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Interview of Edward Creutz by Stuart Leslie on 2006 January 9,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Edward Creutz discusses topics such as: his family background; Gregory Breit; doing his postgraduate work at the University of Wisconsin on nuclear physics; Ray Herb; Julian Mack; Fred de Hoffmann; Eugene Wigner; going to Princeton as a research assistant working on the small cyclotron; Carnegie Institute of Technology; Frederick Seitz; Office of Naval Research (ONR); Urner Liddel; Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); helping to build the first commercial nuclear reactor; working in the metallurgical lab at the University of Chicago working on the metallurgy of uranium; General Dynamics and General Atomic; Los Alamos; Niels Bohr; Richard Courant; TRIGA (Training Research Isotopes General Atomic) reactors; Lothar Nordheim; Hans Bethe; Edward Teller; Richard Feynman; Ted Taylor; Marshall Rosenbluth; Doug Fouquet; High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR); Freeman Dyson; Don Kerst.
This is Bill Leslie from Johns Hopkins University. I’m with Dr. Ed Creutz, who is the founding director of General Atomic?
No, I was second in command.
Second in command at General Atomic. We’re sitting here today in his home just north of San Diego at Rancho Santa Fe. So perhaps we could begin with what got you into the field of physics and your work at Wisconsin.
Sure. Well, right after I graduated from high school, I got a job in a bank and I worked three years in a bank. No more education; just banking! My older brother, John, who was an electrical engineer, had been to Wisconsin, got a bachelor’s degree there, and I depended on him for a lot of knowledge about nature — he was a very sharp guy in mathematics. And he said, “Ed, do you want to go to college?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know what I would study.” He said, “Well, you’re interested in science.” “Yes.” “And there’s biology and chemistry and physics and mathematics.” He said, “Well, if you aren’t sure what part of science you want, take physics, because that’s basic to all of them.” That was the best advice I ever got. [Laughs] So I went to the University of Wisconsin for seven years and got a Ph.D. in physics.
So you had done your undergraduate work there, also, at the University of Wisconsin?
Yes, right. So I have to blame my brother John for my being a physicist. [Laughter]
You said your father was a teacher.
He was a historian, a schoolteacher, usually superintendent — Beaver Dam and Monroe, Jamesville. I didn’t want to be a historian. I don’t know if it was some connection to the fact that my father was one; I don’t think so.
Well, I didn’t want to be a scientist because my father was one, so I became a historian.
[Laughs] We’re the inverse of each other.
Exactly. So who was your thesis advisor at Wisconsin?
Gregory Breit, a very famous physicist. Second in command of me was Eugene Wigner, for whom I have the greatest respect. Of course, he’s dead now.
Yes. So Wigner was at Wisconsin. This was before he went back to Princeton.
That’s exactly right. Mm-hmm [yes].
Can you tell me a little bit about the topic of your dissertation, what you were working on?
Sure. It was in nuclear physics, which was a kind of new idea in those days back in 1932 when I started college. And I got very interested in Ray Herb, who developed the big generators for accelerating protons up to about three or four million electron volts. So I said, “Well, that’s what I really want to do. I want to work with fundamental particles and learn something about nuclear physics.” So I did. As I said, Breit was my adviser, and that was a large part of his field, also. So it worked well. And along about my junior year, I thought, “Maybe I could go into spectroscopy,” because Julian Mack was a great spectroscopist there and a very good friend of mine, and my first physics teacher at Wisconsin. But then the nuclear idea got a hold of me. It’s entirely different then than it is today, of course, but there were so many unknown questions. We didn’t even know what was in a nucleus! Everybody said, “Well, it must be protons and electrons, because that’s all there are.” But there were good reasons why electrons could not live in the nucleus; you might say it’s because they’re too big. And so we started having those discoveries coming in from around the world during those years, in the ’30s. I needed a thesis topic. But before I did that, when I was still an undergraduate — I mentioned Ray Herb, who invented the big Van de Graff generators, and he was measuring gamma rays after a proton environment of all sorts of nuclei. And he was looking at bombarding lithium with protons. He had a very energetic gamma ray, about 14 million electron volt gamma ray. Well, lithium has two isotopes, lithium-6 and lithium-7, and nobody knew. So he said, “Ed, how would you like to find out which isotope we’re bombarding?” Of course, we’re bombarding both, but where are the gamma rays coming from? So I said, “Sure.” So he said, “Build a mass spectrograph, and separate me out some lithium isotopes, and I’ll try each of them.” So I did. I needed an awful lot of help in those days. I wasn’t a particularly good mechanic, although I did learn to use a lathe and stuff like that. Sure enough, of course, I made the spectrograph — a simple, cheap one; a spare parts one. It was pretty clear that the gamma rays were coming from the lithium-7, which turned out to be true. So that’s how I got into really exciting experimental physics. Then I looked for a job after I got my bachelor’s degree. General Electric was doing some pretty interesting work at the time, so I applied to them.
This would be in Schenectady, at the lab.
Yes. It was actually back when I got my PhD. They didn’t want to pay any appreciable money, and they weren’t all that interested in nuclear physics and other great things, so I went on. I thought, “Why don’t I just stay at Wisconsin after I got my PhD, because I like the people there, I like the climate, and everything else.” But they didn’t want me. They had kind of a cast-iron rule that they wouldn’t keep their own bachelor’s graduates on for PhD work. They had to get other experience, which made sense. Nevertheless, I stayed on as a PhD, thanks to Julian Mack and Gregory Breit and others. And then when I graduated, I had to get a job. That’s when I really looked around. GE was willing to offer my job, but at I thought a pretty low salary. I thought, “Maybe I can do better than that.” Well, I had been very interested in color photography. There wasn’t a lot of color photography around in those days, the ’30s. And I invented a process of color photography, the Creutz Process, of course. [Laughter] So I wrote to Ken Meese. I said, “Here, I’ve got this great process, which is very cheap.” You use ordinary black and white paper, but then you turn the proper color by some simple chemical processes that I worked out. And they said, “No, we don’t need any more color photography. We’re just going to invent Kodachrome.” They just had invented Kodachrome. [Laughter] So what do I do? Well, I felt kind of bad because I really was interested in the color photography. But nevertheless, I was invited by Fred de Hoffmann, a well-known Physicist at Los Alamos. I had been at Los Alamos for a couple of years before. He came around one day after I had got a job at Carnegie Tech in the physics department as just an ordinary physics teacher.
Oh, we should probably back up a little because we missed the little part in Princeton. Wigner must have got you out to Princeton, I imagine.
Well, I met Wigner at Wisconsin. He was there for a couple of years or so, and then he went back to Princeton. And so he knew something about me and was very kind to me. But you’re quite right; after I graduated I went to Princeton just as a research assistant and worked on their small cyclotron they had there. And that really got me interested in nuclear physics. It was during that period that I say it was decided that electrons can’t be in the nucleus. But what is? So people said, “Well…” They sort of invented the meson, and it hadn’t been found. “There ought to be a particle intermediate in mass between the electron and the proton.” It was found by various people. So I thought, “Well, it would be great to work on that.”
This must have been the late 1930s at Princeton?
Yes. I got my degree in ’32. And at Princeton, they had a small cyclotron that Mel White had built, so I worked for him. And we kept working on that cyclotron and pushed up the energy by doing things to it until we were getting 6-million-volt protons. Well, that’s nothing now, but in those days, they were the highest artificial protons (if you want to call them that) in the world. So we did proton/proton scattering, which is always important to understand the nuclear force. And I got some wonderful experience there and met a lot of great people like Turner, who was important in the war work that was going on, even though there was no war at the time. I enjoyed the work at Princeton, but then I went to Carnegie Tech.
There must have been a stop there at Los Alamos, because I know you were doing some work there.
Oh, yes. But it hasn’t come, yet.
Oh, okay, you went to Carnegie Tech from Princeton.
Yes. And I thought, “Gee, it would be nice to have a cyclotron here,” because they had nothing. In fact, they had practically no nuclear physics, although there had been some great physicists that had gone through there, mostly as visitors. And so Fred Seitz was head of the physics department at Carnegie Tech. He’s still around. A very good friend of mine, still. He’s done a lot for me. So I said to Fred, “Look. I’d like to get into nuclear physics.” He said, “Fine. We have none Carnegie Tech. Bring some people that you know that are good in the field, bring a couple of physicists who are real good, and we’ll give them an assistant professorship job.” I got an associate professorship job, and we built a cyclotron. I was not only the head of the program, but some of the guys I hired were so much smarter than I that I shouldn’t get credit for it. People like Martin Foss, Jack Fox, Roger Sutton, Sergio DeBenedetti, they were some of the people we hired there — a wonderful physics team. And mesons were being talked about. They were found in cosmic rays. “Oh, okay. Here’s our solution. Here’s a particle that’s not the electron and not the proton and it’s not a neutron. But we need something else.” So it was called a meson, an intermediate between the electron and proton. And oh boy, that was what we needed to study because practically nothing was known about it except that it did exist in cosmic rays. So we said, “Okay. Let’s build a cyclotron that can generate these mesons.” The mass was about 200 times the electron mass, so we calculated what energy we needed. We needed about 200 million electron volts. “Oh, that shouldn’t be too hard to get.” There were some around that range at that time. And so Fred Seitz went to work and raised some money. He had worked for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in his early days, and was very well known and very well-liked by the ONR. So he called up the head of the ONR. And said…well, I don’t know what he said because I wasn’t listening, but apparently he said, “We’ve got a great team here, and we want to build a cyclotron. Would you support it?” And we got a lot of money, several million dollars, from the ONR. Then I pushed my butt around, and I raised from local Pittsburgh people about another million. So we had enough to build a cyclotron to produce 200 million electron volts. We had ordered the steel, which was a half million dollars. And in the midst of all this, a guy in England found that there are two kinds of mesons. Those in cosmic rays are not those that — are just enough to make 200 million electron volts, which should produce the meson. But it was the cosmic ray meson, which had nothing to do with the nucleus directly. And this guy in England said that he did find them coming from nuclei, but they were 300 times the electron, not 200. So we were one-third short in the energy we needed. So I called up Urner Liddell, whom I had gotten to know fairly well by then at ONR. In fact, Fred said I should, so I did. And I said, “We’ve got a little problem. We certainly appreciate your support for a big cyclotron at Carnegie Tech, and we have one designed and ready to build, and we find we don’t have enough steel because we found that we built it for the mu meson, and what we wanted is the pi meson, which has just been discovered this week to be 50% heavier and require 50% more energy.” So Urn said, “Well, that’s too bad. But call me back in two hours.” I called around noon. At 2:00 I called. I said, “Well, what do you think, Urn?” He said, “You’ve got it.” He had arranged for about another half million dollars, which was just enough to make a cyclotron that could produce the pi meson. At the same time, Columbia University and Chicago (where Fermi was at that time) were building cyclotrons. They also got the 300 times the electron mass data the same time I did, so they rearranged, and they decided to build a cyclotron that could produce the pi mesons. And so did I. Well, we didn’t have quite enough money, but even with Urn Liddell’s great kindness. I raised a little bit from local people, but nothing like that. So we said, “Well, we’ve got to get every electron volt of energy we can from this machine in order to compete with Columbia and Chicago.” Competing with Fermi. Imagine that!
Yes. Now, this is still before the war? Or is this after the war?
This is ’39.
Okay, so still before the war.
Right. I have a little story about that, too. Anyway, so we worked very hard to cut corners wherever we could without cutting value, which is possible. For example, we had an entirely unique magnet design due to one of the students there, a guy named Foss. He’s dead now. A very clever guy. And he really used a minimum amount of steel — the more energy, the bigger the chunk of steel he needed. And so he got it going, Columbia got it going, and Fermi got it going at Chicago with their cyclotrons, three of us, at about the same time. Well, they made 400 million electron volts; we made 414 million electron volts, which is a trivial thing, but to me, it was a success. I had been able to work with something, which was hell to design, that was the most energetic cyclotron in the world at that time. Of course, it’s nothing now. 400 million electron volts is a pebble compared to a lot of the machines they have now. And that was great. We did some interesting work. Behind me you see a picture of one of our first mesons coming out. It was a pi meson. How did we do it? We simply took a photographic plate about that big — one to three inches — and then we used a magnet to extract protons from the cyclotron in a beam, and about 20 feet away we put this little plate. Well, of course we’ve got protons, but also when a proton strikes another nucleus; it will kick out a pi meson. That’s what you see here.
That’s what the diagram is showing.
Yes. And then the pi meson itself is radioactive. It lasts about a millionth of a second, and it decays into a mu meson on the bottom there. This picture happened to get both the pi and the mu — not that it couldn’t be done by anybody else, but we were probably the first to do it. So that’s been with me ever since on the wall wherever I lived. I’m very proud of that picture.
So how did you get out to the MET Lab at Chicago to work with Fermi and those guys?
Oh, that’s an entirely different — I’m not at the MET Lab, yet. This is still at Carnegie Tech — cyclotron, Seitz, Carnegie Tech, big electron, highest energy. I like to call it highest laboratory energy in the world. Of course, Mother Nature can do much better. Okay. So I stayed on at Carnegie Tech. And around 1944, so the war was going on at that time; it sort of had just started. And so Fred de Hoffman comes to see me. And he worked for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) then, because it was before it was called the Department of Energy. He came to see me when I was still at Carnegie Tech. And I had just given a talk… (No. I’m so confusing you, I’m sure, because I am confused.) But this was after the war, because it was around ’44. Yes, the war was on, but it hadn’t ended yet, I believe.
So after the war, you had gone back to Carnegie Tech.
No, I’m sorry. I knew I’d get this screwed up. I wish she was here to help. I’m 92 years old. I’m not as young as — Forgive me.
You’re doing fine.
Let me go back a minute. At Carnegie Tech, we built the cyclotron and made the energetic protons. And that was fine. I was still at Carnegie Tech when Fred de Hoffman came to see me. He was in charge of a committee for the AEC that investigated possible breakage of secrecy. Of course, they were all clear and had fancy passes and all that. And when it happened, when I went to Carnegie Tech, there was a… Golly, I wish I had written this down. Anyway, I had given a talk to a company that was going to build a nuclear reactor. This was obviously around the early ’40s. And I gave a talk about how to build a reactor — not the classified part, but the declassified part.
This was Duquesne Light?
Exactly. I built the first commercial nuclear reactor. And so I told them about how the chain reaction works and how we do the neutrons, how I turn their energy into steam energy and make a generator and so forth. In this, I wanted to give a few numbers, of course, declassified numbers, talking about the masses of protons. Then in describing the chain reaction, I told how a neutron comes into a uranium nucleus, splits it, and then we rapidly have energy, and whatever they hit gets hot, that’s the way you make steam. Now, that was all very fine. But the chain reaction itself is so interesting; I wanted to tell a little bit more declassified stuff, of course, of how it works. And it works because the one neutron coming in produces more than one neutron. That’s what the chain is. And you can make a bomb, as we know now. So I gave some approximate numbers — I gave the mass of the proton, which is in all the books, of course, and the mass of the uranium nucleus, the mass of the fission products — so we could make a little equation and show how much energy you get. And I actually did not know the exact number for the number of neutrons that come out in fission because most of my work during the war was actually metallurgical. In fact, I was the first non-metallurgist or half-metallurgist at Chicago in the metallurgical lab. And I hired the first metallurgist in the metallurgical laboratory.
[Laughs] You put the MET in metallurgical.
So the codename — it was named metallurgic. “That will completely confuse people. They won’t know it’s nuclear work.” So I hired a metallurgist. I’m afraid I gave you a different story. I made a lot of work on the metallurgy of uranium because it was needed and how to protect the uranium from water in the reactor. I did a lot of work on that, which I can talk about separately, if you want. And so where are we?
Well, you were talking to Duquesne Light, about that.
Yes. I was at Carnegie Tech. I was invited to give a talk because they knew I had been in the uranium business. Okay. Now we’re getting some place, I guess. And in that, I had to use a number — or at least mention the number — of neutrons per fission, on average. It has to be greater than one, or we wouldn’t have a chain reaction. And so I pointed out that it had to be greater than two, or the chain reaction wouldn’t go because some of the neutrons are wasted. And Dick asked me to make a three. So, “It’s someplace between two and three.” So I said, “Well, heck, why don’t I call it two and a half.” And so in my talk I said, “It’s approximately two and a half neutrons per fission.” Well, about a week later, this talk met some publicity because it was new stuff and it got in the papers, and de Hoffman, who was in charge of shooting people who were breaking the security [chuckles] came to see me! I thought he came to see me because he wanted to see me. He’s a very good friend.
Had you met him before?
I knew him from Los Alamos. Not well. He was one of the guys there, and I was one of the guys there. No big shots. So he said, “Ed, I see you gave a talk, and it got into the newspaper. And I think you broke security because you said there were two and a half neutrons per fission.” Then, “Oh, Fred, I had no idea what the number was! So I said it had to be greater than two and less than three, and so I just arbitrarily said, ‘Oh, let’s call it two and a half.’ And that’s the way I presented it to the Duquesne people, ‘probably around two and a half.’” He said, “Do you know, that’s the exact classified number of neutrons per fission?” [Laughs]
I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” I’d been doing metallurgy for so long that I hadn’t paid that much attention to the nuclear stuff. And also, I was doing high explosives. I made the first test on a full scale bomb explosion with no plutonium, just with uranium. So I knew something about high explosives, and I knew something about metallurgy, but I hadn’t kept up with the physics. [Laughs] So I apologized and explained. And he was so wonderful. He said, “Well, okay. I understand. Don’t do it again!” I thought, “Well, gee, this is a nice guy.” He came to me probably about more than two weeks later and said, “Ed, I want to tell you a story of what I’m going to do next.” He told me right then that, “I’m going to help start a new company for General Dynamics, and I’d like to have you come and work with me.” Well, I had some reputation from nuclear physics and metallurgy and stuff. I said, “Well, tell me more. That sounds very interesting.” He said, “Well, General Dynamics wants to get into the nuclear field. The reason they want to get into nuclear physics, to a large extent, is that the President, John J. Hopkins, is very friendly with the Japanese people. He taught them how to play golf.” (And how much is true, I don’t know, but that’s what he said.) And he wanted to have some recompense for what we did to them during the war. You know, I think we did the right thing, but it was a sad thing to do.
De Hoffman had come to talk to you about this new project by General Atomic. Well, he didn’t have a name, yet, I suppose. He just had a…
No. About General Dynamics getting into the nuclear business because they saw it was a great thing. And they also wanted to help the Japanese because of what we had done to them. Okay. So we took a trip to New York to some headquarters where some of the General Dynamics stuff was. And he wanted me to meet some of the big shots there, and so I met John J. Hopkins and others. And on this trip, which of course took a few hours, he told me an awful lot of things. He said, “Look, you want to go into the nuclear business, and General Dynamics is willing to build us a laboratory where we study stuff and build reactors.”
That was the primary mission, was to build reactors.
Yes. That’s where the money was of course. And I said, “Well, gee Fred, that would cost an awful lot of money.” He said, “It’d cost millions of dollars to build a complete laboratory from scratch.” He’s like, “Well, we have ten million dollars promised by General Dynamics.” And I said, “Well, that isn’t to run it. We won’t be making money. We won’t sell the reactors. We’ll invent them and develop them and build them, but the money will all go to General Dynamics direct.” “Well, they’ve promised two million dollars a year to support us.”
Was that big money to you, coming from Carnegie Tech?
Oh boy, big money to me. My salary was $300 a month at Carnegie Tech. I didn’t know what a million was, outside of being a mathematician [chuckles]. So I said, “Well this sounds pretty good.” On the way back from New York in the airplane, he said, “Ed, we’ve got to discuss some things. I still hadn’t agreed to go, but I was getting pumped up by de Hoffman. And he said, “We need a name. What would you suggest for this new laboratory and this new company?” I said, “Well, since it’s going to be internationally of interest, let’s name it something like Atoms for Peace.” It was right at the time of the Atoms for Peace conference.
So this must be about ’55.
Yes. And he said, “No. We’ll do better than that. What would you think of calling it General Atomic?” I said, “General Electric might not like that, but who cares.” So right then it became General Atomic. And we talked about what people would come. He said, “Let’s have the best physicists, chemists, engineers in the world come to us.” I said, “Well, we can try.” And we knew quite a few people from the Los Alamos days.
So you had the ambitious title of General Atomic.
Atomic, yes. I still feel bad about their sticking an “s” on that. But anyway, that’s why it’s General Atomic because we knew General Electric was doing great things.
Had you decided where the lab was going to be?
No. He said, “Ed, we’ve got to have a place to build this.” He said, “We have a nibble for some land.” He said, “We ought to be near Washington, D.C. because there’s going to be a lot of connection with the government and this kind of stuff. And we have a possibility of getting…” [Knock at door; tape paused.] I said, “Who should we have for our dedication speaker?”
We haven’t even built the lab yet! We want to go back and build the lab.
I haven’t even signed up for sure. I wanted the General Secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, to be our speaker because this was an international thing. I can’t even remember who it was at that time. I said, “Let’s have Hammarskjold for our key speaker,” Fred said. I said, “Well, can we get him?” He said, “Yes we can get him. He’s already been approached by one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, a guy at New York University.” Okay. So we couldn’t get him. So Fred said, “Okay. Let’s have Niels Bohr, one of the world’s greatest physicists.”
And also an advocate of peaceful use of atomic energy — That would make sense.
Here’s a book he gave me. He dedicated it to me.
Very nice. There it is. Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge.
I said, “Well how can you get Bohr?” He said, “Well, we’ll get him through some of the world’s greatest scientists.” Now there’s a separate story, which will take another five minutes. Shall I tell you that?
Well, we may come back to it. You were still building — I wanted to know how you decided to get your staff and who you were going to hire and how large it was going to be.
There’s a good story there, yes. We thought well we’ll start out with probably 100 people.
100 Ph.D.s or 100?
No, total staff, because we were just going into something here. And Fred said, “Let’s get the best people in the world.” And his secretary at Los Alamos, where he was during the war, a very nice lady, and he had hired her to be my secretary, if I accepted.
What was your title going to be? Do you remember?
Yes, Vice President of Research and Development. So I joined. I was the third person. There was Fred de Hoffman, the boss; and he had a lawyer, Sam Farmer; and he had a Vice President for Research and Development, Ed Creutz.
That’s very interesting — he hired a lawyer first and then a research director.
Well there’s a lot of legal things, I guess, to start up a big company.
So the dedication, we set this. Well, first we had to design a building. So they hired a very fancy architect from Los Angeles.
Pereira, William Pereira.
Thank you, yes.
This is of great interest to me. When did you decide you were going to put it in California instead of Washington?
Let me go from that end. The land near Washington looked okay. We also had some land near a Naval lab here on the West Coast near Monterrey, California, we had some land there. We wanted to close to activity of somewhat similar kind. Well that’s a research lab. In Washington it was near a big research place. But then we looked a little harder and we saw that they had this land, 100 acres of unused land near San Diego. So we looked into that. And it turned out that the mayor was the key there, Mayor Dail at that time, and we talked to him and he said, “Well, that sounds interesting. San Diego is becoming a sort of old folks home and military, and it’d be nice to have a bunch of researchers here. Particularly we do not want to go like Los Angeles and have smoggy industry, but we need industry. And if you’re a research lab and promise not to make smog, you can have the 100 acres of land at no cost.” A hundred acres of prime land for buildings at no cost! Well, that sounded pretty good. We had to check everything like that with John J. Hopkins, of course, the President of General Dynamics because we were to be a division of General Dynamics. And so we did. Hopkins was, of course, enthralled with the idea of getting free land for this bunch of kooks that are going to build reactors. So we invited Hopkins out to look at the land. You’ve probably never seen that land. It’s near the university, fairly near.
I’m going tomorrow. I’ll get a tour.
In this field, the flat field, where they were raising cows, and in the distance you could see Palomar on top of the mountain top. When Hopkins was there — Hop was a great guy in many ways — he said, “Ooh.” I said, “That’s Palomar.” He said, “Oh, they can see us!” [Laughs] Not 'we can see them', but 'they can see us.' Who’s important around here! “Oh, they can see us!” And they could of course if they lined up part of the telescope, but I don’t think they were interested.
So you took the site.
Well, a little more complicated. “I can’t give it to you personally, but the people of San Diego could. We’ll have to have an election with this issue.” Should we give 100 acres of land to this company? They want to come and do research in nuclear energy. We got 80% approval of the voters of San Diego. I don’t think most of them knew what they were getting into. Then they had to hire the architect. The architect knew several of our key people, at least a couple of them, were quite smart and certainly very experienced and a wonderful reputation. And I explained to them that there were going to physicists, chemists, engineers, metallurgists, mathematicians even. So they said, “Well, we’ll design you a possible layout of the laboratory.” That was the dumbest thing I ever did to let them do that. [Chuckles] They came back with a plan a couple of weeks later. “Here’s the physics building. Here’s the chemistry building. Here’s the engineering building.” I said, “It’s like a university, isn’t it?” And they said they thought I’d be very pleased, being a university kook myself. I said, “No, that’s not at all what I want.” In those days the word of interdisciplinary was becoming very popular. I said, “We want an inter- disciplinary building, we want it all in one building, and we want everybody to have equally expensive space so there’s no question about who the bosses are among the researchers.” Of course, Fred also had to have his other building.
There’s a separate administrative building?
Exactly, yes. And he wanted me to be next to him so he had a room planned for me next to his office. I said, “No. I want to be with the researchers.” So I got a lab in this ring, circular ring, where everybody’s equal including the Vice President for Research and Development. In the center we had the — you’ll know by the design, I think.
Well, I have yet to see it, so please explain.
The general idea was in the center there’s a library. Here’s a ring and then about maybe 50 feet this way or maybe 150 feet there’s the library and medical office and conference rooms. But nevertheless, the researchers’ labs are all continuous and equivalent, except the different facilities they processed. So that was my idea. Fred de Hoffman liked it, John J. Hopkins liked it, and so we got the approval.
Did Pereira like it?
Obviously not. We were a little bit concerned. I was at first, that it might be more expensive because now you’d have to bend steel bars instead of having straight steel bars, which come right out of the mill. And furthermore, you’d have to have water every place so you’d have to curve all of your water pipe and we wanted compressed air. You’d have to do a lot of things differently. “Well, that won’t cost much. The cost is in the material, not the assembly.”
Did you have any labs that you’d seen other places that you thought, “I would like to build one like this”?
Never. That’s why I had my idea. I think one of the reasons was because during the war, of course Du Pont built the Hanford reactors and I was helping design them at Chicago at the Met Lab, and I was “Dr. Creutz”. I don’t like to be called Dr. Creutz because I’m no better than the patient! So I insisted that my secretary, when she answered the phone, say Mr. Creutz’s office. That’s the kind of guy I am. And some people who met me probably, I don’t know, but you probably said Dr. Creutz, but I excuse you because you didn’t know my sensitivity. I wanted things common and equal and successful.
Now how did you want to arrange it? You had, you said, physicists, mathematicians, chemists. Were they each going to have a separate area or did you disperse them? How did you organize them?
Yes, that’s right. The offices were on the — Here’s the center thing, the cafeteria and medical and stuff. Then about 50 feet out, probably more like 100 feet out is a ring of offices. Each office has attached to it its own laboratory space because the space is getting bigger and bigger because you’re going farther out on a circle.
So your office is on the inner perimeter.
Inner perimeter, yes.
And the lab would open up.
Yes, and then a corridor. So you can walk in this corridor to any chemist, engineer, to anybody you want to talk to, but you have your own lab, of course, near your office. That was my concept. Fred thought it was great. I thought it was great. And apparently the architect thought it was okay, but kind of nutty. It actually worked fine because if I want to go see a chemist today, okay. My office was here. I walk down the hall and there’s the chemist. If I want to go see a metallurgist today, I walk down this way and there’s the metallurgist’s office and his lab. So it worked fine. And I think I may have mentioned to you that the director of the zoo liked it so well that he built a similar, much smaller but similar plan at the zoo. That guy is dead now, but it’s still a circular building for his administrative people and bookkeepers. I hear it’s something else. I never have been in the building, but I’ve seen it.
So I was very proud that somebody who was building a building kind of liked my idea.
It’s a wonderful idea.
It really worked fine. Now, it’s true that we outgrew that in time and had to build other buildings. And experimental engineering had large, heavy equipment present and they had a separate building, finally, but they still had their main engineering office in the ring.
So the idea was that it would not be just a research facility, but a development and even manufacturing connected with…
No. This was just for research. I was the listed as the Director for Research and Development, but I was much more interested in the research, and we had some very good engineers on the development side. Okay. Where are we?
Well, you just developed the plan and…
They built it, did a very good job. They had one guy, Red Jones was his name, was on top of it every day. He came to see me every day, asking if I had any questions or any suggestions. So they were very good people. It’s true that he died of alcoholism, but that’s another story.
Was this a single floor plan?
So was that deliberate? Did you want to keep it one level?
Yes. Keep it easy to get from here to there, as easy as possible, as short as possible. No stairs. And you have your office here and your lab here. Your lab is right next to your office; this guy’s lab is right next to his office. And it worked, like I said. Okay. Let’s get to the dedication ceremony.
This would have been what year, approximately? ’58?
Well, you’ll have to check with somebody else when the building was finally completed. It was less than a year, I believe, because for something under we rented an unused (believe it or not) schoolhouse in an entirely different place. That worked out okay because everybody said, “Well, sooner or later, we’ll get our own building.” But we did have some innovations there, too, by the way. I don’t know how there could have been an unused schoolhouse, but there was.
Not in those years!
Yes. And so we didn’t have a cafeteria there, but we had a nice, open playground for the kids, and we put in picnic tables there and had our lunches on these picnic tables. And we had a guy come around with a truck to bring food in every day.
But a good way to get people talking.
Exactly. And furthermore, you can’t talk in science without using your hands — either this way or this way on a blackboard. So all the picnic tables were covered with blackboards, and there was chalk. So when you were talking to your friend during lunch about, “Gee, this is good steak, isn’t it? By the way, I have a new idea.” [Laughs] Then you can write it down, and so that was our invention.
Now, were you able to carry that idea into the new lab in any way?
No. It was much less necessary, much less thought of, because the offices were so close there. In the school building they were spread out in various school rooms. Okay. To get to the dedication. Certainly it should be possible to find some way as to when the dedication was. But it was less than a year after we…
And so Bohr agreed to be our dedication speaker. I didn’t know Bohr well; I knew him a little bit because I worked with him at Los Alamos. I wouldn’t have had quite the nerve to ask him. Even de Hoffman didn’t quite have the nerve to ask a guy like Niels Bohr to take a few days to give a dedication talk to an industrial lab. But we had a very good friend, a mathematician, and he was a very good personal friend of Bohr. So he got him to come and be our speaker. Okay. So he needed a speech. And we went on to get copies of his speech before so we could pass them out, because Bohr’s voice was low, accented, and hard to hear across a room. And we had, I think, a couple of other people at the dedication outdoors. So Bohr was to be the speaker. We wanted a copy of his speech, and the day before the dedication, he said, “Well, you know, I haven’t really written it yet.” So we got this same mathematician, named Richard Courant from New York University — very famous, dead now — we got him to sit on Bohr. We said, “Look, we’ve got to have copies of your speech to pass out.” I don’t think he said, “Because people won’t be able to hear you.” You know, “They want copies.” “Well, I haven't written it yet.” So Courant sat on him. And the day of the dedication, I was to pick up Bohr and Courant at their room at the Del Mar Hotel and bring them over to the lab. And I went in, and there was Courant sitting on the bed in the room, and Bohr was pacing the floor dictating his speech to Courant, an hour before he had to give it. Well, it was quite a good speech, all the internationality and nuclear energy and mankind and all that. And so we… Yes, I made a mistake. He had sent us a copy of his speech a week before, but we didn’t…
Oh, so now he has a new speech he wants to do.
No, but we didn’t like it. Well, I don’t think we told him we didn’t like it, but through Courant, he knew that it wasn’t quite the line we wanted for a research lab. So there was Courant sitting on the bed, Bohr pacing the floor dictating a new speech. In the meantime, he had sent us a couple hundred copies of his old speech, which we weren’t going to use, but we had passed it on to our staff because we thought he was going to use it. So Bohr, Creutz, and Courant show up the morning of the dedication. I think the dedication was to be at 10:00; this was probably at about 9:00. And I said, “Fred, we have a different speech. It’s going to be a different speech than the one we’ve handed out. So we better collect it from the people.” He said, “Well, we won’t have time to make copies of this speech. Let’s use the old one, because nobody would understand what he’s saying anyway.” So we handed out copies of the old speech, and they were listening as well as they could to this new speech. [Laughs]
And nobody seemed to notice!
Nobody knew the difference. They were hearing the great guy speak. What did it matter what he said, as long as you could see him? “Well, I heard Bohr give a speech, a dedication, for…” [Laughs] “And I even have a copy of it.” But it wasn’t a copy of what he said. Anyway, that was kind of a light event. Interesting.
So tell me a little bit about your early expectations for the lab: what you wanted to accomplish scientifically, technically what the company expected you to accomplish.
Well, that is an interesting story, too. De Hoffman, somehow, is very well liked by the president of the company. And he essentially told him, “Do what you want. Just don’t make smog, and do something in nuclear energy because I want to see the Japanese get nuclear energy after what we did to them.” And that’s why he taught them golf. [Chuckles] Okay. So we had a series of evening meetings with the… Well, we had to hire people first. We didn’t have any people. Oh, I left out something. The secretary from Los Alamos that worked for Fred knew so many scientists because he’d been at Los Alamos for several years. She knew a lot more people than I did, and mostly the really good people because it was a big job, they had to make a bomb. And so he hired Lois, but Lois didn’t want to work for him. Fred had some difficult points, and Lois didn’t want to work for him anymore, but she said she’d work for me. And that’s why Fred was able to hire her to be my secretary but not his secretary. And she knew so many of these people. I knew quite a few, but I knew mostly physicists. I knew a few chemists. I didn’t really know engineers. But she knew those at Los Alamos. And then of course, we did hire some consultants. In fact, one of the first things we did after the dedication was to hire consultants. Now, that was in the summer, so the dedication speech must have been less than a year before that, because we hired the consultants in the summer. We went to universities, and Fred knew a lot of people from the Los Alamos days. I knew a lot of people from my Carnegie Tech days. And so although we didn’t have a staff yet of secretaries and things like that (I had Lois Eils), we got the names from the people we did know. And we knew people like Courant. And Wigner I knew very well because he was in Wisconsin where I was for a while. Breit was my thesis advisor. And Fred had a similar list — not a long list, probably, a 20-name list, not a 100-name list. And we picked out what we considered about the best 15 consultants to spend the summer with us at our expense. Lois had the job of finding houses they could rent. And boy, they wanted big houses, because they had families. And after all, it was thermodynamics; they had infinite money, probably. So it had a lot of cost. It probably cost us half a million dollars, I would guess, to have that summer symposium. And then we broke into groups, and the groups would say, “Now, what would be a good thing for General Atomic?” One thing that came out of that was, “Well, there ought to be a safe reactor — a reactor that cannot have an accident.” Well, that’s kind of tough. Think about it. And a group of them invented the TRIGA reactor, which is now all over the world, it’s on every continent, except Antarctica. We sold 72 of them. The prices varied depending on the properties, but I suppose they were halfway towards a million dollars. We had $30 million worth of product potential. We hadn’t invented it yet, but “Let’s invent it!”
Well, that’s very interesting. So you hired the consultants to come for the summer and think up ideas for General Atomic.
And tell us what to do, yes. And put people together. They were very helpful, too.
Oh, in recruiting people.
Yes. And out of this group of consultants (I guess there were probably about 15), there were seven Nobel Prize winners — 7 out of 15.
Seven who had already won or would win?
Already won. That’s right. The only one we had who had not yet won and did later was an economist. We knew nothing about economics, and we hired a guy from Carnegie Tech that I knew quite well who later won the Nobel Prize.
That’s got to be Herbert Simon.
Exactly. Yes. So Simon was there that famous summer. And, gosh, who wasn’t there? Feynman was there for a while. It was just a fantastic group of people. And they broke into appropriate groups and they said, “What should this crazy company do?” And the TRIGA got invented.
Did they share Hopkins’s sense of idealism about the peaceful uses of atomic energy?
No. But after all, if you visit Los Alamos and have been through that, you have your own feelings. That’s another story. In fact, let me just break into that a little bit. A good friend of mine sent a letter around to many people, including me, saying that the bomb should never be used on people. Let’s have a demonstration in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and get some appropriate number of miles distance and set off our first bomb. I was against it, and the majority was against it. Why? We didn’t know if it would work. “Here, I invite you to come see my great weapon.” “Oops! Didn’t work.” Where would we be then as a country? That was one of my main reasons. However, there was an auxiliary reason that I really thought it was the right thing to do. Since then, in the next three to four years, two different Japanese people, who had been in the Japanese Army and I happened to meet said, “You know, you worked on the bomb. I want to thank you for it. You probably saved my life. I was scheduled to go into Tokyo as a last resort. And I know you would have wiped us out. And the fact that you had the bomb to stop the war before it…” Two different Japanese people, previous soldiers. And that made me feel pretty good. But of course I felt bad about the way it was done. But the result was terribly important for humanity because the Japanese would stop at nothing.
Who were some of the first people that you hired, people that would really have an impact on General Atomic?
Lothar Nordheim, a very well known, very great Physicist. But the main thing was our consultants. We had Bethe; we had Teller; we had Courant, of course; we had Feynman. We had people of that caliber, some of them who became Nobel Prize winners later. But I knew quite a few of them, and the first consultants we hired knew a lot of others, so it kind of expanded that way.
Did you find it difficult to recruit people who had presumably wanted to go into academics as physicists to come into an industrial environment?
Indeed. In my case, too, that was a bit of a problem. But I had been an academic physicist for a number of years, and this was something I’d wanted to see — something coming out of nuclear energy that was useful. And of course, we weren’t bomb people. I mean, we weren’t thinking of doing anything about bombs. We were going to do something about atomic energy, and that takes teaching. So it takes engineers, and it takes people who can teach nuclear energy in the colleges. So we had a lot of contact with the colleges because some of them started nuclear physics and nuclear engineering programs because of our urging and because of our availability, I think you’d say, as consultants.
Was the expectation that the new University of California, San Diego, would play a part for the lab?
Yes. In fact, the General Dynamics gave us a million dollars to get started on the new university that Hopkins sort of immediately saw. We wanted to be near a university for our own people’s sakes so they could teach courses, go to the courses. And so our links to the university were always fairly strong. Then we started selling these reactors, which mostly went to universities, the TRIGA reactor — Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomic. I would say 72 or so.
Talk a little bit about how the building worked out. You had a great design. In practice, what worked really well about the building, and were there things that didn’t work out quite as well as you’d hoped?
I remember good things better than bad things. But I think it worked out very well, because I got to know all of the scientists, because I only had to walk 25 feet to get to his office and 30 feet to get to his/her office. So I think the design worked out extremely well for that kind of a plan, where you want people to mingle their brains.
Was it flexible enough? Could you reconfigure labs as you needed to?
Yes, but not much of that. We built new buildings like the big engineering building later, and that took a lot of strain off of the other labs. What do I think is important now? I think it’s important that the ordinary university, in fact, had been one of our plans to be near a university. Three or four of our people taught courses at the university part-time. When we developed a large program in fusion research with ten million dollars from the Texas Atomic Energy Commission, they gave us ten million dollars to work on controls that were nuclear fusion. And then, the university, some of our smart guys went over and taught courses, the university said, “We ought to redevelop courses in fusion type energy,” so we provided staff to them. And a number of the places that bought TRIGAs were to invite some of our staff out to give talks to them. And I gave several talks to the Texans — for ten million dollars who wouldn’t?
Was General Dynamics happy with the new General Atomic?
Yes. I think there were some strange relations, because General Dynamics, before we were invented, started their own nuclear program in Fort Worth. And then General Dynamics decides that since we were doing reasonably well they would shut down the Fort Worth program. So the best part of their staff came to join us. And there were some very good people at ours.
Okay. So General Dynamics then consolidated the reactor, the reactor group, etcetera. Do you remember any of the other major projects besides the experimental reactor?
Yes. After all, the money was not in the research reactors. They were small. It was in power reactors. The ideas that grew out of that first summer session developed a really safe power reactor of hundreds of megawatts. And we had one. Most reactors were water-cooled. Water could only be brought up to a certain temperature before it gets very hard to hold. Efficiency depends upon the maximum temperature. So were decided to make a gas-cooled reactor, and we had some support from the AEC, of course, and some from industry. We invented the HTGR, High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor. We only built two. One was a rather low powered one to try out the new idea of using helium. Helium doesn’t burn. Water hitting hot graphite can cause a reaction. The reaction can generate hydrogen gas and explosions, with a water-cooled graphite moderated reactor. With a helium-cooled graphite moderated reactor, you cannot have an explosion because helium is chemically inert. And we built one. Not a very high quality one. That one was probably around 500 megawatts. This we installed. All of the other reactors were running with temperatures not — anyway, we had much higher temperatures because helium doesn’t mind getting hot; water does. We built one, and it was operated for about a year. Then, it turned out that it was so different from anybody else’s reactor that it wasn’t popular. Rickover got people started on water-cooling, and a few utilities bought them. But we didn’t want to be that different, so all of the reactors were water-cooled. I believe that's a fair statement. England had a helium with a different design. We sold just one, and it was a losing business, so we stopped designing the big reactors. We started building that kind of big reactor. So we thought smaller units would be a lot cheaper, and smaller power companies could use them. I think that’s still being looked at a little bit by the new owners. But we only built the two, what you would call power reactors.
Did General Dynamics care if you were making money or not?
John J. Hopkins certainly didn’t care.
He didn't care.
He liked the people. He liked de Hoffman. And he liked the idea of trying to do something that would help the Japanese. Later on I think they began to get a little more worried that we weren’t making a lot of money. And finally, of course, when the Blues Brothers bought it they are making lots of money now. They’re building military equipment, the Predator, pilotless aircraft and stuff like that. So it’s quite a different place now. It’s a very good place. They’re doing some very important military work. But they’re making money. I think overall it cost General Dynamics quite a bit, but we gained out of publicity of being in the atomic energy business.