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Interview of Frederick W. Grover] by W. James King on 1964 March 23, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4647
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Early education. Krause and Harry Goodwin as teachers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Observatory work before 1900; assistantship at Wesleyan University, association with Edward B. Rosa, Walter G. Cady, and John Van Vleck, work on vector treatment of alternating currents. Joined Lafayette College. Joined National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in 1902, historical data on and description of NBS, influence of Rosa and Julius Stratton, Irving Wolff's work on EMF and R standards, major work at NBS of standardizing electrical units for industry, beginning of his work on capacitance. Ph.D. at George Washington University, faculty members, research on frequency and temperature and variation of condensers; Munich research with Arnold Sommerfeld and supervisors, 1908. Return to NBS, work with J. Howard Dellinger and Harvey L. Curtis; 1910 Conference on electrical standards and silver voltmeters; time at Colby College, teaching, inductance and capacitance work, Wenner's standard unit. Joined Union College faculty in 1920; attended 1931 Faraday Centennial in London. Later life at Union and association with General Electric.
The following interview begins with Dr. Grover speaking of his association with Professor Frank A. Laws. Both Dr. Grover and Professor Laws spent their summers at an inn in New England.
We stayed with them up there in the Inn, Mt. Philo Inn. He and his wife were great friends of ours; Mrs. Laws came from Salem. They lived in one of those old houses there. But the arrangement in the summer was: we went up and stayed in the cottage with the Laws and got our meals at the Inn; like a hotel.
Let's see. You also met Professor George K. Burgess there.
I met him before that. The first time I ever saw him, he had just graduated about three years before, and he was in the Electrical Measurements Laboratory, one of the instructors there. And I used to go up to him because I liked his explanations better than some of the others, and I saw him a good deal. Then, when he came to the Bureau of Standards as Director, I met him there, of course.
What did you use for a text at that time? Did you have a regular textbook for your work — or did your work consist of lectures?
Not in the Electrical Measurements Laboratory. They had the experiments — a good many of them were set up so we didn't have the practice that comes from starting from scratch then. Professor Burgess was over with Le Chatelier in Paris for heat measurements and he was a great authority in that. And I've heard him lecture on such subjects as the radiation pyrometer, and other things of that nature. He married a French wife, and he was really a very, very pleasing man to meet.
Let's see — and then you did a thesis at M.I.T. under Professor Harry M. Goodwin.
Yes. Yes, I had a great deal of work with him.
How did you happen to select him?
Why, he selected me, because I was a course aide in physics; he had charge of the thesis there. He'd been recently in Germany — I think it was Leipzig — and Physical Chemistry was his subject. And I had a thesis in Physical Chemistry which didn't excite me as much as some other subjects would, but he was very helpful; and although in some parts of it I got negative results, he assured me that negative results were as valuable as positive ones; they show people what not to do.
Right. Did Professor Cross have any graduate students?
No, I don't think so. But he had these enormous classes in General Physics. And interesting traditions, his were. One of them was he had an experiment where he had some tuning forks — different vibration frequencies — and he'd strike them until he finally found where people couldn't hear them anymore — supersonic. And one day there was a conspiracy there. Everybody could hear the 16,000 vibrations per Second and the 20,000 and so on. Professor Cross said, “Gentlemen, a wonderful thing has happened. You gentlemen have heard sounds never heard by any human being before.” That went down through succeeding classes.
Now, Let's see. And then you did some volunteer work at the Harvard Observatory.
Yes. From the time I was 14 years old, I learned the constellations. I had a telescope given me by my father. I wanted to be an astronomer. I was sure of it. The question was how to do it, and I was advised that I'd have to have a lot of mathematics and physics and M.I.T. was the place to prepare me for it. And I got into the course in physics and I was somewhat shunted away but I still kept that ambition. And with the introduction of the people at the M.I.T., I went to Harvard College Observatory for the vacation — no pay, of course, just volunteer, and I spent the whole 24 hours practically that way. I'd get up at noon, get my lunch, and go out to the laboratory there where they were working on the sensitivity of plates and different developers and stay there until suppertime; go down to the Harvard Square and get my supper and come up to the Observatory and stay right through until 3 or 4 in the morning.
That was a long grind.
I used to be with the patrol that changed the plates for all the telescopes that were taking regular records that they keep there. And I learned one thing, that the astronomer's life is very uncertain. You can have a social engagement which you have turned down because you've got to be working at the Observatory that evening and then it clears off and you might just as well have gone to it. In other cases, you get up there and turn something down, and it clears up after you got working and that time was wasted. And, in fact, you never know when you can do something in the evening or whether you're going to work. But, there is a fascination about the life there and wonderful people to work with.
Under whom were you working at Harvard?
Why, of course, Professor Pickering was head of the Observatory, but I had very little to do with him, except once involuntarily I shone a bullseye lantern in his face as I was going through the dark grounds and he didn't like it. But, Professor Oliver Wendell was the one I was with first. He was the man who made measurements of variable stars and there was Leon Campbell who later became an authority on the variable stars and in the daytime, Professor Edward King, on the photography side.
Was the work on variable stars done visually or photographically?
It was done visually.
The one method I was taught first — the Argelander Method –- of making eye observations, comparisons all through the telescope, comparing the variable with the stars around it whose magnitudes were determined some other way. And then Professor Wendell had a polarization photometer. It was very accurate and he kept track of a variable through its whole cycle and finally he got very accurate curves and he used to keep his eyes sensitive by having Mr. Campbell take down the observations and repeat them to him after he had gotten that number. Then he'd say, “Well, I think I can better that.” And then he'd go ahead and make another series. And he certainly bettered them.
Let's see, at that time you were looking for a teaching position, were you not?
Yes, I was in the Fisk Teachers Agency. I thought that was the thing to do and get a chance, perhaps, at some more astronomical work. And the Wesleyan one came through August 19 when I was beginning to get worried. I hadn't gotten any position before the beginning of the school year and that was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me.
And what did you teach at Wesleyan?
Oh, I didn't really teach. I was the Laboratory Assistant. I set up apparatus and put it away — all over the campus — there were two buildings. And I had a chance to be active in the Laboratory with the classes and help them; but no formal lecturing at all.
Under whom were you working?
I was working with Professor Crawford, the Senior Professor and with Professor Rosa who I was with in the Bureau of Standards later. Professor Crawford had gotten Professor Rosa among the different graduates to come back and teach there and he was very proud of him; he had stood back, in a way, and had me give most of my time to Professor Rosa.
What kind of a person was Professor Rosa?
Professor Rosa was a man just simply dedicated to his work. He didn't think much of anything else; but he was very kind to me and, socially, I saw a lot of the Rosas — I went to church with them and sat in their pew, and I saw a great deal of them. Professor Rosa saw to it that he directed my graduate work and that I took graduate work there. I got my Master’s degree, and he put me in the way of a lot of practical instructions so although I had had the work at M.I.T., I was able to really handle myself in the Laboratory which hadn't been the case before. M.I.T. has a lot of courses, you know, but when I went to Wesleyan I first began to wonder whether I was going to be able to hold the position, there were so many things I didn't seem to recognize and know. So it was a very great advantage — those two years.
Wasn’t it rather unusual for a small university like Wesleyan to have such a well-equipped laboratory?
Well, that was due to Professor Rosa. He had been there a number of years when I went there. In fact, during the time I graduated with a Master’s degree, Professor Rosa had just received the appointment of Chief Physicist with the Bureau of Standards and I knew he was going there. But he’d been there — oh, I think, all of ten years. And he was a research man, curve tracer, other things like that, methods of measurement for condensers. As I said, he was dedicated to his work. I don’t think he thought much of anything else, only of his working day. In fact, I used to wonder how he ever stood the pace. But he didn’t finally — he was only 60 years old when he died.
Was Professor Cady there?
Professor Cady came after. I met him many times. He was a very fine successor to Professor Rosa.
Were there any other graduate students working for Professor Rosa besides you?
Why, no, I don't think there were. There were other graduate students. There was Professor Howland who was working with a Professor of Astronomy. He later was Vice-President of Wesleyan. And he was studying over in Munich when I was there. And Professor Polve was taking a graduate course. He never took his degree, I don’t think. And later on, Vinal took his work there. Not with Professor Rosa so much as with Professor Cady because Professor Rosa was leaving so soon.
Did you have any more work in mathematics at Wesleyan?
Yes, I did, with the Professor of Astronomy — mathematics in an astronomical way — I didn't take any formal mathematic courses. That is Professor Van Vleck in astronomy. He was quite famous and he was an old man then, but he had us up for the November meteors all night and tried to photograph them, which was comparatively new then for photographic astronomy. And one thing I learned from Professor Van Vleck was to do a lot of calculation that was adequate enough but didn't require pencil and paper. He was good at short cuts that way.
This is the professor Van Vleck who was the father of the…
The father of the other one. That is right. The other one was, I think, at Wisconsin at that time. But we used to hear about him and I’ve seen him. He came home there occasionally. They called him Neddie.
I noticed in your autobiography that your work at Wesleyan included practice on the vector treatment of alternating current circuits.
Yes, that was comparatively new then. I remember the first time that I really came across that was in the book by D. C. Jackson on alternating currents and when I went on my vacations I’d take that on the train and study it. The tendency before that at M.I.T. was to have the sine wave formula up with all the phase business which made a formidable looking expression. And it was really a revelation to me with the Jackson business.
But they didn't use that at M.I.T. Is that right?
Not that I remember especially. I had a course on periodic currents by Professor Clifford which took the sine wave business. In transformers we had all sorts of loci, the mutual inductive term and the self-inductive term and so on. But the treatment of transformers through their losses and modern treatment and so on, I got my first touch of that in D. C. Jackson's book and when I went to Wesleyan, Professor Rosa was using it there. He'd been doing a lot of work with a curve tracer, with taking the waves of these different components — exciting current and the other portions.
How would you compare the teaching at Wesleyan with the teaching at M.I.T.?
Well, M.I.T. had a big mass of students you know, and it was a much less intimate place, I would say. There were some very fine professors there, Professor Woods in Mathematics, Professor Bailey, Professor Clifford, Professor Laws — I got a great deal from all of them. But when it came to Electrical Engineering, I wasn't in an Electrical Engineering Course, I was in a Physics Course, and I got plunged into Electrical Engineering there at Wesleyan. Of course, as a graduate student, seeing somebody every day, it was really very intimate teaching.
Well, after being at Wesleyan, then you had an opportunity to go to the Bureau of Standards.
Yes, I went to Lafayette between whiles.
I was there for a year after I got married and I was the Instructor of Electrical Engineering and was all the Electrical Engineering there was. Professor Moore was an old man and he'd been a doctor, an M.D., and he had a man set up his General Physics Experiments and he gave that part and that's about all. But I had to do the electrical work and I had two seniors. I had to find a thesis for them which consisted of boiler tests of the line that had the electric cars between Bethlehem and Easton. I was assured that they were going to have an Electrical Engineering Department and I would be in that. It hadn't appeared, but it did later on when Professor Moreland came from here. He was their successful head for a good many years.
Well, then from Lafayette you went to the Bureau.
I went to the Bureau and in March, I think, of that year, 1901, or right afterward, I got two letters in the mail — one from Professor King of Harvard suggesting that I might like to go down to Arequipa and be with Professor Solon Bailey and some of the advantages of that — I would have to go down for five years, my expenses going and coming would be paid and my board down there. My wife — I'd have to pay her board. I was told there was a big European colony there and it wouldn't seem so strange and that had great glamor for me. But my father said, “You don't want to get out of the world for five years, just as you're getting through college.” And then, of course, there was the elevation question because of my wife's lungs. She hadn't been well. The same day, I got a letter from Professor Rosa talking about his going to the new Bureau of Standards and he said there's going to be an examination for three instructors. I can get you a temporary position. Come down then and if you take that examination, I think you can get one of the positions. And I went down there and in 10 days I had taken the examination and I was one of the three. I was a permanent member, after that, as long as I stayed there and I was immediately put with Professor Rosa in the Inductance and Capacity Section which was new, just beginning.
What was the Bureau like in those days? Was it a very large organization?
There were 24 on the payroll when I entered there and it was more like a college faculty. That was the attempt that Professor Rosa and Professor Stratton made for a while, to keep it like that, but it grew so large that it became impractical. But we used to have some social events, just like a college faculty. First off, you see, we didn't have any permanent building. We were in what was next to the Hotel Varnum, right down close to the Capitol and had the old Broadhead House which we pretty nearly demolished with our activities there; and in the Butler Building there where the Coast Surveyor was, the Bureau had an office and that was there for quite a few years. It was 1902 when I went there. The Bureau was just about a year old. People from the Weights and Measurements Department were included in the Bureau there — Professor Wolff and Professor Fischer, Professor Waidner and then besides we had these new electrical sections. Only three of us came in 1902 but in 1903 there were quite a bunch of new people — Brooks and Dorsey and I guess Burgess came a little later — 1904 or something like that. But there were quite a number of the 1903 crowd that stayed there for the rest of their lives.
When did you move up on Connecticut Avenue?
We began in 1904. The first building was the Physics Building for a good many years — it later became the South Building — had just about been finished. And there was another building; it was the Power House, also finished. My first experimental work was done in that Power House, upstairs and then later on we moved over into the South Building. And then the other buildings came along during the First World War. The Electrical Building was there and the Chemical Building and quite a few others. It was a gradual accretion of buildings. Then they began moving out of town as you know.
Yes. Did you have much contact with S. W. Stratton?
Not much, no. He was very nice to me — several times I saw him but I got the impression executive work was his principal interest. He had one division, the Optics Division, directly under him. And Professor Rosa had the Division 2, the Electrical one, at the start. Of course, they got other work — people afterwards, in Chemistry, Professor W. A. Noyes came for that.
I have been told that Stratton was a good executive and that he was able to obtain funds from Congress for the work of the Bureau.
The idea was that in the first years that he went to Congress and took Professor Rosa along, and Stratton did the political side of it and Professor Rosa backed him up on all the scientific things and anybody who could out-argue Professor Rosa about his work had his work cut out for him all right.
He was a tough arguer.
I remember the Superintendent of Grounds there who said, “I tell him my point, but I can't make him see it. He always has some arguments that he thinks are better.”
They must have been a good team for Congress.
I think so.
Were you able to get enough funds for your equipment?
At first it was rather hard going, but it went better as time went on.
Then you say that associated with Professor Rosa was Dr. Frank A. Wolff.
Yes, he had been a teacher at Johns Hopkins and he'd been at this Bureau of Weights and Measures working with the resistance standards and the standard cells. And he was later responsible for setting up a mercury ohm and the system of maintaining the standard of electromotive force by a great many standard cells built according to specifications. He did a great deal of the popularization of the electrical units and in the discussion of what should be used for standards.
Well now, these standards were for the electrical industry. How was it possible for a liaison to be established between industry and the Bureau?
They would send their cells there and have them certified. That was the principal way.
How about the voltmeters and ammeters?
The voltmeters and the ammeters were calibrated and they could act as secondary standards for the industry. They actually would determine the actual value of these portable meters at a great many places on their scale. That was done by quite a good deal of research work. For alternating current, they had a special electro-dynamometer that was set up as a standard for alternating electro-motive force, and it meant a great deal of research. The idea was for the Bureau to do the research and get the instruments that they could use to standardize the specimens sent in by the industry. What also helped the industry was their suggesting different ways for using their standards and making measurements for themselves.
Did these meters that had been calibrated once have to be recalibrated periodically?
Oh, yes, periodically.
How often would that have to be done?
Why, I don't remember. I didn't have much of that to do. In the first days they'd send you in condensers and we'd calibrate them — the different frequencies and the temperatures and so on; give them quite a story that way. I remember the Fessenden people in the beginning of radio transmission. They sent in a number of those.
Did you ever meet Fessenden?
Yes, I met him once.
What was your impression of him?
My impression was that he could never keep his pipe lighted for one thing. I never saw a man light his pipe so often as he did in that conversation. And my impression was that he expected that I knew all about radio transmission, which I didn't.
I asked him, “How much frequency?” “Oh, several million,” things like that.
Well, did he expect you to know the answers or did he simply assume that you knew the answers to his problems?
Why, I think he expected I knew more than I did. I went down to Bryant Rock once after that and Professor Louis Cohen was down there by that time. He'd been to the Bureau for several years, and he showed me over the place. But I didn't see Fessenden there. The only time I saw him was there while we were still up on Capitol Hill. We hadn't moved out to the site.
I have seen photographs of Fessenden's installation in Bryant Rock and it all looked very professional from the photographs.
Yes, it is. I think he knew a great deal about his subject. He wasn't advertising it. He was an interesting man to meet — his red beard, as I remember and his pipe troubles — a very abrupt speaker.
Let's see. Your earliest work was on the measurement of capacitance.
Yes. We made curves of frequency and temperature using ballistic galvanometers for the first ones. We'd get these exponential curves — the capacitance rises rapidly with the frequency; it levels off.
Were these condensers used in the power industry, or in communications?
Why, not so much in the power, I should say.
Just in communications.
Yes, the different colleges used many of them and people like Leeds and Northrup — we had a great deal to do with them in the early days. And they made some special condensers for us to test some of the points. But Leeds and Northrup took regular advantage of using the Bureau.
Did any of the other instrument companies become involved with the Bureau?
I don't remember so many. The Bureau used to get their resistances from Wolfe in Germany and they were regarded as just top-notch. But the Bureau, later on, began to find out the effect of humidity on resistances and to take pains for standards so that the humid air couldn't get at them and change their value. That's wire standards. But from the start, Leeds and Northrup had sent apparatus of all kinds to the Bureau.
When the Bureau was first set up did you obtain your instruments from companies located in the United States or from abroad?
Both. We had to get some from Wolfe and we got some from Mirrorhead over in Great Britain, and the standard cells, I think were done by our chemists in the United States. Then, Professor Carhart did a great deal in the development of Western Standard cell which took the place of the Clark, and the Bureau worked with both the saturated and non-saturated kind and did a good deal of research.
Then you say that the year 1904 was especially important to the Bureau and you mention about beginning the publication of a bulletin in the Bureau and of the establishment of a testing laboratory at the Exposition in St. Louis.
Yes, I was there for 8 weeks at that Laboratory. It was set up right in the middle of the great electrical building there with plenty of room. It was a kind of little building within a building and you could look out of there and see people coming by. I saw Thomas A. Edison examining some of the General Electric exhibits there. He was standing by himself looking it over carefully, and the Electrical International Congress took place at that time. They used the Bureau as a kind of headquarters for the scientists, and so I had a chance to see quite a number of people.
Did you meet Lee De Forest? As I understand it he had a wireless telegraph exhibit at the Fair. This was Lee De Forest.
I don't remember ever seeing him. I saw Didell who was responsible for one of the most successful oscillographs. In fact we went around the grounds one night to see the illumination and he was one of the people in the boat.
What kind of a person was Didell?
I didn't really know him. He was a young man. He died young, too. I was trying to think of the name of the man who was at Faraday Laboratory in London.
You mean Bragg?
No. Well, I guess I can't remember now. The proceedings of that Electrical Congress were in three volumes at that time and they had some interesting pictures of some of the people.
I'm not familiar with that.
I can show you my copy and then you can see it.
Very good. I'm not familiar with that but I should be.
It was just a comparatively short period there in the latter part of the summer of 1904.
And then Professor Rosa encouraged you to go to Germany.
Yes, I took my Ph.D. at George Washington. George Washington specialized in after-Government hours courses in the early evening and took a number there — astronomy and mathematics. And I did my thesis work at the Bureau. [interruption]
We were speaking about your thesis work at the George Washington.
Yes, I was allowed to use the Bureau apparatus for the thesis I had which is on the question of the frequency variations and temperature variations of condensers — I got a lot of curves — and they were only too glad to have Professor Rosa on the faculty of George Washington. So I got my Doctor's degree there after two years. I took work with Aseph Hall and Professor Gore, in astronomy and mathematics respectively.
That still is an old tradition, in Washington; people are still going to George Washington University.
Yes, they had a very nice faculty. I took work from Professor Hopkins in physics. We went through Drude's Optics together. So it was a very profitable time, but I hadn’t expected to get a Doctor’s degree at all, having got married and gone to work.
Did you have any acquaintance with Maxwell's work?
Not a great deal, no.
What did you use as a source of information for electrical theory? Was there any one standard source? For instance, Drude's work would be a standard source in optics.
Yes. In those years, of course, Maxwell's work in electricity and magnetism was extremely important and such work as that. But in physics, I think that work was — Drude was all I had with Professor Hopkins and in the case of Asaph Hall, I got a lot on astronomy. And Professor Gore had the theory of functions, the imaginary treatment.
Wasn't there a text on the theory of functions by Marley?
What we took was Durage.
Oh, yes. But was there any standard text for electrical theory at the time?
Well, I don't know. I think Maxwell was in general, but that's a hard book to use for a textbook.
Sure. And then you went to Germany.
And I went to Germany. And the idea was that I was to take over a lot of measurements that had been made on condensers at different temperatures and frequencies — very extensive range, and see if I could find some mathematical theory of the matter. It was thought it might have something to do with ionic theory, and I had been interested in reading some articles on skin effect by Professor Sommerfeld. He was a young man, comparatively, then only about 40 and I was attracted by that. The mathematics were stiff and the theory was interesting. So I elected to go there. But, the correspondence was done with Professor Roentgen who was the senior member there at Munich at that time. He was getting to be an old man. The idea was that I was to come over there and study and find a theory, but it was bungled up so. The idea was, “Come ahead, we'll be glad to see you.” But when I got there with Sommerfeld, he wanted to assign the problem. He said, “The Professor can't spread himself over everything and he has his own subjects.” Which was perfectly all right but that material wasn't used and he started me on some more work on the skin effect. And, furthermore, I was to set up an apparatus to verify the theory. They had no laboratory at all. They had hardly a resistance box, and they had no alternating current galvanometer, nothing for bridge measurements. And I suggested: Well, they must have it in the institution. But he didn't want to borrow it from anybody else — that wasn't done in a German institution.
Well, wasn't it quite surprising for you to find that in Germany at quite a well-known university there was practically no laboratory equipment?
It was, indeed. I think that Roentgen had some more — in electrical engineering business — but I didn't see it, and we started to build some stuff there in the shop that Professor Sommerfeld had. He had Debye with him. He was a graduate student, a brilliant man. And he did a tremendous piece of mathematical work for his thesis during that time I was there. He was summa cum laude and it was perfectly appropriate that they should regard it as such. He helped me a good deal and the shop there — they built some coils for me and we bought a vibration galvanometer — the hardest kind to handle, Levine type, and I was given a bridge method for measurement which wasn't suitable and I had to dig that out and find another one. So, I didn't get a great lot of experimental work. But, the work drifted into a mathematical assignment relating to the skin effect in long slabs of metal and a cylinder and tries to correct for the end effect which was hard. It did a lot for me in mathematics, but I don't know if it did an awful lot for theory.
What was your impression of Professor Sommerfeld?
A consummate lecturer. He was a beautiful lecturer. And his courses were so nicely worked out. He had a good many. I remember one was on the Tides — the mathematical theory of that. He had quite a few students with him.
Do you recall whether he used a textbook for any of those courses?
No, he just simply lectured. It was nicely arranged and delivered in a nice clear voice and everything very beautiful.
How would you compare the teaching in Germany, in the graduate school, with the teaching in the United States in the graduate school? Were they comparable?
I think the professor did a beautiful job on the Theory of Functions. It was just lecture, of course, we didn't have anything else. The idea was that if you didn't like a lecture course, you could be absent as much as you pleased.
Well, do you feel that you were at a handicap because you went to an American university?
No, I didn't think so. I got the impression, which turned out to be so later, that there were fewer people coming to study in Germany as the United States advanced. There were very few in physics when I was there. There were none in physics in Munich, and I had some work with the Professor — one of them on the elliptic functions that was anything but clear — it wasn't an interesting course at all. And the work I did with the Professor in Astronomy was almost nothing. He said the idea was I knew about astronomy. I didn't need to take it as a minor. So, my great work was to try to get the mathematics of that thesis and get some apparatus and make some measurements. And furthermore I was trying to get my Doctor's degree in one year which didn't please them too much. It was just plain grind, right through.
So, then you returned to the Bureau in 1908.
1908 –- just a year and a day that I was away.
And then you found there were many new members.
Yes, and especially Curtis, who was there so many years. He had the position I had had before and he was a very worthy replacement: A splendid man. I knew Curtis very well, but it put me in the position of being a man without a country, so to speak. I was put more in secretarial work and correspondence, work of that nature. I didn't even have a desk for a while and I felt very much out of it. That was the beginning of my idea that I wasn't sure I wanted to stay with the Bureau. I didn't like living in Washington. I was there three years, before I left for teaching. You've seen the biography of Professor Curtis?
Oh, yes. Yes, we have a copy of that; very nice.
He was a fine, useful man in the Bureau there.
You also mention Dellinger — J. Howard Dellinger.
Yes, he was a very good friend of mine, but especially beginning with the time of the First World War, when I was back there for summers and so on. Then I was being associated with the textbook, Principles Underlying Radio Communication. He was the editor for that. I was one of the crew who worked on it. But I knew Dellinger very well and it was a great shock to me to hear that he died recently. Mrs. Dellinger, I think, has never recovered very much.
Mr. Ould. Do you know him at all?
He's in the Patent Office, but he was with the Bureau in 1917 and 1918. And he's very active in Washington in these societies there. And he keeps me in track with all that's happened to the Bureau.
R. S. Ould. He just has a post office address in Washington. He could tell you a lot about the Bureau, I'm very sure. Mrs. Dellinger has an apartment in Washington. She says that she's going to drive her car again. She says nobody else believes it. She and Dr. Dellinger were very close. Dr. Dellinger went more, I think, to international conventions for radio than anybody on earth and Mrs. Dellinger used to get out a nice account of the country where it was, what they did. And send it off at Christmas to their friends.
I had been working on the history of vacuum tubes. This was about six years ago, and I wrote to Mr. Dellinger. I wanted to know something about the Langer tube at the Bureau. And he wrote me back a very long and informative letter.
Well, he certainly knew an awful lot of radio. He was in this from the very start and, as I say, at these conventions — allocation of wave lengths, and that sort of work.
Did they do very much with wireless telegraphy at the Bureau before World War I?
Why, I should say not. In 1917 John N. Miller, who was at the Bureau at that time showed me a pliotron which had been lent him by the General Electric. He had a theory how it worked but he wasn't too sure. And they developed a good deal. Miller did a lot for circuits at that time. I think he's still alive. He's retired.
You know, I was quite surprised that the International Conference of 1910 was held at the Bureau. How did that happen?
It wasn't the International Conference strictly; it was just these few delegates. Some of the electrical companies and the electric lighting and so on contributed a fund to support it; and there was this Professor Smith from England, Professor LaPorte from France and the — Jaeger from Germany. They met with the Bureau of Standards in that work and just simply, the idea was to make experiments with all the silver voltometers in the series, so they'd be sure they'd have the same current for them all. That trouble would be eliminated. But, when they came, Jaeger's idea was to find out the electromotive force of his standard cell which he had made according to his business. He didn't care about specifications; his must be the last word. And LaPorte hadn't studied the matter much. He had a form of his own. It was only Smith that was really in the spirit of experiment and he and the Bureau members had a nice time together. Smith, later on, became very prominent in the Admiralty. He was a young man then. See, the question was this septum that they'd been using and the silver voltometer. The German used silk. The Frenchman used filter paper and the Bureau of Standards had been using a porous cup and they found their troubles were due to chemical reactions taking place, so they made some correction. And the Englishman had some that didn't have any septum at all. He had an ingenious arrangement of the plates with a separating glass cup and the current went around the corner so it didn't have to bring in any material.
Which form was finally decided upon?
There were never any final specifications for the silver voltmeter. The United States and Englishmen spoke for having no septum at all and the Frenchman didn't know and wasn't especially interested; and the German was decidedly uninterested. So the thing gave me my first disillusionment about international cooperation.
Did you get the impression that the European scientists rather looked down their nose on the American science?
Well, I don't like to say that. I know Smith enjoyed himself perfectly and had a good time there, and we did with him. He had the spirit of trying things out and seeing who could do the best job.
Were there any language problems?
Why, not too much. LaPorte — I don't think he was as good a linguist. But, Jaeger seemed to get along pretty well and Dr. Wolff could talk German in good style.
And then you could speak German.
I could speak German. I was a kind of secretary for the thing. I just simply kept track of the bulletins they got out. But it was a worthy effort. You see, the whole idea of having the current as the second thing to standardize, wasn't unanimous over the world. That was done in England, at that London Conference, and there was a good feeling that the electromotive force should be the thing to be standardized — as something that you've got that is tangible. There was one man came into the Bureau of Standards the other day and said he wanted to see the standard ampere. Of course, he could see a standard cell and the standard resistance core of it. So that matter wasn't really settled — then later on the idea of making absolute measurements in order to standardize things.
Who made the basic decisions at the Bureau for these electrical standards? Who decided which forms of the particular experiment should be the standard for the United States? Would that be Rosa?
No, it wasn't done that way. This conflict, I don't know what was done formerly because it went over to absolute measurements, you see — later on.
I was thinking in terms of the Bureau, itself. How were the decisions made?
The Bureau, itself, favored the standard cell. There they had oodles of standard cells. They studied a group and kept a kind of a tangible sort of a standard there, a mean of so many standard cells.
Was a group of men set at work to study the problem, and then…
That's what Dr. Wolff said — they studied standard cells and got the apparatus for measuring small differences between them in microvolts.
Well then, they would study the standard cell — they’d write a report on it and then the report presumably would go to whom? Would this go to Rosa?
Why, I should say the main things that were going on when I knew about it, was that people from the different laboratories would take some standard cells and come over and measure them in terms of one of the laboratories. To see how they compared.
I was wondering who made the final decision at the Bureau as to which form…
I don't think you could say we really had that. We just simply kept track of our own concrete standards, as well as we could. Later on the question of using absolute measures was under Dr. Crittenden — E. C. Crittenden.
I don't believe I've ever met him.
He'd dead, quite a while. He started in the photometric work at the Bureau of Standards.
Well, after you worked in the Bureau — in 1911, you decided to go back to teaching.
Back to teaching, yes. Stayed there, and, of course, in the way of experimental work in the laboratory, things had come to an end. I knew that, in a way. But the place I love to live in is a small town, and that was a good size, even if it was cold in winter — just about right. And I liked the faculty life there. I didn't like the Washington climate and I didn't like the idea of having no vacation year. So the question was of tossing up and deciding. But I don't think I'm sorry. I did some work on the side with inductance formulae, gave me something to keep busy, when I wasn't doing straight college work.
You've always more or less maintained your connection with the Bureau, haven't you?
Not so much in recent years. I did for a good many years. I went down there every spring to the Bureau. I haven't been now for a good many years. I was down there to see Professor Peterson — that's the paper I wrote on their Three Section Standard Mutual Inductance, at that time. I saw Curtis and some of the others. But it used to be I’d go down there for the Physical Society meeting every spring. But, as time drew on and I didn't know what the Physical Society was doing — the titles — why less so. I think, like a good many people, they get a specialty and keep up with that but everything else gets beyond them, and they only wish that somebody would tell them when they were starting it.
Well, now the inductance was chosen as being a unit or a form of experiment, rather, that they could calculate the value of.
Yes. That was one advantage of it. You see, in the case of a condenser, except for an air condenser, and then it's much more complicated, it isn't so. But the inductance you can do a very fine job at with certain standard forms.
Well, aren't there quite a few approximations you have to make for an inductance?
Approximations, but the infinite series is convergent. I can say that you can calculate a standard of inductance down to possibly a million without any trouble — that work that Wenner and his associates did on absolute determination of resistance. They had such a standard as that. That's the one that I was interested to work on the formula also.
Wenner's form of the inductance is still the standard, isn't it?
That's a very valuable type, I say. You see you can have the mutual inductance of two solenoids and can be very accurate. That was a special type because of the uniformity of the field where the secondary was. So you had to have a uniform field where the secondary is — the secondary can have a good many turns and they are practically all the same linkages. That was the idea and that was Campbell, over in England that wanted that type.
Well, let me ask this naive question. Why couldn't you use a pair of plain condensers for a standard?
The trouble is, you see, the lines of induction curl around the ends — and it's the edge effect that is the trouble, and that's been a very complicated matter to figure. If you use guard rings, of course, you can get a — the middle section there — one trouble is to get a big enough capacitance to be useful for the larger values. The work at the Bureau is done by stepping up from air condensers to larger values.
But the capacitance standard, I think, is much more difficult than the inductance.
This is rather ironical, isn't it? It seems to me ironical because capacitance and electrostatics looks like such a neat and simple approach.
Yes, that’s true.
And, of course, inductance — you have the problem of currents. You have different kinds of measurements and this turns out to be the most practical in the long run.
Well, that's true. But think it works out that way. Then there's another thing. We used to suppose that frequency was one of the hardest things to measure that you could possibly have and never be as good as some of the other quantities. And look at it now.
This has come to be quite basic.
Yes. That was one of the biggest surprises in my life.
Now, during the war you became involved in writing this book under the editorship of Dellinger in radio and this came to be one of the standard manuals.
Well, the trouble was, things were changing so fast I don't think it remained standard very long. It was written for Non-Commissioned Officers in the Army and Navy, particularly, so that they could understand what things were about. They had the apparatus and needed to know better what they were doing. But things changed so rapidly. The antenna business changed and the frequency of transmission — see it was back in those days the long frequency — across the ocean — was the principal thing. I mean the low frequency — the long wave business. But that was interesting work in a way. Each person would write a certain portion and the others would fall upon it and see what they could find was the matter with it. We'd pull it apart and we'd rewrite them. It took quite a while to do.
Were you involved in any of the war work of the Bureau besides this?
No, not at all. Everything was hush-hush and I never asked any questions. That was a very nice crew. It was most enjoyable to be associated with those people.
Let's see. C. M. Smith, G. F. Wittig, A. D. Cole, L. P. Wheeler and H. M. Royal.
They're all dead except me. Dellinger, I think was more recent. Wittig and Wheeler died comparatively recently. Wheeler wasn't in residence all of the time. But the rest of us were right on the spot. Royal, I think, died rather early and Cole was already getting along in years. Smith — it was rather a shock when I heard he'd died. And, as I say, Wheeler and Wittig died quite recently. Wittig I think went on to the Electrical World, the editorship.
Well, after the war, you were somewhat disappointed in the support of the laboratory work at Colby.
Oh, that was just high school physics, really. I gave all the lecture work that was there and some of the machinery I had wasn't much and I had nothing to work on for money. So my experience in Colby was not so very good for me, for my own technical work, it was more the associations otherwise. It's been rebuilt now you know, and there is a new campus at Colby. They moved away from the old one. And the building where I worked, every brick is taken apart and I can't find where it was.
This is happening with many universities in the country.
The old professor of Latin left in his will some land for the new campus and the Alumni rose to the occasion. They put in $2,000,000 and built up a campus there that is practically new, and it's a going concern. But the old buildings, there's no bidder for them and they just fall to pieces. It's a sad sight.
How did you happen to select Union College?
Why, I heard that the professor of physics was going to leave from my sister. She was living in town here. So I wrote for an appointment with Professor Richmond and was told to come. When I arrived I found the man who was Professor of Physics then, decided that he would stay a little longer, that he wasn't going to go. So Dr. Berg needed somebody in Electrical Engineering and I was accepted there. Then the Professor of Physics decided he'd go after all and they put in Dr. Wold. That's the actual concatenation of events.
Then in 1931 you made a trip to Europe and you visited London as part of that trip.
Yes, in celebration of the Faraday Centenary — Discovery of the Inductance of Electromotive Force — beautifully run affair. The English know how to do it. I don't remember just how many delegates were there but I should say around 300 from different institutions, and Professor Bragg did the Faraday experiments with Faraday apparatus.
That must have been fun.
Yes. And we went out around the country and saw some of the other things there and the Royal Society meeting. It was just as nicely fixed up with the ceremonial and social together that you can imagine.
Well, you've been working on your problems of inductance for some time.
I did but I’m not doing much now. It's comparatively recently that I've seemed to come to a stopping place.
What do you feel has been some of the most useful parts of your college education in terms of your later work? Would you say it was certain courses you took or certain men under whom you worked?
I think that I have mentioned the ones at M.I.T. there. Let's see — Woods, Bailey and Goodwin and Laws. At Wesleyan, of course, Professor Rosa. I think he did more for me than any man except my father. And I was with him about 15 years all told. I don't think the experience in Germany did a great deal, except I got a little more practice in mathematical research — there is the memory of the trip, of course. I have enjoyed teaching very much — in laboratory work, especially. You see a lot of nice boys and afterwards they remember you and you remember them. Let's see, we graduated about, I guess, it's more now — we graduated about 20 people in the electrical engineering course every year. That wasn't so big that you couldn't keep track of them, and you would have a similar number of the juniors coming along. Dr. Berg did lecturing on that. He did nothing else besides that, and he was an inspiring teacher. So we've had a nice department and there's a bigger faculty there now — very nice indeed.
Did you have much contact with the research laboratory at GE?
Why, no, not a great deal. Of course I've known a number of those people. Anybody asks — when I say I'm from Schenectady — they say GE? And I say, I'm one of the few people that have never been on the GE payroll. But I've known Langmuir and Coolidge and the regular crowd in the Research Department — Dirschman…
Would you want to make any comments about any of these men? About Langmuir, the kind of person he was?
Well, I knew him as a man who was very much absorbed in his work. But, he was very nice when he wasn't thinking about something else — a great scientist, really, in a way, a very attractive man. And Coolidge is always ready to see anybody and very sociable and nice. He's 90 years old now, you know. But he's just smart as can be. I think the ability to hold a Research Laboratory together like that and keep people cooperative has been a great thing. When I came here for the position, Dr. Richmond suggested that I go down and see Whitney. He was one of the trustees of the college. I went down. He invited me to come here. He said it was a good opportunity. But yet when I appeared, he acted as though he had known me all his life. He was just about leaving M.I.T. when I was a student there. That's all the previous contact…
Had you known him at M.I.T.?
Really, no. I had just seen him there. That's all. He was in the Chemistry Department. But that ability to work with people and encourage them and keep things going was a great thing.
Would you want to compare Whitney as a Director of the Laboratory with some of the men who succeeded him &mdmdash; men like Coolidge or Hull?
I know them all. They're fine. Coolidge is one of these congenial people. He keeps acquainted with people and Hull is here all right. I think his work on vacuum tubes is really epochal, in a way. I haven't known him very well, but just simply when I see him, we pass the time of day.
I hope to be visiting him sometime in the near future, both him and Coolidge.
Coolidge, I guess, probably will be back in Schenectady before very long. He was down in Florida for a while this summer. My sister saw him there. She says he's just as smart as ever. Most beautiful photographs of his trips he takes.
Yes, he seems to be a perfectionist.
I would say a most delightful man to meet.
How about Dr. Dirschman?
I liked him first rate. I didn't know him awfully well, but I did know him to some extent. I thought he was a very able fellow — a genial man to meet.
But they are quite different personalities?
Oh, yes! I have a friend here in town — Dr. Elder that I'm very fond of — Frank R. Elder — he was in Chemistry, but he got into Electrical Engineering at GE for a good many years.
The name is familiar, but don't think I've ever met him.
I was trying to think — at the college — they have a big Physics Department down there, much bigger than when I first came here. There were only two then — Dr. Wold, he's been dead for a good many years. He was the head of the department.
Is Dr. Rojansky still at Union?
No, he's on the faculty list, but for some reason I don't know of, he's out in California. He visited here comparatively recently — just this past summer.
Well, is he retired?
I think he must be near it, at least, but his address is given as just the California address in the catalog — as Research Professor of Physics; very able man, indeed. I guess his textbook was really something.
I recently learned that Dr. Rojansky, Brattain who obtained the Nobel Prize, and Professor Bleakney, who is now head of the Physics Department of Princeton, were all students together.
Is that so.
At a small college out near the West Coast.
I think that Rojansky was out in Oregon, wasn't it Eugene, Oregon?
He came across from the other side — escaped. His father was not a favorite of the Bolsheviks. Rojansky’s got a delightful humor.
I've never met him.
Very nice fellow to meet. He was a great favorite here. His wife got in bad health and he left here. She died. He's married again.