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Interview of Dean Wooldridge by Lillian Hoddeson on 1976 August 21, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4981
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Family background and early education; University of Oklahoma; graduate work and electrical engineering at California Institute of Technology. Bell Laboratories, 1936-1946; colloquium and other social structures; early solid state physics work; Fletcher’s group with Foster Nix and William Shockley; war years, work on radar bomb sights; postwar years. Move to Hughes Aircraft Company, 1946-1953; formation and accomplishments of Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge after 1953; current interests. Also prominently mentioned are: Joseph A. Becker, R. S. Bowen, Walter Houser Brattain, Oliver E. Buckley, Joseph Ashby Burton, Karl Kelchner Darrow, Clinton Joseph Davisson, Paul Sophus Epstein, Conyers Herring, C. N. Hickman, Howard Hughes, J. B. Johnson, Edward Karrouse, Mervin J. Kelly, G. A. Kelsall, J. W. McRae, Robert Andrews Millikan, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Gerald Leondus Pearson, Don Quarles, Simon Ramo, Rhine, Duane Roller, Hellvar Skaade, William Ralph Smythe, Leopold Stokowski, Richard Chase Tolman, Charles Hard Townes, Howell J. Williams, Jewel Wurtzbaugh, Fritz Zwicky; American Physical Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States Air Force, and Western Electric Company.
This is Lillian Hoddeson. I’m visiting Dean Wooldridge in his office in Montecito, California. The date is August 21, 1976. I would like to begin by asking you a few questions about your early background. You were born in May 1913 in Chickasha, Oklahoma. Were your parents from Oklahoma, too?
Well, not originally, no. After all, Oklahoma hadn’t been around very long. They had come to Oklahoma in 1889 or thereabouts.
Where did they come from?
Well, one of them, I think originated in Illinois and the other one in Kentucky, and I can’t quite remember which was which.
They were Americans?
Yes. They were both telegraph operators, and they were working in Indian Territory before Oklahoma was a state. They met one another over the telegraph wires and later on managed to get acquainted. This went way back now.
What did they do specifically?
They pounded the keys and sent telegraph messages from one station to another. Mother was located in Lawton, Oklahoma and my father, I think, was in Oklahoma in those days and so they had to talk to one another in the wire and relay messages from place to place.
That is fascinating.
This, of course, is long before teletyping and that sort this was regular telegraph key.
So communications was in your background right from the beginning.
Well, that kind of communication, yes.
What was your father trained in?
Being a telegraph operator was his only real skill and he always kept trying to break away from that knowing that there wasn’t a great future in it so he tried to get into such things as real estate, real estate was his favorite. Well, in those days, a good telegraph operator, that was a good skill to have. They were pretty scarce. A telegraph operator could go practically any place in the country and get a job because they were always in demand. So, we traveled around quite a lot while he was looking for opportunities to break out of the field and into real estate and he never succeeded too well. He finally got into the oil royalty business a very small well in Oklahoma and became pretty successful with that.
Did you have any sisters or brothers?
She was three years older.
And, what was she interested in?
Well, she had all the education as I did and then she went on to Stanford University and got her master’s degree in English, I believe. She taught for a while and then married one of my Caltech associates who also went to Bell Labs at the same time I did, J. W. McRae, he was an engineer and he died a dozen years ago and my sister died about a year ago.
Did you attend local elementary and secondary schools in Oklahoma?
Yes. Elementary school in Chickasha and, as I mentioned, my father was moving around quite a lot. He got bitten by the California bug for a year and he would save up his money there from working as a telegraph operator in Oklahoma in Chickasha, at that time, for a few years and then would hop into the Model T Ford and come to California. He tried to get a foothold out in Southern California and then he would run out in about two years and back we would go to Oklahoma. So I had an early California background and I went off to elementary school in Chickasha and went to, I guess it was ninth and tenth grades in Los Angeles. Ninth grade in Los Angeles and tenth grade in San Bernardino, and went back to Oklahoma City for my last two years of high school and we lived there. That was our home for that time on, pretty much.
Were you already aware of gravitating towards a scientific career?
Well, yes and no. My father always me to be a lawyer. He decided that lawyering was good business and he was in the business world and I had no particular knowledge of what I wanted to do or didn’t want to do so I was gravitating into law. I was taking a pre-law course to reach a diploma, actually, for a couple of years. What I did was to postpone. It was popular in my set at least, if you were going to become a lawyer, to defer your necessary science requirements as long as possible, I guess hoping something would happen so you would never have to take the course. So, I deferred my freshman science until my junior year and it caught up with me and I happened to encounter this one of the two or three really good teachers I have ever encountered in my life while I was a senior. And this was inspiration enough and it tied in well enough with some inclinations that I had had anyway and always played around with radio and things of that sort. So, that I decided that I was fooling myself and that I didn’t really want to be a lawyer I really wanted to be a physicist.
Tell me about about your playing around with radio. Did that take place in high school?
No. It started taking place in junior high school. It would have been specifically about seventh grade, at which time I think I would have been nine or ten years old. In those days, they skipped kids quite a lot and I was two or three years ahead of my ordinary grade. So, about the time that I was nine or ten years old I learned about radio and my parents had somebody build me a set, a one tube set, and I spent a good part of my evenings trying to pick up KDKA Pittsburgh and PWX Havana, Cuba on my one tube radio receiver.
Who built your radio?
I think it was built by some young man who was working for the Western Union at the time. No, wait a minute. He built a set for me and they had him build a set and it didn’t work. It was a crystal set. So, I built this one tube set. Well, he worked for the Western Union as a kind of messenger boy or something, and my father was the manager of the Western Union so he knew this messenger boy knew something about radio and hired him for ten dollars I think to build his son a radio receiver. It would have been all right except that it was a crystal set and crystal sets don’t pick up anything further away than ten or twenty miles, usually. And we were fifty miles from the closest transmitter. So there wasn’t anything wrong with the set. But anyway, I got interested in this sort of thing quite early. Also, I have always had a kind of interest in technical things, I guess. And interestingly enough, about the same time that I was getting to my freshman science requirement at the University of Oklahoma, the year before that, I had to take an English Literature course in which we had a woman teacher and she was just inspired with her subject and everybody liked her. Jewel Wurtzbaugh. She required that each of us read a very large number of books and she was the kind of a person who took a personal interest in her students even though her classes were large; there were 40 or 50 of us in there. She tried to get acquainted with everybody and find out what their interests were and then she would try to develop this interest in assigning certain types of books higher literary content reading and somehow she got onto the fact that I had some technical interest. So, through her, I was introduced to such classic books as those written by Eddington and Jeans and whoever, about the nature of the physical world I don’t know. And then she also got me interested in what would have been called science fiction if it had been written two or three hundred years later such as Flatland and things of that sort. So this English Literature teacher discovered my interest in technical and scientific matters before I did really and helped to nourish it by pointing me towards those kinds of books. This was a very unusual teacher. She had no background in scientific material.
Could she understand Eddington?
I doubt it. I doubt if she had really read those books, but she knew about them. She knew of the content. Flatland, I’m sure she knew of. So she helped the career I decided to be interested in. It was kind of a one two punch that I took this course under Duane Roller and that kicked me over the rest of the way and I changed to physics.
Did you come out of Oklahoma with a major in physics?
I got a Bachelor of Arts Degree, I guess it was called, in physics and mathematics and I stayed on another year and got a Master of Science Degree in physics and mathematics.
Now your Bachelor’s was 9/10/32 and …
Master’s was in 33.
Were you aware of quantum mechanics as an undergraduate?
Just barely. We were made aware of it. I was aware of it enough as I recall to take a very supercilious view of the young lady who was running the library up in the physics department when she classified a book on wave mechanics under hydrodynamics. I knew that was wrong, you see. Yes, I had just a little exposure to the existence of some of the quantitative chemical principles, but really not very much.
Was anyone else there I might have heard of besides you?
Yes. J. Rud Nielson
On a visit?
No. No, he was sort of a senior and certainly the most conspicuous professor of physics there at Oklahoma. He was there for quite a few years. As a matter of fact, he was still there the last time I was on campus, which must have been 14, 15 years ago. I guess he was more or less retiring by then. It turns out I was unfortunate in a way because he was away on sabbatical or something. I think he was spending a year in Copenhagen when I was getting into Physics.
He is Danish? And he worked with Bohr.
Yes. He worked with Bohr. The only contact I had with him really came when he got back to Oklahoma in time to sit on my oral exam for Master’s Degree and we never got too personal. However, Duane Roller had worked closely with Nielson and they very much saw eye to eye and understood one another and had a similar approach although I couldn’t compare Nielson’s teaching with Roller’s.
Well, how did you make the decision then to go to graduate school in physics at Caltech?
Oh, that was easy. Duane Roller was the one responsible for all of these decisions and he looked after my Master’s Degree research and he was the one who was my confident. He had gotten his PhD Degree from Caltech and, as a matter of fact, at that time, he was engaged in redoing the physics curriculum for Caltech. He and E. C. Watson who essentially ran the physics department for Caltech were collaborating on a new set of books for freshman and sophomore physics.
Who did Roller study with at Caltech? Or who were his connections?
Well, his connections were with R. A. Millikan to begin with and B. C. Watson with whom he was collaborating on the book. Duane Roller did his research work in photoelectricity at Caltech, and it may be that Millikan was his graduate supervisor. I’m not sure. Roller was very well connected back there at Caltech and when he told them that he had a bright young man here that should be given consideration, I was given favorable consideration. So I have been able to get an appointment at Caltech.
Did you develop some interest in photo-electricity before you went to Caltech?
Yes. I did. My first contact was experimental physics. I was a very junior assistant to a graduate student there named Walter Jordan. That was a graduate student. That was at the University of Oklahoma. Probably in the second half of my junior year when I decided to change over to physics, I wanted to get unsaturated as quickly as possible and got me switched to a number of courses. He also got me tied up with this graduate student who was doing a photo-electric experiment way down in a sub-basement, where to get to it, you had to crawl under heating pipes and whatever. The space was at a premium there. So, my first contact with experimental physics of any kind was sitting there watching the spot of light on the galvanometer and waiting for it to start moving. And when it started moving, I was supposed to go up to the physics colloquium where he was and let him know what was happening so he could come down and do something. So, yes, I had a little bit of interest in photo-electricity. But, this was just, of course, one part of this whole — it hadn’t even been called solid state physics at the time. But you’re probing in that direction, I can see, as naturally you should. Well, as a matter of fact, I did a little more solid state research there at Oklahoma for my thesis. It was so long ago. You see, I did a research on viscosity of air.
At Oklahoma, and then I did another research project, this was just a viscosity of air project. Very simple. But, I believe I spent more of my time, I think my Master’s thesis, I’m sure it was, was on the electrical resistivity of thin films of cadmium, which again is kind of solid state physics. I don’t think solid state physics, the term, had been invented at that time. But this involved vaporizing cadmium in as high a vacuum as I could get, which wasn’t too high, onto an insulating surface and trying to determine at what average molecular thickness electrical conductivity sets in. It is a very abrupt kind of a thing. It doesn’t happen just gradually. It comes, more or less, all at once, and this was my Master’s thesis.
You were certainly experimentally oriented.
At that time. And, theory came later.
Well, I was taking what courses I could. Of course, at that time the University of Oklahoma having just gotten into freshman physics in the first half of my junior year I was busily engaged in taking sophomore and junior physics so I didn’t have much theory.
But you were basically an experimentalist?
Yes. I always have been. I’ve never...
Well, there is quite a bit of theory in...
Well, yes. I’ve always felt that you ought to guide your experiment by theory and vice versa but I’ve never been...
There is more theory than in some of the experimental papers.
Yes. I like to understand the theory.
Whom did you study with at Caltech? And whom did you interact with and take courses with?
Well, I interacted with quite a few people and studied with quite a few.
Who stand out?
Well my thesis supervisor turned out to be W. R. Smythe. You ask who stand out at far as courses are concerned? Certainly Smythe. He gave one of the graduate courses for the Ph.D. in physics, electricity and magnetism. Paul Sophus Epstain gave two or three graduate courses in various types of theoretical physics. W. V. Houston, I took some quantum mechanics from him. R. S. Bowen, took geometrical optics, well, physical optics, not just geometrical. These were all required courses. R. C. Tolman turned out to be one of the, a third of the really outstanding teachers I have encountered. I have told you about the first two, Jewel Wurtzbaugh and Duane Roller. And, the third top-notch teacher I have ever encountered was R. C. Tolman, who was well known in the field of relativity and he gave at that time, he was interested in learning about quantum statistics.
He had not yet written his famous statistical mechanics text — that came out in the late thirties or early forties, didn’t it?
I’m about to tell you how that was written.
His method, he starts out. Tolman was an extremely nice guy, very well liked and very modest. Those are some of the characteristics of a good teacher, I think. You have to admit that you don’t know everything. Well, Tolman admitted it from dawn to dusk. He decided that he just didn’t know anything about statistical mechanics, particularly about quantum mechanics and how it interacted with statistical mechanics and how quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics and relativity ought to be all mixed up. Tolman’s strength had been relativity. So he decided that he was going to set out to learn about quantum statistical mechanics, and put it together with relativity. And, he starts out essentially from letter A and goes from letter A to letter B and then letter C and he goes through the alphabet that was before he starts putting them together in simple words like as and to, and so forth. In other words, he had a very orderly step by step approach to his own learning procedure. And he used that approach, he used the technique of writing a book to learn a subject.
Of course, this is a well-established technique many people have used. But, he used it with a vengeance. He wrote chapter one, two, three and four of this—it turned out to be a pretty massive volume—in this orderly fashion that I mentioned from the simple... And, he put it all together first of all, in mimeographed sheets and, after he got about one year along in the project, he started to teach a course on it. So, he was busy trying to prepare more mimeographed sheets for the later part of his book. He was just giving the earlier part a trial-run in teaching it, you see. And, he actually used the students in his class, it wasn’t a very big class, there was a dozen of us I suppose. Actually, he used us to react against and to give corrections and modifications and changes in his book. We were all graduate students and pretty far along and because of his step by step approach, we could understand what he was doing. We could understand it about as well as he did because he put everything down, you see. And, the way he provided us with notes. He didn’t want any of us to have to devote our time and mental energy to taking notes during class. So before each meeting, he would give us a complete set of these mimeographed sheets all down in detail. So, we didn’t have to write down anything. We could sit there, go over it with him, and discuss and raise questions and disagree with him, which we did, and sometimes he would then ask us to come around to his office later on and I’ve gone, around there on several occasions to spend two or three hours arguing with him about some point and he would change some of his approaches to this book as a result of some of these debates he had with us.
What a terrific experience for a graduate student!
Oh, just tremendous. Of course, he treated everyone as an equal.
But you couldn’t have gone through all the material in that book.
Well, it went on for about two years.
Oh, two years.
I think it was about a 6 term course when we got through—we got through the whole thing. Step by step we covered it.
So, you got a very, very good grounding in quantum theory of many body systems.
Well, this was quite an outstanding course and we had some other outstanding courses, although none of them had this kind of participatory experience that I described with Tolman. The lectures given by Epstein, I don’t know whether you have heard of Epstein. He was a Russian Jew who hadn’t been in this country too long and he spoke with a very strong German accent. But if you forgot about the accent, he always chose exactly the right word and exactly the right emphasis. He was a master of the English language. He just couldn’t pronounce it very well. One of the interesting things I learned at Caltech — we had quite a few professors who had come from Germany or from Russian who had essentially a German accent and I learned that they fell into two categories: one category spoke with a very strong accent so that sometimes you could hardly understand them and the other category spoke English with practically no accent, unless maybe a bit of an English accent if trained at Oxford or Cambridge. My first impression was that these people who spoke with a strong accent hadn’t been here very long, and the others had been here longer and had learned the language. Sooner or later I discovered that was absolutely not true. There was no difference. No correlation between the length of time that they had been here and how well they learned the language. And I have learned since, of course, that this is a common phenomenon. But, the one thing that they all had in common was a perfect control of the choice of words and grammar. If they write anything, or if they simply write down a speech, it is perfectly done, better than the average educated American. It is just the accent that makes a difference. Well, anyway, that is beside the point. These men were extremely competent physicists. You see, Millikan had drawn together Caltech staff not too many years previously; after all, Caltech had been started only a few years.
They were undergoing tremendous growth at the time that you were there, weren’t they?
Well, it wasn’t so much growth. He really had the staff that lasted without very much growth or very much change until World War II. Now, at this time, however, all of these men were at the peak of their skills and some of them did decline a little bit with later years, but at the time I was there, these people were all at the peak of their profession. And, a man like Epstein was just a past master of almost everything, certainly first of all classical physics, this was really his strong field. But classical physics carried all the way up through spectroscopy and the Bohr atom and things of that sort. But Epstein hadn’t gone too far into teaching courses in quantum mechanics and relativity. But to learn classical physics Epstein had a set of lectures that were just magnificent. Just beautifully polished. Here is a place where there was no participation of the student. You sat there in the class and you took notes in class. You’d be writing down the equations and you hoped that you got them all right. We had many courses from Epstein, practically a course every term for six, or eight, or nine terms in various aspects of classical physics. So, we got an awfully good classical physics grounding there and then Houston taught quantum mechanics.
How was that course? I have heard people refer to that. Conyers Herring took that course.
Was he a contemporary?
He was very much a contemporary. I remember Conyers. You know Conyers? I remember him well from those days. I remember him principally because of the Bowen course in physical optics that I mentioned a little while ago. Bowen’s course in optics was like no course in optics; he gave extremely tough problems involving a great deal of calculations and having to do with interference and things of that sort and some of the problems he gave us were really awfully tough. Conyers Herring was in the same class that I was in. It wasn’t a very big class. About ten of us, maybe nine or ten. Classes were all pretty small for the most part there. Well, Bowen would give us a problem and it usually would be only one to solve — this was a three times a week course, I believe — and most of us would frequently have to sweat blood on it and probably not get it. And if we got it, we would end up with page after page after page of long complicated equations and transformations, one after the other; these were awfully tough problems. Well, I remember Herring, I didn’t know him real well at the time. He seemed a little younger than some of the rest of us and I don’t know whether he was or not, but pretty soon it became apparent — I think he was a little late in starting the term or something — it pretty soon became apparent he didn’t appear to be working as hard as the rest of us and didn’t appear to be turning in his homework all the time, and we wondered how he could get away with that. But one day we discovered how he got away with it. Bowen would call one of us to put the problem up on the board, somebody who had raised his hand and said he had gotten the problem. On one occasion, he called Herring. Now Conyers hadn’t raised his hand. Bowen knew what was going on and he knew that Conyers Herring hadn’t really been turning in his work. Now, in those courses, you don’t have to turn in your work if you can pass the final exam and do it well. So, Bowen got Herring up there and I don’t know what Bowen expected, but I expected that Herring would fall flat on his face because it was obvious from the word go that Herring hadn’t done this problem. He really had to start reading the problem to figure out what it was all about up there at the blackboard. He stumbled around a little bit, but pretty soon he got started and I’ll swear if he didn’t go right through that problem from start to finish doing all of this computation up there at the board. A little slow, well slower than he would have been if he had done the problem. But, he went through that thing; there wasn’t time in this one hour for him to get all the way through it but he was heading right. Going through something very directly that the rest of us had had to pull and haul on for hour after hour after hour. That was my first real acquaintance with Conyers Herring. I don’t remember him in Houston’s class but that was a lecture class and quite a lot larger and he was probably there, if he wasn’t in that particular section, he would have been in another one.
Have we gone through the outstanding teachers?
Well, let’s see. Well, we mentioned Smythe who turned out to be my...
Thesis advisor. I was searching for the term. I guess advisor is not a very good term. He was more my supervisor than my advisor. But he was an extremely good teacher of electricity and magnetism.
He hadn’t yet written his famous text?
No. Well, he was starting to write his own text when I was there, but he hadn’t gotten very far along. When I left Caltech in ‘36, a new graduate student came in, Charles Townes, if you know him. We didn’t meet there, I left Pasadena in September, I guess, and I guess he didn’t come in until later than September so we never met until he appeared at Bell Laboratories three years later. Well, he inherited my thesis project. My thesis project had been separation of gaseous isotope diffusion and I ended up getting a Ph.D. degree, I think primarily because I had managed, with my own hands, to put together something like — I counted them up once — I think, fourteen hundred glass-to-glass joints, and make them tight. You see, I was able to get a vacuum in this monstrosity. It had, I think, 40 mercury pumps, mercury vapor pumps put together, and then a lot of porous tubing and all of this glass work that I had had to build with my own hands and I frequently said that the reason they gave me a Ph.D. was that I was finally able to get it tight. But, he inherited this monstrosity of equipment and carried it on for three years for separation of gaseous isotope. Meanwhile, Smythe, who was his thesis advisor too, of course, was getting pretty far along with his book and my understanding is that Charlie Townes worked every problem in Smythe’s book in order to give Smythe a kind of a trial run as to whether they are adequately difficult or not difficult enough. And, if you know Smythe’s book, you know how many problems there are in there.
Oh yes, I do!
So, this was what Charlie Townes did in his spare time when he wasn’t getting any credit for this as far as I know. He was writing his thesis. So, Charlie Townes inherited my project at Caltech and when he came to Bell Labs, I guess he considered that it was only right that he should go to work in my section. So, he came to work for me at Bell Laps. That was when I first met him.
It just occurred to me: Herring must have been an undergraduate at Caltech because he did his graduate work at Princeton.
He seemed younger. This is probably right. He was probably taking that optics course as an undergraduate and that is probably one of the reasons I looked down on him there to begin with before I discovered what his competence was. I didn’t look down on him any more after I saw him perform at the blackboard.
Was Oppenheimer there at the time?
Yes. Oppenheimer was, well he split his time between Berkeley and Caltech. So, he would spend some time up at Berkeley and then about half a year at Berkeley and half the year at Caltech. I never took a course for credit under Oppenheimer. I audited one once and I was tremendously impressed by him. One thing that, as you’ve gathered, impressed me about a number of these outstanding competent people was their fluency of the English language. Oppenheimer was one of those. He spoke very fast and yet he would always use the the right word and put his sentences together beautifully even though he was speaking extemporaneously. That impressed me very much. His certainty and mastery of his subject impressed. And another thing that impressed me, perhaps, most of all was he was the only lecturer that I have ever seen who could get through at least six or eight cigarettes while talking as rapidly as possible over a fifty minute session. He would smoke and talk at the same time with a cigarette. However, this is another story. I didn’t really know Oppenheimer too well. I was not in the nuclear physics group there which was a very tightly knit and well coordinated group of people who worked closely together all the time and with Oppenheimer, so I wasn’t in that particular group.
Who was in that group.
Oh well, Willy Fowler was there at that time. Actually, for a time this University of Oklahoma graduate student whose... I watched was there. He preceded me at Caltech, Walter Jordan, he was in that group for awhile. The group was headed by Charlie Lauritsen. He was the professor in charge of it. I didn’t mention him as an outstanding teacher because I never had a class from him. But he had a reputation from everyone who knew him as being a very good teacher. He headed this nuclear physics work here at Caltech. His son, Tommy Lauritsen, was coming into graduate school about then and he went on to stay at Caltech as you probably know. There was a man named Delsasso who was in that group. I am missing a number of them.
Well, I guess we have dealt with the professors. Is there somebody we’ve left out whom we should mention?
Well, there are a number of others, but these are the most important ones.
Who were some of the students? You mentioned Townes and Herring.
Yes. All right. Well, Townes wasn’t there when I was, he came along a little later. Bill Shockley wasn1t there when I was. I was between Shockley and Townes at Caltech. Shockley belonged to MIT I think, so I didn’t know Shockley there, although he left quite a reputation behind him.
Well, first of all, for being brilliant. But his brilliance also gave rise to some practical jokes. He is probably still famous to this day for one. Oh, I didn’t mention Fritz Zwicky. Yes. He was outstanding, too, in his own way, certainly outstanding. He played a dirty trick on me. In preparing for your oral exams, you would go around to the various professors and ask them if they were going to be there for your exam and they would tell you that they would be or would not be. And the tradition then was that they would tell you the general subjects on which they might question you. Well, I went around to Zwicky and he said well, Pm not going to be there, I’m going to be up skiing. He spoke in a very strong accent. And, he said but if I were there, I would ask you about this. Well, I was delighted that he wasn’t going to be there, of course, he can be pretty tough. In a way, he was kind of a ruthless fellow. He wasn’t always as nice to his students as some of the other professors. Well, when the day came, he was there and he asked me about something entirely different. However, Zwicky, in his own ways, was pretty good at teaching you something about mechanics in one form or another. But, I was about to talk about Shockley’s great practical joke. Well, Zwicky was well known for paying no attention or not counting the problems, the assignments that are handed in during the year. In a number of those courses, you could pass the course, I think in all of them, if you simply took the exams and got a passing grade. But in most cases, your grade would be helped and your standing would be helped if you did the work throughout the term too. The professor understood and knew better what you understood and so forth. So it was considered bad form not to work the problems and it was considered good form to work them and turn them in. And, they would be graded and handed back.
So, most of us worked our heads off trying to do these really tough problems. Well Zwicky had a habit of giving some of the toughest problems. He gave his problems in an interesting way though. He would wait until the bell rang at the end of the hour and then he would write up some mathematical expression up on the blackboard and he would say, in effect, here is the answer and now find the problem. Well, he would use a few words which were never enough to say what the problem was and he had given us the answer, so, it usually boiled down to the necessity of starting with his answer and working back to see what problem he had in mind. So, these problems were kind of tough, and the final exams were too. They were real tough, and frequently tricky and we would sweat blood on those things. Well, this is the background to Shockley’s practical joke. At the beginning of the first term, Shockley managed, by some finagle or other, to get a fictitious student enrolled in Zwicky’s course. I guess he carried around some enrollment cards and he gave this fellow a Scandinavian name, Zwicky was Swiss but he sort was hard on the Scandinavian, gave him the name Hellvar Skaade. And, Hellvar Skaade was enrolled, at least, in Zwicky’s course, as far as I know, and nothing else. Well, Zwicky didn’t care whether you attended the class or not, and the fact that he called the roll once in a while and Skaade was never there — he must have wondered about it, but Zwicky never let anybody know that he wondered. In any event, Skaade wasn’t there. Well, I should say also that these exams were open book exams typically. You could use any books that you wanted to. The procedure was for the professor to come in and write down the questions on the board, and Zwicky always had five problems, and then he would leave the room and come back at the end of the hour or maybe a technical assistant would come back at the end of the hour and pick up the papers. So, there was nobody there to look and see who was there taking the exam. So, it was possible for this fictitious Hellvar Skaade to take the exams at the mid-term and at the end of the year. Well, Shockley had some of the faculty lined up on this, I understand that Ira Bowen was involved here — I was told he was and I have no reason to doubt it. Well, someone inside the class after the exam questions had been written would hand a copy of it down to somebody waiting outside the window and this would be taken back to a room where this panel of experts, including one or two faculty members, would then see to writing out the exam questions. Naturally they could do it extremely well with all of the expertise they had, having taken the course and taught the course themselves.
So, they would turn in — as I recall, on the first mid-term exam they answered two or three of the questions perfectly and then Hellvar Skaade scribbled on his, “Hell, I’m too damn drunk to write anymore,” and he turned the paper in. And, things like that were done, you see, and finally at the end of the, I think this was a three term course, the end of the course came around, the third term. And, Skaade’s paper had been very good but not perfect because he probably hadn’t worked all the problems and put in some kind of comment. But, Zwicky’s response was to give Hellvar Skaade an A on the course. Everyone else in the class was given a C-. This is a true story and I talked with some of the people who were involved and this was Shockley’s doing; he organized it. See, you were asking about outstanding students. Well, there were quite a few of them. You know Conyers Herring. Carl Overhage was one of my classmates and he went on to do good things in many places. I mentioned Fowler. Certainly in the electrical engineering department, the electrical engineering division had a particularly good group of graduate students while I was there, in fact, I knew many of them better than I did most of the physicists, for a simple reason. The electrical engineers were, perhaps, a little more practical and knew on which side of the bread was buttered a little bit more than the theoretical physicists. So, when it was discovered that I had a car, I quickly found that I was friendly with quite a few electrical engineering graduate students. Also, I was rooming with one. Well, so, I got to know that bunch quite well. And, they include, let me see if I can mention some of them. First of all, J. W. McRae, who married my sister, and he was Vice-President of Western Electric, I guess at the time he died, he headed their Sandia Laboratories. He had the combination of ability and personality — I strongly suspect they might well have made him the president or the chairman of AT&T before he was finished. He died, unfortunately, much too young. But, he certainly was outstanding there. Well, let me see if I list some of these people that I think are worth listing. First mention the electrical engineer that I roomed with when I first went out there, Edward Karrouse. He and I had been roommates at the University of Oklahoma and he came out to start in graduate work in electrical engineering and I came out to Caltech for my physics graduate work. In fact, I picked him up in my little Chevrolet, I remember in Texas where he lived and we came on up together. Well, he went on, after graduating from Caltech, he went up to Stanford where he finally got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He became the head of the Municipal, I guess it is called Municipal Power and Light District in Los Angeles which handles all the electricity for Southern California. He just retired from there several years ago. I mentioned J. W. McRae and Simon Ramo.
You haven’t told me much about Ramo yet.
Well, he went on to get his Ph.D. Most of the ones that I am mentioning now got their Ph.D. degree in ‘36 as I did, although theirs were in electrical engineering. Ramo went on to General Electric Research Laboratories and I went to Bell Laboratories. He was with them for ten years doing work in tubes and things of that sort, and he wanted to live in California, as did I. So at the end of World War II, he left the Research Laboratories and I left Bell Telephone Laboratories and we got together out here in Southern California.
I think it would be better to return to the beginning of Ramo-Wooldridge later.
Shall we stay with the Caltech graduate students right at the moment?
Yes. I want to be sure that you tell me a little about Millikan. Then we can move on to Bell and continue chronologically. It will be a little bit easier for others who might consult the transcript of this interview to unravel the story then.
Alright. Let me simply list some of the other outstanding graduate students that I can think of at the moment and others will occur to me. I am in the electrical engineers now. In addition to those I have mentioned, there is G. D. (Gilbert) McCann who is over at Caltech, a professor of electrical engineering there for some years, about to retire. There was Barney Oliver; I think he was one year younger than the rest of us and he was Vice-President of Hewlett-Packard for some years, although he was in Bell Labs for a time. There was John Pierce whom you undoubtedly heard of around Bell Labs. He was a contemporary of ours, a very bright, capable fellow. And, he got a Ph.D. in ‘36 and he went to Bell Laboratories at that time. There was Howard Griest who got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1936 and went to Bell Laboratories. There was a whole bunch of us, several of us who went to Bell Labs at the same time from Caltech.
I heard a story that in ‘36, when Kelly became Director of Research, he went around to the leading graduate schools in physics and electrical engineering, skimming off the cream of the young talent as part of his effort to build up the research organization at Bell Laboratories. Were you aware that was happening?
Well. The reason that I am looking slightly puzzled, I suppose, is that I had no contact with M. J. Kelly, at that time. My contact, the man that hired me, was Harvey Fletcher, head of the physics department.
Harvey Fletcher. Did he interview you?
Yes. Harvey Fletcher was the one going around interviewing. I have no doubt... No, as a matter of fact, M. J. Kelly was not the director of research at that time. He became director of research a little later. It was Ralph Bown who was the head of the research activities at Bell Laboratories at the time I went in. I don’t think that M. J. Kelly got that job for several years. So, M. J. Kelly was not in my picture at least in l936. Now, whether he was involved in helping planning is another question I just wouldn’t have known. But, it was Harvey Fletcher who recruited me and who had a general practice for years of going around to certain places and doing that kind of thing. He and Millikan knew one another quite well. Harvey Fletcher had worked for Millikan at the University of Chicago on the oil drop experiment. So, it was natural for Fletcher to come around to Caltech and interview people. It was my impression that he was probably responsible for these electrical engineers that I am talking about too. But, I couldn’t say for sure. I do know that he was there in residence there at Caltech for about a week interviewing people, and it was as a consequence of those interviews that I went to Bell Labs and I’ve always imagined that these other people were recruited at the same time.
How did Fletcher impress you at that time?
Oh, very favorably. I worked for him the whole time that I was in Bell Laboratories and came to have a very close personal association with him too. He was a very fine man. I don’t have to say was, he is still alive and well, although I haven’t seen him for years. You could interview him. Perhaps you should.
I will try.
He lives in Provo, Utah. One of the reasons that I came to have such close personal contact with Harvey Fletcher was that by one of these rare coincidences — let’s see how this works now, I am trying to recall the details of one of these coincidences — yes. At the time, I hadn’t the slightest idea of going into industry when I got my Ph.D. at Caltech I had been imbued with the general attitude that all Caltech Ph.D.’s used to be imbued with, and perhaps still are, that industry was beneath my dignity. The only thing that was good enough for my newly found scientific talents was university work. So, I had applied for, and had been granted, a national research fellowship to go up to Berkeley in Lawrence Laboratory and convert myself into a nuclear physicist. I assumed that was where the action was going to be and so I had this appointment, as a matter of fact, the young woman I was engaged to and I went up there and I rented an apartment. I paid $5.OO for the first month’s rent. We were going to get married the following month and then go right up there and I was going to take up residence at Berkeley. So, this would have been in late August, I guess, that we were making these arrangements. And then along comes Harvey Fletcher representing Bell Laboratories and I received word from Millikan’s office that Millikan would like for me to talk to him. I hadn’t the slightest idea why I should but I didn’t want to offend Millikan and so I was interviewed by Harvey Fletcher who impressed me as a very nice fellow and he seemed to know what he was talking about for somebody out of industry, in particular. But, I had never heard of Bell Telephone Laboratories before, at that time.
Even with your telegraph background?
I didn’t know there was such a thing as Bell Telephone Laboratories. But, with this interview, I did a little checking around and I went around to my advisors, members of the faculty whose opinions I trusted, and that certainly included Smythe and it included some of the others, Bowen. I talked to Bowen, and perhaps to Houston and some of the others and I was surprised to find that they thought I ought to give serious consideration to selling my soul to industry. And, in addition to that, they were offering me a fantastically high salary of $3,000 a year.
How did that compare with the fellowship salary?
You did pretty well up there at the National Research Council. In view of the fact that I was going to have a wife I think I would get $2,600 or something. But, I had already figured that $2,600 was practically putting me up in the state of a rahjah. $3,000 was just fantastic. So, as a combination of those things I decided there is a real asset for me to accept this invitation and go to Bell Labs and it came as quite a shock to me when I finally made that decision. But, what I’m leading up to is this: I mentioned to my wife-to-be that I had been interviewed by this man named Fletcher and it looked as though maybe we ought to consider moving to New York instead of Berkeley and she was interested in that and she says Fletcher, well my best friend here at USC at the time, just recently got engaged to a man named Fletcher. I wonder if there is any connection. Well, it turned out that my wife-to-be and my fiancé’s best friend had just gotten engaged to Harvey Fletcher’s oldest son. And, so, we lived together essentially in the same apartment house on Jackson Heights, New York City, across the corridor from one another. Fletcher was over across the corridor and we were over here and we had a very close personal affiliation with the two families and that took us into Harvey Fletcher’s family and he had numbers of sons and one daughter. And the sons, all except Steve, the older one, became scientists. And, they have all done well for themselves. I don’t know how we got started on this but I think you asked me about Fletcher.
Fletcher is a very interesting person. I hope I will have the opportunity to talk to him. He is quite old now.
Well, he is in his 80’s now, I guess. As I say, I haven’t seen him for quite a while but he certainly was a very nice person and pleasant to talk to, and he was also a pretty good scientist.
He has a very interesting background.
Member of the Mormon church.
He was a friend of Leopold Stokowski, wasn’t he?
Stokowski? Curious that you bring this up, I think you must be doing it deliberately. When I had accepted the offer from Harvey Fletcher to come to Bell Labs, but before he had left the Los Angeles area, he made arrangements, since I was out here and was going to be out here for a few weeks, he made arrangements for me to be shown a little bit of some of the kinds of things that Bell Labs and Western Electric were responsible for. And one of the things he arranged was for me to come around and see what was going on at the Hollywood Bowl. You see, one of the things that Harvey Fletcher and his team was doing while he was out here, they were installing some amplification equipment, loud speaker equipment in the Hollywood Bowl which had never been done successfully before. Harvey Fletcher was the top-notch expert in the world, I guess, in how to build big speakers that have very high quality and could cover an area like that. So, they were putting up some tremendous loud speaker installations out there. And this was going to be inaugurated and introduced to the Los Angeles public by Leopold Stokowski who was going to conduct the orchestra. And, I remember being out there several times. I was out there one late afternoon or evening watching them do all this stuff and meanwhile, Leopold Stokowski was up there in a kind of control position, twiddling the gain controls while, I think they were playing, I don’t know whether the orchestra was playing or whether they were playing records to it at that time, but Stokowski wanted to adjust these controls himself to make sure that it was all right. So, I was watching him for a little and there came a pause and I was introduced to Stokowski. And some place, I think Harvey Fletcher maybe mentioned that I was about to get married to the young woman who was the best friend of his oldest son’s new bride and Leopold Stokowski said well, what is it? Is it the weather? He didn’t have that kind of an accent quite, but he commented on it being the weather. We are getting off course too far, we are not going to finish this.
Is there anything worth mentioning, before we leave Caltech, about Millikan?
Well, there are lots of things that are worth mentioning about Millikan.
Millikan played a leading role in Bell Laboratories research, going right back to Arnold and Jewett and Kelly.
In Bell Laboratories research?
In supplying people on the research staff. In your case as well.
Well, he did have this contact with Harvey Fletcher who had been a student of his in research systems and I think it was in large part through that personal contact Caltech sent a lot of people to Bell Labs.
Do you remember how Fletcher explained Bell Laboratories’ objectives to you at that time?
Oh, I don’t remember how he did. I could guess how he did. I’m sure that to me, a brand new Ph.D., he must have played up the more or less fundamental nature, or almost fundamental nature, of their research, because he knew that he wouldn’t interest me in any other way. But I don’t remember any of the details at all.
At that time, the research wasn’t all that fundamental. It became more fundamental over the next decade.
Well, there always had been some pretty fundamental research at Bell Labs. But a small fraction of the total, of course. It always stayed a small fraction of the total, but it got bigger later on. Davisson and Germer had already done their work that led to a Nobel Prize.
That, in my understanding, came out of technical problems. The diffraction experiments apparently arose in part out of the patent fight that Arnold was engaged in with Irving Langmuir over the high vacuum tube. Davisson was an outstanding physicist.
He knew what he was doing. Maybe there was some practical incentive behind it, but I think it was some pretty good fundamental work.
The department you joined first was under Hickman.
This goes way back.
Now, what was the basic orientation of that?
I imagine Fletcher must have told me that he was pointing me toward magnetic recording research, at the time. He probably did and if he did tell me that, it was amazing that he got me to go because that certainly sounds very engineering-like. But I don’t recall that I got to Bell Labs and then felt that the rug was being pulled out from under me, at that time. Although, maybe that was the way it worked. But, I was put into this magnetic recording work which sounds of a very engineering nature.
Hickman was in magnetic recording?
Hickman was the head of that department, it was magnetic recording. But, I was given every encouragement to try to bring some science into it if I could and that is what I tried to do. I tried to learn something about the fundamentals which hadn’t been going on in the Bell Laboratories quite. I did bring in some work on the fundamental physics of magnetic recording.
Was this a closely supervised group?
Well, no. I wasn’t closely supervised. No, it depended on what project you’re talking about. I think Hickman himself was closely interested in one or two of the projects he had and I’m sure he supervised the people there very closely, but I wasn’t in that category so I worked pretty much on my own. I was simply assigned the general subject to learn about the physics in magnetic recording. This was essentially what I was asked to do.
For a very short time, you were moved under Lovell.
I remember being associated with Lovell for years. What date was this?
Hickman I think went up into the switching department, so Lovell took his job.
Were you aware, while working in this group, of the larger organization of the research, for example, of Davidson’s group?
Well, we all had copies of these organization charts. They were available to us.
Were you interacting with other research groups?
Yes, I interacted with quite a few of them. I certainly interacted with Bozorth and Williams and I did a lot of interacting with Nix. Well, for one thing, I was working with magnetic materials. So, I had to go to the magnetic people, Bozorth, to make my materials and then prepare it for me in the form that I wanted, and roll it out in the proper way, and heat treat it in the proper way, and take x-rays of it, and things of that sort. So, I had a great deal of contact with people who did this magnetic work. Oh, at one time or another, I had contact with all these people nearly and knew them. As a matter of fact, G. A. Kelsall —
Tell me about him.
He was not a scientist, he was a practical magnetics man who knew how to put together various types of alloys and knew just when to spit in the mixture and to get it right, whatever.
In what way did you interact with Davisson?
Not in any professional way, really. Davisson was one of these nice guys that everybody knew and he liked everybody and was always friendly with everybody.
(Referring to organization chart) Would you eat lunch with these people?
I would see them sometimes at lunch. Davisson, of course, was a senior to me, but I probably had lunch with him on occasion. Certainly he gave, everybody sooner or later gave, physics colloquium talks. And not just physics colloquium talks. There was a procedure used there that was very good, although it was time-consuming for some of the executives. The procedure was that about once a year each research worker, who had a project of his own at least, would be given the opportunity to make a presentation for this whole department. And members of other departments outside the physics department would sometime come in too.
You say the whole physical research department was there?
I remember we would fill quite a large room with fifty.
The chart shows over 100 people in research.
Well, some of these were technical assistants and you would have to see their title. “Members of the Technical Staff” was the key title used there and I believe all of the MTS’s were invited and, of course, they didn’t all come. But, I do remember on one occasion that when I had been working on magnetic recording for a while, I talked about my work for seven hours.
—starting early in the morning. We broke for lunch I think. But, they gave me an opportunity to do that, you see. And, I was pretty hoarse by the end of it, but, my impression was that some people were listening and that they were asking good questions. And so in this way, we got an opportunity to hear others talk about their work. We also had a more formally organized physics colloquium where outside speakers came in to speak. I learned about some of these people and their activities in that way. There was enough interaction here, for example, J. B. Johnson who invented Johnson noise many many years ago in radio when we were interested in understanding that kind of phenomenon, I had to get together with Johnson to learn something about noise problems. As a matter of fact, later on, Johnson I believe was in a group that I headed after World War II so I got better acquainted with him personally later on. It was the same thing here (indicating on chart), Weinhart. This was the glass blowing department, that was put under my direction later on. But, I had to work with these people all the time to get them to make the kind of equipment I needed. That wasn’t in the magnetic recording days, that was a couple of years later when I got into physical electronics.
Tell me about Howell J. Williams. He is, unfortunately, not available for an interview.
I know very little about him. He must have been the quiet type. I just don’t really remember him except I do remember he was around. I think he must not have pushed himself forward very much.
Did you know Becker?
Yes. Oh yes.
Could you tell me about him.
Well, Becker did some very important work in cathodes. Becker used to be given credit, and I think he deserved it, for saving the telephone company probably hundreds of millions of dollars a year, maybe more, because of his development of the oxide cathode which made it possible to cut the temperature of your cathode in the vacuum tube way way down. At the time Becker came along they had to use pure tungsten or something so you could run it at a tremendously high temperature. It took a lot of power, but, after he came along, you could have the cathode which required only about 2 watts compared with maybe 2. And you multiply that number of watts by the number of millions of vacuum tubes that by that time the Bell System was using and his competence was quite tremendous. And, he did it from a pretty fundamental physical approach.
He seems to have aroused diverse feelings among other people who were at Bell at the same time.
Well, he was a bit of a, it is hard to say, controversial person. He was, perhaps, a little, maybe he was a bit abrasive occasionally; he never was with me. I always got along well with him. He also was a little bit like Brattain. He was more of an experimentalist than a theoretical physicist, certainly. He always managed to know enough about the theory of what he was doing, but he wasn’t handicapped thereby. But, I don’t think Becker would be rated, well, he would never be rated, well, he would never be rated with Shockley, for example, in understanding complex theoretical stuff. That is certainly true of Walter Brattain. Gerald Pearson was another quiet, down-to-earth type who could do most anything he had to, more of an experimental type. I worked closely with him during the war. He could learn to design electronic circuits and build them and make them work; we all had to do things we hadn’t expected to do when the war came on. K. K. Darrow. You know about him, I trust?
I picture him in those days as sort of an odd-ball outsider who often visited other institutions, who learned what was going on there, synthesized it and wrote it up in semi-popular articles that were widely read.
Yes. Yes, I’d go a little further than that. There are some good stories about Darrow you’ll have to get but they are pretty well known. Well, Darrow certainly was the antithesis of an experimentalist, certainly. Darrow was not an experimental research man at all. He gave the impression of not being very good with his hands; I think that was probably true. His interest was strictly theoretical, and the job that he worked out for himself when he came to Bell Labs was, in large part, what you had just now stated. I would put it a little differently: that he would decide on a particular branch of physics that he wanted to study and then he would read the papers and dig up the work that had gone into this physics. It was always theoretical physics that he worked on. And then he would synthesize it in the sense that he would write a long article, sometimes almost a small book, which developed that whole subject ever so much better than anybody had ever developed it before. I have been just fascinated and tremendously helped by some of Darrow’s writings. I was getting into some of these things I had to do here. If it was something that Darrow had worked on it was going to be awfully well written and easy to understand.
Were his articles widely read in the Laboratories?
Oh yes, and outside of the Laboratories. Darrow’s name is sort of a legend, I think, perhaps not in your generation, but it was until not very long ago. I think you will probably still find some people who are discovering Darrow now if they want to get interested in the fundamentals of say classical statistics or something. Amazingly good stuff. So, yes, I knew Darrow well. It was a pretty democratic kind of an operation in the sense that, even though I was quite young and some of these people many years older, I don’t recall ever any stuffiness about the older people. I think this is one characteristic Bell Labs had then, I presume it still has it now: it is very important that young people can talk to the older ones and get a hearing and the subject can be discussed on the basis of merit. It was pretty free and easy from the point of view of interchange of ideas.
What about communication between researchers and people who are higher up in the administration, who are not even on this chart for example, Kelly and Buckley?
Well, of course in those days I had very little contact with them. I don’t know that I ever met Kelly until World War II came along, when he really came into his own. As a matter of fact, it would be interesting to know, you don’t have the organization charts going up above this?
Yes I do.
Let’s see, do you have anything going back to this date which covers all of research and not just physical research?
I don’t have any of those with me today, no.
It is my impression that in ‘36 when I came in there, Kelly was down simply along a line of a half dozen or so, heads of various kinds of research. Seemed sure, he was the head of vacuum tube research. And, I had never heard of anything that singled Kelly out rather than Fletcher or somebody else to take over Bown’s job when he retired. It wasn’t known he was going to retire but the fact that Kelly ended up running things I think came as quite a surprise to lots of people at Bell Labs. It was really World War II that put him in this position of unusual responsibility and unusual performance, where he performed awfully well. And, I think it was World War II that was required. I guess he was the head of research before then but I think that was what really built him up to that position he ultimately had.
Did you ever meet Buckley?
Oh, yes. Once again, I guess I’m getting back to the fact that it was a pretty democratic kind of a place. I remember Buckley came into my laboratory once. I think it was when I was working on magnetic recording and he was the president of the company, a big name, and he would go around and visit the laboratories of the younger people occasionally. I was working on vacuum tube circuit of some kind or other. I’ll always remember what Buckley told me, which seemed to be so characteristic of the whole Bell System idea at that time. He referred, I think, to something somebody else told him when he was younger, that he adhered to. He said, well, I said something about the reliability of the vacuum tube circuits and he said, “the most reliable thing in the world is a wire, the next most reliable thing is a relay and the third and least most reliable thing is the vacuum tube.” This was really the basis of the design of telephone systems in those days.
Richard Bozorth recalls that in the early thirties Buckley was talking about perhaps getting some solid-state physics started, but never took any definite steps towards it. Does that sound right?
By the way, I want to correct something. I remember H. G. Williams extremely well. Now, I haven’t thought about some of these things for a long time. The main thing that I remember about him was, (a) he seemed to be competent, and (b) he was another one of these extremely pleasant fellows to work with. But, I don’t remember much more than that.
Was the carbon isotope work that you did on separation a continuation of work you had done earlier at Caltech? Or, was that actually carried out at Bell?
No, this was really neither. This was the result of work I did at Caltech. But the end product of my work was some glass flasks sealed off in which, in this particular case, the flask that I had here would have nitrogen gas but with an unusually high concentration of one of the rare isotopes of nitrogen, nitrogen l4. All I did was to provide such flasks to F. A. Jenkins up at Berkeley. He would put them into his mass spectrometer and make these measurements and then he wrote the paper and put my name on it as co-author. That is all. He was using my material which made the process possible.
I’d like to get back to magnetic sound recording. You wrote a whole series of technical memoranda on this in ‘38 and ‘39 and I was wondering why there wasn’t any publication. Were you ever in a position at Bell Laboratories in which you were stopped from publishing?
No, there was a publication. Oh, I published a fairly long article, oh, I think in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical Engineers or... Do you have copy?
Well, there is one later, in ‘46. But this work was ‘37 and ‘38.
Well, that is the work. Did it come out in ’46? I didn’t realize there was... Are you sure? Surely that can’t be true. Was it delayed that long?
Well, let’s see now.
I don’t remember that. There was a delay on it for patent reasons, I do recall that.
That’s what I was trying to get at.
I didn’t know it was this long. But, if you’ve got the date here, then that is that.
Well, I can double check when I get home, but that is what I have written here. Let’s see, here. Yes, it seems to be correct.
I had no idea that it had taken so long. That was the publication.
Well, then I guess that we don’t have to talk about this later because this is the earlier work.
It is the only work.
I was going to ask why you then went back to it.
No, no. I never went back. Thirty-six to thirty-nine, I suppose, is about when I was working on that, but, no, I never went back to it.
I see, well let me look at it now in the light. I gather you were encouraged to take out patents but there was a release procedure by which Bell Laboratories would decide whether or not you could publish.
You always had to get some kind of patent review. But, now, the thing about this is that I believed when I first completed this work — there was a great deal of excitement concentrated in me — I thought I had discovered something extremely fundamental.
What was that?
I had discovered something extremely fundamental. There were two things required to make magnetic recording practical and I discovered one of them. In those days, we were using a metal tape that had to be made of a metal alloy and rolled out. I guess that this was never quite practical enough so they had to get to the plastic tape which was worked out by the Germans in World War II. That was one of the great requirements, plastic recording medium. The other requirement was superposed high frequency on the recording. You have to, at the same time as you are putting in your growing magnetic fields, to put down the sound record you have to superpose a high frequency bias on it. The physics involved there is just a little more abstruse than you might imagine. But, what it does — it does two things: first of all, it greatly reduces the amount of noise that comes through and in the second place, it greatly improves the quality. Now, I discovered that process. The way I discovered it was entirely by accident. I had rigged up some electronic test rig so that I could make various kinds of changes in my electrical recording techniques on some tape that I was dealing with. And, since my electronic wiring wasn’t very good and I hadn’t shielded some of my wires.
Quite by accident, some of the output of a 20,000 cycle oscillator that I had going over in one corner leaked onto the wires that were going into the recording unit and accidentally put some high frequency on it and I discovered that I was getting some amazingly low noise and high-quality recording. And, I had to run it down and this looked like a very exciting invention. The only trouble was, when we ran it on down, we discovered that this thing had been invented and patented, I think, 17 years earlier. This was 1939 I’m talking about, and I think the patent was issued in 1921 or 2, almost before there were vacuum tubes to use in such an experiment. But, nobody had done anything with it. There just wasn’t anybody in magnetic recording then; the thing was simply laying there in the patent office for all those years and nobody knew anything about it. Nevertheless, it was enough to make this patent worthless. We couldn’t get a general patent. Now, it took quite a while, it may have taken a year or so to discover that, so we ultimately then went in for some more specific patents instead which weren’t worth nearly as much. I think that is one reason this thing was delayed. I think it was believed at one time that it might be pretty valuable from the patent point of view. It wasn’t characteristic of Bell Labs to stand in the way of a report publication that long.
Why were they interested in magnetic tape recording in the first place?
Oh, it could be used in a variety of ways. They were interested in most anything having to do with sound. As a matter of fact, Western Electric, even before, well before this, back in ‘38 or ‘39, they actually played around with putting out a commercial magnetic recorder. They tried to sell it for four or five hundred dollars using loop of tape Western Electric designed and put out some of my techniques. The only thing is, there really wasn’t any particular demand for them, it was given up and they became quite popular later on.
Now, you were moved into another group in ‘38 or ‘39 under Fletcher, along with Nix and Shockley. I would like to know whether your theory of secondary emission was begun before you moved into that group or after?
It was in that group.
Let’s take a few minutes to talk about your secondary emission work. How did you get started on that?
That is my one and only paper in theoretical physics, by the way. Well, I got into it for the reason that I mentioned earlier.
This is the Phys. Rev. Volume 56 paper.
Yes, on the theory of secondary electron emission. Well, I was doing experimental work on secondary electron emission. That is what I started out doing in this new group that you referred to.
Did Fletcher suggest that?
Secondary emission? I’m not sure whether he did. Certainly the understanding was that I was being put into physical electronics research, which was where I thought I wanted to be ultimately. So, I was being allowed to go into physical electronics research.
Were you unhappy in the other group?
No, I but I was ready to move on, I thought. I had gotten a lot of stimulus and enjoyment out of that magnetic recording work. But, still it was time for me to move to something else and I don’t know whether I indicated it or whether Fletcher saw it. Fletcher was a good boss, he worried about these things and he thought that for my development, may have been entirely his initiative, that it was time for me to move out of that kind of thing and move into physical electronics. Whether it was suggested that I should work on secondary electron emission, I don’t know. It may have been. Most of these ideas have at least some practical connection to the work of the Bell System. Secondary electron emission is a phenomenon that is important in vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes are terribly important to the Bell System, and it is a good thing to know more about them, you see. So, it may be that I was asked to work on that, I don’t know. Certainly I didn’t oppose it. So, I started doing experimental work to try to find out more about the laws, well, more about what is a good secondary emmiter and what is a poor secondary emmiter and what kind of materials. I was trying to understand it the best I could. So, I did quite a lot of experimental work. But, as I mentioned earlier, I have never enjoyed doing the experimental work unless I felt I understood what was going on. So, I got up to a certain point where I decided I had to understand it better, understand the theory of the thing better. There was, at that time, a theoretical paper by a man named Frohlich, German, which gave an explanation, certain quantitative predictions as to certain aspects of the secondary electron emission phenomena. And, I’d studied that paper and as I studied it more and more, I had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t satisfied with it. So, what I did really was take, I think, about three months off, I think I did my studying there at Bell Laboratories, I’m not sure. But, I stopped my experimental work and I simply saturated myself in the theory. And, in the process, I had to go back and learn more of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. I had gotten fairly good fundamentals at Caltech but I never used it. I never solved any quantum mechanical problems. This seminar that you are going to ask me about sooner or later helped in that. I had gotten some start there but you have to solve some quantum mechanical problems before you have much of a feeling for it.
I’m just looking at some of the references, see Mott and Jones, the Bethe Annalen der Physik paper of 1930, Mott and Massey, and many others.
Well, this was a single project, and as I say, I think I did it in about three months. I couldn’t go that fast now, but I worked out the theory and, indeed, I did turn up with some different conclusions than Frohlich, and this was it. And, this, at least, satisfied me. It seemed to give reasonably good agreement with the experimental results I was getting.
You had the freedom to do this in this group under Fletcher?
Now, you realize, the only reason for Fletcher being here is that we didn’t have a supervisor.
The three of you, Wooldridge, Shockley and Nix were really working by yourselves. Did you interact with one another much in that period?
Yes, in different ways. I certainly interacted with Nix because he and I were occupying the same laboratory at opposite sides.
I didn’t know that.
As a matter of fact, Shockley was supposed to be in that laboratory, too. Well, now is it time for another story?
This one is about Shockley.
Now we are back in 1939?
That was the time that Foster Nix and Wooldridge had been put together on a paper to form this group. And, I was moving what stuff I was going to take with me, tools and whatever, from my magnetic recording laboratory to another floor of the same building or down the hall or something. I was going to share a laboratory with Foster Nix. Nix had been there for several years and he had quite a large room. It must have been, oh, I guess, 50% longer than this and 50% wider. So, it was a large room. And, he had quite a lot of apparatus. He was essentially occupying.
Twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet?
Oh, longer than that. This room is twenty-five feet. So, it must have been forty feet long by twenty feet wide, maybe. It was a pretty big room. This is in West Street, of course. It was an old building. But, he was occupying essentially half of that room. He was along one of the long sides and he had a lot of apparatus he had developed over several years, and was doing some awfully nice work incidentally. And, he had some desks and whatever, so he had essentially half of that room. Well, now, Shockley and I were to share the other half. Well, I was happy with this arrangement because I knew that Shockley worked only with a pencil and paper so I thought I would go in there and get all of the space I needed; I didn’t assume Shockley would cause any trouble. But, I was moving some of my stuff into that room, putting it down at the end of a long laboratory bench alongside the small wall next to the window; the other end was next to the door. And, as I was moving some stuff in and making several trips I discovered on one of those trips there was a kind of breadboard with some junk on it down at the other end of that same laboratory bench. So, I asked Nix in there, I said what’s this? He said, kinda laughing, this is Shockley’s experimental equipment. Well, I went over and looked at it. And here is what it was. First of all, it was a breadboard, we used breadboards in those days exclusively and very extensively. You would probably have to have an integrated circuit now, but you started out with a breadboard in those days. And, on this breadboard there were several items. The first most conspicuous item was some double cotton-covered copper wire. Oh, about number eighteen in size. Stiff enough so that you could bend it and for it to stay in position. And, he had two thumb tacks on the breadboard along about like this.
He had wrapped one of these wires around one of them and kind of brought it up here in a kind of a cockeyed way and twisted the other wire around this one and brought it up till the ends of these wires, of which he had peeled off some of the cotton insulation; he hadn’t bothered to cut it; it was just dangling. Shockley wasn’t particularly neat in any of his experimental work, I must say. The ends of these two wires came up almost in contact with one another and then here came the real central feature of the whole thing. Fastened to these two wires, and I think he used chewing gum, it could have been sealing wax, but it was, I think it was chewing gum, fastened to these two wires was a piece of copper screen wire that had apparently been cut out of some very old copper tack porch screen with some very dull scissors. It was extremely jagged. And, this screen had evidently been out in the elements for years and years because it was all heavily oxidized. And, of course, being copper, the oxide was a kind of a green color. And, these two copper wires, then had been brought up to be both trying to touch the same little small screen wire, trying to touch the oxide coating on one of those small screen wires. So, here he had the three elements of a transistor, these two wires and the copper screen and he was already there trying to put some batteries across there and see if he could influence the current flowing by the potential across the third electrode. Of course, he was orders of magnitude away from anything that would work. But, this was in, whenever this group was formed, which was not later than ‘39.
Probably in ‘38.
I don’t know when the transistor invention came along, but he already had it in mind at this time, obviously.
Tell me more about Nix.
Well, Nix was working on order and disorder in crystals.
Yes, he got Shockley involved in that too. And apparently you got involved a little bit too, in the application to secondary emission.
Yes, he had some material there I could easily borrow from him to use, so yes, I tried its effect on secondary emission and I got a little of an effect when I shifted from order to disorder, as I recall, in various crystals. Well, I don’t know how long he had been at it but he had some very beautiful equipment, highly automated for those days, and he would turn on his equipment; it would run for day after day and plot out some tremendously detailed beautiful curves showing I guess the change in electrical resistivity with the change in temperature and the sudden transitions when the crystal structure changed from one form to another. Well he was an awfully good experimenter. He was noted for these beautiful curves that he got and evidently the accuracy of his data.
This was really solid-state physics, although it wasn’t called that yet by too many people.
You can say that the original Einstein photoelectric equation related to solid-state physics for that matter.
I want to ask a general question now that relates to the influx of the new ideas then being developed in the larger scientific community. We talked about Darrow; he was one avenue. We also talked about the colloquium. Maybe this is a good time to talk more about that.
I don’t know that I have a great to say. It was a very active colloquium program.
You were elected in 1940, according to some old records I came across.
What was that, do you mean physical society?
No, the Bell Laboratories colloquium. Apparently there was a formal procedure that members had to go through.
I’d forgotten that. But you didn’t have to be elected in order to attend, I’m pretty sure.
You were officially elected in 1940, but perhaps you began attending sooner. You gave one of the colloquium talks yourself before you were made an official member. That talk was in ‘38 on nuclear species.
Oh did I?
Let’s see if I can find the announcement here. Yes, here we are, January 24, 1938: Mr. D. E. Wooldridge on “Nuclear Species.”
Yes, I have a vague recollection now of doing some research, of putting together kind of a presentation of some of the things that were known about the origin of the different types of nuclei and why some are abundant and why some are not. It must have been extremely primitive, the elementary kind of thing I was talking about.
I was going to ask you why you choose that subject, because it didn’t seem to relate to what you were doing.
I have no idea. Maybe somebody suggested it; maybe they wanted somebody to work that up and give a talk and they volunteered me; I don’t know.
I’m most interested in the question: How important was this colloquium in bringing new ideas into Bell? The visitors from outside would come and spend a day and talk to the researchers and I guess they would usually go to dinner afterwards with some of the. Bell Labs staff. So it seems to me this institution may have been quite important in shaping research orientations at the Laboratories.
Well, that was one of the things. Another thing of course was that we went to meetings of the Physical Society and IEEE and whatever society was pertinent to the work that we were doing and we were encouraged to do that, so there were various steps taken by Bell Laboratories to make sure we didn’t just get immersed in our own activities without any outside contacts. This colloquium is one example of meetings that were probably more important on the whole.
Did Bell Laboratories support you if you wanted, for example, to go to a Physical Society Meeting?
They wouldn’t support a young physicist who wanted to go all over the country all of the time, probably. But I think, certainly, I believe it worked this way, if you had a paper to give at a meeting across the country they’d probably pay your expenses on that. They certainly encouraged attendance locally and quite a few people went down to the Washington meetings. I don’t think that it was general procedure to go across the country. Of course you didn’t go across country so easy in those days anyway. You went by train. These meetings were generally in New York or Washington, but quite a lot of that.
Did you give seminars and colloquia at other institutions, for example at N.Y.U. or places like that? I haven’t come across any documentation on this.
Well during the war I did, on classified subjects. Now whether I did anything of that sort before the war, I don’t know. I wouldn’t have done that in connection with magnetic recording. No, I don’t think I did. I was not in this physical electronics for very long before I got pulled off for war-time work. So I did some of that as I say during the war in classified material. You wouldn’t find any reference to that though.
Let’s get back to colloquium. They met on Monday afternoons every other week; you would get together, and would then begin conversations among the Bell researchers about the subject discussed?
Well, first of all, my recollections of the colloquium itself was that it was just a standard colloquium. Your visitor was there with a prepared talk and he would give it and people would ask him questions from the floor and it would go on until they decided it’s time to break up and that was it. Now, however, there were sometimes opportunities to go to lunch. They would pick people to go to lunch with this man. All would have a common interest and there’d sometimes be some other meetings more oriented toward Bell Labs interest that you might be invited to involving this guest, where they would actually be trying to pick his brain about certain aspects of his field of specialty in so far as it might pertain to some of the things of interest to Bell Labs. So you might have a little meeting in somebody’s office where a few people would be selected to come in on those discussions. But, I don’t remember that that happened to me very often. I do remember going to lots of colloquia and considering them to be worthwhile. (Looking at colloquium lists) ha, ha I remember this one!
Which one is that? Rhine on parapsychology?
Oh, I remember his talk extremely well. It made a great impression on everybody. I remember a wide discussion on this afterwards. In the talk he gave, he emphasized, of course he had to, and this was what he was dealing with, a statistical phenomenon. The only possible way of finding out whether there was anything going on was proper analysis of the statistical data. And yet when he was asked questions about statistics he informed everybody completely several times that he knows nothing whatever about statistics; he hires that to be done for him by somebody else — which I think may be a large part of the explanation of why parapsychology ever got started. People who do it don’t know what they are doing. (Laughter, Wooldridge continues to scan list.) There are some here that made quite an impression. I remember this one made an impression: Corona. That was a very graphic kind of a thing showing kind of a television technique for blotting out the solar disk and looking at the surrounding Corona. It could be done ever so much better now, but in those days it was a fairly pioneering kind of a clever engineering stunt.
Were these colloquium subjects chosen randomly all over the forefronts of physical research? Or were they chosen to possibly be in line with communications interests?
Well, I think these colloquium speakers were chosen the way I use to choose colloquium speakers at Hughes Aircraft Company and when Simon Ramo and I got together out here finally and set up our own company. The way you do it typically, and I think the way it was done here, is that you’d look around for, first of all, the interesting fields of science. For this kind of thing you don’t try to relate the field very much to what’s going on in your home activity. Sometimes you do, but you know the scientists are interested in other things. Look for the interesting fields of science and you look for the prominent men. One of the things you’re always after is to have men who will come that will give prestige to your particular colloquium activity; you want the big names. Well you look through here (refers to Bell lists) and they’re not all big names, but there are quite a few of them who are and I feel very sure that this was the way it was done there. For one thing, I probably patterned the Hughes Aircraft Company colloquium after the Bell Labs colloquium because I had just left there and I had remembered more about it then. But I think that’s the way everybody does it.
Was the Hughes Aircraft colloquium also basically a research colloquium?
Yes, the object of it was the same as at Bell Labs.
And the same kinds of people came to speak?
Oh yes, sure. Even though the work we were doing at Hughes Aircraft was developmental in character, we had to have a pretty large number of quite outstanding and capable scientists. Well, we had Charlie Townes with us for a while, for example. He didn’t spend too long but we had — I’m talking about actually working with us — I don’t mean at the colloquium. At the colloquium, there were people of this same general category of standing, a little different names —
People from the major universities.
Yes, you make an attempt there to get a wide variety of the interesting fields of science, not just the ones that you’re working in. I’m sure that was done here.
Another avenue for entry of the new ideas, of course, was the study group. Was that organized by Shockley or Nix or Kelly? I’ve heard various opinions about it. I don’t know who organized it.
I don’t think it was Kelly. I think probably it was Shockley. Shockley was certainly the guiding spirit at that point.
I asked Shockley and he said that he had no recollection of it and that therefore he probably did organize it.
I feel sure he must have; certainly he was the one who kept it going and who, by a very large factor understood what we were doing very much better than any of the rest of us. So without Shockley I don’t think we would have had that kind of thing.
Okay, now I’m going to try to get the names right. Foster Nix was in it, Alan Holden, Addison White, Howell Williams, later on Fisk joined, and then I guess Burton and Townes came in later. Bozorth?
I don’t know whether Townes would have been there. Bozorth was there at a meeting or two. Some of these people didn’t attend very regularly. Nix didn’t attend too regularly, but Shockley and Holden and White and I were pretty regular. I think I missed some of them. I think Williams was fairly regular and Brattain I think came around very frequently. I think those are the ones. As I say, I do recall Bozorth was there once or twice but he was not a regular.
Now you went through text books chapter by chapter. Is that correct?
I certainly remember going through one of the Mott text books, whether it was Mott and Massey or Mott and Gurney.
I’ve heard Mott and Jones and Mott and Gurney mentioned.
It was probably Mott and Jones. Well Mott and Gurney was solid state. But I believe that was a little later. It was probably Mott and Jones. At any rate, we went through one of the Mott books.
Now, this went on for a period of at least four years, I understand.
Well, I am vague in my mind about how long they went on I would guess it was only a couple of years but my sense of tine and distances is not good at all.
They met once a week?
Once a week I think.
And they started in the afternoon about 4:30, on company time and went on —
Pretty close to the end of the day. But yes, we started on company time for an hour or so. We always ran over; we didn’t quit at 5:00 o’clock.
When did you quit?
Well it would certainly be 6:00 or later. My impression is we usually spent a couple of hours at these meetings.
Who decided who was going to speak on what?
Well we’d simply take the chapters here and we’d go 1, 2, 3, 4, and assign them among ourselves. Shockley was going to take this one and Wooldridge will take this one and Williams will take this one and Brattain will take this one and so forth and they got through the five or six regulars. Then we’d start in again and each one of us when his time came he had for sure to have studied that that week, because he had to lead the discussion. All of us had to study that week except Shockley; he could have done this in his sleep. For the rest of us it was pretty tough.
Did you take notes?
I don’t think we did. I think the idea was we were going to go through the book and understand it as we went along. Well, now I seem to recall taking some notes once when we were getting into the special discussion of the simple problem of electron in a box which was about as complicated a problem as I could deal with — more complicated then I could deal with. But I believe Shockley carried us through a very neat development of that, I think I may have taken some notes then but I certainly wouldn’t have them.
Do you recall using the term “Solid-State Physics” in that period?
No, no, I don’t know when I first heard that term.
Actually you use it in a paper, now let me see where did I come across this? Here, this is in January, 1940, in a memorandum on Projection Television. You very casually say “like so many branches of Solid State Physics, the basic theory of luminescence is still largely qualitative etc.” The implication is that people were using it.
Have you looked for that term in my theoretical paper on secondary emission?
I don’t think it appears there.
My recollection is I associate this with the Bloch band theory. To me that is the origin of solid state theory.
That was much earlier.
Maybe it was around earlier. Maybe the term Solid State Physics was creeping up on us in those days.
Nobody agrees on it. In an interview Bardeen said that he thought it was a postwar term. But it does appear to have been used before the War. You certainly used it before the war and I think that some other people did also.
I think it’s a natural enough term. I suppose it just kind of came along gradually.
Seitz’ book, which is 1940 is called “Modern Theory of Solids.” The term Solid State Physics is not yet used. The same is true for the Mott and Jones book.
It could well be that this was a Shockley term as far as I was concerned.
Solid State Physics?
Yes, he may well have used that term. It’s the kind of a term that he would use I think.
I didn’t see the word in here but it may well be there. You internalized the work in the study seminar because it shows up in this paper this theory of secondary emission.
Well, it helped me. Yes it helped me a great deal.
I’ll have to go through that again. I came across this only very recently. Is there anything else I should know about this study group? The explicit focus seems to have been Quantum Theory of Solids. You went through Tolman’s book. You must have done very well!
I don’t remember going through Tolman’s book now. Maybe I dropped out of that.
I think Brattain mentioned to Charles Weiner who interviewed him that the books were done in this order but he wasn’t quite sure. He remembers Mott and Jones, then Mott and Gurney, then Tolman and then Linus Pauling’s book.
I’m sure I wasn’t in on that. It may be that I was pulled out into war work a little too early. I must have been put into military work along about the beginning of 1941. Now this seminar, I would have quit attending it at that time, I’m sure, if I hadn’t already. The seminar could have gone on another year or more without my participating in it.
I don’t know quite how to document this. Nobody took notes and it was not an official seminar. I don’t think there was anything mimeographed.
No, there may not be any documentation on this. It was good exercise but as I say it just couldn’t have happened without Shockley; we needed somebody who understood what he was doing. Shockley also had more of a desire to keep it going then some of the rest of us might have had. We wanted to keep it going but it was hard work. So he was the guiding spirit there.
Before we leave our discussion of the research group under Fletcher — the Nix-Shockley-Wooldridge group — I would like to ask you one more question? (Looking at 1940 chart) There is an expansion by 1940 to include Burton and Cadmus and Hartman and Townes under you.
Well Burton and Townes were the only two scientists; the other two were technical assistants, although they were pretty senior.
Nix has told me that this group had more latitude then had ever before been granted to any group of researchers in the Bell System. That is his personal point of view.
Well, he had been there certainly longer than I had and his opinion would be better than mine. I was still pretty new around there. I don’t know when Nix started to work for Bell Labs but I think it was quite a few years before that so his judgment may well be right. When did you see Nix by the way?
I saw him last summer. He passed away last March.
Sorry to hear that. Well, certainly we were given all the freedom we could ask for so it was as close to working in a university research department without having to do the teaching as you could get.
What did Burton and Townes work on when they first joined your group?
Well one aspect or another of physical electronics. I remember Burton in particular was dealing with the optical properties of thin films.
Did you supervise them closely?
Well, I supervised them as closely as I was supervised. It all depended on the individual. Nobody had to supervise Townes closely. I don’t even recall right now what project he started working on. Burton was a younger man and as a matter of fact Burton was somewhat lacking in self confidence. He was a very much better scientist then he realized he was and so Burton kind of asked for supervision and I started looking over his shoulder at sort of his request and going over his calculations and the kind of things he was doing and pretty soon I came to the conclusion here was a very sharp young guy. He knew what he was doing and he was doing some pretty complex mathematical calculations at that time. He didn’t think he knew how to do such calculations but I encouraged him a bit and he did them and did them well and got good answers. I think I mentioned to you in the letter I wrote to you one of my contributions to Bell Labs I think was recognizing Burton’s ability for the first time. He arrived as a kind of a junior and I pretty soon came to the conclusion that he was very promising and I think I helped get him recognized by other people. He was very quiet. You could go on for years without knowing he was around, at least in those days.
Now, you were working on television in this 1940 period.
No, not at all.
Then what does this memo mean?
(Looks at memo and laughs). I think this was my first contact with M. J. Kelly, the first that I remember. Oh, I must have met him; I certainly knew who he was. Everybody knew who he was; there was something about him. He called me into his office once and said, “Wooldridge we want a study on such and such a subject here, large screen television. We want to know something about the prospects. Should we go such and such a way or such and such a way?” And he said, “I want you to take a little time off and write a memorandum on it.” So that’s where this came from: by direct request of M. J. Kelly. And, well, there’s not much more to say. I spent three weeks I guess in the library digging into it and reading the papers, trying to find out what it was all about. And this was what I turned up with at that time.
Why did Kelly choose you? Did the subject relate to your work on secondary emission?
To some extent. After all, this is all physical electronics and presumably if you know something about physical electronics you ought to be about to know something about television. It was one of those things. Now, I think I did have some interest in luminescent phenomena by then. What date is that?
January 9, 1940.
Well, certainly luminescence is one of the things I got interested in later on if not then. But in general I knew the physics of television tubes. I could make these calculations and read the literature about as well as anyone.
Now there seems to have been a definite decision shortly thereafter by Kelly not to work on television. It is reflected by his memos to Fletcher that follow. I was surprised that he wrote these to Fletcher instead of to you because you initially sent the memo to him in your name.
I probably sent it to him because he was the one who asked me for it, I don’t know.
He responded to Fletcher.
I don’t know. I’d have to ask M. J. Kelly and I guess we can’t do that. I never knew for sure what Kelly had in mind. It seemed to me at that time there wasn’t really great interest in it and I have suspected since then that maybe Kelly just wanted to get acquainted with me a little bit and see something about my capabilities to accept a task. Kelly was already probably beginning to think about gearing up the Laboratories for participation in the war effort by then. I don’t know. I never felt there was any great interest in Bell Labs in this particular subject.
I was struck by the theoretical detail of this memo. Now, I learn that it was done in a library. I wonder if Kelly was already thinking about setting up those three solid-state research groups that were set up after the war.
Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t think that Kelly at that time had any right to believe that he would be the man to reorganize the laboratories after the war. Actually Kelly, Buckley in essence handed over Bell Laboratories to M. J. Kelly during World War II and even though Buckley was still around for a while afterwards he let M. J. Kelly run the laboratories from then. But it has always been my impression that because M. J. Kelly performed so extremely well in the war, that boosted Kelly’s reputation and his position, and maybe Kelly knew that he would perform that well before the war actually came along but that would have been a bit early I think even for Kelly to have been planning post war reorganization.
I see, okay.
However, you see I was already sort of heading-in that direction here with Burton and Townes. This was the beginning of the Physical Electronics Group. So it would have been natural to consider adding some luminescence research and some other things in that same package. They all were related problems. The same physics was involved.
And then this group started to grow. Between 40 and 41 (consults chart) you added several people.
We were already into electronics war; that’s why some of these people were added.
And what were you doing in the war. Did you shift what you were doing right away? I know that eventually you got into radar bomb sites.
That’s what it was from the beginning. It was specifically over at Whippany.
I didn’t know you worked at Whippany.
Well, I never actually worked there. I had close relations with people over there, but they were in charge of doing some radar development for some airborne bombing purposes for the Army Air Force. And so they had this airborne radar coming along and it seemed to be a good idea to have some electronics and electronic bomb site to use the radar data and guide the airplane and trigger the release of the bombs part of the time. So I was called in either by Fletcher or Kelly one day and told that I was to be the radar bomb site expert and that what I had to do then was to get my team together and design and build a test model of an electronic bomb site to go with radar. And it would be put in an airplane and tested and gotten all ready in time to win World War II. So overnight then we put away our Physical Electronics devices and started to try to find out what vacuum tubes were all about an how you hook them together in circuits and make them work and that sort of thing. Now there was an important background here. For several years under Lovell there had been a very interesting and important line of a development on shaped potentiometers that were used in electronic computers. They had developed some equipment that worked quite successfully or some ballistics calculations that the Naval Ordinance Laboratory — not the Naval Ordinance, well maybe.
At any rate, they had built some pretty big machines with these pretty large and carefully designed shaped potentiometers that could take sines and cosines and things of that sort with very high accuracy and they’d built some DC equipment, originally AC equipment. Later on they actually built a computer for computing ballistics constants, and it was quite successful. And so it was conceived by someone, perhaps it was Kelly, I don’t know, that shaped potentiometer technique it could be the heart of an electronic bomb site. So I was handed in effect the electronic bomb site assignment with the requirement that I try to incorporate the shaped potentiometer technique. By that time there was quite a group that could design and manufacture the shaped potentiometers and things of that kind. And there was a lot involved in making them accurate and putting them together. So my group here was going to go to them, we would be customers for certain of various shape potentiometers devices to put together the electronics that would drop the bomb. So that’s where that assignment came from.
What was the reason for moving the group under Wente from Fletcher, leaving Nix by himself in ‘41.
Yes, we were after all over here just to do this sort of freewheeling scientific research and we were becoming engineers here. And it was under Wente that this other work was going on, the shaped potentiometer work and all of this, as a matter of fact, Wente was in line — he was generally considered to be Fletcher’s assistant — sort of in line to head the department. It didn’t work out that way. But this other work was going on there so it was natural to incorporate us with it. And then later on we were put under McNair.
According to these charts you were put under McNair sometime between ‘42 and ‘44.
By this time there were two or three different types of projects here that could be reasonably coordinated in this kind of approach. Another thing was happening also: we thought we thought we were getting into a production development stage. Here my group had been responsible for basic design and putting together kind of flyable laboratory models that could be put in an airplane and tested. But it wasn’t anticipated that people with our background would ever know enough about manufacturing techniques and dollars and cents matters of fabricating complex electronic devices to be able to make the practical choices of what you put into a production design. So it was desired to bring along a group that was skillful in the design for production of Western Electric equipment to work alongside us. So I guess the arrangement was we had the basic research and developmental responsibility and I believe this was the production designs department here, working next to us as the intermediary between us and Western Electric who were going to manufacture the equipment.
I’m interested in the interactions with other laboratories. Western Electric was really AT&T —
Well Western Electric was the manufacturing arm and Bell Labs was the research and development arm but there was very close continuity there.
Was there much interaction during the war with other laboratories such as M.I.T., Columbia, Purdue, Penn., or with European labs?
Well, we ultimately came to have a quite a lot of interaction with some of them. Now for quite a while on this work I was doing, at least up until past Pearl Harbor, we had no interaction with any other laboratories. We had this specific assignment we were trying to do it on some test airplanes down in Florida and fooling around a bit. But by that time Pearl Harbor had come along and the Radiation Laboratory up at M.I.T. was of course schooling strong. And they got involved in their own version of electronic computer for bombing and navigation purposes. And I first got involved with the Radiation Laboratories on kind of a competitive basis; that’s what it amounted to. Pretty soon it turned out that they were making proposals to the National Defense Research Council or whatever it was called in those days. They were apt to be the ones to design and then get into production electronic computers to go with the microwave equipment rather than my group down here at Bell Labs. So pretty soon I found myself participating in meetings, defending our approach against the Radiation Lab approach and showing how inferior their approach was to ours. So that’s the way I began to get involved with the Radiation Labs. And then sometimes they would come down and we would have meetings at Whippany.
Who were some of the individuals involved?
Well it goes way back. First of all at Bell Labs, the man who was in charge of the microwave work that we were associated with on the radar end of the things — we were doing the electronic computer end — was a man named Russ Newhouse. You haven’t run across his name?
No, I haven’t.
This is at Whippany. These people in that area would ordinary call themselves engineers rather than scientists, although I’m not convinced there’s really all that difference. Russ Newhouse was in charge of that and we worked closely with him and his group. Up at the Radiation Laboratory there was Louis Ridenour who played an important role. He was essentially assistant to Lee DuBridge in those days. He got pretty heavily involved in the proposal making and discussions of what approach is best or what kind of project. There was even something known as a Stratton committee, a committee on radar aids to bombing. It was headed by J. Stratton at M.I.T. and we were all on that. We had meetings from time to time. I was on it in a kind of junior capacity. Don Quarles was the senior representative at Bell Labs in those days. Now you know about who Quarles is or was earlier? He’s been dead for some years.
I know his name but I don’t know much about him.
He became later on Secretary of the Air Force, maybe Secretary of Defense. He died a few years back. He was in charge of one of the major departments. So we would get together in these committees of N.D.R.C. and whatever and we were always having meetings and comparing proposals and ideas, so there got to be quite a great deal of interaction from the various groups. But in this country the two groups that were involved and really competing for the design development and manufacturer of electronics for handling radar bombing were my group at Bell Labs and the people up at the Radiation Lab. The way it turned out, nobody ever got any equipment into production. The war ended too soon.
What about the Europeans?
Well, yes. They would come over. There was a steady stream of scientists from England, just England I think.
Who for example came? Did Oliphant visit?
Yes, although he would have consulted in connection with the microwave end of things. I think he had a hand in the development of the magnetron. I don’t think I ever met Oliphant. Now, there again are some names that have since become fairly prominent. One of them was F. C. Williams. You probably wouldn’t know of him. He was at the University of Manchester. There was a steady stream of them coming all over, just from England, the ones that I met. Quite close to the end of the war actually, in January, 1945, I was sent to England to go around and return some of these calls. I went around a lot of laboratories and military stations and made speeches and told them about what we were doing and compared notes and things of that sort.
I would like to move now to the postwar period with a general question. How did the war affect your research and the research of your group?
Well, they turned it around entirely of course, as far as our group was concerned. One day we were working on physical electronics and the next day we were designing vacuum tube circuits. So we were simply recruited for the war effort for the duration; until the end of the war, that’s what we did.
(Looking at 1945 organization charts) One can see the beginnings of the Morgan and Shockley group on this earlier chart. Then in ‘45 we see the three new solid-state groups. Your physical electronics group is now almost entirely new; the only person from earlier is Burton.
See, well were taking in a number of people for their strength in designing and making electronics equipment work, some of these, generally the technical assistants. Then there are some forced marriages here. Gerald Pearson didn’t belong there any more than any of the rest of us did in that physical electronics group. But I guess he stayed in there.
No, he was moved over into the Solid-State group.
Yes, we’ve getting up pretty close to the time that I left. But I was still functioning until September, 1946.
Do you know much about the organization of these groups? Who was involved in setting them up?
Well, there’s no question about who was involved in setting up these. That was M. J. Kelly.
Were you involved?
No. There were rumors that Kelly was reorganizing for peace time and everybody knew something was going to happen when he announced a big meeting. Everybody in the physics department, maybe it was broader than that, maybe all those of supervisor status in the whole Research Department, were brought together in a big room. And he sat up there at the head of the room and he read off “from now on thou shalt do this and thou shalt do this and thou shalt have this particular group and you’re going to move over here and do this kind of work and you’re going to do this,” just an announcement all worked out in complete detail. And he laid it out here and it took all day, as I recall; some people got their heads chopped off and other people got demoted.
You mean he did this all by himself?
I’m sure he had been quietly talking to many of the people involved here for a long time. He hadn’t been talking to me but I’m sure he must have been comparing notes with key people, so I don’t mean that he did this off the top of his head. I think it showed evidence of having been very carefully thought out but I think he made all of the decisions. I don’t think anybody in Bell Laboratories with the possible exception of Buckley knew what he was going to say when that meeting opened that morning. By then Kelly was definitely in control. Buckley essentially turned things over to Kelly in World War II. I think Buckley was not too well by then. By the end of the war, I’m just not sure what his status was, but Kelly ran things from then on.
Well, you said you wanted to stop at 12.
That’s what I hope to do. Have you got any key questions?
Well, I’m very interested in these three new solid-state groups, in how they functioned and how they interacted with each other. For example, did your group interact much with Fisk’s?
No, I don’t recall any particular interaction there.
How about with the Morgan-Shockley group?
No, I don’t think there was a great deal of interaction there.
Organizationally these groups are parallel, organized at the same time, the case authorizations are almost exactly the same including typing —
Kelly probably had the all typed up before he started that meeting; he was always neat and clean. All of the loose ends were tied up in that meeting I remember. No, I don’t recall seeing that; we went our separate ways for the year and a half that remained. We were all pretty independent; we had our areas we were interested in.
And did you then go back to what you were doing before the war?
Yes, although with an expanded activity. Some others came in this group before we got through.
Was there any new orientation?
No, same orientation, but before I’d been concentrating on secondary electron emission. Joe Burton had been doing something with thin films and Charlie Townes had started something, I’ve forgotten what. And after the war we organized it more formally. I do recall that I was given the opportunity here having been given that job, I don’t know whether I was asked, but in any event I spent quite a lot of time on my own in trying to peer into the future and do my own little Kelly job of organization to indicate where I wanted to head. And I tried to make some estimates of the best way for this kind of research to be done to have the best chance for doing useful things ultimately. We never wanted to get too far off in the Ivory tower; we wanted to feel sure that some of our research results could be useful to the Bell System and to other things. So already by then I had a fairly well developed philosophy of how you plan research and that kind of thing in mind so I did quite a lot of work and I layed out the various kinds of areas in physical electronics that I thought we ought to have covered and it turned out to include luminescence and secondary emission and thermionic emission and a few other things. So I had about a half dozen different areas and I needed some additional people to cover some of those areas and we got those additional people in the next year.
How did you come to do this work on alpha particle conductivity processes?
It was a project that I got interested in.
Was it a major preoccupation at that time?
Well, it was a major preoccupation with me for a while. It was going on when I finally left Bell Labs and it was after I left as I’d been struggling with various kinds of crystals we had been able to lay our hands on. I never could get the effect. It was only after I left that Joe Burton wrote me or called me once and said “well, we got hold of our crystal and we got what you’re looking for.” So this was written after I had left Bell Labs. It was my continuation of my work and I had been unlucky in not getting the right crystals. It was just kind of a trial and error matter that really depended on happening to get a crystal that didn’t have too many imperfections in it. We didn’t have any that we were testing at that time.
What caused you to move on to Hughes in 1946?
Well, a combination of two things. First one was that I’d always preferred to live in California and I had been bitten by the California bug I guess back in those days when my father was a telegraph operator and he was trying to get established out here. And I’d gone to school at here and my wife had come from out here; so that was the first thing. However, that was not a practical objective before, unless I want to do work in a university. Meanwhile, I had decided against really wanting to teach but I had discovered that I could do developmental work; I had been thrown into that during the war. There I came to realize that I enjoy doing developmental work. I had discovered long since that I didn’t have to be doing a kind of physical research that would give me a Nobel Prize to be happy. I could do some developmental kinds of things and enjoy it. Well, it opened up opportunities on the West Coast that didn’t exist before. So with those opportunities open I looked for my suitable time to leave Bell Labs and chose to leave one week before I got my ten year button.
Did you do any basic research at Hughes?
No, no Hughes was quite a different proposition. The problem was to get together a few competent developmental engineers and go out after military research and development projects which are never basic; certainly they weren’t in those days. And the object was Simon Ramo and I had both developed some fairly good reputations among some of the military and people in research and development and we thought we could get some interesting development contracts and go on from there, which we succeeded in doing.
A number of Bell people went to Hughes didn’t they?
Was there a specific connection between them?
Yes, quite a connection. When they found out that we were doing some interesting things and there were some jobs available, why naturally I let them know the jobs that were available.
So you were the connection.
Yes, Simon Ramo did some of the same things with General Electric Research Laboratories where he come from. So the two of us we had to call in some people.
Now, Ramo wasn’t at Hughes then, was he?
Ramo and I started Hughes Aircraft Company in essence. You don’t know this background?
Well, there was a Hughes Aircraft Company; it had been owned by Howard Hughes and it started during World War II. They had manufactured some little bits and pieces, some struts I think that go across the wings of some airplanes in some place, a little bit like paper clips in a stationary factory. But there was big aircraft production during the war. And one of the things that had started before WWII was over was that Howard Hughes wanted to build the world’s largest airplane to fly over the submarine menace. So he had finagled some funds from the Air Force and then used more of his own to start building this big wooden flying boat. These were the things that were going on at Hughes Aircraft Company at Culver City. But this operation was run like all of Howard Hughes’ operations: there was really no manager. There was somebody who had the title of manager, but Howard Hughes would never let anyone with the title of manager really manage. This is true of everything Hughes ever did. He could either have gone in and run the company himself, and he was smart enough to do it, or he could have gotten someone in whom he had confidence and given him enough authority to run the company, but he never did either. So Si Ramo got on to the possibilities of the aircraft company and got in touch with me when he heard I was thinking of moving West, and we finally got together. And the basic thesis was that if we could move in with a handful of people and get a contractor too, there wouldn’t be anybody at Hughes who would have the authority to stop us. We weren’t going to get any help particularly we could get some space there. It was our concept that we could get something started without being stopped. And that’s exactly what we did. We got along fine until a couple years later Howard Hughes learned about it By that time we had gotten to be pretty big and we were getting into production. The Korean War was coming along and so we had to have a large production buildup and we had to hire a few thousand people in manufacturing and build quite a few buildings real fast and that would have been fine too except for Howard Hughes. He was delighted at all of this when he found out about it but he wanted to tie it in with his own ideas as he always did; he wanted us to build our new R&D facilities in Las Vegas. And we were trying to meet a very tight schedule; people working close together and so forth. But that’s another very long story. That’s the way we got started at Hughes.
Sometime I’d like to hear that long story.
We had, oh, I don’t know, I guess we had a thousand or so Ph.D.’s in our R&D organization at Hughes, supplemented by lots of others who weren’t Ph.D.’s of course. We did some of the most advanced kind of military development that was done. And we were permitted to do this in those days because the major companies that should have taken it on were all too anxious to get back into non-military work at the end of the war. General Electric and others were getting out of the military as fast as possible. So we came in and filled the vacuum — and that’s another story. Well, I hope you find some of this to be of use to you.
It would be interesting on another occasion to hear more about Hughes and also about TRW.
That’s an interesting subject too, but it’s a little different subject than this one we’re working on now. That’s a good topic for your next book. If you’re interested in the development of science in industry, there are some things to be had there. There’s some science done in these places, more now than used to be. I’ll tell you a little bit more about this Hughes-Ramo-Wooldridge situation. I mentioned that Howard Hughes, when he discovered what was going on in his company, was delighted. I guess he should be given a lot of credit because he was asked by the Air Force to underwrite quite a few millions of dollars in building construction and hiring a lot of people and whatever, and he did. He underwrote it immediately and got himself out on the line for, oh, twenty or thirty million dollars in new buildings that we had to have built in a hurry. See the Air Force was — the Korean War was coming along — they were giving us the responsibility of providing the electronics equipment to make the fighter planes work, and over Korea that’s quite a responsibility. We had not only the electronics equipment for fire control and navigation, but also we were the supplier of the missile; the armament of the airplanes department. So the Air Force was really going out on a limb to put all this responsibility on this new and unproven organization. So getting Howard Hughes personally to commit himself to supporting it whole-heartedly was absolutely vital, which he did. And we moved ahead. But, as I say, as it got more important, he got into it more and more, and finally it became impossible for Si Ramo and myself to operate. And we decided we were going to have to leave. We gave him one year’s notice told him we’d stick around for a year and get things in as good shape as possible and then we were going to leave, Of course, he didn’t believe us at all. As a matter of fact, we told him we’d stick around for six months, but we stuck around for a year and then left to set up our own company and do the same kind of thing. And we chose to call it Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. We tossed a coin and it had to come down the fellow whose name came first in the company. The other fellow was going to be the president. Well, my name came second and I became president. This was a partnership arrangement.
So we started out Ramo-Wooldridge. Meanwhile, you might be interested, while at Hughes we had built up for that kind of work we had built up a quality and a proportion of fairly basic research comparable to Bell Labs. Not, I say in proportion, not as much because we were smaller, but we had, for example, a 100 man group working strictly in some pretty basic vacuum tube research kinds of things, traveling wave tube principles and backward wave oscillators and some pretty complex microwave, basic fundamental techniques. Arid we had our own semiconductor development, manufacturing and construction, and things of that sort. So we more or less copied what Si and I had learned at General Electric Research Labs and Bell Labs. So Hughes Aircraft Company was and still is a company with quite outstanding research and development capability. It was no accident that they invented the laser there at Hughes, they built the first one that worked. Charlie Townes invented it of course. But there was quite a lot of competence in a variety of scientific fields and you must go there sometime. But we tried to do the same thing at Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation and we succeeded although in somewhat different directions; we were quickly dragged in by the Air Force, kicking and screaming I must say because we didn’t want to take over the technical direction responsibility for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. This was in 1953, I guess, that all of this happened. So that soon grew up to be a billion dollar a year project. We were teamed closely with the Air Force and dealing with large numbers of large companies in trying to keep everything running and keep the basic design of the intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it finally worked. We were doing other things too but Ramo-Wooldridge finally got to be a sizable operation. We made arrangements with Thompson Products. When we started Ramo- Wooldridge we expected to have a pretty small operation. We arranged for I think a 300,000 dollar line of credit that they were going to lend us. They would have 9% of the stock in our little company in return for this 300,000 dollars. By the time we had gotten into Thompson products to the tune of 20 million instead of 300,000 they decided to come for a merger. Well, the companies were put together to form Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge.
I was wondering who Thompson was.
Well, Thompson went back to 1901 when he first started making parts for automobiles in those days, so this was a long well established company with a very good reputation. They’d gotten into aircraft engine components during the war. And so they were quite a large company by comparison. So that’s the way I got started in what was Ramo-Wooldridge then and is now TRW. That is of course now a pretty big company, I think about 70,000 employees in all.
Are they still doing a lot of basic research?
There’s some very good basic research going on there over quite a wide range of fields.
And is most of it in the area of electronics, aircraft transportation and communication?
Well, certainly a lot of it in, well, to go back to the original Thompson products ideas, and their research has been strengthened, if anything, since the merger, they have always done some very good work in metal alloys and that aspect of solid state which is inclined to be on the engineering side of things, but they’ve got some pretty good fundamental work there too. But in the areas that I know more about, certainly electronics, computers are very strong, all aspects of electronics you can think of and certainly all aspects of propulsion. You’ll find such things as holography being strongly powered in certain parts of the laboratory there, certainly microwave techniques, all kinds of integrated circuits and whatever.
One aspect of industrial research I find so interesting is their manner of putting together different areas of physical science. In university research there are usually little islands of different disciplines which don’t interact terribly much.
Of course, this is partly because the industrial research is typically more developmental and fundamental, there is that. You will find that in a company like Bell Laboratories where they probably have as fundamental research going on as any company I know of, it’s still, if you look at it and put it on a percentage basis, I think you’d find today that the vast majority of the Bell Labs research is really developmental. There are these bright spots where some pretty fundamental stuff is going on, and important things come out, but not a very large fraction of their manpower or their effort is involved in that, even at Bell Labs. So it is simply characteristic when you’re involved in developmental work, you just have to work in teams, you have to work together and anybody who can’t work that way sooner or later loses his job or goes on to a university or something.
Why did you resign the directorship in 1962?
Well, when the company was put together — we had the merger in 1959 — I had by then been involved since 1946 in helping to build up Hughes Aircraft and Ramo-Wooldridge. I was going to be tied in as the president of this big merged company. I had decided that I wasn’t really cut out for the executive life. I’d enjoyed it, and I hadn’t found it frustrating, but it wasn’t really the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The newness had worn off. So I told my associates at the time we set up this corporation that I would stay for three years and then I was going to go out, which I did. And my plan was to get back to individual study and research in my declining years, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
How did you get interested in the brain and the system?
Probably by way of communications and computer technology. I’d worked and been thinking quite a lot about computers and it’s natural step to get interested in the brain. And from there, once you start getting interested in the brain, it’s easy to expand that interest, which I have been trying to do.
Are you currently working on nervous system studies?
I’ll show you where I stand.
Here is the first half and here is the second half of the book I’m writing. The title will be something like “Sensory Processing in the Brain.” And the subtitle, I like subtitles, will be “An Exercise in Neural Connective Modeling.” That’s what I have been doing for the last fourteen years, I guess. And that will be continued for the rest of my active career, whatever that is.
Do you presently have a university affiliation?
Oh, I do and I don’t. I have title of a, what is it called now, Visiting Research Associate over at Caltech. It doesn’t mean anything. I get over there, I’m on the board of trustees, and I get over there for meetings. I’m also on the visiting committee for the biology division, and I know people I can call up and get some answers to questions.
Well you’ve been very kind, and this has been an extremely interesting interview.
Well, it’s been interesting to me, it’s fun to reminisce.
Conyers Herring spent 1933-34 at Caltech as a first year graduate student. The following year he transferred to Princeton and completed his graduate work there.
Kelly replaced Bown as director of research in the year 1936.
Electronics Engineers Trans. Sect. Vol. 64 (June ‘46) 343-52.
“Theory of Secondary Emission,” Phys. Rev. 56 (Sept. 39), pp. 562-78.
Technical Memorandum of 1/9/40 on “Luminescence and Projection Television.”