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Oral History Transcript — Dr. W. Arnold Finck

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Interview with W. Arnold Finck
By Tonya Levin
At Palisades, New York
June 13, 1997

 
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W. Arnold Finck; June 13, 1997

ABSTRACT: Born on May 15, 1920 in Jersey City, NJ; discusses family life and childhood. Married on April 22, 1944; discusses his military service in Army intelligence. Received a business administration degree from Walter Harvey Junior College after the war; worked at New York Life Insurance. Began work at Lamont in 1950-51 through connection with Joe Worzel; discusses the state of Lamont in the first years. Discusses the Lamont family and Mrs. Lamontís funding of the directorís residence; comments on the many difficulties in managing the finances at Lamont. Comments on Industrial Associates; discusses the challenges of getting and managing private and government funding. Recalls his connections with the personnel at the geochemistry lab; comments on the acquisition and maintenance of Verna. Describes his development of the publications policy; discusses the process of separation between Lamont and Columbia. Discuss what he believes to have been his greatest administrative successes in his career at Lamont; describes his work in the first year at Lamont, creating regulations from scratch. Comments on the funding for instruments and the machine shop; discusses the changes in government funding and procedure over the years. Comments on the leadership of Manik Talwani compared to Maurice Ewing; discusses the International Geophysical Year at Lamont.

Transcript

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Levin:

This is the 13th of June, 1997. And this is a continuing interview with Arnold Finck. Iím Tonya Levin. What would you consider your greatest success administratively during your years at Lamont?

Finck:

That would take a little bit of thinking. Iím not sure what the greatest success was. Well, the establishment of the administrative procedures that we used here. All were something that had to be done from scratch, so to speak. While we were certainly a part of Columbia University, we had our own personnel office and our own purchasing and the accounting and all of that which was done here. But I think one of the biggest accomplishments was the building of the buildings here — The oceanography building, seismology building, the core lab, geoscience building. I think those were sort of the lasting physical evidence of the administration here. One of the other things that stand out in my mind is the rapport that the scientists and the administration had with each other. They worked very closely together. When you hit me cold with this, itís hard to [laughs] recollect it. But as I think I mentioned before, we started out with very few people and ended up with over 50O people here. So everything had to be planned and sort of started from scratch. There were no rules or no administrative operation going before that. I guess thatís all I can say about it. I donít know. If I thought about it some more, maybe I could let you know.

Levin:

When you said that all these regulations and laws had to be created from scratch, was there a pattern or model that you borrowed from? Perhaps at a different institution?

Finck:

Well, since we were supported by government grants and contracts, they had a great deal to do with how we operated, because we had to follow the regulations of the government. On the other hand, such things as personnel matters and salary reviews, shipping and receiving, all those items that we had, were new to Lamont. They may have had them down at Columbia, but that was a different operation down there.

Levin:

So you pretty much had to invent them from scratch, from nothing? There wasnít a pattern already established on how to deal with these, for an institution?

Finck:

Thatís right. The other thing was, we were using buildings which were not built for science. I mean, we were using Lamont Hall, these were all laboratories, these bedrooms. They washed the records in the bathrooms in the tubs and things like that. So you were innovating all the time. Over in the core lab, we put a second story on the core lab. That was an old seven-car garage. We put a second story on that and built that into a core laboratory. So what Iím saying is that we were innovating a lot because we didnít have the money to put up brand new buildings at the beginning. We always were trying to do with what we had.

Levin:

You mentioned also the early rapport? Did this change over time as more people came in? Did you lose some of that?

Finck:

I think some of it was lost. Because we were very close back in the early days when we didnít have so many people here, and there werenít departments and that sort of thing. Everyone was in this building, for example, when we first started. Even the geochemists were in the kitchens downstairs. So that everybody saw everyone else practically every day, whereas now each building has its own science going on and they donít see each other very often. So I donít think that the — it was probably better that way, that people could exchange ideas and tell each other what was going on in their particular area of science. For that reason, I say that the rapport was better probably.

Levin:

What would you consider some of your major challenges, working here?

Finck:

Well, letís see. I think establishing a system for using the research vessels that we had. Some of the challenges there were how to pay for it, how to establish daily rates, keeping costs within reason. Some of the challenges had to do with the town government when we wanted to build. Finally we had to get approval from the town for putting up buildings in an area which did not have research buildings in it to begin with. It was all residential. So we had to get that straightened out.

Levin:

How did the town perceive what you were trying to do here at Lamont? Did they understand?

Finck:

At first I donít think they understood. Then in later years they even challenged the fact that we were an educational institution. That went to court, and we won that case. Because we were tax exempt, we were paying a fee in lieu of taxes to start with, a small fee. I wouldnít say too small in those days. I forget what it was. But anyway, they wanted to put the full taxes on us, you see, as a profit-making research institution. Of course, we werenít. We were part of Columbia University. We always have been. In the zoning area, the original zoning for this place was residential. When they first put up the old machine shop out here, they did get a variance to put it up. But it had to be put up in that particular space. They just gave a small area here for scientific research. Then finally we got it squared away that we could use the whole place for scientific research. But that took a long time to do. What were some of the other challenges? You go ahead.

Levin:

Itís interesting that you mention the ships. Because at one time Lamont was operating two ships at once, the VEMA and the CONRAD. That must have been quite difficult. Were there creative ways of financing it so that you could operate the two simultaneously?

Finck:

In those days the Office of Naval Research was our biggest supporter. We had contracts with them. Usually the contracts had a certain sum of money for ship operations. We could operate the two ships. Then the National Science Foundation came into the picture. They supported some of the ship work, too. But back before we had the VEMA and the CONRAD we used whatever ships we could find. We had a Moran Company tug that we used with a large winch on it. We used that for coring operations. Then we had several other ships that we used. We used the ATLANTIS once in a while. But the trouble there was that we couldnít keep any of our equipment on board because every time we chartered the ship for a particular cruise, then we had to put equipment on it and then take it off again when it was over. That was costly. It didnít make for continuity at all. So thatís when we got the VEMA. The story about the VEMAís probably one everybody is telling in these interviews. The VEMA was first chartered with an option to buy, and finally after a successful cruise they decided to buy it. Dr. Ewing convinced the trustees that they should put up the money.

Levin:

What really hasnít been explored, though, is the reason why it was retired?

Finck:

Why the VEMA was retired?

Levin:

Yeah. Was pressure coming mostly from within Lamont or without?

Finck:

Well, I was not here when they retired the VEMA. I believe that the reason was that it was old and antiquated, and the space on it was not as good as they could find on a new ship which had been built more for research. The VEMA was not built for research. It was converted by us. I think they found out that it was not efficient to use the VEMA if they could get another ship. Then they decided theyíd retire it. And they got the EWING. The CONRADís the same way. I think that was one of the first research vessels that the Navy built. After so many years it just was antiquated.

Levin:

You mentioned as well the machine shop. How did funding for instrumental development and the machine shop change over time at Lamont?

Finck:

Over the years from the time that Lamont started, back in the early days, we received contracts with the Navy, Office of Naval Research, to do oceanographic research. It was a broad mandate. It didnít tell us that we had to do this, thus and so. We could use the money wherever we thought that we could use it best. In those days, you couldnít buy a lot of the equipment off a shelf which you can buy today. You had to build things. You had to build a sound source, for example, for the underwater explosions. You had to build a seismograph to use. All of these things were built under a general contract with the Navy as part of an oceanographic program. Nowadays as I understand it, the Government financing is much more restricted. In other words, you have to have a proposal to build a particular piece of equipment or buy it off the shelf depending on which way it goes. You donít have the leeway that you had in those days because oceanographic exploration was very limited when we first started. There was always something new to find.

Levin:

In that way the contracts with the Navy and with the Government were changing. Were there other things that were changing within the way that the Navy was handling contracts and dispersing grants?

Finck:

The National Science Foundation came into the picture after the Office of Naval Research had been in it quite a while. They, too, were not as restrictive as they are today, as I understand it. They would give you a grant on the basis of your proposal and you had more leeway with it.

Levin:

Youíve seen a lot of proposals come in and out during your time at Lamont. How did the research proposals of Lamont scientists change over time?

Finck:

As I mentioned before, our proposals in the beginning were a broad, general field of science. For example, seismology would have a broad mandate on what they could do. Whereas I think today it gets much more specific, and you have to be — say, a segment of seismology would be taking place. In those days you had more leeway to do things that you thought would be of value. Iím not so sure that you can still do that. But I havenít seen any proposals lately, so I donít really know how everybody is. [Laughs]

Levin:

Was there a change in the practices of Government auditors from the Ď50s through the Ď70s?

Finck:

Back in the early days we had an audit which was made by the Government every so often. We had an Office of Naval Research resident representative who was here on the grounds. He was a resident representative who basically was here for the Office of Naval Research, but he was also able to give advice and approvals on the various things that you needed to purchase or do, which required approval from the Government. That was a big help in that you had someone right there that you could go to and talk the problem over with. That helped a lot. As far as auditing goes, one of the big things we had was the auditing of the operation of the ships to come up with a daily rate which was charged. You had a provisional rate on a ship which was based on the previous year and then you had an actual rate which was an adjustment of the provisional rate after the audit had been made. The audit would be done by the Government. Some things theyíd say, ďWell, you canít charge this to the Government. This is not legitimate.Ē But most of the time they took all our expenses, and they came up with the actual rate. That was also true for things like overhead and various other factors that the Government was interested in.

Levin:

The person you said was here to advise you, the person from the Office of Naval Research, when was his office let go?

Finck:

Iím not sure of the date. But there were several ONR representatives that were here. Actually, Phil Shandler was the first one. He died. Then Jack Spechler came in. Actually, he died, too. After that, Iím not sure that they had one here every day because they had an office in New York City. There was another one, Gus Belissari. He was based in New York, I believe. These people, as I say, had an office right over there in the Butler Building.

Levin:

Do you know why they started to put them back more on Columbiaís campus in New York City rather than shipping somebody out here on a day to day basis?

Finck:

Actually, the Office of Naval Research was reducing its staff. I think they pulled in their horns, and they didnít have as many people in the field as they did in the earlier days. They used to have an Office of Naval Research representative over at Hudson Labs, and the Hudson Labs closed down. Then I think Phil Shandler came over here. But I think it was basically that they were reducing size of the Office of Naval Research. Today, there isnít any New York office as I understand it. They just have an office in Boston. And they work out of there. I think thatís the only reason that I can think, is that they reduced the Office of Naval Research budget and the number of people. And thatís what happened.

Levin:

Did Lamont underwrite the work of earth scientists in other countries? For instance, less developed countries, such as Latin America, Africa?

Finck:

Did they fund them?

Levin:

In order to get the collaboration, did they underwrite their participation?

Finck:

Not that I know of. I canít think of any situation where they did that. In other words, if they had a proposal which was funded by the Government — say a National Science Foundation grant was given to them. If the proposal had in it that they were going to collaborate with some South American scientists, then they had in their budget the money for doing whatever that was. Then, yes, they would underwrite them in a sense. But it was part of the proposal that you were going to do this, you see? So we didnít have any funds with no strings attached to do this work. You had to stay within the confines of the grant or the contract.

Levin:

Were there certain administrative difficulties that arose when you tried to deal with other scientists from different nations?

Finck:

Not really. Iím trying to think of any situation that we had. But I canít think of any that created any problems. Usually the chief investigator on a particular project would make all the contacts and so forth. He would go to this foreign country, wherever it was, and work with those people. Theyíre still doing that today. Now I know that Bill Menke goes up to Iceland and works on projects up there. But Iím sure heís in collaboration with some scientists in Iceland. But Iím not sure who they are. And I donít know how the financing is handled now. Iím sure his science is paid for by whatever grant he has, for example. Then the Government of Iceland may have people up there that are being paid by the Government of Iceland who do similar work. I donít know just how it works, but -Ė When we had a station in Bermuda, it was no real problem. The people that were on the payroll down there were paid from Columbia. They were handled just like any other people here. They would put their requests for purchase orders through, have things shipped to them, so forth and so on. They used to have an account down there in the Bank of Bermuda where they used petty cash type of things, that sort of things. So there really werenít any administrative problems there.

Levin:

So it was up to the chief scientists to identify their counterparts in other nations?

Finck:

Yes.

Levin:

And the administration never had to deal with contracts or with these scientists to bring them as employees of —?

Finck:

No, they never came into the picture as employees. Well, during my time. I donít know what theyíre doing now. I mean that was 20 years ago. I donít know what the situation is now.

Levin:

But 20 years ago it certainly wasnít —?

Finck:

No. They cooperated with other countries. The scientific group from that country was cooperating with a scientific group from this country. So they didnít really have any problems with it. It worked out quite well.

Levin:

Did the fiscal emergency that Columbia University declared in the early Ď70s significantly affect Lamontís operations?

Finck:

I donít think it did to any great extent because we were not dependent upon Columbia money for the work that was going on here. It was basically all grant and contracts work. Except for the professors and the faculty paid by Columbia, it didnít affect Lamont to any great extent. I believe, after — I donít know at what time. The one big factor that was always troubling Lamont was that they did not get the overhead back from Government contracts and grants to operate the buildings and the grounds here. They had a formula which was not acceptable to Lamont, really. We got a pittance back to handle the things that we had here, the costs we had here. Like the building upkeep and the fuel, all that sort of thing. So now I believe, they have recognized that Lamont is an asset rather than a problem. I guess theyíre getting back a good part of their overhead, and Columbiaís really paying for a lot of things that in my day they didnít pay for.

Levin:

Do you see trends where perhaps they were worse on the overhead? Perhaps during this fiscal emergency where they pretty much stable throughout in not giving back overhead? Or was in worse during the emergency?

Finck:

What years were the fiscal emergencies?

Levin:

It was the early Ď70s, the early McGill years.

Finck:

Early McGill years. Yes, thatís right. Actually, during the McGill years I thought we did pretty well. He recognized that Lamont was a going concern. It was always a matter of trying to get more money from the University, but I donít think it affected Lamont terribly hard.

Levin:

did you notice a difference when Talwani took over the directorship in the way administration was run?

Finck:

Yes, I think so. Well, number one, he moved out of this office here. Ewing had his office here, as you know. Then he moved up to oceanography, and the directorís office was up in oceanography. I think it was more open in the sense that Talwani was more accessible and perhaps he operated in a little different way than Ewing did. Ewing, since he started the place, was really sort of autocratic in many ways. On the other hand, I guess the scientists and the professors felt that Talwani was doing too many things on his own, too. Which is why, I guess, they decided to get rid of him. I never knew what was involved there because I was only working here part-time when Talwani left. They were looking for a new administrator, and by that time I had retired. They called me back to work on a part-time hourly basis which I did for a year or two. I forget how long it was. So I wasnít in on all the ins and outs of that coup that took place [Laugh] Talwani thought I Ė well, I donít think he thought I was in on it. I think maybe his wife did. But I didnít know anything about it until it was over.

Levin:

So did Talwani anticipate it coming?

Finck:

No.

Levin:

Is that why he was concerned about you? Because you mentioned that you thought that maybe he thought you werenít involved in this?

Finck:

No, I donít think he did. I think his wife did for some reason. No, I didnít know anything about it. I was as surprised as he was when I heard the news that theyíd asked him to resign. Yeah, it was kind of a shocking thing actually.

Levin:

What did his moving over to the oceanography building mean on the whole?

Finck:

Well, I think he was trying to make a clean break with the past in a sense. Not have the same office that Ewing had, which was sort of a sanctuary, you know. He was involved in oceanography and gravity. I think he felt that that would put him, give him a clean slate so to speak, without having the Ewing thing in the background. I think thatís why he moved his office over there. Then he was the one who pushed for the geoscience building. I remember we worked on that together and built that.

Levin:

How was his way of proposing and pushing something, like the geoscience building, different from the way Ewing had pushed his buildings?

Finck:

Well, the oceanography building was built with University funds which were reimbursed by a Government contract over a period of years, which was amortized over a period of years. The Government was charged a use rate for the use of the building, so to speak. Over a period, I think it was ten years; they eventually paid for that building. But in those days the costs werenít as high as they were when the geoscience building was built. When that building was built we were able to use funds that had accumulated over the years from some accounts that we had. It was the first fully air conditioned building we ever had. It was the first building that architecturally was rather significant compared to some of the other buildings we had, like the Butler Building, the seismology building, all those, which were just very basic buildings. I donít know if Iíve given you the right answers.

Levin:

When you look back, did the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 seem like a major benchmark in Lamontís history?

Finck:

I think so. I think the International Geophysical Year gave us the opportunity to explore many areas that we would like to have done, but it gave us the funds to do it. Since it was a cooperative effort with many countries it was very successful I think. It was one of the things that we did also which was the Apollo shot to the moon. We had two of our experiments on that. We had the moon seismograph and the heat flow instrument. I think that was a benchmark, in a way because there werenít too many people had their instruments on the moon in those days. I think that probably one of the most interesting things that went on was the work of the research vessel VEMA which was probably the only research vessel that just went out and circled the globe and was out all the time. It was always fun to see what they brought back because theyíd always have some new discovery when they came back. In those days it was not uncommon to have some new ridge or some new mountain under the sea or something come up. It was fun.

Levin:

How would you put IGY into context with the major federal expansions in oceanography in the early and mid Ď60s? Were they equivalent? Was one more significant than the other?

Finck:

The IGY? Say that again?

Levin:

Looking at the funding for the International Geophysical Year and also the federal expansions for oceanography in the early and the mid Ď60s, how roughly did they compare? Was one more significant perhaps than the other?

Finck:

I hadnít thought about the 1GY in a long time. I canít remember how many dollars were involved. I would think that the IGY certainly gave an impetus to the work they were doing. Without that, itís just like any major effort thatís done. It significantly increases the scope of what you can do because the fundingís there. I donít know how it compares with. — We were doing quite well with the Navy and the National Science Foundation. I donít think I can answer that very well. That question that you asked.

Levin:

Is there anything that you feel that we havenít covered, or that hasnít been covered in earlier sessions that you would like to mention?

Finck:

I donít think so. As I said earlier, I wish I knew what we had gone over. I forget all the things we said. Iím not sure that I have anything to add to it.

Levin:

Okay. Well, Iíll thank you then for this session. I think I forgot to say at the beginning of the tape that this is being made in the Palisades at Lamont.

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