Oral History Transcript — Dr. Milton White
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Milton White; January 28, 1975
ABSTRACT: Family background, early education and interests; undergraduate at Sacramento Junior College and University of California, Berkeley; first independent physics work under Harvey White; graduate work at Berkeley, career choices, joining Ernest Lawrence on cyclotron work; work on ion sources, taking over running of small cyclotron and verifying creation of high energy proton; reactions to discovery of the neutron, developing Geiger counters with Donald Cooksey, announcement of Cockcroft-Walton discovery of artificial disintegration, work on disintegration of lithium; work schedule; work on boron, 1935; comparison of Van de Graaff and cyclotron machines; ideas about p-p scattering, new cloud chamber; financial difficulties; White’s refinement of process for extracting protons; completion of Ph.D. Physical Review paper, 1935; marriage. Postgraduate work at Princeton University, fellowship arranged by Lawrence; setting up Princeton cyclotron, research program, funding of the cyclotron; Princeton atmosphere and colleagues, appointment as assistant professor, 1938; relationship of theory and experiment in nuclear physics, Eugene Wigner’s influence. Research on the tachyon, magnetic monopole, 1973; reactions to Niels Bohr’s new model; its dissolution. WWII work at MIT Radiation Laboratory, 1940-1945; administrative tasks, relationship with the military, with engineers; advisor to Eagle Radur at Alamagordo; reactions to the dropping of atomic bomb. Return to a depleted Princeton Physics Department, rebuilding the cyclotron and the department; government funding of science, consulting projects. Work on the Brookhaven National Laboratory Cosmotron, beginning 1946; White’s variation on the Livingston, Richard Courant and Snyder strong focusing synchrotron. Return to Princeton as professor, proposals and designs for the Princeton-Penn Accelerator (PPA), construction and problems, scientific management of the machine under Harvey White, his philosophy of administration, relationship with the Princeton Physics Department. Budget cuts; government administration of science funding; closing down of PPA.
Weiner:This is the 28th of January, 1975, and I’m Charles Weiner. We’re talking with Professor Milton White, and Spencer Weart is participating in the interview, in Spencer’s office at the AIP. And if we hear too much noise from outside, we’ll move. The things that we had agreed to talk about now, we’ve taken you up to the war period, and we’d like to go, within the limits of the time that we have, through the war work, into the postwar period, and hopefully completing at least a very good overview of the Princeton-Penn Accelerator project. We’ll see if we can do it.
White:I don’t know how much you want on the five years of war work at MIT. Do you want something detailed? I can go on for all day. It’s a big enterprise. So, unless you want to start off with some leading questions, I’ll just start chronologically.
Weiner:One question — I want to know how you first got involved in war work of any kind at all. How you first were drawn into it, then the stages from that, leading up to the actual move to the MIT Radiation Lab.
Yes. I thought you’d ask that question, so I’ve been thinking about it. Well, I was in California, Berkeley, in the summer of ‘39, with my wife and first and at that time only child, and I recall staying up part of the night when Hitler made his famous speech: he was going to march on Poland. So I said, well, here we go, this is going to be something that’s going to be an enormous world event, but I had no idea how enormous. I just thought maybe it would be France, England, involved in war — but I couldn’t see how we would stay out totally. So I got back to Princeton, summer of ‘39, and we were doing the cyclotron, doing nuclear physics experiments there. As the year wore on, the daily map in the NEW YORK TIMES showed that black swastika going over Europe, every day a new spearhead would branch out 50, 100 miles, then circle back on itself, link up — it got blacker and blacker. It became quite apparent that the war which they called a “phony war” was not quite as phony as people were thinking. And so a number of older people, not myself, but people like Walker Bleakney and Pegram here at Columbia, and Harry Smyth and others, must have been together, talking about what to do about it.
I wasn’t too aware of these things. I was just too immersed in research. But by the summer of 1940 it was quite clear, though the war was still being called a phony war, the English really weren’t in it in a big way, as I recall; this country certainly was not. The destroyer deal had been pulled off by Roosevelt, the 50 destroyers which he illegally gave to the British. So I was fully aware of the war and wondering what to do about it, but not all that clear what to do. I felt that war was not for scientists, it was more for engineers and technologists, and I didn’t quite see what physicists could do about it. I think that was a fairly common feeling among many young physicists, at least. The older ones clearly had a much sharper view of the whole situation and could see where physicists would at least become involved in the technology, if not doing some basic things — but not too basic in wartime. Well, the summer of ‘40, early summer, Ernest Lawrence came around to Princeton, and he was beating the bushes for physicists to join a new laboratory which he was involved in setting up at MIT, the Radiation Laboratory. It was hush hush, he couldn’t tell us what it was all about, he just said, “Trust me, it’s very important, you should stop what you’re doing, right away go up there.” So, sometime in the early fall of ‘40, I don’t recall quite how early, I went up to Cambridge, and I was told to let no one know where I was going, not even my wife, or anybody else.
To my surprise when I got up there, I found a number of my friends had also come in from various directions without their wives’ consent. Alfred Loomis was very much involved in this in the early days, and I recall being very impressed by him. I had not met him before. He was driving a great big, half mile long Lincoln, and we were sitting in the back seat, and he was saying, how you must be very careful and not tell a soul about what we’re talking about here — and he impressed us with stories about how one shouldn’t get drunk in bars and release information that could be picked up by the spies. So what we soon learned was that the British had brought over to this country a magnetron, and that this had made it possible to put out many kilowatts of peaked pulse power, at a 10 centimeter wavelength, this had made it possible for airborne radar — we didn’t call it radar, of course, in those days — to take on a wholly new dimension. I wasn’t even aware of radio detection, to speak of, before I went up there. Very few of us had even thought about it. I was aware of the fact that on my FM radio, when airplanes went by, it goes “whuff, whuff, whuff”, and I knew that these were reflections, but I didn’t put that together with the idea of detection, as others apparently had. Merle Tuve and Gregory Breit had been pulsing the ionosphere. The Naval Research Laboratory was developing long-wave radar, with great big mattress antennas, and the Signal Corps was doing things. So, in any case, we were told that they were going to form under government auspices a radar laboratory, to develop microwave radar.
The point being that industry had already pretty well soaked up making the long-wave radar and people felt they should not be diverted to this new medium, because it would be some years in development and they needed to have the long-wave equipment immediately on ships. We also were told at that time that Lee DuBridge, who wasn’t present, was going to be the director of the new laboratory. And we were told we might come for three months initially. I guess I was a sucker and thought that we could probably do some good in three months’ time. It never occurred to me whether Lawrence and Loomis just sort of got us in inch by inch, or whether they themselves were unclear about the phony war. In any case, we all went up for three months. So I did go up in the fall of ‘40, about November.
Weiner:You mention going up. Were there two trips, the first one to get recruited, and the other to move up?
White:That’s right. And I decided then on the spot that I would in fact go back, if my wife would not be too upset about it. And she wasn’t. So we packed up and left for Cambridge, I think about November, 1940, for our three months stay.
Weiner:How did you handle the leave from Princeton? Did you have to tell them what you were going to do?
White:All they knew, from me anyhow, was that it was secret war work, and they weren’t to question what it was all about.
Weiner:You did this through the department.
White:Yes, Harry Smyth was still chairman of the department, and Lou Turner also left the department of physics and went up.
Weiner:When you went up the first time, was it at all in connection with the Conference on Applied Nuclear Physics? That was held in October.
White:There was a fake conference we were supposed to be going to. We were all told that we were going to go to some kind of a conference, but we never went to it.
Weiner:It wasn’t fake, there were hundreds of papers.
White:OK, but it was fake from our point of view. You’re right, I’d forgotten that, we were supposed to preserve secrecy by claiming to be going to this conference, but in point of fact we all snuck out.
Weiner:I see, that’s interesting — there were stories about it that the conference was a cover — I have it in the Archives right here, it was a real conference, organized for a full year in advance and there were papers. So I was saying, “You guys have it all wrong, it couldn’t be a cover.” So what you’re saying is that both are true: it was a cover, because as far as you’re concerned you were told to use that existing conference as a cover. You had not intended to attend that conference.
White:What was the conference about?
Weiner:On applied nuclear physics, there were things about applications to metallurgy, applications to the biomedical field, to geology and so forth.
White:I probably went to one or two lectures, that’s about all. And since Lawrence was recruiting nuclear physicists, it wasn’t too unusual to have us showing up at that conference. They may have been surprised how many came, I don’t know. But there weren’t very many of us in the first go-round, not more than (I’m guessing now) a dozen people, if that many, in the very first meeting with Alfred Loomis.
Weiner:Where was the meeting?
Well, the Algonquin Club, for one thing, and at MIT, in some room which I can’t recall now. Melville Eastham I believe was there very early. He was president of General Radio. If he wasn’t there then, he certainly came in very very soon. But I can’t be certain that he was present at the very first meeting. There were Ernest Lawrence and also Karl Compton was certainly present from the very first meeting, and Arthur Loomis. I think the rest of the people were like Ed McMillan, Luis Alvarez, Ken Bainbridge, Curry Street, Lou Turner — people in that general age group. I don’t think of anyone much older or younger. I’d be 30 years old at that point, and that’s about the age of all of us, in our thirties. So we were sworn to deepest secrecy, and we all decided, I think all of us — except there may have been a couple from Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory who he did not transfer. I think Lawrence had his eye on going after making U-235 by calutrons. Though at that time, that certainly was not in the discussion stage.
Most people felt that that was a very very long thing, and it had first to be proved it would go in a bomb, let alone a nuclear reactor, and making it in quantity was going to be the big problem, I recall, when I left Princeton, Bob Wilson, who had just come on board at Princeton, thought I was kind of foolish to go off making war. He said the important thing was to keep basic science alive during the war. He was doing P-P scattering with Ed Creutz. And I said, “Well, I think that basic science is great stuff and all that, but not when you’re about to get bombed out of existence.” I was more concerned about being bombed, I guess, than I should have been, knowing what I know now. It’s harder than I thought to get bombers across the Atlantic, to drop enough bombs to make a difference. So he and Ed Creutz didn’t want to get involved in war work right away. Later on, they did set up the isotron project at Princeton, and then I did come back for that as a consultant.
Weiner:Oh, that explains your bomb project work, you worked in the Wilson group before they moved to Los Alamos?
White:That’s right. Of course the group broke up because the project was broken up and the individuals went away. Lincoln Smith and Wilson, Creutz and Harry Smyth and I don’t know who all else.
Weiner:While we’re talking about the fission work, were you aware that there was, prior to the formation of the Wilson group, fission research going on right from the start, wartime fission research?
White:I was not aware of that. It was extremely hush hush, and the secrecy was extraordinarily good, I must say. Wilson was really naive about these things, too. See, we hadn’t had any war in this country for a long time, and we didn’t think like a spy. But I was really quite unaware of the magnitude of this country’s efforts until well along in the war. I had no idea of the enormous project that it had finally become. And when I left to go to MIT, as I recall, I had no idea that anything was being done to speak of. There was talk. Little projects being started up which I felt were so remote from the fighting front that I hardly regarded them as wartime projects. I thought they were kind of boondoggles. I was also not particularly concerned that the Germans were going to get in there in a hurry and do it, because I took the view, and I guess I feel I was lucky that my view was right, that it would be an enormous project to pull it off, just enormous. I couldn’t see the Germans doing it while making a war. And so I felt that they were going to count on this. I must say I was wrong in one sense — I had no idea the Germans were going to develop missiles, V bombs and rockets, which was the enormous effort of Peenemunde. So they could do long range things in the war, which I would have thought they couldn’t have done. But the uranium business, I felt they were not going to do anything with it, and lucky for us they didn’t. I guess they could have, if they had put their mind to it.
Weiner:You weren’t aware of the full scope of it when you were approached to join the project to be a consultant?
White:Yes — my memory for dates — when they started up the isotron project — is not too good. It must have been about a year after I left.
Weiner:I think about ‘42, I’m not sure.
White:It could have been — ‘42 sounds a little late, I’ll have to check out that one. But there again I felt, seeing the equipment, it looked so fragile (and they had to make them by the tens of thousands, to make enough material for a bomb) that I frequently said “Look, you’re wasting your time, come up to MIT and do something real, join in the radar business.”
Weiner:This is when you were consultant, you went back to see what they were doing.
White:Well, I went back every week or two, for a day or two, to consult on various ratio frequency aspects of their problem.
Weiner:Your vita shows you as being consultant to the atomic bomb project from 1943.
White:That was at Los Alamos.
Weiner:So you’re saying prior to that time you were involved with Wilson’s project, the isotron project.
Weiner:Let’s get back now to what you were trying to say before I took you on this side track — moving with your family to MIT in November ‘40. You had one child, how old was your child?
Let’s see. She was born in 1938, so about two years old. In fact, there was a second child; by 1940 I had two children. When I went up the first time I had two daughters, because they were both born in Princeton, and the second one had just been born, June 4, 1940. We went up in November, so she was then a few months old only. Two girls. So we rented a second floor apartment in Cambridge, with no furniture, and went out and bought memorial basement furniture, because I thought we were only going to be up there three months, no point in buying anything good. We had no furniture of our own anyhow, just a young impecunious couple, so we filled it full of refurbished, rebuilt dressers and chairs and things. We didn’t have any rugs on the floor, so the first thing that happened was that the children ran across the floor with their little Tinker Toys, made noises, and down below an old lady was very upset because she was an old maid and complained to the landlord. So we were kicked out before very long. We had to find a new house, because I wasn’t about to buy a rug for three months.
I recall, the landlord came around the first day of every month at 8 AM and wanted his rent in cash. No checks. Had to have it in cash. This was the Irish part of Cambridge, particularly the Irish part. Nearby, there was an Irishman who got drunk, and he’d go out on his back porch, and he’d declaim to the four winds, “Hitler is a good man.” Because he was one of the Irish who didn’t want the English to join the war. So we moved into a house, which we were much happier in, on Lake (?) Street, I believe it was, but that didn’t last too long either. That house was much bigger, we were on the ground floor; the lady above complained when my daughter got abscessed ears and cried all night one night. We took her to the hospital. It happened two different times in the same month, and she complained, and so her landlord said to us, “Look, I’ve had her for 30 years there, she’s the wife of a professor now deceased, I can’t force her out, I wouldn’t want to, she’s been here for many many years, you’ve got to move.” We moved a third time, this time Upland (?) Road, where the house was divided vertically rather than horizontally, there was a brick fire wall between the two parts of the house, and furthermore the people living next door to us were hard of hearing, and very nice besides.
So we got along fine, stayed there the rest of the war. Next door was Ken Bainbridge, a neighbor of ours in fact. Then down the road was I.I. Rabi, around the corner, and not far from Rabi’s house was Curry Street, so we soon had a car pool going, with myself and Bainbridge, Rabi and Street. We used to go in every day and share driving, which was important when gas rationing hit us (as it may yet hit us in this country this time). So, the laboratory was set up in one of the engineering department rooms, three rooms in all they had at first, and as staff was added it became more and more crowded. It was terrifically crowded — literally someone on a chair every four or five feet. The din in there was fantastic. I’m somewhat of a phonophobe, and I said, “Look, for heaven’s sake, get this place soundproofed, I’m going crazy.” Lee DuBridge had his office in a little glassed-in cube back in the corner of these three rooms and didn’t hear all this sound. When he came out, he’d go like this, his hands on his ears.
Weiner:This was the building on Basser Street?
White:This was one of the main original buildings — not in those end groups — this was the original building, I don’t remember what number it was, I’ve forgotten.
Weiner:On Basser (?) Street, or the barracks —
White:No, none had built. All that was available in those days was just original permanent construction, with enormous glass windows from floor to ceiling. I could find it out if I was there.
Weiner:No, I can get that. I’m going to be talking with Lee DuBridge I hope in couple of weeks.
White:Oh, yes. He’s remarried, you know.
Weiner:No, I didn’t know.
White:Yes. His wife died, and then he sent us a card — married a woman he’d known I think back when he was in high school.
Weiner:Is he living in Laguna Hills?
Weiner:I’m glad you told me that — well, I’ll talk to you about that later. So that was your office. What was your assignment from the start, your first assignment?
White:The laboratory was formed around the major components of a radar. First there was a magnetron, which was kept in a locked box for the first four or five months. I wasn’t allowed to see it, nor was anybody else, except the man in charge of magnetrons, who was Rabi. My job was to build the pulser, to pulse the magnetron at about 10 kilovolts and 10 or 20 amperes. I was told not to ask what you were going to pulse, it merely is a load which wants 10 amperes and 10 kilovolts, one microsecond long, at a pulse rate of about a thousand per second, and that’s it. I said, “You can’t design a pulser if you don’t know the load, because that may define the current and the voltage; but if the magnetron happens to have a negative resistance, then you’re going to have plenty of properties when you pulse this thing.” So it wasn’t till I think at least three or four months passed before I was allowed to know what I was pulsing, see it, hold it in my hand. The most curious thing. But there was a pulser built by Westinghouse, somebody’d ordered that earlier, I don’t know just who it was. That thing came in, a box big as that table almost. Here was an airborne radar, we asked, to put in an airplane? It weighed clearly 400, 500 pounds by itself. So my first job was in the pulser group, and gradually as people were added to the group, we began to form groups and a group structure. You see the whole thing taking shape as we went on. We all tumbled into the box together, and there was a receiver group, a magnetron group, a pulser group, the antenna group. Nobody was in charge of’ anything. But as time went on, Lee DuBridge had to ask somebody a question, you know, “What are you doing?” and he couldn’t ask them all, so group leaders began to emerge gradually. I have no idea what went through his mind when he picked various group leaders. In any case, I was asked to be the pulser group head.
Weart:How many people were in the group at that time?
First, there were about four of us. Then eventually it became about 30 or 40 people, 30 or so. By that time, the receiver group had grown, the group on the magnetron had grown, the antenna group had grown, and then we’ve gotten so large that Bob Bracher and I were asked by Lee DuBridge to work up a group structure for the whole laboratory. We also had a riff group, whose job it was to take these components, we had to have a system, and look for the aircraft. Mostly we saw the dome of’ the church across the Charles. That was the standard signal. So the riff group was evolving into the group which was thinking about systems applications, so Bracker and I were asked to recommend a group structure. We just thought we should divide into groups doing basic research, quite long range, something that would not have anything to do with the next year or two’s operations; the components groups, making improved magnetrons and pulsers, antennas, receivers, oscilloscopes; and systems groups. So we worked out the structure, which later on began to emerge and grow.
As time went on they added more and more divisions. So finally I was made a division head, as he was. He was head of the receiving components and I was head of the transmitting components, and in my division we had pulsers and magnetrons and RF mixers, crystal development, antennas, engineering. We needed a place to put the engineers. We were all physicists, oddly enough, nuclear physicists, and there were very few engineers who were recruited to the laboratory, which became a sort of sore point with the engineers. But actually, I felt a big need for engineers, to bring in their obvious experience that we didn’t have, so I recruited engineers. Mac Hubbard was engineering head eventually, although we went through a couple of kooks, engineers, strange characters, but Mac Hubbard was very very competent. I think he went on to become president of Itek. Or at least he was big in Itek, I’m not sure if he was president or what he was. So this division, called No. 5, steadily grew. It it were Gerald Zaccharias, Jerry Weisner, Al Hill, L.C. Van Attu, George Cullins, — I’ve got a book here –-
Weiner:You mean the Baxter book? We can look that up later. James Finney Baxter — oh, this is a final report? That’s something we should have.
White:Here’s a photograph you probably have, the five years —
Weiner:I’ve heard about that. By the way, if we could get extra copies of that, are there any extras around that you know of that anyone has?
White:I really wouldn’t want to part with it. I think you ought to have a copy clearly.
Weiner:I tell you what I’m going to do — for the record, on this tape — when I get back to MIT, I’m sure there’s got to be something like this around, and get a copy for our archives there, there’s probably one in there, and one for Niels Bohr Library.
White:— yes, please do.
Weiner:(pointing to book) So underneath here, these various people, they would have been group leaders probably.
White:They were group leaders, that’s right. It grew to be quite a substantial division. I guess at one point the total staff numbered, I don’t know, some 600, 700 people. And then there was the airborne radar division, which Louis Ridenour was head of, and he went on to General Spaatz’s staff in the European theatre. Then I had to take over Division 9 which was the airborne radar division.
Weart:Instead of the division you were in?
White:Yes, that’s the one I organized. Then I picked up Division 9.
Weart:Why did they switch you like that instead of getting somebody new to take up Division 9?
White:Well, you’ll have to ask Lee DuBridge that question, I guess. Maybe he’ll recall. It’s my view that Division 9 was composed of a bunch of people who were quite individualistic. I guess it was felt that no one there really wanted to run it. In fact, one person, Tom Bonner, who was my associate head, had been under Louis Ridenour as associate head, he was the obvious person to run it. But I think people felt that he didn’t have enough drive, enough interest in the whole division. He was more concerned with a certain aspect. And that was true of most people in the division. They had their own particular thing that they were trying to develop, and sell to the Army, the Air Force or the Navy, and were not about to help get involved in other projects, whereas I came in fresh, so to speak. I had been pretty vocal about a lot of these things, and I guess if you open your trap, you often get tagged. You have to take it over.
Weiner:When did it become clear to you that the three months was fiction?
White:In about two months. The next thing was “six months.”
Weiner:Did you believe that?
White:I must have, because I didn’t know enough at that time really to make the break and decide to take out a year’s lease on the house. I didn’t let go of my house in Princeton. So what finally broke that would be, let’s see — November of 1940 — Pearl Harbor was December, ‘41. Yes, Pearl Harbor came along. That kind of fixed it. But even before Pearl Harbor, I’d already decided before Pearl Harbor that I was going to be there for a long time. I felt without any question that the shades in Europe were being drawn down pretty fast, and unless this country got involved it would be a difficult situation, so I couldn’t see this country not getting involved. And of course the propaganda was rising for it steadily, all during this time, helped along by the general feeling that simply developed towards getting deeply involved in the war.
Weiner:(pointing to photograph) In the group that you took over —
White:— you mean Von Getling (?) —
Weiner:Oh, was he in the group too?
White:No, had his own fire control group.
Weiner:Oh, yes, he was heavy then too —
White:Oh yes —
Weiner:I saw him at the Lauritsen Memorial [Lecture] the first year, and he was enormous.
White:(pointing in book) Yes. There’s yours truly.
Weiner:Oh yes, nicely done.
White:Horrid picture, I always thought.
Weiner:Page 156 of the book, the five year book.
White:(pointing to picture of himself at desk) In the front, I had three things that I thought were symbolic of what I was doing. One was the magnetron, which I helped to develop. One was the hydrogen thyratron, which is very important in pulsers, later on became the foundation of Edison, G (?) and Grier’s (?), EG and G’s activity. And on the left is the airplane called a “pregnant guppie,” which had under it a bulge which was a radar antenna, under the airplane. This was taken of course toward the end of the war, so that’s why I’m looking relaxed. Everybody knew it, you know [that the war was ending].
Weiner:I notice this is a more formal picture, you’re sitting in an office, wearing a coat, jacket and tie. That isn’t the normal kind of working quarters and working dress?
White:That was my office all right. And it depends on the time of the year. If it was winter time, you dressed in Cambridge in a coat and vest. Vests were common in those days. You’ll find a number of vests I think — well, maybe not.
Weiner:It was more of a normal academic situation, in terms of the dress and the offices?
White:Yes. I didn’t get my hands in it — I was an administrator, by this stage. That was long gone.
Weart:About what time did that switch come over? Was that before or after the thyratron? Did you have any part to play in development of tubes?
Well, even though I was doing a lot of administration, I always liked to invent. I can’t say the hydrogen thyratron was my invention, but on the other hand, I certainly was the initiator of the project. In the sense that I was trying to make a pulser lighter in weight than the ones we had, which were driven (?) by high vacuum tubes, which had the problem that the voltage drop across the tubes was very large, in comparison with the thyratron, which is only a few volts. On the other hand the thyratron’s mercury didn’t work out very well in an airplane. It’ll slosh around. Or on board ship. So I said, all right, you’ve got to use a noble gas then. Or some gas. My first thought was to use something like neon or xenon, but I felt that probably we’d want to go to a light gas, just because the ionizability is much higher than for a heavy gas, and we wanted the thyratron to recover quickly between pulses, which was not true with the mercury thyratron. The thought was that hydrogen gas, if it would work at all, would be the way to go. So I went to Gerleshausen (?) who had been working on strobotrons and other bright light sources, just down the hail as a matter of fact. They weren’t part of our project.
I discussed it with him, and he said, “Well, no one’s ever made a hydrogen thyratron because the hydrogen ruins the cathode.” So we discussed it, and then I got money for him and he began to make up home-made hydrogen thyratrons that showed some promise. And so all during the war I was deeply involved in helping to measure and think about and calculate and redesign. And then we placed big contracts with companies, GE and Sylvania, to develop thyratrons. These were fairly large contracts, and they had to get all tooled up. Then I saw to it that we built big test racks because we couldn’t sell these things to the military, who weren’t about to have a thyratron on board ship. They thought it was too fragile. So we life tested them on test racks, made row upon row of test packs, we just gave them hell. We also had shake tables and bounce tables, and we kicked them around, and demonstrated that we could make a thyratron which in fact would be very sturdy. That was one thing I did a great deal of, on both of my jobs: to recognize that things we were trying to get the military to use in the battlefield had to be demonstrated to them as reliable. We ran across many old line Navy people who just said that these nuclear physicists, these longhairs, can’t possibly understand what our problems are.
In fact, this particular thyratron, I tried to get it into airborne radar, and the captain in charge of that division at the Bureau of Ships, in procurement, accused me actually of sabotage. He said, “You’re trying to sabotage the Navy.” I said, “Oh, come on.” He really thought that for some reason, I was trying to push off on him a piece of stuff that wouldn’t work. His name was Rubek (?), I’ll never forget it. I just thought he was so crazy. He was the same man who earlier had said he would never permit a cathode ray tube to be used in any ship he was commander of. Radar of course is full of cathode ray tubes. So we actually had to work to get him removed, because they weren’t about to buy these hydrogen thyratrons.
Weiner:Get him removed?
White:Get him removed, yes, moved out.
Weiner:How would you do something like that? Did you go through DuBridge?
Weiner:Well, very early in the game, we recognized that, like any industrial firm, you have to have lots of contacts with the customer. So everybody made a point of getting well-known to the generals and the admirals and the captains and so on. We had a regular trek to Washington every week, every day almost, of people flowing in and going out; the person who we most depended on though was Lloyd Berkner. He was a commander at that time, later on I guess became captain. I don’t think he ever made admiral. But he was a physicist who had turned military very early in his career, long before the war. A flier. And he was very important in the Bureau of Ships in procurement — I guess he was in BuAir, as a matter of fact. So he was I’m sure very much involved in helping us get rid of this guy.
Weiner:That was the tube development you talked about, to explain the background of that. Let’s get back to Division 9 that you became head of, what was its formal title? Airborne…?
Weiner:Now, these individuals were working on their specific projects. Did you invent some style of organization, of functioning of the group, that you thought would be appropriate? How did you treat that?
Well, in the case of the division, I did invent, you might say, the system on which we were organized in Division 5, where we developed components parts, because it grew up from nothing to this big division while I was head. As we constantly grew, we were slicing off smaller and smaller pieces and putting men in charge. For example, in Division 5 I recognized rather early that test equipment was going to be a very serious item, because we had all this fancy equipment in the field, and who was to know whether it works or not? This was another thing which we couldn’t interest physicists in devising, because it didn’t fight the war so to speak directly. But each group by itself was making little hand-made test sets of various kinds, that they used to check out various parts. So I did form a test equipment division, and put Frank Gaffney (?) in charge of that, and that group developed test equipment for the entire laboratory. What they did was, the first group sent to me would be someone actually doing his own development or doing the radar. Then when they got bored with trying to improve it, to make it so it was really field solid and could lie around in the mud and still operate, then we took it over and redesigned it.
It turned out of course that they hadn’t really done it right in the first place, they didn’t really understand what they were measuring, so we had to do not only field packaging, but also really understand what it was you wanted to measure. We developed and had produced by various companies, GE and Sylvania and General Radio, all kinds of test gear, from testing the strength of the permanent magnet of the magnetron, to measuring pulse widths and measuring the properties of crystal rectifiers, and all these various things. And field-strength meters, to measure output, the microwave field strength. So, in the case of Division 5, my job was to keep biting off bits and pieces, putting people in charge, and trying to integrate them all together, and have them relate to the systems divisions, who were developing, airborne, shipborne, ground radar, fire control radar, and so on. But Division 9, Airborne Systems, I inherited that from Louis Ridenour as a going concern.
There were some who felt that it wasn’t perhaps going as well as it could. The problem really being two fold — one, that was a division that had to make contact with the military, had to get their equipment accepted; two, you had to work with the generals and get them to agree to actually buy four or five sets, put them out in a test range, see if the bombing claims we made were in fact valid, see whether or not operators could be trained to run them. And so my job in Division 9 was more a matter of working with the military, with the person who was in charge of that particular system. It might be ground controlled approach for landing aircraft in the fog, or it might be a bombing radar or navigation radar, or it might be radar meant for transport planes, lightweight, just for navigation. So basically I simply inherited Louis Ridenour’s setup and had to carry it on.
Weiner:You mentioned when you where talking about Division 5 work, that it was basically design and development.
White:And putting it into manufacture.
Weiner:Right. Now, nuclear physics had nothing to do with what you were doing.
Weiner:What about other kinds of physics, the general knowledge one has in physics? Did you regard yourself as working as a physicist, using your knowledge?
White:No. That’s an interesting point, that here were some people drawn together, these were nuclear physicists, to do some development which involved no nuclear physics whatsoever, so how come we were picked? Well, I guess because Ernest Lawrence and Alfred Loomis and Karl Compton decided to form the laboratory, and Ernest Lawrence only knew nuclear physicists. That’s one answer. The other is that they were in fact available, the country had a lot of them. Furthermore, being a new field, nuclear physics had tended to attract pioneering types, ones who were perhaps more aggressive. The less aggressive types of physicists were still playing around with atomic spectra and infrared spectroscopy and things of this kind, so these people were the ones who were looking more for new fields to conquer. Same was true in England. Some of the best work there was done by nuclear physicists, again because that was a new field and therefore attracted I should think the ablest, most aggressive types.
Weart:You must have had also a little more experience in administrating, contact with industry and so on, because of your work?
White:No, not at all.
Weart:This is interesting, you said earlier —
White:— we all learned as we worked.
Weart:You mentioned earlier that you were imitating industrial firms in having contacts with the customer and so on. Did you ever consciously say, “Let’s try and see how we should organize this, let’s copy the industrial firms —” or did it just kind of grow?
Weiner:You mean industrial laboratories?
White:I don’t think we ever said to ourselves, “Let’s do like GE,” you just knew you had to do it. We realized that we were in an industrial business, not basic physics, so our reference frame was automatically changed for us, and it didn’t require any great thought to realize that if you’re going to get your radar used by the military, you’d better have your people down there, liaison types and so on. And we recognized that certain people were better at this than others, that some of the best creative people were some of the worst ones to make contacts with a hardboiled general. So those who were asked to go to Washington or to (?) Field or some place or other were not necessarily the ones who were the most creative kind. They were more articulate. These were good salesmen, and there are good salesmen in physics, in any science.
Weiner:Well, that might flow from the people who had to develop cyclotrons at various institutions; they had to do some selling, had some contracts to let out, had some magnets to be supplied.
White:Yes, well —
Weiner:But I’m thinking of another kind of experience. It seems to me that the nuclear physics people had been developing detectors, had been working in fast electronics —
Weiner:And if one had to choose a laboratory staff and said, “Who knows anything about fast electronics in the country?” you’d end up with nuclear physicists.
White:You might have ended up though with engineers, who were making applications.
Weiner:That’s an interesting point. At another time I’d like to explore it.
White:In fact, most of the engineers weren’t very happy in the Radiation Laboratory. They felt the physicists didn’t appreciate them (which I think is true), and the engineers found themselves just leaving us and going into industry. I can think of several that started out knowing more than we knew at the very outset because they’d been with it. In fact, Zike Barrel (?) of MIT had been in microwaves before we even dreamed of it, and he taught us a lot, gave us a real head start. Before very long he got very irritated with us, because we began to go past him. For two reasons — one, we were numerous, well-funded, interested in getting on with the job, younger, and I think people were possibly even brighter, though that’s hard to say. He was no slouch — a pioneer in microwave transmissions, one shouldn’t run down what he did, he was very important.
Weiner:What about the knowledge of solid state physics one would have to have for some of this work — you’re talking about materials for example. Then you talk specifically about semi-conductors.
White:Well, you probably know the whole history of the solid state rectifier, the crystal, was a a very loony one. People were using crystals to rectify radio waves, way back at the time of Marconi, and the whole thrust had been to get away from it, to do it with hard tubes, the vacuum tubes. So lots of money was spent trying to develop a vacuum tube to replace the crystal, but the crystal always somehow seemed to come out a little better. As they worked at it and controlled the quality, controlled the little point and so on, they learned how to seal the point against the crystal so it wouldn’t jar loose. It always did in our very first few attempts. But no one really understood that crystal, for a long long time. The people who were most active in crystal work were Bell Laboratories. They played an enormously important role in the development of microwave radar. They and we were obviously the two big, strong laboratories, and they were far ahead of the rest of us on solid state physics.
Weiner:I wondered what knowledge of it you had to have?
Weiner:You didn’t know anything about it, really, did you?
White:We didn’t have to know anything about it, the way it was being done. People were very very unclear about what made a good detector out of silicon. They just made it purer and purer, and had a tungsten point. People talked about chisel points and conical points and double conical points. It was terribly empirical. They were just shoving these against the crystal, and the little meter indicated the rectification, and if it didn’t work they’d pick it off and put it some other place until it looked good, and then they’d screw it down, and then pour some goop around it and that was it. No one knew any solid state physics, how the crystal really worked. The solid state physicists certainly had an idea about band structure. Slater, who was big in solid state physics, never played a role in the development of theory of the crystals, from what I know. He became more involved in the magnetron than he did in the crystals.
Weiner:I’ve talked with him about his work. Was there any solid state at the laboratory or solid state physicists? I know Slater was there —— but that was as a theorist of the magnetron calculation.
White:As far as I can recall, we got all of our crystals from suppliers and tested them.
Weiner:People like Seitz of Pennsylvania did work on it —
White:— that could he —
Weiner:Lark-Horowitz at Purdue I think was one.
White:Yes. But as far as I can recall, I don’t know the impact of that work on what actually happened. Crystals were very noisy at the outset, and every four or five months, someone reported a crystal with half a DB less noise than the last one, and no one knew why. This got better and better and better, and about that time, someone would come out with a new vacuum tube detector, which was better than a crystal by a few DB. The crystal again was better, simpler — it was a race. We were very weak on solid state physics in the laboratory, and the reason I think was that the subject was so fundamental, it lent itself to our need for very quick action. I imagine there were some contracts let by the Radiation Laboratory but I wouldn’t know where, to people like Seitz, Lark-Horowitz. That did not play a role in my activity.
Weiner:I want to cover any points about the MIT Radiation Lab work that you feel are specially important that I may not know of, but there’s one general question I have, about the atmosphere of the laboratory. We talked of the initial atmosphere. As groups were formed and got rather institutionalized, I wonder if things might have changed in terms of the overall spirit, the atmosphere of the place, the style of work. Did you see any transition, from the first crowded days? I’m not just talking about physical things but the feelings of the individuals in it and their relations with one another.
Oh, in the course of it, things changed. It got to be very large. Around 5000 or more. It was occupying I don’t know how many hundred thousand square feet. And also, the progress of war, and how we worried and so on, had a lot of effect on our feelings. And I suppose, where I sat, as it inadvertently developed, I was pushed more and more out of the general group. As I got a bigger and bigger assignment, I had less and less intimate contact with people who were actually doing the work, and therefore I probably don’t reflect how they felt. Though I ate lunch with them all the time, and we were always very close. Still, I felt to the very end that it was a very exciting place. I guess we all felt frustrated, in a sense, that we were developing far more radars than could possibly be used in the field. And as we had to pick and choose, that caused a lot of hard feelings. Because if there was someone’s pet that they worked on for three or four years and we finally said, “Look, let’s face it, they’re not ever going to buy this thing, they won’t buy it, it won’t go in the war, there’s no point to developing it further, we have other projects that have a chance of being used in the war, therefore we’re going to close you down, and transfer you to another project —” This caused unhappiness. For example, Project Cadillac, or AEW it was called, Airborne Early Warning or Admirals’ Early Warning for short, was a fantastic project, and finally it took about 10 percent of the laboratory, by closing down a lot of smaller projects.
This was really a lulu, it’s an invention of Lloyd Berkner’s and in part mine, but a lot of us had the same idea simultaneously. It was a marriage of airborne radar, relay radar, and shipborne radar. The problem in fleet detection was, you’ve got to get your antenna up very high, to see the oncoming ships far enough away to be able to launch your aircraft before he does, get them in the air, to hit him. So, you put up your radar planes, which ought to have bigger and bigger antennas and higher and higher powers and go farther away. But how do you get information back to the admiral whom you want to give a picture to? So he can dispose his entire fleet in a way that is better than simply having this aviator say, “Hey, Admiral, I see some ships over the horizon there — there are four or five, I guess — no, there may be six — oh, there are some over on the left hand side too.” So this idea was to have a high flying, very far, narrow beam radar, spanning some 200,000 square miles of ocean in one scan — 200 mile range, and, you know, r — and then take that picture and relay it back, in toto to an oscilloscope on the Admiral’s bridge, where he would see a scope 3 feet across; each time going around he’d see the entire 200,000 square miles with him in the center.
Then in turn he was to be able to direct his airplanes from the carriers, and talk to them, and see them flying out, and back to them it was to go — a really grand concept. And this I got very much involved in, and finally got the big project that split off from Airborne Radar. Jerry Wiesner was put in charge, and the thing actually flew — but a little late. If the war had lasted another year, it would have been undoubtedly used — even six months. We got some field trials actually, in the fleet. But in a mild way. The thing was shown to be operational. But had the war gone on for another year, then they would have had a tremendous thing. They actually do have this now. I don’t know what it’s called, but they have a similar thing.
Weart:It must have been a tremendous number of projects.
White:Oh gosh, it was really a big project.
Weart:Probably more so than in most places, you worked on a lot of projects that never actually flew, or went into production.
White:Yes. We had to develop new magnetrons for high power, new pulsers for airborne, new antennas, big oversize radomes that had to go on big aircraft…(off tape).
Weiner:You mentioned in talking about the laboratory that Jerry Wiesner was put in charge of a group. Here’s an example of someone trained as an engineer. You indicated before that was unusual. You didn’t say Wiesner was unusual, you said there were relatively few engineers involved. Did you mean involved in leadership or involved as real staff? Out of the 5000 people there’d have to be a big chunk of engineers, wouldn’t there?
White:Surprisingly few. And they certainly were not among the leaders, as you’ll see if you read over that red book. It gives the membership of the various activities. You wouldn’t know perhaps who are the engineers.
Weiner:The great thing about it is, it gives their biographical background, their research interests.
Oh, yes. Well, in fact I’m afraid this country has always been a bit contemptuous of engineers. But I think that this is changing. I do believe that before World War II, engineers in America were not well trained, compared to their European contemporaries, and I think there’s a big difference in the way engineers are now trained, certainly engineers in say IBM, Westinghouse and other companies are doing extraordinarily beautiful work — Bell Labs in communications, lasers, fiber optics, solid state and so on — just crackerjacks. But before World War II, I think many engineering students were just following the old classical subjects. And at Princeton I recall having discussions with the engineering school head. I said, “Why aren’t these guys taking more physics?” — which he was opposed to. He said: “Well, why bother them with that? They’re going to be sales engineers?” I said, “It’s a pity. He said, “No, that’s where the work is.” Now, this was of course Depression days, therefore he’s reflecting the fact that in 1935-39, the problem was to sell something, not invent something. Well, I could have argued that if the thing had been better, you could have sold it.
In any case, the engineers I knew in Berkeley as a graduate student were probably in fact more like applied physicists than they were at Princeton, where the engineering school in those days was really pretty much based on management and sales. That’s where they were heading most of their boys. But this whole feeling between physicists and engineers was quite prevalent at MIT and the Radiation Laboratory. I recall one big meeting of about a thousand of us, and Lee DuBridge got up and made some talk about, what wonderful things our physicists have done. And he got a hiss, because engineers in the crowd didn’t like that. And I think that it was typical that he just didn’t think in terms of engineering people making much of a contribution. And they didn’t. One reason may be that we didn’t know where to look for the really bright engineers, and the really bright ones were possibly going into industry anyhow.
Weiner:You knew enough to find Wiesner.
White:I don’t know how he was found.
Weiner:He was very young then.
White:If you hand me that little red book, maybe I can look it up for you. I’d be curious to know where he did come from. That’s the thing, a lot of engineers were WPA employees. One of the best people at Berkeley, Win Salisbury, was out of work, and he was on the WPA, came in and went to work for Ernest Lawrence, and he greatly improved the cyclotron’s rate of —
Weiner:— his picture is in that famous 60 inch picture.
White:That’s right. And this was typical, engineers were just not getting jobs. It may very well be that the best people weren’t going into engineering in the ‘29 to ‘40 period, and therefore they didn’t exist, possibly. The physicists, the men who went into physics were not interested in the dollar so much as in jobs. They just wanted to do physics. [Looking in book] OK — yes — ME, Michigan, engineering, ‘38 — you’ve got to get out of Depression days first — and went to work for the Rad Lab in ‘42 to ‘45. It doesn’t mention his earlier recording work — but I recall, you’re right about that.
Weiner:Well, let’s for a minute talk about Lee DuBridge, about his role in the laboratory. How was he regarded by the group heads?
With great affection. He certainly had a bunch of wild horses to keep together, and he did so, mainly I think by just the feeling that he was a very fine person who didn’t deal in tricks of any kind, who tried to keep people working together harmoniously, and was a very sensitive person to people’s feelings. And I think, that being said, there was also a feeling that he did not take very strong stands. That he did not initiate anything much. And this was fine, because he had a lot of people below him who were eager as all get out to initiate things, and there was no lack of initiation. But I don’t think he can be said to have in any conscious way organized the laboratory, in some magical way. I think it sort of happened, under him, by people that he appointed to various missions, coming in with suggestions, and he would sort them out. I would guess he probably banked very strongly on personalities. I don’t think he had any blueprint in mind. He just sort of thought, well, who would get along well with whom? I think that’s his basic way of working.
We did feel he was not aggressive enough in Washington, that he could have been a stronger personality with respect to the Air Force, the Army, the Navy. But that wasn’t his character, I’d say. And it may also be that he felt there were enough people going down and beating on doors, that perhaps his role was better that of someone to see the broader picture, and not get quite so carried away by our rhetoric. But he picked, in general, very good people. Wheeler Loomis was his personnel manager. Loomis of Illinois played an important role in the Laboratory. He’s very ill now, apparently out of his mind — I don’t know how old he is, you can figure it out. I got a letter from his wife just about three weeks ago, saying he was doing very very poorly. But he was very active in recruiting. He didn’t try to be terribly smart in figuring out where to assign somebody. He would call me on the phone and say, “Milt, I have five new people today, do you want them?” I’d say, “Well, who are they?” “Don’t ask me who they are, just take them.” So they’d come up, and I interviewed them, and I would keep some, and some just wouldn’t fit into my division, and I would recommend them to go off to somebody else. They’d finally, going around to two or three doors, end up in one place; if they didn’t like that, they’d move on. They were very flexible in that respect. Probably largely due to the fact that we all knew we were temporary. No one thought he was building a lifetime career there. I think that was very important in our being harmonious. We all swore we’d leave that place as fast as a shot, and as soon as we could.
Weart:Why was that?
White:Everybody felt that he was being patriotic and was doing his duty, but it was not what he wanted to do. Us nuclear physicists wanted to go back to our nuclei. There were a few people who went into industry afterwards and founded their own companies, who may have been more at ease with our relations and the structure and the fact that we were a manufacturing outfit. But by and large most people wanted to get back to university work, which was where you come from and you’re pretty damn sure you want to go back there again. I know I felt that way.
Weiner:Were there discussions there about what life would be like after the war, what you had in mind to do?
White:Up until shortly before VJ Day there was darn little talk about it, up until VE Day certainly. People just did their job and they really kept their nose to the grindstone. But after VE Day, then no one doubted that we’d win the war with the Japanese. It was just a question of time. In fact, many of us felt there was no need to drop the atom bomb, as we’ve read time and again, because radar and the Air Force had already laid waste a large share of Tokyo, and we could unquestionably burn the whole country out in a few months time.
Weart:Had you discussed this before the bomb?
White:Yes. Of course, no one knew at the Radiation Laboratory that there was going to be an atom bomb dropped, except a few of us. I knew because I was at Los Alamos, but most people didn’t know about it till it hit. Those who did know about it said, “Why do you do this?” I must say, I wasn’t quite able to think about the morality of the whole thing in any kind of detached way. It was too difficult. We were all so very busy. I didn’t say, “My goodness, we ought to go out and…” did say it but not very loudly, “We ought to go and bomb some uninhabited island, you ought to build a city there and knock it down, rather than lay waste all Tokyo with one blow.” But just because those of us who were in radar felt pretty proud of what we were doing, and we didn’t want to see the war we thought we’d won, so to speak, captured by the atom bomb boys, because we didn’t think they were required. But I’m willing to concede that there may have been some American lives saved, and some Japanese lives saved too, by the two bombs going off, which really put a capstone on the whole thing. They knew the jig was up for keeps then, but they knew it even before.
Weiner:Were you aware of the efforts at Chicago and a little bit at other places involved in the Manhattan Project, the petitions, the Szilard-Frank petition and the various other efforts to prevent the use of the bomb. Or asking for a demonstration of the very type that you talked about?
White:No. I was at Los Alamos for a short time. We talked about this in the evening, so to speak, in our social hour, but it was not an official discussion during the working day. No, I was not party to any of those discussions. But I recall my feelings at going to Los Alamos. I went up the Hill by car with Norman Ramsey and Oppenheimer and Bob Brode, who’d come down to the train to pick me up and take me up there, and I thought, “This is the most curious Shangri—La I ever imagined. Their attitude is so unrealistic. They don’t know what’s going on in the world.”
Weiner:Like they didn’t know about radar, for example?
White:They only thought about one thing, and that was making that bomb. And they didn’t read the papers. I felt they didn’t know much about the progress of the war, that the war was essentially won. They kept talking about, “If we don’t do this, the war will drag on for years and years.” They were very introverted, very much wrapped up in their thing. I had a very peculiar unwordly feeling. I came down from there, I thought, “Boy, it’s rarified air up there!” I really felt this different emotional impact in some sense.
Weiner:When was this that you made your first visit? Was it just one visit there?
White:One visit there. Well, it was just before Alamagordo, about ten days. I was invited to stay over to see it, but I felt I had more important things to do. To go back to my radar, not see it go off. I knew it would go off. I felt pretty sure it would go off.
Weiner:How long did you stay?
White:I was there ten days, two weeks or so. The reason I was out there was that they were going to drop the bomb using B-29s guided by Eagle radar, and the Eagle radar was one of ours. Luis Alvarez invented Eagle radar, and when he left the Radiation Laboratory and went back to Berkeley, I had the responsibility to get Eagle produced, in the Air Force, and people trained on it. So there were some interactions between the bomb and its fusing and the whole business, and the radar sighting and so they just wanted to know what kind of problems might arise. Earlier, I had been approached, if I wanted to leave Radiation Laboratory and go there and work. I almost did, because at that point I was getting tired of radar. But I thought, well, the war’s almost over, and for some reason I can’t understand now, I didn’t feel that I was missing out on a very unusual experience. Los Alamos, the Hill experience. Well, I didn’t want to move my family. There was a personal reason, too. I’d just learned my wife had multiple sclerosis, and though she wasn’t badly handicapped at the time, I felt that it was bad enough, that I didn’t want to have to make the move and go out there. I had sort of a personal reason. Though we still could have gone. She could hobble around well enough, we could have gone, but I didn’t want to.
Weiner:That must have been enormous burden and pressure, on you, in the midst of your war work at the Rad Lab at MIT, which must have been tense enough, then to have this family problem of her illness.
White:Yes, it was quite an experience. I recall the doctor called me in for a private interview, and I wondered why he hadn’t asked my wife to come in too. Very nice man. I’ve even forgotten his name now. He was a well-known doctor in Cambridge. And he explained just what it meant. I had no idea what she had. I didn’t know about multiple sclerosis, even what he was saying, and I didn’t know what the implications were. But he gave me the whole grim story, and said it was not going to be a pretty business. We were going to have to live with it.
Weart:And two young children, too.
White:By that time we had three. We’d had one boy in Cambridge.
Weiner:There was the reality of everyday work at the lab, though.
White:Yes, well, I must say, I didn’t go around feeling like the roof had fallen in, because as I say, the laboratory work was very pressing and she wasn’t all that badly off at that time. I knew it was going to be a slow business. She wasn’t even aware of it. We didn’t tell her, for three years. She was just told she had an ankle problem. But after a while it became apparent that she had far more than an ankle problem. Well, so that’s —
Weiner:That’s one of the basic reasons you didn’t want to go to Los Alamos. What was the reaction at the Laboratory when a lot of the bright guys did leave, very soon? McMillan went down to San Diego to work on the underwater work at first, but eventually into the Manhattan Project. And Alvarez left, a lot of people moved out. You know they’re good people. Was there any kind of resentment or feelings about this, among their colleagues who remained, or among the lower level staff?
Oh, I don’t recall any particular resentment. I think that everyone felt, why didn’t they stay and finish the war? That kind of thing. On the other hand, McMillan going underwater sound — if he could get it going well and set up a laboratory out at San Diego — McMillan in fact was losing interest anyhow in radar, even before then, so it did not really make a big perturbation. And Luis [Alvarez]’s going was much earlier, I don’t recall when, and no one knew quite why. I was really quite surprised how little we knew of those who went into the atom bomb business. It was a very well kept secret. When I came back from Los Alamos and told a couple of my very close friends about it, one of them, George Collins, a nuclear physicist, was absolutely flabbergasted. He had not heard a single word, in a cocktail party or otherwise, about this enormous development, enormous plants being built down at Oak Ridge and Harford.
It was a very well kept secret. Speaking about secrets, though, there’s a very amusing story, which is worth a moment or two, about my going to Los Alamos. When I was asked to go out there, I was told to not tell anyone where I was going, and in fact had my taxicab leave my house and head for the north of Boston, then change cabs and end up going to South Station. I was to get on the train there, go to Chicago, and then at Chicago I transfer to the Chief of the Santa Fe, and to acknowledge no one’s presence, and get on and go to the stateroom, whatever it was, a certain number, a bedroom. So I got to Chicago, and who is walking up and down but I.I. Rabi. So we got on the train, and we found we had been assigned to the same room. He was amused that I was there, and I that he was there. He didn’t know I was going, any more than I knew he was going. Well, next door to us was a man — Bohr. He was also going. Arid he said to me, “My name is Nicholas Baker. Don’t address me as Dr. Bohr.” So we got together, and we talked a blue streak for hours and hours, and went to dinner.
When we went to dinner, just sitting there, along came Gaylord Harnwell on his way to San Diego, and he said, “Oh, hello, Milt, where are you going?” And, “Oh, its Dr. Bohr — and Dr. Rabi.” So we all looked like we didn’t know him, and he went on, and we had dinner and returned to our room, and Bohr was very upset about this. He felt that we should tell Harnwell that he was not to in any way acknowledge the fact that he’d seen us on this train together. So I went to find him, and I couldn’t find him. Finally I went to all the porters on the train, all the cars. I said, “Have you a man on board who is very large and has very large feet?” We finally found one that said yes. “What’s his name?” “I don’t know, I’ll show you his room.” I said, “It’s very important.” So I went to his room, and on the bag there was “GPH”, “Gaylord Prebesco Harnwell.” So I put a note in Gaylord Harnwell’s shoe. I said, “Please do not acknowledge that you have seen us on today’s train.” Well, when we got off later on for a stretch at some way station, all four of us walked up and down the platform in opposite directions. No sign of recognition. We got back on the train and went on to Albuquerque.
Weiner:Had you ever met Bohr before?
White:Yes, when he was at Princeton I met him. Before the war. ‘39. Alamagordo was ‘43 or ‘44?
White:I guess ‘45.
Weiner:Well, I’d like to move off the radar lab now. There are a million more things to be said. Let’s see if you feel there’s something significant about it that we should cover, some particular thing or part of it that you feel we should talk about.
Well, just one thought we already touched upon, which was that I think I was as surprised as perhaps you’re implying, that these physicists, nuclear or otherwise, could come in here from their teaching positions and their girls’ schools where some of them were, and suddenly become very active and very effective in the design of hardware, which we were going to then manufacture in quantity and put in the field. It was amazing how well people did. I’ve never forgotten that, as an indication of how people stimulated adequately can rise far above their early level, because we had some people who had come from quite minor colleges and prep schools. Just did tremendous jobs. Now, of course, I shouldn’t run down teaching prep school boys, but one tends to think that that person is not quite as boiling over with ambition and drive and ideas as the guy who’s up at a major university. But when they came there, some of these people really became balls of fire, and headed up projects, and were good managers, and had ideas. That was one of the most interesting parts of the whole laboratory, how people could work together so effectively, and as I said earlier, that was in part because we knew we were temporary. We were not battling for position.
My becoming director of a division, for example, didn’t mean a thing to someone down below me more competent than I, because he knew that in five years we’d all be out of there and it didn’t matter where I went. He didn’t worry about it. And also money was no object. They just shoveled the money in and so no one had to be denied money to his research. The only problem came in the last two years, when we began to cut off projects as being useless. We were lacking the manpower for this Cadillac project. And that’s when the pinch began to get tighter. People began to jockey for position a bit more. Oh, I guess the last thing is the series of books that came out of the laboratory, which you’ve probably seen.
Weiner:We have them here.
White:And that was a very smart thing to have done. We had people, before they left the laboratory, sit down for whatever it was, six months to a year, some went on past in the laboratory, writing up very carefully what had been done, basically in the way of the research and the technology, not much of the military. There was a military book written called MARS, MILITARY APPLICATIONS OF RADAR SYSTEMS, which was classified and may have been since released, I don’t know, I have not seen it. That was on the military properties of our various radars. And I recall writing one chapter of that. Louis Ridenour was editor in chief of this whole series. George Collins was associate editor, I guess. And we had many many writers. I think it was done in a fantastically short time.
Weiner:Fifteen, 20 volumes, something like that.
Weart:We have them all together in the library?
Weiner:Yes, because Wallace Waterfall was officer of AIP, he gave this set to the library or the archives.
White:I think that must have had a very big impact on American industry, because many industrial laboratories were not part of the radar business, and now they were given the whole thing to look at.
Weiner:Yes. You were still associated with the project through 1946, weren’t you — according to your vita here —
Weiner:You were consultant to the Air Force from 1944 to ‘46, and also you were on leave from Princeton through ‘46, and you did that report, which I wanted to ask you about, on a national network of radar and video communications. There your affiliation in 19146 is as a joint head of the Airborne Radar Division, I guess, at MIT, and professor of physics at Princeton.
White:Well, I left, if I recall it right, in December, 1945, with the family, in a big snowstorm, and moved down to Princeton. I did not as I recall teach any that spring term. So I kept going back to MIT.
Weiner:You were doing some of the writing up?
White:Oh, I guess proofreading, and talking to people, and generally winding down. But it was not very much. If I recall, that wound down pretty fast after I left MIT.
Weiner:While you were there, then, you all received the news of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki. How did you hear of it, and what was your personal response, and what was the larger response, in the laboratory, in the community or in your family? Many questions in one.
White:You know, it’s surprisingly hard to recall the moment I heard about it and my reactions. I’m surprised to be blank. I knew it was going to happen sometime. I didn’t know when. So I was prepared for it in that sense. Well, the whole laboratory stopped work. We just ground to a halt. People were in the hallways, trying to find out who knew what about what. I was one of the few guys in the Radiation Laboratory who had been out to Los Alamos. Because anyone who left never came back. That was part of the deal, part of the secrecy. So I was going around talking a great deal, with people about it. Now, also, as I recall, shortly after — on my dates I need some help — Oppenheimer became very active in the May-Johnson Bill to control atomic energy. We were very opposed to it at the Radiation Laboratory, on the grounds that the military played far too big a role. And so we had a number of meetings with Arthur Roberts for example being one of the effective people there.
Weart:On company time, in the laboratory?
White:Oh yes. Right. No one worried about company time. We felt that Oppenheimer must have been had by the military, to be willing to sponsor that kind of bill. I’ve forgotten the details, but it certainly gave the military far more control than the McMahon Act finally did. So since I knew Oppie very well, I talked to him on the phone a large number of times. We had long discussions, half an hour, an hour at a time, trying to convey to him our concern. We felt that he was immersed in a bed of nuclear types who’d been kept under secrecy by the military for a long time and didn’t understand the ways of the world. They weren’t like me who’d been around the great big wide world of Cambridge, who understood these things better! So at least he did hear from me a great deal what the reaction was of Radiation Laboratory people, that we were aghast at the May-Johnson Bill. Now, I don’t know when those hearings were held.
Weiner:In October, November 1945 —
White:— October, ‘45 I went down to testify, and others were down there too, like Eddie Condon. It was my first experience with Congress, and the committees of Congress. Ed Condon was very much opposed to May-Johnson Bill, and he was fighting with Oppenheimer about this. I guess Condon and Szilard were working together very closely. And Szilard who, I guess, had earlier been a good friend of Oppenheimer’s, perhaps always was, was very upset about the May-Johnson Bill. I recall distinctly my first experience with how a Congressman can really undercut you if he wants to. Szilard of course is very articulate, and he speaks extremely well, he knows his stuff. He’s prepared to make a really passionate appeal for civilian control of atomic energy. This committee, the May-Johnson committee knew his views in advance. So he got up, they swore him in, the first question was, “Dr. Szilard, is it correct that you have a number of patents on atomic energy?” “Yes, sir.” “You’re excused.” That was the end of it. He never testified. At least not on that occasion. He may have gotten back later on, but they just cut him down. And I realized that you’re really fighting some very tough customers I was never called anyhow. I don’t know — they just never got around to me.
Weiner:Were you there with the people of Cambridge? I know there was a group of people from Cambridge, organized as a group. I don’t know the name, Cambridge Atomic Scientists, something like that. Anyway, Alice Smith’s book talks of it, and the records are preserved in the University of Chicago. Do you recall meetings, organizing in any way? There must have been, in order to get down to Washington.
White:Yes. Well, I guess I forget why I went down to these hearings, yes, I went down with a group of people, sort of a spokesman for a certain fraction of people. We weren’t very well organized. We were not as strongly organized as the atomic scientists later on became. In fact, when they began to get organized at Princeton, after I returned to Princeton, I didn’t want to join. I’m a non-joiner in general. And I guess I felt that some of the people who were behind the Princeton chapter were pretty dreamy and, I would have said, even too left-wing for my taste, though I’m left of center according to most of my friends. But these guys, I thought, were really left. And I thought they were left because they were just so ignorant, so naive, they didn’t know which way they were going.
Weiner:How the world was?
White:The world, yes, I just thought they didn’t realize that Russia was a problem and would remain a big problem, even though I blame us for a lot of it, I was unhappy that they were Russophiles almost — at least they were apologists for Stalin. They said, “He wouldn’t have done these things if he hadn’t been attacked by the Germans” and that kind of stuff. One of them who was strongly pushing the Princeton Chapter of the Atomic Scientists was Wayne Bruner, who is now NSF, and you never saw a more conservative guy in your life. But at that time he was, I thought, very wild.
Weiner:Let me ask you a question. I was asking about the response to the dropping of the bomb. You were telling me that there were discussions, and you helped to give more information, and from that you talked about the legislation and the hearings. Were there discussions once it was dropped about should we have dropped it? What’s the response to the loss of life? Those kinds of questions.
White:Yes. All those things were certainly discussed, with every conceivable shade of vehemence. There were some who said, “Look — this was an immoral act.” Others said, “No, it shortened the war.” In between those two extremes, you had every possible feeling. Some said you had to do it in order to beat the Russians, and some said you had to do it in order to convince the world. Others said, “Suppose you’d put on a staged show and invited in all the world leaders and it doesn’t go off? Then what are you doing to do?” And that was a real worry — have all this hoopla, bring in the Russians and the Japanese, the French and everybody else, sit there in your concrete bunker looking through little slits at the tower — and nothing happens. It wasn’t guaranteed that it would happen. Now, having dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, if it hadn’t gone off, there wouldn’t have been much to—do about it. If it had just hit the ground and gone splat, and people never heard about it again.
Weiner:What was your own feeling in this period? Was that your position?
I felt that there should have been a demonstration. That it should not have been dropped. And I felt that we’d have been in a much better moral position, from that point on, to try to limit the spread of nuclear weapons which it was quite obvious to anyone at that time was going to happen. I was quite strong, I think, for a demonstration. And later on when the hydrogen bomb was being discussed, there were meetings here in New York, an APS meeting, Hans Bethe and Viki Weisskopf and Ted Seitz and Bacher, and a few others, I don’t remember, and we signed a petition not to develop the hydrogen bomb. Again that was for the same basic reason, I believed then and I think I probably still believe now (I must say it’s harder and harder to believe it), that had we been in a better moral position to prevent the spread of bombs, then we might have made some progress with nuclear limitation. But I’m not so naive as to think that would really necessarily keep the Russians from doing it anyhow. I think one has to try. I think one has to make the moral stand, even though you keep your hand on your pistol, you take the moral stand. To me that’s trying to eat your cake and have it too — you can’t have a pistol and make a moral stand. Maybe you should throw your gun in the creek before you make your moral pitch. I think we could have done just that, we could have not built up our enormous nuclear arsenal, which would amount to throwing your pistol in the creek, and say, “Look, we aren’t going to build any more of these things, if you guys will all get in and join us.” I think the Baruch Plan, which Oppenheimer was behind, had a lot of sense to it. You may say it’s naive, but it’s just a hell of a pity that the rest of the world didn’t realize that, and didn’t trust us, thought we were trying to pull a fast one.
The Russians are so paranoid about our intentions, that I think they didn’t really believe. They wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think, to us, but they couldn’t believe we would be willing to not go and make more nuclear material, because we had the edge. They could always say, “OK, are you going to blow up your plants that make plutonium?” And the answer probably would have been: no, because we’re going to use plutonium to make energy some day. But we could have done that — if. And then as a world effort developed nuclear energy for all purposes, one might have avoided what I regard as a terribly serious threat. So I think I’ve been more or less consistent. Though every now and then, I find myself wavering from the realities of the problem.
Weiner:Getting back to that period — you were talking before about thinking of what to do in the postwar period. You said earlier you just wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as you could, and in fact you did by December, ‘45, and you’re out. You also said that you learned a great deal about what physicists are capable of, in terms of organization and ability. What were your ideas for work at Princeton? You had been going back, visiting, not only for the isotron project, but you saw people there I’m sure. What was the first discussion or private thinking that you recall, relating to physics at Princeton in the postwar period?
Well, I felt that apart from my own personal interest — Princeton physics had been shot to hell by the war. There was nobody left to speak of. So many had gone away. Lou Turner who had been there went to the University of Iowa. Princeton didn’t, I guess, in fact make it attractive for him to return. Harry Smyth had never really gone away, as chairman. Walter Bleakney had remained there. He was in mass spectroscopy before the war, now he’s in shock wave work and doing very fine work. Ladenburg who was in nuclear physics had stayed on and he had gone into shock wave work. That really is all there was left in experimental physics. On the theoretical side, Wigner, who’d been away of course, came back. Johnny Wheeler came back. H.P. Robertson had come back, yes, but he had by that time gotten quite involved in Washington, so he was not around there much as a cosmologist. I may have forgotten a few, but I think that’s essentially all of them there, so we were really shot. The laboratory was a shambles. It had been used during the war for teaching hordes of Army people, so it needed not only a paint job, it needed new lights, an electrical system, and the teaching laboratories’ equipment had been just decimated, and research had gone down, there was nothing.
The cyclotron had lost its power supply to Los Alamos. The vacuum chamber was sick. The place was just really an awful wreck. So I had the task of rebuilding the cyclotron, and my first thought was to get it going as soon as possible. In a way I made a mistake. Anyhow, I just wanted to rebuild it the way it was and get it going, at a higher energy. But also I wanted to bring back new people in new fields, so Bob Dicke, whom I had met at Radiation Laboratory, and Don Hamilton were two whom I talked into joining Princeton. Rudy Scherr, who had been a graduate student at Princeton, and worked with me on the cyclotron, had gone to Harvard and then Los Alamos, I brought him back. Bob Hofstadter had been a graduate student at Princeton, I brought him back from work in nuclear physics. It turned out he went more and more into detection, understanding the solid state aspects of scintillation detectors. And then Harry Fulbright, the nuclear physicist, I brought in. Then in the cosmic ray side, I guess Johnny Wheeler was the most active person in recognizing that cosmic ray physics had never been pursued at Princeton and should be, and he was active in getting that work going, as an entrepreneur. He didn’t himself do any experiments, but he helped on the contract with the ONR [Office of Naval Research], who of course funded all of our work. The ONR, as you well know, saved this country. Ernie Liddell and company, and Mannie Piore particularly was the guy that really put the ONR on the map and American science.
Weiner:Wheeler’s hopes for the cosmic ray lab were with high energy needs in mind —
White:— yes —
Weiner:— so the kinds of theoretical problems he was interested in, there would be data available only at that energy.
Weiner:If that was his motivation, at least he told me that was his motivation, what about accelerators? I don’t remember what he said about it, but wouldn’t one also think that he’d want a very high energy accelerator?
White:He recognized that Princeton, at least at that moment, was not about to go out and build a big machine, but the natural place for it to happen was Berkeley, which had already been doing this sort of thing under Lawrence. Lawrence was still very much in the driver’s seat and going hell-bent for higher energies. And Brookhaven was just beginning to be thought of, and there was to be a Brookhaven going, ‘46 wasn’t it?
Weiner:— in the fall of ‘45, (crosstalk) — ‘46, the meetings were already taking place.
White:Well, yes, I was on those early formative days. Well, Johnny probably felt that cosmic rays would always be higher energy than you could make in a laboratory. I guess he felt the cosmic rays themselves were interesting, and recognized that Princeton wasn’t going to build or shouldn’t build a big machine.
Weiner:Did you participate in any thinking, any discussions with people, on that question? Here you have a cyclotron which is semi-destroyed. The question is, what do you do in the accelerator business — which after all, prior to the Radiation Laboratory, was your main field of interest?
White:Well, we dribbled back so slowly, from the various points that we’d scattered to, that there wasn’t, as I recall, any coherent sitting down by the whole department saying, “Now, which way are we going to go?” People came back and started things up where they left off before. In a way, it was a glorious chance for us to all stop, step back, take in a big look and start over again. But we didn’t. Whether we would have been any wiser if’ we had, I don’t know, because certainly nuclear physics was going on at Princeton, and it had been a very big asset. The cosmic ray work was good but it’s a tough racket, and when accelerators came in, that wiped out most of people’s interest in cosmic rays, though not entirely. So the Princeton group was formed around cosmic rays, Val Fitch and George Reynolds and Jack Cartwell and, an Italian — I forget his name, he was there for a couple of years — soon turned themselves over to accelerator production of particles. The event rates are so low, in cosmic rays. You’ve got to go to mountain tops or in balloons — people were in a hurry, they just didn’t want to do that, their interest being in the particles themselves, not in cosmic rays per se but in the particles. So that wiped out the cosmic ray interest soon after they got going. I don’t know how long, four years or so at the outside.
Weiner:You started thinking about postwar work before the war was over. You were describing what the situation was when you got back. But what were your plans, what were your thoughts, you said you recruited some people. You wrote a memo that I referred to once before, in one of our sessions, that I haven’t been able to dig out — it’s in the Princeton archives — where you were proposing, this was during the war, whether ‘44 or ‘45 I don’t know, but well before the end of the war, you were proposing a kind of structure at Princeton which would take advantage of the new approach to physics on the larger level, with some expectation of outside funding being a lot greater than it was. You talked of the problem of these individuals relating to the normal university structure, and you said you had to create some kind of research associateships or whatever the term was that you used. Do you recall that?
White:I don’t really recall it.
Weiner:Your name’s on it, it was by you.
White:Was it before ‘45?
Weiner:Yes. Whether it was ‘44 or ‘45 I don’t know. I did make some notes on it, but I misplaced them.
White:I’d love to get my hands on that just for fun.
Weiner:Let’s make a point to do it, some trip, because I can go into that box, I know where it is —
Weart:Next time you’re in Princeton, unless you can tell me where the box is.
Weiner:It’s probably in the Chairman’s files, it’s on the Forrestal campus in the storage area for the archives, in one of these big storage boxes. What I did, I went through certain years so I went through something like ‘44, ‘45 — anyway I’ll check on it. But if you don’t remember that one specifically, then we shouldn’t —
White:I really don’t recall much, except for the fact that I was going to Princeton every so often to talk with Harry Smyth, before I finally moved down there again, first of all to see whether they’d have me back, because that wasn’t so clear either.
Weiner:You had only been assistant professor when you left?
White:Yes, and Lee DuBridge made me an offer at Rochester of a tenured professorship, so I went to Rochester to look it over. Princeton was fiddling around, so when I went to Rochester Princeton stopped fiddling around, and made me a better offer. So I decided that I preferred Princeton to Rochester, in part because of the weather, oddly enough, I even got out the weather reports on Rochester. I found that they had no sun on 285 days of the year, and I like sun. Plus the fact that I felt that the department just didn’t have the potential that Princeton had, just because it was relatively new in physics. A lot depended upon Lee DuBridge, and if he ever left there, I felt it might not do so well, and I think that’s partly true. He became a dean before very long. If he’d been dean, I would have probably unfortunately become chairman of the department, which I did not want to become.
Weiner:He left in a few years, about ‘48, anyhow.
Then he went to CalTech very soon, yes. So, I was talking to Harry Smyth about the trends in physics, and I do recall this much, that I was impressed by the fact that we had been very poorly funded all during our prewar years. If I wanted a hundred dollars, I’d go to Harry Smyth and spend an hour talking to him, literally almost, to get a hundred dollars. And here we were spending millions almost, by no more than my signing something. Now, I recognized that wasn’t going to happen after the war, but I also recognized that the military value of science had been shown, and that I’d be surprised if the government wasn’t going to fund science a lot better. I was told that by people like Lloyd Berkner and people in the ONR — not ONR but the Navy in general, because there wasn’t any ONR I guess at this point. They expected to go on funding science better than it had been before the war (which was zero). Also, at an earlier point, you asked why did nuclear physicists play a rather big role in radar and other areas. I think in part it was Ernest Lawrence’s influence. He was the first man to recognize that the style of physics was changing. He had a big cyclotron, a big staff of engineers and technicians, secretaries and the whole bit. And so those who were raised in that milieu were not afraid to work in that size of group. It was very customary for the usual lone wolf physicist to run down Ernest Lawrence’s approach. Rabi, for one.
Others like that who felt that one man in a room is about the ideal number. And it was certainly fine for certain kinds of research. But Lawrence started a whole new style, and that carried over to both laboratories, Berkeley and MIT. I already of course was convinced of that from having been at Berkeley, but on the other hand, I didn’t see it in as big a scope as I saw it from the wartime days. I felt that we had been badly handicapped at Princeton by not having any full time research people, to do a lot of the development work which had to be done, to do new kinds of physics. The teaching faculty was already so overburdened with teaching that to do research at all they had to really come in nights and weekends. And then add on top of that, without the new instruments, they just weren’t going to do it. So I do recall that being my feeling in general discussions. I don’t recall this particular memorandum that you’re referring to, in which I may have put some of these thoughts into writing. Oh yes, this may have been a memorandum possibly to Dean Taylor, who at that time was dean of the graduate school, and I brought Ray Woodrow down to Princeton from MIT, to head up the Office of Project Research and Invention, ORPA. Because during the war Princeton had one man, George Brakeley, the treasurer, who did everything, from signing contracts with the Navy and the military to running the whole bloody university. Maybe he had one or two helpers and a girl. Now he had, I don’t know, a hundred people. It was a fantastic organization. I did foresee that there was going to be a lot of government money, and we had to get organized to use it properly. So I did talk with Ray Woodrow, who was a business type.
Actually he had a master’s in physics from MIT, but his real abilities lay in the field of playing poker, football, basketball, tennis, he had letters in them from Williams, and being a terribly capable guy on the business end of things. And so he organized Princeton’s project research area, to administer the writing of contracts with the government, and he I think without any question has been the outstanding university administrator in this field, and has written a lot of papers on the subject which have sort of become classics of the business of university and government. If you haven’t seen his stuff, it’s really worth seeing. Dick Rossi now is the person who’s in Woodrow’s office. Unfortunately Woodrow worked terribly hard, and took his job terribly seriously, and was a very intense, very competitive person, and it wrecked him. He drank a lot, smoked a lot, and he had a heart attack, and he got cancer of the lung, they took out one lung. Then he had a mental breakdown; they put him on lithium, manic-depressive — I think he’s pretty well recovered, as far as you can from that much trauma. His wife was a polio victim, in a wheel chair all the time. They’re both good friends of ours. But he was very important in Princeton’s adjusting to the influx of enormous sums of money from government. He was generally hated around the university by the scientists because he very early recognized that you had to know what the true cost of research was, and charge the government for the true cost, and not be too eager to take on projects whose full costs weren’t being recovered. So Princeton’s overhead rate was always very high compared to any other school, but they now are coming up step by step, and Princeton’s hasn’t increased much, yet. It’s still high, but still lower than industry by quite a bit, and I think that he was one of the first to recognize that you can go broke taking money from the government, because you don’t recognize all these hidden costs. So that may have been part of the memorandum to Taylor, that you had to have somebody who really understands this business.
Weiner:He did react positively, obviously.
White:They hired him. He was housed in fact in Palmer Laboratory, for the first year or two of his business down there, because they had no space for him any place else in the university. He was sort of my pet project, but he was independent of me from the very start. He had his own show entirely.
Weiner:What about your personal research plans, the things that you wanted to do. Here you had an idle, somewhat disabled cyclotron; at the same time, you came out with a great deal of administrative ability and confidence, obviously, and a great deal of knowledge of radar. What did you want to do personally in your own research?
White:Basically, I thought I wanted to get back to doing garden variety, one man in a room, nuclear research. But I found out that I really enjoyed more organizing things, and getting people together and getting the money for it. I wanted to go into higher energy, so I rebuilt the cyclotron there, using some of the new FM principles which McMillan and Veksler [Wechsler?] had invented, the last part of the war. So I right away converted the cyclotron to FM, and went up to 20 or 18 million volts, which was very high in those days for a cyclotron, and did research using the beams. But I must say that probably I had been so immersed in equipment, I got more of a kick out of inventing a new contraption which would do something, and then trying to understand it, and getting the money for it, and the people together, to build this thing. So, when Brookhaven was being discussed, I recognized that I was not about to build a big machine, because Brookhaven was going to build a big three billion volt machine. I didn’t see how I could compete on the energy grounds, which I’d like to have done. I just felt that Princeton wasn’t the place to try to go to very high energies. The machine would be out of scope with Princeton University. I was really very anxious to get back to simple life, I thought. T was so fed to the teeth with the administrative things, that I didn’t want to have a bigger affair, so the cyclotron was going to be made into a nice research tool, and just settle down and be a tweedy professor.
Weart:I’m interested in some of the work you did, for example, proton scattering, and your carbon-10 mirror nuclei, it’s rather close to the kind of work you’d done before the war, with the cyclotron. I was wondering whether you found that your research style had been affected by your wartime experience, or whether in this kind of work you were really doing pretty much the same thing that you did before the war?
White:We had more people helping to build the cyclotron. Before the war, I built it almost by myself, with damn little help. And I think actually I wore myself to a nubbin doing so, putting in enormous hours…(off tape) Well. It’s quite true that my style had changed, and I recognized that physicists who wanted to use their machines had to spend — at least I had to spend far too much time in looking for vacuum leaks and doing engineering design. So we did bring in full—time paid engineers, and high class technicians, far more than we had before the war. Made possible by the ONR money, of course, which was essential to the whole things.
Weiner:Did you have to hustle the money yourself? Did you have to apply, put in proposals?
Weiner:Were you in any way encouraged by them beforehand?
Weiner:Yes, did they come to you and say, “If you want to do something we’ll help you,” or was it the other way around? Did you first approach them?
White:They let it be known that they were willing to be approached. I’m not quite sure how I learned about this, but everyone around knew that they were eager to support universities. They weren’t playing at all cozy. I don’t know whether someone came to Princeton and said, “Don’t you want some money?” My guess is that someone came to Princeton and just said, “We are getting up the ONR, to fund basic research in the universities.” I don’t recall that episode, but I’d be surprised if someone hadn’t sort of come around to the universities. I certainly recall writing this proposal up, but not having to make endless treks to Washington. It happened very very simply. It was a joy. The proposal probably didn’t contain more than five pages.
Weart:Did you have to make a lot of arrangements with the university administration to put this in?
White:Nothing to it.
Weiner:He brought in his own man to make those arrangements. You just told us about how you helped set up this grant office.
White:Yes. The university in those days was also extremely easy on these matters, even without Woodrow, but with him there, he certainly handled the business aspects, though I had to work up the budget and say who we were going to hire, list the equipment, but it was a very rudimentary proposal, I’m sure. I wish I had copies of it. They may exist some place in the files. I’d be surprised if they didn’t exist, but I didn’t save this kind of stuff in those days.
Weiner:We can look for that.
White:But it must have been quite a vestigial request for funds.
Weiner:Did the issue come up about open research versus classified, since it was the Office of Naval Research sponsoring it? This was an issue in the early days of ONR. I wonder if you recall it?
White:All I recall is that at the very beginning I was determined that it should be totally open, and I never even considered, I never for a moment encouraged any closed research, secret research. Later on, when ONR wanted some secret research done at its behest on development of radomes for radar transmitters, and asked me to take part in that — I was in Berkeley at the time — I was very much opposed to doing anything that they wanted us to do, particularly an applied thing, also a classified thing. But Don Hamilton and Bob Dicke, who were back at Princeton minding the store while I was out in Berkeley, felt otherwise. They decided they had benefited from ONR’s largesse, they understood the field better than most people in the country, so they would do it. So they had a radome project. And when I came back I joined them and helped out in minor ways, but they ran the project. It was classified. It was located off campus, at Forrestal, out in the old Ewald Smith house, which is the original director’s home, and they had a staff of people. Some of them were brought in from the outside, to spend one whole summer in intensive design and study of radomes. Then it was followed up by six months or a year of writing the final report. But apart from that, there was no pressure on us to do secret work. I think I kind of actually said, this research is in no way classified.
Weiner:You said that in the proposal.
White:Yes. I’m sure.
Weiner:I’ve seen proposals from CalTech, Fowler’s proposal with Charlie Lauritsen which had a similar statement, and I was wondering whether this was part of an effort. There was a policy decision being made in ONR at the time, and I have a feeling from what Willie Fowler told me that it was a deliberate attempt to put those paragraphs in proposals, to put pressure on the people in ONR, who wanted that kind of pressure on them anyway, so that they could demonstrate that the university people want open research.
White:I don’t doubt that Mannie Piore and Alan Waterman, who of course at that time I guess was the head of ONR with Mannie one of his right hand men — must have been very much behind all that.
Weart:We should sit Mannie Piore down here and talk to him.
Weiner:Look, Mannie Piore a couple of weeks ago sat over a pitcher of beer with me about…at Columbia… How much was the cyclotron conversion project, the F project, how much was that proposal for?
White:It would be purely a guess, but it was on the order of $100,000.
Weiner:— well, really big money —
White:Big compared to pre-war, tiny compared to now, but it was certainly big money. I thought it was big money. And of course, a hundred thousand bought a lot more in 1945 than it does now. It may have been as much as $200,000. Certainly within a couple of years or three years, it ran around four hundred thousand to five hundred thousand, for a good many years.
Weart:So you inevitably found yourself doing a lot of administering. There were a lot of people involved.
White:Yes. But it wasn’t all that difficult. Life was simpler, in those days, for someone running their project. You didn’t have to write as many lengthy proposals. You didn’t have to justify things so much. You didn’t have to make a big spiel or go to Washington. Money was becoming more and more plentiful. People’s spirits were rising in general. Life was easier. My main problem was to locate good people to join the project, looking for staff appointments.
Weiner:This is still with the cyclotron.
White:The cyclotron, and racking my brain for things that I wanted to do with it. I probably gave more attention to thinking about new instruments to add to the cyclotron in order to make it a useful device. I’m thinking now of the large scattering chamber, which I guess I showed you —
Weiner:— in your office, I think —
White:— no, down in the cyclotron, the present cyclotron, which you’ve seen, haven’t you?
Weiner:Oh yes, I saw that on the dedication of the laboratory.
White:Yes, well, the big scattering chamber down there, which I built.
Weart:In the p-p scattering paper, you talked about it I believe.
That’s right, it was built for p-p scattering with Yntema, and he and I designed the chamber. I started it up and he finished it up. That was built for p-p scattering, and the motivation of the thing was that in order to get good angular data, when you had detectors which were fairly wide, that you had to get fairly far away in order to get a good angle, so it had a big internal rotating table which was marked off in degrees and so on. You could crank it with a handle. There were vacuum seals which allowed you to mount inside detectors of various kinds, and I felt that detectors available when we began the chamber might not look like ones available in a year or two or three, so I left lots of space. That’s one thing I learned from the radar days, that things change, and you shouldn’t design too tightly around them. I felt that the few extra dollars to make the chamber bigger would be well spent. Well, it’s still being used. I think it paid off. Another project that I was always involved in was the question of getting the beam out of the cyclotron. That was always a nasty point in cyclotrons, to get the darned beam out. I did not, and no one did in those days, really make enough effort to really understand the mathematics of the cyclotron orbit theory. It could have been done earlier but it wasn’t. And so there was a lot of cutting and trying, and getting the beam out, and it was badly divergent, and the energy spread was horrendous.
So it was in no way a competitor of a Van de Graaff for precision kind of work, but what it did have is energy, far more than you had with a Van de Graaff. So I kept trying to figure ways to make the cyclotron a more precise tool, from the point of view of angular spread and energy. But to my discredit, when Thomas wrote his famous paper on azimuthally varying fields of the cyclotrons, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t read it well enough to understand it and no one did. It was just totally ignored by even those who were currently thinking about these things, because actually, I was doing just what he said you should do. I didn’t know I was doing it. I had some shims in the magnetic field which gave it an azimuthally varying flutter field, but not as big as I needed, and I was sort of toying at the fringes of the idea, but never really grasping what he was saying. It’s amazing to me that no one else, neither McMillan nor Lawrence nor any of the people at Berkeley, which had a big staff of people thinking about these problems, really caught on to what he was saying. It’s just a surprise.
Weart:Did the Radiation Laboratory experience have anything to do with a feeling that there should be more theory, and did you have to use a lot of theory in the radar work? Or did you come back out of that more or less as you went in?
White:No, theory didn’t really play much of a role in radar work. We had a theoretical department. In fact, Bethe was in it for a while, before he went to Los Alamos. And Julian Schwinger was there for a while. But most of our problems didn’t really require a deep theoretical understanding. Or let’s say, if they did they were so deep that it was just not yet ready. The whole idea of communication theory was not yet ready for practical use, as it has become since.
Weart:With your cyclotron you still had a very hardware approach?
White:That’s right. Though Don Hamilton, who was a very talented experimental man but also very competent in theoretical physics, did make, with someone else, Harry Lipkin (the same man that was from Israel, worked half time at Argonne, half time in Israel — he was one of my graduate students after the war), he and Lipkin did analysis of cyclotron theory and beam extraction, as sort of a general contribution to the subject. It wasn’t Don’s interest. He just did it out of the kindness of his heart. And it was useful. But we didn’t really follow it up. So we did recognize that one should do more theory, but I backed off from going the whole way. Looking back now, I wish I had had somebody who was more interested and gave full time to it. We might have made some contributions. But we didn’t. So it was pretty much a hardware, cut and dry orientation. Well, it was getting clear about the need to have a certain field shape, in order to get resonance between the angular motion and vertical motion, in order to avoid blow-up and so on. That was becoming clear as time went on. But it was not enough. It should have been more.
Weiner:Thinking about this period, at the same time, the Brookhaven discussions were starting — but before we get into that, there was one report you did, you sent us a copy, 1946, of a national network of video communications and radar stations.
Weiner:Now, I read it, and you were identified in it as head of the Airborne Radar Division, as well as at Princeton. It wasn’t clear to whom the report was addressed, but basically it was a comprehensive national plan, and I looked at it — there were 62,000 people you envisaged in this, and a cost of half a billion dollars or more, and you called specifically for federal government support and coordination, and then a national laboratory with liaison with industry and so forth. I have a number of questions. The first one is, the origins of that, where it all came from.
White:I really wrote that up largely while still at MIT, and it came out of Project Cadillac, Airborne Early Warning, in the sense that I felt that one could cover the entire country with radar scan and could relay that to aircraft, rather than to the ship for the admiral — let the aircraft see himself going through the sky, and all the aircraft in the neighborhood showing on the same scope. So it was an outgrowth of that particular project. And this memorandum was addressed to, and sent in fact all over the country. I mailed it out to RCA and GE, and people down there whom I knew, and copies went off to the Air Force, to the Federal Aviation, FAC, FCC and so on, and I got no reply. Not even acknowledgement.
Weiner:From any of these?
White:Not from the federal government, no. I may have gotten, “We received your memorandum, we notice your kind interest.” Karl Compton was quite interested in this, and he arranged for me to get a lecture at a little tiny college up in Vermont. It’s a military academy, Norwich Military Academy — so, I had a captive audience. I went up there one snowy night in the middle of winter, snow five feet deep, and in fact the president of the college used to be here at AIP, Homer Dodge. I stayed at his house overnight, I recall — it was colder than blitz — and we went into the assembly hall, we came in. He addressed the boys, and they all snapped to attention (shuffling their feet like this, you know) — and he said, “Be seated.” They all sat down “whomp”, and I gave them this speech, and they published it. That was the reason I did it, was to get it in print. And I couldn’t find the bound copy. It was put out in some sort of lecture series — once a year someone gives a talk up there, and the way they pay the guy off is to print it up nicely, and it’s a little cardboard cover and they distribute this widely. But I can’t find my copies of it. So in any case, I found out after I’d done all this that RCA had actually scooped me, that they had patented practically the whole thing, even before I had been writing about it. I suppose they were aware of our Project Cadillac — I don’t know, probably they were because it was a very big project and not secret. They had been thinking about air traffic control, and had essentially proposed the same thing. So I just got myself free of it. I just wanted to get it off my chest and say it, and then I was no longer going to follow it up. I didn’t want to become involved in that racket, where it was obviously going to be more a political, economic, military, business matter, than there would be any science to it. So I just dropped it.
Weiner:That was one of my questions which you answered — whether you would have been willing to devote your career to it, if it had been accepted as a national government project.
White:The last thing I wanted to do was become a big shot administrator after the war. I don’t think I would have ever touched it with a ten foot pole. I’d have been willing to be a consultant to it. I am not averse to money. And I wouldn’t have minded a day or two a month or whatever, to consult on it. I did consulting after the war of various kinds. On radar, but not on that particular project.
Weiner:Government projects? Air Force?
White:Government — well, various kinds of things, but actually the ones where I was most involved were either summer studies, which Zacharias organized, the anti-submarine warfare studies at MIT, where we went up for the whole summer. And then I was consultant to RCA for several years, on non-radar problems — actually plasma problems, things like that. And then a consultant to (?) Television Laboratories which was a Paramount Pictures subsidiary, which was developing Ernest Lawrence’s color television tube, the chromatron — which in fact is the tube now used by the Japanese in the Sony. But they don’t recognize him as the author of it. Or maybe they do, but at least they don’t say so in their literature. But this thing Lawrence invented, and they asked me if I wanted to consult on it, and I said sure. The laboratory is here in New York, in the Paramount building. Dick Hodgson, Bob Dressler were the two people who were the president of the corporation and the chief engineer. And I’d get up once a week and talk with the boys about various problems. I didn’t give them much help. I always felt embarrassed, because I got paid handsomely for not doing a heck of a lot. But then the same outfit wanted contracts with the Air Force to do radar mapping, and also they had a project for developing a device to correlate pictures taken in sequence, along a hundred mile strip say, and the problem was to take each picture, as you get them in a row, and line them up accurately by some means other than just eyeballing them. They had a way to scan it electronically and orient the dots, so that the thing was done automatically with high precision, and I was involved in that a little bit.
Weiner:This was all extracurricular.
Weiner:Did you have some more questions on the physics particularly?
Weart:No, I think we can move on to Brookhaven.
Weiner:OK, then, the Brookhaven discussions started in the fall of ’45. I know that in February of ‘46 you were at the meeting at Columbia, I know from Ramsey’s account. He reproduces the memo that came out of that meeting of February 16, and you’re one of the participants, and it’s an important memo because the agreement was made there, that this laboratory should be built within a certain radius, who should participate and so forth. So I’d like to do this Brookhaven story by asking you first, when did you hear of it first? Who told you? How were you involved in the very initial stages?
White:I don’t really recall the very first contact, but certainly Harry Smyth was very much involved in this whole thing from the start, and I’m sure he and I discussed this many many times, before anything formal was done. And knowing Norman Ramsey and Rabi and others intimately, I would assume that when we met at meetings of the American Physical Society or other things like that, we talked about it. But my major talking really was done either with Harry Smyth at Princeton, or in actual meetings, along with all these other people. I don’t recall much sort of one-to-one talking with Norman or Rabi, except when we got together — Bob Bacher was I guess still at Cornell then, and so it was apparent to everybody that we had to build a nuclear reactor for experimental use, and it could not be at a university. It was not quite so clear what to do about accelerators in those days, but they thought they’d better add a cyclotron or two, and the idea of building the cosmotron was not, at the very outset, one of the things that people were talking about. The major thing was the big reactor, which had to be classified in the first place, in those days, and as you recall, the early talks were with General Groves of the Manhattan District. And so the basic motivation of Brookhaven was the big nuclear reactor. That’s what started the whole thing.
Weiner:And everyone was serious about it? It wasn’t just a front for an accelerator?
White:I don’t think so. Sure, we all said they had to have a big cyclotron there, but I don’t think anybody at that moment really pictured the cosmotron. No, it was not a front, definitely. In fact if anything, I was a little unhappy in some ways about the establishment of Brookhaven. I felt that once you built a big machine at Brookhaven, it precluded the construction of a big machine at any university, where I thought it really belonged. And I did have slight dreams of a Princeton machine of some size, even in those days, though it wasn’t apparent what it was going to be. Of course, Berkeley had the 184 inch cyclotron, but the bevatron — gee, I don’t know when that was first proposed by Brobeck. That came out in — of course, there was no PHYSICS TODAY —
Weiner:It started in ‘48.
Weiner:Yes. And I just wonder if it coincided with —
White:— it was earlier than that, yes —
Weiner:the REVIEW OF SCIENTIFIC INSTRUMENTS, which preceded PHYSICS TODAY as a major —
White:No, I don’t think that this was a front at all for high energy physics. In fact, the basic theme was, you have to have one of these for university research work, for the benefit of people in solid state physics and medicine. I frankly didn’t see a heck of a lot of use for it in my kind of physics, because thermal neutrons aren’t my thing. They weren’t my thing then and they aren’t now. But I felt that it had to be built. It was going to be very expensive. It had to be put fairly far away from inhabited regions, because of the possibility of stack gasses being radioactive. I certainly did not want to see Princeton build it, but I wanted to see Princeton have access to it, and that was really the major thrust, the big reactor. And at the same time, one had to have a cyclotron, and a small Van de Graaff, because you knew that nuclear physics needed all the tools you could think of, the neutrons and fast neutrons and deuterons and so on. But the cosmotron was not, that I know of, in the early discussions.
Weiner:According to these documents, it certainly wasn’t included in the February ‘46 meeting that you were at. What was talked about there was the reactor, and the location of it, and then the joint university work, and it was agreed that, [reading from the memo:] the problem of joint action of the universities represented (which included Princeton) for the purpose of obtaining very high energy particles was discussed. It was agreed that such action would probably soon be required, but further discussion at the meeting was deferred for the following reasons: several institutions already have projects for the production of particles in the 100 MEV region — development work leading to higher energies is already proceeding — had not yet reached the stage of being held up for lack of joint action though this state may soon be reached — finally, organizational plans for such joint action can be best made later after the status of the pile in this area is clarified. But by December of ‘116, the plan included the things you mentioned — the 60 inch cyclotron —
White:December of ‘46?
Weiner:Yes. By that time. Well, it’s almost a year later. This is according to Ramsey’s account, that the plan included the 60 inch cyclotron, a 12 MEV Van de Graaff, a 700 MFV synchrocyclotron, —
White:12 MEV Van de Graff?
Weiner:12 MEV, according to this.
White:We had a hard time getting three.
Weiner:Well, GE built the darned thing, and the meter said 3 MEV and they didn’t get 3 MEV. It’s a typo, it says 12 MEV here so I picked it up without even thinking about it, it says it in that report…
White:Well, when GE couldn’t deliver the 3 MEV, we in fact threatened to sue them, and got back some 60,000 dollars or so to allow us to make the thing work, and eventually we got 3 MEV. But not thanks to GE. We got in Ray Herb and High Voltage Corporation.
Weiner:Let’s tell the story from the beginning. I was leading up to the point that by December ‘46 the plan was for a 700 MEV synchrocyclotron, and/or a 1 or 2 BEV synchrotron, and then finally, “super high energy machines in the more distant future…” That was just left in that vague category. Your participation in that February meeting was that your first meeting was the one that produced that agreement that led up to this, at Columbia.
White:February ‘46. I really don’t know. It sounds right but I don’t have anything to tie it onto. I recall seeing Ron and Taylor with Bacher and Ramsey and Smyth and Pegram and others, but as to when it was?
Weiner:I just wondered if there were others you remembered. So I was assuming that your presence there had to do with discussion of accelerators, and you were saying that you were just as much interested in nuclear piles at that time.
White:Not personally, but as a thing which universities had to have. As I said earlier, I was in fact a little unhappy at the thought that they might build at Brookhaven a high energy machine, of the size that universities might become accustomed to, and this was Rabi’s idea, too. And to air some soiled linen, I was very irritated when it turned out that Columbia went ahead and built a big cyclotron -– when I thought that the idea was not to build big machines in universities, because my efforts to get one at Princeton really came to naught because Smyth particularly said, “Look, we’re building Brookhaven, in order to build these big machines, and not have to have them duplicated around the country with all their expense and big staff.” So I was quite irritated, when Dunning, I’m sure Dunning must have been involved, but if he wasn’t anyway Rabi certainly was aware of it.
Weart:Somebody mentioned that one of the reasons Rabi pushed for going to a larger machine was simply because then they wouldn’t be so close to the one that Columbia was building. This would be during 1946.
White:There were lots of good reasons, and it could very well be so, and it would make sense, as a matter of fact.
Weiner:I guess the sequence was that, according to Ramsey, at first Columbia was an adamant supporter of the 700 MEV machine at Brookhaven, and then cooled off on the idea when the Nevis (?) contract came through.
White:Yes that fits.
Weiner:— he put that in his history, it’s public —
White:— that’s right — OK — yes —
Weiner:But now you’re saying, in addition to that, that Columbia then said Brookhaven should go to higher energies, which makes sense too.
White:Sure it made sense. It’s just that I thought the cutoff point was going to be lower. Boy, I would have liked to have built a 700 MEV machine at Princeton, but —
Weiner:You felt they really had pulled one on you, then.
Weiner:What was your response then in terms of your plans, once Columbia had entered the field in that way? What did you see as a Princeton project, or did you? You didn’t start —
White:Well — again, I don’t know how these dates fit in, but let’s see, Brookhaven began the cosmotron design actually, you may know —
Weiner:— you were brought in on the group in ‘48.
White:‘48, I went there in the summer time to help with the design. That was in part satisfying my interest in high energy machines, by being there. Then Livingston wanted to leave and go back to MIT, and you may know when he left Brookhaven and went to MIT. In any case, I agreed to be chairman of the department. I had planned to go to Brookhaven permanently, but I started out by being half time. I went up from Princeton to Brookhaven every week, every Sunday afternoon, and came back on a Wednesday, another half day, then I came back to teach Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then I’d go up Sunday to Brookhaven. Do you know when Livingston left Brookhaven?
Weart:Either at the end of ‘47 or in ‘48, I’m not quite clear, I don’t have the exact date.
White:Well, he must have left in the fall to teach at MIT, that would be the usual thing to do, so I suppose in the fall of ‘47 is when I took over the cosmotron, and I stayed there I guess for a year and a half.
Weart:Did you expect it would be just a temporary thing, that you’d just be there for the design?
First temporary. Then I decided that I would actually move up there. In fact, I bought a house at Bellport (?), house called the Academy, a very lovely house on Academy Lane. I put money down on it, and took my family up to see it. The children were enchanted by the widow’s walk around the top, and the little artist’s cabin out behind, where I pictured myself studying, away from the turmoil of the kids. But then I backed out, because the house really hadn’t been properly winterized, and I found myself looking at a much bigger price tag, to rebuild the building, winterize it. It turned out to be harder to get a loan than I had thought, a mortgage. Brookhaven I felt was not being very helpful, even though they claimed they wanted me, and were all my close friends and so on. They were very much tied by government ground rules. The AEC had very strict rules, and there was no money to speak of that wasn’t tied to government dollars, so they couldn’t do anything even if they wanted to. Even though Hayworth tried to help.
In fact, various friends were willing to be co-signer of the mortgage. But then eventually I said: “Look, with a wife who’s getting sicker all the time, it doesn’t make sense to be 15 miles away from your work”; Brookhaven and Bellport are 15 miles or so apart. Also I didn’t like the schools up there. The schools in Bellport had been originally developed for the greenhouse type people. The area around Bellport is mainly devoted to farming and greenhouses and raising tulips for the New York trade, and the influx had not yet begun of New Yorkers and laboratory types, so there was big fight on, in the schools, between the incoming people and the old residents. And Princeton schools at that time were extremely good. So I finally decided I wasn’t going to go up there. I decided to stay in Princeton, this must have been about the time I talked it over with President Dodds — I’m not dead sure of dates, but they’d just come into some money, the Higgins money, shared between Princeton, Columbia, Harvard and Yale, some 26 million dollars, split four ways, the income thereof, and he set up the Higgins Chair. I was I guess the first Higgins Professor. I think that’s about the time.
Weart:Nineteen forty-nine you became Higgins Professor, so that would have been just immediately following.
White:— about when I was leaving Brookhaven, more or less. Also I guess at that point I was worried about finances, because I could see my wife being very ill and having tremendous medical bills, and Princeton salaries weren’t all that hot, back then.
Weart:Did Princeton realize you were fluctuating, did that have anything to do with —?
White:Yes, sure. Dodds said, “You’d be foolish to go to Lockheed.” I was thinking of going into industrial research.
Weiner:Oh really, was there a specific offer?
White:Yes, General Cresada, who was the Lockheed honcho on research, I knew pretty well from wartime days. He came to Princeton a few times and talked it over. I went out to Lockheed and looked them over. I’m not sure I’d have been happy, I probably wouldn’t have been happy. I was only doing it really because I felt that I needed the money to take care of my wife. I didn’t really want to get in that kind of work. And so, I talked it over with President Dodds, and he said, “Well, we just had this new source of funds, so we are going to make you Higgins Professor of Physics.” The salary wasn’t all that terrific, compared to Lockheed, about half Lockheed salary or maybe a third, but anyhow it was good enough improvement. I just liked Princeton, still like Princeton. So I stayed, and quit the business at Brookhaven. But now some place in here, I then invented a variation on the strong focusing synchrotron, but that interest didn’t come till a little later. That must have been ‘51, about. I was at Brookhaven for one summer when Livingston, Courant and Snyder had invented this strong focusing synchrotron, and —
White:‘52. That’s their first publication?
Weart:I think that’s when they were working on it, in ‘52.
White:I should have brought up some paper, I forgot to. Well, I was there during the summer, after they had made this announcement, and we were still looking at the theory. In the original version of the strong focusing synchrotron, one had a mixed system of guiding field to bend the particles, and an alternating gradient to give focusing in both planes. And my contribution was to recognize that one could totally separate the focusing functions from the guiding functions, and have pure bending and pure focusing and pure bending and pure focusing, and that this would be mathematically quite similar if not identical to the one we had focusing and bending simultaneously. The virtue would be that in the event some day you had superconductivity and wanted to have extremely high guide fields, like 50 kilograms or so, to make that also strong focusing at the same time would be quite difficult.
Weart:Were you already thinking about superconducting magnets?
White:Yes. The first thought was just plain iron magnets going to 24 kilogauss, and to do that seemed much easier if you had a flat field, or almost flat field, than if you had the one which you had to permit the strong focusing. Because to get strong focusing you had to have pole tips which are flared this way, and then that way, the other way — which means that the field, when the metal is near together, is limited by saturation, to say 24 kilogauss, and the field down where you are (where the beam is) is down around 14 kilogauss. The idea was to always have 24 kilogauss, making the smaller ring, and put the focusing periodically around the ring. What I did was to think about that. Actually the very first thought, to be historical, was, how would it be if you had a spiral field, in which you had a strong focusing pole which revolved around as you went around the ring? And then from that I said, “Well, why do that? Simply have bending and just put the quadrupoles every so often.”
Weart:When you say a spiral pole, you mean, twisted like a Mobius strip so to speak, gradually turning.
White:Yes, you have north north, south south, as in a quadrupole, and then you bend this thing gradually — So when I returned to Princeton after that summer, I got a contract from AEC (Tom Johnson at that time was the director of research for AEC) to work on the mathematics for a design of a separated function synchrotron, And we designed one for 15 BEV. And the design group which got together consisted of Shoemaker and — no, he wasn’t there.
Weiner:O’Neill? Was he there?
White:Neither one of them was there yet. No, it was a guy named Aarons, and Bob Dicke gave some help, and Al Handle gave some help, and Johnny von Neuman came in for a few meetings —
Weiner:What role did he play?
Oh, the general thought was, this might require some pretty fancy computing, and he was at that point big in the MANIAC. Including Bigelow from the Institute of Advanced Study, he was also with Johnny, and he’s an idea man, and he came in. The main thought was, I felt that maybe if we got together some very bright guys and said, “Here is the general problem, can we do something better than we’re now doing?” — that someone might just break away from the traditional structure. For example, I hoped that one might find a way to damp out the oscillations which you always get into, when you inject into a synchrotron — you get oscillations both radially and vertically, also in phase space going around with the bunches. Now, if you could find a way to damp the oscillations out, then you could have a much much smaller magnet, and the economics would be far superior. Well, I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t yet know how to do it. But people have done a lot better than they thought they could do. The hope was that someone like Bob Dicke, who is a real hot shot on noise problems and such things, and Johnny von Neuman would suddenly think of something. Does incoherent motion have something about it that you can get your hands on? Can you extract energy from this incoherent motion so you only have just the main forward component? Well, we didn’t do it. But we understood the problem a lot better. In fact, later on with the PPA, some of the things that were done here came back in another form, to get rid of certain motions. Those that are coherent. If they’re coherent, you know where they’re going to be in half a turn, therefore you can do things about them. If they’re incoherent, you don’t know what to do about it. But it now turns out that Budker in Novosibirsk has done something of the kind that I think we should have discovered.
In fact, Lyman Spitzer, later on, did mention this to Jerry O’Neill and me with regard to storage rings. But had we had him in our group, it may be, it might have been that we would have thought of this thing earlier. Budker’s idea is this: you have a beam of particles which is oscillating transversely, in a random fashion; if you have them going through an electron beam, which itself has no transverse motion, therefore is cool transversely, you will absorb energy from the proton motion, and cool the proton beam down. Seventeen years ago, he proposed this. He has now done it. At Novosibirsk. Well, it actually wouldn’t have worked on this accelerator, because he has a storage ring, and you’ve got to hold the particles in this ring for minutes, to cool it down. But now he is cooling it down. Well, I don’t know. It might have been something which would have come out of our studies. My basic approach was I think somewhat different than most people who invent a device or manage it. I wanted to get together the brightest people around, and just state the general problem, just start over again and see what we can do about it. So anyhow, we had this contract with AEC under Brookhaven, it came through them, and we studied the problem; we designed the machine for 15 GEV. At 15 GEV, it didn’t look to be economically much superior to a combined function AGS machine, the reason being, we had more ends of magnets, and therefore more loss in space, which diluted the whole 2 r. And we proposed to AEC seriously that they should in fact fund us to develop a 15 GEV machine at Princeton. They said that was out of the scope of a university, and Brookhaven was the place to do big things like that. So they said, “OK, finish up your report and let’s not go on with it.” So we finished it up, and all the staff went away and got jobs elsewhere, and we shut down the study. I was disgruntled, and went off to Vermont for a vacation. At this point also there were various problems at home. My wife was in the hospital, mental hospital at this point, now, because the MS had gotten to her mind. One of my daughters also had a nervous breakdown, and she was in the mental hospital. So the two of them were off, and the other two children were at camp. So I went off to Vermont for a little rest. I was swimming in the pool near the hotel when a bellboy came out with a telegram, and he said, “Mr. White, telegram from Washington.” I said, “Oh hell, what do they want now?” And it said, from Torn Johnson, “Submit proposal for accelerator within ten days.” We had ten million dollars to build one or two machines. And that was the start of the PPA and the Cambridge machine. Stan Livingston had also been doing some design studies for an AGS machine at Cambridge, Harvard-MIT, and so I went in the hotel, and designed a machine I thought might cost five million dollars, to be a 2 BEV machine, and not however to be separated function, but to be weak focusing, of the cosmotron type, which I knew.
Weart:I don’t understand. You had already a 15 GEV study.
White:That got junked.
Weart:I see, so he’s telegraphing you back, just send in some proposal.
White:For a university-sized machine.
Weart:I see, a university-sized machine.
White:So I gave up the 15. The 15 billion volt machine I guess would have cost on the order of, oh, 10, 15 million dollars.
Weiner:I see, and this five million.
White:Five million — well, to send in proposals for one or two machines. They said, “You and Cambridge shall now race.” And then Johnson, under pressure from others, sent this same notice to all universities. It was called the famous Box Top Contest.
Weart:But he originally had just you and Cambridge in mind.
White:People felt it was a rigged contest, in that anybody who had not been doing design studies had no chance to get in a proposal in time to be considered. And this was probably Johnson’s intention, as a matter of fact, that he wanted us to have it.
Weiner:What was your relationship with Livingston during all this period? Good?
White:Yes. Oh yes. We’ve always been very good friends from the very beginning. In a good way but competitive, to a certain extent we’re both fairly competitive — but basically a very good relationship.
Weiner:So the Brookhaven collaboration was a good one, for example?
White:Yes. In fact, he’d asked me to join him up there, when they were doing the original design, and I was there, we overlapped. When he went away, he wanted me to be his successor, and I was willing to be. So yes, we had a good relationship all along.
Weiner:You were then put into competition though on the proposal.
White:Yes. Well, I sent this design study in on the hotel stationery, back to Princeton, where it was typed up by Don Hamilton and Bob Dicke, and sent off to AEC, as a sort of holding action, and we just sort of said, “It will cost five million dollars.” In round numbers. Then when I came back, we made a serious study. Now, this time Shoemaker and O’Neill and myself designed a 2 billion volt machine. That was the first proposal. But then when Johnson finally got word out to other universities that this was a serious contest, then we had to submit another proposal, a more complete one, with a better cost analysis, and at that point we raised it to 3 BEV, which we thought we could do at the same price as two, which is of course obviously a delusion, but we didn’t mind being self-deluded. That one was fairly extensive. I think we made a number of calculations, and the machine in fact did perform, in fact even better than we computed. But the cost went to 12 1/2 million before we got through.
Weiner:The dates are important for me. The study that was junked, when was this done? How long a period of time? When was it over?
White:Well, I had on my desk, I meant to bring it up, the reports that we issued on the subject, and went to Brookhaven. I meant, when I was at Brookhaven last week, to go around to the library and see if they have a complete set of my reports to them. I have a feeling there’s more than I have, at least I don’t have the legal documents, the contract between us and Brookhaven, the letters that passed between me and Haworth, setting this thing up, but it’s about, roughly, a year, a year and a half study, on that order of magnitude. I don’t think it was two years.
Weiner:When was it over? When did it start? It started when you got back from Brookhaven.
White:I would have to look at my records, but I think that it was over in the late spring of ‘54.
Weiner:Well, maybe I have a fix on it, if it’s that late, because the PRINCETONIAN clipping that you sent, February 11, 1952, in that edition they announced that the Brookhaven contract to Princeton was given for study of the basic design, and the site possibilities —
Weiner:— of a strong focusing proton synchrotron, and that there was a feasibility study, and it would possibly be located at Princeton. So that’s in response to the telegram from AEC.
White:No. This was the design study.
Weiner:That’s the one you scrapped.
White:Yes. This is not the response to the telegram. This is the one —
Weiner:— OK, right, and that’s where Shoemaker was involved, according to the story — it says Mosely, Dayton, Carlson, Dicke, White and Bigelow were working part time, and then it drags in Oppenheimer’s name, and Price and Bigelow or someone —— at the Institute for Advanced Study, and then von Neuman’s computer, which is background for what you told us about the junked story. Now it’s making sense.
White:Now, is Shoemaker there? OK —
Weiner:— Right. Now, the proposal to AEC, according to the stuff I read, was 1955. And that was the proposal from White, Shoemaker and O’Neill.
White:For a 2 BEV machine.
Weiner:That would be not the stopgap plan you sent in immediately, that was the long follow-on.
White:Well, there were three things — the stopgap thing on hotel stationery, then the 2 BEV design in a grey cover, a little peek-a-boo. Then there was a third thing, which is what we called the Bible, which is the 3 BEV. That’s the formal document, for the start of PPA.
Weiner:The actual detailed design began in earnest in August of ‘56.
Weiner:Which is a good point for us to end on, I think. So next time, the discussion will pick up the PPA story, and I think it’s a nice package.
Weart:— that’s right —
Weiner:It would occupy a couple of hours easily, is that all right with you?
Sure, that’s fine. I think we should probably stop now.
R.F.F. - Radio Finding and Fixing (S.W.)
Scientists at War
M.G. White, A NATIONAL NETWORK OF VIDEO COMMUNICATION AND RADAR STATIONS
Alice K. Smith, A PERIL AND A HOPE
About Feb. 4, 1950 - SW
PHYS. REV. 75, 282-92 (1949); 95, 1226-35 (1954)
PHYS. REV. 95, 1226-35 (1954)
M.G. White, A NATIONAL NETWORK OF VIDEO COMMUNICATIONS AND RADAR STATIONS (privately printed, 1946)
M.G. White, THE RELATION OF RADAR AND COMMUNICATIONS TO THE FUTURE OF AVIATION (Cabot Foundation of Norwich University, VT, 1947)
Norman F. Ramsey, EARLY HISTORY OF ASSOCIATED UNIVERSITIES AND BROOKHAVEN NATIONAL LABORATORY. Brookhaven Lecture Series, no. 55, March 30, 1966. BNL 992 (T-421); TID-4500.