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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Edward Creutz by Stuart Leslie on 2006 January 10,
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.
I was fascinated to see that there was a swimming pool and recreation. Was that something that you had thought of?
Well, I like plants and gardens. There’s a pretty garden there too. We had a good place and good people.
The swimming pool and the idea of having a rec center was there from the beginning?
Yes. I don’t remember the details of that frankly, but we wanted to treat our people so much that they’d like to be there any time of the day or night.
I was also fascinated to see the way in which you had set the library and the dining hall in the middle of the larger sample.
I mentioned that to you, but I didn’t stress the detail. And also, we had a very good medical office there, and library and cafeteria. And the next ring out was people’s offices, and the next ring out was the labs. There was a corridor, of course, between the people’s offices and the labs, so you could walk around without interfering with anybody in the labs.
Now, did you expect that there would be a lot of traffic between those offices and the central core?
Well, I hoped that they would mingle. That’s why I didn’t want the campus plan, as the architect's first proposed. I said, “No. This is an interdisciplinary job.” I want people to feel virtually free to talk to a chemist or physicist or engineer or metallurgist or what not.
Did you have a particular way of thinking about who should go where within the ring?
Yes, a little bit. I wanted to be close to mathematicians.
Personally, you wanted to be?
Yes. Actually, my degree was in physics and mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. And I felt bad I couldn’t be equally close to everybody, but it was impossible unless I had been in the center, but that was too far for me. So mine was one of the regular offices. I had two regular labs. There had been enough room for that, two laboratory rooms.
Did you keep a lab for yourself?
I had two. There was so much pressure for lab space that I turned one over to other people. I had one that was just mine.
De Hoffman’s office, then, was above in the…
Yes, above in the lab, maybe a hundred feet from mine — as close as I could get without being in the same building. That’s what he wanted, because he, I’d have to say, depended on me quite a bit.
So you were close to mathematicians. Where did you put say physicists?
I can’t remember exactly, but there was my office, and then I think next came and chemistry, and then possibly metallurgy. As I mentioned engineering had a separate building to themselves.
I noticed that there was a separate engineering building also, with the spider legs, Pereira’s design. Why did you put the engineers separate from the others?
Because they needed a big space, and there wasn’t room for a big, rectangular space in a round hall.
Was there a fair amount of traffic between the engineering building and the scientists in the ring?
There certainly was when we were designing and building reactors. Yes. I may have mentioned, we built this one graphic moderated helium-cooled reactor, which was our only really commercial type reactor we built, except the TRIGA, the small reactor, was only in research. And training reactor wasn’t a power-producing reactor. We called it TRIGA, Taining, Research, Isotopes General Atomic.
Now, was this the one that Ted Taylor had worked on?
He was one of the inventors, yes.
I did not know that Ted Taylor had been out there.
Yes, and also Marshall Rosenbluth. He [De Hoffmann] herded them away from Los Alamos during that period after the war, and they are both wonderful people, both dead now.
Now, what did you hire them to do? Anything particularly?
When I hired people, I didn’t say, “I’m going to tell you what you should do. I’ll give you an outline of the problems we have and the goals we have and you see how you can best fit it in.” And it worked fine. Of course, they’d come up with ideas that were quite different from ours, projects that were quite different than what I had visualized or what Fred had visualized. A good example of that is the fuel elements for the big helium-cooled graphite moderator reactor, HTGR, that was our big commercial reactor, had to have very special graphite in something called pyrolytic graphite, where you don’t just take some pitch and heat it up in terms of the graphite but you do it atom by atom. You have to have a large vacuum chamber and you evaporate the graphite, so carbon atoms are going to sit down some place. It makes it very dense, and that was used for heart valves. We were in the business of making heart valves for a while. The fellow who really invented that left us and started his own business, which we were happy to have a new guy because we didn’t really want to be in the heart valve business. The same with reverse osmosis, or purifying water. In ordinary osmosis you have a membrane. You need a lot of it nearby. And on one side you have salty water and on the other side you have fresh water. Well, the physics is such that the water molecules, while they have the same density on both sides, so they are going to go over into the salt water side to try and say, “Hey, we need more water here.” We want just the opposite. We want to have the salty water send pure water over to the other side. So it’s called reverse osmosis. We didn’t invent that. We certainly emphasized it — we really wanted pure water. We sold those for reverse osmosis units. In fact, I had one in my greenhouse.
I noticed that the drinking fountains at General Atomic say “purified by reverse osmosis.”
Does it? That came out from my time. We sold some of these reverse osmosis sets to medical situations and things like that, but then that was a separated effort from General Atomics. It was still part of General Dynamics.
I think Doug Fouquet told me something like 80 companies had spun off from General Atomics.
I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know what the exact number is.
Which would have been the largest and most important of those spin offs?
Well, reverse osmosis is certainly a big one. The heart valves were a small one. A number of them were made and installed in people, and those heart valves were usually made of some plastic. Some were taken from a pig’s heart. But the trouble with most everything else is that after a while blood tends to clot on the surface and the pyrolytic graphite has such a strange surface — it’s nothing but pure carbon atom and the blood didn’t clot on that. I don’t know if they are still made by this fellow who spun off. Another thing that we had was something called Magneform. Well, if you take a tube and put a magnetic field around and greatly increase that magnetic field, suddenly it exerts a force on it, a magnetic force, and that generates a current in the tube and they interact. And that was good for forging. One of the car companies, I can’t remember which one it was, it wasn’t General Motors, used that when the drive shaft comes back and has to go through the differential shaft. And they used the Magneform to make that joint, squashing one tube onto the other, so you aren’t going to get it apart.
So, Ted Taylor’s co-inventor, Marshall Rosenbluth, didn’t he also spin off a company?
Well, that’s another story, but it is interesting. This was part of the big fusion program. I may have mentioned that Texas gave us ten million dollars to try and develop fusion.
Yes, but you didn’t say much about it.
Well, I’m sorry to have to say this, but I was the only fusion guy there at first. I had a job for a year before I went with General Dynamics running around all the fusion labs. This was Princeton and Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. I was scientist at large.
Yes, for the AEC. That job lasted a year. So when I went to General Atomic, I actually still had that job. I was working at Carnegie Tech. I accepted this one-year appointment as physicist at large, or scientist at large for the AEC. So I visited all the labs where fusion work was being done. I am no great fusion scientist, but it made me want to have fusion at General Atomic. Later on I learned who the good guys were in fusion and we hired quite a few of them.
What was your best selling point to get somebody to leave a government lab?
I think probably the fact that I was recognized and Fred was certainly recognized as real honest citizens and not industrial people. You had to earn to be industrial people. Scientists have, maybe it’s partly mythology, but they are honest. I think it’s not that much mythology with most of them. This Korean guy who claims to have made stem cells, which turned out to be a bust. And a very bad one because some people will say, “See, you never can trust a scientist.” But I think that the general feeling with the general public is that scientists really are honest about what they are doing, because they get caught. If you are working in a field like fusion and, “I’ve got some great discovery…”
Like cold fusion.
Yes, right away people are going to check you to see if you’re right. Whether it’s theoretical or experimental physics, it gets checked. That’s why we’re pretty sure that the physics that we believe in now, there may be errors in it, but they’re awfully hard to catch and other people are going to do the same thing and do the same errors until somebody real smart comes along, “Hey, you’ve got an error here.” Okay. Then that old stuff is no longer good. The new stuff is where you develop your hive around.
Could you promise them bigger budgets for equipment or things like that that they wouldn’t have had? I suppose the government labs had huge budgets.
No, we didn’t have the kind of budget the AEC had, of course. Well, I worked for the National Science Foundation for several years, and our budget when I went there started out at a billion dollars a year, but that of course was money we gave to the universities. And when we started at General Atomic, the kitty that we got from General Dynamics, besides the laboratory was about two million a year.
And that supported a scientific staff of about how many at the beginning?
I would say we had probably about 200 Scientists and Engineers and then auxiliary staff of Research Assistants, Secretaries, Medical people, Cafeteria people. I don’t remember exactly. I should know because I used to send Christmas cards to all of them, every year. And that was in the hundreds when we did that. I didn’t write them all; I hired people to help me sign them.
When somebody had an idea and they wanted to pursue it, did they have to sell it to you?
Usually, to the Department Chairman: the Chemistry chairman, a Physics Chairman, an Engineering Chairman.
And you called them Chairman, like you would at a University.
We called them Chairman as we would in a University. We didn’t want to say “boss” or “Chief” or anything like that.
Section head or something? So they were Department Chairs?
Section head wouldn’t have been bad, but I like the name chairman because he’s not doing it all himself. He’s depending on a group of people. And that worked pretty well. As I told you, I’m sure, yesterday, the main thing was to get scientists with quite different talents to mix. And that’s what came out of the TRIGA reactor, our extremely successful project, which is still going on, but low key now. Because a lot of the trick was in the fuel element which was not pure uranium. It was uranium mixed with a moderating material, a hydride.
And that was your proprietary invention?
Not me personally.
But General Atomic?
Yes, yes. And that, of course, required engineers to develop the large parts of the reactors; metallurgists to develop this new material which as far as I know had never been made before, never been used before in any commercial product; and then the canning. We just put it in an aluminum tube. Now the modern reactions don’t use aluminum, they use titanium. We used aluminum because it doesn’t absorb neutrons very much; they are a very small absorber of neutrons. And we didn’t use enriched uranium. We had to use ordinary uranium that you dig out of the ground — it’s a lot cheaper — in the early years. Later on we’d have a slight enrichment, I forget, maybe ten percent, something like that, because in nature it’s only around one percent. That was a big miracle of the Hanford reactors to work because we didn’t have any enriched uranium. They had to be designed so carefully, and with such pure materials that you could actually use ordinary uranium without enriching it. With the bomb, or course, you had to enrich it a lot. But with the Hanford reactors, which I’m the patent team on that, you just use what’s called ordinary uranium.
So you actually had a group that was fabricating the fuels?
We made all the fuel elements, yes.
Right on site.
These would be in a big aluminum tank, probably ten feet in diameter and maybe thirty feet long. Of course, that was a commercial product to be bought. So we bought the things you could buy; the things you couldn’t buy, we had to invent and make them ourselves.
When these reactors were then sold to universities, they would be assembled on site, at the university.
Exactly. We had a very good time. I don’t know if you’ve heard the name Bill Whittemore. He was head of the reactors. He was a Physicist we hired away from Brookhaven National Lab, and he was head of the reactor, of the TRIGA project. A very, very good guy. He still consults to them, although he’s in his 80s now.
When you organized a project like the TRIGA or HTGR…
Well, I was pretty active in deciding what kind of people would be required. But of course the guy who thought it up would have a pretty good idea where he would need help, right? Then we farmed it out to the various departments. We had the Department of Physics, the Department of Engineering, with a chairman of the department. I guess that came from the fact that I was chairman of the Department of Physics at Carnegie Tech before I went there.
Are there other ways that you tried to make it like a campus? Architecturally, organizationally…?
No. In fact, we tried to avoid the things that were campus-like. We had a dean who headed up the departments. I was the Vice President for Research and Development, so the department chairmen reported directly to me — there was nobody between me and the Chairman of Metallurgy. I actually knew a little metallurgy, but I didn’t know much chemistry. But nevertheless, the chairman of chemistry reported to me as Vice President of Research and Development.
What did you look for in hiring your chairs? What kind of qualities?
Well, first of all, good recommendations from first-class scientists. And then of course we would do interviews before we actually hired them. There was a kind of science community. In fact, there was a much stronger physics community and so the physicists are sometimes accused in universities of not talking to the chemists and never talking to engineers. They are kind of looked down on it in industry. But our guys were smart enough, they said, “Oh, we’ve got to have some engineering job or two.” Nobody said you shouldn’t hire engineers; you should only hire physicists. Even the physicists didn’t say that. And in the universities sometimes there is a kind of friction between the physicists and the chemists, because the physicists, of course, rightly or wrongly, they think that all science is based on physics. I believe that, by the way — I believe that you can’t do any science without applying physics to it. I think the good chemists recognize that. A great chemist, a consultant to us, and he had been a physicist at Berkeley for his work. First of all, he depended upon the cyclotron…
Which required some good engineering, though.
Did you find that the physicists that you hired were interested in building things? Or was that a quality that they had?
Yes, I think that they tend to do, perhaps from a sense of duty that they are getting good space, good equipment, good people to work with, and there ought to somehow be money coming in. I’m sure we never paid for everything we did, although we got good chunks of it from Texas, ten million. And the reactor was a sold at a price that made some money for us, too. And, of course, the TRIGA’s always made money for us, because we charged what the market could bear there. And since it was, I think, generally thought of as the best research reactor for universities, that’s how we sold 72.
They’re sending one to Thailand and somewhere else right now.
Oh, yes. I think they are on five continents, and Antarctica.
Now, did you ever get AEC or DOE grants? Or did you get NSF or other kinds of government contracts?
We had quite a bit of money from the AEC. For example, the reactor development. We had money for developing the big reactor. But mostly that came from industry, too. Industry was very good to us because the industry felt that we’ve got to have nuclear energy. It wouldn’t be so good today because of the problem of what do you do with the spent fuel. It’s still a major problem.
When you say from industry, do you mean like electric utilities companies?
Yes, also utilities. Exactly.
How did you find it competing with companies like Westinghouse or General Electric, which were many times larger?
Well, they were our competitors, but if we had a better product, as of course, we felt we did. The reason we felt it was better is having a graphite monitor and a helium coolant, helium is an inert chemical, you can’t get a fire started. In the present reactors, a la Three Mile Island, or even worse the Russian accident, you can have a disastrous thing. And we felt pretty sure that nothing like that could happen with the graphite and helium. Graphite and helium don’t interact chemically because heating is inert. So we felt we had a better product.
The other thing I just barely hit on yesterday, we had a higher efficiency of conversion from nuclear energy to electrical energy, and the reason was as a thermodynamic loss, as your efficiency is higher, the higher you go in temperature. Because of the graphite, which won’t melt, you can go to very high temperature. I forget exactly what our efficiency was, but I think our efficiency was up around, I’d better not say the numbers, but it was much higher than the water cooled reactors because with the water cooled reactors you couldn’t go to a very high temperature because the water would produce such pressure from the steam that it would be dangerous. Furthermore, the water would react with the graphite and burn the graphite. Water will react with carbon. You get carbon dioxide.
…of our reactors, and particularly the TRIGA reactors, because we sold a number to hospitals where they wanted to make isotopes with them, training, research isotopes; and to universities, of course, they wanted something that they could train people with simple enough that they could have their nuclear engineering department live with a reactor.
So, safety and efficiency would be your selling points?
Yes. One other. We could produce very intense beams of neutrons by pulsing the reactor. Well, ordinarily a control rod is king in a reactor. It’s simply a strong neutron absorber, and you control the power level by sticking those rods that contain either boron, which is a strong neutron absorber, or cadmium, which is a strong neutron absorber. But in the TRIGA reactor we also had control rods, but we didn’t absolutely need them because as the temperature of the fuel goes up, it absorbs more neutrons more strongly, so it’s self-controlling. So we could pull out a control rod, standard control rod, very rapidly in a millisecond or something like that. Any other reactor would have blown up. But as it starts heating up, there is a very strong so-called negative temperature coefficient of reactivity. The trouble with most reactors is the heat is produced primarily in the moderator. In ours, the heat was produced in the fuel always, but it stayed in the fuel because we had hydrogen in the fuel chamber. So we had zirconium hydride and uranium as our fuel. So we had a very temperature sensitive material right in the fuel—it didn’t have to diffuse out to some control rod and tell me, “Hey, it’s getting hot in here.” As soon as the extra energy was released, the neutrons knew it and, “Oh, boy the moderator's hot. It isn’t slowing me down anymore so I can’t make energy for these guys.” In a few microseconds the pulse would go up, and back down to zero. So it was a pulse reactor, which nobody else could ever do, at least not safely. Ours shuts itself off: “Oh, boy, I’d better push in a control rod. The reactors are doing…” Oh, no. It shuts itself off. So that was, I might say, the main feature of the TRIGAs that there was no way that there could be an accident. If it gets hotter, the energy goes down.
Somebody told me General Electric reactors were engineering by brawn, and General Atomic was engineering by brains.
I won’t argue! [Chuckles] Well, the brains were Freeman Dyson, he’s one of the patent holders, and Ted Taylor.
So Taylor and Dyson were the two inventors, primarily, of the TRIGA?
Yes. The third guy was, I’ll say an ordinary physicist, sort of like myself, Andy McReynolds. Very unfortunately, he developed Alzheimer’s disease. But that was well after he made his contributions. But he had to resign.
Now was Dyson an employee or just a consultant?
He was a consultant, but he was quite willing to work with other people and get his name on the patent. All those patents, they made money — they made a dollar per patent. I have about twenty patents. I must have gotten about twenty dollars over the years! I was working in Chicago at the Met Lab and I really got away from neutrons and physics there because there was a big question: how are you going to put uranium in a reactor with water cooling because uranium will react with water? So you’ve got to have something to separate it. That was a major problem, and I feel that I made major contributions to that. The metallurgical complication, I think I told you about that. I’m not a metallurgist, and I hired the first metallurgist at the Metallurgical Laboratory, and the second and the third and the fourth.
I think it’s fair to say that you put the metallurgy in the metallurgical lab!
I have to agree with you. I am not a metallurgist, but I realized the need to have it. That’s sort of my common sense contribution to the reactor.
I’ve been told, and I wonder if it’s true, did Taylor and Dyson actually invent the TRIGA in some extraordinarily short period of time? I heard that it was sort of like an overnight invention.
No, not quite right. But I think I mentioned this summer session we had before we had a lot of people around, and we chose our topics for the summer people — who were much smarter than any we had hired yet because we hadn’t hired them yet — we chose a reactor to propel a ship and not using Rickover’s technique because those are water cooler reactors which we felt weren’t safe enough. There are a couple of experiences that show that can happen. So we tried to invent a safe ship reactor. And we had some pretty good ideas, but by then the water cooled Rickover type reactors (I’ll call them, although he had nothing to do with the invention of them) were starting to sell, because they did work and they were not bad, except that they weren’t completely safe the way you could advertise the TRIGA would be absolutely safe. Now, that sounds pretty self-propelling to say that they are completely safe, but I’ve just told you that you could pull a control rod out in microseconds and have the reactor shut itself down, because it got hot where the fuel was, not where the fuel wasn’t. I don’t think that I made this terribly clear, but in the ordinary reactor, you have the fuel here and the moderator here. The moderator will take million electron volt neutrons and slows them down to a few electron volts with a fusion product, and a cross-section to fusion goes way up. So you have to have low energy neutrons. I’m speaking now of the thermal reactors. Now there’s something called a fast reactor, which is much more dangerous, where the neutrons are fast reactors. But ours you have to have a slow reactor with a particular mix of moderator and uranium that everybody uses now, because you do have a negative temperature coefficient. The temperature goes up, the coefficient of reactivity goes down. The trouble is it’s almost instantaneous. It’s in microseconds with the TRIGA, and the ordinary designs of a reactor you don’t have microseconds, you have probably fractions of a second. And that’s a big selling point for TRIGA. You can put it in a hospital, you can put it in a university setting, and it cannot have an accident.
Did you have similar expectations for Big Marcus, for the gas-cooled reactor?
Yes. That was a safety problem, too. But the trouble was the water reactors really got a leg up on us because they were already sold. And they worked pretty well. So if you have an industry where you want to make energy, would you do something that hasn’t been accepted as safe, pretty safe, all around the world, except maybe in Russia and Three Mile Island. So we tried hard to use that point in safety. And the extra efficiency. We could make things hotter because we didn’t have any water. We had helium and graphite and uranium. And I mentioned the thermodynamic efficiency goes up rapidly with the temperature.
But you just weren’t able to sell in that market.
No. Not when you could buy a reactor, which there were maybe twenty or thirty around the world at that time. Many more than that now, of course, and there were only two accidents.
What about the fusion? Tell me a little bit more about how you got into the fusion? You said you had done some work for the AEC?
Yes. I spent a year in that title of Scientist at Large for the controls of the nuclear problem. So I learned quite a lot about it from the big shots. I was not a big contributor; a collector, sort of. I wrote reports of what I thought was weak, what didn’t look good and so forth. Somewhat reluctantly because I was not the smartest physicist on that project, but I gave the smart ones credit and I didn’t try to evaluate all of the people. But I did try to evaluate the ideas.
And which were the ones you thought would be best for General Atomic?
Well, we hired Don Kerst, who invented the Betatron at General Electric. He went from Wisconsin as my fellow graduate student, and then at General Electric he invented the Betatron, which was widely used. It still is a rather widely used instrument, but not nearly as much as it used to be. We were very good friends, and he got interested in fusion at GE, actually. So he said, “Yes, I’ll come to General Atomic, if you’re going to develop a fusion program.”
General Electric would not allow him to do so?
I don’t know, but he didn’t anyway. And Don Kerst was his name, and he knew a very outstanding Japanese physicists named Tihiro Ohkawa. He said, “But I want to have Ohkawa come and work with me.” Fine. So we were able to hire Ohkawa away from Japan, because he didn’t have a big program going. And then we started hiring. I learned a lot about good people in my year with the AEC, and so I hit what I consider the brightest ones there, including Marshall Rosenbluth. Although de Hoffmann had a lot to do with Rosenbluth because de Hoffmann was at Las Alamos at the same time Marshall was, so he knew all of Marshall’s strong qualities. And I had met Marshall, but I wasn’t as close to him as de Hoffmann was. Maybe I’ve made it sound like de Hoffmann did nothing, but he recruited a lot of first class physicists. He also knew where money was, which I didn’t know anything about. He is said to have known every billionaire in the world, which probably isn’t quite true, but kind of by reputation.
So you were able to get private investments? Private projects?
Yes. Through the utility companies, because we had something that they knew they would probably have to have. That’s why the Texans gave us money. They would have to have nuclear work, anyway. But I don’t want to make it sound like I hired all the smart people. de Hoffmann was very active in that. As were others of our staff. Obviously, Rosenbluth and Taylor knew who the smart guys were too. And our theoreticians. We had wonderful consultants. I’ve mentioned Bethe, Teller, people like that were our consultants.
One of the things that I saw today was a place where Jason meets.
Yes. That came after my time. I had no connection with Jason, but some of the staff did, apparently.
So there’s continuing that tradition of bringing very bright people here for a short period of time.
Yes. I think that probably the Blues Brothers have recognized that. It’s very important for developing the company and they’ll probably keep doing it.
Did you ever feel the absence in those early years of not having a big University nearby, just plans for one?
Well, that’s one of the reasons we came here, because there was going to be one. I think I mentioned it, but we had other places we could have gone, but we knew there was going to be a new and undoubtedly very good university here. A number of our staff were consultants to the university, which we gladly let them do because they got a mixture of bright people at the universities then too. But our consultants were extremely important.
So you were pretty confident UCSD was going to be very strong in physics?
Oh, yes. They were very confident of that. We knew Roger Revelle very well, who was head of a large part of that in the first gloss of a lot of the work there.
You were a division of General Dynamics. Did you ever feel any pressure from them? They were expecting results, expecting product.
Not at all from Johns A. Hopkins, who was Fred’s direct contact, the president of the company. So what would you say? I think that there was some jealousy with other divisions. I may have mentioned that Convair had a small nuclear group.
I was reading today that they were working on a reactor for their atomic aircraft in Texas.
Yes. I’d mentioned the Texas group. They had some very good people there. But the General Dynamics didn’t want to continue that, so we hired the bright guys away and they had some very good people.
Did you hire some of those bright guys away?
Oh, yes. Sure.
Okay. So they came out here?
Yes. One particular is Stan Koutz, still lives near General Atomic in spite of the fact that it’s not nuclear anymore and he’s still with them, and he’s a very bright engineer. And when we were building the first big reactor, the one commercial reactor, for a while he was in charge of a major part of the development of that. So Fort Worth had, I think we hired three people, I don’t know how many people they had all together. We hired the brightest we found.
In retrospect, the atomic airplane sounds like a really bad idea.
Well, it turns out that it hadn’t been well thought through. You know, Oak Ridge worked on that a lot too. And I have respect for Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge, who was in charge of that work. But you’ve got to have shielding. Shielding is heavy. Airplanes don’t like to have extra weight. That’s the basic situation.
How often did people from other corporate labs come to visit you to see the way you’d arranged the lab?
Well, GE sent some people. In fact, they sent a metallurgist because of a lot of metallurgy in that, and we had a patent on it so we weren’t worried about their stealing it. But of course, we didn’t tell them all of our tricks for making it. Not too often, though, I must say. I remember people from GE, and we had some kind of ties with the Westinghouse. In fact, Rickover was the king of Westinghouse and GE in those days. And I was on vacation once from General Atomic. I went to Wisconsin (that’s where I went to university and was born there). And in the middle of the day once, when I was on vacation, I got this telephone call. My mother had an old house with a crank telephone and it rang. And she said, “Somebody wants to talk to you, Ed.” It was Rickover.
Wow. He found you all the way over there?
Well, of course I didn’t keep it secret from General Atomics, where I was, and I’m sure they didn’t keep it secret from Rickover. And he said, “Ed, be at Westinghouse tomorrow. I want you to consult with them.” So it was a competitive industry and he asked me to consult with his friends at Westinghouse.
What did you tell him?
I said, “Well, I have some experience with some parts of the reactor design, and there are patents on the parts we consider especially good.” But he wanted more theoretical help. I’m not a theoretical physicist, although I worked very closely with Eugene Wigner who was the king and he put my name on the patent for the Hanford reactor, which I think was perhaps slightly overdoing it. But he was pretty sharp, so he probably wasn’t overdoing it much. So they wanted some advice on what’s called a resonance-absorption. I said a while ago that most of the fission is produced by slow neutrons. It has to be slowed down by a moderator, like water or graphite. And they produce probably 95 percent of the fission. But the very fast neutrons that are born by the fission process, called fast fission, they produce some of that, and you want every percent you can get — you know, 99 percent is no good; you want 100% of those neutrons, if you can get it. And that was what I did with Eugene Wigner. I did all of the experimental work on that to see — One of the big questions is if you have a mixture of graphite and uranium or water and uranium. How big should the chunks of uranium be? If they are very big, then they absorb all the neutrons before they get to the center; that uranium is wasted. So if they’re too small, then they are wasted too. But there’s an intermediate size that is the optimal size. And that’s what I was working on at Carnegie Tech on the cyclotron with Wigner.
But General Atomics didn’t mind you consulting with Westinghouse?
We wanted to keep more or less in the good graces of Rickover, although I don’t think he ever did a thing for us. Oh yes, he probably did, because I mentioned that summer we studied a ship reactor, and I’m sure he helped us get a contract to make that study. It turned out that our schemes were not as practical as the ship reactors that actually got built. So I had some reputation, some publications, and some patents about the resonance absorption studies, and that’s why Rickover somehow heard. He probably heard from Wigner, because Wigner was embarrassingly friendly to me. He probably said, “Oh, here’s the great guy. He can solve all your problems,” or something like that. I told Rickover I did some work on it. I had some publications; I spent a good part of a year working on it. But I’m not the king of that — Wigner’s the king. Wigner was very kind to me. He said, “Oh, I should talk to Creutz because he knows all about this.” Which isn’t quite true. What should I say to a project, because after all, it was the same project we were on, to produce reactors.
One other reason: General Dynamics had a submarine division, and they weren’t particularly interested in nuclear submarines because Westinghouse had a big lead on them, but that meant that I had some contact with the problems of a hot water reactor on the boat.
Did you ever have any contact with the Convair division of General Dynamics?
Yes. That’s very interesting. They had a small group, I think maybe one or two person. One guy named Charles Critchfield, who was a well-known physicist. Good guy, dead now. They were doing some work thinking about reactors, but as far as I know they never did any experimental work, any metallurgical work, or measuring of cross-sections, all that stuff that has to be done. So finally, after probably about a year after General Atomic started, they decided to dissolve that group because they realized we had all the big shots as consultants.
And you didn’t have any connections with the Convair Astronautics division here?
That was completely separate from you?
No. We did no astronautics. Where I did some of that was when I worked for the National Science Foundation, because this was work in astronomy. That’s related to astronautics, obviously. And there was GE, and I think Westinghouse and some other companies had some nice work going on in space travel, you might say, in astronomy. I don’t know a thing about space travel, but I knew something about astronomy. So I was appointed by the head of the AEC to pull together a committee from each of these companies, and I think there were four of them, and we had an astronomy department, of course, at the National Science Foundation. I guess at that time I was working for the government directly, not for General Atomics. So we met every week, about six of us, to look at common problems in recurrence, when two people try to do the same thing. And that was a fairly useful introduction to what the companies were doing in astronautics, although I’m far from understanding.
But you did have the Orion project at General Atomics?
That was a different thing. Ted Taylor invented this. I think that one of the main things he did at Las Alamos is probably still classified in detail; I don’t know exactly. But he told me he invented most of the small nuclear weapons. Like, cannons, not bullets, but maybe…
Yes, tactical weapons, exactly. He was very involved in that. So he got interested, of course, very interested in some of what General Atomic, but preferable not classified, but it turned to be the TRIGA with a lot of help from Freeman Dyson. One of the three you wouldn’t know is McReynolds who was an experimental guy, because Ted had some experimental ideas but he was primarily a theoretical physicist.
How long was he with General Atomics?
Oh, my, he was there all the time I was, and Rosenbluth was most of the time, although I can’t quite get around to tell you about the group that was working on military related things, of which Taylor was a member, Rosenbluth was a member and there were about six other very good physicists. And for some reason (I’m going to try not to place any blame here), they decided they could do better if they started their own company. So they told me very pleasantly that they were going to all resign and start their own company. This is primarily with making things less resistant to radiation from an atomic bomb, hardening. And they were very good at that, particularly Rosenbluth and Taylor. So they just walked out. I said okay. So only two of our fusion group stayed with us. We had Don Kerst, who was not at all a small guy in the business, and one other physicist who was quite good. So we kept a small fusion group. Ohkawa stayed with us, of course, the Japanese physicist because he couldn’t have the classified information that they needed.
Did they stay in town with their company?
Yes. That’s kind of an interesting story. They rented a room from a fellow who’s a friend of mine whose brother had been a graduate student at Wisconsin with me, and they rented space from him. All they needed was a space for computers; they didn’t have any experimental program. I felt very bad to have lost them. I didn’t tell them that. I said, “We’ll get along somehow.” And we did. But they lasted for probably about a year, when one of them came back to me — it wasn’t Rosenbluth; it was one of the very good people — said, “We’d like to come back to General Atomics.” Life was just too tough to start a new company for them. I like to think because they didn’t have guys like me around!
Did you take them back?
Of course we took them back — they were all smart physicists. And the rest of the story, Marshall Rosenbluth who had his seventy fifth anniversary about five years ago before he died had a birthday party. Very nice party. He had a book his friends could sign saying nice things about him. I kind of worried what to do a little bit, because Rosenbluth was certainly one of the ringleaders for separation and I didn’t think that was very nice because we’d been nice to him. But, anyway, I wrote, “Marshall, you have a great record to be proud of in the wonderful work you have for physics. By the way, I wish you had returned the key.” They didn’t return the key to my friend that rented the space to them. He called me, “Ed, do you think I could get that key back?” So I had the kind of unpleasant job of saying to Rosenbluth, “You know, my friend wants his key back.” He gave it to me, but he made me return it across town. So people have different sides. And I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be mean; he just felt that it wasn’t his responsibility. If I wanted it back, then I should give him the key back.
Looking back on the lab, did you design work as well as you had hoped architecturally and organizationally? Did you do what you wanted?
I have nothing to compare it with. How can I say that? I still think that the attitude around the lab of we’re kind of all equal, we’re all in this together was much stronger than it is in university. I can remember I was in the Physics Department at Carnegie Tech. I liked the chemists, but I had no great feeling that if they fail, I fail because I had a separate department. In fact, there’s a little bit of a story there when we built our cyclotron at Carnegie Tech. Carnegie Tech had quite a large free space of flat land. I don’t know what it was. It was probably a couple of acres at least, and I wanted to build the cyclotron there so it would be right outside my window, so to speak, from the physics building. So the dean, being very honest and good, held a meeting of key physicists, key chemists, key engineers and so forth, and he said, “What would you think if we had the cyclotron on this particular space?” Well, that space had been used for a practice football field. And they thought, “Oh that would be awful. What would our football players do?” We had a lousy football team, by the way. I just said, “I’m not going to push the point and make people mad at me.” Did you read the title here?
Not In My Football Field. That’s very funny.
And so we didn’t build it there. But we had good sites. We had good contacts with Westinghouse. Westinghouse built their first radio station KDKA on about a fifteen acre site about 25 miles from Carnegie Tech. Westinghouse gave us this, whatever it was, 25 acres of nice land, and that’s where we built our big cyclotron.
But you never had a football team at General Atomic, I’ll bet.
I think a lot of people played various indoor games.
Did you have the Ping-Pong tables there in your day?
I never played Ping-Pong, so I don’t know about it. But I think we did. I won’t guarantee that. We tried to make the place friendly and…