Oral History Transcript — Dr. Edward U. Condon
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Interview with Dr. Edward U. Condon
Edward U. Condon; April 27, 1968
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:We are sitting in Dr. Condon's office, overlooking the foothills of the Rockies in Boulder. When we left off in our talks last October in this same office, we had started to talk about your work at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, starting in 1937, but it is not at all clear how that transition came about, from Princeton to Westinghouse.
Condon:Well, in the spring of '37 the Westinghouse people had decided that they wanted to strengthen and modernize their work in atomic physics—nuclear physics wasn't thought of so much as a separate thing then, so included such nuclear physics as there was with atomic physics.
Actually they had approached Lee DuBridge who was at that time a professor, perhaps chairman of the department, of physics at the University of Rochester to see if he would take the job. Lee was very seriously interested in it and went around and canvassed a group of his colleagues on this sort of question: "Would you come and work with me if I took the job?" (That's quoting DuBridge) And he included me in those he canvassed, and I said I would. But apparently quite a few of the others said they wouldn't. Anyway Rochester was very anxious not to have DuBridge leave and so toward the end of the spring, finally after giving it all that kind of consideration in which I was involved in the way I just mentioned, Lee decided not to take it. And then somehow during the summer the Westinghouse people were thinking of what they wanted to do and they then approached me. I later found out that they went to Lee and said, "Well, we know you were canvassing various of your friends to join your staff had you come; who were these fellows and was there any interest developed out of that?" So it was his mentioning me to them that led them to get in touch with me. So sometime—it would be hard for me to remember—but sometime during the summer they invited me out to Pittsburgh and we talked the whole thing over, and I arranged to do so. That summer I had my first truly industrial job in that I was working on some solid state physics problems at the New Jersey Zinc Company's research laboratories in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, so I made the trip from there over to Pittsburgh. I've forgotten the exact details about jobs, but it was taken on a sort of tentative basis; that is to say, a semester's, or maybe it was a year's, leave of absence from Princeton to see about it rather than a complete cutting off of ties with Princeton. But I did go out there in September of '37 and take over. Now, taking over meant this Van de Graaff generator which was being built under the supervision of a rather younger Ph.D.—young at that time, that is—William H. Wells, who had worked at the University of Minnesota. He had designed and was in the middle of building this very large Van de Graaff machine that they had there. And so that was put under me administratively.
The whole question was to plan what to do beyond that. Well, I already knew from Lee's experience that a number of the people he had approached, who were of his and my generation, were reluctant or not interested in switching jobs to come there, and so I invented the idea of having Westinghouse Research Fellowships to be patterned after the National Research Fellowships, with the difference that the work would be done at Westinghouse. But the man would submit a proposal of what he wanted to work on, and then he would be supported in working on it. We announced that plan during the fall of 37 so that it was able to get applicants in the more or less usual academic calendar of early spring of '38. The plan was to have ten such, but to build up, the thought was that a person would hold such a job for two years, very much like many postdoctorals. And so we started with five, and then the next year we had those five plus five more and then ran it at a level of ten.
Of course you have to realize that in those years it was beginning to get out of the Depression a little bit but not very much, and there was no government support of research in universities at that time—and so, partly because of conditions being what they were, we got an excellent bunch of applicants, very fine people, and got off to a good start.
Weiner:Do you recall how many applicants there were at first?
Not with precision, but I would say that for those five positions we must have had thirty or forty applicants, something of that sort, and they were all quite high type. I don't take so much credit for this; it partly reflected the conditions of those years when there were mighty few jobs for basic research and good support to do what you wanted. As I recall it, the National Research Fellowships were being to some extent phased out; they weren't as numerous as they had been, or in any case they weren't as numerous relative to the need for them as they had been because the whole scientific population in physics was growing. So they were regarded as very attractive, and we got very good people.
Weiner:Just after the Ph.D., were they?
Condon:Yes, just the way we now think of postdoctorals. Like all the stories about money, it's laughable to think about it, because that was pre-wartime inflation, of course, but we only paid these boys $2400 a year, or $2600, I think, if they were married. Fellows like that get around $10,000 as a starting salary now. But we set up a separate budget for them and... Now to some extent you might say that the dice were loaded in that unless we had some interest in what they proposed, they didn't get a fellowship. But that really did mean that our interest was judged in terms of building up a basic science program. What I want to stress is that the dice weren't loaded in the sense that we looked to see whether it had some commercial value to us, if we backed it because there was none of that. It was truly just as good as any basic university research from that standpoint, perhaps only narrowed to relevance to that lab; that is to say, it is a lab that was in electrical work and mechanical work and magnetic—there was a great deal of work on ferromagnetic materials—so the emphasis was on subjects for which we were well equipped and had staff background, to some extent—but not entirely, because we wanted to bring in new lines.
Well, you know, not having rehearsed for this interview, I don't...Well, it's all a matter of record who the boys were who actually got them. One of the first group was W. E. Shoupp, William Shoupp who is now Director of Research and Vice President in Charge of Research. He's been there ever since, so he came there in the fall of '38 as a youngster fresh from the University of Illinois, one of the vacuum spectograph students of Wheeler Loomis and Jerry Krueger. He pitched in to working on the big Van de Graaff.
Then Johnny Hipple, who is now Director of Research of the North American Phillips Company and who anyway I had known as a student in Princeton, was just finishing, and he came. That was his first job. It's a little hard for me to remember who were the fellows in the first group and who in the second, but they were all very early. Bill Stephens, who is now a full professor in nuclear physics at the University of Pennsylvania; Robert O. Haxby, who came from Minnesota and went into nuclear physics and I think is now a professor at Purdue, although he may have moved.
Then the next year we got another five. But now you see the next year was '39, and by the time you come to the following year, '40, well we picked those boys all right, and there were some very good ones. It would be interesting, for the sake of completeness to get the exact list of them, year by year, because the plan only worked for three or four years because it got upset by the war. You remember the fall of France occurred in the summer of 1940, and that's when the NDRC was established. People began to turn toward war work. In point of fact, just in order that there may be no misunderstanding, I got heavily involved in war work and was keen about it and also wanted these young fellows to get onto war projects. Insofar as I had any difficulties with the Westinghouse management, they were not as minded about turning toward war projects as I was. That is to say, somebody might jump to the conclusion that somehow the company got all those people there and then led them into war work because that was commercially important. It was quite the opposite. I had a certain amount of arguments when I believed that we ought to be shutting down our general research. Everybody else in the universities was going to places like the Radiation Lab at M.I.T. and making their contribution, and I thought we should, too. And we did do that, but not without a certain amount of argument against it from the Westinghouse management, rather than in favor of it.
Weiner:When did the transition really begin...
Condon:Well, it began in the fall of '40 because...[interruption] We were talking about the starting of the Radiation Lab. The defense program under Franklin Roosevelt started with the appointment in the late summer of '40 of the NDRC—National Defense Research Committee—I don't remember precisely who the primary members were, but certainly Karl Compton, the president of M.I.T., and Vannevar Bush, who later became the head of of the whole OSRD, the successorNDRC, and James Conant of Harvard—well, those are the principal ones. There were a couple more. Anyway, they had themselves just started to outline areas in which there ought to be a big push to bring us physical scientists of the country into the support of the war effort. We weren't in the war yet but we were very much on the side of aiding the Allies. And among the things that they went into was, say, rocket work. You see, this country had no rocket work at that time, even little things like jet-assisted takeoff or anti-aircraft rockets—when I say none, I mean essentially none; there was some very minor effort.
But the biggest thing that we knew about: the Naval Research Lab in Washington had had radar, but it was the longer wave length radar that requires great big antennas, was designed for shipboard use by the Navy. But the British had made great advances in the microwave radar where the whole antenna structure can be made small enough to be airborne and carried in a plane. So the decision was made to put a major effort on that and to locate it at MIT. I remember about the last week of October, just before the 1940 election, MIT had sponsored a great conference on applications of nuclear physics, which in those days meant the beginning of using artificial radioactive materials as tracers of one sort or another, which were available in very minute quantities from various cyclotrons that were functioning, and people were beginning to learn those techniques. I went up to that conference, quite in the spirit of going from Westinghouse just to keep in touch for our interest in that subject. During that conference Karl Compton would come and stick his head in the door from time to time and summon various individuals out to his office and tell them in all secrecy—that was the first time I'd ever been told an official secret—about the plan to have the Radiation Lab there and invite us to take part in it, to join it. I told Compton that I thought I could, either full-time or through some part-time arrangement with Westinghouse. In that way they recruited about the first dozen or fifteen of the people that later joined. Of course, DuBridge was made director of it as everyone knows. I remember the general timing of it was that everybody was going to go home and vote in the November election on the first Tuesday in November, which was only about ten days or two weeks off, and then show up the following weekend to start the Radiation Lab. I still remember a bunch of us showing up, but Lee himself wasn't there. And we went off, all of us, for a big walk around Walden Pond, talking excitedly about all the problems in this. And we got ourselves worked up into such a fever pitch of enthusiasm that, by the time we got back to Cambridge, we sent Lee DuBridge a rather critical telegram, telling him to get on the job and come at once. He apparently had better sense than most of us about realizing it was going to be a job of some years and it didn't matter if he took a few days to put his personal affairs in order, but we were rarin' to go.
Weiner:What did you do, just move lock, stock and barrel there?
Condon:Many people did. In my case, what I worked out to do was to start the microwave program at Westinghouse largely staffed, as time went on, by additional recruiting, but initially staffed by the conversion of these Westinghouse fellows from their longer range projects over into this line of work. They were all willing to do that. There was no pressure on them; in fact, it was very much the mode in those days: all the academic physicists were turning to war projects of one sort or another, and those boys would have felt left out if they hadn't, rather than quite the opposite of having to pressure them. So we threw together a gang pretty quickly. I remember, of course, just because the whole thing was so secret, one had to be very careful in explaining even to the management of the company what was involved. I remember explaining to a group of vice presidents that undoubtedly there would be hundreds of millions of dollars of orders in this business before long, and they kind of smiled, thinking that things don't go that way. But within a year after that Westinghouse had $300 million in microwave orders on its books, and that was, in those days, a good year's annual business for Westinghouse in every field whatever. So it did turn out that way. And accompanied with it was a lot of plant expansion—they had to build a new research laboratory building to provide the facilities for this—all that happened in the '41-'42 period.
So the good old Van de Graaff, which had come into being about that time and was beginning to do a few things, was pretty largely shut down, not entirely, but pretty largely.
Now I might say, just since this is personal and not the situation as a whole, of course you recall that word of the discovery of uranium fission was brought to this country by Niels Bohr in January of '39. That was first discussed by him giving a talk on it at a conference in Washington, D.C., that the Carnegie Institution of Washington gave. At the very first, I mean, right then and there, it was just exciting as basic science. It was only in the next couple of months that people began to realize the possibilities of an atom bomb or of controlled chain reaction for power. And of course we did have a Van de Graaff machine and we began to do some uranium fission experiments, too. There was no government project at that time, so was all open. It was regular stuff, published in The Physical Review. In fact, the thing that our boys did, our particular little "first"— it has no practical value but it's part of the total physics story— was the discovery of photo-fission, that is to say the fact that you can get fission of uranium by absorption of gamma rays as contrasted with by absorption of neutrons, the usual way. And so we did some work on that. But by the summer of '40, there was a good deal of behind-the-scenes, classified talk about getting a government project started in this field.
Weiner:In the fission field?
Condon:In the fission field, an atomic bomb project, because the people who were particularly and directly concerned with it—and that was mostly, on the one hand, Fermi and Dunning, still at Columbia, and Harold Urey, also still at Columbia and concerned with heavy water production; and then Ernest Lawrence out at Berkeley and Robert Oppenheimer— they were all pushing for it. Now as sit here, with no notes or anything, is hard for me to remember the exact date, even the exact quarter, of that famous letter that Szilard and Wigner got Einstein to write to Roosevelt, but that's what started it off, but secretly, of course. It wasn't common knowledge to the public at large, but there were a good many physicists who knew about it.
That got off to a very very slow start. There was just a little bit of money which was administered through the Bureau of Standards. Lyman Briggs, who was my predecessor as Director, was in charge. Gregory Breit was active on it. But nobody I knew at that time visualized a really big project; we were all thinking in sort of Depression-size budgets of physics research, which had never had a penny from there. Well, to be perfectly frank about it, I was disappointed not to get called into that initial group, whenever it was, in the fall of '40.
At the same time I was so committed to the microwave radar stuff that I suppose if I had been asked, it would have been hard to clear the decks to do the other thing. Mr. Chubb, who was the director of research of Westinghouse, began to have a role in Yt in other ways, and I had some kind of casual role. For example, it just happened that in very early days Westinghouse Lamp Works in Bloomfield, New Jersey, had done a lot of work on the chemistry of production of metallic uranium because there was a little period when people thought that metallic uranium might be a suitable lamp filament, competing with tungsten. Well, it wasn't, but for that reason years earlier the people at Bloomfield had—Dr. Rentschler (I've forgotten his initials) was the man principally. They knew the chemistry of making metallic uranium pretty well, and they got an early contract for this project to make the pure metallic uranium. Uranium up to that time practically didn't have any uses. It was a drug on the market. And in any case the uses were all just for the various chemical compounds of uranium, and so the making of metallic uranium was a game that was not well understood. It happened to involve a photo-chemical reaction and using sunlight, and on the roof of the Westinghouse plant in Bloomfield, New Jersey, we set out great big trays of this compound to be acted on by the sunlight there and get converted, as one of the steps. And so the first uranium for the project was made by the Westinghouse Lamp Works as a result of my personal contacts with those people.
But I was not on the committee or on the project; I was primarily concerned with other things. The project really went very, very slowly, as various histories will tell. I guess they do. I'm not sure. There's always a tendency to gloss things over and put a good light on it. But in fact I would say that, compared with the tempo that occurred much later, there was practically no progress, or very, very little progress, made in the year '40-41. Oh, various things were established, and what work was done was good work. It was largely Fermi's first efforts to explore the conditions for a chain reaction and a lot of John Dunning's work. And various things were going on and, unbeknownst to me—by this time they'd begun to get secrecy so that out in Berkeley the discovery of neptunium and plutonium and that kind of chemistry had taken place, but I didn't know it.Anyway, along about the late summer of '41, a full year after this had gotten off to a slow start, they expanded that committee a little bit—it was known as the S-1 Committee—and I was put on it, and Jesse Beams was put on it. And I think that's when Harry Smyth went on it too. I wasn't able to contribute much because by that time really was deeply committed to a big program in the microwave radar for the company. You see, Westinghouse Company interests were scattered: we had the research at Pittsburgh, the radar set manufacture and engineering was done at Baltimore, and all the electronic tubes were made at the Lamp Works in Bloomfield. So in that period I was doing an awful lot of shuttling around between those three Westinghouse locations, coordinating the program internally, and doing a lot of shuttling up to MIT to keep in touch with it externally. So it was pretty hectic, and though I was then finally put on this committee that I wished I'd been on from the start, that I was more interested in than the radar, by the time I finally was put on it, I was in such a condition that I could hardly give it any attention.
The fall of '41 was when there was an awful lot of work being done to try to boom this up. There was a lot of cooperation with the British. I remember that Harold Urey and George Pegram went over to Britain to see what they were doing and came back rather surprised that the British were doing as much as they were, considering that they were being bombed all the time and had lots of other distractions. One thing that was amusing about it was that in this country our great desire for the utmost secrecy led us to clear hardly any foreigners. Well, some people were non-natives like Wigner and Szilard, but they'd been in this country quite a period so they were accepted as Americans. So I don't mean it was just a question of whether you were or were not born here but whether you were really established in this country. But in Britain the thing was exactly the opposite, namely, they were fighting for their life and trying to produce radars fast enough to keep the air force supplied with the planes to shoot down the Germans who were attacking, and yet they felt they ought to do something about the atomic bomb. And since they had a little bunch of German and Hungarian refugees there, they turned that whole job over pretty much to the refugees.
Weiner:But a certain group over there actually was interned, they were interned as enemy aliens, and it took a great fight to get them out.
Condon:Is that so?
Weiner:Probably not the same ones as you're talking about, but a large group of German scientists who went there as refugees from Germany were interned at the outbreak of the war.
Condon:Well, that's interesting because I didn't know that. But in any case, you see there are differences. I'm not trying to bring them out in any spirit of saying somebody was right or somebody else was wrong because, you know, nowadays we make a great fuss out of the fact that the biggest leak of classified information was apparently that done by Klaus Fuchs who was one of those Germans put into Los Alamos via the British cooperation. So you can argue it both ways, and I don't intend to.
That was the fall of '41, and it was more or less just a coincidence that that committee on which I was a member, but not a very active member, met to make a big recommendation to Roosevelt for a major project, you know, one that we thought might run to several hundred million dollars— that was our guess. That meeting occurred on the weekend, I think it was a Friday or Saturday, just before Pearl Harbor, I think it was December 5 or 6. I haven't any idea how that recommendation to Roosevelt would have been received, had it not been for Pearl Harbor. But he got it right after Pearl Harbor, so we were in war and all the rest, so the defense program got a tremendous spurt and this went ahead.
So that in early 42 it began to take form. It was put under OSRD auspices because it was getting too big for this original S-1 committee to handle. That committee was disbanded sometime in the spring of '42, so I didn't have anything more to do with it and was entirely involved in radar work. I mean, didn't have anything more to do with it at that time. I'm trying to think. I was mostly on microwave radar work by that time. I should say that Westinghouse was involved in other phases: mentioned the preparation of metallic uranium; that went on and was considerably expanded. Though I had a little role in the initiation of it, I didn't have any role in it once it got going. Also, the Westinghouse applied mechanics people that I mentioned as being a very strong group had quite a role in some early development of taking Jesse Beam's ultracentrifuge work and building some ultracentrifuges on a larger scale for the purpose of developing that as one of the methods of isotope separation. I had a hand in that in the sense that I knew Jesse Beams personally and so on, but that was mostly done by direct contract relations between the project and the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. I was only mildly involved in that. I think that needs to be mentioned because later, as part of the general political attacks on me that were made by the Un-American Activities Committee—I've forgotten...there were allegations made in various scandal columns to the effect that I had impeded or scuttled or failed to push the centrifuge method. In point of fact I had nothing to do with it one way or the other. I suppose people could argue that had I pitched in and run like a zealot to push it, I might have had some positive effect. But all the dealings between the project and the Corporation were through Chubb and I only knew about them very incidentally.
Weiner:Meanwhile all the microwave work was going on.
Condon:Well, that was going at a great clip because you see, as so often happens, there's a lot of research that isn't terribly productive or is just sort of repeating what other people have done, what I call "I can do it too" research where you just repeat and check and acquire techniques in your lab. We were starting to make the klystrons from California, from the Stanford group, Bill Hansen and Russell Varian...
Weiner:Who were in your class when you taught there?
Condon:Yes, whom I had first gotten acquainted with in 1930 when taught out there in the summer. Well, in the meantime they had been supported in their research by the Sperry Gyroscope Company, but Sperry had never been in the tube-making business so they struck up a commercial alliance between Sperry Gyroscope and Westinghouse to get the klystron tubes made by Westinghouse in their tube factory in Bloomfield, New Jersey. I had quite a part in that and that involved also a lot of paling around with Russell Varian and Bill Hansen. Hansen by this time was dividing his time—Varian was still in California—between the Radiation Lab up at MIT and Sperry Gyroscope, which is on Long Island there, near New York City.
And so we got into the klystron game with all the tube manufacturing problems and detailed improvements. A good deal of that was done at Pittsburgh, because they didn't have much in the way of tube-development facilities at Bloomfield; it was pretty much a production factory.
There's a unit in the radar system that's known as a TR box, TR for transmit/receiver. You see, what you do is send out a signal at a very high power level when you're sending, and then just microseconds later you want to have the antenna disconnected from this high-powered transmitting circuit and reconnected over to the receiving circuit so that the return echo, which is at many tens of db's lower power level, goes into the receiver. But you don't want the receiver to be directly connected to the transmitter—it would just melt the thing probably, because of the vast difference in the power levels. And so this TR box was a resonant cavity gas discharge device so that when the high power level through it was high, the gas broke down and shorted the thing out, and that made the transmit power go to the antenna. But as soon as the transmitted pulse was off, the gas discharge reestablished the insulating properties of the gas so that when the signal came back, it took a different route in the wave guide circuits that were involved.
That was our main contribution, I guess. We developed a 3-centimeter TR box that got into use in quite a variety of radar sets, made by Westinghouse but supplied to other manufacturers' sets as well as our own.
Weiner:That wasn't the component that was known as the black box in that period? I just heard the story recently about the origin of the term "black box" as being something that was assembled in larger units where the people didn't have to know, and weren't supposed to know, what the black box was.
Condon:No, I don't think so. I don't ever remember hearing that. I always thought of black box as more of a generic term for anything, just anything of which you don't know what the insides are.
Weiner:I know. I was tracking it down the other day and I found a neighbor who had worked on the radar project. And one of the things they were assembling was a black box, and they didn't know what was in it, and if something went wrong with it, they never repaired it they sent away or were given another one.
Condon:Well, that was true. It just wouldn't have been practical to repair them in the field; it was always done by putting in a replacement the way you put in a new lamp bulb when one burns out.
I never heard those things called black boxes, but they might have been by people who didn't know what was inside. I knew what was inside, so there was no mystery.
Well, so that's about the way it was. I suppose what I ought to do is get back into the game then of how I got back into the atomic bomb business, since I got out of it for a while.
Weiner:Let me ask one question while we're on this: The Tizard mission had come over, on the radar thing, and that's where Lawrence and, guess, Alfred Loomis met with some of these people. You entered in a little after that time, I gather.
Condon:Well, it's hard for me to remember exactly just which group
was called the Tizard mission.
Weiner:Only later the term was used.
Condon:You see, it's true that sometime in the early fall of '41... All that sticks in my mind is Urey and Pegram going to England, but there may have been a couple of others that went at that time. And then later two or three of the Englishmen came back over and visited with us. Now I'm not as good a source of information on that as other people would be, if they're still alive, simply because, as said, I had practically no association in the fall of '41 with that project except to go to the one- or two-day committee meetings once a month in Washington. But other people who were really active in it and weren't tied up with other things like the microwave radar did quite a lot of seeing these Britishers at more than just the formal meetings of the committee, whereas my knowledge is very limited. So I don't quite remember how much and who was involved in that interchange back and forth.
Weiner:I meant here the interchange on the microwave, on the radar.
Condon:Oh, the Tizard Mission for the radar? Oh, yes, that was earlier. Of course, everything was at quite a tempo so not much earlier. You see, as I mentioned I first heard of the whole idea of radar—even though our country had it in the Naval Research Lab at the lower frequencies, was secret and I didn't know it—on the occasion when Karl Compton invited me to join the Radiation Lab staff, which was the last week in October 1940. But this Tizard Mission bringing over the early magnetrons and working with the NDRC to get this going occurred prior to that. But it couldn't have been very much [prior]. Everything was happening fast at that time. That might have been just two or three weeks earlier, or maybe it was late September, a full month earlier. But I don't know. But it's known.
Weiner:Yes, I think it's included in the history of, what is it Scientists Against Time—there's an account of it there.
Condon:Yes, the James Phinney Baxter book.*
(*James Phinney Baxter, 3rd, (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1946).)
Weiner:And also I'm going to try to see Alfred Loomis who's still alive and is very old. I guess they met at his private laboratory in Tuxedo, New York, so I'm going to try to see him, if I can.
Condon:Oh, that's good. He would know a lot.
Weiner:Well, then, getting back as you started to do before I interrupted, to the atomic project: how did you get back into it once you were out?
Condon:Just before this...I'm always telling these silly anecdotes; I guess they're all right, don't hurt anything. In the first place, claim the credit for having named the MIT lab the Radiation Lab. That was supposed to be a cover name because Lawrence's Radiation Lab was already famous as a nuclear physics lab and the great bulk of the guys who were coming there to work on microwave radar under DuBridge were a bunch of nuclear physicists, so by calling this the Radiation Lab, we'd have people thinking we were working on nuclear physics when we were really working on microwave radar. That was the origin of that name. I also remember one of those very earliest anecdotes when we first started in, about the first week: we were all sitting around with one of those disected magnetrons just cut apart, with that resonant cavity structure of a bunch of circular cavities arranged around a main central circular cavity, and trying to figure out how on earth this thing could work as an oscillation generator. Rabi said, "Oh, it's very simple; it's just a kind of a whistle." And I said, "Okay, Rabi, how does a whistle work?" And he couldn't explain that either. So we had a great time, trying to figure things out in those days.
Weiner:Who was involved in this little group?
Condon:Oh, it's hard for me to remember offhand. John Slater was very active in it, he was probably one of the greatest contributors. Jim Fisk was important, but can't quite remember...If I'm not mistaken Jim was by that time a research man at the Bell Labs—he's now the president of the Bell Labs, as you know—he was a Harvard-MIT-Slater student type anyway. I don't quite remember whether he was mostly at that lab then or at the Bell Labs, but anyway he was important.
Of course, we got organized into sections. Lou Turner, who is still at Princeton, after having been at Argonne during the war, was in charge of the receiver group. Alexander Allen was put in charge of the antenna group, so also was Lauriston Marshall—Larry Marshall, as everybody called him—who is still active as a professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. So there were various groups, and I spanned the waterfront just because I was trying to do liaison for the whole of the Westinghouse thing. At that time I wrote a whole bunch of notes about microwave theory, the wave guide and cavity resonator theory, that were later published as an article in The Reviews of Modern Physics but were used internally for early training purposes for people in the business. All that must be nicely set forth in some histories of the Rad Lab. I've forgotten exactly who was in that very first group.
Weiner:Is it true that the nuclear physicists were the major group involved among the scientists?
Condon:You see, this thing got started before anyone took the atom bomb project seriously, so they began to recruit like mad, and the boys were keen to get into something for the war. And since there was no atom bomb project, they got into this. I think to some extent it may have later retarded the Los Alamos project to some extent because they had recruitment difficulties since everybody was deeply committed to this thing by the time that they started to get going.
Weiner:These were poeple, many of them, who had a lot of radio experience in a sense?
Condon:Yes, a lot of high frequency experience, and they had a lot of electronic experience in unusual ways, in the scaling circuits and so on. A bunch of young fellows with a lot of flexibility of outlook.
There were mighty few of them that had traditional radio engineering knowledge except for knowing some things about amplifiers. There were practically none of them that knew anything about antennas and overall radar systems. Oh, certainly not radar, not even radio because radar was brand new at that time.
Weiner:But they had this ability and flexibility through experimental nuclear physics.
Condon:Yes, that's right. It really was a very remarkable achievement, I think, that all these fellows who heard about radar one week were starting to make contributions to it the next week. Of course you must realize that the very earliest business—well, a large part of it — involved just throwing together facilities and getting the shops organized and buying a lot of materials and so on, but it went very, very fast. I assume that somebody must have interviewed Lee DuBridge about those early days; if not, they ought to for he was the guy who really put it all together, you know.
Weiner:There is a history, in manuscript form, of the Radiation Laboratory by Henry Guerlac, an historian of science, who was there.
Condon:Oh, he was there?
Weiner:He was there for that purpose, I think.
Condon:Well, that would have been later. The thing got started so fast and expanded so fast that we were almost continually confronted with demands for more space, and they were putting up all kinds of jerry-built buildings out in the back of MIT. And since I was there on a part-time basis, I didn't meet Guerlac at that time.
Getting back now to leaving radar, it happened was going West in about January of '43, traveling by train, to California on some radar business—I've forgotten now what that was—and was traveling on the same train with Fred Seitz. And I must confess I don't know what Fred was doing then—he was in some kind of war work, but he was making a trip to California, too, and the two of us were on the same "City of San Francisco" Union Pacific train. And who should be on the train also but Robert Oppenheimer. It was on that train ride that Oppenheimer told
me of the existence of Los Alamos, which was just a construction job, building the buildings, over that winter of '42-'43, and asked me to come out there and be sort of second-in-command, executive officer, associate director—I've forgotten what the title was—but be his principal assistant. And I was all keen to do it but, again, it was the problem of being involved with radar work. I wasn't sure. It was arranged that on that trip—I was going to Los Angeles anyway from San Francisco—that I'd come back by Santa Fe Railroad and stop off and see Los Alamos. General Groves, who was in charge and just anyway wanted to make an inspection trip, chose that same time. So the first time met I General Groves was, oh, some Sunday in late January—might have been early February—'43. I stopped off there. You understand there was nothing scientific there; I was just to see it as a plant. There were both a lot of those wartime wooden lab buildings going up and also a vast number of wartime wooden houses for people to live in being built.
That was all aimed at beginning to move staff in and get the thing running in about two more months, say, April or early May of '43. This would have been end of January or early February '43. Groves and I walked all over the place, just looking at it as a construction job and talking about the problems. And so I went back to Westinghouse to see about arrangements to do this. Well, the management was—management means, of course, the particular vice president whom I reported to; wasn't so important that the whole board of directors assembled for the purpose; I didn't mean to imply that—very much opposed to my doing because, well, the microwave radar at that time had, as I say, more dollar business than had been in their prewar business. I don't want to make them sound so damn crass as only to be thinking of dollars. But the dollars meant a big responsibility in connection with the war effort. At that time—people now tend to forget—the bomb was a very hypothetical thing then. It was considered worth the gamble of making a big effort. Now that the gamble turned out favorably, people tend to forget that it was a gamble, but it WAS a gamble; nobody knew for sure that all of the things needed to converge for a favorable result would converge. They did in fact, but it was uncertain then.
So, it was very uncertain, whereas this other thing was clearly a real, no-kidding, major working contribution to the war effort. So they were very anxious that I not leave but I was by this time keen to go to Los Alamos, so it was understood that I'd go out there on loan for a month or two and see how things went and maybe stay or maybe come back. They were then doing all kinds of fast loading operations like giving me a big raise in pay if I would stay and stuff like that. It didn't mean anything because the University of California immediately matched the offer. And so that was neck and neck; they didn't play another round of that game. And so that didn't play much of a role.
Well, I guess the story of my being there and not staying has been told a number of places. Groves has some unfriendly things to say about it in his book Now It Can Be Told. It's a little hard for me after all these years to quite realize just what were the factors. You know when we make a decision there are often a lot of different factors involved and hard to know just which was decisive. One thing: I was affected by the fact that my career was identified by this time with Westinghouse; they were very good to me and the microwave radar stuff was important and they kept emphasizing that to me, and not wanting me to stay at Los Alamos. Then the whole situation at Los Alamos appeared to me as being in such a terrible mess that I didn't think that even if an atomic bomb could be made that it was likely to be made there. For example, there was no water supply. Young wives of second lieutenants were having enlisted men put in lawns in front of their houses, and the water was practically gone by the time we got there. And there was no power, except the diesel generator, just our own power, for this whole great big laboratory. And the machine tool shops were a mess, and the secrecy was a mess. We weren't allowed to communicate directly with any of the suppliers; we had a tele-type circuit to Los Angeles and there there was a purchasing officer; they dealt with the suppliers, so that delays resulted from that. In addition, Groves was trying to get everybody who was a scientist to accept a commission in the Army so that everybody would live under military discipline, and that's not a thing that ever appealed to me, so I didn't want that. And there were difficulties about the schools, especially in that I had a daughter of high school age, and there was no high school. A good many of the people were younger, so that in turn their children were younger, and so they were busy setting up an elementary school only.
The way it was presented to me was that Groves was so absolutely security-minded—a security fanatic, as I might say, or security conscious, I guess would be a sweeter way of saying the same thing—that he at that time said that everybody who went inside the fence would have to agree to stay in until six months after the war and not even go to Santa Fe on weekend trips or anything. Well, there being no high school, my daughter would have had to stay outside, and if my wife stayed inside, why she'd never see our daughter for God knows how many years. And that just seemed to me like a totally unreasonable thing. I won't say that was decisive, but the aggregate of a lot of different things like this, made me decide not to stay. So I didn't stay.
Weiner:How long had you been there when you left?
Condon:Oh, I don't think it was more than a month or six weeks of really being there, not counting that first one-day visit when I first met Groves.
Weiner:What month was this? You may have said it, but I've forgotten.
Condon:Well, I'd have to check. It was April or May, or April, and part of May or something about like that... Now it was a period in which not a great deal was done because it was a period great chaos. All the families were moving in from all over and getting there before the houses were ready, so in spite of all the secrecy, we had to put them out on a board-and-room basis in various ranches down in the valley. Of course the whole community was tremendously curious and did their damndest to pump the scientists as to what the hell was going on here and things like that. I remember anecdotes from that period. There was one group.... I was trying, as a second in command ought, to make lists of the fellows and to make groups by subject matter to devote themselves to different parts of the problem, and assign people to them. Well, there were a bunch of young fellows I didn't even know. I remember one time intercepting Oppenheimer as he was running down the hall with a list of names of people I didn't know and saying, "Who are these fellows, Robert? Let me know a little about them so we can decide which groups to assign them to." These assignments, of course, were provisional. You had to do something and later, if the assignments could be improved by reassigning people, you would. And I remember Robert hardly pausing as he was running down the hall to answer my question by saying, "I don't know who they are. I bought them as a job lot in Princeton." They were about twenty young fellows.Some project had been closed out there, so all these fellows were available.
Condon:I think it must have been Wilson, or it might have been Parkinson or Perkins or some Cornell group at Princeton. I've forgotten... I don't know what they were doing before it was closed out. I think it was some kind of a gas discharge effort to separate isotopes. At any rate, it was closed down and Robert bought 'em as a job lot in Princeton and shipped them on out, and that's the way we got the place put together. Great confusion. So I wasn't there very long. That was in April or May of '43, that was when Los Alamos was first getting started. One little anecdote that I might tell as a Freudian story on myself. Over all the years like to think that I made a contribution because I wrote the first Los Alamos report, which we called the Los Alamos Primer.* It was used all through the war to indoctrinate the newcomers. It was just an analysis of what you needed to do to make a bomb and what things needed to be measured to know whether you could or not and, you know, a where-do-we-stand-at-the-outset kind of thing. And, since it was all so very, very secret and I wasn't involved any more why, of course, playing the secrecy game correctly, I didn't take a copy away with me. So I'd always been curious about it and later, twenty years later in the spring of '64, wrote to Glenn Seaborg and asked him if it could be declassified and if I could have a copy just for such reasons. He sent me a copy, and only then did I really get taken down a peg because on looking at the very first sentence or two of , it says: "The following report is based on lectures by Professor Robert Serber of Columbia which were written up by E. U. Condon." In point of fact it was Serber's work and my only role was that of getting it down on paper to put in a form for being used. But Serber gave those initial lectures; that's how the project got started, and I remember deciding that since people would be arriving all the time and you couldn't expect Serber to keep repeating these lectures every couple of weeks, why, the best thing to do was to write them all up and make them available. So that's the way that came about. And then later my memory played this Freudian trick on me, of completely eliminating Serber and making me think I'd done it myself. But I think there's a copy of that in the AIP library; I think I gave a copy to it. When I got this declassified copy from Seaborg, I made a few copies and gave them around to a few places that were interested in history.
(*Allusion to this is made, without mention of the authors, in the first New Yorker article on Telford Taylor, p. 114, Dec. 3, 1973 where it is stated that the AEC will supply it for $2.06 a copy.)
Weiner:I don't know; I'll check that.
Condon:If not,I could supply one. It isn't a very big thing; it's maybe 15 or 20 mimeographed pages. Well, so that was that. That was the spring of '43. And then having gone back to Westinghouse, I didn't have any more direct connection with it until August of '43. That was when I went out to Berkeley to work in Lawrence's lab, as head of the theoretical section there. There the situation vis-a-vis Westinghouse was quite different because, as you know, the Lawrence lab was devoted to that part of the Manhattan Project which was the large-scale mass spectrograph methods of separating the isotopes, the big plant that was built at Oak Ridge. That very large plant, which was also a kind of quickie outgrowth of research at Berkeley, was built by a group of companies and Westinghouse had the central manufacturing job. It seemed to us like it was the most important. I suppose others thought their part was important, just to see the mass spectrographs themselves and all of the great big vacuum pump equipment that pumped them out. But all the electrode structure, and all that, was built by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh for the project being built and installed in Oak Ridge. Then General Electric built the high-voltage power supplies that powered the thing. Allis-Chalmers of Milwaukee built the big magnet structure, that provided the magnetic fields for all these mass spectrographs, and Stone & Webster built the whole thing as a big construction job; that is to say, providing the buildings and coordinating and putting all these different things together and getting it in. And finally Tennessee Eastman, a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, had the operating contract, you know, recruiting and training operators and make the thing function when it was built. But I mention all that simply because by this time the radar stuff was working better, it was rolling and really in production; and secondly, in any case Westinghouse had an enormous commitment and involvement in that very project, since they were making all the stuff, so when Lawrence wanted me to come out there, they were not in a position to object; this time they allowed it. Then, too, though there was a tremendous emphasis on secrecy, there were no problems about, you know, schooling and living in some remote community and all that, and so there were no personal, family problems about it. So, Lawrence asked me to come out in August of '43, and I did, I guess, in September of '43. That was a very confused period so far as I was concerned, because the whole idea was... I mean, in good faith we all thought 'd come out for a few months and get a few things straightened out and that'd be all there'd be to it. But new problems kept coming up all the time so that in point of fact I stayed there until February of '45, with frequent trips back to Pittsburgh, coordinating with the thing And toward the end of that period, far from it being so that I came back and that it was temporary, in the summer of '44 I moved my family out there, and we greatly expanded the Westinghouse group at Berkeley.
There was a big Westinghouse engineering group—there must have been 30 or 40 design engineers, all under the direction of an old line power engineer named Charlie Powell who's long since retired and is living in retirement in California—and I was head of the theoretical group. We began to peel some of our radar people off... What I had to do was a mixture of two things: I was the head of the theoretical group of the lab as a whole and also head of the Westinghouse group on the more research side, as contrasted with the engineering and design side that Powell headed up.
Weiner:It was all under one roof was it, in terms of in the same laboratory?
Condon:Yes, except that it wasn't under one roof; it was under one administrative organization. The lab part as such was mostly up on the hill where they had built the buildings that were for the 184-inch cyclotron that got converted to this purpose, and a lot of other of that space was used. But then there was a building down on the Berkeley campus, which had just been built for the School of Optometry at the outbreak of the war but the Optometry School never got to use it because it was commandeered for the theoretical and administrative offices of this lab. So I was oscillating between up on the hill and down there. I don't know how much of the scandalous side of things one ought to go into in this. You see, the reason that Lawrence needed me was because the security people had begun to get worried about some of the young men who were there. As far as I know—I don't claim to know every bit of all of that because it happened prior to my coming, but as far as I know the young men who were later given a lot of trouble about that, the only thing they were guilty of was perhaps some minor security indiscretions. They were all on the left democratic side and as such were sympathetic with organizing unions, and there was an effort made by some alleged Communist organizers to organize the lab technicians and the machinists and the technical people at the Lab into a union. And they paled around with those organizers and got into trouble for that reason.
Weiner:This was before the war?
Condon:No; it was during the war. You see the war started as a war, with us in it, I mean, in '41 at Pearl Harbor. No, it was only after the project got started that those incidents...
Well, there's a long record of Un-American Committee hearings that were held in '49, about Radiation Lab infiltration by Communists, it's all hammed up in the best Un-American Committee style. But that was the origin of the troubles of all sorts of people. I can't begin to enumerate all of them, but, for example, Frank Oppenheimer, who later had trouble in `49. Now the interesting thing was that Frank Oppenheimer, David Bohm, Bernard Peters—several like that—though they were made the subject of bad publicity by the Un-American Committee in 1949 after the war, were kept on the project and worked on it throughout the war. There was one fellow who was later sensationally publicized by the Un-American Committee as Scientist X, you know, really hamming it up. That was Joe Weinberg; he was not on this project at all—he had a young man's teaching job, I don't know whether as instructor or assistant professor in physics during the war but not in this project.
But there was a very bright young man named Rossi Lomanitz who had been drafted as a way of getting him off the project as a result of the security people's decision that he had to be sacrificed. He was the one who had done most of the work on designing...Well, let me back up a minute. You see, these mass spectrographs were what are known in the literature as the Dempster type—Dempster had made them just about a few inches in size and these were about 10 feet in size, greatly scaled up—but generally speaking you use a uniform magnetic field, and the ions are bent around in a semi-circle and brought to an approximate focus, 180 degrees away from the input slit in this magnetic field. Well, that focus is an approximate focus; it's not an exact one and so you might say that the ion optics of the thing has aberrations. And then was Oppenheimer, before he went to Los Alamos who had realized thatby deliberately using a non-uniform magnetic field you could correct for those aberrations and thus get a bigger open aperture, well focused, you know what I'm trying to say: the mass-238 ions went in one radius,and the mass-235 ions went in another radius. Well 235 and 238 aren'tvery far apart and, in fact, the radii go as the square root of the massso it's even less than it would seem since it's the square root of that ratio rather than the ratio itself that counts. So the magnetic field was deliberately made non-uniform to improve the focus so that you could use a wider aperture of beam going through. The actual technique ofthose calculations and the theory of that was a kind of a fancy problem in orbit theory. Now, of course, there's a great big theory of electronoptics and ion optics and focusing devices of all kinds in the postwar high-energy accelerators, but that was all relatively new then. So Lomanitz under Oppenheimer had done that and Lomanitz got drafted atthe urgent request of the security people. And off he went to the war,just for the purpose of getting rid of him. I think he got a very raw deal. I don't know the full facts in the case but I remember once being in Lawrence's office when a middle-aged woman came to try to intercede with Lawrence to try to see if they couldn't get him back out of the Army because she said that they put him through basic infantry training and then every time his unit was about to go overseas, he'd be yanked outand put in basic infantry training all over again. And that was just a sort of permanent imprisonment for him.
Weiner:Hard labor camp?
Condon:Yes, that's right, and she said that he was quite willing to serve as a soldier but he was about to crack up under the nervous strain of this treatment. I don't even know that this is what happened to him. I know that a woman tried to intercede with Ernest Lawrence, and I don't know whether Ernest Lawrence tried to do anything on Lomanitz's behalf or not. I just know that he didn't get back into scientific work until after the war, and he, too, was persecuted by the '49 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. I don't know what's become of him. I had a little contact with him around '49-'50. I didn't meet him at the time; he was gone from Berkeley into this concentration camp a few weeks before I showed up. Well, as often happens with bright young theoreticians, he had it all in his head, and he just would do off little calculations and tell the people how to make the shims to a magnetic field and that was that. Then with him gone there were no records— just a bunch of sloppy notes and calculations on the back of envelopes and all that. I had to reconstruct all that theory from scratch, and that was pretty difficult. There were a couple of fellows around who were beginning graduate students who bridged the gap, but they were also non-record-keeping types, so it was a mess.
The other side of theory there was the theory of plasma gas discharges that had to do with the ion sources for those mass spectrographs. Well, as soon as the British cooperation got reestablished quite a bunch of Britishers came [after Quebec conference of Churchill and Roosevelt.] The principal one was Sir Harrie Massey who is a very distinguished man now; he's been head of theoretical physics at University College, London, for many years. And there was another experimentalist named Burhap, then Mark Oliphant came, who is now a big shot in postwar nuclear physics, and he was an Australian. So after some postwar years in England, he's been mostly back in Australia. Of course he's now about at the retirement age; maybe has retired—I'm not sure.
[October 1973: He is in politics and is governor of South Australia at Adelaid.] So there were maybe 15 or 20 British there. You see, the British were squeezed out of the project by General Groves, and this made Churchill very angry. I think that's why the Canadian project got established, because we had squeezed the British out and the British were going to go it alone but they didn't feel they could do it in England. So they set up Chalk River and started putting some Britishers and some Canadians into an effort to stay in the business on their own. Then getting back into the business—there was something that was worked out between Churchill and Roosevelt at the Quebec Conference, which occurred in the summer of '43. So, soon after I went to Berkeley, Britishers began to show up and be part of it. And that's when they went to Los Alamos, too, and elsewhere. So we had the benefit of both experimentalists and theoreticians who were very good people from the British group there at Berkeley. As far as I know, none of those Berkeley Britishers were ever accused of espionage, like the Fuchs business that came later at Los Alamos.
Well, so that's about the way it went. Then by February or so of '45 the mass spectograph plant at Oak Ridge was beginning to produce, and the research was pretty well over with. People saw that that was going to be the end of the war. There was no point in my staying longer, so around the first of March of '45—or maybe it was earlier, in February— I went back to Pittsburgh, but without my family and children, who were still in school out there. So the family stayed out until the summer of '45. You see, Germany had collapsed by that time, and the bomb was known to be getting ready, and anyway Japan was pretty well teetering, so the whole feeling was that the war was over so far as research projects were concerned. So when I went back to Westinghouse in the spring of '45, I began to sit around and do postwar planning: what ought the lab to be doing when the war is over and everybody can get back to normal business. And, except for making a trip out to California to pick up my family and drive them East in June of '45... That was amusing because, as I say, by this time I had no connection whatever with the atom bomb business, so I didn't know anything about the Alamogordo test. But by coincidence I was driving my family back East from California about that time, so later when the war was over, the Westinghouse guys all assumed that I had secretly gone out to see the Los Alamos test, and no amount of denying it would ever persuade them otherwise, at least at that time.
Weiner:It's like saying I came here to hear Governor Reagan today [who is giving a talk in Boulder.]
Condon:Exactly. And so anyway, that was that. While I was doing that sort of thing, I got the family back and got reestablished in a house in Pittsburgh. And then early in August of '45 was when the bomb was dropped and that's when scientists began to be concerned about postwar use of atomic bombs and so forth, and international control of all the science stuff.
But in September of '45 I was at a meeting at the University of Chicago that was set up by Hutchins, who's in that vein—talking about social and political problems of atomic energy—and that's where I first met Henry Wallace, and he offered me the job of Director of the Bureau of Standards, for which I did go to Washington in October of '45. Everything happened very fast in those days- something would be set up and arranged, and the next month you'd be there, doing .
Weiner:Let me interrupt in the remaining time to ask about a couple of things before we leave Westinghouse. You mentioned postwar plans. wanted to ask about the nature of the postwar planning that you did do. What did you have in mind when you got back to Westinghouse?
Condon:Well, I suppose the biggest thing that we were thinking about was what would be the postwar consequences of the whole atomic energy business, which was obviously of direct relevance to Westinghouse business. You talk about being long range about it, there's no sense being long range when something's right in front of you. And everybody by that time— everybody who had project experience—knew about the success of the big reactors at Hanford and that there was no question but that you could make electric power by controlled reactions, by a non-explosive uranium pile, I remember one was very much hampered at that time...Well, in a way you were and in a way you weren't because on the one hand it was all so secret you weren't supposed to say anything to anybody, even inside the company; and on the other hand the company's manufacturing involvements with the Manhattan project got to be so extensive that there really were quite a number of important Westinghouse management people who knew about it too. And so in a way the secret got extended to us.
I remember writing a memo but now again there's a certain risk that my memory is playing another Freudian trick on me in emphasizing my role and that it wasn't really that important—but the main thing that sticks out in my memory was writing a big memo, arguing the importance of the company putting a major effort on getting into the atomic power business and also arguing that, both because of the security uncertainties as to how that was going to be handled in the immediate postwar period and secondly because of the cost uncertainties, that the most important thing would be for us to go after the business of nuclear power plans for propulsion of naval vessels, especially submarines. That's obvious; sure it was obvious to many people, but it was also obvious to me, and I stressed it with the Westinghouse management, and as you know, that's what they did do. The argument was, well, after all, the military advantages of not having to refuel a naval vessel are worth an awful lot of dollars, so at this stage when you didn't have a very clear cost picture as to whether nuclear energy would compete on a true cost basis with coal or what they now call fossil fuel, you could get into the business that way because you were damn sure the Navy was going to go after this. Even if they didn't have sense enough to, you were quite sure you could talk them into it. And this was easy for Westinghouse to get its foot in the door because they had long been great suppliers of power equipment to naval vessels in the way of steam turbines for electric generators and all that. So they had very strong Navy connections. And so that was that.
Weiner:There would have been some people in the Navy or working in research connected with the Navy who had similar inclinations. I think Ross Gunn...
Condon:Oh, yes, that's right. Ross Gunn was pushing it very much. He was then in the Naval Research Laboratory. And then there was an Admiral Bowen, Admiral Hugh Bowen who was the head...I've forgotten when they first started to call the thing the Office of Naval Research...
Whether it was called that in his time or some other name...anyway he was a big steam man himself; his claim to fame in naval history is that he was the fellow who took the Navy over to high pressure steam turbines instead of the older, low pressure stuff. He was a great friend of mine during the war. He was very nice to me, and we had various dealings in the immediate postwar period. That was the thing that I think of as most important in planning. Of course we also were thinking of other things. You see Westinghouse had always had quite a role in the early semi-conductor business and the copper oxide rectifiers, but that was all just a kind of mysterious black art at that time, the whole understanding about p and n, and p and n junctions. We just knew it in terms of if you heat treated copper oxide rectifiers in such an atmosphere at such-and-such a temperature scale, you got good rectifiers; otherwise, you didn't, and all that. So one of the things we talked about was to make a major effort in the semi-conductor field, but then that was what everybody was thinking of, too. You know, things are in the air at a given time.
But you realize that though there was a lot of talk about what should we do and what should we stress and how should we proceed after the war, in point of fact this was the spring and summer of '45 and it wasn't after the war really. And so we didn't do much except get things down on paper and talk about it.
Weiner:Brief your staff on the problems.
Condon:Right. The younger staff were still doing the various radar jobs and things. And then anyway, whereas I might have seen that into development at Westinghouse, in point of fact it was in late September or so that I was offered the job as Director of the Bureau of Standards, and I guess it was around the first of November when I actually did take over. And so I had very friendly relations with Westinghouse afterwards, even though I left them. The summer of '46 they put on one of these very large corporate symposium kind of affairs honoring something or other about George Westinghouse—maybe it was the centennial of his birth or something; I don't know, one of those official dates in his life—and I was chairman of the committee to do that. I'd been made chairman of it before I left the company, then they asked me to continue even as Director of the Bureau. And we did. I suppose one ought to in this Westinghouse period allude to the fact that it was in this radar period when I first got acquainted with Hugh Odishaw, who's been a close associate of mine all these years since. Hugh was a young man, a Canadian by birth, who had gotten a master's degree in English at Princeton; then he went to teach—one of those dreadful teaching jobs that young English literary types have to take—teaching English to bone-head engineers at Illinois Tech. He got fed up with that and also poor pay, and he was young and draft vulnerable. But he himself took some courses in electrical engineering to try to broaden his interest while there. Anyway he came to the publicity department of Westinghouse, and that's where I first met him. But since he was draft vulnerable, I got him into the radar business, he went to London and was a historian for the radar activities of the Eighth Air Force. You know, literary-historical-war-history kind of job. Then when he came back he worked for me for a while at Westinghouse, but then I stole him away to head up the Publications and Public Relations Activities of the Bureau. I also stole away Johnnie Hipple who had been with Westinghouse all this time, and he came down to build a mass spectrograph project at the Bureau. I guess those were the only men I stole from Westinghouse.
Weiner:May I ask something if I'm not interrupting.
Weiner:When you first went there, Westinghouse was originally doing nuclear physics. Apparently they didn't have energy in mind, and it's true they were committed to basic research. But there were certain areas of basic research that they would be more apt to support than others, and nuclear physics was one, but I'm not clear what their reasons would have been at that time to support it.
Condon:Yes, I understand what your question is. I don't know myself, come to think about it. They had already committed themselves to the Van de Graaff machine project before they got me. I don't mean by that that I would have been against it. I wasn't in on the original decisions. Since there was so much emphasis on long range basic research and this was perhaps the most active area of physics at that time, they just did I can't supply...
Weiner:The only thing I can think of is high voltages. You know, it's the other way around with Charlie Lauritsen where he inherited electrical...
Condon:Yes, he inherited a big electrical engineering lab and then turned it to nuclear physics. Well, this may have had a little of that flavor. It was natural that they had a high voltage interest; there was always talk about DC transmission systems and so on.
Weiner:Were any other companies involved?
Condon:No, I don't think so, I don't think GE did anything at that time in nuclear physics. I think that's correct. Certainly nothing very conspicuous. Now in point of fact our venture didn't turn out terribly well. There were two different groups that I would say played the most important role in developing the modern...first, John Trump and company began to develop modern pressurized Van de Graaff machines at MIT, making them work real well and also, perhaps even more so, which perhaps should have been mentioned first, Ray Herb and his associates at Wisconsin. Ray just last week gave a very good historical talk about the Van de Graaff generators.
Weiner:Did you hear it?
Condon:Yes, I went to it was very good.
Weiner:I have the tapes.
Condon:Oh, good. He had a lot of nice slides of the old machines. For example, he mentioned in a very charitable way, this enormous big machine that he built, much bigger than any of Ray Herb's—we never got it to work much above 4 million volts, maybe about 4.2 or something like that; these things fade out gradually with becoming more and more unstable as you try to work them higher—and yet Ray Herb built machines much smaller and more compact that fit right into the lab that also did 4 million volts. So the thing wasn't much of a success. It worked, and it was good for 4 million volts, and we did things with it, but it wasn't anything to be terribly proud of. Both Herb's group and also Trump's group about that same time were doing much better at the generator game than we did. And, although the Westinghouse research lab guys did keep using it for quite a period after the war and did quite a number of nuclear reactions jobs with it, like all of those Van de Graaffs as contrasted with cyclotrons in the region where they work steadily, you could hold the voltage very steady so you could get these resonances of nuclear reaction yields very sharp and very precisely. So it played a role. It's just that it was just a great big tremendous white elephant for getting 4 million volts when lots of people could get 4 million volts with a much more compact machine.
Weiner:Maybe it was because they had less money to work with and therefore had to innovate more.
Condon:Well, that could be. Anyway, that's the way it was, and so it was creditable but not outstanding, I'd say.
Weiner:Didn't you also get involved with a physical computer, the Nimitron, was it?
Condon:Oh, well, that was more of a gag. But now that's probably the most shameful thing in my whole career as a failure. You know that this game called Nim where you pick up various numbers of objects and try to force somebody to pick up the last one, or you are allowed to pick up any number you want from any one of several piles; then you have to give the other person a turn, and he can do it. The game is sometimes played to try to be able to pick up the last match, if it's played with matches; or to force the other guy into the position where he has to be the one who picks up the last one—it makes very slight difference. But anyway that game has a theory which is most conveniently expressed by talking about the numbers of matches that are in the various piles by expressing them in binary notation. And of course those circuits—scaling circuits— that everyone was using for artificial radioactive counting with the Geiger counters to cut down the counting rate, were also based on the numbers represented in the binary notation. So one day I had an idea that we ought to be able to make a machine that could play the game. So we did. And actually it was sort of amusing because we were thinking in terms of scaling circuits. We did it for the World's Fair, the New York World's Fair at what later became LaGuardia Airport. That one, not the more recent one.
Condon:Yes. It ran two years, 1939-40. During that winter between 1939-40, the company was looking for ideas to freshen up their exhibit for the second year. And I thought of building this machine, and so we did build it and exhibited it.
Well, the sense in which it was a shameful failure on my part was that this was a good four or five years before Johnnie von Neumann and Eckart and Mockley and all this digital computer business, and never thought of lt in serious terms; I just thought of it as this gag thing, yet the circuitry and all that was exactly what was later used for computers, for programmed computers. In fact, the Nimitron was patented, and one of the patent claims that was given to Westinghouse was "any electrical means of representing a number as the sum of integral multiples of powers of another number." So it was the complete game of representing numbers digitally in a computing circuit. None of us had sense enough to do anything with it, so the patent just never amounted to anything. But if we had had sense enough with our postwar planning to think of automatic computers, I might have amounted to something; IBM might not be what...
Weiner:Did you ever publish anything...
Condon:No, lt was just published as a patent. And then, of course, the gadget was built and used. It was played by thousands of people at the Fair. There's a little sort of amusing psychological factor about it: in the first place, you see, when we first started to plan the thing, we quickly realized that the whole business about electronic circuits was just to make it be able to decide on the next move in a micro-second. Well, there's no need to be that fast, so, since those circuits with electron tubes were not terribly rugged, and when you didn't need the speed, you could make the whole thing with just ordinary electromagnetic relays where the current-on or current-off moved the relay point back to control another circuit, so it was actually built that way.
Then the funny part was that when we first had it working in the lab, it was fantastic. Instead of picking up matches, what it did was to have banks of lights— think there were four banks of up to eight lights, something like that—and it was programmed to challenge you with a game by which lights were lit up then in the four columns. Then you were allowed to go up and take your choice of pressing a button any number of times that would turn out the lights, that was the equivalent of picking up matches in any one column. But you couldn't then press the button for another column—there was an interlock—without first pressing a button that would give the machine its play.
Well, even with the relays, you'd be very thoughtfully pressing and trying to decide what's a clever move; then when you'd give the machine its turn, it'd go like that [snap of fingers], a thousandth of a second, instead of a microsecond even with relays, Or maybe a hundredth of a second, but anyway it seemed very fast. Well, this had a shattering effect on a person who was playing the machine because the machine was just so god-awful fast that you just felt like an utter fool. So, just as a public relations trick, we put in a delay relay so that the machine would seem like it was thinking it over for a couple of seconds before it then made its move. Nothing was happening in that period except just to keep from insulting the public. The machine knew what its move was, but we had a delay that would wait a while as if it was having to solve a tough problem and then would move. So, instead of going in for ultra-high-speed computers, I guess made one of the first automatic, deliberately low-speed computers, a special purpose computer.
Weiner:What happened to it?
Condon:I don't know where it is now, if it still exists, but it was later exhibited, after the Fair was over in Buell Planetarium in Pittsburgh, a local science museum and planetarium. I might add just one detail about it: We did just for the fun of it put a couple of counters on it, so as to keep a record during the Fair exhibit of how many games it played and how many times the public was able to beat the machine. Well, I should say that this is kind of a dull game in the sense that it's all predetermined; that is to say, with two players, each of whom know the theory, it's predetermined: either the guy that has the first move can win for sure; or the game is of another category, in which the guy who has the second move can win for sure. So, just to be sports, we only programmed about a dozen different games that would be repeated over and over again, so that if you knew how to play you could beat the machine every time, because we only put that kind on. So people would come there to the Fair and work like hell and get beat every time. Then they'd come over to an attendant and say that they didn't believe you could beat the machine. Well, the attendants, of course, had long since learned the dozen games and so would go over and beat the machine two or three times just to prove that it could be done.
Well, this spoiled our statistics because we hadn't foreseen that this would happen and so...Even so, I don't believe the machine was beaten more than 5 or 10% of the time. I used to know the numbers, but I've forgotten. But the great bulk of those occasions were just the attendants demonstrating that it was possible. The public at large seldom beat it.
Weiner:How many played it?
Condon:My recollection is that it was around 50,000. I'm not sure of the total tally on the machine; that may be wrong. But anyway it was only built that once although it was patented. It's an amusing patent because a lot of my friends find it quite startling to think of me having a patent that's got about 15 pages of circuit diagrams in it; but it exists in the published literature in that sense. [It is U.S. Patent 2,215,544, issued September 24, 1940.]
Weiner:Was the patent granted to you and assigned to Westinghouse?
Condon:Yes. Well, to me and two other fellows.* The other fellows were guys in the relay division who did most of the work of working out circuits. They were control circuit men who were familiar with that kind of stuff. My part was really just that of the basic idea, and the general notion, and they reduced it to practice.
(* Gerald L. Tawney and Willard A. Derr)
Weiner:How big was the box?
Condon:Well, much bigger than it would need to be because it was deliberately built in old line circuitry with relays. Iguess it was a box about a cubic yard, a box with a sort of a console of these switches where you played and then, standing above it in another box that might have been about a 2-foot cube were the lights that displayed the game, and those lights were repeated on four faces so that the public that had not yet been drawn to the exhibit, no matter what direction they came from, could see the lights flashing on and off as other people were playing the game. It was a great success. I never had courage enough to try to play it myself—I played it in the lab—but there before the public I wasn't going to take a chance of making a fool of myself.
Weiner:It's interesting and someday I might look into this and write it up. At the Chicago Fair in 1933 there was also a scientific gadget. General Motors asked Arthur Compton to come up with something that would help start the assembly line. The Fair was opened supposedly by starlight from Arcturus which was believed to be 40 light years away at the time and the previous fair had been in 1893, so there was just 40 years before, and General Motors wanted something that had been around longer than that. So Arthur Compton said, "Well, cosmic rays have." And then Luis Alvarez built a counter eventually that would take the cosmic rays and start the assembly line, for GM.
Condon:Well, I did something like that with Westinghouse. WBZ is a Westinghouse radio station in Boston. They built a new transmitter and were looking for some gimmick to turn it on the air. You know, you can do anything with amplifiers, and so this was when fission was not yet secret; there was a little period when it was even in the news—science writers would write popular articles about the prospects of an atomic bomb quite openly, for about six months there, I guess. So they wanted an idea for some stunt like that to turn on this station. So we turned it on with uranium fission. All it was was a thing where an amplifier was ready to throw a main switch and then you bring up a hunk of uranium to this thing and when fission occurs with a small neutron source, why, zongo, it went!
Weiner:A practical application.
Condon:So that was the first application of atomic energy in the fission sense. It was just a gag, but there was a big party...This all happened downtown in Boston at the studio, and I remember that at the last minute the public relations guy discovered that at the station itself, which was out at a seaside beachÂ—I've forgotten the name of it, out at the outer part of Boston Harbor—but there'd be a lot of the public hanging around there, and nothing was done for them; they wouldn't see anything. So at the last minute this guy went and bought himself a bunch of fireworks to put on a firework show: as the station went on the air, off go Roman candles, and he damn near made a riot there because it hadn't been publicized that the fireworks were going off, and then here was a great big high radio antenna and just as the station goes on the air, all kinds of hot fire starts coming out of the antenna, or was looking as if it was. People stampeded, they had a hell of a time there for a while. Nobody was hurt, fortunately, but there was quite a scare. But it just shows how you can't monkey with these things without thinking of the consequences.
Weiner:Maybe we could get back to Princeton, to 1928 and your work with Gurney and get as far as we can, bringing you up to the point where we started today, that is, up to 1937.
Condon:Well, I guess that's feasible. Have I talked at all about going to Princeton from Columbia?
Weiner:Well, you told me that you had a number of offers, that Princeton seemed to know best what they were doing, that Karl Compton seemed...
Condon:Well, that's the way it seemed to me, and I would hate to say that in derogation of the others. You see I had come back from Germany in the fall of '27 and worked for the Bell Labs that fall. Then I'd got a job at Columbia—just a temporary job, that is; I was called lecturer in physics—just a one-semester job for the spring of '28. It was during the spring of '28 that I got a variety of job offers and accepted the Princeton one and went down there in the summer of '28. So the summer and fall was when I started at Princeton.
Well, I came down there...That's when I wrote the Phys Rev paper that's published in the Phys Rev for the fall of '28 about the Franck-Condon principle—that's a much-quoted paper.
Then Gurney was there. Now Gurney was an experimental student, a student of Rutherford's who'd done some kind of experimental radioactivity work. One day he was sitting in the library at Princeton and reading the Phys Rev, and he read the very short paper of Robert Oppenheimer's written from Cal Tech, about the leakage of electrons through barriers. Oppenheimer, so far as I know, was the first one to discover the leakage idea as being a mathematical consequence of quantum mechanics. And he did it in connection with the... At that time Charlie Lauritsen, who has just died, you know, and Millikan were working on emission of electrons from cold metals by application of high fields, and Oppenheimer got into the theory of that and it was in that context that he recognized that... Of course, hot metals emit thermionic emission, and that was much used for thermionic filaments in vacuuum tubes. But cold metals—under very high electric fields you could get currents, but it was evident from the laws of the variation with the voltage and so on that this was not just some tail end of thermionic emission; it was a different mechanism and very puzzling. So Oppenheimer wrote a little note on that, and Gurney was just sitting in the Princeton library, reading current Phys Rev and he read that paper just casually. In those days Phys Rev wasn't so big but what guys would usually read the whole issue when it came out. He didn't know any quantum mechanics at that time or at least wasn't skilled in knowing the theory at all; he just knew a little about it. And he came to me, while it was still vacation before the fall semester had started, to ask me if it could be that alpha particles could leak through barriers and get out of the nucleus and whether that might be radioactivity, showing me the Oppenheimer cold emission paper. We did a little arithmetic right then and there.
You know, it was very appealing that that must be it, but after all now you're talking about an alpha particle instead of an electron but you're also talking about a Coulomb barrier on the scale of nuclear dimensions instead of this barrier at the surface of a metal on the scale of atomic dimensions, so the scales and the factors were quite different. But everything fit, and we started to see if you could explain the Geiger-Nuttall law that way. So within a few days, as I recall we got off a letter to Nature. Now, over in GÃ¶ttingen, unbeknownst to us, George Gamow was doing the same stuff, and he sent a paper to the Zeitschrift fur Physik, and they're dated within a couple of days of each other. Actually I think he was a little bit ahead of us in that, though the papers are published almost simultaneously and dated almost simultaneously, he does have more of a worked out theory in his first paper than we had in ours. The key idea was simultaneous in the two, but he did more with it. So we had that early letter to Nature in the fall, though simultaneously with his Zeitschrift fur Physik paper. Then we worked on it more. I gave a paper on it at a Schenectady meeting of the National Academy that fall. I remember the session. Irving Langmuir was presiding at that session, and I was a little bit annoyed because here we had explained beautifully alpha particle radioactivity—the theory that still holds the field— and Irving Langmuir starts to badger me about explaining the continuous beta ray spectrum, which, of course, I didn't know how to do. That's a thing which came much later with beta decay and neutrinos and all that. But it seemed to me a little bit stern of Langmuir to expect me do that, too, right then and there. But that the way Langmuir was. He was very full of ideas and full of high standards and criticism and wanting the maximum. Then we had our fuller paper in the Phys Rev, I guess it must have been about February of '29.
Weiner:Well, your first paper came out in Nature I think in November and then Gamow had a letter to Nature a week later, referring to his paper which had not yet appeared but was in press apparently.
Weiner:And so that was the sequence. Now exactly when the Zeitschrift paper came out, I don't know. But your paper appeared first, then he commented...
Condon:Oh, is that so? I had forgotten that. In other words, he saw our paper in Nature and immediately got another letter in to Nature about...
Weiner:At Bohr's urging. He was in Copenhagen at the time.
Condon:Yes. Well, at any rate it was neck and neck, and...
Weiner:Well, these are his recollections, and we just have to piece it together by looking.
Condon:I'd forgotten that he had a letter in Nature about that time. Of course, immediately, very soon afterwards, there was the big literature in the spring of 29, all kinds of people writing additional papers on it, even Max Born, von Laue, and all kinds of people. Of course they were just making variations of the mathematical formulation of it, but it was the same old barrier leakage. But you'd take different shaped barriers and you'd make different degrees of WKB approximation to the barrier and then that idea that Gamow introduced about relating the decay constant to a complex energy eigen-value— that was a novel idea, and various people had to rewrite that, to satisfy themselves that it was okay.
I must say at that time I wasn't very smart. Or I'm not very smart even yet, but a lot less so then. I wasn't used to the idea that when an important idea comes along in physics, a whole stream of papers is generated by it. We wrote our paper and quit. That was it. We had spoken. Whereas, looking back on it now and knowing more how the game is played among physicists, building up their precious bibliographies, Gurney and should have written half a dozen papers that year that would have been just nothing more than more and more computations and refinements of the Geiger-Nuttall relation, and the fine structure of the alpha ray energies, with and without orbital angular momentum—there was a whole bunch of junk like that that was done in the year '29, but we didn't pitch into it.
Weiner:Had you been concerned, prior to the conversation with Gurney, about the problem? Apparently Rutherford was trying desperately to find some explanations for...
Condon:No, I wasn't familiar with it. I had never studied radioactivity very much. I just knew the qualitative dope about it. But Gurney had. Gurney was fresh from Rutherford's lab.
I'm not very good at remembering all those radioactive elements and their special names like the radium C dashes and all that. But the problem that had intrigued Rutherford very much was by studying... You see, the notion of a barrier... Nobody had any idea of leakage through a barrier, so the idea was that if there's a barrier and then somehow or other for some strange reason—the part that wasn't understood—you think as if every once in a while an alpha particle in the nucleus manages to get enough energy to go over the top and thus get out. Well, therefore, on that view, the height of the barrier is the emitted energy of the alpha particle. It got enough energy to go over the top, presumably not very much more than enough, so that it just barely got over the top like a guy going over the high hurdles, and then, by seeing what energy it has in the lab, that was how high the barrier was. On the other hand, Rutherford and/or his students or the Cavendish Lab had done some experiment in which they'd studied the scattering of alpha particles by a radioactive nucleus. And you could take alpha particles from another source that had considerably higher energy than over the top, and yet they were still behaving as if they were still in a Coulomb field. So this was evidence that the barrier was much too high. Well, of course, that dilemma got resolved by the barrier leakage idea.
Weiner:But it wasn't a dilemma to you?
Condon:It wasn't a dilemma to me because I'd never heard of it. And I wasn't familiar with that experimental fact. It was a dilemma to Gurney who quickly saw that this resolved the dilemma.
Weiner:But he didn't know any wave mechanics?
Condon:But he didn't know any wave mechanics. He knew enough to read Oppenheimer's paper and see what Oppenheimer claimed and said but not enough to follow the math and so on. Now later, of course, Gurney wrote some very good books on quantum mechanics. He became a very diligent student of quantum mechanics and was one of the boys. But at that time he was a young experimentalist from Rutherford's lab.
Weiner:Was he on a Rockefeller fellowship or something like that?
Condon:Yes. I'm not sure which fellowship, but it probably was a Rockefeller, although there was another thing that brought quite a number of Englishmen to Princeton—the Commonwealth Fund—and he may have been a Commonwealth Fellow. I'm not sure.
Weiner:Do you know whom he had come to study under at Princeton?
Condon:Well, just in general. Karl Compton was the big shot of that lab. You see, that lab was Karl Compton and a bunch of his young assistant professors who were like Harry Smyth and Lou Turner and Allen Shenstone and myself, but it all revolved around Karl Compton and his people. I suppose Gurney was there for the purpose of doing some experimental job. You know, these are all things you have to refresh your memory on—I don't have records. I don't know whether Gurney had just come to Princeton that summer and hence hadn't started a project in the lab or whether this was his second year and he had had something. Whatever it was, I don't know what it was, and in any case he quickly quit that to work on this, and I just don't know. Now Gurney in turn... Do you have any personal records in the AIP history about Gurney? He was an extraordinarily interesting person.
Weiner:No. Other than what would appear in a biographical directory, you know, the typical thing—I don't know of anything else.
Condon:Oh, well, later he was a terrible victim of un-American, McCarthyness. That killed him in a different sort of a way. Gurney was a very shy and retiring type of person. In fact, that collaboration was a very peculiar one in Princeton. We did talk some of the time, but I would often be sitting at my desk in my office, working, and I'd see Gurney flit by the door, so I'd know he wanted to communicate with me. He always wore tennis shoes and walked along the hall, sneaking along the wall instead of out in the middle of the hall, as if he was afraid. A very shy person. So, when I knew that he wanted to communicate with me, I'd go somewhere and hide; and fifteen minutes later when I'd come back to my office, there'd be a note from him, asking my opinion of some idea he'd had and so on. It wasn't entirely that way, but I mean largely that way. And that manner—perhaps not quite that extreme—persisted through his whole life, so he was one of these perpetual fellowship holders. Though he was very bright, he never got a proper academic job in England. At the expiration of his fellowship he went to Japan for a while as a visiting postdoctoral. Then he was in India for a while. This was when India was not anywhere near independence. He lived a year or two there, just living with a cousin who was a financial manager for one of the wealthy British—Indian—maharajahs. I don't know where that was in India, but he lived so to speak at the rajah's court and studied physics while he was there visiting a cousin. Then he came back and was at Bristol and was with Mott a good deal, but, as I say, he was a perpetual fellowship holder. By the time of that first year of the war—that was known as the phony war, '39-'40, before the big attack in France—he was on some fellowship, studying biophysics in Stockholm. In the meantime he'd married a very lively and energetic girl, not at all retiring and shy like him. She was the type that was always throwing big parties in a big salon, with folks around. They were caught in Stockholm, and with the fall of France and especially the fall of the Scandinavian countries—Denmark and Norway—the British government ordered all of their nationals who were in Sweden to come home. But they had to come home all the way around the world. They went through Russia and Siberia by train, and through Japan to the U. S.
So Gurney showed up at my house at sometime or other, like in '41, in Pittsburgh, with his wife. That was the first time I met Natalie, his wife. He had a bad cold and was in bed there for about ten days. Then they went on to Washington, where Sir Charles Darwin was the head of the British scientific liaison office in Washington, and he reported there for what to do and was assigned to work at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. So he worked on some ballistic problems there throughout the war. He was a completely non-political person and a very shy and retiring person. I've never been able to understand why our security people gave him a bad time.
Weiner:Did they give him a bad time at that time, or later?
Condon:Later. The first appearance of it was this: The history will show that at some stage right at the tail end of the war—though most of the war he was at Aberdeen Proving Ground—toward the tail end, more like the summer of '45, he went to Argonne or to the University of Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project, and was cleared for it— everything was all right. And in the immediate postwar period, the winter of '45-6, was when Brookhaven was established, and Phil Morse was the first director. Phil Morse knew Gurney from his Princeton days, and so he offered Gurney a job. And part of the attraction in those days, because Brookhaven was such a remote place out in the wilderness, was the fact that Natalie was a good secretary and trained, and so he'd get a secretary as well as a physicist. So the Gurneys were given a farewell party at Chicago and gave up their apartment.
Weiner:Dr. Condon, you were talking about Gurney leaving Chicago for Brookhaven.
Condon:Yes, well, you see, it's interesting that you assume that, because he never did get to Brookhaven, that's the very point of the story. Phil Morse, as the first director when Brookhaven was first being started, had offered them both jobs, and they'd accepted. It seemed like a nice postwar opportunity for them: he could do theoretical physics, and she'd be a secretary or administrative helper of some kind. And as I say, they gave up their apartment and were given a farewell party by their friends in the Argonne and all that when, lo and behold, Phil Morse couldn't get him cleared. Either or both, I've forgotten—maybe both were in trouble or maybe just one, I don't know—but at any rate both needed to be cleared. And in those days the whole clearance business hadn't gone into politics as much and it wasn't nearly as formal. remember Phil just having a terribly worrisome time of it. What mean is, it wasn't formal in the sense that there weren't exactly set up procedures for making charges and giving a person a chance to answer and having a hearing and having a board make a determination. It was just ruled on by some security person, and that was that. And Phil could never find out—at least so he told me at the time—what the nature of the difficulty was, you know, so he couldn't begin to approach straightening it out because he didn't know what the hell it was about. At any rate he never did get it straightened out. Now I'm not quite clear exactly about the sequence of things, but later—maybe immediately, maybe not immediately; it was all mixed up because although they were both Manhattan District things, he'd been perfectly cleared at Argonne but he couldn't be cleared for Brookhaven. I seem to remember that he was still cleared for Argonne and resumed his Argonne job, although they had a hell of a time finding a new apartment. I've forgotten those details.
Well, at any rate, sometime several years later he ended up with some kind of a job for a while at Johns Hopkins and also at the University of Maryland. And by this time we're getting into the period of Nixon and McCarthy and people like that, you know, who made a big thing (I mean Joe McCarthy; not the good one)—the people who were exploiting the security business politically. And he lost his clearance. He didn't need a clearance any more, in the sense that he wasn't engaged in classified work, but by this time it was such a publicized thing about people being either okay or not okay clearance-wise that to lose a clearance, if you had a fanatic patriot like Curley Byrd, the President of the University of Maryland... Then by this time he got quite sick. I don't know what his illness was; I think it was a minor stroke or maybe not so minor. But at any rate he was out a good deal, and Natalie carried the battle of getting his clearance. By this time hearings were held, and he was too sick really to have a hearing, but she got it.
Well, to make that particular long story short, he was cleared and, along with three or four other people, the President of the University of Maryland fired him anyway, saying he didn't want anyone on his faculty about whom there had been any doubt. And this was a public statement, publicizing the names. There was doubt because he'd had a hearing, but he was cleared. So it did you no good to be cleared. Well, they got pretty well fed up about that at the time and went to England. I'm not quite sure exactly of the sequence of events, but at any rate through all this they'd kept an apartment in New York City, in a building on Riverside Drive right next to Rabi apartment, and he was in poor health and terribly...he was the type of person who didn't himself have any feeling for fighting bureaucracy. In the first place he was a foreigner, an Englishman. As I say, I've given a tremendous amount of thought to trying to figure out what the devil they were about, and the only thing that ever made any sense to me, but pure hypothesis, was that some of those fools in the security business had him mixed up with Fuchs. Fuchs was a shy guy from England; Gurney was a shy guy from England.
Weiner:This was before...
Condon:This was before the Fuchs thing had come out, and they were, they knew about Fuchs, they knew there was some Englishman who had passed on...But I don't know. There's nothing else...I never was able to find out, and I was intimate enough both with Gurney and his wife so that we spent many hours together, trying to figure out what on earth could be the matter. Nothing very much came out in this famous hearing where he was cleared. That could have been that they didn't want to show their hand...I don't know. At any rate finally Gurney died in the middle of the night in his apartment there in New York. You know, he died suddenly but not instantaneously, died an hour or two after having collapsed after having gone to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and Natalie summoned the doctor, and I remember being so disgusted and nauseated because the next morning an FBI guy interviewed the Gurney's doctor and asked if he "talked" before he died, as though there were something to talk about that he might have told on his deathbed. I don't know what they thought he would have talked about, but he didn't talk; he was dead. So it was pitiful.
And then Natalie practically had a nervous breakdown, and I used to have to try to soothe her as much as I could, because she had some kind of a crazy notion that she wanted to vindicate her husband's name by having still some clearance procedure, even after his death, and people had to explain to her that you only clear people when they are alive, that dead men tell no tales; nobody worries about them, and nobody gave a damn about clearing an Englishman's name.
Weiner:And still it was cleared.
Condon:Well, there was... I don't know.
Weiner:At that last hearing.
Condon:Yes, that's right. But the thing kept hanging over him anyway, and I'm sure some of my troubles stem from the fact that I continued being friendly with him when he was under a cloud. I don't know how old you are... You don't know how bad things were at that time; it was just beyond belief, the absolute barbarism of the behavior of those people, just absolutely horrible. It makes you absolutely deeply ashamed for the country and that behavior. All kinds of people that you don't even know—my reaction is to think they must have been all right, too because I know how many decent people were persecuted. So for all I know Fuchs was a frameup. Possibly he wasn't, but I'm damned if I'm convinced. All that happened in his case is that he was convicted. I'm absolutely convinced—not from any direct knowledge but just from what I was able to read following the thing in the newspapers and on the Greenglasses and the Rosenbergs and the Sobells that they did nothing; they may have meant to do something, maybe they had bad intentions, but they didn't know enough to really do anything. Fuchs was somewhat different I guess in that respect, because he was an accomplished theoretical physicist and was right at the center of things at Los Alamos, so if he wanted to spill the beans, he was in a position to do so. It was crazy—poor Sobell's still in jail, practically twenty years behind bars. Maybe it is twenty years; I'm not sure. But that Gurney thing was a pretty shameful thing. If history is ever going to come out, you know, instead of being hidden in the great bureaucratic vaults of Washington, it would be awfully interesting to know what the hell they thought was their justification for persecuting Gurney.
Weiner:He apparently had no real roots in the scientific community in this country or in England. I mean roots in the sense of being at a position for a period of time and having a group of friends.
Condon:Well, you see he had friends, but he was a very shy person. They were always throwing big parties and having a lot of people in their...but Gurney would be kind of shy, hidden off in a corner at his own party while everybody was standing around, having a gay old time with the martinis and talking to Natalie.
Weiner:Where did she go?
Condon:She inherited a home that they owned in London, and she's there. It's one of those big old homes. And she has remarried. She married Peter Taylor. He's a psychiatrist in one of the big London hospitals. And she now hyphenated her name; she calls herself Natalie Gurney-Taylor. My wife and I both saw her in London and met the husband in the summer of '64—five years ago now.
Weiner:Gurney must have been young then when he died, reasonably young.
Condon:Yes. Well, maybe 55, perhaps something like that. A very, very brilliant guy, but not brilliant in the Feynman sense. He was as brilliant on paper and as careful a guy about papers and understanding...But, you know, just too shy to hold a teaching job or be a lecturer. I don't suppose he ever directed a student to get his doctor's degree and all that. Just terribly shy. So he had friends in the sense that a very shy person has friends but not great intimacy or not with great attachment, partly because there were so many moves; couldn't begin to know all the times they moved, postwar. As I say, the trouble first developed when Phil couldn't get him to Brookhaven. That must have been in that little period when it was still under the Manhattan District, just about to be transferred to the AEC.
Weiner:That's what I recall there.
Weiner:Ramsey wrote up the history of Brookhaven in a little article, and I think there was some discussion of the desire to make it an open laboratory, resolving the issue of classified research because they had in their initial stages difficulty in recruiting staff.
Condon:Their difficulty in recruiting staff may have been difficulty in being allowed to recruit certain good people. Not that people didn't want to come, as we now think of it , but people weren't cleared to come.
Weiner:Yes, that's what I mean. Now that I know a particular case history, I understand what they were getting at.
Condon:Yes. I think that ought to be written up, but it's more an incident in the history of the fanatic behavior about security that marked the postwar period and more or less only incidentally the physics history.
Weiner:Well, I think the physics history includes the environment of research. I just finished writing something up that had to do with science in Germany under Hitler and, you know, that it definitely influenced...
Condon:While we still have the tape running, I might say that I was very interested recently—I was reading that big, fat biographical book about Winston Churchill by Lord Moran, his physician, and that brought out a facet that I didn't know, and it makes you appreciate how hard it is to get the history because of the death of all the participants. He was telling there about some encounter between Churchill—this was much later, like '53 or something like that—and Brian McMahon in which he harked back to the... he was even then quite bitter (you could easily find it in the index to Moran's book about Churchill), but it even then showed a bitterness of Churchill about the way the Americans had squeezed out the British during the war, this thing that he had to fight through to get the cooperation reestablished at the Quebec Conference; that was apparently a hell of a big fight between the Americans.
That would be an awfully interesting chapter to know more about. Maybe it's available in some memoirs, but I have the impression that it was one of those things where Roosevelt's advisers were trying to make Roosevelt be anti-British, and he walked into it but was perfectly willing to straighten it out when it really got to his attention at Quebec. That's a chapter I don't know. It would be an awfully interesting part of the history to get. But at any rate, as you know, the Atomic Energy Act, the one that I was mixed up with as science adviser to McMahon, the one that established the AEC, itself perpetuated pretty severe security regulations. To be sure, they were a lot less severe than the bill we were fighting, the May-Johnson bill, but even so they were pretty severe.
But especially were they restrictive about Americans' projects cooperating with other countries. This annoyed Churchill, and Churchill, according to Moran's account in this book, criticized McMahon for building that into the legislation because he said that he had a promise from Franklin Roosevelt that there would be postwar cooperation between the British and the Americans. Well, I happen to know about that, in this sense that, in putting in that provision about tightness of control with regard to international business, it did, in fact, apparently work out to block our cooperating with the British because a law is a law, and it became the law of the land, and you don't write laws that mention some countries as okay and others as not okay. So the British were knocked out too by the McMahon Act. But it was one of those things that was an absolutely accidental by-product. I think it ought to be in the history. I'm sure of it this way: there was no anti-British feeling in it, and what people lose sight of now is that aspect of that law was written at a time when people—well, that law was written at a time, that aspect or no aspect, the whole thing was written in the winter of '45–'46, and that was at a time when there was still great hopes that there would be some agency set-up through the UN for international control. So these provisions were thought of as just provisions to keep the thing under tight domestic control, pending the establishment of that UN agency, which everybody thought was surely going to be established. It all seemed so reasonable, you know, all that stuff about the Acheson-Lilienthal Report and so on. Then, well, somehow or other what happened historically was that tightness of international control in the McMahon Act was written with that in view, so that would pave, you know...obviously we couldn't negotiate in an international position if we didn't have control of our own stuff vis-a-vis the other nations, so we had to have it under tight control so as to negotiate.
Everybody expected there would be negotiation. Then, somehow or other, when the negotiations collapsed and it never happened—there never was a UN agency—that was still there, discriminating against our friends, the British. There's no evidence in Moran's book that McMahon explained it that way to Churchill. I don't think there's much said about what McMahon said; it's more about Churchill upbraiding McMahon, with McMahon hardly talking back, that is the way I remember it.
Oh, the thing I would like about history—there are so many of those problems, but, my God, how to get at them. You know, you don't get serious until all the people are dead. Now Roosevelt's dead, Churchill's dead, Einstein's dead.
Weiner:Well, you get at it by the letters...
Condon:Yes, if there happened to be any and if you can recover them.
Weiner:And also the purpose of getting the recollections of the person beforehand is that it helps to give you some insight into the letters, some guide to the letters...
Do you know whether the Quebec Conference story and its relation to U.S.-British cooperation came up? You see, it was all an accident. I bet you that was one of the last things of Truman's life, and whatever Roosevelt agreed to, and talked about, unless it was really formalized in memoranda... But in Moran's book you're given the impression it's a kind of personal deal between Churchill and Roosevelt. Even Truman might not know, because Roosevelt died very suddenly and didn't really pass the word on to Truman. So Truman might have intended to honor agreements if he'd known about them, but he didn't know about them. Or he might well not have known about them.