History Home | Book Catalog | International Catalog of Sources | Visual Archives | Contact Us

Oral History Transcript — Robert J. Pressley

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.

Access form   |   Project support   |   How to cite   |   Print this page


See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection


Interview with Robert J. Pressley
By Joan Bromberg
May 30, 1985

 
open tab View abstract

Robert J. Pressley; May 30, 1985

ABSTRACT: Pressley was Director of Research and Development and then Vice-President for Research, and Corporate Vice-President, of Holobeam, a firm which manufactured commercial lasers and commenced business in 1968. Pressley touches on his prior work at RCA. He discusses the founding of Holobeam, the production of Nd:YAG lasers, the work on custom-built units, and Holobeam's standardized resistance trimmers. Pressley also provides a little information on the research atmosphere at Holobeam, and on the company's financial fortunes.

Transcript

Holobeam was started at a time when there was a lot of venture capital around. Military electronics and lasers were still magic words. Holobeam started out with three sections, military electronics, lasers, and lighting arc lamps. It was founded by Melvin Cook. Gordon Gould also was a founder; he got stock in return for lending his name. William Bennett got in and then got out again when he met Mel.

Mel had worked for a year in the venture capital community in New York. He was not a scientist, but was looking for any product that would make-money. He got $50,000 in family money, pulled together some names, and found an off-the-wall company to make the public offering. In this way, he raised $2,000,000 start-up capital.

He hired Jim Boyden and Bud Ericson, both electronics people. Of the 2 million, he used part to raise another 8-9 million. He spent money like mad. There were no sales yet at this time. The money went into R&D investment. About a year after, in 1971, I came in as Director of Research and Development.

I had been at the RCA David Sarnoff Center, which I had joined in 1954. I had gotten a Sarnoff fellowship in 1961 to get my PhD, and had done it at Princeton University with Tom Carver. I was therefore working in the general area staked out at Princeton by Robert Dicke. At RCA, I had worked on quantum electronics, and lasers, with people like Zoltan Kiss, and James Wittke. I did population perturbations, microwave spectroscopy. I built some Dicke ammonia masers and we did spectroscopy of various materials, mostly solid-state. For example, we did lots of work on divalent rare earths. RCA knew solid-state best. This was because they had done studies of electron beam-excited fluorescent materials, in order to get brighter phosphors for TV screens.

RCA did try for a time to enter the commercial laser field with helium-cadmium and high power argon ion lasers. This work was technically supported by the Sarnoff Center, but RCA lost these markets to Coherent and Spectra-Physics. Lasers were much less complicated than many of their other products like vidicons and high frequency tubes. But they were not high volume products and consequently they never got into the right part of RCA. $50 thousand was a big sale in lasers. Whereas RCA was churning out $50,000 in tubes within a few hours. Thus the laser work would go to divisions which didn't want it, but rather were required to do it. The division manager would be someone who didn't know the system and didn't have clout with management.

By the time I arrived at Holobeam, its stock had drifted down from about $25 to about $5 a share. I received 15,000 shares as part of my compensation. Holobeam went into the production of CW YAG lasers, together with associated equipment like power supplies. Holobeam brought out the first high-average power YAG lasers. It made the first use of krypton lamps, which gave laser outputs of hundreds of watts, instead of the previous few watts. We were also the first to modularize the laser head, stacking them in series to produce kilowatts. We had of the order of 8 heads between the mirrors. This was at a time when Sylvania was using single rods for high power, and having them break. Our stacking was inspired by Boyden and Ericson, both of whom had come from Korad.

In my second year, I became Vice-President for R&D, and ultimately, Vice-President of the Corporation. Holobeam is now a private holding company. It was bought out by Mel in about 1983 or 1984. He sold the laser product line to Control Laser, the military part to ITT, and used the dollars earned to buy stock. When he had bought 46%, he bought out the rest for about $2/share.

Holobeam would build up the inventory by producing more than they could sell immediately. Consequently, production line equipment could be borrowed for R&D and we actually had more equipment for high power work than at RCA because of the material made available in this way.

At Holobeam we had no long-term corporate direction and thus we had freedom to do whatever we wanted. Customers would call up and we'd make whatever they wanted. We sold lasers for research and development and also for metal working. This laser had an output of a few 100 watts and had hole drilling and seam welding among its applications.

We made a Q-switched YAG laser for semiconductor trimming in a system made by ESI, one of the major semiconductor processing equipment manufacturers. We developed the system with them, as a joint project. They had the movement capabilities and we had the laser capabilities. The cooperation extended from joint Wittke. I did population perturbations, microwave spectroscopy. I built some Dicke ammonia masers and we did spectroscopy of various materials, mostly solid-state. For example, we did lots of work on divalent rare earths. RCA knew solid-state best. This was because they had done studies of electron beam-excited fluorescent materials, in order to get brighter phosphors for TV screens.

RCA did try for a time to enter the commercial laser field with helium-cadmium and high power argon ion lasers. This work was technically supported by the Sarnoff Center, but RCA lost these markets to Coherent and Spectra-Physics. Lasers were much less complicated than many of their other products like vidicons and high frequency tubes. But they were not high volume products and consequently they never got into the right part of RCA. $50 thousand was a big sale in lasers. Whereas RCA was churning out $50,000 in tubes within a few hours. Thus the laser work would go to divisions which didn't want it, but rather were required to do it. The division manager would be someone who didn't know the system and didn't have clout with management.

By the time I arrived at Holobeam, its stock had drifted down from about $25 to about $5 a share. I received 15,000 shares as part of my compensation. Holobeam went into the production of CW YAG lasers, together with associated equipment like power supplies. Holobeam brought out the first high-average power YAG lasers. It made the first use of krypton lamps, which gave laser outputs of hundred& of watts, instead of the previous few watts. We were also the first to modularize the laser head, research in the beginning to cooperative documentation later on. Before the laser, resistance trimming was not done at all. Resistance trimmers were one of the first mass markets for lasers. Before ESI's order came, we did have a laser priced at about $20 - 25 thousand, but they wanted something simpler and cheaper.

It took two years to develop the actual product, to get the cost down and reliability up. We worked with ILC, a lamp manufacturer, to get the reliability of the lamp up. We closed down our own lamp operation. Pump lamps for CW lasers are difficult and our operation had high costs and poor yields. We gave ILC an order for 1,000 lamps, one of the largest laser accessory orders at the time. We also gave a laser crystal firm, Airtron, a large order for neodymium-YAG.

Here are concrete examples of how we worked together with ILC. We looked at lamp performance vs. gas pressure. We'd test the ILC lamps in standard laser systems to get the performance figures for life-times. We would feed information on performance back roughly monthly to ILC, and decide together how to change gas pressure, the position of the electrodes, the configuration, thickness of the quartz tube, the cooling system, the way it was mounted and so on. Fundamental re-evaluation of the cathode properties was required. Learning which materials disintegrate in an environment that included ultra-violet radiation. The cooling water had to be deionized to ensure high resistance. We had to devise filters to keep it clean.

The work was done by a group of 3-5 from the production division. This lamp work was production engineering but of a high level because no one had built such lamps before. Simultaneously with this work we had a contract for high efficiency lamps for space-borne systems, and were studying potassium and krypton lamps. The lamp engineering was typical for those days, because we were working for performance specifications that had never hitherto been achieved. Nowadays, laser production engineering is more standardized.

Another group, outside the semiconductor industry, interested in lasers was the nuclear industry. They wanted high quality welds, for example for the casings around uranium, that could be made by remote control, through thick windows or off mirrors, and that were of high quality.

Much of our technical interactions in those days were with our customers. They would write down specifications, you would answer with a bid, and neither of you knew whether the job could get done. I remember our interaction with Livermore Laboratory for a double pulse holographic system. There were many open technical questions. We wrote a lot of "best effort" contracts. In contrast, we did not have much interaction with university people, who knew less about lasers than we in industry did.

Holobeam went from about 25 to about 85 people in three years. Ideally we sought to hire from other laser companies but those people were hard to come by. Generally we hired people from related specialties like microwaves, optics, crystallography, and they would learn on the job. There was no time for formal training, although we did have brown bag and Friday afternoon seminars. Because we were located in Paramus, New Jersey (on Winters Avenue in deepest Paramus) we could take advantage of the fact that New Jersey is densely populated by people with technical training.

We had a sales staff of 5 full-time people, with a range of expertise that made it possible for them to cover both OEM and research sales. There was Bob Pitlack, Martin Phillips, John Ragazzo, John Fitzgerald, John Palmer, and Jim Mason. Since much of what we sold was customized, the research people were also involved in selling. Resistance trimmer lasers were our only standard item. We got to the point of producing one per week, and could exercise cost control and material control. Our other products were made by scientists for scientists. Even with the resistance trimmers, these were not made for ordinary operatives. This new magic device would be used in the factory by engineers, scientists, technicians, working alongside operatives. The laser engineer on a production line was a high-ranking person. This was one reason, in addition to lack of knowledge, why safety was not as much of an issue then as today. In those days, in fact, we were much more worried about electrical safety than laser beam safety.