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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Harold Albert Wilson

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Interview with Dr. Harold Albert Wilson
By Gerald Phillips and W. James King

March 3, 1964

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Harold Albert Wilson; March 3, 1964

ABSTRACT: Wilson was born in 1874 and was interviewed at the age of 90. He spent most of his professional career at Rice Institute in Houston, which he joined at its inception in 1912. His major work was with the conductivity of gases, especially flames. In the 1930's he started work in nuclear physics. The only extensive technical discussions are on the conductivity work. Wilson briefly outlines his career, starting with his association in 1897 with J.J. Thomson. Four to five years after coming to Cambridge, Wilson began working on electron charges in a cloud chamber. The conductivity of gases work was started then, as was research on induced current in a magnetic insulator. Wilson was appointed to Kings College in 1904 and researched rotation of discharge in a radio magnetic field. In 1909 he left for McGill, in Montreal, and is anecdotal about his experiences there. At Rice in 1912, he organized and equipped the physics department. His students included Maurice Ewing and Tom Bonner. He returned to Glasgow University for the 1924-24 year. There he lived in Kelvin's old house, raised funds for the department, reorganized lab equipment, and worked on flames. The following year, he returned to Rice and developed the nuclear physics program there. In 1936 or ‘37 he and Bonner built the Institute's Vandergraff generator.

Transcript

Phillips:

Let's see, you came to Rice Institute sometime in 1912, didn’t you?

Wilson:

I came in time to be at the opening ceremony. My wife and I had just got married in Montreal about a month before. Then we came down here, find I remember that the Houston Post had an article saying "The first Ice Institute professor arrives from Canada with his pink-cheeked bride from the Canadian North.” Then a few days later they had, you see this big opening ceremony; a great many scientists and people came from different universities all over the world for this opening ceremony.

Phillips:

Who all was at the ceremony?

Wilson:

There was Paul Teller and Ramsey from England and a philosopher from Glasgow and there were people from Oxford and Cambridge and from different universities. I can't remember them all, but an enormous number of people came. It was a very big ceremony.

Phillips:

Was your old professor, J. J. Thomson, there?

Wilson:

No, he didn’t come. He may have been asked, but he didn’t come.

Phillips:

You worked for some time under Professor Thomson, didn’t you?

Wilson:

Yes.

Phillips:

What kind of a man was he to work for?

Wilson:

Oh, he was very nice to work for. He helped his graduate students very much. He used to come around the laboratory at least twice a day. He would come around in the morning and talk to the graduate students, and then he would do some of his research work there, and then after lunch he came again very often. Every day he had a tea in his office for all the graduate students, and we used to talk about all kinds of things there. He was very interested in football; he knew the people on the Cambridge teams and he used to talk about them and their chances of winning games and that kind of thing. He would tell storied. I remember he told one story once. He said that he was playing gold, and there was a rather strong wind, and he hit the ball, and the ball went about 100 yards in the direction he sent, and then it rose up in the air and was blown back by the wind and it fell behind him some distance. Professor Bumstedt of Yale was there, and he said, "Is that a fact?” and everybody roared with laughter.

Phillips:

Was he in the habit of telling tall stories?

Wilson:

Yes. He’d tell stories like that sometimes.

Phillips:

How did Professor Thomson work? Did he assign a problem or did he leave that up to the student to work out?

Wilson:

When a graduate student started work, he would usually suggest a problem to him, unless, of course, the man had a problem that he wanted to work on and then he would let him work on big problem if he thought it was any good. I remember when I went there; I'd been doing some research work at Leeds University on the conductivity of flames. You’d see, I’d been doing some work on that, and I talked with J. J. Thomson about that, and he suggested that I go on with rather similar work.

Phillips:

That was about 1909?

Wilson:

That was ’97, 1897. Yes, I’d been four years at Leeds, and then I’d been doing some graduate work there for a year on the conductivity of flames with Professor Smithel, who was the Professor of Chemistry there.

Phillips:

Then you got into work on the condensation of vapors, didn’t you; work on the charge of the electron?

Wilson:

Oh, yes, I did that some years later, you see. It was while I was here at Cambridge, but it must have been, oh, about four or five years after I went to Cambridge that I did that work. That didn’t take very long: it was quite a short experiment: I worked more time and got a better result, but…

Phillips:

What was the experiment?

Wilson:

The experiment was to use a C. T. R. Wilson cloud chamber, you know. C. T. R. Wilson had only just a couple of years before started his work on cloud chambers, and he lent me a cloud chamber. You had moist air, you see, in a vessel and then it suddenly expanded and you got a cloud, a cloud was formed. Well, then, if you had some x-rays going, an x-ray tube going just before you did the expansion, a number of drops would get electric charges on them. They you could observe the rate of fall of the cloud. First, you know, it was just falling due to gravity, and then when it was falling due to an electric field — the vertical electrical electric field, you see, is either opposed to gravity or with gravity — and by measuring those two velocities, you see, you could get the change on the particle.

Phillips:

What kind of results did you get from that?

Wilson:

I got pretty bad results. It was a rather rough experiment. The difficulty was, you see, that the drops evaporate and very often small drops evaporate quite rapidly so that if you measured the time of fall of a drop, you see, with gravity and then measured it with an electric field, its mass changes due to evaporation, you see, so that the results were pretty rough. When you put the electric field on some drops in the cloud would fall with a certain velocity, you see, and some would fall with a certain velocity, and sometimes some with three times the velocity, showing that the charges were in the ratio of 1, 2, 3. So, I did get that. And I got a rough result for the average value of the charge.

Phillips:

You had to look at the surface on the cloud. You didn’t look at any individual particle?

Wilson:

Well, you could see the individual particles, but if you have a very dense cloud, of course, you couldn’t see the individual particles. But with a rather faint cloud you could see the individual particles.

Phillips:

I see. You did measure the velocities of some of the individual particles?

Wilson:

Well, I could see that there were a great many, a large number, all going at the same velocity, and I could measure that. And then there would be quite a large number, too, going with a bigger velocity.

Phillips:

It would form sort of stratification within the cloud.

Wilson:

Of course, the evaporation made it — well, if I had been smart, I would have seen that the charge I got, you see, got smaller the smaller the drop. The small drops evaporated more, you see. So, I ought to have got a better graph, you see, of the charged on the different-sized drops, and then found where it went when the drops were bog. Big drops, you see, didn’t evaporate so much, so they would give a better value. But I didn’t do that; I didn’t see that.

King:

This is the experiment that Millikan started out with, wasn’t it?

Wilson:

Yes, some years later Millikan used more or less the same method, but he didn’t use water drops, you see. He used oil drops which don’t evaporate, so he got rid of the evaporation entirely, and he got good results.

King:

What did you next turn to after your work on electronic charge?

Wilson:

Well, I’d been working on the conductivity of gases you see, especially flames at high temperatures. Most of the work I did while I was at Cambridge was on the conductivity of gases, some discharges of gases at low pressures, you see, and I did quite a number of experiments on different salt vapors at about 1500 degrees centigrade.

Phillips:

Didn’t you at one time develop essentially a gas triode, which is a flame triode, where you had an electron emitter and an anode in a grid and produced some amplification in a flame?

Wilson:

No, I didn’t do anything like that.

Phillips:

That wasn’t you. Perhaps that was Professor Heaps that did that.

Wilson:

Oh, I remember, in a flame. He found that in a flame you could get a sort of amplifier. Heaps did that.

King:

About when was that?

Phillips:

That was one of the early experiments, I suppose, that Heaps did…

Wilson:

That was at Rice: he did that at Rice. Oh, it must have been around 1920 or ’30, sometime after he came to Rice.

Phillips:

Had you got Heaps interested in flames? Is that how he came to be working in flames?

Wilson:

You see, I did some work on flames at Rice, and Heaps was interested, and he also did some experiments. Then I did some experiments in Cambridge on the induced electromotive force in insulators when they were moving in a magnetic field. You see, I had a cylinder of an insulator and had it rotating in a magnetic field and got the induced charge on the surface of the insulator. Then, of course, when we came to Rice, my wife and I did a similar experiment with what we called a magnetic insulator, but we made a sort of artificial magnetic insulator, but we made a sort of artificial magnetic insulator by coating small bicycle bearings, very small ball bearings, you see. They were coated with wax and a lot of them were joined together with paraffin wax and a lot of these small steel balls you see embedded in wax. That made a substance that had a specific inductor capacity and also a magnetic permeability, and so you could measure the induced electromotive force in that magnetic insulator when it was moving in the magnetic field. And the result agreed with Einstein’s theory.

King:

This led to your work in relativity, or were you interested in it before then?

Wilson:

No, I was not interested in relativity before that, but I gradually became rather interested in relativity as time went on. Well, I thought we ought to have a course on relativity for the graduate students, you see, so I started giving a course, so in that was I got interested in the subject. Of course, when we came to Rice the first year we just had about 70 freshmen; that was all. So, the first year I just gave three lectures a week for these freshmen. And there was no lab at first. But during the year we bought quire a lot of apparatus, so after a month or two we started having some experiments that the students could do also, you see.

King:

Did you have a textbook at that time, or was it a straight lecture course?

Wilson:

We told them to use a textbook, yes.

King:

What did you use for a textbook? Do you recall?

Wilson:

Well, I had a book I’d written some years before on experimental physics, and I think we used that book. And then we had — oh yes, the first year we did sound, light and heat and dynamics, you see, and then that second year, for second-year students, we did electric and magnetism. And I had a book by W. C. D. Wetham on electricity.

Mrs. Wilson:

You’d better tell them the story.

Phillips:

That’s the reason I am laughing. You tell the story Dr. Wilson.

Wilson:

Well, W. C. D. Wetham, you see — his actual name was William Cecil Dampeer Wetham — and he wrote this book on solutions. It was quite a good book on the theory of solutions. Then he built a house — he was a lecturer at Cambridge — and he built this house at Cambridge and he called in Upwater Lodge. Then there was a short note in Punch saying, “We have received for review 'The Theory of Solutions' by W. C. D. Dampeer Wetham, and we understand that when Mr. Wetham was at Eton, he was a wet bob.” The people who went in for rowing at Eton were called wet bobs.

Mrs. Wilson:

You haven’t mentioned anything about McGill. Didn’t you do anything interesting at McGill before you went to Rice?

Wilson:

Yes. From Cambridge I went to Kings College in London: I went there as a lecturer. And then after one year the professor, who was a very old man, retired, and I go the professorship, you see, at Kings College in London. And then I was professor there for four years, and then I went to McGill, Montreal. Kings College was in some ways an interesting place, but they were very hard up. They couldn’t get any money for new apparatus. They had a book where they kept a record of all the new apparatus they’d bought, and for about 10 years they had spent only about five pounds, or something like that. The equipment was awfully poor, you see. So, I was rather pleased when I got a chance to get to another place.

King:

What did you do at McGill?

Wilson:

I was a professor of Physics.

King:

Did you do any researches there?

Wilson:

Yes. I did some researches at King’s College, too. I got a research assistant there and we had a room fitted up for research work.

Phillips:

That was at Kings College.

Wilson:

Yes.

Phillips:

What were your research interests at Kings? What sort of research were you doing at that time at Kings?

Wilson:

Mostly discharge of electricity through gases. I remember I did an experiment on the rotation of a discharge. You had a radio-magnetic field and the discharge rotated, you see, in a radio field. I measured the velocity of rotation. I did several experiments.

Phillips:

You know a lot of those experiments down about a half a century now are being redone by fellows who did not bother to read the literature, don’t know do the existence of that big body of work.

King:

When you get to McGill, did you continue in this field or research, or did you go into another field?

Wilson:

No, in McGill I did some work on discharge through gases. I did some other things, too, but I forget now. I think I wrote two or three theoretical papers while I was there. I didn’t like McGill very much. It was too cold a winter, for one thing, awfully cold in winter, and there was something wrong with the department there. Two of the people in the department were going insane, really going insane, and it was rather awkward you see; when you found that people were obviously going insane, you didn’t know what to do. I remember once one of the professors there, who was supposed to be the head of the department — I was supposed to be a research professor, you see… I was giving a lecture to a class, most of whom were going to be engineers, and one of the students began very badly during the class, you see, so I made him go away, sent him out. And this professor came to me afterwards and he said, “I hear you turned this man out of this class.” I said, “Yes, he was behaving very badly.” He said, “We never do that. You’ve got to keep them in the class and make them behave in the class.” So, I said, “All right. I’ll do that if I can.” Then two or three lectures later, the same man was behaving very badly, and so I managed to keep him in the class and made him behave. And then the professor came to me after class and said, “Why, I hear this man that you turned out before was behaving very badly in the class today. Why didn’t you turn him out?” So, I felt there was something wrong with the man. Then he claimed that he discovered that the vapor from ice was not the same as the vapor from water, that there were two kinds of water vapor, ice vapor and water vapor, and the ice vapor, when you warmed it up, would melt and absorb heat. Well, that was obviously absurd. I tried to explain to him that it was absurd and he got very mad; he didn’t like being criticized at all.

King:

Was Rutherford at McGill when you were there?

Wilson:

No. Well, I had the job that he had, you see.

Phillips:

He was there just before you or just after?

Wilson:

No, no, there was a man in between, a man called Cox. Cox retired when he was quite a young man, I mean about 50, something like that, you see. The Carnegie had started a system for pensions, you see, for professors, university professors, and Cox found that according to the Carnegie scheme he could retire at 50 and have quite a good pension. And so, he retired at 50 when he didn’t need to retire and then he made money by going around and giving lectures. Of course, the finances of that scheme were very bad and they soon found that they couldn’t continue it and had to give it up. King; Well, then from McGill you came down to Rice Institute as it was then called.

Wilson:

Yes.

King:

How did you get research started at Rice in the field of physics?

Wilson:

Well, the first year we were there we were given the ground floor of what is now the engineering building, the main engineering building. We had two large rooms. One room was for teaching elementary physics, and the other room we made into a workshop and research room. It was quite a large room, and we had a couple of machinists, you see, and then we could do research work there.

King:

And you had two machinists to start with.

Wilson:

Yes, you see, President Lovett got me to go there. He promised that they would build me a physics building, that is, as soon as I got there I could design a physics building and they would build it, and then I could have a research assistant and a machinist and some assistants also, a lecturer. He made me a very good offer, and he carried out his promises. SO, during the first year we were there, we were designing this new physics building, and it was built during the second year, and in the beginning of the third year we occupied the new buildings.

King:

Did you have graduate students in the third year, when you went into the new building?

Wilson:

No, we didn’t have any graduate students. It was some time before we got graduate students.

Phillips:

Who was your first graduate student? I used to know, but I’ve forgotten.

Wilson:

Ricker, I think it was Ricker.

Phillips:

Was it Norman Ricker?

Wilson:

Yes.

Mrs. Wilson:

Wasn’t Lyons there, too, at the same time?

Wilson:

Who is that?

Mrs. Wilson:

Lyons. The man who committed suicide, or tried to. Wasn’t he one of the first graduate students?

Wilson:

I’m not sure. I don’t think so. But Ricker was the first man who got his Ph.D. in physics, and that was several years later.

Phillips:

I was just thinking that certainly you produced a number of men that turned into very good geophysicists. Did you teach quite a lot of geophysics to the students, or did they just go into that because of economic reasons and what not? I was thinking of Norman Ricker and Maurice Ewing, both of whom were students of yours.

Wilson:

Yes. Maurice Ewing of course, got his Ph.D. in physics and then he got interested in the physics of the ocean floor, you see, and became professor of geology at Columbia. And then he got this prize of $25,000 for his work on the ocean floor.

Phillips:

He’s very famous, indeed.

Wilson:

Yes, he’s quite a celebrated geologist now, though he says he doesn’t know any geology.

Phillips:

I’m sure he does.

Wilson:

Yes, we’ve had quite a number of students who’ve got quite important positions now, professorships and so on. Mr. Phillips is one. He got his Ph.D., you see, at Rice and is not the Director of the Physics Lab.

King:

Professor Banner was another one, wasn’t he?

Wilson:

Yes, he got his Ph.D., but he didn’t do his undergraduate work at Rice, you see. He came to Rice as a graduate student from SMU, but he got his Ph.D. at Rice and then he succeeded me as the head of the department. It was a shame that he died so early: he was an awfully good research man. When he first came I suggested an experiment on conductivity of flames to him, and I was astonished at the way he did it. He got the apparatus set up and designed his apparatus in a few days, and he got the thing working. He did the whole thing in about a couple of weeks: I realized then that he was really a sort of an experimental genius. After that he always suggested his own researches, you see. Neutrons were just being discovered, and so he suggest he do some work on neutrons, and I told him I thought it was a good idea, and he did it. He was certainly a fine — he had good ideas for research work, you see, and he was very good at carrying them out.

Phillips:

He was a very talented man.

Wilson:

Richards was another man who got his Ph.D. at Rice. Isn’t he professor at Wisconsin now?

Phillips:

Yes, he’s chairman of the department there, I believe.

Mrs. Wilson:

And young Bonner is studying with Richards.

Wilson:

Yes, he was an awfully good man. There must be at least a dozen professors of physics now around the country who got their Ph.D.’s at Rice. Then in the physics building we had four rather large laboratories for teaching purposes: a lab built for the freshmen, and sophomores, and seniors and juniors. But at the start we were not able to use those four because the biology department also occupied the physics department, you see, part of it; as a matter of fact, they got more than half of it. Of course, at that time we hadn’t many students, so we had plenty of room. So, we had a large laboratory in which we taught the freshmen and sophomores, and then we had another large room where we had experiments for the seniors and juniors. We had rather a good arrangement for the experiments. For the freshmen we bought 30 sets of apparatus. Each set of apparatus was a complete set to do about 30 experiments, so that when we got 30 of these sets, it cost quite a lot of money. It was good apparatus we didn’t buy cheap apparatus.

Mrs. Wilson:

That took all the freshmen, didn’t it?

Wilson:

Yes. And at first we had 25 sets of apparatus for the sophomores, and for third and fourth-year people we just had single experiments, you see, and they had to take turns doing this.

Phillips:

I’ve often wondered, weren’t the undergraduate laboratories at that time at Rice and then up to the Second World War probably very well equipped compared to other universities at the same time?

Wilson:

I think they were because most places would just have two or three sets of apparatus, you see, for the freshmen. They all did the same experiments, you see. That is, we had 15 tables at which four students could work, with two sets of apparatus, one set of apparatus for two students, you see. So, 60 students would all work at the same experiment at the same time. And when you had a class like that, the man running the class, you see, would give a short lecture about this experiment that they were going to do and they also had written instructions, you see, for each experiment, and then they would all do the same experiment.

Phillips:

Did you have a laboratory in graduate physics, too?

Wilson:

Yes, after a while we began to get graduate students.

Phillips:

Did you set up individual experiments for them or did you more or less leave them on their own?

Wilson:

Well, the graduate students usually took some courses, lecture courses, and then they were supposed to do research work. Well, sometimes I would suggest the research to them, and sometimes they would suggest the research themselves. But most graduate students didn’t have very many ideas, you see, so it usually happened that one would suggest the research for them and help them do it. That is, for the first thing they did, but then if they were pretty good, they soon got their own ideas.

King:

How did you think the research at the graduate level should be carried out? Do you have any particular feelings about how the graduate should be handled when he starts in his research? Do you feel that he should be given a frame-work…

Wilson:

We always tried to start them off on some kind of research as soon as possible, very often in their first year even. I don’t think it’s a good idea — for example, some places, I believe, make a graduate student do lecture courses for two or three years and then do research work. I don’t think that’s good. We ought to start research quite early, at the end of his first year anyway.

Phillips:

I, of course, feel the same way, Professor Wilson, and we’re still doing the same procedure, and I think it’s a good one.

Wilson:

Of course, sometimes they’re not really quite ready to do research.

Phillips:

It depends upon the student, of course, but they should be encouraged to start research just as soon as it’s feasible. One of the things we discussed this morning when we were talking to Professor Houson was this distinction that is sometimes made between experimental physics and theoretical physics. Do you have an opinion on that? Is there such a thing as one or the other in your mind, or should one just be a physicist?

Wilson:

Well, I think usually people are of one or another, but some people more or less know both fields. Theoretical physics is such a big subject now that it’s rather hard to really do research work in theoretical physics unless you devote most of your time to it. Well, most graduate students, of course, do experimental research work, but some do theoretical work.

Phillips:

Well, in recent years it’s become very popular. Most of the students want to do theoretical work.

Wilson:

You say they want to do experimental work?

Phillips:

No, they want to do theoretical work. There are some universities where all of the students want to do theoretical work. Some of my friends at Harvard have told me that this is a serious problem there that they have almost no experimental students, and, of course, they’re very good students, too: they come to them, many of them, with scholarships and fellowships.

Wilson:

I should think it would be a good time to encourage a man to do some experimental work even if he was more interested in theoretical work. If he does do some good experimental work even if he was more interested in theoretical work? If he does do some good experimental work, he gets the idea of what things are really about.

King:

He at least knows that in a vacuum system there are leaks there, and that you have to take care of the leaks. Nowadays, you don’t use wax. But it was possible. At Cornell, in the graduate school, if you take a major in experimental physics, you have to take a minor in theoretical, and then you have a third subject, which I suppose usually would be mathematics. But I think it’s a pretty good option because it forces a man to at least get his fingers in the lab if he’s a theoretician.

Phillips:

Well, Professor Wilson, when you want back to Glasgow, why was it that you went back at that time? Were you dissatisfied at Rice, or…

Wilson:

No, they made me a rather attractive offer, you see, to come back, and I told President Lovett about it, and he said he wouldn’t do anything. So, I went. He said he wouldn’t do anything until I finally accepted the offer. So, I said, “If I finally accept the offer, I’ll have to go.” He said, “No, you wouldn’t have to go.” And I said, “I probably would.” And then I got a definite offer, you see, to come there, and I accepted it, and I told him I accepted it, and then he started trying to get me to come back, not to go, you see. But I said I’d go, and I’m going.

Phillips:

So, you really called his bluff.

Wilson:

Well, of course, the bad thing about the Glasgow job was that when I got there I found that I ought to find out about the retirement there, and it appeared that we had to retire at the age of 65 or even 60 with a very, very small pension. I never thought about the retirement business before going there. I mean, they gave me a good salary and a house on the campus, and that sort of thing, and I through it was fine, but I didn’t expect to have to retire in about 10 or 15 years. Of course, apparently people who did retire usually got another job, you see, somewhere else, but you couldn’t guarantee that and the pension was absurdly small. So, I decided that I had to to get another job, and then President Lovett came around to Glasgow and tried to get me to go back to Rice. So, I said, “Okay that would suit me fine.” And he fixed me up with the Humboldt Oil Company to give me a consulting job, so I came back with a much bigger salary.

Phillips:

As I understand, the house that you lived in in Scotland was the house that Lord Kelvin lived in?

Wilson:

That’s right. There were 12 houses on the campus. There was one house for the principal of the university — he’s called “principal,” not “president” — and then there were 11 houses for the 11 original professors. The houses had been there a long time, and we had the end house, number 11. They were a row of houses, all joined together you see, but the end house had three sides with windows, so our house had three sides with windows and you could look out… The physics lab, then, was just across a short walk, about a hundred yards from our house, and it was a very big lab. But they had not bought much apparatus for a long time, so the lab was in a rather poor condition with regards to apparatus. While I was there it was the hundredth anniversary of Kelvin’s birth, you see, so they suggested that I try to collect money in celebration of this. So, the principal gave me a list of people who might give money, and so on, and I went around and called on these people and asked them to give money. I was surprised, these Scottish people, nearly all of them gave quite a lot of money. I think I got a whole lot of 500 pounds and even some a thousand pounds, and ended up by getting about 15,000 pounds to buy apparatus. Then I spent about half of it, and then came back here, and the principal was rather mad.

Phillips:

What sort of research did you do while you were at Glasgow?

Wilson:

Well, I did some work on the conductivity of flames with a graduate student. I didn’t do very much research though. I had a couple of graduate students that I had working, but I had so much to do with reorganizing the lab and everything that I didn’t have much time for research work for myself. It’s curious what a state physics departments sometimes get into if the people running them are not much good. You know, since Kelvin had retired, there’s been a man called Gray.

Phillips:

Andrew Gray?

Wilson:

He was quite a good physicist, but he hadn’t kept up the lab, you see; there was no new apparatus that had been bought since Kelvin died. Well, I know I wanted to do some work and I wanted an ammeter or something, and there weren’t any. I found there was one in the lab. And then to measure currents there were galvanometers, coils of wire with a little mirror hung up, fiber about an eighth of an inch long in the middle of the coil, and no good galvanometers, and no voltmeters practically, and all things like that, things that most labs would have a lot of, you see, they didn’t have any. So, I spent a whole lot of money buying ammeters and voltmeters and galvanometers and [???] to regulate currents, was rather funny though. I spent about half this money on that sort of thing, and then resigned and went back to Texas. Well, anyhow, they got their apparatus. I think they’ve got a rather good department now. They’ve got a man called Dee there now who is quite a good scientist. Dee is doing good work on nuclear physics now.

Phillips:

What was the real start of nuclear physics at Rice? What were the first experimental measurements and whatnot…

Wilson:

Well, Bonner started — his work with neurons was the first work in nuclear physics.

Phillips:

When you became interested, then, in nuclear physics at that same time, didn’t you, and worked quite a bit in it yourself…

Wilson:

Yes. Well, of course, we built that Vandergraff you see, and built it while Bonner was away. Bonner got a fellowship, you see to go to England for a year, and before he went we had been talking about building a Vandergraff you see — Bonner and I and Mott-Smith and the others had talked about it, but we hadn’t really started it. So, when Bonner went to the Cavendish, for a year you see, I said, “Well, build the Vandergraff while Bonner is away and it’ll be ready for him when he comes back.” So, we managed to do that. We bought the tank and then all the inside apparatus, for the Vandergraff was built in the lab here. We had just got it working, not very well — I think we got about a million volts with it — when Bonner came back, so I told Bonner, “Well, now it’s your job.” And in about a week he had the thing going and giving two million volts.

Phillips:

That’s the way Tom was.

King:

About what year was that? Was that in the ‘30s?

Phillips:

Was it 1936 and ’37?

Wilson:

Around that, yes.

Phillips:

That was the third or fourth machine that ever worked, I believe. It was based purely largely on Professor Herb’s design, wasn’t it? You and Herb, I know, had a bunch of correspondence back and forth.

Wilson:

Yes, it was very similar to… Well, the details were different but the general idea was the same. It worked very well.

Phillips:

I believe it was the second pressurized Vandergraff. Herb’s was the first.

King:

A considerable amount of nuclear physics has been done at Rice ever since then, is that right?

Phillips:

That’s right. It’s 32 years now that we’ve been doing nuclear physics.

King:

This has been your field.

Phillips:

Yes, that’s my field.

King:

Well, I think this has been a very pleasant conversation and perhaps we should call this the termination.