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Interview of Merle Tuve by Thomas D. Cornell on 1982 February 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4921-2
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Early youth in Canton, South Dakota; teenage interest with E. O. Lawrence in radios and electricity; origins of physics interest at Augustana Academy, Canton; college years at the University of Minnesota until 1923; graduate work at Princeton University and at Johns Hopkins University; Ph.D. at Hopkins in 1926 for collaboration with Gregory Breit studying ionosphere with radio waves; position at Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM); nuclear physics work with Odd Dahl, L. R. Hafstad, and others using Tesla coils in 1920s and Van de Graaff generators in 1930s; head of proximity fuse work and first director of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory during World War II; return to DTM, becoming director 1946-1966; DTM research during directorship in seismology, biophysics, and radio astronomy.
I brought some things to show you today.
OK. This is Friday, February 5, 1982, Tom Cornell and Merle Tuve.
I don't know if these will be clear enough. They are Xeroxes of negatives. And I wondered if this was your radio set.
Yes, sure. This was when I was a boy — 1915, 1914. There's a mast here [points to negative #1] of two-by-fours — two of them stuck together — with guys. This is the front of our house. This is my early radio room [points to negative #2]. You can see an inductance there and a spark coil — where did I get those pennants? — in my bedroom.
Oh, that's your bedroom?
I always thought the set was in your basement.
No. We had a workshop in the basement, but the set was in my bedroom. Now let's see — here's a picture of the set [points to negative #3] with the spark coil, with the tuning inductance for the spark set. Here's the spark coil. Here's the tuning inductance for the receiver. Where'd you find these negatives?
They were in one of the boxes of your papers at the Library of Congress.
Oh. Because I pulled those out and had them for the — I guess that was perhaps the fortieth anniversary — was it the fortieth or fiftieth? — out in Boulder, Colorado. I guess it was when they dedicated the radio section, the CRPL. That part of the Bureau of Standards was moved to Boulder about 1954. And I was one of the speakers there. I've been historied before. I've been historied for a long time. [laughs] But this is probably Ernie Lawrence and me [points to negative #4].
Oh, I couldn't tell who the people were.
I couldn't quite recognize that.
This one was a picture of one of the sets [points to negative #5], but it didn't come through. Is it the same set, these two pictures [points to #2 and #3]?
I think so.
And that's before you had your audion tube?
I think this one has it [points to #2]. But that was the radio bench that I had.
Did you make that bench yourself?
No. It was an old table of my father's, when he was a school teacher. If you get somewhat better pictures of it, if you happen to — is there any provision by which they can get those?
I'll identify them.
That's about 1914 — 1915, maybe.
Well, I thought those were yours. But I wasn't sure, so I thought I'd bring them by and see.
That one with the people in it I don't quite recognize, but those are our banisters.
Going on to something else, this is a topographical map of the Canton area. And I wondered if you could point out the landmarks that you remember.
Let me get oriented.
It's a new map.
This is all right. I think I can pick out our house.
Go ahead and mark on that if you like.
This is a little different now. It's been built up a little.
When it says "Augustana Academy," is that the same place?
Same place. They called it Augustana College in the old days. They'd had two years of college. They suited the institutions to the needs in those days — this was back in 1889. My father came there in 1889. It had just been moved from Beloit, which was down — there's Beloit, yes. No, I don't recognize quite all these many houses. Let's see, which is which? There's the road. They've added something to that building, too. This is our street and — it isn't quite right.
Has the town grown considerably since you were there?
It's extended a few houses here. Let's see — I know where that is, and I know where that is. That's a new street that was cut through there [points to 1a]. This is also a new street here [points to 1b]. And this should be our house. No, it was one block south.
On the corner?
Right there [points to 2]. We faced north. I don't know what that is — that's new.
Was this the highway [points to 3]?
That's simply the main street. It goes on up to the three-mile bridge. This is the three-mile bridge [points to 4]. There's a four-mile bridge up here. And the old cemetery.
There's a cemetery here [points to a cemetery northeast of town].
That's it. Yes, there it is. You go up to it this way.
Where are the bluffs?
Right over here [points to 7]. Here are the contour lines.
It looks like the high ground is there.
They're along in here. And there's a ridge.
Didn't you work at a store downtown at one time?
Where's the downtown section?
There's the courthouse [points to 8] and Mr. Puckett's store — they cut a new street there — it's right here [points to 9]. That used to be an alley. It must have been improved. Well, there's Fifth Street. This is the road south [points to 10]. But the ski jump — let's see, where is the ski jump? There's a valley of some kind [in the region of the bluffs].
The green, I think, indicates trees.
Yes, there were trees on these bluffs. Oh, I'm disappointed that I can't spot the ski jump. The contours don't look quite right.
When you were at the store downtown, what kind of work did you do?
Oh, I was a general factotum, I suppose. But I was a helper to the clerks in the dry goods department. It was a double store. One side was a grocery store. The other side was a dry goods store. I sold diaper cloth, all kinds of cloth, corsets — I sold all kinds of things. But then I'd run on errands for the owner of the store, Mr. Puckett, or I helped open the store and sweep out in the morning, that sort of thing.
How did you get that job?
Well, I finished Augustana Academy — this was the same as the high school — in June. My father died in July. My mother chose to stay there that winter. My older brother was at the University of Minnesota studying engineering. And so I would just be the man of the house for the winter and find something to do, kinda learn what the world was like. So I went hunting for a job. I found this one — Mr. Puckett gave me a job. There was another one open at a bank. Although I wasn't prepared to do anything, they were kinda interested in me as an office boy or something. But I was glad to get this job just helping in the dry goods store. Then Ernie Lawrence went off to college and came back at Christmas time — that was the time we — did I tell you about the glider?
We built a glider during our Christmas vacation and tried to fly it. It was, you know, just essentially an air foil — controlled by your arms and legs and your center of gravity. We had a good wind blowing from the north, up the north face of these bluffs where we had the ski jump. So Ernie and I — we had good snow out there, and we skied out to the ski jump carrying this air foil. It must have been a wingspread of almost twenty feet, built of spruce and muslin. And it seemed like a fine wind. We were on the top — facing north — going down that ski jump. I said, "Ernie, you try it first." He said, "Oh, no, you try it first." [laughs] So I said, "Well, all right, somebody's gotta do it and I'm glad to." So I started down. I got on my skis and got a good start down. It started to lift right away. But, gee whiz, I hadn't gone thirty feet before suddenly the wind stopped, and then it was blowing behind me! What happened was, the wind came up the slope. But it made a pocket and compressed the air. Just below it there was reverse eddy. I got down in that eddy, and I was going about sixty miles an hour down this darn ski jump. It lifted off just a little, just enough so I couldn't steer, and I headed for a stump. I just couldn't get it down, and it wouldn't take off, and I whammed into that stump. [laughs] Busted my kneecap and folded the wings right around, just like that. Boy, I had trouble getting home because I think I broke my kneecap. I never x-rayed it, but it hurt like the dickens all that spring.
This, I think [points to 11], is about where the ski jump was. Or is this it there? Yes. It must be this one. That's probably it, that clearing right there. That's it. And I was right up here at the top. We used to ski down. We went across the railroad bridge [points to 12], skied up this way [indicates ski path, 13] — that's all flat bottom country — and down through the woods here. Then we'd climb on up. There was here also a landslide which is actually a sand and gravel deposit. This is a glacial moraine, this whole thing [indicates the bluffs]. It was all glacial moraine — small rocks and bigger ones, all smooth and so on, various evidences of glacial activity. But this was the moraine where the edge of the ice dropped the load. We had what we called quicksand right at this bend here where it kinda tended to loop. You had to be careful. Cows got in it, or calves, especially. So we had to be careful when we went to playing around these very steep things, with all this sand bank forty feet high standing at the angle of repose. If you disturbed anything, some more would come down. It was kinda scooped out, concave. So the trick was grabbing a hold of a tree or a bush at one side — the east side, usually — and then run like the dickens while you're falling, while the sand is going beneath you and grab the roots of a bush on the far side and get yourself out. But you had to be a little careful not to land in the quicksand.
So we didn't do anything unless there were two or three others around to grab a hold of us and pull us out. [laughs] I learned how to do that — run like the dickens while your feet are going out from underneath you and still get where you needed to go. It did me in good stead up on a glacier at Mt. Rainier once when I was alone. Well, actually I was with a party of about a dozen. But I hadn't registered in, down at the lodge, that I was going to make a climb to the top. But I had introduced myself with a letter from Carnegie Institution, from the President there, to the chief — not forester — ranger. And having identified myself, I didn't want to have the police catch me doing something illegal. So I went with the gang up to the last chimney going up to the top, and I said, "Well, I'm going on back down." Unfortunately, I lost my way. Although I could see things, I picked the wrong move over one ridge and I found myself after twenty or thirty feet — I found: "Oh, I'm on the wrong side of this ridge. I've got to get back again." And as I turned I slipped. This was kind of a circular thing that ended just like that landslide. But the ice was falling out from underneath me, and I had to run like the dickens to get over to the other place. And I finally landed. Otherwise I might have been a dead man down in the crevasses of that thing. Well, that shook me a bit. I had crampons and an ax. But it shook me a bit because at first I didn't know just where I was. And second, how would I get there without falling again? It took me an hour, and I finally discovered my own tracks. I climbed back around the right ridge and could see where the Paradise Inn is. And I went on down [laughs]. That was quite an adventure. But it certainly served me in good stead to have practiced on the landslide.
Didn't you once go to Beloit to visit someone who had a radio?
Oh, yes. There was an orphans' home right here. What's it called? "Water Tank" [reading from the map, 18]. Well, I wouldn't be surprised. I don't know what these things are. But there are some buildings there. It was the Lutheran orphans home when I was a boy and it was about — it's this group of buildings right here [points to 19] — and our house, you see, was right over there. Third street was our street.
Right at that corner, one up from Main street.
It should be two up. It's right there. It was one up. Third Street. And this is Fifth Street. The fourth one's not in. Well, anyway, the radio communication was from there to there. However, it was across the river, so it was interstate traffic. It was only about three-quarters of a mile. Where's the scale here? Excuse me for enjoying this map.
That's why I brought it.
Oh, here's the scale. Sure. Well, my! That's really a scale, isn't it.
It has really fine detail.
Here we are. It's about a mile away. Well, it's very nice to see that map. That must be our church, the Canton Lutheran Church [points to 14]. The church and then some school buildings, and the pastor's home or something.
Where was the high school that you went to?
The high school when I was there was just north of the courthouse. See this open park [points to 15]?
That was the high school.
Oh, the building is no longer there.
No, they tore it down when I was up at this one.
What's the Lawrence school [points to 16]?
I have no idea.
I wondered if that was the same family.
It wasn't there when I was there. They named something for — I don't know what school it would be. This is part of the academy [points to 17]. They built some extra quarters there. "Park" [reading from the map] — no, that's the name of a street. Kidder. Ours was named Kidder street.
Yes. I guess it was 805 Kidder — is that right? Numbers weren't used in those days. We didn't have postal delivery. Well, without reference to this map, there isn't much you can get out of this except my enjoyment of seeing the place.
Did you pretty much know the territory when you were growing up? Did you walk around, ski around, most of it?
Only around this part of town [indicates the east side]. Of course, we went to church and so got to know whose houses were over there. I didn't know the west part of town hardly at all. Or the south part. We had what they called the Chautauqua grounds. There's the courthouse. It was down about here [points to 20].
Down by the river?
Yes. It had a park, also by the river.
Was it a traveling Chautauqua or permanent?
It was a permanent summer building with a roof that was kind of conical, arranged with benches. The floor sloped and there were wooden benches inside and there was a wooden roof on top. It had weather canvas that would come down, which they replaced every five years or so. Each summer there would be a Chautauqua season of two or three weeks and they'd have people there. People would come down here to picnic and then go up to the lecture or music or whatever was happening. They brought lots of rather interesting people that way. Some people from the country would come and set up tents and stay in the park for the Chautauqua doings. But as a scout we traveled mostly up in the bluffs here. They made a trip, which I was not on, one time when they followed the river all the way up to Sioux Falls, which was about twenty miles. They took an extra day and they camped out. I guess maybe they had two nights because they explored along the way.
My father was scoutmaster, and he would name the trees and the bushes, and they talked about nature and stars and all kinds of interesting things. The scout manual is a pretty good outline of a lot of shreds of knowledge on health or natural history — natural philosophy as they called it in the old days, that was the name of all physics and chemistry and so on. Some of the science courses when my father was a student were natural history, natural philosophy, and mathematics. He was interested in physics and mathematics. So he told us a lot about stars. I kept pressing. How far away was the edge of the universe or whatever? What was out beyond? We got up to talking about light years, and that intrigued me like everything — distances as big as that — because I had some faint notion of ninety million miles to the sun and it takes eight minutes. Oh, boy: light year! Well, five thousand light years was the edge of anything that anybody talked about — which was the answer my father gave to me and to the others. He would lecture on the stars every so often. And we all had to learn where Betelgeuse was and Orion, Arcturus, and so on. This was before the galaxies were identified. They didn't know these were nebulae, but they knew how far away they were. But Father said: "Five thousand light years, probably. Nobody talks about ten thousand light years. These are very faint stars. Even the biggest telescopes don't go any further." Well, that intrigued me — and still does. Here's the road to Worthing [points to 21].
It's a little town up about here. Two little towns in the twenty miles: Worthing and Lennox. This down here goes to Beresford [points to 10] below Beaver Creek. Beaver Creek was right on the edge of town. This would be Beaver Creek. Yes, there it is [points to 22]. I remember the bridge over that very well: ramshackled. They rebuilt part of it when I was a kid. "Gravel Pit" [reading]. Well, here was the main gravel pit. Oh, yes, that's what they were doing here. There's a concrete company that builds special bridge floors. It's a patent. They worked it up. High school schoolmate of mine. Prestressed bridges in such a way that they share the stresses evenly on the bridge after the forms are removed. Concrete bridges. They're curved up in a certain way. And these people supplied — oh, some parts of it and the engineering supervision. I've forgotten the name of the company. The man's name was Ernie Rowe, R-O-W-E. What else might be on your mind today — besides bringing me back to my youth? [laughs] Gosh, I enjoy this map.
I read that your father resigned as president of Augustana.
Why did he resign? That was a couple of years before his death.
That was about 1916. I think he just felt that he was getting out of date. It was time for a younger man to take hold. He was fifty-four; no, he was fifty-two. But he had run this more-or-less primitive school for many years. It was sponsored by the Lutheran Church, the Norwegian Lutheran Church. My grandparents, all four of them, had come over from Norway as youngsters in their teens. That was back in 1850, 1842 to 1854, something like that. My father began teaching without too much preparation. He was not a college graduate. There weren't so many of them in those days. They graduated from teachers institutes, normal schools, something like that. The place went broke, but he carried it on his own shoulders and kept it alive — that was back in the early 1890s. They dropped out the college courses when I was a boy. Enrollment was nothing, which required too large a faculty. They did teachers' training and business training and music. They had quite a large music school. He felt there should be a revision of the whole thing. So he asked to be relieved. He stayed on as a professor — teaching the business courses, commercial courses.
Why did he stay in that subject? Was that his specialty?
I think it was what he found himself doing the last ten years, or something like that. He met the emergencies as they were needed. There was an old retired minister that knew Greek and Latin and he was one of the faculty — that was Professor [J. S.] Nordgaard. Then there was Professor [H. M.] Dale. He was — oh, social sciences in some way or another, economics whatever they called those courses in high school. Then there was Professor [J. G.] Berdahl. I had him. He was Professor of German and history. Oh, yes, old Nordgaard taught ancient history, too, because nobody studied Greek any more. And Latin had gotten down to just two people so that didn't pay. They wanted to stop that. I needed to have Latin II, Caesar, and they said: "Well, no, we can't afford to teach that. There are only two people who want to take Latin this year." So I went down to the high school. I had part of my school day at Auggie and the other half down at the high school. I don't know. There wasn't any fight about it. He just wanted to step down. And he died two years later. He died from Spanish influenza, which they didn't identify. He died in July. It was September or October before they discovered what this was. But he had the typical thing. He died in Minneapolis. He went to a church convention in Fargo and got sick on the train, got off the train and went to the hospital. He was sick for five or six weeks. He finally died there July 21, 1918.
Is he buried in Canton?
Yes, he and my mother and my sister. They're out at the cemetery, out here—let's see—must be in this square.
It's not on that map, then.
Where is Beaver Creek? No, it's this square, right about here [indicates west of the map].
Did you know that Glasoe, your chemistry professor, had a Ph.D.
Yes, sure. He was graduated from the University of Minnesota.
You knew that as a student?
Oh, yes, sure. That's where I first heard about Ph.D.'s instead of other kinds of doctors. We had a variety of D.D.'s — they're ministers with various honorary degrees or — no, I think some of them are degrees in course, too. So I knew that there were other kinds of doctors besides dentists and physicians. But I admired Glasoe because he knew so much and he was so hearty about it. He sang with us in our choir. We traveled around, an a cappella choir of about sixteen or eighteen people. We'd go to different places and sing — oh, snatches from Vivaldi and from, of course, Handel. And The Creation. What's his name? Well, various oratorios. So I got to know Glasoe quite well.
Didn't Ernie Lawrence take a course with Glasoe.
No, I don't think so.
He was at St. Olaf one year.
He finished that same year. Was he a year later? No. He finished it in three years, too. I took only three years and I finished all the requirements, so I just asked to get a certificate — so I had a certificate in 1918. Then that was the year the church voted to cut off the funds, so I was lucky to have that finished. The winter that I was working at the grocery store, Ernest was at St. Olaf and he came and told me — well, he may have studied with Glasoe then — he came and told me about the courses they were taking up there at St. Olaf. I got pretty darn envious. I bought me a chemistry book and tried to read it. But just by itself I didn't get so very far. I hid it in these bales of dress goods and so on. I had my chemistry book back there, and when there was nothing else we had to do I snatched it and tried to read some of that. It gave me respect for what a text book really is. But by March that year I was sick at heart that I hadn't somehow made an effort to go off to college. So then my mother said: "Well, let's all move up to Minneapolis where Lew is. You can go to college for as long as you can afford it — for as long as we can make it." We had thirty-nine hundred dollars left of insurance after the funeral. And the house. And that was it.
Did you sell the house?
No. We kept it, rented it. My mother sold it many years later.
So you really didn't seriously think about college until…
…no. I was kind of enamored of the music. I'd done a lot of singing with the a cappella group, and then I had studied voice and sung a lot of opera songs and things like that — and was intrigued with that. I didn't know whether I wanted to be in music, in show business or opera or what. In fact, I was kind of in love with this music teacher. That's what happened — took my initiative, what scholastic initiative I had, right out of me. [laughs]
This was at Augustana?
It was at Augustana, my last year, yes. It was a young lady, a teacher of voice. My father was kinda disgusted. I did very poorly in my studies. I neglected things. And he just kinda gave me up. At least that was what I felt. He was very critical, didn't know whether I'd ever amount to anything. Well, I wasn't terribly convinced that going off to college helped people a lot — helped to make up your mind. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then my father died. Well, that kinda shook things down. I got enough impetus out of that six to eight months at the dry goods store to keep me going all the way through graduate school. [laughs] Let's see, you're interested in my youth. I haven't really described much — a bit discontinuous. Well, I guess these early experiences go back to scouting. Have I told you how I got started with electronics? I was always interested in little motors and lights and batteries — we had such things as flashlights even then.
How far back?
About eight years old, nine years old — as far back as one remembers being a person. Before that you were some other person, which was a baby.
Can you remember a specific instance as your earliest remembrance of electrical things?
I don't know about the earliest, but very early. Ernie Lawrence and I — Ernie lived kitty-corner across the street. We were in one house, and he was just to the right about two hundred feet and across the street, across Third Street. Well, we had a workbench, tools, and things in our basement, where it was nice and comfortable because the furnace was down there. It was rather pleasant in the summertime, cool with the windows open and so on. So Ernie and I played around in the shop, carved out boats and little things like that — made rough imitations of skis. My father finally built some skis, complete with steam bending and all the rest — working with a draw knife, if you know what a draw knife is.
I've seen it. Are there two handles?
Yes. So that was our workshop. We did lots of things there. One thing that intrigued me was these little electric motors. I didn't quite know why some of them were so weak. You could stop them with your finger. And others were a lot stronger. They burned your thumb. We had battery telephones in those days. They used number-six dry cells, two of them, in each residential phone. I remember our oak phone near the front door, front entrance, the vestibule entrance. It had batteries underneath the lid. So these would be thrown away. Every maintenance trip up the street, the telephone men would go in and change all the batteries for the whole street. This was periodically done about every year or something like that — preventative maintenance, actually, to keep the things going. They would leave these batteries all in a heap. So we begged them, "Can we have these batteries?" Of course, that just saved them from hauling them on in. They said, "Sure." What we'd do is go in and get a ten penny nail and make about fifty holes in the zinc. We slid off the cardboard first, and made about fifty holes in the zinc. Then you slip it into a mason jar and put in sal ammoniac. This rejuvenated the battery.
We had — oh, we had twenty-five of them or something like that. We could get a good shock. Also a fine arc — a carbon arc. We had carbon pencils. They came from the street lights, somehow. But we had small stubs of these carbon electrodes. And you could draw a fine arc, which zipped. It didn't sound like an AC arc, but it was very impressive — especially when it burnt your fingers and you got shocks and so on. That's our earliest experience. We made electric bells work, learned how they worked. I thought that was pretty nifty. When it pulled over, it broke the circuit, and let it go back; then it pulled over and broke the circuit and the spring made it go back. That's quite a wonderful mechanism. And then these little electric motors. I had a little one. I don't know where it came from — inherited it from my brother or something. I had an older brother, five years older.
I wondered if some of this didn't come from his interests.
I don't recall that he played with them. He may have played with them and then shed them — left them around. He was a professor of mechanical engineering and head of the engineering department at Case School of Western Reserve. He retired about 1964 or something like that and then died last year. Then my father went into scouting — started this troop. They got scout uniforms and manuals and books and things like that. And they had regular meetings only two years after scouting was started in New York. It was in 1911. They started in 1909. I guess he heard about it in the LADIES HOME JOURNAL or the LITERARY DIGEST.
So it was his idea to start the troop?
Yes. Kids were doing pranks. Oh, they did such things as taking the lumber wagon apart and putting it on the very top peak of the courthouse for Halloween. They took it apart and put it together way up there. And then got down. The next day there was this damned lumber wagon with all its stuff just set right over the peak, the weathercock. It took them quite — oh, a thousand dollars and lots of scaffolds and everything to get it down again. [laughs] The kids did it in the night. Well, there were pranks like that — a few too many of them. I remember Mother and Dad were trying to find something constructive for young people to do. He settled on this as something he'd be glad to do. He was pretty good at it, I guess, because I have the picture of it up in the attic. They had a pretty good scout team. This went on for three or four years. They ordered a uniform for me, too, but I wasn't allowed to be a scout until I was twelve. He cut all the buttons off, and my mother had to sew other kinds of buttons on — so that I wasn't a scout until I got the official buttons. But it looked like a uniform. I begged the privilege of going along on with them. I had to give some promises to some of the older boys. [laughs] But somehow they put up with it, or my dad put up with it. And it worked reasonably well. Well, we had been scouts together on lots of these camping trips on Saturday afternoons — or hiking trips. And we spent one summer about a week down at Newton Hill, it was called—it was about six or eight miles south, in the bluffs by the river.
No, in South Dakota. Just alongside the river, so it was just barely in South Dakota. Newton Hill. We camped for a week and did various scouting projects for merit badges, we called them. Well, one of the things they did was to raise funds for camping and uniforms and things. They arranged a minstrel show. Somebody or other put that on. It was done for fun at the local — what they called the opera house, which was the movie theater. It had been built as an opera house back in the 1890s, but it was one of the early movie theaters. So then they decided to buy some wireless equipment with this.
How did they decide that?
Oh, you know, we had a corner drug store with various magazines, POPULAR MECHANICS, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and Hugo Gernsbach's — what was his? ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTER. There were some of the little magazines for people. I don't know just who hit on the idea that we ought to do some amateur radio. It was one of those catalogs or magazines that triggered it, I'm sure. So they ordered about a hundred dollars worth of stuff, or anyway a pretty fair amount. It was a very heavy box — oh, with insulators for antennas, wires and cables, spark coil, wires for tuning things, headphones.
How did they know what to order?
Well, I guess POPULAR MECHANICS had enough of that sort of thing around. There was another magazine called MODERN ELECTRICS which is kinda rare. It was a better magazine than the ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTER. Both of those, however, were known by — oh, three or four kids and people around town. My father certainly knew about them. So they ordered this from Hugo Gernsbach's Electro Importing Company, New York. And it never came for months and months. The scouts lost interest and everybody lost interest. This box came and they took the lid off, saw it was probably all there — I don't know that anybody checked it — and then left it in the basement.
So they never put it together.
They never put anything together. There wasn't anybody interested in doing anything. Well, after a couple months of this it kinda got into my eye. Ernie and I said — I said to Ernie: "Let's see what they've got anyhow, see if we can put some of this together." I got my dad's permission because nobody else seemed interested. Well, that's how it got started. And we got it together all right and made communication — oh, from my house to his house. You could hear the spark on this detector, although the galena detector was very unreliable business. So I had said, "Well, let's get us a big antenna." So I got two lengths of fourteen or sixteen foot — sixteen foot they were — two-by-fours and stove bolts to fasten them together and a lot of guy wires. I got that soft iron wire from the hardware store — because the guy wire we got from the Electro Importing Company, there wasn't enough of it. Anyway, I made up this mast with a pulley on the top and a rope to pull it through and I got a hold of some fish poles about six feet long — cut them in those lengths — to make spreaders to have four wires going from the chimney of our house over to our garage. It had a little short stubby mast there at the garage, the hayloft above the cow. [laughs] So we made us this antenna. The big problem there was lightning. My dad insisted, "I'm sure it won't be any good unless we do this properly." That had been included in the original purchase. It required a one hundred ampere single-pole-double-throw switch. If you put it up, it would go to the antenna. But if you put it down, the antenna would go direct to ground. It had to have a direct ground without bends to get down there. Well, we did all that.
Did you have plans you were following for that?
Oh, no. It's all in your head.
Whose head? Yours? Ernest Lawrence's? Your dad's?
I guess it was in my head. But it was part of common knowledge. They had these sketches in the EXPERIMENTER. And I think there may have been even something — I guess there was a merit badge for scouts on wireless. I think there was. They were very simple sketches, and these showed how insulators — they're egg insulators. They're a lump of porcelain with a hole that way and a hole this way. One wire goes in so, the other one, so. It's locked like that, but all insulated. There were, I think, a dozen of them — at least eight, one at each end of each wire. And there were four wires, kinda heavy. The wires were brought together and came down from this fan, down to the edge of the roof and on down. Well, we discovered after six months or a year that this fellow Christian Christiansen at the orphan's home, who had grown up as an orphan but had got older and was running the electric plant for them down there, he kept that going; that was his job. He had some parts of radio things and was very interested in it. So we brought our detector down, and tried to see if we could hear the signal — the dots and dashes — from my house down to the orphans home. Well, it took several tries, several Saturdays to accomplish that for some reason. [laughs] It was easier to walk down to the field, to the railroad bridge and shout at each other across the river. We would have time in our pockets — had a dollar watch. I would agree to send again at 3:05 P.M. We finally did establish contact. Then Mr. Gemmel, one of the town fathers — he owned the elevator business there, one of them. He came by while we were doing this and he went to the editor of the town newspaper, Mr. Averill, and had a front page write up in the weekly CANTON AND SIOUX VALLEY NEWS. This is the Sioux River that goes down here. It was quite a write up about these two young boys and how wonderful they were that they had established such a modern thing as radio communication from South Dakota to Iowa. It went on —I told you about working for the golf course and getting audions.
That finally was a fairly respectable thing. When I was a — I guess it was when I was taking Caesar. That would be my second year. We had had the audions, and I built this Clapp-Eastham Company tuner for long waves and Ernest got some loading coils, they were called. Big inductances of three and a half feet high by five inches in diameter, long tubes tuned to six thousand and nine thousand meters, or five thousand meters — I think. POZ. There were Nauen and Hanover in Germany — those two — and Tuckerton, New Jersey. Those were the stations that I would copy. And Arlington, right here in Arlington, Virginia. I copied the Navy station — the time signals — every night. I still have the watch that I carefully adjusted, so that watch kept time — I always had it go just a little bit fast. I didn't like a slow watch. It would slow up just a little bit. But the variation from that we could predict the loss. It was quite a good watch. Surprised. But I knew the time always to less than a second anytime anybody asked me. [laughs] We were a little troubled about high speed. A lot of people could send faster than I could read it. But the news briefs and the weather bulletins were put out at a fairly slow rate — I think ten words a minute. So that was easy and I'd copy out the weather bulletin every night in a little log book.
You said at one point that when you were taking the chemistry at Minnesota you didn't like the memory work that was required.
I got scared of it.
But didn't you have to memorize the code?
Oh, well, that's nothing. That becomes automatic. I had one wound, a psychological wound. And it's still present. If I have to recall something, recite something, say something, I can't do it. I just freeze up. My memory won't — I remember all kinds of things. But if I'm under demand for memory, it stops it. What happened was — I was, I think, five years old. I remember the buttons on my jacket. It was kind of a light creamy serge with black square buttons, little raised jet-black buttons. I was supposed to have a part in the Christmas program in which I would recite a brief poem. "Merle, do you know your poem, do you know your words?" Oh, yes, I knew my words.
Who was asking you?
My mother. She kept fussing at me, oh, one Saturday and I was interested in something else — I don't remember, something like Meccano, some kind of wooden things that are put together. Anyway, I was sure I knew this poem. I would look at it: oh, yes, I know that poem. [laughs] And I got up — was called for — and I froze up on the platform. I got the first line, and I couldn't get any further. I was chagrined and sat down. That has burned me ever since. Any time that I'm obliged to come forward with something — a prayer or anything — it all freezes up, even though I can remember all kinds of things. But not if I'm demanded.
So learning the code for the radio wasn't the same sort of activity.
No. That has to become kinda automatic so there is almost a free connection between your ear and your fingers. I know lots of operators that can do both simultaneously. They can be writing down what the code says and talking to you in English. It's gotten me in trouble over the years — I had acquired part of that — because I can carry on a conversation that is going on simultaneously. You can answer me and I'll be talking back. It's quite easy to do once you get the idea. It's obviously very impolite. [laughs] I keep stumbling over this. When I get enthusiastic about something somebody will ask me a question and I'll be answering it and they'll still be talking. And they get a little upset. They'll be talking, answering something for me, and I'll butt in on the next question, going right ahead. Several of my colleagues, older friends in radio, do the same thing. But we have to be careful to select only the old amateurs.
Well, it's clear that the radio interested you as a youngster. When did you get interested in your school work in the same way?
Oh, there was a text in physics the last year I was at the academy taught by Martin N. B. Minne, M-I-N-N-E. He was one of the professors up at the academy. And he taught physics. I studied physics from Black and Davis, which is an old classical high school text. But that was such a revelation. [Cornell shows him a copy of the book.] I'll be damned!
Tell me if that is it. You told me the name of it last time and I looked one up in the library.
I never thought of it, I may have the damned thing originally upstairs.
It's a 1917 edition which would be…
… about right. I finished that course in June 1918. "Practical Physics." [reading] Yes sir. This is from "Johns Hopkins" it says here?
Well, that's the unit all right. Oh, this is — oh, this was just a –- I just fell in love with this text.
Do you remember parts of it?
Oh, I remember all parts of it, sure — mechanics, mechanics especially was — the whole idea of laws, physical law. I had heard something about it from my father's talks. But he was more interested in natural history.
These were informal talks that he gave?
Yes, while we hiked or while we sat around the campfire and talked about something or other. Oh, yes, this was a damn good one. "Accelerated motion, force and acceleration" [reading]; that just interested me no end. And heat was quite pleasant to know, very simple-minded stuff. But then electricity and magnetism, that began to have stuff I really knew a lot about. I had made ammeters and voltmeters and resistances, used them together. Oh, I just loved this. I'm grateful to those guys for writing that book.
Had you not used a book for your…
…no, I used the scout manual for merit badges and used these shoddy books, magazines, that sort of thing.
Did you read those fairly carefully?
No, I read them for fun, you know, to copy something — circuits and so on. "Henry Black, Science Master, Roxbury Latin School and Harvey Davis." [reading]
Do you know why your professor chose that book?
No. I don't suppose there were so many books of choice at that time. But this is a pretty good course for a high school. I mean, there's nothing soft about it. What scared me about chemistry was that I had kidded myself into getting advanced credit. Starting in April was a little hard. I thought I'd just jump on the toboggan here. I simply said, "I've had one year of college chemistry" — which was true, with Glasoe — "and I think I can make out if I jump in for the last quarter." They were on the quarter system. The third quarter would finish the year. So I said if they let me join the class I'd take my chances on being able to pass it. Well, I found it was a little different grade of difficulty — the kinds of problems he set and so on.
Who was teaching that, do you remember?
I could have named it a minute ago. Sneed, Professor [M. C.] Sneed, S-N-E-E-D, at the University of Minnesota. There was such a range of knowledge that you had to have. And most chemistry — you know beginning inorganic chemistry — you simply have to know the properties. Some things are a lot lighter than others, and the relationships in the table aren't precise. They resemble each other, but there is nothing precise about it. And you have to remember what kind of concentrations to use for certain things if you're going to make sure that you get a measure, looking toward qualitative and quantitative chemistry — identification and then numbers, amounts. Anyway, I got scared of that course. I was afraid if I tried to jump into the sophomore course — which was "qual and quant" — that I would have trouble. So I thought, "Well, I'd rather take physics because I know something about that." And it worked out all right.
Had you ever experimented with chemistry the way you had done with radio?
No, I never did. Not much beyond sal ammoniac, and — oh, we had some blue vitriol. We had things like that, which we — I forget what we did with it. There was an electrolytic detector that I tried. Bubbles of gas on platinum wire. No, we didn't do much. We did some. I dimly remember buying chemicals down at the drug store. But nothing like a chemistry set.
And nothing as involved as the radio?
Oh, no, nowhere near that. Although, of course, that was kind of primitive as we look at it now. So I went into physics then instead of chemistry, although I signed up for electrical engineering after my first semester and summer school. I went into the—let's see, is that when I started calculus? No. I went into — what did they call it? It was kind of advanced algebra — because I had to have that. The next summer I had trigonometry, and then I went into calculus.
How did you feel about the mathematics courses? Did you enjoy those?
Oh, yes, I enjoyed those. I had lots of mathematics. I went on through differential equations and functions of a complex variable and then further function theory and — what else? Mathematical series, infinite series it was called. I was kinda lucky. I guess I got really interested, too. I never knew more than one quarter ahead how long I could afford to stay in school—because the family was kind of on the rocks, financially. But gee! They elected me to Tau Beta Pi as a junior.
How did you finance your college?
Well, my mother must have been kind of a magician. She had a small pension — I think twenty-five dollars a month. We boys worked. I worked in the library and various other odds and ends as things went on. But that was only for fifty cents an hour, I think it was. I worked in the engineering library. I was alone. I had to learn the library first. We would help people find references, and so on, and then just sit and occupy the seat there, keeping track of it until it closed at ten o'clock.
Do you remember any of your engineering professors?
Oh, sure. I remember all of them. Professor [E. R.] Martin in AC machinery, and Professor [G. D.] Shepardson in DC machinery, and Professor [G. W.] Swenson in — what was that? One of the technical courses — I don't remember — transformers or something like that. Who was teaching machine design? Oh, I see his face — dark haired fellow — [F. B.] Rowley. And Professor Jansky in radio. And — let's see — [W. L.] Hart was a young instructor in mathematics. I didn't have courses with him, but he was an influence because he was lively and would keep things stirred up. I guess that's most of the engineering faculty we had. There were others. There was chemical engineering and civil engineering, people in mechanical engineering — a lot of people I didn't have for professors. But they allowed me, of course, to go over into physics — essentially for a major — instead of the more technical electrical courses. In physics it was Professor Erikson for mechanics and Professor Zeleny for electricity and magnetism and Professor [L. F.] Miller for heat, Professor [Joseph] Valasek for optics and Professor Tate for theoretical physics, and Professor Swann for theoretical physics. I guess that's about all.
How about Frayne?
Oh, yes, Professor [J. G.] Frayne was another, F-R-A-Y-N-E. He later went into movies, and he developed for — I guess it was Bell Labs — he developed the first sound movies.
I saw notes for two different courses that you had taken. One was theoretical physics with Tate.
Oh, you got those notes.
I've got some here.
Really? [laughs] I thought I still had them in the attic.
They're in your papers. But then there were notes from a mathematical physics course with Frayne.
Oh, yes. We studied waves on wires and things like that. [Cornell shows him photocopies of the notes from Tate's course.] I'll be damned. Yes, that's the size of notebook I used, all right. "Begin First Quarter; 10/1/1920." [reading] Let's see. That's the beginning of my junior year.
Is this the first course you had with Tate?
I'm trying to get a clue as to which course this is. [laughs] Sure is my writing.
It was in a notebook that was headed "Theoretical Physics."
That's Tate's course.
It covers mechanics and…
… we did some kinematic theory, kinematic theory of gases. "Ten-ten." [reading] "Kepler," yes. "See Swann notes, blueprint copy." "Forces, tension." I'm interested in the way Tate organized this course.
Did you use a text for that course?
No. These were all just hand lectures. And there would be about six people.
Would you work problems?
No. Mostly he would work out problems in front of us. And we referred to [A. G.] Webster's DYNAMICS and various other books. But his was a very fine comprehensive course, by the time I got through with it. It was the main meat, really, for graduate students training in physics at Minnesota. They'd repeat it for more detail in the second year. But this was the first year graduate course. So that's down there. What do you know. I thought it was up in the attic. I have kinda thought that's something I should dig out and save. I've always had it in mind that if I ever had to teach a course in theoretical physics I would use those notes.
What is this other course, mathematical physics?
Well, it was a special course that Frayne happened to teach on waves on wires and various topics that were more specialized. Tate's course is a very general course and it leaves out most things, you see. I don't know if we've covered any of the points that you're interested in today.
Yes. I'd hoped to talk about from your youth up through your course with Dr. Tate.
Well, I suppose the main points are the experiences of spark radio — "wireless" we called it, when I was a youngster. Ernie would join me in that, across the street quite a bit. But I guess I was the motor force. [laughs]
It sounds like you did a lot of the work at your house, too.
It was perhaps an accident of that kind. It happened to be at our house so I was immersed more deeply, although I was I think a little more intensely interested in it. And then the course with Minne on physics, Black and Davis. That was kind of an eye-opener. The chemistry course that I took with Glasoe when I was in the academy wasn't so thrilling, although I kinda admired him to the point where I wanted to copy him. So I signed up for his chemistry.
Did you use a text for that chemistry course? Hadn't he written a text?
Yes, he wrote a text. I don't remember the text that we used. Yes, we had a green colored text which I spilled acid on one day. I don't remember the name of it. It's probably still with my books in the attic. But it didn't make a great impression on me, except to scare me a little bit. So that choice was made. Then really learning how to be a student — it developed rather rapidly after that first immersion. I really wanted to hang on. I was afraid I couldn't if I didn't do better than that. It was bit hard. It had been a year since I had been doing any study. They were just swinging into it, you know, from April 1 to June 10. That's the time I had to learn to get in step.
Did you have a faculty advisor or someone you consulted?
We always had faculty advisors, but I don't recall using one particularly. I made up my own schedules.
So you came to your decisions on your own.
Did your brother Lew help you out on that — because he knew some of the teachers and had been through some of the courses?
I don't recall that he did a great deal. There was encouragement in the family. "Don't be scared of things. Come on, Merle, you can do it." [laughs] That sort of thing.
… oh, both my mother and my brother. I was kinda lucky to have a brother there. He broke the ice and made me feel at home, feel less threatened.
Were you all living together?
Yes. First we lived at 2707 — or something like that — Delaware Street, Southeast. This was beyond the medical school—oh, six blocks. We were there for a year — in a rather nice house — a large, square box — typical Midwestern house. And the back bedroom I had for a study and radio room. I had part of these things here. My spark set — it was more powerful at that time; and the book case, my father's book case with the encyclopedia and all that; and the table where I did my studies; as well as the radio.
So you moved all your equipment from Canton?
No, only a little. I think a lot of the Canton stuff stayed in the attic of the house. I'm not sure of this, but I don't recall anything—except the headphones — that I took.
So it still could be there.
Probably still is there — and the early issues of ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTER and things like that.
Does the family still own the house?
No. It was sold many years ago. But it's kind of a tough place to get up into. It's unfinished at the attic, and you have to crawl through a square hole — an access hole — near the water heater. I used to manage it, but it was hard for a grown person to do. It might still be there. But I remember just where it is in the north. You saw that front window?
Well, it's right up toward that front window, sitting on the two-by-six joists.
So your set at Minneapolis was virtually new.
Yes. I don't recall anything except the headphones that was part of it. I think this long wave tuner I left up there. There were things that were too bulky to haul.
How did you actually make the move? Did you have professional movers?
No. My brother came down for two days. I think we had hired a railroad car to be there on the siding and moved everything — including the car, our automobile a "Reo the Fifth." We put it on chocks and chained it down and came to Minneapolis. I remember unloading it in Minneapolis. I was already in school, so I wasn't there when we loaded up. My brother went down and did that. But we unloaded the thing in the freight yards up in Minneapolis, and I recall that very well. It was a bit hiccupy trying to get that car out because it was a big change of level. For one thing, you get hung up. The wheels aren't high enough, and they get hung up on the middle. Once you do get over it, why you go riding down those planks at a terrific rate. So Tate was a very big influence. The whole physics department, in fact. Oh, I really enjoyed these faculty members and friends. [Cornell shows him a photo.] God help me! You better get a better photograph than that.
Isn't that about the same time, though?
This was when I was in high school. Those collars. I had trouble with my Adam's apple bothering me. I tried all kinds of experiments on collars — including preacher's collars and everything. I was a corporal I guess. I was teaching this radio course to the ROTC — oh, twenty or twenty-five students — all winter. Then I was asked by the major of the ROTC corps to write the exam. So I wrote some exam questions, and had him approve them. And I gave the exam. I proctored the thing, handed it all in. A week later, the next time I saw the major, he says, "Listen, why didn't you put in your exam." I said, "What exam." He said: "Well, perhaps you should have written the answers to the exam like the rest of the students. Those were the instructions." "Hell, I wrote the whole exam." He said, "You didn't follow instructions." He demoted me. I was busted to flat private. [laughs] It almost kept me from my degree, by the way, because I had to get a passing grade in military science in order to graduate. I had to make some appeals to the major. He never really softened. I liked the guy. We had worked together all winter. But I didn't follow orders. I'll never forget it. [laughs]