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Interview of George F. Smith by Joan Bromberg on 1985 February 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4895
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Maser research at Hughes Research Laboratories. The laser; Maiman’s work; building a laser rangefinder; Q-switching; stimulated Raman scattering; other laser research. The impact of Sputnik and the Vietnam War on Hughes Aircraft Co. Procedures for selecting research projects.
We’re going to start going through these questions. The first one is the maser work at Hughes in the fifties.
OK. I have a terrible memory for dates. You can get some of those out of the reports. The maser work at Hughes got started when Harold Lyons was hired in the early fifties, early or mid-fifties, to initiate a program in quantum electronics.
Were you witness to the reasons why it was decided to initiate this?
I was not directly witness to the reasons why. As a matter of fact, one of two people, probably Lester Van Atta, would be the best person to ask. He’s living up in the Bay Area, and he ran a Microwave Laboratories which became part of the Research Laboratories. Andrew Haeff ran an Electron Tube Laboratory that became part of the Research Laboratories. Eventually the two laboratories were merged, and Dr. Haeff became director of the Laboratories when they achieved their status as an independent entity. Subsequently Van Atta became director. In any event, Van Atta was the immediate supervisor of Harold Lyons and he would probably be in a much better position to give you an explanation of how it got started. I don’t know who the motivating person was, whether it was Van Atta or whether it might have been Lawrence A. Hyland who, I believe, was general manager of the company at that time. More likely it was Van Atta.
My impression was that they began to realize that there was a good potential for quantum electronics to have some practical applications, that this was a field in which a lot of things were happening, and that it would be a good idea for us to organize an activity in that field. As a policy matter, we have always been driven both by needs and by opportunities in the technical world, more or less equally, in starting or pushing work. We sometimes try to find answers to technical needs of the systems that we’re building. On other occasions, we want to be sure that we’re working in a field that is about to explode. But even though we may not know what may come out of it, in the world of research you can’t always predict what the consequences are going to be — this in my view is a very good example of a great deal of foresight on the part of whoever it was who made the decision to get started, because it was certainly not clear from the early activities on things like the ammonia maser that anything of very great importance to the Hughes Aircraft Company would necessarily come out. But I think there was a conviction that the idea of using atomic and molecular resonances instead of coils and condensers, to try to build oscillating circuits, working in the electromagnetic spectrum, had a lot of potential, and that was certainly relevant to the kind of business that we had at Hughes, in radar equipment, communication equipment, and fire control equipment.
Of course, there are two stages here. One is Townes’s invention and Gordon and Zeiger of the ammonia beam maser, and then there’s the step where you go into the solid state masers in ‘56, and it’s rather interesting that you started the program even before the solid state program, which is not I think so usual.
Yes, certainly the program as it dawned on my consciousness was focusing on the ammonia maser, and there were discussions of the idea of putting an ammonia maser in a satellite and checking the theory of gravitation. There were discussions of that. And there were also discussions of the possibility of building an improved clock. And interestingly enough, today we have a hydrogen maser program going on in which we’re trying now to develop a clock that could fit into a global positioning satellite, to give a very good means of navigation, a much better clock than the clocks that they’re presently using. They’re presently using cesium and rubidium clocks in their global positioning satellite systems; we have contractual support from the Air Force now to develop an engineering model of a hydrogen maser clock which would be an order of magnitude better than what they presently have for that application. So we’ve run full cycle and we’re back with the clocks again.
So this is a point that I want to understand, that Hughes would be interested in frequency standards in clocks, by the nature of its technology.
We would be somewhat interested, but not as keenly interested as we are in improved — well, not as interested as we are in the various things you can do with lasers these days, or even the things you might be able to do in the microwave part of the spectrum in terms of amplifiers and the like. Clocks can serve a role in a satellite navigation system. It’s a rather limited application, as compared with satellite communications or radar equipment. I don’t see how a clock could be very important to the major products of Hughes Aircraft Co.
Now, when you say this came into your consciousness, could you just — I asked Fran [Strange] for a biography, but I haven’t really looked at it yet. Could you just tell me where you were in the organization with relation to Lyons’ group at this point?
Certainly. I started at Hughes Aircraft Co. in 1952. At the beginning I was working on electron tube devices, specifically some storage display tubes and I worked my way into management fairly quickly. I’d have to look at my own biography, but somewhere toward the end of the fifties I was a department manager. I was in a parallel department to the one in which the maser and laser work was going on.
So you would see Lyons, for example.
I would see Lyons quite frequently, yes. In fact, you know, we were at Culver City at the time, and I was running an exploratory studies department which really had a wide spectrum of activities, and one of the activities we picked up while we were still there in Culver City was the idea of developing a practical ruby maser as a sensitive microwave receiver element. So while Ted Maiman was doing his maser research and looking at novel schemes and the like, we had some people working on a somewhat more applied development, to determine whether we couldn’t build a compact maser that could fit into an airplane, and serve as say the front end of a communication system or a radar receiver. And in fact, we built a maser. A fellow by the name of Frank Goodwin (Francis E.), you’ve probably heard of Frank Goodwin?
His proper name is Francis E. Goodwin but we always called him Frank, and he would be an interesting person to talk to too, by the way. He is back East now, in Washington. But Frank Goodwin was working on a ruby maser, a coupled cavity ruby maser, which was a very compact amplifier that could fit into a metal can that was about the size of maybe a five gallon or so, complete with —
Was it for compactness that you worked with cavities instead of traveling wave circuits?
Instead of the traveling wave interaction — it was for compactness and light weight. The traveling wave maser was a pretty big device, and by the time you put the liquid helium, you end up with a pretty big and heavy package, that would be hard to accommodate in airborne equipment.
I thought the traveling wave was better.
— in a manner of speaking, a coupled cavity device can be viewed as a different kind of a traveling wave structure. It does not have the bandwidth of the conventional traveling wave structure, but it has an adequate bandwidth for many applications, and it is a good deal more compact. There are pictures of it in those reports there. In fact, we built a system that could be put in an airplane or could be put at the focus of a radio astronomy dish, whereas the conventional microwave maser of those days was a pretty big thing. You know, it’s not out of the question that it might be put at the focus of a microwave communication dish, but it would be a bit of an engineering job to do that. And it certainly would not be very practical to put it on an airborne radar.
The other thing I didn’t realize is that Lyons’ group was not the only site of maser activity at Hughes.
They were the central focus of the maser work, and they did the more basic research. The research on maser was concentrated in Lyons’ department — no doubt about it. But Frank Goodwin was saying, “Hey, you know, I can build one that is more compact and might be better engineered and more useful.” But it was certainly taking all of its impetus at the beginning from the work that Ted Maiman was doing. So I was sitting on the side for a period of time watching the very early work in Lyons’ department, and subsequently Frank Goodwin, who was working for me — he actually was working for Henry Senf — who was the section head, Frank Goodwin worked for him, and we were looking at building a more engineered kind of maser. So my contract was observing on the side for the most part.
Were you involved at all in the funding aspects of that commercial laser? That is, was this a contract that was going through you, or were you just sort of watching?
Our maser work, it’s my recollection —
— I guess I want to know whether it was ordered or you were just trying it to see whether it was a salable item or —
Let me say that in the late fifties, much of the work in the Research Laboratories was company-sponsored. There were a few contracts that were taken here and there. It’s even possible that we had some contractual support for this compact maser, but I don’t recall that we did. I think that was primarily a company-sponsored activity. In the late fifties, a good deal of company work could be carried on supported by overhead charges to the business of the company. In my recollection there was not as much accountability for the precise nature of what you did on a company-funded program as there is today. Things have gotten a good deal more structured than they were back in the early fifties.
I see. Because it’s very interesting to understand alongside the technical developments, things like decision-making, how one decided to do A instead of B — and the funding enters into that. You just indicated to me that it was really a matter of Goodwin going to Senf, I guess, in this case, to say, “I’ve got this good idea.”
Well, exactly how that got started, I’m not sure. I think probably what happened was that we collectively were aware of what was happening, in Lyons’ organization, and we had a collection of people there under Henry Senf who were somewhat more engineering-oriented and not quite so researchy, a little more of the electrical engineer and a little less of the physicist, and probably we jointly decided that this was something that would be worth doing. Who had the idea of building the compact maser, I’m not sure at this point. Again, I think that if it were important to find out, we could probably get a better feeling from either Frank Goodwin or Henry Senf.
It’s not that precise thing that I really wanted to know, but to get a picture of decision-making, how you went about it. So maybe some of the other examples are going to give us a better —
— I can give you a much clearer picture of how we do our decision-making today than I could back in those days. My feeling is that there was not as much structure in the decision-making in those days as there is today. And that partly is perhaps due to the fact that in my position I didn’t have to worry about it (then) as much as I do today. But I still think that things were not as tightly structured and organized as they were today. Those were the days when research was in. Almost anything in the world of research was good. And justifications were not as important as they became subsequently, and still are to a considerable degree. And we did some crazy things, you know. We did some crazy things in those days that I think you’d have trouble justifying today. I think that could be an advantage. I think some of the crazy things turned out to be the important things. My perception is that we got started in this field because somebody well up in the management, and it wasn’t I, decided that this was something that had potential importance. They hired Harold Lyons and said, “Go out and get yourself a group of people, and we, the company, will support it for a period of time to see what comes out of it,” and Harold Lyons did a very good job of recruiting some very exceptional people. He recruited Ted Maiman, George Birnbaum, Bob Hellwarth. Bob Hellwarth was a student, hired as a Hughes fellow I believe in those days. There was Bob White, who is in the EE or applied physics department at Stanford now. Irving Solt. There was Stitch, Mal (Malcolm) Stitch.
Oh, he was also here?
He was in the group too. Yes. In fact, in one of those reports you’ll find a whole organization chart and I think it lists the names of the people who were in the early department; there was quite a collection of pretty impressive names. Some of these people — Bela Lengyel was in the group — some of these people had very strong personalities, and there were some interesting clashes amongst the various personalities along the way. But without any doubt there were some capable individuals in the group, and my perception is that Harold Lyons went out and hired these people, and they went to work to try to figure out, what can we do that’s interesting and might be important in the world of quantum electronics? They started with the ammonia beam maser, and they rather quickly got into low noise microwave masers. In fact, my belief is that those activities got started just about as soon as the ideas popped up anywhere in the country. I’m not sure that they all originated with this group. In fact, I doubt if they did. Also it’s my feeling that Ted Maiman got started on solid state devices almost at the beginning, and he spent most of his career at Hughes in solid state devices. I don’t think he personally was ever involved in the ammonia clock. I’m not sure about that but I don’t think he was involved in the ammonia clock.
Now, the move to Mailbur, is that the next one I have?
Let’s see, we’ve talked about some of the other quantum electronics work in the late forties or early fifties. As I say, Harold Lyons was hired in the early to mid fifties, and we didn’t do anything prior to that. And as I say, the parametric amplifier work was going on in another organization, and I really don’t have much familiarity with it.
Was that outside of Culver City?
No, everything was in Culver City in those days. Everything that had to do with this field was in Culver City. Somewhere along in there Hughes Aircraft Co. organized a ground systems group that went over to Fullerton, and some of the component work was being done in the vicinity of the airport, but it was all pretty much located around Culver City in those days. The entire company started at Culver City, and for several years, in the beginning of the fifties, everything at Hughes was located there. But the parametric amplifier work was being done in another organization. I think it was in Van Atta’s laboratory. But I’m not that familiar with it myself. The reason that it had an impact on the maser work was that it became evident that the parametric amplifier was a simpler device to do an adequate job with the kind of systems that we were interested in, and the interest in the microwave maser faded about that time, and eventually terminated. We didn’t continue any work as it became evident that there were other more economical adequate solutions — not as good as the maser, perhaps, but adequate. Parametric amplifiers have other advantages, too. You can tune the frequency of a microwave maser with a magnetic field over some range, but parametric amplifiers can be built to operate at any frequency, and so there’s a flexibility associated with them that you don’t have with masers. Regarding your fourth question, the post-Sputnik spurt in R and D spending, you know, I was not aware of any particular effect on our research programs. There were some major things happening at Hughes Aircraft Co. in those days. In particular, the advent of the large ballistic missile programs had a major impact on some of the things that we had been doing at Hughes, that got cut back very substantially. This did lead to some major moves toward diversification within the company, which in fact resulted in our diversifying in military electronics quite substantially, and working on different kinds of things. Well, somewhere along the line we organized our space group, to tackle the development of communication satellites and the like. So there was a lot of impact of Sputnik in terms of the kind of things that we were working on throughout the company, but I don’t recall that there was ever a major impact on the level of funding for the research work.
I see. The whole context that you’re presenting would be interesting to know more of. Is it written up anywhere, or only in the memories of people?
I don’t know of any place where it’s written up, no. Around 1959 or so, there were major changes in the Hughes Aircraft Company. We had some interceptor fire control equipment and some air-to-air missile work (we had a very narrow base for our business), and that got cut way back, when the ballistic missile activities emerged, and there were major changes in the nature of the business of the company at that time. Our corporate leaders made a very significant investment of company resources to broaden the base. It took a while, but we were very successful in doing that, and that led to the development of other customers. Most of our work in the early days was with the Air Force, and today our business is more or less equally divided among the Air Force, the Navy and the Army. The Air Force is not our major customer. I think the Navy is probably a bigger customer. I’m not even sure, but they’re more or less equally divided, with a very significant chunk of NASA business too. So there was a fair amount of diversification that took place around 1960, in the business of the company, and it did stem from events that came after Sputnik, all right. But in terms of the impact on the research activities, I don’t think there was that direct an impact there.
Now, you get the Malibu facility just about this time. Is that going to be connected in with this?
OK, coming to the move to Malibu, what was happening was that about 1960, in this move to diversify, the business of the company was developing well enough that we were cramped in the space available at Culver City. Actually we, the research organization, had been sort of pushed into the corners, to make room for the important business operations of the company, and we were scattered to the four corners of the Culver City facility. It was pretty clear that if we were to have any kind of unity of a research organization, we needed to have our own separate facility. There was a deliberate effort made to go out and find a place to move the Research Laboratories to.
I see. So the cramping wasn’t because the research activity was increasing, just because the business activity was.
That’s right. When I joined the company in 1952, there were some 3000 employees, and the company was successful enough, first in our fairly limited line of business, and then subsequently as we diversified, there was a little plateau in the middle, but the company was successful enough that we grew quite rapidly in the early fifties, and then we grew again quite rapidly in the seventies, but the fact is that there was a period of time in there when we were very cramped at Culver City, and there were a number of moves made of different organizations to different facilities, just to have space. It was not because of any tremendous growth in the research organization that we moved to Malibu, it was just because we were being crowded out of the Culver City plant. There was also a feeling that it would be somewhat advantageous for us to be not quite as close to the operating part of the company, in the sense that we could have a little bit more freedom to take the longer range view. Actually, what the right separation ought to be is a good philosophical question. Maybe we’re a little too far removed now. Actually there are times when I think it would be nice if we were a little closer to the center of gravity of the company. But nonetheless, the reason that we made the move to Malibu was that we found a building here; this building had been built by a man by the name of Potter. He stated that he was building it to be the West Coast branch of his company. He had an East Coast operation. There are those of us who believe that he was really doing a little real estate speculation, because his company was never big enough to fill this building. But it turned out that this building was just about the right size for us, and when it was located, arrangements were made for us to lease it. We leased it at the beginning. We own it now, but we leased the building at the time, and it was as shell. We had glass walls all around on one main floor, with no partitions, no hallways or offices or laboratories, and we constructed the interior of the building ourselves, and moved out here in 1960.
Besides the two things that you mentioned [the cramping and wish to take a longer view, were their other things] …in terms of motivations and setting up the laboratory, or any other motives or factors that were part of the story.
Well, we had been organized into the Research Laboratories while we were still at Culver City. Organizationally things did not change that much. Over any period of time there will be some changes in what you’re doing and the exact details of how you’re organized, but the research laboratories existed at Culver City in more or less its present form, before the move was made to Malibu, and the move was made to Malibu just to get us some space and get us together.
Where were you at this point in the organization?
I was a department manager when we moved up to Malibu. Shortly thereafter, about 1962 I think it was, I became associate director of the laboratory. Actually there were a number of changes. Dr. Haeff developed an illness, and he essentially had to retire from the company. There were some intermediate steps. I mentioned that Dr. Van Atta was director for a very brief period of time. Dr. Haeff seemed to be making a recovery and came back for a while, but actually it was not really a good recovery, so when he left the second time, the management of the company set up a three way associate directorship. There were three of us who were directors together, and for a period of time we had multiple directors.
We had a troika for a while; then subsequently we ended up with a two way co-director arrangement, and eventually I became sole director.
When you were at the associate director stage, you were all three responsible for the whole laboratory?
Well, actually, when I became associate director, Mal Currie was the other associate director, Malcolm Currie. Subsequently he was the Director of Defense Research and Engineering in the Department of Defense. He came back to Hughes and is presently an executive vice president of Hughes. But he and I were co-directors, with a third party, Harley Iams. Harley Iams more or less handled administrative affairs, and Mal Currie and I each had about half of the laboratory for our own direct responsibility, but global decisions were made together. We made global decisions together and each of us ran our piece. And it turned out, Harold Lyons worked for Mal Currie; he didn’t work for me. So at no point in time did the people who were doing the original laser work report directly to me.
But other groups that were working on lasers and masers were reporting to you even at that time? What about the maser group? You still had a continuing maser —
We had a little maser activity continuing up here and it reported to me. That was then I was running the exploratory studies department. Frank Goodwin’s maser activity reported to me, and subsequently, he was doing some applied laser work in my department, before the troika arrangement developed. In fact, Bela Lengyel, Doug Beddenhagen and I did the first laser range finding experiments while I was still heading the exploratory studies department, so we had a little applied laser activity going in my department, although Ted Maiman in those days worked for Lyons, who worked for Currie.
One thing I just wonder is, when you moved out here, is there any change that the move itself made in the way things were going on, that we ought to take note of? Granted that you didn’t move out here in order to change things, I just wonder whether being here had an effect that we ought to note before we pass on.
Well, I’m not sure it had any. It certainly brought us physically closer together and made casual interactions easier than they were back at Culver City. I don’t think that there was any major change in the way that things operated here. I guess the most significant major change was that at Culver City, we depended upon the other parts of the company to supply a lot of administrative services, and out here we have had to take care of our own, but that’s not a very relevant change.
I always think of Hughes as a place where there’s a lot of interaction between the more basic and the more applied people, more than in other companies, like Bell for example, Bell Laboratories. I think of that as being a little more like an academic —
Well, I’d say that we worked very hard to maintain a lot of communication with the rest of the company. From the beginning, we worked hard to maintain a lot of interaction with the rest of the company, while at the same time maintaining enough of our own independence to be able to, you know, look to the long term, and not just solve problems for the rest of the company. That’s a risk that one faces in a research organization, that if you just become a job shop to fix things for the rest of the company, you’re going to lose sight of what your job should be, to take a longer view. I don’t believe there was any fundamental change in the way we operated after we moved up here. We had less interaction with the operating company on a day-to-day basis, but we continued and have continued to have a lot of such interaction, and we do still today. We have a lot of interaction with the rest of the company. I admit, it takes driving a distance to see the people, whereas in the old days, you just walked from one end of the plant to the other, so there is a qualitative change but not a very major change, I don’t think.
Good. Now, I don’t think I’ve even got the laser down here, did I omit to ask you your memories of the whole laser discovery? We should certainly talk about it.
OK, all right. You can get a more intimate view of that from Irnee D’Haenens who was there on the scene. He was a junior member of the team that worked with Ted Maiman. He subsequently went back and got his PhD degree. At the time I think he had a bachelor’s degree but he went back to Notre Dame where he did his undergraduate work, and got a PhD later on. But he was a junior member of the team working very closely with Ted, and I’m sure he’ll be able to give you more of the details. My perception of the events was that we knew that Ted had been working very intensely on microwave devices. I believe I was aware that he had conceived of the idea of doing optical pumping of a microwave device. Somewhere along the line, he became convinced, as you can get from his Hellwarth patent deposition, that he could make a laser. You know, the word was out. It was abroad that lasers were something that might happen one day.
In fact, it’s interesting that even while we were yet at Culver City, we became involved in a fascinating GLIPAR program. I don’t know if you ever hear of GLIPAR (Guidelines Identification Program for Anti-Missile Research) which was organized by ARPA. We were one of 11 contractors who spent some time trying to look into the future to determine what technology should be developed in the hope that a good anti ballistic missile defense could come out of it, a preview of Star Wars, I guess. Now, I was the Hughes program manager for the GLIPAR program while I was running my exploratory studies department. And we brought in experts, from all over the research organization primarily, to brainstorm issues associated with this. The way the GLIPAR program was organized, each of the 11 contractors spent a few months on their own trying to think up things that might be useful, and then we had a one month long joint session at San Francisco, up at the Presidio, the Army Presidio, in which we pooled our results to that point, and developed a kind of a unified position for the entire group. The reason I mention it is that certainly one of the topics that we were looking at was a possibility of there being a coherent optical maser, and the possibility that that might be one way of developing defense.
Now, TRG was working on lasers from about early ‘59. Were they involved in this?
TRG was not involved in the GLIPAR program. The work that they were doing was classified, and I was not aware of it at the time we were doing the GLIPAR. I don’t remember the exact dates on GLIPAR, it’s probably in there somewhere, but I think the important point is that the idea of the laser was well developed by the time GLIPAR came along. No laser had been built yet, but the idea of the laser was well enough developed that it was taken seriously as a possible weapon, even though nobody had built one yet. So everybody expected that someday soon a laser would happen, and Ted Maiman became convinced that he could do it with ruby. I think the moment he became convinced that he could do it with ruby, he really became very secretive in the way he did his work, and he didn’t talk much with anybody. I’m not even sure he talked with his bosses. He was really very intent upon being the first and he was very worried that there were other people out there who might find out what he was doing and jump on the same bandwagon, and so he was very secretive about it. In fact, I think we all knew that he was being secretive. We really weren’t all that sure what he was doing in his part of the laboratory.
I see. You really didn’t know he was trying to do a laser, or that much you know?
I don’t believe I was aware that he was hot upon the development of the laser. I don’t think I was aware of that.
Certainly there was plenty of competition right through the country.
There was a lot of competition, and Bell Labs was probably the most competent competition. I think he perceived Bell Labs as being the biggest threat. It was pretty clear, with the work they had done with the ruby devices and all, that they could put one together fairly expeditiously, except that you may remember, Art Schawlow had gone on record as saying that he didn’t think a laser could be made out of pink ruby.
And so they had sort of steered away from that at Bell Labs, because Art Schawlow, taking the then known or then believed number for the quantum efficiency of the ruby fluorescence, as being a low number, said that he didn’t think it was practical to make a ruby laser, so there was not anything going on. I think that was probably the reason why Ted was so secretive about it, because he became convinced that that number was wrong. He set out and measured it, and found out that indeed it, the published number was wrong, and he knew he could make one, and he didn’t want anybody else to be aware that he could before he got it done.
Of course you had IBM work going on at this point. You had certainly the Columbia University work. American Optical, I think that was a little bit afterwards.
I think most people felt that a three level system was not likely to be very practical, because of the difficulty of getting inversion. Those who were working in solids were favoring the four level system which in fact turned out to be a very good way to go.
What was it like here? When did you first begin to find out what he was doing?
You know, again, this is somewhat hazy recollection, but we became aware, certainly when it came out in our progress report, which we all shared — this was written June the 10th — actually, I guess that probably within a matter of days or maybe even hours after he got his first good operation, it was known around the laboratory that he’d achieved it. But up until the time he was beginning to get good results, he was very secretive. He continued to be secretive. In fact, I think he had the vision that he would really like to maintain control over as broad a spectrum of laser work as possible, as long as he stayed at Hughes, although it is also pretty clear that he got the idea that he could make his fortune by going elsewhere and getting money and setting up his own company, rather quickly. It didn’t take him very long before he went off and organized the company that became Korad. I forget now what they called it at the beginning.
I thought he went to Quantatron first, but that’s a minor point.
OK, but it was the same company. I’m pretty sure it was the same company. He got backing to set up his own company. It became Korad. But there was only one.
At any rate, did that create any changes? It obviously created excitement here.
Oh yes. In fact, in my files here I’ve got a memo that I had written recommending applications that we ought to look at. Let me find that In the middle of 1960, I had written a memo to Haeff recommending applications that we should look at, and among those applications I mentioned that it ought to be quite practical to build a laser range finder, and we in fact set out to do that. We set out to do that in the fall of 1960. I wrote this July 21st on laser applications.
You were already calling it laser, despite the optical maser terminology.
Ted Maiman preferred optical maser in the early days. Most everybody else around the place gravitated to laser. I think if he’d gravitated to laser he wouldn’t have had so much trouble in getting it published. In any case, I wrote this memo, and I talked about communication systems, optical radars, passive detectors, micromachining tools and destructive weapons. See, GLIPAR came up for further evaluation. Submarine detection, inertial guidance, medical tools. And we set out in my department to build an optical radar, an optical range finder.
Do I understand correctly that you didn’t set out to build the other things? This was the thing you picked out of this group?
At this point. Subsequently we looked at some communications ideas too. Frank Goodwin got involved in that. Frank Goodwin did some early line of sight communication experiments, very good communication experiments, which I think I mentioned in my survey paper. He did some experiments from here down to Culver City, across the Santa Monica Bay. He did some very nice communication experiments. But as the first application we started out to look at the optical range finder, the laser range finder, and we did experiments between here and other hills around the vicinity. Interestingly enough, by this time Mal Stitch had moved on to Culver City, back to the operating part of the company, and he was intent upon developing laser applications there, and he also figured out that the optical range finder would be a good thing to do, and he organized a little group and set out to build one. He called it Colidar, but essentially he was trying to do the same thing, and we had a friendly competition going, our group here at Malibu and his group at Culver City, trying to see who could do the first range finding work.
What was involved? Were you personally doing research on this now, or you were managing?
I was running this department, and I was personally involved in the project and I did enough personal work with it that I put my name on the paper. In fact, I gave a paper. Back in those days the IRE had a national convention back in New York every year, and I was shooting for giving a paper at that national convention, and I gave a paper there in the spring of 1961.
I should like to know just technically what the difficulties and what the achievements were of that work, if you have any memories, or what the false starts were, the successful starts, this kind of thing.
There was never any question that it could be done, in my mind. It was very evident that it could be done. The problems of making it happen and making it practical hinged on the difficulty of getting a single short pulse out of a laser, because the Q-switched and I think still today for that matter, if you do not use the Q-switching idea, a ruby laser will produce a string of pulsations, for reasons which are not altogether understood yet, and so instead of getting one nice big pulse out, you get, over the period of a few milliseconds that you’re pumping it with the flash lamp, a string of smaller pulses. Obviously there’s a little bit of a problem in trying to figure out when the signal comes back, if it’s a string of pulses instead of just one big one. So what we did in those days was to try to correlate the string of pulses coming back with the string of pulses going out, and that was not a very practical way to build a range finder, of course, but in the paper that we put together and published in the convention record, we showed how we could correlate what we saw on our receiver with the piece of the light that we had sampled on the way out. We took the two scope traces and we slid them until they lined up. These pulse trains are sort of randomly spaced, and you didn’t have too much difficulty in sliding them to get a corresponding pattern of the two traces to determine what the range was.
Now, did Hellwarth’s work intersect with this at all? Because he’s already proposing Q-switching as early as the Berkeley meeting.
See, we did our first experiments in the fall of ‘60, and he proposed the Q-switch in January, or February, in the early spring of ‘61. And by that time we had done all of our experiments that we reported on in our first paper. But it was very clear, instantly clear, that that was the way to build the range finder.
It would be interesting to know whether your work had any input for him.
I don’t think it did. Actually it was sort of funny, because Maiman continued to be secretive even after he’d done his first laser work. It’s my recollection now, that I asked if we couldn’t get him to give us a laser, but we were not successful, and we ended up having to build one of our own with hints of information, because he didn’t want to tell us how to build one either. There was a certain amount of possessiveness, if you will. So it was not all that easy for us to build our first laser to do these experiments with, because he was not being all that cooperative.
Of course, you could have gone and read the Bell Labs paper?
I’ve forgotten the date of Bell Labs paper. We could have read the Bell Labs paper. Better yet, we could go talk with Irnee D’Harnens because Irnee wasn’t so secretive, so we found out how it was built, and what kind of a lamp to use and so on. In his press release Ted Maiman displayed a different lamp from the one that he’d used in his first experiment.
Intentionally, as far as you know?
As far as I know. Again, I don’t want to allege motives for people.
Yes, you’re right.
But it was my view, just between you and me, it was my view that he’d just as soon have put people off by showing them the wrong lamp. He had another explanation that he used in public, because it became evident later on that the publicity pictures that were taken did not have the proper components, and I think he said something about, well, he didn’t happen to have one handy, or these would work just as well, or something, but the fact of the matter is, I think he was intentionally trying to mislead people so they couldn’t catch up with him any sooner than necessary.
Because it is the case that when you ask people how they first heard of the laser, some will say they first heard from Bell, and the reason is that the Maiman paper really had rather sketchy information.
That’s right. It had very little. The Maiman paper was very sketchy. Now, subsequently there were a pair of papers that came out which were really quite complete, but that was not for another year or so, much later. Realistically I’m convinced that Ted wanted to milk that experimental setup for as much information as possible, then put it all together in one very comprehensive work. That’s what he wanted to do. Now, the fact is that Bell Labs caught up with him in a hurry, and didn’t wait around, and they went ahead and published much more of the details than Ted did until considerably later. But anyhow we succeeded in making our own laser, and we succeeded in doing the ranging experiments. The systems that we did these with was certainly not all that practical, because of the difficulty in correlating the pulse trains that I mentioned. But by this time Hellwarth had described the Q-switching idea, and in fact, I set to work to make it happen first, in my own department. Hellwarth who was working for Lyons, had come up with the idea, and we set to work with Fred McClung. We put Fred McClung to work to build a Q-switched laser, using Hellwarth’s ideas, and in fact we succeeded in building the first Q-switched laser in my department in the spring of ‘61, as I recall. And Hellwarth was very open and very cooperative. We didn’t have any of the difficulties dealing with Hellwarth that we’d had with Maiman.
You said Hellwarth was acting as a kind of consultant?
He was more than a consultant. Hellwarth and McClung worked together to build the Q-switched laser. McClung was the experimentalist, Hellwarth is a theoretiker, and I guess in terms of the management, I think I was the management that was responsible for pushing this to make it happen. It was kind of interesting that, again, we were all sure it was going to work, and in fact we — this is a fascinating little piece of trivia — by this time, we had proposed a program to the Air Force at Wright Field, a research program, in which the Q—switched laser was one of the major things we were going to be doing. And so we had made a proposal for a sort of omnibus program in laser research, but this was featured, and they gave us a contract, and the interesting thing is that they gave us the contract just about a week before we got the first successful operation of the Q-switched laser. And it turned out that Fred McClung was charging all of his time to this contract, at the time he made the demonstration, and although we had done 99.9 percent of the work on our own money, the Air Force got a full patent rights to it because the demonstration was done by a person who was working full time on their project.
I always think of that as an important Hughes patent.
Well, it is. I should explain. It is the policy of the Defense Department to allow the contractor to own the patent. But they get a free license if they support the work.
I see. Otherwise Hughes would have been able to charge them?
Well, the distinction is that, the government actually may be obligated to pay to you for the patent that they don’t own or don’t have a license to. They may be obligated to. By and large they’re somewhat cavalier about it. If they want to use a patent they use it and it doesn’t really make much difference, but it would have much, because if we’re going to sell equipment to the government, we’re not going to hold them up for a patent. We can’t. You have to ask them for permission to sue them and it’s something of a technicality, really. But the fact of the matter is that practically all of the work was done on Hughes money, but we did the final demonstration on the contract, and therefore the government gets a license. It’s somewhat academic. In terms of commercial applications, it doesn’t matter a bit, because we can use the patent for commercial purposes without worrying about the government license at all.
I guess the reason I’m pursuing it is that the way in which a company uses patents is a little bit interesting, just as a part of the company’s tradition of doing business, and I had understood from speaking to Paul Coble on Wednesday that Hughes really did pursue its patent position in this period. I forget the man’s name now, something like Hyland?
Pat Hyland is very high on patents, yes. He was the general manager in those days. That’s right.
And yet at the same time it doesn’t sound as though the patents are going to do you all that much good.
Two things. In the first place, if you have a patent that applied in the commercial marketplace, then it can do you a lot of good. Because you can require that a person who makes and sells something using your patent pay you royalties. Or in theory you can prohibit him from making it and selling it, in the commercial marketplace. And we do in fact derive a substantial amount of income from royalties being paid to us for commercial use of our patents. Secondly, it turns out to be important in the military business too, on an international basis. If you wish to license your know-how to a foreign company to build, say for example, if we want to license some British company to build military equipment for Britain, then patents are important, because we can use them in the same way there as we do commercially, and in fact, a company who wants to come to us and use some of our know-how values that know-how much more highly if it’s covered by patents, because that means that they can get protection against their competitors. So we do use it in international business, international military business, and we use it in commercial business in general, so the patents are important for those two reasons. And they’re finally important for a third reason, which is different from the other two, and that is that if in fact we are obligated to somebody else, if we need to use somebody else’s patent, it may very well turn out to be to our advantage to have a portfolio of our own, and frequently we will get favorable cross-license arrangement with other companies, if we have a good library of our own. In fact, we’ve had such cross-licenses with the telephone company, with Western Electric, and today we have a cross—license with IBM, and those arrangements can only be made if you have a good portfolio of your own.
Now, what happened next with Q-switching? Did that continue to be a research topic here?
Well, we built the first Q-switched laser here, and we did some further research along that line, but it was very quickly picked up by the group at Culver City, and built in to the base line range finding development, and all the laser range finders that have ever been made at Culver City, or anywhere else for that matter, use the Q-switch principle.
Now, you did the actual Q-switch laser. You didn’t build it into a radar here?
We didn’t build a radar with it, no.
So everything now transferred to Stitch’s group?
Yes, all the rangefinder development was transferred down to Stitch’s group. Stitch was running it at the time. Yes, that’s right.
And you just turned to other things, is that correct?
We went on to other things. In fact, the history is interesting in terms of the stimulated Raman scattering, which was the next hot thing that came along. At least that’s my recollection at the time. We began to broaden our research program, and we began to look at a variety of things, and the time sequence of these I may be a little hazy on, but we got interested in stimulated Raman scattering, which has a fascinating story of its own. We observed that Bell Labs had built some interesting gas lasers and we started gas laser work. We talked about developing new laser materials. We were not tremendously successful in developing new laser solid —
I see that you had a crystal growing program.
We had quite a crystal growing program. We built some doped fluorides. We got a pure holmium fluoride crystal which made a laser. Actually, our crystal growing activity has been very important in a variety of ways. I don’t think we struck it rich in any particular laser ourselves. We built a number of different materials, but I don’t think we really had all that great a success in developing new solid lasers.
How was it important, then?
Well, it became important primarily because, R.C. Pastor developed some novel ways of purifying materials. The RAP process, the Reaction Atmosphere Process, was his basic invention, which we have used in a whole variety of ways of making better materials of different kinds, not necessarily making new materials, but making materials of higher purity. We had quite an activity in laser windows for a while, where we were able to reduce the absorption of a potassium chloride window by three of four orders of magnitude, by using this purification process. We had been using it and we continue to use it yet today in a variety of different ways, but I think the bottom line here is, we didn’t really come up with any terribly important new solid lasers out of it.
But am I right to assume that this crystal growing and so on doesn’t just take its origins in the laser work, or did it come purely out of that to start with?
Now, again, I’m a little hazy about some of the historical threads there — it was my impression that the beginnings came out of the laser experience, yes. Rick Pastor was fairly closely tied to Ted Maiman. In fact, he left and went to work for Ted’s company for a while. Then he came back.
Did Maiman take a lot of people with him?
He took a few, not a lot. He took a few.
Was that much of a —
— I would say that a number of people sort of scattered, at this time, and there was some perturbation as a result of that. George Birnbaum left and went to Rockwell. Bela Lengyel retired and went to teach at the State University of California at Northridge. So Bela went and became a teacher, George Birnbaum went to Rockwell, Ted Maiman left and organized Quantatron which became Korad. Mal Stitch went down to Culver City, and got into the development activity, and then subsequently not too many years later left. He’s an interesting character. Not a terribly good manager. He’s a big promoter. Harold Lyons left. I guess I don’t even know where Harold Lyons went. Bob Hellwarth stuck around for a while and participated in stimulated Raman scattering activities, took a year’s sabbatical, went back to University of Illinois, and came back to California and had by that time become persuaded he really wanted to join the academic world, and took a position at USC.
Now, this scattering of people, was the implicated in it?
I think, you know, frankly, this was a very unusual collection of people. They were highly individualistic. There were a number of crazy interactions among them. Beginning with Lyons. I would say that I don’t think that the laser itself was responsible for the scattering. I think it was more the natural course of events. I think they were a rather unstable combination. And they went their various ways. Now, a considerable chunk of the activity went down to Culver City, and emerged as what has been the biggest laser range finder and designator activity in the country, and so a great deal came out of it, in terms of the activity at Culver City. And Eric Woodbury was right in the heart of all of that. I think you would find it interesting to talk with Eric, because he joined the group after the initial work began, but he was there by the time the useful products were beginning to come out. But it didn’t surprise me a bit that the group sort of spread apart that way, because of the personalities of the individuals. They were really very unusual. Not altogether admirable traits. I think that there was a great deal of personal ambition and jealousy and difficulty in interacting with people among this group. But there were some very bright people, very talented guys. Fascinating. We continued to have a very considerable research activity that grew. A lot of people were attracted to the field, people who had gotten tired of doing whatever they were doing and wanted to join up, and so —
— your groups would shift.
So we had some shifting of interests and we have in fact continued to do somewhere between, oh, something on the order of 20, 25 percent of our activity has been laser-oriented ever since.
And when people began to pour into laser research at this point, was it still only up to 25 percent or was there a sort of swelling and then ebbing?
I think it may have gotten a little bit bigger.
That’s something I’d like to look at. Is that a history of the lab?
This is TWENTY YEARS AT MALIBU. This was a review of what had happened in the 20 years, for an internal meeting of the lab, held in 1980.
That’s an interesting thing just as a context for the research —
In 1961, of our internal program, almost a third was related to masers and lasers. We were still doing a fair amount of maser work in 1961. One of the things I tried to do in this presentation was to compare the nature of the programs back in ‘61 with the program in 1980. Optics, we call it optics now, is a little bit less than a quarter. Here in 1961 we had nearly a third. And the total size of the program —
That’s big, in ‘61, that really mushroomed right away.
It did. It had grown quite a substantial amount by 1961. See, the things that we were featuring, we had the optically pumped maser. We went back to those experiments that had led Ted to the laser in the first place, the optically pumped microwave maser.
Oh, it was, I think it was more a matter of demonstrating the idea of an optically pumped microwave device. Even if masers had turned out to be important, I don’t think it would be a very important thing. It was more a matter of scientific stunt, I think, than anything else. It’s an interesting idea, that you can essentially use a laser to pump a maser with.
When you say that things were freer for research, in those days, does that mean that you wouldn’t pursue a scientific stunt these days?
Sometimes I wonder about that. I would like to think that we still would. And I think some of our people would, but remember, there was the period of the Mansfield Amendment, and there was a bit of time when everything had to be very relevant, and there certainly has been I think a judicious tightening up of accountability. I think there are good features and maybe deleterious features having to do with the changes. It was my impression back in the fifties that it was easier to go out and try something. I keep trying to tell our own people around here that they shouldn’t take the objectives for their projects too seriously. If you’ve got a great new idea, let’s go and try it, even if it doesn’t exactly fit the description of what the project’s supposed to be about. But there are a lot of people who find themselves somehow psychologically constrained to stick to what it says in the description of the job. It’s a good question. People sometimes ask the question, do you suppose that the climate is such that you could have another breakthrough like the laser? I would like to think that it is, but I’m not sure. I think we are more regulated than we used to be.
Now, a little earlier you spoke of some of the hot topics that were going to be coming up in this laser research. I would like to say that I’m also interested in the cold topics, in this sense: the easiest thing to do is to follow the line of the successes historically, but what we would like to do instead is get a feeling for what scientific life was actually like at the time, when you can’t see what the line of successes is going to be, the whole activity, and some of it is going to pan out, some isn’t.
OK. I think that’s a legitimate line to follow. If we take a look at the things that we were looking at in 1961, we were looking at the optically pumped maser, and I think realistically we probably all realized that it was more of a stunt than something really terribly useful. We were still working on an X band ruby maser. We were trying to develop a higher frequency emerald maser. We never succeeded with that, primarily because it was extremely difficult to get any decent emerald. The synthetic emeralds that were available were not anywhere near the quality the synthetic rubies were. We actually commissioned a guy who was growing emerald primarily for gem purposes to grow some material for us, and spent a moderate amount of money on that, but we never got anything that was good enough to make a maser with.
You were still interested in maser radars.
In ‘61 we were still interested in masers as microwave devices, and we still had a little bit of work going on in ammonia beam clocks.
Did that feed right into the hydrogen maser clock?
No. That stopped altogether, and we were down and out of clocks for 15 years or so. That one was terminated. We were doing work with the Q-switched laser. Now, here’s another example of a stunt, if you will, the R-2 line ruby, we did that. That was a success from the scientific point of view.
That was done at Westinghouse and Bell.
We did it here first, I believe.
That I didn’t know. I always think of Schawlow at Bell and Wieder and Sarles in 1960.
When, you say?
Well, I would have to go back and look at the details. The R-2 line ruby is just a little variation on the R-1 line.
I must have got that wrong.
It turns out that there’s a pair of lines in the fluorescence of ruby, and they’re very close together really, and the R-1 always goes unless you block it, and the way we made the R-2 line ruby laser was to block the R-1. Actually that’s a little bit more in the red, little lower energy. If I’m not mistaken.
I’m sure you’re right, I just am confusing the R lines.
We tried to duplicate and did succeed in duplicating the helium neon laser. We made our own helium neon laser. We were looking at some other gaseous lasers. Back in those days, we were essentially wrapping up our range finder experiments, and we were trying to develop some new solid laser hosts, and we did the holmium device and we built some other rare earth fluoride laser materials, but they were never terribly successful. I think it’s equally interesting to look at a few of the things that didn’t really pan out. We developed a simple minded ruby welder, a ruby laser welder, which never amounted to anything.
That was at this early period?
That was happening in the early sixties. You’ll find reference to that in the annual reports, I’m sure. In fact, there are some pictures of the laser welder we developed. We even had some conversations with the Airco Co. with the idea that maybe they might go into production on a laser welder.
Other people have developed welding and cutting equipment. We got away from that.
I think of that as being early seventies stuff, welding equipment, except for the micro circuit. This seems surprisingly early.
Well, nothing substantial came of it. We did get to the point where we built some prototype equipment and showed it at shows. Probably there were some things you could have done with it, but the things you could do with it, you could better do with other equipment, and it really was not a success. I think one of the more fascinating things that we did — in the company — was to develop a cloth cutter. I have some pictures of the cloth cutter in here. That was again technically quite successful, and in fact the company for a period of time was in the business of selling cloth cutters to the garment industry. But it was ill-advised. It never made it in the long haul.
I see. Was there any pressure on you not to do so much commercial as opposed to military? Was anybody saying to you, “We ought to keep our eye on our chief customer”? I mean cloth cutting and so on.
I should point out that in the middle sixties, there was a period of time when we in the company thought that we ought to get into some other kinds of business besides the military. There was an activity aimed at diversifying into other kinds of business. Now, the fact is that it never came too much. We took little fliers in this, that and the other direction, but by the time we had developed some things that might have been the basis for some different kinds of business, the mainline business, the defense business of the company was beginning to bloom, and the interest in diversifying outside of the defense business had faded.
I see. It’s kind of pre the whole Vietnam mushrooming into a big war?
Again, the Vietnam situation, to the best of my perception, did not have a lot of impact on our company. The kinds of things we were doing, I guess some of them might have been used in Vietnam, but the fact is that they did not have a major impact on the Hughes Aircraft Co., to the best of my perception.
I see, because the dates are so suggestive, the middle sixties, when the military begins to boom.
There could have been a correlation in the sense that we might have been swept up to some degree, but the kind of thing that the Hughes Aircraft Co. has specialized in were not all that heavily used in Vietnam.
You didn’t do night vision, for example?
We have done night vision things and maybe some of that was used, but you know, by and large, the major lines of business of the company have been airborne radar equipment, for tactical aircraft situations. We have a line of missiles, air to air missiles, air to ground missiles. I think not many of them got into Vietnam. Vietnam was not a very sophisticated war. Most of the equipments that we have built have been pretty sophisticated. I think to the best of my knowledge, we did not provide a lot of the equipment that went into Vietnam.
For example, one thing that I had in my head from reading some old ELECTRONICS and AVIATION WEEK was that the Vietnam War was important for the range finder market, for the target designator market. And for making that into a sort of large scale rather than small scale market. That may just be a misapprehension.
In my perception, it didn’t play that big a role. It’s conceivable that some of the designators were used. I guess I really don’t know. I doubt very much that much of the range finding gear was used in the Vietnam War; some of the designator equipment might have been. But all things considered, I do not believe the Vietnam War made very much use of the technology Hughes Aircraft Co. was producing.
Reality is always more complicated than you expect. Well, we haven’t talked yet about the Raman laser.
That was a fascinating development, fascinating in the sense that the first observation of Raman scattering was made at Culver City by Woodbury and Ng. In fact, I think I talked about it in my paper. You probably saw that, it was done in the course of their looking for ways of improving the Q-switched laser. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, I think they were looking at oscillator-amplifier arrangements and trying to determine how they might be able to make a more efficient system for range finding. And in the course of their measurements, they discovered that things didn’t add up right; in particular they found that when they were working with two different kinds of photo detectors, they got some inconsistent results, and they finally traced it down to the fact that there was energy coming out of the system at a different wavelength from what they expected. The energy that was coming out was being detected by one of the detectors and not by another, and that accounted for the discrepancy in the results. And along about that time, there were some conversations with our people here at Malibu — the original observations were made in Culver City — conversations with people here at Malibu, perhaps starting with Hellwarth. You know, he was the father of the Q-switched laser in the first place. And there was a very great activity in trying to explain the mystery. Very exciting development. Everybody got wrapped up in trying to figure out what was going on. Nobody knew what was going on, and I think it’s fair to say that the answer was principally arrived at by a group of our people here at the Research Laboratories, including Bob Hellwarth, Fred McClung and Gisela Eckhardt and maybe a few others, names that are on the paper. There is the Raman scattering paper that has all the names of the people that participated in that. I can remember wandering around the laboratories, having hallway conversations and trying to figure out what to make of the most recent tidbit of experimental evidence.
I had no idea that it was such a spread out activity. I thought it was just one little experiment.
Well, there were quite a number of people that got involved in it. It attracted a number of people, because of the mystery. They discovered this new radiation: what was it due to? Was it a new laser line of some kind that had escaped observation before? It wasn’t very long before there were those who were advocating that it was stimulated Raman scattering, except stimulated Raman scattering was a new concept that nobody had ever seen before. It just seemed to have some of the right wavelength characteristics, that it might be due to stimulated Raman scattering. But nobody knew for sure how that ought to work, if it did work. And then there was a question of whether maybe we were picking up a harmonic effect in the fluorescent system instead. As I say, it was a very exciting thing with a number of people putting their two cents worth in.
A number of people advocating the stimulated Raman?
Well, there was a hot debate going on as to whether it was stimulated Raman scattering or whether it was something else. And then there was a sequence of experiments, you know, trying to pin it down. I guess finally deuterated benzene, if I’m not mistaken, was the clincher — again, I think the description in my summary paper is more precise than I can do off the top of my head.
OK, there’s no point in replicating.
But it was a lot of fun. Everybody got a big kick out of it. It was a very enjoyable period of time, a lot of excitement, as the mystery story unfolded.
How many months did this stretch over?
Well, I have a terrible memory for times. My recollection is that it was a few, not too many. We can probably pin it down in terms of the time interval between the first letter — see, Woodbury and Ng got their letters off to the correspondence section of the IEEE Proceedings, right at the beginning, before they had any idea what it was. They had demonstrated a new effect and it had a new wavelength. They didn’t know what it was due to. And I think the article that was published later by Eckhardt et al. described it, and that would give you a good measure of how long it was. My recollection was that it was a few months, not too many, because there was a very lively activity going on. There were a lot of people digging very furiously trying to be the first to figure out what was really happening. The argon ion laser, of course, Bill Bridges is very good at describing what went on. I was on the sidelines. That was being done in the other laboratory. And so I observed it from the side but I wasn’t directly involved in it myself. Bill is a very gregarious person and everybody knows Bill, so we all had a pretty good idea what was happening there, and it was pretty exciting — you know, when he discovered his new lines, completely unexpectedly and then went through the detective work of figuring out what that was. But I think actually, and I have a little write-up that he gave me, which I can share with you.
When you say he was at the other laboratory, he wasn’t at Culver City?
No. Remember I was saying that about half the laboratory reported to me, about half of it reported to Mal Currie. I believe that took place after we were co-directors of the place; he [Bridges] was in the other side of the house.
‘64 or so.
Yes. That adds up. So he didn’t report directly to me, but I was certainly aware of what he was doing, and again it was very exciting. I think the interesting thing there was the collaboration in terms of getting the continuous argon laser, the collaboration with Eugene Gordon at Bell Labs, which I’m sure Bill will describe to you, one of the few occasions when we had a joint paper with the Bell Labs people about a new discovery. The CW ruby laser was done on my side of the house, by Viktor Evtuhov and Jim Neeland, and in fact, I do have a picture of that, and there’s some descriptive material about it in the write-ups. I think that, although at the time we thought that that might have importance, as it turned out, it was convenient to study modes with, but actually gas laser were even more convenient, and so ultimately, I’m not sure that it was all that vital a development. I think in a sense it was an easier system to understand than the trumpet CW ruby, but both of them to some degree were stunts, if you will. It’s sort of a tour de force to prove that you can make a CW ruby laser, but it’s not really CW. It sits there and pulsates the way that gave us trouble when we were doing the range finding work.
Is that something that appeared as a tour de force at the time it was being done or in retrospect?
Well, I think it wouldn’t take too much insight to appreciate that it was something of a tour de force even at the time it was being done. Viktor’s around, if you’d like to —
I spoke to him very briefly at headquarters.
Well, he did a very nice piece of work, and he was one of the early people to look at the variety of transverse modes that you can develop in a laser. But actually a gas system is easier to control than a ruby, and I think it’s probably in the long run easier to do your studying with the gas system than with the ruby. So I’m not sure it was all that vitally important. [Consults question] I don’t think laser displays, the idea of displaying television, that sort of thing, is that what you have in mind?
No, I was thinking of the displays used in cockpits.
Oh, the holographic displays?
That’s important, yes. The idea of using a laser to expose holographic optical elements, yes, that’s certainly important. In fact, there was a fascination with holography here. We had a group of people who were very much interested in seeing what they could do with it. In fact, even to this day, there’s work going on at Hughes in building holographic optical components. The most significant practical thing that has come out of that is the cockpit head-up display, where the idea is to build an optical element that will conform to the windscreen of the airplane and provide an optical element like a flat mirror but on a curved surface, that will allow you to project a radar picture into the eyes of the pilot, superimposed upon the view that he sees out through the wind screen.
Was Hughes very prominent in that whole development?
We hold what we believe to be fairly basic patents. We have developed some of the best head—up display units. And I’d say the answer is, yes, we are pretty prominent in that. We’re not the only people that are doing it. There are a couple of other people. I notice one of the others managed to make the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article. The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article on the laser has an illustration of a head-up display by, I think it’s Flight Dynamics which is one of our competitors. But in fact, if I’m not mistaken, I think we are asking Flight Dynamics for royalties on our patents.
I’m getting an impression from you which is quite different from the one I got from Bridges. Bridges gave me the impression that work here at the laboratories was always very much keyed to systems that you were developing, whereas here I’m getting the feeling that there’s really a lot of concentration on devices, on effects. Does that make sense to you?
Well, I think the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Motivation for a lot of things that we’ve done comes from the systems, that’s true, and it turns out that some of the things that Bill was personally involved with tied rather closely to some of the systems concepts. For a period of time he was looking very hard at ways of using the laser as a line scanning device to make a ground map from an airplane. I don’t think anything really ever came of that. Certainly the head-up display ties in with the radar systems that we have. That is motivated almost entirely by the idea of allowing the fire control equipment for an airplane to display the proper information, so that’s very much tied to a system. It is a fact that many of the things we have worked on are devices. If we are going to work on devices, we try to work on devices that can be important in the systems that the company builds. We’re not always successful at that. You know, the company has five systems groups and one component group. Historically, we have had probably more interaction with the components group because if we build a new laser per se, they are the ones who might build it, manufacture it. Actually that’s a lousy example because it’s the one instance where the device is actually manufactured in our systems group. The systems group builds our lasers. But we have developed tubes that have been made in the component group. We have built micro-electronic circuits that have been made in the component group. It’s a mix. Really it goes both ways. Back to the business of holographic elements, the head-up display is a principal one but we also have worked on combining elements that can be used in some of the beam control equipment for high power lasers. If you want to sample the beam from a high power laser, a diffraction grating is a good element to have, and you can build that with holography. We have worked on that.
As a stunt, we made some holographic motion pictures. We used the CW ruby laser to do that, the one that I said in its own right was a stunt. We did a stunt with a stunt. We had a repetitively Q-switched system working with the CW ruby laser to make a sequence of holograms, and we took some pictures of fish swimming in a fish pond of aquarium, something like that. A stunt. There was a lot of interest in holography, you know, when it came on the scene. But our practical development of that has been limited to these optical elements like the —
I’m getting the picture. It’s like inaugurating maser research in the fifties. Holography came along and it was something that you would go into and say, “Let’s see what this might do for the company.”
That’s right. That’s correct. Yes. Some of our investigators plunged in to see, “Hey, what’s with this holography?” whether it was going to apply to the company or not. I mean, we had people taking pictures of statues and things like that, just for the fun of it. And out of it all did come the head-up combiner, the head-up display.
There’s also a sense of play emerging from all of this which I had not expected.
Well, researchers are curious people who are very much interested in finding out what they can. I think there’s a certain amount of play involved, sure. I mean, there’s no reason why it can’t be fun as well as important and useful. They’re all different dimensions. Some things are important and not useful. Some things are fun and not important. Ultimately, if you’re going to invest heavily over a period of time, then you’d better figure out what’s going to be useful. But on the other hand, unless you do a little playing around, you may not stumble onto the thing that’s going to be important. So I think that there’s room for both. The mode selection work, you know, Evtuhov and Neeland did a fair amount of study of modes. Mode selection is a common technique that is used in many experiments these days, but I’m not sure that I would have much to add on that topic. When you wrote down “laser beam displays” there have been those who have advocated that one could build a projection display in color with three different colored lasers. I don’t think that’s a very practical idea. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. But there were some thoughts given to it by some of our people, including Bill Bridges, because Bill happened to have a laser that could put out blue light, which is one of the tougher ones to get, and also green. He had blue and green and the red of course could come from the helium-neon laser. Actually I guess you can get red out of some of the noble gas ion lasers too. In fact, Ted Maiman in one stage of his career was concentrating on the idea of developing a laser projection display. I don’t think it’s practical, for two reasons. One of them is that the colored lasers that you’d need are relatively inefficient, the kind of lasers that you could practically build into a display, those that you could afford. There may be more efficient colored lasers that are very very high high power, but lasers that could be useful for display are pretty inefficient, and that means that the display is going to take a lot of power, many tens of kilowatts or so, and it’s not going to be a very economical thing. Another more important reason is that it’s hard to deflect a light beam electrically. You can do it mechanically with a mirror, but if you want to electrically deflect a light beam, that’s tough. And if you do it mechanically, then you have the problem of synchronizing the scanning line with the television picture that’s coming in over the air. It’s not out of the question that you can do that, but it’s not easy to do that with a mechanical system.
Tell me, how did you and Currie pass judgment on these things? How would something like Bridges’ three color display get started and how would you deal with it? Did you have meetings each week in which people said what they were doing?
Well, a variety of techniques. We count on our researchers generally to come up with the ideas. They can do a certain amount of bootlegging on ideas in the ordinary course of their work without any problem, on practically anything they might be able to manage, as long as it doesn’t take a significant investment over and above what they may already have. On a longer time scale, we do define projects and we go through a decision process every year as to what we’re going to have in the way of projects for the following year. It’s a rather complicated process, where we do evaluate all the proposals that are made to us, and we end up allocating budgets for different activities. So in any typical year, any given year, you may have somebody like bridges coming in and saying, “I think we ought to have a project on a laser display for 19__”, whatever year. And we will weigh that along with the other things that have been suggested, and take into account the fact that Bridges has a good record and if he thinks it’s a good idea, then we shouldn’t dismiss it lightly, just because personally we have a strong inclination to invest in people who have shown themselves to be winners, even if what they happen to be proposing may not appear to be too promising to us. In the long haul it pays to invest in winners. In fact if it turns out to be a lousy idea he’ll probably find it out pretty fast and go on and do something else instead anyway.
Who’s the “we” here? It’s you and, is it a committee of scientists?
Well, the process that we go through in arriving at our programs for the coming year is primarily an interaction between our department managers, who collect the ideas from within their own organizations, and myself and my assistant director. We have meetings with each of our department managers and we get their proposals, what they think we ought to fund for the coming year. Ultimately we get from the corporation a bogey on how much money they expect to give us for the coming year, and we then come up with a proposition which has some elements of choice in it. We get feedback from corporate staff; there’s a corporate technology staff that looks over the proposals that come from all parts of the company, and they exercise some influence. Generally they haven’t made major changes in what we propose. We’ve been fairly successful in the laser several years in selling the programs that we propose. I attribute that partly to the fact that we have a pretty good record in the past, of doing relevant work and proposing a reasonable program. I think if we weren’t doing that, then we might get more instructions from the corporate office. But by and large we have a lot of autonomy. I have a lot of autonomy in deciding what we will fund. Of course, you take into account that you have a given staff, you can’t make drastic changes in the staff quickly. I don’t know if that answers the question.
Yes. Now, the historical question, shall I project this answer back into the sixties?
The general approach was not all that different. I think that back in the late fifties and early sixties, perhaps there was a little less surveillance of the total project than there is today. Perhaps not quite as much judgment was being passed on the programs then as there is now. The laser communications systems, I made reference to that in my paper; the more I chat with you, the more I think you might like to talk with Frank Goodwin; he is located back in Washington, so it should not be too difficult for you to contact him. He personally did a variety of laser communication experiments, starting with a very simple helium-neon laser experiment, and ending up with… We mentioned earlier the coherent communications work, and I was saying it happened later. Well, he ended up by transmitting television imagery some 20 miles across the bay with a carbon dioxide laser, and a heterodyne receiver, where he had a local oscillator at the other end and the whole works. For a period of time, we were suggesting to NASA that lasers would be a respectable way to communicate between satellites, and in fact we got them fairly well persuaded that that was a good thing to do, and then we stumbled along the way and didn’t get their support to do it, or any significant amount of support to do it. At that time we were pushing the idea of a carbon dioxide system, with coherent detection. They ended up going with — they started out with a contract with Aero jet, which was a crazy place for them to contract with, because Aero jet had done nothing in this field, but they beat us out in the competition for the development program, and then they screwed it up royally at Aero jet and it went down the drain. In the mean time the Air Force had been looking at a neodymium YAG pulse system, which they continued to develop over quite a period of time. Today they both have gone by the board, and I think that ultimately some kind of semiconductor laser system may in fact make the grade, but that has been something of a disappointment, the idea of line of sight communication, either through the atmosphere or in space. That’s been something of a disappointment.
When is that dating from?
I’d have to go back and look, but my recollection was that a lot of this was going on in the late sixties and early seventies.
And it was originating here in the laboratory?
Well, there was some other work going on elsewhere, but we were very strong in it, and Frank Goodwin did many of the first experiments. Of course, in the meantime fiber optics comes along. Fiber optics is a much more practical way of sending optical information around on the surface of the earth than trying to do it through the atmosphere, so... I guess I was just saying, I don’t think that line of sight laser communication on the surface of the earth has any prospects today at all, since fiber optics can do a much better job. However, I think that there still is a good possibility of providing links from one satellite to another, with the advantages of the laser being that you can work with small antennas, instead of having a big antenna which is something of a problem on a communications satellite which has its whole antenna farm there. Secondly, the beams are very tight so that you can establish a secure communication link through space from one satellite to another without any appreciable danger of being intercepted, in case you want it — for a military application, that could be an advantage. So such links don’t exist today, but I think in time that laser communications by line of sight from one satellite to another will come.
Is there something going on here that a lot of these things were premature, or were they no more premature than usual?
Well, it’s hard to say. I guess I’m of the opinion that that kind of a satellite to satellite link could have been done earlier, if it were important enough, and it turned out it wasn’t. Actually it turns out that millimeter waves are a pretty good way to go from one satellite to another too, and the technology is far more mature. I would like to think that, you know, if we’d all done our thing a little better, it [laser communications] would have happened a little earlier, and it could have happened earlier, if it had been sufficiently important. But you know, when all the chips are down, I think that this is more the usual course of development, that the time has not been right for it yet. OK, the CO2 laser program, we got involved, speaking of the —
This is the AVCO program.
Yes, OK. We ended up working together with Avco on the development of the gas dynamic laser, where Avco had the experience with the handling of the gases, flowing gases, burning gases and the burners and all that kind of stuff, and we understood the lasers pretty well, and we had a very lively thing going on there for quite a period of time, where we essentially brought the laser expertise to the joint venture.
Oh, really? I’m curious about that, because I think of Avco as also having laser expertise.
At the beginning, their laser expertise was far far more primitive than ours and in fact, the basis of the joint activity was that we would concentrate on the more sophisticated part of the laser design, and they would concentrate more on the handling of the mechanisms, the burners and all that sort of thing. Now, as time went on they developed a pretty good laser capability of their own too, and we sort of grew apart and they continued their own activities without much interaction with us anymore. But in the early days, when things were just getting started, it was very much a collaboration between the two companies. I was not all that close to it myself. I think Bill Bridges probably had a little more involvement, but come to think of it, the person who would be best at this would be Art Chester. Have you had any conversations with Art Chester?
No, I haven’t.
Well, Art Chester still works for the company and he presently runs the tactical engineering division of the company down in El Segundo, the electro-optical and Data Systems group. He is manager of tactical engineering division.
I’m curious how that whole project got started, because it’s not evident immediately what was in it for Hughes to join with Avco on that. Were you at all involved in that decision?
I wasn’t personally involved in it. I think that, you know, the question of what happened with high energy lasers, high power lasers — Walt Sooy worked here for a while and he was in on the beginning of this. You’ve probably run across Walt Sooy.
Bob Seidel did a long interview with him which I’m not allowed to see yet.
Well, much of what he did happened after he left Hughes and went to the Navy. But he was certainly instrumental in getting us started in high power lasers, and there’s another individual that you might like to talk to and that’s Peressini, Eugene P. Peressini.
That’s a name I don’t know.
Well, the reason I mention Gene Peressini is, in those days he was the leader of an activity to put Hughes into the high power laser device business. He devised some approaches that had a lot of technical merit, but Hughes Aircraft Co., this may be an oversimplified summary, but Hughes Aircraft Co. made the decision not to invest enough to really get us in as a viable competitor to some of the other people who had made it big in high power lasers. We did not succeed in accomplishing that objective. On the other hand, we did manage to develop a position as the most capable beam control organization for high power lasers, and I think it’s probably true today. We still are the most capable beam control organization. Now, that does get into the classified area, but if you’re going to build a high power laser for any purpose, you need both the device and you need the means of being able to steer it and direct it toward wherever you want to have it go.
As I understand what you’re saying, it wasn’t a failure of the desire of the company to go in this direction, it just didn’t —?
Well, I’m speaking for another organization now. All of this took place down in our electro-optical group, and that’s why I suggest that you might want to talk with Peressini, because Peressini was a principal in the laser device end of it. He also has had cognizance over the beam director activities too. There’s a somewhat different cast of characters involved in that, but my impression is that the company decided that the higher power laser was going to take more of an investment than they wanted to make. The upper echelon of the company decided it was going to take more of an investment than seemed warranted, considering the prospects for business, prospects for practical systems and the like. But what happened was that in the course of all of this, it developed that we became the experts in producing the equipment to steer the beams around, but we did not become expert in making the high power devices ourselves.
You’re still in there?
We’re still in there. We’re still in there with the beam control business. And the beam control business — well, this is current. This is not history really, this is current activities. There’s a different cast of characters that are handling that today. I don’t know whether you want to bother talking with them or not. It depends on how much they’d be able to discuss with you, which I don’t know either, because they do get into classified requirements.
I think that’s Seidel’s part of the —
— but Dick Auelmann is the person who is the expert in that for us. Auelmann, Richard R. He’s the person I would go to. He is a leader in the beam control business. You know we built a beam director that was tied together with a TRW laser and was used to do some fascinating experiments down at Capistrano, and that beam director is going off to White Sands now to join the national laser facility there. My own view, just for what it’s worth, is that it’s going to be a while before you’re going to be able to do anything very important with a laser weapon. That’s still very much in the research stage, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think that’s classified. Adaptive optics comes into play and is a part of that. We pioneered with the multiple dither mirror arrangement, which is one of the early forms of adaptive optics, that our guys here did some of the first work on. The idea of having a flexible mirror with a lot of plungers and a feedback system, to pre-distort the surface in such a fashion as to compensate for the effects of the atmosphere which you’d expect to see when you put the beam into the atmosphere. And more recently, we’ve come up with some novel approaches for adaptive optics that are less complicated and probably more promising. This is very much current research. We’re still very much involved in that.
That would be a pretty continuous history, from the early —
Yes, that’s pretty continuous form the early days, that’s right. I don’t say anything about dye lasers. I don’t know anything about dye lasers.
Yes, that seems to be mostly Culver City and I just put it in in case something was going on here.
Eric Woodbury might be able to shed a little light on that, and actually, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t think we have done too much original work with dye lasers ourselves. We’ve used them, but I don’t think we’ve been all that heavily involved in doing original research.
Well, thank you very much.
G.F. Smith, "The Early Laser Years at Hughes Aircraft Company," IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics QE-20 (1984), 577-584.
G. Eckhardt, R.W. Hellwarth, F.J. McClung, S.E. Schwartz, D. Weiner, and E.J. Woodbury, Phys. Rev. Letters 9, (1962), 455.