Oral History Transcript — Dr. Edward U. Condon
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Interview with Dr. Edward U. Condon
Edward U. Condon; October 17, 1967
ABSTRACT: Family background; early education; influence of high school physics teacher, William Howell Williams, 1914-1918, and later teacher at University of California, Berkeley; interval as boy reporter. Undergraduate years at Berkeley, beginning in 1921 in chemistry department; Ph.D. in physics, 1926; association with Fred Weinberg. Discovery of Erwin Schrödinger's wave mechanics papers; International Education Board fellowship to study quantum mechanics at Göttingen, 1926. Work on Bell Systems technical journal for six months before accepting lectureship at Columbia University; teaching post at Princeton University; Condon and Philip Morse's Quantum Mechanics, result of Columbia and Princeton courses. Relations with University of California; role in persuading Ernest Lawrence to go to Berkeley from Yale University. Recollections of Michigan summer school. Work at Westinghouse on applications of nuclear physics to industry, including completion of Van de Graaff machine, 1937-1940; setting up Westinghouse research fellowships, 1938; Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference on applications of nuclear physics, October 1940; war work on microwave radar. J. Robert Oppenheimer asks Condon to come to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory; tour of Los Alamos with Leslie Groves; reasons for leaving Los Alamos after a few weeks. Work as head of theoretical section of Lawrence's laboratory, August 1943-1945; British scientists. Evaluation of Westinghouse's four million-volt machine. Description of Nimitron, a physical computer, designed for 1939 World's Fair. Discussion of 1928 radioactivity. Reminiscences of Ronald Gurney's later career and his trouble with security. Discussion of postwar events, such as the Quebec Conference, McMahon Act, Moran's book about Winston Churchill. Peacetime development of atomic energy; establishment of the Senate's Special Committee on atomic energy. Directorship of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), 1945-1951. Work on superconductivity; W. Emmanuel Maxwell and John Pelham. Accomplishments at NBS. Hearings in 1948 and 1952 before the Department of Commerce under Truman's loyalty program; Averell Harriman. Director of Research at Corning, 1951. House Un- American Activities Committee hearing, 1954; J. R. Oppenheimer and Bernard Peters; reopening of clearances, loss of Corning position; becomes Corning consultant. Head of Washington University physics department, 1956-1963; Oberlin College, 1962; interest in modernizing teaching; Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), from 1963; editor of Reviews of Modern Physics, 1957-1968; establishment of the National Accelerator Laboratory (Chicago); the UFO story. Comments on his most satisfying and his least satisfying work. Also prominently mentioned are: Raymond T. Birge and Henry Wallace.
Weiner:This is a tape-recorded interview with Professor Edward U. Condon in his office in the Jila Tower at the University of Colorado, and the date is October 17, 1967. I'd like to start, Dr. Condon, by asking you some questions about your early life. I know that your father was a civil engineer and traveled around quite a bit in the West. How long did you live in New Mexico where you were born?
Condon:Oh, just a few months. My father was building a railroad from Alamogordo up to Cloudcroft, which has long since been abandoned and turned into a highway route. That job was finished when I was a tiny baby, so I didn't live there more than the first six months of my life. He was the engineer that put the Western Pacific through the Feather River Canyon, and that came next, so at the age of about six months I was taken to live in a boarding house in Quincy, California, in the High Sierras. That job lasted a year or two. Of course you understand I don't have any firsthand memories of that. It's all based on hearsay.
Weiner:Then where did you first attend school?
Condon:I guess it must have been in Berkeley. I'm not exactly sure myself. We were living in Berkeley in 1906 at the time of the big San Francisco fire and earthquake, and I was four years old then. I suppose I went to kindergarten about the next year. As a matter of fact, I can't remember all of my childhood. I know I went to 14 grammar schools, and one time when my mother was quite old, and before she died, I tried to sort it out one time with her as to where we'd lived and when and in what order. She didn't know either. I think I know most of the places, but what order and precisely what years I don't know. That nomadic life went on (I used to kid my parents about it) until they had to start paying full fare for me on the train. As long as I could go for half fare, we seemed to move a lot. I think that's a joke. I think it just happened that the nature of the work changed. The seventh and eight grades were in Oakland, California grammar school, one out in the eastern part of Oakland called Fruitvale. Then I went to a high school in that same part of Oakland, the Fremont High School. But the earlier part—kindergarten on up through sixth grade— was just everywhere.
Weiner:During this time there was no permanent family home?
Condon:That's right. Actually, I suppose, if one is really being quite frank, I should say that at about the age when I was six years old or so my parents were separated, and so though my father was moving all the time, my mother was, too, but they weren't together. My mother got some support from my father, but she also worked as a stenographer, and she had what I'd call a pathological wanderlust. She was always looking for a better western town to live in, and I was the only child, so we'd just pick up stakes about every six months and move to some other town. God knows where they all were—San Diego; Hoquiam, Washington; Aberdeen, Washington; Wenatchee, Washington; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver; Littleton, Colorado; Montrose, Colorado. I don't know; I couldn't begin to call them all off.
Weiner:Do you recall reading much as a youngster?
Condon:Yes, I did a lot of that. I remember first getting interested in astronomy whenever the Halley's Comet was here.
Weiner:That was 1910.
Condon:Was that 1910? I had a great bee on for reading all the astronomy I could get my hands on. We were living in Denver at that time, and Halley's Comet was a very spectacular sight. If it were in 1910, as you say, then I was eight years old, and I read all the books in the Denver Public Library on astronomy, I guess.
Weiner:Did you read the books when you knew the comet was coming or after?
Condon:Oh, sort of both. I mean it was going on. If I'm not mistaken, it was in the late spring—May about—of that year. We lived in the western part of Denver, and I just spent evenings looking at it and talking with other people and so on. I had two aunts, sisters of my mother, that lived in Denver, so Denver tended to be a place that we returned to frequently and lived in at various times on that account, but it was byno means a settled residence.
Weiner:When did you become interested in science in a continuing serious way? In other words, this comet thing might have been coincidence.
Condon:Oh, yes. I did that kind of reading, but of course I was a very young kid. I guess in what you might call the eighth grade of grammar school, I remember that was the first time I ever heard the word "physics. I didn't know such a word before, you know, and I did buy an old high school physics textbook by Carhart and Chute. The title was High School Physics. Carhart and Chute were Michigan professors. I bought this for at an Oakland bookstore, a second-hand bookstore, and kept it for many years. Being just a schoolboy who didn't have the slightest idea of physics as a growing, expanding thing, I at first thought it was a complete treatise on physics, and as I gradually found that it wasn't, I tried to keep it up-to-date by writing things in the margin. Of course that wasn't feasible for very long. I'm sorry that I've long since lost that from moving around so much. So it started then. Then departing from the usual order of events in school, since I had that prior knowledge, somehow or other I managed to be allowed to take high school chemistry in my freshman year as well as taking what they called I think in those days physical geography rather than general science, but another two science courses. And then so in my sophomore year I took the physics course that was usually taken in the senior year. So by this time I was hooked on the subject. Then in high school I had one of these little jobs of being a bottle-washer and a lab cleaner -upper at $5 a month working a couple of hours every day after school, and that gave me a chance to have more intimacy with the school labs than otherwise I would have had.
Weiner:Was it the first time you'd worked with equipment, with gadgets?
Condon:Oh, yes, yes. Well, I'd done a certain amount of this boyish winding up coils and trying to make little toy motors and telegraph sounders. It was before the days of radio. There was a little bit of dot and dash telegraphy and Marconi telegraphy, but there was no broadcasting. That didn't come along until '21 or '22. So I had a certain amount of that sort of home shop playing around with electrical experimentation, and then I got into the high school lab as more than just a student. I had the keys to the place, so I could play around. The teachers didn't expect very much in the way of work, so I can remember I used to wash up the place awful fast and spend the rest of the time playing with the apparatus.
Weiner:Were the teachers especially prepared in science?
Condon:Yes, I had an extraordinarily good high school physics teacher and chemistry, too. I don't know whatever became of the chemistry teacher. His name was Charles Finger, like the finger on your hand, and he was extremely good. Then my high school physics teacher, who was really the head of the science department, had a very great role in my life. His name was William Howell Williams. He was a West Point graduate who hated the Army. He had originated somewhere in upper New York State, and I'd guess he would have been a graduate of West Point around 1902 or '04, something like that. In those days practically every young officer had to do a tour of duty in the Philipines—that was our big colony—and he had come back from the Philippines as soon as he could and got a job teaching high school and was taking graduate work at Berkeley as well. He later became a member of the faculty at Berkeley. Well, you must realize (perhaps we ought to get that on the record) my high school years were exactly the years ('14 to '18) of World War I. It was fortunate for me that I took physics in my sophomore year, which would have been the year '15-'16, because that was before we were in the war, and Williams, being a West Point man, was called up to military duty. He went off and taught artillery school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, so I didn't see anything of him then during the latter two years of high school. Then at some time or other at the end of World War I, about 1918 or '19, he came back and got a minor job, as an instructor probably or maybe assistant professor, on the faculty at Berkeley. So he was again an influence in my life when I was a student in college at Berkeley. My high school teacher was now on the faculty there.
Weiner:In the physics department?
Condon:Yes. So Williams influenced me from 1914 to '16, then there was a hiatus there of two or three or maybe four or five years, but by the time I was really a student again at the University, he was on the faculty and I corrected his papers as a student reader in his courses and I took his courses. He even had a sabbatical year and went to Gottingen at the same time I did, fall, 1926. I would say I had much more of a father-son relationship with him in this intimacy about science than I ever had with my own father. He didn't have any children of his own, so I saw a good deal of him.
Weiner:When you talk of his influence on you, do you mean in terms of someone to identify with or in terms of specific information?
Condon:I'd say both. He was a very unusual fellow. You see, he's a complete unknown so far as the formal history of physics is concerned because he was a man who had this, as he used to call it, "lousy West Point education." He had only gone to West Point because he was a poor boy and that was the only way he could get a free so-called college education in those days. But he had a deep interest in theoretical physics that had been aroused when he came back from the Army, I guess. He was a close friend both of G. N. Lewis and also of Richard Tolman. By that time Tolman was at Caltech. Tolman was so close to G. N. Lewis that he used to be a frequent visitor to seminars at Berkeley. He was interested in the fundamentals of general relativity and special relativity and statistical mechanics under the influence of those people. On the other hand, since he'd never had formal graduate training, I don't suppose he ever wrote a research paper in his life. In fact, he was somewhat sensitive about it, because some of the more pedantic academic types at Berkeley for a long time refused to give him a promotion because he hadn't gotten his doctorate—you know, that union card. He got bitter about that and became heavy on the drink towards the latter part of his life. So, in other words, he never fitted into the normal academic pattern, but he was a very sympathetic and understanding person as a person, and he also was an extremely able interpreter of modern theoretical physics at the level appropriate to those years—statistical mechanics and relativity especially. He gave courses at the graduate level in the old days at Berkeley. I don't really remember how long he lasted. He lived till post World War II because he was again called up to some sort of military duty in World War II, but I think it was more of a desk job in Washington. I don't know what he did.
Weiner:We can look up some biographical information on him.
Condon:He's a very interesting person. A person who would be the coldest and most unsympathetic formalist about whether you have a doctor's degree or you don't have a doctor's degree, and therefore you can't be promoted, would be Birge. Birge did a great deal to block Williams' promotion. But Williams lived it through in spite of Birge and did get to be a full professor—I don't know how. It was over the great resistance of a lot of these pedants.
Weiner:In some of the notes that I pulled together, there's something about an experiment. This must have been in some published biographical account, which indicates that you read a book by a man named Duncan. [Robert Kennedy Duncan, "The New Knowlege," N.Y., A. S. Barnes & Co., 1908. Duncan was the originator of the plan and first director of the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh.]
Weiner:And you did an experiment based on this.
Condon:That goes back to 1915. That would have been about the freshman year in high school so far as the schooling part is concerned. That year, as the records will show, was the year when there was a big expositionin San Francisco, a world's fair, called Panama Pacific International Exposition. It was coincident with the opening of the Panama Canal. I made lots of trips over there and spent many an afternoon that summer looking at all of that stuff. In my view there's never been a world's fair that good since. It may be just because that's the impression it made on me as 13-year-old boy. And I had just heard about radioactivity. This book that you refer to is by Robert Kennedy Duncan. The New Knowledgeis the title of the book. Robert Kennedy Duncan was the man who founded the Mellon Institute. In fact, he founded that whole idea of industrial-sponsored fellowships for industrial research—more chemical than physical in those days. It was a good popular book for those days of pre-Bohr theory—it was published in 1913—and it had all the early stuff about X rays, radioactivity, canal rays, you know. So that made a big impression on me. Then the state of Colorado had an enormous exhibit of carnotite ore, uranium ore, that comes from the western part of the state; and I used to walk by there and fill my pockets with the stuff, getting enough to fill a cigar box with this stuff and proceeded to make gamma ray shadow pictures of metal objects and keys and thing. You know, on the high school level it's great stuff for the other kids. So I had my box of carnotite ore for several years. That was the first thing I ever did in the way of what you might call modern physics play as contrasted with other boys' telegraph instruments and things like that.
Weiner:Did you do this with a friend or was it on your own?
Condon:I think on my own. There were a couple of boys that were about my age and lived in the same neighborhood in Oakland that I did. We did a lot of the playing around with telegraphs. I remember we managed to get a lot of old iron wire one time and strung a telegraph line on the phone company's poles between my house and the other house about six blocks away. We had it operating for some months or so before the phone company's linemen discovered it, and tore it down.
Weiner:And it worked?
Condon:Oh, yes. It was nothing, you know, but a good old Morse code sounder. A few batteries would make enough current go through this to operate the key and sounder dot-dash stuff. I was never energetic enough really to learn the code. That was a goddamned nuisance. But so far as making the current actuate the sounder, it sure did that. We had a little simple code for calling each other back and forth, just silly little messages about getting together at certain times. So there was that kind of boyish experimentation. That went earlier, a year or two earlier. By this time I was in high school, and then there was this play with the radioactivity and the other stuff that we talked about.
Weiner:You graduated from high school in 1918, and yet you didn't enter college until 1921.
Condon:Well, you see, the last part of my high school was a little bit unscientific, because having jumped the gun and taken this junior and senior stuff as a freshman and sophomore, there was nothing more to take. The high school offered four years of science, and I took all four years in the first two years. So there was that factor. There was not only no more science courses in the school to take, but secondly, these particularly stimulating teachers had both gone away to war, and by this time I got to working on the school newspaper. Then I went into newspaper reporting the summer of 1918 as a kid reporter. So actually I graduated from high school in December of 1918 and that fall I had only a course or two to take, so I was working as a boy reporter in downtown Oakland while finishing up at high school. The first two hours in the morning I'd go to high school and then beat it down town and work as a reporter. So when I got out of high school I thought I was going to stay on and be a newspaperman. Then in the fall of 1919, I thought I'd be an educated newspaperman, which were rare in those days—there was practically no reporter that I knew in Oakland or San Francisco who had ever gone to college. That was the way things were then. The one or were two that were much sneered at. They were sissy boys on whom the real tough profession looked down. But I started then at the University of California in the fall of 1919 while working part time as a reporter to support myself and expecting to get the kind of liberal artsy college course that would help me to be a newspaperman—you know, history, economics, political science, English, all that typical bag of such tricks, but I got so bored with it at the end of three or four weeks that I said the hell with it and quit and went back and got a newspaper job again. So actually I worked at newspaper work for two more years. In the meantime, various high school friends that had been a little older than me and who were science-oriented—you've got to realize that having taken these senior courses in my sophomore year, I knew the guys who were seniors who were old enough to get caught up in the war and they were a little slow coming back. So there were these various guys going back to college in science. So renewing those acquaintances I got sort of steamed up about it, too. So in the fall of '21 I re-entered the University, still working as a reporter to make a living, but now with the intention of going into science. I first started in the college of chemistry out there thinking I'd become a chemist.
Weiner:Why that college?
Condon:Well, it's hard to say. Actually, I think in high school I'd been more interested in physics than chemistry, but of course all of the level of talk was pretty elementary, so it wasn't a very profound choice. I suppose it was more just the influence of a couple of my old high school friends. There was one named Verne Van Amringe and another one named Ross Cummings, both of whom went into chemistry. I think there must have been a lingering of that feeling that we all kid around about among the American Physical Society folks about how chemistry was known by the public as a profession, but whoever heard of being a physicist? I probably didn't know you could be a physicist. In any case, it wasn't a very profound choice. It was influenced by friends that were a little older than me who were also in the school of chemistry—the College of Chemistry, as they called it. So I did that in the fall of '21. And then I stayed right on and didn't make any more false starts, though the newspaper episode, if you want to call it that, lasted pretty much through college. About three or four years I would work always summers as a reporter to make a living and did a certain amount of part-time reporting in the regular year, but gradually one began to get these other kinds of jobs that go with being ayoung guy around a physics department—where you're a teaching assistant—and so I dropped out of newspaper work.
Weiner:What college courses stand out in your memory as being interesting to you at the time?
Condon:Well, I suppose this is not too complimentary to my alma mater, but if history is supposed to be truthful, I'll have to say it. At least from my point of view, the mathematics department was pretty dull at that time, and I suppose probably the biggest thing really getting going was in the summer of 1922 when George Birkhoff of Harvard, a distinguished mathematician (the father of the fellow that everybody knows now, Garrett Birkhoff), was out there as a visiting professor. And it was a funny thing for a fellow between his freshman and sophomore year to do, but I took a graduate course in relativity from Birkhoff. At the same time I was taking a laboratory course in quantitative analysis as a sophomore chemist. I had a hell of a time that summer, but it was good training for me because the man in the chemistry department, George E. Gibson, known on the campus as George Entropy Gibson (that wasn't his middle name, but he was a thermodynamics man), had wanted to take that course from Birkhoff himself. So every afternoon, on those warm summer afternoons in the old chemistry building when I was trying to do analytical chemistry lab experiments, he'd pull up a stool and say, "What did Birkhoff have to say?" and I had to review the lecture under his quizzing. So I learned a good deal of relativity but not much quantitative analysis. However, he gave me an "A" in the course, not on the basis of the quantitative analysis but on the basis of the relativity. So that was the summer of '22. I didn't stay with the chemistry department, partly because I was not very adept at the lab, and they had very stringent requirements in quantitative analysis, and I just wasn't much good at it. It annoyed me; I didn't like it. At that time the man who administered the rules to the undergraduates was William C. Bray, Bray was absolutely adamant that everybody had to make a big record in quantitative analysis. I think people know that a slightly stubborn person, and I at that time was interested in astronomy anyway, so I just left the College of Chemistry and I guess about my sophomore year I must have been enrolled as being in the College of Letters and Sciences, as they called it in Berkeley, and tentially majoring in astronomy. There again I sort of jumped the gun and started taking graduate courses as a sophomore. I took graduate courses in celestial mechanics and so on from Donald Shane, who was then an assistant professor. He later became the director of the Lick Observatory and is now retired.
Weiner:Someone interviewed both Donald and Mary Shane for us. We have the whole history of the Lick Observatory.
Condon:Oh, good. Shane was a wonderful influence in my life. As I recall it, he had a shared position in those days—half mathematics and half astronomy. I took integral calculus from him and struck up a deal with him that if I made an "A" on the mid-terms and finals I wouldn't have to do the home work and wouldn't have to ever come to the class, and I did that all right. I'm not sure that it was such a smart thing to have done. Well, yes, I think it was, because this was an engineering kind of calculus that was pretty sloppy anyway. But I never did really get a proper grounding in analysis with rigorous proofs and good demonstrations of the theorems. I just learned that kind of calculus where you learn to slop around and use Peirce's table of integrals and do things. My mathematical training at Berkeley was terrible. I don't blame Berkeley. It was partly my fault and partly theirs, but the total result was terrible. I have awful big holes in my knowledge of real good mathematics.
Weiner:But at the time, you didn't really know what you wanted to do, so you didn't feel you were missing anything by not getting a certain amount of mathematics. In other words, very often people take mathematics because they need it for something.
Condon:Of course I didn't realize till much later how bum I was, how poor my foundations were, but they were terrible nevertheless. For example, I never had anything at all about matrices until matrix mechanics came along and I had to learn it all myself—that whole area that's now called linear algebra. They may have been giving a course in it—I don't know—but I didn't have it, and well, it was just bad training; possibly my fault or possibly a fault that many people have because coming in as I was as a scientist, a physical scientist, I must have been rather disgusting to a real mathematician in the sense that I was only interested in mathematics that I could use, whereas real mathematicians are interested in the subject for its own beauty, and I never was much good at that. At that time the department of mathematics was largely in geometry, especially abstract things, synthetic projective geometry and number theory and things of that sort and tended rather to neglect good work in advanced analysis or advanced algebra.
Weiner:But when you switched from chemistry to astronomy it was with a long-term career goal in mind?
Condon:It's hard to say. Yes, I thought I was going to be an astronomer. You've got to remember that this was very early. This was in the sophomore year. This was in a year when lots of people haven't even made up their mind yet what they're going to major in at all. You find these undergraduates flopping around not knowing. I'm always amused at them. There was a student I was talking to here the other day that told me with an air as if he was telling me about some subject that he was majoring in: "I have an uncommitted major," as though that was a subject to major in— uncommitted. So at any given time I was committed, but I made several changes. So I took quite a lot of graduate astronomy that year and the next year as well as the advanced undergraduate courses. But I guess it was about what would be formally my senior year that I became a physics major, having gotten more interested in that. There, again, there was a mixed pull because the head of the astronomy department at that time was Armin Otto Leuschner, for whom the Leuschner Observatory was named. He was also dean of the graduate school. He was one of these fellows who was extra good to me personally. That is to say, being an influential man on the campus, he could break various rules that I wanted broken for myself, and did, and therefore I felt very much as though I was his protege. At the same time the astronomy department at Berkeley of those days was nearly entirely a classical celestial mechanics orbit computing sort of a department with practically no modern astro-physics. And as I gradually discovered the existence of modern physics, that crowd seemed to be pretty old-fashioned to me, so I moved over into physics. Shane became very much of a modern astro-physical astronomer. At that time he was more of a young classical celestial mechanics man teaching only in that area. It wasn't until later that he himself went to Lick Observatory and got into the more modern topics then.
Weiner:Prior to your senior year, do you recall having physics courses?
Condon:Oh, sure, I took the works. They had a two-year sequence in freshman, sophomore engineering physics and also for physics majors. I took that in a freshman year from R. T. Birge; then in my sophomore year I think it was from Leonard Loeb, who was at that time just an assistant professor. So it may have been that it wasn't till later that Loeb came. I don't quite remember precisely. And then there was the usual batch of advanced undergraduate courses. There was an old course on conduction of electricity through gases that was given by the then chairman of the department E.P. Lewis—no relation to G. N. Lewis.* Both departments had a Lewis as chairman. E. P. Lewis is undoubtedly in your records somewhere. He was a student of Henry Rowland, and an early spectroscopist and the fellow who discovered active nitrogen. He had a certain amount of spectroscopic work going on with very crude and homemade apparatus. He belonged really to that school of love and string and sealing wax, the junkiest kind of homemade apparatus, sort of in the tradition of R. W. Wood. He would be a contemporary of Wood. He was a student of Henry Rowland's.
(*G. N. Lewis was then the chairman of the Berkeley chemistry department.)
Weiner:Did you take any courses in the chemistry department from G. N. Lewis?
Condon:No. Lewis I don't think taught at all except to run a seminar. I used to go over evenings to his seminar. I took thermodynamics in the chemistry department. I took physical chemistry from Thorf in Hogness, who's now been for many years at the University of Chicago. I took freshman chemistry, of course, like everybody did in those days, from the great Joel Hildebrand, and he really was great. Who did I take thermo from? It's a shameful thing that I can't remember. The Lewis and Randall textbook was then a brand new book. In fact, I think the year I took it it wasn't printed yet because it was still being done from a mimeographed version and it was a pretty slavish reading of that book and doing the problems in it. I've forgotten from whom I took it.
Weiner:Was there a difference in how one taught about the atom? Did one teach about the Lewis atom or the Bohr atom?
Condon:Oh, yes, that was a controversy on that campus at that time because various physics department adherents of the Bohr atom were there, like Birge and Loeb and Williams, whereas Lewis was still upholding his static atom model. I don't want to give the impression, though, that the chemists were dogmatic partisans of the Lewisatom and wouldn't have anything to do with the Bohr atom. If there wasany dogmatic partisanship, it was more the physicists who had nothing todo with the Lewis atom, whereas the chemists were trying to study bothand reconcile that there was truth in both and see how to reach it. Sojust because the Lewis atom, which was also known as the Lewis-Langmuiratom because Irving Langmuir had made contributions, was a local thing and there was pretty lively controversy over the relative merits of the two models and how might they be reconciled and all that sort of stuff, itwas a lively period that way.
Weiner:Where did the controversy take place—in university-wide colloquia?
Condon:Oh, not university-wide—just physics colloquia and chemistry seminars of one sort or another.
Weiner:But as an undergraduate you were able to attend them?
Condon:Yes. To say these facts sounds like Fm putting forward some unusual things about myself. I don't want to sound boasting or anything, but, you see, I came to college not directly from high school, as we said.I started taking graduate courses early in my undergraduate years—like that saunter between freshman and sophomore years taking graduate relativity. I'm not sure I'd advise this for people, but I did it and I learned alot in a way and I learned a lot of superficial stuff too in a way, you know. So although I was on the books as a sophomore and junior and so on, I had a whole lot of graduate work under my belt. I don't know quite how it came about in the sense of what kind of rule-breaking it took to permit it, but nobody prevented it and I did it and there I was. And I had, by going to summer sessions, rolled up enough units so that I got my bachelor's degree at the end of three and a half years— that is, in December of '24; and then as the record shows, I finished the whole Ph.D. in a year and a half. I got my Ph.D. in the summer of '26, a total elapsed time of five years from entering. So I became a premature graduate student, you might say.
Weiner:When did it become clear to you that you were going to continue right through for the Ph.D.?
Condon:Oh, pretty early, it was clear that I wanted to. Another influence, of course, that was a very stabilizing thing and that was unusual for those days but not now: I got married to my present wife in the fall of my sophomore year, so I was one of those things that was practically nonexistent in those days—a married undergraduate. In fact, there were very few married graduate students in those days. She worked. She was the librarian of the Oakland Tribune; it grew out of a newspaper acquaintanceship. I was just expected to go into academic work. That was the decision.
Weiner:How did you support your graduate work? Did you have any special kind of fellowship or assistantship?
Condon:Oh, yes, yes. They were good to me. Going back a little bit, I remember my last year as an undergraduate—the year that would have been called the junior year—I was actually the teaching assistant in elementary lab physics out at Mills College, the women's college in Oakland. I used to drive over there and run freshman lab sections and the usual old traditional stuff there. Then the following year, which formally was my fourth year, which actually was half undergraduate and half graduate, I was a teaching assistant of some kind or other at the then going rate of about $750 a year. But then my last year, the year '25 to '26, they gave me a better sort of a thing. I've forgotten what the title was—junior instructor or something like that—at twice what the other teaching fellows were getting, $1500. But that was a working job. I ran electrical measurements laboratories for a big junior engineering course and had two or three other teaching assistants under me. But I never had a fellowship, in the sense of one with no working duties attached to it. I might have, but I didn't in fact.
Weiner:Do you know the source of the funds that provided the assistantship?
Condon:I think it was just part of the regular teaching budget.
Weiner:The department budget?
Condon:Yes, I don't think there was anything special about it.
Weiner:Another question on this: Did you think of yourself in this period of the beginning of graduate work as primarily a theoretical physicist or as one who would go into theoretical physics?
Condon:Well, yes and no. That is to say, in those days theoretical physics was hardly recognized as a thing in which you could specialize. It was one of, those things you did. It would be interesting to check with some of the historians like Birge. I doubt if there were any— and certainly not more than one or two—Ph.D. students at Berkeley prior to me that did a theoretical thesis in physics. It just wasn't done in those days, and, in fact, I don't think it was hardly done at all even in the eastern universities. Everybody had to make good in the lab, so to speak.
Weiner:I think Van Vleck was one of the first in the country to do a theoretical thesis.
Condon:I think that's probably true. I know even Slater did an experimental thesis under Bridgman. I don't know what Gregory Breit's thesis was. I trying to think of the fellows that are older than me but not much older, you know. But it would be an interesting thing to check up on. In any case, you didn't think of it in those days as a possible thing to do. Even if you taught you were going to concentrate more on mathematical physics later, you certainly had to do an experimental thesis; and I started one, as a matter of fact. It lasted about a week. I was going to do a job under E. P. Lewis that would involve measuring the reflecting power of metals in the ultra-violet—that is to say, in the region beyond the cut-off of quartz but with a fluorite prism. He had built a little monochromator with a fluorite prism in it, and I guess it would go to about 1500 angstroms, and I would have had to sputter up some mirrors and set up a vacuum system, not only to do that but to get the reflecting power of these metals at various angles of incidence and at various wavelengths down in that region. I was so damned clumsy and broke so much glass that they suggested that I go into theory, and I did. I don't mean that I did it deliberately. I started out. But I was just a clumsy fellow around the lab.
Weiner:This suggestion to go into theory—under whose direction then would it be?
Condon:I don't know. I don't remember precisely. I don't suppose there are any, except there, records of what courses were taken. I don't know what year that episode was of making this false start with E. P. Lewis about the ultra-violet. Then I quit it. You have to realize that the department in those days practically had no money, and after I broke about $15 or $20 worth of glass in the first week—and that was a tremendous dent in their budget; it sounds silly to talk that way about Berkeley, but they had no association with the federal government in those days, and they had nothing, so to break $20 was probably a big proportion of their total research funds for a year—I won't say I was booted out but when I went around very apologetic about it, why Lewis didn't work very hard to try to get me to stay on either. I think there must have been quite a gap when I wasn't explicitly working on any thesis problem. Then it was in the spring of '26 that was the big period when quantum mechanics came and the business about learning about Franck's idea came. I wrote my whole thesis on one weekend out there when that stuff broke in the spring of '26. Of course that was a bitter pill for Birge, because he took much longer to write his own thesis, and he couldn't realize that anybody could possibly write a thesis faster than he had written his own, and he used to make cracks about that.
Weiner:Were you working under his direction then?
Condon:It came about that way. It's hard to say. You see, that year Birge was giving a seminar in a graduate course in band spectroscopy, molecular structure. I was taking it. So I was full of that topic, being his student in that course. Then this business of getting the proofs of Franck's paper came along through Fraulein Sponer, who was there as a Rockefeller Foundation student. These things are all amusing, because Hertha Sponer wouldn't have been at Berkeley if Caltech hadn't been narrow-minded about women. Of course nowadays they take women, but in those days they wouldn't have her even as a postdoctoral student. Caltech was a monastic institution with nothing but men there. She tried to go to Caltech and only went to Berkeley as a second choice because Pasadena wouldn't let her in. I like to kid Lee DuBridge about that sometimes. But had she gone to Pasadena, I would never have met her and I would never have seen the proofs of Franck's paper.
Weiner:When did she come?
Condon:Well, it was that year—the year '25-'26.
Weiner:It was in the fall of '25 that she came probably.
Condon:Yes, I don't know the exact month but it was essentially that year. She was doing an ultra-violt spectroscopy experimental job. I don't remember what it was. Of course she worked with Birge. There's a very famous paper about getting heats of dissociation of diatomic molecules out of band spectra data that she worked on. It was a paper of Birge and Sponer. It was very important in its day. That was a theoretical paper, a data reduction type of theory. But she was also doing experimental work. The lab that she had in the basement of LeConte Hall was right adjacent to this electrical measurement lab where I was teaching engineers all about the various kinds of Wheatstone and Kelvin Bridges and such experiments that they don't teach engineers anymore— or physicists either. So I used to often drop in there and gossip with her—you know, just sit on a stool in her lab and talk. As a matter of fact, I had a nasty habit of idly standing there talking and turning various stop clocks. I made a messy breakdown of her apparatus one time, so after that she was very careful always when I'd come in to hand me a length of copper wire and a pair of pliers for me to play with so that I wouldn't put my hands on her apparatus. But we were good friends. Atone time when she got these proofs of Franck's Faraday Society paper—nobody sent pre-prints in those days, but she being Franck's former student, he sent her an extra set of galley proofs—she showed it to me. Birge had been lecturing on the empirical data about intensities in band spectra which were quite understood, and as soon as I read this paper, I saw at a glance that you could generalize it a little to account for these empirical data of intensity distributions which I'd learned in Birge's seminar, and that was it. That was the paper that she published in the Phys. Rev, some time in the fall of '26, which was also my thesis.
Weiner:How did you work on it? I'm very curious when you say you were able to do it on a weekend. Is it something that one sits down and thinks about...?
Condon:In this case. I don't think it happens very often, but it did happen in this case. And of course I'm terribly indebted to Birge's seminar or graduate course, whatever it was. He had marshaled up a whole lot of unexplained data about the relative intensities of bands in various band systems, and here it was presented as a problem: What can be the reason for this peculiar characteristic distribution of intensities, which is different in different molecules but all the same sort of a pattern? It's now often called the Condon parabola. But Birge had discovered all that stuff empirically, and I think he was about to write a paper putting it all together and had lectured on it for several weeks. And here it was: Franck's paper made it all clear in an instant, and so the rest was just arithmetic. I had all the dope because I had taken good notes in Birge's course, and so with Franck galley proofs and the notes from Birge's seminar, I just had to write it up and do a little arithmetic. It was a very unusual situation. That would have been in the spring of '26, March or April, something like that.
Weiner:Did you save the lecture notes?
Condon:No, I'm afraid I haven't. You see, I've moved so very much that an awful lot of stuff that I would have liked to have saved has just gotten lost in various places. I have the original manuscript of the thesis, but that's the same practically as was printed in the Phys. Rev., so there's not much attaching to that.
Weiner:What was the reaction to your work when you did it, and whom did you bring it to?
Condon:It was under Birge because that was his specialty, and it was an outgrowth of his course. They had the usual business of having a four-or five-man faculty committee for every candidate. I can't remember when I took my final exam. You see, there was a certain amount of talk that nobody, no matter how good his thesis or how good he is, ought to get his degree in a year and a half. In fact, I didn't really get it until the end of the summer session just before I went to Germany. That was just an effort to conform a little bit to the university rules by giving me technically two years of residency instead of a year and a half of residency. And I've forgotten whether the Ph.D. exam was at the end of the summer or at the end of the spring. I know I didn't officially get the degree until the end of the summer.
Weiner:Do you know who was on the committee?
Condon:No. You know, Berkeley has a way of printing the programs of final Ph.D. exams, and I may have it. They'd have it of course. Birge is great at saving all such stuff. I'm sure Loeb was on it and I'm sure Williams and I'm sure Birge as chairman and probably a couple of others, but I wouldn't be sure.
Weiner:Hertha Sponer was still there when you completed the work.
Weiner:Did you have a chance to discuss it with her?
Condon:Oh, sure. Oh, it was just obvious. It was unusual in that respect. It was just an extension of Franck's ideas. The minute your attention was called to it, that was it. There was no doubt about it.
Weiner:Did she communicate with him about it then—do you know?
Condon:Oh, I think so. But, you see, that spring was very busy. Earlier that winter—that would be late in '25—was when Max Born gave some lectures there for a week or two. That was my first introduction to anything about quantum mechanics. That was very formal stuff about working with matrices, and I'd never had any linear algebra, and so , though I took notes and worked hard on it, the going was tough and I can't say I understood it one slight little bit.
Condon:I don't think so. People had varying degrees of openness about admitting it, but I don't think they understood it. I certainly didn't. It was very formal stuff, and then it was all piled on in a week or two. It seems to me that Born was only there a couple of weeks and gave about six lectures, so we got a very concentrated dose of it. Then the interesting thing was that that great stream of papers in the Annalen der Physik of Schroedinger, wave mechanics, came in the spring of '26. Generally speaking, you know, the physics faculty in most places aren't so terribly diligent about following every journal all the time currently. And the Annalen der Physik was a much more stodgy journal than the Zeitschrift fr Physik. In any case, I was the guy in Berkeley that discovered the Schrodinger papers after about two of them were around. Nobody had even seen the first one, and I got very excited about it and ran around to Birge and to Williams to G.N. Lewis, saying, "This is the dope," and I myself gave several seminar talks on that in that spring, like a local journal club. So everybody started it then. It was a general reaction of physicists in general. The matrix stuff was so damned difficult to have a physical feel for, and this was so relatively easy. Of course at that time you didn't have the probability interpretation. All I mean is that the mathematical formalism of boundary value problems of differential equations was much more familiar to physicists than was the algebra of noncommuting matrices. So partly they all leaped on the Schrodinger bandwagon as a welcome escape from having to learn about matrices. And it wasn't till the fall of '26 after I was in Germany that the probability interpretation given by Born and the connection between matrices and Schrodinger's theory became clear. Maybe it was in the late summer of '26—I've forgotten. So that spring of '26 was a great period—not only writing the thesis but teaching electrical measurements to engineers and also absorbing the Schrodinger papers as well. Well, of course, I really think that under normal circumstances the University folks wouldn't have given me my degree on such short graduate training, and I would agree that they probably shouldn't have, because my training was awfully shallow in lots of places. But given the circumstances that this great new thing had just caught, if they gave me a degree and let me go to Germany, it probably for that year was the best thing for me to do. You see, it was a very abnormal year.
Weiner:Was that part of their plan?
Condon:Oh, I don't know. You know, you never know about the faculty— to what extent they planned it. But at about that time of all those faculty members Loeb was the best one about knowing the game of available fellowships and that sort of stuff. As I recall it was he who urged me to apply for what they called then the International Education Board fellowships. That was just the machinery. It was Rockefeller money, and it wasoperated through the National Research Council, but they had a separate administration for the foreign fellowships called the International Education Board. So I applied, and these fellows backed the application, and I got it; and so in late September or some time in September of '26, I and my wife and my three-months-old baby took the Santa Fe train and went to Germany—the Sante Fe train plus a Cunard liner to Paris plus the railroad to Gottingen.
Weiner:That was your first time in Europe?
Condon:My first time in Europe.
Weiner:On your application for the International Education Board fellowship, did you state explicitly that you wanted to study quantum mechanics?
Condon:I think so.
Condon:No, I think at that time I expected to spend the whole year inGottingen with Born. I don't think Sommerfeld was mentioned. I knew ofSommerfeld. As a matter of fact, Sommerfeld on a prior visit had beenthrough Berkeley and given lectures, and I had gone to those, too—perhaps a year earlier, about '24 or something. But, no, the intention was to go to Gottingen and be there. Before we leave Berkeley, I suppose one ought to mention someone else. I don't know what's ever going to become of all this junk in your history project, but there was a man that ought to go down here a little bit as having been an important influence on my life just because he was unorthodox academically. That's Fred Weinberg. Fred Weinberg was a German Jew who got his training in Aachen in their Technische Hochschule back around the 1890s when the automotive industry was about what jet propulsion is like now, a new industry, the new thing to go into. Hebecame an automotive engineer and made some automotive inventions in Detroit. This made him what we now laughingly wouldn't think of in those terms but what was then a fortune. He had about $100,000 or so, and by investing this conservatively, you could get an income of $5- or $6000, which was more than various full professors at Berkeley were making, and he, though in his forties, I guess it was, at the time that I was a student, decided to chuck the business and become a graduate student in physics. He had a young German wife and he had his secure income; he didn't need to do anything more; he came out to Berkeley. And by being a thrifty soul, he could make it. I remember he was an amusing fellow because the fee for graduate courses was a flat fee, and, as I say, being thrifty, he must have been taking about 48 hours a week of graduate lectures. Everywhere you went you saw Fred Weinberg sitting there diligently writing his lecture notes in his Germanic handwriting. So in that sense he was an object of some ridicule, but at the same time he was a very ingenious mechanical engineer and began to make himself useful to spectroscopists around there, like Hopfield, who was building some of the early vacuum spectrographs. Weinberg brought a lot of mechanical design features to bear on their work. He was the fellow who first brought a silfon bellows to Berkeley. Nobody had ever seen a silfon bellows until Fred introduced them and taught them how to make flexible joints with silfon bellows for actuating things inside the vacuum by controls that were operated outside the vacuum. He was a wonderful person, and he also was the first man that ever took me to a symphony concert and introduced me to symphonic music. It just happened that he was visiting his own relatives in Aachen when I went to Gottingen, so my wife and I stopped off in Aachen. He was our host for two or three days in Aachen, and then we went on to Gottingen. So he was a very nice fellow. I always had the feeling that the later physicists around Berkeley didn't appreciate him as much as they should have, and they even squeezed him out of the lab. He was no great physicist, but he was a very good mechanical engineer, and if Lawrence had appreciated him more, he would have been useful in those early days of the cyclotron design engineering when those boys didn't know anything beyond the sealing wax techniques.
Weiner:Whatever became of him?
Condon:He lived there, and he died some years later. I don't know quite when he died. I saw him a number of times. I expect he lived until after World War II.
Weiner:He got his degree?
Condon:He got a master's degree. As a matter of fact, Charlie Lippman,a great biochemist, who was by this time dean of the graduate school,successor of Leuschner, used to tease the physicists. You know how universities run. You take graduate courses, and mostly if you just sitthere and attend politely, why you get a good passing grade without havingdone a lot of work. Weinberg took many units of "B" out of the physics department, and the following year he took another 40 some units. Butthis time he included Hildebrand's freshman chemistry course, which wasfive units, among his courses, and, my God, in the fall of that year (thatwas about '25, '26), he was tossing off graduate courses like ballastuntil about Thanksgiving he was taking nothing but Hildebrand's freshmanchemistry course, and then by this time he'd hired a tutor, and I don'tknow if he passed it in mid-year or not, but in the meantime the previousspring he had received a master's degree from the physics department, and Lippman used to have a great time teasing the physicists about this guy who had a master's degree in physics who was just barely getting by infreshman chemistry. He was an interesting character. I don't want to make fun of him.After that he hung on and was around there. Of course I was away from Berkeley, so I don't know how they treated him, but I have the feeling he was squeezed out and unappreciated. You see, the great tendency under Birge was that unless you were a very orthodox, correct physicist who published papers and did it just the right way in the same way that he, R. T. Birge, had done, then you didn't amount to anything. And certainly Fred Weinberg was no R. T. Birge. So he was in one way or another discouraged and pushed out. I don't think he would have amounted to a great deal in a big historic sense, but he was a worthy citizen who would have added to the strength of Berkeley physics had he been appreciated more. [pause in recording]
Weiner:We're resuming now after a break. It's the next day, October 18th, and we're back in Dr. Condon's office. In the interim, I had a good dinner and a great evening and also had a bedtime story, an opportunity to read an autobiographical account prepared by you which will enable me to skip a lot of material and will help us solve the problem of limited time. We left off, after having started to talk about going to Europe on the fellowship. Then we had a side story on this man at Berkeley, Fred Weinberg. When we left off, we were just about at the point of the European escapade. The autobiography covered some basic questions that I wanted to know about who was there and what people were doing, what other visitors and so forth. You also described...
Condon:That stuff was written four or five years ago, and I myself don't have a very accurate memory of what was set down in those pages.
Weiner:You did say that while there you saw a blind ad that indicated the need for someone with writing ability and someone with a background in physics.
Condon:That was toward the end of the year.
Weiner:I want to skip now to the end of that period. You answered this, and it turned out to be the Bell Labs, and you met with one of their representatives in Europe. It was a position in connection with the Bell System Technical Journal. You had despaired of really doing physics because of what you felt were the complexities of the subject.
Condon:I think the important thing to emphasize there (I guess most people know it or should know it) is that during that particular year, '26-'27, vast quantities of stuff were pouring out. Every issue of the Zeitschrift fiir Physik and the Annalen der Physik and the Proceedings ofthe Royal Society all had extremely important papers, all of which, or many of them, are cited even today as basic after all these years. That pace of development was completely unprecedented in the history of physics. Of course I had no way of knowing that, so I felt that that was the normal pace of theoretical physics, that every year was like that; and if that was it, I certainly realized that I just wasn't up to it. I wasn't that good a person. So I got very discouraged about it—more for that reason. That is to say I don't think I would have been had the pace been the usual pace, but I think there must have been a good ten times as many important papers written that year than there have been in any year before or since.
Weiner:Can you think by way of digression of anything that approaches that in recent years, any flurry of activity at that high a level?
Condon:No, I don't think so. Not on that broad a front. Of course you might say that the great reworking of the theory of weak interactions and beta decay and all that followed after the Lee and Yang discovery of the nonconservation of parity had something of that same fever of speed of action and introduction of new ideas, but it was on a relatively narrow front, whereas this thing was just all over atomic physics and molecular physics and the chemical bond theory, just a great variety of topics. So I don't think there's anything that I can think of that approaches that. And I think nothing has ever approached it in earlier times, like in the 19th century with Maxwell's equations or Planck's early work or Einstein's special theory of relativity. It came at a more sedate pace, but this real flood that broke in '25, '26 and '27—I think if you really looked into it in some objective way you'd find that it was a flood such as had never occurred before.
Weiner:I think one of the factors is that they were in such close communications at various centers of thought on this. There was a real exchange of personnel from one to the other. This probably helped accelerate the pace.
Condon:Yes, but then the fact was that there were ideas to be accelerated. They were all breaking at once. Quantum mechanics had been, you might say, waited for for about a decade, because people had been trying to do things by correspondence principle methods, and then when all of a sudden the mathematical techniques of wave and matrix mechanics and quantum mechanics got to be understood, then you could just apply it in every direction all at once and all the applications were individually important things. So it was a terrific thing. So I was rather discouraged about it all. And I, having had newspaper experience, it seemed as though it was made for me to see an ad of a major corporation that wanted a Ph.D. in physics who had had newspaper experience. There aren't very many of those, and so I wrote and asked for the job and got it. So I returned to New York right around the first of October of '27. Had I not gotten into that discouraged mood and done that, I had the renewal of the fellowship and was going to go to Yale and work with W.F.G. Swann. Leonard Loeb was a great admirer of Swann's, and I guess it was largely Loeb's influence that led me to think that would be a good way to spend a second year. I can't recall now whether I had the choice to spend another year in Europe or whether I decided to come back to America anyway, but, in other words, I had an extension of the fellowship, but I chose to take this job with the Bell Telephone Laboratories. That was to come about the first of October on. Well, of course, when I got back to the States, it was hard to realize how few theoretical physicists there were in America in those days. There was a certain category of the considerably older men who you might say either actively rejected the ideas of quantum mechanics or else didn't make an effort to keep up with them—not so much by rejection as by neglect. And so really about the only people that I can think of were Gregory Breit and John Slater and Van Vleck and perhaps a couple of others that were actively in the game in America about quantum mechanics. Carl Eckart was, too, but he was in Chicago at that time and later went to California. And then the only older man that I can think of that was really in the swim of quantum mechanics was Paul Epstein and Richard Tolman at Caltech. So, in other words, when I got back to New York I found that, sure, things were very discouraging to me personally because the European pace was so enormously fast, but up and down the Atlantic seaboard nobody understands the stuff either. So I was much in demand to talk on various things, and got reassured that after all I might not be so bad. We had a rather active colloquium on theoretical physics at Columbia. I lived up on Morningside Drive right at Columbia. Even though I was going into the Bell Labs, I chose that residence probably more or less unconsciously so as to stay in the university game.
Weiner:Bell Labs, at that time, was in Manhattan?
Condon:Bell Labs was down at 463 West Street right on the Hudson River down in the lower part of town there. So I'd go back and forth on the subway. Of course Rabi was a young fellow. I. first met Rabi in Europe. He came over on a fellowship of some sort or other and was in Munich in the summer of '27 when I was there. That's when we first met. That was the beginning of his stay and at the end of mine. We only had a month or so. We went up to London together in September and I remember we attended the British Association meeting in Leeds together. Rabi started his work with Otto Stern in Hamburg for the following year or two. So Rabi wasn't around in the States. That's how I bring him in in this connection. It was later that he came back to Columbia. Mulliken was then a young assistant professor at New York University and pretty much alone there, so he was a regular attendant at our little seminar at Columbia, a theoretical seminar on quantum mechanical topics in general. Well, Shirley Quimby was of course an experimentalist, but he had quite a keen interest in developments especially as affecting solid-state physics. One saw a good deal of him.The older professor of theoretical physics at Columbia at that time was A. P. Wills who wrote a textbook on vector and tensor analysis and also wrote a National Research Council report on theories of magnetism. But he belonged to that older school. I don't think Wills ever kept up much with quantum mechanics. There were a great many of the older men who didn't. I don't say this in an accusing or blaming sense. I've now reached the age where I don't keep up with everything that's going on either, but, you know, the names that were prominent at that time—the men well established with full professorships, like Leight Page at Yale didn't and E.P. Adams at Princeton. They didn't go in for quantum mechanics hardly at all. So there was a great vacuum there of the experimentalists wanting to know what it's all about. So during thaf fall I'm afraid the Telephone Company didn't get much out of me because my boss, who was R. W. King, who founded the Bell System Technical Journal—he was a fellow who was pretty well committed to a career in that aspect of Bell Laboratories—had perhaps gotten his doctorate at Cornell about ten years earlier. He was still wondering whether he should be in university work instead of industry, and I can remember many a long hour we used to sit in his office, the two of us, hashing this question over—it was affecting both of us—instead of doing our work for the Telephone Company.
Weiner:What was the work supposed to be?
Condon:Well, the most basic science aspect of it was getting out that quarterly journal. At that time Karl Darrow was in the full swing of writing great voluminous expository papers about atomic physics that were later gathered and re-edited to make his book called Introduction to Contemporary Physics. But of course a lot of the magazine is technical articles about telephone technology. And so it was a job of editing that. Then there was an employee magazine called the Bell Laboratories Record that to some extent came under the jurisdiction of this little group, and then also we did a certain amount of preparing popularized technical articles for other journals and dealing with the editors of those journals. It was the technical public relations of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, the whole thing in that office. There must have been a staff of about a dozen or so people, maybe not quite that many, maybeeight or nine. I've forgotten exactly.
Weiner:Would there have been a place for someone with your training in the research?
Condon:Oh, I think there would have been. It happened I entered theother way, and then gradually, as I found that I could get by, shall wesay, in academic work, I got more and more attracted. Columbia offeredme a job in the second term as lecturer in physics, and so I only stayed there until about the first of February of '28. Subsequently I've learnedfrom various other fellows that were in the Bell Labs—older than me and,hence, influential in the research—that they're sorry that they let me go. It's a big organization, and I was working for a different supervisor,and I guess I'd come in and gone before they quite realized that I wasnot staying. In that period Davisson and Germer had just done their work on electron diffraction, and I spent a lot of time talking about that with them. Though the basic paper, the first work, had been done a year earlier, almost a year anyway, while I was still in Germany, still there was a lot of doing additional details on it and beginning to plan applications for electron diffraction on it and beginning to plan applications for electron diffraction. Then J. A. Becker, who's not living any more, and Walter Brattain were very active on all that business of studying activated cathodes—that is, films of materials on tungsten, thoriated tungsten andso on, to get good emitters for electron tubes—and were working on that kind of theory, the theory of thermionic emission, as well as theory as incident to interpreting experiments. It was a very active group, and so the usual thing was to go out to lunch with those fellows and talk about what was going on in that lab, which was a physics research part of the Laboratory. It was a very enjoyable period, and I liked it; but, as I say, I was invited down to Princeton. You see, Karl Compton had been over to Germany on a trip, and I guess he was studying for young fellows to add to the Princeton faculty anyway, I met him in that connection. During the fall of '27 when I was at Bell Labs, I was invited down to Princeton a time or two to give colloquium talks. That acquaintance was the basis that led to my later being invited to go there on the faculty. Then I guess I was up to Yale a time or two at that period and Columbia itself and New York University.
Weiner:Let me ask you a question about this. Do you feel that there was a great revival or a great new interest in these questions of theoretical physics that represented a change in what was going on?
Condon:It's awfully hard to distinguish between a revival of interest because it was all so mixed up with this tremendous burgeoning of these new discoveries. You had new theory to really be excited about, and a couple of years earlier you didn't have. And so it's hard to say whether there was a revival. I suppose what you mean is: had those discoveries occurred a couple of years earlier, would they have been received with the same enthusiasm in America? I just don't know. It's almost inconceivable (I'm sure if you talk to other fellows of my general vintage, they'll tell you the same thing) to realize how little there was within theoretical physics—just nothing, nowhere, nobody. And now every university has a number of theoreticians and they're all big and having excited conversations with each other and swapping preprints and generally messing up the journals with their papers. But then there were practically none. And the same goes for experimental physics. I suppose if you made some kind of an objective measure of the level of activity, one level would be just the size of the Phys. Rev, and it's much more than you might think. If you just took the ratio of the pages of the Phys Rev.then and the pages now, because these auxiliary things, like the Journalof Mathematical Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics, and the Journalof Applied Physics, they just didn't exist either; so the proper comparison would be to take all those pages and compare it with the Phys. Rev, of those days, and I'd bet you'd get a figure of certainly more than 20 to 1—maybe it would be closer to 100 to 1. I've never done it.
Weiner:You could do it with Ph.D.'s granted in physics, too.
Condon:Yes, there are various statistical measures of this sort. These are not necessarily measures that go into quality in a very sophisticated way, but they give some indication of the level of activity and the number of people involved. Of course other factors affect that, too, as we know. Not until after World War II did the federal government spend anything whatever, not one red cent, on physics research in universities. They had these little dinky places like the Bureau of Standards and a little dinky thing like this small Naval Research Laboratory, but not a dime for Princeton or Columbia or Yale or Berkeley or anything—none of this great contract game that the boys play now. Nobody ever wrote a contract proposal. Those words didn't exist. So that it was terrifically different as to what was available. That's why when I broke $20 worth of glassware it was a tragic thing at Berkeley. Nowadays it would be a joke. Every graduate student breaks much more than that just as a matter of daily routine.
Weiner:Let me ask another question about the same period. You taught a graduate course at Columbia, one in the electromagnetic theory of light and one in quantum mechanics. You had Francis Bitter in that course?
Condon:Bitter was in that course and Jerald Zacharias that I remember. They're the ones, I guess, that became the best known later. There was a fellow that went more into industrial work who was a pretty good student, Lewis Balamuth. I don't know what's become of him. He was doing wome sort of industrial applications in ultrasonics for a while.
Weiner:What about the quality of the students in that period? These, of course, are well-known names now. But was there a new type of student coming in to physics at that time?
Condon:It's awfully hard for me to say that in a fair way because you'vegot to realize that I myself was a boy that grew up in the Far West at a time when the Far West was a very remote part of the U. S. So I don't know what the physics in the eastern universities had been like for the year or two earlier.
Weiner:It was the wrong question to ask. Let me just ask you something else. You went up to Yale to see Lawrence. Could you give a little account?
Condon:Yes. One of the personal difficulties in my life has been my relations with the University of California. They had wanted me to come back and be an assistant professor, and I had expected I would after two years of fellowship. Then, of course, they were disappointed in me because it was a terrible thing to toss in the sponge and go into industry. In those days people said "industry" in a very stern tone of voice. Some still say it yet, but then it was almost like being a fallen woman to go into industry. Still, nevertheless they were expecting me to come back the second year. Then in the spring of '28 I was offered a whole bunch of assistant professorships in the East—Columbia, New York University and Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Princeton, I think, maybe not Michigan. I guess it was just Wisconsin and Minnesota and Colmbia and NYU and then Princeton. I had that feeling of being a little western boy. "Maybe all right for California, but how would I be in the East?" And so I wanted to go there.
Weiner:What did they say regarding their expectations of physics in their universities? People generally represent their plans in a certain way when they're trying to attract new faculty.
Condon:I can't remember any remarkable or glowing promises. It was just the usual business of wanting to strengthen their research in their department, nothing awfully big. The Minnesota thing was a little curious. That was just the year, I think, that Van Vleck left Minnesota to go to Wisconsin; so the Wisconsin offer was Van Vleck wanting me to come there and be another young man working in the same department with him, whereas the Minnesota offer was Minnesota needing to find somebody to be Van Vleck's successor. In those days you seldom had more than one theoretical person per department, if any, and so that was that; and Columbia and NYU were just wanting to strengthen their faculties particularly. Karl Compton had more explicit plans and likewise PrinCeton had raised some special research fund by private contributions from the alumni, so Princeton had a little more money to support research. Again, realize that there wasn't a red cent of federal money. It was all money of that type that came out of the University's own resources. They had the most attractive and vigorous-sounding and seeming show, down at Princeton, or so it seemed at the time. Then, of course, because I didn't come back to Berkeley, some of the Berkeley people were very angry with me. I suppose I did do the wrong thing. I'm not sure. But, at any rate, as I look back on it, the universities try to do two things in this game: They try to make love to their young men so as to get them to come, but they also try to make the young man feel as though they're doing him a great favor by honoring him by making his appointment. I think Berkeley played that second line with me enough, so that it just never occurred to me that they'd be terribly disappointed if I didn't come. I was just a guy that out of their great generosity they were going to make an assistant professor. By not coming back, I was relieving them of the obligation that they'd incurred of taking care of one of their former students. It never occurred to me they'd get as angry as they did. But Birge in particular has never forgiven me for not coming back.
Weiner:You went to see Lawrence at Yale?
Condon:Oh, that was a separate question. Yes. You see, I had first met Lawrence when Lawrence and Jesse Beams came to Gottingen on one of these batting-around-Europe trips during the time I was in Gottingen. I don't know quite how long they were there. Anyway they came there and we got acquainted that way just as a couple of young fellows. Then later Berkeley, largely on Leonard Loeb's initiative, I think (Loeb had spotted Lawrence as a real comer; that was a natural outgrowth of Loeb's own admiration for W. F. G. Swann. Swann was then at Yale and Lawrence was one of Swann's students and so was Loeb), started trying to get Lawrence to come to Berkeley as an assistant professor. They urged me to go on up from New York to New Haven and try to talk him into it or to help him answer his questions and warm him up, which I did. We had a very pleasant weekend. I remember Lawrence had a sporty convertible, and we rode around the New Haven countryside both Saturday and Sunday that weekend talking about this. Of course there again itwas a funny situation because Lawrence knew that I had accepted a jobat Princeton and wasn't going to Berkeley, and he kept saying to me,"Well, if Berkeley is as wonderful as you say it is, why aren't you going back?" Well, I think I told in that letter that you referred to...
Weiner:The letter to Birge, yes.
Condon:Yes. The only thing that's interesting there bears on theuniversity structure: At that time (I don't know—maybe they still doit) Yale had a rule that a man couldn't do his thesis under anybody buta full professor. It was one of those rules that was honored in thebreach in the sense that it meant in practice that a full professor wasthe chairman of the man's committee, but a lot of thesis work was doneunder the younger staff members. This irked Lawrence a great deal, and I think that probably played a great role in his decision to go to Berkeley. If I'm not mistaken, he actually went to Berkeley at a lower salary than the one he'd been getting at Yale.
Weiner:There was some correspondence. One thing that Birge did includein his account was some correspondence from Lawrence to him in thatperiod.
Condon:Yes. Oh, yes. Birge's history is full of salary data. I'venever seen such a frank account of exactly how much all these various fellows could be bought for on the market.
Weiner:Did Lawrence have any specific research expectations, plans, at that time?
Condon:Of course this was all pre-cyclotron, so he didn't have any of those notions for which he later became famous. He and Jesse Beams had done a piece of work that had to do with what was called time lag in the photoelectric effect: the question that if I shine light on a piece of metal, how quickly after the light first strikes the metal will the first photo electron be emitted? This had some fundamental bearing on ideas about photons. They had done a good experiment along that line. Lawrence had also done an atomic physics experiment: if you bombard mercury vapor with electrons that have energy just a little bit more than the ionization potential of mercury, you will find that there are additional breaks—I mean sudden increases in the yield of ionization—and that's due to processes by which not only is the mercury atom ionized by knocking off the most loosely bound electron, but one or two of the other electrons gets excited in the excited state, so that what you generate is mercury ion in excited states. Lawrence (those were called for a while ultra-ionization potentials) had done a very skillful experimental job. I guess that he was the one that discovered them. At any rate, he certainly made the most of them.
Weiner:This was done at Minnesota too, wasn't it?
Condon:Oh, yes, that was a kind of a natural tendency from Tate's work. All of Tate's students. too...
Weiner:...Were working with this sort of thing.
Condon:Yes, that was the type of thing that was going on in those days. There was no nuclear physics as we know it now. The only thing that was in nuclear physics was a certain body of people who were just studying the natural radioactive elements. Rutherford's school had mostly done that. It had a tendency to be just a kind of a lot of detailed work of systematization and finding more accurate measurements and beta ray energies and things of that sort. So Lawrence was strictly in the atomic physics game at that time, '28, and I guess for the first couple of years that he was in Berkeley before he began to get the cyclotron idea. To tell the truth, it slips my mind right now what year that famous first thing was. Was it about '30 or '31?
Weiner:I think it was '31, the successful building was in '32 with Livingston. I'm going to change our format a bit by asking you a few specific questions. At the Ann Arbor summer school you were there with Milne, Dirac and Herzfeld who were there from Europe. Do you have any impressions of that summer?
Condon:That was a big thing, not only a big thing for me. Again, it's hard to recapture the exact flavor of those days. Just because theoretical physicists were few and far between, there was seldom more than one per department in any major university. Therefore, even more then than now, it was essential for them to get together, and they did. So for a number of years pre-war from about that time on,the Ann Arbor summer school was the big thing for theoretical physiciststo gather at—that is, not merely to hear advanced lectures only andorganized courses, but to have seminars and see each other and work together. So it was a great thing. That summer Rabi was back, and he was out there as one of theguys. That was when I first met Melba Phillips. She had just got out of one of the Michigan colleges and was about to go out to Berkeley to be a graduate student. She was around taking courses. It was what would pass for an enormous gathering. I suppose there were 75 or so advanced students of theoretical physics taking these courses.
Weiner:But experimentalists went, too. In other words, the 75 doesn't represent the theoretical physics population. It was that theoretical physics was the focus. But most of these people were experimental physicists.
Condon:That's right. The distinction wasn't as profound then as it is now, and experimental physicists were anxious to learn quantum mechanics. Now, in my own case, you see I had given those lectures at Columbia in the spring of '28 on quantum mechanics, and then I gave a course in Princeton in the year '28–'29, and then I gave substantially the same thing that summer. During that year at Princeton, P. M. Morse worked with me and we made those into that whole book, Condon and Morse, Quantum Mechanics. So I was doing it again at Ann Arbor and also reading galley proofs on that book that summer. Dirac's first edition of his book was in the galley proof stage, and he was lecturing from his own book. Oh, another person who was there among the visitors from abroad was the astro-physicist E. A. Milne. Milne, Brillouin, Herzfeld, Dirac and myself were the five...
Weiner:Dennison was also a lecturer. Of course he was from Michigan, so he wasn't a guest.
Condon:Yes, I've forgotten whether he lectured that summer. He was around.
Weiner:His name is listed.
Condon:Then I wouldn't dispute it.
Weiner:Let me ask one question on the industrial work. Is it fair to characterize your work with Westinghouse as relating largely to the applications of nuclear physics in industry? And, if so, I'm going to want to know a lot more about how that came about.
Condon:Largely yes, and largely no. That is to say, it would have been except that if you'll remember, I went there in '37, and that was you might say largely that, though it wasn't by any means exclusively that, because John Hipple was doing mass spectrograph work and Sid Siegel, one of my Columbia students, was doing solid-state order-disorder work on copper-gold alloys; and we had a variety of fundamental physics things going. We also were building that new Van de Graaff machine and so on. But you've got to remember that I went in the fall of '37, and by the summer of '40 the big accelerated defense program came along and microwave radar and all that that was practical for the war. And so the war conversion changed it over. We kept up a little nuclear work after the summer of '40 but very little.
Weiner:What would be the basis, though, of Westinghouse supporting nuclear physics in that early period?
Condon:Well, I don't really know how they made the decision. They had actually started the construction of that Van de Graaff machine before I came, so I'm not the person that made the decision and got them going on that.
Weiner:Do you know who was?
Condon:Well, the director of research at that time was L. W. Chubb. He's dead now and has been dead a long time. He must have had quite a hand in it. Of course Westinghouse—you have to remember the good old Depression. When was that, largely in Hoover's Administration?
Weiner:From '29 on.
Condon:Yes, after '29, and it didn't really get very good. Various companies reacted in various ways. In fact, I guess the record shows that Westinghouse sliced back its research more than some of the other big companies; so that their research was in a terribly weak position in—around '37—and also not only their research was weak because they'd sliced it back so badly, but also their standing among physicists was weak, because since they had done that, people were reluctant to go to work for them. So the job that I had handed to me was that of trying to bring in modernization and a revitalization of their basic research. They had a very strong applied mechanics part of their research lab. That was their greatest strength at that time, and as one of their greatest strengths even yet. But atomic physics and nuclear physics was just practically nonexistent.
Next time we'll go into that more.