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Interview of Katharine Kelly by Lillian Hoddeson on 1976 July 2, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4701
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Early background and education; supported herself through school (Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy); reasons for choice of school; University of Kentucky. Husband’s work (Mervin Kelly), his position at Bell Laboratories, his interactions with other scientists, William Shockley, James Fisk, Oliver E. Buckley; the war years, and recollections of Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, Conyers Herring. Also prominently mentioned are: Harold DeForest Arnold, Clinton Joseph Davisson, Robert Andrews Millikan; Kelly College, New York University.
This is Lillian Hoddeson and I am visiting Katharine Kelly at her home in Summit, New Jersey.
I’ll show you some pictures of our garden in Short Hills if you want to see them.
Oh, I’d love to see that.
We had one of the most beautiful gardens in Short Hills. It was pictured in garden magazines.
Mervin’s hobby was gardening. He had 25,000 bulbs in the garden. He bought 1,000 bulbs every year just to keep it going. Tulips and daffodils —
I suppose you had a gardener —
Two gardeners. But he loved to work in the garden himself. He used to get up at 5:00 in the morning, got up and worked in the garden, come back and took a shower and have breakfast and go to work.
What time did he go to bed?
Oh he went to bed early enough but he would read at night until 12:00, or so.
He didn’t need much sleep then.
No. (They look at the pictures.)
A Lovely Garden.
I hated to move but I couldn’t live there alone and we had a very nice couple helping me but they decided they would go South and I didn’t want to worry with trying to get somebody else to help, you know.
I would like to learn some things about Mervin Kelly’s early background. He was born in Princeton, Missouri in l894. I read that his father was a high school principal who went into the hardware business shortly after Mervin was born.
Yes because he couldn’t make enough teaching school to raise his children.
Do you know what his subject was, the father’s?
Oh his father was, as far as I know, interested mainly in history but of course in the little places where he taught he had to teach everything. He didn’t teach just the history course. He taught the history and the math and everything else, in a small school, I don’t know how long he taught. Here’s a picture of him. He’s handsomer than his son. He was a lovely, lovely man, wonderful person. You can tell by looking at him, he had a nice face.
A very kind, and very intelligent face. It would be interesting for me to get some sense of where Kelly’s interests in the physical sciences and in engineering came from.
I really don’t know about that. I just know the father and mother from having them visit. The father was interested mainly in English and History. He was a great reader, he read everything.
According to biographical material I’ve examined, Mervin supported himself throughout his schooling. Does that agree with what you know to be so?
Yes, practically all of his life. He began selling papers at 9 years old and driving cows to pasture. He was always so smart and ahead of everybody else, in a short time he had the paper business but he didn’t carry the papers. All the others carried the papers.
At the age of 9 or 10!
And when he went down to Missouri, his parents said they couldn’t send him; they didn’t have enough money –-
This is the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy?
Yes: They said they couldn’t afford to send him. So there was a man in his town, a lawyer I believe he was. No, maybe he wasn’t a lawyer. He had been to school in Missouri, the mining school, so he got Mervin interested in that. And of course being a state college it wasn’t very much tuition. So this man helped him and he went down and of course got a job right away. He lived on the third floor of the Metallurgical Building and to have that rent free he lettered rocks, specimen rocks. And then to make his food he waited on the tables in the hotel. And the first morning that he brought in a big platter of eggs, he had to kick the swinging door and dropped the platter of eggs. And that was the last of that. And he was always awfully nice about it. From then on any time we went to a restaurant and anybody made a mistake and dropped something or do something like that he would say, “That’s alright, that’s what happened to me.”
You were born in Rolla. Did you meet your husband when he was going to Missouri?
He must have been only 18 or 19 then.
He was young when he came down. I think he was only 17.
Did you meet him almost immediately after he arrived?
I think I met him the first year he came. The first time I met him — I had a friend whose father was a Baptist minister. We were Episcopalians. She got us to come to Sunday school, my sister and I. My sister was a little bit younger. I had never been to Baptist school and I guess it was early in the school year we went to Sunday school, my sister and I. And Mervin came to Sunday school. It was the first time he had been in a church because he had just come to school. I don’t know. We all got together or walked together or something and he always told people that that was when he fell in love with me because I had on a white dotted dress with a blue sash. Dotted swiss.
So you were with him when he switched from wanting to be an engineer to studying physics. At that time I gather he wanted to be a mining engineer. Is that correct?
Well, not really. He just went there because it was the cheapest school he could get into, I guess. It had other things besides. It had a good English department and they had chemistry and physics, geology and so on. But he knew very soon that he didn’t want to be a mining engineer. He went out and worked in, maybe it was Salt Lake City, some place out West in mining, the first summer after he started school. He knew then that he didn’t want to become a miner. I can’t remember where it was. It was in Utah. It couldn’t be in Salt Lake City. Then when he came back he cut out all the mining.
And then he began studying science —
Physics and Chemistry and Mathematics —
And then he moved on to the University of Kentucky where he got a master’s degree.
Well, he got a teaching job down there; that was the reason he went there.
Do you know what he taught?
The University of Kentucky wanted a professor or a helper to a professor in physics, and they wrote a letter to the University of Missouri asking if they had a young man who was getting a degree. They needed one to teach physics — not as a professor but as a helper. I don’t know just how it went out. Now that letter instead of going to the University of Columbia, where it was meant to, came to Rolla somehow. It was addressed to University of Missouri and they evidently looked it up and found Rolla. So when his physics teacher saw that he said, “look” here is a job for you.” So he got it and he taught there and did a very good job. Made enough money to put himself through two years, I think it took him, and then went out to the University of Chicago. I think he had a teaching fellowship, I think, from the time he went in.
Did you go along with him to Kentucky?
You stayed in Rolla. What did you do while you were in Rolla?
Well, I had just finished high school when he — let’s see — I think when I met him I was a sophomore in high school. I guess that was what I was, yes, I was more than a freshman. So, I kept on with my high school and then I took a look at the college, the university — not to get a degree. I didn’t want to work that hard. But they were very nice to take townspeople. We could enter as special students and take just what we wanted. My younger sister took four languages one year. That’s all she took.
And what did you study?
I was interested mainly in English and geology. I had a good time, though. There were many boys there. There weren’t many girls. (Laughter)
Well, then Mervin Kelly decided to enter the doctorial program in physics at the University of Chicago. Do you know anything about his decision to go to Chicago? Now did that happen?
Well, because Millikan was there, and Lenard. There were three men there that he wanted to be under. He wanted to be with Millikan.
I can look that up.
And when Millikan started at the University of California he wanted Mervin to come with him to teach, but Mervin at that time got the offer at Bell at the same time and he decided on this place rather than going to California to teach.
You joined Mervin in Chicago and were married shortly thereafter. Is that correct? Do you know what he did his doctoral work in?
Yes. His major was physics and mathematics.
Did he work with Millikan on his doctorial thesis?
His thesis work was on oil drops.
Millikan’s famous oil drop experiment.
Yes, Mervin was working on that.
Was that Mervin’s doctorial thesis?
Yes, Mervin needed a young student to help him, you know. But you always had to pay them and he couldn’t afford to pay a student, so he asked me to help. I didn’t know a thing about it. All I did was to keep my eyes glued to the big tank and saw the little drops coming and had to count every drop to know how many came a minute or something.
That’s very strenuous.
It was. It was very tiring.
I know the experiment.
I’ve often said that he made money on me because he would have had to pay somebody else to do it.
Then you must have gotten to know Millikan as well.
Oh, I knew him very well.
Do you have any vivid recollections of Millikan?
No I really haven’t. It’s been a long time ago.
Did he work closely with Mervin or did he let Mervin do what he wanted to do and just report to him occasionally?
I think that was it. I think Mervin knew just exactly what he wanted to do. Mervin was very fond of Millikan, thought he was a great person.
Do you know if Millikan had anything to do with the offer that Mervin then got from Bell Laboratories?
No. He didn’t.
That was completely independent. Do you know where that offer came from?
Yes. The Laboratories wasn’t the Laboratories then, you know. They used to send a man around to the different colleges to tell them about the work that was being done here. The man that came out, I can’t remember his name. He talked at Chicago and he interviewed Mervin and told him about the work and Mervin thought he would like it. So he said he would come and he was always very glad that he did. I think that it was better for him because he would not have been a good teacher I am sure. He could never teach me or the children anything. He was too impatient. So he made a much better physicist and I think his real work was what the children called “bossing everybody.” He was very good at running things and doing the right thing and being fair to everybody which is something that a lot of people don’t have. He would never promote a man just because he was a friend. Being in the position I was, once in a while a gal would say to me, “I don’t know why your husband doesn’t give my husband a better job.” “He deserves it.” And “he is such a good friend.” I would say to him, “Mervin, why don’t you put — it wouldn’t hurt you to put that man up a step or something.” He would say, “No, he just does not deserve it. I know he is a good friend, but I can’t do it.” I would have bent over a little bit and given the man a job, you know.
Well, Mervin seems to have had very high and specific standards.
For himself and for everybody else too. People would say that he was difficult to live with. All of my friends thought that it was a difficult thing for me to live with him. Well, I can’t explain to them that it wasn’t difficult. You get to know peoples’ ups and downs. You know what they are thinking. You know so much about them that it wasn’t hard on me at all. I didn’t feel sorry for myself at all. I felt sorry for a lot of my friends who had domineering husbands. At least my husband was fair in everything. After he had been at the Laboratory for quite awhile, he was offered a very big job. He was always being offered very good jobs with more money. Anyway, this job paid about twice as much money as he was getting and then he would get a part of the company earnings - a part in the company. The two children were small then. He came and talked to me about it. I listened to him and said, “Well, what are you going to do?” He said, “Well, I’ve about decided not to take it.” And he said, “What do you think?” And I said, “Well, it’s your job and you know what you are doing, but you know that’s a lot of money.” “That’s twice as much as you are making.” “We have two children to put through school and college.” He said, “Well, I’m making enough money now to feed you all.” I said, “Yes, but it’s small.” It made me mad. But he didn’t take the job. He really didn’t want it you see. He wouldn’t have left that laboratory for anything no matter what anybody offered him. It was just his whole life. I always said I was his first love and the laboratory was the second. When the children came along, they were the third. And then later the laboratory came first and I dropped down to third.
As soon as the children were second, I had to drop down to third.
Oh. Did he argue with you on that?
He took my teasing very well, though. He didn’t mind what I said.
Let’s see the Laboratories were in New York at that time, 463 West Street and did you live in New York?
Where did you live?
We lived on Edgecomb Avenue — just near Yankee Stadium.
Oh, in the Bronx.
No. Not the Bronx. It was near Yankee Stadium — or near some stadium. Anyway it was a stadium not far from - it was on a hill just about when they were building St. John’s Cathedral.
Now, where is St. John’s Cathedral?
It’s on a hill and then you look right down over Harlem and over the river. It’s just above St. John’s Cathedral. That was being built the year we were there.
It must have been very beautiful.
It was a very little apartment. I think we had three rooms or something. That was all we could afford.
And in those early days Mervin worked on thermionic vacuum tubes.
Did he talk about that much?
All the time.
Did he come home with work? Did he work late?
Oh, he worked late sometimes until twelve o’clock at night.
Did he tend to stay in the laboratories?
Yes. The men that worked with him — they would work until twelve o’clock at night. They just had to work because — these tubes got into a certain spot too much heat or too much of something else and they would sometimes explode, and they were very essential at that time to the war effort. There hadn’t been any big water cooled tubes made before. Now of course you don’t use those tubes at all.
Now they use the transistor. Did Mervin work closely with Arnold in those days?
Yes, rather closely.
Did Mervin talk about Arnold much?
Yes I suppose he did. I can’t quite recall. He was very fond of Arnold.
Arnold had also come from Millikan. So they shared both that and their interest in vacuum tubes. And to a certain extent their road through Bell Laboratories organization was similar. Mervin shared an office with Davisson at that time.
Yes I think when Mervin came here he was given an office with Davisson. I believe that’s right, his first office was with Davisson at what was the Labs, it was West Street then.
Do you know if they ever worked together?
No I don’t believe they did.
But they were good friends, and also you and the Davissons were good friends. Did Mervin ever talk about — at that time some very fundamental work was going on, for example, Black’s work on negative feedback and Johnson and Nyquist’s famous work on noise? Do those names ring any bells?
Yes, I remember them all. Yes, I knew them, I didn’t know them well, we weren’t great friends, but I knew them.
Was there a tradition in those days for Bell Laboratories people to get together socially as well as in the laboratories?
Not so much.
We lived in New York for about a year then we came out and bought property in Short Hills and built a house there and that’s where we lived all our lives. And we came out but —
That’s amazing. You moved out here twenty years before the Bell Laboratories moved over to Murray Hill.
Was it just luck?
Well it was Mervin who got them to move to Murray Hill.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Oh, he fought and almost died to get the place out here. AT&T didn’t want it, you see.
Why did Mervin want to move it out here?
He thought he was foresighted enough to know, even in those days, that the place for a big laboratory was not in a big city. And he talked and talked and fought and fought until he finally got it. When we lived in Short Hills, many laboratory people lived nearby. Dr. Jewett lived just a block above us and the Davissons lived four or five blocks down the other part of Short Hills, and then there were people in Maplewood and Millburn and so on.
And these men were all commuting to New York in the morning?
Yes. So of course they invited me to little parties and so on, and I went. I was very young and I think I was younger than any of them and I sort of felt — I don’t know — I just felt I didn’t belong there. I had only been living in Short Hills for three years when I was invited to join the Junior League. Then I taught Sunday school, just kindergarten but every Sunday for many years. And then I did volunteer work at the Neighborhood House in charge of the clinic, the Reese clinic. Spent my life doing something like that and I met a great many people doing the same things I was and having joined the Junior League I was with that group of young people. And everyone said to me, well you know you’re having all your friends outside of our friends — laboratory friends — and I said well, I really don’t believe in mixing things. I want my friends because I’ve chosen them and they’ve chosen me, not just because they happen to be at the laboratory. And I don’t want to get all my social life involved with laboratory people. When I moved over here after Mervin died, I found the same thing was happening. There were a number of laboratory girls who lived here and I just said I wasn’t interested in their social life.
I can really understand that. Well then you went to dressmaking school in Chicago and also cooking school.
And then later, after I came to New York, Diane Lucas gave cooking lessons so I went there. Then I was to Paris for two months and I went to a cooking school there. I love to cook. But I’m no longer a good cook because you don’t cook very well when you cook for one person.
But people now are I feel as though they’re sort of doing as Mrs. Arnold was doing — trying to push me into a corner or something. Of course I feel just as equal to any of them — it isn’t that — but when I was young I just didn’t know how to take it. But now when they say it, where did you get them? Oh I’m a hillbilly from the other side —
That’s a good attitude. We were talking about the vacuum tubes and you were mentioning the work that was done during World War I, and I know that Mervin Kelly is said to have become interested in finding an amplifier that didn’t have all the problems that vacuum tubes had, by the late ‘30’s. I was wondering whether you remember him talking about that idea earlier?
Yes, he did talk about it earlier, it didn’t mean much to me because I didn’t quite know what he was driving at but —
— Would he complain about the vacuum tube?
Yes. They were awfully hard to make and they broke all the time. And it was really very — I guess it was a hard job, working all night to get one to — I don’t know but he was always hoping there would be something. He was thinking about it. He worked awfully hard.
It would make sense — you know thinking about where he was and what he was working on that he would start —
— Thinking about a better way — Yes.
Yes — based on a different method than the, you know this gas discharge stuff that had to be kept in a vacuum tube, and so forth. He also then, a little bit later, moved into and became director in the area of acoustics. Is that right? Do you remember?
Do you remember who he worked with in that stage?
Oh dear, with acoustics, I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Or why he switched? What got him interested in acoustics?
Well I really don’t know. I think he thought they were going to be — lead to something else because he wasn’t just interested in a crystal as a crystal. A rather little gem. He brought me one home to show me and I said this would make a nice setting for a ring, and he said you can’t have it.
And also throughout the ‘20’s and ‘30’s he seemed to be very interested in connections between Bell Laboratories researchers and universities.
Oh yes, always.
Was he giving lots of talks and making many visits?
Oh yes. He visited all the universities in Europe and went over to do things for Bell Labs even after he quit Bell Labs and went over to IBM, he still visited the universities. He was very interested in always getting in touch with bright young men.
Do you remember any particular universities he visited while in Europe?
Yes. I went with him to the University of Switzerland. I don’t think it’s called university, but whatever.
Where, in Zurich?
Do you remember anyone he met there?
Yes. But I wouldn’t remember their names. And he visited universities in Germany. We travelled all through Western Europe and he was just interested in all of the universities and what they were doing.
Mainly in physics or in other areas also?
Mainly in physics and mainly in science. Whether it was because he was sort of looking over to see where he could pick up good men or whether he was hoping that other people were doing the same thing. It was just an interchange. And they would come over here and visit him too and visit the laboratory.
Would he give talks sometimes, at these universities? And did they tend to be on his vacuum tube work?
I came across a talk he gave at MIT for example, in 1928, on thermionic filaments of vacuum tubes. That’s really what led me to ask you the question because I thought if he spoke at MIT, maybe he spoke at many other places as well. And I wonder was it on one of these trips that you met the Braggs or the Bohrs?
No, I think he had met them before. He knew people at Oxford and Cambridge very well too.
Do you remember any names?
There was another family that we liked so much. They didn’t come over — well they did once — oh I wish I could remember his name, I think Mervin was on the committee for the Ford Peace Prize and he nominated this man in England, I think he was in Cambridge, I’m not sure. I can’t remember his name, he got the peace prize, you probably know of him. But he visited those universities, some smaller ones too.
Did he speak much to you about the new quantum mechanics? In this period, a lot of new ideas were being developed in physics and they were entering research at the Laboratories. Many researchers at the Laboratories would sit and read and become educated in these new ideas. My impression is that Mervin very much encouraged such self-education in the Laboratories.
Yes, he did. He always thought that nothing stood still. However good you were in the Laboratories, there was always something better and better to be done, harder and harder work. He always felt that there’s always something more.
That comes out in his writing; it’s very apparent. Do you remember him talking about solid state physics?
Yes, at home. It was long before I heard anybody else talking about it. He tried to explain it to me, how wonderful it was, it didn’t mean very much to me of course. He tried to explain it to me, but not having the background for it, I just listened to it, that’s all.
Mervin hired Shockley in 1936, just after he became director of research. Shockley is a particularly interesting addition to the staff of Bell Laboratories because he was very much a pure research man; he was interested in devices too, but he was primarily a solid state research physicist who was trained at MIT by Slater.
Slater was in Chicago earlier wasn’t he?
No, I don’t know.
He might have been; Slater travelled around quite a bit and he may very well have come through there. But at that time his main base was at MIT.
I remember Shockley very well. He came for dinner one night to our house, he and Jim Fisk. There weren’t any women around; maybe they didn’t have wives. I just don’t remember, except that I went out to make the coffee and they were in the living room and then Jim and Shockley came into the kitchen and they were teaching me how to do coffee under a kind of coffee pot — I can’t remember how it was now. It was very funny that they were both in the kitchen teaching me how to make this coffee. I don’t know whether I had a new kind of percolator or something.
They were friends.
They had been graduate students together at MIT. Were Shockley and Fisk often at your house?
— Yes. Well not too often.
Did they talk about physics or usually about other things?
If they could get off in a corner they’d talk about physics. Usually when we had these — you know, when you have a party and the men get off and talk their business and the women get off and talk about their babies and their children. I tried awfully hard to break that up and not let that happen when we had a social gathering; they could talk their business some other time.
They were definitely among the most well trained at Bell Labs then.
It seems to me there were a great lot of very brilliant men at that time. They were all young. I guess now too they must be getting a lot of young scientists.
Oh sure. But these were special because until about that time Bell’s tradition was not to hire scientists primarily for pure research.
— One reason Mervin introduced what they called Kelly College, which he didn’t like it being called, later they changed it — because people would get Bachelor’s degrees and Masters degrees but Mervin thought they didn’t have enough training. That’s the reason he put in that school. You know, it was a great thing. Those boys had schooling, so many hours. Of course, they had to study at night, but they got the same salary. At first he used the men in the laboratory for the teaching. Then he got men out from the University in New York.
— to come out and teach. And do you know some of those wives thought that their husbands were just being slaves; they just thought it was terrible because their husbands were away two nights a week. One of them came, you know, complaining to me and I said but look do you know if your husband were going to college, if he were in a university getting this training, you would be paying for it and he wouldn’t be getting any money. I said he’s being paid to be educated. But they were just so narrow minded they couldn’t see what it was. I thought it was a great thing; I don’t know how long the school lasted.
Oh it lasted a long time and then it was later taken over by NYU. It seems to have had a tremendous impact.
Well, he really felt that you should get men trained to the very nth degree if they’re going to work on problems at the laboratory. That was just part of him. Everything had to be bigger and better and everybody work harder and everybody do everything.
Did he talk to Buckley much about these ideas?
Well, I don’t like to say he didn’t talk to him, but he and Mr. Buckley had different ideas. Mr. Buckley did not want to get into the war; he didn’t think it was right that we should start in and — you know we got in quite early and Mervin thought that was the only thing we could do. So there was that thing that they didn’t agree on.
You mean Bell Laboratories doing war work?
Yes, Bell Labs. And Mr. Buckley wasn’t for it at all.
But Mervin was so for it, and I’m not sure I guess AT&T must have been or else they wouldn’t have done it. Anyway he had great troubles about that. But Oliver was a Scotchman and he was very cautious. And it took him longer to think a thing out. I don’t mean that — he was just as smart, probably a lot smarter than my husband, but it took him a longer time to do things. And Mervin was the kind of man that studied the thing, then, did what he felt was right. For instance when Oliver was president he used to not sleep; he had the worst time sleeping. He told Mervin it’s just awful I can’t sleep at all; I just worry about all these problems. So once I said to Mervin why Oliver worried so and had to take sleeping pills and really got himself into quite a strain of not sleeping and not — he was just worrying all the time, worrying if that decision was right that he had just made. And you know there are always decisions when you’re in a position like that. He was always saying “I don’t know; I don’t know whether I did the right thing or not.” So when Mervin got to that position, I said I hope you’re not going to worry like Oliver Buckley did; I just rather you wouldn’t be a president. And he said well I’m not going to worry, you know I don’t worry about things. He said I study them as far as I can look into them, and then I make up my mind and then I stick to that, go to bed and sleep like a tot. Then Oliver would just roll at night and get up; he just couldn’t, after he decided, stop thinking was that the right decision? What did I do? But Mervin made the decision. And he was like that with everything. He probably made lots of wrong decisions but at least he made them
Did Mervin talk to you at all about his hiring Jim Fisk when that took place?
Yes, I met Fisk. He said I’m having a man meet me at the Ambassador Hotel; I think I’m going to hire him. Would you like to come and have dinner with us? So I went.
Do you remember anything about that meeting?
Yes. I always thought he was a very nice man, just great. Mervin wanted to talk to him about the job and well, he said, a hotel is a nice place and he took me along.
And then he hired him?
Fisk thinks that maybe Shockley suggested it. Do you know anything about that?
I don’t know. He may well have.
Fisk wasn’t sure either, but it would make sense because they did know each other earlier.
I have a feeling that that name of Shockley did come in when he told me about Fisk. But I’m not sure enough of it to know.
Well, it’s an interesting little thing. The most interesting questions are usually why things happened the way they did, not just that they happened but what led to them. That’s what makes doing history so interesting. Of course, one never knows if one is really getting the whole story. Well let’s see now, we’re up to the work during World War II. Kelly was placed in a position of tremendous leaders on the radar and gunfire control and bomb site work. In fact, he was awarded the presidential certificate of merit for this work. Did anything change in the way Kelly worked, I mean from your point of view, during the war. Was there more pressure? Did he talk less?
No. There may have been more pressure because he believed so that we should help out and, so many people believed that we shouldn’t. But I think perhaps he always worked under pressure. No there wasn’t much of a change. I spent a lot of time out in Los Alamos with him when he was there. I loved the country out there. Oh not a lot of the time but he went out every few months and I’d go. He didn’t stay out there for any length of time.
I like it out there too. During the war, discussions must have gone on pertaining to establishment of the solid state physics group that was established immediately after the war in 1945. Miss Stevens recalls that during the war years Kelly and Buckley were often having lots of discussions at Buckley’s house. Is that correct according to your memory? Did they frequently get together at Buckley’s home?
No, not very much.
It was in the laboratory then. Were they friendly outside?
Oh yes, we were friends. Mrs. Buckley and I are still friends. I’m going to visit her. She’s coming here on the 6th, staying all night and then I go up with her the next day to her place in Maine. She stayed two months with me last winter. We usually go away in the winter together, four of us, four laboratory widows. But last winter for some reason or another, we couldn’t go, so she stayed here with me for two months.
The decision was made in 1945 to set up this very famous solid state group. Did Kelly talk to you about it?
Yes he did. He talked a great deal about it. Of course one thing leads to another. Yes he talked a lot about it. I wasn’t educated enough to answer him. I think all he wanted was a sounding board and that’s what I was.
You see it was an unusual group because there was a mixture of people in it; there were chemists and physicists and metallurgists and circuit people. They were all put together with a common purpose. Up until then people who had much the same training tended to work together; so it was a very unusual group. I was wondering whether Mervin encountered any resistance to it — whether he had to sell the idea.
I don’t remember that he did at all. He may have but I wouldn’t have known it if there was.
It was certainly something very important that he did. And then two years later the transistor came.
Well he talked to me a lot about the transistor, long before it was, you know, it was in their minds. And he tried to explain it to me and then when it did come out I saw this tiny little thing!
Do you remember the day the discovery was made? Did Mervin Kelly come home filled with the news?
I don’t remember. I think he was talking about it so much that I don’t remember his coming home especially filled with it.
The main people who were involved were Brattain and Bardeen and then later Shockley got involved too. Did you know them?
Do you have any vivid recollections of them?
No, I didn’t know them as intimately, as I did the Fisks, the Buckleys and those people. But I knew them.
You met at parties or something like that?
Brattain had been working on semiconductor properties way back.
And I gather Mervin was aware of that work.
He was watching their work very closely. He talked about it — it seems to me now — years before anything happened, about the work they were doing, and how well they were doing it.
The impression one gets from reading is that Mervin was right there and watching everything that happened that could possibly lead to the device.
Well I believe that he was.
Do you remember — did he talk to you about his hiring of Bardeen and Herring?
I don’t remember his talking about hiring them but I remember him talking about them all the time. He was always talking about the brilliant minds they had.
They again represent a departure; they were hired in ‘45 and ‘46. They were even more purely research oriented; they were theoretical physicists in solid state. Fisk and Shockley were involved in experimental work. These people didn’t do any experimental work, well Bardeen didn’t do very much. They were theorists. So Kelly was closely in touch with their work too then? Well we’ve already talked about Kelly College. Kelly was executive vice president from ‘44 to ‘52 while this solid state group was established and while the transistor came out. Then he became president; he was president from ‘51 to ‘59. Did you then notice any difference in the way he worked? Did he seem as happy while he was president?
Oh yes. He was very happy.
Did he continue going to universities and visiting laboratories?
Yes, but not as much because it was more important for him to stay right here than to go. He sent other people to do that.
Then he became chairman of the board in ‘59 and then he retired. But he was still a very active consultant with firms such as IBM. Did he continue to keep you informed about what he doing and observing and thinking?
Oh yes. The reason he went to IBM — old Mr. Watson, Tom Watson, once tried to hire him away from the Laboratories. And of course Mervin wouldn’t do it. So Tom said, young Tom, “Now look, I don’t know whether I’ll be here or not but when that man Kelly retires from the Laboratories you get him.” So when Mervin retired from the Laboratories, and he told me that they wanted him I said, you’ve worked all your life hard enough and I think you should quit. But he wouldn’t have been happy. Anyway, he did take four months off and we had a lovely trip. Before you know it was always part business and part vacation. Well these four months were all good vacation and going where I wanted to go. Before he would only go where there was science, and I always wanted to go to Spain. We couldn’t go to Spain, no science in Spain. So that year we went to Spain, stayed there about two months, and then went to Portugal for two months. Anyway I said he’ll just get into working so hard at IBM I just don’t think he should. But he talked to them and he told them he didn’t want to work as hard.
So then Tom said “Well I’ll tell you what. You pick your own time and your own salary.” So they decided on three months a year any three months Mervin wanted, and a very good salary. And we went abroad a lot. And I tell you when we went abroad with IBM it was much better than with the telephone people, because at IBM we had a car and a chauffeur twenty-four hours a day. They would pick Mervin up and take him to the different IBM laboratories and then come back for me and take me any place I wanted to go, sight-seeing I should say. Of course the telephone company couldn’t do that; the Laboratory being a nonprofit organization. But IBM was great and they sent a car out for him when he went into IBM they sent a car for him every morning and would send him back at the end of the day. They just wanted him so badly. And he helped them a lot. First thing he did, he made them give up two or three laboratories they had. He saved them money. He enjoyed it, but he said it wasn’t anything as exhilarating as the Laboratory. It was a different sort of job. He liked it but —
— he hadn’t built it. Thank you so very much. This has been very useful.
Well, it’s been nice to see you.