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Interview of Joseph Weber by Joan Bromberg on 1983 April 8, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4941
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Head of Electronic Countermeasures Section of the U.S. Navy Department, Bureau of Ships, 1945-1948, with primary responsibilities in design of low noise receivers, surveillance of electromagnetic spectrum; cooperation with other offices (Radar, Vacuum Tube, Office of Naval Research). Retirement from Navy; professor at University of Maryland and graduate student in physics at Catholic University. His important contribution using quantum states of atoms and molecules (Ottawa conference, 1952); his thesis that employed microwave spectroscopy to solve a physical chemistry problem. Also prominently mentioned are: Hatton, Rudolf Kompfner, John Pierce, Emanuel Piore, Horbert J. Reich, Louis Smullin; Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Institute of Radio Engineers.
This is Dr. Joseph Weber at the University of Maryland, and we are going to talk a little bit about his work in quantum electronics.
I'm Joe Weber, Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. I am employed half time by the University of Maryland and half time by the University of California at Irvine, California.
What I'd like to do is have you tell me about the period when the war was over, and you gave up the command of the ship you were on, and went into this other work, in which you were concerned with electronics.
During the period of 1945 through 1948, I served as head of the electronic countermeasures section of the Navy Department Bureau of Ships. I was responsible for the design of all of the electronic countermeasures equipment for the United States Navy; microwave receivers, and microwave generators, were the tools for this naval requirement. I was concerned with the development of low noise amplifiers, and improved generators of microwaves. I served on a number of planning and organizing committees for [the] Institute of Radio Engineers' electron tubes research conferences.
That was what you were doing as a radio engineer?
I was a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. On active duty.
Those microwave, those tube conferences are of real interest, I think. Historic interest. What were you trying to do in the tube conferences? What was the subject matter of the conferences? What kind of people came?
Well, the people who came were John Pierce of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, Dr. Andrew Haeff of the United States Naval Research Laboratory, Dr. Leon Nergaard of RCA David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey, Professor Marvin Chodorow of Stanford University, Professor Lester Field of Stanford University, and Professor W. G. Shepherd, of the University of Minnesota. Improvements in the reflex klystron and the magnetron oscillator were discussed. The problems involved in the development of transmitting tubes, electron optics, and problems of noise were frequently discussed.
Did they discuss problems of noise in relation to optical coherence at all?
To the best of my knowledge, there were never, in the meetings I attended, discussions of optical generation.
So when you were writing your paper about noise, for example, about coherence, am I to understand this comes through the tradition of interest in noise?
Well, it was through a realization that a new method of amplification wouldn't be worth very much unless it converted an input signal into a coherent output signal. That's equivalent to the statement that it amplifies with low noise.
Now, another thing I'm interested in—somebody mentioned, I think Louis Smullin, that he thought that there were two really distinct traditions at this point which finally converged in lasers, and one was a kind of tube microwave engineering tradition, and [the other was] the microwave spectroscopy tradition. Is that an accurate memory?
It's accurate, in the sense that I was one of the few people who was doing both.
Now, when you started, were you doing both already in the Navy?
No, later my Ph.D. thesis was a microwave spectroscopy investigation.
OK. Then, instead of jumping on that immediately, tell me a little bit about how you saw the amplification problem in the Navy, and then we'll go to your Ph.D. work.
The only microwave amplifiers in 1948 were the klystrons. Shortly thereafter, the travelling wave tube was disclosed by Hatton and Kompfner, who had developed it at Oxford University, during the war or thereafter. Later work was done by Pierce and co-workers at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. I remember the paper of Pierce in which he disclosed that they had attained band widths of 800 megahertz. The Institute of Radio Engineers' Electron Tube Conferences were concerned with research in those areas.
That was one of the papers at one of the conferences?
Right. To the best of my knowledge, no one, prior to my Ottawa talk, no one had ever suggested doing amplification by making use of the quantum states of atoms and molecules.
Were you giving out any contracts when you were in the Navy dealing with amplifiers per se?
We supported some work at Stanford University. My office in the Bureau of Ships was not responsible for the development of improved vacuum tube amplifiers for the Navy. There was another office headed by Mr. Walter Greer. It was not uncommon for my office to transfer money from my budget to Mr. Greer, to support the development of amplifiers. So, to answer your question, I didn't support such things as part of my primary responsibility, but I did often share my available money with the offices that did have primary responsibility for amplifier development.
Was that one of your bid desiderata at that point?
What would have been some of the other big things that you would have liked to have seen, to have gotten out of the research you were supporting?
Well, electronic countermeasures always needed the best possible apparatus to search for signals. If you didn't know that your adversary or prospective adversary was using radiation of a certain kind, you couldn't plan countermeasures for it. So the first task was to discover the kinds of radiation that were employed. We had the problem of building the lowest possible noise receivers, carrying out surveillance of the electromagnetic spectrum, as our primary responsibility. Now, there were many other reasons for the Navy's being interested in low noise amplifiers. The effectiveness of the radar, the detection distance, depends on the noise of the amplifier. It had also been recognized in the military, when I was there, that secure communication systems could be built around a very stable clock. Desirability of low noise amplifiers and stable oscillators was accepted. The person in charge of radar development, Mr. McNally, was extremely competent, and thoroughly understood the problems of signals and noise, and requirements for oscillators to make the best possible radar.
I'd like to also get a little bit down about your work, your discussions or whatever with Piore, because I think that's an interesting point about the formation of ONR and so on. What your personal involvement was.
Well, Piore was one of the organizers of the Office of Naval Research. When people came to the Office of Naval Research with research proposals which Piore thought were of interest to me or others, he would bring those proposals to our attention and ask if we had funds to help support them.
Neither you or they, I guess, were down at Arlington?
We were both in the temporary buildings adjacent to the Washington Monument.
So you really were quite close to each other. All these groups, radar and. . .
We were within walking distance. In fact, the radar operation was less than 50 feet from my office. The vacuum tube operation was also less than 50 feet from my office. And Manny Piore's office was a few hundred feet from my office.
Proving that there was a lot of informal talking to each other?
We were a closely knit group in those days.
Well, then, you told me a little bit before about deciding to leave, and how you came to go to Catholic University.
That would be nice to have.
On the record, also?
Well, I served as head of the Electronics Countermeasures Section until 1948. My tour of duty in Washington was ending, and I was scheduled to be transferred to the industrial management portion of a Navy yard. I decided to resign from the Navy, and not to accept any of the available industrial positions. These were in organizations which had received large sums of money from me during the period 1945-1948.
Is it fair to ask what kinds of work, who wanted you to do, who was interested in getting. . .
Well, the organizations which offered me positions, I'm absolutely sure, did so with entirely honorable motivations. I was leaving the Navy, and they thought I was a competent engineer. They needed competent engineers. One of the best positions I was offered was one of supervisory engineer of the antenna development section of Airborne Instruments Laboratory, which later became part of Cutler-Hammer. I was very tempted by that offer. It was a superb offer. But in the final analysis, I chose to come to the University of Maryland. I had taught an out-of-hours course in microwave engineering for the University of Maryland at the Bureau of Ships. On the basis of reports from engineers who had taken this course, the university offered me a position as professor, and suggested that I enroll at one of the neighboring universities to obtain a graduate degree in electrical engineering. None of the neighboring universities were granting doctor's degrees in electrical engineering, so I decided to enroll in a physics program. I explored the possibiity of becoming a graduate student at George Washington University, and talked with Professor Gamow at some length. I informed him that I was a microwave engineer, and was interested in microwave experiments for a doctoral dissertation problem. At that time, he was not thinking in terms of a search for the microwave background, which he, Ralph Alpher and Bob Herman had pioneered. Gamow remarked that he had no problems to suggest.
—what were you thinking of when you said you'd like to do a microwave experiment? Did you have anything in mind in particular?
No, I didn't. I knew about microwave spectroscopy, and by then I had heard about the Lamb shift. I knew that microwave experiments were important in physics and thought that perhaps Gamow had some problems in mind which he thought could be resolved by microwave experiments and measurements.
Had you been reading the literature?
I had been reading the literature.
Had there been any particular part of it that you had been particularly reading? That appealed to you especially? You know—try to get back—I know it's a long time.
Just about everything. I have always tried to be a person of wide interests, and have never considered myself a specialist, either as a microwave engineer or a person working in general relativity. During those years, I did succeed in persuading my administrative supervisor in the Bureau of Ships to send me to most of the American Physical Society meetings and Institute of Radio Engineers meetings. It made a great deal of sense to keep up with all the new developments, because to do so made more efficient use of one's research funds.
Then I should be assuming that you would be reading physics and engineering journals?
I have. Yes, I have.
Let's see, at that point that would have been PHYSICAL REVIEW and IRE PROCEEDINGS?
Were those the most important?
Yes. And in the Bureau of Ships, almost all the journals were circulated, and I was reading them as part of my official duties.
Oh, they would just come across the desk.
They would come across my desk. It seemed clear that to do an effective job as head of the Electronics Countermeasures Section, I had to know what was going on in both physics and engineering.
Looking back on it, with my very limited acquaintance, it sounds as if microwave spectroscopy was an extremely exciting field.
It was an extremely exciting field. My interest was most stimulated by a marvelous article which Walter Gordy wrote in REVIEWS OF MODERN PHYSICS in 1948. I read it and re-read it. It involved technology which I understood and knew how to construct.
What were your interactions in those days with foreign scientists and engineers? Would they be coming to meetings?
They were coming to meetings. For example, I met the late Rudy Kompfner, at an Institute of Radio Engineers Electron Tubes Conference.
Now, he was at Bell, wasn't he?
Not then. He was at Oxford. Bell hired him, after they heard about his travelling wave tube work. He was a British subject, educated as an architect. I also met Hatton and the Canadian scientists, at the Ottawa Conference. The interactions I had with the American industrial scientsts were superb. They were extraordinarily brilliant and creative people, and they were extraordinarily patient with me. I was young and inexperienced, and not knowledgeable. They were very kind in answering all my questions, and in asking me to serve on the organizing committees of conferences.
Was that Bell Labs and IBM?
I used to visit Bell Laboratories, IBM, The David Sarnoff Research Center, and Stanford University.
Stanford was the university or Stanford Research Institute?
No, I never visited Stanford Research Institute. The late Dr. Frederick E. Terman had been director of the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard. This laboratory had developed countermeasures equipment during World War II. I met Terman after the war. I also met other scientists of the Radio Research Laboratory, Andrew Alford and Eugene G. Fubini. It was exciting for a young person to meet these very famous people, talk with them, and discover that they were easy to communicate with.
So then who was on the Tube Conference group when you got invited to—?
My slow biological computer will require more time to recall those names.
I'm always glad that people aren't interviewing me because my memory is so dreadful. We were just about up to Catholic University. Maybe we can put in five minutes of you at Catholic University.
Catholic University is an absolutely superb educational institution, one of the finest places I have ever been privileged to attend. Dr. Karl Herzfeld gave excellent lectures. One had only to take notes. The notes were easily read and understood. One of my courses was atomic physics. It was a two hour, one afternoon a week, lecture during the academic year 1948-1949. It began in September 1948, and ended in June 1949. One of the lectures which Dr. Herzfeld gave was on Einstein's 1917 deduction of the Planck radiation law, in which he introduced his A and B coefficients, and discussed stimulated and spontaneous emission. During that lecture, it was immediately obvious to me that the stimulated emission idea could be used to make a microwave amplifier and generators. From the time of that lecture, I thought actively and worked actively on the project, and submitted a summary of my research to the first available conference which I thought would have any interest in it. This was the 1952 Institute of Radio Engineers Vacuum Tube Research Conference at Ottawa. The paper was submitted in 1951 for the June 1952 program. Professor Herbert J. Reich of Yale University was on the papers committee. He was also editor of the TRANSACTIONS of the Institute of Radio Engineers Professional Group on Electron Devices. He wrote to me, after the Ottawa conference, asking permission to publish a summary which I had submitted in 1951 for publication.
Did that have anything to do with your thesis?
No, it had nothing to do with my thesis. My thesis was a microwave spectroscopic investigation of an isotopic exchange reaction, in which ammonia is converted to deuteracted ammonia, and microwave spectroscopy is used to follow the kinetics of that exchange reaction. My thesis employed microwave spectroscopy to solve a problem in physical chemistry. It's worth emphasising that I was really alone, pursuing this idea. There was no one else at Catholic University who was doing anything similar. There was no one else at the University of Maryland who was doing anything similar.
You really had no one to talk with, then?
Not about this. Until the 1952 Ottawa Conference, I didn't talk with anyone about it. People here had other interests. The electrical engineering department, was one of the best departments in the world. The major field was circuit theory. They were beginning to develop interests in semiconductors. The late Professor George F. Corcoran was a world leader in educator of engineers. Our professors in servomechanisms and circuit theory were among the very best. There was no one else in the department who was interested in microwave spectroscopy.
What kind of reaction did people have at Ottawa, do you remember at all?
Kompfner and Pierce were interested. The general response was, "It sounds like an interesting idea." There were many intelligent questions asked about it.
Did you have a chance to talk over the paper later?
I talked about the paper with a few people. My understanding is that on the basis of that paper, the Bell Laboratories started their research in this field.
It would be worth checking.
That won't be easy.
That's right, is there any correspondence on that?
Kompfner is dead. He's the one who would know most about it.
You don't have any correspondence with him?
It's conceivable. The assorted financial problems which our projects had, and the struggle to keep them alive, resulted in limited secretarial services. It would be time consuming to discover all of the correspondence.
Well, we would be willing to help you.