Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Denis Morrell Robinson by Michael Wolff on 1978 May 23, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4845
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This interview focuses upon Robinson's role in helping to found and then run the High Voltage Engineering Co., Burlington, Mass. It covers boyhood in England, including the early influences that may have been responsible for his success as a manager; education at Kings College and MIT; pre-World War II engineering work; wartime radar work and role as British liaison to the MIT Radiation Lab; postwar years as professor at the University of Birmingham; decision to come to the U.S., where he joined John Trump and Robert J. Van de Graaff in starting the High Voltage Engineering Co. Robinson reflects upon the problems he faced as president of a struggling young science company, the characters of Trump and Van de Graaff, how the three of them worked together, and how he kept the company together during a crisis over which direction it should take in developing accelerators. He relates how the company was hurt by cutbacks in university research funds, and why, in 1970, he relinquished the presidency to become chairman of the board. He speculates on why he is one of the few technical men to have started a company in the booming postwar period that remains at the helm 30 years later.
I want to start with how you got into engineering and science. Then we'll move from that to your business career. Now, I know you were born in London, in 1907, but I don't know anything else about your family. So I will begin by asking who were your parents, and what did they do?
Well, my father was a writer like you, and a journalist; a successful one. He finally graduated to being a stringer for the TIMES OF LONDON, and in England you can't get much further than that. But he was also basically a man who would have wished to do science, and he had a profound influence on me in this way. He left school, in England, at age 14 and apprenticed himself to a maker of optical things and a seller of optical telescopes, microscopes and so on, because he thought that was the way to get to be an astronomer. He didn't know any better than that at the time. Because he was working at a shop in Fleet St., London, which as you probably know is the headquarters of all the newspapers in London, he was picked up by George Newnes, a famous name in the publishing world. George Newnes came in to look for some piece of optical equipment for one of his hobbies, and spotted this boy, who was no more than 15, and asked him if he wanted to come into his office. He trained him to be a writer, and found that he had aptitude, and he went on to be an editor of a boys' weekly publication, and then to write short stories. Then he began to write articles on technical matters. During my youth, from the age of 8 or 9 or 10 on, he continually bought me quite sophisticated electrical things, which he wanted to play with as well. He started me off with a Wimshurst machine, which is a kind of electrostatic generator with two glass plates. So I was doing high voltage, and by golly it was high voltage, at the age of perhaps 10 or 11, making sparks and cheering the neighborhood. Then we went on to wind together induction coils, Tesla coils, high frequency stuff of that sort. Then he made a radio ham station. We began to get into radio. All this, of course, is in the early twenties, and broadcast radio hadn't begun yet.
This is when you were a teenager then, that you were building radios with your father?
That's right. Now, you have to think — we were living at that time 30 miles southwest of London, in a tiny village called Pirbright with a village green and a pond, and there was only one utility came into that large house. We had a modernist house with six bedrooms, but cold water came in and nothing else. There was no electricity, no bottled gas, no telephone and no car. We had two bicycles, and we had an acre of ground on which almost everything was grown except the meat and the bread. Coal was brought in by a coal merchant. We burned it and the cinders went back on the ground and in all the 35 years that my parents lived in that home, no garbage of any kind had ever been collected from first to last. Everything went back to the ground. So we were doing this recycling without knowing it, you know. Now, my mother was a teacher of singing and elocution. Her inestimable gift to me was the gift of speech. She taught me from the very first to speak out and to speak in public. She ran classes for elementary school teachers in our home, and for children. I was a member of these classes from the first to the last. She had me at 7 years old doing bits of Shakespeare in our living room with other kids. As a result I had no fear of speaking in public, which is a great thing for anybody who wants to get into any kind of public life.
What was their educational background?
Very little. My father left what you would call an ordinary high school at age 14, because he did not want to be trapped like his father. My grandfather was secretary to the general manager of the Prudential Assurance Co., no connection with the Prudential Insurance Co. in America. It was a London firm. He had been an office man all his life. He was a precise, neatly groomed, and neatly bearded man that I remember very well as a very dear man. My Grandfather Robinson went off to London from his suburban house precisely at 8:10 every morning to catch the 8:22 to the city, where he sat in an office all day and approved checks and did all these things for the general manager. I still have his gold watch given to him for services beyond the line of duty, which I'm very proud of. My father was absolutely bound he wasn't going to get trapped into that. He saw it coming that he was going to get apprenticed as an office boy there. So he lit out, saying "I'm leaving school" and his father accepted it. Now, my father had no education except what was provided him in this apprenticeship, and then by the publisher I spoke about. My mother equally; she was about number 3 in a large family of six children and five miscarriages, which she always told me about — rather advanced for a Victorian woman. She said that the double bed was an invention of the devil and that her father was obviously very selfish. Her mother died at age 42, worn out with all this stuff, and my mother had to leave school at age 12 to look after the younger children. Then when the father remarried and started again to produce children at the biologically possible rate (or as close as could be), she also lit out. She said, "I'm not going to be a baby nurse for another bunch," and so she took off into a flat of her own, where she began to teach elocution. She was going to evening classes at the Norwood Polytechnic Institute, in Southeast London. There she met my father. They went together to a Shakespeare class. She was brought up in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and sang in the choir. I think she must have had a naturally beautiful voice. My father always told me that it was her singing that really sent him. He was after her for years and years. My mother was six years older and thought he was too boyish and immature but he finally convinced her.
How old was he when they got married?
He was only 25 and she was six years older, something like that, so she was 31 and she regarded herself as an independent woman. My mother was born in 1874 — right in the Victorian age — and my father in 1880 — but in spite of this, by self-education and a tremendous amount of reading, and writing to each other and so on when they were apart, they educated themselves to the point where they simply didn't go along with the totally repressive Victorian things. My father was breaking out into science, on one side. My mother was breaking out into freedom for women and the right to have a career, on the other. Which was early; 1905, they were married. And I had the marvelous thing that I always could talk to them, which was so unlike most of my contemporaries. I do remember my mother telling me with amusement, how I asked her where the babies come from. I did this at about six years old, and she said (she always had to bargain with you), “Well, you're a little young, but I'll tell you when you're seven." She said that I came down the morning of my seventh birthday not wanting to look at the presents but saying "You told me when I was seven, you'd tell me about babies." So she told me, very very carefully, that they come from the inside, from the heart of the mother and so on, and to her astonishment my reply was, "Well, I thought it was something like that,” and I was quite satisfied. You see, unless you can put yourself back into the fact that Victoria had only been dead ten or fifteen years, you don't realize what that meant to somebody, to have this way to go at it at seven years old.
So you feel they were very exceptional for that time.
Very advanced. I think there were a lot of people doing it, but it was outside the ordinary mores completely, you see. There were lots of their friends saying that this had to be done. You realize the suffragette movement had been active several years by then and so on. Women were to get the vote and all this sort of thing. But considering that my mother was still a church goer, or chapel goer, this was simply remarkable.
Did you have any formal religious training?
Well, I was baptized (christened, as they called it) into the Anglican Church, the Church of England. But they were only occasional church goers in my boyhood. We had a maid. In those days people in that class could have a live-in maid. And just to give you an idea, that maid got 52 pounds a year which was then $5 a week, you see. But she lived in and she had everything else looked after, and she wore a kind of a uniform. It was a bit like "Upstairs, Downstairs," except we were middle, you know. We were neither Upstairs nor Downstairs. (I've enjoyed that television program tremendously.) And this maid was herself a Methodist, a convinced Wesleyan Methodist, with all the quite strict beliefs of that time about Heaven and Hell and angels and all the rest of it. She was a maid and a cook and a very dear woman to whom I owe a lot. But she found that my parents were neglecting my religious upbringing — She was a teacher in Sunday school as well — and she encouraged me to go with her to Sunday school. So I got that much Sunday school and it was always a tussle in my mind, because my parents were going out, or just going to stay in the garden, and I wanted to do both, because when I went to Sunday school, I got some of these little stick-on pictures of angels put in a book. And if I didn't go, the book would have a bad space there, where there weren't any angels. So I had that amount of formal religion. Then I went to a church school where there were prayers every day, and that continued throughout my school career in England. You see, there is no division between church and state in England. So up through college I had the habit of some reading from the Bible, New Testament and Old Testament, every morning, and so on. I never had a religious struggle. As a scientist, of course, I have not the comfort of a belief in an afterlife or anything like that. But I've had this comfort that religion was there if I wanted to fall back on it. I'm afraid that's all it's become.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
One younger brother, 3-1/2 years younger, who unfortunately was born with trouble in the leg. He is a cripple, and is still alive in England. That was a very bad tragedy for my mother. We believe it was a birth injury due to the incompetence of the delivery at that time. He never did walk properly. So he's been denied all the things that I had. My mother was just naturally of an extraordinarily frugal nature. She had lived with the very minimum of money. She always told me with great pride that she had never borrowed, that she was always able to keep her needs within what she had. She didn't depend on anybody, and she brought me up this way. I mention it now because it's basic to the fact that I could go into business on a cash flow basis. The cash out could never be more than the cash in. She had this very much in mind. When I would go out with her for the ordinary daily and weekly shopping, she would say, "Now, there's a penny. Shall we spend it to ride home on the tram, or would you like to buy something with it?" And I had to make up my mind. I had to make a decision as to the best way to spend that penny. Did I want to ride for comfort, or did I want candy or something else?
How old were you then?
I was five or six —
So you were making financial decisions at an early age.
Tell me; you mentioned earlier, your father started to write science. What kind of scientific articles did he write?
As soon as we built an induction coil for producing bigger sparks at higher current, he would write an article about it for one of the magazines in London.
What kinds of magazines were these?
They were hobby magazines. They were the boys' papers at that time. You have to remember, of course there was as yet no radio, let alone TV and boys used to go for these penny boys' magazines, which had all kinds of hobby stuff in them as well as short stories and serial stories and all that. At the back there would be a "How to Do It" section — "How to Build an Induction Coil." Then I made some fireworks. In England, they celebrate the fact that the Houses of Parliament were not blown up on November 5th. That's when the fireworks go off in England. Under my mother's training, it was not possible to go and buy those fireworks in the stores, which were still legal. No, I had to find a way of making those fireworks myself. So I would go into the chemist's with my small chemical knowledge at age 11, and I would make these things. It's lucky I didn't blow myself up, but the quantities were very small, and we had the show. Then my father encouraged me; he said, "That's good, you'll want to write an article about it. And we'll put that in CHUMS. Of course he helped me a little. He was editor of CHUMS. So there proudly, at perhaps age 12, was a little article signed "Denis Robinson." And in all the time my father was writing books, and he wrote a book on — well, I'm getting ahead of myself. The great expansion came, in our work together while he began to buy the first components to build radio stuff. "2-LO London Calling" must have begun in 1919, just after the war. Anyway, by 1920 or '21 my father and I together, were making various sets — crystal sets, and one tube and two tube sets — with which we were hearing the London station, 30 miles away. Now, if you can imagine, in the winter we were absolutely isolated. In that little country village there wasn't even a street light for five miles. There was no telephone, no communication with the outside world whatsoever. You couldn't go through the streets except you fell over in the dark. I mean, you had to go out with a flashlight. That was the only electrical thing that had yet come into my ken, before these Wimshurst machines and induction coils, and he was buying this stuff and getting excited about it. Then we built our first radio together, with earphones at first, and then with loudspeakers and more and more elaborate equipment. How did we get the electricity? Well, we had a storage battery, and each week when it ran down, without benefit of a wall plug, we would put it on a bicycle. It was too heavy — it was a great big storage battery, — and we'd take it down to the local garage to get it recharged. Then we were without communication for a couple of days while it was charging. Then we would bring it back and put it on. Oh, the London station would come in magnificently, with the battery fully charged.
Did these experiences set you on the road to a scientific career?
Do you remember knowing that you were going to be —
Absolutely. There was no other thought in my mind, except to do something electrical. It wasn't even a conscious decision. It was predestined by the stuff around me and by my love for it, you see.
Sounds like your growing up there was more like an apprenticeship to a career than —
Yes, and I have to say that I was doing this for my father, in a way. It never felt like that, but my father obviously felt that he would have done this had he started when I started, and he was absolutely determined that I should have a university career. He knew, by the time he was my father, that that's how he'd missed. He didn't have the necessary things. I recall very distinctly, an evening when I'd been sweating over my homework. I went to what was called a county secondary school. It was only 250 boys, and it was a wonderful, wonderful school. It was one of the modern schools in a small town in Surrey. I used to go there by train every day, fine steam train connections every few minutes and so on. I walked two miles to the station — then four miles by train, then back again; never thought anything of it. It was great. There I had a wonderful set, as I remember it, of school masters, mainly from the north of England, who were dedicated men and wonderful teachers — such teaching as I never got later when I went to college.
Was there much science?
Oh, a lot of science. They put me onto physics and chemistry at age 11, which is way beyond what was offered to my sons when they went to high school here. This was a school set up on the taxes, by taxes, and a small fee that my father had to pay. This was set up by what can only be called the local trade’s people and the bourgeoisie — the gentlefolk of that time. Anybody of my father's professional status was bound they were going to send their children to one of the so-called public schools, which as you know are intensely private schools where the fees were very high and where the families continued to go — Eton, Harrow and twenty more of them. But my father and mother, again, were out of their time: they didn't believe in the boarding school. They'd read a lot of stories about all the corruptions and things, all the worries of boarding schools, and they were going to have me in a school they believed in, with me staying in the home environment, There was a lot of misery in young boys going off to school in those days. But these local trade’s people who set up the thing, very much like one of our suburban New England places would now set up its high school and decide what is to be taught, the curriculum and so on, they wanted science for their kids — science and good arithmetic for banks and all this stuff, and never mind the Latin and Greek, because the Latin and Greek was a status symbol. Still, you know, without Latin and Greek you couldn't get into Oxford and Cambridge, but they didn't care. The new "Red Brick Universities" were beginning, and they were going to go this way up.
Let's talk about the university briefly. You went to King's College. Is that “Red Brick?”
Yes. It's part of the University of London, and is classed with the Red Brick group. I must say that my father's determination to get me into college was evidenced by about the last year I was in high school. Here I was, probably somewhat impressed by the exams I had to take (They were very stiff in those days.) and he came to my bedroom — I think my mother and he must have worried that I was thinking I couldn't get into university without scholarships, because that was the mode of the time — and he just said, “Denis, your mother and I have decided that whether you make it or not on the scholarship, you're going to college." Ah, what a relief! I'm sure that I did far better because I wasn't so nerve-wracked.
How did you choose to go to this college?
One of my Yorkshire schoolmasters, the headmaster of the school, a very determined fellow, said, "You should go to my former student, Professor Cook. He's teaching at King's College. He'll look after you." So that was arranged for me, too. I did make the extra effort to go to the highest-rated engineering school of London University, but they insisted that I start right back at first year. King's College, with this man's influence, said, "Since you come from Woking County Secondary School we can give you the credits for the first year, except for this and this, and you can make it up during vacation." So I got one year shorn right off my time there. That was very important to me. Kings College was co-educational, but not yet in the engineering department, and this was my first experience of being alongside the girls. I went there every day by the 8 something train, and would come back at various times in the evening to my home. That was a 30 mile trip each way, each day — 60 miles round trip. But it was reasonably comfortable, and one could study, to a certain extent, in the train.
Did you study electrical engineering from the beginning?
Yes, right away. You see, one of the things that I haven’t made clear about the high school there is that we did what you could call our college boards at rather early age. I was always one year ahead of everything, and I did my college boards at about age 16, and then I had two years of pre-university, almost university status, but with coaching or special treatment — There were only six of us in the class — from these wonderful pedants. They really were dedicated teachers, and they just exposed us to books and said, "Now, read that and come tell us about it" just like an Oxford don would do. In fact, several of them had been trained at Oxford and Cambridge. And they were continuing this idea, even with a 17-year-old boy. They said, "Read those next five chapters, then come along and discuss it with me."
Did you read a lot in your childhood, before you went to school?
Yes. Our household was a household of books, and it was lined with books in every room. Because my mother became seriously deaf at a rather early age — a great tragedy to her — she had two tragedies: one was the crippling of my brother, and the other was her going deaf, though she was a teacher of music and speech. And she used to bang on the piano, and she said, “This is what Beethoven did," and she would weep, because she said, “He couldn't hear any better than I can. I can feel the vibration, that’s all." Because of this, the family supper table, became a place where we would ask, "Are we having literary supper tonight?" which meant, everybody go and get their own book. I've since learned it's a very bad thing to do, to read and eat, but that's what we did. My father was a tremendous reader, very fast. For several years after being editor of CHUMS he was what they call a novel reviewer for Cassell and Company, the publishers.
By reader, do you mean when people send in book manuscripts?
Yes. He would read both short stories and books to see whether they should be published. So he would take a book off the shelf and read it in an evening, constantly. I watched this. Of course he went much faster than I. I had to read scientifically when I started to read. But he introduced me to a whole range of the stuff. His shelves were open to me and I read omnivorously all my youth. I started reading when I was six, I'm sure, and read and read and read.
Was there any one book that stands out as being particularly influential?
No. But I read Wells and Kipling. Wells was far to the left and Kipling was far to the right. That was typical of my family. I have to tell you that besides being frugal, my mother was a convinced pacifist, always inveighing against military ventures and foolishness of going to war, saying the common people don't want it and so on. My father was an easygoing, joking fellow who went off to fight in the First World War. He volunteered though he needn't have done, because he said, "You can't let these damn Huns get away with it" — you know this sort of thing. He was a patriot and so on. My mother used to laugh at him. She was very annoyed when he volunteered in the First World War, and I remember her saying to him, "Earnest, what do you mean? You love the Germans. Why are you going to fight? You're going to leave me here with two young boys?" And so on and so on. I was always allowed to hear the family debates. And he said, "Yes, yes, my dear, I know I love the Germans, but if they win, there'll be no more weekends in England." That was his attitude, "We've got to beat these fellows." He was always like this about it. No hate but determination. My mother continued her pacifist trend, and of course I was always between these two things. Well, I'll get to that later. You have some other questions.
Coming back to King's College — did you take physics courses? Were they separate from electrical engineering?
No, it was a very professional, functional degree at King's College in those days. As I now see it, there was not nearly enough physics, not nearly enough mathematics, but it was a vocational professional school, which graduated you in three years to have the first degree in electrical engineering and become an associate of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. After three years with that degree, you were a chartered electrical engineer. So I'm proudly celebrating this year my 52nd anniversary as a chartered electrical engineer, which is a long, long time.
Did you study economics?
Very little. I got some of that when I came to MIT — very little. In fact my business training was zero, you could almost say.
You got this Siemen’s Prize?
Yes, I got the Siemen's Prize in 1927.
First Class Honors in Electrical Engineering, Siemen’s Prize.
Yes, that’s right, Well, I came high enough up the list, and the Siemen’s Prize just permitted me to go on for another two years of graduate study.
At the University of London, right?
London, yes. And I got my PhD. It now sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I had my undergraduate professional engineering training behind me in two years and my PhD in another two years, so four years after I got out of high school, I was the proud possessor of a PhD, which is nonsense by today's standards. But you see, I had had what was the equivalent of at least junior college, and perhaps three years of undergraduate work in this country, in high school. When we go home tonight, I'll show you some of the papers that I had to answer as a 16-year-old. They were way ahead in mathematics and physics and chemistry. They're right up to second year college stuff, here.
In 1929-31, you were on a fellowship at MIT. Briefly, what did you do at MIT?
Well, here again, my father came into it, because after I had gotten through the PhD, my professor wanted to whisk me out into industry; no, before that. By the time I’d graduated as a professional engineer, my professor said, "I'll find you a job in industry," although it was Depression times, and my father said, "Uh, uh, I want you to get your doctorate, which is very unusual, again, at that time — electrical engineers did not take doctorates. Physicists did but engineers did not. And because my father insisted — I loved college anyway and I thought this was a marvelous thing. I tell you; one of the things that convinced me was that I had to go to an internship. I don't know whether you realize, but in those days in order to become a professional engineer, you didn't only have to graduate from university but you had to go into industry for at least a period, as a doctor goes into the hospitals now. And it was just like an internship. You got almost no pay and you slaved there on an 8 to 5 basis. My fate was to go up to the north, in Manchester, and as a foretaste, I went in July and August of my school vacation. That was the way they did it. Engineers didn't have a vacation; they went into internship right away. I hated Manchester, and I hated the mechanical repetitive work of production, because that's what they put us boys into. It didn’t matter that you'd got your professional degree; they wanted to break you down to understand drudgery, because later you were going to run that for them. And I hated drudgery. I remember putting down the 5000th blade of a switch that I'd done, saying thank God that's done, and then they brought up another 5000. This is how it went on, week after solid week. Manchester is fearful; it’s one of the cesspools. No, it really was terrible in those days. It had a mixture of colloidal sulfur and carbon for an atmosphere. It was terrible. And the — depravity is not too strong a word for it — of the people who worked under those conditions of that time, the little they were earning and the way they were living, it just sickened me. Anyway, I saw going for a higher degree as an escape from this internship, because I was slated to go up for three years. Of course, they would have gradually pushed you up the line, and I would have had no more than a year of all that mess. But I still felt that I would be — I'm not strong to take that kind of stuff. Some of my colleagues just loved it there. They suddenly had no more book learning to do. They were men. They could go drink beer and they could go out with girls and they were free, suddenly, of the college restrictions. But this wasn't my life. I wanted science. I knew it. And I had thought that by going to this huge scientifically-run place in northern England, I would see some of that, but I saw none. So I was glad to — my father's suggestion was for me to go on and I had this Siemen's Prize as a means of helping finance that. Then I chose a subject of study — which is written down somewhere there, but it's unimportant, it was on electric motors — and I did some research, the first research I ever did. I had to teach myself, more or less, how to do it. But I seemed to have got an innate knack for that and a wish to do it, and I used the first oscilloscope — I'm sure you've seen many since — but I had a dropping plate. There was no such thing yet as an electric oscilloscope. This was a dropping plate that you did, and so on. I did this work and I was proud of it. I also became president of the Students Society during that time, first the president of the Engineering Society, then the Student Society. Here again I was learning what has always been of inestimable advantage to me later: how to deal with people. I was running the student side of the college, as well as doing this electrical research.
And this college again is?
King's College, London. Because I wasn't doing regular courses, I had more time. I didn't have that amount of coursework to do, you understand. I could make my own time, and I worked, like I've always done — my days have been from early morning till late at night. When things interest me, I can keep going. We were running our own programs of sports and conventions and all the dances and the concerts and the theatricals, and even looking after the money for them. That was part of the training. Very advanced for its time, I felt it was, and I was president for one full year, I had to learn to deal with the factions — who wanted to do this and that — and keep them quiet, talk softly with some, be decisive with others, and make decisions. I had at my right hand the so-called secretary of the college, who was number 2 in the hierarchy, who would guide me. He wouldn't stay there for the meetings, but he'd say, "Robinson, I think you ought to get this through and no nonsense," and “we're over budget here, so ask them, 'Which do they want to do, leave out that or that because this is the amount of money we have;" amazing training. Back to my professor of electrical engineering, when I told him I now wanted to go on to America and get one of those Harkness or Commonwealth Fund Fellowships, he said, “You don't want to stop playing, do you, and get down to work. But if you’re bound to do this, I think you should study high voltage and high voltage underground transmission,” and he put me onto that.
Why did he say that?
Because he was an electrical engineer, already a man of 60 plus, and he'd been in the game all his life. And he knew that one of the missing things was that we weren't getting the cables through the London streets adequately. This set me on the line to bring me to where we're sitting now. My story may seem very long but this is very important. My thesis of course is that it's the people you meet who make all the difference. You've got to have a certain genetic competence, but it's then the people who decide and push you in this direction and inspire you. This has been my luck throughout. The professor's name was Wilson. We called him Freddie Wilson. He was almost a mascot of a little man. Can you imagine — he still wore a stiff wing collar and a morning coat? He was THE PROFESSOR, and he came on the train, and though he was an engineer, he came in with a top hat! Of course, he was an anachronism by now. But he wouldn't have been before the war. He himself had designed the electrical motor for the first underground, for the first subway, in London. He still had models and so on. But he was still quite lively and he knew just what was happening. We now had this huge grid connecting up England with 132,000 volts for the sharing of the load. All the coal stations were feeding into this grid, and when they got to the big towns — London, Manchester, and Birmingham — they had to go underground because they could no longer string high voltage wires across this mass of houses. But the cable business of putting it underground hadn't caught up with this high voltage. He said, "Its high voltage insulation that is the key to things now, and mark my words, Robinson, that's what you should do." So I made out the applications and all that. But I never would have had the chance to go if it hadn't been for what you would call the president of the college. In our case he was called the principal. Now this is terribly important. Our college was then just a hundred years old, and we were going to celebrate our l00th anniversary, and of course the public relations were very important, as you can imagine, to our principal, who was trying to get money out of industry and the good burghers of London. Just at this moment there occurred one of these so-called student rags. We didn't have uprisings for political reasons the, but every October, after the boys had been sort of imprisoned in classes for a month or two, something would pop in them. The excuse always was what we called the Lord Mayor's Show. You know, the City of London has a Lord Mayor, and is full of panoply and all the rest of it — only second to the royal panoply. (The Lord Mayor elected every year from among the city companies.) As luck would have it, our college was right on the route they took. So we always had all kinds of things firecrackers thrown at police horses that were guarding them, and so on. Anyway, it was always a difficult thing to try to tamp this down and keep the students quiet, but darn me if this year in particular some of the more active students didn't go and steal the mascot from one of the other colleges. The colleges defended their mascots, and so the likelihood was that our college was going to get stormed that night by these guys from the other college, to get our mascot; a thing totally anathema to the principal of the college who was trying to get the funds together, and didn't want the press publicity about unruly students. I knew that this was poison, and I was president of the Union Society and trying to keep the thing tamped down. And I did something which I've never done before or since — I stole that mascot back in the very early morning with the assistance of some of the college servants, as they're called. I took it back by taxi, and deposited it in its proper place before anybody got there. I got up at some fantastic hour in the night to do this. No sooner had I got back to the college than the inevitable call came for Mr. Robinson to see the Principal. In those days, when you were president of the Union Society and you went to see the principal, you had to have a black gown on. So I put on my gown in a hurry — it was standing on a peg — and went to see the principal. He said, "Robinson, I'm very worried about this stealing of the mascot. It's already in the papers." I said, "Sir, it’s already back where it belongs." He said, "Robinson, I don't need to know anything else, Thank you." When I put in the application, it had to go through him, because it was an interdisciplinary thing, who should go to the United States. He called me and he said, "Robinson, I just want you to know, I’ve seen your application. I am an advisor to their staff. I think my recommendation will be sufficient. That's all I'd like to say today…" And it was sufficient.
Why had you decided to go to the United States?
I still had this feeling that I wanted to be a scientist, I didn't call it that yet. And I had found, as I explained to you, the training in King's. College, London, was extremely professional. It dealt with all the things that now exist, telling you how to do what had already been done and how to do it better. But it didn't have anything to do with plans for the future.
You figured you could better get that in the United States than anywhere else?
That's what I figured. I was a constant reader of the journals, and some of the stuff that I read in United States publications gave me this idea. Also I wanted to see the world. I'd been stuck there in England. I was now 21 or 22 or something.
Why don't you touch briefly on the two years at MIT? What kind of work you did there, and what you ended up with.
The reason I went to MIT is interesting. I went for interviews and all the rest of it, and then I was told I could go to USA, and they asked me, "Which university would you like to go to?" and I promptly said, "Harvard." They said, "Well, Harvard's not the place for what you want to do in high voltage. What's your second choice?" I promptly said, Yale," and they said, "ditto — what’s your third choice?" and I said, "Princeton," and they said the same thing. Then they said, "Any further suggestions?” I said, "No, you've run me out, those are the only three I know.” They said, "Well, where you need to go is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” I said, "I can't even pronounce it, let alone know anything about it. What does it mean?" So they said, "Take the catalogue." It was this thick, you see, and was an appalling thing. It seemed to me like the New York Phone Book. “And come back next week." I did. I said, “I feel lost with this.” They said, "Don't worry, we'll put you straight." So they sent me across the Atlantic to MIT. Ten days across the Atlantic, and I was in a totally different world. Really quite on edge for a time, because I couldn't — bear in mind that there was as yet almost no trans-Atlantic radio speech, no talking movies yet, I'm talking 1929. The Americans and the English hadn't heard each other speak, except a few visitors back and forth.
That's hard to believe.
That’s right; absolutely hard to believe. Fortunately I was preceded by a man at MIT who came on the same fellowship and he very kindly arranged for me to stay in a fraternity on the Memorial Drive there, one of the MIT fraternities, and they put me up. I was appalled to discover that I was expected to sleep in a room with six other men in one of these triple bed arrangements. I'd never had any lack of privacy in my whole life, and this was very difficult for me. But even more difficult was the prerequisite requirements. I went into the MIT huge registration place, and said, "I've come here on the Commonwealth Fund," and some nice little secretary said, "Will you please fill out a card to say what degree you want to take?" So I said, "I don't want to take a degree. I've got a PhD. I want to do some research." She said "I don't have any color card for that." And I was right into an IBM system already — which I'd never seen. It was discovered that I didn't fit. So I quickly got to Vannevar Bush, who was the acting head of the electrical engineering department at the time, which was my great luck. He just said, "All right, you’d better go and see — you've got to fill the requirements — go and see the professor of English to make sure your English prerequisites are enough, and mathematics and all this." I did, and I discovered — this is all germane to what I learnt from coming here — I discovered that my mathematics was simply not enough. They couldn't have even got me into the third year at MIT at that time. But when the professor of English saw me, he said, "Well, I don't need to ask you anything. You've come out of an English high school, and you know more about Shakespeare, Dickens, all this, than any of the students here I have as graduates at MIT." — Which was true. We just chatted about English literature. It was clear my physics was not good enough. But all of this started to be remedied. It was very hard for me to go back suddenly and again be an undergraduate. I took several undergraduate courses. But it was a great advantage to me. I worked very hard, and I found a lot of it very difficult because my mathematics has never been good, and I'd escaped it by sliding around it, in England. But I did come into contact with Vannevar Bush and a lot of other very knowledgeable people. Since I said I wanted to study the breakdown of dielectrics because of what my professor had told me, Van Bush started me on the breakdown of glass. Now, the paper I later published is here. I'm sure you don't need it, but it was published in 1932, and describes the research work I did at MIT. That wasn't published until a year after I'd gone back to England. All these things have fitted together. We use glass in great quantities at High Voltage Engineering now, and some knowledge of it was vital in my doing this job.
When you went back to England, after the two years at MIT, according to your bio there, your first job was as a research engineer, at the Callender's Cable and Construction Co., Ltd. What kind of work did that involve?
Right there where I've been most of the time since, high voltage, tremendous high voltages. We had a million volts then, which was early, you see, 1931. We had this sort of equipment for showing cables — look at this stuff here, the scale of the man — this is big stuff. This had arisen exactly as my good old professor had expected it. He had said, "We won't get through the streets of London and Birmingham with the stuff we've got," and we didn't. By the time I got back, June 1931 the Depression in England was bad. The company that hired me was in deep trouble because their cables were breaking down constantly in the London streets and they had to keep on digging them up and finding out where the trouble was and so on. So t set to work with this splendid equipment, to find out why. And in fact, in four years, I had some quite remarkable success, and published a book, which is here, and various papers, I'll read the titles — The Breakdown Mechanism of Impregnated Paper Cables, published in THE JOURNAL OF THE INSTITUTION OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS, July, 1935, and then a monograph by me, DIELECTRIC PHENOMENA IN HIGH VOLTAGE CABLES, which was published by Chapman & Hall, London, in 1936, when I wasn't quite 30.
This book was written while you were at Callender's?
Yes. And it greatly pleased the engineers and the management of that company, and became a book that they gave to their customers. This is the time to tell something of my marriage and family life. One of my friends at MIT was Arthur Casagrande, a soil mechanics engineer who in 1930 brought his mother, brother and sister, Alix, from Vienna for a one-year visit. Alix had great charm; everything in America was new to her as to me. Her German was particularly clear, unaccented and embellished with delightful expressions and cadences. My German and her English improved noticeably in these months. Her family and I liked each other and I spend much of my leisure time with them and their friends. When we returned to Europe in 1931 we visited each other and were married in England in May 1932. Our sons, Marius and Harald, were born in London 1934 and 1937. Her mother spent about six months of each year with us in London. She too spoke a clear German with a good vocabulary but little English. For her sake we spoke German at home so that I became relatively fluent. In those years there were vacations in Europe but all contact with Alix's mother and family in Europe ended in 1939 with Hitler's attack on Poland.
But in 1935 you moved over to Scophony Television Laboratories in London. Why did you make that move?
Because by now I had a wife and a son and I was still earning from Callender's the same salary that I'd been offered four years before, 300 pounds a year. That translated into $1500 a year, and I absolutely couldn't live on it. I was also teaching twice a week in the evening school and also on Saturday mornings, in order to bring in a little more. And for reasons which I find extraordinary, the management of Callender’s had an absolute determination not to increase anybody, and I couldn't live on this. I discussed this with my father, and he said, “your chance now is television, because the government” — of course, I knew all this, but I'm repeating it out of my father's mouth to show you —
Of course, he was following all this technology.
Right and he was still in there pitching and writing about it. So I owe a great deal to journalism, as you see. My father was basically a scientific journalist by this time. He was writing in the SUNDAY OBSERVER at that time, and he said, "Look, this month or next month, the British government opens up with two big television stations, public." Did you know that that came that early — 1935 in England? See, they were way ahead. But they did it for policy reasons; they did it, of course, because the post office in England had the entire income from radio licenses. You were not permitted to have even a radio without paying a license through the post office to the British government. That's how they kept the programs of the BBC and how they've continued to keep them without advertising and so on. They take a license fee from every user and every set. My father said, "Jobs will open up in this. Why don't you go to my friends at Scophony?" Scophony was a privately financed — it was trying to be a growth company like happened in this country later on. They were into the stock market, into flirtations with stock, in order to get enough money to go ahead and make receivers for the public programs that the BBC was not going to put out.
I think in America at that time it was just experimental.
Completely. But, Britain had decided — the government had commissions and all the rest of it — they decided on a standard, they decided they were going to put out two hours of program a day. This gave the makers of the receiving sets their opportunity. There was going to be a guaranteed program. And indeed the thing started to blossom very fast.
What kind of work did you do there?
I was taken on by a real inventor of the old school. He thought of himself as a second Edison. He told me this was all nonsense with cathode ray tubes. He had been doing this for ten years and he was going to develop a mechanical method, but with very sophisticated overtones. I worked on that for him for three years and it was a splendid experience. He was a man who came with new ideas every day, 90 percent of them unworkable. It was my job to build the apparatus and to scrap it again the next day because he'd got a better idea.
What was his name?
Walton. You never heard of him. George Walton. He didn't bring it to anything. But anyway, the thing went the other way. It went into the cathode ray tube. He told me, "They'll never make a cathode ray tube bigger than six inches across, and that isn't big enough to satisfy the viewer, so we've got to go to mechanical.” But I learned a tremendous amount from him, and what happened was that the video frequency we were using then was just perfect for the intermediate frequency for the later radar. In other words, that action by the British government, which I'm sure, was not planned this way, putting a great section of British industry competing for the consumer market and getting other firms to make the transmitters and so on put Britain in the position to watch the German bombers with radar and do something about it. There’s no doubt in my mind that without that television emphasis of 1935, Britain would hardly have survived the German onslaught, even in 1941.
Do you mean because people were getting experience building circuits at that frequency?
Yes, we actually had some stuff in production for television that we then promptly used for radar. We adapted the radar. We made the radar along the lines of the production we’d already got going.
Was this how you got into the Telecommunications’ Research Establishment?
Yes. While I was at King's College, London, I'd done my ROTC training, like students do in this country. I never liked drilling, but my father was very keen on that too, you see — my father keeps coming into this. My mother looked askance at all this childlike soldiering but then I did like to shoot with a target rifle, my father, was a first rate shot. He won the King's Prize for shooting for the whole and Empire, 1923; which shows a lot of get up and go, He taught me to shoot at targets. I always hated shooting at any living thing. Now, how did I get the TRE? I was slated to get into the engineering arm of the British Army. There was a first lieutenant’s commission for me there and I was expecting to be called as soon as the war started.
That was 1939.
Yes, September 2. I was at our big television show, and word came that Germany had invaded Poland and television was going off the air for the duration. Switch-off; everybody dispersed and started to trundle out their equipment. That was the end of television. But, as I say, it was reborn into radar. Now, what was I going to do? I didn't know what was happening in radar. My father was not in that secret, so I just patiently waited to be called up for my position with two stripes, or two pips, or something, in the Army, and I'd be into the sappers. Since I was a married man with two children by this time, I’d probably be put on the anti-aircraft guns in London. Or something or other, but I might have found myself in the Libyan Desert for all that, you never know. Anyway, here came the IBM card business to my rescue, because during those four years of awful buildup to Hitler, which I knew about — by the way, I'm fluent in German and went to Germany every year for my television firm, and so I was well aware but still hoping we wouldn't fight. My mother's pacifist influence you know — "Millions of people dying, that's crazy, we don't have to do it" — I was with Chamberlain, up to the moment when Hitler went into Poland, and then that was it, I was through then. I knew that he'd let down everybody including Chamberlain. But during that awful buildup, four years, when I was living in London, and we knew that London was an open target for the Luftwaffe, I had filled out all the usual questionnaires about what you could do, what my capabilities were and all this stuff, and suddenly, in November, 1939 I got a call to go to Whitehall. And they said, “We think you could help us. We’ll give you a job on a secret mission." They said, “It's right in your line. We won't tell you anymore, but report there the day before Christmas, to the north of Scotland.” I was very happy to do something of course; by this time there was nothing to do on television. So I traveled up to Scotland, and there, it was like a wonderful opening up. I should have said that Scophony was being run and staffed almost entirely by refugees from German, Hungary, and so on. They were some of them Jewish but not all, but they had seen that everything was going to end for them in Germany, and they'd come over and been hired, and it was a Jewish firm I was working for. I doubted very much that they would get contracts. In any case, I expected to be called up, so that wasn't any future for me. But suddenly, after all this agony of waiting, — and it was the "phony war," and we were neither fighting nor doing peaceful things — nor suddenly, I was talking to the director of the radar research for the Air Ministry. He was called the superintendent but he was the director.
This was the TRE?
It was not called that then but it became TRE, a magnificent man. I’ve got here his book called THE STORY OF RADAR, by A. P. Row, this is his photograph. He was all his life a civil servant, and a real believer in science. He just took me in and in the way that they used in those days, he just said, "Robinson, we have no secrets within the secret. I’m going to tell you everything, everything you want to know. But there are two things I won’t forgive you for — first, if you breathe a word to anybody, unless you know that they have been cleared, as you are already cleared. The second is, if I find you wasting time around the labs and can't tell me that what you are doing is going to result in some dead Germans, that's it." You see, this is the tough talk of those days. Horrible thing for me to hear, but I was ready for it. (Showing another photo) I went to this man because he was a student of Rutherford, and a physicist, and I'd known him before.
Who is that?
Lewis, W.B. Lewis, who comes into my life over and over again, was late director at Chalk River, Canada bought our first big HVE tandem machines and so on. It's amazing how these same Cambridge at the University Press 1948 characters keep coming into one's life, because they are the people that make things happen.
But this was the first time you'd met Lewis?
No, I'd met him at Cambridge, at the Rutherford Lab in Cambridge before; but only passing the time of day. I doubt if he'd have known my name if I hadn't told him.
Why do you suppose they selected you? Was it simply because of your work at Scophony?
The television, yes. I'd done the television work. Also I was a chartered electrical engineer and they needed them. They gave me 400 pounds a year. I was back again —
— at TRE —
At TRE. I was back again earning only a little more than the salary I'd got at Callender's. I'd had six or seven hundred pounds at Scophony. But they said, "This is all we're allowed to do. The establishment allows this at the moment." I took it, I mean, I wasn't about to argue.
To what extent was your work at TRE research and to what extent was it administrative?
None, not administrative at all. It was research. I went to Lewis and I said — "I want to work for you." So he said, "Fine. I think that's what Mr. Rowe wants anyway, so come along." I said, "What can I start on? “You know, ready to go," And he said, "I've seen your resume. I want you to build for me a 10 centimeter radar receiver." Ten centimeters! That was 3000 megacycles. That was 15 times faster than the best they’d got then, and 300 times faster than anything I'd dealt with before. And I knew by this point that the circuit of a tube would disappear into the tube. He explained to me, for transmitter "We have the cavity magnetron." (We'll come to that later but the cavity magnetron was invented in Birmingham, to which I later went, and that is one of the things that made the radar war possible.) Lewis explained that we had it, that it was working, and now we had to have a receiver for it. The reason they wanted this very short, four inch, 10 centimeter wave length was so you could have a dish, or paraboloid which would go in the front nose of a night fighter. Then you could see the enemy aircraft without getting reflections from the ground. This was basic. But it had to come down to a four inch wavelength. Imagine, we'd been dealing with meters of wave-length, up until then, with hundreds of meters — you know three hundred meters is the average broadcast band and 18 meters is what the short wave enthusiasts talk about. We are now talking about four inches, with a frequency must higher, 300 megacycles, a tremendous jump. I mean, I just laughed. And he laughed back and said, "Well start. Find out.” Well they had a library there, and that was always my first way, when there’s something completely outside your knowledge you go and read. It's been my tendency to know that, in the past, the Germans, academically, were ahead in so many ways. So thinking, "Well, maybe the Germans have got something here," I went along all the books and I thought I'll bet nobody here has bothered with these in German. There are no Germans here, not many refugees yet and they weren't putting the refugees on this job either, you see, because they weren't sure of them. So I ran through the German language books and I found a magnificent little monograph about very high frequencies and within 24 hours I'd gotten through it. I discovered that this professor in the south of Germany had, some years before, gone through the whole gamut of what could be done to produce and detect these high frequencies. He didn't apparently have an application, in mind. He wrote, "At these frequencies the only thing for receiver is the old crystal and cat's whisker." Perhaps you remember hearing these words from the early radio days. As a boy I'd made and used these things, 20 years before. So I got very excited about this. I told Lewis and he said, "It makes sense." He could understand German, and I showed him the paragraphs. He said, "All right, let’s go to it," and we did. Just to put in what is completely out of time — when the war was coming to an end, and the victorious British and American troops were rushing across Germany at a great rate, one of my friends then at MIT said to me, "Robinson is there anything you want me to look for while I’m there, as head of this mission to see what the German scientists are doing? We've got a scheme that every scientist captured is not just put into prison but brought to us for debriefing and I’ve got a whole scientific mission to do this. What do you want me to look for? I said, "Would you look for this man called Professor Thomas in the south of Germany? He put us onto the business of the crystals, which we're using in millions now and it's done very well. Find out what he did with that." So he did. He went and found him, and he came back and he said, "Thomas was ready to spit when I interviewed him. He said, “Hitler took away my last assistant in 1937 and I haven't done a damn thing all the war. It's an interesting thing, we were unprepared and Hitler thought he was prepared for every eventuality, and he shut down development and research approximately in 1937, and put them all into uniform and now let’s produce." We beat him in this although not ready, by redeveloping according to the need of the time.
That's fascinating. So you built this receiver?
I built the receiver, and it was very poor indeed, but we began to get results, very slowly. Many people then contributed. It was by no means one man's thing. Gradually we made receivers to work with the magnetron, which was absolutely a gift from science and the gods. We were by this time away from the north of Scotland and on the south coast of England. Hitler had crossed France. He was 60 miles away, on the other side. We were desperately anxious to have these receivers and transmitters so that we could see his torpedo boats and possibly manned landings and 11 this kind of thing, and detect the low flying aircraft, because by that time, with the work that had been done before the war by TRE people, we could see Hitler's air force forming up 150 miles away over the fields of France. And they could give an approximate number of aircraft like 60 or 150, and our aircraft could be ready for them. Our aircraft came out of the sun, above the clouds, and the Germans couldn't see them. This was a daylight attack, but put on target by the floodlighting radar with a wavelength of 14 meters. We had six of those. When I got to Dundee in Scotland, on the day after Christmas of 1939, Rowe told me with pride, "We already have the east coast covered and all the way round to the Isle of Wight, and now we're going down through Cornwall and so on." They had that in production. It was a magnificent effort. They'd done it starting in 1935. So I was overjoyed, because I didn't think we had a thing, and I had been sympathizing with Chamberlain because I thought he was going to make peace, but actually I came to admire Chamberlain, because I saw that when he got back from Munich, he immediately arranged for production of everything that could help.
Including this radar.
Including this — which of course has not been said? You know, he's been denigrated as a do-nothing fellow with an umbrella, but —
but he did put this radar into production.
Oh, yes, and the eight guns, Spitfire and much else — he and his Cabinet got the thing going. And that made all the difference. Otherwise, the aircraft carrier GREAT BRITAIN wouldn't have been there when the Americans needed it. It was a tremendous achievement. Well, it becomes extremely complex, but I was working with TRE from 1939 to the middle of 1941.
Then you were put in charge of this mission to the MIT?
Well, I wasn't put in charge of it. I got myself into that. I don't know when you want me to go into my personal life, but I —
I'd like to know how you did get into the MIT Radiation Laboratory.
In UK we had this splendid magnetron. Even the early models had an outfit permitting us to see a U boat conning tower at 8 miles but not until we had learned how to make a really sensitive receiver. As the receivers improved, to our intense astonishment, we began to detect seagulls at half a mile, our wavelength was less than their size, so we were seeing sea gulls. Then we knew we had something tremendous, because we would "see" even the smallest planes and U boat conning tower and the larger objects at great distances. About June of 1941, still pre-Pearl Harbor, the colleague I was closest to at TRE at that time, P.I. Dee, came around with a directive from Air Ministry, saying, "Oh, Robinson, here's another piece of paper. We've got to let another good man go. They want somebody to go to MIT and represent us there, on microwave applications. Will you help me look for somebody who would be willing to leave his family? It's a hazardous thing, crossing the Atlantic and all that and I am just too busy," and so on. I said, "Well, you know, my wife is there already, in the United States, in Cambridge. You perhaps don't remember or know even but I'm a graduate of MIT, and I'd love to go myself and do this job."
For the record, why don't you explain briefly why she was there?
Well, her brother, an Austrian who came to this country in 1926, had by this time become professor of civil engineering at Harvard, and he, throughout the beginning of the war wanted her to come with our two small boys to him in the United States, and he was willing to take the whole financial responsibility — which of course I wasn't even allowed to touch. I couldn't have sent a dollar out of England. He kept on persuading her, because he as an Austrian was over persuaded that the Prussian Army would sweep into England. His sister and his two nephews would be overwhelmed and be in this awful mess. He understood what an invading army looks like and does. Of course, there was no question, I was going to stay in UK and do my job. I was having a wonderful time anyway. It was with very great reluctance that I agreed to let my wife go; with tremendous difficulties, we got her and the two boys out — because I was on top secret stuff and the British government didn't by any means want an Austrian-born person to go to an Austrian born American, now an American citizen. But finally we arranged it and she went. She'd been gone no more than a few months when this opportunity for me to go to MIT came up.
So you grabbed the opportunity.
I grabbed the opportunity. My colleague Dee just closed his file. He said, “Well, if you want to go, that’s magnificent.” I didn't imagine such an easy solution."
What precisely was your mission?
My mission was very precise. It was to go to the Radiation Lab at MIT, the only place at that time doing microwave development. Just six months previously, the magnetron, one example of it, had been brought over in a black box to this country, and shown to the people within the secret, the U.S. not being in the war. But Churchill and Roosevelt had made an epoch making agreement. They said, "We will not hold any secrets from each other." The story is all in Tizard. It was my colleague E.G. Bowen who brought the magnetron over. Tizard I knew and worked with briefly. The British Government radar "directorate" had now decided that they needed somebody to go and persuade the Americans" —
In quotes —
In quotes, because the only Americans important at the moment to this tiny group were the Americans who could do microwave. "The Americans" had to be persuaded not to worry about the night fighter interception which we already have licked her in Britain." (It wasn't true, but that’s what they then said.) We wanted them to work on the anti-submarine device because at this time the war in the Atlantic had become frantic. We were losing tremendous tonnage of shipping. By this time, Roosevelt had got Lend-Lease going, and the shipments of oil and wheat and all things that we needed and even the destroyers were to come — perhaps you remember the 50 destroyers?
But they couldn't get to UK because the U boats were having a heyday. They were just sinking everything. What we wanted was that our coastal command air force be thoroughly equipped with a night device that could find the enemy. U boats when they surfaced to recharge their batteries. There was as yet no snorkel. They had diesel engines, remember, and the diesel engines had to charge the batteries during the night. (I’m talking about the German U boats.) The diesel engines charged the batteries during the night, and then they could run underneath in the day and find the convoys. So we had to find them in the night, with our aircraft, and that was my assignment, my directive — to come to MIT and persuade the microwave people at MIT to start equipping, if possible, the British Lend-Lease aircraft that were going to come across the Atlantic.
— with radar that would —
— that would do this. That was my assignment. My first job, before I left England to come to the United States, was to see all possible American — type aircraft, and see which could be used and fitted with the type of radar that we needed. And I wasn't to tell anybody what I was doing. I had to fly with pilots, who were quite curious, but I told them, "Nothing I can say, I’m on a special mission —." Because of the urgency of this, I managed to get flight by air across the Atlantic, and I had the magnificent opportunity — I didn't know it at the time — to fly with Major LeMay, who later became head of the Strategic Air Force.
Your CV lists you as four years at the Rad Lab. Was all four years devoted to this mission?
No. As it developed, I became resident British officer at the Rad Lab. The man through whom all the visitors were channeled, British and American, back and forth and so on — it developed over the years. But I also made ten trips across the Atlantic in those years. I kept on coming back to the other side of the Atlantic with liaison stuff, stuff that I thought was important. I went with the first equipped aircraft. I will just show you what that looked like. I have a picture of it here. These are pictures of the B-24 Liberators, as we called them, fitted with a nose here. We called it Dumbo, because it was the elephant that thought he could fly, do you see? We then equipped many different kinds of aircraft.
Am I correct in guessing that of your years during the war, you considered convincing the Americans your most important achievement?
Well, it was not difficult to convince "the Americans" at that time. They were raring to go. They didn't stop, of course, with the other things. They said, “A fig for the British and their saying they’ve got this, we've got a much better one," and they had.
So you didn't have too much trouble selling the Americans on this?
No. The only thing I had to do was to put this into the aircraft at the right point. I did this by prototyping it, and then fitting —
What do you mean the right point?
Well, these were radars that had to be tailored into the aircraft. That nose. The nose had to be —
Oh, by point, did you mean the place in the airplane?
Yes, the place, and all the wiring, and there had to be a place for the navigator to look at it, and there had to be controls for the pilot. There had to be this special radar nose underneath there with all its transmissions. It was a mighty complicated thing. We did this by prototyping it in Ft. Worth, Texas. I had a trusty installation engineer from Britain to do this among the Texans, which you can imagine led to all kinds of adventures. He's still with me here now, this man that put those in.
Who was that?
John Scotney. He's still here. We flew across ten or twenty in the first two years I guess. And they did make an effect on the air war, but here again, everything came together. There were people working on searchlights slung under the plane, so that when you homed from a long distance, you could switch on search lights for the last homing. Then they developed the land mines, and they finally gave the U boats such a hell of a time that it was a totally different picture within three years. To that, you can ascribe the fact that the Atlantic again became an Anglo Saxon sea. The best of the U boats were knocked out by all this.
What kind of place was the Rad Lab?
Oh, it was magnificent, and something like I'd never seen, because money just poured into it: Equipment of every kind; tremendous enthusiasm. I was there for five months before the U.S. entered the war. I came over July 21, I think, of 1941, and I thought I was getting full cooperation, and I was, but when I went in on the day after Pearl Harbor they all shook my hand and said, “We’re allies now,” and they worked twice as hard as ever before, and that was absolutely magnificent. So that by February or March, I could take off with this B24 already prototyped. Those engineers and physicists were simply amazing. They were the best of the best — as in England, but in England we had fewer resources.
You mentioned once that during those years at MIT, shuttling back and forth, you got to know intimately many of the best brains in American physics.
Both sides. Were there any whom you recall being involved with who made stellar contributions?
Well, I think almost every one of them, that I could —
Well, you mentioned Bowen, the people at TRE. I was thinking about, on the American side.
On the American side yes, there was DuBridge, who was the head of Radiation Lab, Dr. (Lee) DuBridge who became president of Cal Tech for 20 years and did an outstanding job there. Under him, there was I.I. Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize while we were there and I was sharing an office with him even. There was Goudsmit, of Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck, who was the man who went across to Germany and did that job called “Alsos" where their chief job was to look and see whether the Germans were getting the atomic bomb. Luis Alvarez — it's a stellar record.
These were people you worked with?
Oh yes, all of them; absolutely stellar record: McMillan, who got the Nobel Prize, and Alvarez who got the Nobel Prize afterwards. This is the record of the five years at Radiation Lab. That place started in 1940. When the British magnetron came across there were 20 or 30 people there, and it ended the war with over 6000.
Did you meet Trump or Van de Graaff there?
Yes. I met Trump because he was one of Vannevar Bush's and K. T. Compton's chief men on the administrative side, and was sent to England, to TRE, to do the opposite duty that I'd been doing.
I see. Tell me about him. What was he like?
Have you ever met him?
Well, he's an extremely alert, and very very calm minded man, quite determined about what he is going to do. He had a dedication after the war that he was going to make the Van de Graaff accelerator work for cancer.
We'll get to that a little later. You met him there and what was Van de Graaff doing?
Van de Graaff was quite a sick man, lying most of the day on his bed because of his back injury, but when some of our top British physicists came across, they all wanted to see Van de Graaff, because he was a well-known name to them. Some of them had known him. Others wanted to meet him. So it was my job, as British receiving host there — they all came to me, "Can you fix up for me to see Van de Graaff? I've only got 15 minutes between this and that." Van de Graaff was always pleasant, always ready to see British physicists, and I took many of them, but especially Cockcroft, one of the top physicists in England, of Cockcroft and Walton, I took him across to see Van.
Was Van involved with the Rad Lab work?
No, not at all. Van was involved with the enemy ordnance. They had a contract with the Navy to examine enemy ordnance and to make some of their Van de Graff machines for naval installations elsewhere, so they could radiograph these things, and before exploding them or defusing or whatever they do to them — they were going to look through them with x-rays. He was busy on that.
In the midst of all this war effort, in 1943, at the age of 36, you sat down and made a seven page self-assessment of your strengths and your weaknesses. I have a few pages of it. In fact, it's dated October 20th, 1943. This is something you had shown us years ago when we did that article. Now, I’m interested in whether you recall just why you did that?
Oh yes, very clearly. You see, D-Day had already happened, hadn't it? Wasn't that '43?
D-Day? No, that was ‘44.
OK, Oh yes, all right. But we landed, ’43, in Sicily; '43, of course. Anyway what I felt at MIT was that you could see the end of the tremendously inventive research time. When a military government is in real difficulty and does not know what to do next they will trust the scientists, but as soon as they get their teeth in something and they think they're moving, they don't want any complications with new stuff. They want to just have more of the same, do you see? And this has a reality. They could no longer, from Radiation Lab, personally service these thousands of sets that were going out. They had to take ordinary GIs and do that. They didn't want any new stuff. So it was clear to me that the amount of new stuff the military was willing to accept was diminishing. Then, also, the Battle of the Atlantic was being won, not yet won, but being won with the things we had produced. So I was looking ahead to see, what shall I do? No, I had already accepted — I don’t know when I accepted that, but sometime during the war Oliphant another famous physicist of Rutherford's had come to me while I was at TRE and said, "We're needing a new professor of electrical engineering at Birmingham and I'd like to work with you.” He was professor of physics. He had instigated this great magnetron thing and he was working with us in radar. He was also working on the atomic bomb, a man who spread his talents very wide, and he said, "I'd like to have somebody I could at least talk to as professor of electrical engineering. That place needs a bulldozer through it, and start again, because they haven’t any conception of applied physics whatever. It’s only electrical engineering.” And that was the typical attitude of a physicist to electrical engineers at that time. So he said, “Why don't you go across and see the people at Birmingham while you're here?" It was not far from where we were at the time. I did, and with Oliphant’s recommendation I was told I could have the job at the end of the war. So I was in, as full professor, head of a department.
After that offer, you sat down to sort of analyze your situation?
No, I just accepted that offer and thought, "Marvelous, I've got a place to go at the end of the war.” But I think I had my doubts. I must tell you more about my wife, whose health has always been somewhat fragile, and I had my doubts in my repeated trips back and forth to England how quickly England could be a place that I wanted to take her to again, with, you know, all these difficulties. I also had some doubts about putting my two boys back into the British educational system, which had its own rigidities. Principally, I've been excited and enthralled by this scientific research. And I talked to Rabi, who was always a close confidant of mine, and said, "Don't you think I ought to settle down in this country?" He said, "No. You've got such a wonderful opportunity. Your place is there in England. You go back to it.” But I wasn't satisfied with this. So I thought I’d better write it all out. And that's how I came to do this.
And the conclusion of this self-assessment was that you shouldn't manage a company, which is amusing, in the light of what turned out later. Why did you come to this conclusion?
Because none of the companies that I had seen managed up to that time were managed by men with as much scientific need as I had. You see, by the time some project had got to the engineering stage I was looking for the next thing, because the research stage was over, do you see my meaning? And so I didn't believe really that I was the man — I never really believed I was truly an engineer. I was not a dedicated engineer, to turn out more of the same, beautiful fine equipment. Then I found that the manufacturing business world deals — to an extent that I can't cope with — with baseball and football and racing and drinking and betting and all this stuff, and that's the small talk which you have to be able to enjoy. And I couldn't. In my social hours I still wanted to talk science, and the development of mankind — biology it could be. It could be any form of science. But it couldn't be baseball and all that.
But science as opposed to engineering.
So you felt that running a company would involve you first in engineering routine?
And then I didn’t really want the administrative worry, because I’d found that I was happier doing the engineering things, I mean the science things.
Right. So what did you conclude from all this was that you should be an advisor to a policy maker, I believe, or something like that?
Yes. I was thinking of the men I’d known in my life: the man I'd worked for at Callender's who was a fine man with whom I could talk and who was a first class administrator but had a great respect for science and I thought that if I could be alongside him and be the brains — I mean be the scientific advisor — while he ran the thing, that would be just great, So I could see myself in that. But bear in mind that up to this time, I had never tested myself to see whether I cared to look after money, except for my family. Actually if I look back in my boyhood, I was already able to deal with money, from the very beginning. My mother insisted on it, and I took to it like a duck to water. But from that time, on through, I'd never had to make a budget or worry about those things professionally.
You had decided though, by 1943 that your future did not lie in doing scientific research, right? Scientifically?
Have I said that any place?
I'm questioning you
I don't think I had decided that, by any means, no. I knew that I couldn't aspire to be the top rank like all these Nobel Prize winners that I was associating with, but I was doing damn well on research, two or three stages down, I thought.
Yes. I'm just wondering: why didn't you see yourself as continuing a research career?
Oh, I did see myself — but I wanted things to happen, and I thought by this time that I would like things to happen a bit faster than if I were just — I knew by this time that I wasn't satisfied just to fix the wires together and watch the meters. You see, I'd had a taste of great things. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on my say so, in equipping these planes and getting them off, and that is a great satisfaction. Besides, I'd been into the war rooms in Whitehall, and seen how the work I had done had affected the North Atlantic, in stopping the shipping losses. And throughout my life I've always enjoyed more than anything else the fellowship of men and women having common interests. That's tremendously important to me. I can't deal with bar room talk, but I can go to any academy in the world, in French, English or German, and get along absolutely first rate with the scholars there. I’ve always felt this. This is my fellowship.
Right. So you wanted something where you could have that fellowship.
Yes, but not pure research. Not other worldly pure research. It would have to be applied to something, you see. I think that's what I was feeling. Under your questions, I’m perhaps assaulting all kinds of things I didn't know. Maybe that would show what I was trying to do. I put down there what I actually believed of myself, and what I believed of the people I had worked with most closely, and how they had done their job.
I think, too, that you also recognized your special ability to deal with research people, is that correct?
Yes. I had recognized I could get people to do things because even if I wasn't Nobel Prize status I could understand them when they talked, and I could go to them and they couldn't just cut me off and say it wasn't worth trying, They couldn't do a snow job on me, you see. And I could persuade them to look at this and that and the other.
This is interesting, you wrote in 1943, “I could do a good job of scientific research myself, but beware of this, it is too slow. The world won't wait."
It's there, isn't it?
So you were anxious to get in a position where you could get things done, move things —
And you felt that in a corporation, the associates would be frivolous perhaps, or not the kind of people you were comfortable with.
Comfortable with is all I can say. I don’t make judgments.
So you sort of ended up with the conclusion that the best position would be this advisor to a —
Assistant to a man who was great in some field. Of course I got it, right with him, you see.
Well, you're pointing to Van de Graaff’s photograph which is right on the table here.
Yes. So it came around, but when it came around, I had to do the business because there was nobody else there to do it, which is interesting.
Did you by this time consider yourself more a physicist than an engineer?
I didn't presume to call myself a physicist because I hadn't the basic training. But I had realized right by the time I went to see these men in Dundee, that, somehow, our electrical engineering fraternity, and our chartered electrical engineers, had no answers to these new problems, at the time. I read Terman, the Stanford professor who put radian on the map for generations of electrical engineering students. But he had no inkling of how to go to these very high frequencies. So I felt that somehow the physicists, in doing something totally other worldly about the atom, were there when we needed them and that electrical engineering had not been ready. So by osmosis I came to believe in the methods of physics for research, not, of course, for electrical engineering. I tried to put this applied physics into effect, both here and earlier in Birmingham, when I went back there as professor. So I would say the answer is that I thought of myself by now as striving to become a truly well-appointed physicist.
So on VJ Day, 1945, you went back to head the EE department at Birmingham.
You've explained that the job had been offered to you, but you only stayed two years.
One, in fact. I stayed a full academic year, that's all.
Well, it's a tremendous variety of reasons. None of these alone is completely the story. I felt somehow, by this time, that I'd left my roots in the United States. My wife and children were still there. But I mean also my intellectual and psychological roots. The British had had a terribly tough time and when I got back, right at the end of the war, they were just so flat. It was very difficult to — I have gifts of leadership, as has been proven, and I was trying to get people to get up and go, and they just didn't want to. I became overwhelmed with the feeling, that I’d had before, that the British were on a downward path. They were about to lose the whole of the Commonwealth and Empire, and they knew it, and they were tired. I think a lot of them were undernourished from the protein point of view — six years of war, you know and constant interruption of their nights, fire watching and all this stuff. And there was an attitude of “well, now, if it hadn't been for us the war wouldn't be won, now let somebody else do the work." Not only in the whole population, but in my individual people that I was no boss of, and I just — Now, the material comforts were minimal, of course, our own house had had its roof blown off, and then, in a second bombing, the place where most of my furniture was stored was badly damaged. So, I realized that we had to start afresh. The stuff was by now 15 or so years old, that we had bought for our marriage and I didn't like Birmingham. I'm a man born south of the Thames, and there are great geographical distinctions in England. The Midlands is the smoky Midlands, and I had overtones of having fled from Manchester, not liking it and Birmingham was the same. I felt that it was going to be a long, long climb up to family comfort. Now, you know, perhaps, the name of Sir Stafford Cripps. I'd had association with him in a long legal case before the war, where I watched his brilliant performance. At MIT Radiation Lab I had been really reporting, through several other people to him. He was Minister for Aircraft Production, and I was about four layers down. One of my reports saying what we had accomplished for the RAF at MIT, with minimum British involvement — came back from him with a little note, written in his very precise hand in red ink, "To Robinson, this is magnificent" or something. Unfortunately I've lost it. It was a precious item to me. When I got back to England on V-J Day, BBC was ready with a program of what radar had done (they had put TV back on by this time because the German war had ended three months before), the public was in total ignorance of it, and I was invited — it was a great honor — to go to a place in Whitehall and see the TV program with Sir Stafford Cripps and about four others. He asked me, "What are you doing now, Robinson?" I told him I was back at Birmingham and he said, "That is great, that's fine," and I told him what I was hoping to do there. What I had noticed first was that Britain needed a lot of consumer items. I was appalled by the way food was not preserved, and how flies were all over the place in the shops. There hadn't been much food, but for what there was it seemed to me that we needed thousands of nice supermarket display freezers and so on. He said, "Robinson, you don't know what you're talking about. We've had five years of the most utter austerity. We can’t start on all that American stuff. Just don't even think of it. We have to build up our export trade again. All our investments are gone.” He'd been Chancellor of the Exchequer, you know, treasurer of Britain, so he knew what he was talking about.
So this was cold water for you.
Very cold water and that was within a few days of my arriving. But I duly went to work and I took his advice and I didn't go in for any of that consumer stuff. I started right in at Birmingham looking into solid state. Because you were coming I got out some of my old papers, and I was amazed to see that what I wanted to do with that department was to turn it into a department looking at the atomic physics lying at the basis of the strength — electrical and mechanical — of materials, It was a damned good thing to start on. It was first rate. I had no idea the transistor was coming. I'd been using the crystal, which of course, is the two electrode forerunning of the transistor.
You didn't know about the Bell Laboratories work, though?
I didn’t know a thing. They didn't come out with that until a year or two later, '47, I think. But it was in the air. That's one of the things that all scientists will tell you — when something is in the air, it’s going to come. If this group doesn't do it, somebody else will.
But you weren't able to get very far with that at Birmingham?
No. And before the year was out, I had decided, "I can't make it here." I had found the local industry totally unresponsive to my ideas. Obviously the professor of electrical engineering had a duty to see that the students he’s going to turn out will fit into local industry. And that was cold water if ever I saw it. I went out to the heads of the manufacturing concerns all around Birmingham and found them absolutely unwilling to look at new methods. Their equipment was old, it was hopeless, and they weren't getting any support from management. It was all the things that you've heard since about British industry. I felt, and I have some opinion of myself, that I would just be trying to climb up a hill alone. There was nothing to do in Birmingham — though I liked the university.
That's probably why you wrote to Trump?
Trump wrote to me. Trump wrote and said, "I’m thinking of starting a company to make Van de Graaff machines” which of course I knew about because I'd visited Van de Graaff many times, as I told you.
Back during the war, you mean.
Yes, during the war. So here I was in Birmingham, 1945, and Trump writing to me saying, "There's a group in Sheffield, England, that says they would like MIT to make for them a two million volt machine for the treatment of cancer. Can you find out for me if this group's a worthy one? Would they be the kind of people you would let have such an advanced machine and if so, what are the chances that Britain would manage to pay MIT for it?" And so on and so on. I did all this for Trump, not dreaming that I'd have any involvement in it, but of course he and I had worked throughout the war together. We spoke each other's language. I knew more about high voltage than most other people who had worked in radar certainly. So it was a natural that he should ask me. And as professor of' electrical engineering in Birmingham it was no problem to find out just what these people were doing. I found out indeed that they were chosen, interestingly enough, by Sir Stafford Cripps, who was now high up in the Cabinet of the Labor government. We'd just elected a Labor government, and they were going to put in three or five clinics for advanced treatment of cancer, and this was one of them. And I found out the people were of the top grade, so I wrote such back to Trump. The next thing was that by the spring — there were lots of other things that were happening to me in the period — I wrote to Trump and said, "I think I can get over there in June. Are there any jobs about? Because I don’t think I’m going to stay here in Birmingham." I believe I wrote him something like that. He wrote back encouragingly. He said, "Yes, Denis, for people of your stamp there are jobs' of course.” I didn't want to upset my department by letting them know that I was not staying, yet, but I did meet the American consul in Birmingham and said to him, “Look, do you think I can get an immigration visa to go to the U.S.?" He said, "My gosh, we need people like you, for goodness sake — just give me the stuff and I’ll put it through." But, he said, "Do please type it. I get so tired of the British writing all this scrawl that I can't read." So there was a little friendship developed there, and you see, I'd been back and forth, first as a student, and then I had a diplomatic passport going in and out. But now I was going to go back as an immigrant, because I knew I couldn't get a work permit and all the rest of it unless I went in as an immigrant. I knew the whole game, so I started to do this. It worked out all right. I didn't have to wait long. I had to wait far longer for a passage across the Atlantic. All the GIs were trying to get home in a hurry, with every kind of excuse. There were several million of them still in Europe, you know. The Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were shuttling backwards and forwards with standing room only, practically. You know that story, I'm sure. I wasn't about to go by boat. So I was willing to pay for it myself. This was the first time I'd paid for an Atlantic crossing on my own and I remember being appalled at the cost; it came out of my bank balance and depleted it to about nothing. But I got — I think it was Pam Am. I was trying already by April, hoping that I would get my visa. I went to Pam Am and said, “When could you put me on a flight? I could leave after the school year closes." They said: “In the next three months, there’s one place we can give you on May 31st. That's the only thing." I took it, of course, thinking that somehow I'd manage it. Then five weeks later, I called and said, "I've a reservation on May 31. I'm having a hell of a time trying to get ready for it: Could you give me anything three or four weeks later?” They said there wasn't anything more through September. Well, I got on that plane, and I didn't tell Birmingham I was quitting. I was two-faced about this.
I missed one thing. Trump had offered you a job?
No job. No, he said, "There are always places — come ahead."
You’re saying you didn't have a job but you had decided you were going to quit and come over anyway?
Well, I was wise, I didn't quit. 1 didn’t burn my boats, you see. But I felt terrible because my intention was to go, and I wrote to my wife, "Look, I'm going to take a job there near you and so on, if it's only $400 a month.” And that is how I felt about it. Because I had been house hunting for her and the children; I'd been school hunting; I’d been hunting for china and drapes. The people who were there had kept together their little bits of things. Mine were scattered, I had no home. It looked hopeless. The places I would look at, that they offered me to live in, were you know, just appalling.
So you went over on the 31st May.
That's right. And by the morning of two days later, I was in Trump's office at MIT, looking to see what he’d got. He never said a word more about this company, at first, but he said, "Look, we've got all kinds of things open. I went around to one thing after another, and there were jobs open. There was one at Toronto, which was a professorship like I hadn't yet given up. There was one at New York University which was similar, applied physics, which would have suited me very well. There was a monstrous missile thing at Martin Marietta, in Baltimore, but I'd had enough of destruction and all that. I absolutely didn't want to get into that. He suggested I go to GE, where they were looking for people. One of the recruiters there was a man I knew well at Radiation Lab and he welcomed me and sent me around to see the greats: Coolidge, Hull, Dushman and all the rest of them. They met me. They'd seen me with Oliphant during the war, so it was almost like old home week. I had the feeling that they would have found some place to put me in if I'd wanted it. But Dushman who was a very down-to-earth fellow, said, "Robinson, you shouldn't come to GE. You know I like you. But we get no kind of laboratory assistants here. You've been spoiled, both in England and now in Radiation Lab, with people to do these things. Here, we have to do our own glass blowing. Look at your hands — you haven't blown any glass for ten years." I said, "I never blew any glass." He said “Well, don't come here. I know you're a good research man, but you'd expect assistants and you won't get them." This was Schenectady at that time. Dushman was one of the greats. He showed me how he did his own glass work and so on. He told me “Look, I've been here 30 years and I did all this work on vacuum and I'm still at $12,000 a year." That was the great Schenectady, the Mecca, for any electrical engineer. He said, "The other fellows are not getting anything more." Each time I came back from one of these visits — all of which, of course, I was paying for out of my own diminishing bank balance Trump would say, "Oh, come on Denis, you don't want to leave New England, do you? You know, it's the nicest place to live. We're going to form a company, and you can come into the company.” I said, "John, that's a laugh. You have your tenured professorship. (He was then associate professor at MIT.) It'll take I don't know how many month to get this thing going and I have a wife and two children to support, and of course the money is already running out." He said, "Oh, it won't take long. I've already decided we probably can get money from American Research and Development, but if we don't get it from them, we'll get it from others." This is Trump always the optimist, always assuming things would be done with less money than it really turned out, and in shorter time than it really turned out. He and I have had that continual good neighborly struggle ever since. He is never discouraged. Not more than once or twice in 35 years of association have I seen him admit to discouragement or even near defeat? Now, I'm not like that. When I'm down, I can show it. He doesn't. He just says "Oh, by next week, you'll see," and so on. Anyway, then I had a very interesting offer, which I would have taken. DuBridge, the head of Radiation Lab, had already accepted the presidency of Cal Tech and DuBridge said, “I want you to come to Cal Tech and take the open place in electrical engineering there." Well, that was something. I've always liked California, and if California beckoned — at least, that’s the way I then felt about it — New England couldn't hold me, nor England either. So I said, "Yes" right away, and he said, send me your resume and all the rest of it," and within three weeks, he wrote quite discouraged, to say that although he was president, he apparently didn't have the power — his committee had already made up their minds on somebody else, and they didn't know me, and he wasn't able to persuade them to change to me as he would have preferred. So he let me down. He as president had offered me the job, a fantastic thing — you know, today if he hadn't been a friend of mine, you'd have a lawyer and sue him, or I don't know what. I had thought that electrical engineering at Cal Tech, was indeed right up to my standards of what I wanted to do. And with DuBridge there in the presidency, I looked upon that as — well, I was so sure about this that I had already put a deposit down on a trailer in which the four of us were going to live crossing the country.
So then Trump offered you the job?
No. He gave me a table, a desk, outside his office at MIT. There was no salary, no nothing. He called for me at my home every morning, "If you haven't anything better to do, come on into the lab." By osmosis, he got me involved, because every visitor who came in to talk to him about his new development, he'd say, "Denis, I want you to meet so and so." There I was, just outside his office. I would go in and sit with professors from all over the continent, all over America. This is his way. He didn't make me any offer, he just said, "You should do this."
I thought there was a point where he made you an offer, and you went out and talked to some medical people about —
Oh, you remember that. Perhaps I'd better put it on this tape. By July, this thing was getting under my skin, and I was feeling this was just the kind of applied science that indeed was my meat and my need. I was doing some research beside him there. I decided to look through the microscope how the electrons actually affected the electrodes of the things that had broken down — as Trump has never been willing to do. I'm a microscopy fellow, who looks very close into nature. He looks in the broad. So we fitted together very, very well, I had done all that with this breakdown mechanism before and I had a splendid binocular microscope, and hour after hour I went through these things and numbered them and looked to see how we were getting breakdowns in the dielectric. It was very important to my later running of the thing. I had nothing better to do, and between the trips and between the visitors that's what I was doing. I was still trying to make up my mind. Sometime in July, mid-July, I thought — really, treatment of cancer with x-rays was all new to me, although the high voltage power was very familiar. I thought, "Trump speaks only of treating cancer with this and he's been doing this for ten years. I really had better get some expert advice.” My wife and I had been visiting a very talented biochemist named Richard Wagner — really, just like that — who came from Austria. He had done a splendid job in curing what she thought was arthritis, but it never was arthritis, by diet and other things, I admired him tremendously. He was a man already in his sixties, and I thought he was very wise. I didn't especially want to go to the medical profession to ask about this, because I’ve often worried about the establishment. The establishment never can see the next thing. So I told him about this, and he said, "Oh yes, I'd be happy to talk with you about it. Let's have lunch with my good friend Levine," I think his name was, "of Boston City Hospital" He fixed it up and we went out to lunch, and I told them what Trump wanted to do — treat cancer with two million volts, very well focused, and all the rest of the thing, and what Trump said had a sound biological basis. And these men were totally intransigent about this method. One of them, I've forgotten who said to me, "Denis you're a radio engineer. When there's something gone wrong with a radio, is your first and best treatment to kick it with your foot? Because sometimes it does make it go right, you know.” I said, "It does indeed, but it's certainly not my preferred method." They said, "Well, this is equivalent — hitting cancer with x-.rays is just about as advanced as that. And furthermore — (It was a long lunch and they piled on the agony) within two years we're going to have chemotherapy which will solve the whole problem, and it's absolutely ridiculous of you to risk your career on something which will be out-of date within three years." As you know, chemotherapy has still not solved the major problems after 30 years. They went on in this vein. Surgery, of course, was the only way and so on. I was so mad at their narrow-mindedness, especially from Wagner (I didn't know about the other man) but this man who was so broad minded on chemical stuff and because it was x-rays and cancer, he went right to the establishment point of view. I was mad. I drove straight home to Winchester, where John Trump lived then, and still lives, and shook his hand and said, "John, I'm in this with you. Those guys aren't to be believed."
What was the reaction of your academic colleagues and your family to this decision to go into private enterprise?
My wife was absolutely delighted; she’s always a person who lives in the present. She has no fear of a poverty future or anything like that. She doesn't even care much about the past or history. She was pleased because she was going to live somewhere in Cambridge near her brother, and the children were already in school. So she thought that would be just marvelous. But she always has been amazing about saying, “I wouldn't have said that to you until you'd made your decision. But if it’s possible to do it this way, that's fine." Also I'm sure she had such confidence in me that she felt that if this went downhill, I would find something else. The other colleagues were all scattered to the winds. They were all taking up new jobs everywhere. DuBridge was delighted that I had so quickly come to a solution. I strolled down Fifth Avenue with him two days later, and told him of my decision, and he said, "Oh, Denis, that's just splendid." Of course, he was having a guilt complex about misleading me.
But you didn't encounter any scorn from academic physicists toward somebody going into industry?
No, and I haven’t ever since because they thought it was amazing that somebody who had at least my understanding, (that's what a Nobel Prize winner would say, "Who has at least Denis's understanding of physics") should be willing to go in and do all that company stuff. “I couldn't bear it,” they all say that.
But I believe you once told me your son was a little unhappy —
Yes. My son said, "Daddy’s going into industry." You see, at Belmont Hill School, they'd already infected him with this idea. He said, "I wanted my daddy to be a professor.” That was the only comment that I remember.
We're continuing with Denis Robinson in his home in Arlington, Mass, where he’s lived for 35 years. In fact, you moved here in ‘45, you say?
My wife came here in 1945.
That was actually one year before High Voltage began, in the traditional garage operation in Cambridge.
I would like to ask you now to describe what it was like in those early months of 1946.
I've said already that I shook hands with John Trump and we agreed to go into this thing together, July 21, 1946. Of course, I had no income, and I didn't get any until January of the following year. It was five months. That perhaps is my greatest investment in the company, because I didn't put any money into the company, but I had to somehow exist — on air and what I had saved in England, translated into dollars during that time. We had a long struggle, a three-way struggle with MIT, which was very conscious of its tax exempt status, the Research Corporation of Bound Brook, New Jersey which held the Van de Graaff/Trump patent for MIT and our financial backers American Research and Development under the leadership of the well-known General Doriot. American Research and Development said it couldn't give us the money unless we did have an exclusive, because they weren't about to give us $200, 000 of new capital and have Westinghouse and GE and all the rest of them able to compete directly with us on those patents. MIT felt it couldn't allow us to have an exclusive from Research Corp and still be free from tax troubles. So, months were spent on that four-way tussle. Eventually, on the last banking day of the year 1946, I was handed a $200,000 check by American Research and Development. This was to be amplified a little by a $50,000 check from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. Julius Rosenwald was one of the early founders of Sears Roebuck, and his foundation was willing to go along for the ride for $50,000 in combination with American Research's $200,000.
There was no manufacturing or garage operation before this. You had to wait for the money?
There was nothing. We were just three people who wanted to get started, and with John Trump's own money we had set up a little store front a month earlier in Cambridge, and we had incorporated, with the help of Phillips Ketchum, a lawyer in Boston.
Was Van de Graaff involved with you at this stage?
Yes, and in a very interesting way. John Trump, from the beginning of our plans, wanted Van de Graaff in as an equal partner with himself. Van de Graaff said, “Oh, you'd better leave me out of this. I’ll be glad to help in any way possible, but my health" and so on and "I'm no good at business. I wouldn't know how to help you, so just leave me out of it, but I'll help you anyway I can." We had three of four luncheons where John Trump insisted over and over again, we wanted Van de Graaff in it as an equal partner with him. As the thing was set up, American Research and Development was willing to let us, the scientists, have 40 percent of the stock, with a difference. They would have preferred stock, which meant they and the Rosenwalds took 60 percent, and they were to have preferment in liquidation. In other words, we couldn't go off to South America with that share of the money. The money belonged to them, but we got stock, which in later years, turned out to be equivalent to their stock. We got 40 percent, to divide up among the five of us.
But Van de Graaff committed himself to becoming part of the company before you got the money, correct?
Yes. John Trump said, "We're going to cut you in on this and you’re going to get one-third of the stock and I’m going to get one-third of the stock and Robinson will get a sixth of what is allowed to us, and our two assistants, Bueckner and Cloud, will get a twelfth each.” That's of the 40 percent. That was the arrangement from the beginning.
I think Catherine Van de Graaff told us once that she had supported Van's involvement from the beginning. Do you recall?
I remember her saying that, and if that was so I didn't know it at the time. But I’m very glad to hear she did. She had a very good business head but she never intruded it on him.
He and she apparently discussed it a lot, and she urged him.
I didn't know that until after his death.
Why do you think AR&D gave you this money, in the face of competition from giants like GE and Allis-Chalmers?
Well, that is a story. Compton was very important, Karl Compton at the time was president of MIT, and he had brought Van de Graaff with him, or after him, from Princeton. I should say that Karl Compton had been head of the physics department at Princeton, and in 1930, when I was still at MIT as a graduate student; Compton was attracted to the presidency of MIT. In order to make MIT into the kind of applied physics place its leading men believed was necessary. About a year, or perhaps less, after he had obtained the presidency of MIT, he asked Van de Graaff to follow him from Princeton, with his machine. Van de Graaff was never really accepted by the faculty at MIT, and it was almost impossible for Compton to impose Van de Graaff on the MIT establishment. That was one of the reasons why Van de Graaff was so available to us. If he had ever been accepted thoroughly by the faculty, he would never have been as willing to spend his time with us. But they had left him out. They had almost ignored him — and the president of MIT wasn't able to do much about this, so that he never rose to be anything more than an associate professor, and his maximum salary ever at MIT was $6000, which I didn't discover till after he'd died. They really didn't understand what he had and what he stood for. Now, Compton was a science advisor to American Research and Development, which had been set up in Boston by a number of bankers, a Senator from Vermont, — it was a New England venture which had been talked about before the war, and its object was to bring new venture capital into the whole system. It was felt that the fiduciary companies — the bankers, the insurance companies — were too tied down; they wouldn't put money into new ventures. This group, of which Compton, Doriot and many others were members, decided they were going to do this, so when the war was over, they started it up again. Compton was basic to us in three ways: First of all, he brought Van de Graaff from Princeton and gave him the job at MIT. Secondly, he told General Doriot "This company may not make any money but it's a prestige company, you'd better put it into your portfolio as one of the early ones," and that was enough for Doriot. Thirdly, he came on our board of directors a few years later and encouraged us until the year of his death. So he was magnificent in those three ways. I've said to you before, Mike, that you'll find the same cast of characters coming across our paths again and again. These people are without price, I mean they're unbelievable in what they accomplish in the world, what they get done, people with this kind of imagination and willingness to back new ideas. We got started because Compton, president of MIT, believed in Van de Graaff, and Vannevar Bush was right there on his corporation, behind him. Vannevar Bush had helped Van de Graaff to write the original patents, and that was very important.
I want to get to the patents in a minute. The April 1950 Fortune Magazine, quoted Doriot as saying that “We felt that in Trump, Van de Graaff and Denis Robinson we had technical ability superior to anything GE had in the same field." Then he goes on, after some discussion of why, to say, "We realized of course that a vice president of GE could spend more money on entertainment in one evening than Denis Robinson could spend for development in a month. Our hope was that men interested in one thing, owning their own company, would work hard enough, that extra minute a day, to overcome GE’s advantages of size and resources. But beyond that, we felt the medical importance of Trump's work justified going ahead." Would you agree with that?
Absolutely, that is a beautiful insight into how Doriot thought about it. The only correction I would make is to say "an extra three hours a day, not a minute a day." And Trump's work on cancer, at that time, was outstanding, right on the cutting edge and pioneering. So, the company was set up to do the work on cancer to produce for the hospitals. We were, in fact, never able to make money on that because cobalt 60 which the government was getting out of the piles and didn't have to account for was a big competition for us and we never managed to overcome it.
We'll get to that later. First, I want to ask you how important you feel patents were in getting this financial support from AR&D.
AR&D would never have put in the money if they hadn't believed that that patent would protect us. Now, it did in fact protect us. AR&D showed this — it would not go ahead until we had the equivalent of exclusivity at that time on those patents. Doriot said this over and over again. They couldn't have justified that investment in a company that had no other advantage except that of Trump and Van de Graaff, you see.
That's very good.
We did have that protection, and, of course, we pushed it against GE, and got the government, which had indemnified GE on the use of these patents, to pay us a small royalty for a machine that GE had begun to make before we got incorporated.
Coming back, now, you got your money on the last day of 1946?
I got the money, after the banks closed for the New Year holiday and I couldn't even deposit it. I had promised a champagne supper that night when we got the money, but we couldn't even get any money on the $200,000, so we had a beer together and that was it.
So you opened up now in the garage, right?
We didn't have the garage yet, but we had tentatively settled that we’d have the garage if we had the money.
And after you got the money —?
— We began to equip the terribly dirty, filthy garage with machines and all this sort of thing, and we went on like that month after month, getting ready.
You had about 20 employees, is that correct?
Well, I suppose we had 20 by April.
You said you worked the extra three hours a day?
Was it a seven day work week?
Except Sundays. I had found out during the war that it’s diminishing returns if you work seven days a week, but we sure worked six. I was constantly there till 9 in the evening and that sort of thing — constantly.
Some of your people remember that you used to come back at 10 or 11 at night, when there were problems.
— oh yes — I would come home to placate the family and have a dinner and go back again. It was only five miles down the road, and I would go back, constantly, late in the evening.
So it was very much the struggling young company of the movies —
— yes —
— with everyone working long hours —
— everyone pitching in and nobody caring too much whether there was overtime paid or not. It was tremendous — and I think I can say that I kept that together. Trump and Van de Graaff remained at MIT. Trump would visit almost every day, either on the way in or the way out, because we were at Harvard Square, which is part way between his home and his lab, and he gave enormous help — I never understood how he managed it, but he held down the professor's job at MIT, and also seemed to work a good fraction of the week with us. Van de Graaff was in those years much less evident, but he would come by once or twice a week, and he loved to see these things happening.
What kinds of salaries were these employees getting?
By April we had 20 people, and the average salary was $3600 a year. — Trump had asked me to join him in the venture and I was willing to do this. Then the treasurer at MIT, Horace Ford, who'd been there 30 years, said to Trump, who was a good friend of his, "Now, John you've got to make up your mind. Either you run this company as its chief executive, and give up your professorship at MIT, or vice versa. Don't try to kid yourself you can do both. You can be the chairman of the board and hold your professorship. You can direct them. You can be the technical director. But don't try to be the chief executive and professor at the same time." Trump accepted that advice, and said, "Horace then I’m going to stay at MIT because that’s my life and home.” Then Trump said to me, “Denis, I guess that makes you president." This was before the company was even incorporated, and I forget how we came to talk salary but I said, “Fine, but look, I'll need $10,000 a year to start." He swallowed a bit, He found that very hard. I had assumed he was getting up in that region at MIT, but probably he wasn't. I don't know, even to this day. He said, "Well, I guess with all the rest and so on, that's worth it." I was thinking that I'd already worked five months without any salary, and that was the salary that I had been offered at Toronto as head of the department there, and at New York University, so that was the first figure that came into my head, and that it remained. But I was hiring engineers, most of them without academic degrees, but with experience in this field, for $3500, $4000, or $5000.
Let's talk a little about the problem of the struggling garage operation during the first two years. You once told me that the money nearly ran out on several occasions.
What saved you?
I have to say that in spite of my ignorance of business methods and the fact I'd never taken any business course except one at MIT on corporations ten years earlier, I apparently have an inbuilt need to see the money going out equated with the money coming in. The cash flow business. I didn't understand double entry bookkeeping, but Trump hired McCarthy, who became my bookkeeper and later controller, and he understood double entry and taught me. He came from the Bentley School of Accounting in Boston, no other degree, but he was with me keeping that cash flow positive. The second thing I did which showed that I had an inbuilt feeling for the money was that I pushed Trump up, over and over again, from the figures that he was quoting the people who came into his MIT office. I've told you that I sat in at these meetings and they'd say, "What do you think it would cost to produce one of these things?" and he would say, "Oh, I think we'd do it for $25, 000," and I would nudge him and say “50.” I had an inbuilt belief that these figures that he was quoting were only what you talk about in universities, not what was needed when you get into the world where you're paying for everything. I've had this struggle with both Van de Graaff and Trump; the whole history was that they had only done things in universities, and I had been in industry and I knew that in industry, you had to pay for everything. They discounted right away the fact that professors had to be paid because that was paid by somebody else. And assistants were paid by somebody else. So finally when you got down to it, if you made something at MIT it was only the workmen in the shop and the cost of the materials, but somehow you borrowed these materials from some other department. So I could see that their accounting was absolutely for the birds. I doubled, as a matter of routine. When professors coming from somewhere else would say, "We want one of these. Give us a ballpark figure," my ballpark figure was twice whatever Trump talked about. The other great thing that I feel saved the company was, I said, "And we will need partial payments, progress payments, right along. You see, we're here, we're just inhabiting this old garage — we have only this amount of money, it'll take a year and a half to complete this thing for you — I want 30 percent on signing the contract, 30 percent when we've shown it working here, and 30 percent when we deliver it to you, working." Then, as the size of the contracts got from $50,000 to $150,000· I would say, "We want 10 percent on the contract, 10 percent when this amount is done and —" — in other words ten payments of 10 percent. This way I got progress payments, and for six years, before we got the next amount of new capital I was running the company on these progress payments from the universities. They could get them out of the government, because the government at that time had been used to progress payments for war contracts. It wouldn't have been possible later when McNamara came in with cost efficiency and so on; I'd never have been able to do that. But the government was kind of free spending at that time on research. And that saved the company. Constantly we were saved when we didn't have the money to pay the guys at the end of the week or the end of the month, and I would be able to call up Joe or Fred or whomever and ask, "Would you come here fast and say we've got the next 10 percent done, and pass that out." It was government money that had already been put into universities, and they could sign checks on it, and that's what saved me. One amazing thing was, when we'd got to the size where it was $500,000 for the delivery of a complete big generator —
When, roughly, was that?
Well, that was 1951, so it’s not too far from our start up, it was only four years away — I called a good friend of mine who had worked at MIT Radiation Lab (Tom Bonner of Rice Institute, Texas, since died) the week or two weeks before Christmas and I said, "Look, Tom — is it possible? We've got this thing working according to specs, and if you could see it, you would know that I could have another $100,000 down on that contract. Can you come here, in spite of the fact that it's Christmas, just so I can let the fellows have their Christmas money?" It wasn't a bonus; it was just their salaries I couldn't pay. I hadn't anything in the bank. What I heard from the other end of the phone was, "Denis, if you tell me that it's that number of microamperes at that voltage on the target — I believe it, and I’m going to send you the check today." That kind of trust wouldn't be possible under present government regulations. He was entitled to send me the $100,000, and it was a good Christmas, you can imagine. That was the outstanding case, but there were many such things. There was trust between men who knew each other.
You also had a conviction about fixed pricing.
Yes. Because I had seen the worry about cost plus. If you wanted cost plus, you had to give the government any improvements for patents and all the rest of it. Also, the government does the following thing: if it gives you a cost plus contract, on the next go round it refuses to give you the advantage of all these things. It says, "You learned that with our money, so don't try to charge us again."
Did you mean to say cost plus contract? You just said, on a fixed price contract?
I wanted fixed price contracts so that I could make a profit.
But you just said "Another thing, with a fixed price contract, the government —
I said it wrong. Yes. You are the government’s creature if you're working as a cost plus contractor. I wanted to make it commercial, and I discovered very fast what I told my men over and over again, "Whether it's $100.000 or half a million dollars, you cannot possibly make any money on the first one. You have to get to about number 4 of this size of thing before you can make your money back, and start to make a profit." Regularly, we found that to be true, that on the fourth one, we really got the money back, because the engineering was known, the bugs were out of it, and so on.
Do you think this conviction about fixed pricing came because of your wartime experience?
I don't know. We did get one very important cost plus contract from Brookhaven National Laboratory. We got that because they were people known to me and I'd worked with them during the war and they wanted to call the shots from week to week. Instead of my engineer, they wanted the chief engineer to be a man from the University of Wisconsin, Ray Herb, whom I also knew, but he was at variance with Trump on many things. But they said, "We'll give you the contract if this man is the boss." So he was the technical boss, technical director for that project and on that basis, we said — Van de Graaff was with me — Then we have to have it on cost plus, because they can change the whole deal once a month and we'll lose money.” I watched how that was done, and we did all right on it. But I realized the enormous dangers of working that way, with the government breathing down your neck. After that was over, we felt that with Van de Graaff and Trump we had the best experts in the world and we didn't want to have two cooks in the kitchen all the time.
I believe you once also expressed the feeling that many technical companies starting when you did made the mistake of selling too cheaply.
Oh, absolutely. I've said that over and over again. My engineers would come to me — it was the time of black and white television getting popular — and they would say, “We can do this control system for the machine." I'd say, "What do you think the cost would be?" They'd say, "Well, it's about half as complicated as a black and white TV so I guess we could sell it for about the price of black and white TV." I'd say, “Multiply it by ten, because black and white TVs are made in tens of thousands, and you haven't divided the engineering and the getting out of the bugs and all that. You haven't done that." I knew that something that looked like a TV then selling at $300 should at least be priced at $3000. I knew that.
Coming back to crises now to whom were you selling your machines during the first couple of years — universities or hospitals?
Hospitals. They turned out to be some of the most difficult customers you could imagine because there was never anybody in a hospital who could really make a decision. I found them very, very difficult. They were always underfinanced, running on a shoestring, and so on. During those first ten years, Trump did magnificent work in delivering these things to hospitals, and teaching them how to use them. He was a true pioneer in the new methods of treating cancer. But it made us no money, because of all the troubles which I won't go into, and because of the competition of Cobalt-60.
I believe you said that around 1948 or ‘49, your market disappeared.
We continued to sell, but only two or three a year, and you couldn't make any money like that.
Because of the competition from the cobalt?
That's right, and also because of the poorly organized medical profession. They never had any money and they were always stretching us out on payments, and it was misery. But what saved our bacon was that physics came into it — and we never anticipated that this could happen. When we wrote the prospectus for the company, Trump put in all the uses which are still just around the corner — the use of electrons for sterilization of food, treatment of plastics, and all this stuff that is now going to come was envisaged by him them. What none of us had envisaged was that the physicists, first of America and then Europe and then Japan, would be enabled by government money to go beyond their sealing wax and string, as in the old days, and buy complete equipment’s for doing research. Nobody contemplated that. We all thought, the physicists have to go back into their corner. But this did happen, and the strange thing is that it happened first in France. As I sat outside Trump's MIT office, there came to us a Professor Leprince Ringuet, of Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. He was a cosmic ray physicist and he had got to the point where he decided he needed a source. The Germans had taken away everything they had. They were down to bedrock. They had nothing. He saw this machine we were making for cancer, and he said, "Now, if you can put a positive ion source into that and accelerate those for me, I'd be very interested." By the time we got the company started, that's just what we did, and we had a $50,000 order from him in France and he said, "Don't give me any stuff about sending over your people. I have very competent people. Just tell us how to put it together; send it in parts. So we disassembled it and took a Leica camera, 35 mm and photographed every stage. We took two or three hundred pictures. Then we mounted them in reverse order and said, “That's how you put it together." And by golly, he did. It took two years, but he did it. Now occurred the most amusing thing, The Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, heard about this because we had to ask for permission to export it — and they came through to me and they said, "Yes, but the first one's not going to France. If you make one for us first, then you can send that one to France.” And it was a deal. So I said, "That's just great." I tootled off down to Washington to deal with this question. It was my first real sale. Otherwise, things had been done by Trump and in Trump's office. Suddenly — though I had been cleared by the American Naval, Air Force and Army systems throughout the war, because I was still a British subject, I was unable to get clearance to go into their laboratory. So I called up from the gate, and they said, "No way can we get you through. Look,” he said, “the paperwork is too bad. Denis, just where are you?” “I'm outside the gate in a taxi." "OK, I’ll come out, we’ll sit in my car and we’ll do the whole thing." So he came outside the gate and —
— what year was this?
In Washington at the Naval Air Force Base.
Oh, this is ’47. I started in 1947. All he wanted was two million volts, and it was to be like the one in France, but we had to do a turnkey operation for them and put it in with magnets and all kinds of things that the Frenchman hadn’t asked for, a real nice job. So I did my usual thing and doubled the price. I said, "It will be $97, 500,” you know it was a pure guess. But they later signed for it and I came back with the assurance of an order. Of course, everybody was delighted — "Denis is a miracle worker, how did he do this?" It was twice as much as the next largest thing we'd ever had and the Naval Research Lab, you know, great. We made money on that. We worked very hard on it. We worked night and day. We delivered it to them, and then we could get permission to send the other one to France. But that began us on the positive ions. And that saved the company. It would have gone to the wall without the discovery that physicists were now able to pay.
Let's discuss your role in more detail. When did you feel you were more a manager than an engineer-scientist?
I never felt that. I was running the company because I was the only one there who was senior enough to do it and I was always primarily the man interested in getting these devices made. I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur; I never thought of myself as a businessman. I have 50 notebooks where I kept a kind of — a scratch book — and each day as people left my office, I would write down what I did that day, just an awful scrawl, 50 of these books — day after day after day — jumping every few minutes, from what decision we make about the positive ion source that won't quite work, and about the vendor who doesn't want to deliver at this price anymore, and what about the coffee lady, and all this stuff. But it was all mixed up. Then there were diagrams. In the few minutes I got free, I would make a new diagram of how we would get the beam to come round through that magnet. I was constantly on the floor, directing as best I could and going back to Trump and Van de Graaff for the real McCoy where I couldn't understand it.
So you were making specific technical contributions during this time.
Oh yes; decisions every day, throughout that first 15 years or so. Yes.
Did you actually go so far as to get patents?
Yes. I did. I got two patents which the Ford Co. broke on me, later. I got patents in 1952, patents that I consider very valuable and they held for several years, until the Ford Company broke them ten years later.
You once told me that you became the administrator but still needed every ounce of scientific knowledge you possessed.
Can you give me an example?
Well, Trump would never have hired me as the president if he hadn't realized that I knew where the electrons went and where the protons were and all these things, you see. I could never be snowed by any physicist coming in to talk about these things. I could often say to them, "Look, I don't know about the PS level of the electron in hydrogen. I'd have to go and look it up. But I think we can de1iver this thing with so many microamperes.” I always had a firm idea of quantities. The quantities I had firm ideas about were money, current, voltage, all those things, and those all fitted together for me. I don't believe, Mike, that I would every have happily run a company where the devices that were being made were not of any interest to me. What fascinated me was that I appeared to myself, month after month and as the years went on, to be better able to put a price on what it would cost to get that going, functionally, than most other people.
But you did once say that while many technical men are more interested in the things, you were more interested in the people.
Correct. I was never interested as much in the devices. I wanted the company to go forward and have a reputation, but the company — the college of people working there — was always the most important to me. They had to have joy out of this. I got the joy myself, or course, seeing it. It was never a question, when it was a decision between a thing and a man; to me the man comes first. And I never let our vendors or our customers bully us. I had trouble with many important people about this because Washington and the military-industrial complex can be damned ruthless about these things, and I stood always between that and my people.
Ruthless? Could you give me an example?
Yes, — you’ve got to work all the weekend, when they'd been working all the week because the country’s future is at stake. Well, all right, but they're flat out, I'm not going to — one of the things I was proud about was that we had fewer divorces in our company than most others I knew about, all up and down the same route 128. One of the reasons was that I had a rule that except in dire emergency I don't call any one of my men after 12 o'clock on Saturday, and later after 6 o'clock on Friday, until Monday morning. And I don't expect them to call me, no matter what, unless there’s a dire emergency. I got my weekend that way — the weekend to recover and I felt they should have it too. This is very strong in me. I’d seen what we did to ourselves during the war. During the War we were fighting and trying to protect people in the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy, who were dying, and so we went flat out. I worked seven days a week for many weeks until my own group came to me and said, “Would you please quit and take a day off, because you're impossible. You're really impossible; your nerves are frayed” and it was true. From then on, six days a week was the max, and I kept up that policy.
Are you aware of anything that you consciously had to unlearn? After all you were trained as an engineer, and an administrator of research people.
That’s an interesting question. I had constantly to guard against thinking, “because it's been tried before, it's no use, we can't go that way." As I've explained to you earlier, this is one of the upsetting things of every establishment. Every establishment knocks off the sprouts of new ideas before they have time to grow, saying, "Well, we did all that before, five years ago, and it didn't work." So I've always been in favor of the lost causes, in the men I had; of course not in wild men. I've seen enough wild men in my life who never succeed. But the ones I regarded — if they came up with something new, I would want them to get support and a little money to try it — And that, we did over and over again.
This is a good point to talk about Van de Graaff. Tell me what he was doing in the company then, what his role was. At the beginning, he wasn't as involved but now, after a few years, he was more so.
As soon as we became involved in positive ions, he began to click on it.
Which was roughly what year?
Well, it began right back there in '48. He never participated much in John Trump’s side of the work in the X-rays and the electrons. But as soon as we were delivering to the physicists, he became interested. He became very interested because of our deal with Brookhaven. And he had quite unexpectedly, for a top scientist and a rather other-worldly man, a very, very strong feeling about the cost of developing new devices. He helped me over and over again to say, "We must have more money for that. We shouldn't take that risk at this amount of money. We've got to have a bigger price if we're going to promise them more microamperes." He did this over and over again, and quite often he was against me, but very nicely. When I wanted to do something for a fixed price, he would say, "I think this is such a, risk we ought to take it cost plus.” But I listened to him always. We had a perfectly wonderful relationship. What I did was to make the fixed price higher because of his Saying "This is risky,” you see. I’d go back and say, "Dr. Van de Graaff thinks we can’t do it for this amount of money." That helped. It wasn't just me talking.
Describe him as a person. What was he like to work with?
Extremely polite; a southern gentleman. He was brought up on a plantation in Alabama. His forebears, for two or three hundred years, had been in this country and they were slave owners. But he was the perfect Southern gentleman. He never raised his voice in anger, never showed any temper. He was steely in his determination, first to somehow counteract his own pain, because he was constantly in pain —
What was the matter with him?
Well, his family had no understanding of anything like science, but two of his brothers were professional coaches for big football teams. When he was 16, he was already playing for his high school, he was expected to play football, and he got a terribly bad injury in his back at age 16. He went along without too much trouble until he became a heavier man and overworked during the war on these things I've told you about, and then it really began to kick up. Twice he was given fusion of the spine, and it didn't work, and he was in desperate pain. Whenever he tried to sit up and work for more than an hour or two at a time, you could see the sweat, even in cold weather, come right out on his brow, trying to hold down the agony. So this was a big strain on him. But he was devoted to the idea of his machine. He would never let you call it — he never wanted to call it the Van de Graaff machine, he would call it the electrostatic machine. We had to persuade him to let us use his name as a trademark. He didn't want glory for himself, but he was devoted to the whole idea of getting this work for physics, and he was very far-seeing close up. He had written a memo to Compton in 1931, when he came to MIT — which talked about accelerating uranium. This was before the atom was even split by Cockcroft and Walton in England, and he wanted to bombard uranium with uranium even then. If he had been a well man, with good health and thoroughly backed by MIT, a lot of that might have happened here, instead of other places, because he was right there. It actually happened much later, in ‘39, so he was 15-18 years ahead. But like many other people, he was seeing into the glass darkly and wasn't given the backing to go ahead.
Wasn't one of your jobs in the company to distinguish between ideas that he had that were a little too far out, and those that —
Yes, and I did that constantly, But you see, there were many years lost, from 1931 until about — he didn't really come into the company and begin to do big things until about 1951. So 20 years were lost of his life. I claim that MIT didn't recognize his genius, and that Trump, with my help, we did, and we used it to the full. I don't see how we could have done much better than we did for him. He was in oblivion at MIT all those years or a lot of that time.
Didn't he put strong demands on people to be loyal to his ideas?
Yes. I've told you that. He didn't put the demands on, but he trusted people just by his nature, complete trust. When he saw that trust abused, he never forgave the man and that was it. He never faced him with it. He didn't want to be cross. It was just that as far as he was concerned the man was out of his life. He was so much the Southern gentleman that once was enough. “He let me down, he told wrong stories, he told lies – that’s it, never again."
Did he have a sense of humor?
Yes, very strong sense of humor, and he had a wonderful basic laugh. In spite of his pain and so on, he would be the best kind of company — he was a great trencherman. He loved to eat. I think that carried him off earlier than he needed. He never smoked, but he ate far too much. When he got some money because our stock was going up, he used to go off to Paris, and take his wife and meet his two boys there, and he would say, "Do you think it's all right, Denis, for me to cash in a thousand shares of stock?" I said, "It's yours, you do what you like with it." "Well, that's very nice, but I did want to ask you. I didn't want to embarrass anybody." Then he would go off to Paris and stay in the very best hotel there, on the Rue de Rivoli, and he would be so generous with tips that he had all the Maître d’s — just anything he wanted, you see. Then he would say to them, "Yes, but don't you know, my doctor says I mustn’t have any butter. So will you ask the cook please?” Then of course, they didn't bring him any butter on his plate, but you know the French cooking – it was just beautiful, he loved it, he lapped up everything. Then he would order ice cream, if possible a double portion just because he was able to think that the doctor hadn't mentioned ice cream. But of course, he was just getting far too heavy for his back, and he did die of heart trouble. But he lived it up. From the moment he could get the money he went first class and used his own money. He wouldn't even let us pay. When he went on a company trip he said, "I need special treatment, and when I go Pan-Am I take two seats just for myself and another one for my wife, so please don't pay — and I like to go first class, I know many of you don't go first class. So I feel much better." This kind of amazing generosity to other people. And he just lived it up, and I'm so glad he did, because he didn't have that many years, and he would have been terribly disappointed with the way physics has been cut back since he died.
When did you start intentionally listening to him, filling notebooks with his ideas?
I started right at the beginning. I realized he was a — I mean, we were his disciples on this positive ion stuff. I listened to Trump on electrons and X-rays and to him, I realized that I had an amazing duet there, and I listened to them. He would call up and say — he never came in at 9 because his back was bad — and he would call up and say, "Denis, do you think that you could have a half an hour to spare for me this morning?” Always this politesse, and I would say, “Certainly, Van, what time would you like to be here?" “Oh, I think 11 o'clock." "Fine, fine, I'll be ready.” He would come, of course, at quarter to 12 and say, "Oh, I'm so terribly sorry." Then he would get down to the most marvelous stuff he'd cooked up during the night, which he wanted to tell me about, and I would sit there spellbound, trying to get it all and get it down. He was terrible at drawing, very poor at letter writing. But in speech, when he got going — it would take him 15 minutes, or if there were more people it would take him an hour to get warmed up — but then he was just like something out of the Old Testament. He was proclaiming. He was just magnificent, when he got going. I have all this stuff on tape.
In other words, you taped the sessions with him.
Yes, later. At first I didn't, but later on I said, "Do you mind if I turn this thing on?" “Well, I haven't anything to say, you turn it on when I'm ready," but I knew that was a false modesty —
I see. Now, wasn't one of your roles to be an interpreter of his ideas to the others?
Yes, absolutely. I did this, and I think he needed that. He didn't have it at MIT because while Compton knew far better than I ever did what Van was worth, he was president. He had too much to do at MIT. So, yes, I think we were able to listen to him, hour after hour. I have hours of his tapes. It's very repetitious, but that was the only way he could get us to do this. He was quite greedy for money for his devices, not for himself ever. I was making the point that Van de Graaff was greedy for money for his development and research work, never greedy for himself in any way. The morning I came back from the Prudential Company with four million dollars loan money which we desperately needed — this was a good deal later on in the company's history — when we desperately needed it for working capital — he said, "Denis, how much of that four million can I have?” It was immediate, you see, after congratulating me, “I don't know who could have done this and all that.” He was always most ready with the praise. And always, when he was determined to have something, he would suddenly back off and say; "Well, but Denis is the chief executive of the company. He's the president. He has the responsibility. We must remember that, you know." He did this all the time. He never pushed me beyond the point of no return. There was never anything of that sort.
How did he get along with the engineers?
Oh, they loved him. They loved him. But he couldn't express himself in ways that they could understand, to all of them, because he would go off into this — he would start with the supernova ten billion years ago and so on, and explain how the atoms were made, and not all the engineers could follow. Then one of the things that he would do is to try and draw, and he could not draw. He absolutely couldn't draw. He could see the thing in his mind, but he couldn't draw. So then Trump found a splendid perspective draftsman from MIT and we brought him into the company, and he spent hours and hours, and Van de Graaff would go through all this stuff, and he would say, "Do you understand Bob, what I mean?" And he'd say, "Well, I think so, let me go and take a cut at it," and he would go away and in six or ten or twenty hours, he would come back with a perspective drawing of the thing that Van had been describing to him. Van would exclaim "Yes, that’s it!" This man was absolutely invaluable; and he then could translate it for the engineers. He had a perspective sketch, and they would build on that basis. He continued to do this. That man, Bob Kelly, just worshipped the ground that Van stood on. And to him, who was just a draftsman — I say "just" advisedly, because of what followed — Van would do just the same, would call him up and say, "Bob, do you think you could spare a little time for me; during the day?" "Yes, Van, what time would you like?" And then he would come late, and then he would apologize because he was so late. “I’m so sorry to take up your valuable time.” "Van," he said, "I'm a draftsman, remember? You're the chief scientist. Now, will you cut that out?"
You’ve expressed a concern that it will seem as if you're neglecting your family life, that that's an important part of your story, so I think you should say what you want to say about that.
All right. Well, when I came to MIT as a graduate student, postdoc in 1929, I quickly — I think I've explained to you that it was very difficult for me at that time to make common ground with the American students of that time. They were, to my mind, somewhat jingo and rah rah and football and all this stuff that I don't care for. And it happened that there were some serious minded Germans and Austrians quite near me, and so I made friends with the man whose sister I eventually married. He became a full professor of civil engineering at Harvard later. He was at MIT at the time, and we used to go out together, and he had a circle of European people, English and German, and Austrian, and with these we had kind of common ground, very nicely, because they had been through the First World War in a very serious way with inflation and all that, they were more mature for my taste than the MIT students of that time, who were very bright, but with no feeling for the world's other business, or literature; or art or anything. As I think I've explained to you, at that time the Europeans had a broader background. I had as a housemate a Swiss who came out of this group, and we lived in adjacent rooms together and went to classes together. Arthur Casagrande pointed out that he was going to bring his sister and mother and younger brother over. He'd saved enough money. He'd been in the country then from about 1926 and he'd saved enough money to bring them over. So this he did, and the Swiss, who was very alert to pretty Austrian girls, assumed she was going to be his date. But as it turned out, she was my date, and that is a very interesting circumstance which has influenced the rest of my life, and all the things that followed — She went back to Europe after one year, but I went back too, to England as I've explained to you, and then, we got together. She came and visited my family. We already had decided we wanted to marry. I went to visit all her relations who I didn't know in Vienna, the Christmas of 1931, and it was a love thing — very wonderful for me certainly, and so in 1932, we were married in England. She was Catholic but she didn't care about that. We were married in the Anglican Church, though I have an inbuilt religious feeling, no particular dogma, so that's never been a problem. It turned out that the language "barrier” was quite the reverse. We taught each other our languages, and it's become a bond, that understanding. She has, to me, a delightful precision of English, which was brought into her by her teachers in Vienna, but then brought out of her by the need to talk to me, you see. And I became completely fluent in German, which I’m rather proud of, because not many Englishmen can manage it. Then came the war, and we had a problem, because — she's very innocent about these things — she wanted to go on speaking German to me in the movies and so on. I had to tell her, "Be careful," you know, “somebody is going to crack one of us on the head and it might be you," because the English were getting pretty wrathy about this, and I'd seen what they did in the First World War. They used to go and even wreck the shops; say they wouldn't play Beethoven ever again, and crazy things like that. However, we never had one mean thing happen to us in all those years. It was marvelous. And so, the war came, and she was completely apolitical. She was very much distressed by the idea that Germany and England were going to fight, and her Austria was taken over by Hitler in the Anschluss, and they were going to fight. All of our relatives, and we have numerous relatives all over Europe, they were going to get involved. So she didn't like that. She hated the thought of that. But she never wavered from her marvelous loyalty to me and so on. Now, I was on super-secret stuff, top secret clearance and here she was — of course she was a British subject, by passport and everything else. Her brother, now at Harvard, started to write that — things were looking so bad, France had fallen, of course, and the whole Scandinavian thing — to him it looked (and to many Americans, especially to those who knew Europe) as though England was a dead duck, and he wanted to save her from this, and all the agony. So he kept writing that she should come to him, he would look after her. He wrote to me, and I didn't want it at first, but then I saw how difficult things were getting, and I saw that my wife really suffered under even the near misses of bombs that were falling. I remember one terrible thing. We had a bomb only a few hundred yards away, and she went down to the floor clutching her heart and saying, “The house is bearing me down." It was a psychological thing. It's so terrible to see, for some reason, I don't have that — if it hasn't hit me, it hasn't hit me, and that’s it. I’ve never got fear of that kind. I do if I get hurt, but not if I'm not hurt. I'm no hero but it just never hurt me and I always thought I was going to come through, She did not. So I began to see this, and I saw that the children were to some extent beginning to worry under this, and the food of course was no longer as good, though he, the brother-in-law, sent us packages of butter and other generous things. So eventually, slowly, I gave my permission, and then we had the great difficulty of getting her out of England, because, first, the Americans didn’t want to take her, and the British didn't want a former Austrian, married to a man who's on top secret — you know, might be a leak for which they would be criticized. I got my father to — he was in good status because of his rifle shooting with some really top people in the government, and he wrote and said the usual British stuff, "This is an honorable man and an honorable woman— “ People still believed those things. They were let down later by spies and stuff. Eventually we got all the various things together. We had to have permission to leave, a visa for her to come and passage. She got finally to Lisbon with the two boys, on a clipper and then had to wait six weeks there for passage to the U.S. There was her brother working all the time to get her passage. He was writing all the time, I know he was, we've never spoken about it, but he was writing to people in the Portuguese consulate and all this stuff, and he eventually managed it. And they arrived here in April, '41. That really determined my life because, you see, she was now here, and therefore I was willing to leave England and come and that gave me access to the whole American scene, of top physicists, whereas before, I'd had all the British ones. So that opened up my life enormously.
This is after dinner, now, with Denis Robinson. Let me ask you to summarize your role in the management of the company vis-a-vis Van and Trump." Van was?
In later years we called him the chief scientist. We called John Trump the technical director, and Chairman of the Board. They relied on me and were happy to have me as both president and treasurer, chief executive officer and treasurer, and I ran the company without any question, and they only — Trump particularly — fought me on one or two occasions, in particular one occasion, when I attempted to make a parallel technical decision about something we should develop. But anything that was done about buying and hiring and contract and all was left entirely to my responsibility.
I think you pointed out once, too, that you tried, and I wonder the extent to which this was intentional, you tried not to compete technically with either of them.
Oh definitely. First of all, they were much too experienced for me to compete with, and two very superior minds on the technical side in one company were adequate. Fortunately, they never were up against each other in any way, because, as I've explained, Trump was on the electron and X-ray side, and Van de Graaff on the positive ion side, so that there was very little competition between them. But if I had myself gone in to decide I would like to make particular things in research or development, I think that would have been very wrong. So I stayed away from that. I tried to catalyze the putting together of all the best brains around, but not to lead any of the technical thing myself, though I made many many of the technical decisions.
You were the bridge between the scientists and the stock holders.
Yes, completely. With one or two exceptions, I never got Trump to take any part of stockholder relations, and Van de Graaff, certainly not. No, I was at all time the stockholder man.
In 1965, you said that if you had it to do all over again, you wouldn't dare, knowing what you know now. You also went on to say that to run a company was more fun than being just a research scientist on a salary, but it was more agony as well.
I won’t disagree with that now. I still find it true.
Let's talk a little about the agony of those days of running a company. There were a few other crises in those early days, such as the time you had to lay off a lot of people.
When the Korean War broke out, the government had no interest in anything that we were doing. It had much more vital security issues. So all of a sudden, there were no orders coming in, and we had a staff and the money was going out at $50,000 a month faster than it was coming in. And we were under severe crisis. Now, on this occasion, Trump very very wisely and cleverly acted as my back bone. I could not bring myself to do the cutback. I recall him coming to me one morning — he was less personally involved with these people that I had hired, you see — he said, "Come on, Denis, let's go. Let's be gutsy about this —” This was very helpful. He was not backward in understanding that money couldn’t come off trees, and he understood the situation I was in. More than once when I was in a desperate situation he would come in with his optimism but also with his definite action attitude and this was one of them. This was 1951 when we'd had several months without any new orders and nothing coming in to equate what was going out. We made — I forget now whether it was 25 or 35 percent cutback in employees — a very alarming thing, because we had had such wonderful personal relationships with these people in the company and suddenly —. Nobody of that youth, they were mostly young people, nobody had seen any cutbacks. All of these people had grown up since the Depression. Trump and I had been through the Depression. The rest of them had not. So they could not understand losing their jobs suddenly through no fault of theirs. It was a very very terrible time for me. But we did it.
Now, there’s another one that I think is important to the history of you and the company, and that was in 1957. This is what you alluded to a few minutes ago.
This was with Dewey. He wanted to add another direction.
You might describe that episode.
Davis Dewey had been working as technical director for Doriot at American Research and Development, and there came a time when he felt he hadn't been adequately promoted. He wanted to take on the presidency of one of the small companies and wasn't given the opportunity, and so he resigned — sort of an unforgiveable thing to do for General Doriot. He resigned and he spent two or three months looking around. He had a wealthy father. He had no problem with it. I attracted him to come and be my vice president. I had no vice president up to then, and really, I had no number 2 in the administration and running of the company. I asked him to come in to do sales, sales on the commercial side. Trump was doing most of the sales on the X-ray, and Van de Graaff and I were pushing the sales of the physics machines. I asked Dewey to come on and deal with the chemical companies. He was an industrial chemist — a chemical engineer, with a college degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT in chemical engineering. That went pretty well for five years. But he really was set in his mind that he was going to be the successor to me and run the company. I recall that more than once I had to say to him, “Dave, you’re not going to push me aside, I'm not ready, so just forget it, and you’re not going to do that." And he'd say, "Sorry, Denis, I didn't mean it," and we'd get along fine. But he felt we weren’t making sufficient development progress in heavy current machines — for the chemical industry. He found his way very easily around the chemical people, and he had some top people hooked on our things and he wanted a heavier current machine. At one of the conventions he went to, he met a fellow called Marshall Cleland who at the University of St. Louis, had developed an entirely different method of producing high voltage than Van de Graaff — it was a high frequency method — and he was rather attracted to it, and he brought the idea back to me in about October, 1956, I suppose, and I encouraged him. I said, "It is worth looking at. We don It seem to be able to make such high currents by Van de Graaff’s methods, so keep talking." When he came back, sometime in October of that year he said, "I've promised $6000 for a three months option to purchase for another $20,000" or something of that kind, “so we can have the thing and then Cleland would expect to come into this company and help to develop it. Or be at least a consultant." Trump became extremely testy with him. It's not often he does. But Trump said, "That was an entirely stupid thing to do." Just like that. And Dewey, of course didn't like that. Then ensued a three month tussle, with Trump absolutely determined not to take this different kind of thing into the company, genuinely convinced that it was the wrong way to go and gradually he involved both Van de Graaff and Buechner — a long time assistant and consultant to him — in the same thing. And it went on and on, and 1 was trying to do my catalytic business of keeping everybody happy, a middle road. I did keep on saying, “We don't have a competitor to this yet, and I think we should spend that money, and have a chance to have it as a side issue." Van de Graaff started to talk about the danger that we'd spend so much money developing this that there wouldn't be enough money for his big things. One of the complexities was that, he, Van de Graaff, had been over the past three months developing — in absolute secrecy from everybody but Trump and me an electromagnetic method of his own, for accelerating heavier currents, but it was a considerable way down the road. He had adjured me not to talk to anybody, not to Dewey or anybody else, because it was too early — he hadn't got the patents in yet. So I was not free to tell Dewey that we had at least another competitive device in view.
What was Dewey's title again?
I brought him in as vice president in charge of sales.
It's interesting that Van didn't want to tell Dewey about his idea.
Inventors are extremely jealous about their ideas until they get them down on paper. There was nothing much I could do about it. This came to be a major problem. It was the only real quarrel I'd had with Trump in the 35 years we've been together. There was no personal acrimony. He was absolutely polite to me. But he said, "I want to stop this thing. I don't want it. It's a waste of money, it's a waste of development money… it’s the wrong way because it's high frequency.” Trump and Van de Graaff had always been low frequency — d.c. Continuing next day at the MIT Faculty Club. What I forgot to explain yesterday was that the greatest agonies were often those where stuff wouldn’t work. We had agreed to do this and that, and then it wouldn't work. This went on and on. Month after month we had great delays, because a belt wouldn't be right and the tubes weren't right and so on and so on. This is all par for the course when you're doing anything for the first time, on the frontier, the cutting edge of technology. But those were the biggest agonies, really.
When would you say you could feel peace of mind that the company, at least, would survive?
I don't think I really feared that the company wouldn't survive.
Well, you did say you were near going under.
I always had great optimism and Trump, of course, supported this. We always felt there was some way of getting out of it, and we always did. Then, on the technical and scientific thing, whenever we had made an accomplishment and got out of one mess, we promptly promised far more for the next mode, and therefore we were back again in the agony, you see. We were always pushing ourselves right up to the very edge of what physics and engineering would permit us to do. So no, I don't think there was ever a time of despair and there was never a time of complete confidence. It was always somewhere between the two.
Before we lost your voice last night, we were discussing the crisis in 1957, the situation with Dewey, and you had explained that he wanted to build this high-current machine, a different kind of machine, and that Trump objected strenuously. Van de Graaff had his own ideas for something different that he kept secret from Dewey. That was the situation, roughly, when you went off on a vacation to Florida.
Then Trump called a board meeting for the day you returned, and that's where we need to pick up.
Yes. Trump had actually persuaded the balance of the board, in my absence, that this was not a good thing to do. He was very persuasive about the fact that the three scientists on the board — he meant himself and Van de Graaff and Buechner who had the longest experience in this type of thing, should outweigh Robinson and Dewey in this, and that we should not diversify the money and effort of the company to work with this new device. Nothing was said about Van's alternative device. We went to the board meeting at General Doriot’s office, and he lectured me (and I felt it was quite a little harsh of him). He didn't address himself to Dewey at all, as though Dewey weren't there.
Are you talking before the vote now?
Before the vote, yes. Before the vote, he said, "Denis, I think it's very foolish and improvident of you to try to go ahead with this thing against the opposition of your three fine scientists here. I don’t agree with you, and I think that you shouldn't ever do such a thing.”
What was your position at the board meeting?
My position was that I wanted to go ahead. I had a ten-page memo, closely argued. I said that I am also a high-voltage and high frequency engineer, of equivalent length of experience to the others, and I felt that the company at this period in its life should diversify into other methods, and I wanted to do this. And I asked the board to give me limited permission to do this kind of thing. I undertook that Van de Graaff’s and Trump’s devices would not suffer at all because I would protect them, but I wanted this in parallel. Dewey didn't speak at all. And since the board remained stony about it, I asked for a vote. I said, “I realize we have never voted on this,” but I did not realize that the board by this time was stacked against me, by Trump's lobbying, and the vote came with a seven man board, 5 to 2 against me, that we should not pick up this option for 20 odd thousand dollars for the alternative device. I was quite disappointed about this, and was prepared, since there was nothing else on the agenda, to go home. However, that wasn't good enough for Doriot who again started to give me a little lecture about the un-wisdom of this, and he said, “I don't want such things to be brought to the full board again, therefore I deem it better we have an executive committee to deal with all such technical matters' so that they can be decided before they come to the board, and I nominate Van de Graaff, Trump and Robinson to be that executive committee.” Well, I realized at once, of course, that that was a stacked executive committee, precisely giving the two others a complete and absolute majority. So I suggested an amendment that Dewey be added, so that we would have the other point of view and a balance and Doriot replied, “I don’t like four-man executive committees. They often get stalled." So that came to a vote and my amendment was defeated, again 5 to 2.
Doriot was a power because of his ownership of 40 percent of the stock?
He was a power because he was Doriot, as well. His company had created our company. He was the only really business type man on the board at the time. Patterson voted with him. Patterson was financial vice president of John Hancock Co, but not a decisive kind of man. Doriot was a very decisive kind of man. So, I was defeated, my amendment having been shot down, and it was 5 to 2 in favor of the new executive committee with those three members. At which point we broke up, and I went home in John Trump's car, and I put my arm around Dave's shoulder in the parking lot and said “Dave we've been thoroughly trounced,” but we'll live through this. Let's get to work tomorrow morning and see what we do next. Dewey, however, went home, and was continuing to do, I think, a slow burn, and I’ve forgotten whether it was that evening, but I believe so, that he called me and said, "Denis, I'm insulted beyond anything that's ever happened to me. I'm resigning — now."
That must have hurt your stomach.
Oh, horribly, horribly. He cleared out his desk that evening at the company. So I didn't doubt he meant it. Then began four days of the most intense activity by me to try and heal this thing. I told him straightaway, "I don't accept your resignation, Dave. It's your right to offer it to me. I'm the person you have to offer it to. But since you're an officer of the company, I've got to take it to the board, and I don't accept it." He said, "Well, it's over the dam” and so on. Then began the four days of great effort by me: I was the only one really trying to heal the breach. Dewey thought that it was too far gone. My wife was a tremendous help in this time. They were 16 hour days and she protected me from having no sleep at night, because everybody was so upset about it, they all wanted to talk over the telephone all the time.
The engineers were with Dewey, right?
Yes. The engineers had taken a great liking to Dewey and his get-up-and-go. They understood him, his commercial ideas, somewhat, and they were afraid. I think I may have mentioned that there was a kind of scientific dominance happening to them, where only the ideas of the principals were permitted to come on through, and I had been trying to alleviate that. But it was Dewey they thought of as their leader, because he was more of their age. I can no longer remember quite the sequence of this, but during the next day or so, they asked me to join them in our conference room, where they urged me to resign with them. They would resign in a body, if I would resign, in order to bring the board of directors “to its senses" and get it to reverse its decision, which they felt to be intolerable. I was able to take Van de Graaff with me to that meeting, because he, in their view, had not been a participant, and they loved him very dearly and trusted him, and I wanted him to see me in operation with the others, and help me. And he did. He did it very finely. I told them at once: “Absolutely nothing doing. I am not playing any such game for a proxy fight or an attempt on the board. I fought this fight and lost, and now, any of you who want to resign, that's it, but I want you all to stay with me, I'm still trying to get Dewey back, but whether or not I get him back, I want you all to stay with me. Those of you who don't want to, you must let me know, because I must know.” I left the room without further debate, and within an hour they sent to my room and said they were with me. I got, that day, a couple of very supportive letters from two of them, saying "We don't see how you could have done anything else and we're thoroughly with you," which was a help to me in a time when I was as low as I'd been in a long, long time. Dewey and Trump could not be brought together. I called another directors' meeting in order to try to urge the directors not to be quite "so harsh" on Dewey and Buechner very properly pointed out that "We haven't fired Dewey. He's entitled to go on just as he was before. All that we've said is that you are not authorized to buy this option and to develop this other thing. That's all we've said. Dewey has resigned. It's up to him to withdraw it." But he wouldn't. He said difficult things like, "I wouldn't come back now if Trump crawled all the way from MIT to my home in Lincoln on his knees." So, after four days, I had to acknowledge I was beaten on that one too, and Dewey had indeed left and wasn't coming back. I called Van de Graaff and Trump together now, because we were now the duly constituted executive committee, and I certainly felt more comfortable with them than with the bigger board, after this tenseness. And at John Trump's home, it was a very pleasant occasion really, and they welcomed me as though I were the prodigal son who had seen the light and decided that they were indeed the technical bosses. The whole matter was this: That they completely acknowledged my presidency of the company, as the chief executive, to make all the business and money decisions, but they would not release to me any part of their responsibility for the scientific decisions, Engineering decisions I could take, but this was a scientific threat, and — it's been said, you know, that a religious man, a man fighting for his religion, cannot compromise. I have found much the same thing with men fighting for their particular inventions and devices, that there is no compromise. Most businessmen will compromise and say, "All right, oh well, the price is this and you want to pay that, and come to a deal halfway between. But there is no halfway for somebody who is dedicated to a scientific truth. And that's what they thought they were fighting for. I will say in sequel that a company was formed by this man Cleland which has been a thorn in our flesh ever since. And it has not made money. It has lost money. You can argue it both ways. You can say that we would have lost money. You can say that with our greater expertise and backing and capital, we would have done far better with that device than they did — or, that we would have spoiled our own thing by diversifying. But I still hold and believe firmly that they were wrong, the board was wrong to be so narrow minded. I always have wanted to see a certain leaven of new ideas. I like to see the new sprouts of new ideas coming up. They could have controlled any amount they liked limiting say to $50,000 to be spent in the next two years, or something. But we should have had that device and worked with it. We didn't and it's been a damn competitive nuisance to us ever since.
This was a point where the company could have fissioned?
Yes, indeed, and I was afraid that it would. I saw the intransigence, before the crucial board meeting of Trump particularly and Van de Graaff and I feared that they would just decide not to cooperate, and the company could have gone downhill very fast.
Your feeling is that they would rather have picked up their marbles and gone back to MIT?
That is what I feared, that I would have so disappointed them that they would start again rather than bother with the company and with me. Of course, I could have led a dissident group. A few weeks later we had a rumor from a loyal man in the company that the Dewey family might start a proxy fight to put Dave back in as president and so on. I don't believe that was a real danger and I think we could have made it through that. But if I, from the first moment, had decided to fight with Dewey, I think the company would have fallen apart.
If you had decided to fight with —?
— Dewey, and the engineers, then I think Van de Graaff and Trump would have been lost to the company.
You mean to say, if you'd allied yourself with them?
Yes. If I had agreed to follow them, and resign and try to force the board. They would not have given in to a gun at the head like that. They had enough effect on Doriot and so on that they would have stood intransigent, and I and all the engineers and Dewey might have been out of the company, and so on. I think the company could have fissioned. I still believe it.
Then it wasn’t so much a matter of being loyal to Trump and Van as individuals, as it was a loyalty to this community you had created?
Well, by this time I don't know. In that article you wrote about my management style, you quoted one of my other people saying, it was probably Robinson’s loyalty to Trump and Van de Graaff — but it was also put in another way: that Robinson saw that he couldn't lose the great scientists for a smaller one — see, all I was trying to do was to put something in parallel.
Gordon Kingsley was quoted as speculating, “It was probably because of the conviction Robinson had about the kinds of people Trump and Van de Graaff were. One thing that has characterized his career, I think, is that he becomes very strongly attached to people. He has a tremendous loyalty to people, almost to a fault. I don't think it was in any sense motivated by money or personal fame."
Fair enough. Fair enough. I still go along with that — people who can do things. Just because they were friends or they were my brother, that wouldn't have been enough. But because they had accomplished — all I was trying to do was to add something in parallel to that. I wasn't going to make a fight, because I already had the 80 percent I wanted, in Trump and Van de Graaff. I wasn't going to lose that for the 20 that I had in the other hand. That's clear in my mind for the first time, perhaps.
One thing that did come out of this, though, was that you got them to agree to raise the salaries.
In our get-together, where everything was sweetness and light again, I said I wanted an end to the idea that we were trying to run on university-type salaries, which at that time were considerably below industry salaries; and also I wanted that from then on we would not fight about introducing some new things just because they were new. I wanted to get rid of the idea that only the ideas coming from the executive committee were allowed to get through. They promised all these things and, in fact, from then on these things were carried out. So I won in that respect.
From the outside I would guess that another at least potential crisis came in 1967, with Van's death. Briefly, what were the circumstances surrounding his death? I think he'd been pushing himself very hard. I remember Catherine told us that "he was hell bent to work on the TU."
Yes. Each year, or each couple of years, as soon as we got the first order for a new device, he would start designing the next one, urging us to complete secrecy, not to let anybody know that he had another one in mind, bigger and better, because that would militate, of course, against the sales of the one we already had. It was a constant difficulty that he was always dreaming about the next one, and all we had was a sketch of the last one, on which we'd probably committed ourselves or were about to commit ourselves on a sale. And he said, “Well now that's done, let's go on with the next one.” The first bolt wasn't even created for it, you see, not even the drawings were made — just the sketches and the specifications. "Now that's done." He would come in fresh the next morning. "Now we've agreed on that, I've got the next one on the…” So, yes, he'd been pushing himself. And in that year of his death, which I suppose was '66 that he actually died no, he was ailing in '66 — but he did agree to go to France, because there was the hope, which did materialize, of picking up two orders for these huge tandems in France, and it was believed that he was the one that could convince the French. He had been a student at the Sorbonne before. He didn't speak French, but they all knew him. His name was greater probably in France than it was even in this country. So he went. I did not go. It wasn't necessary to walk in his shadow. We didn't generally do that together. But he went with Joseph Bromberger who was then the chief salesman for these machines and is still, and they did a tremendous thing in Paris. And I think that was very, very hard on him. Catherine told us so afterwards. She said, I think you remember, Mike, "If I'd known how hard he was going to work, I would have dissuaded him.” I think something of that nature. It turned out that it was his last trip for the company, and he died, then, I think, was it in January?
I thought it was '67?
Yes, January of '67. He was already in the hospital during December. He had two or three heart attacks or near heart attacks, and after he died — the circumstances of his death are that he was just laughing and talking with the nurse, who was starting to shave him in the morning, and he just fell back, and that was it. But I've said often that from his point of view that was a good time to go, because the US government, and following that the governments of Europe and the rest, all stopped supporting this type of physics.
Hadn't that started to weaken a little before?
Yes. When I look back on it, I realize that the American government, due to Congress, not the administration, had begun, even before Kennedy's death in '63, to say, because of high taxes and this, that and the other, that they would cut back on that type of research. And because they cut back on that money to the universities, the universities immediately stopped ordering any new devices of this kind, and our sales dropped away. I was fooled for a time because England and then France and then Germany came in to replace that market, following America's lead. It was further stretched out by the fact that some of these things took as much as three years to build and install. So we were busy continuously, but I was getting worried, by '66, where are the next orders coming from? Therefore, I was very keen on the two orders from France. But I didn't realize those were to be the last big ones for several years. Then Van died, and you have asked me whether this was a major loss to the company. Of course it was a major personal loss, and who can now tell? He might have invented some other splendid things, which would have had a market — I can't say. But at least his great work was done. And in fact, the last one of these huge things that he designed, which we called, the TU, — for the Transuranic search — never was sold until just a year ago. So it took eight years for the very first one to get sold, and then at a huge discount. We were then able to sell it to Italy. It stood there, and it caused, in the year after Van de Graaff's death, or the next year, a million and a half dollar loss in our company, because we'd gone forward, as we had every other time, believing that there would be the market out there. One of the characteristics of that whole problem was that Van de Graaff and I used to do what the Harvard Business School recommended: make a market survey before going ahead. Each time when Van de Graaff and I would go out independently to the people we knew, and try to find out whether they could use something with twice the current and 50 percent more voltage and this long and so on, they would say, "No, we don't need it. We're grateful for what you've already done, but there's no need for such a big thing." And then Van de Graaff was so sure they were wrong that we defied our own market survey, each time, and went ahead, from things no bigger than an ordinary table, say, from things six feet high to things 80 feet long. We continued to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and each time we were right. As soon as we had the thing, the physics market wanted it except the last time and that was because there was no government money. And this last time was about the time that Van died. But we went ahead. On the morning that his death was announced (it was half expected), I was sitting with all of our people, planning the next year's work and so on, and it was an absolute foregone conclusion that we were going to build what he wanted, what he'd planned. It's just something you're impelled to do. That was his dream and we were going to build it. We never looked for a further market survey, and we never doubted that people would again buy it as soon as we'd got it. The question was how many dollars will be used before we get the inflow of new dollars? And that was great.
After his death then, what happened as this market of selling machines to Europe and universities dried up?
Well, Europe followed America, unfortunately. When they saw the US Congress wasn't in favor, then they doubted themselves, and they didn't go on. We were then dependent, firstly on spare parts and a certain amount of upgrading of the earlier machines that we'd made a certain amount of moving of them and so on from one place to another. But during the early sixties, Trump had decided to push for a special building and laboratory for Electronized Chemicals. I have to go back and say that I acquired Electronized Chemicals back in '58, I believe it was. It was bankrupt, or almost bankrupt, and we were able to pick up its tax loss and its probable patents and so on, for very little money. Just to close its small debts. We picked it up and used it as a paper company for a time, but then Trump, who always believed that there was a good market for servicing other people's stuff by providing electrons for all comers, transistors at that time – we could treat by the millions — and surgical gloves and these sorts of things, to sterilize them. He and I hoped to set up, under the Electronized logo, a service company that would be available for all comers. We would run the electron machines and provide a service, which we did. He designed the building very well. You've seen it there, near the entrance to our buildings. We put it down on our land. We built it out of High Voltage money, the profits still flowing from the big machines, in 1962, and we equipped it with three machines right away and invited all comers. By 1965, this was not making any money. It had a half million dollars a year of revenues, but was losing money. It paid rent to us, and so on. So Trump and I decided it needed a very businesslike manager, a man who is careful with the money, a man who had a business instinct. After advertising and getting 150 applications and whittling them down to ten and then to six and then interviewing three very thoroughly, Trump and I together chose Pascal Levesque, who then became general manager of Electronized Chemicals, and is now president of the whole company.
When did he become president of the big company?
As a result of —?
Well, it was a change of leadership. In 1969, the board of directors was naturally concerned: where is the company going? I've explained that Electronized, because we had set it up to do this, by 1969, Levesque, in only five years, had made Electronized profitable, with revenues up in the five million range. There were some other things that were bringing in money, and we had our continuing industrial electron business, which was perking along, but nothing like enough to supplant the seven million dollar revenue per year of physics equipment that fell away gradually over those years. But then by 1969, the board of directors, particularly John Bush, the son of my former professor Vannevar Bush — I'd persuaded John Bush to come onto our board. He was the very successful founder and president of Millipore Filter, in our neighborhood, and he didn't think we were running High Voltage in a very businesslike way. He knew that I had no clear cut idea of how to get out of this mismatch of building size and people and revenues. He targeted Kingsley, who was by that time my executive vice president. I had trained Kingsley for six years, taken him in from the Harvard Business School with Doriot's recommendation. I believed that he was my successor, and I know that he expected that was what was going to happen. He was in a hurry, too, ambitious to lead, and once or twice I'd had to tell him, "Now don't push me, don't hurry, you’re not there yet. You're doing very well. Just take it easy.” I knew that I had to persuade the board that he was a good successor to me. You see, I had had this remarkable record behind me of already 23 or 24 years, and they weren't about to jump before they were sure. John Bush wanted to target Kingsley and determine whether he was capable, and gave him a tough assignment by getting the board to agree that he should produce a plan by which we could climb back. Kingsley did not produce such a plan, and it's no wonder. It was a very tough assignment. But Bush told me in private, "I couldn't vote for Kingsley. I don't think he's got it."
Vote for him as your successor?
That's right, because it was clear by then that sometime soon, it would need to be done. I didn't have a solution, how to get into new-time, nor did Kingsley, Bush claimed. "So find somebody else to offer it to.” But I persisted in thinking that we, Kingsley and I, together would find a way of building up these other industrial and electronized things, and I hoped the physics business might come back to some extent, and I had hopes in this or that country. But then I was away, I suppose, in the middle of 1970, it must have been nearly October. I'd gone to Hungary, where I'd been invited to give a paper and I was very hopeful that we’d get some money out of even that satellite country for one of these things, because physics knows no political boundaries and all the Communist countries were beginning to get interested, and there was no reason we shouldn't export to there. I'd checked that with the State Department. So I had that hope. I was also in Holland and England and so on, with other prospects. When I got back, Trump had been traveling with Kingsley on some industrial development matters, and told me straightaway, "Denis, I have to tell you that I now agree with John Bush. I cannot support Kingsley as your successor, if you should be suggesting that." I said, "John, we must tell Kingsley at once. I know you're not going to change your mind because I ask you to on a matter as important as that, so I think we'd better let Kingsley know." We brought him in and very honestly, and I think compassionately, explained that we now didn't have a majority on the board to do this and in any case we wouldn't want to have a split board on a matter as important as the succession. He took it very well but said, "I want to resign, I don't want to be fired." We said, "We're not asking that. We're saying, the succession isn't there for you." He wasn't interested in anything else. If it wasn't the succession to the presidency, that was it for him. Looking back on it, I think perhaps he was rather wise to go out at that moment, because he had been looking for a way to have his horse be worthy to ride, and he had discovered that he didn't know how to refresh the horse. So maybe there wasn't anything for him there, and he took this all right. At any rate, he's gone on to another job. It took him some time but he's all right and he's executive vice president of another company which is doing ok. So that was not a struggle and a crisis in the same sense as the other. Trump then said to me, "All right, so Kingsley wants to go and Denis, what do you want to do?" I said, "All right, John, I'll run it alone and we'll look for a new executive vice president, a new successor.” He said, "Denis, do you want to go on doing this?” He was very, what shall I say, compassionate or careful about me. He said, "Look, I don't need the chairmanship of the board. I'm technical director and that suits me fine. Why don't you take that, and we'll find a new president right away, instead of your trying to do this?" I said, "No, John, I'm going to do it. Thank you very much for the offer," and so on. So we went home, parted good company, and that night, I woke up at 1 o'clock in the morning with my gut absolutely in chaos, because I couldn't face going back. You see, Kingsley had been taking a great part of the load, as executive vice president, and I certainly couldn't face this. So I called Trump at 8 o'clock in the morning, when he was at breakfast, and said, "John, I'm going to take your offer. I don't want to do the whole thing."
It would seem from what you're saying that Trump sensed that this would be a tremendous burden on you.
Yes. He did sense it. He knew what it meant to run that company with a thousand people. And it was on the way downhill, you know. He knew that I hadn't come up with a solution to replace that business. I don't want you to think it was all downhill. What I'm saying is that about half the company's business, perhaps a third had gone, and, the overhead that supported that third was burdensome. The company was not viable long term without that third, and we didn't see how to replace that. We were going along. We had at that point probably 20 million sales a year, with 7 million gone down the drain, and the other not as profitable as the 7 million had been.
Is it 7 million out of the 20 million?
Yes. 7 million had gone; something like that.
So you were down to 13 million?
Well, I mean we couldn't replace what was missing. I've forgotten the figures. They're all in the balance sheets. So —
so you acquiesced and agreed.
Yes. I agreed with his judgment. My own gut told me. This is an interesting thing, you see — my brain was still telling me "Go ahead." There is, of course, this tremendous ego and you don't want to be beaten. But my gut was telling me, “Denis, you can't do it." From this I learned the truth of that wonderful question: "Have you the guts for this job?" And that is it. Your brain can carry you far longer than your physique can carry you. It was my digestive function that was failing me. So 1 saw the answer very clearly, and I never looked back from that moment. Trump and I went to work and looked over who we had inside and who we knew outside, and we decided that we would rather go ahead with Pascal Levesque. I went to him, I think that morning, and told him where we were and that Gordon had resigned. Characteristic of him, he said, "Although he's resigned, I hope he will be given a reasonable termination arrangement.” That's characteristic of the man. He wasn't going to let him just go off unrewarded — because, he said, “He’s done everything he could," although they didn't get on well, these two. I then said to Levesque, "What do you think ought to be done now?” He knew, of course, what I was saying, but I didn't say, “Will you take it on?”' He sketched out for me what he thought had to be done — very severe cutbacks and things like this. I listened, and I said, "Would you do it, if you were asked by the board?" He didn't smile. He just said, “Well — it's difficult. I'm very happy here. I didn't ask for this extra responsibility, you know. My wife won't like it at all, because it means much more time away from home, but you and Trump gave me this responsibility and if you two want me to do it, I will. But I don't want any end runs. If I do it, I have to be chief executive and president absolutely, no questions about it. I don't want the boys running around to try to persuade you after I've made a decision." I said, "I wouldn't do that to you in any case," and over the next day or two, we worked out the arrangement.
Is Levesque a scientist or a businessman?
He graduated in metallurgy, and then he went to business school, not to Harvard but to Northeastern.
Does he have a Ph.D. in metallurgy?
He has a Ph.D. in metallurgy. He always takes a back seat, of his own wish, when they're talking science. He pretends that he doesn't understand. But the great advantage is that he knows enough not to be snowed by any engineer or scientist. That's very important. Levesque did say one very important thing. He said, "I am predisposed, if you're not going to continue this, to take it on because I feel the company I'm running may go downhill. If High Voltage fails, it will drag Electronized with it and I won’t have the company." So he had a second reason. He had his loyalty to us, and then he had the second reason. His company was in good shape, but could have been pulled down by us, you see.
Skipping ahead now, where is High Voltage today? How has it changed?
Under Levesque's leadership the company took on several acquisitions. He began by acquiring two or three companies for Electronized, using High Voltage stock, as a matter of fact with our concurrence. Then he took on a quite large company, which is now one of our biggest money makers, Anderson Power Products, which is over in Brighton and run for the last eight years, by one of our former chief engineers, McIntosh, who you may have remembered having interviewed. He went off when things were going poorly, and he got a wonderful offer to become president of Anderson, where he'd already been a director. Then he brought the company back into the fold later, under Levesque, which was a great great help to us. So the company has become a mini-conglomerate, really.
Are you still in the physics business?
Oh yes, we've continued to sell, there. It's been break-even business practically. There's very little profit out of it.
You still sell accelerators.
Oh yes. Oh yes, we haven't given up that. One of my continuing responsibilities has been to see that that is kept alive. I don't know whether this is a businesslike decision or not, but it's a decision that comes very deep in my nature, to keep that going. We have had competition in that field; we have sold two major ones to Italy in the last two years and there are more coming. We hope now to have sales to Iran and Nigeria, and so on. These less-developed places are trying to catch up, as they get into the business of technology and physics.
What is the product line outside of the accelerators?
It's so diverse that it's very difficult to put it down on a tape.
It's enough to say that it's diversified.
It is indeed.
Not in physics necessarily.
No. It's all over the lot; a lot of instruments, a lot of plastic products. Its profitability is not what we believe it ought to be, It’s making only about 6-1/2 percent on its net worth and only about 3-1/2 percent on sales, which is modest, which is too low.
In the old days you were a 50 times earning stock, I think.
Yes. At one time we were 107 times earnings. Those were the days, and it’s a marvelous thing to have been through all of that and to come out the other side, with really nobody having lost, I must say. The stockholders have had better times than now, to realize their gains, but at today's prices the only people who have lost are those that bought when it was too high. They didn't buy from us. That's hardly an excuse, but —
What do you concentrate on now, as board chairman, in 1978?
Running the board, and I want to strengthen it, and that's one of the things I'm spending time on. But other than being board chairman, I am, as it were, a scientific senior statesman and catalyst for all the other things that John Trump hadn't made his own. That's a lot in biology, a lot in instrumentation, all kinds of things. What I do is, I complement John Trump, who is our technical director, and he's working quite actively on the treatment of sewage and precipitation out of stack gases of more carbon than they get out at present. Those are the things that Trump is on. I go along with him and help on most things, but I have another whole range of things in physics and so on.
So you're still as much of an applied physicist as you were 30 years ago.
I hope so. Yes.
Or, you see yourself that way.
I see myself that way.
How has the nature of your customer base changed? In the old days you sold accelerators to universities and research establishments.
Those customers are still just the same, and they wish they could get more money to spend on this stuff. It isn't that our stuff is no longer of importance to them, but that the legislatures of the various countries will not vote that kind of money. There are reduced budgets for that university work.
I think it's important that we don't miss your opinion, that it was the student unrest that had a lot to do with cutbacks in budgets for universities.
Yes, I'd like to say that again, in this form, I had assumed for several years that the decline of our physics business came after Congress got thousands of letters from irate parents who said, "Our children, our young men and women, are being misled by rather left inclined dissident professors. We want you to stop putting money into universities and supporting all that kind of thing." I had assumed that that’s when it began. Actually, as I've gone back over the papers and the figures, I find that it really began to diminish — Congress really put the bite on the university budget — before Kennedy died. But the student unrest no doubt intensified it.
To finish the other question, this diversified part of your business, is this largely commercial customers?
Well, for example, ECC and the plastics people are selling to the aerospace industry. They're selling to the Bell System for joining cables. They're selling to Con Ed and —
— so you're no longer strictly with universities and government?
No. And, of course, I have played no part in those kinds of sales. It's a totally different kind of thing.
How do you feel your relationship with the government and universities has changed over the years? You were telling me about how you signed a contract with the Navy in your car because you didn't have the clearance, you couldn't get in. That's an example of something that would not happen today, is that right?
That's right. This was in the early years of the company, when we had agreed to send a machine to the French in Paris, and the Navy Department said, "Yes, you can have the permission to export it, but on the condition that that's No. 2 and we get No. 1" So right away we had doubled the order, which was very nice. This was a positive ion modification, made on our initiative out of the X-ray type machine we were already making, two million volts. I went off to Washington to arrange the specifications with a man I knew, but I found that although I'd had free clearance to all the U.S. security places throughout the war, now I was still a British subject, and although it was peace, I couldn't get in — my clearance was void and so on. I called the fellow from the gate house. He said, “Oh, never mind. It will take far too long to do that through the paper system. I'll come down and we'll sit in my car and do it." We did that, and I quoted him, I was just doubling the price of the French unit because the French unit was only about half as complicated, and I said, "$98,500" or something, and he said, "All right. I'll put in a requisition." It came through just like that, and we worked it out in his car. That is certainly a far cry from anything you do today, after McNamara and cost efficiency and all the rest of it. But bear in mind that we were there, we were the only people producing such stuff, and the government was still in the high tide of feeling that science had done marvels for them during the war and it would continue.
Do you plow much money back into research of your own?
It's quite modest now, because of those small profit margins that I explained to you. We could easily wreck any profit margin by that now. In the heyday, I plowed as much as 12 percent of total revenues back into research which Van de Graaff and others were doing, in order to be ahead of the game. We can no longer do that because we no longer see clearly down the road what anybody wants.
Do you sponsor any research outside?
Outside the company, no.
Is there anything that would be useful to record about problems with the proprietary ideas, how your guard your research?
I've explained to you, Mike that at the start of the company, the patent position which Trump and Van de Graaff had established, with the help of Vannevar Bush, and which was held by Research Corporation, was vital to getting the money to start the company. I think I've explained that to you.
Consequently, we had a rather benign attitude toward patents, and we continued to spend a lot of money in the first ten years making patents of everything new we did. Looking back on it, I find that not much has been useful to us since. Bar one thing, and that was, at Electronized Chemicals, which we took over for a song on the basis that in all that mass of paperwork there might be something that was useful — it was a tax loss, but there might be something useful in the patents. It did turn out that there was a patent on the treatment of polyethylene which would change its strength, temperature, stability and so on. I think the original papers had been filed; at any rate, we completed it and it went through. We had at that time a resident patent attorney who spent much of his time on patents. It went on and on and on, and in many foreign countries too. He quickly found that we were interference with the General Electric of Schenectady, no less, in this patent on polyethylene and he fought it individually. He didn't take on any outside counsel. He just went and stood proudly up in court, and so on, and he won. He won the patent for us and that's probably brought in, many hundreds of thousands of dollars to Electronized in the ensuing years. I wouldn't like to quote you the exact figure. That was a huge success, a real money success, because it didn't cost us much. The reason we got that patent against General Electric was that the man at Electronized, one of the men who founded Electronized back in the ice house days in Brooklyn, was a painstaking German scientist; Wolff Huber was his name, and he was in the habit of discharging his whole great accelerator through a sheet of polyethylene. That was his way of separating the atmosphere from the vacuum inside. He noticed that after a few such shots, he had to replace it. It got brittle and hard. Being a painstakingly trained German, he scratched on it with a very fine needle, the date and the dose, and he kept every one of them in the files. When we needed to interfere and show our superiority to General Electric, these were produced, and they were dates way before General Electric even thought of it. That was our proof that we were the original inventors. That thing worked for us this time. By 1950, I patented a scanner for the industrial work, which I thought was absolutely vital, and new, and all the rest of it. And ten years later, in a court in Boise, Idaho, the Ford Motor Co., backing one of their users, killed the patent for me. I had three patents and an associate of mine had two, and we thought it was watertight and excellent, and they killed it. I didn't go for appeal because I'd already spent $100,000 of the company money and untold amounts of management time on it, so I became, from that point, a bit disillusioned about patents, on account of the ability of lawyers to — if there is a lot of money behind it, and people think there's a lot of money coming, they can defeat, they can beat you, and ruin a patent by pulling it to pieces. You see, they dared to tell me that the thing wasn't new in the art that any ordinary person could have easily invented this, and so on and so on. They were telling me this in 1960, some 10, 12 years before it wasn't at all obvious, I believed, and I had my notebook which showed me that it was a struggle to find this. But it didn't help.
The invention was 1950, the trial was 1960.
‘60 plus, I’ve forgotten. In that time, you see, it had become obvious, because everybody was using it by that time. We had protection during those ten years, so it was some use. I had warned off our competitors not to use it, so it was some use. But then Ford's innovation group had this principle, I've been told that they just don't care about patents and they go out and beat them when they're in their way. They did that with some other companies.
This was a scanner for what?
We were treating panels of wood. They were treating — Ford had set up Boise, Idaho to treat 8 x 4 panels of plywood and put on paint. Ford had developed excellent paints which cured with electrons and they were using our type scanner on a machine of our kind to do this, without being willing to pay us a royalty.
The scanner did what?
The scanner moved the electron beam back and forth. Imagine a four-foot wide panel, of the plywood, going through under the beam, and the beam would normally come down at one point but my patent scanned it back and forth, just like in a television.
So that you could treat a plywood board or —
— any wide thing. At that time, when we invented it, nobody had brought this out and shown how to do it through a window into the air and so on. It was a lot more than just the scanning, you understand.
Let me conclude by saying, back in the booming 1950's late forties, a lot of technical men started companies, but very few have remained at the helm nearly 30 years, right?
It is that. Now it’s 32.
32 years. Why do you suppose you are still at the helm of this company, chairman of the board, when so many others are not?
Well, I don't quarrel easily. And I don't have – I have to be just a little presumptuous in answering you, but you asked me straight and I tell you straight. I haven't got too inflated an ego. I needed success in getting something done, but I was always, I think, we were always able to share the credit for whatever was happening. We shared it as a team. I've given you, quite in excessive detail probably, the one or two times when it didn't work like that. But all the rest of the time; there's been excellent relations. That's the point. I've left very few enemies around in the world. Enemies come out to haunt you and get rid of you if they can. That’s part of the revengeful nature of our humankind, I think. I have left very few enemies, because very few things to me have been worth quarreling about, and no things have been worthwhile denigrating people for. I think that's true. I think you've understood for what I've said that both Dewey and Kingsley went out of the company fast friends with me, because I stood for them and with them as long as I could, and then when I was beaten it was not my affair, and they didn't resent it about me. So I must say that I haven't left enemies behind. I think I'm very adaptable. I think I've shown you that whatever there was to do, I could get in there and do it. I didn't have a clue on what double entry bookkeeping was about. But I've learned to read the balance sheet and the profit and loss statement. I was lucky enough to be gifted with a mind that could apply itself to various things. I didn't have an overweening idea of my own competence as an innovator or inventor, but I had a very great confidence that I could understand anything that could be written in reasonable English. That does not say that I understand anything that can be written in reasonable mathematics. I cannot. Mathematics has to be elementary for me. But English — The other thing I have is a gift of the gab, as the Scots say. I'm able to get up on a platform. I'm able to talk, as I do to you, with two people or four or 400, or a thousand. And I can get through. I can get through, and I have — and this I gained from both my mother and my father — the ability to talk, about on the level of the audience that I've got to reach. And I can tell; I have almost a sixth sense, when my audience is not following me. Of course, it's impossible if the audience has too great a spectrum of abilities. But even then, I will try, and apologize to the more erudite by saying, "'For those of you who are not familiar with it, I'm going to try to make an analogy." I have a very full range, I think, of simile and metaphor, in order to get people to understand, from things that they comprehend. Over and over again, during the difficult times in the company, I would just go down into the workshop and say — I had a public address system — "Everybody meet me in the workshop in five minutes." They all streamed down there and I'd tell about a new order or a new arrangement or a new difficulty, standing on a packing case and without preparation. I think you notice, I can talk more or less in sentences without preparation.
Yes, you're very eloquent.
That comes from starting off at a very early age on these little stages of my mother’s. Then I had an extremely —
My mother was a teacher of elocution, and she used to get me on these tiny little stages — with a backdrop and all the rest of it — and I had to start giving out with the pieces of Shakespeare or Dickens or whatever, and playing a part, from the age of seven on. My schoolmasters were particularly good; I think I've explained — less so in the university — but I think particularly of the schoolmaster who was the headmaster of our high school. He made us write an essay every week. He gave us three or four subjects, and this had to be in to him on Monday morning every week, and I learned to write. I had to learn to write. He just went through those things with his red pen, showing where it could have been done better. He took the time. He had only six of us in that senior class and he took the time to drive us to write good English, and to ask "Does this mean what you're trying to say, to anybody else?" — continuously. You must have been through some similar driving things, with your writing ability.
Maybe not as intensive.
Well, it was intensive.
Is there anything else that you want to add, anything you wish I had asked that I didn't?
I'd like to conclude by saying that it's been a really rewarding life because, although I've said almost nothing about it, I've had a family that was supportive all the time, My wife has had the wonderful resourcefulness of her own, so that she never worried when I was going to be away. Some of those trips that I went on looking for business for the company were for five weeks. Only a certain proportion of wives will put up with this. From the time we were married she never had a job, but she always had resourcefulness for her own things. I do owe a tremendous amount to her; she's the unspoken, unsung heroine of this saga.
That's a good note on which to end. I thank you very much.
 in the United States
 Woking County Secondary School
 ”Unpolarized Resistivity of Glass,” PHYSICS, January 1932.
 showing photographs
 Cambridge at the University Press 1948
 Thoma, KURZWELLEN TECHNIK Springer Verlag circa 1935
 Ronald W. Clark TIZARD MIT Press 1965
 Showing copy of
 ”The Management Style of Denis M. Robinson,” Innovation June 1969
 Alix Casagrande of Vienna, Austria
 First announced to the public, July 1, 1948
 George F. Doriot
 Route 128, encircling Boston and home of many high technology companies.
 Arthur Casagrande
 American Research and Development, the famous Boston venture capital firm.
 Innovation, June 1969
 TU - Transuranic accelerator
 He was the president of ECC our 80% owned subsidiaries, with its Board of Directors, and because by then making money it had considerable independence
 After this interview five of us were invited to Peking in October 1978 and returned with a $5.2 million contract for a large tandem. Copy of Robinson report on this visit is filed with this transcript