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Interview of John Waymouth 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/33742
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In this interview John Waymouth discusses topics such as: Will Allis; Sandy Brown; Sylvania Lighting; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Leon Fisher; Robert Varney; Manfred Biondi; Arthur Phelps; plasma (ionized gases); Mike Mansfield; Office of Naval Research; Wayne Nottingham; cathodes; plasma physics; Leonard Loeb; Joe Slepian; Ben Bederson; Ted Holstein; A. W. Hull; Carl Kenty.
The thing I’m probably best able to answer for you is not the first but what happened before the first conference that triggered some of the things that subsequently took place. The GEC grew out of something called the Physical Electronics Conference at MIT.
The Nottingham Conference.
Which is the Nottingham Conference. It had been established in the early 1930s basically because Nottingham didn't agree with the Physical Society and their 10-minute papers and 2-minute questions, because he felt that the purpose of the conferences was to confer. So the Physical Electronics Conference was I guess the first what you might call topical conferences, but it was not under the imprimatur of the APS at all. Nottingham ran it in a very arbitrary manner, basically saying that discussions would be unlimited as long as it was useful, which meant that the first papers on the program might get an hour. So by the time you get down to the end of the meeting, it was back to one or two minutes again. There were a lot of people in gaseous electronics who attended that conference. It was suspended during the war, re-established in ’48 or ’49. Typically, Nottingham would stick the gaseous electronics into the latter part of the conference, so it didn't get much discussion. He told me later on that Will Allis and Sandy Brown were quite upset about all this, and that was one of the reasons why they were the prime movers in establishing a conference of their own. But when the GEC started, my understanding is that it was in a very similar format: single sessions, as much discussion as was useful, and stuff like that. But I didn't get to the first — My first gaseous electronics conference was in 1955, so I don't know what happened in between.
Well, then tell me about your first conference here with the GEC in ’55.
Well, that was the one that was held at GE Research Labs in Schenectady, and I think I presented a paper on the modeling of the fluorescent lamp plasma.
And where were you at that time?
Well, all my working life I worked in Sylvania Lighting, from the time I graduated and finished at MIT in 1950 till I retired in 1988.
You were doing fundamental research there?
No. I was doing basically lamp engineering. You needed to do a little stuff on the side to be able to do engineering sensibly.
Right. Well, I asked about whether you were doing the fundamental research because talking to people like Fisher and Varney and Biondi, they were saying that at time, even industry realized that you had to have some kind of fundamental research going on.
Well, the fundamental research stuff during industry at the time was to isolate the “scientists” in a central research laboratory and insulate them from the day-to-day pressures of the business of the company and let them discover and invent glorious things, which is a model that my opinion totally did not work in the vast majority of the cases, because the only way you get a discovery into a product is through the people in the factories. In my view, you have to keep the R&D as close to the factory people as you can, and the R&D people have to establish credibility with factory people by helping them solve problems. This is a totally opposite model from the one that was the central research system popular in the 1950s. I worked in the other type of system where Sylvania had a so-called General Engineering Department, which served to assist the people in the factories with their problems and to develop new products and get them introduced into the factory. I was able to carve out enough time on my own to do things that interested me, solve problems the company didn't know it had. My milieu was totally different from Biondi and Phelps and all the other crowd.
Yeah. Well, Biondi was at Westinghouse, I think. [Yes.] And then at Pittsburgh.
Well in gaseous electronics, Westinghouse had the prime example of the world’s best research organization in gaseous electronics in industry. It had absolutely zero impact on their gas discharge lamp business, and as a matter of fact in the space of five or ten years, most of the people left and went somewhere else.
I guess for my point of view as a historian, the way it’s usually seen is that, especially during the ’20s and ’30s, industry is starting to see that scientists were coming up with new developments, things like nylon, that seemed to be accidental discoveries in the lab. That’s why they started to —
Well, the real emphasis for industrial support of research was World War II.
Well yeah, and then there was that.
And the realization that we won the war primarily because we had better tools than the other guys did.
Yeah, the Manhattan Project and things like that.
So there was a time in industry when the value of a company depended on it shaving a central research laboratory because the stockholders demanded it. But I would say, in my opinion, most of those central research laboratories were quite ineffective when you measure output versus input. But that was sort of a background to what was going on at the GEC. I mean I got more out of Westinghouse gaseous electronics group from meeting them and discussing with them and hearing their papers at the GEC than Westinghouse’s own lamp engineering got out of them in terms of product improvements and development. It was very important to me because, as I say, I worked in a place where I didn't have any great supporting background of R&D going on, and it was very useful to me to be able to attend conferences like the GEC, present papers, and be a part of the conversation loop, and so forth and so forth.
Right. So I think this might be repeating what you’ve already said, but just to make it clear that your fundamental research was more or less on your own time or extra time that you might have had, away from sort of production side?
Well, it was essentially fitted in — I managed to convince my boss that I needed enough more resources and so forth more than I actually needed to do the job that they wanted me to do. I could spend time doing other things that were my contribution to the research, which turned out in the long run to be useful to the company. But it was primarily because I was closely connected with what the problems in the company were.
Yeah, yeah. So you were able to see both sides of the thing.
I worked we’d say on the razor’s edge of the interface between science and technology my whole life.
Can you think offhand of any problems, especially when you were just getting started, what kind of problems were you working on?
Well, the principal problems had to do with understanding the physics of the fluorescent lamp and then understanding the physics of electrode behavior in fluorescent lamps, the physics and chemistry of that, and then finally the physics and chemistry of the high-intensity discharge lamps. Those were the principal problem areas I worked on.
As far as day-to-day work, you said you were on the interface between the technology and the science. How did that work as far as helping with the production side of things?
Well, I would bring different perspectives into helping solve production problems. My modus operandi was to explain everything after the fact and predict nothing. But I seemed to be able to explain what was going on in certain problems and that led to solutions. It was important to me to keep contact with the scientific community, which the GEC was a very valuable part of.
At that time, how was industry working with academia? It sounds like they weren’t, really.
Industry had essentially little or no contact with academia except in terms of hiring professors as consultants. There was no particular industry support of academic research. As a matter of fact, most of the academic research at that time was being sponsored by the DOD, something that came to an abrupt halt in 1971 with the Mansfield Amendment, which prohibited the DOD from sponsoring anything except mission-oriented research. As Mike Mansfield said, the business of fundamental research should be supported by the NSF. Unfortunately, they didn't increase the budget of the NSF by a compensating amount. It was a disaster in terms of the physics profession, really. The support of academic research by industry increased in later years, but from my experience, it always fell apart on the question of who owned the intellectual property; the universities seemed to take the point of view that they owned the intellectual property and they gave half of it back to the researcher or something like that, and the industry took the point of view that if they paid for it, they ought to own it. So on several occasions, it was very difficult to establish even a small research contract to have something done in universities. I did do a couple of them. One was MIT and one was Stanford. I simply said, “Well, let’s go ahead and do the work. The lawyers can argue it out later.” By the time the lawyers finished arguing, the contract was over and there was no intellectual property to argue over. But that was a very big stumbling block from our point of view. Other companies apparently swallowed hard and signed away all their rights and supported much larger activities.
Right. Getting back to the GEC itself, you said your first meeting was in 1955? [Yes.] And did you present a paper that year?
I believe I did. I believe I presented a paper on the mathematical modeling of the fluorescent lamp plasma.
And they were still doing the single sessions at that time? [Yes.] Do you recall, were there other presentations that year that particularly stick in your mind?
Yes, there were quite a few. Carl Kenty was in attendance, and he always had interesting things to say. I think Fred Biondi had measured the mobility of mercury ions in inert gases, which was a number I needed for my calculations. So I would say it was enormously useful to me because it was the only place really where I could interact not only with the scientists and industrial research labs but also the academic scientists.
Also, I noticed in looking at some of the early conferences and the attendees, there were a few who were from government like Office of Naval Research and so forth. Was that still the case in ’55?
I believe so, but I don't remember them as being much more than monitors to watch what was going on and see how their money was being spent.
Yes, yes. That was the other thing, too. I think at the first conference, I was looking through who sponsored papers, and I think almost half of them received some kind of support from the military side of the government.
Yeah. Well, after the war, the military essentially sponsored 100% of academic research. My own thesis research was supported by the Research Laboratory of Electronics, which I believe was mainly supported by the Office of Naval Research. It was really a total shock to the system when the Mansfield Amendment was passed with a voice vote without really understanding the consequences. It made a great deal of sense to the congressmen, but they just forgot to write it in the budget of the NSF to compensate it. The number of physics PhDs being granted was rising exponentially until that date, and it simply flattened out after that. All those PhDs who were in holding patterns in their postdoc appointments had no place to go and many wound up in the financial industry. They were the so-called “quants” who started the business of complex derivative securities, which I call the physicists’ revenge.
Actually, you were starting to say a little bit about your thesis research and so forth. When were you a student and where was it?
I was at MIT. I was a student with Nottingham, the founder the Physical Electronics Conference. I started in 1947 and managed to finish in 1950.
Wow, three years.
Well, Nottingham was a unique professor. He didn't adopt the philosophy of retaining graduate students as slave labor to write his papers for him. He considered that his major modus operandi was to get his students out and into industry as quickly as possible so they could hire his next generation of students. So I only took a little over a year to do a thesis.
And the thesis was on?
The thesis was on the deterioration of oxide-coated cathodes under conditions of low duty factor operations. In those days, all computers were vacuum tube computers, and they were used in flip flop multivibrator type circuits, in which the thing was either conducting or it was not. In the on state it was a one and the off state it was a zero, and since most of the time these things sat around in zero states, they were cut off and not delivering any emission current. It turns out that the nature of the oxide cathodes is that it’s a spray coating of alkaline earth oxides on a nickel sleeve that is internally heated by a tungsten filament. The nickel sleeve has certain impurities in it, notably silicon, which react with the alkaline earth oxide to produce oxygen vacancies, which act as electron donor centers and turn it into an anti-semiconductor and a good emitter. But the reaction product of this reaction is a barium orthosilicate film that grows in the interface between the nickel and the coating. Now as long as the device is delivering current, there is an electric field that forces donor centers, which are effectively positively ionized because they lost an electron, forces donor centers from the oxide coating into the interface compound. It retains a high electrical conductivity. When the thing is cut off and delivering no current, the donors diffuse out of the orthosilicate and it now becomes a high resistance layer. So the finding was in these computer systems that if a tube had been off for a few hundred hours and you asked it to deliver a current, it couldn't, so you got an error. My work was essentially to unscramble this mechanism.
Well, I know from just this past semester I was doing some research for the electrical engineering department at Iowa State, and I was looking into one of the early computers at Iowa State. They were constantly having to shut it down to replace tubes and so forth.
This particular program, at least this project of mine, came out of the building of Jay Forrester’s first computer, which was the Whirlwind 1 computer at MIT, which had something like 4,000 vacuum tubes in it. It had a cycle time of one microsecond, which was enormously fast at the time, and 16 storage registers, which was amazing at the time, but really only made it the equivalent of an HP 45 calculator.
Well actually, the Iowa State computer that was built in the late ’50s, the Cyclone computer was basically a copy of the Whirlwind.
Well, the Whirlwind was not the first, I guess. What was it? The ENIAC was the first all-electronic computer, but the Whirlwind was supposed to be a step up beyond that being much faster and capable of handling more complex programs because it had 16 storage registers
Right, yeah. You were a graduate student at MIT? [Yes.] Where was your undergraduate work?
Sewanee, the University of the South
Did you major in physics there? [Yes.] When you were at MIT, what was the balance between student research work and classroom work?
Well the first year I was there at MIT, I had only classroom work because I had to make up for several undergraduate deficiencies. The second year, I was basically a half-time student because I had an appointment as a lab assistant in freshman physics lab. That's when I took my first course from Nottingham, and at the end of that time, he agreed to take me on as a thesis student. From that time on, I passed the oral part of the PhD exam and didn't take any more classes at all. It was all work in the lab from then on.
Let’s get back to the GEC again. There’s one question that actually several people have asked me since I got here yesterday, which is about 1958, another conference split off. I think it was the plasma physics conference?
The Division of Plasma Physics grew out of the declassification of all of the thermonuclear fusion program. The first year that they were declassified, they presented a whole bunch of papers on their work at the GEC, but it was very clear that it was going to overwhelm the whole operation. — The magnetic fusion people decided the GEC was not going to be an adequate venue for them because they needed a much bigger conference to accommodate themselves. They persuaded the APS to define the Division of Plasma Physics. That’s when its conference began. The first public presentations on the declassified work were at the GEC, if memory serves me correctly.
Okay, well that solves that puzzle. Another question that I’ve had is just my own observations here and comparing this conference to the first one, is it seems like for most of the GEC’s history, it was pretty much strictly an American conference.
Well, I would say for maybe the first 15 or 20 years, but I think it was in the 1970s, a Russian contingent attended, and there had always been some European representation. But the time when it really became international was when the Russians started to come.
Did you ever get a sense of why they started coming?
Well, it was in a period of relative thaw during the Cold War, and they had an incredibly large and effective gaseous electronics program in Russia, out of which a number of people here came. I think they wanted, a) the opportunity to validate themselves by presenting this on a wider scale, and the GEC was more than happy to welcome them, even though apparently it took a great deal of difficulties on the part of the local secretaries to ensure that these arrangements were maintained; these people had to travel with their own bodyguards whose purpose it was to keep them from defecting!
Yes, yes. One of the things that occurred to me was that perhaps earlier since the military was providing so much funding for these conferences, maybe they were a little bit cautious about having foreign people at the conference. I don't know.
Well, I wasn't aware of any of that dynamic, but it seems reasonable. But certainly, there was some European participation even as early as 1955. I remember meeting Ellenbaas from Phillips in Holland. He was at the 1955 meeting.
I guess we’ve talked a little bit about this, but just from your point of view, what do you see as being some of the biggest changes in GEC since you were first attending?
Triple sessions. The original rationale for this kind of conference was single sessions where everybody could hear everything and discuss and so forth and so forth. It just got so big you can't do that, and so it is now much more reminiscent of the APS meetings than it was when it began. The other major change of course is poster sessions, and those are useful antidote but still don't prevent triple sessions.
Yeah, yeah. If you would say, it’s a lot less helpful.
Well, it means like this morning, I was going from one session to another just to hear two different invited papers, and it meant I had to skip the contributed papers that were in either of the two sessions.
What about some of the personalities you’ve known, the people that have been associated with it?
Of the old-timers, Leonard Loeb was one of the founding fathers
Yes. I had heard that he became increasingly negative towards the newer ideas that people were presenting.
The other one was Joe Slepian, who had had a stroke by the time I started attending, and so he was trotted out in a wheelchair to make his presentations. But everybody remembered what a towering guy he had been. And of course Will Allis and Sandy Brown were absolutely marvelous, not only scientists but people. And Carl Kenty. Carl Kenty was another unique individual. These were the elder statesmen, so to speak, but also there were a lot of my contemporaries, too numerous to mention.
Of course you were not at the first meeting, but I do have a copy of the attendee list. I was just wondering if you remember — I’ve been told that a lot of the attendees at the first GEC meeting showed up at that meeting and never were seen again. I don't know if you see any names. I know there are a few names.
(looking at program) Arnott I knew. He was director of the — oh, it’s on there. Ben Bederson. He was one of the founding members of the GEC. Dicke was there. He came to some of the subsequent ones. Ted Holstein was an attendant at some of the others. Oh, and A. W. Hull from GE. Nottingham was in attendance checking out the competition. Varney was another old-timer who was at a number of subsequent meetings. 297 attendees!
Yeah. I think it was Fisher and Varney that said that the Nottingham conferences were generally something like 50 people or so.
No, there would be as many as 150 people.
Oh okay, because I’d gotten the impression that it was a relatively small conference.
Well, it was certainly small enough to have everything as single sessions with unlimited discussion. I had a couple of the abstract books from the Nottingham conference that may be of interest.
Oh, yes. Very definitely. That was another thing I was going to ask you, is if you have any old conference material, photographs, things like that.
I have abstract booklets from most of the ones I attended. Now this one was the one from the 1949 Physical Electronics Conference. It had a few gaseous electronics papers in it. Number 53. “Temperature of the High-Pressure Mercury Arc” from Carl Kenty. He was a subsequent stalwart at the GEC.
Actually, that was another question. At most of the conferences these days, papers are presented by several coworkers. Was that as much the case back then?
Well typically there might be two or three at most. I believe Holstein, Albert, and McCoubrey gave their paper on — yeah, “Measurements On Imprisonments of Resonance Radiation In Mercury.” This would have been one of the foundation stones of mercury vapor discharge research. This one here, Ted Holstein, was in attendance at many of the later conferences as well. That was the 1949 GEC meeting.
This is outside my own field of expertise, but I know enough about optics and so forth I can get some idea of what they’re doing here.
They’re basically measuring imprisonment time by measuring the decay rate for the emission of resonance radiation fluorescence. Subsequent to that I guess that Holstein developed the theory that he shares with Biberman on what determines that imprisonment.
It seems to me that one other thing that must have changed is just how many people are working on any one problem. I mean today there must be —
Well, it seems like a telephone book is involved in everything.
Yeah, and just references to previous research.
The other thing that’s probably different about the GEC now than it was in its earliest days is there is now a formal structure for the Executive Committee and for having a conference recognized as a 401(c)(3) tax-exempt institution. My recollection is that was done in the ’70s when Will Allis personally used to run the conference as his benevolent dictatorship. It was he who suggested the conference should find a more stable structure, and it was a committee that wrote up the constitution and then bylaws, which you had to have in order to get 401(c)(3) exemptions. Prior to that time, we had been operating completely illegally because it was collecting money, making a profit, and wasn't paying any tax on it.
Yes, yes. But it seems to me that in the ’70s, a lot of organizations like that were realizing the tax situation.
Well, the Physical Electronics Conference escaped that problem by having MIT handle its funds. When Nottingham died, I got stuck with the job of being the PEC general chairman, and I had to move it because there was no more real activity at MIT in his area of interest. I had to take it through the 401(c)(3) business to put it on a legal basis. It still exists, as far as I know. It’s now mainly a surface science conference.
You mentioned you thought you had programs that are of some kind for the GEC.
I have the abstract booklets from all of the ones that I have attended. As I say, the first one is 1955. I would be sure that that’s probably in the archives of the conference anyway.
Well, I don't know. In fact, I’ve been trying to find out if there is an archive, and I haven’t really established that yet.
Well, there should be because at one point, among the things transferred to the incoming local secretary was the inventories of abstract booklets to sell. There were always extras printed and people would want to buy them, and it was a source of income. Now whether any of those have been saved, I have no idea.
Of the people I’ve talked to so far, most of them have gotten rid of all of that.
Well, I’ve saved them all. You want a list of which ones I have?
Well yeah, a list, and then eventually I think it would be a good idea to have someone scan those and digitally record them somehow.
Well, give me a name and address, email addresses, whatever to send it to you and I’ll send you a list of the ones I have. I’m a squirrel on stuff like this.
Let’s see. Trying to think if there are any other questions. Is there anything else you would like to contribute that you can think of offhand?
I can't think of anything.
Well of course, you weren’t at the first conference. That’s what I’ve been concentrating on up to this time. But actually, the information about the plasma situation in the ’50s, you helped clarify that. As I said, I think at least two or three people that I talked to yesterday evening were asking about that. Why did the two conferences split off?
The magnetic fusion people required much more than the GEC was able to provide. The other thing about the GEC is that it’s sort of gone from topic area to topic area and has been the initial place where a lot of stuff was presented which has then gone off to form its own conferences. I mean a lot of the original gas laser work was presented at the GEC, and now they have their own humungous conferences.
Well, that might be something to get back to different eras.
It was sort of a seed bed in many ways.
So in the ’50s, say, when you got involved, what was the dominant topic?
The dominant topics at that time really had to do with gas discharges in one form or another, and then the people at MIT in Sandy Brown’s group were measuring recombination rates. Westinghouse was doing a lot of work in the reactions in the ionosphere and that sort of stuff. But it was mainly collisional physics in discharges, which is still a big factor today — thousands of cross-sections still haven’t been measured.
I assume the lasers became a big thing in the ’60s.
Yeah. Then there was a good deal of work in high-pressure arcs that was presented at the Gaseous Electronics Conference. That didn't go anywhere else; it just sort of petered out. Of course lighting has contributed its share over the years, though no R&D is really being done in the lighting discharges anymore, and that has withered away nearly to nothing.
I would think that with people starting to look more into high efficiency lighting, that that would —
Most of that activity is essentially government-supported R&D and light emitting diodes. There is very little going on in the study of discharge lamps. Because they’re pretty well optimized. Nobody’s found anything better than mercury. After 50 years, that’s the answer. That’s the answer, if you wanted it that way.
Yeah, okay. Well, unless you can think of anything else…
I’ll be around the rest of the evening.