Albert Hill

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Interviewed by
Paul Henriksen
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Interview of Albert Hill by Paul Henriksen on 1982 June 25, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

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Hill's connections with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory during World War II. Specific topics are Hill's early education; the military's relationship with the Rad Lab; postwar importance of the Office of Naval Research; the Rad Lab as instrument-maker rather than physics laboratory; postwar connections of Rad Lab with Charles S. Draper; Rad Lab-Los Alamos comparison; relations with Raytheon Corporation; effect of Rad Lab on Hill's career; Lee DuBridge and the Steering Committee. In the postwar era, Hill briefly discusses his work at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratories and his connections with the transistor.


Hill has been a physicist at MIT since WWII, now is chairman of the board at the Charles Stark Draper Labs near MIT. Before the war he worked with Seitz and I believe Rabi. He was a division and group leader at the Rad Lab during WII. Got a B.S. degree in Mech. Eng. from Washington U. in St. Louis in 1930. Did not like engineering while he worked for Bell Labs from 1930-32.

MS physics in 1934 at Washington U. Met Lee DuBridge (an associate prof.) there and went to Rochester with DuBridge. Got his Ph.D. there in 1937. Luck struck in 1937 and he got an academic position at MIT as instructor of physics. Slater kept him on for another year, and then he joined the RL. One of the first members of the RL, but not full time, was a consultant. Came back in Jan. 1942 and worked for Zacharias in his group. Followed Zacharias up the job ladder. Difference between RL and Los Alamos. RL was in military systems.

Formed to meet military needs. Military requirements were wrong, so the RL made their own. Took a long time to get used to dealing with the military. Not much of it before the war. Lucky that Lloyd Berkner was the head of aviation research for the Bureau of Aeronautics, a government bureau. Berkner informed the RL of the military problems. Berkner later became head of Associated Universities that later ran Brookhaven. Military was suspicious of RL scientists at first. The scientists didn't know the problems of manufacture.

Zacharias helped by working with Bell Labs on the adaptation of Rad Lab designs to production models and in general taking pains to see that Rad Lab models were practical from a manufacturing stand point. [In 1942 or 43].

Beginning of basic research division in 1946. Navy set up Office of Research and Inventions. Included Manny Piore, and Bruce Old. Later became Office of Naval Research and was under the direction of the secretary. Had a military director, but did not go through the chief of naval operations. Saved American science or advanced it by a few years. Because during the war there weren't any graduate students. They were all in the trenches somewhere, or being reserve officers. And we lost an academic generation of scientists.

The Office of Naval Research, especially due to Piore, recognized this and contracts were given to Universities to do research. Now the Navy had no charter to do education, but they do have a charter to do research. Now how do you educate graduate students? You do research and pay them out of research funds. Now this helped tremendously. RL was sitting there with a lot of equipment, so all three services carne to them and asked them to set up an electronics lab. Julius Stratton headed the lab in the RL and it later became the Research Lab of Electronics at MIT. A much copied laboratory. Some projects were RL originals and some were not. "The Rad Lab did very little work that I would call pure physics, but it did a tremendous amount of instrumentation."

The basis of many instruments came out of prewar physics research, so the Rad Lab had this technology on its hands. Hill picked the people to stay, mostly people they wanted, but a few who had no place else to go. Most stayed at MIT. The Research Lab of Electronics started at $600,000 per year, which was a tremendous sum. Charles Scott Draper set up an instrumentation lab about 1930 at MIT. First assistant was Jim Fisk at Bell Labs. Bell Labs was friendly competitor with RL. At time of European war there 20 or 30 people in Drapers lab. RL had little contact with Draper's lab that at the request of the Navy developed a gun sight for the Navy.

Difference between RL and Los Alamos. Los Alamos was working on a gadget. They were not working on systems research. RL was. Example of the speed. British brought over magnetron parts and jet engine parts. Raytheon had done some work on the same thing under Percy Spencer. They made 10 cm radar for the navy. The Navy had 50 cm radar and "we couldn't tell a big island from a battleship with it because the beam width was so big."

The first scientists picked Nov. 11, 1940 as the start of the RL because it was a day everyone could remember, Armistice Day. No one knew when the Lab actually started.

Raytheon built some 10 cm radar that was used a few years later. Use of radar on the USS South Dakota. Less than two years from conception to use in battle. Had to educate manufacturers and GIs as well as themselves to make and use the equipment. Radar school was for the officers, but it didn’t have much contact with the Rad Lab. Made sure a tool kit went out with every radar set. Some military men were good technicians. Wheeler Loomis assigned him to a group when he began at the RL. Not supposed to switch divisions. Didn't talk much to other divisions. Could not mention 3 cm. Philco advertisement on radar while it was still secret. Every physics undergrad at MIT knew the wavelength they were working on, just by the interference.

Effect of RL on his career. Before WWII no government support of pure science. WWII convinced the government of the need to stay abreast of science. ONR was NSF until the NSF came along. Piore was the brains of the organization. Made millions of acquaintances at the RL that he wouldn't have later. Mostly physicists at the beginning, but later engineers came along. If it hadn't been for the RL, there wouldn't have been support for science and he wouldn't have gotten an academic position. Would have gone to industry if not for World War II. Steering Committee. "DuBridge was the boss and we knew that." Steering Committee was like a Board of Directors. DuBridge was easy to talk to. The real function of the steering committee was to meet weekly to discuss the problems…" and advise the directors on what should be done. Mainly a technical committee with a strong leader.

On Loomis, good to have a scientist in a managerial position. He did not contribute much to the technical side, for lack of time. Rabi was the other associate director. Discussion of Rabi. Spent a quarter of his time at Los Alamos. Least properly characterized of the Oppenheimer series.

Back to Draper and the inertial guidance system and NASA. MIT got rid of the Draper Lab in 60s. Hill became director of research around 1970. Lab was legally independent of MIT in 1973. Information on Draper Labs. Outgrowth of the war. More information on the Draper Labs. Steering Committee arguments. A lot of them. Mentions that Purcell's work that was started right after the war at MIT, should have been finished at MIT, except for a bureaucratic mess up. Advanced development work was under Rabi and Purcell in the Fundamental Research group. Also, a propagation group. Rabi did not want more basic research, he was a more practical person.

Just at the end of the war, "we were on the point of inventing the transistor. In a sense it is good we didn't. We would have invented the point contact transistor, which is old hat and not used anymore. We knew a transistor would work. We knew how to do it. And we had some evidence that we were getting oscillations with the diodes we were making for detection and if the war had lasted four more months we would have invented it.

Now why do I say it is probably well we didn't invent it? For the following reason. Bell Labs was part of one of the then richest companies in the country and they had Bill Shockley. They had the money, the people and so on to really put, I don't know how many millions into development. But good that we didn't, because Bell had the money to do the development. "Although I hate to think that the transistor could have been invented in the group I was head of, Jerry Wiesner, and Zacharias and I often talked about it, it may have been much better for the country that it wasn't invented there."

Discussion of the general use of patents. More steering committee questions. Tremendous freedom to initiate work. Hardest job for Hill was getting people to stop working on a project that was finished. Stimulating atmosphere to work under. Hill would work on things Zacharias was against, but would go and tell him at the end of the research. Zacharias was the same way. Weisner worked for Hill too. Project Cadillac was the forerunner of the AWACS. Weisner was stolen by the Steering Committee to head the Project.