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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Roy Ragner Johnson

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Interview with Dr. Roy Ragner Johnson
By Joan Bromberg

October 21, 1985

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Roy Ragner Johnson; October 21, 1985

ABSTRACT: Roy Johnson, who joined KMS Fusion as an experimentalist in mid-1972, gives a very brief overview of the firm's work on laser fusion from 1969-1981; the company's facilities, its acquisitions of experimental hardware, the policies and styles of its leaders, and its financial fortunes.

Transcript

I came to KMS in Ann Arbor in July 1972 as an experimental physicist. At that time, they were assembling the fusion team and the work was still all theoretical. We acquired a building on Industrial Highway by November 1972. It was a milling plant that we had then to convert into a laboratory. Our first laser equipment was delivered in September 1972.

Keith Brueckner was executive vice-president and head of the group. Keeve M. Siegel (Kip) was head of KMS Industries and Henry J. Gomberg was president of KMS Fusion. This trio effectively ran the program. There was a thick cloak of secrecy. No information was revealed to the general public, since Siegel was, basically, manipulating the press. And even the in-house junior people didn't know about things like KMS' relationship with the government.

In 1971, KMS Industries had made the top 1000 Fortune companies. In 1972, it was a holding company for 35-40 separate companies. R. E. Olsen, Bruckner, and Gomberg can give information on the earliest years; Olsen was Siegel's right-hand man at KMS Industries. Kent Moncur has been the longest with the company of anyone here now. He had worked at the same time as Brueckner from 1969 on at the KMS Technology Center in Irvine, California. The Center did mainly contract research for the government. Moncur was part of the team that bought the laser, worked on the installation, and kept notebooks which are the earliest of the project.

Buying the laser was expensive. Brueckner and Siegel expected to make money within a year, but in fact, it took a year and a half just to get the laser going. Meanwhile, the project was growing, and operating expenses were mounting. Siegel was selling off industries to raise cash. By mid-1974, he was down to four firms. Then he took a 2 or 3 million dollar loan from a New York City bank. By late 1974, his only option was to plead for government funding.

In April 1975, we were bankrupt. It looked as if we would be unable to meet our April payroll. Kip went to his cronies in Congress to try to obtain government money. At the time of his death, that's what he was trying to do. But through his attempt in going to Congress, we generated enemies in the administrative part of the government. Consequently, we got only a one year contract in 1975, and it stipulated that if we didn't succeed, we were done. As the subsequent events have shown, we partially succeeded and the funding continued.

We still had large debts to banks which caused our NASDAQ rating to be very low. The Security and Exchange Commission told us to put our house in order or else. By then (1978) Olsen was gone and Gomberg was the #1 person. He shared Siegel's optimism about fusion. He located a venture capital organization in Alberta, Canada, and convinced its head, John Long, that we'd turned the corner. A deal was consummated in 1978, bringing in about $3 million dollars.

But things were not as rosy as Gomberg portrayed them to be, and there were some additional debts which Gomberg had glossed over. In December 1979, there was a falling out between Gomberg and Long. Long couldn't own the company since he was a Canadian. He had his Chicago brother, Pat Long put in as chief officer and was also either president or CEO. John Long has since sold his investment to other stockholders. Gomberg left in December 1980 and Alex Glass came in March 1981.

Brueckner had been on sabbatical from the University of California in San Diego in 1971-1974. The University issued Bruckner an ultimatum concerning tenure around the summer of 1974. In addition, it was becoming clear that laser fusion was not around the corner. Brueckner therefore left, rather reluctantly. This led to some bitter feelings between Brueckner and Gomberg at the time, which subsequently healed over. There is still ill will, however, between Gomberg and Olsen and the present KMS management.

In the early 1970s, we often worked 18-20 hours a day. For example, we might do 20 shots a day with each shot having a 45-60 minutes cycle time. The experimental building wasn't completed until June 1973, so we used an ad hoc facility next to the newly installed laser for our experiments.

Around 1968 the AEC classified the size of any laser applicable for fusion. American Optical had sold large glass lasers to Huntsville and the Air Force Weapons Laboratory but it was impossible for us to buy AO lasers because of the classification. Meanwhile, CGE had started to build lasers and was a competitor to AO. We therefore purchased the larger system, going up to a 80 mm beam.

Nominally, it was against the rules for the US Government installations to buy French systems; they bought them, however, through intermediaries. China Lake and NRL each got a system from CGE in that way. We got the third, without, of course, going through intermediaries. James Tillotson had been Moncur's boss at the KMS Technology Center. He went to China Lake to look at their French laser and probably was the one to make the decision, with Bruckner's concurrence. There were not so many possibilities among which to choose.

After we placed the order, Guscott and Tillotson went over to France to see it assembled. Then CGE came here and spent about two months installing the laser. And after they went back to France, CGE continued to be in contact with us over it. We bought all our disk amplifier equipment from GE. After we made neutrons, GE sent us a bid for a second, large system. We bought this, but it took considerable help from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to reconfigure it to make it useful.

Tillotson stayed here until September 1973. He was part of the management clique that included Brueckner, Gomberg, and Siegel. This group controlled the internal information flow. This led to problems. The laser had come and work dragged on for eight months with no progress. Finally Tillotson was let go. I was second in command in the Experimental Program and took over from him. At that point we changed to a policy of open internal communication. Externally, the information flow continued to be heavily controlled by Kip.

Guscott had some experience from learning on the job, but we needed a laser expert here, an experimentalist with hands on experience. I wanted one. Some of Bruckner's analyses didn't match our experimental results, but his ego was sufficient that he wouldn't recognize that the analysis might be in error.