Oral History Transcript — Dr. John Tracy
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Interview with Dr. John Tracy
John Tracy; December 17, 1987
ABSTRACT: Tracy was one of the three founders of Orlando Research Corporation, a company that became Control Laser. Circumstances that led to the company's founding as a firm for the manufacture of argon ion lasers in 1966; some of the innovations made to improve the laser; the company, its sales, production techniques, and the origins of some of its staff. A need for capital caused the founders to sell the company to the owner of a machine company in 1969; Tracy remained until 1971. He speaks about some of the products, successful and unsuccessful, developed between 1969 and 1971, touching on the technology, the market, and the difficulties Control Laser encountered.
Research was formed in the summer of 1966 by Dr. William McMahan, a physics PhD, James Bowen, a hardware engineer, and I. I had training as an electronics engineer and also a Master's in business administration. McMahan and Bowen were in the laser area at Martin-Marietta Orlando, and I was in the area of microwave technology.
McMahan and Bowen had had a contract to build and deliver an argon-ion laser. After they finished, they appealed to management to pursue this laser, and ion lasers generally. Martin-Marietta, however, replied that it was not interested in this product line, because it was only interested in military products. Ion lasers at that time were sold as a laboratory instrument or for research into applications uses. There was an exchange of internal memoranda, but the upshot was that management said no.
I was brought in because I had helped McMahan and Bowen with a laser project. They had been trying to use a ruby laser that they had built in a radar set-up, but were unable to receive a return signal. I stabilized their transmitter and then worked on the receiving circuits. The first pulse that was sent after I had altered the circuitry was detected by the receiver. They were very impressed and subsequently they invited me to join Orlando Research.
We incorporated under a Florida charter. We had no money, perhaps one thousand dollars. It wasn't even a garage industry because none of us had a garage; in Florida you have carports. In December 1966 we rented a small place in a strip shopping area next to a barber shop. We were all still working at Martin.
We had already decided ion lasers would be the product. We placed a small ad in a trade magazine in about August, I believe. It had our name, and Jim Bowen's home phone. By the end of October 1966, Ford Motor Research Laboratory had given us our first purchase order for a $10,000 laser. It was a matter of telephone conversations between McMahan and a scientist there; one physicist talking to another, with good rapport established. We promised 60 day delivery.
We had hired a technician who had worked for Bill and Jim on the earlier argon-ion laser. He was a machinist-welder and knew a little glass blowing. Like us, he worked nights and weekends in this little place. We used the same suppliers as we had for the Martin laser, and put a device together by Christmas. We were equipped with a few little voltmeters, but we had no laser power meter. We had to use our experience on what the laser would do to pocket combs and other objects to get a feel for whether we had 1/10 watt, 1/2 watt or 1 watt. We shipped it with the idea that it met the specifications but no proof that it did. One innovation that we made was putting the laser windows on by optical contact, that is, by molecular bonding. Until then, gas laser windows were glued on with epoxy and the epoxy introduced contaminants into the discharge. This was a major step in getting the life extended from one hour to 100s of hours. We held that secret for 2 years, while Spectra-Physics, our major rival, was still gluing its windows. It took a lot to get the optically flat surfaces. Optical houses are able to do this kind of fine grinding but we had to work with them a lot. We did the chemical cleaning ourselves.
Our sales efforts for the first 3-4 years were ads in magazines like Laser Focus and word of mouth. The first two years it was all argon lasers. Our customers up to fall 1969 were research laboratories, universities, medical centers, especially ophthalmological ones like the University of Virginia Medical Center, the M.D. Anderson Hospital Center, and Washington University Hospital.
Bowen was the first to change to full-time, in January 1967, after we had delivered our first laser and had a couple of orders in our pockets. McMahan started in late 1967, and I started in May 1968, after fighting and winning a conflict of interest charge brought against me by Martin-Marietta. We had moved to a larger place in the Fall of 1967 and a year later moved again.
We did not need to acquire patent rights. We contacted Hughes, which said it had no interest in royalties. declared their patents open to us.
AT&T also declared their patents open to us.
One problem with the argon-ion laser is that the intense discharge in the small quartz bore erodes the quartz wall, adding contaminants to the gas. McMahan developed and patented the idea of a bore made of pyrolytic graphite. It has high thermal conductivity in one plane and low conductivity in another. He made a hole in a graphite cylinder, and cut fins into the outer part. The bore was a set of sections of these cylinders. We called it an anodic bore laser. It allowed higher power levels and longer life, and was the basis of all our lasers through 1969. This development was carried out in isolation from work done at Hughes and elsewhere.
At this time we produced 1-2 lasers a month, all hand built. We developed technics for machining graphite, with special lathe tools. We hired a machinist from Martin full-time for this part of the work. We found competent glass blowers in New Jersey and moved them down here so that we would have an in-house capability. We hired some United Technologies physicists from Hartford to expand our technical staff. We began to put our own coatings on the mirrors.
Meanwhile, we needed more capital. It was my job to find it. We had sold a few stock shares to friends and relatives, but now I went to Wall Street and talked with people in the 2nd or 3rd tier of underwriters to try to work out a deal. In the 1968 securities market you could sell almost anything. But then in late 1968 and early 1969, the new issue market dried up. There was little or no chance to flat stocks for small high-tech companies. So I turned to regional brokerage houses. We hired attorneys, prepared prospectuses. But the new issue market continued to collapse. It became apparent that there was no way to float a stock issue.
We had borrowed from the bank and every other source we could. We had about 30-40 people at this point and we would get to 3 pm on Fridays and not know how we were going to meet our payroll. Then one regional broker mentioned a Pompano Beach machine company, Mike Kvachuk Company, which had raised a lot of money and didn't know what to do with it. The broker put me in touch and, ultimately, Kvachuk acquired Orlando Research, and it was renamed Control Laser Orlando, Inc.
Mike decided that the long term future was in lasers rather than in the machine shops he then owned. We sold off the machine shops, first, because we were in desperate need of capital and second because we wanted to get something out in the form of stock, to go public without floating an issue. I was delighted. McMahan was not delighted but he didn't know what else to do to enable us to avoid bankruptcy. McMahan left a year later to form American Laser Inc. in Winter Park, and still later, moved his company to Salt Lake City. I stayed until late 1971, but eventually returned to Martin because I was working 80 hours a week, and had insufficient time for my family.
At one point, we decided to try to develop a low power laser to compete with helium-neon lasers for a mass market. Until then our lasers were in the 1-10 watt range. We spent a lot of money but the market didn't develop, and our product was poor. The basic design just didn't lend itself to low cost, high rate, production. It was too labor-intensive. We had tried to scale the power down too fast, without accounting for all the physical phenomena. That was our principal product failure. We had started it before Kvachuk, and after he acquired us, he fed on our enthusiasm and between us, we didn't know when to stop. We spent several millions on this.
About a year and a half after we started Orlando Research, in about early 1968, we put in a proposal to Wright Patterson for a higher power version of our basic laser using the anodic bore.
It was accepted and we got a R&D contract for $100,000. We built and delivered a laser with 15 watts average power, basically taking what we had and scaling it up in size. This contract carried us through 1968. This was our only government business.
We were deliberately seeking non-government business. Part of our sales effort was to send a representative to every technical meeting we could. This was generally McMahan. It was a way to market our product, to recruit people, and to find out what was going on technically.
Medical people were a different kind of market from laboratory scientists. They were interesting in pushing a button and getting the light, whereas scientists preferred to have something they could play with — tweak the mirrors, adjust the mechanisms , put a lens or piece of glass into the cavity. Tom meet our medical market we improved the product so as to need less adjustment, sacrificing a little output power for stability. We also conducted courses. I spent many days in various university medical centers teaching doctors and medical technicians how to use lasers, and the precautions needed. We made a 1-2 day training a part of the sale, and in addition, would sell a week's training as part of the purchase order.
By about 1969, Coherent joined Spectra-Physics as our principal competitors. We never knew our market shares because we never told each other what our sales were. We were always able to sell as many as we could build. It was not sales which gave us trouble but getting capital, getting qualified people, and managing the production process. We weren't production people and didn't have those skills. We would hire production people, but they then had trouble adapting to the technology.
We were pushing the state of the art in vacuum technology, glass blowing, electronics. Quartz melts at a very high temperature. This is a kind of industrial glass-blowing only a few people could do. The electronics of power supplies for such large amounts of power pushed the diodes, transistors, and so on to the limit. With every new laser, we tried to up-grade the power supplies still more.
By late 1968, we began to get overseas orders and inquiries. Our first sale was to Israel. Then we sold to Italy and France. These customers were brought in through advertisements. Safety issues didn't hit us until about 1971, and then they came in the form of a sense of being overwhelmed with rules and regulations. Before then, we had the good fortune never to have had an accident, although we frequently had laser beams bouncing around the laboratory.