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Interview of Harold W. Webb by Charles Weiner on 1970 April 24, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4940
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World War I developments in electronics in relation to French and British Armies; post-war revitalization of Physics Department at Columbia Univ.: Pupin Laboratory; effect of quantum mechanics; growth of nuclear physics; graduate physics during the 1920’s and Depression years; Pegram’s relation to APS; personal satisfactions in professional career.
Let me start by saying that this is a tape-recorded interview with Dr. H. W. Webb, conducted by Charles Weiner in Dr. Webb’s home in Leonia on April 24, 1970. I thought that we would go back to the immediate post-World War I period, in the autobiography that you spent time in preparing, and which we have in our files, you covered the period very well prior to that; and you indicated that when you came back after the war, there was a great deal that you were involved in, including the setting up of the new laboratory. The kinds of things that I would be interested in would be the general problem of getting back into operation after the war — whether the department was disrupted very much during the war, whether there were new students, new faculty, new facilities and so forth.
I don’t recall that there was a very long period of adjustment for the department. I was abroad in the Army, and Professor Wills was involved in studies of methods of detecting submarines which took him away. I do not think that many of the other professors in the department were away — so that there really was a rather short period of adjustment. Even I didn’t take very long to adjust. Of course, I was in the Army less than two years. You see, we didn’t go in until 1917. I got my discharge in the spring of 1919. So that we took up the work rather directly. The reason that the laboratory came into my charge was that the man who had developed it prior to my time and had collected some very beautiful pieces of apparatus, died. That was Professor Trowbridge.
He had died during…
Well, I can’t tell you exactly. I would say during the war.
And you then picked up where he had left off?
Yes, he had not developed it as a teaching laboratory to any great extent. We usually referred to it as a museum. He had some very beautiful Hilger Company apparatus — Lummer plates and things of that kind. When I came, I made up my mind that I was going to make it a teaching laboratory in the sense that I would give our graduate students a chance to handle real apparatus instead of just apparatus which is set up primarily as an exercise. I was very busy for some years just getting it in shape, developing the various experiments, writing up directions. But that didn’t interfere too much with my starting research in the new fields of atomic physics.
In setting up a laboratory, was there much new apparatus involved that you had to …?
A little later, yes. In about 1924 or ‘25, we had a new physics building, and we left our old building, which was quite inadequate. And at that time we had a considerable amount of money to buy basic equipment. Prior to that time we didn’t even have enough meters. The total annual appropriation for the physics department was only a few thousand dollars. I remember that if we had two meters apiece or one meter apiece we were doing very well.
Would you have to pool the meters for a specific experiment? In other words, borrow someone’s?
Well, that’s pretty much the same thing. In the early days when I was a student, we had very few meters. Galvanometers were about the only things that we had in the way of refined instruments. We had some extremely sensitive galvanometers.
But when the new building came along, the funds for the building also included funds for an allocation of instruments?
Yes. For example: I was in charge of that work, and I think we ordered a hundred to 150 meters — these small useful types, the Weston meters.
But the funds for the instruments came, as limited as they were, primarily through the University’s general fund at that time.
Yes. We were not lucky enough to be able to get government money as they did in the Second World War.
Although there were occasional grants, I guess, that came in from various sources — at least later on in the ‘30s before the war, but nothing on a very large scale.
No, I don’t remember that we had any large amounts … Appropriations from the university were improved a lot when we took over the new building. Of course, physics at that time was on the rise. All you have to do is to look at the programs for the American Physical Society, and you can see that it was about 1923 or ‘24 when physics over the whole country grew up. Just look through the publications of the Bulletin. When I took over the Physical Society secretary ship in 1923, the first meeting was a New York meeting. It was a one-day meeting, and we had so few papers that, with the help of a few people not arriving on time, we completed the program at one o’clock — starting at about 10. It wasn’t more than a few years before we had to run three sessions, and even those were crowded.
Who were the new people coming in? From what source did they come?
That I couldn’t tell you.
I’m trying to figure whether you felt that there were certain centers, let’s say, of research which were just producing more people or whether there was just more interest in some of these research questions.
Well, I wouldn’t be able to give a very intelligent answer to that. The whole trouble, as I saw it, was that before the First World War there was so little research worth doing. Now, for example, Professor Wills published a paper on the best selection of armor protecting one of these sensitive needle galvanometers. It had three pipes, coaxial pipes: what was their best thickness and their best disposition so that with a certain weight you’d get the best shielding? Now, that didn’t do anything but improve the apparatus. And I think a good deal of physics was that type of thing. It went back to the old saying of Rowland, which he’s credited with having made about 1900 that “physics had now arrived at the point where the only thing of interest was to get one more decimal point.” You’ve heard of that.
I’ve heard it ascribed at various times to different people — Michelson as well.
Well, we always gave Rowland credit for that.
I think that actually somebody had said it earlier but it was picked up by other people.
Well, I think it’s really very interesting, because I think it really illustrated the point of view that we had at that time. I know that before 1917 I was interested in doing research. It’s been really my prime interest. And the best I could do was work on some device for making short electric waves somewhat shorter than a half centimeter. That would not have been a very important contribution to physics even had I done it, because we were using the old methods of spark excitation of the Hertzian waves. My dissertation was along that line. I published another paper on methods of getting these short waves. It was only when we began to get better tools and better problems that physics picked up.
Well, electronics. You’d be surprised what the electron tubes did for us.
You mentioned in your autobiographical sketch that this was the result of the work in the First World War during the period. You said something about your war experiences. But what I’m not clear about is when things get developed during a war period. It’s not always clear how they’re carried over then into normal academic laboratories — whether it’s a question of individuals who have experience with them during the war, then taking that experience into a new environment — or whether there were actual devices that one could build and purchase.
Well, I think it comes to some extent from the fact that these new devices were of enough interest to research and industry to be of interest also to manufacturers. Now, that is true of tubes. The only tubes that were in existence on this side of the water were of course at the Bell Laboratories … It was Western Electric at that time. Western Electric Company had developed tubes. One was a one-watt tube and later a two-watt tube — very low power — for transcontinental telephone. Now, as I remember it, that was done about 1913. I attended a lecture about 1913 in which they were describing the work. Those tubes were not available for anyone else. They were having trouble enough to make their own: they were losing 10% of their tubes, because they hadn’t learned how to make filaments. And then, of course, there was the DeForest tube, which was a pretty crude device. Armstrong had gotten hold of a DeForest tube: he was developing circuits, including a feedback circuit, with which he could pick up Honolulu with a single tube. But the average person couldn’t get hold of a tube. When I went over to France, I found that they had developed an electron tube. It was still a rather low-power one, about one watt. In a lamp factory, they had simply taken their ordinary lamp with a tungsten filament, which was run very hot for the emission, and added one little grid. They were manufacturing those tubes by the thousands. In early 1918 I went through the factory. They were able to manufacture those tubes at a cost of 25 cents apiece.
Who would buy them?
The Army. The British Army had them; the French Army had them. They had a tremendous number of them. We didn’t know anything about it over here when we entered the war. The first thing I did when I went into the Army was to go down to the Western Electric Company. They had a lot of confidential papers, which they turned over to me to study. These described the various types of devices used in the French Army. They had good amplifiers. They had oscillators, so they were using a continuous wave for radio. They even had a nine-tube amplifier. And it was during the war and under the war pressure that those things were developed. So that at the end of the First World War we had oscillating sets in the Army and detectors. And, as I said, we had tubes. Now, I came back for two months during the last year of the war. I went to the Western Electric Company and told them some of the problems we had. One of them was to try to get these tubes perfected. At the same time the General Electric started to build tubes. Now, it was for the Army that they did it.
There were difficulties with the tubes, because, as I said, they hadn’t learned how to manufacture the cathode properly. They had large percentage of failures, but they were going ahead. So after the war it was only a few months before they began to make them big enough for broadcasting. You remember broadcasting started in the early ‘20s. Well, of course, that meant that the big companies were doing a lot of research and developing those tubes. And so it was only a matter of a few years before we began to have all the tubes we needed. As I said, before we went into the world war, the people over here didn’t know there were such things as tubes except the ones that the Western Electric had. The story is that our chief signal officer, General Russell, went over in 1917, shortly after the war started, and visited the front and while there went into a dugout. There he saw a box inside of which were three little lamps glowing brightly. This was one of the monitoring amplifiers which were picking up the leakage from the German telephone lines from the other side. And the first thing he exclaimed was, “wasn’t this a fine thing to give these fellows a means of lighting their dugout?” That was the only thing he thought of. And when It was explained to him, he got on the cable and cabled back to the States to have a set of scientists sent over, a scientific group, to tell him what It was all about. I was one of those who were fortunate enough to get into this group. The American Army had not even known that there were things of that kind. They had taken over a shipload of the kind of equipment they had used in Mexico when they were chasing bandits. And that was all spark radio: the only spark radio sets that were used in France were in the forward lines — it would be in the company groups — for short distance transmission: everything else was continuous wave.
And you were able to go through the private French factories where this work was going on?
Yes, just a lamp factory.
But it was privately owned. You don’t recall…
No. it wasn’t government. They just took over some lamp factories.
Was there any question that this was an industrial secret or a patentable device and therefore they wouldn’t be anxious for…
Well, I don’t know what they could have patented. They were using tungsten filaments run very hot to give the emission. I doubt whether it was anything but pure tungsten emission, because ordinary tungsten filaments if too hot, lose the thorium coating. No, I don’t think that there was anything patentable. The Germans had plenty of tubes. We made raids during the quiet periods to collect samples of the enemies1 apparatus. We had some of the German tubes. They were pretty clumsy, I thought.
You went over there on this mission with the idea of obtaining up-to-date information on what the needs were and what was available and then doing something about it back home. Was that the idea? — to start something?
I was in the Division of Research and Inspection of the Army Signal Corps. I was in the Research group. Most of U. S. Army equipment was unsuitable for war in France so that for much of the war we used equipment purchased from the French. Their manufacturing facilities were very limited so that they had difficulty supplying us as well as themselves. So the Army asked us to study this equipment and make specifications for the people in the U. S. to reproduce it. We did this and later undertook the design of new apparatus to replace the French. For example one of my special jobs, which took me up to the British Army for several months, was designing radio sets to be put on a tank which was to be used as a forward observation post. We found a very good solution of this problem, and then sent back to the states and had them design and manufacture sets. We didn’t do any complete design over there, because we didn’t have the staff for doing it.
How did you get selected into that branch of the military service?
Oliver Buckley, who was later President of the Bell Laboratories of the AT&T was a major in charge of the research group. I knew him as a physicist and he asked me to join the group. We were very fortunate in having Armstrong in the group as he was experienced in radio work. Armstrong and divided up the work. He was responsible for the signaling equipment on airplanes which depended upon radio for sending back information, was responsible for signaling on the ground. While in France Armstrong developed a number of new devices including the superheterodyne which is now part of most radio receivers, remember that one of the coils which he used was wound on a wastepaper basket.
When I said selected, I meant were you drafted into the military service?
No, I was too old to be drafted. I was 33 years old then. I wasn’t married, so I had no obligations. It was just one of those youthful desires to be doing something. I could have gone into officers’ training, but I thought I could do more in the Signal Corps.
How long did you spend in France?
I got over there in September 1917 and came back at the end of March 1919, so that it was a little over a year and a half.
And you got back to the department later in 1919 for the fall semester, was it?
Yes. When I first came back I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back into teaching. I was interested in the work at AT&T, but after considerable thinking it over, made up my mind that was much happier in university life, don’t work well in a group. I like to be on my own. You get into a place like Western Electric, which was the research department of AT&T at that time, and you’re more or less confined to certain problems. So felt I’d be much happier if I remained in teaching. I was never sorry that I did.
But in the initial period, you considered it.
I considered it. They made me an offer which was fairly attractive, but I made up my mind I’d rather do what I was doing. I had some other interests, too. During the summer for many years — I think it was 25 — I was the Measurer of the New York Yacht Club. I’ve always been interested in yachting — yacht racing. I don’t know whether you know anything about it, but the Measurer is the man who determines whether a boat is of a certain size, and time allowances are all based on size. That work interested me; it gave me a little outing during the summer. I did a great deal of yacht racing, incidentally, during those years. This picture over the mantel is a picture of two of the yachts that were in the New York Yacht Club just prior to the time I took over. That’s one of my most valued possessions at present.
You did describe the yacht measuring in the autobiography. It interested me. I don’t know much about it, but my younger brother was for a few summers the yachting editor of the Boston Herald. He was going to school there. This is a few years ago. But I don’t know very much about it.
Well, I’ve been interested in boats ever since I was a boy. My father had a sailboat. When we were very small boys we used to sail; then we got a small sailboat of our own and gradually progressed into bigger boats.
Why was this a factor, though? You mentioned it in terms of Western Electric.
Well, because if I’d gone to Western Electric, I would have had only two weeks’ vacation and had no opportunity to do that sort of thing. As I said, I like to be on my own.
Well, then you did go back to Columbia.
I went back in the tern beginning in 1919. It was after I got back. It was only three months before I went back to the University.
What were your teaching duties like during the ‘20s, during that whole decade after you returned?
Well, prior to the war I was teaching undergraduate mechanics and one of the many quiz sections that we had in the big courses in physics. When I came back I dropped practically all undergraduate teaching. My duties included the laboratory development. And then I took charge of a course on mathematical physics — partial differential equations it was called — which I taught until I retired in l953.
Do you recall what your teaching load was? I know it probably varied or maybe it didn’t.
It never was very heavy. I of course had the laboratory, but after a few years, when Lucy Hayner came to the University, she did most of the drudgery.
In the laboratory.
In the laboratory. With her excellent help I had a lot more time to devote to other things. I think about the maximum lecture work I had was the course in partial differential equations and a course on optics, using Born’s optics as the base. A little later I added a course on electronics. The load was never very heavy. I think that the actual teaching would have been seven hours a week at the most, except during the Second World War when we lost a number of our people who had gone into the service: Quimby was out in the Pacific superintending the placing of mines, and Rabi was working on radar. Of course half of our building was devoted to the Manhattan Project. Pegram was still free, but he was so tied up with administrative work that the few of us who were left had a lot of extra work. We had to give a lot of courses for the Navy personnel who were sent up to be trained and also for some of the Army personnel. So at that time I gave extra courses in electronics and in sound. Otherwise my teaching load was small — five to seven hours at the most.
Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s?
Well, for all the rest of my service except during the war when we had to take over a lot of extra courses. The Columbia department was very good about that. They didn’t give those who were in graduate work a very heavy load.
I wanted to ask — just to get back — about the new building, the l4-story building. Why was the decision made, do you know, to build so high? It implied a great expansion of physics facilities. Was there tremendous pressure on the existing facilities? Was there a flood of students coming in or what?
No. The reason it was high was the fact that property was very limited. Then, of course, for a number of years we didn’t use the 14 stories. The department of biophysics had a part of a floor and astronomy had the whole top floor. Then the department of mechanical engineering had one floor. There were many classrooms which were used by the whole University. It was built large so that we would have a chance to expand.
Which building was that?
It was Pupin Laboratory.
But the name, of course, came only after Pupin’s death, which was 1935. But the building went up in ‘25 or something like that.
It was about that time. I don’t recall the exact date.
I wasn’t clear on the timing. Do you mean that it remained unnamed all during that period? Or perhaps it was finally completed in 1935.
Well, I’m inclined to think that it was named just after completion. I don’t remember just when Pupin died.
It was ‘35. The building was named after him then. That’s why I wondered if it was the same building.
Well, I wonder if it wasn’t named after him before that time.
I can check that in the records.
I really don’t remember that.
So it wasn’t exclusively for physics. It was a way of accommodating…
Well, it was for physics in the sense that the whole building was designed so that we could gradually take it over. All the offices, even though they were used for other people, had conduits in them for wires. The whole building was wired either with the actual wiring or conduits so that they could put in the wires later.
Was this the result of some private benefaction to the University for that purpose?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember that.
It’s something I’ll dig into, because it implies a …
Otherwise we probably would have named the building after the man.
I don’t think that was it.
It’s something I’d like to dig into. It implies a real long-range plan for the development of physics at a pretty early stage. The work going on in the department I know something about. But let me ask whether at the time of the development of the new quantum mechanics in Europe there were any responses in the department? Did it affect anyone’s work, and do you recall being aware of any of these debates and discussions going on in 1925-1926?
Well, of course, we all read the papers. It started as quantum mechanics. You’ll remember that the early part of it started with a differential equation, the Schrödinger equation. That went along for a number of years and wasn’t too hard to swallow. If they’d had started right in with some of the modern ways of doing the thing with matrices, it probably would have been a little harder to take. But the wave mechanics went over rather well. At that time none of our staff who were theoreticians did anything in that field. I don’t remember when we got in a person specially to teach quantum mechanics. Lamb came, but I can’t recall just when he arrived.
That was a little later when Lamb came. But is it possible that when Condon came for some lectures. Didn’t he come for some lectures in the ‘30s?
Probably, yes, but not to a great extent. He was here for one summer. His book was really a book on wave mechanics — Condon and somebody else.
Shortley. Condon and Shortley, I think.
I don’t remember. That book was a sort of a Bible.
But there was no one in the department who was participating in this. It didn’t affect the ongoing work in any way?
No. Professor Wills, who was teaching most of the theoretical physics, never took up quantum mechanics. Of course, he was pretty well along in years. You don’t start after you’re 50 to do very much. He was brought up under Webster. Webster was the old-line theorist. You know Webster’s book on partial differential equations?
That was early.
And his book on mechanics. We studied both when we were taking our doctor’s work. That would satisfy anybody prior to the idea of the quantum. Even Planck wasn’t very keen on taking over quanta. He was just backed into a corner where he had to take it.
It was an act of desperation.
I think I mentioned that in my “lifetime.” And Larmor did not like the quantum idea. When I was in Cambridge in 1909, I attended Larmor’s lectures; and he never mentioned quanta.
Getting back to the ‘20s again, the students in the graduate courses which you taught would generally go on for a Ph.D. or did many of them peel off at the master’s level?
Well, I’d say at least half at the master’s level. By that time they had made up their minds that they didn’t have what it took to get a Ph.D.
What did they do? Do you have any idea of the jobs that they got when they left at either the bachelor’s, master’s or the Ph.D. level, what kinds of career patterns they would have?
Well, they would teach in the city schools: some of them would go into industry, but I think teaching probably took most of them.
You mean secondary school teaching?
Yes. An M.A. gave them pretty good standing in secondary schools.
They would be science teachers then.
Yes. We weeded out a great many of them. We had qualifying examinations for students before they could be seriously considered as candidates for the Ph.D. So a good many just dropped out, but I can’t recall the percentage.
Do you recall whether there was a large increase in the number coming through in the ‘20s, enrolling in physics graduate work?
No, I can’t. There must have been an increase over the number we had before the First World War when we had few students doing research, perhaps 20. I think that the growth was reasonably satisfactory.
I’ll probably be able to get statistics on this from the files that Lucy Hayner had. I was just curious about your impression. If there had been a large, sudden increase, you probably would remember.
Well, in the early 20’s the partial differential equations course was given in a small lecture room which seated about 30. Later the number grew to a large number. We had 250 graduate students in the department all told so that we used the big lecture halls.
When was it that you had that many?
About the time of the Second World War, before and after. Of course, after the Second World War we got a big influx of students who were supported by the veteran bill. It was a large number. I know that pretty well, because after Professor Wills died, I took over the chairmanship of the graduate committee; and I saw every student as he registered — so I pretty well knew them all.
This was in the late ‘30s.
It would be in the late ‘30s.
In your life that you wrote you mentioned that it was just before the Second War that you took over the Committee on Graduate Instruction. What was your role in that committee? What did the chairman do? What did the committee do?
The committee consisted of all senior members — that is, professors who gave graduate courses. We arranged the courses; we selected the courses to be given for graduate work. We had to pass on all admissions. Students couldn’t just come and register; they had to apply for admission. We didn’t take them all, of course. And then we had to give various examinations. There was a Master of Arts examination, to determine if a student was qualified for the M.A. And then we had qualifying examinations for the prospective Ph.D. candidates. Then, of course, the final Ph.D. examinations. These were written examinations. The Ph.D. qualifying examinations were supplemented by oral examinations and interviews.
What kind of criteria did you apply on admissions? Were you concerned with a balance as far as fields of interest, or were you concerned with only a certain top percentage of the students in terms of ability, or was there geographical distribution as well? Was there any way of screening out people before hand? Or could someone just present himself and say, “I want to enter the graduate school or the graduate department …”
We did not consider fields of interest or geographical distribution. We accepted all applicants whose records indicated ability and adequate preparation. If accepted they were permitted to take courses and work for the M.A. degree. However, before being accepted as candidates for the Ph.D. degree they had to pass the qualifying tests. This avoided having a lot of incompetent students asking for research problems.
So anybody who met the general qualifications could do graduate work at Columbia, could take graduate courses in the department. But only those who passed the qualifying examinations of one kind or another were allowed to work with a research professor on a research problem.
If we didn’t do that we would have had the place cluttered up with misfits. It’s not fair to a student to encourage him to go on, even working at research, and then fail to get the degree. I’ve seen that happen in several cases, and it’s pretty serious for the student. You should stop him early.
I noticed in some reports of the department in the ‘30s that there was a problem of a good many students working part time on research, which created a problem regarding the facilities. Certain apparatus and instruments would be tied up on a problem, and yet the man would only be able to come in one or two hours a week.
Well, that would be up to the individual professor to decide. But I don’t recall that we had any serious cases of that kind.
I think there was one report that indicated that a new rule would be applied which would indicate that students would have to spend at least half time…
Very likely. There was some such rule but we made many exceptions.
Well, because of your location within the New York area and a large population within New York, and New York being the focus of so many other activities, did you get a large number of part-time students? Would that account for this large enrollment?
Yes. A great many of the younger instructors at CCNY came to us. In fact, three or four of my students were teaching there at CCNY. But, of course, they were able to work rather effectively in spite of the fact they were part time.
They were part time graduate students at Columbia, is that right?
But they had at least a bachelor’s and were teaching…
At CCNY, yes. An instructor who doesn’t have too much home work has his evenings free. The laboratories were open all night.
That was the case? The laboratory was open?
Well, every student would have access to the building at any time day and night. He would have a card which enabled him to get a key to the building, and he had a key to his own research room.
This would apply only to people who were approved for Ph.D. work?
Was there any other relationship of this type with other universities in the New York area? I would think of NYU as another possibility. I was wondering if there was anyone at NYU who was doing work at Columbia?
Probably. I don’t recall at the moment. But it wasn’t an arrangement with the other school at all. It was with the individual. I don’t remember whether we had any from NYU or not. They, of course, had a graduate department.
They had Breit there for a while. They had Loomis.
Yes. Also Mitchell who later went to the University of Indiana.
Did you find that many of the graduate students in physics had started out in other fields — in engineering, for example?
I don’t remember any of them.
But there was no pattern that you remember?
How about the relationships with other departments at Columbia? For example, the three that would think you might have some kind of collaborative efforts with would be the chemistry, mathematics and engineering departments. Were there any joint programs?
Well, our courses were open to them. In differential equations I had quite a number of engineering students. And then in my course in electronics I had several students from the electrical engineering department. And later when the geophysics work was developed, all of the students in geophysics took some physics. When they got their Ph.D., the examining committee for the Ph.D. always had a physicist on it, served on these committees for a number of years. And some of our students went over to geophysics. Press, who is now one of the outstanding authorities on earthquakes in the country, started in physics. I think our tie with that department was as close as any.
You mentioned earlier that the biophysics people occupied part of the building. Was that actually a separate department?
And were there similar ties?
Well, not so much. I don’t recall any particular students taking my courses. There may have been. It was a very small department. They had just one wing of one floor.
I was surprised to hear that it was in existence so early.
It was one of those departments which were built up around outstanding individuals. Professor Hess was a leader in the study of vision.
It’s tremendously expanded in research now in all areas.
I don’t know much about the present department. Professor Hess died during the Second World War. At that time there was tremendous activity in our building — the Manhattan Project. I remember he said something which I agreed to heartily: “I hope they fail.” We could all foresee what was going to happen if they got the atomic bomb.
In the sense of what would happen after the war or the use of it?
After the war. We weren’t thinking of what we actually did in the war. Anybody at that time should have realized that, if you did get a bomb with such tremendous energy, it was going to be a world problem to handle it.
Were those who weren’t involved in the Manhattan Project but yet were in the same building — was there a full awareness of what was going on? You knew it was a bomb project?
Oh, yes. How could one help it? The rooms that were occupied by the Manhattan Project were locked off. They had a good part of the basement and one or two floors up above. You had to have a clearance to go in there. I was responsible for the whole building and, of course, had to go into those quarters from time to time. I had to get a clearance to pass the guard.
But yet there were groups of students coming into the same building for courses and so forth.
Yes. Nothing much was said, but I can’t see how anybody could have missed what they were doing. But people wouldn’t know how far they’d gotten.
Before we get up to that point in time, getting back to a few other things, was there any pattern during the ‘20s and ‘30s of either weekly (or monthly) journal clubs or colloquia? There are two categories of things — one is the journal club or the equivalent of it, where the people from the department at whatever level would participate. And another would be colloquia which would involve perhaps outsiders.
Ever since I Came to Columbia the Department of Physics has had what was called a “seminar.” This met once a week and combined in a way the functions of a journal club and a colloquium. We had reports on current literature and on work done by the students and the staff as well as many speakers from the outside. The seminar was open to the public and was attended by many visitors from nearby institutions such as CCNY, NYU, Princeton and the Bell Laboratories. It was held in our large lecture hall which was usually well filled. Later there was a group of theoretical physicists who had a theoretical seminar. That was a much smaller group. It wasn’t attended by everybody.
How about foreign speakers, foreign visitors?
We had lectures by most of the visiting foreign physicists.
How about Bohr? I guess he was over.
Were you able to understand him?
Bohr was quite intelligible. Of course, everybody knew what the Bohr theory was. At that particular time he was doing his best to put it on a theoretical basis, which was a problem which wasn’t too easy at that time.
I just wondered about his speech. Speaking English was a particular problem that I understood he had — being able to speak clearly — and whether it was difficult even to hear him.
I don’t recall any difficulty.
I’ve heard some people say that his speech was difficult to understand — his method of speaking. Do you recall when he was there? I have the seminar record if you don’t recall –- I have some notes. Kronig, I think, was there at the time.
Kronig? Well, I’d say it was prior to 1930. I don’t remember when Kronig left Columbia.
I think Bohr was, there in about 1923. I’m not sure, though.
That I don’t recall.
You mentioned the theoretical colloquium. When was that? Was that in the ‘30s?
I believe that that started in the ‘30s.
That would include…
Breit was one of them and Rabi, and of course Lamb and the other theoretical physicists who came to us. It was, of course, the modern theoretical physics.
Well, I can talk with Rabi about that or Breit. I’m concerned here with another question in the ‘30s, the effect of the Depression. I gather that it really wasn’t felt until the first few years of the 1930’s. I know that universities had severe financial problems, and we have some statistics as to the amount they were in the hole and so forth, but I was most interested in seeing if you recall how it affected your work and the department’s work and affected you personally — also how it affected students that you had direct knowledge of.
I would say right off that it had very little effect. You see, graduate students are subsidized to a large extent. Now, at Princeton I think there were no students, unless they were very wealthy, who didn’t have fellowships, in fact, they very carefully limited their total registration. We had some fellowships, not as many as we would have liked — but then we had what was the equivalent of fellowships. We had large undergraduate courses. They had to have assistants, and the assistants were our, graduate students to a large extent. Every assistant was a graduate student. In fact, when they were taken on as assistants, it was understood that they would be. I think that they were elected on the same basis as the other graduate students. Now, that formed quite a background. And then, of course, we had the CCNY students. So that most of the students had some subsidy.
Well, did the Depression dry up the source of that subsidy?
I doubt it. I don’t recall that it did.
There was no salary cut that you experienced?
There were no salary cuts in our department.
And no one dismissed, as far as you know, of the younger members of the faculty without tenure?
I do not remember any dismissals.
So your general impression would be that things went on about normal.
In our department, yes. I have an idea that in Teachers College there may have been some cutbacks. It didn’t make much of an impression on us.
Well, shortly after the years which were the hardest of the Depression years — in ‘3l, ‘32, ‘33 — it’s interesting that there were a number of things happening even during those early years with different research groups in the department. And I have a list from the report of 1932 covering the academic year ‘3l-‘32, and these are the groups listed; and I was going to ask you to comment on the interaction of these groups and whether there were a lot of changes taking place. Bergen Davis had an X-ray spectra group. Now, Wills was concerned with magnetic susceptibility. By group here, want you to explain what that means. In some cases it may mean a professor and some graduate students. In other cases it might mean something more. But I will just go down the list. In your case the metastable atoms and related phenomena; Quimby concerned with magnetic and elastic properties of single crystals; Rabi molecular beams, using them regarding the spin and the magnetic moment of the nuclei; and then Dunning with Pegram on the artificial disintegrations of nuclei. This was as it was listed by Pegram in that period. Were these just a question of a man with research interests and then graduate students working with him on problems?
Yes. Each professor had his special line of research and had a number of students working with him on problems which he proposed. Each such group was independent of the other research groups.
And would it usually be the case that a professor would assign the problems for the graduate student?
Yes. The graduate student who had been approved for doing research would then usually have to find a professor who was willing to take him on to work on a problem under his direction, The professor might give the student a choice of problems but in most cases there was a problem of pressing interest. In the one or two years of graduate work before he was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate the student would have had opportunities to learn about work of the various research groups and would in general have developed an interest in a particular field. There were a number of students who proposed their own problems. If a student proposed a problem which seemed to the committee to have promise some one of the staff might be asked to keep in touch with the work as it progressed. There were a number of students from the Bell Laboratories, who had taken most of the graduate courses on a part-time basis and had passed the qualifying examinations, who wished to work on their research problem in their own laboratories. This was permitted in a number of cases when there was someone at the Bell Laboratories who could follow the student’s work and give us assurance that he had been responsible for an acceptable piece of research. In some of these cases one of our staff kept in touch with the research and followed it through regular reports. I sponsored in this way several Bell Laboratory students. Germer of the Davisson and Germer team was one of them. In my own case I selected my own problem. Professor Nichols, who came to Columbia about 1904, started me on a problem involving anomalous dispersion of Hertzian waves in a medium loaded with metal resonators. Shortly thereafter he left for a year’s leave of absence in Europe. After several months of experimenting I found that the method proposed for the research had very little promise of success. I switched my research to a study of various methods of producing and measuring Hertzian waves with wave-lengths equal to a few centimeters.
With his approval? Because of his absence he didn’t say very much, did he?
Well, he approved my dissertation on his return. In my work I had invented a device for measuring these waves which was a modification of the Nichols’ radiometer developed for measuring infrared radiation, which pleased him very much. This device was used later by one of his students at Yale who worked with millimeter waves.
Did Professor Pegram exercise much of a role as chairman? It seems to me you have several different research interests: the individuals pursuing their own work; the students, after having had examinations and meeting the standards set by the committee on graduate work would be assigned to a particular professor. What was Pegram’s role then as chairman in all this? Did he figure in it?
Pegram was not involved directly in determining which professor would take on a student for research. That was between the student and the professor.
Pegram at the time had other responsibilities in the University.
He was Dean of the graduate school as well as head of the Department of Physics. He was also chairman of a number of important and time consuming committees such as the committee in charge of the assignment of space in the University and the committee responsible for the School of Optometry.
Did that mean that he was rather remote from the actual functioning of the Department.
No. He devoted much time to the affairs of the Department. He was chairman of the Department from about 1913 to sometime after the close of the Second World War. The rapid development of the Department in the 20’s and 30’s was largely due to his direction and good judgment. He was instrumental in getting support for many of our research problems and saw to it that the younger members of the staff received deserved recognition. President Butler had a very high regard for Pegram and followed his advice in many important decisions. That was one of the reasons that we got our new building so early. Because of his personality and great tact we had a department in which there was little friction and internal politics. I think, however, that he carried far too heavy a load.
That didn’t give him too much of an opportunity to do much research himself then.
He did very little research in later years. In the earlier years, before he was head of the department, he worked with radium and had a number of students working with him. The first research that I did when I was just beginning as a graduate student was to help him in measuring the heat given off by thorium, due to its radioactivity.
I wanted to ask another question about the department in the ‘20s and in the ‘30s. Maybe there are separate answers to both periods. Was there any dominant personality in the department in terms of the life of the department, other than the chairman of course, who exercised an important role?
You mean regarding activities outside the Department?
No, I mean within the department itself — someone who was regarded as a man of special prestige or importance, whose opinions would carry a great deal more weight than others.
No, I don’t think so. Pegram was the one who was most important. Fermi of course had great prestige but his main interest was his research and he had little to do with policy making. Later Rabi stood out because he had national prestige, but that was much later.
Was that before the war or after?
That was after.
He got the Nobel Prize in 1944.
He got the Nobel Prize during the war. It was after that.
When he first came in, I’m just curious as to what he was like as a person and what the response was to him as a person coming in.
Well, of course, he was one of our students. We knew him.
He was one of the graduate students.
Yes. He took his Ph.D. degree with us.
Whom did he work with?
He got a traveling fellowship which took him to Europe in 1927 and 1928 after receiving his Ph.D., degree from Columbia.
He was a tutor at CCNY while he was studying at Columbia.
He was then added to the faculty. Was he thought of as someone who was of some advantage to the department in terms of his interests? I am just curious.
I don’t think he was brought back to us with the idea that he would teach in a particular field. It was work with Stern that set him up. He was one of our outstanding students and Professor Wills, under whom he had worked, thought very highly of him. So before he came back, he was offered a job. He came back as a lecturer in 1929.
Apparently there had been some desire to get a distinguished theoretical physicist in the department. And attempts were made. The records show an offer to Debye, and Condon had been offered a position, but none of that worked out. This was prior to 1930.
I don’t think there were very many theoretical physicists available.
They had jobs. It was a question of getting them away from somewhere else, at least in the early thirties.
There was quite a shortage of theoretical physicists.
Later, of course, with the developments in Germany, more people were available throughout the world in all fields. I’d like to at least start on the development of nuclear physics work at Columbia. Well, first, talking about Rabi’s molecular beam work, my feeling is that it probably started as a personal interest. I‘m curious about when it began to be noticeable as a research group within the department.
About four or five years after he came back from Europe.
By ‘31 he had Guthrie and Mais working with him and Rarita.
Well, I would say that the work was pretty well along by ‘35. I remember this because after I retired as secretary of the Physical Society, Professor Severinghaus took over and served officially from ‘29 to ‘40. During the last three or four years he was very ill, but for certain reasons they didn’t like to drop him as secretary. He was retired from active service at Columbia but kept on the payroll. I was asked to take over as deputy secretary and I served during the balance of Severinghaus’s term. I remember that when I was at the Chicago meetings of the AAAS as deputy secretary of the APS several of us were discussing our recommendations for the thousand dollar prize which the AAAS was to give for the best paper of the meeting.
The Newcomb Prize, I think it is.
It was for the best paper at that meeting. Rabi had a paper there, and I suggested recommending it for the prize. One of the group apparently hadn’t appreciated at the time what Rabi was doing. He said that he thought that it wouldn’t rate. But the Society recommended it, and Rabi got the prize. I would say that his work was well recognized by 1938.
When did the nuclear physics interest begin to gel at Columbia? I know a good deal about it in terms of the work that Dunning was doing in the early ‘30s with Pegram. But was this seen as the hot new field pretty early in that period?
You mean the case of fission.
No, I mean before fission. I mean the artificial disintegration, the production of neutrons, the work that they were doing.
Well, again, it’s a little hard for me to remember dates.
I have a feeling of the dates. I was just wondering if you recall whether within the department that began to be seen as something separate, something special. I’m saying that in the light of our present knowledge that this emerged as a very important thing. I’m curious about when it was taking place along with all the other interesting things that were going on — whether anybody gave it any special attention — except for the people who were doing it, of course?
When was the neutron first discovered?
Well, it wasn’t more than a few years later that they were interested in it. When was fission discovered?
It was at the very end of ‘38, and then work at Columbia on fission started in ‘39 actually, in January of ‘39. I have a good deal of information on that, and someday I’ll talk to Dunning about that.
Well, I imagine the easiest thing to do would be to see when these papers were published. We have a file of all papers published by people in the department.
I have also from the department reports — the annual reports that Pegram put in — a pretty good way to trace it.
Oh, yes. I couldn’t tell you the exact dates.
I notice that you were on a half-year leave of absence during the academic year 1931-‘32; that you went to California. One of the reports that I mentioned indicates that you spent part of that half year leave visiting Caltech and Berkeley. Do you recall anything about that trip?
We drove out and I was able to visit a number of colleges and universities on our way out and on our return.
What would be the purpose of the trip — just a vacation, sabbatical?
Well, I had the time off, and I wanted to see something of other schools and see some of our old students. I visited a number of laboratories where work in my chief field of interest was going on, especially Berkeley and Caltech.
Well, it was refreshing for you to do that.
I didn’t accomplish anything in particular. I remember I wanted to talk to Oppenheimer, but I couldn’t find him out there. He wasn’t at Berkeley. I think that he circulated between Berkeley and Southern California.
He would go for one quarter down to Caltech.
Was it Caltech or the University of California at Los Angeles?
It was Caltech, with Charlie Lauritsen and these people who were doing some nuclear work. Some of the cosmic ray work was going on there, too. There’s one other question that I have, and I guess we’ll have to take a break then. I‘m assuming that we’re approaching that time. You mentioned in your life story that you did some work for General Electric, and I was curious as to when this occurred.
That was before the Second World War. It was consulting work. Some of it was in connection with patent cases involving arc discharges. I have always been interested in the study of arcs and other discharge phenomena.
Afterglow and so forth.
Afterglow was a part of it. The afterglow was more interesting because it was apparently a recombination phenomenon. Our students worked out four or five papers on the nature of the afterglow. That, of course, was Rayleigh’s great plaything, you remember.
There’s a new book on Rayleigh that Bruce Lindsay has just brought out.
Rayleigh was very much like Robert Wood. You must have a lot of interesting information on Wood. I’ve noticed in one of the reports that you have a lot of his letters.
Yes. You know, there are not a great many letters around, but we have some. It’s not as if we have his entire correspondence, but what we have is very rich. They’re teasers in the sense you’d like to have more. I have some good photographs.
He was a very interesting man.
Did he show up at Columbia during those days?
Yes. We saw him fairly often. He attended meetings of the Physical Society in New York.
I guess he was president during one of the periods that…
It was in 1935.
I think that after lunch we might start right in on the whole American Physical Society’s story.
Wood was an interesting man but had to be handled with gloves. I got along very well with him, but some people didn’t.
There are so many anecdotes about him that are fascinating. He had a great sense of humor, but also could be very very serious, I gather. [Pause in recording] We’re resuming now after a pleasant interruption for a delicious lunch. When we left off, I think we had covered the general discussion about your work within the department. Perhaps we should talk now about the American Physical Society. What would like to know is how it came about that you became secretary, which was 1923, and what led up to that — what you thought you were doing, what you got into — and then talk about the development of the Society from your point of view, on the basis of your experience in that period. Then there are a number of specific things I would like to raise about kinds of transitions that took place within the Society, problems that developed, how they were solved in the period in which you were active. So wherever you think it’s appropriate to start — maybe from the time of your first involvement.
Well, Dayton C. Miller was the secretary, and he wanted to terminate his work, and so the question of a new secretary came up. Professor Pegram had been Treasurer for a number of years and as a member of the Council was largely responsible for the policies of the Society. He wanted, if possible, to get a secretary in New York, especially at Columbia, because then the treasurer and the secretary could work together. So he asked me to do it; and, of course, I was interested. So became the secretary, and served for about five years. Then had to quit because there were so many other things in which was involved that I couldn’t stand the pace.
What was the principal nature of the work that you did as secretary?
The principal work was arranging for the meetings. At that time it was much simpler than it became later, because we had very few of the special programs. In recent years there have always been many special programs with invited speakers. At that time only a few of them were of that nature. When I first went in, the Society was fairly small as measured by the number of papers, which is a very good measure. My first meeting was in February. We completed all the papers by one o’clock of the first day and adjourned. At the previous meeting in December the Council had voted to send every member before each meeting a printed copy of the abstracts of papers to be presented there. Because of the shortage of time this was not done for the February meeting but was started for the big spring meeting in Washington. This was the start of our present Bulletin. The number of papers presented increased rapidly and within a few years all the meetings were three-day meetings. There were four meetings — the Christmas meeting, where the place of the meeting was chosen by the AAAS with whom we met and three set meetings: the New York meeting, the Washington meeting and the Chicago meeting. We hadn’t as yet arranged for a summer meeting.
What time of the year was the Chicago meeting held?
It was held during the Thanksgiving holidays. So far as it was possible the meetings were set at times when the members from the universities were free of classes. The New York meeting occurred in the period between the two semesters at most universities.
That meant that you had no holidays at home.
Well, I usually had to leave home on Christmas day.
The AAAS still has its meeting at that same time starting on the 26th?
Yes, we always met with the AAAS. After about one or two years, all of our meetings had been expanded to three days. They became more and more crowded. It took only a few years before they were so crowded that I brought up before the Council the question of running parallel sessions, because we were running on a ten-minute headway and in each session you could put in comfortably only ten papers. That was pretty much the limit, with discussion and so forth. I remember Millikan was on the Council at the time. He would have none of it, because he still believed that physics was a single subject — and if you had two parallel sessions, people were going to choose either this or that session, and you would gradually form divisions in physics. He was very insistent on this. “Well,” I said, “how are you going to do it? Will you have an extra day?” No, he couldn’t see that and said, “Three days is about all you can take of any convention. Cut your papers to six minutes.” So when the Washington meeting came up, I cut them to six minutes. I had 18 papers a session. And at that we were there on Saturday until six o’clock. Everybody had gone home except the secretary and of course the chairman and the janitor. So the members who came to read papers had no audience. They did, however, read their papers; because at that time some of the universities paid the way of a man who delivered a paper. But if he went there and it was read by title, there’d be some question. So he had to read it even though no one was listening to him. Well, then Millikan broke down, and so we started parallel sessions. It gradually grew while I was Secretary to about three parallel sessions in each meeting. I don’t know how many sessions they have now.
Well, there were at one time nine or eleven parallel sessions at one of the recent meetings and a four-day meeting. About the number of papers, did they seem to decrease in a specific field? Were there more papers in one part of physics than in another?
The increase was due in large part to the papers on work in atomic physics. Due to the Bohr atom theory and the development of electronics, which gave the physicists many new tools, research in atomic physics became of paramount importance in mast laboratories. There was a wealth of new problems. Spectroscopy, including the study of methods and nature of excitation of radiation, became a major subject of research.
Were there any standards that you would apply or that the Society would apply regarding the acceptance of papers?
No, other than the technical requirements of length, etc. There were of course some crackpots who had to be kept off the programs. This offered no great difficulty, but there were some borderline cases which I found difficult to handle. I recall a member named Ehrenhaft who was engaged in a lengthy controversy on the sub election. He submitted paper after paper which seemed to contain nothing new. There was no easy way to keep them off the program so I compromised by putting him on early in the morning before many members had arrived.
Was this in the later period when you were secretary?
It was the second period.
But as long as someone was a member of the American Physical Society, they could…
Or was introduced.
Or was introduced. Would they have to submit the abstract before the meeting once that rule went into effect about the abstracts?
And who was in charge of accepting the papers?
I took the responsibility. If I was in doubt I would get Pegram’s advice. I had no committee.
Was there any attempt to get balance if you felt that there were too many papers in one area?
You couldn’t control that at all or didn’t desire to?
How could you control it?
I guess not. I guess by encouraging other people to contribute. But you didn’t solicit papers.
We didn’t solicit papers as a rule. However, we did have some programs made up of invited papers. Usually there would be someone in the Physical Society who would help me with the arrangements.
But as secretary there was a minimum responsibility that you had…
Well, you have to have someone who’s willing to do a lot of work. There was a lot of correspondence.
What relationship was there to the papers presented at the meeting and then subsequent publication in the Physical Review? Was this an independent process?
How much of it is today?
I believe that it is not very different today. A paper is often a progress report describing preliminary results. If further investigation does not confirm these results there may be no further publication. I remember the embarrassment of my research sponsor who delivered a paper at the Washington meeting on some very preliminary measurements which I had made, and which seemed to confirm his expectations, only to come back and learn that the measurements were in error. There was no further publication.
I’m sure there are lots of those.
Yes, that happens. I learned from experience not to publish too early. After I got some results would go on and complete the work before I’d publish. Too quick publication isn’t a very good idea. If there’s competition, you do it.
That’s very much the case today, guess.
There’s pressure to publish, too.
Well, it’s pretty hard on a man who has just done a very fine piece of work, if someone comes along six months later and publishes ahead of him. That’s pretty tough.
Well, there are a lot more people in each specialty now. The competition is much fiercer.
If you get in a field in which no one else is working, you have a much quieter time.
At the meetings, did you find that there was a large audience which represented a good percentage of the membership of the Society? In other words, the Society had a certain number of members, was there any way of figuring about what percentage of those would show up at these meetings?
I can’t tell you that.
From your experience at Columbia did you see that many of the graduate students were going to the meetings?
They would go even when it was out of town?
Most of them wouldn’t have money enough to do that, I can only judge from the ones whom I saw at the New York meeting. We have a lecture hall there that will seat 250 or 300, and in a meeting that would be pretty well filled.
This would be at Pupin?
Pretty well full, which would mean that a large group would be…
About 250. If R. W. Wood was talking, it would be full. He usually drew a crowd. He always had something new. As a matter of fact, Wood was a little touchy. If he didn’t get a good place on the program, he might not turn up. So I put his paper in our large lecture room at a time when he would get the largest audience. Wood was always interesting.
But when he presented a paper, it would be one of these contributed papers.
Yes, I’m talking about contributed papers.
So he would be restricted to the same ten minutes as everyone else. Did you have much difficulty in enforcing the time limit?
Well, that was up to the chairman. Most chairmen managed to do it short of actual manhandling. I recall certain cases which were very amusing. Sometimes a speaker would continue to talk after the bell had indicated that his time was up. The chairman would gradually advance toward him while he retreated around the end of the lecture desk still talking. Then having no place to go he had to sit down. I remember Condon. I think he was president at the time. He gave a paper, but because he spent so much time explaining what he was going to talk about, his time was almost up before he got to the paper proper. He didn’t want to quit but they had a hard-hearted chairman who turned him down. No, I think the rule was pretty well enforced.
As secretary you would be involved in all the meetings then of the Council.
Were there separate meetings of the Council and of an executive committee, or was it all the same?
There was no executive committee.
What I meant is officers. Since there was a president for a one-year term and a vice-president, and then the two continuing officers would be the secretary and the treasurer.
There was, so far as I know, no formal meeting of the officers. I would consult the treasurer and the president to some extent. I do not believe there was technically any executive committee.
Then the Council would be the place where most of the issues would be thrashed out. In recalling as best you can that first period, from 1923 to ‘28, what seem to be the issues which generated most discussion at the Council?
I don’t remember any important issues beyond the usual questions relating to the conduct of the meetings, regulations regarding abstracts, publication of the Bulletin and the publication of Science Abstracts. There was very little that was argumentative.
What about this issue of the fractionalization, let’s say, of physics? There were new societies that were beginning to form.
The Optical Society and then the American Association of Physics Teachers. And then some of the minor ones which I have forgotten. What were some of the others?
The Acoustical Society…
The Optical Society was the most important one, because it covered a much more active field. We had some joint meetings between the Optical Society and the Physical Society.
You were a member of both.
I’ve come across some letters written about 1930 when there was a committee of the Physical Society on Applied physics. Apparently there was a concern that because physics was branching out into other newer applications that there would be a tendency as people specialized to form new societies and the question was whether you would have divisions or the equivalent within the Physical Society or you would have other societies, and if so, what would be the consequences for the American Physical Society? Do you recall much of that?
I wasn’t in the Council in 1930. I think my term was up in about ‘28.
The Secretary term…
We formed a number of divisions: for example, the division of electron physics. I’ve always been a member of that.
There was one on electron optics which was post-war…
That would have been very special. The subdivision I’m referring to is the one on electronics and electron emission, etc. That was probably the first of these special divisions.
Was there much discussion or argument about how best…? I’m thinking here about Millikan’s attitude.
No, I don’t think so. I think the people began to realize that you couldn’t know all of physics. Prior to the time when Millikan raised this question I had the feeling that if I read the Physical Review, it was up to me to do something with every article there so that I would know what was going on. It soon became evident to me that I couldn’t read everything. It got so that you couldn’t understand everything. At present if you understand five per cent of what’s going on, you’re a wonder.
That’s right. It seems to me that these discussions were going on in the late ‘20s. I know that from this letter that I have here from Pegram to Paul Foote, where they’re discussing the question of the various new societies and whether there should be divisional committees and so forth. It’s an issue that keeps coming up. When you first came in as secretary, Charles Mendenhall was president. He was president from ‘23 to ‘24, and then Dayton Miller and then Karl Compton and then…
I don’t remember Mendenhall very well. I knew the others quite well.
Do you recall working with any of them as president — either Mendenhall or Dayton Miller?
Dayton Miller, yes — quite well. And Karl Compton I knew very well because we worked in the same field largely.
Did most of them take their responsibilities as president pretty seriously?
Was there very much for them to do?
I don’t know. I think most of the work was done at the Council meeting, and Pegram took over a great deal of responsibility. One of the things that we were responsible for was our relation to the society in London that was publishing the Science Abstracts. I think Pegram handled most of the arrangements.
I recall from some things that I’ve read that there was some dissatisfaction with the way it was going in England, and there was a proposal when AIP was first formed that it might be done over here, but nothing came of it.
I wasn’t in on that, but I don’t recall that it came up in the Council. That would have been a tremendous undertaking. One would have had to develop a new staff to do it.
I think that was the basis of the decision, where it was hoped that perhaps there could be some agreement on improvements…
Well, that question came up, and the committees were active, but as far as remember, there was no extreme criticism.
Your, term ended in 1928, and then Severinghaus, who was your colleague at Columbia, took over. During your term, though, about how much of your time do you think you gave to the Society?
I’m inclined to think not as much as I should have. I just didn’t have the time. I had teaching, and had research, and had some outside technical work. Before each meeting I would be pretty busy for a week. I had to read and edit all the abstracts. Some of them were in very poor shape. I did a lot of editing, for which got some serious criticism. For a while the authors did not pay enough attention to the 200-word limit. I didn’t want to turn them down, but you couldn’t afford to let them run over more than a few words or everybody would be doing it, and you’d be in trouble. So I used to rewrite them. Occasionally, I think I rewrote some errors into them. I remember once when I made a rather gross error. But I knew that they would be edited before publication. At present I think that they’re edited at the AIP. It’s no great job to shorten up an abstract without changing the meaning, but editing several hundred of them was a considerable task. I used to read them all.
That’s one way of keeping up with physics.
You had to read them to know into what category to put them. Having sorted them into categories you then made up the programs for sessions each consisting of eight to ten papers. I tried to arrange the programs so that it was unlikely that anyone would be interested in two papers given simultaneously in parallel sessions.
That would imply that you’d have to really have a good feeling of what was going on in all the various branches of physics. It’s not simple to make a judgment that a person who is interested in a paper in session A is likely also to be interested in session B unless you really know something about all of those.
Yes, it was not easy. There were some other things to consider in making up a program. For example, you couldn’t put a paper by Robert Wood at nine o’clock in the morning because he wouldn’t turn up.
Were there any others that you could think of other than Wood who were given that kind of treatment?
Yes, to a limited extent. In order to make the sessions interesting, I tried to put the most interesting papers at the most desirable times. A paper by Millikan or one of the Comptons would attract a large audience.
I wanted to ask if you recall any publication problems that the American Physical Society had — whether there were any crises. It seems to me that this may have been during the period when you were not on the Council, when there were rising costs and then perhaps later the effect of the Depression.
I don’t recall that in those earlier days there were any difficulties.
But I guess at the beginning of the ‘30s they did, because one of the things that led to the formation of AIP was the concern of handling the publications in a more effective, efficient, economical way.
I had nothing to do with that.
Now, when Severinghaus took over, then you were relieved, and you were able to fit in your teaching and your research again. Then he became incapacitated and was unable to continue, and you say you took over again in about 1939.
Well, it was the last two or three years of Severinghaus’s term.
I think I have some note that indicates May 1939. Do you recall being impressed by the changes that had occurred? It seems to me that there would have been a lot more complications in terms of papers…
No, I don’t think so.
In other words, it was still part of the same pattern that you had observed before. I don’t think you’d say that now, though, if you had this job of handling all the papers.
No. It’s very confusing now. I don’t know how they do it.
You can see the size of the Bulletin compared to what it was.
Well, I really think that in regard to the Society, unless there are other things that you can think of, that we’ve probably covered basic ground. Let me ask you a final question, getting back to your whole career with everything considered. What would you identify as the work that gave you the most personal satisfaction in your whole professional career?
Well, there are two things: The research I did, since I’m a research minded person, I enjoyed very much. The other thing was the association in the later years with graduate students. As I said, at that time I was personally responsible for advising all the students — at present it’s divided up among a number of people — but at that time I took charge of the whole thing. So I got to know all the students. I had not only to advise them but gave them the examinations for proficiency in reading French and German scientific literature. That gave me a great deal of satisfaction, just knowing those students. When I retired the Department gave me a dinner, and one of the things that I appreciated most was that the students gave me a very beautiful record changer. I still have it. I think they appreciated the fact that if they had any troubles, they could come in and tell me about them.
That’s an important kind of recognition. It’s been something that you enjoy, and at the same time the people who were involved in it enjoy it and appreciated it. That’s a very nice tribute. Well, I think that’s a very good note to end on.
"When the present building for Physics was constructed and opened for use in 1926, there was much discussion of a suitable name for it. Finally the older departmental colleagues of Professor Pupin, without the knowledge of Professor Pupin, asked President Butler to leave open for future action the matter of naming the building, since it was clear that the name of Pupin would be the most appropriate one to place on the building, although it could not, on account of a general rule of the university, be done in his lifetime. The Trustees of the University at their meeting on April 1, 1935, named this building 'The Pupin Physics Laboratories, in honor and memory of Michael I. Pupin, Professor Emeritus of Electro-Mechanics, who died March 12, 1935'." Departmental Report of Columbia University Department of Physics for Academic Year 1934-1935.