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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Henry A. Barton by Charles Weiner on 1970 March 3,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Family background; undergraduate and graduate studies at Princeton University: electrical engineering 1921, graduate research on ionization of argon and HC1, spectroscopic interests, (MA 1924, PhD 1925); developmental research as engineer for American Telephone and Telegraph Laboratories (1921–23); National Research Council Fellow at Harvard University (1925–27); Bartol Research Foundation Fellow (1927–29), research on “impact of protons on atoms and molecules.” Assistant professor at Cornell University (1929–31), high voltage x-ray research, visit to Cavendish Laboratory, associations (1930); Founding Director of the American Institute of Physics (1931–57): discussions on the origin, nature and funding of AIP; early associations with the Chemical Foundation and American Chemical Society; history of selected AIP journals; public relations to promote physics; Impact of Depression on physics; Depression and post World War II studies on physics manpower and industries.
This is a tape-recorded interview with Dr. Henry A. Barton on March 3, 1970, conducted in my office at the American Institute of Physics. I’d like to start off by referring to your early family life, know that you were born in Pittsburgh in 1898 and that your family moved to Detroit in 1910 and that your father first was with Westinghouse and then with the Metal Products Company, which then was sold and became part of the Chalmers Motor Company. Later he became affiliated with General Motors.
Yes, he resigned from the company when it was taken over by Chalmers.
Was he an engineer?
Yes. He was a mechanical engineer — without a degree — but that’s what he was.
And the Metal Products Company was his business?
Yes, and he had several partners.
When did he become affiliated with General Motors?
I’d have to work on that, but we moved to Detroit in 1910. II would say that it must have been about five years later, something of that sort.
And then about five years later you entered the University of Michigan, in 1915, as a student in electrical engineering?
What decided you on that particular degree level?
I think my father’s preference was a guide to me earlier than a choice of college. He felt that an engineering training was good, and I was perfectly happy to fall in with that, because was interested in mechanical things, too, and mathematics. Just the way of many kids, you know. They had “Mechano’ to build things out of, I liked it, so it naturally was a choice of profession.
You said “Mechano”. Was this the equivalent of an erector set?
Yes, that’s what it was, the same thing. Was he an engineer Yes, He was a mechanical engineer—without a degree—but that’s was.
We called them erector sets. Had you fooled around with any electrical equipment or ham radio or anything like that at home?
No, no. There wasn’t very much of that in those days. It was Just before the radio bugs.
And you started at Michigan in 1915. I know that you switched and transferred to Princeton a year later.
What was the reason for that switch?
Well, I didn’t get along too well at Michigan for one reason or another, mostly accidental; and a fellow I was rooming with decided that he would transfer to Princeton; and I decided I’d Just go along with him. I found this pleased my mother a great deal. She thought it would be interesting to have me go to one of the big eastern colleges is the way she looked at it. And I’m very glad I did. But there’s certainly nothing that I have in the way of criticism of the University of Michigan. I went back there later in life for summer sessions and got a great deal out of it.
You mean in the late ‘20s or ‘30s?
I’ll remember to ask about that later, because it’s particularly interesting. Was there any difficulty in getting into Princeton at the time?
No, at the time it wasn’t nearly as hard as it is now. There was really no problem at all. I applied first for the engineering school there, but I think it was the dean of the college—that was before they split up deans into deans of admission and deans of this and that; there was only one dean—who talked to me and said he thought I would do better Just to be in the arts college. So I accepted his Judgment on that. And it wasn’t really until the end of sophomore year that I decided I would go into math and physics. I was still really going along the same lines that I had originally intended but more scientific than engineering. But I still did mean to be an engineer, and so I went into the two-year graduate course in electrical engineering that they had at Princeton at that time. Much of that was actually composed of graduate courses in physics, which turned out to be a better preparation than the conventional power—plant engineering courses, that most of the electrical engineers took, for the Job that I got with the Telephone Company.
Well, why is it that you didn’t take the conventional courses?
They weren’t available in Princeton. It was really a department that consisted of an old professor or two and about one or two students by that time. It failed to continue its existence and was dropped about the same time as the University did establish a full—fledged undergraduate engineering department with all the branches of engineering. But before that the only real engineering department they had was civil engineering. I think that may have been one reason why I didn’t go on with it because I didn’t care so much about civil engineering as I did about electrical.
When you became interested during your sophomore year and Junior year in physics and mathematics, or at least those aspects of engineering, did you have any idea of the possibility of pursuing a career as a physicist?
None whatever, not at that stage.
This didn’t occur to you, and your interests didn’t direct you ...?
No, I was Just glad to get out and get a Job as an engineer, and I got along quite nicely in the Telephone Company, but I came more and more to the feeling that the interesting work was being done not where I was—-in the AT&T Company——but In the Bell Laboratories, which was different. Later the department I was In with the Telephone Company and the Bell Laboratories were merged, but this was before that happened. If I’d stayed, I’d have gotten over to the Bell Laboratories. Instead, I found that I could get a fellowship to go back to Princeton, and in two years, on the basis of the work I’d already done, I could get a Ph.D. So I thought that that would be what I’d do, and then I’d be able to do more congenial work, more interesting work as a physicist. I expect I would have gone back to the Bell Labs except In the course of the physics graduate work, I got very much more Interested In basic research largely due to the influence of Karl Compton and Harry D. Smyth.
Let me Just backtrack a minute. You got a bachelor’s degree in Princeton in 1919, according to the records I have, and then went on to the two-year electrical engineering program from 1919 to ‘21. What was the bachelor’s degree in?
Well, it was a bachelor of science.
Bachelor of science. But you were in the arts college?
I was in the arts college, yes. They didn’t distinguish, you see. There was only the one college, and then there was the engineering department, which was only civil.
I see. And how much physics did you get in the course of your three years at Princeton? That would be three years prior to that B.S.
I got what was then considered a good course in advanced physics— basic and advanced physics, Including experimental physics and mechanics and electricity and magnetism. But I think, looking back now, that the department was behind the times In the use of mathematics and in the preparation for theoretical physics. I did not get a very good basis for theoretical physics in that course. And, of course, I didn’t get that either In the electrical engineering graduate course. So it was hard to get back on the ball when I came back to Princeton for the Ph.D., at least from the mathematical angle of things. I was good at experimental physics, but In theoretical physics I never really did catch up.
How did the choice come about to take the position at the AT&T? It was the development and research department, wasn’t it?
Yes, Well, had the choice actually of going to the Bell Labs to work on what they called machine switching at that time or going into the AT&T department of development and research. I had a friend who was working there, and he urged me to go in with him, They worked in more of a directive capacity—-that is, telling the Bell Labs what the system needed and then perhaps giving them some help in getting started along the right lines to respond to the needs. This did appeal to me more at that time than working on machine switching, which I thought would be a pretty dull subject to work on.
What other alternatives were there, other than going into Bell Labs or AT&T?
I didn’t have any. I tried to get a job with the General Electric Company even before I tried to get into the Telephone Company, and they just didn’t have any jobs for anybody at that time.
This was just after the war.
It was a depressed time
So you went with AT&T in 1921 to 23. Do you think you developed your taste for physics there?
Certainly somewhat, yes. As I said, it was partly because of learning about interesting work that some physicists that I knew about were doing at Bell Laboratories.
Who were they?
I can’t recall any names at that time, It was more the information that came to me through the company as to the type of work that was being done over there other than machine switching that thought I would like.
How was the working set-up? Did you work as an individual or as part of a team or in a group of some type?
In the AT&T?
The work was very pleasant. We were called engineers, had, of course, people over me. But I switched from one assignment to another, At one time was engaged in trying out some ideas of the man who was my immediate boss. We had a little laboratory where we could put some circuits together and see if they worked, And I would do that for him, Then later on I was put on the job of the design of long telephone circuits with what they called repeaters in—-amplifiers, in other words, There were problems in the use of those which affected the quality of transmission, They actually put limits on such circuits. And it was my job to design a circuit for different lengths of geography so that they would work with sufficiently good quality. I was told how to do this; I didn’t develop the art myself, but I applied it in the design. One of the questions I was asked by a man higher up in the company was whether we could n design a telephone line so that if there were land available, one would be able to talk all the way around the world. And I was able to answer that “yes, you could.” You’d have to use a certain size of wire; you’d have to have repeater stations at a certain number of hundred miles apart, etc. He wanted that for a speech.
For no particular
No interest in it practically.
So this apparently involved your interest, your learning new things. And then the decision to go back to Princeton came about ... you imply because of opportunity to do something in two years, but was that also the end of your period of employment at AT&T? Did something come up which was a natural termination of it, that made you think of returning to school?
No, it was more that I was attracted by the idea. It was a time that physics was quite interesting, as it has been ever since. The spectroscopy vogue—boom—was at its height, and the translation of the spectroscopic lines into an understanding of the structure of the atom was Just being brought out by Bohr and Sommerfeld and Rutherford at that time, and I had read some of this in a popular way, and I thought I’d like to get into that kind of thing. And actually, I didn’t have to go immediately back to Princeton. I had a summer to work with free, and I took summer courses at Columbia, which were given by Paul D. Foote, on spectral lines and atomic structure; and I was very much interested in that. He was an excellent man. That’s when I first got acquainted with him. And that, I think, really settled it for me—-what I was going to do when I got to Princeton, where I was going to go from there. I think that I probably lost sight of going back to the Telephone Company pretty quick.
Just from that summer course.
What kinds of courses did you get involved in?
In the summer.
In summer? Well, that was it. It was one of these cases where you registered for one or two courses, and it was spectral lines and atomic structure.
And at Princeton who did you study with? Was Russell there at the time?
Yes, Russell was there. I didn’t have any set courses with him except a sort of special evening course on spectroscopy one time. He would give us a two-hour lecture once a week in the evening. And I don’t think there could be anybody that you would be more ready to sit through a two-hour lecture of than his. I don’t believe I could have stood it with almost anyone else, but I could with him. There was no problem about getting bored or anything with him. He was such a wildfire. The other people I studied with were Karl Compton and E. P. Adams, who taught us more advanced mechanics or mathematics and also electricity and magnetism. And Dean W. F. Magic whose subject was heat, thermodynamics. But my research was done ... well, it was hard to say whether it was done under Compton or under Smyth.
Harry Smyth was the nominal director of my Ph.D. thesis, and I did work of a nature that he had established. But Compton was always also there and very much interested, and I very often went to him for advice. Smyth had extended Compton’s work on the determination of ionizing potentials of atoms by electron impact by adding a mass spectrograph to the product and seeing what ions were made at different voltages. Smyth had developed this in a couple of years that he had spent just prior to this time at the University in Cambridge, England-—the Cavendish Laboratory— and he had done two or three gases, like, I guess, hydrogen and oxygen (I’ve forgotten now), and there were other gases that he hadn’t got around to, and he put me onto working on those. One of the things which he hadn’t got around to was to find out the ionization potentials of doubly ionized gases—monatomic gases.
I did the argon job on that. There’s one potential at which ions first appeared, and you analyzed them in the mass spectrograph, and you find they’re singly charged argon ions. And then at a higher potential, which I remember was around 45 volts, you got argon ions with two electrons knocked out of them, so they were doubly charged. You couldn’t tell that, you see, without a mass spectrograph. So essentially the purpose of that part of my thesis was to measure the doubly ionizing potential of argon. This all tied in nicely with the spectroscopic evidence of the atoms, the structure of the atoms. This work was quite down the line that I was interested in and prepared for. But toward the end of that and during the next two years when I was a research fellow at Harvard, I decided that nuclear physics was a field that was coming along, and I tried to get over into that somewhat more.
Before we get into that, I have a few questions about Princeton. You received a master’s in ‘24 and then the Ph.D. in ‘25. What about the amount of theoretical physics that you were able to get during this period?
That’s where, as I said, the deficiency was.
I knew that it applied to your earlier period, but
It applied again in graduate school, too.
Robertson came later than you.
Yes, I don’t think Robertson was there until after I got my Ph.D. I kept in touch with Princeton so closely for years after that that it’s hard for me to remember when people were there and when they weren’t. But I remember Robertson and Condon and others very well being there, but I’m not sure when they came.
Probably around ‘27, but I’m not sure, [Robertson and Condon joined the faculty in 1928.1 And just about this time, when you were getting your Ph.D., the whole ferment over the new quantum mechanics was developing. Was there any discussion of that, do you recall? Did the old quantum theory come in for any questioning in any of the work that you were doing, or did it even come up very much?
Well, that illustrates my point. Actually did have a working knowledge of the quantum mechanics of the atom—as developed by Sommerfeld, Bohr, Born and others involving energy levels, spectral lines and their relationships. What had failed to come my way was rather the old quantum theory of heat, radiation and black bodies as developed particularly by Planck, In the course that we had on heat and thermodynamics, we didn’t really even find out about quantum theory of heat, The man who taught it—that was Dean Magie—did ask me some leading questions on the oral Ph.D. examination about quantum theory, but he knew didn’t know it from course work. He was simply trying to see how quickly I could grasp a new idea. He raised some of the questions and some of the problems which were not sufficiently taken care of by the classical heat theories, you see, and which forced Planck, among others, to develop the quantum theory and the matter of distribution of energy between the various degrees of freedom and so forth. He led me onto the conclusions and said, ‘Well, now you see they don’t work, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’
In the oral examination?
In the oral examination was the first time that these things had come to my attention. It was a good way of educating me, and he had apparently determined I was going to pass anyway before that, so it didn’t matter that I didn’t know.
But nowhere in the formal or even informal work had you been exposed to it.
Was there any colloquia or journal club kind of activity going on?
Oh, yes, indeed.
How did that work?
It was all fine, ft was very interesting, but it was not theoretically oriented very much at that stage. It was more experimental. We had the results of experimental work—you know, papers published’-for review in this journal club, It was called a colloquium. And people who had done their researches there also reported on them. But it was really an experimental physics department up to about the stage that I left. After that, of course, it switched rather rapidly into a strong theoretical department.
Was Compton very active in the teaching and in the affairs of the department?
He was the head of the department.
I know, but it’s because of that that I wondered how active he was.
He taught a course-I think it was called conduction of electricity through gases. And that carried us into ionization, of course, and some reference to spectroscopy. But it didn’t get us far into such things as statistical mechanics, which you might expect it would, which was necessary to carry it much further, in fact.
What about foreign visitors during this period? Did you have either foreign students or visiting fellows or lecturers?
I remember one or two from England. I don’t remember any from the continent while I was a student there. Later on there were many.
And this would take you to 1925. By this time, when you had done your Ph.D. work on the ionization of argon and HCL and so forth, what had you in mind to do? I know that you became an NRC fellow. But what did you think the use of your Ph.D. would be once you had it?
Well, of course—as you say—first, I went on much the same as my thesis work during the NRC fellowship. Then I was open to Jobs. I hadn’t determined whether I wanted to go to a university or to a company at that stage. I was interested in research. And, in fact, I didn’t go to either. I went to another research laboratory where I could do what I wanted—continue any type of research: the Bartol Laboratory for two years. It was only after that that I was approached and got interested in a teaching Job at Cornell. But it was when I went to Bartol that I began to think about the nuclear physics a little more. I had an experiment in which I was trying to produce X rays by impact of protons—not electrons but protons. I know now—it was realized later—that you had to have much higher energies than I had available to do that. I did get a bona fide negative result that you could rely on, but that was all I got—up to a certain voltage.
This was at Bartol?
This was at Bartol, yes.
On the Harvard situation, I think it would be of interest to know how one gets an NRC fellowship—what made you think of it in the first place and then how did you go about getting it and how did you happen to pick Harvard for the place to work?
Well, at that time the NRC fellowships were considered quite nice, and anybody who thought he might have a chance of getting one would be pretty sure to grab at the chance; because that enabled you to go ahead and do some more of what you’d been doing, which you generally liked. And as for getting it, it was a matter of writing a good application and being well recommended by the professors with whom you had worked, where you were. I know something about this because later on I Judged the applications for fellowships as a member of the fellowship board in the National Research Council. I learned then that the scholastic record, marks, and the letters were all pretty weighty. Compton, who was on the board at that time, was also the head of our department. He encouraged me to apply for a National Research Fellowship, and he told me later that he had seen my application. Perhaps he had been on the board that had passed on all the applications. He said that mine was well prepared, and there was no problem apparently about getting it. There were a number of them. There were quite a few of them. A lot of people had them.
They played a tremendously important role in the development of physics for that whole period. The people who received them were very good, it turned out. So the judgment of the board was pretty good.
I’ve always felt that perhaps I had a little better ability at expressing and selling a thing in writing than some other physicists at my stage had at that time. And that that helped. I do think it helped. A good presentation is a good thing no matter what field you’re in.
Why did you select Harvard as a place to pursue your studies?
I haven’t got too good an answer on that except that you had to go another place from where you had been. Possibly the fact that Lou Turner was at Harvard had something to do with it. I was a very good friend of Lou Turner’s, and he had liked it at Harvard. He had been there a year before I, and I had visited him and others whom I knew up there a couple of times. It was a department of very high standing, a good place to go. And I think I felt already that I needed more exposure to the theoretical side of things, and they were better, particularly a man named Kemble. You know that name. He’s still around. Ted Kemble. And I got myself assigned to work with him. Which only worked fairly well, because he really was a theoretical physicist and didn’t know anything about doing experimental work in the laboratory; and so he didn’t tell me a lot of things that I needed to know about how to work the local system and get materials and the help and so on that I needed. I had to go to the head of the department, Theodore Lyman; and he always wondered why I was coming to him.
While you were there you didn’t do any course work. You just pursued research.
I sat in on some courses from time to time. I sat in a little while on a thermodynamics course with P. W. Bridgman.
Slater was there for a period.
Slater was there and Mulliken was there, and I saw a great deal of those two men. There were some other good men there. I think Bainbridge was there then. I’m not sure of that. No, I think I got in touch with Bainbridge at the Bartol and then I knew him later at Harvard.
But there was nothing in your work at Harvard that changed your research interests. It was an opportunity to pursue the work that you had started. Is that fair to say, that you just followed through on what you were doing?
Yes. And during that period I got more interested in nuclear physics. Well, everyone did; there was so much of it coming out at that stage.
As early as that? This was 1925 through 1927.
Yes, you began to feel it as the coming thing even as early as that. I remember going through, for instance, the work of Rutherford, the work of Ellis—Charles Ellis—and Chadwick. I must have visited the Cavendish Laboratory during that period, one summer; because I remember being fascinated by things that were going on there, and it must have been at that time.
Well, the Rutherford-Chadwick—Ellis book came out in 1930, I think.
Yes, that was later; but I was already aware of Ellis’s work, and of course everyone was aware of Rutherford’s work and Chadwick’s— and Aston’s. Oh, yes, I was very much interested in Aston’s work, because Aston, after all, was the man who invented the mass spectrograph, and I had used mass spectrographs in my ionization work.
How about the new quantum mechanics? Were you aware when you got to Harvard of what had taken place or was taking place during that period?
Well, as it referred to the structure of the atom-—yes. And certainly at Harvard there was a good deal of interest in that. In fact, that course I took with Foote, even before I did my Ph.D. work, was a start In that direction. And Kemble, while I was working under his supervision, was preparing one of those National Research Council reports on a field—that happened to be band spectra, the theory of band spectra. And Mulliken was doing an experimental study of the spectra of nitrous oxide. No. I always forget: that’s nitrous, isn’t it, not nitric?
I think so.
Anyway, NO.. And he drew a couple of us in to work with him on that. That was very interesting. We got out several papers. Incidentally, I spotted Mulliken as Early as that as one of the great physicists of our country at the time. As you know, he got a Nobel Prize not so long ago.
Yes. But it was really physics.
Yes. I notice that you published a paper with Mulliken and another person.
Yes, Jenkins-—F. A. Jenkins.
That was a consequence of the work you did?
At that time, yes. It was sort of Just a sideline for me. I had my own experimental work going. But Mulliken really needed a couple of teammates on his band work, and I was interested in band work. That was one of the reasons that was working under Kemble, So grabbed this opportunity. And it so happened that we had some nice spectrographic plates in which the frequencies came out in accordance with what Mulliken thought they ought to in his understanding of the molecule. But there wasn’t any good densitometer at Harvard to measure the strength—really the blackness of the lines of the photographic plates, which of course is a function of the strength of the radiation in those frequencies. And there was such a densitometer in Princeton. think it must have been devised and developed by A. G. Shenstone. So spent a summer back in Princeton going through the densitometer with those spectrographic plates, and came out with an article with Mulliken on the strength of these various different band lines, which also agreed with his theory.
t notice on the bibliography it’s nitric oxide, the NO that you mentioned,
Yes, I guess so.
Then for two years you were occupied at Harvard full time except for the summers. And you had lab space, and you sat in on some of the courses. How did the decision to go to Bartol come up?
I’m trying to remember, and I don’t too well, Of course, as a National Research fellow went to Physical Society meetings and met people, and I always liked very much visiting other researchers in other laboratories, and among the places that I naturally went to was Yale, And at that time Swann, guess, was the head of the department-—and among the graduate students were Ernest Lawrence and Thomas H. Johnson and Jesse Beams and Donald Cooksey. Before had to make the decision as to what to do after the National Research Council tenure was over, Swann had moved to the Bartol Foundation as its director, and Johnson had gone with him, That may have had something to do with my interest in going to the Bartol Foundation, Another thing that had something to do with it perhaps was that the dean of the college at Princeton was the lecturer in physics, an awfully good lecturer, and had later taught me a course in alternating current electricity, and he had become director of the Franklin Institute, under whose aegis the Bartol Foundation (the Bartol Laboratory is a wing, you know) .,. And I was interested in what he was doing and was in touch with him. I think perhaps it was the combination of all these things that made me interested in going to the Bartol, And I’m sure it must have been my initiative to go there. don’t think was invited by anybody. applied. And again, I think the motive was that it was a place where you could do your own thing, do your own research, do what you liked, and you didn’t have to go along with a program of the corporation. And there wasn’t any teaching time required. So liked that, and I went there.
What was the name of the man who became the director of the Franklin Institute? Do you recall?
Did the Bartol Research Foundation have any special reputation for a field of research that they were especially interested in?
Not much, not till Swann went there, It really had fallen into a pretty low state of quality and recognition. Swann built it up. He was not interested so much then in cosmic rays as he became later. He was interested in the theory of magnetism as a simple result of rotating a conducting body. He wanted to account for the magnetism of the earth that way. He felt that there was another term in the Maxwell equation so that there could be; it was allowable for there to be another term which predicted such an effect. And he tried to find it. He had big heavy balls spinning at very high rates of speed, but he didn’t get any- thing. And then he was also interested in atmospheric electricity. He was an authority on that. But then later on he got into cosmic rays and nuclear physics. That’s when he brought in people like Bainbridge.
There was no biophysics going on at that time, or interest in.
It was beginning. There was a man there, yes. I can’t recall his name, but there was a biophysics man there when I went. Then later on there were more. We were in Philadelphia on 19th Street. It was during the time that I was there that the lab was moved to a new building out at Swarthmore, on the campus at Swarthmore. That move was a good thing for the laboratory but it pretty well wrecked our time for at least six months——tearing down and setting up again.
I asked about biophysics because that was one of the places where it took root as a new borderline field. But if that wasn’t an area of your special interest, then I won’t pursue it.
No, I didn’t follow it very much; but there was a man there whose name I can’t recall.
Then at Bartol you said earlier that your interests turned more toward nuclear physics. You mentioned that at Harvard you had begun to take an interest
Yes. Well, at Bartol I was saying that I was interested in protons. I think of protons being nuclear physics a little bit, and I was trying to see what you could do with them. I had been working with the impact of electrons on atoms and molecules, and here I was now trying the impact of protons to see what I could find out about that.
Were you aware of the attempts that were underway ... I guess it was pretty early for that, but nevertheless there were some attempts to get high voltages in order to accelerate
Yes, there were. Cockcroft and Walton in Cambridge were already at work with very high voltages.
Were you aware of it at the time?
Yes, I was aware of it.
Through what medium? Thought your visit there?
Partly visit and partly reading the literature. I did see it, as a matter of fact.
It would be interesting if you could recall the year that you were there, because it would give us an idea of what was going on.
Well, I was only at Bartol for two years—that was ‘27 to ‘9, wasn’t it? I think it was during that period that I was there in Cambridge and saw the Cockcroft-Walton set-up with the cascade transformers. Lauritsen also had such a set-up in Pasadena about the same time.
How about the Carnegie Institution work? It started about ‘27.
I don’t remember that they had got going on the high-voltage work then.
They were using tesla coils, I think, during this period.
Up till then they had done a great deal of work on atmospheric electricity, as you know. But that must have been about the time that Tuve came in. He and his colleagues, Hafstad and Dahl, were a very strong team, very strong indeed; and they got that place moving in cosmic rays and nuclear physics.
I talked with Tuve about the background of that. I was just curious if you were aware of it.
Well, Tuve was at Princeton, you know, as a graduate student at the same time as I was. We didn’t know he was going to be such a power. We liked him, but we didn’t know he was going to be as good as he turned out to be.
Was he working on ionization work at the time? Would you recall?
No, I would recall if he had been. I don’t know what he was working on.
I should know. I have it somewhere. [Tuve did research at Princeton on acceleration of positive ions and electrons.]
I don’t know what his thesis was about.
Well, you stayed at Bartol until about ‘29, and then a transition was made to Cornell where you took the position of assistant professor of physics. This was quite a departure, but it was the first time that you departed from the ideal of doing your own thing, of pursuing research, more or less the same kind of research that you had been interested in from your graduate school days. How did it come about when you went to Bartol? Did you have in mind staying there a long time, as if this would be your career goal?
No, No, I didn’t think anybody stayed there very long. I think, as it turned out, people did sometimes stay pretty long. Certainly Johnson was there longer than I was. But it was time for me to make a move. I wasn’t getting positive results, because I didn’t have enough voltage. But, as a matter of fact, I did intend to go on with that and apply higher voltages when I went to Cornell. And I got so far as to building an electromagnet and some of the rest of the apparatus there. That was my first experience with really serious teaching, and I found it took a lot of time. The source materials were not available for part of the courses that I wanted to give, and I found needed statistical mechanics theory to carry it any further, and didn’t have the competence—the preparation to do it, So that a second term of a course that had planned to give was not given.
I was shifted off to optics, partly due to my request; and that course went very nicely. And then the next year gave the same first term course in the conduction of electricity through gases, and still there was no availability of textbook materials to give the second term. And found that didn’t like giving a course over again, suppose maybe beginning teachers quite commonly have this experience and live through it and get over it and become teachers in spite of it, But I didn’t go that far. knew that I was much less good in this course the second year that gave it than the first year, and I knew that wouldn’t have cared about giving it a third year at all. But I was very much attached to F. K. Richtmyer at Cornell, He was a live wire, and his field was X-rays. Now, he had a grant of money with which he could build a big X-ray plant with high-voltage sources. And he drew me into working on that, And he had a very good research assistant who was fast and quick and resourceful and got a lot of construction work done in a very short time. So it boiled down to my being kind of an order man and director and correspondent with the buyers and the planner and the writer of reports and so on associated with this team research of Richtmyer, Barton and Donald Mueller, He’s now at Los Alamos and he’s a good man,
This kind of work I found I liked better—desk work, administrative work. And it was Richtmyer who put me up for the directorship of the Institute of Physics. And as he described the nature of the job to me, I began to like it. And felt that teaching wasn’t really catching my great love, as I think many teachers do love teaching. It’s very nice that they do, but didn’t; so was very responsive to this new opportunity.
Had you been active in any way in any of the physics societies prior to this time?
I had delivered papers at Physical Society meetings, but I hadn’t ever had any official position nor acted on any committees.
One question about the X-ray work at Cornell, Do you recall where the grant came from—since it was a relatively large-scale program?
No, I’m afraid not. Richtmyer did that. I didn’t know.
Did the grant support Mueller?
Yes, Oh, it did more than that, It established the separate little building housing this X-ray equipment and supported the construction and purchase of all the material for the high-voltage plant, and it certainly supported Mueller—must have, He was a graduate student at the time.
When completed, how many people would have been involved? You refer to it as team research. I was just trying to get an idea of how big a team was involved.
I mentioned the three of us, There may have been one other man working with Mueller, That would have been all at the time that I left.
But no supporting personnel.
Not then, except that the shop made things for us.
And what would you say the long-range intent was of this X-ray facility?
From Richtmyer’s standpoint, frankly I don’t remember, Maybe Don Mueller would. saw it as a source of high voltages which might be useful to me later on, but don’t think any papers came out from it while was in it, I’m sure they didn’t,
The Journal of the Franklin Institute published a paper on “Comparison of Protons and Electrons in the Excitation of X-Rays by Impact.” But that was based on work
At the Bartol.
At the Bartol. There was a little thing that we have in our files from Mueller, as a matter of fact, which covers part of that, He just talks about the later period. He does mention, though, that C. D. Ellis came over for a summer course—and it was due to your effort.
How did that come about?
I was in Cambridge. That was one of the times.
This was not the first time, though.
No, not the first time. don’t remember when it must have been, Perhaps it was in the summer of 1929, although that doesn’t seem likely—maybe about ‘28, maybe while was at the Bartol. Anyway, Ellis and talked—probably in his laboratory in the Cavendish, and he was very hospitable—in fact, took me around to his house for lunch, He and I got along very well, I was already, as said, interested in the work he was doing, and I was glad to have the opportunity to talk with him more about that and especially to learn more about how you handled radioactive materials, which were the instruments for research for nuclear physics in the Cavendish at that time. I think that Ellis had already made up his mind that he would like to see a little of America. And very quickly got the notion, perhaps suggested by him, that it would be fine if he would come over and give us a summer sessionat Cornell. So it was the second summer, not the first year; so it must have been the summer of 1930 that he did come and gave us a summer session on radioactivity. And did certainly stimulate that. Of course, I had to sell it to the department, but had no difficulty in doing that. They were quite receptive to the idea, They were glad to have him, and it was a success—his visit there. I got pretty well acquainted with him, [I saw him most recently in London, May 1970.]
No one else doing work in that area?
Nobody was doing any work in nuclear work or radioactivity at that time at Cornell, In fact, he was before his time, but it didn’t take, This one summer session didn’t really get much started.
You need sources.
You need an awful lot. You need build-ups. But you need a continuing staff. You see, I left then after that.
Just getting back for a minute to this visit with him in the Cavendish—did you get to know Chadwick at all at the time?
No, I didn't get to know Chadwick. The only impression I had was from one meeting (and I think this was characteristic of him) in which he was rather taciturn and not very hospitable. You got the impression on first meeting Chadwick that he didn't have much time for you. I think this was just characteristic of the man. He was such a great physicist that it doesn't matter. I don’t know whether it was this time or another time in Cambridge. Yes, I do. It was not this time—it was later—that Karl Darrow and I happened to be in Cambridge at the same time, and we had a little interview with Rutherford. We heard later that Rutherford said to one of his colleagues: “You can't walk through the halls without running into Americans these days.”
It was his fault, because he was the major attraction. Did you get the feeling there that Chadwick was running the laboratory in terms of the internal logistics of it?
I didn’t have that feeling. I just didn’t have enough contact to judge. I talked with Aston. I don’t think that Chadwick would have been running the laboratory.
By “running,” I mean he was in charge of certain aspects of it.
He may have been.
This was a sunnier visit anyway, so you didn’t work in the laboratory. •
No, it was just in and out for a couple of days, several days.
Well, I just had a digression about the Cavendish. How did Richtmyer approach you regarding the possibility of coming to AIP?
Well, he came right out with it. He said that he wanted to discuss a thing with me which he felt was not in the interest of the physics department at Cornell, but he was of a mind to do it anyway. It certainly wasn’t what the head of the department would have liked, but he was away at the time for the sunnier.
Who was the head of the department?
Ernest Merritt was the head then. He and Richtmyer didn’t see eye to eye with each other very well either. In fact, there was a schism in the department, I think. Anyone would tell you that at that time. Gibbs was on Merritt’s side. Richtmyer was on the other side. This was resolved later by Richtmyer being made dean of the graduate school, and Gibbs became head of the department. I was sort of the one man who was pretty cozy with both sides. Perhaps that was an indication of an ability to get together with people of different views. Anyway Richtmyer just came out and said: “There Is this job going. They’re going to establish this Institute, and they need a secretary.” And he wanted to propose me for It. I thought It sounded fine. And then the next thing: I had this Interview with Compton, who knew me awfully well already. All he was Interested to know was whether I was really willing to be devoted wholeheartedly. He knew something of my background in connection with Industry and people who were In Industry In fairly high places. He thought that might be helpful financially.
It never was, but he thought It might be. Then I was Interviewed next by Pegram, and that went reasonably well, although Pegram was very much preoccupied by another crisis. One of his graduate students, a young Instructor, was missing in a boat accident in Long Island Sound. He was trying to hold the wife’s hand and trying to get a clue as to what might have happened. The boat was found finally, burnt and sunk. But anyway, Pegram certainly gave me a very fair hearing, and I think the tide was turned a little bit by Buffum, secretary of the Chemical Foundation, who said, “For heaven’s sake, get a young man that I can get along with.” Buffum had had trouble with Charlie Parsons, who was the secretary of the Chemical Society. There was a lot of real animosity between those two. So the things all went together.
I was offered the job. Subsequently I saw a list of other people who were proposed. I could see why some of them were turned down— not through a lack of ability but perhaps being older than they thought was quite right, or not being very well known among physicists. There was one man who would have been better than I certainly, and that was Ray Olpin. Has that name come to your attention? He was later president of Brigham Young University. He was a good Mormon and a very very able fellow—In fact, so able that if they’d got him, they probably wouldn’t have been able to keep hi! very long.
Do you remember who else had been considered?
I think you’d find It in some of these letters. I remember F. C. Brown, who had been head of the Museum of Science and Industry or some such name, right here in New York. They had a little place. And the only thing against him was that he was a little older than the man they were looking for. I don’t remember right now—-I should remember-— but there were several other names suggested.
Did anyone at the time in the preliminary discussions ask your views on what you thought the job should be and what this new Institute should be doing?
Well, If they did, I would have at that time reflected what had been told me by Compton and Pegram and Richtmyer, as they had outlined to me why there was a need for an Institute like this and what was wrong with physics and how it needed money; it needed more interest from industrial areas, more support; there were financial and publishing problems and so on as well as public relations. It was outlined—the various things which needed to be done and which they would expect me to do.
I asked that, because in your draft of the historical account you mentioned that there was certainly an interest in the publications and also then a reference to the broader aspects of the Institute’s program, a way of developing support for publications through developing a support of physics and an understanding of it. And in the discussions you emphasized your own view of the broader aspects of it. I think I got that from
Well, I think what you have in mind, Charlie, was this: that it was asked later on, several years later, how was the Institute presented to me, what was I told that the job was going to be. And, what I was told was not so much that we were going to take on the publishing. That developed later on to be the primary work, the work that involved the greatest number of employees and the greatest expenditure in dollars in the Institute. This was not what was first presented to me. What was presented to me was rather the job of promoting physics, of generating financial support through public relations and other ways, and dealing a great deal with newspapers, science writers. There weren’t too many science writers then, but those that there were I was to deal with— and developing a real solid basis of collaboration between the societies so that these things could be done. You had to have an organization that could work together before you could accomplish very successfully any of these other things: the promotion of physics, public relations and the raising of funds for the establishment by the promotion of physics in industry particularly. Those all were certainly the things that were emphasized to me.
In the short remaining time that we have, I would like to defer discussion of the carrying out of this program, and why in fact this was suggested as the program, to another time. I want to ask a more personal question about the decision to come to AIP: what it meant in terms of your research in physics. I know that you did include a stipulation that you could continue research. I wanted to know a little bit more about your feeling about that and , in fact, what happened when you raised it.
Yes, I did want to continue research, and it was arranged that I would have both time and a little money to use for that. I forget now whether it was $2- or $3000 a year. That was part of what the Chemical Foundation was willing to put up for the Institute of Physics. I used it to employ research assistants and help pay the cost of apparatus in Princeton. And that’s where Donald Mueller—he had switched from Cornell to Princeton, and he had developed very rapidly. Van de Graaff was there at that time, and Mueller got interested in the extension of the Van de Graaff machine into high pressure, so that he could run higher voltages with the same dimensions of the machine. Of course that worked. And that was nominally the research that I was doing with Don Mueller as a research assistant. But the Institute of Physics took so much time that I was only there in the laboratory for a little while on Saturdays and maybe some Sundays, too. And the research really was Don Mueller’s.
Did you commute?
I lived in Princeton.
Even while ...
Well, for about a year we lived in New York after we were married. I lived in New York before we were married, while I was here with the Institute. We were married in ‘33, and we lived here for another year—until the first child was born, and then we decided we’d go out to Princeton to live. You see, my wife was a Princeton girl, the daughter of a professor, in fact, so she was at home in Princeton, and I’ve always liked the place very much , and so I was very happy to live out there. I didn’t like living in New York with a baby too well. So we moved out there. I guess I must have started my research out there before we were married, as a matter of fact. It must have helped in my going around to see my girl. I continued it there. That’s Just an illustration of how close I kept with Princeton all the time. I kept going back there, and I turned naturally to Princeton as the place for doing this research work.
When you first moved from Cornell to take the position at the Institute here, did you move into New York at that time for the first stage?
And when did you start the research at Princeton?
It must have been very soon.
How long did that keep up?
I don’t remember this really, but I would say offhand something like four or five years.
But at first it was sporadic?
Yes, it got to be more and more, as I say, Don’s research rather than mine, so I was rather ashamed to have my name on the papers that came out. At the same time the Institute lost its angel, or the angel folded, in the Chemical Foundation; so that our financial situation was pretty bad, and we had to get rid of an annual deficit that we ran for a couple of years. I decided that they couldn’t really afford the money to support my research anymore, and that I .didn’t have the time to spend on it anyway. So it was to the Institute’s advantage just to drop it.
When you stipulated support for research and the possibility of continuing it, what did you have in mind, other than your continued interest in it? Was there a possibility in your mind that the Institute would not survive or that the position in fact might not work out in the long run, so that you wanted to make sure that you didn’t lose the continuity ... ?
Well, I did sort of hedge my bet in the sense that I took a year’s leave of absence from Cornell and could have gone back if the Institute hadn’t worked out or I hadn’t worked out in it. I could have done that. But I didn’t really want to go back.
I think it really takes us into a whole new era.
Yes, I think it does.
The personal decision and everything was made, and this is the point at which we can start digging into your personal history as it affected the subsequent history of the Institute. Why don’t we just
I think this is a good place to stop.