinating, but they were too weak and inefficient to be given serious consideration for use as light sources, even in television picture tubes.
Wolff:So, again, the overall thrust of your work was to find a brighter material and also other colors, because you didn’t want just green.
Leverenz:Yes. Well, there was another very important feature of these, among others. In the process of making Cathode ray tubes, the tube has to be baked out at a high enough temperature to de-gas the glass surfaces, the metal parts and so forth, and some materials just couldn’t withstand that sort of thing, even though they might have shown promise for other things That was one of the reasons why organic materials were such unlikely candidates because they would volatilize and just gunk up the inside of the tube. A major part of my work, in some of the early years in Camden, was the matter of how one goes about affixing these tiny little crystals to the glass face of the cathode ray tube. And there was a great deal of mystery about how one goes about that kind of thing. We had techniques for letting the particles drop down through water, and then we would slowly tilt the tube over and let the water pour out the neck, and hopefully the little particles would remain affixed to the glass. By what means, we didn’t know I postulated van der Waal’s attraction and things like that. But we eventually got to the point where we put a little ammonium or potassium silicate in and applied some principles of colloid chemistry to develop satisfactory reproducible techniques for depositing those crystals and even much larger crystals, such as we had to have for radar purposes, and have them stay on the glass surface. A lot of time was just spent on how do you go about providing not only more efficient materials, but stable materials under tube processing conditions, and materials that can be affixed to the flat end of the cathode ray tube?
Wolff:I want to be clear about this other color. It wasn’t just that you wanted to have something different from green, but from the early days they were thinking about color TV. Right?
Leverenz:There was that hope, back there. But the first step was, of course, black and white. One of my early papers had to do with that. That was published in 1940. But I think I actually devised the whole concept of that when I was in Camden, but I was not permitted to publish it until some years later.
Wolff:What was this paper?
Leverenz:This was “The Optimum Efficiency Conditions for White Luminescent Screens in Kinescopes,” published in the JOURNAL OF THE OPTICAL SOCIETY in July of 1940. But I worked that out when I was in the Camden laboratory for two weeks, when everyone else had gone away on a plant vacation, and I had an opportunity to, without distraction; think through how one would go about producing a white emitting screen, with luminescent materials. The Germans had been using mixtures of green and orange to provide the white, and they were expecting to get the highest efficiency, because the human eye is much more sensitive to green light than it is to blue, for example, or to red, and so they wanted to use the green for that maximum efficiency I found, by calculations with data from some of the literature on just using monochromatic light, that a much higher efficiency could be obtained if one used blue and yellow, and those became the actual monochrome screen, the white emitting screens of black-and-white emitting cathode ray tubes, television picture tubes, and they still are.
Wolff:Still on this pre-1937 period, was the work that you got the Franklin Institute Medal for in 1954 done in this period?
Leverenz:Yes, that was for the invention of the zinc beryllium silicate manganese phosphor, specifically.
Wolff:You made a comment on that other tape, that “we changed the whole lighting game.” What did that refer to?
Leverenz:The introduction of fluorescent lamps.
Wolff:Using this material?
Leverenz:That’s right. In that connection, I’d like to mention that when I was over in England, just before D-Day during World War II, one of the people over there mentioned that there’d been a calculation made that for the underground offices which had been built as security against bombing, where the use of fluorescent lamps had replaced incandescent lamps, someone calculated that for one ton of luminescent material, for the lifetime of that material in the lamp, there was a saving of 20,000 tons of coal, over generating the light by incandescent lamps. And that in large measure was because of the higher cost of air-conditioning with the heat load that the incandescent lamp puts in. In these days of the energy crunch, that’s rather impressive.
Wolff:It sure is. Now, a great deal of this work resulted in patents. To what extent was your research oriented toward getting patents, as opposed to say writing papers?
Leverenz:The research was oriented toward getting practical results. And once you’d achieved a practical result, and done it in a novel way, then our superiors in research and engineering management and the people in the patent department would insist that we submit a disclosure. Then one or more patent attorneys would work with us to draw patent specifications and claims, so that little by little, those of us who came in knowing nothing about patents — if we later had a fair number — would become more familiar with what is and isn’t patentable, and what is and is not worth patenting, from the standpoint, of commerce and industry. Most of the patents that I had I think I had 67, were not used commercially at all. It’s only a few that turn out to be winners.
Wolff:Did you do the actual writing of the patent?
Leverenz:No, that’s done by a patent attorney. They have their own procedures, their own jargon, and that’s not something that we contribute to in terms of the form in which it’s written.
Wolff:But when you were doing experiments, weren’t patent considerations taken into account in your keeping of records?
Leverenz:Yes, they were. We were required, asked and admonished to keep our records in chronological order, to have pages witnessed and understood by people, so that we would be able to verify that such and such an idea or experiment or whatever had been done at, a certain date, and not just have it be somebody’s word for it.
Wolff:As you look back on this phosphor work you’ve been telling me about, do you consider yourself to have been primarily a chemist, or was it equally chemistry and physics?
Leverenz:When I started it was with the feeling that I was primarily a chemist. And the farther along I got the more I was feeling I was a physicist, and chemistry was just a tool that I was using, a technique, if you will, to achieve physical results. Because the end product was a matter of converting energy from one form to another, which is a matter primarily for physics and we wanted a product that did not change that would not alter chemically or physically. So it was sheerly a physical entity that we wanted at the end that would be unchanged and do a job in the realm of physics, of converting energy from one form to another.
Wolff:Did other scientists regard you in the same light?
Leverenz:I think that most of them regarded me as primarily a chemist, because the bulk of the actual work, particularly in the early days, was chemistry, in terms of purifying things, combining things, crystallizing things, things that were then relatively foreign to physicists as such.
Wolff:Did you ever have any difficulties dealing with, say, physicists who were less involved with chemistry?
Leverenz:Oh, I think that I sensed on occasion that there was a certain amount of looking down the nose at someone who engaged in chemical affairs. There’s long been the feeling that a mathematician wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything in the field of physics, because that makes it applied, and a physicist wouldn’t be caught dead with a test tube in his hand, because that’s chemistry. There’s certain clannishness there. But fortunately, I did seem to emulsify fairly well with people in other disciplines, including electrical circuit people, and this was invaluable to me, because I needed so much help in designing electronic equipment and learning to operate it.
Wolff:Now, the phosphor work that made possible the blue and yellow phosphors that we use for black and white TV, was that in this period, or was that later at Harrison?
Leverenz:The groundwork was done in Camden, and when we got to Harrison, we put the finishing touches on it, to the point where we could transfer it, as I mentioned before, into a pilot scale operation in five gallon containers.
Wolff:There was also some mention of sulfur dominated materials. Was this?
Leverenz:Those were the materials that we put into the pilot operation. Just let me backtrack. The zinc silicates and zinc beryllium silicates, zinc germinates, were very... (off tape)
Wolff:Go ahead, you were talking about the —
Leverenz:I mentioned that the oxygen dominated materials, the silicates, germinates, for example, were very sturdy, very stable .They could be mistreated and still would function well, going through all the processing of making cathode ray tubes. They weren’t very sensitive to impurities being introduced, for example. But the sulfur dominated materials, the zinc sulfide, zinc cadmium sulfide, and were enormously sensitive and quite a bit more unstable. They had to be treated with great care in protecting them from impurities getting in, particularly copper, which would provide that comet-like tail, for example, the long afterglow. So there were two different species of materials, the oxygen dominated which were very stable, easy to use, and the sulfur dominated where there was great difficulty in getting them into the tube and having them keep their efficiency. There was naturally, on the part of the manufacturing people, a desire to use the more stable material, but the other materials were more efficient. So we all had to learn how to cope with their relative instability, and be able to process them in such a way that we could preserve their basic high efficiency. And eventually that was done, but it took many years
Wolff:You wouldn’t let anyone smoke in the lab, I understand.
Leverenz:That’s right. There’s that favorite episode, that during World War II, Leslie Jesty of General Electric Co. Limited, in Wembley, England, came over, and we let him look through the glass doors of the special filtered-air laboratory, and he saw the linoleum on the ceiling, walls and floors and the high gloss titanium paint on woodwork and lots of glass in there and how we had moistened rugs and people had to change clothes. When I got over to England, I found he was going around telling people about this hospital-like atmosphere, and he said, “The blighters wouldn’t let me in because I have a dirty mind.
Wolff:But the work on these sulfur dominated materials started in Camden, and there was a great need for a pure, clean room?
Leverenz:Right. Little by little, RCA very painfully came up with the large sums of money it took to provide really clean rooms. But those rooms were filthy compared with the kind of clean rooms that are now used for making integrated circuits, for example. We had to pioneer in persuading officials that we needed cleanliness.
Wolff:Even, as early as the middle thirties.
Leverenz:Oh definitely, when money was so hard to come by, they just thought what we wanted to do was to have a place that was more comfortable than anyone else and they didn’t believe us. On one occasion, I remember a vice president, Louis Clement, coming in, and I set up a Bunsen burner, and I said, “When did you last have that suit cleaned?” I think he said it was only just a couple of days ago. I said, “Just hold your hand near that flame and tap your sleeve.” He did and of course a great number of foreign particles sparkled in the flame, and he got convinced that maybe we needed a cleaner laboratory, a place where we could change clothes and not carry the outside dust in.
Wolff:I want to come back to that tightness of money, but first, let me ask you about a period when you got up at 4 AM to tend the furnaces. Was that part of the Camden days?
Leverenz:That was the Camden days, and that was specifically when we were making the yellow emitting zinc silicate by taking it up to the melting point and melting it at over 1600 degrees centigrade, and then quenching it. Well, it took the electric furnace so long to get up to 1600 C that if I turned it on when I came in at 8 o’clock in the morning, it wouldn’t be up there until practically all the day was gone. So what I’d do is get up, pull on some clothes over my pajamas, drive about five miles into town, go in, turn on the water cooling and throw on the power, then go back and try to sleep a bit more, then have some breakfast and come in and the furnace would be up to well over 1000 by the time I got in, except once in a while some of the rubber hoses on the electrode cooling elements would come off, and there’d be a great big puddle and all the guards would be very angry with me.
Wolff:Let’s talk generally about RCA during the thirties and during the Depression days. You’ve indicated that money was tight, but I understand that you had more problems than just convincing people that you needed money for clean rooms, that soon after you came there was a layoff of people.
Leverenz:Those were rather desperate days, and I remember, there had been a chemistry department in the old Victor Talking Machine Co. with people doing analytical work, analyzing various materials, to make sure they came up to standards. And I believe that the chief chemist in charge of that was laid off, and some of the others I think there was only one man left, and the man who had been head of it came back and applied for a job as an assistant to me, and I remember how agonizing it was to talk to this person, much older than I, and he said, “Look,” he opened up his hands and his fingernails had been clenched so tightly into the palms that they were almost bleeding there. He said, “I’ve got a wife and X children and a mortgage, I’ve got to have this job.” Remember, this is Depression days. Well, unfortunately I couldn’t hire the fellow because he didn’t have the attributes that we needed for our work. That’s haunted me ever since I remember another occasion when W.R.G. Baker, who was the head of the entire operation, (he’d come from General Electric and he went back there) after there was a layoff of about 150 engineers called those who were still on the payroll into an auditorium and he came striding down the aisle. He always wore dark glasses, I remember. He got up on the stage, he looked out at the few seats that were filled here and there, and his opening comment was, “Hm. I guess I didn’t fire enough of you” That was the kind of atmosphere there was.
Wolff:That must have been demoralizing, to say the least.
Leverenz:It was. I had the feeling all during that period, and it persisted long afterwards, that I wouldn’t know the next day whether I would be able to come home and still have a job.
Wolff:You say engineers were laid off. Do you mean scientists too?
Leverenz:We didn’t have many scientists. The basic emphasis was on engineering. I remember a meeting with Elmer Engstrom who later became chief executive officer of RCA. This is very early on, maybe about 1932, in which some of the people in Zworykin group has asked Engstrom whether he personally favored doing research. And he considered very carefully. He said, no, he was primarily interested in engineering results. Well, there was a fair amount of disgruntlement about that, but we learned to live with it.
Wolff:What was his position at that time?
Leverenz:At that time, I think he had just come into being the superior to Dr. Zworykin, and so he would have overall responsibility for Zworykin’s group as well as some other groups, and we wanted to find out what his philosophy was.
Wolff:When was the actual RCA Laboratories formed?
Leverenz:That was, I believe, 1942.
Wolff:So these are the days when RCA had no scientific research laboratory. You were the closest to that right?
Leverenz:We had some people who were doing scientific research in addition to having to turn out practical results, at both Camden and at Harrison and to some extent in the radio field out on Long Island. But the real upswing in research activity and interest happened after RCA Laboratories was founded here in Princeton. And, by the way, one of the major reasons for founding the Laboratories here was that the corporation at that time was licensing the entire industry to use its patents, and they felt that instead of having widely scattered groups here and there it would be much more impressive to licensees to have everything collected together in one place, in a more obviously research type edifice, with surroundings that approximated more the kind of thing that Bell Laboratories and General Electric had Plus the obvious advantage of having the people communicate with each other right on the same premises, rather than having to communicate from Camden to Long Island to Harrison and so forth.
Wolff:This Baker you mentioned — he’s not the Bill Baker of Bell Labs?
Leverenz:No, that’s W.O. Baker. This is W.R.G., and there was, I think still is a television station in Schenectady that’s WRGB. WRG Baker is the person who was the leader in establishing the large electronics complex that General Electric built in Syracuse. (lunch break)
Wolff:You said a couple of times that you had meetings with General Electric people and that you worked with General Electric people I’d like to ask you why these meetings took place and what they were concerned with. Or was that something that came later?
Leverenz:No, those meetings started and were continued several times both ways. As I mentioned before, RCA was in terms of its manufacturing and technical side, really a child of General Electric principally and Westinghouse to a lesser extent, and there were lingering ties, both formal and informal, between the two companies, particularly between RCA and General Electric, so that on an informal basis, we would occasionally visit each other and discuss recent advances, new discoveries, as long as they didn’t violate proprietary rights of either company. And Dr. Zworykin and I in particular made several trips to General Electric, when we had approval to present certain of our own findings. One of them was the silver magnesium secondary emitter, for example, which I invented down at Camden. And they would talk in an informal way about some of the things that they had. Sometimes we had a mutuality of interest In any event, it was intellectually stimulating to meet with people in that fashion.
Wolff:These meetings went on during the thirties and later?
Leverenz:Well, later, when we get into the Harrison period, I had much more contact with them, because we were all working together on radar indicator tubes.
Wolff:OK, then let’s talk about Harrison. That was the RCA Electronic Tube Development Center, right?
Leverenz:Something like that. Yes. That was 1938.
Wolff:And you were there for four years.
Wolff:Why did you go there, how did that come about?
Leverenz:Well, it’s a little complicated. In Camden, Zworykin was beginning to become intensely interested in the field of electron microscopy, and later that blossomed into a larger scale interest in applying electronics to medicine at large. But the first step was electron microscopy, and in order to get financing for that he was under pressure to have me go, with my group, to Harrison. They’d been wanting me already. They’d asked me at least once, and I had been negative, but with the desire that he had to go into electron microscopy and wanting the space and the money he pushed, in addition to Harrison pulling, and eventually it resulted in my transfer up there.
Wolff:How would that give him money?
Leverenz:Simply because I would no longer be part of his budget. He could use the money that I would have consumed lot electron microscopy.
Wolff:I see. So I gather you were not happy about making this move initially?
Leverenz:Well, Newton’s First Law always obtains, that you don’t want to stop doing what you’re doing usually, and it was out of inertia that I probably didn’t like it. One of the big reasons that, despite its grubby atmosphere, I liked the Camden area was because right across the river was the fabulous Franklin Institute technical library. That was essentially another university to me. To be able to go in on weekends and have access to current journals, good scientific texts and so forth was a great boon to me. And since I could read German well, I got a lot of things there that I couldn’t have got, certainly not in the RCA library, which was very meager.
Wolff:What was your major assignment at Harrison?
Leverenz:It was principally the creation and development of luminescent materials for cathode ray tubes. That was the sole thrust initially. That was not long before World War II. When the first rumblings of that kind of thing came about, I was working on luminescent materials in general, even doing a bit of more properly called basic research on, for example, the variation of luminescent efficiency with temperature, to try to get some inkling through measurements of that type as to the mechanisms of luminescence. I had more time for that because unlike the situation in Camden where, in addition to working on luminescence, Zworykin would come in frequently with some new red hot idea he had and want us to work on that as well — there was very little of that in the Harrison atmosphere. I was left more to my own devices.
Wolff:I guess it was very soon after going to Harrison that you got involved with Seitz on the work that led to the publication of the luminescent materials paper?
Leverenz:That, I believe, happened before I left Camden. But the publication didn’t happen until after I got to Harrison.
Wolff:This would be a good place to talk about Seitz and how you got involved with him.
Leverenz:I had lost track of Fred. It was Zworykin, I believe, who was a prime mover in getting some articles for the then fledgling JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSICS, and on the masthead of that journal it was stated that the journal was designed to interest more physicists in going into industry, because industry was having difficulty in getting physicists to go into the industrial scene And as part of Zworykin’s work, in calling people at places such as Westinghouse and General Electric, there evolved a notion that perhaps Fred Seitz (who was at the General Electric Research Laboratories and had a definite interest in the luminescence work that was going on there, and in solid state theory in toto) and I write a joint paper. I had a fair amount of experimental results that hadn’t been published, particularly on zinc beryllium silicate, and Fred had some solid state theory notions so we essentially just wrote two papers, and put them together, and it came out under a joint heading. When we actually met each other, Fred told me that he had been a student of mine for two weeks at Stanford in advanced inorganic chemistry.
Wolff:You mean a student with you?
Leverenz:No, a student of mine, when I was the instructor in advanced inorganic chemistry at Stanford, but the class was overpopulated so he was put in another section. But Fred told me at the time, with that great good humor of his, “I remember you giving me hell for putting two s’s in gases.” He’s a marvelous fellow.
Wolff:So this paper, “Luminescent Materials” in the July 1939 issue of the JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSICS was instigated really as part of trying to develop the journal to bring more physicists into industry.
Leverenz:Right. And I think the spirit of it was fine, to show that some matters of relatively high level could be presented from the field of applied physics, and it was well launched.
Wolff:Do you think the JOURNAL has served that purpose?
Leverenz:I think it’s gone beyond that. It’s gotten to the point where physicists are knocking on the doors of industry, contrary to the situation as it was then, that industry was going out and begging them.
Wolff:Then industry needed physicists so badly in those days that this was part of that campaign?
Leverenz:I can’t say speaking for industry at large, but there were some people, heads of research departments in AT and T and General Electric, Westinghouse, other comparable companies in other fields too, including DuPont, who wanted more physicists. I think that DuPont had an even greater problem because the physicist in a sea of chemists in DuPont would feel even unhappy than a physicist in a sea of circuit engineers in RCA.
Wolff:Concerning the work you were doing on luminescent materials at Harrison, I gather one of the things it culminated in was radar screens, is that correct?
Leverenz:That’s right. As a kind of a first step to that, without realizing what it would lead to, and as part of the greater freedom to do research type experiments, I conducted some experiments where I put a phosphor coating of, say, blue light emitting -phosphor on the inside of an experimental cathode ray tube, and then a yellow emitting material on the other side, so that the electron beam would strike the blue emitter, the blue light would go out and strike the yellow emitter, and then that would emit its yellow light through that intermediate step. When the highly secretive wartime radar development came about, a high official (Ralph Beal) of our company came around and asked me if I could devise a cathode ray tube screen that would exhibit a concave downward decay with time, that is, contrary to the normal type of afterglow of the screen, where it falls rapidly and then tails off so that the curve is concave upward, what they wanted (and he didn’t state the purpose for it) was a screen where the material would start emitting at a high level and stay pretty close to it, falling off only a little bit, and then fall very rapidly at the end, the other type of curve. I wasn’t positive but I thought that perhaps something of that type could be devised, and I got a mathematical analysis from a fellow who was more mathematically adept than I, Dr. Richard B. Nelson, on just the mathematics of feeding electrons into one type of material, having light come out and feed into another type of material, and what the parameters would have to be to do that kind of thing, and from the mathematical analysis it appeared that it was conceptually feasible, and it still is. Sometime after that, a couple of the people from General Electric who were doing work on luminescent materials there, primarily for lamps, wanted to know if they could get some very long decay sulfide-dominated phosphors from us I began to put things together, and eventually we were invited by Lee Dubridge, who was the head of the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, to consider becoming part of a team which included General Electric, who had already been invited and we agreed that we would. The invention of the cascade screen, we found later, had already taken place in England, but it was unbeknownst to us. But in this country, it was those early experiments of mine that were the foundation of the dual-layer long persistent screens used in radars.
Wolff:What is the significance of this concave downward decay? Why was that desired?
Leverenz:The need for that was that early radar antennas were quite large, and in those early stages it took them almost a full minute to rotate around. They wanted to have displayed on the cathode ray tube screen the image of what was picked up in that full rotation, and then completely disappear at the end of that time so that the next picture would not be cluttered with the remains of the earlier one. That’s why they wanted that particular concave downward decay, and theoretically that was the most desirable. It was not achieved, however, just to tell the end of the story first. But an approximation with concave upward was sufficiently good that we did very well with radar.
Wolff:And it was the concave-upward that you developed.
Leverenz:Right, that type of thing. And the specific phosphors were an outgrowth of our work on being able to highly purify zinc and cadmium sulfide and we made luminescent materials, specifically designed for radar. There were much larger crystals that were used for radar. The texture of the screen didn’t have to be as fine as for television. And there were constraints that were imposed by putting the radar in an airplane, so they couldn’t go above 5000 volts Otherwise they’d get sparking and arcing in the upper atmosphere, where the planes were flying So there wasn’t much beam power Necessarily you had to observe the screens with dark-adapted eyes.
Wolff:In those years at Harrison, one of your other major projects was designing this phosphor plant at Lancaster.
Leverenz:Yes. When it got to the point here the powers that be in the Defense Department and NDRC wanted to go into production on cathode ray tubes with the double layer screen, and I was asked by Gene Ritter who was the head of the whole Harrison operation, to design a phosphor plant to produce them. He was a kind of a tight-fisted fellow, and he had some estimates of approximately what the production would be, and he said, “If you go just one pound in capacity beyond that, I’ll fire you." Well, I designed it so it could go about 200 percent better than that, and he got fired; not for that reason, though!
Wolff:This was a plant for the military?
Leverenz:That’s right. The plant was built by the Navy and it was owned by them. RCA operated it. We made the phosphors. We made the cathode ray tubes and we shipped them to the Navy. The Navy essentially shipped them to itself. At the end of the war, RCA bought the plant from the Navy. It was a window plant for security reasons... (Off tape)
Wolff:You were saying that the British were less concerned about the blackout than the American’s?
Leverenz:In fact, all kinds of security. Here was the war raging just across the channel, and you’d walk along railroad platforms over there and find these ultra-secret, in the US, radar cathode ray tubes in kinds of orange crates with slats so you could look in and even see the double layer screen. Where over here they were fully enclosed and under security guard.
Wolff:Tell me about designing the plant. How deeply did you get into the engineering considerations? When you say you designed a plant, what did that involve actually?
Leverenz:As I mentioned, we had a pilot process for purifying zinc sulfide, and cadmium sulfide, and this was being done with five gallon jugs. When we needed to get a flow from one jug to another, someone simply took a jug and hoisted it up on a shelf and let it then either filter or drain down into another jug where chemical reactions would take place. I admired the free use of gravity, so I wanted to design a plant that was 70 feet high, and start at the top and have the whole process go down, and it would be all over at the bottom and out would come the pure material. But because of, I guess, local building codes, we were constrained to only half that height, so I had to persuade them to permit us to put in an elevator. It was the only elevator ii the entire Lancaster plant With materials and equipment in short supply, they had a heck of a time getting an elevator installed — so we had to fold the process, run it down once, take it up in the elevator, run it down again But it was completely gravity flow and it was done in glass-lined metal tanks, built by the Pfaudler, and I specified that these all be titania glass, so that there would be no contaminants in there that would harm the luminescent materials, and it was kind of a hydraulics engineering, project, to bring about the chemistry. The very first lot that came out passed the specifications.
Wolff:That’s unusual, isn’t it?
Leverenz:It sure is. But there’s an advantage to doing things on a large scale. Remember that if you consider the container a sphere, as the radius increases the volume goes up as the cube while the surface goes up only as the square. So the larger the container, the less exposure there is per unit, volume to contaminants coming in from the surface. In essence, the larger scale process can produce a much purer product.
Wolff:Did you collaborate closely with engineers on this?
Leverenz:I sketched the whole thing myself, and this again was in the days of a high degree of secrecy. Then they were transformed by the drafting department into working drawings for the actual plant.
Wolff:So it was you and the drafting department.
Leverenz:The drafting department simply drew it on a more legible scale, larger scale, and to fit the actual pipe, container, valve, and so forth diameters. Some adaptations had to be made along the line, and there were people in the Lancaster plant, notably Ben Artau and John Markoski, who made very definite improvements in both the plant and the processes, as they proceeded to make modifications, with new kinds of fittings, new kinds of pipes and so forth.
Wolff:But basically you did the design of the plant yourself.
Leverenz:That’s right. And it worked.
Wolff:Did you get involved with these engineering changes as it was being built?
Leverenz:I would be involved chiefly by telephone calls asking whether, to my knowledge, doing such and such would be detrimental. But by and large they were done on the spot there, as they had to be. There was a hurry to get it into production.
Wolff:Did you feel then that being strictly in that engineering business would be something that would appeal to you? Did you enjoy doing this?
Leverenz:No. My heart was still in doing things in research.
Wolff:How important do you feel this experience was to your subsequent promotions into research management?
Leverenz:I don’t think it had any appreciable effect. As I mentioned, Gene Ritter, who was the manager of the Harrison operation, disappeared completely from the RCA scene, and subsequently I think people simply took it for granted that somebody designed this thing and so, that’s fine, let’s get on with the future.
Wolff:Then in 1942 you leave Harrison. You become Supervisor of Research on Electronically Active Solids, at Princeton.
Leverenz:I don’t think it was designated that way. I was simply unofficially head of the group of’ people that I wanted to take with me. from Harrison to Princeton, and I didn’t attain even the status of a project leader, which was the lowest titled person in the laboratories, until quite a few years later when I became a department head.
Wolff:Why did you go to Princeton? What were the circumstances?
Leverenz:As I mentioned before, it had been decided at a high level in RCA that they wished to consolidate the separate researchers in Long Island, Camden and Harrison in one location, and Princeton was chosen.
Wolff:Oh, you went there because they were starting to form the Laboratories?
Leverenz:That’s right. And those of us who were deemed to be appropriate for charter members to that laboratory were invited to go. And I chose to report to Dr. Zworykin again, not because he and I always hit it off, but because the other major laboratory director, Browder James Thompson, while he was admirable in many respects, had what to me was an annoying habit of dealing directly with subordinates in a group. I asked him pointblank, when he invited me to join his group in Princeton, whether he would continue to do that. He said yes. I said, “All right, then I’m going to go with Zworykin. Because if I’m going to have a group, I’m going to run the group.”
Wolff:I believe you said that by 1942, you’d been at RCA eleven years and three of those years had been spent designing and moving into laboratories.
Leverenz:Yes. I spent a great deal of time doing that. The plus side of it was that each new laboratory was a definite improvement. The minus side was all the lost time that research might otherwise have been conducted.
Wolff:What kind of work did you do now back in Zworykin’s group? Are you still working on television?
Leverenz:The war was still going on, and we were still under contract with the National Defense Research Council, I think it was called, and because of secrecy restrictions, Zworykin was almost oblivious to what was going on in our group. Things were highly compartmentalized, even though in the same research organization. The person in the laboratory next to mine might be doing some work on something fascinating in the field of solid state or microwaves but was forbidden to talk with me about that, because that was to be kept secret within its own specialists.
Wolff:So Zworykin didn’t really know what you were doing.
Leverenz:That’s right. He asked me some years after it was all over, we’d completed our work, whether I’d had anything to do with that dual layer screen. I said, “I invented it.” He said, “Congratulations.”
Wolff:So when you say your group here at Princeton in 1942 is still working on the dual layer screen?
Leverenz:That was the major part of the effort. Then we got involved in some other government sponsored projects. One was an attempt to develop a very high intensity light source, and I had had the idea, that appeared as a patent, of growing a long phosphor crystal and exciting it along its length, and then having light accumulating and come out the end as a very high intensity beam, and that essentially is what the laser is. The thing that I didn’t have was the principle of semi-mirroring the ends and having it adjusted to fit the wave lengths of the generated light.
Wolff:This was for the Navy?
Leverenz:That was, I’ve forgotten what it was. It may have been the Navy. But we worked with the Geophysical Laboratory, in Washington. They did crystal growing and we did the physical testing of the crystals, and I specified the kinds of compositions and turned over mixtures of materials to be crystallized down there. They had high temperature, high pressure furnaces. George Ingerson and Frank Tuttle were the principal investigators down there, both excellent people, and they grew some crystals of synthetic zinc silicate manganese, and we tested them and found we got high intensity. It was promising. The difficulty was growing them long enough to be of real practical consequence. About the time it got to that stage, the war ended, the funding stopped, and that was that.
Wolff:What application did they have in mind for this?
Leverenz:I’m not certain, but I think that the Navy and other parts of the government were hoping to develop something more potent than conventional search lights and much more compact.
Leverenz:Then another project we were invited into was the development and creation of luminescent materials which could be excited, and would stay in a non-luminescent state, but still excited internally, and then have infra-red light release electrons from their traps and on their return to centers emit light. This was the metascope that was used for nocturnal operations in the Pacific, but was not used in the Atlantic theatre because they were concerned lest the people on that side, the Germans and I suspect even the Russians, get the thing and be able to use it.
Wolff:This was for night vision, right?
Leverenz:That’s right. So if you’re in the dark with a metascope, you had to bathe the scene with infra-red and hope that the enemy didn’t have means of detecting that you were doing that, and then you’d be able to see the scene on the phosphor screen. The excitation was done with radioactive materials. You had a Y shaped arm, and on one side it was being excited, on the other side it was being used for portraying the scene through a Schmidt optics system, and when you switched it over to the other side, there would be excitation of this one that was being used, and you just go back and forth as many times as you wished.
Wolff:Was this actually used in combat?
Leverenz:It was used in the Pacific Theatre. It was used, I think as much signaling at sea, as it was on land, and I’m not sure how much use was made of it on land.
Wolff:I’d be interested in your associations with other groups during these war years. For instance, you had some involvement with the MIT Radiation Lab.
Leverenz:Yes, and under that contract, as I mentioned before, General Electric had been invited in first, and Saul Dushman was the head of a major group there, and Gorton Fonda and Newell Gordon were principal investigators at General Electric. I think Fred Seitz, had gone to Carnegie Tech by that time, and another person at General Electric was Ralph Johnson, who was a theoretician .That group and our group were really the prime movers in the radar screen development, and we got together frequently, sometimes at each other’s’ laboratories, sometimes in neutral grounds. Later on other groups such as Sylvania, I’ve forgotten some of the others, came in, but they came in so late that they didn’t have any appreciable bearing on the eventual development.
Wolff:Who was the key person at the MIT Lab on this?
Leverenz:The key person initially was Robert F. Bacher, Bob Bacher, who was the head of the operation up until the time that — we didn’t know it at that time — that the Los Alamos A-bomb experiments were getting started, and he was transferred there to head up a sizeable part of that operation.
Wolff:Tell me about the Radiation Lab. What was it like?
Leverenz:It was a number of rooms and laboratories at MIT that were simply requisitioned and converted into laboratories for assembling and testing radar indicators.
Wolff:What was it like working with the people there?
Leverenz:Our contact was rather infrequent. I went up to Boston by train quite a few times, sitting on the end of my suitcase because there were no seats to be had, and you’d stay a day there, comparing notes, looking at results, and then come back here. I didn’t spend protracted periods of time there. And when they came down to visit us here in Princeton, I think it was chiefly to assure themselves that we actually had a laboratory and were doing something.
Wolff:Now, in 1944, you became an OSRD representative to Great Britain on the use of radar indicators.
Leverenz:Yes. That was a relatively short visit. I think it was about six weeks that Professor Wayne B. Nottingham of MIT, who was part of the Radiation Laboratory, and I took over there. Our attempt was to get a firsthand feel for the actual practical conditions under which radar indicators were used, and the kinds of results that were being gotten in research and development in the various laboratories involved in that sort of thing in England. Wayne Nottingham had built a whole room full of electronic gear, and had the idea that the way to test radar indicator cathode ray tubes was to completely de-excite the tubes with infra-red, and start de novo. This is something that I couldn’t buy, and most of the people in the Radiation Lab here couldn’t buy. After we got there and we actually visited operating centers and saw the tubes in actual operation, as we were coming back (I think we were standing on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Dakar, Africa) Wayne came over to me and said, “Well, I finally realized that that particular thing doesn’t make any sense. But it took that first hand exposure to convince him, because he had a dogged tenacity.
Wolff:What was it he learned that convinced him?
Leverenz:Seeing that there were still vestiges of previous images on there.
Wolff:Did you learn anything else from the British that affected your work?
Leverenz:By that time, since this is just before D-Day, the nature of the radar indicator screens was advanced to the point where any further improvements would be very, very minor. But towards the end, we introduced a screen which eventually replaced the double layer screen. It was a zinc fluoride manganese screen which had an exponential decay and an efficiency that was very substantial. That was introduced after the war was over, and I think that currently they’re not using the double layer screen, they’re using only the fluorides.
Wolff:Did you meet Denis Robinson on that assignment?
Leverenz:I remember the name. I can’t put a face together with it.
Wolff:Tall thin fellow who was the British representative to the Rad Lab.
Leverenz:I think there were two or three Britishers who came over here early in our work, and we showed them some experimental results that we were getting in Harrison, and one of them at least, maybe it was he, doffed a kind of imaginary hat, really saluting us for the progress we’d made in such a short time. Very courteous gentleman.
Wolff:Maybe that was the fellow. Around this time, you got started on ferrites. You had learned about German work on ferrites, I believe?
Leverenz:I guess the war was really over, when the Allied teams went in and gathered some of the technical documents that the military over there had and began issuing them as Publication Board reports. I read avidly all those that pertained to luminescence, and sometimes other things as well. I ran across one where the Germans, as I remember, had attempted to use ferrite type materials — oxidic iron, nickel, manganese and so on — to coat submarines, or maybe it was planes, in an effort to reduce reflection of microwaves. We synthesized a few of the things, and I think I turned some over to fellow researchers in the microwave departments, but our real upswing in interest didn’t come until one of the directors of the Philips Laboratories in Holland came over and reported on their wartime carrying on of work that had been done by J. L. Snoek, in the thirties, where he had already devised these nonmetallic magnetic materials, and he’d published all the results. I hadn’t been aware of it at the time. We fell to with a vengeance to devise our own materials, and came up with the materials that are now used as flyback transformers in television sets, and as the cores of deflection coils for deflecting the electron beam in cathode ray tube equipment, and for use in radio antennae, and also for the magnetic ferrite cores in computers.
Wolff:Was this still your group under Zworykin that was doing this?
Leverenz:Well, I did the work on the chemical side and the creation of new compositions, and later on got permission to hire a couple of other people, Imre Hegyi and Bob Weisz, to carry on some of the work, as well, but the testing from the engineering standpoint, the electrical testing, was done in another group headed by Wendell Carlson. The chief investigator there, the man who really did the bulk of the electronic testing, was Robert Lee Harvey, Bob Harvey.
Wolff:But you’re still in this group under Zworykin?
Leverenz:That’s right Carlson’s group was completely separate.
Wolff:And this carried on for several years after the war was over.
Leverenz:Right. So I was straddling the phosphor work and the magnetics work, and then about the same time work on photoconductors came in as an upswing, and shortly after that came the transistor. So solid-state spawned a number of different fields, and it was around that time that it became impossible for me to be active in the laboratory.
Wolff:Around that time being what?
Leverenz:This would be around the early fifties, perhaps.
Wolff:OK. We’ll get to that in a minute. Were you, did you have any significant relationships during the war with other groups besides the Rad Lab or the British? Any military groups?
Leverenz:I don’t have one immediately pop into my mind. In the course of working on those infra-red stimulable materials for night vision, we had substantial contact with a group at the University of Rochester, where Brian O’Brian was head of the department and Franz Urbach was the chief phosphor investigator, and with Roland Ward at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, who was very ingeniously devising chemical techniques for making superior sulfide and selenide dominated phosphors for those uses.
Wolff:So you did have university contacts.
Wolff:On that other tape, you contrasted the wartime spirit of cooperation among groups with what existed after the war. Could you elaborate on that?
Leverenz:That was a rather remarkable social phenomenon. As I mentioned, in one laboratory, say RCA Laboratories, you’d have people in adjoining rooms, working on different projects and being prohibited from talking to each other about what was going on. Whereas normally in peacetime they would have exchanged information, in fact deliberately tried to tell each other things just because they were so intensely interested in what they were doing and wanted other people to hear about it. So we were circumscribed by the wartime activity there. But on the other hand, in peace time, people working on luminescent materials at General Electric and Westinghouse and RCA were very cautious about telling each other anything that had any commercial significance. They’d talk about fundamental matters, theory, and so forth and so on, but the really important things, in terms of new practical developments, you released only after you were sure that the patent rights had been protected and so forth. But when the war came along, we opened up each other’s manufacturing processes. We told each other everything. And then when the war ended, both of these phenomena switched back to what they had been in peace time.
Wolff:That’s very interesting. One thing more on the ferrites, I believe you said in that other interview that the Bell Labs people were very upset when they learned that you had made that discovery?
Leverenz:Yes. I think that kind of goes back to the early statement by B. R. Cummings at Camden, that if you enter Bell Labs you come out being an expert in whatever project you entered in, but you won’t do much of anything else. Well, there was a very reputable and productive magnetics group at Bell Laboratories I wish I could recall the name of the principal investigator now, a very admirable gentleman, good scientist, and they apparently were quite oblivious of the ferrites until we published our results in the RCA REVIEW. Then, according to what I heard, Kelly, the president of the laboratories, got very wrathy that here they were paying such an enormous amount of money for a sizeable group there, experts in magnetics, and along comes somebody who’s known only in the phosphor field, and scoops them.
Wolff:Why do you think you scooped them?
Leverenz:I don’t know. I can only conjecture, from their standpoint, that they were mostly interested in the metallic type materials, and once you get immersed in a particular approach, frequently — it takes a shock from outside to get you off that beam. That happened with me, back in the Camden days, when I expanded the zinc beryllium silicates into zinc beryllium zirconium, thorium, titanium and so forth, silicates.
Leverenz:The additional ingredients squashed out the emission spectrum so that it filled practically the whole visible part of the spectrum, and became very close to a white. The trouble was that it also squashed down the efficiency. But I became so enamored of the fact that here I was producing white, in a day when we were still relying on solid green or very solid yellow, that I just had the conviction in my boots that one of these days I’m going to strike a composition of matter where it will be white and will have high efficiency. I made thousands of those things, went over a period of years, until I slowly became convinced that it just wasn’t in the cards. So, you can get on a kick, and mentally you can get fixed that way.
Wolff:When you say you made thousands, how long does it take to make one compound?
Leverenz:Well, I always made them in large numbers. We’d make several hundred at a time. You’d line up a whole bunch of clean crucibles, and you’d make a host crystal composition, and then you would try certain additives to that, and you would try adding them either as powders or more frequently, particularly with different activators, you’d pipette them in from solution. So you could run off several hundred in a few days or weeks.
Wolff:Let’s talk now about your transition to management. By the early 1950’s the transistor has been invented and all these developments in solid state electronics are coming along, and it’s too much to keep up with. So what was the incentive or motivation to get into management?
Leverenz:I can’t think of a salient feature that caused that, but as I’ve indicated, once you’ve become involved with developments in a number of different fields, and you have responsibility for attempting to keep those particular projects going with improvements, you find yourself spread so thin that you no longer find the time to go into the laboratory and concentrate on one particular thing. And just by going through that type of diffusion of attention, I got into the spot of becoming more and more of a manager, not in terms of having the title, but in terms of simply saying, “Well, this is the way it appears to me,” and since, if I were dealing with electrical engineers, they didn’t know as much about chemistry and in some cases about certain aspects of physics of light and so forth, they would accept it, and I became a sort of semi-authoritarian figure, and by trial and I suppose mostly error, I think I began to acquire a little talent for dealing with the various different people and enlisting cooperation on their part.
Wolff:Was there a period when you were torn between, say, doing more of that supervision, or going back and doing more research on new phosphors?
Leverenz:There was a time, several years, when my yearnings yo-yoed. I would have days when I would look back longingly at the laboratory and the people who were in there, and think, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to deal with things that don’t talk back? And then that would be overwhelmed by the excitement of something new coming up, such as the ferrite development and the photoconductors, working with people who had been total strangers to me in a field that was totally strange, and at the same time having the opportunity to meet with a lot of splendid people, excellent scientists, excellent engineers, and being stimulated by them. But I still yo-yoed for a while, until I began to realize it was no good looking back at the laboratory, I was over the hill on that kind of activity.
Wolff:Was there a system in place at RCA which is commonly referred to now as the dual ladder? Where people could rise just as high doing strictly technical work as they could in management?
Leverenz:There was and still is that dual ladder type of thing. But I don’t know whether it has ever been as rewarding financially on the one ladder as it has been on the management ladder. The technical ladder goes up very substantially, and they have people who are termed fellows of the technical staff, and there are only very few who are given that accolade. The management people, by and large, tor the same age, will get substantially higher financial rewards.
Wolff:I would imagine this must have been an incentive for you to do more management.
Leverenz:It was. A family with four children and each one of them electing to go to a private college. I think I read the handwriting on the wall.
Wolff:So you would agree that when it finally came down to it, you did have to make a choice between research and administration. You couldn’t continue doing both.
Leverenz:Right. I think I went forward voluntarily after a while.
Wolff:And in 1954, you were named Director of the Physics and Chemistry Research Lab.
Leverenz:That was the first formal tie that I’d had.
Wolff:But informally for some years you’d been a manager.
Leverenz:In those various projects. But without the title.
Wolff:Right. Then three years later you were given promotion to Assistant Director of Research. Then from ‘59 to ‘61 you were Director of Research. What were the principal concerns you had in those positions?
Leverenz:The principal concern as Director of Physical and Chemical Research Laboratory was to coordinate and improve the personnel and facilities involved in these various, mostly solid state fields, which then included semiconductor electronics, transistor type things, as well as photoconductors, as well.as luminescent materials and magnetic materials, just to name the principal ones — some of these laboratories just being in their initial stages of formation, particularly in the semiconductor field, where there was great uncertainty as to what, the ultimate main material would be for transistors and nowadays the integrated circuits . There was proliferation in that field, after the obvious germanium and its relative silicon. Many people thought it was going to go the route of gallium arsenide and. other dual or even triple ingredient type crystals, and eventually, as we now know, the problems of dealing with silicon were overcome, and that has become THE primary material. That activity, on my part, was terminated when, as Dr. Irving Wolff was approaching retirement, I was made assistant director of the laboratory, with the intent of replacing him when he actually retired, which I did. Then in that assistant director role, I didn’t real1y have any great voice in, I think, anything. That was supposed to be a learning experience, sitting at Dr. Wolff’s elbow and going through staff meetings with the various directors of different laboratories. It was a rewarding experience, in terms of hearing about some of the technical desires and needs of parts of the operation that I'd had very little contact with. For Instance, the acoustics research; laboratory is one that I knew very little about what was going on. So I got education of a sort, about parts of the total RCA Laboratories during that period that I would not have gotten otherwise. But I became increasingly aware that, in that stratum of management, the concern is, much more with dealing with people than dealing with science and technology. A chap at Harvard, I think, once went to General Electric and talked with one of their research managers, and after he’d talked with him for a while, the Harvard man said, “You know, a good manager of a pickle factory could do your job.” And of course, the research manager, who was a PhD in science, expostulated and blew his stack. So the Harvard man said, “Well, tell me, during the course of a day, just tell me in detail what you did yesterday “ And the fellow started enumerating who came in, what they talked about and so forth, and after a while he said, “You know, I guess you’re right. A good manager of a pickle factory could run my job. It’s mostly dealing with people.
Wolff:Do you think that was true of RCA?
Leverenz:I think it’s true of practically any organization. The farther up you go, the more you’re dealing with people, and the less you’re dealing with things.
Wolff:But I would assume your knowledge of science and technology had to come in there.
Leverenz:In some respects, having a lot of knowledge about that kind of thing in any specific field can be detrimental to human relations, because the people who are actively working in that field, who are subordinates, vastly prefer to have the feeling that their knowledge is superior to yours. And they don’t want any intimation that you really have a better grasp of it.
Wolff:That’s interesting. Well now, as director of the RCA Laboratories, what were your primary responsibilities?
Leverenz:Then I was full-fledged into dealing with the various department heads, the proposals for entering into new fields, and all the gamut of activities in RCA Laboratories. The personnel matters, the matters of compensation of employees, how you go about grading them, the enormous amount of time that’s spent on people matters began to just be overwhelming.
Wolff:But still when you talk about allocating resources to new fields of research, wouldn’t the pickle factory manager be lost in that?
Leverenz:He very likely would, and there I think, if he had his wits about him, he would learn which people to trust and when. Because if he wanted to try to become adept in every new project, he’d have to get back into the laboratory and do some research, and that would be true of a person who is a jolly good scientist too.
Wolff:To whom did you report as Director of Research?
Leverenz:That was to James Hillier, who was the Vice President of RCA Laboratories, and after a couple of years, since Jim himself wanted to and did take a very substantial first hand role in directing affairs (as he said, “There’s no point in having this one-on-one relationship”) I was put in the role of assistant to him. Or associate, I think it was called.
Wolff:That’s in 1961 when you became Associate Director of RCA Labs.
Leverenz:That’s right. Because he preferred to have the complete charge of directorship. The role of Director of Research was abolished.
Wolff:So in a sense Hillier was the chief research executive at RCA.
Wolff:And you reported to him for two years as Director of Research, and then that post was abolished and you were called Associate Director of the labs reporting to Hillier.
Wolff:All right, as Director of Research, and then later as Associate Director, what did you spend most of your time on?
Leverenz:It was primarily people problems.
Leverenz:Some of the problems had to do with morale. Engstrom, who, I think was then president of RCA brought in Booz Allen and Hamilton to investigate the whole organizational structure of the Laboratories. I believe it was they who made the recommendations that included abolishing the post of Director of Research and putting me in the associate role That was the period when, as I mentioned before, there was a great deal of feeling on the part of particularly the new members of the research staff that they should have what amounted to virtually academic freedom to do anything they wished to do. And the resistance to being managed or directed was enormous. So the role of director at the active research level was not very enforceable. In those days, the jobs were plentiful relative to the supply of people. Nowadays I get the impression that it is quite a different story. People are much more concerned about doing something that the company will appreciate, in order to keep their jobs and advance. In those days they weren’t concerned. A lot of them came to us, told us pointblank, “I’d like to work with you for a few years because then I can devote my full time to doing research and publish papers and I won’t have to spend any of my time teaching, but eventually I’m going to go to a university and become a teacher. But I can get a reputation faster with you, because I won’t have to devote part of my time to teaching.”
Wolff:This must have been frustrating for you.
Wolff:What would you have liked to have been able to have enforced, more than you did? Leverenz I would have preferred to take a much harder line on the matter of freedom of choice for types of projects, at the risk of having a fair number of people leave us But having the people who stayed with us be dedicated to the community they were in rather than dedicated to their own selfish purposes.
Wolff:In other words, you felt there should be more assignment of research tasks.
Leverenz:Not necessarily assignment, but management being involved in agreeing that certain projects should be permitted, and in essence just withholding funding from things that they did not want to do, which was the way it was in all the early years that I was with RCA. But that changed. It changed very dramatically, during that period. And we weren’t alone. Other organizations moaned about the same kind of thing.
Wolff:Did you have arguments about this with the people higher up? Did they support the younger people more than you did, or did they agree with you and just say, “Look, we can’t do anything about it”?
Leverenz:I don’t think there were arguments. There were just differences of opinion that didn’t assume the stature of arguments.
Wolff:What was the most rewarding thing about this stage of your management career, these seven years?
Leverenz:I don’t think I can pick any particular thing that I would say was most rewarding. It was all a matter of dealing with a lot of different people, on a lot of different things, and not really having the access to effective means for curbing activities that should have been curbed.
Leverenz:Well, some projects that were just boondoggles. On the part of the people who told us right on our own premises that they didn’t intend to stay with us. But there were those, some of them above me, some in other parts of the organization, who said, “Just give them time, they’ll come around to being concerned about RCA.” And very few of them did.
Wolff:That’s interesting, because it’s one thing to have some research going by somebody who doesn’t plan to stay there, the research could still be useful to the lab, but it’s another thing if you feel the research itself is not something that would be useful to the lab. Are you saying that you felt there was a good bit of this research going on which you couldn’t see paying off for the lab?
Leverenz:There was a substantial amount. I don’t mean by that that the majority of the people were doing that sort of thing. But there was one group in particular, which goes back to the Physical and Chemical Research Group, that — I’ve forgotten what their title was, they were mostly theoreticians. But they asked for and got essentially immunity from any kind of interference or even inquiry, you might say, into their affairs. And if you have a group that holds itself out as being elite, and above reproach, the news gets around fast to the rest of the laboratories, who start saying, here and there in increasing numbers, “Well, if they can get by with that kind of behavior, I can do it too.”
Wolff:Here are two small questions. In 1950 you published your classic book, INTRODUCTION TO LUMINESCENCE IN SOLIDS. Do you feel that doing this was helpful in your management career?
Leverenz:No. I think that that was of no consequence, management wise.
Wolff:In helping you up this ladder?
Leverenz:I doubt that it played any role whatsoever in that. It simply helped me stop my yo-yoing and looking back, essentially as of that time, I said, “Here’s what I know that I think should be put in print. Now I can close this and go on to other things.”
Wolff:That’s very much like writing books in general.
Leverenz:Yes. Right. I’d talked with Fred Seitz informally when I was first invited by John Wiley to write the thing, and I told him my intention was to write something short, maybe 150 pages Fred was down at Oak Ridge Laboratories when it finally came out, and he wrote to me and said, “The other day I was looking out the window and I saw a man staggering across the courtyard with something and on getting closer, I saw it was your book.” (Laughter)
Wolff:In 1958 you went to the Harvard Business School advanced management program. Was this helpful to you as a manager?
Leverenz:I think it had miniscule effect. I became convinced, as I was there, that the people who have a native talent for management, who are almost naturally skilled in influencing others, can get some knowledge there about fields in which they have not been active, which could be useful to them. Whether it’s in marketing or accounting or overall perspective, dealing with government agencies, union relationships, very few managers come up through all of those things, and so it can help round them out. But where the expectations are most dismally failed is on the part of people, and companies who send people, who are timid, indecisive, and hope that the experience will turn them into decisive experienced managers. That just doesn’t happen. It adds to their fund of knowledge, but it does not change their natures.
Wolff:So you don’t recall that you learned anything there that was particularly helpful to you.
Leverenz:Perhaps the main thing I learned was to be able to speak with people at the top levels of the company in a little bit more of the language that they talk and think in, including the board of directors. But apart from that, in terms of the actual conduction of management, I don’t think it was of any great consequence.
Wolff:What do you mean by the language they speak in?
Leverenz:Well, a person who, comes up through the technical side just doesn’t hear terms like “bottom line” in the accounting field. And “sum of the digits depreciation.” And in terms of thinking about the company in relation to the total economy, the GNP, and the effect of a change in capital spending on the GNP. (That’s where I made a small name for myself because I used an algebraic method to solve a problem in front of the assembled people, so they elected me president of the class. It was a very minor use of algebra.)
Wolff:So you needed that kind of language in talking with the higher management at RCA. Or found it helpful.
Leverenz:It was only a very minor ingredient, I think.
Wolff:Now, in 1966 your position as Director of Research is abolished and you go on to Hillier’s staff.
Wolff:How did you feel about that switch?
Leverenz:Well again, I still had a large family and I needed to support them, so I went along with it. I wasn’t very happy, of course, but there it was.
Wolff:Some executives in such a situation might have quit. Did you ever consider leaving RCA? If not, why not? If yes, what decided you against going through with it?
Leverenz:In the early 1930’s, Roger Wise of Sylvania made an attractive offer to me and I announced my resignation to RCA. RCA management then promised to provide me with a substantially better laboratory; so I remained. Through the years, I had many offers and feelers from companies, government organizations, and universities, but none that sufficed to lure me away from RCA. I presumably had a feeling of loyalty to RCA. That feeling was engendered by my years as a competitor in baseball and other sports where one learns to live with personal and team disappointments.
Wolff:What were your principal responsibilities as associate director? You were in that position for five years. I believe you did a lot of testifying in patent cases.
Leverenz:I had a sort of temporary job testifying in the electro fax patent case. I don’t think my chief chore was ever spelled out, as far as what the duties were. It was rather to do whatever seemed appropriate to be helpful to the entire operation, to try to pitch in and do it.
Wolff:What kinds of things do you recall spending most of your time on?
Leverenz:Apart from the rather extensive and in depth work on the patent matters, I don’t think there’s anything in particular that comes to mind right now.
Wolff:So a great deal of those five years was spent on patents?
Leverenz:No, I think a minor part. Very definitely a minor part, but it’s the only thing that stands out as a highlight of that period. Now, if I were to think for a while I could probably think of a few things, but just at this moment, I don’t recall anything.
Wolff:What was the case specifically? Who was suing whom? (Off tape)
Leverenz:The first contest was between the RCA patent department and the United States Patent Office over an invention by a chap by the name of Harold Greig, who had invented a photoconductive structure of paper coated with a certain kind of zinc oxide embedded in a resin, and that could be used to perform what is commonly called Xerox kind of functions, today, with the difference that when this photoconductive element on the paper was exposed to light, it became photoconduction where the light struck it, and then the paper could be exposed to carbon particles and they would adhere in correspondence to the light pattern, and that could be fixed then and become a fax copy.
Wolff:Was he an RCA employee?
Leverenz:He was an RCA employee, that’s right.
Wolff:So what was at issue there? Whether RCA should be granted the patent?
Leverenz:That’s right, because there was already outstanding a patent issued to someone or other on a variety of things coated with zinc oxide in resin on glass, metal and paper, and this was argued in federal court.
Wolff:This was interference?
Leverenz:No, it’s not an interference. The other patent was previously issued and the Patent Office simply contended that since this composition had already been patented, Greig’s could not be issued. There was no interference. I was brought in as a technical witness because I’d had some publications on zinc oxide as a luminescent material, for example. The fellow who was running the case, a man from Richardson Neeve in New York, an elderly lawyer, excellent trial lawyer, warned me, “Never use a chart or a blackboard or anything like that in front of a judge. It makes him feel as though he’s being put back in elementary school. It’ll be harmful to the case.” I was the last technical witness to come up, and the judge was still confused about how this whole thing worked, so he himself asked if I could go over to a blackboard and just sketch this thing And I sketched it, and I showed how, after the exposure, the thing came out, and it had electrical charges in certain areas. At this point, he turned to the patent lawyer representing the US Patent Office and he said, “Well, I can’t direct you to do anything, but it seems to me that it’s appropriate to grant this if you include the charges in the claim,” which is the way it was granted.
Wolff:So RCA won?
Leverenz:They did. They got it and eventually we got license income on Harold Greig’s invention. We didn’t make any of the machines, but companies such as Dennison Manufacturing, SCM, and some others made them, sold them under our patent licenses. That was only one of several patents. And I think we made well in excess of 10 million dollars on the patent royalties. But then SCM sued us for lack of validity, and brought in people from the old Haloid operation, a predecessor of Xerox, and then, I think it was Nashva Paper Co. or something like that; up in Nashva, N.H. sued us later on, on another one of the patents that had to do with photo-sensitizing. The SCM v RCA suit was heard in the federal district court of Southern New York, Foley Square, N.Y. and the other one in federal district court in, I think, Concord, New Hampshire, and there eventually the judge ruled against us on the sensitizing. Even though the New York hearing had terminated, I think it influenced the judge in New York to rule against us there also, so eventually we lost both.
Wolff:And you were a witness on these cases too?
Wolff:How did you enjoy being a witness?
Leverenz:I found it fascinating. The whole court room experience was a really fascinating experience to me. It had a heightened bit of almost mystery interest, because my nickname is Lefty, which is rather peculiar because I’m completely right handed. In the testimony that was given, every so often I would be referred to as Lefty, and the judge would say, that’s Lefty up there on the chart or paper — long before I’d appeared, weeks before, and so you could almost imagine these people wondering what kind of character this Lefty was when he gets in the witness chair.
Wolff:How did you get the nickname Lefty?
Leverenz:That came about because at Stanford University I tried out for the baseball team, and eventually became a pitcher, and the varsity coach was an ex-New York Yankee by the name of Harry Walters who was a left hander and an outfielder, and I think he’d done some pitching, and he’d played against my uncle Walter who was with the St. Louis Browns and went around the world with the Giants and the White Sox on exhibition games back in the days of Christy Mathewson. My uncle was a left-handed pitcher. Well, the coach didn’t want to say Humboldt, nobody wants to say Humboldt, so he called me Lefty, and it stuck. Even though I pitched right handed.
Wolff:Coming back to RCA, in 1966 for two years you had the title of Staff Vice President for Research and Business Evaluation. What did that involve?
Leverenz:That was much more specific then. We were asked to look into fields that had a bearing on RCA’s activities, present and possible future, and assess what their possibilities were for RCA making a mark technically and financially. And a lot of it, in the early stages, was just getting acquainted with the economic facts of life in the nation at large, and even to some extent internationally. And there to some extent I think the experience I’d had at Harvard was a help in clueing me in on the modus operandi.
Wolff:That must have been an interesting assignment. Did you find it so?
Leverenz:I found it quite fascinating.
Wolff:Did you identify any fields that turned out to be important for RCA today, say?
Leverenz:Well, the field of videotaping, recording and playing back, I think is the key item there. We also had a good look at the energy field, fully aware that when you buck up against giants such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and General Motors, for example, we would be at a disadvantage. But there is still continuing work going on in the laboratories about possible entry into that field, particularly in such fields as conversion of solar energy through photovoltaic and other processes.
Wolff:So you were assessing that too.
Leverenz:Right. There were three of us in the group. Tom Stanley, Bill Enders and myself. And then, particularly the other two would, at the request of certain divisions of RCA, make appraisals of certain aspects of the field of transistors or semi-conductors, or microwaves, — things of that type.
Wolff:You retired in 1974?
Wolff:Then I assume that from 1968 until ‘74 you were staff vice president and chairman of the educational aid committee?
Leverenz:Right. That was a completely new field for me. It had been done part time by Dr. Wolff the Director of Research before me, after his retirement. He did it part time. The operation increased in magnitude, and when it got up to well over the million-dollar-a-year mark, it was felt that it should be more of a full time operation.
Wolff:It being the granting of scholarships?
Leverenz:It’s a matter of making grants to colleges and universities, for various specific purposes, and of conducting scholarship and fellowship programs through a number of schools, and the National Merit Scholarship operation for those who’ve won as children of RCA employees, and another program for those who are not children of RCA employees. There were certain innovations brought in for funding of scholarships for those going to vocational schools, for example. This kind of thing was worked out in conjunction with Educational Testing Services here in Princeton.
Wolff:Aside from providing scholarships to children of RCA employees, what does RCA get out of the money it spends on this kind of program?
Leverenz:I think it’s a combination of good will, a bit of advertising, and a feeling that we’re being good citizens.
Wolff:Let’s talk about the operation of RCA Labs more broadly in the years you were there. This was the central research lab for the company, for all the divisions, right? It did the research which supported the divisional efforts.
Leverenz:Right. And we had two overseas laboratories later on, one in Zurich, Switzerland and one in Tokyo, Japan. There was one, also, in Montreal, Canada.
Wolff:Were they part of the Princeton lab?
Leverenz:The overseas labs were under the same management.
Wolff:Now, I would assume that like other industrial labs, its purpose was not just to do basic research but to do research that could lead to commercially significant products for the company someday, is that correct?
Leverenz:That is the management aspiration, yes.
Wolff:How did that process work, where something that was discovered in the lab would get to the RCA groups that would develop it commercially? What was the linkage?
Leverenz:That did not go according through any standard route. In some cases, as when I designed the phosphor plant for Lancaster, it was almost a direct transplant from research through some drawings to production. The transfer of the ferrite operations into manufacture occurred by bringing in some people from the tube division who were experienced in ceramics manufacture, and bringing in people from Camden who had some knowledge in that field, giving them on the spot know-how in the Laboratories, and then they’d take it back home with them, and they were the ones who designed, with the aid of outside engineers, the production equipment. Sometimes it’s a case of working both ways, having people from the laboratories go to a production facility, work with the development people, have those development people come back to those in the laboratories who are continuing to do research, and have it a continuing interchange both ways, until either it catches hold in production or we realize that we’re not ready with the process yet. Sometimes things are so unstable chemically or physically that while we have great hopes, it just doesn’t come off. I think of a discovery that was made by one of our people that selenium in contact with, I’ve forgotten whether it was gold or copper, when it was heated would stay in a certain crystalline state, and then the thought was right away, “well gee, selenium is THE photo conductor for xerography, and we could make a television pickup tube target using selenium and “freeze” it in that state by undercoating with whatever it was, gold or copper.” We tried for a couple of years, with people going back and forth in both directions, and eventually this thing always broke out in spots, blotchy, and we finally had to give up. We just could not stabilize it the way it could be permanently stabilized around a single electrode, just in a little ring. Another example, in the field of luminescence, was the advent of electroluminescence, which started with George Destriaux in Boudreaux, France. He found that certain zinc sulfides with enormously high copper concentrations could be put in dielectriss and an alternating field applied across them, and they’d glow. Our people took hold of this eventually, and started inventing new compositions of matter new processes, and then started plotting the efficiency of these things against time. And as the months went by, you saw a curve that was going up, so that if you extrapolated you would come up to something that would surpass fluorescent lights in efficiency in a very short order. Well, the product division got so excited about that that they started doing work. They came to us and they learned how to make the best ones we had at the time. They started essentially going into pilot production on those things just to get working experience. Management got all excited. They were even thinking up and trial-printing advertising brochures for this big entry into the lighting field. We were no longer forbidden by GE to go into that. The efficiency came up to about 1 percent, and just leveled there. It hasn’t changed since. And it was eventually discovered why. That was done by Dr. Fisher, Al Fisher over here at the Laboratories. Using some very sophisticated optical techniques, he found that the actual emitters were little dipoles of copper salt aggregate in the luminescent material. These were large, so there could only be very few of them here and they were emitting from each end as the AC field changed, whereas in a regular luminescent material, you’re going to have millions of these emitters in the space occupied by one of those dipoles.
Wolff:So electroluminescence is an example of a discovery that never achieved commercial success because of fundamental physical limitations.
Wolff:I believe thermoelectricity was another one the Labs was interested in.
Leverenz:Right. I was not directly involved in that. That was conducted primarily by Nils Lindenblad, a most remarkable man. His inventions of antennas for television, for example I think the antenna design on the Empire State Building is still his basic invention. He was an electrical engineer, but shortly before retirement, he, I think voluntarily, took up the challenge of doing something about making, chemically and metallurgical, new thermoelectric compositions, and testing them out. He achieved enough improvement that under government contract we made some in our tube division in Harrison, and they were sent up aloft in some satellite or other. But that too couldn’t prove out against conventional sources of power production.
Wolff:What about discoveries in the laboratories where subsequent commercialization by the divisions would have required a significant amount of capital investment to, say, change production equipment? How was that kind of transfer handled?
Leverenz:I can’t think of anything that’s as capital dependent as television was. I think the corporation just resolved that it was going to spend the money, and it did. But since television, I don’t think of anything other than the semiconductor industry where such a degree of capital-intensive outlay had to be made, and there again, we were previously in the electron tube business, and when the transistor came along and threatened that with extinction, which has happened in our case, we simply had to get into that, and whatever the cost was, we had to pay it.
Wolff:How come the transistor wasn’t invented at RCA?
Leverenz:Well, if Al Rose had had refined enough techniques, he could well have invented the field-effect transistor, because he actually tried it.
Wolff:What year was this?
Leverenz:I believe it was a year or so before the first transistor amplification was attained at Bell Labs. But the ability to make very thin films with the requisite composition was not at hand in our place. The first transistor, as you know, was a very crude affair. It was the point contact type of thing, and it was, I believe, Bill Shockley who should appropriately be given the credit for the junction transistor, which is the mainstay of the field.
Wolff:So you’re saying it’s because there wasn’t the equipment available.
Leverenz:No, it was the techniques, and the quality of materials.
Wolff:But the techniques and quality of materials were available at Bell.
Leverenz:No, not until many years later. The field-effect transistor came along long after the junction transistor. First came the point contact, then the junction, and they themselves, who were working much more in that field than we, it took them many years before they got to the point where they could make the films of requisite composition and thinness, in order to achieve a field-effect transistor.
Wolff:Then I should ask the question differently. Flow come the point contact transistor wasn’t invented at RCA? This is the company that, along with GE and a few others, built the radio industry. You were the tube manufacturers. Why didn’t the replacement for tubes come out of either RCA or GE?
Leverenz:I don’t have a solid answer for that. But from the Bell Telephone Laboratories standpoint, I’ve heard from what I feel are reliable sources that Kelly was so impressed by the need for a replacement for vacuum tubes in the telephone equipment that it was he who deliberately pushed to get some solid state approach. And so he encouraged the Shockleys and the Brattains and the Bardeens and some others to devote themselves to that. But they had a real mission in life in the Bell Telephone system. The system switching was getting so big and so complex, and the unreliability of electron tubes was so severe, when you scale up to what amounts to essentially a giant computer, which is the kind of thing that a big modern switching system is, that he knew they’d have to have something that was more reliable, more compact, more efficient. He didn’t know what form it would take or whether they’d even get it, but they had a practical mission in mind when they set out on this work, contrary to what a lot of people used to say, that this just came out of pure basic research. They had a vision of practicality.
Wolff:They had the need and RCA didn’t.
Leverenz:We didn’t feel that need because we were strong in the tube business, and until that was jeopardized I don’t think RCA was really feeling any incentive to make an invention of that type.
Wolff:Overall, what kind of track record do you feel RCA has had in getting innovations out of the labs and into commercialization?
Leverenz:I think our track record is very good. I think that the record of other companies of comparable stature is very good. The most difficult feature of the whole process, I believe, is thinking of something that would benefit a large number of people. The transistor certainly has. Electronic television certainly has. In the bygone days and even today, radio certainly has. Phonographs have, calculators have. The hard problem is not the technical problem so much as the problem of, what is it that people would really like to have that they don’t have now? For many years at social gatherings, I used to seize on occasions to ask people, “What is there that you don’t have that you’d like to have, regardless of whether it could be achieved or not?” Almost invariably the answer was, “What have you got?” Not wanting anything. We’re such an affluent society. Back there in the days of that research and business evaluation, I became very impressed with the importance of that head-end question. I remember an investment banker who came to visit me when I was in the post of Director of Research, and he asked very candidly, “After the computer, what is there that you foresee that RCA could be involved in, in a big way?” And at that time we were attempting to get into the field. He said, “There are not many things such as television that could become obvious to a man such as Sarnoff and make him willing to plow in a lot of money. I think he had that excellent vision that the first problem is not the technology, the science, or discoveries in that field, it’s what is it that will benefit people? Not just a few people but a lot of people.
Wolff:You’re saying that the question of where to allocate its resources was really the central problem for research management at RCA.
Leverenz:It still is and it always will be.
Wolff:In terms of deciding what to push, let me ask you about the metal oxide semiconductor transistor. I believe that was developed at RCA in the years that you were there.
Leverenz:Yes. I have very little recollection of anything specific about that.
Wolff:I was just curious as to whether you had any thoughts as to why RCA didn’t get the jump on that. It turned out the big manufacturers were Intel and some of these new semiconductor companies, but I believe that it was RCA that pioneered it.
Leverenz:I really don’t know the answer to that. I know, in that whole mad scramble of the semi-conductor field, there were so many different possible approaches, different possible materials, different possible structures, that to attempt to do all of them, even for an outfit the size of AT and T would have meant that they’d have made very little progress with any one. So they had to make restricted choices, pour in enough effort into each of these few choices to make real progress, and then just hope that if somebody else picked one of the others, that it wouldn’t supersede what they were doing. And sometimes they’d win; sometimes they’d lose, depending upon how the world came around the corner.
Wolff:I remember RCA also invested a lot of effort in a ceramic tube for a while, so-called micro miniaturization.
Wolff:I think that turned out to be a false step.
Leverenz:The so-called “nuvistor” I think it was called.
Wolff:Something like that.
Leverenz:It, by the way, had more germanium in it than a germanium transistor. The germanium was used as a seal. The nuvistor was used in the head end of quite a few television receivers, and, as the head of the tube division, Doug Smith, said after the whole thing was about over, “Well, at least the tube led to the RCA catchy advertising name for television sets, the New Vista.”
Wolff:In terms of stimulating innovation at RCA, did you ever think about how to get more innovation from the people working there? You talked earlier about this problem of too much freedom vs. assigning work. Did you end up with a kind of consensus about the best policy to follow to get the maximum invention out of your research people?
Leverenz:I don’t think a consensus will ever be developed on that, because invention is a very idiosyncratic personal type of thing. And inventors, by and large, prefer that their accomplishments not be diluted by claims that others have contributed to the basic inventive concepts. I think of a person who’s now the head of a department in a university in the East who worked in my luminescence group for some time, and we had some differences of opinion about how to go about making really important discoveries and inventions in the field, and one day he came to me and he said very candidly, “I want you to talk in such a way that it will give me some clues as to research I could do, but I don’t want you to say it in such a way that it’s obvious that you’re making suggestions “ He said, “I admit, frankly, I can’t think of things to try.” Well, he was an academic type person. He should have been in and stayed in academia. And that’s where he went. Other people, such as the Nils Lindenblads, they go into a laboratory, and they think, they study, they try this, they try that, and somehow out of their own brain cells come some approaches, through scientific intuition or whatever, and it leads to real progress.
Wolff:What about the legend that Sarnoff used to request inventions for his birthday?
Leverenz:I’m not positive about the exact circumstances, but there was one time, just one time, that he came down to the laboratories and he gave a speech. I think it was towards the end of that speech that he said something to the effect that he would be approaching his such-and-such birthday in three or four years and for that birthday he would like to have from the laboratory three presents. One was a recorder of television programs. Another was an all-electronic cooling system. The third, well, it escapes me. There were three. We did come up with a video tape recorder, but the Ampex Co. came up with the helical scan, which was superior to ours initially. Nils Lindenblad did come up with the all-electronic, except for a fan, cooling, using thermoelectric elements. Oh, the third one, I think, was an amplifier of light. Of course later that was called the laser amplifier of light, but we didn’t devise that. We had other approaches using vacuum and solid-state electronics. But there was considerable consternation at high and low levels in the laboratory about the prospect that the General would come galloping in every so often and say, “How about doing this? How about doing that?” And again, it points out the degree of autonomy that people in the research, and the development, process wish to have, in the course of carrying out their operations, whether they’re justified or not.
Wolff:So overall the lab did have a great deal of autonomy.
Leverenz:Oh yes. Apart from that one incident, I don’t know of any — well, I can name one other. When I was still not director of anything or given any kind of title, engaged in several different activities — the ferrites, the phosphors, the photoconductors and so forth — I was called in to the research director’s office, and I think Dr. Wolff and Dr. Zworykin were both there, and they said that they’d had a request from the top of the corporation, I think Frank Folsom was the president, that they’d like to have research done on batteries Dry cells RCA was buying batteries from Rayovac, and using them in portable radios, and the thought that the top levels in New York apparently had was that they would like to have us develop our own proprietary batteries, manufacture them ourselves, and reap whatever advantages we had from whatever superior characteristics we could come up with. So in addition to the other things, I had to go out and locate a person who was knowledgeable in the battery field, lure him away from — I think it was Olin Matheson — I think he later went with Gould — and help him to form a battery group and get them started on a program. Well, they invented a few things, some of which were of consequence to the military, but then it turned out toward the end that this fellow had known all along from his own experience in the battery field, that you’d have to have a minimum production of 10 million dollars’ worth a year to have it be a viable business, relative to other competitors. And our consumption was only three million dollars’ worth a year. So, that’s the kind of thing that if we’d, had this research and business evaluation before we started it, we might have just been able to tell New York, “Look, unless you expect to compete with Eveready and the other companies in the field for most of your production sales, maybe you’d better re-think this.” Those, four things, the three birthday presents and the one from Frank Folsom are the only ones that I remember at this time.
Wolff:Summing up this business about the labs then, I guess you would feel that the corporation got its money’s worth over the years from RCA Laboratories.
Leverenz:I’m positive they have. Just in the field of television alone, it’s been very rewarding, and still is, to RCA. And even in the field of materials, which was quite foreign to RCA when I came in and for most of my life, the manufacture and sale of luminescent materials has been and still is very profitable to RCA. In ferrites, just as in the case of luminescent materials, if we had to go out and buy them instead of making them for much less than we’d have to buy them, we’d be losing, putting the two cases together, well over two million dollars a year.
Wolff:Why was Booz Allen brought in back in the early sixties, to do that management study of the Labs?
Leverenz:As I mentioned, prior to that time there was a morale problem that surfaced mostly in small ways and it involved some personality differences. One of the key figures involved in it was a Dr. Douglas H. Ewing, who was a vice president of RCA, and I think his title was vice president of research and development for the entire corporation, and as such, Hillier reported to him. There were some episodes of misunderstanding, or not seeing eye to eye, on the part of various people, including some of the laboratory directors, some of the group heads, some of the people ranging all the way up through Ewing. The whole thing got triggered, as I remember, by one of the laboratory directors, Dr. Rolfe W. Peters, marching in one day and telling someone, maybe it was Ewing, that he was going to quit. I didn’t hear that talk but apparently it was rather sharp and pointed. Well, that whole thing led to Engstrom coming down from New York and taking each of various people who were involved in the various parts of unrest, and having private interviews with them, as the director of personnel, Ed Schultz, took notes. I think it was as a result of all those various interviews that he then called the outside management team in, who came in and with pencil and paper, jotted down their own notes on talking with everybody from, I think, the very lowest of the people in the place to the very highest, and then comparing notes and this, that and the other. But it was a period of a certain amount of confusion and uncertainty, without there being any breakdown in the quality of the work being done at RCA Laboratories. I think it was mostly a matter of social unrest.
Wolff:And you say it was primarily over the degree of direction or freedom?
Leverenz:I think it had most to do with personality clashes, without spelling it out.
Wolff:Were there any significant changes made as a result of the Booz Allen study?
Leverenz:In addition to my change, George H. Brown was made vice president of research and engineering, replacing Ewing who later left RCA.
Wolff:That was the main difference that you recall.
Wolff:Other than that, was top management generally supportive of the research effort in the years you were there? For instance, was there ever a time when they wanted to cut it back?
Leverenz:No, I don’t know of any times when I recall their wanting to cut it back. I believe the budget was always increased by a modest amount without any sharp cutbacks.
Wolff:I guess it’s been cut since, hasn’t it?
Leverenz:I’ve heard it has since I left, or maybe even before I left, when I was in the staff position on the educational aid committee. But not during my experience.
Wolff:So generally you felt that top management was behind the Labs.
Leverenz:Yes. I remember one occasion when Sarnoff came down and we gave a demonstration of a novel type of television image reproducer I’ve forgotten what the technique was, but it was a picture that was only about an inch on a side, and he was so intrigued by it — I was standing alongside of him and he was sitting there on a camp chair looking at this — and he looked up at me and he said, “Would another million dollars help you?” I had to say, “No. Not really.”
Wolff:Did anything come of that?
Leverenz:No. We got it to the stage where we could evaluate it, but the shadow mask tube kept improving so much that it was not possible to produce a significant saving in cost or improvement in quality.
Wolff:Tell me a little about Sarnoff. What was he like?
Leverenz:He was a very exceptional person. I remember the first time I saw and heard him was down in Camden, during those Depression days when we had firings. People were feeling gloomy. He came in. We had a dinner, I believe this was for the engineering department I suspect he came down with the objective of giving us a morale boost, and he did. After dinner, he got up, and he said, “I want you all to relax.” Then he pulled out a cigar and he lit it, and he stood there and puffed for a bit. And he started telling about the early days of RCA, going back to the old Radio marine Corporation which is where he came in, founded by Marconi interests, and so forth. He went on to detail just in a rambling narrative fashion, how RCA grew and how our relations developed along with AT and T and General Electric, Westinghouse. He described the purchase of the old Victor Talking Machine Co , and said, after he told about that, “We paid too much for it. We bought it before the 1929 crash.” But then he beamed and he sort of reared back and waved the cigar in the air, and he said, “But we paid for it in stock." (laugh) And right after that, he said, “A lot of people say, said then and still say, that a mistake was made in buying the Victor Talking Machine Co “ He said, “I want it understood right now, if a mistake was made, I am the one who made it, nobody else.” I admired that kind of personal courage in saying that. He included a description of his early tour of duty as a teenage messenger boy for the old Marconi Co. They put him in a nice blue uniform, and he went on shipboard for the first time, and somehow he got the idea that it would be much more fun if he went on the A deck where the people were obviously more glamorous. The chief wireless officer saw him up there, and chewed him out with very uncomplimentary language, which Sarnoff repeated. . But I was impressed by that comment he made, “If a mistake was made, I made it.” But he could be sharp. He could be very testy with people and dress them down, and he had a manner of looking them down. People who were physically bigger and younger than he, he would just sternly look them down. So he had a lot of power.
Wolff:He was sharp in what way?
Leverenz:Sharp in grasping things very rapidly, particularly in grasping, I sensed, which people to trust and when.
Wolff:So you consider him a good technical leader even though he wasn’t a scientist.
Leverenz:He wasn’t a scientist. And going back to those three requests, I heard later that it was Dr. Alfred N. Goldsmith who went for a horseback ride in Central Park in New York with Sarnoff, and as they were going along, they were just musing about things that it would be nice to have RCA come up with, and I don’t know whether it was Goldsmith who was the one who thought of these three technical things or whether it was Sarnoff, but that presumably was the occasion when it happened.
Wolff:But you would look upon Sarnoff as a good leader?
Leverenz:Yes. He would come down in those early years when we weren’t at all sure that we could bring about electronic television, and we would paint pictures, accurate ones, of the difficulties we were having. He would look at us and say: “You know, I get the very definite impression that I have much more confidence in you people than you have in yourselves.” It was that kind of thing that acted as a morale booster.
Wolff:What was Zworykin like, what kind of person was he, how was it to work for him?
Leverenz:As I mentioned before, he was a prolific inventor, so prolific that the ideas just came tumbling out all over themselves, and part of the problem that a lot of us had was trying to be politely selective about which ones we would work on. So his ingenuity and desire and ability to be creative were tremendous. His own selectivity sometimes, to the rest of us, left something to be desired. As a personality, he was agreeable. He invited a fair number of his people in to socialize with him in his home, his summer place over at Taunton Lakes. But he was demanding. He wanted results. That was his key word. He wanted results and he wanted them right now. He would go down into the machine shop, and almost stand over the person at the lathe, breathing down his neck, wanting this thing right now That degree of impatience because he wanted results. And he was a good gambler. I remember one time back in the Camden days, he came back from New York, and apparently he’d gotten a little heat up there about lack of progress and he told me very frankly, “I couldn’t think of anything else to say except that I promised that you,” naming me by name, “were going to make a big discovery in the next month,” or something like that. He said, “Now, you’ve got to do it.”
Wolff:How did you feel about that?
Leverenz:I’ve forgotten what it was but I think we came up with something.
Wolff:In those early days at Camden, wasn’t he in a kind of competition with Philo Farnsworth to develop TV?
Leverenz:Zworykin’s own individual contribution to television was the invention of the iconoscope, a pickup tube with photosensitive surfaces that would emit electrons in accord with the intensity of light falling on them, and then, using an electron beam to scan over those surfaces, have a collector nearby pick up the electrons knocked off, and thereby give a tally of the electron population and hence the light intensity at each spot. This technique used the electron beam to do the scanning, and stored electron charges on the image elements. Farnsworth, as I remember, had a large bundle of electrons of which a small part went through an aperture to do the scanning, and there was no charge storage. Now, I may have the details wrong there, but the key features of the Zworykin scheme was using storage and using the electron beam to do the scanning, and of course that’s what’s being done today, whether it’s a solid state pickup tube or the image orthicon, or what. So that’s where Zworykin made a major early contribution at the pickup tube end of television. Cathode ray tubes had already been in existence, and it was quite a few different people who made contributions to the electron gun design. The electron emitting material was the same as in electron tubes, namely barium strontium oxide. That didn’t change. At the far end of the tube, we’ve already heard about the luminescent materials. Things outside the tube such as the beam deflection, the ferrites came in later on to make those much more efficient. I used to say in lectures that I’d give, that if it hadn’t been for the invention and application of the ferrites to scanning television tubes, a 25 inch picture would require a tube as long as a grand piano, which was true.
Wolff:So you don’t recall any particular feeling of a race with Farnsworth or anything like that?
Leverenz:No. The chief thing that I recall is that Farnsworth had a very strong following on the Pacific Coast — and when I went back to visit my parents and I’d talk with people out there, they were very supportive of Farnsworth because of Sunday supplement articles that they’d seen in newspapers, that here’s this local boy, Utah actually, having invented television, so to speak, and being Westerners they sided with him without really knowing any of the technical facts in the case. And I suspect also because Zworykin’s name is obviously foreign and they just felt they’d be for a local boy anyway.
Wolff:Let’s talk about Langmuir. You married his niece, Edith Ruggles Langmuir. Did you have any relations with him, either professionally or socially, that would give us some insights into him?
Leverenz:As I mentioned, Zworykin and I made some trips to General Electric Research Laboratories in Schenectady. My chief contacts with him there would be meetings at noon time, where he would come in and be one of a group, including people such as William Coolidge, Saul Dushman, Hull, Langmuir and sometimes Willis Whitney, the top research directors of GE at the time. So it was mostly luncheon time conversation I told you about the deer bot fly thing, where Langmuir put a slug of solder on a string and whirled it around and said, “Now, this is 200 miles an hour,” and none of us could see it so how could the person claim in his article in NATURE that he’d seen one fly 300 miles an hour?
Wolff:You said he was skeptical of your work on phosphors?
Leverenz:He wasn’t skeptical of my work, but he was skeptical about phosphors themselves. I don’t know how that came about, but I suspect it came about because the work that Andrews (the man who came out of the Edison Laboratories and continued his work I think part time on luminescence at GE), had done had not been impressive. So the whole feeling in much of General Electric, including Irving Langmuir, was that luminescent materials are rather fascinating novelties but they can be of no practical importance. They’re too weak and inefficient. As a matter of fact, in the early or mid-thirties there were two people who were joint authors of a paper in I think the JOURNAL OF THE ILLUMINATING SOCIETY, something like that, who made that statement in print, when they were reviewing present and potential light sources. They just said that as far as luminescent materials are concerned, they’re out of the question. One of them, man by the name of Johnson, I think within two years was a superintendent in the world’s largest fluorescent lamp factory. Irving, perhaps because of that, felt they couldn’t be useful either for lighting or for television. He made that statement in the presence of Ray Kell, one of our people at General Electric Laboratories at the time. He told people pointedly that it was obvious it can’t be considered for producing a television picture. And he refused to his dying day to have a television set in his house.
Wolff:You told the other interviewer that he had seen a CRT demonstration once and said, “See, I told you so.”
Leverenz:That’s right. That was Ray Kell who reported his exact words, “See, I told you so, it’s just too weak to ever be considered for making a sufficiently bright picture.” In that connection, on that trip to England when Wayne Nottingham and I had to go through the radar operations there, we went to visit Professor N.F. Mott, who was a solid-state theoretician, and we had a chat with him. At the time he was working on analysis of shell fragments. The next day Wayne and I went to an Admiralty research establishment, and we were in the dark standing back in the wings when a group came in, including Professor Mott, along with some British admirals and some other notables. There was a display of what was known as the Skiatron, which is something we worked on during the war here too, and we manufactured, using a potassium chloride screen under light, and wherever the electron beam strikes, it turns dark, so you get a reverse image. Instead of emitting light, it absorbs light. And we overheard Mott say to this group of potentates, “There is the television screen of the future.” Very authoritatively... (off tape)
Wolff:Well, what was the Skiatron’s chief use?
Leverenz:Chiefly for radar. The amount of contrast that you can get was, I think, measured in tenths of a percent, whereas from a luminescent screen, except for scattering, you can get almost infinite contrast, because if you have a completely dark element next to something that’s emitting light, you’ve got at least a million-to-one contrast. It doesn’t turn out that way because of the scattering of the screen.
Wolff:Tell me more about Langmuir. What was he like?
Leverenz:He was a very intense person. I think his thinking was primarily technical, scientific, but he had an engaging way, particularly with children. He would take time out to show them how to operate photoelectric exposure meters, and try to explain in elementary fashion what the principles were. Once he visited us in our first house here in Princeton, spent three days, two nights, when his protégée Schaeffer was involved in the cloud-seeding experiments with silver iodide.
Leverenz:Vincent Schaeffer, that’s right, and Irving came to us because his niece, my wife, offered to put him up, and he took data that had been collected in cloud-seeding experiments to the Princeton University mathematics department for their analysis. He’d already formed some conclusions and I think he wanted either verification or some other interpretation. But the episode I remember involved our middle daughter Julia, who was just a small child in elementary school at the time, I don’t think she was more than five. He was sitting in an arm chair and beckoned her over. He took her arms and said, “Jump up here,” and she sat, on his outstretched feet facing him, with her feet draped over his legs, and then he looked over at me. I was sitting on the other side of the room. And he said to Julie, “Now, we’re going to play a little game. I think your father will like this.” She was sitting on his knee, that’s it. So then he jiggled each knee up and down, the two going not at the same time but separately and said, “Out of phase.” Then he put the two up and down together, “In phase.” That was the extent of the game. The scientist even in the game. (Laughter)
Wolff:How did you come to meet his niece? Was that in connection with being up at GE?
Leverenz:No, that happened because my wife’s brother, David, was a fellow researcher at RCA in Harrison. And the particular episode was that I had gone out to visit my parents in California. I sprained an ankle a little bit trying to ski at Badger Pass in Yosemite. This is in January. I came back here and I got into a badminton tournament, a singles match. I dashed to the side of the court, stopped, and cracked the leg. So I had my leg in a walking cast, and it was an early Sunday afternoon. I had a miserable cold, And David Langmuir called me, said, “My sister is giving a party in New York and she doesn’t have enough men, I’ll be right over,” click. So I met her for the first time.
Wolff:So his nephew worked at RCA.
Wolff:I see. Did you ever in your visits to General Electric discuss industrial research with him in general? Did you have any insight into what he thought about running a research laboratory? His attitudes toward industrial research?
Leverenz:No, I never discussed that with him. I understand that he was offered the director ship of research at General Electric but refused it, saying that he preferred to have the freedom to conduct his own research, which I believe was the right solution for him. He was much more interested in things than he was in trying to influence other people. People such as Schaeffer pretty much followed their own dictates. I understand that when General Electric wanted to build its own big, centralized research center outside of Schenectady, and he heard how much it was going to cost, he made a calculation and went to the management and reported on how many red barns could be built with that money and how much more room it would afford for people. So I think he was still thinking back in the Steinmetz kind of era of not going for the very elaborate kind of structures. I sometimes think there’s a lot of merit in the, what’s the name of the chap who wrote the Peter Principle? Well, he made a statement somewhere that I think has a lot of truth, that when an organization such as a laboratory gets all the things that it thinks it needs it’s already over the hill. It’s the struggle to get there that I think sharpens the acuity of the thinking process.
Wolff:Are you saying that RCA’s most creative research came out of the thirties rather than later?
Leverenz:I’d say very definitely, as far as having impact on RCA and the world, which the biggest things we did were in devising television; radar was a kind of an offspring.
Wolff:Do you believe that’s because of the scarcity of resources, or because it was young?
Leverenz:No, I think it’s chiefly a matter, as we discussed before, of conjuring up worthwhile things to do to benefit society. After that, the assembling of technological means to accomplish them is a much smaller task.
Wolff:Yes, but theoretically you could think something up any time. But it was thought up then.
Leverenz:Well, the thought of television had been around for centuries.
Wolff:I was just wondering if you were saying that it was a plus to RCA to be small and struggling.
Leverenz:I think it was. In that connection, you have the obvious example of the semiconductor industry, where the companies that were not in the tube field, in other words the non-RCAs, the non-AT and T’s, the non-General Electrics, the non-Westinghouse — moved much faster and more effectively. Texas Instruments, for example.
Wolff:Coming back to the GE people for a minute, did you have much to do with Coolidge or Whitney? Have you anything you can tell us about them?
Leverenz:Only a little bit of conversation with Whitney. He was relatively inactive. I have two things that I remember about Coolidge. I was working in the Camden Laboratory, and one day, without any prior knowledge on my part, Dr. Zworykin I think it was, brought in the great William Coolidge. I’d never seen him before in my life I didn’t know he was there. He was a very kindly man, with kind of an intense gaze, and he started in conversation with me about some experiments that he had done and published in the GE REVIEW, bombarding, I think it was calcite crystals, with very high energy electrons, and noting that there were little scintillations and that here and there, the crystal darkened. And he asked me in all seriousness — here I was standing in an acid stained lab coat, just a gangling kid in front of this great man — he said, “I wonder why those spots under the electron beam turned dark?” And he paused. And I said, “Well, chemically considered, an electron is a reducing agent.” He said, “It is?” My heart sank into my boots. Finally after I gulped I said, “Yes, it is.” Then as they got active in the luminescent field, Dr. Gordon Fonda was their key man — he’s a wonderful person, but he had the unfortunate accident of having been operated on for a mastoid operation, and somehow that ear and the side of the face got infected, and the whole face was paralyzed and severely distorted. But his good nature and his keen sense of what to do scientifically overrode that physical disfigurement. Nonetheless, after we’d visited there several times, once as we were walking to lunch, and Fonda wasn’t there, Coolidge asked me — here I am again just a kid — and he’s the director of research of General Electric — what I thought of the quality of what Fonda was doing in the luminescence field. I was very happy I could give him high ratings. But it comes as quite a shock to a youngster to be asked such serious questions by a person who is so venerated in the field.
Wolff:You also said that Shockley was a friend of yours?
Leverenz:Yes. We became friendly. We also had a few visits to Bell Telephone Laboratories, and I think again, it may have been through David Langmuir who knew Shockley and certainly Fred Seitz knew Shockley, somehow I got to know the fellow. We had him over to our apartment, the first place we lived in after we got married, up in South Orange, N.J.
Wolff:This was when?
Leverenz:This was 1940, ‘41, maybe. Somewhere around there. And we had a number of occasions to meet and socialize. So we became rather good friends. I remember going to an American Physical Society meeting at which Bill was talking. This must have been 20 years after I first met him and after we got married. Bill was talking about something or other that had to do with techniques for recall, memory, and towards the end of the talk, he apparently spied me, sitting about eight rows back in the semi darkness, he was giving slides, and he suddenly pointed to me and said, “Lefty, that was a terrific party,” referring to the reception that we’d had after the wedding. He’s a very impetuous type, and a very savvy scientist.
Wolff:When you met him in 1940, he was already starting to poke into the solid state area, wasn’t he?
Leverenz:I think at that time he was just gradually beginning to get into it. He was a theoretician. He was not an experimenter. And his early publications have been in quite a few fields, one of which was helpful to me, is his descriptions of quantum theory as applied to solid state. He had a knack of taking very sophisticated and complex matters, and making them more concise, and more apparent to people. I remember when we used to go up to Bell Laboratories, before the invention of the transistor, and we talked about matters in the solid state, theory, surface properties and so forth. John Bardeen, who was co-inventor of the transistor, would get up and give very complicated mathematical expositions at the end of which Bill Shockley would hop up and say, “Now, John, what this signifies” — and then in a very capsulized form present it in much greater clarity. John was rigorous and thorough, but at that time he was not noted for giving the capsule explanation.
Wolff:I also wanted to ask you about patenting and patent policies. I presume the practice at RCA, at least then, was the common one that when you got a patent, they gave you a dollar for it, right?
Leverenz:I think later on that was abandoned because it was no longer necessary.
Wolff:But basically you didn’t get any share in the profits.
Leverenz:That’s right. I would have been much happier, in retrospect, if I could have gotten a share of the net profits and savings from just two things, the luminescent materials and the ferrites. A very small fraction, you know, like a tenth or so of a percent. (Laughs) That’s not feasible. I think some foreign countries, Sweden and I believe West Germany, have some federally mandated features of that type, but this country has not introduced it.
Wolff:That’s become a topic of controversy again. Do you think some sort of profit sharing would be a good idea for scientists in industry, for patentees?
Leverenz:I believe it could be a major incentive to help creative and inventive people apply their thinking and experimenting to things which would become beneficial to society, rather than things which, while novel, are not of consequence to people, other than those who have a curiosity about whatever the technical features are.
Wolff:So you feel that if a company like Bell Labs or RCA, say, gave its scientists a share in the income from a patent, that they might be more selective in choosing projects?
Leverenz:I think so. A somewhat analogous custom is already in effect, and that’s the suggestion system, where employees who submit suggestions on cost reduction, new process introductions, are rewarded for money-saving suggestions. It isn’t much of a step going from that to having the company reward employees financially for their inventive thoughts and accomplishments.
Wolff:The arguments that are always given against this are that it would destroy the cooperative spirit that exists in a research lab. Related to this, how would you determine who gets the credit?
Leverenz:It could, in some cases. But even in the absence of that, there is the competitive spirit. Very strongly competitive I think we touched on that before. People, by and large, want to do what they want to do, and to provide incentives for them to do even better is something I think management can handle. If, for example, someone has been the key inventor of something, he obviously should get the lion’s share of financial reward for it, but if there have been people who have made substantial contributions to rounding out the invention, bringing about the development and putting it in practical form, they should also get rewards, if they have done something over and beyond what was expected of them. RCA Laboratories and other organizations too, have an annual financial award system. They give certain selected scientists and engineer a citation and a financial reward for contributions that are deemed to be over and beyond what was expected of them. And by that is meant, considering the salary the person is already getting, the kind of help he’s getting, if he does something that’s unusual over and beyond what you might expect, and then he deserves to be recognized, both psychologically and financially.
Wolff:There have been some bills proposed in Congress to give employee inventors a share of the patent profits. You would be a supporter of that, I guess.
Leverenz:I would, assuming the enacted legislation was sensibly drawn.
Wolff:I notice from your bio that as a boy you had done a lot of experimenting with radio. You built a crystal set, for instance, and constructed a neutrodyne set with a classmate in high school.
Leverenz:That was not very high powered. I gave full credit in there to the other person who since has become a medical doctor for being the real brains behind the assembly and the performance of that neutrodyne radio.
Wolff:It does indicate that as a boy you were inventive and worked with your hands, a skill which I guess was critical to your success later as an experimenter.
Leverenz:Well, we had to work with our hands, all of us; because that’s the way we made our living. (Laughs)
Wolff:And you also think of your father as a little more than an engineer, as an inventive person, I believe.
Leverenz:He was. The only actual patent that he had issued was for a tractor wheel design, that was close to what the Fordson and some other tractors used, but I don’t think there was enough novelty and difference to warrant attempting to get any royalties from Fordson.
Wolff:Is there anything that you think I should have asked that I didn’t? Anything that you would want to add?
Leverenz:I think you have over-much material already.
Wolff:We’re adding an anecdote here about George Brown, who was, what was his position?
Leverenz:He was a member of the board of directors of RCA, until about a year before he retired, and he was a key figure in the antenna developments in RCA in the days of television and later on in some other fields. He had a tremendous fund of stories. One, he told me about going back to his home in Wisconsin, visiting his father, and his father said that a neighbor who was retired, apparently rather well to do, had asked the father, “Next time George comes back I’d like to talk with him.” This is in the early days of color television just being commercialized. The old man received George, and after a bit he said, “All I want to know is do you think that it’s appropriate for me to buy a color television set at the present time?” And George, being enthusiastic about color, having been a key figure in bringing it about, gave him chapter and verse on why it was a good thing to get. The old man listened. At the end he said, “Well, that’s very interesting. I’m 84 years old. I’ve had three heart attacks. My net worth is a little over two million dollars, and people keep telling me, wait a while, the price will come down.” (Laughter) Another time, George went back and he and his father were walking down the street of the small Wisconsin town, and approaching them came an engineer on a railroad that went through there. George knew this and the father knew him, and as they got close, the father said to the engineer, who, he told George, had just bought the first automobile that anybody had had in that town — this was a long long time ago when George was quite young. It was a Studebaker, and the father said, as they, got within hailing distance, “How’s that automobile of yours?” The engineer said, “It’s a total wreck.” “What happened?” He said, “I took it out for a ride, and I came to a curve; I just sat there — “You don’t steer a locomotive. He just sat there, and it ran into a tree. (Laughter)
Wolff:You reported to Brown at one time, right?
Leverenz:During the early part and most of my chairmanship of the educational aid committee.
OK. I thank you very much, again.
 U.S. patents #2,118,091, and 2,274,272.
 J. Optical Soc. Am, Vol.27, No.1, 25-35, January 1937
 See “Publications of H.W. Leverenz
 "Luminescent Materials,” Vol. 10, No. 7, 479-493, July, 1939
 Ref. oral history into – M.W. & D.R.
 Mervin J. Kelly
 John Wiley & Sons, 1950