Oral History Transcript — Dr. Edwin Wilson
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Edwin Wilson; June 1963
ABSTRACT: Early education and family background; Harvard University (1895-1900) mathematics and physics courses and teacher including Wallace Sabin; Yale University (1900-1903) mathematics and physics courses and teachers, including Willard Gibbs; Ecole Normale Superior, Paris, to study mathematics (1903-1904), impressions of Henri Poincare, Charles Emile Picard, Joseph Valentin Boussinesq; teaching at Yale University (1904-1907), teaching mathematical physics; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1907-1922), teaching mechanical engineering; Harvard University (1922-1945), work on vital statistics; administration at Harvard compared to MIT; work at the Office of Naval Research.
Lindsay or King: In these interviews, we usually begin by asking about the early education of the scientist being interviewed. Now, I recall you were born in Hartford, Conn, and presumably you went to school there. Hartford, I remember, has had a celebrated high school. Did you go to that one?
Wilson: No, we didnít live in Hartford. I was born in Hartford, but my parents lived in Middletown where my father was principal of the City schools.
Lindsay or King: So you went to school in Middletown?
Wilson: After a fashion, but when they began to get into politics in the schools, he didnít like it, and he set up his own private school and I hung around there. I donít remember that I was a regular student in it, because I was two or three years younger than anybody else in the classes. I think he didnít wish to put me at my age in competition with his students. I have no recollection of learning arithmetic. My mother said I learned it by folding her 60 inch tape measure in all possible ways until I knew all the products that went up to 60, and that I did this when was about four.
Lindsay or King: Where did you go to secondary school?
Wilson: Well, my father had this secondary school and fitted boys for — he had a right to certify them into college in those days, and as I say, I more or less hung around the school. I donít remember whether I was asked to recite or anything like that.
Lindsay or King: Did you have geometry? Did you pick it up by yourself?
Wilson: I had plane geometry. It was a very interesting subject, but as I say, I donít remember the kind education students got in those days, which was reciting from — I donít remember being asked any questions.
Lindsay or King: You must have taken some sort of examination to get into Harvard, though, didnít you?
Wilson: I too an examination to get into Yale. My father was a Yale man, and he intended that I should go to Yale, and so I went to New Haven and took the entrance examinations for Yale, and could have gone to college at 15, but he thought it was too young. Between that time and the next year, he moved to Cambridge and he had six children, and I was the oldest, and he thought that he could better afford to send us to college to Harvard than to Yale, which must have been hard on a good Yale man. I know he came in one summer day, and said that he went out to see Dean Briggs, and Dean Briggs would take the Yale certificate and let me into Harvard, and he guessed perhaps I could get a good education at Harvard. It was very fortunate, because Yale was a primitive institution and medieval in those days. Harvard was a modern institution already.
Lindsay or King: But you were then about sixteen when you —
Wilson: — when I went into college.
Lindsay or King: What led you into being interested in mathematics at that time? Can you look back at all and see any original signs of interest developing?
Wilson: Well, I donít know anything about that, because as I say, I donít know how I learned arithmetic except that my mother said I picked it up by folding a 60 inch tape measure, and I know that the first thing I remember about mathematics is my waking up one morning and telling my father that I had discovered that the difference of two squares was equal to product of the difference of the numbers by the sum of the numbers. He said, ďWell, when you get to algebra, youíll learn thatís right.Ē
Lindsay or King: Do you recollect starting out with mathematics immediately at Harvard in your freshman year?
Wilson: Yes, I wanted to be an astronomer, but Harvard had a research institute in astronomy, and the courses in astronomy that were opened to students were not very satisfactory. They were elementary, and. I knew that at that time astronomists were supposed to have some mathematics, and so I took mathematics. I also took Latin and Greek. I had a classical education, very much the kind of education that was generally thought to be a gentlemanís education in those days.
Lindsay or King: Stuart had already introduced the elective system by that time.
Wilson: Yes, you didnít have any required work except three courses in English which werenít worth taking. They bored the students, they bored the instructors.
Lindsay or King: They had some celebrated in English at that time. Wasnít Wendell there at that time, or did he come later?
Wilson: No, he was there all right, but most of the work was done by young instructors or graduate students under the direction of these men. And I say they were bored by being in this system which they didnít, I think, approve of too much, but had been put over by A.S. Hill, and we used to say that his initials should have one more S on it.
Lindsay or King: Who were your teachers in mathematics?
Wilson: Osgood and Bochette, and J.M. Purse, the dean of the graduate school who taught (???). Leo Purse did give one course on differential geometry, a half course that I took. It was a beautiful course. He didnít give anything about the applications of differential geometry to physics. It was nothing about elastica or anything like that in it. It was just straight geometry.
Lindsay or King: Was it based on something like Goursives —
Wilson: It was based on lectures. Heíd come in before the class got there and write a synopsis of his lecture on the board, and then heíd wait until we had time to copy that which took about 20 minutes, and then heíd come in and give his lecture. He said that he didnít believe a lecture oughtnít be more than 35 minutes, anyhow, and he had as much in his 35 minutes as anybody else had in 50 minutes, because of having his synopsis there that we had already copied down. There was no reference to any text.
Osgood gave the sophomore calculus. Freshman work was in the hands of instructors, recent PhDís, for the most part.
Lindsay or King: Did you have any work with Byerly?
Wilson: I donít know that I registered for any work with Byerly, but I took his courses in mechanics based on Rouche, although he didnít use it as a text, but he was talking mechanics the way Ralph wrote it. I think I was only a listener in that course.
Lindsay or King: What did you have with Bochette, algebra?
Wilson: I had with Bochette, in the second year, modern geometry which meant projective geometry largely, and then later, I had his am algebra which is printed in the book now, the determined matrices, and things like that. I think it must have been Bochette with whom I took the theory of functions, of a complex variable; theory of functions, real variable was with Osgood, as the calculus had been, both elementary and advance. Osgood gave a course on Galois theory which rates as algebra, but I donít think he knew much about it.
Lindsay or King: Of these men, how would you compare them?
Wilson: They were totally different. Bochette was a very smooth lecturer. You had time to get it into your notes. He didnít lecture in a high strung fashion or tanner, but there was no enthusiasm about him. I donít mean that he didnít have it, but he didnít show it in his lectures. You might almost have taken them off a gramophone, or something like that.
Osgood, however, was quite different in that he was rather high strung who had great enthusiasms, and was not anything like so clear a lecturer as Bochette. The poor students got very little out of it.
Lindsay or King: Did he wear that magnificent black beard in those days?
Wilson: Yes, yes, he wore that black beard.
Lindsay or King: I donít think I ever saw one that impressed me more. He was still going when I was a student, of course, at Tech. I used to go to the Harvard Math Colloquy for a while, and heard Osgood give a very beautiful lecture. The thing that impressed me most was his beard.
Wilson: I think he became a rather good lecturer when he was a relatively young person, when I was in college. He was totally uninterested in geometry or in logic, for that matter. He didnít think that E.V. Huntington amounted to much, and he was very much opposed to there being any applied mathematics in the mathematics department, it must be a department of pure mathematics. Although he taught the elementary course in mechanics, which I took, statics in elementary dynamics of a particle —
Lindsay or King: He later wrote a book on mechanics, I think?
Wilson: Yes, I think that later he took some interest in mechanics and taught Fourierís theory of heat. At least when he went to China, after he retired, but when I knew him he was opposed to their being any applied mathematics in the mathematics department. He was willing it should be in the engineering department, of course, perhaps in physics, Bochette and he think, probably both agreed on that policy, and I do know that Byerly told me that he and B.L. Purse, dissented from it. After they retired, of course, they didnít have any more votes, and J.M. Purse seemed to be interested only in a quaternions, and their applications.
Lindsay or King: Is he related to B.L. Peirce?
Wilson: A distant cousin. He was the son of old Benjamin Peirce.
Lindsay or King: Then he was a brother of the logician —
Wilson: Yes, Charles Peirce. I donít know whether he thought anything of his brother or not. I think he probably wished his brother was a little more normal individual.
Lindsay or King: Did you have any contact with Charles Peirce?
Wilson: One day, in 1905, in the fall, when the National Academy of Science was having this autumn meeting in New Haven, Charles Saunders Peirce was there, and he gave a paper on logic. The papers were opened to the public, and I went to t he lecture because I was very much interested in symbolic logic in those days. The lecture was unintelligible, and I spent the late afternoon with him at the Club and had him to dinner, and spent most of the evening with him, but I decided that he was losing his mir1 at that time. He apparently was never the same after making all those scientific definitions for the Century Dictionary. Mrs. Franklin who was one of his best students and who I knew later told me she thought he began to lose his mind already in the late Ď90ís, I mean the bite of his mind. William James described his conversation as flashes of lightening in a deep samarium darkness, and that was the way he was in 1905, there was no coherence to his talk.
His brother was quite different. He was methodical; ho gave an intelligible course on quaternions.
Lindsay or King: Was he a professor at Harvard a long time?
Wilson: He was not only professor, but he was senior professor of mathematics and dean of the graduate school. He was a bachelor. He lived very comfortably, not far from the university. As far as I know, he never gave a course on his fatherís work on algebra, and never carried it on. Of course, Charles Purse when he was young, made some additions, comments to his fatherís work, and Gibbs mentioned it in his work on multiple algebra, though he didnít go into it in great details, because he was interested in the (???) system, rather than in the linear associate. I never got any notion from James Peirce that he was even interested in that late contribution of his father. The person that was interested in that was Professor Hawks at Yale who had written his doctorís thesis on it. I donít know whether he had written his doctorís thesis on it it because of Gibbs being interested in multiple algebra, although of a different kind, or whether it was Pierrepont that put him on, or maybe Percy Smith, I didnít know who started Hawks on him. You see, Studian had played down Benjamin Peirceís contribution, and tied this kind of algebra into the Lee group theory, the structure theory of groups, and had implied that that was the way to handle the matter. Hawks went at it purely as old Benjamin Peirce had as a problem in algebra, just straight algebra. When I happened to sit next to Studey at the International meeting in 1904, he told me that he had read Hawksís work, admired it greatly, and that when I got back to New Haven I was to give his compliments to Professor Hawks and tell him that he Poincare had been wrong. So, I did.
Lindsay or King: Did you have any association with Julian Coolidge? Wasnít he more or less a contemporary of yours at Harvard?
Wilson: Coolidge and Wittemore and Huntington were three brilliant mathematical students, I believe all in the class of 1895, or 1896. They were three or four years ahead of me, and I remember when I was graduating, Osgood told me I was very welcome to stay on to the graduate school, and theyíd take care of me with a fellowship, but that he recommended that I would go down to Yale because he said we just put these three people on the staff and theyíre all good. There wonít be any more good positions on this staff for, oh maybe, ten years, and at Yale theyíre mostly old people and thought there might be some openings down there. So, it was on Osgoodís recommendation that I went to Yale. He supposed that I would study primarily with Tiflond, and I did take some courses with him.
Lindsay or King: Had you been aware at that time of the significance of Gibbsís work?
Wilson: No, neither of them ever mentioned there was such a person as Gibbs. The only thing I heard about Gibbs at Harvard was B. L. Peirce when he heard that I was going to Yale said, ďThey have a fellow down there named Gibbs that we think is pretty good.Ē B.L. Peirce was a very brilliant man, but he never said anything with any real enthusiasm. He would underplay every statement that he made, so that you couldnít possibly over-interpret what he said.
Lindsay or King: How would you compare him with Osgood to B. L. Peirce?
Wilson: Heís a much more brilliant man. B.L. Peirce was equally brilliant as an experimental physicist, although he had a rather dull subject, and as a mathematician, and as a mathematical physicist, he was an all-around able man and a very fine person, a very friendly kind of person, but always shall I say, avoided putting anything emphatically.
Of these men who you had at Harvard as an undergraduate, which one would you say was the best teacher?
Wilson: You mean for A students and for A plus students?
Lindsay or King: Which one was the one you gave you the most stimulus?
Wilson: I couldnít say. So far as my work after Gibbs died and I had to take his work, I suppose the most useful courses I had were Byerlyís, but I wasnít registered for. I just went in and listened to him on applied mathematics, because I had to take that on after Gibbs died.
Lindsay or King: How about the physics department at Harvard at that time, did you ever have any association with people like Wallace Sabin or Hall?
Wilson: Sabin gave the mixtures and the first course in physics that I took. It wasnít the most elementary course because Hall gave that, he gave the lectures in it. Of course, the laboratory work was under an assistant. So I knew Sabin.
Lindsay or King: Was he a very good teacher? Did he —
Wilson: He was a good lecturer, clear and he didnít try to cover too much ground. He did his experiments well on the table, but his laboratory work wasnít very instructive because it was all cut and dry. The young instructors who were assigned to the laboratory sections didnít have much interest in the job, and we generally went to the dean when we wanted any help. Heíd been there for years, stayed there for years after we were graduated, but he knew exactly from his experience what was bothering anyone. The others didnít know. It was much easier and quicker to go to him.
Lindsay or King: Was the work that Sabin was doing in architectural acoustics thought much of at Harvard at the time? Did it make any splash? Did the students know about it? He did, you know, his famous reverberation work just about 1900, about the time you graduated, I guess.
Wilson: He was famous for his interest in light and acoustics. He was their specialist in light at the time, and acoustics, and shortly in waves, in general, so perhaps, not in Marconi waves, in those days. I think everybody knew that he was a distinguished consultant on the architectural acoustics. That was my impression when I was in college, but maybe itís my impression now of what my impression was 65 years ago, because I knew him afterwards when I was at Yale teaching physics. Itís very difficult to say just how I was impressed when I was actually in college.
Lindsay or King: You had little association with Harley at that tins?
Wilson: Practically none. Trowbridge who was a senior man, Neil Thirst gave the second course in physics, and thatís where I was acquainted with him, and then I did take his course on differential geometry.
Lindsay or King: But you didnít have of what you might call mathematical physics, except through the mechanics, is that right?
Wilson: Yes. We had the mathematical theory of the instruments that we were using, but couldnít see in B.L. Purseís course. He was following Andrew Grayís book, and he would lecture on the theory of these instruments and what their importance was, but the mathematical physics, he didnít give in connection with that course. It was just theory in instruments.
The first mathematical physics I got was with Gibbs, and I was put into that because I had to have four courses for four years credit for the degree, and they didnít have four courses in pure mathematics that I hadnít had already. In fact, the first year then they had to put me into vector analysis to get a fourth course, and I told the dean that I had quaternions, which was essentially the same thing except for the way it was put, and that it was hardly fair to count it for the degree. ďWell,Ē he said, ďitís worth one course to the degree of having you sit under Gibbs.Ē I was put into a very easy course.
Lindsay or King: How many students were in that class? Do you recall?
Wilson: About six.
Lindsay or King: were these most mathematicians, or were they physicists?
Wilson: About 50-50. It was a very easy course for me, whereas quaternions had been difficult, and the vector analysis was difficult, obviously, for all the other students in the course. I think the first time that you have to use an algebra that is different from the one that youíve got ingrained in your fingers as well as in your head, I think itís bound to be difficult.
Lindsay or King: Was Lionel Wheeler in that course with you?
Wilson: Oh, no, he was five years ahead of me, I think. He was Yaleís (???), Ď95, I think, and I was Harvard, you see.
Lindsay or King: What were your impressions, as you look back now, you say the course was easy, but you think this was because you had the quaternions, or because Gibbs made the thing very simple because he was a good lecturer?
Wilson: I said it was difficult for the other students. It was easy for me because it was review, although the notation was different, and while he mentioned quaternions he was really giving his own system. You see, I had that from September Ď99 to June 1900, and in November or December of 1900, Yale Bicentennial Committee told me to write it up as a book, and I could not have done it if been in the course without any preparation, such as the course of quaternions gave me. I just got more out of the review courseí than I could have possibly gotten out of the first course.
Lindsay or King: Did they try to get Gibbs himself to write this?
Wilson: No, he was writing his statistical mechanics. They said he couldnít do it, but they wanted it written, and that heíd given them permission to have me write it if I would. He had nothing to do with it except write a preparatory note. He told them he wouldnít have anything to do with it. That was my book, on his system.
Lindsay or King: And you didnít consult with him even?
Wilson: No, I never asked him any questions about it. He told me I shouldnít. He said it was my book, and he wouldnít have any time to do anything about it, look at the manuscript for anything else, except write a preparatory note, and thatís all he did. He was working very hard, not only during the day, but during the evening, because he came back from his dinner to his office. Youíd see his light burning until around ten oíclock. This was in the old Sloan Laboratory. It was in the northeast corner, second floor.
Well, of course, I had to work very hard, too, to write a book as long as that was, between December and July, in addition to teaching 14 hours and working for my PhD degree.
Lindsay or King: Was that the only course you took with Gibbs?
Wilson: Oh, I took every course that he gave. In three years I was there, well, there was light, the electrical theory of light; equilibrium heterogeneous substances, or physical chemistry; there was multiple algebra. I think there was a course on potential theory which was electro-magnetic potential theory rather than light. I think there were four in addition to the vector analysis.
Lindsay or King: Why didnít you do your doctorateís thesis with Gibbs?
Wilson: I had a graduate thesis for final honors at Harvard in mathematics, in geometry, with Bochette, and I expected to stay in geometry. The teacher that I was most attached to, for that reason at Yale, was Percy Smith, who was a fine geometrist. He was the same age as Pierrepont, Osgood, or Bochette.
Lindsay or King: He was the Smith of Smith and Gale.
Wilson: Yes, he was a wonderful teacher. Everything that he ever taught was perfectly clear, and at the same time he had an enthusiasm for it. He combined the characteristics of Bochette and Osgood in that respect. I expected to go on with his work in that general line, in modern geometry, and in foundations of mathematics, logical systems, and things like that. When I was going to Paris, I went to see Professor Gibbs to say goodbye, for a year, and he said that he had been teaching mathematical physics at Yale for 30 years without having but six students who were adequately fitted for taking the work, and he was probably right, because they were either not fit for mathematics or not fitted for physics. They needed more of one or the other, certainly, to take his work, and that if I had any interest in applied mathematics, he thought that when I came back from Paris, if I wanted to do it, it would be useful if I would give an elementary introduction to mathematical physics, so that the students, when they came to take his course, students of physics he was talking about, would be better prepared. But he said, ďI donít want you to do it unless you want to, because everyone should do what he wants to do. He does them better than things he doesnít want to do. Of course, in Paris, there was little geometry.
Lindsay or King: Incidentally, why did you go to Paris instead of going to Germany?
Wilson: I donít know.
Lindsay or King: Most people went to Germany then, didnít they?
Wilson: Well, yes, most people went to Germany, but I had had you see, instructors in mathematics and physics who were primarily trained in Germany; Osgood, Bochette, Pierrepont, Smith, and I donít know why I didnít go to Germany. I could talk German. I could write German, at that time. I had had four years of German before I went to college, and a couple of years of it in college. It may all be due to Adhemar. Adhemar was at the Yale Bicentennial in 1901, and of course, I met him. All the young instructors in mathematics met him, and he said something about it being a good thing if more Americans went to Paris for mathematics. He thought that Paris had more mathematics than any one place in Germany. I remember being at Pierrepontís house when Adhemar was talking about this in the evening, and it may have been what he said. I went to the Ecole Normale Superior as an intern student, room and board of which I had to pay, being not a Frenchman. I never understood how I got in to the school unless it was through Adhemar, some way or another, because in order to get in you had to have an invitation from the Minister of Public Instruction, and you had to do it through the State Department. But it was done all for me by somebody. Pierrepont, or Smith or Professor Phillips, the dean of the graduate school and head of the department — I have an idea that somehow Adhemarís being at the Bicentennial and my meeting him and his talking to me about it, arranged all this for me. But it may be that I should have gone, if I were interested in geometry, have gone to Italy, because geometry was better in Italy than it was in either France or Germany at that time. In fact, Julian Coolidge was in Italy that winter that I was in Paris.
Lindsay or King: Did you spend your time mainly on lectures, or did you do a good deal of research? I know that you published some work as a result of your stay in Paris, but how did you divide your time?
Wilson: Of course, I wasnít registered because I was not a candidate for a degree. I had my degree, and I was treated at the Ecole as they treated their young instructors. I went to lectures, Adhemar at the College de France, and (???) in a lecture of magnetic theory, and old Jordan, in group theory, and I went to the Sorbonne, Picard and Poincare, (???) who was giving a course on orbits, and Le (??) who was introducing his Le (???).
Lindsay or King: Quite a galaxy of stars.
Wilson: I spent as much time reading and studying and working on a research as I pleased. I donít remember how I divided my time. I did read in the library at the Ecole. Ricciís absolute calculus which came in very handy when I became responsible for teaching Einsteinís generalized relativity, but that was because it was sort of a geometric analysis, you see, a generalization of vector analysis, but I just happened to read it. I was just working as I pleased, going to the lectures as often as I pleased, fairly regularly. It was fortunate that I did because when I got back to New Haven and found that I not only was going to give the elementary Gibbs work but all the rest of the Gibbs work.
Lindsay or King: How would you compare the quality of the instruction in Paris with that at Yale?
Wilson: Graduate instruction was all they had in Paris. The French lecturers that were good were very, very good, and those that were poor, were very poor.
Lindsay or King: How would you rate Poincare, for example?
Wilson: He was a very poor lecturer. He asked the class why did any of them bother to come on one or two occasions.
Lindsay or King: This is rather amazing because he wrote so beautifully.
Wilson: Yes, he wrote beautifully and he gave a half course only, and it was on the mathematical theory on the tides, but it was really on integral equations which was the method he was using to handle at times, and it was later printed and probably was a beautiful book, although I never looked at it. But he was a poor lecturer.
Lindsay or King: Was it because he had a poor voice, or —
Wilson: I donít think he wanted to give the lectures. He mainly was translating into his own system some monographs on the tides that had been written by a follow named Hough which he called Huff, and he told the class theyíd read him just as well as he could, and thatís about right.
Of course, Picard was an exceedingly polished lecturer. He was apparently interested in his subject, and he gave two courses, two half courses, one lecture each a week for half a year. He said he would never do it again, give two courses, even if it was two lectures all together. It was much harder than to give two lectures on one course. He said he would never do so much work again. He was a beautiful lecturer. One was on differential equations, and I think the other was probably on integral equations. I donít remember very well. You donít get much impression of a one hour lecture for half a year, you know — one hour a week, for half a year. The most I got out of Picard was when I was at the annual dance at the Ecole Normale, and he was there because it was a general university dance, and the Sorbonne people were there too. He was there, and he said, ďItís too bad Poincare is so bad a lecturer, but of course, he never went to the Ecole Normale.Ē He said he had gone to the Ecole (???), a mining school, and he said, ďItís too bad, not because it makes any difference, except all the young mathematicians knowing heís the greatest one of all of us, think lecturing badly is part of being a great mathematician. Theyíre beginning to lecture in a swinish fashion, that the German mathematicians lecture.Ē
Adhemar was not a good lecturer at that time. Thereís no doubt about that. Goursat (???) I didnít follow. It was a relatively elementary course. Boussinesq, in the theory of light, it was the mechanical theory of light, not the electromagnetic theory that I had with Gibbs. Boussinesq was a marvelous lecturer. He never had a note. He came in and all the formulas went on the board letter perfect. The physics was carefully explained. He did, like Gibbs, talk physics and wrote mathematics on the board.
Lindsay or King: Did you become quite an admirer of Boussinesq because you had a good deal of his stuff in the courses that I took with you at Tech?
Wilson: Yes. He was a very good lecturer. Of course, he had to get the same formulae that Gibbs had to give, because they had been checked so repeatedly since Fresnel Ė-
Lindsay or King: That was a problem too, on the elastic solid theory.
Wilson: Yes. When he went into the properties of the ether, he talked about physics. For instance, he stopped one day entirely talking about it, and said, ďThereís Newtonís law, inverse square law. It seems to hold very well in astronomical ranges. We donít have any idea whether that holds in small ranges of say a foot.Ē I guess work hadnít been done.
Lindsay or King: You did, as I recall, spend at college a little while in Germany during that trip abroad, did you not?
Wilson: On the way to Paris, I went to Cristiania where they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abel. Then I came down to Paris. In the summer, I traveled somewhat in Germany, but I think mostly in Switzerland. I never have been in Germany for any length of time. I didnít like the place.
Lindsay or King: Why not?
Wilson: I donít know. I didnít like the place. I was in Austria for quite a while. Munich was all right, but not Germany.
Lindsay or King: You didnít care for Prussia, I guess?
Wilson: No, I didnít like Prussia. I donít know why, but I didnít like. Austria I thought was very agreeable.
Lindsay or King: Did you come in contact —
Wilson: German-Switzerland, French-Switzerland, I knew.
Lindsay or King: This was just traveling?
Wilson: Just traveling.
Lindsay or King: Not to make any contacts with professional people?
Wilson: No. The first contact with professional people in Germany was in 1904 at the International Mathematical Congress in Heidelberg. There was an International Mathematical Congress in St. Louis.
Lindsay or King: In 1904, at the Worldís Fair.
Wilson: But this was in Heidelberg, I feel very certain, but Iíd have to look it up.
Lindsay or King: When you went back to Yale, of course Gibbs died in the meantime.
Wilson: Yes, he died while I was there. I got a telegram from Professor Phillips saying that heíd died.
Lindsay or King: This must have been somewhat of a shock. You hadnít suspected that anything like that would happen. Gibbs had always been pretty healthy, hadnít he, when you knew him?
Wilson: Healthy, but not robust.
Lindsay or King: I know in the biography there is some remark about the fact that when he was a young man there was some danger that they might have T.B.
Wilson: Well, T.B. was the white plague in the days when he was young and for some years afterwards. He lost one sister with what was supposed to be tuberculosis. Another sister never married. It was said around New Haven that one reason why he never married was because the family seemed to be rather susceptible to tuberculosis, but whether that was actually so, I donít know. He never told me that. Itís the sort of thing he wouldnít say anything about.
Lindsay or King: I take it that he never mentioned personal matters to his students, or even to his colleagues?
Wilson: No, except insofar as that heíd been fortunate enough to be able to do what he wanted to do, and he thought everybody should do all he could to do what he wanted to do rather than something he had to do. No, he didnít mention personal things.
Lindsay or King: What kind of a personality did he have?
Wilson: He was a Victorian, of course, as my father was. They were about the same age. The Victorian gentlemen were what you might call reserved, but kindly. There was nothing particularly notable about his personality.
Lindsay or King: Was he a very approachable person?
Wilson: He always had time for his students. He never acted as if he didnít want to see them, and he always acted as if he was glad to help them, if he could help them. They didnít bother him much, because they had enough respect for what he was doing, so they didnít want to interfere with it unless there was some reason they should. The fact that he let me, at the age of 22 write his vector analysis when he knew he wouldnít have any time to help me in any way, was the kind of person he was. He had confidence in people, and the result was they did the best work they could for him.
Lindsay or King: He had very few students, as I recall, who went on a PhD under him, something like half a dozen perhaps?
Wilson: I donít know. Iíve never seen the list. Wheeler was one. He wrote his thesis under Willard Gibbs, although his chief, of course, was Hastings over in the scientific school. I would guess that E.H. Moore, who was so long head of the mathematics department at Chicago may have gotten a PhD with Gibbs, or maybe he didnít get one until he went abroad to study. I never looked it up.
A.D. Risteen who was a secretary to Charles Peirce when he was writing the scientific definitions for the Century Dictionary, and who was a graduate of Wooster Tech, got a PhD with Gibbs on old-fashioned thermodynamics, calorimetry, and that sort of thing, about the time I was working at Yale.
I donít know how many students got a PhD with him. It may be that Hastings did himself in the very early days. You see, when Gibbs got his PhD, you couldnít get one at Harvard, and as far as I know, they hadnít started to give them at Harvard. You see, Yale was the best scientific institution from something like 1845 to 1885, and they had a remarkable president named Theodore Woolsey, and he was one of these persons who knew able people, young people as Elliot did. Gibbs got his full professorship, which you could be sure was without pay, when he hadnít written anything, just because I think it was one of the last appointments that Woolsey made. They had a remarkable faculty in science, particularly, but it was also good in other subjects. They were very influential in the National Academy at its start and afterwards because they were good and they were in considerable numbers in the Academy, and they went to the meetings, whereas a great many people who were good didnít go to the meetings. So, it was easy for them to elect their colleagues.
Lindsay or King: What was the reputation of Gibbs around Yale?
Wilson: It was the same reputation of any leading scholar of any university around the university.
Lindsay or King: Of course, it commonly believed and itís often said by, in these brief popular biographies, that his work was not appreciated at Yale?
Wilson: Well, it wasnít appreciated by Lord Kelvin. It was appreciated by Lord Rayleigh and by Maxwell.
Lindsay or King: Poincare too, I guess?
Wilson: Poincare were merely another generation.
Lindsay or King: But he certainly did study something about that book, statistical mechanics, because you quoted it yourself about itís being a little book little read because itís a little hard. It comes right out of science and hypothesis of one of the popular books of Poincare. But I guess it was some of the German physical chemists that realized that what Gibbs was doing was fundamental.
Wilson: I think itís just a myth that people didnít realize in a sense what he had done, and what all his consequences were. Thereís no doubt about that, but that was true of Maxwellís Treatises on Electricity and Magnetism, when he died, they donít know that even Lord Kelvin approved of it.
Lindsay or King: Iím sure he didnít.
Wilson: That Yale was a genius of very high order, I think, was generally appreciated. Certainly, B.L. Peirce appreciated it at Harvard when I was in college and was going to Yale. He didnít mention anybody else at Yale in the same discussion at all. Gibbs was the only one he mentioned. The American Academy in Boston gave Gibbs the Rumford medal within about a couple of years at the time that that big monograph came out. Now, how much they knew about the monograph, I donít know, but it was a good scientific institution. He was elected to the National Academy within two years when the second part of it came out. I think itís just a myth that he wasnít appreciated. I know he wasnít understood until sometime later, not in detail, but that he had done very great work, I think was generally recognized. There was no way to guess the big monograph on heterogeneous substances printed. It was done by the Connecticut Academy, the local Academy, and it was done by a subscription taken up by his colleagues because they knew it ought to be printed. His vector analysis, his little pamphlet, he paid for himself. He had it printed privately, just for his students, and to send it to some few friends. How many copies he distributed, I donít know.
Lindsay or King: How would you rate Gibbs as a teacher?
Wilson: of course, Gibbs had never but a few students and they were all able students, and for that kind of student, I think he was a pretty good teacher. His lectures were clear, carefully thought out. In that respect, he was a good deal like Boussinesq, that he was writing mathematics on the board, but he was talking physics, and a great mathematical physicists including a fellow like Poincare, write mathematics on the board and talk mathematics. Itís a very great difference. The rumor was, that when he tried to teach undergraduates in the days, I think, before he went to Germany, but it will be right in Wheelerís book whether it was just before he went or just after he got back, I donít know — it was said that he wasnít a very good teacher for ordinary students, but if anyone had any trouble with his work and went to him and asked him about it, he expounded it extremely clearly and patiently. His PhD was in mechanical engineering, not in mathematics or physics. It was in mathematics of problems in gearing.
Lindsay or King: He actually patented some inventions?
Wilson: He patented a railroad brake. It was a mechanical brake, not an air brake, and I think he patented one or two other inventions. What did he make?
Lindsay or King: It was a governor, I think.
Wilson: A governor, yes, for an engine. He was a very good man with his hands. He was the do-it-yourself fellow around the house where he lived with his sister and her husband. He would have been very great experimenter according to his colleague, Hastings, who was head of physics in the scientific school, if he had wished to be, because Hastings says when Gibbs came to the conclusion that Maxwell had made an error rnsĪ1 in setting up equations for light in absorbing bodies, he built with his own hands an apparatus — I saw it in Wheelerís book, I think — and ran the experiment and was convinced that the experiment proved that Maxwellís formula approach was wrong, and the one he proposed to put in its place, was right. He took the apparatus over to Hastings, and Hastings checked it, and then he didnít say anything about the experiment. He just used the law that he thought was proper for the circumstances in absorbing bodies, and the only reference Iíve ever seen to that work was Wheelerís own paper in 1951 at the meeting of the Academy in New Haven in which he showed the Gibbs formula apparently fitted the experiments, not Gibbsí experiments, but published experiments, better than the Maxwell formula, the thing that had never been shown even with respect to those experiments.
Lindsay or King: Gibbsí course on electromagnetic waves was essentially a course on Maxwellís theory, wasnít it?
Wilson: He gave a course on light. He didnít say much about waves that wasnít appropriate to a course on light. I donít remember that he really went into the problems of the Marconi wave, waves of that length. He may have alluded to it, but he didnít leave any impression on me, and all my notes on his lectures were dropped overboard by the people who were unloading my baggage when I came back from Paris, so I have nothing to check my memory on.
Lindsay or King: There are some papers on his general field, in his collected works that were brought out, I believe on the electrical theory of light, not very much —
Wilson: All his papers were reprinted in his collected papers. There was also two volumes explaining what these works were by various scientists, a commentary two volumes, and there was some talk there about his work on light, but I donít know that they referred to this particular thing that Wheeler did, because I think those volumes antedated Wheelerís work.
The characteristic of his work was the amount he could get out of vary general assumption, human number. You see, in his work on equilibrium heterogeneous substances, he used only the conservation of energy and the principle of (???) that it tended to increase. The general mechanical system of Lagrange, mechanicale (???), and he got that great memoir out o f that with application of logic. Of course, his phase rule is done in half a page just counting constants. Thatís all it amounts to, really. He wrote a very condensed style. He said a good deal on a page. The difficulty was that he was using so few tools, hiding the abstraction, and with an extraordinary appreciation of the facts. If he attended a colloquium where somebody presented a paper, as they did every two weeks, graduate students and staff — somebody would ask him a question, and he would stop and think, and heíd say, ďWell, it will probably be so-and-so,Ē and he was, so far as he knew, always right. He seemed to know instinctively what went on in nature, and I donít mean to say that he got it without having read a lot of material, but he had that power of generalizing what he read, to what ought to be read in general, as I suppose every really great scientist like Isaac Newton has. He wasnít in any sense a problem solver, not that he couldnít solve problems, but he was a scientific philosopher of the first grain. He didnít get quantum theory. One of the great regrets, we learned, I had, was that he didnít live long enough to let us see how he would react to the quantum theory. Planck, himself, was very doubtful about it, as I know from talking with his students who studied with him before the quantum theory generally became accepted. But there was a paper read by Wheeler on electron theory of matter of J.J. Thompson where J.J. Thompson had 16 electrons wandering around on nuclears for the oxygen in it, and Gibbsí comment on that was, that this would complicate the problem of equal partition of energy, and that it was complicated enough without that, because he had worried for 30 years as to how you could get rid of the energy in the degrees of freedom that didnít seem to have it. Now, whether he would have been the first man in the world to appreciate after 30 years of thought, what the quantum theory meant, or whether he would not have understood it as it is obvious that Kelvin never understood relativity, for instance. We donít know. It would have been very interesting. He had been trying to find out some way to explain the ratio of the specific heats which were obviously not a case of equi-partition. It was all right for monotomic gases, it wasnít 40, but 167, but when you got the gyatomic gases, Farley did pretty well for oxygen at ordinary temperatures, it didnít do well on Chlorin.
Lindsay or King: Then, of course, there was the variation of temperature.
Wilson: And there is a variation of temperature. Of course, people didnít know anything about the variation with very low temperatures Ďtill quite late.
Lindsay or King: Gibbs, of course, actually lived, roughly three years after Planckís paper of 1900, and presumably he could have read that paper, but I suppose during that time, he was so immersed with this book —
Wilson: Oh, he didnít do anything but that statistical mechanics He was overworking, and Dean Phillips, head of the department of mathematics, and Gibbs was a member of both the department of mathematics and physics. Phillips said the man was played out when he finally turned the manuscripts over to the express company to go to the press. Van Nam his nephew, who lived with him said that be never saw any evidence that Gibbs was unduly tired. He had worked hard, because everybody at Yale knew that his light was lighted in the evenings while he was working on that book, and it hadnít been before he took that on. Planck himself didnít understand it. The fellow that understood it, and made it real, was Einstein, because he took it seriously. There was, at one time, if my memory is right, a proof by Planck that the quantum theory could be derived from the Maxwell equations, and he actually derived it. You see, I read it, but didnít understand it — the variation, at all.
At any rate, it was later, considerably later that Poincare, about 1910, Journale de Physiche, proved that it couldnít be derived from Maxwellís equations. That definitely was pretty obvious from the work Einstein had done at that times Anyway he was getting results which you didnít see how you could get out of a continuing theory.
Lindsay or King: Leigh Page, at Yale, spent a long time trying to do one of two things; either to show that the quantum theory could come out of classical electromagnetic theory, or, to show that there was a fundamental inconsistency in it. You may recall that?
Wilson: No, I didnít know anything about that.
Lindsay or King: Yes, he actually had a paper already to present to the American physical Society about 1923 or Ď24, just after I went there as a junior instructor, in which he thought he had found a fundamental logical inconsistency in monomechanics, and he was all ready to go to Washington to give this paper when he discovered an error, and it was all cancelled. Page never liked the quantum theory himself, and was either trying to show that it was only a consequence of classical theory which presumably you said Poincare proved could not be, or if not, there was something wrong with it anyway. It was a very strange thing.
Wilson: I think youíll find Poincareís article in the 1910 year of Journale de Physiche. I certainly havenít looked at it for about 50 years, so Iím not sure —
Lindsay or King: He died shortly after that, actually, about 1912, I guess.
Wilson: Yes, but I have never looked up, in recent years, the early work of Planck to see whether Iím right in thinking that he thought he had proved —
Lindsay or King: I donít recall that paper, myself. It would be interesting to look that up. His complete collected works are available now. They were collected by the German (???) published a few years ago, and one could easily trace this.
Wilson: It might have been in one of the editions of his book on radiation Warmestrahlung. That is where I think I saw it, in the first edition of that.
Lindsay or King: In connection with Gibbs again, could you make any remark as to why you, yourself, did not want to write a biography on Gibbs? I know that in the preface to Lionel Wheelerís book, there is some discussion of that point, but it never was made clear, because you obviously were in an even stronger position, than Lionel Wheeler to write that book. I think he did a good job, I at least enjoyed reading it, and I think it was probably as correct as you could expect, but why didnít you want to do it?
Wilson: Well, I was exceedingly busy, and I wouldnít have had the time to do it, and Lionel Wheeler had the time, and he had eight years contact with Willard Gibbs, and I had contact with him only from September 1899 to June 1902, and heíd a written his thesis with him, while I had not, and while I could have written it, I wouldnít have written as good a biography as Wheeler did, am! I knew I didnít have the background. I didnít have the feel for old New Haven that he had. I was a foreigner in New Haven, coming from Cambridge, Mass.
Lindsay or King: But you did give him a great deal of help, Iím sure in various parts.
Wilson: I donít think you should claim that I was very much help. Of course, I donít know how much help he got between the time Gibbs died, and the time I left New Haven, and of course, we were very close friends. Naturally, we talked about Willard Gibbs and compared him with other people we had studied with, and things like that, but the real follower of Gibbs in New Haven was Wheeler. I was getting to be more of a follower of Gibbs by the time I left, and I was right after coming back from Paris, because I had to work up all these courses one year at a time.
Lindsay or King: Was your teaching at Yale during that period from 1903 to when was it you left, 1908?
Lindsay or King: Was it entirely devoted to the work in mathematical physics, or did you teach any pure mathematics at that time?
Wilson: I was in the mathematical department and I was teaching some pure mathematics. I think it was during that time that Richardson here took a course with me. He came down from Nova Scotia. I donít think it was before I went to Paris, but he was there and took a course with me. I continued to do some research in pure mathematics for a long time after I was mainly teaching applied mathematics.
Lindsay or King: Iíve noticed that in some of the papers, of course, which you published at that time in geometry, for example, the differential geometry, and projective geometry, but then you also did some papers before you left Yale in what amounts to mechanics. For example, here is a paper you wrote in the annals of mathematics on the influence of radiation on t he orbit of the particle subject to the gravitational field.
Wilson: Yes, that was a continuation of some work. Isnít that dated 1908?
Lindsay or King: Thatís 1907.
Wilson: I must have done it in New Haven.
Lindsay or King: And you worked on equilibrium of an inextensible string? I guess that was after you left.
Wilson: Well, there was a transitional period. Of course, after I went to Tech, I didnít teach any pure mathematics. I was taken up there to do mechanics.
Lindsay or King: How did it happen, if we may ask, that you decided to leave Yale to go to MIT? Letís see, it was McClorin who became president?
Wilson: No, no. Professor Lanzo, head of the mechanical engineering department was coming to the retirement age, and he had been the person who gave advanced rigid mechanics and elasticity theory at Tech, and whether it was true or not, I donít know, but the administration did not believe that there was anybody at Tech who was enough of a mathematician to carry on that work f or another generation, and who wanted to do it. There was certainly nobody in the department of mathematics who could have done it and who would have wanted to do it. There was nobody in mechanical engineering, so they decided they had to go outside, and I was doing this kind of work on an even broader basis, not just simply elasticity, hydro-mechanics, and so forth, electricity, thermodynamics at Yale, and there were very few people who were doing this. A.G. Webster used to say I was the only man in my generation who was competent enough in mathematics to do real good work in more (???) mathematics and physics. I donít know whether that was so or not, but I do know that when R.S. Woodward was called from doing this kind of work at Columbia to be president of Carnegie Institution of Washington, which was just set up, he wanted the Columbia people to invite me down there to take his place on this advanced theory work. It came just about the same time as Tech. The Columbia people did not make the offer, and Tech did. My mother was still living in Cambridge with my younger siblings, and the Tech position represented an advance in rank and an increase in salary, and there wasnít much else I could do but take it. It wasnít what I really wanted to do. The Yale people, I talked to Phillips about it, and he said, ďYale was just out of luck if somebody else could take me away.Ē But Yale couldnít quite match that offer without putting me ahead of so many people that were on the staff. It would upset their entire schedule of salaries and promotions. They could do that bringing people from the outside, but they couldnít do it at home. He took the attitude right away that there was nothing for me to do but to take that offer, and there wasnít the slightest suspicion on my part certainly, that he wasnít very sorry that he had to give that personal advice. Iíve had to give that kind of advice to people. D.L. Webster was a case in point when he was the young physicist that I was counting on to get the department of physics at MIT doing pure physics research when Ray Wilbur walked in and wanted a man for a head for his department. I told him I only had one, and that was Webster, and I didnít want to lose him. Of course, Iíve said the same thing to Yale people when they were up there, you see. They said they couldnít appoint a man of 31 to a full professorship, but I took Wilbur in to talk to him, and when he came out, he said he had hired him. So, I had no other person — I hadnít filled that place when Yale people came up to see me again to see if I had anybody. I said, ďNo, I hadnít anybody.Ē I was trying to get Arthur Compton who was in St. Louis, and I was sure theyíd do well if they could get him, and that if they went after him they could beat me, because the salaries at Yale were higher than they were at LIT, and the work was rather loss with more emphasis on research there. They asked how old he was, and I told them he was 29. They said, ďWell, we told you two years ago that we wouldnít take anybody who was 31 and couldnít give him a full professorship.Ē I said, ďAll right.Ē Well, I didnít get him either because they called Swann from Chicago to Yale to take that place. When I saw Michelson a couple of months later, I said to him, ďYou didnít work too hard to keep Swann, did you?Ē He said, ďOh, no, I heard I could get Arthur Compton.Ē Chicago wouldnít, and Yale wouldnít even call Swann for the position, you see, instead of Compton. But that comes from having a democratic system where the appointments are made by the faculty. They wonít take the chance.
Lindsay or King: Who was president of MIT when you went there?
Lindsay or King: How long did he stay? McClorin succeeded him in a few years, didnít he?
Wilson: He hired me in the spring, and he wasnít there in the fall. When he hired me he knew perfectly well he wasnít going to be there. The reason I said he was a liar is that everybody knew that he was, but I couldnít put that in print. I was told by members of the corporation that they were glad he left, because they couldnít depend on his telling the truth. He told me that what he was going to do for me, ard that sort of thing. He knew perfectly well he wasnít going to be there to do anything for me.
Lindsay or King: Was it Pritchard to went to.
Wilson: Yes, he was a liar there too.
Lindsay or King: I remember hearing Richardson telling me about that.
Wilson: Richardson will confirm my story.
I was glad he wasnít there, actually. I wouldnít have liked to do any business with him.
Lindsay or King: How did you get on with McClorin? Did you find him a good man to work with?
Wilson: He wasnít there when I got there. They had an acting president, Arthur Noyes, the chemist, and I was told that Noyes could have had the presidency if he wanted it, but that he didnít like administrative work. He was doing very well as acting president for two years. Whether it was true that he could have the presidency if he wanted it, I donít know, but at any rate, he was doing very well. The talk was that he just wouldnít take it, because he wanted to be back in his laboratory. There is some evidence that that was right, because it wasnít long after that McClorin came, not too long afterwards that Noyes left and went out to Cal Tech. He told me that he was always being interfered with because of having been acting president and having to give opinions about things that he was no longer competent to give about because he actually seeing all the facts as they came along. He wanted to get back to chemistry and he couldnít. He had a better chance, he thought, to get back to chemistry by going to Cal Tech than staying at MIT.
McClorin came in 1909, two years after I was there. I was in the department of mathematics. I didnít see very much of him for quite a while. Of course, he saw me in faculty meetings and some committee meetings, and things like that. He had me Chairman of the Nominating Committee for Officers of the Faculty, but we didnít have any very big common interests so far as I know, until one afternoon he called me into his office, and said he wanted to see me. I went over to his office and told me I was appointed head of the physics department. I said I was quite content in the mathematics department, mathematical physics, and so forth. He said, a ďIf you can have a mathematical physicist as president, we ought to have one as head of the physics department.Ē
Lindsay or King: What kind of courses were you teaching there in the period before World War I?
Wilson: I was teaching relativity, theoretical chemistry, physical chemistry, that is, of Gibbsí courses on that, and a little about quantum theory.
Lindsay or King: This is before World War I?
Wilson: Well, World War I didnít begin for us until 1917, and by that time I was in charge of the physics department. I was teaching aeronautics because Dr. McClorin came back one summer from a vacation in England, and I think it was the summer of 1912 that he was there, and in the fall of 1912 he came back, and he did ask me to come in and talk to him. He said, ďIíve seen something of the British Admiralty this summer. They say the Germans are going to start a war in the late summer or early fall of 1914. We may, or we may not get into it, but if we do get into it, weíll need to know more about airplanes than we know in this country today. The Navy is giving us Lt. Hansecher for the engineering aspects of it, and the design aspects. (Heíd been there for three years as a student of naval construction, and a very able man. I knew him at the time. The Navy was donating his time). There is nobody we can get to do the theory but you, and I guess youíve got to do it.Ē
I said, ďIím full of work on quantum theory, relativity, physics, dynamics.Ē Well, he said, ďI know, but if weíre going to have a war, weíve got to have some aeronautical engineering. I donít see any other way to start the course. I think for the sake of the Tech, and the country, you ought to do it.Ē
I started then with Hansecher working up a course in aeronautics. Itís mentioned here in early May, when the Navy gave me their Distinguished Award.
Lindsay or King: I think this is quite amazing that at this early date, that this material should have been covered.
Wilson: The British were working hard on it. Hansecher and I based our course on what was being developed in England. Prantell in Germany had been working on it for years, because when I was over there in 1908, I think, I was talking to Prantell about vector analysis. He was very much interested in it. He was working on it, but he wasnít saying what he was doing, and that work, as far as I could make out, was classified.
Lindsay or King: I think it was only about 1908 that the Signal Corps purchased the first plane, wasnít it?
Wilson: Yes. At any rate, the Wrights had flown in 1903.
And Lario, when did he go across the channel? In 1904, Ď05?
Lindsay or King: I donít know.
Wilson: Of course, Dumont, the dirigible man —
Lindsay or King: Zeplin?
Wilson: Not Zeplin, because the first dirigible was this fellow who was working in France, and it was in 1902 or Ď03 when I was there that he came sailing over out on the race course at in his balloon. As soon as he got down far enough so that the tail dragged down on the ground, the police pinched him for an entrance fee.
Lindsay or King: I wonder again, if you could tell us what happened when the dirigible came down?
Wilson: I said the police pinched him for the entrance fee, and while he was there he bet on nine, and nine happened to win the race. It was 365 to one as I remember it. It was a very large figure. So they gave him a bag of louis. He was a Brazilian, I think, a wealthy man, but I canít remember the name. It was an episode that didnít mean anything to me, at the time, of course. I just happened to be at the races that day. I didnít go very often.
Lindsay or King: Iím also quite surprised at the fact that you included relativity in your work in World War I. Was this generally accepted by the physicists of the day?
Wilson: Well, with G.N. Lewis, I wrote a monograph of 125 pages or so on relativity before that.
Lindsay or King: 1912?
Wilson: 1912. Thatís two years — that was the very year that I was probably working on it, the very year that McClorin wanted me to go into aeronautics.
Lindsay or King: This was, of course, really the so-called restricted relativity.
Wilson: Yes, it was the special relativity of 1905. The generalized relativity —
Lindsay or King: — came in 1915, actually, I think during the War.
Wilson: Yes, I would have said Ď14, but Iím not sure, because it came out twice in slightly different forms. The first edition with Marcel Grossman, who was a fellow who studied in Italy and had this system of Ricciís, this absolute calculus that I had read in 1902-Ď03, and then in Ď16, I think it was that they printed a slightly modified form of it. It didnít deal with the fundamental equations, but with the so-called cosmological
Lindsay or King: It was about that time —
Wilson: Iíd been teaching about relativity for six or seven years, off and on at MIT, that of the quantum theory. And just as I told Dr. McClorin, these two subjects were going along very fast, and I couldnít do very much in keeping up with them if I had to take on aeronautics. By then it was a national necessity. When Woodrow Wilson wanted me to go over after the War as scientific attache at Rome, I went to see McClorin about it. He said, ďNo, we canít run that course, and thatís now a wartime necessity because theyíre sending officers right straight along into that course. Youíll have to tell President Wilson your war work is here, and not in Rome.Ē
Lindsay or King: Your first paper was a report in 1915 on the theory of an airplane encountering gusts.
Wilson: Contract work with the government.
Lindsay or King: That was the NACA, as it was called then.
Wilson: It was their first paper. Whenever Carmichael of Smithsonian sees he, heís apt to say, ďI still remember that you had the first paper in the NACA series.Ē
Lindsay or King: Then you finally worked up that material in your book on aeronautics?
Wilson: Yes. Itís a very elementary book, but you see I got out of aeronautics when I went to Harvard in Ď22.
Lindsay or King: In fact, I donít think you were doing much with aeronautics when you taught the courses from 1920 to Ď22 in theoretical physics, because theyíre all on the constitution of matter, quantum theory and relativity again. You were back in your stride.
Wilson: Yes. You see, Hansecher left, and then I had to take care of aeronautics for a while, and we got Warner in aeronautics and I think that C.L.E. Moore began to teach aeronautics before I left Tech, because of my having so many things to do; running the department —
Lindsay or King: You were running the institute.
Wilson: Yes. There was a committee of three running it, but as I was the youngest one, and the secretary of it, I did most of the work. They came in to discuss it whenever —
Lindsay or King: Who were the other two?
Wilson: (???) Chairman of the Faculty, he was head of the chemistry department, and Miller who was head of the mechanical engineering department, they were maybe twenty years older than I at the time. They were old hands at MIT as department heads.
Lindsay or King: I marvel that you were able to do so much at that time, because you still gave these courses, and this took a lot of time. The course I took with you was a two year course in which you surveyed all kinds of things including crystallography, as I remember, among other things.
Wilson: Louisa Ehric got my course up for me.
Lindsay or King: Oh, she did the typing of notes?
Wilson: I couldnít have done the things I bad done if I had to do everything including the details, myself. I donít know whatís happened to her —
Lindsay or King: She married (???) Thompson, and then died in the garage —
Wilson: Oh, yes, she died in the garage.
Lindsay or King: They thought it was supposed to be suicide, but I was never sure.
Wilson: It could have been accidental CO poisoning.
Lindsay or King: I donít know what happened to her, though.
Wilson: I donít know. Her father was a patent attorney, or something like that, and she, I think, went into his business. She came up from Columbia to work with me, and I was busy, of course. That was when there was this administrative committee and I was still running the physics department. I got it organized so it largely ran itself. She had a very good course with the professor of mathematical physics down there that they appointed when Woodward left, and they wouldnít appoint me from Yale, Wills was his name. Why she came up to MIT, I donít know, but she came up as one of my staff assistants to help me, and when I found out what she bad had, and she was taking my course, I put her on the job of working it all up for me. Of course I told her what I wanted, and I had my notes that I had used before, so that she would have something to work on, and she did a remarkable job. You can get a very remarkable job done by a very able young person, if you give them a bard job to do. Maybe she couldnít have done it as well I as I could have done it, but she did it as well as I could have done it with all the other things I had to do. She couldnít have given a lecture. She didnít have that kind of command in the subject, but she did an awful lot of work on it. If anything happened when I got engaged in trying to write a paper about the same length, over a hundred pages on fitting the logistic curve to populations, forecasting population growth — there was a little sylph came in — she was about 5í 10Ē tall, she was taller than I was, she was sylph-like, and she came in from a junior year from Smith where she had studied statistics with Miss Rambell, trying to pick up a little money, she was the daughter of a poor minister who didnít get paid much. She was trying to pick up a little money in the summer to help with her senior year expenses at Smith. This Miss puffer came in, and wanted to know if I had any computing to do. I told her I had a lot of computing to do, and that if she wanted to do it, I asked her if she knew how to fit three square, and she said she did. I told her these constants were non-linear. I asked her whether she knew anything about non-linear constants. She said no, but if I gave her a book that would tell her how to do it, she thought she could do it. I gave her Whittaker and Robinson, the toughest book there is on the subject, and showed her the part that said how to compute these squares by successive approximations, of course, on the constants nonlinear. I left her with a postcard addressed to me. I was on vacation for the summer, and said, ďWhen you get stuck, why if you get stuck, just drop me a postcard and Iíll see whatís the matter.Ē I got a postcard about after ten days saying that she must be making mistakes, because she couldnít check these calculations. So I came up to town, and I said, ďMiss Puffer, if you had been able to check them, you didnít know anymore than they did about how to fit it.Ē She was fitting them fight where they had fitted them wrong, and was getting quite different answers, as I knew from just graphical work on paper that they couldnít be right.
Lindsay or King: Well, sometimes these young women are pretty bright. Thereís no doubt about that. Louisa was very bright. I remember her very vividly.
Wilson: She learned a lot more doing what I put her to doing than she would have learned if she just sat in the course. Anytime you take on an able person as an assistant and give them a real job to do, they learn a lot more.
Lindsay or King: She finally got her Doctorís degree, I think.
Wilson: I think so.
Lindsay or King: Dorothy Weeks was another one in that same course. She wound up teaching physics down at Wilson College, Pennsylvania. The other one was Mildred Allen who taught at —
Wilson: She became head of the department at Mt. Holyoke. She was a bright girl, but she got wrapped up in her teaching and administrative duties, and I donít think she ever did any research.
Lindsay or King: No, I donít think so. She took a year off and went to Yale, I remember when I was down there, but I donít think she did very much. Sheís retired now.
Wilson: Yes. Of course, Dorothy Weeks left Wilson College some years ago, and took a job at the Watertown arsenal. Thatís because she was due to retire pretty soon, and the Watertown arsenal would keep her until she was 70. Then an old Welsey girl, and she wanted to get back near Welsey. Now, I think sheís gotten to be 70, or 71, and is out of the arsenal, although she may be kept on as a consultant.
Lindsay or King: I saw her a few years ago up at her summer place. She had a joint summer place with Miss Laird who had retired as a professor of physics.
Wilson: Laird doesnít seem to be the right name.
Lindsay or King: Well, anyway the two of them were living together up in Randolph near where Richmond lived for —
Wilson: There is this one that retired as head of the department of physics which, who I think has been living with Dorothy Weeks recently in Wellesley, and Iíve forgotten that womanís name. I never knew her well. The name isnít Laird, and sheís now in very poor health.
Lindsay or King: Dr. Wilson, I wonder if you would want to say a few words about the problems you had to face as department head at MIT?
Wilson: The main problem that I had to face and never solved was to get the thing modernized a little bit on the side of the basic physics which it needed to have done to it very badly. It was a good department. The teaching was better than I had ever had at Harvard. In fact, when Hall came down complaining of that they have to get somebody to teach physics there, I told him that as soon as they got anybody to teach physics at Harvard, heíd quit teaching and do research. If they wanted teaching well done, theyíd better let me do it from Tech because I had a large staff, and they would enjoy a little different atmosphere if a part of their work, if they had many sections of it — they had 32 sessions of freshmen and 32 sections of sophomores — and he could make arrangements with Lowell and McClorin could make arrangements. They were both for cooperation between the two institutions. But their pride wouldnít let them do that, and they went and got Saunders who did exactly what I said he would do. He was a great teacher, of physics at Vassar, but he was not a great teacher of elementary physics at Harvard. He went back to his optics intensively and was promptly elected to the National Academy of Science, and became a member of their research staff.
Lindsay or King: Did you have the problem of adequate funds?
Wilson: Not to do anything, no, there were no funds to speak of to do anything with, in those days. As I say, I had a good department. The electro chemistry which was a professional course, like mechanical engineering, had been under Goodwin, who is a chemical physicist, but not essentially a research man, essentially a scholar and a teacher, and I just had to leave that to him. Then the work on heat, combustion and insulation, and all that sort of thing, had a specialist in C.L. Norton, a very able man. He didnít know anything about Fourier analysis, but then he didnít need to for his work. You donít insulate anything with Fourier analysis. He gave a very good course on general aspects of heat, and he had a research laboratory on industrial physics. He was a very wealthy man which he made out of consulting fees with the insulating companies, not out of his salary which I think was never as high as $4000.
I justify the work among my full professors, or maybe used one or two senior associate professors.
Lindsay or King: Did you get Franklin to come up there?
Wilson: Franklin asked to come out, just as A.G. Webster asked to come up at one time. McClorin wouldnít take Webster on for some reason, although I was for it because he could do the — I was very busy with the aeronautics and was interested in modern physics, and I would have liked to get out of giving the old line mechanics, hydro-mechanics, and Webster had that all down fine. I was sorry that McClorin wouldnít take him on, but for some reason he wouldnít. But he would take on Franklin, and so he too him on, and Franklin asked for a job. He had said he had retired, but now that there was a war on, both his boys were in the War, and he thought he ought to go back to work. So, he came up and asked for a job, and I put that up to McClorin, and McClorin said sure, heís a very great teacher. He said, ďIíve no objections to great teachers. I think a man has a right to make a career in an institution like this on his being a great teacher.Ē Of course, Franklin could have been a great res*arch man. He had the ability. His brother was a great chemist. But heíd rather teach. He was a great help.
It was easy enough. You just organize it. Of course, Cross had done everything himself. Thatís what most professors do, but if you have enough on you you canít do that. Youíve got to delegate. If you know to whom to delegate, the people who will do it right, why you can delegate a good deal to young people and itís good for them.
Lindsay or King: When we get going again, Iíd like to ask a question or two about the book you used to refer to when I was your student as ďmy advanced calculusĒ, a very celebrated book. My wife has a copy of that book that she thumbed over single page ofí, and I still have her copy, and still occasionally look into it because itís very useful. Whatever happened to that professionally, commercially? Was it as successful as we all thought?
Wilson: Well, I never bothered to ask Gibbs how many copies they sold, and I never bothered to keep what their royalty checks were, so I have no idea what the number of copies sold was. But ultimately Gibbs wrote me a letter and said that the plates were worn out. They didnít like to put out any more copies. They didnít want to reset it, and that Dover wanted to take it over. They had a deal with Dover whereby they would get and I would get $250 each, or some such sum, for letting Dover have it, the reprints of it. So Dover is selling it. I donít know — paperback now — itís being sold for half the price. It stood the competition pretty well. It was the only advanced calculus available in English when it came out in 1912, but very soon a lot of easier books came out.
Lindsay or King: Wood, your own colleague wrote one.
Wilson: Yes. When I was in Edinburgh to give a lecture on public social science in one evening, and I stayed overnight and went to see Whitaker at the University. They were using it as their text, not in English, on advanced calculus. He said it was very satisfactory.
Lindsay or King: Itís a remarkably useful book.
Wilson: You can give a course on it that takes two years to finish if you really do the whole thing thoroughly. The reason itís that way is that when I wrote it, I had written to all the teachers of advanced calculus that I knew about, and asked them what they were teaching, what they wanted in the book, and if there was something in the book they didnít want. Nobody was teaching anything like in one year the whole of what is in that book. Some of them wanted some function theory, others didnít want that but wanted differential equations, or a little more differential equations, or they wanted calculus of variations. The book contains everything that anybody wanted.
Lindsay or King: My recollection is that in your practice you said that you had the inspiration from Poussinís book, The (???).
Wilson: Well, thatís the book Iíd been using at Yale. My book wasnít written until five years after I left Yale. I was teaching the advanced calculus with La Vallee Poussinís book as a text. I had used Storumís book as a text before Poussinís was available. The boys had had enough Latin so they could read mathematical French without any trouble. Weíd have had more trouble if we had used a German text. Thereís a good deal of it thatís like Poussin, and a good deal of it that isnít.
Lindsay or King: He put in a good deal about Lebesgue measure and integration Ė-
Wilson: Yes, I left Lebesgue measure out.
Lindsay or King: Richardson used that when I took a course with him, a real variable, when I was an undergraduate. I found it a very fascinating book, and I enjoyed reading it, although the fine print was hard.
Wilson: Lebesgue integral belongs in the function theory rather than in advance calculus, I think.
Lindsay or King: What can you say about old Woods? Was he brought there when you were in the department or was he already there?
Wilson: He was already there. He was a full professor when I came in as an associate professor.
Lindsay or King: What had his background been?
Wilson: He was a geometer, primarily. Tyler, the head of the department was an algebraist. Woods had a German education. I donít remember know where he got it, but he was a geometer rather than an analyst. Bailey, of course, was just a teacher of mathematics. He didnít have a Doctorís degree.
Lindsay or King: I remember. One of the old line, Tech SBíS, I guess. I remember that famous book, Woodsí and Baileys, so they used to call it, the Tech Boys called it, ďThe Babes in the Woods and BaileyĒ.
Wilson: The origin of that book was that Bartlett had a sabbatical year, and spent it in Germany and in Italy, possibly France seeing what they did in engineering schools over there, and he came back and told the department what was being done, and expected, if they were interested in it, they would ask him to do it. But he and the head of the department didnít get on too well, and so the head of the department put the job on Woods and Bailey who didnít know what Bartlett was talking about, except that they just got an impression from what he said, because they hadnít been around to see what was actually done.
Lindsay or King: Did you ever know Professor Cross who was at MIT?
Wilson: Yes, I succeeded Professor Cross.
Lindsay or King: What kind of a person was he?
Wilson: He was a telephone applied physicist. I donít know as he ever worked with the AT&T people, but he worked for some of their predecessors in the early days. He was a nice gentleman.
Lindsay or King: Heís the man of whom they used to tell the famous story that he got so he couldnít lecture in elementary physics without a marble in his pocket and he had his band in, you know, feeling that marble, and everything would go well. One day the boys got in there and took the marble out and broke down the lecture. Is that story possible?
Wilson: I never heard it, one way or the other.
Lindsay or King: He certainly built up a lot of interesting demonstration equipment. You gave me a chance, you know, one summer and give some lectures, and I found it very fascinating digging out some of his old demonstration stuff.
Wilson: He and McClorin hadnít gotten well together. He wasnít retired prematurely, but they just hadnít gotten on well together, and when McClorin put me in charge of the department, he told me not to have Cross around, that heíd only be a nuisance. This must have meant that Cross had been a nuisance to him, but Cross was a perfect gentleman about it. He would talk to me about the matter. Heíd say you do just what you please, because thatís what I did. He said that he hadnít made any changes around there for 25 years and that probably he should have made them about that time. When I decided to change the course after one yearís experience, I drew up a plan for the new course, and I took it in, showed it to Cross, and asked him to look it over and make any comments on it. He looked it over and the next day he brought it in to the office and he said, ďWell, Mr. Wilson, I couldnít make any comments about it, really, except to say as Iíve said before, that a lot of change ought to have been made in the last 25 years that I just didnít make, and Iím glad youíre making some. I know perfectly well if they donít work to suit you, youíll change them.Ē He was very nice about it. What happened, that I knew would happen — all the full professors griped about it.
Lindsay or King: He was fairly popular with students, I guess, as a lecturer.
Wilson: But they would gripe about it, because it was different from what they were used to. My best protection was Professor Cross, just the opposite of McClorin said, ďIíd better get rid of him. Heís been nothing but an embarrassment to me.Ē So I had to tell Dr. McClorin that I hadnít found him any handicap. He was very nice about the changes I wanted.
Lindsay or King: I wonder whether you would be willing to say a few words about the situation that developed in 1922 when Fox Nichols was momentarily brought in as president, of course he didnít last long.
Wilson: From June 1920 to 1922.
Lindsay or King: I came in 1920, and you still had your Administrative Committee. You left in Ď22.
Wilson: Yes. Well, the situation of the history was this. Nichols had been president of Dartmouth, and it came out in the papers one morning that Nichols was going to Yale as professor of physics as Director of the Sloan Laboratory. I happened, that morning to be coming to Tech from Boston instead of Brookline and was walking up to my office just the time Dr. McClorin came out from his house. He walked along with me, and he said, ďWell, our old friend, Nichols is going to Yale. Of course, he never should have gone to Dartmouth. He isnít an administrator. He canít make decisions. Well, I donít know whether Iím too good an administrator, but if I should find out I failed and had to leave Tech, I wouldnít go to Columbia, or somewhere else as a professor of optics. I would go into law.Ē He had been dean of a law school before he went to Columbia as a professor of physics.
Well, this seems not to have been known by the Corporation at all, because, later sometime, I donít know Just when it was, perhaps in May or April, they elected Nichols to succeed McClorin. Nichols was inaugurated at the graduating exercises in about the first of June, 1920 to take effect the first of July, and between the first of June and the first of July he had this bad heart attack, and he was technically president for, I think, 18 months, until his doctors decided that he never would be able to do the work. He would have to have something less strenuous to do. So, he went out about January 1st, 1922. The Administrative Committee kept right on, you see, through all that period, and then in the spring of 1922, I got this request from Harvard to g over d start their department of vital statistics in their new school of public health.
I also got an invitation from Johns Hopkins to go down there and start a course in, I suppose you could call it, bio-physics. It was sort of to be a parallel course to biochemistry, but more physics, and I decided to go to Harvard. I had in mind that Noyes had found that after being acting president, heíd got to be somewhere else if he was to be free to do his scientific work. I presumed that the same sort of thing would happen to me if I not only had the physics department possibly a president I couldnít work with. I could have worked with Nichols, all right.
Lindsay or King: When you left Tech in Ď22, was it clear that Stratton was going to be the next president?
Wilson: No, it wasnít clear that Stratton was to be the next president. All I knew about that, I was told by one of the members of the Corporation, when Nichols was appointed and broke down. I told him what McClorin told me at the time it was announced Nichols was going to Yale, and I told him that I didnít see Nichols could do the work. And he said, ďWell, you know, there were six people on the Executive Committee, and the Executive Committee has the right to make the appointment.Ē
I donít know whether I should say this while the machine is running — the Executive Committee had the right to make the appointment. They were split three-to-three. Three of them wanted Nichols, and three of them wanted Stratton, and finally, the three who wanted Nichols were the senior three, so the junior three gave in to them to break the deadlock and vote for Nichols. Now that Nichols is washed up, as it looks as if he will be completely washed up, I suppose the junior three will perhaps say that itís their turn, and thatís exactly what happened ultimately. I donít remember just when it was that he told me that. I seem to think it was when Nichols was broken down enough so that there wasnít much hope that he would be able to do the job. It could have been just after he had actually resigned from the job then the Administrative Committee was still working, of course, and, well, that spring I got the Harvard offer and I decided Iíd better take it, although it meant a complete change of activity.
Lindsay or King: Had you done any work in this area before, in vital statistics?
Wilson: NO, not anything that amounted to anything. Of course, I knew statistics, more statistics than any bio-statistician in the country, because I knew the writings of LaClasse and I knew the writings of Grause and they couldnít read either. As a matter of fact, I think I was considered for the position when they started the Hopkins school in 1918, because Dr. Welch who was to be head of the school talked to me a long time about the fact that there werenít any vital statistic statisticians that an institution of Hopkins! standing ought to make professors from heads of departments, and things like that, and that he had to make a choice between geneticists who knew some statistics and a great deal of biology, and physicists who knew perhaps knew biology, but a great deal of statistics because of their work with gas theory and (???) theory, and his choice ultimately went to Raymond Pearl who was what you call a human geneticist. He worked on the genetics of poultry, and he had studied statistics with Pearson in London, and he was a statistical geneticist and biologist. The Harvard choice happened to be me.
Vital statistics was at a very low ebb. You couldnít appoint the best actuary in the country, because the insurance companies was paying them so much more than the universities paid for salaries, and you want a second-rate one.
Lindsay or King: Why was there an interest, at that particular time, in developing work in this area?
Wilson: The Public Health Association was like the American Medical Association in that it had standards without which you didnít rate as anybody or any institution worthwhile, and they required for their degree on paper, although they didnít give any degrees, their standards for the degree in public health was that you should have about a quarter of your time in vital statistics. Thatís because the health departments all have their statisticians, they all get in the death certificates, all have to edit them and get out statistical reports, so that a quarter of the time of the students in a one year course leading to the lowest degree or certificate in public health was prescribed the the American Public Health Association to be in vital statistics, so no school of public health could be without that subject. The subject had been taught informally at Harvard before there was any school of public health. The school of Public Health wanted to have a separate professor. Whipple who was teaching before, continued to do the work in sanitary engineering in the school, but he wanted to give up the statistical work and the school wanted to have him give it up, and they wanted to have an appointment in it, and they picked on me.
Lindsay or King: As I recall, you were also made a member of their Administrative Board, too in the school, were you not?
Wilson: Oh, yes. I think all the full professors were members of the Administrative Board. There werenít many full professors!
Lindsay or King: The school hadnít been going too long, I guess?
Wilson: It started — it hadnít been going at all when I was appointed. I was appointed, I think, in February. The Corporation voted the appointment, and it was 11 weeks before the overseers O.K.íd it, so that there probably was, in April, or maybe early May before it was announced. We began work with the — the first of September, when the new term began or the middle of September, whenever the work started.
Lindsay or King: Your headquarters was put out at the Medical School, was it not?
Wilson: The School Board — the Infants Hospital, for its building and the work was in the Infants Hospital, but they hadnít bought that in Ď22. But at any rates they hadnít reconditioned it so that they could use it, because the first year, all the staff of the public health school had their offices in the Medical School. But, after that, those members of the health school faculty who were not members of the medical faculty had their offices over in the new building that they bought and reconditioned Infants Hospital.
Lindsay or King: Part of your job, I suppose was to draw plans for giving the Doctorís degree in this field?
Wilson: Well, we didnít favor giving a Doctorís degree. It was on the list, but we werenít anxious to give it. The ordinary degree that the American Public Health Association favored was the certificate in public health. Harvard didnít like to give that. They thought it wasnít a degree, and I think that seeing that it was a graduate degree, they really gave the Masters in public health, rather than the certificate in public health. They had the right to give the Bachelor of Public Health, too, in place of the certificate, but I donít think many such degrees were given, certainly not to medical graduates. Later, they did give the Doctorís degree on about the same basis as the PhD. Ruth Parker who did the detail work on that population report had a Doctorís degree. She came back about a year later.
Lindsay or King: How was your own time divided there between the teaching and the —
Wilson: There was very little teaching to do.
Lindsay or King: Didnít you give a course in statistics?
Wilson: I gave a second termís statistics which was an advanced course which the students didnít have to take, and my assistant, Dr. Deering, assistant professor, gave the first termís course. This left us free for research. But later, of course, I got into more trouble because Mr. Lowell, when he set up a department into sociology of 1930, put me in it with no obligations except to attend department meetings. A president can do that at Harvard, and the department canít say anything about it. He put four professors of Harvard University into the department of sociology when he set up; a historian, an economist, and me as a demographer, and the fourth one Iíve forgotten who he was. We were in the department as long as I was in the University, that is, from 1930 to 1945. Soroken and Zimmerman both came from Minnesota. They were new appointees. And then, when W.L. Crown was given the economics statistics, and a little course on the theoretical mathematical economics went to California, and he asked me to give that course, so I had a course in economics, a half course.
Lindsay or King: It must have been quite a change from mathematics and physics?
Wilson: Well, I had written on mathematical economics before I ever wrote on mathematical physics. There was a good deal that involved a simple mathematical economics. Quite a way back. Thatís one reason why I want to see Gail if I can for a few minutes. I want to see about the work of Etchworth of 1881, of which I was quite familiar. I got into mathematical economics at Yale because Irving Fisher was in it, and was kind enough to be quite a friend of mine. Willard Gibbs had been interested in Fisherís thesis.
Lindsay or King: Fisher had actually studied under Gibbs?
Wilson: Oh, yes, Fisher studied under Gibbs and he applied to Gibbsí general method of thinking about things for the economics situation in his great paper of 1892 which was one of the best papers on mathematical economics of that time. I donít think it was quite as good Edgeworthís of 1881, but Edgeworthís never had much following. Fisher has had a lot of following. Thatís probably because Fisher was more of a mathematician than Edgeworth, and Edgeworth was more of an economist than Fisher, so that a mathematician can bite into a Fisher much easier than on Edgeworth.
I was in the department of sociology, the department of economics, as well as the school of public health, and Cronin put me in the school of public administration. I suppose he did because I had been on the Science Committee of the National Resources Planning Board when he set that up, he put me in that.
Lindsay or King: How would you compare with the administration of the university at Harvard with the administration at MIT?
Wilson: By and large, Harvard hasnít an administration, and MIT has. The theory Harvard had is that nobody can tell anything to a full professor. He can tell the president what can be done, but the president canít tell him what he ought to do. Heís appointed on tenure to do the best he knows how for the university and on the whole you get it better done if you donít try to tell him what to do. Let him make up his own mind. Of course, in practice, some of the presidents have ideas about what the professors ought to do. They have, of course, the proper right to talk to chairman of departments whom they appoint, and they can get it down to the staff that way, but Iíve never heard of the president of Harvard telling any professor what he ought to do.
The chairmen of the departments are temporary appointments. Generally, something like on a three year basis, but theyíre always temporary, and any president that doesnít like a head of a department, can have him changed even if he doesnít have anybody fit to put in the job. Cronin did that. He threw out Burbank as chairman of the economics department. Lowell had had Burbank there for, I guess, 13 or 14 years. It was a very big department, and Burbank had lost most of his standing as an original economist and a writer of economics because of the administrative work of running a big department, and it had a very large student body. Cronin discontinued him. He had a perfect right to do that under Harvard traditions, and put in his best research economist.
Lindsay or King: Did Burbank have tenure?
Wilson: Oh, yes, he had tenure. Every professor has tenure.
Lindsay or King: How could he discontinue him as head of the department?
Wilson: Yes, deans and chairmen of departments have no tenure. Theyíre there at the pleasure of the president. Cronin got out a rule that nobody could be chairman of a department for more than three years running. He hadnít looked into the situation enough to see that where there was a department in which he didnít have enough people to make a change, because they do have to have tenure, the chairmen, as I understand it. They wouldnít put a non-tenure appointment in as chairman. I donít know if there are any rules that says they shouldnít, but I donít know that theyíve ever had.
The rule used to be in mathematics that the first time an associate professor got tenure on his associate professorship, he served for three years as chairman of the department, because they thought he might as well learn what the departmentís business was when he was young, and they might as well rotate to him at that time. The man Conant put in wasnít an administrative officer. He didnít want to be. He felt that he had to take it because the president urged him to. He didnít write a thing in the three years while he was chairman as far as I know. Conant finally let him out and put Burbank in, and we had three years of sheer misery in the department, and the fellow who had the most misery was the poor fellow who was trying to serve as chairman of the department.
Harvardís a very nice place to be on tenure. Thereís nobody can tell you, so far as I understand matters nobody above you but the president. There are administrative officers and if they donít do what you want them to do, you complain to the president about them — the deans. Generally speaking, one bets along very well because if you have a tradition that there really isnít anybody between a tenure appointment and a president, the person who is put there in an administrative position is probably as conscious of that as anybody, and they get along. Itís like the rule at the University of California when I was there in t29 as a private consultant to the president, President Campbell. They had a budget committee under the vice president for academic affairs, and some of the deans and some of the professors. This budget committee took care of all promotions, appointments, end everything else. The president was required by the statutes of the university, Dr. Campbell told me, to present their budget whether he liked it or not. He could remark about some of the items, and the Corporation, or whatever they called it, could decide whether he was right or whether the budget committee under the vice president of academic affairs was right. But actually, they compromised their differences. They didnít wish to make any stir in the Board of Trustees. They preferred to present a uniform situation to them. I suppose, theoretically things might be bad enough sometimes, so they preferred fight it out with them. I think it did come to that on the Trusteeís desire to have an oath of loyalty, or something.
Lindsay or King: Yes. It caused a great deal of stir.
Wilson: At Tech, there is an administration. You know to whom youíre responsible to, and who is responsible to you. I remember when I was going to make the change in instruction in physics, cut out about a third of the physics and do the other two-thirds better, I called up the president. I told him I was going to make a change unless he said Iíd better not, and I thought Iíd better tell him because heíd sure hear from me. He said, ďHow long you been thinking about this?Ē I said, ďOh, something like six months?Ē So he says, ďDo anything you want. If youíve thought about six months, Iíll back you up. I have people here on the staff that have a dream about 4:30 a.m. and come in here and want to turn over by 10:00 in the morning, and I have to go slow on that.Ē
I didnít have any trouble. Professor Cross took care of all that for me.
It was a great change for me to go over to Harvard where I couldnít find out anything as to how the way things were done. Well, theyíre done the way you want them done, was all you got out of them. Find out what you should pay your secretary? Well, itís your budget. Pay your secretary what you think you ought to pay her. I found out that the secretaries with equal responsibilities were getting anything in different departments, from 1000 a year to 2000 a year. The bad thing about it, of course, whenever they got together for lunch. At Tech, there was a scale of salaries. I didnít determine what Iíd pay my secretary. It was recommended to me by the man in charge of personnel what sheíd get paid, and if that was in accord with his scale of a person of her tenure and her seniority and ability, well, sheíd get it, otherwise she wouldnít. But you always worked through channels at MIT, and there werenít any channels at Harvard, really. Thatís the way it really should be theoretically as far as permanent officers are concerned.
Lindsay or King: It certainly seems so. You know where you stand.
I know this is a very difficult question, and probably somewhat nonsensical, but would you say you enjoyed your last period from, which was some 23 years, as much as you did the first 23 odd years of your career, because in a way your career has been split timewise into pretty much two equal parts; one on mathematics and physics, and one on the statistical work. Itís probably an impractical question, but it would be interesting to see what sort of reaction it evokes.
Wilson: Something had to change, because I got so involved in administrative work that my work, if I stayed at Tech for another 20 years was not going to be like the work had been for the 17 years been there where I was for the most part of it entirely free to do my research in science, and teaching. I was inevitably engulfed in administration being chairman of one of the largest departments and having been on this committee, I would be in a difficult situation with respect to the new president, and it might be an impossible situation. There were plenty of my colleagues who didnít like some of the things I had done, of course. That had to be understood. So a change had to be made of some kind, because things were going to be different. I canít really compare situations, and you canít compare, I think, your happiness between 25 and 45, and 45 and 65. Social scientists would ask you some questions and get an answer and write a paper about it, but I put enough confidence on the paper he wrote.
Lindsay or King: Yes, they do this sort of thing.
Wilson: I had a good time at Harvard.
Lindsay or King: If you had had an opportunity to take a position in theoretical physics, say at another institution like Yale or Columbia or Princeton, do you think you would have taken it as against the job in vital statistics at Harvard?
Wilson: Well, I presume I would. That would b my guess, because I had to spend two, three or four years mainly talking with professors of medicine, reading books on medical science and clinical medicine, before I even knew the language so that I could talk, because there are a lot of people in vital statistics who donít know the language anyway, because they donít consort with people who actually treat disease.
Lindsay or King: They just use the figures.
Wilson: They just use the figures, yes.
Lindsay or King: You wanted to get right to the root of it, and find out what it was all about.
Wilson: Yes. In my opinion, you cannot apply statistics safely in my case, and youíre sure to be wrong if you donít know what the statistics mean as data, except you could be accidentally right.
I told Whittaker in Edinburgh that I was going down to Cambridge to spend a couple of days with R.A. Fisher. He looked at me with a sort of perplexed way, and said, ďWhy do you want to do that for? Heís no statistician.Ē Well, I said, ďA lot of people in my country would tell you that heís the greatest statistician in the world.Ē He said, ďHeís done some very valuable mathematical work which can be used in statistics provided the data or such is applicable to it, but he cannot be trusted with data because he thinks he can apply his figures to any data whether he understands them or not. Heís been working his system on some data of the Scotch highlanders. Heís come to a lot of conclusions. These conclusions are just randomly right and wrong. He has no idea which are right, and which are wrong. He knows nothing about the subject. Any highlander 300 years ago could have told him which of those conclusions are right or wrong.Ē
It was typical of R.A. Fisher that he did feel that he could apply his statistics to data that he didnít understand. Whittaker wouldnít have said what he did if he hadnít done it, of course. He was a person who was s very insensitive to his environment or the people in it. He lived his own life in his own mind, and with his mice. This was all right with his mice. He couldnít get on with his wife. He had nine children. They all grow up, and she still looked as if she was still 18 years old. My wife was fascinated by her when she came with him to the Harvardís tercentenary when he got an honorary degree. But when he went from (???) to Cambridge, he left her. She always had him where he ought to be when he ought to be there. She just took care of him. She was a pretty good biologist in the practical sense. I shouldnít wonder if she knew some biology anyhow, but he didnít get on with her somehow.
Lindsay or King: What is your opinion of Whittaker and his total contribution or do you think you know him well enough to have an opinion?
Wilson: Well, Whittaker was a great scholar in physics and in the history of physics both. He was a first-class statistician. He was a good mathematician. He wasnít a super mathematician in any way, but he had all the mathematical ability one needed to have in physics. I thought he was a very intelligent fellow.
Now, how original he was, I donít know. Whether he made any real original contributions to physics. He wasnít under any obligation to his professor of mathematics. He proposed a new method of fitting curves which, so far as I know, has never been adopted, but seems to me perhaps might be worth being adopted. Itís in that book of his, Whittaker and Watson. You get a different solution from the least square solution, but it has a pretty sound probability base, and not the normal lower base, not exactly that, at any rate, the base essentially fitting by moments. Iíd have liked to have had the time, the computerís time, to try it on a number of things to see whether I got as good a result.
Fertigo was a very great applied mathematician. He wasnít any Isaac Newton, of course, but —
Lindsay or King: Heíd been criticized so much in his history, that history of the theories of ether and electricity which I admire so much. He was criticized because in discussing relativity, he soft-pedaled the contribution of Einstein, and he amplified the contributions of Poincare and Lorentz.
Wilson: He was right.
Lindsay or King: This is interesting because Jerry Holton of Harvard doesnít believe this, you know.
Wilson: No, he wouldnít. There are people who do. I donít see that he plays down either of them for the sake of the other. I donít believe Einstein knew anything about Poincareís work when he did his work. I donít think Poincare knew anything about Einsteinís work when he did his work. They both undoubtedly knew something about Laurentís work, and if I was doing anything about it, Iíd play them both down as compared with Lorentz. Lorentz had most of the Einstein formulae. He even had local time, which was the change in the time correspond to the change in length. Poincareís work was purely mathematical. Lorentz was a good physicist as a physicist, and I doubt if Poincare could be so considered. Einsteinís work was philosophical interpretation of Lorentzís with one change that had to be made in order to put it on the same philosophical basis. I think Lorentz was the big man there, and perhaps Fitzgerald. Of course, they were both thinking in terms of ether, and ether has disappeared.
Lindsay or King: Einstein really gets the credit for —
Wilson: There was no reason for washing up the ether until you got the photoelectric effect which indicated something about photons. You didnít have to make that interpretation, but you certainly had a good reason for doing it. You have to get photoelectric effect.
To his dying day, that fellow, the Bell Telephone Company that worked on color — Ives, was not satisfied with the Einstein postulates, at all.
Lindsay or King: Neither was D.C. Miller. Miller was taking it from a different angle.
Wilson: Your predecessor, Berra, said, ďPoor Miller, he doesnít know anything about interferometry.
Lindsay or King: Well, he had some notions, all right.
Wilson: Berra said he didnít have any notions about it. He said, ďNow, I know perfectly well from being around interferometry all my life that I cannot take more than 18 to 20 observations and average them and reduce my averages.Ē Now, heís taken hundreds. The result is, that whatever he gets is pure chance, because if you take too many observations to get a precision figure, itís not a precision figure. It depends on not on your fortuitous errors, but on your systematic errors.
Ivesí objection was on wholly different grounds, mainly, that we could not determine the velocity of light without using light itself, because there was nothing fast enough. We can determine the velocity of sound without sound, but we couldnít determine the velocity of light without using light, and we had to use it coming and going. So it was round trip light that we turned the velocity of, and that the whole algebra, group theory or anything else that you waited to apply to light would be different if you assumed that light going out and coming back had different velocities, and if it was on platforms of different velocity, it would have, at any rate, from an old fashioned point of view, different velocities which it appeared not to have. So, he was the choice of the Fitzgerald Centennial Committee, you see, over there in Dublin. He lectured on this subject, and youíve probably read that last paper, Ives, on the subject, published in Dublin.
Lindsay or King: Dr. Wilson, I wonder if you would want to say something about your philosophy of teaching?
Wilson: Oh, I donít know as I know anything about philosophy of teaching.
Lindsay or King: What is your approach to setting forth the course? Youíve had experience in a number of fields.
Wilson: I donít think there is any generalization I could make. The only question is to do something that your students get. Do it in a way that they get it. I bad to give an entirely different course in statistics in the school of public health for doctors who didnít even know logarithms, from what I would give in Harvard College to students who had calculus. The same thing is true of economics. If a student doesnít know any calculus, youíve got to talk it in words. You canít write a differential equation. There may be an advantage in economics, because we may not have any laws of economics that are well enough known to justify the use of a derivative, anyway.
Lindsay or King: Donít you think, though, one could build models just as one does in physics?
Wilson: Yes, but theyíre sort of a masked mental masturbation. They donít generally reproduce anything.
Lindsay or King: Thatís a point.
Wilson: I think that this notion of models, where you donít have any well-known laws, is probably misleading a whole lot of people who are able to manipulate mathematics and uninterested in what happens in the world.
Lindsay or King: They merely want to play with the model.
Wilson: Exactly. Iím not against models that are models of something. I donít see any sense in a model that doesnít correspond to anything we have, and I think part of the obligation of the man who makes the models is to see that it does correspond to something we actually have.
Lindsay or King: Of course, I havenít done very much in this field, but I have gotten interested in Ziph, a little, George Kingsley Ziph in his famous law of frequency rank order in language and things of this sort.
Wilson: I knew him very well.
Lindsay or King: You knew Ziph. Iíd be interested if you would tell me something about Ziph. Now, he died rather prematurely, didnít he? He was a rather young man.
Wilson: He was a rather young man to die of general disseminated cancer. He had a very hard time of it.
Lindsay or King: Was he a professor at Harvard, actually, or —?
Wilson: I donít know whether he had ever gotten that rank. He was one of the best investigators of some questions in language and linguistics that we had. I donít remember what his rank was. He was a very bright man, and deserved any rank they would give him. Whether he actually got it I donít know, because a great many people that liked to be at Harvard, and in Mr. Lowellís day he didnít feel obliged to pay people for being at Harvard if they were willing to pay him for being there, so to speak. He said he didnít see any particular reason why you should turn somebody out after he had been there for 15 years, because you couldnít put up one rank provided he was willing to stay where he was, and you were getting out of him the value of what you were paying him. He didnít even retire people at 66 which was the retirement age unless he thought he could do better with somebody else. He told me at one time when we were discussing this matter that what was the use of stopping the services of a man 66 if you didnít know a man of 46 that looked just as good as he did at 46. One of his notable cases was George Footmore who was professor of religion. He got to the retiring age and wrote a note to Mr. Lowell saying that he had a book to finish, and he would like his time entirely free, and so he was calling his attention to the fact that he would be 66. Mr. Lowell sent the note back to him, and Mr. Lowell told me himself, saying, ďIím not sure that that book came out from a professor that was still active at Harvard than from one that was retired, and so Iím returning the resignation.Ē George Moore, later had a cerebral hemorrhage which laid him up for a little while, and he renewed this. Mr. Lowell sent back again his resignation and said your doctors tell me your case is not so serious, but that youíll still be able to work on your book. We want that book to come out while youíre an active professor. Now, just what words he used, I donít know. Moore didnít entirely approve of that ruling. He thought it was exceedingly kind, but he was one of these very conscientious men, and he would rather have been, I think, on his own.
Lindsay or King: Bridgeman didnít retire even at 70, as I recall it. He was well over 70, I think, before he retired.
Wilson: Mr. Lowell retired people that were kept after the normal age. He retired them whenever he thought he could do better, and he told me that it was the most serious thing a president had to do. It was a very serious thing to determine, whether he couldnít do any better, and better keep the man on.
We have the same question with respect to the president of the United States. Whatís disability? Itís now being debated.
Mr. Conant was for putting everybody out at 66. Mr. Pusey is going back more to Mr. Eliotís and Mr. Lowellís point of view, and is continuing people at his pleasure at the University. They lose their administrative positions.
Lindsay or King: As they canít be deans anymore.
Wilson: They canít be in charge of the library, so that the librarian who was Conantís provost, the only provost they ever had while Mr. Conant was away so much fighting the War, and making the atomic bombs, and so forth, and Paul LeBuc has been relieved of his directorship of the University libraries, but heís still professor of history. There are a great many people being kept on after 66. I donít know that that applied to the medical school. The medical school is in a difficult situation, because surgeons should retire probably before theyíre 66, because so many of them get so that their hands tremble and they di are no longer prime operators. It isnít true of the medical scientist. Normally, they feel the rule ought to be the same for everybody on the staff, in the same position, and if the surgeons have to retire at 66 — they used to have to retire at 63, while the medical scientists didnít until the age of 66. They donít like too much differential there.
Walter Cannon who had support for his work which the University would lose if he was retired was kept on until perhaps he was 70. He died shortly after that, anyway.
Lindsay or King: When it came time for you to retire, did you have a well made out plan about what you were going to do during this period?
Lindsay or King: How did it happen that you got involved with the ONI?
Wilson: One of the first captains that came to the Boston office to run the administration of the ONI, decided that he wanted operating with Harvard and Tech, he wanted some older men who were on the staff. He asked Shields Warren how — how he asked Shields Warren I donít know, but Shields Warren had been, was I think at that time in charge of biology and medicine for AEC. He asked Shields Warren who he could get, and I was told that Shields Warren that heíd better get me, that Iíd been at Tech and Harvard, and I knew about everybody of importance in science at Harvard, and that if he wanted a senior citizen, heíd better try to get me. My assignment was to do whatever anybody else on the staff didnít want to do, or what the captain thought he shouldnít do with respect to institutional relations.
One thing that happened that was very amusing, was that he came to me one time and said, ďThereís this little business at Harvard thatís a mess. We canít get it settled. We canít get decisions made. Do you suppose you could do anything about it?Ē I said, ďI donít know, but Iím going to try.Ē I went over to Cambridge. It happened that I was invited to a cocktail party given by the Chairman of the Department of Mathematics for the person in ONI in Washington who was in charge of Mathematics, Reese. There was the provost lapping up martinis, you see. I had one myself, and then I said to Dr. Buc that I had this little job wished on me by the captain. I told him what it was and I said, ďI would know what to do about that at Tech, but I donít know your protocol here well enough to know to whom to go. Do I go to the professor, or do I go to the chairman of his department, or do I go to his dean?Ē Buc gasped, and he said, ďWhy Wilson, with all the contacts you had at Harvard you donít know that that has to go to the president?Ē I said, ďIím ashamed that Harvard has a system where one has to go to the president.Ē I would never get to the president at MIT, and if it involved the physics department, it wouldnít get to me, if a man had charge of that particular activity didnít bring it to me himself. Now, he said at Harvard it had to go to the president. He told me he couldnít make the decision for me. Thatís not much of a provost.
Lindsay or King: I would say, especially when the president was away.
Wilson: Well, the president happened to be in town. He said, ďFortunately heís in town, and Iíve got an appointment with him tomorrow morning. Weíve got an awful docket of work to go through, but Iíll put it on it, and if I can get to it, and it certainly isnít a high priority item from my point of view.Ē I said, ďIt isnít from mine either. We just donít want the misunderstanding between Harvard and ONI to get any worse.Ē ďAll right,Ē he said. But this was Conant. It never would have gotten to Mr. Lowell. He would have delegated to his dean all the authority to take care of it that he could, and the dean might not have even taken it. He might have said you go and talk to the fellow about that.
Mr. Lowell, had you see, Murdock as dean, and Murdock was a very able follow. Many people wished he was president of Harvard instead of Mr. Conant, by the time Mr. Conant had been long enough in the War, many people preferred Buc to stay in as president and Mr. Conant to stay in the war. There were a lot of people who didnít feel that way, of course.
There was one time when I was in the sociology department, they voted to ask the administration to make a permanent appointment, a tenure appointment, full professorship, from outside to add men to that department. They asked me to take that over to the deanís office. It didnít go to the presidentís office. I was to take it to the deanís office and let them know what the department wanted. So, I went over and said I had to see the dean about something. His secretary said it was budget time so she was to put us down for the next Friday afternoon. She told me the dean was in all the time, but that he was booked full, and he likes to know whatís coming up in the way of business, and heíd think about it, and whoís coming to see him. If I was willing to, I could tell her what the business is. I told her. She said, ďWell, the first question going to ask you is whether youíre for it, or whether youíre just a messenger of the department.Ē I said, ďItís a unanimous vote. I suppose I may be here because I made the motion I wanted to cut off the discussion. I knew everybody wanted it, and we were all tired of listening to the discussion. It was seconded by Lawrence Henderson, and the president knows him pretty well. I donít think there was any dissent at all.Ē She told me it was all right. The next morning I was in my office about 9:00 oíclock, and the telephone rang. She said, ďProfessor Wilson, the dean came in. I didnít expect him till about 5:30, and I asked him what had happened. I told him what had happened including what you said. He said I should tell you he doesnít need to come over, thatíll be through the Corporation next Monday morning, and thatís a long time between Friday afternoon.Ē Mr. Lowell didnít have a provost, but his dean knew exactly what he could do in such situations. Mr. Conant had this (???) committee arrangement.
Lindsay or King: I remember serving on one of those once.
Wilson: Itís a very bad scheme.
Lindsay or King: I thought it was utterly useless.
Wilson: Itís always a very bad scheme to do anything that is utterly useless. Itís just the sort of thing that you do because itís the habit to do it, or because youíre afraid to make a decision. The committee with outsiders, as well as department members passing on department appointments will not be frank with their president. If it were in their own to have an outside committee they wouldnít be frank with their own president as to what they wanted to do. The president of a major institution can consult anybody he wants to about anything he wants to and he would probably get a considered opinion, but not if there is a group of outsiders and insiders. I donít think we ought to have it. There are many ways in which the president can get outside opinion without putting insiders and outsiders in a very embarrassing position in which are — provided the outsiders disagree with the insiders.
I met A.F. Burns one time. You know he was Chief of the Council of Economic Advisors, I forget under what president, and head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and I said, ďWhat are you doing in Cambridge?Ē He said, ďIím on one of these infernal committees of Conant. It was about the appointment of Professor of Economics. It would be very unfortunate for the University and for the professor if he were appointed at Harvard. He just would be a misfit.Ē I think he said heís got sense enough to know it, and I know that he has an offer to go to an institution where he would not be and knows he would not be on this bit?Ē So I voted for him.
Lindsay or King: — was a great admirer of Judge.
Wilson: I knew him very well, socially, I knew nothing about his subject. He was a great authority on Judaism. He was a very nice man. He was president of the American Academy in Boston, as I was at one time. I think he was president of it before I was.
Lindsay or King: That just brings back to my mind this (???) Martha and his scheme, you know, for having this college for retired people. He and Harlow Shapley and a few others started this business up around New York State somewhere. Do you know anything about it?
There is a law school, Iím told, up in California that hires only retired professors. Theyíve got the best staff in the United States. Thatís whatís said.
Lindsay or King: You prefer to do this sort of thing youíre now doing, rather than to continue teaching at another institution on an emeritus basis?
Wilson: No, but you see, I would have to be, if I were to go on with the work that I got started, reams of which was not quite finished — if I were to go on with that, Iíd have to stay where I was or go to an institution which was interested in it, which would mean the school of public health, to work in epidemiology and vital statistics. There arenít many such schools, really, and then if you change your place where you have all your data and all your assistants that have helped you accumulate the data and helped you to work it up, you lose several years work. As far as my work was concerned at Harvard, if I couldnít keep it up at Harvard, I would rather do something such as Iím doing now for the Navy.
Lindsay or King: You werenít interested going to a place where you would mainly lecture on mathematics or even statistics?
Lindsay or King: Dr. Wilson, is there any particular phase of your work that you didnít follow up completely, that you have regret about not following up?
Wilson: I donít see any use of having any regrets about what you canít do anything about.
Lindsay or King: Sometimes people feel that they were close to a solution of something if they had just persisted in it longer, they could have achieved what someone else has done?
Wilson: Not in the nature of the work I was doing. I had put a lot of time and my assistantsí time in the follow up study of measles and scarlet fever which I wrote a long paper one time. I wondered how much it had changed in 10 years so we went back and got the data, but I had no chance to do anything with it. I just had to drop it. I donít see any reason why I should regret just because it was inevitable that if I didnít stay right there and didnít have control of the statisticians and computers that were helping me, I couldnít do anything about it.
Lindsay or King: What do you think you enjoy the most about your present work with ONI, the association with people doing various types of problems, or are the problems themselves of special interest to you? You must encounter a great variety of things both on the biological and the physical side.
Wilson: Itís a very nice office. Itís — it has able people in it, obliging people in it; the business manager hires secretaries and things like that. I donít think I was ever in a department that was on the whole so nice and cooperative. Nobody seems to have any gripes with anybody else. Itís a very pleasant place to be.
Lindsay or King: It does keep you traveling a good deal, doesnít it?
Wilson: At times there is a good deal of travel, but at times itís very little, and I generally can take the travel when I want to and donít have to take it when I donít want to. Itís administrative work, but you see, the office of Naval Research, you go and see people and theyíre fond of the office of Naval Research. They have people telling you, well, itís the first of the National Science Foundation, and still the best one. What they mean is, there are lawyers there to take care of your patent problems; there are business people there to take care of all your business problems. The only trouble is with the University staff because you may not get on with them. Itís something that could be done except for the fact that the contract has to be with the University instead of with the scientist, for business and legal reasons. A university wouldnít have any department of sponsored research, except for contractual features. The Navy can take care of it, but that isnít true of any other services, this NSF. The Navy has never gotten into such a mess with the ONR as the AIDS. The most important thing as I see in the Office of Naval Research are the branch offices which are in touch day after day with the scientists. The scientists can, on the whole, put down as in an anti government class. Conant told two captains who were in charge at different times at the ONR, did the Congress.
They never had any money to spend for basic research at the university. All ought to come from the Science Foundation. All he wanted was one great science foundation that would take care of everything. A.N. Richards took the same attitude, although I didnít hear him say so, but I know he took it. Compton — the three musketeers who ran the OSRD took that attitude — they wanted the science foundation to be their foundation with them in control of the distribution of money. This may be all right, but all these services that have a mission of any kind, like surgeon-general for public health, the Navy or Air Force, they need scientific advice and they need to be on friendly relations with science, and I think it was a great misfortune when the Air Force began to spend our money. They didnít set up regional offices. We ought to have our best professors acquainted with the scientific needs of Navy and the Air Force, and the Army, provided that you are acquainted with the major general. The country has never been sympathetic with its Army. Itís always been sympathetic with its Navy, and sympathetic now with its Air Force. The Air Force came up simply because the Army couldnít look forward a little bit.
Lindsay or King: Actually, donít you think that the Navy on the whole, has had a much more forward looking policy in terms of research?
Wilson: Of course, the Navy has been in it a long time. The Air Force are kids, relatively speaking to grown up people in the Navy. The Air Force has got perhaps more scientific problems in the present and future than the Navy has, so the Navy has aplenty.
Lindsay or King: I was thinking in terms of the Navy as compared with the Army.
Wilson: Oh, well, the Army — when McClorin got the Navyís support for his course on aeronautics, he went down — and it was started, I said by the British Admiralty telling him war was going to break out in a couple of years. He went down to Washington to try to interest the Army people, and he came back and he told me that he wonít get any help from the Army. The major generals could give us some help, but they say these old crates arenít any good in war, and people should understand that war is a rough and tumble business and the crates wouldnít last at all. He said that they were quite wrong because they would be some use in reconnaissance, you may not actually do any fighting with them, but they could be useful in reconnaissance, and thatís a very important thing in war, but they canít see any use for it. He let his psychometrist go, because he didnít believe in psychometry. One time he came back from Washington, after E.L. Thorndike and Durkees were running the psychometric tests on all the Army officers and recruits and everything else. He called me up and said, ďWell, you remember we were trying to get some help from the Army for the aeronautical course? Iím back from Washington and Iíve seen some of the psychologists and theyíre doing a pretty good job. Theyíve rated some of these major generals down below the Negro janitors, and there must be something in it.Ē (Laughter)
Well, it was really pitiful, because after the war was over Secretary Baker, Secretary of the War sent me Manly who was an engine man, and somebody who was a structure man out to (???) to see what was the matter with it. There was nothing the matter with it, except they had people there who didnít know the business. They hadnít trained them. We were there for three or four days, and we all sent signed a report to the Secretary of War saying if the Army had trained them in aeronautical engineering the way the Navy had, there would not have been anything for him to worry about. These people were doing their best with what they had to work with in the way of background. You couldnít expect anything better out there. Itís pitiful to see those fellows. They were working no end of hours a day trying to do a job that they had no training for.
Lindsay or King: Well, itís now getting towards 3:30. I think perhaps it might not be a bad idea to terminate at this time. I think weíve really got a great deal of background information. Itís all there on tape.