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Interview of Foster Cary Nix by Lillian Hoddeson on 1975 June 27, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4798
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Mainly concerns Nix's work at Bell Laboratories. Educational background; recollections of John B. Johnson, Nix's work on barriers for gaseous diffusion plants during World War II; physics seminars at Bell Labs in the 1930s, and the relation of Bell Labs to the international physics community. Also prominently mentioned are: John Bardeen, Joseph A. Becker, Hans Albrecht Bethe, Eugene Booth, Walter Bothe, Walter Houser Brattain, Oliver E. Buckley, James Chadwick, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Pierre Curie, Karl Kelchner Darrow, Clinton Joseph Davisson, John R. Dunning, James Brown Fisk, Harvey Fletcher, Lester Halbert Germer, Stephane Groueff, Leslie Richard Groves, Fritz Haber, Werner Heisenberg, Alan Holden, H. E. Ives, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Mervin J. Kelly, Charles Kittel, Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Sir Nevill Francis Mott, Linus Pauling, Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls, Robert Wichard Pohl, Isidor Isaac Rabi, William Shockley, John Clarke Slater, Gordon K. Teale, Charles Hard Townes, E. C. Wente, Addison Hughson White, Eugene Paul Wigner, Dean E. Wooldridge; Columbia University, Cornell University, Keley Corporation, Manhattan Project, Reviews of Modern Physics, and University of Alabama.
Today is June 27, 1975. This is Lillian Hoddeson, and I'm interviewing Dr. Foster Nix in Wawaset, Pennsylvania, and Mrs. Nix is here also.
Well, I'll tell you a little bit about my first contact with Davisson. I entered the Bell Laboratories in 1929 when I came back from Germany. I was under a chap by the name of H. E. Ives whose specialty was photo-electricity. I was put in charge of what they called internal photoelectric effect, which is another word for photoconductivity. Ives personally handled the external effect. And we were down the hall, about three doors down from Davisson's laboratory and office, so I know him very well. I also knew his colleague Germer very well. That's something I know a great deal about it, and I can give you a bit of breakdown on this.
I'd love to hear it.
I remember when I was in Europe, and Davisson's discovery was discussed, they'd mention the fact that Davisson had of course the full facilities of the great Bell Laboratories at his disposal. Well, this is sheer nonsense. Davisson's total assistance was Germer and a laboratory mechanic, who was a combination of a mechanic and a laboratory assistant. He didn't use any facilities of the great Bell Laboratories at all, except the freedom to do as he pleased. And his discovery was accidental, as a lot of things are. They were studying the various factors involved in the scattering of electrons — a polycrystalline nickel surface. The darned tube broke which was heated up, and the nickel surface oxidized. Well, this of course at first confused them terribly, because they'd had a lot of work done on this surface. Then he had to reduce his surface back to nickel again. He had to heat it in a hot hydrogen atmosphere, and in so doing, he created a lot of large crystals of nickel. So when he started taking his pattern over again, he got a very different pattern, [???] and here's where he was bright. De Broglie had just done the work on the theory of the dual nature of electrons, the wave and corpuscular nature of electrons, and Davisson was bright enough to take this theoretical material, and assume that he'd had Bragg reflection, from his nickel surface. And it fitted in exactly with this prediction.
Do you know if he was aware of the de Broglie results?
Oh yes. He was aware of it. Oh, sure —
— in some accounts, they say he was not.
Well, he was aware of it the moment he started interpreting his results. He wasn't aware of it when he did the studies on the original surface. And when he started studies after the accident what he first noticed was that he got an entirely different pattern. I don’t think he was doing the work with any intention of confirming or refuting De Broglie's theory. He was simply studying the distribution of the scattering of electrons from these surfaces. But he found out that it fit the De Broglie formula by knowing the wave length of the electrons from the voltage impressed on the electron beam, and this is how it came about. But he was smart enough to do it. The same as in Brattain and Bardeen’s work. You’ll recall that was an accident too; a lot of things in physics are this way, but the difference is, they were bright enough to know it, to interpret correctly. Now Brattain, as I understand it from talking to both Brattain and Bardeen on this, they were trying to confirm some of Bardeen’s theories on electron surface levels in solids. They were doing some work on the potential drop along a single crystal of germanium —
Germanium. It was germanium first. And they discovered that they got these very strange feedback effects. But here’s where Bardeen was bright — whoever made the decision, I don’t know, I can’t speak with certainty that it was Bardeen but I suspect it was. He was bright enough to know; whoever made it, that this was not a spurious effect; this was a basic effect they'd discovered. And this is true of many things in physics. You find them accidentally, but the difference is a lot of people throw the results away, thinking it's some spurious effect. They throw it overboard. Brattain and Bardeen didn't. Same thing with Davisson, of course.
How is it you were at Bell Labs in the summer of ‘26?
Just there before going on to further graduate work.
I see. I would like to focus this interview on the period of ‘29 to ‘43, when you were at Bell Labs, but at this time I'd like to ask you just a few biographical questions.
— Ok, perfectly fine.
According to my biographical sketch, you were born in Sanford, Alabama, in 1905.
Correct. That's correct.
Were you educated in the local Alabama schools?
Local high school in Opp, Alabama, where I grew up, until I went to college at the University of Alabama, where I took my bachelor's degree, of all things, in mining engineering.
How did you move on to physics from there?
I moved into metallurgy then, at the University of Missouri, School of Mines at Rolla, Missouri, where I specialized in metallurgy, and I then took my first job in the Western Electric Co., which is part of the Bell System, as you know, in Chicago in the summer of 1925. And I suddenly realized that the deeper I got into metallurgy, the closer I came to physics, that I had really no choice. If I wanted to really know metallurgy thoroughly, I had to be a physicist.
So you weren't satisfied with the level of the work you were doing at Western Electric.
Well, that, plus the fact that I knew I didn't have the background for it. I didn't have the proper physics background, for it.
I see. So then you decided —
— to take my Ph.D. in physics. And I went then to Columbia for one year, just learning German primarily —
At Columbia University?
Yes. Just primarily to learn German. I didn’t do any work there of any importance. I took some physics courses. Then I decided to go to Berlin and work with a fellow by the name of Eric Schmid in Berlin.
At Columbia, whom did you study with? Do you remember?
Well, I didn’t really study with any particular person. I was just taking courses. I was simply a research assistant to a chap by the name of Campbell who’s long since dead and no one knows his name at all anymore. I was actually in the department of metallurgy there because that’s the only way I could make a living at that time. I then went to Berlin and worked under Eric Schmid. He was a very outstanding person in that period of time in plasticity of metals, just general theory, and I took my Ph.D. with him in Berlin in 1929. He is now still living. I think he’s in Austria. He's retired as professor of physics at the University of Vienna.
Was anybody else that I should know about in Berlin at that time?
Well, Polanyi and Schmid were the two biggest men in the field of solid state physics. Polanyi was really a chemist. They were working on deformation of metals. I don't know anybody else, let's see — Wigner was a privatdozent in Berlin — Charlottenberg, and so was Szilard at Berlin.
Wigner was there?
A privatdozent at Technische Hochschule in Berlin — Charlottenberg. Szilard was a privatdozent by then, and what's the name of the computer man from Princeton who died a few years ago?
Von Neumann was there, in the mathematics department. These were all — I didn't know them at that time, because I was just a young graduate student, and they were about, oh, I think they must have been eight or ten years ahead of me, in age as well as — they were all in Berlin at the time. See, Schrödinger had just come to Berlin when I went there. He came as professor of physics in the fall of ‘27, when I went there to Berlin.
Did you get to hear him at all?
Oh yes, I took lectures from Schrödinger. And Planck, I took his lectures — the last semester Planck lectured was my first year in Berlin.
On what subject?
Mechanics. To give you some idea of how popular he was in Germany, he lectured to a class, I should think, with 150 or 200 pupils. In mechanics — imagine this!
What did mechanics mean at that time?
Oh, just classical mechanics. Planck was a man revered in Germany as I suppose that no other physicist ever experienced at all. He commanded the greatest respect in Germany; was an elegant lecturer. He was a really superb lecturer. He spoke beautiful German, and he had his lectures well organized. Now, Von Laue was also there, I took Von Laue’s lectures on X-rays — but he was a terrible lecturer. He chewed his words up. He was so bad; they wouldn’t let him be my examiner when I took my Ph.D. because they didn’t think I could understand him. My German’s much better than that, but anyway they were scared of it. So — the two you know of today, the three rather would be Schrödinger, Planck and Von Laue. Von Laue, I got to know him a lot better later. I got to know him over here. He's of course dead, was killed in an automobile accident in about 1951 or somewhere along in that period, ‘52.
Berlin was a very — Weissenberg was there, a man who did a lot of [???] X-ray work; you probably don’t know his name. He never became a person of very great stature. So the atmosphere in Berlin was tremendously interesting and invigorating when I was there. To me it was just a fascinating thing. I think I was inspired with the absolute openness and frankness. There’d be a seminar in Berlin and there were no restraints on any speaker. I used to visit lectures of Einstein — not that I understood it at all because I didn't know a thing about field theory, it was too far over my head — but I was always very impressed with the students who questioned him and argued with him, perfectly openly, in a way that they’d never do over here. Even in open seminars, in colloquia, they wouldn’t mind getting up and saying, “You’re wrong and damn well telling him so.” There was a kind of openness that I’ve never experienced in this country, in a perfectly respectful manner, but nevertheless, open frank discussion, as one scientist to another.
In this period when you were in Berlin ‘26 to ‘29 — the work on the quantum theory of solids was just beginning to come out —
— correct —
Somerfield’s work and others.
Somerfield and Peierls and Bethe.
Was that reaching Berlin?
I wasn't conscious of it then at Berlin. I became conscious of it shortly after joining the Bell Laboratories, because I began to read in this area. Berlin at that time was a very invigorating and very stimulating atmosphere. I think it’s one of my greatest impressions, as a youth, because I was young, I was only 23 when I took my doctor’s degree. So I was 21 to 22, and I’d never been around such giants before. And here these men were, perfectly nice human beings, and treated as such, and all gentlemen, too. I got to know Haber fairly well, the famous physical chemist. He was an arrogant guy. I’ll tell you an interesting attitude in Haber; if you’re interested in Haber at all — this is a bit of the same atmosphere — When I took my orals, I took one of my minors under Haber. His secretary had made a date. The general rule in Berlin was that every student has the right to be examined alone. Haber’s secretary had deliberately made this date for three of us at the same time, knowing perfectly well that she was breaking all the rules, probably at Haber’s instructions. And I was the only foreigner. The rest of them were Germans. So he sat at the head of the table, and placed the three of us around the table. I was lucky insofar as I was number 3 when he started questioning. And we all knew Haber. Any German student knew what Haber had done, the great things he had done, so we all immediately geared for it to give answers to questions he might ask us on the thing he had contributed. He asked one German student a question to which this German student kept saying, “Herr Geheimrat did this, Herr Geheimrat did that.” Haber was a Geheimrat, you know. Well, when he came to me, he asked me if I would tell him the fundamental basis for the synthesis of ammonia. I knew the thing well, of course. I told it to him without mentioning his name once. He looked over at me and said, “Herr Doctor,” or rather “Herr Candidat, sehr gut!” In other words, if you've got the nerve to sit up here and tell me about synthesis of ammonia, and never mention my name once, I admire you for it. It was very amusing. One of the Germans started giving him a lot of soft soap, and he said, “Now, wait a minute Herr Candidat, I'm not an idiot, don't talk to me like this.” He obviously admired my guts. I didn't mention his name once. He knew damn well I knew it, of course. He knew I was deliberately doing it. And I admired him because he admired me for it.
Was it typical to be the only American in the circle you moved around in at Berlin?
I knew no other Americans. I deliberately avoided them, because I wanted to learn German well, and I learned to speak German fluently.
Do you recall any other Americans there in that period?
The only one I knew there at all, [???] the only one I knew was an X-ray man. What was his name? He's been dead a number of years now, died a relatively young man. Patterson. You know his name? He did some very nice work on using Fourier analysis on X-ray patterns, years ago. He was in Berlin with me although I knew him only very slightly there. I got to know him over here a lot better. But I didn't really associate with Americans. I deliberately avoided it because I wanted to learn German, and the way to learn German is to speak German all the time.
Did you come into any contact at all with the industrial laboratories in Germany while you were there?
None at all.
Did you think of staying on in Europe?
— No, no. I'm a native-born Alabamian for many generations. I had no intention of staying in Germany. I’m what Roosevelt called an “incurable rebel,” “unreconstructed rebel” he called it; that was it. You remember the speech? You’re too young.
Well, let's see, then in 1929, you came back to the States and joined Bell Labs immediately.
Yes, in August 1929.
Do you remember the particular circumstances that brought you to the Bell Laboratories?
You see, I knew something about it from being at Western Electric, also being at Bell Labs one summer, in the summer of ‘26. So I knew, I knew what the Bell Laboratories was. Davisson had done his work which had increased its prestige by that time, and I wanted to be in industry and at the same time to do good basic work. So this is the reason I came to Bell Labs.
Did you have any thoughts about perhaps joining a university department?
When did you make that decision?
When I was at the University of Berlin. It just never occurred to me to go anywhere else. I had no desire to be in academic work, but I did want to be in basic research work. See your freedom in America in those days was very little, Bell Laboratories practically being the cream of the crop, and almost — well, GE and Bell Labs were the only two that really did basic work.
Did you consider GE?
Not at all. The only one I interviewed was Bell.
Who did you contact at Bell?
I went to the personnel office for an interview before I went home to Alabama. I stopped by and got me a job. I knew a fellow by the name of Long in the personnel department, and he sent me up to see Ives, and Ives liked my background because I’d taken a lot of work in photochemistry in Berlin and he wanted me so I could talk to him about the quantum theory of optics. He was quite impressed by this, so consequently he immediately asked them to hire me. And I spent my first years working in photoconductivity in the Laboratories.
So then you went home, and you told your parents you were leaving right away to go to Bell?
Oh yes. So I came back up here in August ‘29.
Then you lived in New York at that time?
Yes. I lived down in the Village during all of my New York career.
(to Mrs. Nix) Are you a New Yorker then?
She's an Alabamian, too. We're both Alabamians. We met in New York, but we're both —
I met him because he was Dr. Nix's son.
My father was a physician. She knew my father. He was a physician in Alabama.
And you were married in 1933.
You've got that in the biographical material! We were married at the bottom of the Depression. Only one way for the country to go and that was up, because we couldn't go any lower.
It was the best time to get married. Only one way to move.
See my ability to handle German stood me in very good stead. I was invited to write an article for the Reviews of Modern Physics in 1932. I wrote one on photoconductivity. All the work at that time of any decent nature at all had been done by Pohl at Gottingen, so my being able to read German was of course of tremendous value to me. If I picked up an article and you'd ask me if I was reading German or English, I would have said I didn't know the difference, because I could read them equally well. Matter of fact, my vocabulary was greater in German sometimes, in some of these solid state problems, than it would be in English because I was trained in German.
In that period, were the best articles appearing in the Physical Review or in German scientific publications?
Oh, in German — in photoconductivity, in the Annalen Physik and Die Zeitschrift für Physik. Oh sure, no question about it at all. There was very little appearing in American journals.
When did you note the transition to the American Journals?
In the early thirties, it was occurring. I probably published the first basic work on photoconductivity that ever appeared in American journals, because Pohl had been doing this kind of work, and I was more or less following in Pohl's foot tracks. He was at that time at Gottingen, a very fine scholar and a very fine teacher. Pohl was such a good teacher; I've heard German students tell me that he would give his lectures in general physics at 7 o'clock in the morning, and they'd get up at 7, and listen to him. And he would spend the rest of the day doing research. And his lectures were full, because he was such a superb lecturer. Robert Pohl he was really quite a person.
I have a Bell organization chart for 1930 and you are in the department under Gray.
Under Gray. Gray —
— working with some people who I haven’t come across yet, Morrison and Hefele.
Well, they were only assistants. I was the only Ph.D. here.
Then you moved over under Kingsbury?
Well, Gray and Ives fought like cats and dogs, and so Gray moved out, and moved actually under J. B. Johnson, and I then moved under Kingsbury, and these again are just a — see, Gray would be — where is this?
Gray is under Johnson. Johnson is under Buckley.
He's one of my very good personal friends I'll tell you about him —
— Johnson —
Yes, I knew him well. When I became a consultant to Thomas Edison, I took J. B. Johnson with me over there, as head of the physics department at Thomas Edison.
Had he done his work yet on noise at that time?
Yes, he’d already done his work on noise at that time. At the time I knew him, he’d done his work on noise. He did it; he may have been doing it at that time. I'm not sure. I know we were really good personal friends all our careers. We used to have lunch together frequently; I knew J. B. extremely well. Kelly developed an animosity towards Johnson, which was very tragic, because Johnson's one of the nicest guys that anybody ever met. He's a thorough gentleman. When Fisk first came to the Laboratories, he was put under Johnson. Fisk came into the Bell Labs I think in about 1937, would be my guess. It could be ‘36. Shockley brought him in. Shockley came first. Shockley talked a fellow by the name of Brown, who became director of research, into bringing in Fisk. Fisk went first to Chapel Hill, N.C., then became very unhappy and wanted to leave. Then Shockley got him in the Bell Laboratories. And that’s one reason that Fisk has been obligated to Shockley. Some of these bad decisions he made may be because he was obligated to Shockley, because he brought him into the organization to begin with.
Tell me something, when you arrived here, in the group under Gray and —
I was really independent. I always had an unusual situation at the Bell Laboratories. It didn’t matter whom I reported to. I was independent of anybody; really, not by personality. I always worked in a field that my superiors knew nothing about at all. So I was given complete freedom. I always did have complete freedom. And what I wasn't given, I took.
Is it true that you were much more knowledgeable in modern quantum theories than the other people?
That’s correct. See, I was the only well-trained person under Ives — Briggs was a Ph.D. from Chicago — but not really well, he was not in modern physics like I was. He was a generation back of me — a somewhat older man than I am. I don't know whether he’s still living or not. I’d say he was 15 years, at least 10 years my senior. You’ll find him under Ives here, external photoelectric effect.
I’m skipping now to the forties. I guess it was Joe Burton who was commenting —
— I know Burton very well.
In referring to this chart of 1940, Burton described you and Dean Wooldridge and Charlie Townes —
— and Shockley —
— and Shockley as the young people who had grown up with quantum mechanics.
Yes, we were placed under Fletcher at one time, as completely independent of anyone else in the Laboratories, to do as we pleased —
But you were here before the others.
Yes, I was the oldest one of the lot.
You were perhaps one of the first people who came in trained in quantum mechanics. Is that right?
Yes. But I’m not really as well trained in quantum mechanics as you might think for that period. I mean, I was interested in it alright, but I don't have the mathematical training that Shockley’s got or Dean Wooldridge had. Or Townes, Charlie Townes. They were the first ones to come in really carrying the tools of the trade, a lot better than I did. I had the instinct and interest, but I didn't have the tools as well as they did. Now, see, this is the group under Fletcher (looking at 1940 organization chart), this is the group — see, I had this group.
We're still looking at 1940.
Yes, this is — no, you have no charts after this, because this is what it was when the war came along. And Townes was put under Wooldridge. Dean Wooldridge — did you ever meet him?
No, but I'm going to.
The last time I heard of him, he was at Pasadena. He's a very competent person, extremely so. This whole bunch — I had to work on metal physics, Shockley had a roving commission, and Dean Wooldridge had electron emission. And that was our total assignment. Now, the semiconductor work at that time was done under Becker. And Brattain, Walter Brattain —
— Brattain is here under… Becker. Shive is here too and Gerald Pearson is also.
Yes, Pearson used to be under J. B. Johnson for years, he was primarily trained under J. B. Johnson, but he moved over under Becker, I presume about this same time. Matter of fact, J. B. Johnson trained a lot of these people. He did this because he was such an extremely nice guy. He would give them freedom.
(To Mrs. Nix). Did you know Johnson too?
Oh yes. We went to his eightieth birthday party. I remember one young Ph.D. there said this is the most distinguished gathering I have ever been in. And the next morning at breakfast, we were house guests. The number of autographed books in physics that had been brought to that party because they had trained under J. B. Johnson was just staggering; must have been fourteen at breakfast that next morning, autographed books, of people who had worked under him in their salad days.
— He was one of the most beloved —
It was touching, really, it was touching, I mean thrilling to be house guests, the only house guests.
When J. B. retired from the Bell Laboratories, I was just building up the research department of Thomas Edison Co. I got him the job then as head of the physics department at the research laboratory. He didn't even have to move, because the Edison Laboratories were at Orange. So as he went out of the garage he just turned his car in the opposite direction. I kept in very close contact with him for 15 years. Then he died. He died in his 82nd year, I think. And he was the most beloved person I’ve ever known in physics. He didn’t have an enemy in the world, except for Mervin Kelly, which was unfortunate. Kelly mistreated J. B. very severely in the Bell Laboratories. I always held it against him. I thought Kelly was an S.O.B. for so doing. J. B. was the nicest guy. He had certain faults. I know perfectly well his faults. He was not hard boiled enough to make good decisions. He wouldn’t be a good personnel director, and all that. But he was a nice person, highly intelligent and a hard worker, and remained a creative person in his 80th year. I’ll give you an interesting comment. On his 80th birthday, a young chap who was chief engineer of the electronics division of Edison Company said to me, “80% of our profit this year is made from work of J. B. Johnson.” And he did this from the time he was 70 to 80, after most men have ceased to be creative. This man remained creative right up to almost his last breath; incredible record and a splendid person. I mean, I’m very fond of him. Kelly was a nasty person, I think. Very competent, don’t misunderstand me; Kelly was a very competent person, but a very nasty person as an individual. Is Fisk still active in Bell Laboratories?
Fisk just recently retired.
He just retired.
Just in the last couple of years.
I don’t know Bill Baker well. I just know him very casually. I don’t know anybody in charge of Bell Laboratories any more except Baker, and I hardly know Baker. I wouldn’t know any of the top people any more.
I notice that first you were in the electro-optical research department.
Under Ives. And then, by ‘36 you appear under Harvey Fletcher.
— under Bozorth. That was purely, again, just one of these figurehead situations.
Did you work with Bozorth on magnetism?
Not at all — oh no — I was a free agent, I was always a free agent, and they simply recognized this and moved me under Fletcher, along with Wooldridge and Shockley. See, any person coming in at that time well I suppose my personality made part of it, part of it was my ability. I mean, I knew my field thoroughly. I got to know it very thoroughly. And Bozorth and I would argue about certain questions of magnetism. One day Kelly came to a conference wherein I suppose I really hurt Bozorth quite badly, I didn't intend to, but he asked me about perm alloy, which is one of the most important magnetic materials used in the Bell System. Well I thought the magnetic properties of perm alloy were largely due to order — disorder transitions in the alloy, and Bozorth didn't agree with me. And Kelly asked me my evidence for it, so I gave it to him. It was conclusive, no question about it, — you see, the perm alloy alloys were right at the composition regions where there were fcc cubic lattice. You would have a simple order-disorder transformation taking place in a series of iron-nickel alloys. But I was a free agent, always have been. The only way I can really work. I can’t work under anybody's direction. Never have done so. You haven’t read the book on the Manhattan Project, have you by Groueff?
Well, a gentleman by the name of Groueff wrote a book on the Manhattan Project. I had the heart of the whole diffusion plant of the Manhattan Project under my jurisdiction, the barrier work and I was the only one doing real good work on barrier research.
When were you doing that work?
In 1941, three weeks before Pearl Harbor. My biggest contribution by far [???] is this barrier work.
Let’s see if there’s anything we should look at in a little more detail in the thirties, and then we'll focus on the work you did in the forties. I gather you didn't collaborate with any of those people who were also under the various directors
— no —
You were under Fletcher however in ‘38. You were together with MacNair.
He was my assistant, my laboratory assistant.
Shockley and Wooldridge, did you associate much with them?
Well, you see, we were just three independent groups reporting to Fletcher — we had nothing to do with each other, except we were friendly and —
But you wrote some papers together?
Shockley and I did. I never worked with Wooldridge. Shockley and I did a work on self-diffusion of copper together, and we did the work on the order disorder transformation in Reviews of Modern Physics which I invited him to participate in.
How did you divide up the work?
Oh, well, roughly, he handled most of the theory and I handled all the experimental work, essentially that. But I was the senior one. I was writing it before Shockley came into the picture. And I realized he could do a much better job would be a much better paper, by having someone who was more versatile who had the machinery of theoretical physics — than I was. And it was a better paper by virtue, no question about that.
Let’s see (looking at organization charts for 1940 and 1944) this is the same group in the forties, and in ‘41 again roughly —
— yes, same group. See, here the war came along and everything changed. I don’t know where Shockley was at this time, but I know he’s not under here — Fletcher —
He must have left then to do some war work.
I still reported to Fletcher, so here I’m the only one reporting to Fletcher, and that’s when I was on the Manhattan Project.
You’d already begun that while you were at Bell?
Yes. Oh sure.
And were on the Manhattan Project under Bell’s auspices.
Yes. And I had a much bigger group under me then. I don’t suppose it ever showed up in an organization chart. I never saw it. I never saw an organization chart after that point. I was always reporting to Fletcher. I’d like to make one comment here. I think the fact that I had a combination of metallurgical training and physics enabled me to make the contribution I did to the Manhattan Project, which is the barrier. The barrier is the name of the membrane which we used to separate Uranium-235 isotopes from 238, and it's the guts of the diffusion plant. It's why we have a whole atomic program based on that.
(to Dr. Hoddeson) I’ll bet you didn’t know that —
I’ll bet there’s a lot of people at Bell Laboratories don’t know it, because it’s still classified top secret. And — Maggie, get Groueff’s book so she can look at it a moment when I get through. Not that it’s scholarly at all, far from it, but at least… I think my having a combination I could speak both metallurgical and physics terminologies, and I think having this combination of ability and experience in these two fields was probably the thing that made it possible for me to do this job, because this was a tremendously important job. The war was won by it, you know; the Hiroshima bomb was made from this material, and our whole atomic warheads today are made from 235. Every power plant is made from 235. It’s the basis of all our nuclear energy today. And of course it was by far the most important thing I ever did at Bell Labs. That’s very important. Of course, any of these big jobs, you have all this petty jealousy and things arising from such base emotions. I was immune from it because I was at Bell Labs. I didn't care what anybody else thought. I did as I pleased. I could make my decisions and do as I pleased, and this was really by virtue of being free of the haggling at Columbia that I could do this. And I’m sure if I’d been at Columbia; I might have been caught up in some of this crossfire and politics and got messed up. But I was a free agent.
Were you in communication with the people at Columbia?
Oh sure. Constantly, daily. But they had no jurisdiction over me. I was a free agent but just cooperating with them. I had charge of the barrier research. Now, it developed later on, there were two types of barriers developed, one under a chap by the name of Norris and a fellow by the name of Adler. You see it discussed in this book, here. However, this poor devil (Groueff) was not allowed to have any classified information. It's still classified top secret. And the barrier that went into the diffusion plants, that made up all except the latter stages of the K-25 plant – that’s a code name for the first diffusion plant built –- were the mixture of my barrier and the Norris-Adler barrier. The end of it was my barrier entirely, and I’ve since won over completely; there were two stages that I can’t even discuss with you because I’m not allowed to, so far — all the barriers in diffusion plants today are essentially my barriers. I don’t mean to say I made every bit of contribution, don’t misunderstand I wouldn’t be so immodest as to say that, but the basic ideas, I developed, and of course, it’s been a tremendously successful venture. I suppose the diffusion plants have been by far the most successful thing ever done during the war years. The big plutonium plants in Hanford, Washington have been in standby condition for several years. You’re probably not familiar with the gaseous diffusion plants, but they were enormous plants. The Nagasaki bomb was made from plutonium. The Hiroshima bomb was made from 235. But after the war, it turned out that the cheapest way to get fissionable material was through 235, the gaseous diffusion plants, and everything else was stopped. They didn’t stop the Hanford immediately, but they did in a couple or three years after the war, it's been stopped, and it’s been in standby now for a number of years. But where our plants have been expanded 15 fold, K-25 was expanded fivefold in Oak Ridge, and they duplicated them at Paducah Kentucky, the same size as Oak Ridge, and again in Portsmouth Ohio again, same size as Oak Ridge, so it's been a 15 fold expansion, and of course today it’s a tremendous industry. And today, in every journal, every Wall Street Journal, you see we’re now letting independent companies come in and build these plants. Another gaseous diffusion plant is going probably to be built presumably in Alabama by Bechtel Corporation, together with I think its Goodyear Rubber Co. I don’t suppose any of my friends at the Bell Laboratories even realized I did this work, because, I was not associated with them at that time, and I doubt if they know about it. But that’s what I think is tragic. It’s the tragic part of my career, insofar as the biggest thing I did was never known and of course it would make the transistor shrink into oh, I shouldn't say, that, it’s too strong a statement, but it certainly is equally as important as the transistor or anything else as far as world industry is concerned, because it’s formed the biggest industry in America. And it’s been extremely successful, much more so than we ever dreamed it could be. One of these things where we went from a pilot plant that you could put in a room twice as big as this little covered area here, to build a plant where the K-25 was the biggest plant ever built in the world at that time, single plant. Well, now, to come back, I did this work, not only when I came to Philadelphia as director of research of Sharples but I also took a Manhattan Project contract, and I continued to work here until the end of the war. I went back into it for a short time in 1952 and ‘53 as a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission. But I have had no contact with it since then at all.
Can you think of any specific ways in which this wartime work influenced the work that you returned to after the war?
No. See, I was just an administrator, director of research.
You didn’t do —
I was director of research all the time that this was done, and I had charge of about, I suppose I had 15 Ph.D.’s under me. And I had a total laboratory of about 50 personnel, all working on the Manhattan Project at that time.
Were you keeping up your contacts with your former colleagues at Bell Labs?
No. See, I then went from Sharples to professor of physics at Penn in — see, I went to Penn in 1948, and I stayed there until 1954. Then I went back to doing basic research, of course.
Did you keep up with the work that Shockley and others were doing at Bell Labs?
Only just as a scientist reading in the literature. I had no direct contact with them. I had more with Bardeen at that time, because I was doing diffusion work at Penn, and Bardeen was doing theoretical work in diffusion. I did work in self-diffusion of cobalt. I published papers in self-diffusion of cobalt and some other work at that time, at Penn. And Bardeen, was doing theoretical work at that time in diffusion; Shockley not at all, to my knowledge.
At Penn, were you a member of the physics department?
Oh yes, professor of physics.
Was Bardeen there then?
No. I tried to get Bardeen in Penn, unsuccessfully. He went to Illinois then. And he’s still there. See, Shockley created a great discord in the Bell Laboratories during this period. Brattain would have left if he could. He didn’t get an opportunity. He would have left. Everybody was so sick of Shockley. Kittel left on account of Shockley. Bardeen left on account of Shockley. Richardson left on account of Shockley. And well these are the ones I know of personally.
In ‘54, you left Penn. Didn’t you like the academic life?
Well Barnwell and I didn't get along well at all, so I decided to retire. I had enough money to retire, so I retired in ‘56, from all scientific activity, everything.
You were at Penn at the time that the news of the transistor broke —
Yes. Well, the news broke before that. I was there, when I was invited by the Nobel Committee to nominate a person for the Nobel Prize, I nominated Bardeen and Brattain for the Nobel Prize. I gave them the first nomination, to get the Nobel Prize. The invitation was given to me, I’m sure, by Borelius of the University of Stockholm, who I’d been in contact with and knew socially. And you know, they do this, i.e. to be accurate, the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy of Science will occasionally ask other than Nobel Prize winners to make nominations, and I was invited to make one. I think it was ‘52. I'm not quite sure of the year, ‘51 or ‘52, anyway.
In another interview, Joe Burton said that, “Wooldridge, Townes, Shockley, Nix were all people that were brought up to some degree in modern solid state physics. These were the modern — they were for the most part research physics oriented young people.” I was wondering whether, in those days, you viewed yourself as a solid state physicist?
Oh sure, entirely so.
Did you use the term, do you remember?
Oh sure, we always used it. I always thought of myself as a solid state, and I always used the term.
How far back does that go, about?
I would think from the time I went into the Bell Laboratories. I’m not sure of this, now. Time may be playing a trick on me. But I am quite sure that all of us like Shockley, Wooldridge and I, all the rest of us, we always thought of it as solid state physics, as such. You’ve read about this colloquium, this seminar which I helped get started in the Bell Laboratories.
Yes. I did -– I’d like more information about that. This was a study group that got organized in ‘36?
That’s right. I think that’s correct.
Were you the organizer?
I suspect I was. I mean, this is the kind of thing, to say, I was -– I’m sure it was done —
— Holden referred to you as the “spark plug.”
Well, I suspect I did do the most of the original work. I was the spark plug. Shockley and I together and Dean Wooldridge and Charlie Townes, I suspect all were instrumental.
Well, now, Charlie Townes was not mentioned by Brattain.
Well, he was there. He was very active. He was a younger member. He’s a person of great intellect; let me tell you, there’s not a brighter person. Yes, Charlie Townes was there, very much so. Charlie Townes, Wooldridge, Ad White; I brought Ad White into it, —
White, Shockley —
— Shockley —
— Brattain —
— Brattain, Joe Becker.
Becker was in?
Oh yes, we brought Becker in.
Not Howell Williams. This was the Williams in Bozorth's group? Let’s see — I doubt if he was in it or not. He was not quite that interested in basic electronic physics.
The two non-Ph.D.’s were Alan Holden and Ad White. They were in it from the beginning, both high intellects, not well trained but bright people, you know, and nothing can substitute for a good mind, I don’t care what kind of training you're given, as you know. I think they made up the bunch. Now, there may be an official list of that somewhere. We were the first such group ever organized in the Bell Laboratories, and M. J. Kelly was so impressed by it that he actually had the Bell Laboratories give us a tea every time we met. We used to have tea and have it served, coffee and tea and biscuits, you know various things of this type, during the working hours of the Bell Laboratories.
Was this a once a week —
— once a week —
Alan Holden recalls it probably began at 4:30 in the afternoon —
That’s probably right.
I can’t remember if anybody has told me what day of the week, do you remember?
I can’t remember.
But it was once a week, began at 4:30 —
And we were served tea and coffee at the Bell Laboratories expense, and we simply went on until —
— until when?
— until it finished. One of the things was we wanted to be free and not on Bell Laboratories’ time — because then Bell Laboratories could officially stick their fingers into it. See, if we did it on our own time, then it was none of their affair. But Kelly immediately assured us that he very much approved of this, and would like to support it by actually having it on Bell Laboratories’ time which only took a half — I thought it started earlier than 4:30 but I may be wrong. This is so long ago, you know.
Well nobody’s very sure.
My guess is, it was 4 o'clock, and then we went on till 5, 5:30, 6, however long it took us to finish up a session. We started, I think, with a Mott and Jones book, and then we went through Tolman’s book on Statistical Mechanics, then we did certain things from Mott and Gurney and a bit on this book, Wilson's book — Wilson and the other chap, an X-ray man from Pasadena, can't think of his name now on Elementary Quantum Mechanics. You're probably too young to remember this book, probably out of date before you ever came along. He wrote it together with a chap from Harvard, Wilson. Who was that man from Caltech; a screwball politically? You know who I'm talking about?
Pauling. Pauling and Wilson was the book we used, or was it Pauling alone? I thought it was Pauling alone.
Pauling’s book on the chemical bond?
No, not that one. It was a book on quantum mechanics. I think he did it with a guy from Harvard by the name of Wilson. I think it was Pauling and Wilson. I’m not sure of this myself any longer. I’m calling things back from 40 years ago, almost. Anyway, those are the volumes which we systematically worked through, and we’d [???] each one take a topic, then a chapter.
Who selected the topics?
Well, we just went through Mott and Jones from cover to cover and the same thing with — This was done in consultation with all of us as a group, I think. Anybody made suggestions. I don't think anyone was presiding over the meeting. There was no one presiding at all. It was a very informal —
I have Mott and Jones with me, but it may be in the car —
— Gosh, I haven't seen that book in 30 years.
Why don't I turn off the tape recorder for a few moments and run to the car and get it (Returns). This is a modern reprint but it’s the original book. It’s been reprinted. The book came out originally in ‘36.
Yes, in ‘36, yes.
So it was the newest thing you could have chosen.
Yes. Fuchs, you know who he is, don’t you? He’s the one that became a traitor, you know, on the Manhattan Project, and gave the Russians information. The [???] British didn’t kill him, because he gave the information to an ally, so technically they couldn’t kill him, but they would have killed him, because he was a dirty traitor, no doubt about that at all.
Was this the only book that could have been chosen, that was available at that time?
What about the book on statistical mechanics by Tolman? That was out roughly at the same time.
How did you decide to choose this book?
We chose this book, because, see, Shockley and I had just worked on the type of material which was involved in this book, and I think that’s why we chose the book. Maybe Shockley and I did this, made the decision, I don't know who. We probably did, I suspect we chose it, my guess is and then, certainly, Tolman was — a lot of these people had worked under Tolman at Caltech. Shockley had worked at Caltech, so had Townes, so had Wooldridge, and we used his book on statistical mechanics. I knew it well. I was well acquainted with the book. I never profess to be an expert on quantum mechanics. I had a great interest in quantum mechanics, and I was the one who, long before Shockley and that bunch joined the Bell Laboratories, I used to go and pester the people in the mathematics department to help me with these quantum mechanical papers, like the Peierls’ paper on the — well, the — what is this effect now? Really, my memory’s playing me tricks, it's so many years ago. What is this? The early work on the whole theory came from some of Peierls’ early works, I would think about in ‘35, ‘36, it first came out. And I was conscious of this having read it — one of my great advantages of reading German easily, was I could read the German papers as easily as I could English —
I have a page from one of your notebooks.
One of my notebooks? Where did you see this?
Well, they have some preserved of your old laboratory notebooks at the Warren Record Center where I’m rummaging around nowadays off and on. And yesterday I looked at some of your old notebooks, to get some flavor of how you worked. And I noticed that on September 11, 1936, this is just about the time when this study group was getting organized —
— yes, whatever I was doing —
— you have some notes on Löcher in metals and alloys, and —
Oh, I think the Löcher [???] I’m talking about they are not the same thing. I was trying to determine whether vacant lattice sites were influential in the diffusion mechanism and the Löcher I’m speaking of here are those vacant lattice sites. Now, there were some alloys discovered, I think it’s copper aluminum alloys, in which in certain composition areas, all lattice sites are not taken up. And this could be established from X-ray data plus density data. And that was simply the only way to account for it. There were certain vacant lattice sites; that's all. So I was trying to prove whether or not, these played a role in the whole diffusion mechanism. That’s one reason I wrote this up. This is probably one of my idea notebooks, something like that.
Well, that’s about the same time.
Let’s return to the study group. Each of you would choose a chapter and teach the material in it to the other members of the group?
Yes, present it formally, and then open it to discussion by the whole group.
Do you have any idea whether any notes on the meetings remain?
I didn’t take any notes at all. I don’t think anybody took any notes.
That’s a pity from my point of view.
— but [???] the group as a whole was certainly thoroughly familiar with all the technical material we covered in that period.
You covered the whole book?
I think we did. I could be wrong on that. My memory could play me tricks you know. You’re asking me to recall something from so many years ago, I can't — I think we went through the whole book. This was a continuing thing, and the only thing that broke it up was the war. When the group broke up, according to — because we all became compartmentalized. I might be down the hall and never see one of these people again for three weeks at a time, because we were working in specialized areas, I was the only one at Bell Laboratories on the Manhattan Project. Pre-Manhattan Project days, it was called. Well, we were working on something at Columbia, OSRD work, it was, at first. That’s the Office of Scientific Research and Development which sponsored this work, before the Manhattan District was created in 1942, let’s see, in ‘42, because it got to be such tremendous expenditure; they couldn't account for it, no one could account for it. The government gave Roosevelt half a billion dollars, un-earmarked money. They then appointed Groves as head of this group, because it was going to be a large construction job. Then it was guided by a committee from OSRD, including the two Compton brothers, and Harold Urey and people of that kind were put on this committee. But it’s like all these big jobs; they grew up from a little starting group, interested in this thing. I was one of the early ones in the Columbia group, with Dunning, Boorse, Booth and Libby came into the group about the same time, on the chemistry of the barrier work. And I had charge of the barrier research. But they then brought in a fellow by the name of Norris, independent of me, at Columbia, to work on this, because it was the heart of the problem. You either had a good barrier or you didn't solve it this way at all. Fortunately, I won on that little situation throughout. But Norris and I always got along extremely well. We were different, our backgrounds were very different. The approach was very different; we had nothing in common really with each other. But we were very friendly, however; I think we were an amazing example of each competing for the same goal, but with no sense of competition at all; between ourselves there’s no rivalry. I felt nothing against Norris, nor vice versa. We got along extremely well. But we just had a different approach to the problem. I won, because I had the control of my variables and he didn’t. It’s essentially that. He was not a scientist; he was an inventor, and a very good one. I don't suppose anyone knows anything about that actually. Because the work had nothing to do with Bell Laboratories except I had a prime contract, from the Manhattan District to the Bell Laboratories. But tied up well – it’s a long story — the Union Carbide came into the picture fairly early in the game, to operate the diffusion plant. They designed a group, a firm by the name of Kelex Corporation. They were soon at loggerheads with Carbide, from the earliest. They never worked smoothly together at all. I was taken under the custody — matter of fact, when I left the Bell Laboratories, the Carbide almost tried to browbeat me into coming to Carbide and taking charge of all the barrier research, which I refused to do, because I had just taken on a commitment I wouldn’t break. But I worked as a consultant with them, and worked with them until the War was over. I worked very closely with them. But again, I think my greatest luck I had was being a complete free agent to do as I pleased. If I thought an idea was good, I tried it out; didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission or advice at all. I simply acted on my own, and this is really why we won the job, why we won so thoroughly, the fact that I was free, because I was always this way –- when I worked in the Bell Laboratories, I was always this way. I never had to consult anybody.
Did you ever run into any trouble with direction?
Oh, not with direction of my scientific work, no, because I never had any direction. I just went ahead and did what I pleased. And there was never any objection to it. Well, most of us were the same way. Shockley was the same way. Wooldridge was the same way. Actually, we all were given this when Kelly created this little group of independent people — there were Shockley and I and Wooldridge, the three heads of it — under Fletcher, we were told that “You do whatever you please; anything you want to do is alright with me.”
Was that something new?
Oh yes. It was the first time it ever happened at the Bell Laboratories.
And this was in about –- let’s see —
‘38 or ‘39, I’ve forgotten when. Shockley and I wrote the article together on order-disorder transformation. It appeared in ‘38, didn’t it? So I think this took place in ‘38, would be my guess.
It must be ‘38.
Yes, it would be my guess too. Yes.
So this is the group now that was under Fletcher.
It had to be under somebody. That’s the way Bell Laboratories was organized.
I see, so Fletcher really had nothing —
— Oh no, he didn’t know a thing about it. He didn’t know what any of us were doing, because Fletcher’s an acoustical person really, and more of an engineer than a physicist anyway, really. He took his Ph.D. at Chicago. He was in charge of physical research —
What about Darrow?
Darrow was strange, did you ever meet him?
Well, Darrow has no creative ability at all. He had a great knowledge of physics. He was a kind of digester, physics digester, I called him, and regurgitated the physics back again and rewrote it, to popularize. He was just a freelance person, and —
Did he play any role in influencing Bell Labs research?
Not in the slightest. Not in the slightest.
The articles he wrote in the —
In the journal?
In the Bell System Technical Journal, on modern physics, were they read —
I think they were read by a lot of Bell researchers. But I don’t think he ever had the slightest influence on anything that was going on in the Bell Laboratories.
They were too popular?
Too popularized, and he did just whatever he was interested in, and he gave the Bell Laboratories a lot of prestige, having these articles, because they were very well written. He’s an excellent writer, of course. But I think his influence on the Bell Laboratories research was zero. I don’t think he had any influence whatsoever. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to him, but I think that’s the truth. All of us who were doing basic research did, really. Shockley did a —
I was trying to establish whether or not his habit of travelling around and attending seminars and colloquia and writing up articles on what he had learned and played a role-in —
— fertilization of the Bell Laboratories? I doubt it. I doubt very much so. See, we all did that. I used to go off and give seminars at Harvard and MIT and Yale. [???] lot of it and I did a lot of it. I probably did more than anybody else, actually, of the people doing research. No, I think Darrow’s influence was zero, with all due respect to him. I don’t think he had any influence at all on the work. He was neither a theoretician nor an experimentalist. He was neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. He was what I call a regurgitator. I’m not using this in a derogatory sense at all, but that was essentially his function, and at this he was extremely good. A lot of the visiting European physicists would come through and always come to see Darrow. If they didn’t know anybody else they’d come to see Darrow, because he’d travel in Europe in the summertime, and he had a lot of contacts in Europe. And I was one of the ones, of course. The fact that I spoke German made me one of the luncheon guests frequently of German visiting scientists, because I could speak German fluently.
Do you remember some of the eminent scientists who visited?
Oh, sure. Bohr, Bohr came over. Debye, Von Laue. I think every eminent European scientist who came to New York came to the Bell Laboratories. I think without exception, everyone who came over from Europe came through.
Would they just come to visit, or would they give talks?
They sometimes gave talks at the Bell Laboratories colloquium. Not always. It would depend upon what the situation was.
Did their visits and talks contribute to the research?
I think they were helpful, like anything, stimulating because these were prominent people who were thinking and were creative people.
We're now really on the subject of ways in which news of events in the international community entered the Bell Laboratories —
— right — right — right, this is exactly the way it happened. I think every European physicist — of course they all landed in New York at that time, because all came by steamer — immediately came to the Bell Laboratories. There may have been some exceptions; I may be generalizing it too strong, but that’s essentially true. So we got to meet everyone and of course it was a good thing for us because we could talk to them. Ours was one of the few groups that was doing any modern physics work there — so they paraded us out to meet these people, and we –
You're referring to the group under Fletcher —
— Yes —
Nix, Shockley, Wooldridge —
Yes, we were the ones doing — and Townes was under here too — of course, Townes was a little bit young at that time. See, Townes did his fine work at Columbia after he left the Bell Laboratories. His laser work was done at Columbia. Then he went from there to MIT, as provost of MIT and also professor of physics.
How much did the work that you were doing in the study group relate to the research that you were doing individually?
Well, we were all doing different things in the study group. So if we were in Mott and Gurney, we’d come to the areas where we would discuss diffusion phenomena, for instance, or whatever we were doing. I was working of diffusion. I was working on neutron diffraction work. You probably don’t know this, but I published the first paper on neutron diffraction.
I didn’t know it was the first.
Well, it was the first deliberately doing it as a diffraction. In the early days they used the word cross-section — to determine the cross-section of thermal neutrons. Of course, what they were doing, they didn’t know it, and Dunning at Columbia, Dunning and Beyer and I published an article on the cross-section of iron-nickel alloys, where I first realized that we were really studying diffraction phenomena, not cross-section at all, and I —
This is your Phys. Rev. ‘58 paper.
Yes, and I published another which I only published after the war, because it wasn’t allowed to be published during the war, it was stopped. [???] I used copper.
Is this the one? The paper on October 1st and 15th, 1945 by Nix and Clement?
Yes. He was one of my laboratory assistants. And that was stopped during the war because —
you say this was the first —
Well, I consider it the first. Now, it would depend upon what — see, the group at Columbia under Dunning had no idea; they didn't know what they were really doing. They were just doing neutron scattering of thermal neutrons. What he didn't realize was [???] that as a matter of fact, as was dramatized more in this paper of mine, [???] you could take the copper, and change the crystal size, and change the cross-section by a factor of 10 — just by changing the crystal size, which shows you there was nothing basic in the cross-section. [???] Really, it simply showed us that we were having diffraction phenomena, which is uncontrolled. That [???] is the value of this paper, as I look upon it. It was showing that the cross-section is not really a basic thing at all, because you were dealing in wavelengths where you could get diffraction phenomena in the crystal size we were using, in the lattice dimensions we were using.
Was there a direct link between this work and the study of the fission neutrons?
Of fission neutrons?
No, no connection there at all. No, no connection at all on that. That was started after the information discovered by Meitner and Frisch, that Bohr brought over here, I think. Bohr brought it over here. Now, I came into the Manhattan job shortly after that, and I started on the pre-Manhattan work in early November, ‘41. And this is interesting: today, a lot of people think that the Manhattan job -– I’ve heard people on the radio, the president of American Electric Power — they think this was started by Groves. Well, poppycock. It was started by a number of scientists interested in knowing what was going on, and trying to do something about the war effort trying to get into the war work, and the group — a group at Berkeley, at Chicago — Fermi was at Columbia, although he never got mixed up with our job at all, he was always interested in the pile technology, and immediately went out to Chicago, where the Chicago group was given the job of starting the pile with plutonium. I was always on gaseous diffusion, and this was started a little bit before. I wasn’t the first one in it. They were using some very primitive techniques at Columbia, with Dunning and a fellow by the name of Slack, which was of course horrible work, because neither of them knew anything about solid state physics at all, and they were using — well, now I’m getting into the classified area, I have to be a little more bit careful — they were using-etching of alloys. Neither [???] of them knew anything about alloys, and [???] I did, and I really got further in two weeks’ work than they’d gotten in two years, because I knew what I was doing and they didn't. It is as simple as that.
Did you know Von Grosse?
Von Grosse was mixed up with that, but he was not really in the barrier work. I don’t know what Van Grosse was really doing. He was at Columbia on leave from his job at Chicago. Is he still living, by the way?
He lives in Philadelphia —
— Philadelphia. He came up one time. I don’t know what he was doing. He was mixed up with Dunning. I don't know what he was actually doing with Dunning because I had no connection with that at all. I came into the job through Booth’s and Dunning’s influence because they wanted someone who knew something about solid state physics on the job and because the barrier had to be a solid material, obviously. See, what I did initially on this one, this was a very important contribution. Alright, I proved very conclusively in a few weeks that they didn't know what they were doing, and the way to go after it with a — well, this again — maybe you’d better cut this off while I tell you a little story. I don't want that to be on the record. (Unrecorded section.)
Ok. This is now no longer a classified section and we can resume the recording.
Well, I introduced using a nickel powder which is now known and discussed in the Groueff work and so is well-known. Now, the main composition of a barrier is made from nickel powder. Groueff said I was an expert in nickel and powder metallurgy. I had to enlighten him; I’d never seen a particle of powdered metal in my life, until I started to work on this project, which Groueff found incomprehensible as a newspaper person, that I could do this, never having had any experience at all. Actually, this is probably the biggest contribution to powder metallurgy made in the decade say from 1940 to 1950. And it’s made the whole barrier possible. There’s a lot more to it than that which is classified, that I’m unable to tell you. To my knowledge it’s still classified. It may be declassified, but I haven't heard anything about it so I'm still not free to talk about it. But it was the successful one that made the OSRD committee elect or select, should I say to be more accurate, the diffusion plant as a means of separating the 235 isotopes. You know, it was done by two different means. Lawrence in California was working on the mass spectrograph, like dipping the water out of the ocean with a teaspoon, which is a silly way to do it. This method of ours was extremely successful from the very beginning. It was an incomparably successful thing, just what I call “a lot of nigger luck.” We had no right to expect such great success as we had. The diffusion plant worked successfully from the first day it was turned on until the end of the war. Of course, it’s still working. The barriers, instead of plugging up, could still be used today if they wanted to. They’ve been improved, but not because of any lack, any fault at all; simply just improved models. It was an extremely successful venture. Now, this — well, I once heard Rabi say in a very snobbish way, “Oh, the people who worked on the gaseous diffusion plant didn't even use Planck’s constant,” as though that were a very derogatory statement to make. It turned out, whether you use Planck’s constant or not, it was the best way to do the job, and we did it extremely well. Because the plutonium — as you know, there's a lot of snobbery in physics — the plutonium side was a lot more scientific, but not nearly so practical. And today, as our army looks at it, the best thing to use is the thing you can kill the most people with for the cheapest money. That turned out to be that, in pretty blunt terms. The way to do it was 235, as simple as that. And that’s why it’s still working. And even the new plant they’re talking about building now down in Alabama, is a gaseous diffusion plant. The French are building a large plant in Southern France with Arab money — gaseous diffusion. I don’t know what kind of barrier they have. I have no idea, because I’m out of contact. Well, this is getting aside from what you came to talk to me about —
But this is interesting too. It’s worth having it on the record, because even if I don’t use it when I do my own writing, other researchers may find it useful.
Well, if you still haven’t read Groueff’s book, you’ll find it a perfectly fascinating book, inaccurate because since he’s a journalist he didn't have access to classified information which gives him an incomplete picture. But it is a fascinating story as he tells it.
There is another little piece of the study group story that I want to ask you about. Alan Holden mentioned that he became acquainted with you when he joined the chemistry department in ‘36.
That’s right, through a mutual friend we had by the name of — what did they call him? I met him in Mexico, his name is — what is his name now? I’ll think of it in a minute. We three had lunch together frequently. He went into the chemistry department, working in crystals, as I remember. The first thing, trying to grow single crystals of various of these substitutes for quartz, you know, that type of thing.
Like mercuric oxide? Holden became acquainted with you, and Holden says, “Foster early on said, ‘You know, we’ve got to learn this new physics. I don’t know any of it and you don't know any of it, and the way to do is for us to get together once a week and go through a book.’” I don’t know if that’s exactly the way it was, but he said that you and he then went through Slater and Frank’s introduction to Theoretical Physics.
And met once a week —
I think that’s true.
— doing a chapter a week and doing all the problems and correcting each other’s problems.
I think we did that. I vaguely remember.
I was wondering whether this was something that lots of people were doing at that time, or if this was quite unusual?
See, I had a great interest in theoretical physics as it applied to my work, entirely aside from my ability. My interest was greater than my ability; let me put it this way, because I was not well trained in mathematics. I did not have the mathematical tools that Shockley or Wooldridge or Townes had, because I was trained just at the beginning of modern quantum physics, where it had an impact on solid state physics. I was in Berlin at the time that the neutron was being discovered. Bothe, you’ve probably never heard of him — everybody gives the credit for the neutron discovery to Chadwick but that is unfair. The first discovery of the neutron was by Bothe at the Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin. He thought he was observing a very highly penetrating gamma ray. He was incorrect about what he was observing, but he observed the phenomenon just the same. The next phase of the work was done by Joliot and Curie in Paris, and they still didn’t realize what they were observing. What Chadwick did was to take — I think he did no experimental work at all — what Chadwick did was to take the Bothe work and the Joliot-Curie work, and conclude that they were really observing a new particle. And he got the Nobel Prize for a very shrewd analysis of it, no doubt about that at all. But various people today don’t even realize it — and that was being done while I was in Berlin still. Bothe — I don’t know what ever happened to Bothe after this, but he did a certain area of work on it. Peierls’ and Bethe’s work were just coming out in solid state physics at this time.
Were you reading those papers at Bell Labs then?
Oh yes. Oh yes, very much so.
Was the Bell library pretty good in those days?
Oh yes. BTL always had a good library. I read this, and I was alone for a long time in the Bell Labs. I used to have to go get people in the mathematics department to help me read these articles because I couldn’t handle it. And Shockley was the first one to come there who had the tools to help me do it. I was doing this back in ‘32 when I was working in photoconductivity in ‘31 and ‘32 on Peierls’ work.
Was there a direct relationship between Peierls’ ideas and the work you were doing?
Oh, yes, because –- I’m just trying to think of this effect, the name of the effect that you have if you have a magnetic field, and you deflect, either you deflect the holes or you deflect the electrons to one side or the other, and you get — the Hall effect it was called. That was it, it was the Hall Effect. The Hall Effect was a thing which I set up to do in 1931 or ‘32, and I was using Peierls’ work as an interpreter and trying to interpret what it really meant, in those days. So I was familiar with it, vaguely, superficially. But I knew about it and was certainly using it at that time. See, I happened to be — I suppose I was the early one in the Bell Labs to be more conscious of this than anybody else, because I was the last of the well-trained — well, I wasn’t as well-trained as Shockley in theoretical work, because when I graduated from Berlin, it was just at the beginning of this work, and only the top theoreticians were doing anything on it. Schmid knew nothing about it. This was the man that I worked with in Berlin. They were not trained either, and this was a theoretical bunch. Heisenberg was just coming along, he was a young privatdozent — no, more than that Heisenberg, when I was still in Berlin, became a professor of physics at Leipzig. He became so at the age of about 26. So Berlin in those days was a very stimulating place to be in, because you got exposed to all of this — whether I knew much about it or not is another matter, you know. But you got inspired by it, because you were exposed to it. You saw it developing before your eyes, and it was a tremendous intellectual center.
In the summer of 1931, Brattain attended Sommerfeld’s course in the electron theory of metals at the Michigan summer school.
I didn’t realize that.
And then he came back, and apparently gave a series of informal lectures at the Labs. I was wondering whether you happened to attend —
— I don’t think I even attended that. I don’t think I even attended that. Interesting.
That was just after you arrived. Of course you were still in Ives’ group at that time and perhaps you weren’t yet working in things like that.
Well, I was interested in photoconductivity. That is very closely tied up with all this. Where was Brattain at that time? He must have been with Becker. I think he was —
I don’t have the 1930 physical research chart here, but I’m almost sure he was with Becker.
I think so too. See, Becker was — they were doing work on electron emission from thorated surfaces, and Becker had all kinds of crazy theories on — see, the first group — have you ever heard of the Cornell group? They had a Cornell summer school group I used to go up and lecture to.
I did not know that. I’d be very interested in learning about it.
— oh, I remember Becker being there once. I was invited to it.
When did that begin? How long did it run? This is the first I’ve heard of it.
Oh, I would think that started in about ‘31. That would be my guess, now, because I was still under Ives at that time. I went up and visited even before I was lecturing there. I later on participated in one of the lectures there. But this was when they had people like Debye — Debye came over here and went to Cornell. Franck came over here from Germany; this was after Franck left Germany. I met Franck at Cornell. I remember talking to him at great length, because he came from Gottingen, I, knowing German well at the time and having been only three years out of Germany. I do remember Franck participating in these things. It’s a little hard for me to reconstruct now just how long these sessions went on, but Cornell had a summer group in essentially solid state physics, including photo electricity, Du Bridge would be there I know lecturing on external photoelectric effect, and I remember Becker there well. I remember Fred Seitz was there, Bardeen was there at one time. Now, whether these people lectured or not, I don't know. I've forgotten the details of this, but I remember we all met there and had discussion groups in the early thirties. Bardeen must have taken his Ph.D. under Wigner I would guess, ‘31, would be my guess. I could be wrong by a year or so, and Seitz about the same time. Seitz never did any real work except for the work he did with Wigner, you know. The Wigner-Seitz work is the only thing he did that amounted to a damn. He wrote a book, it's an impossible book, from the pedagogical standpoint. Bardeen was a much more creative person. Bardeen was extremely creative from the beginning. I think Bardeen is unquestionably Wigner’s most distinguished pupil by far. I’m not just saying that because of his two Nobel Prizes, but he’s a fine scholar. I’m a profound admirer of Bardeen as a fine brain. You have something in store for you when you meet him. He’s also a nice person —
I’m looking forward to it.
I haven’t seen Bardeen in years.
So Cornell had summer school sessions in solid state physics.
Yes, it was part of that summer school.
Was it all theory?
Oh no, because Becker wouldn't be — no, just discussions of solid-state physics. Let's see, there was a fellow named Smith.
How often did you go, do you remember?
Several years. I went several years, several summers, and I’ve forgotten the exact years, but I was there on several occasions. In fact, I used to go so much; people thought I was a Cornell graduate, which was not true. I had no connection with Cornell at all at any time.
Do you have any letters or any other papers from that time?
No. I never kept anything at all. But I’m surprised you haven’t heard of that. You would have if you’d talked to Brattain or Becker. Of course Becker’s dead, you can’t —
They never mentioned it; Brattain hasn’t mentioned that in his interviews.
Bardeen would remember.
I will ask him about it.
You should look into this Cornell setup, because I cannot remember exactly when it took place. I could be wrong on how many times I went. I went at least three or four times.
Was Buckley president of Bell Labs at that time?
When I first knew Buckley, he was associate director of research, under a fellow by the name of Arnold. Then Arnold died, and Buckley was moved into his position as director of research. And then, let’s see, then he succeeded, oh yes; a fellow by the name of Colpitts as a vice president. I remember, once Kelly said to me, “It was the best thing that ever happened that Colpitts stepped out just before the War came along. He was not in a position to make any decisions. We’d have been under a terrible handicap, having a man like Colpitts. It was very lucky that Oliver Buckley stepped into the presidency at the right time” which I’m sure was true. And Buckley, although he was not a good scientist himself, had a certain respect for good science. I’ll tell you of one of the nicest contributions he ever made. [???] When Buckley became director of research, he analyzed the budgetary expenditure of the Bell Laboratories, and realized we were spending much too much on transmission and not nearly enough in switching, that our plant investment in the Bell System was much greater — I tell you this because it’s a good insight into what a good administrator can do, and Buckley was certainly a capable one. He realized that we were not doing anything at all in switching, and the whole bunch who were doing the switching, the so-called apparatus development group, were an antiquated bunch of engineers who had no concept for modern science at all. He called up — he put E. C. Wente in charge of a switching group, and told Wente “I’ll give you one instruction only — you will not discuss this with anybody from the crossbar switching group. I don't want them to influence you in the slightest.” Wente’s appointment as director of the switching group was a good illustration of where a good administrator can make some really top decisions which are extremely important. All of the present modern switching in the Bell System has grown from this work, following out of Wente’s group. And Buckley made another wise decision. He made two, the ones I know about which I consider very important: He made the decision to set up a group, after I left the Bell Laboratories that consisted of Shockley, Bardeen and others to work on semiconductors. He brought in John Bardeen and Conyers Herring on semiconductors. He brought them all in. He was responsible for bringing them in. Now, whether he picked the particular individuals, I wouldn't know, but he was responsible for setting up the semiconductor bunch, and simply giving them carte blanche to do anything they wanted to do on semiconductors on the simple theory that the Bell System is a transmission company largely and we’re interested in anything having nonlinear characteristics, which semiconductors do. And that’s all they were doing. As far as I know, they were given carte blanche freedom just like when I was there. I had nothing except metals, my only restriction; I could work on anything having to do with metals. And this was the same thing. And this is what I think enlightened research directors do: they take good people and turn them loose. And the Bell Laboratories have made tremendous dividends from doing just this. Wente is a good example. I think the two most important things, in my opinion, that Buckley ever did was to setup Wente’s group and the semiconductor group. I think Kelly is responsible for putting me in the position I was. I think that was M. J. Kelly. It may have been Buckley. I'm not sure who did it now.
So this solid state group you worked in with Shockley and Wooldridge under Fletcher in 1938 was set up by Kelly, you think?
I think it was set up by Kelly. I don’t just recall on this — but I’m pretty sure it was set up by Kelly. Yes. At least Kelly was director of research, Buckley was president. But you see Buckley at that time wouldn't intervene. He might have made suggestions to Kelly. I don’t know who had the idea. But Kelly was director of research when this was set up.
Did Kelly have a vision of what solid state physics research might be?
Well, I wouldn't really know. Buckley had more feeling for solid state physics than Kelly did, I would guess —
I’m really trying to learn how and why the solid state group got organized in 1945.
This group here (pointing to Morgan-Shockley group on 1945 organization chart), well let’s see, now – Bragg’s work on order-disorder transformation of alloys they knew about, because Bragg was one of the people who’d come to the Laboratory. Now, this is a good example of where you get the fertilization from Europe — Bragg would come in and give a talk, and this would inspire Kelly or Buckley or both of them that this was an interesting field, and who do we have in this field? Well, I’m the only one they had who could do this work, see. So that’s why I was picked out, and they asked me — and I was given, again, a complete free hand in whatever I wished to do in metals physics, like Wooldridge was given a free hand in electron emission. And now, I could have done electron emission if I’d wanted to, I presume. I don't know, I wasn’t interested in it, so it wasn’t a natural thing for me to do, where I was interested in diffusion and various other phenomena. That’s when I did the self-diffusion work with Shockley, on radioactive copper, which we made from zinc as you know in those days. And this was the first work ever done on self-diffusion in America I’m pretty sure. I think it was the first work ever done in — no there was a Russian who did it simultaneously with us on gold, using artificially radioactive isotopes. This was done about 1937, I think it was, I’m not sure of the exact date of this now, but Russia in this period — you can look up in my work, whenever this was published with Steigman and Shockley. This is a good example of what good administration can do, and I think both Kelly, although I think he’s a thorough going S.O.B, as far as treating people like J. B. Johnson, which I always hold against him, because J. B. Johnson was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known — I think he’s a bastard in this respect, if you don’t mind my saying it. But he was certainly an intelligent, capable guy, no doubt about that part of it. Buckley didn't have his bad characteristics, but equally capable. They're both ruthless, as you have to be, to be a good administrator. Like they say about Groves – Grove’s value to the Manhattan Project was; he’s a professional S.O.B. which I think is very true.
Did the Nix-Shockley-Wooldridge-Townes group, interact very much with Becker’s group?
There was constant exchange of information. We had lunch with each other; we’d talk with each other. The study group did a lot of interaction. See, that’s where we all assembled into one group, because we all, we came from different groups. Holden came from the chemistry department. Ad White was in the chemistry department in those days. I’m not sure. And then, see, Becker’s group was under Fletcher. But the real interaction came from — I think this study group. It was a great molding group I mean, where we got together formally to exchange ideas and study these particular things, which gave us simply a systematic way of doing it, you know.
Did you have any interactions with workers from other labs, such as GE, for example?
I don't think there was very much with GE. With universities, a lot more. With universities, a great deal. Shockley and I both; I gave a series of lectures at Yale, I remember, one session. So did Shockley. We all went off and gave seminars at different universities. There was a great deal of interaction with universities. Not with other industries so much.
Not with other industries.
No, because we were a pure science bunch, and I think we were the leading solid state laboratory group in the world at that time. There wasn't any question about it at all.
In the thirties?
Oh yes. In the late thirties, certainly we were. I don’t know who could rival us. I think we were it. Davisson was still there, active, although he was not in solid state, he was in electronics —
Did you have any interactions with Slater’s group up at MIT?
Oh yes, Shockley was a Slater pupil, you know. As a matter of fact, Slater came to Bell Laboratories at various times, and was on the payroll — I think he was down there when I went on the Manhattan Project. I think Slater was on the Bell Laboratories payroll for a while.
As a consultant?
Yes. I think he was there primarily because he didn't want to do what the LIP MIT was doing and he just chose to do this instead. Yes, there was a lot of interaction. Van Vleck was a good personal friend of mine, also a good friend of Bozorth. There was a lot of interaction between —
Did Van Vleck come to Bell?
Just visiting. I don’t think he was ever there as a consultant or anything of that type. He’s one of my good personal friends. We still see him. He was down here as a house guest about a month ago. I’ve known him. He’s the only one of the modern physicists I actually see any more, practically. All my other friends are dead or gone. Charlie Townes is on the West Coast. I never see him anymore.
Did we finish with the Cornell summer school?
I really wish I could tell you more about that Cornell summer school. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard about that.
Were there other schools of that sort?
You see, I lectured once at the University of Pittsburgh, Mott and I did in the summer of ‘39 I know the date because, just when the war was breaking out, and he was very concerned — I can recall the exact date of that.
What did you lecture on?
Order-disorder transformations of alloys. This article of mine had just appeared. Shockley and I — but that was only a one shot situation where Mott and I were invited to be lecturers one summer. The Cornell was a continuing thing for several years, and I don’t know who sponsored it, except I think simply the physics department at Cornell.
I’ll look into that.
I don’t know who could tell you about that. Smith used to be active at Cornell. He’s no longer there. I don't know who’s at Cornell any more. Bethe was not at Cornell in those days. Or was he? He’d probably just arrived. No, he wasn't there the early part of it. At least I don't think he was.
I think he came in around ‘35.
Yes, that would be my guess too.
And this was earlier?
Well, I wish I could say with certainty. I’m not sure when this was now, as I remember. Bethe might know. I remember talking to Bethe at Cornell at one of these sessions. I recall distinctly talking about Peierls’ work with Bethe at Cornell. He’d be — I don't know anybody else at Cornell any more. I don’t know who’s there any longer. I’m so out of date. I have friends in the chemistry department. They wouldn’t know anything about this — friends of mine from the Manhattan Project.
Was there anything like a journal club in the thirties at Bell?
The only thing I remember is this thing which we started. Only thing I know anything about that was at all systematic.
Did you interact much with Gordon Teal?
I know him very well, of course, but he was not in the group we were discussing. Teal came into solid state physics later on when the transistor started, that phase of the work. During the time I was there, Teal was not interested in solid state physics at all. He’s a chemist by training, you know. Pearson was neither. Pearson came into it — I think he came into this activity, again, after the War, when the semiconductor group got set up, after I left the Bell Laboratories. I never think of Pearson being solid state. Of course, he did some good work later on, but he was not doing it when I was there. I don’t even know what he was doing; he was under J. B. Johnson most of the time, when I was there.
How about John Shive?
I hardly know Shive. Shive certainly didn’t play a very big role at all.
Grisdale was on the fringe of a lot of this, but he wasn’t really involved in it. Ad White is a good one, if you can get a hold of White.
I’m going to write to him. Perhaps he’ll be coming to this country some time.
Tell him to look me up. I haven’t seen White for years. As I said, I’m really responsible for White going up in the world. There’s no telling what would have happened if I hadn’t picked him out and forced this on him.
Did you know Morgan?
Not very well? I was never very close to Morgan. I didn’t know him at all. He went up in the Lab after I left. This job he had was not — he was in the chemistry department, I was — this was a blunder the administration made. This is what I consider a major blunder.
Putting Shockley and Morgan together.
Well, Shockley as an administrator is the world’s worst. And this is when they drove Bardeen and Kittel and everyone out of the Bell Laboratories, this setup, right here. I think it was disastrous.
Now, you see, this is interesting. (We're now looking at the January, 1945, chart, which shows the solid state group that was formed under Morgan and Shockley.) This was the big main group that was called solid state for the first time, officially.
That’s right. I’m pretty sure it was; we never called ours anything. The group I was in had no name; just three independent people, do as we please. See, this solid state group would have been headed up by White later on, I think as I understand the setup.
Ad White. He took over. White was a good deal better administrator than either Morgan or Shockley. Not the physicist either one of them was by a long shot. Well, I wouldn’t consider Morgan a physicist at all. He was a physical chemist.
By March, 1945, the group was called solid state physics.
And it’s still under the same leadership?
Morgan and Shockley.
This is when it blew up. This is what I considered a major blunder here. Fisk made the blunder. They say Kelly made it. I don’t know who.
Three new groups were organized at that time. One was called physical electronics.
Under Dean Wooldridge.
Yes, and then electron dynamics, under Fisk. And the third group, solid state physics under Morgan and Shockley, and also a fourth group called contact physics under Germer — A tremendous administrative shifting around.
This was, in my opinion, a major blunder they made. They drove away people like John Bardeen and Kittel out of the Bell Laboratories, and of course Brattain would have left too, if he'd been given the opportunity of leaving. I think you’ll find a great many of them agree with me. Here’s Charlie Townes, over here. Of course, Townes left the Bell Laboratories about this period and so did Dean Wooldridge We all left. I left first, and then Dean Wooldridge I think and then Charlie, I think in that sequence. And then Bardeen and Kittel a good deal later because I left in ‘43, during the war. Dean Wooldridge left just after the war, and I think Charlie Townes left shortly after the war.
Well this has been enormously interesting and useful.
Well, I hope it has. This was an extremely stimulating group at the Bell Laboratories, you know, when I was there. Where did what’s his name fit into all this, by the way? The chap, Herring, Conyers Herring, where was he in this?
Well, now, he isn’t here yet in 1945, but he’s about to appear in the physical electronics group; in the following year he joined that group.
He’s a very capable person extremely so and a very nice person, a nice person socially, intellectually, and every other way.
Thank you very, very much.
 Fisk joined Bell Labs in 1939.
 Shockley joined Bell Labs in 1936.
 Fisk retired from his post as chairman of the Board of the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1974.
 Stephane Groueff, The Manhattan Project, The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb (Little Brown, and Co., 1967).
 Interview by Lillian Hoddeson, July 1974. Can be found at the AIP Niels Bohr Library and Archives.
 Linus Pauling