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Interview of Harrison Randall by David Dennison and W. James King on 1964 February 19, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4840-1
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Initial experiences with science during student years at University of Michigan; brief period as high school teacher; spent 1910 at Eberhard Karls Universitat in Tubingen under Friedrich Paschen, began work in infrared spectroscopy. Return to University of Michigan, 1910; appointment as chairman of Department of Physics, 1917, scientific contributions of faculty such as Ralph Sawyer, Samuel Goudsmit, George Uhlenbeck, Otto Laporte and others during 1920s; development of the department as a research institution and relationships among members. Establishment of the Michigan Summer Symposia in Theoretical Physics in the 1930s with visiting European physicists. Critical evaluations of former students. Also mentioned at some length are Nelson Fuson, John Strong, Ernest Baker, James Cork, Walter Colby and Floyd Firestone.
I, of course, have known Professor Randall for a long time, in fact since 1921 when I came here as a graduate student. By that time, the physics department was, I think, essentially on its way toward becoming a great department and one which was to have a very fine record in research. But the start of this must have come, of course, a few years earlier, when Professor Randall took over the chairmanship of the department, and his ideas in physics must then have come still from an earlier time. So, perhaps we ought to start by asking you, Professor Randall, where your first interest in physics came from, how was it that you got started in physics.
Well, my first interest in physics was, oh, when I must, have been around 10 years old. I read two books by Tyndall, which my father had bought when he was a student in the university. One was on sound and the other was on light. And then I had no actual interest in physics until I was a junior in the university.
This was here in Ann Arbor.
In Ann Arbor, yes. I took the first course in physics, I think, in my junior year, and in my senior year I took the first course in chemistry. I couldn’t find a job when I graduated in 1893. There was a mild depression on, and our family living in Ann Arbor, I stayed on and obtained a Master’s degree.
One might go back just a little bit, Professor Randall. From the time you were 10 years old and read these books of Tyndall’s until the time in the university, when you became interested in chemistry and physics as you grew up; did you perform experiments or anything of the sort as you grew up? Can you remember?
Well, no. My father said I’d take what was called a Latin course in the high school; that meant I didn’t take Greek, but it didn’t involve any science at all, except a semester of botany, which at that time meant collecting flowers and pressing them and making a herbarium. My mother pressed them and made me a herbarium. I remember going to one lecture while I was in the high school by the professor of physics, and he liked to put on a show for anybody in the high school who was interested. And the show consisted of showing Geissler tubes. That is as far as a discharge in gases was known in those days. I was good in mathematics in my senior year because I had a very strict mathematics teacher. And then I came into the university. In those days you brought your high school diploma and handed it to the president of the university and he enrolled you. I took various courses without any particular orientation. Are you interested in what I’m saying?
Sure. Randall. And such courses as a 10-hour course in surveying which meant carrying tripods all over Ann Arbor and surveying and bringing in records that had to be correct.
Did you have courses in physics or chemistry as an undergraduate?
Not until I was, I think, a junior, when I first had a course in physics. I perhaps should have looked that up. But I had some general chemistry when I was a senior, which I didn’t like. In the senior year I didn’t like the beginning courses in physics much.
Did you do any laboratory work in physics?
Yes, I was just going to say that I took the beginning course in laboratory, and when the end of the semester came I had to hand in a laboratory notebook, written up. I found out that I had, in quite a few of the experiments, put down nothing more than the date and what the subject was. I had no data whatever, and I had to make it all up.
So, you couldn’t really say that this course was an inspiration to you?
No, I can’t say it was.
That’s very interesting, Professor Randall. As just a sidelight, in my own case, I didn’t take physics until about my junior year, I think, in college. I got as low a grade in that as I got in any course; I got a C in it. And my laboratory book was also about the same, and I know that the professor used to hand it back to me with such comments on it, “Anything that is worth doing is worth doing well.” So, for me, I also became a physicist in spite of having a course in physics in college, and this must have been somewhat your case, too. At what point did you have the feeling that you really were going on into physics itself?
Well, I didn’t have that until the year when I couldn’t get a job and stayed over as a graduate student. I was given a desk in the library and was allowed to go into the stacks and take out such books as I thought I might use, and that had really quite an effect upon me. For the first time I had some ideas which originated in my head, and later found that they were well-known ideas, but to me at that time they were a satisfaction.
In what field were you working at the time?
Well, that was in physics.
What field of physics? Were you working in thermal expansion?
You see, after that graduate year I went out and taught for five years in a high school, and I produced there in the Saginaw High School, which was one of the best schools in the state at that time, an apparatus for falling bodies which was quite unique in the fact that the body fell directly, vertically. And I brought it down to the university and showed it at the Schoolmaster’s Club, and I got quite a little praise for it from the various faculty people who happened to be present. That was, I think, the first year I was in Saginaw. I was there for four years and then the last year I was married, and my wife was a classmate of mine, although I didn’t know her in the university. She was a classics student. After four years in Saginaw, we came to Ann Arbor and having lived on my salary and her salary in Saginaw we saved mine. Then we resigned from our positions in Saginaw and came down and expected me to brush up in physics in order to teach in a small college. I was tired of teaching in Saginaw High School. I was doing high school work because largely I’d been brought in there more to supervise the conduct of freshmen students and I had to go into session rooms and out in the streets to stop snowballing. Well, I had been asked to go down to Earlham College, apparently to see if I could qualify for a professorship down there. I went down, and I liked the idea of teaching in college very much, but I didn’t get an invitation to go down. So, we resigned in Saginaw and came down for me, as I say, to brush up in physics and to search for a college. At that time, Professor Reed was an important figure in the physics department in the university. The head was Professor Carhart. Professor Reed had been himself, principal of Saginaw, so that he had an interest in me. His specialty was sound and light, and that’s what I got into. It was under his influence, largely, that I went abroad in 1910 and studied one year under Paschen.
How did you happen to select Professor Paschen?
Well, it was rather curious. We wrote to a number of German professors, and they all answered and I could have gone to a number of places. But there was something about Paschen’s letter — it was more human, I guess, than what the others seemed to be — so I chose to go there.
You did not have a particular topic in mind?
No, not at all. In fact, that was a great embarrassment. I got to Tübingen at midnight with my family. By that time I had four children, the eldest around 10 and the youngest around two. We got in and we picked what looked like the runners of the hotel, the hotel that looked the most likely to be a first-class hotel, and got there and were assigned rooms. And after a few minutes, the landlord came up and said we’d have to get out; we were too noisy and our children were getting into everything and he couldn’t stand it. So, we went across to a second-rate hotel, which was clean enough. They put us up overnight. I had gotten there at the beginning of what I thought was the German summer vacation and thought that I would have all summer to read up on spectroscopy, which was Paschen’s specialty, and about which I knew nothing. And Paschen turned up the very next morning, having finished his vacation, and he said, “We will begin tomorrow morning. You come to the laboratory.” Well, he assigned me a room. There was a spectrograph which had been brought in his shops which was partially completed. I was a professor of physics, of course, by that time.
You were 40 years old at that time?
I was 40 years old. He just showed it to me and left me to work it out. Well, I’d never seen a spectrograph of that sort before.
Was this a grating spectrograph?
It had a grating in it, yes. I didn’t make much headway, and the library of the university at that time was in a castle on the other side of the city from the laboratory, and they had no card catalogue of books. All they had were publisher’s books, big books, that thick, and you could look through those books and see if you could find a title that looked as if it was of some interest to you. You put that down and handed it to the librarian, and then you’d come back in a few days and he would see if they had it. Well, things were going awfully slow. Paschen came in one day and said to me in German — he had been giving me suggestions from day to day –- “ich kann nicht immer alles thun!” He always talked to me in English because he wanted to learn it. That was the first German he had said to me. Well, I understood that all right. In the meantime I had sent to London and got a book on spectroscopy in English, and that helped me a good deal.
Now, did you have to align the instrument, or did you have to make parts for the instrument?
I didn’t have to make any parts for the instrument; I had to align it, I had to calibrate it, and to take observations. At that time the work in infrared spectroscopy had been in largely what was called black-body radiation, radiation in which one arrived at an equation connecting the total amount of radiation and the temperature, which was arrived at theoretically and which agreed with the experimentally determined relationship. So that black-body radiation was a very particular kind of radiation. But Paschen had begun a new line of work and that was the radiations sent out by atoms when they were fed into electric arcs. So, I had a choice of going into black-body radiation, which had been studied for a several years, or going into this new field that Paschen was just introducing, and I chose the latter. He had worked out the spectrum of a dozen or more of the more easily used metals, and those I started with and finished up with followed his work and, in general, were somewhat more difficult to work with.
Well, now, you say that you worked out these spectra. What did you do when you worked out the spectra?
Well, at that time there was no theory at all of atomic structure, but there had been a very great collection of wave lengths, and there had been found formulae…
These were purely empirical?
…which showed that there were certain lines of the total spectrum which lad belonged together in what they called series. And at the time I got there, there must have been half a dozen or a dozen series known. That there was something in it was evident because the data obtained from one series sometimes could be used along with the data obtained from another series.
Was that for the same element, or for a different element?
That’s for the same element. And also the elements of the same chemical family and series that were very similar to each other, and knowing the spectrum of one element, you could pretty well know where to look for the spectrum of another element of that same family. Well, it was the beginning of a very interesting field of work, which seemed for the first time to have quantitative relations that must have physical significance.
I notice that in your bibliography that this paper which was published in the Annalen der Physik, this was already on the infrared spectrum, so that the work which you took up with Paschen immediately went into the infrared…
Well, I went there to study it with him; I went there for infrared. He had begun work, and, well, he had published some papers on the infrared, and that paper followed his first paper of that sort. And at the end of the paper when I thanked him for his courtesy to me and assistance, and so on, he looked rather taken aback. I thought he expected to have his name on and me as a…
That’s probably it. What general region of the infrared were you working in?
Well, we were limited by our apparatus. We had a grating which limited us to about 3μ's. The constant of the grating was between 31,000 and 32,000, and I succeeded in working with the grating at such an angle that the longest wavelength had a frequency of over 30,000. It meant that the angle of incidence came back almost parallel. So, I got along really very well.
Just to interrupt with one more thing. Did this have fore prism in it to separate…
No, you see, this was an atomic spectra and you measured all the lines, and they lay on top of each other, first and second and third order of lines, the latter lying on top of first-order lines. The spectra overlapped, but since there were lines, sharp lines, you could figure out what they should be. Is that clear?
Yes, I see what you mean.
You have all of those, and then you begin to work and sort them out into series. You know something about what the series are likely to be and you pick them out, sort them out, and if you’ve got the right lines, your series comes off beautifully. And the results of one series can be used with the results of another series, and the differences are within the errors of your measurement. Now, an English spectroscopist at that time started out and was satisfied with identities, and he made a series which didn’t show the proper relationship between one and another. He simply went by numbers without any sort of relationships.
What kind of detector did you use?
Well, Paschen had at that time a galvanometer which consisted of — well, it was an astatic galvanometer. I don’t know whether you want that described or not. The thing about Paschen’s galvanometer was that his needle system was differently designed than other needle systems. He had gotten some special steel watch springs in Switzerland, and he would lift small magnets by breaking off parts of these springs. The shortest one would be not much more than a millimeter and a half long, and the longest one would be perhaps two and a half millimeters long. And he would mount ten of those on a fine glass fiber so that there was a group of ten different magnets with their poles all one way, and further down there would be a second group of magnets with their poles the opposite way. And if these groups were properly aligned with respect to each other, then this system would turn any way irrespective — well, it would turn any way in the magnetic field. Then above the first set of magnets were the coils of the current that you were measuring, which came from the thermopile which was detecting the infrared radiation, and a second one opposite, and the two coils tended to turn the system the same way. And in between the needle systems he mounted a very small mirror so that you sat with a telescope and scale in front of you and looked at this mirror, and by an external magnet you adjusted the system so that it stood where you wanted it to with the spot of light on the scale. And then gradually you started the arc and put the metal in the arc, focused it on the slit of the spectrograph, and gradually turned the grating in the spectrograph until you got a deflection. And then you went back and forth and determined exactly where that deflection was. You had then located the line, and then you went on and looked at it more and more until you’d gotten over the whole spectrum.
Was there any course work at Tübingen?
Oh, I attended some lectures, but I was not after credits at all. I was a professor and had my Ph.D. degree. I attended some lectures primarily to follow German. Paschen talked to me in English all the time.
You would have been as associate professor at that time, is that right?
I don’t know whether one should go into any more of this period, or shall we go on?
Well, you returned to Ann Arbor…
Oh, I might say this, that by the time I was through there our relations were such that — well, after things began to go very well —Paschen began to show me how to build apparatus. The critical parts of this equipment be had made himself with his own hands; he didn’t trust it to his shop men. So that by the time the year was out I had made a second set personally, and then when I came to leave, he said, “Which set will you take home with you, the one you made or the one you’ve been working with?” Well, you get to like apparatus, so I took home with me his apparatus and left him with mine!
This is the galvanometer that is downstairs?
Well, it was a galvanometer and a thermopile and the mirrors that I made, and the whole system was suspended by a quartz fiber which was so thin you could barely see it. You had to learn how to make quartz fibers and how to mount them. So, the whole thing was really a nice job. At that time there was nothing at all in Europe that compared with what Paschen had finally devised for himself there.
Now, that was set up then over at West Physics when you came back. Then there’s a period then between your return in 1911 and about in 1917 you became the chairman of the department and also full professor at that time. Can you remember when you became chairman whether you had already ideas for the development of the department?
Well, it took me about five years to learn what I finally began to do. I thought the university was a big university; it was developing and it was at the time when it was beginning to stress research, growing out of being a teaching institution into one that would become a research place as well. The men in the department whom I found there when I came in I didn't try to change their ways of doing things, but the people I brought in myself I insisted that they develop and show that ultimately they would be first-rate men. And the result was that I had, of course, to give them all the facilities they needed, if I was going to hold them up to any such stander as that. And this is what I tried to do. When a man decided that for some reason or another to let down, I didn’t promote him anymore. That was kind of cold-blooded, but I think the students have first claim on a professor, and it’s his business to see that they have the best of training that the institution can possibly give and that’s under men who are growing and are going to grow all the time, not men who come up and then have a plateau of non-achievement.
Ralph Sawyer must have been one of your early appointments.
He was the first one. Dean Sawyer was the first one that I picked out myself, without first having been more or less engaged by my predecessor.
He came here, as I recall, about the time that I came as a graduate student, namely, about 1921.
Sawyer was a perfect example of what I thought was a promising man. He had worked in spectroscopy, not in my field but at the other end of the spectrum, in very short wave lengths, the ultraviolet, and had gone down further than anybody else had gone down in the ultraviolet region. He had done it while working under Millikan for a doctor’s degree. I knew that year that Millikan was abroad most of the time, so that Sawyer having succeeded in working in the extreme ultraviolet more or less by himself was my idea of a man of ability and ingenuity and push. And for that reason, I went after him.
As I remember, there were also two more or less temporary people: one was Kent. Do you remember Kent?
Well, he’s a good example of what I mean. He was a man, who had any number of original ideas, and they were good, and he would pursue them until he saw what the result was probably going to be. Then he lost all interest. That kept on going. He never came to anything, and I wouldn’t promote him, and finally he left.
There was another young man, Sheldon.
He came with Sawyer. They were classmates in Chicago and I think Sheldon was in electronics, and he was one of the men who had been working very hard for his degree and he thought he would take some time off to sort of rest up. Well, that had been my idea, too, when I first joined the department, but I found that I couldn’t take a year off to rest up; I had to go along. And when he proposed to take a year off or so, I didn’t promote him. He went to New York University. Well, he was promoted finally to a professorship there but he never made any reputation.
I had a course with him, oh, in kinetic theory, and he was not very progressive, I think. One of the other people who came from outside at about that time was Ernest Barker.
Oh, yes. Well, Barker at that time had been professor of mathematics a college in Canada. I don’t know how he came to come to America. Well, he came on one of those international fellowships.
A Research Council Fellowship?
Yes. He did very well. I set him to work on studying infrared spectra and he did very well.
By that time one of the things which was to become of great importance to the laboratory was already established, namely, the absorption infrared, because the work that (Imes?) did under you must have been in 1919 or 1920. It was published in 1920, and that always seemed to me to be a very important piece of work and established a whole field.
Yes, about that time — we’re talking about molecular spectra not atomic spectra — molecular spectra had been recognized in the infrared region but ordinarily as broad bands of absorption where the whole region of the spectra would be absorbed. But gradually, with improving spectrographs, some of these broad regions had divided themselves into two regions adjacent to each other with an absorption band in between. And then when I became interested in it, Eva von Bahr, a Dutchman — she was from Utrecht, I guess — had shown that one of the doublet bands from hydrochloric acid molecule gas had serrations in it and that meant that “not only did quantum ideas apply to atomic spectra but you were going to have them — vibration spectra but you were going to have them apply to rotation spectra,” which wasn’t very easy for me to see. Anyway, that opened a whole new field and I knew I had much higher resolution than she had, and the very first time we tried it out, we had very beautiful serrations on both sides of the middle absorption region. In those days it was customary, as it was with Paschen, for the man who did the manipulating to take the credit for the research. And so, Imes published this paper with thanking me for assistance and so on for suggesting the work, whereas, as an actual fact, I had worked out before I assigned him work enough of these spectra to know what we were going to get. That was quite a lesson to me. I saw that I was going to get no reputation whatever if every student I got, got credit for all the work that was done in the department. Imes never did anything else, so gradually it was recognized, I think, that I was more or less responsible for that very important line of research.
Now, Professor Colby must have helped a good deal with the theoretical interpretation at that time. When did he come to the department? Was he here when you took over, or did you bring him?
Let me see. Colby was the only theoretical physicist in the department in the early days when I had charge of it, and he was a queer combination, in a way. He was a highly trained musician and a mathematician. He had studied under the best of pianists in Europe and had studied under Boltzmann who at that time was the first theoretical physicist. So, he had a divided interest and it went on for some years, and, finally, Stanley, who was professor of mathematics here — Colby was an instructor both in physics and in music for several years — said he had to make up his mind; he had to either be a musician or a physicist. So, Colby chose physics.
Was he acquainted with the quantum theory at that time?
He was acquainted with it as soon as any of us were.
About when would that be? This paper came out in 1920, the work was probably done in 1919, and I am sure that Colby must have been the one who had an understanding, for example, to obtain the moment of inertia out of the spacing of the lines, things of this sort.
Incidentally, I don’t know whether you have interviewed Professor Colby, but if you haven’t, he’s one of the people you certainly should because to the Boltzmann era and he certainly should be also interviewed.
Now, Colby was here. You brought in Sawyer and Barker. And then, as I recall, many of the other people were actually students in the department. For example, Cork was a graduate student at the time I was, and he was then appointed to the staff.
Well, at that time I thought that a university the size of this should be able to teach people who wanted to study physics in any of the branches of physics, not simply spectroscopy, my line of work, but in others. And Cork was a man who had done work, first in…
The x-ray, and that’s what he taught. He may have done some research work in X-rays, and he published a text, but what he was interested in primarily was what Lawrence did in California, cyclotron work.
That’s right, but that was later.
Cork built our first high-potential machine in Ann Arbor, the Van de Graaff. Well, the machine itself didn’t work but Cork had insight enough and energy enough to get the apparatus up to see if it would work or not.
That’s right, but this was a little bit later, because he was a graduate student at that same time I was in 1921 to ‘24, and his thesis was on the x-ray structure, on the various K and L and M series of different elements.
Oh, yes. Let us see, who would have been in charge of his work?
This I don’t know because it might have been almost an independent find because I don’t remember that there was anyone who was particularly interested. You must have given him some guidance in his work, I’m sure.
Let’s see, what did we have in the way of x-rays? What kind of equipment?
Well, this would have the time — you see, I had been at the General Electric Company in the summer of 1920, and this was at the time that the Coolidge tube was just coming in. And consequently, when Cork was working, he must have already had Coolidge tubes; these tubes had had filaments in them. This was a new development. And then were some others on the staff who had also been students. For example, Firestone had been a student here.
Firestone, yes. My relations with him were very unusual in a way. I don’t know how I came to know him in the first place, but, anyway, he for a long time was not a member of the staff of the usual sort; he had no teaching jobs. I had found that with Firestone I could tell him in outline an experiment that I was interested in, and he would come up with the equipment that was necessary to do a good job. And I thought that that was a very unusual thing, to have a man who could do that sort of thing in a department given over to experimental research. So, Firestone was hired on full time, and the members of the staff were told that they could go to him for advice and assistance in setting up and devising their experimental equipment. But, as far as I know, nobody did it except me.
That’s right. Do you want to take a break for a few minutes now?
Well, I don’t care. You’re probably tired; I…
Oh, no, we can go on.
What was Firestone’s own specialty?
Well, he didn’t have one at first and then when any of the people didn’t use him, he came into the department in the field of sound. He was interested in hearing, binaural hearing, and for some years he had on top of this building a wax figure and he had in each ear phones, and he would turn the head around and so on. He had people calling up, wanting to know what we were doing to him, and so on.
It’s interesting to look back and see how the department was developing. There were these people who had been brought in: Sawyer and Barker. Colby was already here. There were then students, graduate students, who joined the staff, such as Firestone and Cork, and Slater. Was he also a graduate student who joined the staff?
Slater was here when I came.
But he got his degree, however, here.
Now, Meyer. Did you bring in Charlie Meyer?
Well, he had already been partially engaged by Guthe, but he—Guthe died during the summer, had been head of the department a short time — came in then. I never regarded Meyer as a man that I had picked out myself, although I think he got his first appointment on my recommendation.
Now, I should like to ask a rather general question. Perhaps it is a little too general, but the question is this: You brought up this very competent department in a relatively short time. What were the principles upon which you chose these men? How did you know whom to select?
Well, I don’t think — some people have said what you’ve implied: I must know how to pick men. That may be true, but I never thought so. But what you can do is to see what they have done and whether they show whether they have brains or not and whether they have ambition to follow up what they do, and the character of their work. Well, I felt that getting a man with possibilities and bringing him into the department, it was my business to see that I gave him every opportunity to develop. I worked very hard to get things for my staff to do things. If they didn’t do under those circumstances, I didn’t recommend their promotion.
Well, yes, now, having lived through this same period, I can certainly testify that you did work hard and did get the support for people who were on the staff. As an example, to jump ahead — and then we’ll come back again — when you had Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck and LaPorte and myself here, which was after 1927, one of the things then that was necessary for young theorists was to be able to go to Europe quite often to talk with the theorists in Europe. And you arranged it so that we could have one semester off — I think it was every two years —
You each took turns.
Yes, we’d take turns, but this was a very unusual thing in the university and must have taken a great deal of doing.
Well, when I went to the dean about it, he said, “Oh, sure, who wouldn’t like to have a year off at full pay?”
But you got it just the same.
Yes, I got it. Well, it was easy because, really, what do you do for theoretical men. David is talking about theoretical physicists. What do you do? You give a room and a table and a paper and pencil and a library. You do all of that for experimentalists, but what else? You build a laboratory for an experimentalist, you furnish him with very expensive equipment which has to be changed all the time. The whole argument was to spend some money on theoretical people.
Now, what was happening in the department itself in terms of communication among the various men? Did you have departmental seminars or symposia?
Oh, yes. I think our department is unusually fortunate — at least it has been, as far as I know. During my time — I have to bring my wife into these discussions –- she used to meet the ladies of the department, I don’t know, once a month perhaps. As far as I know, there was no dividing into cliques in the department. In some large departments that goes to the extent of one group not even speaking to another. Well, nothing like that ever happened in our department.
That’s right. This has been a tradition that has been carried on and it’s still correct. Now, there’s another feature of these days that we’re talking about, the early ‘20s and which I’ve always been puzzled about and wondered. At that time, all of the department was housed in West Physics, this old building. It was a small department with perhaps not more than 10 people in it, probably nearer eight, and at that time, somehow or other, you were able to persuade the administration that this big building, Randall Laboratory, should be built. In some way, this looks like the biggest act or gall that I can think of, for a department that small, when money is always tight, to persuade them to build a huge building like this. And not only was it a huge building, but it wasn’t even to have any teaching in it; it was just to be for offices and research. Well, there were a few classrooms, but still the main teaching was to go over there. Now, having been through how hard it is to persuade people to do it, how, under the sun, were you able to get the administration to build a huge building like this for a staff of eight or 10 people?
There’s one thing about it that Dean Lloyd emphasized to me once, and that is that if you ask for money and get it for a purpose, then it’s your business to do what you agreed to do. And I think I always did that so that I had a reputation of accomplishment. Now, I talked to one head of department once and he said to me, “I blew my top this time. I asked for everything just to see what they would do.” Well, he never developed a department on that basis. No, I think, David, that’s it. I know that at the time I asked everyone in the department to tell what they wanted in the way of a building, that is, of the rooms for themselves, and each man in the department said how much he wanted in the new building, and then I multiplied it by two. I don’t remember that there was any trouble whatever about getting the…
One thing was very fortunate, and this was the period of Burton as President, and Burton was a very far-seeing man and with lots of energy. And once you convinced him that this was the thing to do, he knew how to get it.
Well, he stopped me on the campus once. I was…
This is the second half of the interview with Professor Randall.
I couldn’t make out all he said, but apparently he’d been in the East someplace, and somebody there whom he thought highly of had spoken well of our physics department, and he took occasion to repeat it to me, and I only got part of it, as I do so frequently. Well, I don’t know whether I ever asked of him anything more than what I usually asked, but I think by that time, perhaps, the university had stopped departments going directly to the president for funds and had made it necessary to act through the dean. The dean at that time was John Effinger, and I went always then, after that, to him.
I remember your talking of something once that I have copied in my operations, and that is that when you had something that you wanted to get, and you were presenting a case, that you went to a great deal of trouble to make it not only a good case but an overwhelming case, that you often over prepared for what seemed not too great a thing that you were asking. And this meant that practically every time you asked for something, you got what you wanted.
And I found this very useful.
Well, I thought up all the objections that would be raised against me, and I tried to have an answer for every one of them. Well, I think with Effinger people standing out in the hall sometimes would think that we were having a verbal fight, but he was an exceedingly good dean. When he finally agreed to do what I asked, it was as good as settled; he wasn’t a man who would say that he would do it and then would do it in such a way that he wouldn’t get it. It’s possible for a dean to put in a request with so little backing that it never goes through, but that wasn’t Effinger, nor was it me ever.
Well, now, in the early ‘20s you had a broad experimental program going on here in spectroscopy, and you were expanding out into other areas.
Well, I told about that when we were talking about Firestone, his working in sound. He got tired of working with this binaural woman on the roof and came to me again, and I said, “Why don’t you go into supersonics?” Well, that took him, and in almost no time at all, he was getting out patents. He had found that by sending supersonic waves through metals, he could detect cracks and he could detect imperfections which weren’t visible at all, and he took out patents.
Did these patents belong to the university or were they his own private property?
No, they belonged to Firestone. He got out of the NRSD, he resigned, and he told me some years ago that he hadn’t reached the million mark but that he was doing all right.
Well, now, you had this broad experimental approach. How did you get into the field of theoretical physics?
Well, I got into it very naturally because our experimentalists were publishing their data and people outside, theoretical people, were using our data, and were enjoying the reputation which I thought belonged to us. So, the natural thing was to increase our theoretical staff, and that’s what happened. We had one good man in Colby. Colby was not only a good mathematician but he was an unusually good judge of character, and much of my reputation as a good judge of character really belongs to Colby because when it comes to picking out our theoretical people, Colby was the man who did it. He picked out several. Well, we weren’t wealthy enough to attract enough of the promising theoretical young men, and so we started to develop them. Now, David, when he first came to me — his father was a Michigan man and he normally was interested in Michigan — the first time I saw him, he wanted an assistantship. Or I guess you had one, I don’t know.
Anyway, you were working for General Electric. And I thought, of course, that he would go into experimental work, but he said no, he wanted to go into theoretical work, he wanted to go into something hard.
I might say that there was very little theoretical physics and I think my thesis here was the first one in theoretical physics, in this university.
What year was that?
I got it in 1924. And Colby was, I suppose, the chairman of my committee, but almost as a co-chairman was Oscar Klein, who you had brought here and who was here during the last year. And this had a great deal of influence on me and was the reason that I went then to Copenhagen to study with Bohr.
Had you had any contact with theoretical work at GE?
Yes, the first summer I was there I worked most of the time for Langmuir at the time that he was developing his ideas of atomic structure. But then the latter part was with Hull, and this was on an experimental problem.
With the magnetron?
No, actually this was on the powder x-ray structure. And it was for that reason that Professor Randall thought that I would normally go into x-ray work when I came here. But I was really, I think, always much more interested in theoretical physics. And then you had Colby to select. I think you had first in mind to bring one young theorist, but, as I remember, Colby said Ehrenfest very strongly advised him that you should bring two, and the two Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck.
While Colby was a musician always, even though he gave up teaching of music, he went to Europe very frequently and fortunately he knew how to approach people and get their confidence. I relied on his judgment altogether. As David said he picked up Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit. Well, they were the second couple. Before that we had two Norwegians or Swedes, I don’t know which. One of them was here a little while, and the other one never got here; he was offered professorships there before he actually came here. But the first outside ones were Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit. And at that same time there was a student of LaPorte who was here; he was a student…
He originally had been a student of Sommerfeld.
Yes. Well, he was a student of Sommerfeld and he was here on an international fellowship and wanted to come here. I told him that I had no place open for him, except that that particular year there was one but the next year there wouldn’t be. He came, and every year, for four or five years, it was a question of whether he could come the next year or not.
This, again, was one of those remarkable strokes that Professor Randall did. If you think of building up a department from one that has been a rather pedestrian sort of thing when he came, there was this work in spectroscopy which was new, there was the business of getting this building — as I say, it’s just incomprehensible how he could have persuaded people at that time to have such a huge building for such a small staff. And then the next one was to go into theoretical physics, and he realized that it was necessary not to just choose one person but to go in with a nucleus that could talk together and do things. So, that, actually, here were four young men in theoretical physics, added at almost the same time — LaPorte, Goudsmit, Uhlenbeck and myself — and the notion of making such a jump of expansion is really terrific. And yet, this is what paid off because if you had gotten just one of us, the chances are that you could never have kept one. That was a remarkable thing. You must have had a good deal of difficulty. I can see too in that you had some older people there, and then you had these young, immature people. And somehow or other, in order to keep us, you had to push us on very rapidly and make promotions rapidly, and this you were able to do. And it must have caused — well, if you hadn’t been sufficiently clever, it could have caused a good deal of hard feelings in the department, but somehow or other you avoided it.
You make me feel like quite an individual.
What happened in the symposia, say, in the early ‘20s, or the departmental meetings where you discussed problems in physics? Did someone get up and report on research, on his own research, or research from abroad?
He’s talking really about our colloquia. We had one a week and then after Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit and I came we had a theoretical one, you remember. There were the two.
I see. I was wondering about the communications between the two groups.
There was no difficulty, as I remember, about communication. We were a very close and unified group and there was always a great deal of interchange and conversation.
Oh, yes, I have a roll (of stuff) that’s to go to you. You see, we were experimentalists here all together, and were producing a lot of data, and, as I said, this was being taken by other people and worked up. So, these young people did that. What was it I was going to say? I’ve got a roll of stuff that has been for you for some time on the work that was done here on the long wave length absorption of water vapor, in which we measured the spectrum of water vapor far out in the infrared. And David worked out the theory of where the absorption should be. And this roll of data shows how good his theoretical interpretation of the rotation of a water molecule agreed with the experimental data, or perhaps I should put it the other way. That brings up the question of what is to happen to the material we have that is of some value. In this summer symposium I had correspondence with practically every theoretical physicist of importance in this country and abroad, and I went to look it up the other day, and I couldn't find a trace of it. Nobody had any idea what became of it.
It wasn’t here when I came.
Barker says he knows nothing about it either. Now, Barker succeeded me. Somebody simply does it, and I had occasion to look up my experimental books that I put my data in. They are all alike, and I had a quite roll down in my research room. They have been there for some years, but now they’ve disappeared and nobody knows where.
Doesn’t Paul Weyrich handle…
Well, Paul doesn’t know anything more about them. I thought he would but he doesn’t.
I thought he had those?
No, he hasn’t. I just think there should be someone responsible for deciding when stuff is to be thrown away and not leave it to a janitor to do it. That, apparently, runs throughout the whole university.
Well, of course, this is a general problem across the country, the matter of the preservation of these old records.
Well, now there is this question: I would like to know — well, I have a letter from the Smithsonian Institute saying that they might like to have the Paschen galvanometer. Would that be agreeable to you?
Sure, any place where it would be taken care of and properly labeled as to what…
I included the salt prisms. I think we were the first to grow large salt prisms, salt crystals to make prisms. Well, Paul tells me they are still used here, so there’s no question about taking them out.
This is John Strong, who was one or Professor Randall’s students, and I think he was the first one to successfully grow crystals. Is that right?
Yes, in a way that is true, but I think I should claim credit for the success of John Strong’s success.
Well, sure, he’s your student.
No, no, not that at all. Strong was melting salts in iron crucibles and playing hydrogen over the top so that there’d be no oxidation, but he couldn’t get single crystals. Finally, I suggested that this be done: that Herman take his crucible and drill a hole through the bottom until it nearly came through, and then when the time came for the crystallization to occur, to run a long copper rod right up through that hole, with a tip on it so it fitted tight, and cool off that single point. Now, that was my suggestion, and after that he got very beautiful crystals.
You have here mentioned another thing. One of the factors, it seems to me, that has been very important in the development of the department has been the instrument shop and the very excellent instrument people that we have had. Now, this did not exist, in this form at least, when you took over as chairman, and you might say a few words about the development of this instrument shop.
Well, I sometimes think some of those shop men have been worth as much to the department as some of our professors have been. They have been excellent, and I don’t think we have realized what it has meant to us in the accuracy of our measurements to have had such fine shop work done for us.
Where did you obtain these men for the shop?
Well, in those days I had a series of people over there that, for one reason or other didn’t fit in. Sometimes men there were scraps between faculty men and shop men and so forth, and I finally advertised in German papers in New York City and got quite a few answers. I went down to New York City and looked up some people that answered those advertisements and one man I went out to Long Island to see at his sister’s — he had just come abroad from Germany and he was living with his sister — and it was a very nice looking place, prosperous looking, and she was a nice-looking woman. And she said that the man I was after, her brother, was on the dock, and would be on the dock the next day when the boat came in with his bride. So, I was on the dock the next day, and when the boat came in, I got a hold of him when his wife arrived.
Now the present instrument-maker is Paul Weyrich. Who were some of the men who came before Paul Weyrich?
Well, Paul Weyrich and the man I’m talking about…
Herman was the man you’re talking about?
Yes. Paul Weyrich and Herman and Herman’s brother-in-law, August, is the third man over there. Well, they were all educated in Germany in the same school, in a technical school, which carried them as far as the sophomore year in the university, in addition to their shop training. Well, I got a hold of Herman this way, through that advertisement, and while he agreed to come out to Michigan with not knowing me anymore, just that short acquaintance, I’ve never quite understood. But he came out here as second man, and the first man — a tool maker from Detroit — kept asking for salary increases, and finally said unless he got one he would quit, and I said all right. I put Herman in as head of the shop and Herman got Paul here and we got his brother-in-law August, so I got those three Germans and the shop has been built around them.
It was not possible to obtain American technicians with the same degree of skill as in Germany, is that right?
Well, that’s possible, but the attitude of those shop men for their profession is the same as the attitude that David and I have for ours. We don’t jump this way and that way from small outside advantages; the career is something for us, and it is for them.
This is one of those intangibles in scientific research that is so very important but is so very difficult to realize on the printed page.
Yes. Well, I don’t know how many men had been in the shop. There had been one very good man, and he had left to go into business for himself downtown, and he was very prosperous. But most of the men I could get — I got one Englishman who went out to Stanford University, fortunately, and he came to the lab with a gold-beaded cane, and his father had an ancestor who had written one of the rather famous English books of several centuries back and he kept that in mind all the time. He strode on the campus with an overcoat with a big fur collar and was the most imposing figure around here.
Well, you also had briefly a very good man who built the ruling engine, and that was Captain DeKotinsky.
Oh, yes. I got him after he had retired. He had made a Ruling engine, designed one, for Michelson in Chicago, and I got him to design one for us.
This was when? In the early 1920s?
That’s right, the year that I recall very well was the academic year ‘22-‘23, because at that time I was working with Barker in deciphering Sommerfeld’s book on atomic structure, and DeKotinsky was at that time about midway through in making a Ruling engine. He had the ways down and he was running the thing back and forth to smooth it out, you know, and I used to have a good many talks with him. I thought he was quite a chap.
Yes. He had a watch given to him by the last Russian Emperor. It was a very big watch and it did all sorts of things, not only kept time, but it told you when astronomical events were going to happen, and so on. He was very proud of that. We were the very last people that he ever worked for; when he got through with us, he went up to Frankfort and lived there by himself.
Is this the Ruling engine that’s downstairs now?
It’s his design largely, but it was designed for our particular work, designed to rule gratings this size. Most of the gratings before were about like this, and this engine will rule gratings 7500 lines per inch, and will rule millimeter gratings, very coarse gratings, and millimeter gratings for very far infrared.
Was this based upon the design of Michelson’s Ruling engine or on the basis of Rowland’s ruling engine?
Well, I don’t know. You’ll hardly believe it but I wrote to Johns Hopkins and Professor Ames there let me have one of the Rowland engines, and we got it out here and set it up. We ruled quite a few gratings on it. And then we wanted more and more energy, of course, as we went farther and farther out, and then we built our own. DeKotinsky, I suppose, made use of what he could out of the Rowland design; I don’t know.
I don’t know either. It had special features. Just because it was supposed to be for infrared, the blanks that it can rule are really very, very large and…
We had to rule for our visible work and the Rowland gratings were scratched in an exceedingly hard metal, and these scratches were irregular and threw a lot of scattered light in all directions. We wanted to conserve the light and so our grooves had to have smooth sides, so that the radiation hitting a side wouldn’t be scattered but would come away from a plane-reflecting surface.
This is a question which goes back to Paschen’s time. I have heard from someplace that Paschen used American gratings, in particular that he used Rowland gratings. Do you know whether this is true or not?
Yes, I think he did use Rowland grating. Look, I don’t think any of my papers, or his papers, say. I have some of his papers, but I can’t say. Wait a minute. Wait a minute now. I think the work I did over there was done with a prism, a salt prism. How queer? You’d think I could tell, wouldn’t you?
Well, this is something of a side issue.
Well, I can write you if I think of it.
Shall we go on with the theoretical work and the symposia?
Yes, I think perhaps it would be well. One of the next very large important steps, I think, from the point of view of the development of the department was the summer symposia that we had. And you might tell a little bit about how it was developed.
In America at that time there were some good theoretical physicists, but they were at the wealthy universities, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and I couldn’t afford any of those people. So, the thing to do was to do, I guess, what was done: to take one of our very promising ones and see that he had the right training and get the others from abroad who had the proper training for us. And that resulted, as David said, in having Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck and LaPorte and himself here, and the four of them, with Colby, made a very good theoretical group. Well, now, partly to keep them satisfied but also… Is that right, David?
Oh, yes, that’s part of it.
…we had this summer symposium in theoretical physics and brought practically all of the first-rate theoretical men in Europe and this country here for a summer session. That was practically all during between the World Wars, wasn’t it?
It didn’t just blossom in my head, in the first place. I don’t think you know how it started. It started by having Williams and Colby having private funds enough so that they didn’t have to work during the summers. They didn’t, and the summer session required us early in the fall to make out a complete schedule for the coming summer with all of the people. I regularly put them on as part of the people, and when the time came, they resigned and I had their salaries. Well, at first I simply put in assistants, and then I felt, well, we don’t know anybody out in the physics departments of the state colleges, we don’t know any of them. So, I thought, well, I’ll ask the head of one of those college physics departments to come. And I asked a man to come who was the head of the Department of Physics at Mount Pleasant. Well, he had had one year in Berlin, studying, and was glad to come, and came, and we had a very good time. The next summer, I tried it — there wasn’t anybody who would interrupt his regular routine to come for a summer, not a single man in the state — and not being able to get them, I think Colby happened to mention his friend in Utrecht, one of the first men that came here, Kramers. So, we had Kramers, and to balance him I had Karl Compton. Well, that isn’t quite right. In between I had Frederick Saunders from Harvard, who at that time was, I suppose, well up on being our first spectroscopist. And I had Karl Compton, too, who was in electronics at that time. Well, nobody came to their lectures except members of our staff and some of the departments on the campus. But the next summer, as I said, Colby had suggested Kramers, and Kramers wanted to come to America, so he came. And in addition to Kramers, I had a theoretical man – he’s still active, but I don’t remember his name — anyway we had an American. And those two men changed the whole thing, because we had people coming here from all over the country, from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. After the summer was over and things had quieted down, I had an idea that I thought might be worth developing. At that time the President was Little, and he was a biologist and worked at Woods Hole, and I went to him and said I thought that I could make Michigan a place for theoretical physics like Woods Hole was for biology. And he said, “Write me a note asking me for $5,000 a year for three years,” and that’s what I did, and I got $5,000 a year for three years to bring theoretical physicists. Well, Williams and Colby were still going away and I had their salaries which amounted to — I don’t know then how much it did, but it was some amount — so I had six or seven thousand dollars to spend on theoretical lectures for summer session.
Well, that was very important, to start it at a large enough scale, and certainly already in 1929 this was a very large scale operation. It turned out, of course, to be particularly successful because conferences of this sort were so valuable and there was no place else in the country where they were occurring. It’s much more difficult to do it now and, in fact, we did continue for a bit after the war, but it was much harder to get people to come in from outside for an extended period of time. And in recent years we have had summer symposia that last only a week or two weeks at most. But it was a real need in those days, which was not filled in any other way. So, it was a pioneering effort which was the forerunner of the many scientific conferences and symposia that we have now.
Would it be fair to say that this resulted in the introduction of the European methods and results into American physics? I’m thinking in terms of quantum physics. Would this be a fair statement, or is this too sweeping?
I don’t think that’s really right. You see, at the time when Professor Randall had gathered together here these four young people, plus Colby who was already here, these four were as far advanced, so to say, as anyone. Now, we had all been in direct contact with European physics, Bohr, Dirac, Ehrenfest, all of these people and Schrodinger. We knew everything that was going on at that time. So, you would not say that the symposia introduced anything out of European physics at this time; we were already as far ahead as it was possible to go. But we also knew, and Professor Randall knew and supported us, that in order to remain ahead it was necessary to have very frequent contacts all the while with the foremost physics and the foremost physics at that time was being done in Europe. There were two ways of doing it: one was this one of allowing us to go to Europe for a semester at a time; the other one was to have these conferences here in the summer. And, I think, this last one turned out to be the more effective of the two. So, I don’t think it was an introduction in this sense, if I understand it correctly.
Well, I was putting something of a leading question and an overstatement because I wanted to get your impression, too, of these symposia, because the list of names there is very, very impressive. One gets the impression that a tremendous amount really was accomplished in the conferences themselves.
May I interrupt just a moment. Goudsmit once said this, that at that time young men were the ones who were advancing theoretical physics, and they got ideas. Some of them were cockeyed, and some were fairly good, and some were real good. But by themselves it was hard to decide, but by talking with others, they could weed out the valuable ones and throw aside those that had no future.
Now, what happened at the summer session? Did you meet around a table, or was there a lecture and an audience?
There was one lecture a day usually, and the people ate together at tables. I was at that time in charge of my fraternity house, and I rented that to enough of the men who wanted to go there, mostly the lecturers, so that was another place where they could consult.
I see, so the conference simply went on after the meeting was adjourned.
Yes. Well, there are lakes around Ann Arbor, you know. I had a cottage out at one lake, and the men went out there sometimes for picnics and at Whitmore Lake and other lakes around here. Yes, I think the symposia were built around lectures, courses of lectures. At the very beginning we made the mistake of having them for credit, and the question of examination, and so on. But this was only a fiction and very quickly was dropped. But, nevertheless, each of these people would give approximately three lectures a week, so it was a very full schedule. Then there were usually two evening colloquia a week in which, again, further new developments were talked about. Then, of course, there were all the discussions that went on all the time. It seems to me that there were a variety of important things that came out. One was this question of the immediate physics that was done during the summer. Secondly, there was the physics that was done, say, during the remainder of the year that was based a great deal upon the ideas which had been discussed during the summer. And third — you see, there were so many, many young people that came who were not lecturers, who came to listen to these lecturers from outside. In general, we had of the order, oh, between 50 and 70 people who came here every year for this. Most of them came on their own steam, their own money; there was no way of supporting them. And I think that this had a tremendous influence on physics itself in this country. Just for an example, one of the young people who came, who in a sense did not at that moment stand out was Lee DuBridge. But I think that the atmosphere and the close association with the leaders of physics that Lee picked up in those days had a profound influence on the rest of his career. There were a good many others. If we looked at the photographs we could see all of these people who are now prominent physicists, who in those days were in the beginning stages. So, this was a very great service, I think, to physics as a whole that was accomplished by the summer symposia.
Would it be possible to select a few important ideas or results which were developed in these symposia?
I’ve often thought about this question, and it’s not so easy to pick out and say well, here at this point this particular idea or paper came up. Many times you’ll find that there’s a statement that out of these discussions came ideas which were then developed the next year. But it was never — I don’t think it’s very easy to pick them out. Now, it may be that Uhlenbeck or Sam would have some notion that I don’t, but I know we’ve gone over it and it’s hard to exactly say. But, for example, when Fermi developed work in quantum electrodynamics, this was going hand-in-hand with the lectures that he was giving and developing at the same time. This is the kind of thing that went on.
How about the experimental side? The symposia were mainly, primarily theoretical.
Yes, they were theoretical symposia.
Were there any contributions of an experimental nature?
Well, there was the contribution that Ernest Lawrence came here and helped Jim Cork get the cyclotron going that summer! That’s right, isn’t it? I mean, Lawrence and Cork worked that summer to get the…
I brought along from California one man who was working with Lawrence on setting up their cyclotron. He was familiar and he helped Cork set up ours.
But the actual bringing of the beam, getting the thing to work, was done that summer when Lawrence was here, and Lawrence and Cork together did it.
Yes, I think that is right.
Let’s see. Another side of physics that I haven’t touched — I don’t know, maybe we ought to go over and have lunch pretty soon — I don’t know to what extent one wants to go into this.
I don’t know why this squeaks all the time (referring to hearing aid). I want to apologize.
During all of this period, Professor Randall, applied physics of sponsored research was growing, and I know that the department always was doing some work in this field and molding the kind of research that we would take up. One reason I know that it was done is that my third year in Europe, 1926-27, was financed by a fellowship that you somehow pried out of the Engineering Research there.
Well, the Engineering Department started up a research program by a man who headed it; he was able and ambitious. For the first few years the Department of Physics carried about two-thirds or even three-quarters of the research that was done, and it was done on this condition: that it was to be fundamental research and that the conduction of it should be wholly in the hands of the department; the people chosen to do the work should be chosen by those in the department, and so on. And they were willing to do it, and we carried on some research. I suppose it was of practical results to them because it kept going until the Depression came. When the Depression came by that time there were three or four people who had been working on this for several years, and I had no money to maintain them, but the Engineering Research Department had money. So, they took over, and they began to run it by themselves, and we got out of it.
Well, would you like to go over and have lunch over at the Union.
Well, you don’t need to record it.
Okay. This is the end of the recording of the morning interview between Professor Randall and Professor Dennison.