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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Walter Cady by R. Bruce Lindsay and W. James King on 1963 August 28,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Early interest in science; Brown University 1891-1896; Carl Barus; Universität Berlin 1897-1900, thesis work with Emil Warburg; American students in Germany; Wesleyan University 1902-1946. Early American Physical Society meetings, Arthur G. Webster. The piezo electric resonator and the frequency stabilizer, work on Rochelle salt crystals. Lawsuits regarding patent rights; independent inventors versus big corporations. Excerpts of family history, societies, list of outstanding students, list of patents; about Hans Jaffe, Frank Dietz, Frederick Slocum, the Langevin-Curie scandal. Avocations, old violins; disposition of his early apparatus, inventions, diaries; reasons for moving back to Rhode Island. Also prominently mentioned are: Clark, Albert Wallace Hull, Walter Kaufmann, Henry Parker Manning, Albert Abraham Michelson, A. M. Nicolson, Max Planck, Poulsen, Edward Bennett Rosa, Heinrich Rubens, Schwartz, George Wood Vinal; Scott Laboratory, and Western Electric Company.
We hope to ask Professor Cady about some details of his scientific career beginning with his education at Brown University and extending through his scientific work and teaching at Wesleyan University. The first thing we would like to ask about is your education in Providence and in particular here at Brown where you were a member of the Class of 1895. You speak a little in your biography about your experiences and the question that immediately comes to mind is: How did you really happen to get so interested in physics through your experiences here at Brown that you decided to become a physicist?
Well, I was always interested in “mechanical things” as it was called in those days. I can remember as a small kid hearing one of our parents say to somebody else, “that boy is going to be an engineer.” I didn’t know much what engineering meant but was complimented anyway though I didn’t accomplish anything that I can remember in that field. My first schooling was in a little primary school down on the corner of Williams and Thayer Streets run by a certain Miss Hale and I went there for a few years and then to the old Mowry and Goff School, which later became known as the English and Classical School, for seven years in the junior department and the senior department. The senior department corresponded to high school. I think perhaps the most interesting course that I ever took in any subject was a course in Latin, that Mr. Goff, the principal of the school, gave us there. He had a way of bringing it to life. I don’t remember anything I did in any particular practical way except I was always playing with mechanical toys around the house. I did conceive the idea finally, after having been 7 years at the English and Classical School, of going into electrical engineering. There, at the old school, down on Snow Street, was a laboratory room for physics and chemistry where there was a lathe and a few tools. They gave me permission to come down there Saturdays so I used to go there Saturday mornings. In the course of building myself an electric motor down there which ran very poorly, I decided I would like to go to M.I.T. and take a course in electrical engineering.
That was in the early ‘90s that you were there?
I graduated from the E. & C. school in 1891. I expected then to go to Brown for two years and then go to M.I.T. for a course in electrical engineering. Well, one thing that helped me change my mind was the fact that I had a bid to join Alpha Delta Phi. I had many friends in that fraternity but according to their standards they did not like to take in freshmen who were going to be in college for only two years, so I thought it over and I decided that I wanted to go with that crowd enough. And it turned out that I was very glad that I did. In my last year I took a course in physics under old Professor Blake, who was then still alive.
This was your first course in physics that you took in your senior year?
No, I took a course in general physics also. I took my first course in physics back in School.
What was your first course in physics at Brown?
We had two courses in science in my freshman year. Mr. Mount was here then and he gave a course in photography. I took that, it was free. The other course was probably in general physics.
Did Blake teach general physics then?
No, I didn’t have Blake till my Senior year, and who taught the general physics, I don’t know. I don’t remember now. Nobody of any great distinction, I think.
Was Palmer teaching at all?
Yes, I should have mentioned Palmer. I did have a course in physics under him and he asked me to come around and help him with some of his demonstration apparatus so I became fairly well acquainted with him, in that way. I had an opportunity then to look in at the shop of the Physics Department at Brown.
Wasn’t Wilson Hall relatively new at that time? It had just been opened in 1889 or somewhere around then?
Yes, it had been opened a few years so we did not think of it as a brand new building. Brown’s course in photography was interesting. He taught us among other things, the old-fashioned wet plate process, sensitizing our own plates, and some of the best pictures I ever took were on those old wet plates -- big 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 plates, with the camera on a tripod. In fact, Mr. Jonah, at the library, has shown some interest in the ones that I took in those days.
You mentioned a course in optics that you took at Brown in your autobiography and said that played a role in your decision.
Yes, that was under Professor Blake. You see, I was the only one that elected that course so he led me through the apparatus and took one thing after another out. I think it was that, more than anything else, that decided me to stay in the field of physics rather than to go into electrical engineering, and so I gave up entirely the idea of going to M.I.T.
Did you have other courses in other fields which made you sufficiently interested to make you think you might like to major there; for example, you took a course in German, I know you have a great command of German. Did that arouse any interest in languages as such?
I never seriously thought of going into any branch of the humanities as a career. I did have a very curious mental experience when I first arrived in Germany in 1897. For many years I had an intense hobby -- flowers and birds -- and one of the first things I did was to visit their big botanical gardens. I became so engrossed seeing all the wonderful things they were doing in the gardens and seeing the birdlife there that, for a day or two, I was seriously puzzled as to whether I was making a mistake by not taking biology for my life’s career instead of physics.
Had you had some courses in biology here?
I never took a single course in biology in my whole life -- it was my hobby. My mother was much interested in natural history and maybe that had something to do with it. Well, I shook that off and stayed in physics. But that course with Professor Blake was what really started me on a physics career and he made it very fascinating. Soon after that time he died, and Barus came.
Hadn’t he been in poor health for some time?
I think so, I don’t remember much about it as we were a long distance apart until I came into that courser Then Barus came and I decided to stay on at Brown for a year or so and take some graduate work. I didn’t have a definite idea of what I would do after that. But Barus gave an excellent course in theoretical physics and showed a little kindly interest in me.
Were there many taking the course at the time, do you recall?
Oh, I would guess about 4 or 5, not more than that, anyway.
What did you use for a text in the course?
I think Barus relied entirely on his notes. I don’t think we had any textbooks in that course in theoretical physics.
Did Blake have a textbook for his course?
I don’t remember then if he had a textbook or not. My own contacts with him doing experiments, and writing up reports on them, was more inspiring than any book could have been. But in my second year there, Barus put me to work on a piece of minor research which appeared in due time in the Phil Mag., practically all done by him. I did the manual labor that had to do with the measurement of the volume of an air-thermometer bulb. Well, after that Barus told me that I ought to go to Germany and get my doctorate and suggested that I go to Berlin.
Why did he suggest Berlin? Do you suppose it was because of the famous people there?
Very likely, because he knew more people there than anywhere else. He gave me notes of introduction to Warburg who was head of the physics library, and to Kohlrausch who wrote the “Praktische Physik” book) you know, who was then Director of the Physikalische Reichsanstalt.
Kohlrausch had been one of his professors at Gottingen if I’m not mistaken.
I think that’s probably true, yes. He was a pretty elderly man, when I met him. He very kindly invited me out to his home many times and I was there one evening when I met Van’t Hoff and his family, who were in Berlin at that time. Barus also gave me letters of introduction to Lummer, Pringsheim, and Rubens.
Could you say a word about your feeling with respect to Barus as he was then as a teacher? I ask that oddly enough for my own interest, as I had him for a teacher too, but many years af , when I felt somehow that he had become rather disillusioned. Now, when he came here, he hadn’t taught before, he had been entirely a research physicist in government and I wondered how he started out. Did you have a feeling that he had a tremendous enthusiasm and wanted to impart things to students? Did you think of him as a good teacher in those days?
No, I wouldn’t put him with the great teachers that I had. He taught very much in the German tradition, didn’t quite click his heels together and say “my name is...” or something like that when he started out, but it almost amounted to that. He read from his lecture notes and put things on the blackboard very clearly. And as I remember, he spoke in a strong German accent and that made it necessary for us to pay close attention.
Well, then it is surprising that you did continue in physics after all -- you had a good introduction under Blake, but then Barus was another kind of person.
Another kind in a way, but Barus came here with a pretty big reputation and he showed such an obvious command of the subject. I think we all recognized him as a big man even though he wasn’t such an outstanding teacher.
By this time your own interest in physics had been fairly well developed?
Yes, you see it began with Blake’s influence in that course in optics and then grew under Barus. I was also taking some laboratory courses around that same time, so I felt an easy prey when he suggested to me that it might be a good thing for me to go to Germany.
Were you interested in mathematics of did you take it largely because you felt it was needed for physics?
Oh, I suppose a little of both. I don’t think I ever felt I had enough ability in mathematics to become a mathematician.
You had courses with Henry Parker Manning.
Yes, I remember a course in theory of functions that I took in those two graduate years under Manning and that I thought it very engrossing. I spent a great deal of time over it and enjoyed it.
Was he deaf at that time, do you recall?
Yes, pretty deaf but a very good teacher. Fred Slocum, whom you possibly may have known --
Oh, I knew him well, he was also a teacher of language, he came back here during the war --
He was a classmate of mine at Brown and we ran along parallel for a number of years. He took the same courses under Manning and I think he took the course in theoretical physics under Barus.
He also studied under the astronomer, Winslow Upton.
Yes, there was one year when Upton was away on a leave of absence and Professor Very was here. Very was an astronomer and gave a course in astro-physics here. Fred Slocum and I took the course. I think we were the only ones in it. The work was partly observation, but it was mostly calculating and hearing his lectures.
It’s interesting, because Fred Slocum became your colleague at Wesleyan for quite a while. We can come back to that a little later.
Slocum was at the Yerkes Observatory for a number of years and then he came to Wesleyan.
You spoke of doing your Master’s degree with Barus and that he contributed ideas. Was he interested in giving you any help, that is, when you ran into a difficulty -- did he help you, or did you have to work it out by yourself?
I always felt free to call on him anytime. He was not lacking in personal interest in his students in that way.
At that time, do you recall whether he had many students who were taking Master’s work with him or just a handful?
I don’t suppose there were more than 4 or 5 who took Master’s degrees in physics under him the year that I did. It was after my first graduate year that I took the Master’s degree, not after the second.
But you stayed on that second.
Yes, I stayed on through a second year.
Did you do any teaching yourself while you were here, in spite of that.
They had a vicious practice in those days, taking on first year graduates starting in graduate school, and putting them in charge of freshman sections in mathematics. There were 3 of us in my class, Fred Slocum, Fred Clapp (a Providence boy), and I, who were appointed instructors in physics. I had in my class quite a number of boys whom I had known all my life and were almost as old as I was. Some of the class called me professor and some called me by my first name.
Is that the first time you thought that you might like to follow the academic field or did you feel somehow that was the only outlet for physicists in those days?
Oh, as I remember it, I was so anxious to get into experimental physics that I grasped the idea of studying under Warburg in Berlin because they had quite a reputation of accomplishments in experimental physics. If there had been more industrial and government openings in this country, as there are today, I might perhaps have decided to stay here. I don’t know. But I did know there were good opportunities for experimental physicists in Berlin, so I went there. I was hoping that I might at least spend a summer semester in some of the other universities, perhaps in Southern Germany though I wanted to get back here and finish my work over there in as few semesters as possible. I started off in my first semester on my thesis, and that work occupied all five semesters, so that I did not get away anywhere else, to my great regret.
Would you make some comments on comparing the kind of teaching that you got in Berlin with the kind of teaching that you got here at Brown?
I think in Barus’ lectures I had a little foretaste of what was to come in Germany. The work there was taking lecture notes and not learning lessons out of books, and so I enjoyed the work under various people there.
You were entitled more or less to take what courses you wished to take and you therefore picked them yourself, I suppose?
The elective system was absolutely free there. I think if I wanted to spend most of my time taking courses in languages, astronomy, or in chemistry, I was perfectly free to do so. The doctor’s examination was not based on specific courses.
Wasn’t the examination mainly on the thesis?
I would say, half on the thesis and half on general physics, but I always had the feeling that it was an examination that would be called very easy today. I think you would smile if you saw how simple some of the questions were that Warburg asked the in that oral examination.
You were expected to speak German on this examination, I take it.
Warburg spoke English quite well and conducted the examination mostly in English.
Yes, but I knew hardly any German, speaking German, at least, when I first went over there, so Warburg started out, in our first interview, speaking English to me. He found at the same time, I guess, that he could carry on that way instead of trying to understand my German. But in all my contacts with the other professors there, especially Schwartz in mathematics, and Landolt in Chemistry, and Dilthey in philosophy, none of them spoke English enough to attempt it and by the time I got around to taking courses under them, I had come to speak German fairly well myself.
I couldn’t help but notice the name of Dilthey as being one of the members of your committee. Was this a normal practice to have a member from philosophy on a science committee?
The theory is that the doctorate that you take in Germany is the doctor of philosophy. Now if they are going to give you a doctorate in philosophy, then you in all logic ought to know a little philosophy. It’s traditional in Berlin, they told me, and always has been to demand a course in philosophy as a fourth subject in addition to the usual major and two minors. My major was physics, minors in mathematics and chemistry. In addition, I spent almost all of my time, in the last semester, leading up to the examination, reading about Hume and Spinoza and Descartes and other people that I hadn’t the slightest interest in. I noticed a sarcastic smile hovering around Dilthey’s face as he listened to my answers. But I think that he recognized, as everyone else did, it was just a sort of formality and that he could perhaps get some comic anecdotes out of some of the answers.
What kind of a person was Dilthey?
Oh, I don’t know, I never met him except that one evening.
Just that one evening, among your committee?
Yes, I never took any of his courses. I wanted to have Poulsen for my examiner in philosophy, because he had the reputation of being easy on foreigners. I attended his lectures a little. He was rather a nice, benevolent looking old gentleman had written a book; in fact, I think I had read his book in preparation for the examination. But when I went to call on Paulsen with my dress suit on, which I had to do on those formal occasions, to ask him if he would honor me by being my examiner, he said he was sorry that he had an appointment that evening. And it was for that reason that I turned to Dilthey. Otherwise I never had anything to do with him at all.
Your program then in Berlin was confined to the sciences only?
Nothing whatever except physics, chemistry, and mathematics. I took a course under Schwartz in mathematics; he had the reputation of being the mathematical orator. He had a very oratorical style, made wide sweeping gestures, his shirtfront would stick out through his vest once in a while, and with the gymnastic efforts that he made, he was quite a guy. But he taught a very interesting course.
Did he teach function theory too, or what was it you took with him?
What I had with him was elliptic functions. I may have sharpened my mathematical faculties taking it under him and I found it quite interesting. When I went around to call on Schwartz and asked him if he would examine me on a certain Monday evening, he said “no, he had an engagement that evening,” but he said, “if you could come up the day before, Sunday, to my home down in Grunewald, we’ll have coffee together and I’ll give you your examination then.” So I went down then and he introduced me to Frau Schwartz and we had coffee and cake together and then came the examination. Of course, after that it wouldn’t have been quite hospitable if he had flunked me, so I passed.
What led you to the type thesis that you undertook -- was this Warburg’s suggestion or had you some interest yourself in cathode rays?
I told Warburg that I would like to undertake a thesis in optics and if they had any problem they could give me, I would be glad to handle it, as I didn’t have anything in my own mind at that time. Well, he said they didn’t have very much equipment for that but there was a question still under debate and they would like to have me undertake a little piece of research to help settle it. That was the question whether cathode rays were particles or waves. J. J. Thomson had made observations on them, and nearly everybody was convinced that they were to be treated, for the time anyway, as particles. But an old fellow named Jaumann in Germany still continued to write papers defending the wave theory and they put me to work on that problem. So what I did was to measure the energy of the cathode rays and apply certain formulas that were compatible with the idea of their being particles rather than waves and my results came out in agreement with those formulas, so this was one more confirmation of the particle theory.
This did not apparently suggest to you further research in that field that you would like to do, or at least you did not go ahead in that direction when you came back. Have you thought about it?
If I had had the facilities, I might have. I did not come back, I’m sure, with the full intention of working in that field. I might have, if I could have foreseen that what I was doing was a little taste of modern physics. But it wasn’t called that then, cathode rays were only an embellishment on the face of physics that hadn’t come to be a very important part. When I came back, the big idea was to get a job and the first opening that I had was on the Coast Survey, in the magnetic department under Bauer, so I started on that; I had two years of it.
That was in Washington?
Yes, I was in Washington, I was head of a magnetic observatory that was just built a few miles outside of Washington in Maryland; I was there about two years. After that time I decided to look for a college job. Bauer tried to persuade me to stay on but I wrote letters to half-a-dozen different colleges and located a job at Wesleyan.
Who was at that time teaching physics at Wesleyan?
Yes, E. B. Rosa.
He was at one time a government scientist too, wasn’t he?
Yes, he had been for some time; he was a Wesleyan graduate, class of 1886, and joined the Wesleyan faculty after taking his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1891. He became one of the ablest and most influential members of the Wesleyan faculty, and published a number of papers. His work among the students had more to do with engineering than with physics. Anyhow, he had a call from the Bureau of Standards and he left at the end of the college year, 1901-1902, and it was that vacancy that ma& it possible for me to get the job there.
Well, when you went, were you the only teacher of physics?
Oh no, there was Professor Crawford, an old graduate, who was the professor of physics. After Röntgen discovered the X-rays, Crawford must have been one of the first in this country to buy an X-ray tube for the department and he used this plus the other apparatus that was left over from Rosa. Crawford continued to give a course in General Physics after I started there. The course that I gave that first year was in elementary electricity and magnetism. In fact, I continued to teach electricity and magnetism all the way through. For a time I used Page and Adams’ book. [Note: P & A was first published in 1931.]
Oh yes, towards the end; it wasn’t available in 1902.
No, no, it came about fifteen years later than that; came about 1920 or so. You see, I spent about fifty years in Middletown.
Well, that’s a long time. On the whole, did you enjoy both the teaching and research there?
I’m very glad, on the whole, that I was teaching in a small college; in the first place, it was a college of high standards with a very delightful group of people. When I was married, my wife and I seemed to fit into the general atmosphere and we enjoyed the social side immensely, Of course, there were little handicaps on the physical side; getting assistance and equipment and so on. I remember I went to the President and he laid the matter before a committee of the trustees when I, who was young and obscure at that time, badly needed $200.00 to buy a potentiometer. I had to wait quite a while but finally I got the money.
This was before the Scott Laboratory was built; you of course had something to do with the design and construction of that laboratory.
Quite a little. When I accepted the position the new project had not been announced and what made me a little hesitant about going to Wesleyan more than anything else was that the physics department was so shabbily housed, with different branches in three different buildings. But before I started in, an announcement came that a new building was to be built. It was some few years, of course, before it actually went up, but I spent a good part of that first year with Professor Crawford, going over the plans and asking for certain arrangements, rooms, and so forth. Some of our requests were granted and some weren’t. It was a memorial building and had a lot of carved granite in front; we would have liked to convert this into galvanometers and such things.
Well, I must say I was very favorably impressed by the appearance of that laboratory. It always looked like a very efficient one and, at the same time, beautifully maintained and scrupulously clean, and I always wondered how you managed to do it.
Well, we did try to be good housekeepers but the building was really a fire-trap. It had old wooden cabinets in the interior, wooden staircases, wooden floors; all that sort of thing. It’s a wonder that nothing ever happened to it.
It still stands?
Well, Wilson Hall is the same idea and that still stands.
Well, yes the same idea, it’s very thick. We are now about to build a new laboratory, you know.
Yes, so I understand. Will Wilson Hall be used for physics?
I don’t know; I doubt if it will be used for physics, it might be used for offices by the department. What do you think about the laboratories in Berlin as compared with the laboratories here? Did they have much more equipment?
It’s difficult for me to make comparisons as I had not been to any graduate schools or any colleges here other than Brown. I knew fairly well what was on the shelves then at the east end of Wilson Hall but I had not seen the laboratories at Harvard or Yale or anywhere else, so I just couldn’t draw comparisons. All I do know is that they had what you’d expect in a big University in Vienna or Berlin; a fairly wide and generous assortment of apparatus. I do remember one thing though, they had a big standard voltmeter, a Weston Voltmeter, which must have been imported from this country. It was the only one of its kind they had in the laboratory and it was always being toted from one place to another by someone who didn’t have it. There were limitations even over there.
That must have been Weston Model No. 1.
Quite possible, I don’t know. I do remember it was Weston; however, I don’t remember the model.
In doing your thesis work under Warburg did he interfere very much, or did you do it pretty much on your own all the way through?
My immediate supervisor was Walter Kaufmann who later went to Göttingen and did some work on beta rays. There was hardly a morning when Kaufmann in the course of his rounds didn’t come down to my room in the basement.
Was he a professor at that time?
I think he probably was a full professor, I don’t exactly remember what his title was; I don’t think I took any courses under him. I did attend Warburg’s course in General Physics once in a while to see how they did it in Germany. I don’t see that it was so very different from this country.
But Kaufmann gave you some advice or encouragement?
Oh yes, I think it was Kaufmann who planned the whole thesis, though whether he or Warburg were more intimately concerned in working out the details, I don’t know. Anyway, practically all I had to do was to take over a blueprint and carry it through. I can remember at least one innovation that I had thought out and put up to them one day, only to learn from Kaufmann that it wasn’t practical. Warburg seemed to like it. I can’t say that any real original ideas of mine went into that thesis as a whole.
At that time you say there was some disagreement in Germany whether the X-rays were particles or waves; you think that the majority of Ger man physicists were pretty much convinced that they were dealing with an entity of particular character. Had they thought much about the measurement of E as charge? You know about that time some experiments began to be made in England by Townsend with clouds; the thing that led ultimately to our Millikan’s experiment. Were the German in Berlin interested in that?
They may have been, I don’t know. I always concentrated on my one little corner so I didn’t go frequently to the meetings of the Physikalische Gesellschaft in Berlin. They met every two weeks in the evening, and I have very vivid memories of two or three things that happened then. I remember one evening, when Rubens gave a talk on some recent experimental work that was being done in France. He showed certain minerals and when you looked at them in the dark with your eyes relaxed they give off a little faint visible glow; they also gave off a curious radiation, discarded electric fixed objects and such things as that. He didn’t use the word radioactivity. I don’t think it had been coined at that time, but that was to the best of my knowledge, the first announcement of Radioactivity made in Berlin.
Was there much talk of Heat Radiation; Rubens of course had done work in heat radiation himself, I think, leading up to Planck’s Radiation Law and, of course, Planck was there, wasn’t he, at Berlin at that time?
Oh yes, I started out taking his course. He gave us a cycle of courses in theoretical physics that lasted through six semesters starting with a course in mechanics and it so happened that course in mechanics came that first semester I was there, so I was there at the very beginning of the cycle, and went very dedicatedly to all his lectures at first. All his lecture notes came first and then his homework; he used to give a great deal of homework, he would put a problem on the board and we would copy it down. Of course, it was voluntary, nobody was required to do this, but those who did choose to do the problem would hand it in and if he had any comment to make about the problem the following day, he would do so. I remember one day at the beginning of the hour, he commented on the last day’s problems and said that Herr “Kah-dee” had written a corollary and had extended the problem a little; he seemed quite pleased at that and when I went up to get my paper back at the end of the hour he said “ganz hübsch”. The work of doing the thesis and getting ready to come back home after two years and a half was so pressing that after a while I gave up hearing Planck; I only listened occasionally and heard a few lectures on thermodynamics. I’ve always been very sorry that I didn’t go to more, and wished that there might have been a day when he said to his class, “There’s a curious kind of thing called a Quantum.” As far as I know he never brought anything of that sort up in his classes.
Of course the birth of quantum theory was supposed to be sometime in 1900. You might have left, I suppose, by that time, there were some questioning remarks.
I left in March of 1900; I suppose by that time he had his work pretty much in completion.
I suppose so.
Yes, it was completed in 1900; it must have been 1910 before I got around to reading it.
Well, I don’t think in those days new ideas made quite such an immediate splash as they do today when the New York Times gets the first announcement of a new discovery. In those days, I think people weren’t so thrilled by physics.
Yes, oh well, Science was a sort of exhibit in a glass case then and the daily papers were not so interested in it. Am I speaking loud enough?
Well I think you could speak just a little bit louder. Was Planck a very stimulating lecturer?
He was a very dry sort of lecturer but he was stimulating in the fact that he had a good voice which carried well and he had such utter confidence and a complete mastery of the subject. He had, of course, a big reputation long before he taught radiation.
Did you have much contact with the German students?
I wish I had had more; I spent most of my time going around with Americans. I went to all the affairs of the American Colony therefore, you realize the limitations. I went to the American Church and all that sort of thing, so I did not see as much of the student life as I wish I had.
This was the time when a great many Americans were going to the German Universities to get Doctorates?
Yes, they certainly were, and a number of the students I met over there were Americans. The curious thing is that there were not many in physics or the sciences that I had to do with, but more in language and literature and so forth. There were only two or three physicists. Duane had just taken his degree and was leaving when I first met him there. Another one was A. P. Wills, from Columbia, and he was just finishing up then. Then there was Graham, I can’t tell you where he went. He did teach physics here for a few years, then I lost contact with him. I remember best E. P. Lewis; Lewis already had the Doctor’s degree. He had gotten it at Johns Hopkins and was older than most of us, but a very companionable fellow, and he and I and one other roomed together for two or three semesters. Then he came back to this country and started teaching at the University of California, but he died soon after.
Now what did the Germans have for a device for communicating the recent advances in physics. They had the Physikalische Gesellschaft, but did they have seminars which would correspond to our physical colloquia?
I ought to be able to tell you that. The Physikalische Gesellschaft meetings, I think, must have been open to other than members of the Society because they had pretty big audiences sometimes. I suppose the meetings were open to all graduate students, for example.
But they didn’t have anything like our colloquia meetings or departmental meetings?
Oh, in the Universities, they did. They had weekly colloquia. I went to a good many of them, but I didn’t go to all of them by any means. Frankly, I found most of them pretty dull.
Rather lengthy too, I guess? Seems to me I remember going to one in 1923, and I thought it would never end. I was getting hungry but the Germans didn’t seem to feel that way. Like a Wagnerian Opera.
Of course, graduate work in American Universities had not really gotten well established at that time. It was a rather novel thing; of course, Johns Hopkins was giving degrees but that was somewhat unusual. As I recall, the Harvard Faculty combated Elliot’s desire that they should give advance work. He worked quite heartily for many years and had a hard time getting the Harvard Faculty to give the Ph.D.. Of course, we started here, I believe, in 1889, but there were very few doctors I suppose even in your time as far as you can remember, very few Doctorates were given here at Brown. Even when Barus became Dean in 1903, it was very rare; no more than two or three a year would be given. Now I’d like to ask something about how well the American students were prepared for the work in Berlin. This is going back to something you said just a few minutes ago; that you felt that the German Universities were not too different from the American Universities in terms of the training they give.
I didn’t mean to make a sweeping statement covering all aspects of the universities. And, of course not attending the universities in this country, I don’t think I can make a comparison. It seems to me that most of the students that came over there like me, came with very little knowledge of German. It was hard work and they picked it up rather rapidly as they went along, but I don’t think most of the American students in Physics spent more time among the Germans than they had to. They were over there primarily to get their degree and come back. For example, there was Charles A. Skinner who was later at the Bureau of Standards for a number of years He took his degree when I was there. He had already been there for a few semesters beforehand. Well, when you take your degree, you know, you have to go through the ceremony of having opponents attack your thesis. I don’t have to enlarge on that. Anyway, Skinner had for his two opponents, Almy, who was an associate of Skinner’s, who later taught somewhere up in the Mid-West, and myself. And so, according to custom, he wrote out the attacks he expected us to make against his thesis in German and we wrote out our rebuttals, and when the time came we simply recited our farce as though they were little pieces of school dramatics. But the thing I’m pointing out is that both of the opponents whom Skinner picked were Americans, and I guess he didn’t know any others well enough to choose them.
You’re permitted to pick more or less your own opponents, is that true?
Yes; well, in the old days, in the days of Martin Luther, it was a serious matter. It was as if they were prepared to shoot those who made Doctorates, and people might come from all over Europe who had heard of this man, and try to have a whack at it and attack his thesis. But that’s all gone now and only the mere ceremony is left. And this Almy of whom I spoke also took his doctor’s degree and I think he had me and Skinner as his opponents. I’m not sure now but so it was in a number of cases. In my own case, I had as one of my opponents an American medical student whom I had met at the home of some Americans in Berlin, but he had gone to a German school and had become thoroughly germanized, so it was just like having a native German as my opponent. Incidentally, he later became my brothe-in-law.
Did the American students who went to Berlin have much trouble adjusting to the atmosphere there, that is, did they have to make up courses, or did they simply jump in the water and swim so to speak?
I think that’s what you did just like every time you take a new course in the University here and you don’t know exactly what it’s all about, you’re jumping in the water and swimming. More often than not you hope you’ll survive and swim through to the other side. I think that is more or less how it is here and it was a little more difficult for Americans over there on account of the language. However, the Professor is quite likely to take an interest in the foreign student that comes to him, and I suppose that was true then more or less. If a man is a human being he takes interest in those who come from a great distance and is ready to help in any way. And that not only helps in getting the information you need but it braces up your morale to have your professor take a personal interest in you.
Did this extend to social contacts? Were students invited to their Professor’s homes to meet their families or was this somewhat rare?
Not in my case. The only Professor whose home I was invited to a number of times, was Kohlrausch and that was because I had a letter of introduction from Barus.
Did you ever meet Professor Voigt?
You had a lot to do with him when you wrote your book.
I’ve written his name a great many times. No -- I didn’t even know of him then. I had no interest at all in crystals or crystallography.
When you got started in your work at Wesleyan what was your interest in organizations such as the American Physical Society. It started, I guess, at the time you went to Wesleyan. Did you become a member very early?
I’m sure I must have become a member the first year there. I remember going to meetings of the Society that were almost always held then at Columbia in New York. I don’t remember when I read my first paper. It probably wasn’t till eight or ten years had passed.
Do you remember anything about the big “Lions of Physics” at that time who showed up. I suppose Michelson, who was, I think, the first President of the Society, must have come to these meetings. Barus was, I think, the second president of this society.
I remember Michelson very well; I remember A. G. Webster particularly.
Oh, yes. What was the role of Webster, what did he do at these meetings?
He did something you hardly would expect when you first met him. He was very aristocratic in appearance, rather stern and reserved, and yet I don’t know anybody who manifested such human interest in the young speakers: the young doctors who were awfully embarrassed to read their papers in front of the rest of the society. In most cases when they sat down, there came a deadly silence and then the speaker called for the next paper. But it was not so when Webster was there, he was almost sure to get up and think of something to say that he could compliment the speaker on or a question to ask him, and that was a trait that Webster was almost alone in holding.
Did you get to know him before he was at Clark?
I knew him from those early days because he took an interest in the younger fellows but I never dined out with him or anything of that sort. He died in ‘23 while I was abroad.
Yes, he killed himself; he apparently couldn’t stand Mr. Atwood at Clark. That is one of the stories at any rate. That’s what Barus had to say about it; I think Barus knew him rather well.
I suppose he must have, yes. Michelson I remember quite well though I never came to know him intimately at all. I remember the day that somebody read a paper which contained a demonstration of the manufacture of a Vortex. I don’t think I’ve seen that in the books since then, but anyway, it was quite a striking demonstration. He had a little can of melted paraffin with a hole in the side that he immersed in a big tank of water. When he struck the other side of the can that put a little impulse on the paraffin and out shot a little mass of paraffin, which from the friction around the sides of the hole, of course, developed into a little Vortex. It was nice to see it rise for a little while until it was covered with water, then it either sank to the bottom or floated to the top depending how much air it had in it. Michelson was very interested in that, and after the meeting was over, a number of people gathered around the table and asked the speaker, I forget who he was now, to repeat the experiment so they could see it more closely.
It was almost like a paraffin smoke-ring?
Yes, that’s exactly how it was. I remember Michelson leaning over looking at these things closely and saying “can you still see them squirm”?
Some of the men that were among the organizers of the Physical Society were electrical engineers like Elilu Thompson, who I think was one of the early officials in the society. Did he participate in the meetings very much?
Were electrical engineers you say?
One of the notable examples of that was Pupin. Of course, he was primarily an engineer. I came to know Pupin quite well, in World War I, because he was on a committee that was working on the Anti-submarine problem.
Did you get acquainted with the Harvard group at all when you were in Wesleyan? In physics there was B. O. Pierce, or was he in mathematics?
Pierce, I think, was in mathematics. I didn’t come to know him very well anyway. Oh yes, a number of them I came to know fairly well for one reason or another. Saunders, of course, but he was in Acoustics and I remember Lyman whom I met slightly. I think he would have recognized me, maybe, but not intimately at all. He was another rather aristocratic and reserved sort of person.
You know Saunders has just died?
Yes, I saw that. I was very sorry.
Just recently, he was 87 I think. Yes, Dr. King was wondering a little bit about your relationship with A. W. Hull at General Electric.
Did you have quite intimate contact with him?
Yes, Hull was a little younger than I, but we had been acquainted for long years before World War I, and especially after that conference in Washington in 1917, 1 had decided to go into piezo-electricity. I forget now how down at Yale he learned that I was interested in that field. Anyhow, he came up to see me and said I could have my choice between developing my ideas at Wesleyan or he thought I might be able to plan to join a group somewhere, because it was the easiest way to get results as quickly as possible. And it was at his suggestion that I went up to Schenectady and joined him. I think I was the only outsider in Hull’s laboratory. But I had become interested in using Rochelle-salt crystals then and Hull was doing the same thing so he and I worked together, each one developing his own ideas as to how to make senders and receivers. Of course, we had the full resources of a big laboratory up there to back us.
You had known Hull before then though?
Oh yes, I had known him previously. I came to know Hull about as well as any other contemporary physicist. Except for maybe A. T. Wills; he and I were very close too.
I think you have answered most of the questions about Wesleyan we had in mind. You say you taught electricity and magnetism more or less all the time you were there. What was your average teaching schedule in those days? How many courses were you expected to teach as a Professor?
Well, instead of thrashing around in my memory for that, let me tell you tomorrow.
It’s not terribly important but just as a matter of interest because the teaching load and how much time left for research has a 1ring sometimes on what a man does. But you might like to think that over.
Well, I could speak more definitely later rather than hesitating now. What I remember is that I usually gave three or three and a half courses in the course of a week.
I think now we perhaps might start on the important story of the piezo-electric resonator and the frequency stabilizer. In your little autobiography, you say most of the story is told in Ted Hunt’s Book. He certainly does present this but there are still some questions that are not too clear, particularly with respect to the patenting of your devices, and then the judgment with respect to those patents in the courts. This is a rather ticklish question and I don’t know how much you want to say about it. The contents do give the impression, which seems to be verified by your notes, that you felt that the court ultimately vindicated your claim to be the first to devise this frequency stabilization, though in the meantime I take it, the actual court cases were fought not by you but by RCA, to whom you had disposed your patent? Is that correct?
Yes, the interference suit against my patent was declared by Western Electric and I carried that on for a little while, while lawyer’s fees and things kept mounting.
Didn’t you have any income from it at all then?
You just had the fun of the law suit.
So, I was glad to sell out and RCA at that time thought enough of the patents to pay a small sum for them, even though they had this encumbrance resting upon them. Well, I think they arrived at some sort of a compromise with Western Electric after a while. What they did before they finally shook hands I don’t know. Maybe it concerned me. All I know is, from that time on, no matter what law-suit Western had, it was carried by RCA and not by myself.
In that connection, what is your idea of the value of a patent? Of course you had patented the device although at the same time you had made free disclosure in the scientific literature of what you had done. Were you actuated then by what was at that time a common feeling that you should have a right to exploit this thing financially if it turned out to be valuable?
Yes, what I had hoped was that I might dispose of the invention to some concern either for a fixed sum or a royalty or a combination of the two. In fact, it was with that in mind that I approached the Western Electric Company.
You approached them on that?
Oh yes, it was a very complicated situation. Their director of research was a former student of mine, Harold Arnold, and Arnold, of course, came back to Wesleyan for various occasions. One time he was back for Washington’s Birthday -- I think that was it -- in the year when I had just invented the Resonator, and as I knew he was interested, and also since I had it in the back of my mind that I might interest his company in the thing, I took him down to the basement and showed him, freely, everything I was doing. I told him all about it and asked him to think it over and see if there was anything his Company might be interested in.
Had you already filed any patent application then?
I don’t remember. It was about the time I was doing it anyway. Well, in course of time he replied and said that he did not see any use for it just at that time. He was present at New York when I gave a talk for the Physical Society on the Resonator. I think I gave some demonstrations showing how it reacted upon the driving circuit and so on, and in the conversation that Arnold and I had afterwards, he said, “It would be awfully nice if you could find some way to make the crystals not only resonate like this, but also control the frequency.” Well, I hadn’t thought of that and on the train going back to Middletown, I thought the thing over and instead of going home and going to bed as I should have done, I went right up to the laboratory and started setting things up and in a few days I began to get definite results in the stabilizing of the current by means of the crystals and was working out the theory of it. Well, it’s rather a sad story if I follow it out to the end; but there came a time when I wrote them of what I had accomplished. They replied that they were sorry but they didn’t see that they had any use for it, they had other things that were working satisfactorily; but what they did not tell me was that at that same time they were preparing to equip W. E. A. F. with crystal control. Well, that’s one example of the way you get treated by a powerful corporation.
Does that wholly reflect on Mr. Arnold or do you suppose he couldn’t help himself?
I think he may have been involved in the suit against me, and also in a later suit against G. W. Pierce. The circuit in use today is Pierce’s, not the one that I originally started. Pierce had a lot of trouble until the time of his death because almost every time there came an infringement suit against him, the question came up of how he came to make his invention and that led back to a consideration by the court of the various circumstances that had come before. My work and Nicolson’s work, and whether Nicolson or I had the priority, was considered by the judge in rendering a decision in one of those cases -- the one you’re speaking of here, I think. The judge said that he found nothing on frequency control in Nicolson’s work, that Nicolson nowhere teaches the use or the properties of the Crystal Oscillator. Do you have that memorandum?
Yes, this is in 1953. Do you think that Arnold deliberately asked you about this material and at the same time was working with Nicolson?
I don’t like to think so because I had a high opinion of Arnold; he was a very lovable boy. He was my assistant and came very close to me in the laboratory. Yet I can hardly explain what happened on any other basis than that he had virtually sold his soul to the company.
Who was Nicolson? He doesn’t ring a bell in my mind at all. Was he an electrical engineer?
I suppose so, he was a native Englishman by the way, not an American, and I don’t know how long he’d been employed by the Western Electric Company. The Bell System Organization got out a brochure that they called Historic Firsts.
The Famous Firsts and Lloyd Espenschied wrote that, if I am correct.
That may be, I don’t know.
Now, he was involved in setting up W.E.A.F.?
He was the one who did that, I think; I’m not sure.
I wonder if he was involved in the use of the crystal as a control.
I think it was crystal control that played a prominent part in setting up W.E.A.F.
Mr. Arnold never corresponded with you to try to explain what happened.
He died very shortly after that and he was a young man when he died so I never have known what his own reaction to it all was. But they have a very powerful and very unscrupulous patent department as many of the corporations do. I can speak with some confidence about that because for the last few months I’ve been a member of a panel on patents which has met a couple of times in Washington. It has on it members of the patent office, members of industries and a few people from the universities and technological schools. I think the reason why they asked me to be a member of the committee was that they knew I had been an independent inventor in my own small way and that I had suffered somewhat at the hands of big corporations. One of the main activities of this committee is to consider the plight of the independent inventor, who works in perfectly good faith, who would like to put his invention in the hands of a big corporation, but they are not satisfied to buy it from him and pay a fair royalty. What they do if they can is to grab the whole thing; mine happens to be a good example of that.
Is there a feeling that there still are independent inventors who are doing things in this country? One would get the impression that most of the inventions are being made by the employees of these corporations and they have to be surrendered completely to the corporation for nominal consideration.
What I get from what I hear on this committee is that the number is dwindling but there are some and that more attention ought to be paid to them and they ought to have more encouragement and, above all things, more fair treatment. They’re victims of piracy in so many cases.
This as you know is an old complaint that goes way hack. Edison once said that, “having a patent was obtaining a license to sue and be sued.”
And to be sued, of course.
This is actually what has happened many times because a patent does not depend upon the technical nature of the patent itself so much as on the legality of the terminology which appears on the patent, and this is a highly technical and abstract field. It’s almost as obtuse as mathematics itself.
One trouble is that the Patent Office is having difficulty in holding its staff. The patent profession calls for highly trained men and in a wide-ranged technical field, and the trouble they’ve had in the Patent Office is that as soon as they get a man who can begin to be depended upon to make these careful decisions he is enticed away by one of the big corporations. A man who has had experience in the patent office can be a very valuable asset in the patent department of a big corporation.
At the time when you filed your patent claim or application did you seek legal advice or did you do this more or less on your own?
No, the man whom I had as my attorney was the same one Pierce had. He is a Boston lawyer named David Rines. Rines’ son, incidentally, is now a lecturer at M.I.T. and in the course of a series of lectures he was giving at M.I.T., he had quite a lot to say about the patent question and about the independent lawyer and he used my case as an example of what can happen. In fact, he let me have a copy of the lecture in which he put that material and I have it right here. It does go more into detail about it then Hunt’s book.
I wonder if we might see that.
You might possibly find something in there.
Yes, I think this will be very interesting.
I have lots of ammunition here because I didn’t know what you would want. Here is a report that I wrote for a committee in Washington, giving a history of my own case.
I wonder if we could look through that tonight and take it up tomorrow.
I think I have another copy; just take It along. The two things which you gentlemen now have supplement each other.
We want to talk tomorrow a little bit about the book because after all that was a pretty large part of your activity in recent years.
I guess you know that Dover is getting out a revised edition; a two- volume edition this time. A book as thick as that doesn’t make a good paperback.
Glad to hear about that.