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Interview of Arthur Phelps by Gary Cameron on 2008 October 14, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33739
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In this interview Arthur V. Phelps discusses topics such as: Ted Holstein; Westinghouse Research Laboratories; Julius P. Molnar; John A. Hornbeck; Louis Malter; Dan Alpert; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sandy Brown; Manfred Biondi; Will Allis; Leonard Loeb; atomic and molecular physics; high vacuum techniques; National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA); electron energy distribution; Chun Lin; atomic collisions; Lewis M. Branscomb; laser physics; plasma physics; workers from Bell Laboratories and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA); Sidney Krasik.
Most of what I’ve been researching so far has been on the very first meeting in 1948. Subsequently, though, I’ve found that there are of course a lot of other things going on in the ‘50s, particularly in the early years of the GEC, and I think I might concentrate a little bit more on that. But if you have anything to say to start things off?
Well first of all, I’m still not sure what the objective of this work is. Is it an assignment intended to be used as a document for selling the conference to sponsors? Or is it intended to be a series of personal recollections, or both?
My understanding is that it’s primarily personal recollections, and eventually leading to a book that, from the way I see it, the way it should develop in my opinion as a historian, as a social history of an organization: how it operated, how it’s changed over the years. That sort of thing, instead of more content and as you say “selling things.”
Okay, well it makes a difference as to what one puts in it because some things would not be suitable if you’re selling it, which might be appropriate for recollections.
Well, if it puts your mind at ease, I’ve already heard some very, very interesting stories about personal interactions. I know you’ve written a bit of the history yourself on the early days?
Yes. I don't know what you have.
I primarily have about a four-page published recollection that I think was presented as a 50th anniversary paper. I have that. Is there anything from that that you…?
I don’t remember what’s in it because I don’t have a copy of that.
You were not at the first conference, correct?
Right, I was not. But I was at the conversations that led to the first conference. I was a beginning graduate student at the time, so I was privileged [chuckles], allowed to listen in on the conversations, which…
And that was at the Nottingham Conference, correct?
Well the Nottingham Conference existed some time before that, and it was some dissatisfaction with the Nottingham Conference that led to the formation of the GEC. In particular, there was a paper by Ted Holstein on a subject called ambipolar diffusion, which was intended to be presented at the Nottingham Conference. Because Nottingham ran a rather lax schedule, they eventually didn’t allow Holstein to present it. Holstein was the brains, I guess you might say, of the Westinghouse Group, which was a large part of the community at that time. So it was sort of a major event not allowing him to present his work. That really was the trigger, and there may have been other things, but that was the one I was aware of. So then the next day, I was standing around in kind of a semi-interview type situation with people — the reason they were talking to me was because they were sort of interviewing me — and a group of people. I think the discussion included Molnar (Bell Labs), Hornbeck (Bell Labs), and Malter from RCA.
Allis was not in on these conversations. Allis was sort of the father figure, but he was sort of above the mass conversations that led to the conference. You’d go to him for approval or for — He was more than a figurehead, but he was a figurehead. So he was not, to my recollection, in on these conversations. So basically they said they were fed up with the Nottingham Conference and they wanted their own. That’s about all. There may have been more details. I’m trying to remember who else was in on the conversation, but I don’t know. It may not have Malter there. He was head of the group with RCA. They were the participants at the first meeting.
These are the participants from the first GEC meeting.
Well he’s probably there.
L. Malter? RCA, Princeton?
Yes. And Dan Alpert from Westinghouse was probably there. Those are the main ones. There may have been others, but I don’t know. Of course the whole conversation sort of changes with the group. So that was the incident that I witnessed and was a part of. But I didn’t go to that conference because I was too junior. My first conference was the next year when it was in New York City. I don’t know what you have on that. You may have a lot. That would be the kind of thing that would, let’s say, be appropriate for anybody to write.
Of the material that’s been sent to me, the only detailed information that I have is on the first conference.
Well this should be interesting. What I’m about to go into, if you don’t think you have it, is sort of the preparation of me for the conference. As I said, I was being interviewed by Bell Labs. So I stopped at Bell Labs just before the conference and was run through the mill for a practice session. The reason this is important is because the founders were very insistent that the ideal presentation would have a certain form and, above all, be well prepared. So they really gave me the business on my practice talk. But it’s interesting who was there. Loeb was there, Molnar [later Executive VP of Bell Labs], and Hornbeck [later president of Bellcomm, Inc.]. I can’t remember whether Alpert (later dean at U. of Illinois and at Stanford) was there or not. He was the guy from Westinghouse who was interviewing me. But there were about five people who were either on their way to the conference or at Bell Labs planning to attend the conference. Like I said, they really raked me over the coals on the presentation. This is crucial in the sense that it indicates the ideas that these people had about the necessity for well-prepared talks. I’m trying to think whether there are any other aspects of that. All I know is, I went to my hotel that night and essentially threw out everything except the slides and started over. [Chuckles]
This is when you were a graduate student? [Yes.] And again, where were you a grad student?
I was at MIT in Sandy Brown’s group. Well Will Allis and Sandy Brown — they were the two leaders.
Did you know Fred Biondi?
I took over Fred Biondi’s experiment. What I did during the first conference is that I stayed home and kept the apparatus going. I took the experiment over and modified it for my thesis. Biondi was just finishing graduate school. Another thing that happened at that meeting, and again I’m not sure whether it’s in the notes. It wouldn’t have been something that I had talked about at the anniversary because it’s not the kind of thing that you advertise, but it’s very indicative of the way people were thinking. That was at the meeting in New York. Again as finishing graduate student, I was invited to listen in on an evening session. And you know, the head of the conference gets a suite or something like that, so I was invited to participate in that. The purpose of the evening was to set the politics for the election of the next chair. Are you aware of this?
I’ve heard a little bit about the organization.
The purpose of the meeting was to make sure that Leonard Loeb was not the next chair. [Chuckles] Like I say, this is not necessarily something you write down. I don’t know. There may have to be some thought about that.
I think Fisher and Varney talked about that.
He may have been at that meeting, I don’t remember. I know that was the only time I ever staggered going home, so there was quite a bit of liquor flowing. [Laughter.]
Especially for an organization like that that’s just getting started, I would guess that since they had had so many bad experiences with the Nottingham Conference, they wanted to avoid having any one person dominate things.
Well, it was partly a question of having somebody dominate it, but it was partly a question of the type of person Loeb was. I just heard some new stories about him last night. Somebody was taking a course from him and he did not want questions from his students, and this was either graduate level or senior level, but it was an advanced course, and he did not want questions. I had not heard that story before. Now, a scientific related question, again having to do with Loeb, and I’m not too sure how many people are privy to this, and again it may not be something that one writes down. Biondi under Brown, who was experimentalist, Allis was the theoretician, came up with new experimental results, so-called electron-ion recombination, which was quite at odds with the conventional wisdom. I don’t know how it got circulated, because again at that time I was just a beginning graduate student, but Loeb got wind of it and he went through the ceiling. He wrote a very colorful letter to Allis, who was the theoretician head of a group at MIT and had considerable standing, that’s the important part of it, in which he (Loeb) said things like he’d been working on this for 20 years to try to straighten the topic of recombination out. Here this guy Biondi and his supervisor Brown, who was I guess an assistant professor at the time and Allis was a full professor probably, have come along and they’re wrecking the scene and that you, Allis, ought to do something about it. Now, if you could get a hold of that letter, it’s a lot more colorful than I have said. I don’t remember the words he used (something like they were “muddying the waters”), but that was important in determining how people felt about Loeb, because he was sort of the head honcho in the field. (perhaps Biondi or Allis’s daughter, Mrs. Amedine Bella, or the MIT library collections could find a copy of the letter written in about 1949).
Well, from my own studies in the history of science, there are a lot of instances where you have the old guard and then the new wave of students and faculty coming along looking at things in a different way and the old theory just will not listen.
Loeb was quite a guy. This may not be anything you’re really interested in, but as a junior member of the group in Westinghouse — I eventually ended up going to Westinghouse to work for Alpert, Holstein, and with Biondi. I was assigned the job of picking up Loeb at the railroad station (he wouldn’t fly) and chauffeuring him around to Alpert’s house or places like that. So I heard many stories of Loeb’s younger days. He had known a lot of famous people, not just in our field, because his father was a famous biologist and his brother was a famous heart surgeon or heart specialist, I don’t know what exactly. So he was a big wheel. In fact, he had the ear of the Navy, who was supplying a lot of the money.
Well, another thing, too, is from looking at where various members of the GEC came from, Loeb was pretty much isolated there on the West Coast at Berkeley, because most of GEC people were from the Northeast.
Well, most of them were, but it wasn’t long before groups out on the west coast began to develop. There was a group at Stanford, SRI, and Lockheed, another company in that area, and Alex McDonald was there. U. of Washington had an important group under Geballe. We should keep in mind the very important contributions from Canberra, Armidale, Adelaide, and (later) Townsville in Australia.
And both Fisher and Varney.
Right, Fisher and Varney (at Lockheed). But I don’t know exactly when. I agree it was later, but how much later I don’t know.
But initially, though, it was pretty much a study that was isolated to the northeastern universities.
Yes. Well, but that’s where science was. That’s how our institute at JILA in Colorado got started, because there was an official doctrine to disperse the scientific community. That was why people in the late ‘50s moved to Colorado. But there are also other questions that you might want to think about. I made a list of topics and so forth that might be noteworthy. [At about this point, Phelps showed Cameron a handwritten list of scientific issues that were major topics at the GEC over the years. That list guides the remainder of this interview. A copy is attached.] Oh, before we leave that, I don’t know how this would work, but you might want to consider quoting or paraphrasing or whatever some sections from Loeb’s unpublished textbook. Have you heard about that?
Actually, no. I’ve seen the published version of this textbook.
The published version was 1939, way back.
I was able to find a copy at Iowa State University and that’s what I have posted up on the exhibit downstairs.
There is an unpublished book that was tremendously thick. I think it became a Navy report. The point is that in that, particularly in the introduction to the book and to the some of the sections, he does a historical survey from his point of view. In particular, he rates the then-existing groups. Again, that’s all from his point of view, and I suspect that kind of thing is one of the reasons that it didn’t get published. There was so much personal bias in what he presented. But on the other hand, it might make useful material for this, because by then he had come around to the point of view that these new guys knew what they were doing. He sort of dropped this old opposition. I think I made a note somewhere about Loeb on that.
Again, in the social history of science, it’s very typical for scientists to view themselves as very objective and yet you have people that are extremely subjective and have their own ideas.
So what I tried to do is write down in the list some of the things that stood out to me as highlights of the times. This tends to emphasize the early years, and it is certainly incomplete. For example, this electronic excitation experiments by people like Lassetre at Mellon. Theory was later — well some of these guys, McCoy and people like that come to the meetings recently. Things like the electron ion recombination experiments, the electron attachment, early attachment and later on detachment experiments were pretty important. The electron attachment was a particular response to the development of sulfur hexafluoride devices. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that or not, but it’s a gas which was the dominant fill gas for electrical circuit breakers, large tanks, used for controlling electricity in substations and the like. A lot of the understanding of the behavior of electron attachment to sulfur hexafluoride with regard to electron attachment and such was initially presented at the GEC. Then one I didn’t think of to type out was the high vacuum techniques, which were developed primarily in the Westinghouse group initially under Alpert. Then there are other things. Well this was later. Well the resonance behavior and vibrational — Wait, I thought I had resonance down here. No it’s different. Yeah, the resonance ought to be here because that was a big part of it. Schultz got the first APS award and the Davisson-Germer award for that work. Arvid Herzenberg explained it. They both went to Yale. The negative ion work by Branscomb and his people at NIST/JILA, and later on, well not much later, Fehsenfeld and coworkers at (NOAA), and Lineberger at CU. It was a tremendously big thing because it had to do with what happened after the bomb went off at high altitudes. The early work on modeling fluorescent lamps by Kenty (GE) and Waymouth (GTE/Sylvania), later on by Ingold (GE), Roberts (GE) and people, was a pretty big thing. Radiation transport, particularly resonance radiation transport, that was one of Holstein’s major contributions. Heat transport in high current discharges is a field that was initially important. It sort of died out and then it revived at sort of a low level. That’s welding arcs and things like that. Alkali halide lamps, there was a lot of that presented at the GEC. Now this is really should be listed up here, this ion mobility work, because it was earlier. Particularly, the work under McDaniel. Electron energy distributions, Allis, Holstein, and I worked on that early, as well as other people later. One of the more exciting workshops at the GEC was in Wisconsin. What year? Oh gosh. I’m sure Lin would remember what year, but they had a conference room overlooking the lake. It was upstairs overlooking the lake, which made for a very nice setting, but it was a really lively and profitable, I think the session was on early experimental excimer lasers. That’s somewhere down the list here. I don’t know where I put it. I may have been mixing up CO2 lasers and excimer lasers. I made another list, and then I proceeded to lose it. Here it is at the bottom here, evening meeting at Madison. That was one of the, I would say highlights, of technical exchange. Early on, this question of so-called streamers, when you get the electrical breakdown at high pressures, it starts out and then it forms a narrow channel and moves across. That’s called a streamer. A lot of the early thinking on that was presented at the GEC, I recall. I think it was at the third meeting in Pittsburgh. There was a lot of discussion and argument involving that, because Llewellyn-Jones and the group at Swansea, basically didn’t believe that the idea of conducting channel forming, starting out from just one electron and coming across and developing to the point where it would become a narrow self-propagating channel, they didn’t believe it. People like Raether from Hamburg, particularly were pushing it. So there was quite a rivalry going on there. It ends up that they both have their regions of applicability, but the streamers are a lot more important than people like Llewellyn-Jones initially were giving it. Note that early-on the GEC attracted the leaders in the field from Europe — later from Japan.
That brings up something that has come up earlier in conversation, is the change from the GEC originally being primarily an American meeting to gradually becoming more and more international.
Yeah, and that is, I was going to say, indicative of chauvinism or something or other. Initially, the meetings were run by the Americans even though many papers were from elsewhere, but later overseas participants were added to the executive committee and their papers became a large fraction of the total. I think initially the Americans — the Europeans sort of dominated the field at the time when the GEC started. At least, not the fundamental aspects so much as the things like electrical breakdowns, streamers, and things of that sort, more practical things. That’s overstating it. Eventually we moved in that direction.
Well, Biondi had an interesting take on it in that he said that at the time of the first meeting, late ‘40s, early ‘50s, the British, for example, were primarily doing the theoretical mathematical sorts of research and the Europeans on the continent were doing more practical work. Americans were, in a way, halfway in between.
That’s one way of putting it, yeah. Particularly younger people like Massey and Bates and people like that in England. The theoretical work on atomic collisions was largely over there. There were exceptions like Holstein in this country. There may have been other theoretical work earlier, but I can’t think of any. As far as the location of the meeting, the meetings were pretty isolated until 20 years ago. I’ve been going 60 years. The first overseas meeting we had was the Irish meeting, which was only four years ago or something.
I think most of the early meetings, from what I understand, were mostly hosted by industry.
Yeah, well, there’s always been a problem of finding some sponsor who would pay the bill and free up somebody to do work. That has always been a problem. Either industry or government laboratories. Government laboratories, I remember one of the meetings, particularly the one at which what was called a “negative ion soup” became prominent. It was held in Washington and sponsored by the Bureau of Standards. Branscomb was local secretary. He was the boss, but I think he was also a local secretary. Yeah, there was a very tendency to go to the organizations at the time. The big problem has always been finding somebody who’s willing to take on the work to be a secretary and go out and try to raise money. It has always seemed to me that one of the shifts that has taken place, and not surprising because of funding, is the shift away from more fundamental things like radiation transport or ion transport or electron energy distributions or things of that sort, toward dual-frequency plasma processors and such things. I haven’t heard too much about it this year, but for the last two years there has been quite a bit on that kind of stuff, which is important but it’s much more applied than the shift in ‘90’s, from my view and over the years. One of the interesting things that tends to counter that is that somehow, I don’t really understand the reason, and I hope you’re interviewing some of the people involved, is that when we recently attracted the people who were interested in things like electron scattering experiments and theory. Buckner in his morning talk on electron collisions involving DNA and stuff like that, which wouldn’t even have been thought of in the earlier days. In particular the group including Klaus Bartschat and Don Madison, people like that who are here this year, they’ve been coming ten or fifteen years or something, but they were not particularly in evidence in the earlier years. There were a few people interested in theory, but not a great deal. Now, because of the rest of the conference going sort of very much into the applied direction, these people sort of stand out, and one wonders — I don’t object, I just wonder what is it that goes on. Perhaps it’s because the division of electron and laser physics (DAMOP), has become so laser oriented, optical oriented, that these people don’t feel at home.
Well, it seems like over the years there have been periods where one particular study really dominated, like for instance the ’60s with lasers.
Committees have actually attempted to bring in new areas. For example, the year we did we met at Oak Ridge, I was appointed sub-chair or whatever to organize an arcs symposium, because the arcs had sort of fallen off and we decided it was time to build it up again. So there have been conscious efforts to maybe not change the direction but reactivate certain areas. And there have been conscious efforts to bring in people from other areas. A few years ago we tried to bring in people from the “sprite” (high altitude lightning) area. And there were some good talks, but it really didn’t catch on as one of the fields, although it’s closely related to the streamers. I just wanted to mention this so-called longitudinal diffusion business. Particles randomly move around, and being moved by a field, that they diffuse, they randomly walk differently in different directions, depending on the orientation in the field. That topic, I think it originally got started with the experimental work at Oak Ridge, and then people at Westinghouse and Australia developed a theory for it. It’s not a big topic, but it can be a pretty big effect, and is thought to be factors of seven, and so it can be a big effect. I single it out because it’s unique to me, but it grew up with the meetings, those things. Of course, so did things like electron ion recombination, things like that.
Were there any areas of physics that really got their start in the GEC?
Well, this is intended to point the way to it. Actually, the microwave breakdown was a big thing. I don’t think it started in the GEC, but it started at the same time that the GEC did. Another thing, which is something you can get out of Loeb’s book, is the high vacuum techniques. That was, I don’t want to say first presented because I don’t know where it was first presented, but it got improved through the GEC because everybody adopted the techniques because it grew in all directions. It was a pretty big business after a while. Some of the radiation transport problems did, of course you have radiation transport in stars and so forth, people like Chandrasekhar. The gas laser is an interesting topic. I don’t think I can say that it got its start in the GEC. It was certainly nurtured by it, but I think it grew too fast. I mean in a year you’d have several developments, and when you only meet once a year, you sort of lag.
What about plasma physics?
Oh, there’s an interesting sideline on the plasma physics. People like Langmuir were before the GEC, and there have been arguments to whether he ever came through the GEC. I was not aware of it, if he’d been. But a lot of people that worked with him, Cobine (GE) and people like that, and some other of the GE people, I can’t think of their names now (Kenty, Ingold and Roberts). Oh, one thing I wanted to mention about plasma physics that’s interesting. The first year, and this is my understanding, I was not in the middle of this, I could be wrong. The first year that they released information on the controlled thermonuclear reaction at Princeton, a lot of it was given at the GEC at a meeting at Princeton. But it was obvious at that time that they were too big. They were their own thing, and so they went off and formed their own group.
Right, and this was in 1958, I think? [Yes.] That’s what I’ve heard. That came up actually last night at the reception. People sort of wanted to know why the plasma group split off of the GEC.
I was trying to think whether they were pushed out or whether they just expanded out. I don’t think there was any pushing them out, except that the GEC was not willing to go to many parallel sessions. I think it was just obvious to everybody that they were just too big of a program. It was sort of an interesting meeting where a few people have a little bit too much to drink. It was sort of a wild meeting, the banquet especially. So I think we’ve touched on a lot of things, a lot of things like some of the people that are involved. That list, like I said, I made out an addition to it, but somehow proceeded to lose it. Some of the places where there are company names or something, it could be filled out with individuals, but I couldn’t remember.
That was going to be one of my suggestions to the whole group that’s working on this history project, is you really need things like this that give a historian some idea of where to look at specifically on certain issues that are technical, as far as what was important and what was not.
Of course that’s a biased point of view. I was never in the plasma processing. The first time I heard about it was at the GEC.
I was talking to Peter Ventzek earlier, I came up with a suggestion that as sort of an anniversary event to do an online poll of members as to what they thought were the most important things to come out in the gaseous electronics conference over the past sixty years. I think a lot of people have different ideas.
A lot of them have only been coming for ten or twenty years or some of those times, so they wouldn’t know about Holstein’s resonance radiation. I mean it was a completely new way of looking at how radiation goes through gases in a very simple way. He was a master at coming up with simple ways of looking at things, so things like that would be perfect. [part 2] …technical work that I didn’t mention on my other list. It’s particularly nice work by Hagstrum at Bell Labs on electron emission induced by ions. It’s a really beautiful work on clean surfaces, and so forth. Now that got me thinking about the question of why was Bell Labs into all this. And again, my position was pretty low down. I was a summer student working at Bell Labs, but my understanding is that they were interested in the general problem of using gas discharges for telephone switching. So they put together a group of people, a rather remarkable group of people, who had been with the Offices of Strategic Services during World War II, some of the brightest guys around, including Molnar, Hornbeck. I don’t know whether Hagstrum was a member of that group or not; he was part of the Bell Labs group, but whether he was part of the OSS group. Well, McKay. And they put these people together under a man named Ad White, and as I say, their objective was to go into the gas discharge business and understand the possibilities for switching. Now, not many years later, the transistor came out and so the whole thing collapsed. There are some other things at Bell Labs people did, which I didn’t mention previously, was this so-called short gap breakdown problem, very narrow gaps. Again, their interest was in switching, because if you make a contact or break a contact and in particular — I’m trying to remember the name of the guy who headed the group. One of the names was Kisluk, but there was another man whose name I’m forgetting who did some very initial work in the short gap (Germer of the Nobel Prize). The important thing there is that if you get the gap short enough, the usual breakdown predictions of the so-called Paschen curve no longer apply, and instead of the breakdown voltage always going up as you go down in pressure, it goes down. The reason it goes down, basically, because of so-called electron field emission. The reason I’m emphasizing this is that the original work at Bell Labs was rather good, but it was rather limited by the techniques. Later work at GE, whose name I can’t remember (Watson et al), was done at very high pressures in short gaps. So there’s a whole spread of this early work. Then the subject was sort of dropped. There was work on contacts at Bell Labs, but not on what you might call stationary gaps. Then it came up to bite people, so to speak. One of the satellite or rocket failures was because of breakdown in a wire gap, and then more recently, within the last five or ten years, that problem has really become important because of the small size of semiconductor devices. So the usual idea that you have a minimal breakdown of only a few hundred volts, as you go to these very small gaps, you find that field emission sets in and you can get breakdown at 30 volts. So there’s been quite a revolution in the way of thinking about breakdown. The early work was done and presented at the GEC, but the later work on the semiconductor generally has not been presented there. There has been some at the GEC but it hasn’t been a major topic there. More on the history of who supported what. The Westinghouse program developed out of the so-called TR switch, transmit receive switch, and radar. It was a gadget that they put in to keep from burning up the sensitive detectors by short-circuiting it during the high power transmission. The leaders in that work in Westinghouse were people like Alpert and Krassik, experimentally. Krassik went on to nuclear power but Alpert stayed in this field. Holstein was the theoretician associated with that. Another motivation for early work in this area was the SF6 circuit breaker, which is initially developed by Westinghouse. That led to a lot of work on electron attachment. The SF6 program developed one of the techniques for producing electron energy beams with effectively very small energy spreads. So it was quite a motivator in some of the early work. The SF6 work went on to places like GE and to Switzerland, and eventually the Japanese took it over.
Actually, that makes me start thinking about television. Television had already been invented by that time, but was some of this new knowledge going into improving television?
Well, it was in the group from RCA, but the interaction of the GEC with television research people was very minimal, to my knowledge. Okay, then, well I have a note down here that somebody ought to explore with Waymouth the question of the interaction between research and development. He had some ideas on that. At one time I spent a lot worrying about that but I didn’t do much about it. Then the other thing I wanted to make sure was down on your list was the successive waves, you might say, of support and interest from the government. They were asking about NSF. NSF has played a pretty small role. The early work was largely facilitated by Loeb’s connections with the Offices of Naval Research. Then the question of what happened when the bomb went off came up, and that supported a lot of work in this conference. High altitude reactions and ionization, when you recover radio propagation, and things like that. The people here were not considered with the radio propagation, but they were concerned with the ionization and the recovery and things like that that followed the bomb. One of the important support agencies was the Defense Nuclear Agency. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but their responsibility was what happened after the bomb went off. Then large support in this general area came from re-entry problems. AVCO was the big leader there supported by NASA, and defense, and they made many contributions to this conference.
By re-entry you’re referring to…?
Missile or rocket re-entry. That work involved a lot of aerodynamics and gas flow, which was presented at fluid physics conferences. But the more collision-based work, a lot of it was presented here at the GEC.
I seem to recall Fisher and Varney being involved with that when they were at Lockheed.
Yeah, they probably were. They were not the principals. The AVCO people were the principals. Names, I could look them up, but they don’t come to me. Then following re-entry, there was sort of a transition to gas dynamic lasers, high speed flow CO2 lasers, which are now used for industrial processing and like cutting cloth, things like that. All along there was the interest in fluorescent lamps, which came out of Westinghouse and GE. That has led to many people who have become important at the conference: Roberts, who was chair for a while from GE Schenectady. John Ingold was a theoretician at GE Cleveland, who had different approaches that led to many spirited discussions, shall we say. Sort of following fluorescent lamps was the high intensity lamps, which are now street lamps. Then finally, plasma processing. So that’s my notes. I just want to be sure that they got covered.
Below is Phelps’s list of topics at early GECs, with institutions or persons who were leaders in these areas.
Electron-ion recombination experiments — Biondi
Electron excitation experiments — JPL, Mellon, Buchman
Electron excitation theory — California, LASL (now LANL)
Electron attachment and detachment experiments — Biondi, Phelps, Christophorou, Chantry, Schulz
Electron elastic scattering — Buchman, Crompton, Bederson, Schulz (resonances), Herzemberg
Vibrational excitation by electrons — Schulz, Herzenberg, NASA
Negative ion properties — Branscomb, Lineberger, Fehsenfeld, Schulz
Ambipolar diffusion — Holstein, Biondi
Fluorescent lamp models — Kenty, Roberts
Resonance radiation transport — Holstein, Alpert, McCoubrey, Lawler
Arc transport — Goergia Tech, Lowke, GE (Larsen?), Meckler
Alkali-halide lamps — Westinghouse, GTE
Ion mobility — Wannier, Hornbeck, McDaniel et al, Vieland
Electron energy distributions and transport — Holstein, Phelps, Nighan (United Aircraft), Wright Air Force Base, Dutton, Crompton, Boeuf et al.
CO2 laser processes — United Aircraft
Electrical breakdown — Llewlyn-Jones, Dutton, Bederson, Fisher, Raether
Microwave breakdown — Brown, Allis, Holstein, (GTE – pulsed)
Electron diffusion — Parker, Lowke
Metastable kinetics — Molnar, Phelps
Streamers in breakdown — Loeb, von Engel, Llewlyn-Jones, Morrow, Raether
Statistics of breakdown — Raether, (Swansea)
Excimers -– (Kansas), SRI
Early high points:
Dissociative recombination by Biondi et al.
Transport of resonance radiation by Holstein, Alpert et al.
Calculation of electron energy distributions by Allis et al., Holstein, Phelps
Streamers (high pressure breakdown) by Loeb, Llewlyn-Jones, Raether
Negative ion “soup” by Branscomb et al, Lineberger
Electron excitation by (Carnegie-Mellon), (JPL), (California)
Resonances in electron-H atom scattering by Schulz
Resonances in molecules: experiment by Schulz, boomerang model by Herzenberg
Longitudinal diffusion: experiments by Oak Ridge, theory by Parker and Lowke
Excimer lasers (evening meeting in Madison) (Sandia), Nighan, Weigand
These notes contain some recollections associated with the Gaseous Electronics Conferences and some on getting started as a graduate student about that time.
The first comments have to do with conversations that led to the formation of the Gaseous Electronics Conference. These took place at the Physical Electronic Conference at MIT run by Wayne Nottingham. It is not clear how I was associated with these conversations, but I guess being a graduate student under Sandy Brown and a replacement in the laboratory for Fred Biondi made hanging around the little groups in the hall easier. Of course it may have just been that the people, whom I will name in a moment, were not particularly quiet about what they were saying. In any case, it was my understanding that the Gaseous Electronic Conference was started largely as a reaction to the lax procedures at the Physical Electronic Conference. Apparently Nottingham made little effort to keep the talks on schedule. People would end up very late in the day with essentially no time to talk. Apparently this happened too many times to people like Ted Holstein and Dan Alpert from Westinghouse, Lou Malter and Ed Johnston from RCA, and Julius Molnar and John Hornbeck from Bell Labs. I don't know how Leon Fisher and Will Allis (who along with J.B.H. Kuiper and Molnar were the Committee) got involved, but I suspect that they were recruited to lend academic flavor to the Program Committee. Of course the growing application of new techniques to this old field made it reasonable to increase the communication in this area.
Just a few comments on the scientific aspects of the Physical Electronics Conference as related to gas discharges. One of the outstanding controversies at the time had to do with Slepian's model of the plasma centrifuge. I recall many discussions that took place at the end of presentations between Holstein and Slepian (both at Westinghouse, but not normally in contact) and others regarding the physics of the plasma centrifuge and of ambipolar diffusion. Presumably these arguments were one factor leading to the start of the transitional ambipolar diffusion model of Allis and Rose. Of course, Biondi's experimental and Bate's theoretical work on electron-ion recombination were hot topics of the day (although mostly after the GEC started). Most people seemed to accept it rather readily. Leonard Loeb didn't, but I don't recall that he was at the Physical Electronics Conference. One of the raging scientific controversies was between Loeb and Raether on one side, advocating streamer breakdown in high-pressure air, and Lewellyn-Jones on the other, saying that everything he looked at could be explained by the conventional Townsend approach provided that one had sufficiently stable power supplies.
As a further digression one hopes that the history of this area will record in some way the famous (at that time) letter from Leonard Loeb to Will Allis in which Loeb roundly criticizes the work of Biondi and Brown and expresses the hope that Allis will be able to correct Brown and Biondi. As I recall, he used a phrase like "stop them from muddying up the waters that I have been trying to clarify for years". I suppose that there is a copy of that letter in Allis' files. Perhaps Biondi has a copy.
Being a very junior graduate student I did not attend the first Gaseous Electronics Conference. My job was to stay at the lab and fill liquid nitrogen traps, while Biondi was gone. The second GEC was my first. My first talk at the Gaseous Electronics Conference took place at the meeting in New York City in 1950. The next few paragraphs have to do with events that took place before and during the meeting.
I had spent the summer of 1950 at Bell Laboratories working with Julius Molnar on metastable lifetimes and was scheduled to give a talk at the October GEC. It was arranged that I would visit Bell Labs on the day before the meeting for an interview and to give a practice talk before Molnar and whoever else was around for the GEC. It turned out that there were quite a few people around, Loeb for one. Of course, Molnar, Hornbeck, McKay, and Hagstrum from Bell Labs were there, but I do not remember who else. In any case, this graduate student was shaking in his boots. I don't remember the talk itself but I definitely remember the critique afterwards. It was unanimously decided that I should go back to the hotel and rewrite the talk. In those days we all used slides and so there was not much that could be done with the visual materials.
A second aspect of the GEC meeting I will record with the warning that it may not be suitable for general distribution. One evening early in the meeting I was invited to Hornbeck's and Molnar's rooms for beer and discussion. Because one or both were the conference secretaries they had a suite. It soon turned out that the purpose of the meeting was to try to influence the nominations for the next chairman of the GEC, which were to take place the next day. Quite a few people attended. I don't remember exactly who, but it would be people like Alpert, Molnar and others. As I recall, GEC procedures then were very much like they are now with nominations from the floor for those to attend the conference committee meeting and then a selection of the chair by that committee. (This was long before Chantry wrote down the "bylaws".) These people had gotten together to try to prevent the selection of Leonard Loeb as incoming chair of the conference. I really don't remember how the meeting came out. Loeb was not elected chair. One of the reasons that I don't remember how it came out was that when I returned from the meeting to my hotel room I was well aware that I had had too many beers or too many somethings. It was the only time that I really have ever staggered down the hall. Again this is rather heady stuff for a yet to be graduated student. It just shows that it pays to work for the right people.
Next is a comment on the attitude of the people that I was associated with regarding practice talks for the Gaseous Electronic Conference.
When I left graduate school I went to Westinghouse to work for Alpert and with Biondi, Holstein, Art McCoubrey and Carl Maitland. Some of the younger people that were there at that time were Ira Bernstein, Russ Fox, John Pack, and Lorne Chanin. Jim Parker and Rodger Warren (both from Loeb's group) and Meir Menes (from Fisher's group) came soon afterwards. Russ Fox, Bill Hickman, and Terry Kjeldas were already there working on the retarding potential difference (RPD) technique. The point here was that practice talks were a very big item at Westinghouse and, as suggested by my previous comments at Bell Labs. They were very brutal sessions.
The very thorough practice sessions both at Westinghouse and Bell Labs became noted throughout the conference, not to say that all institutions followed suit. Particularly, I recall one meeting in which one professor (who shall remain nameless) gave a particularly poor talk. That professor has done a lot of good work, but not this time. And as a young person used to the Westinghouse practices, I could not understand how that could happen. That was my introduction to the real meaning of academic freedom. You can have the freedom to do a lousy job, as well as a good job, because most professors would regard a frank practice session (or a review of their draft publication) as an infringement on their rights.
A sometimes amusing and sometimes educational aspect of the Gaseous Electronics Conferences was the after dinner speakers. We have had some very boring ones and some very good ones. Fortunately I do not remember the boring ones, but let me mention a couple of the more amusing ones. In my opinion the very best one was at the University of Florida where the doctor who invented Gatorade gave the after-dinner talk. Starting with bull sessions after seminars, which involved not only the seminar participants but the guards who were mostly ex-football players at the local university hospital, and going through the psychological at (least) edge that Gatorade gave to the University of Florida football teams was really a hilarious talk.
The second talk that I remember as being most interesting and enjoyable was Wade Fite's talk at a University of Pittsburgh GEC meeting in which he described his running for the House of Representatives in the very right-wing area of San Diego.
One of the more memorable after dinner remarks by the chair of the conference was the skit put on by the local committee at Hartford, Connecticut, Russ Meyrand and Bill Nigham of United Aircraft. That meeting was also memorable for our having been kicked out of the hotel by the US Secret Service the last day before the sessions really finished so that Spiro Agnew could give a campaign talk.
Another memorable set of after dinner comments by the chair were made by George Schulz at Atlantic City in which he was paraphrasing Goldwater's campaign speeches for president.
An important and memorable meeting was at Princeton at which the agenda was very crowded because of the large number of papers from the newly declassified fusion program. The result of that meeting was the formation of the Plasma Physics Division and the disappearance of fusion program papers from the GEC. Perhaps one reason the split-off occurred was that the local fusion people were mortified by the lack of restraint at the banquet. I particularly remember a push-up contest between Kaare J. Nigaard and Ted Holstein. I am sure that the Princeton Inn and Princetonians were shocked.
One of the more historical meetings was in Boston in the year of the Sputnik. In this case, my principal recollection, aside from Sputnik, is the visit that many of us paid to Will Allis' "Yonder Farm" in Dublin, NH, the day after the conference. Of course, October is a beautiful time of the year to visit the country at the side of Mt. Monadnock and this was truly a glorious day. Nancy Allis served a huge turkey buffet meal. I particularly remember Carl Kenty being there.
One of the more memorable people at the GEC is Will Allis. His contributions have been recognized by his selection as Chairman Emeritus (or whatever the correct title was) of the GEC and by the founding of the Will Allis Prize of the American Physical Society. (Somehow I don't think Richard Gottscho ever got the credit for the large amount of work that he did in arranging that prize.) Will Allis was always a friend to the participants at the conferences on an individual basis. His graciousness, his interest, his willingness to listen, have always been a big source of inspiration and comfort to me.
Another quietly dominant personality was Ted Holstein. He didn't often get interested in your problem, but if he did, his insights were so great that a few seconds' contribution could make a tremendous difference.
Of course, Leonard Loeb is a real father to the gaseous electronics field and his contributions to the early days of the GEC was very important. His appreciation of the newer high vacuum techniques (led by Alpert et al at Westinghouse) and electronic techniques applied to gaseous electronics at Bell Labs and Westinghouse made a considerable difference in the way these topics were viewed and reported to the public. One didn't always agree with Leonard's technical evaluation of the new work. As an aside, I particularly enjoyed having the opportunities that I had to hear him reminisce about his younger days and his meetings with people like Rutherford and Townsend. My recollection is that he met most of these famous people by virtue of his father's position. My opportunities to meet Loeb, Bates, Dalgarno, and other well-known gaseous electronics people came about because I was the new bachelor at Westinghouse Research, e.g., was often called upon to meet Loeb's train and chauffeur him around Pittsburgh and Westinghouse. Of course, some of the other well-known people wanted to know why they did not rate a more senior reception committee.
Julius Molnar was a quiet and influential leader in the early days of the GEC and was a wonderful person to know and work with. Typically, I recall at my second GEC his asking if I wanted to flip to see who bought the drinks and then said "heads you win, tails I lose." I was too slow to catch on.
Other early GEC personalities not mentioned elsewhere in these notes and who come to my mind were Sandy Brown, Carl Kenty, Rob Varney, Gehardt Weissler, Lew Branscomb, C.C. Lin, Homer Hagstrum, Bennet, Winans, Earl McDaniel, Ken MacAfee and Bob Freund.
One reason for the interest in gaseous electronics after WW II and during the early GEC days, was the success of the "TR switch" program at MIT and Westinghouse. After the war Alpert was given a free hand at Westinghouse to build up a gaseous electronics group. At Bell Labs, a powerful group — Molnar, Hornbeck, Hagstrum, Mckay, and Wannier — was formed in part from the Bell Labs WW II operations analysis (is this the right terminology?) group, to explore gaseous electronics devices for switching, etc. Rose, Buchsbaum, and Gordon joined the group as the older members moved upward. Bell Labs management was particularly adept at moving scientists into management and Molnar, Hornbeck, Mckay and Buchsbaum became company vice presidents and higher. Westinghouse seldom succeeded in this, i.e., only Russ Fox moved into management during my time.
An important phase of the GEC and gaseous electronics began when Branscomb and others sold the Defense Department (ARPA, DNA, ONR, and ARO-Durham) on the need for "ionospheric smog" related research. It was fortunate for us practitioners that government support came along in the late 1960's, because the industrial laboratories were losing interest in the basic research begun at the end of WWII.
This cutting back by industry is not a recent phenomenon. One reason was the lack of practical results from basic work done by people like myself in the 60's. Techniques for solving the electron Boltzmann equation or quantitative measurements of models of neon metastable lifetimes allowed some improvement in fluorescent lamp efficiency, but produced no major breakthroughs in industry.
The next major sources of support were the rocket reentry and ABM based programs. A lot of important high-temperature thermal physics and chemistry, e.g., vibrational energy relaxation, was accomplished during this period and paved the way for gas dynamic lasers later on. Also, about that time there was a revival of interests in arcs, which the GEC recognized with its Arc Symposia. Somehow the work on ionizations chambers, scintillation counters, etc. used by the particle physicists never got presented at the GEC.
The gas laser brought with it a badly needed source of support, as the "what happens after the a-bomb goes off" and reentry based support was coming to a close. Some have said, "If gas lasers had not come along we would have had to invent them." The early days of the development of laser produced lively and memorable GEC sessions, e.g., the panel discussion on the mechanisms of the XeCl laser at the Madison GEC — overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, the research climate had changed so much by then that it took several years to find out what the rare gas metastables were doing in these lasers.
Another panel discussion I recall well was the one on ion-ion and electron-ion recombination with David Bates, Skip Morgan, and Carl Collins at Dallas.
More recently, the panel and participant initiated discussions led to the GEC Reference Cell for plasma processing. Whatever one may think of the particular geometry for plasma processing, this effort got people thinking on the same page and led to considerable progress in measurement techniques, etc.
The GEC has often seemed like a family gathering to some of us old timers. Some of our wives have come back year after year, with Mrs. Loeb coming back for a number of years after Leonard died. Although the attempts at programs for accompanying persons have often been poorly attended, I would put in a plug for a preannounced "coffee" for accompanying persons on the first morning of the GEC. It allows them to get together and plan among themselves. This activity has been much appreciated where it was arranged and announced to all. It doesn't cost much if held at the time of the morning break.
For me the GEC has been the yearly high point in my technical life for 48 years. I am most grateful to those who have done the work of organizing the meetings, searching for support, presenting their work, and engaging in hall conversations.