Ernest Orlando Lawrence, the protagonist of our story, had much in common with the first European to explore the coasts of Northern California. Sir Francis Drake was an adventurer, a master of navigation and other contemporary high technologies, and withal a scientist, a collector and student of the flora and fauna of the new worlds he discovered. And, like Lawrence, Drake missed spectacular discoveries under his nose: he overlooked or overran the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, which lies a day's sail south of his probable anchorage.
Today's sailor who enters the Gate, or today's tourist who surveys the panorama from its northern shore, sees two great steel bridges, each an engineering wonder when built, which define a body of water hemmed in by factories and harbors, and much reduced from its size in Drake's time by the operations of later entrepreneurs. The south shore of the Gate lies in San Francisco, which spreads over a peninsula washed by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Bay on the east, and carrying, to the south, Silicon Valley, the home of electronic high technology. Across the Bay, on its eastern shore, the conurbation continues in Oakland and Berkeley. Above Berkeley, on hills facing the Gate, rises a great Laboratory that commands a magnificent view of the Bay Area. The people who work there do not study the view, however, or much else that they can see unaided. Most of their exploring concerns the behavior of molecules, atoms, nuclei, and radiation.
The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory is now functionally a multipurpose research facility of the Department of Energy, admini-
stered by the University of California. Its bureaucratization, growth, diversification, and nationalization have reduced the significance of local color and influence on its operations. But in the period covered by this volume, the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California, or "Rad Lab," which preceded the complex on the hill, grew in a manner and at a pace that are unintelligible without reference to the character of the region and the state that supported it.
The Ascent of the West
Half a century after the Gold Rush of 1849, California showed the marks of an urbanized, commercialized society: although agriculturally rich, it began to rely heavily upon electricity, petroleum, and steel. The technological requirements rose sharply during the first twenty years of the twentieth century, when the state's population more than doubled, its output in agriculture, mining, petroleum, lumbering, and fishing increased severalfold, and hydroelectric power, motion pictures, and the cult of the automobile gave it a distinctive character.
The culture derived from these elements mixed the pioneering of the Gold Rush, the boosterism of rapid expansion, the make-believe of Hollywood, and the confidence of technological expertise. A precocious expression of the California spirit was the foundation of an Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in 1853. Its immediate stimulus was a survey of coasts and harbors undertaken to safeguard navigation. We hear the booster and the entrepreneur, the student and the dreamer, in the founders' declaration, "It is due to science, it is due to California, to her sister states, and to the scientific world, that early means be adopted for a thorough survey of every portion of the State and the collection of a cabinet of her rare and rich productions." And we are sensible of the rawness and violence of the society that produced the academy in its adjourning to a discussion of the trees of North America after attending the hanging of an outlaw who had killed its president. Two decades later, the great captains and pirates of
California's first commercialization, men like Leland Stanford, David Colton, Charles Crocker, and James Lick, gave the academy the wherewithal to build a museum of natural history, sponsor a lecture series, and represent culture at the edge of the civilized world.
The rawness and vigor, the culture and pretentiousness, the hucksterism and fantasy, were celebrated in the grand Panama-Pacific Exposition held on newly filled waterfront in San Francisco in 1915. The official poster of the exposition (plate 1.1) might have been designed as frontispiece for Lawrence's first Radiation Laboratory: a monumental Hercules cracking open the resistant earth (he is making the Panama Canal, but could be smashing atoms) to disclose a dream city in fairyland (it is the exposition itself, but could be the future powered by atomic energy). Within the exposition, "the only place . . . in the United States where romance seems pervasive and inevitable," stood halls filled with California's natural plenty and with the machinery that harvested, transformed, and transported it. The Palace of Mines and Metallurgy proffered two big balls of gold, and a hydraulic mine and gold dredger, as proof of California's mastery of the precincts of Pluto. Further to the theme, it presented "ample evidence of the great figure which steel now makes in the world, and of the vast extent of the petroleum industry." And—an unreadable indicator of a theme that will preoccupy us—there was a tiny sample of radium. "Being so little of it in the world," a children's guide to the fair explained, "it is tremendously expensive." Lawrence would change that.
The Palace of Machinery also pointed directly to California's future. It emphasized, in the words of a contemporary journalist, "the increasing displacement of coal by hydroelectric plants and liquid fuels." To this proposition the prime mover of the exposition gave silent testimony. Power came from the Sierra via hightension electrical lines; there was nothing in San Francisco resembling the mountainous Corliss engine, some thirty-nine feet tall
and weighing 1.4 million pounds, whose steam had moved the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. It had delivered some 1,400 horsepower. The exposition of 1915 showed the Corliss's latter-day competitor, one of those instruments for replacing dirty coal with clean liquid fuels, a Diesel engine that also developed 1,400 horsepower. This engine, called to life by a radio signal from President Wilson, stood seven feet tall and weighed 44,000 pounds, an item of domestic furniture in comparison with steam engines. And so it was housed, in a booth trimmed with oriental rugs and finished in fine woods, with attendants in white uniforms who "looked like guests aboard a yacht."
A more direct symbol of transportation was the gasoline engine, exhibited in every size and form, since, as the official historian of the exposition observed, San Francisco, so far from coal and so close to oil, had naturally become a center for its development. A special exhibit by the Ford Motor Company showed how to put a new gas engine into use 144 times a day. It was the latest wonder of technology: the mass production of automobiles, "in which a continuous stream of Fords is assembled and driven away, one every ten minutes." These and many other cars would soon be clogging California's urban centers, requiring more and more highways, freeways, and gasoline, and fixing the contours of cities. A frequent plaint of European visitors to California laboratories was (and is!) that life could not be lived without an automobile.
The exposition not only displayed, but also, like its Hercules, forced technology. The Panama Canal had connected the waters of the Pacific and the Atlantic; AT&T would link the telephones of California with exchanges in New York. In 1911 officers of the company promised the management of the exposition that the link would exist by 1915, although they had not yet proceeded beyond Denver. The Denver line used loading coils spaced eight miles apart to "repeat" the message. To reach San Francisco, which it did on time, AT&T suspended 2,500 tons of wire from 130,000 poles. Those are the sorts of numbers that announce progress.
Another quantity to conjure with—one that Lawrence did conjure with—was a million volts. With financial support of the exposition, an engineer from Chicago named C.H. Thordarson exhibited an experimental transformer made of 400 miles of paper, aluminum, and copper. A wire net hung from the transformer's high-voltage secondary and suspended some feet above the ground made one of the most popular demonstrations at the fair. Parading under this canopy, while "the ends of the fingers glowed," one had, among other feelings, the sensation of participating in an experiment significant for California's future.
White Gold and Black
The determined harnessing of water in California began with the Forty-niners, who washed away the hills of gold and silted up the rivers with the help of 5,000 miles of sluices and aqueducts. The prolific waters of the Sierra also powered mining operations and machinery and stimulated the imaginations of engineers and entrepreneurs who looked upon the rapidly growing cities on the coast. How to bring the power from the hills, where it was wasted, to the population centers, where it was wanted?
The first of the many technologies that affected the transmission and efficient exploitation of the strength of the Sierra streams was a waterwheel developed by a California metallurgist named Lester Allen Pelton. Pelton found that he could increase the speed and efficiency of conversion of the power of falling water by directing it against the edges of the buckets on the standard wheels in use in the mines. A Pelton wheel weighing only 220 pounds could supply 125 horsepower. Its basic design may still be discerned in modern turbines. As this persistence suggests, Pelton did not chance on his invention. When he began his experiments in 1878, he procured the latest instruments and instructions for hydraulic investigation; he was no ordinary millwright, but an accomplished, although uncertified, engineer. The Pelton Water Wheel
Company of San Francisco, established in 1888, became a world leader in the design and manufacture of hydraulic machinery. Its exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition so impressed officials from Columbia University that they bought it outright for their School of Mines. All, that is, except a turbine turned by a wheel twenty-six feet in diameter (plate 1.2), rated at 20,000 horsepower and made for a PG&E project on the Yuba River. "No single unit greater than half the big turbine had been used in Europe. . . . The place [the Pelton exhibit] was haunted every time the Palace [of Machinery] was open by civil engineers from all quarters of the globe." The Pelton Company developed a general expertise in metal working on a large scale. Lawrence was to commission it to machine the magnet of his first big cyclotron.
At the time the Pelton Company was founded, the first steps had been taken, in Europe, toward bringing power from the hills to the plain. In 1886 Italians transmitted electricity from Tivoli to Rome, a distance of 17 miles; five years later the Germans managed 100 miles; and in 1892 a plant in Southern California joined the game, providing power at long distance—some 28 miles—for the first time in the state. This success was noticed. According to the San Francisco Call , "the air of California, and the whole Pacific Coast for that matter, has all at once become filled with talk about setting up water wheels in lonely mountain places and making them give light and cheaply turn other wheels in towns miles away." California soon outdistanced Europe. In 1903 the San Francisco Bay Area derived electricity from the Electra powerhouse on the Mokelumne River, a distance of 142 miles. The power pressed at 60,000 volts, twice the maximum potential that General Electric and Westinghouse thought feasible. The line ran through forests and valleys before leaping the Carquinez Strait—4,427 feet at the mouth of the Sacramento River—and so was a triumph of civil as well as electrical engineering. By World War I, California had more high-voltage transmission systems than any other region in the world.
The men who designed the system's lines, tunnels, dams, and stations were engineers from California's new universities. The
great Electra project of 1903 employed several electrical engineers trained at Stanford and two graduates in civil engineering from Berkeley. One of the Stanford men became chief of hydroelectric and transmission engineering of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which consolidated the Electra operation and most other hydroelectric power systems in Northern California. The men who supplied the capital for the plants that captured the power of the Sierra streams understood the importance of high technology in their enterprises. In the disposition of their wealth they did not neglect the institutions that taught and advanced electrical engineering and the physical sciences on which it grew.
This patronage intensified with the discovery of a new source of energy. Unlike the yellow gold that enriched the Forty-niners, black gold could not be pulled from the ground, washed off, and traded. The successful extraction, refining, and marketing of petroleum depended on continuing advances in geology, chemistry, physics, and their applications. The Union Oil Company, which pioneered in the oil fields of Southern California, set up a geological department under an engineer from Stanford in 1895. He made a success of his assignment and diminished the guesswork in petroleum geology. Union Oil also had a chemical laboratory, which worked, also successfully, to separate fuel oils and asphalt from California crude. The business proceeded so well that in 1917 California petroleum provided a third of the oil and gasoline used in the United States, and between a quarter and a fifth of world consumption. In California oil mixed with water, science with technology, private greed with public service, to create a power system that, by the early 1920s, was serving over 80 percent of the state's population. That number far exceeded the fractions served elsewhere in the country, "especially the extreme East."
A standard form of the patronage of science and engineering by the power brokers of California was service as trustees (a preliminary step to generosity as donors) of the state's educational institutions. An obvious geographical alignment developed: oil barons
of Los Angeles and officers of the Southern California Edison Company helped to create Caltech from the carcass of a trade school during the 1920s; PG&E gave early and sustained support to the University of California. The link brought the power companies more than good press and trained recruits. PG&E gave the University money to fit out railroad cars with an exhibition of new techniques for farming and husbandry; the company coupled on its own cars, filled with electric agricultural equipment, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. A decade later the University exposed itself more fully by opposing a bill that would have enabled municipalities to combine to develop water power for their own use. Many of the state's farm bureaus—in contrast to the agricultural lobby—unaccountably declared that the proposed legislation went against the public interest. "The mystery was traced down, and in every case it was found that the treacherous resolution had come from the [bureau's] 'experts'—university men, appointed by university regents in the interest of their privately owned power companies." No fewer than ten regents were implicated. It is dangerous to play with electricity.
Spoils of War
The universities that attracted and served the commercial interests of the state had no trouble mobilizing science for military purposes. World War I mingled the interests of science, industry, and government throughout the nation; but nowhere were the consequences of the mix more enduring and efficacious than in California. This privileged position derived in large measure from what no longer exists—the clean, clear air of the Los Angeles basin. The air had inspired George Ellery Hale, a physical astronomer often nominated for the Nobel prize and an accomplished autodidact in the promotional arts, to establish the Mount Wilson Observatory, with the world's largest reflecting telescope, in the hills above Pasadena. In 1916 Hale invented the National
Research Council, which, after defeating several federal agencies, took charge of making allies of American science and technology and bringing them to war on the same side. The council came into existence under the auspices of the somnolent National Academy of Sciences and with the approval of President Wilson.
In administering the council, Hale was seconded by A.A. Noyes, professor of chemistry at MIT and Caltech, and Robert A. Millikan, then suspended between Chicago and Pasadena, whose great powers of organization, oratory, and salesmanship would go to Southern California after the war. Caltech turned itself into a training camp when the United States joined the fighting in 1917 and boasted that it had "exceeded all other civil colleges in devotion to war work." Hale tied his stronghold, Mount Wilson, to the NRC; it contributed importantly to the provision of good optical glass for binoculars, range finders, and field telescopes, which previously had come almost exclusively from Germany. California organized a State Council of Defense whose work, in the judgment of the NRC, "[stood] out conspicuously among the contributions of scientific men of the country during the war." California could act so quickly and effectively because isolation had already prompted its scientists to integrate their local societies and to form West Coast branches of national societies; the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in connection with the Panama-Pacific Exposition, advised the State Council of Defense on behalf of all these organizations.
Under the State Council and the NRC, the University's engineering shops became "veritable war laboratories;" its Chemistry Department agreed, almost to a man, to "work on any problem assigned to them," and to give any patents that might result to the University's regents. They received commissions to hunt for sources of chemicals to replace German imports, to make California petroleum into TNT, and to counter poison gas. Their most notable contribution was an absorbent for carbon monoxide
and other noxious gases. "Had nothing additional been accomplished," says the official report of the State Committee on Scientific Research, "this result alone justifies the total expenditure made for chemical investigation by the State of California." Chemists who could outgas the Germans enjoyed something of the reputation at the Armistice that atomic physicists did on V-J Day. One of the best gas chemists was Gilbert Newton Lewis, already an influential member of the Berkeley faculty before he went to war; he came back as the dominant force for building up the University's research capacity in physical science.
California electrotechnology contributed to the war effort in ways decisive for our story. Before the war the Federal Telegraph Company of Menlo Park, California, which had close ties to Stanford, acquired exclusive rights to market a system of wireless telegraphy invented by a Danish engineer, Vladimir Poulsen, in the United States and the Pacific. In 1912 Federal had won a contract from the U.S. Navy for a 100-kW installation at the Panama Canal, although the company had not then managed to get more than 30 kW from its largest Poulsen machine. A crash program under the direction of Leonard Fuller, an electrical engineer who had studied at Stanford and later taught at Berkeley, discovered and removed the impediment. The navy, now getting up steam for war, commissioned Federal to set up 200-kW plants in Puerto Rico and San Diego; the specification jumped to 350 kW for the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, to 500 kW for Annapolis, and, when the United States entered the European War, to 1,000 kW, to link Washington with American forces in France.
The navy simultaneously supported development of another device, also improved at Federal, which soon subverted the Poulsen system. This was the vacuum tube oscillator, accidentally invented by Lee de Forest when, as an employee of Federal, he worked to perfect his audiotron for use as an amplifier on transcontinental telegraph lines. De Forest's audiotron enabled AT&T
to fulfill its promise to the Panama-Pacific Exposition; his oscillator made possible commercial radio broadcasting, which Federal inaugurated in San Jose in 1919; and it became the heart of long-distance wireless after the war. We shall return to Fuller and Federal, to West Coast electronics, and to the big Poulsen machines, several of which were cannibalized for cyclotrons.
In founding the NRC, Hale was no doubt inspired by what he took to be a civic duty. He also saw, as he put it, "the greatest chance we ever had to advance research in America." The success of the mobilization of science for the production of optical glass, for the location of artillery and submarines, for defense and offense in chemical warfare, for improvements in airplanes, radio, gunnery, and a thousand other things—all this helped to vanquish not only the enemy, but also the idea that academic physical scientists were impractical dreamers or incompetent pedagogues. As Millikan and Hale liked to put the point in a neat double entendre, the war had "forced science to the front." The physicist found himself in the unusual, but portentous, condition of enjoying the attention of the press. "That he 'made good' from the beginning is one of the commonplaces of the history of our war. He took hold of a situation as unacademic as the most sceptical of his critics could have imagined, and proceeded as if the war were nothing more baffling than a particularly unruly set of sophomores." "It was a revelation to the country."
The practical payoff of this demonstration of practicality was the enlistment in the support of academic physics of some foundations, businesses, and industries that previously had not thought it worth their notice. An official of the National Bureau of Standards, which had passed through precarious times, now could augur that never again "would anybody question the . . . economic value of scientific investigation," or, as the Saturday Evening Post added, its place in the "bedrock of business." And of labor. Forgetting in the general enthusiasm the menace of unemployment
forced by technological advance, the American Federation of Labor declared in 1920 that "a broad program of scientific and technical research is of major importance to the national welfare and should be fostered in every way by the federal government." With all this implied support, Millikan said, American physicists would soon outdistance the Europeans, whom they had trailed for too long. "In a very few years we shall be in a new place as a scientific nation and shall see men coming from the ends of the earth to catch the inspiration of our leaders and to share in the results which have come from our developments in science."
The NRC took as its postwar purposes the strengthening of science in the universities and technical schools and the mingling of scientists with engineers and businessmen in industrial research laboratories. Its watchwords were cooperation and organization, the lessons of the war. Had not the Germans managed to struggle so long, and the allies finally to beat them, because both sides learned to mobilize their scientific manpower? As the chairman of the Carnegie Institution of Washington put it in the NRC's first Bulletin , "competency for defense against military aggression requires highly organized scientific preparedness." The same would be true of the coming commercial struggle: the fruits of industry would go to the nation that "organizes its forces most effectively." The NRC divided itself into interdisciplinary task forces and laid siege simultaneously to nature and the foundations under the cry of "the national essentiality of science." Nor was the home front forgotten. The council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science saw to it that accounts of their activities and of all American "discoveries" appeared in newspapers and magazines. The entrepreneurs of California physical science—Hale, Millikan, and their successor, Lawrence—discovered the uses of the popular press, and, when it became available, the radio.
Perhaps the most important instrument of the NRC for the improvement of university physics after the war was a fellowship program for postdoctoral training paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. The first installment, half a million dollars, was repeated, until by 1940 no fewer than 883 National Research Fellows had had their horizons broadened at a cost of $2.7 million. The first physics fellows took their awards in Europe, whence they imported and domesticated quantum physics; their students tended to take their fellowships in the United States; by 1928 National Research Fellows in physics preferred Caltech to any other American institution. In the 1930s Berkeley became a center of choice. The Radiation Laboratory could not have grown so quickly or so well without the contributions of such National Research Fellows as Franz Kurie and Edwin McMillan.
In keeping with its fellowship program, the NRC urged, and the foundations followed, an elitist policy in their awards: the good American research universities should be made even better, while the rest slid deeper into mediocrity. Regional, ethnic, and financial balance, the preoccupations of the era of federal funding, then scarcely came into consideration. The twenty schools that housed one-third of the professional physicists of the nation produced three-quarters of the American doctorates in physics earned between the wars and three-quarters of the papers published in the leading American journal, the Physical Review . The same schools received almost all the NRC's physics fellows. To sustain the "surcharged atmosphere of the great university graduate school," and to enhance its capacity to fulfill its duty to multiply research and researchers, the NRC agitated to remove impediments to uninterrupted investigation and graduate instruction by the most able professors. The greatest of these obstacles was the plague of undergraduates indifferent to science who infested the universities in the great swelling of student bodies after the war. "[We] feel
sick," said the NRC, "when we face the facts." Undergraduates, or the teaching thrown away on them, set "the most serious limitation of research productivity." The NRC strove to bring the administrations of major universities to understand that the main business of their professors was research, not teaching. With its help and foundation support, faculty pressure groups did succeed in shifting the balance of professorial obligation toward research. By 1930 physicists led the academic pack in research time: 36 percent of their total academic effort, as against 26 percent for humanists and 30 percent for biologists. Lawrence was a beneficiary of this secondary consequence of the Great War.
The Roaring Twenties
The increased reputation of physical science after the war combined with the requirements and fruits of California's high technology to give physics at both Caltech and Berkeley a more rapid acceleration during the 1920s than it experienced at any other research university in the country. The most prominent single theme in this California physics was its concern with high voltages and radio technologies. The theme sounded first at Caltech. In 1920 Southern California Edison provided the new institution's new president, Millikan of the NRC, with a high-tension testing laboratory. The utility's interest is easily stated: according to a rule of the art, to transmit power economically, at least 1,000 volts should be provided for each mile to be traversed. Southern California Edison, then becoming the world's largest producer of hydroelectric power at a cost that exceeded the price of the Panama Canal, aimed to work at over 200,000 volts. The laboratory at Caltech did improve the technique of high-voltage transmission. Later it supplied the power to run a powerful x-ray
plant for cancer therapy designed by Charles Christian Lauritsen, an engineer and physicist who for a time competed successfully with Lawrence in smashing atoms. At Berkeley the high men in voltage were Fuller, who had become professor there without cutting his ties to Federal, and his protégé Ernest Lawrence.
The work of such men and the students they attracted paid dividends on the capital the state had invested in physical science. The president of the American Physical Society alerted its members in 1933 to the distortion of the old ring circle of Eastern institutions worked by the newly scientific West. "In the past decade the State of California has risen from obscurity to become a center in the physical circle, or more precisely one of the two foci in the academic ellipse representing American physics." Europeans also noticed. "The development of science in California is very impressive, even if theoretical physics is not so strongly represented." Hendrik Kramers, professor of physics at the University of Utrecht, teaching in Berkeley in 1931, thus informed the dean of the world's quantum theorists, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen, who would visit the state twice himself in the 1930s to see its physics for himself.
The MIT of the South
Bohr's visits fit a pattern established in the 1920s by the new administration of Caltech, Hale and its "executive head," Millikan, who had the power, but not the duties, of a college president. With plenty of money from local sources and the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Caltech brought in the leaders of international physics for seminars and lecture courses: Max Born, Paul Ehrenfest, Albert Einstein, H.A. Lorentz, A.A. Michelson, Wolf-gang Pauli, C.V.R. Raman, Arnold Sommerfeld. With the help of the prestige thus conferred, the former Throop College of Technology recruited first-rate scientists at home and abroad: Ira Bowen, Paul Epstein, William Houston, J.R. Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Richard Tolman, Fritz Zwicky. The great luminaries and Nobel
prize winners, among whom Millikan, already widely nominated, would soon be enrolled, attracted hundreds to pay thousands to belong to the Caltech Associates, a fund-raising initiative worthy of Wall Street. By 1930, by most measures, Caltech overshadowed MIT as a technical school and rivaled the University of California in most fields not related to the social sciences.
Caltech's trustees cared less for science, natural or social, than for the practical and electrical potential of the school. Delays in construction occasioned by the first world war had caused an acute shortage of power in the fast-growing Los Angeles basin. In 1920 the creation of the Federal Power Commission and the revocation of an ancient prohibition against damming navigable waterways opened the way to new hydroelectric developments. Southern California Edison, which dreamed of a dam on the Colorado River to generate hydroelectric power for Los Angeles, planned in the meantime $100 million worth of construction, including conversion of its high-voltage lines to 220,000 volts. These undertakings required research. A cheap and reliable way to get it was to build a high-voltage laboratory at Caltech, supply it with electricity, lease it to the school at a nominal fee, and obtain from its high-powered, low-paid staff help with "all problems of the company arising in connection with [its] experimental and research work."
Millikan understood how to couple a scientific program to the applied work of the laboratory. In a successful approach to the Carnegie Corporation, he wrote that "the most promising field of science today is the field of the behavior of matter under enormously high potentials. . . . The physicist wishes to enter it for purely scientific reasons." Millikan proposed studying spark spectra in high vacua, high-potential x rays, and corona discharges at high potentials. Ultimately the knowledge gained might help in the understanding of nature's play at extremes of electric force, temperature, and pressure, in atoms and in the stars.
The early work of the high-voltage laboratory centered on immediate application. Royal Sorenson, a Caltech electrical engineer and consultant to Southern California Edison and the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles, built a four-stage cascade transformer that gave a million volts. It was used to test vacuum switches that Sorenson and Millikan designed to overcome the arcing in oil circuit breakers. A high-voltage switch, patented per agreement as the joint property of Southern California Edison and Caltech, was sold to GE in 1930 for $100,000, which repaid the cost of the laboratory. Other patented products of the laboratory included high-voltage fuses and discharge tubes. The physics on which they rested was worked out by Millikan and Lauritsen, a graduate student and former employee of the Federal Telegraph Company, and by Oppenheimer, who came to Caltech as a National Research Fellow in 1928.
Lauritsen carried Caltech's high-voltage technology into new fields with the help of R.D. Bennett, likewise a National Research Fellow, who had sought to extend work on the quantum theory of x-ray scattering to high voltages. The internal workings of the very sturdy instrument Lauritsen devised relate to particle accelerators and will be discussed later. Its external workings were more general and immediate. Millikan had asked Seeley G. Mudd, a Pasadena cardiologist, for money to develop Lauritsen's tube. Mudd consulted Francis Carter Wood of the Crocker Institute for Cancer Research at Columbia, who advised that the high-voltage x-ray tube was "the exact step forward that we need for the treatment of cancer." Others disagreed, for example, Fred Stewart of New York's Memorial Hospital, who preferred "small quantities of energy over a long period of time." Millikan accepted the advice that favored the tube.
Preliminary therapy began in 1930 at 600,000 volts, which Wood judged to be insufficient. Higher potential meant more money. Millikan got it from W.K. Kellogg, the Corn Flakes King, who desired only "credit of some sort." While Caltech built the
Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, Los Angeles County Hospital used its 600-kV tube to treat 200 patients. They improved. Albert Soiland, the radiologist in charge, ascribed the efficacy of the rays to their energy, or perhaps to their homogeneity. It does not appear that many of the 746 people treated at the Kellogg Laboratory during the 1940s improved dramatically. The sanguine and bold attributed the fault to the voltages. Still higher energies were sought at Berkeley, Stanford, and Caltech. Supervoltage x rays proved no better therapeutically than high-voltage ones. But the attempt to devise equipment to make them and the funding their uncertain promise provided were very good for physics.
The Harvard of the West
Wartime service also advanced research at Caltech's northern rival. An immediate outcome of Berkeley's contribution to national defense, and a harbinger of much greater reform, was the transmutation of a parochial editorial committee charged with publishing their colleagues' contributions to knowledge into an outward-looking Board of Research. In the early 1920s the new board brought the experience it had gained in supervising war work to promoting the cause of research, particularly scientific research, to the University's administration and well-wishers. The board's pushiness fit in well with a general agitation, led by G.N. Lewis, John C. Merriam (chairman of the wartime State Committee on Scientific Research and a high official of the NRC), and Armin O. Leuschner (dean of the Graduate School and head of the NRC's Physical Sciences Section in 1918), to improve salaries and working conditions. The professors won important concessions in self-governance and a new president representative of their new self-image. He was William Wallace Campbell, a research astronomer, formerly head of Mount Wilson's northern rival, the University's Lick Observatory. Under its version of George Ellery Hale, Berkeley rapidly expanded its facilities and staff for physical research.
First things first. The throng of students entering the University after the war included many more would-be engineers and physicists than could be taught in the old headquarters of physics in South Hall. In 1924 Le Conte Hall, the greatest achievement of the chairman of the Physics Department, E. Percival Lewis, opened for business (plate 1.3). It was among the largest physics buildings in the world, and second in size only to those at Cornell, Illinois, and Princeton (all built under uninflated prewar conditions) in the United States. It exceeded its larger counterparts in the proportion of space dedicated to individual research—forty rooms in Berkeley in contrast with twenty-eight rooms at Princeton. The Board of Research willingly helped to furnish Le Conte. The physicists there had the good sense, in the board's opinion, to spend their money on equipment and supplies, "in marked contrast to . . . other departments, which expend the funds granted almost exclusively for personal research assistance." The board's grant to the Department in 1923, in anticipation of the completion of Le Conte, was $5,000. The amount rose to $10,000 in 1925/26 and $12,250 in 1928/29 before sinking to an average of about $8,000 during the Depression. These grants and outside monies built up an inventory of research equipment valued at $226,500 in 1934, exclusive of the special apparatus in Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory. The Department's operating expenses also increased steeply, reflecting the enlargement of the staff by the capture of several young physicists: from $78,000 in 1922/23, just before Le Conte opened, to $100,000 in 1923/24 and 1924/25, to $130,000 in 1929/30.
Berkeley tried first to fill its physics building with men of established reputation: Niels Bohr, Arthur Compton, Paul Epstein,
W.F.G. Swann, none of whom valued the charms of Le Conte above the attractions of his position elsewhere. When this premature strategy, which was urged by G.N. Lewis and the Board of Research, failed, two ambitious recent recruits to the Department, Raymond T. Birge, who became its chairman in 1932, and Leonard B. Loeb, took over the head-hunting. Their strategy, as Birge later summarized it, was to follow the guidance of the NRC: "In order to guarantee a prospective candidate's scientific standing and research ability, we have chosen from among the most successful of the National Research Fellows." In this way they chose, among others, Samuel Allison, Frederick Brackett, Robert Brode, Francis Jenkins, E.O. Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Harvey White.
Recruitment is one thing, retention another. Campbell understood the danger: "Tempting invitations come every year to half a dozen or more members of our faculties—always to men in the front rank of attainment and promise—to leave our employ and cast in their lot with other universities, at higher salaries than they are here receiving. . . . The competition for able professors is already keen; it is going to be more keen in the near future; and we must find ways and means of retaining the services of our able men." Campbell tried to make good his word. Birge wrote a colleague at Harvard in 1927: "When our own men, at least the younger men, have had definite offers elsewhere, the administration has at least done something to hold them, and we have succeeded in holding them so far." Allison and Brackett left before 1930, Oppenheimer in 1946; the others remained, despite flattering invitations to emigrate. Loeb refused the chairmanship of Brown University's physics department in 1928, and Brode, Lawrence, and (until 1946) Oppenheimer frequently turned down raiders. In consequence their salaries rose, Oppenheimer's marginally (he was a theorist, a wealthy man, and a part-time professor at Caltech), Brode's by 50 percent in six years (from $2,700 in 1927/28 to $4,160 in 1933/34), Lawrence's by almost 150 percent in eight years (from $3,300 in 1928/29 to $8,000 in 1936/37). As
the figures suggest, Lawrence was hard to get and expensive to keep.
Loeb began stalking Lawrence in 1926. The game was then a National Research Fellow at Yale, where he had arrived in the intricate wake of his teacher W.F.G. Swann, whom Berkeley wooed in vain. Lawrence, a native of South Dakota and a graduate of its state university, had sought out Swann in 1922, on the recommendation of Merle Tuve, likewise from South Dakota, whom Lawrence had known from childhood. (It is singular that Tuve and Lawrence came from similar middle-class backgrounds of Scandinavian origin, had similar training in physics, and later went at atom smashing with instruments similar in cost and size.) Lawrence joined Swann and Tuve at the University of Minnesota to work on a master's degree. In 1923 Swann left Minnesota for the University of Chicago, where Lawrence followed, to begin work on the photoeffect in potassium vapor. He made good progress in designing equipment before Swann wandered to Yale. There Lawrence finished his dissertation and took up another investigation, which also posed delicate instrumental problems, for example, the creation of a monochromatic beam of slow electrons. That project acquainted him with the magnetic analysis of particle streams, which may later have assisted his design of the cyclotron.
As a National Research Fellow at Yale, Lawrence extended his work on the photoeffect to other alkali vapors and used his monochromatic electrons to demonstrate that the excitation function for ionization of an alkali vapor—the dependence of the probability of ionization on the energy of the ionizing agent—was the same for electrons as for x rays. This demonstration attracted Loeb, head-hunting at the American Physical Society's meeting of May 1926. He spoke with the demonstrator, and wrote his chairman: "I felt out one of the most brilliant experimental young men in the East—a lad whose name is on everyone's lips on account of his recent papers on Ionizing Potentials. . . . He is personally one of the
most charming men I have met. . . . When asked whether he would consider an Assistant Prof. at Berkeley following the termination of his fellowship, he was quite enthusiastic." Birge too praised Lawrence's "really splendid experimental work" on the excitation functions.
Two projects were never enough for Lawrence. A fellow midwesterner, Jesse Beams, who had settled at the University of Virginia, had tried to measure the interval between the absorption of a quantum and the ejection of a photoelectron. While failing, he had devised a very fast electric switch incorporating two Kerr cells. (A Kerr cell is a parallel-plate condenser with a gaseous or liquid dielectric.) Beams and Lawrence teamed up to try to study the speed of the onset of birefringence and to incorporate Beams's idea into a practical device for creating very short bursts of light. Lawrence was to stick to the Kerr effect, as he did to photoionization, until the cyclotron turned his attention to bigger things; and he was to stay in productive contact with Beams while the idea of the cyclotron developed.
Berkeley made its first offer to the young electro-optician in the spring of 1927; Yale did the same; Lawrence stayed East (plate 1.4). His rejection of Berkeley would have discouraged men of weaker will than Birge and Loeb: "I like Yale, the personnel, the laboratory and the facilities for research perhaps even as much as I like the friends I have acquired in New Haven." Loeb and Birge persisted. They extolled Berkeley's "democratic spirit," research ethic, and, what the NRC campaigned for and every ambitious academic desired, light teaching load. Lawrence allowed that if Yale made him work too hard, he might go West: "I am more interested in finding some more of Mother Nature's secrets than telling to someone else things I already know about her." The announcement by his flighty mentor, Swann, of a new nest, the Bartol Foundation in Philadelphia, "a hard blow to Yale and to me," increased Lawrence's mobility.
Loeb now hinted that Berkeley might offer an associate professorship with unusually few teaching responsibilities. Yale countered by improving Lawrence's laboratory and reducing his courses. Friends of California were commissioned to enlighten Lawrence. They reported that he believed that at Berkeley only full professors could supervise graduate students (a regime to which he could not submit) and that he had no conception of the treasures of Le Conte Hall. Loeb and Birge set him right in February 1928, when Berkeley formally offered Lawrence an associate professorship. They itemized the research staff, budget, and facilities, pointed to auxiliaries in the Chemistry Department, praised the liberality of the Physics Department in assigning graduate students to junior faculty, and fired off their biggest gun: "The teaching schedules are as light as at any place in the country, with the exception of Harvard." There remained only salary. The very experienced Swann advised Lawrence to ignore the few hundred dollars difference between Berkeley's offer and Yale's, which the lower cost of living in California would cancel, and to concentrate on the research opportunities. Birge reassured the captured lion that promotion came rapidly to vigorous young research men. It was as if the University had been preparing itself ever since the war for the reception of Ernest Lawrence: "Younger men are now being appointed and advanced on an entirely different plane from that of the older men. . . . I doubt if any man has ever been offered the permanent position of associate professor at this University with as short a period of teaching and research experience as in your case. . . . The conduct of this University now is really in the hands of the exact scientists."
Lawrence arrived in Berkeley in the summer of 1928. By September he was writing with such fervor about his new surroundings that Beams rated him "a 'Native Son' of California already."
The enthusiast took up residence at the Faculty Club, where Gilbert Lewis brokered influence and crossed disciplines nightly at the dinner table. Lewis became a strong supporter of Lawrence's and, after the invention of the cyclotron, a transient, but most influential, collaborator. The antecedents of the grand invention are not to be sought, however, in the research work that Lawrence did between dinners with Lewis. He continued his study of the photoeffect in alkali vapors. What counted more for his future were his sojurns at General Electric's research laboratories in Schenectady during the summers of 1929 and 1930.
In arranging for his visit of 1929, Lawrence wrote A.W. Hull, an expert on x rays and vacuum tubes who would be his host, that he wanted to study the photoeffect and the Kerr cell. Nothing new there. But Hull was then working with Beams on a lightning arrestor and on the development of sparks under high voltages, and Lawrence was drawn into the investigation. Here he faced for the first time the practical difficulty of holding a potential of more than half a million volts. If we credit Beams's unlikely recollection, this experience inspired a line of thought remarkably, indeed astonishingly, close to the reasoning behind Lawrence's great invention. "There's just no use trying to build this [voltage] up," Lawrence argued. "You may get a few million volts. That's limited. What we've got to do is to devise some method of accelerating through a small voltage, repeating it over and over. Multiple acceleration."
In the event, Lawrence did not labor with Beams or Kerr cells or photoeffects. He wandered about GE's well-equipped laboratories, familiarized himself with Hull's state-of-the-art vacuum tubes, with high-voltage equipment, and with so much of the firm's applied research that he was offered (but declined) a consultancy. Lawrence brought this lore back to Berkeley, along with two other items of importance: a glass blower, E.H. Guyon, a specialist in x-ray and vacuum tubes; and a genius at electronics,
Hull's assistant David Sloan, whom Lawrence persuaded to improve his B.S. in physics from Washington State College with graduate work at the University of California. Sloan came in 1930, on a Coffin Fellowship (established in 1922 in memory of GE's first president, Charles A. Coffin) from GE. He remained throughout the 1930s, kept from his degree by lack of interest in his studies and injury to his back. The early successes of Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory owed much to David Sloan, who would not have come to Berkeley but for Lawrence's sojurns at GE.
Depression and Its Cure
Sloan may have been made the readier to leave GE by observation of the havoc the Depression was wreaking on its research staff. Eventually GE cut back to 50 percent of its strength in 1929; the corresponding figure for AT&T was 40 percent. They suffered, but not as much as the bellwether of economic activity, the steel industry, which was running at a jot over one-quarter of its capacity two years after the stock market crashed. The first nine months of 1931 had been "one of the most unsettled, depressed periods ever known," and the balance of the year looked worse. In the first half of September, tax receipts fell lower than at any time in the preceding decade, and the production of electric power, the agent of industrial vitality and domestic comfort, was diminishing at the rate of 2 percent a week. The vital signs of capitalism slowed to just above moribund; in the opinion of Time , the country "had reached the lowest possible level of consumption." Even the mortality rate declined, probably, in the opinion of the Health Organization of the League of Nations, because idleness preserved the population from the dangers of fast living and tuberculosis.
The Depression did not hurt most of the nation's physicists as quickly as it did the steel industry. To be sure, industrial research laboratories cut their staffs, and government agencies, particularly the National Bureau of Standards, had to furlough many of their scientific workers without pay and sustain a devastating amputation from their research budgets. Most American physicists—some 75 percent of the membership of the American Physical Society in 1930—did not work for the federal government or for industry, however, but for universities and colleges. And the universities, especially the large research universities like Berkeley and Caltech, had their best years ever in 1929/30 and 1930/31. By all outward signs—size of faculties and student bodies, receipts, expenditures—the research universities were the ivory towers of their legend, cut off from the hard practical life around them. The average annual gifts from private sources to these universities between 1929 and 1931 totaled the average in the mid 1920s.
The towers were not made of ivory, but of steel, and, as the recent war had made sufficiently clear, they were strongly coupled to the welfare of the nation. Beginning in 1932, decreases in giving, in interest on endowment, and in state support, forced the universities to economize. Senior faculty took a reduction in salary, perhaps 15 percent, across the country; junior faculty suffered most, as is their wont, many being cut out altogether; and research funds from endowments, state appropriations, and external grants fell in proportion. The general method of coping during the bad years, 1932/33 through 1934/35, appears from the steps taken by Berkeley's physics department to meet its severest test, the apportionment of a 20 percent cut in its state allocation for 1933/34. After senior faculty had agreed to a "voluntary" reduction in salary that averaged about 7 percent, they righteously slashed the wages of temporary instructors, axed six of twenty-four
teaching assistants, cut the chairman's contingency fund, and knocked down their research provision by a third. It was in this friendly environment that Lawrence went about raising money for his cyclotrons.
Lawrence managed to squeeze money from a university that claimed to have none in ways we shall delight to chronicle. He also teased out money from foundations, a great support of university research during the 1920s, which had of course suffered in the general financial decline. In 1931, their last good year, 122 foundations gave a total of $52 million, of which $19 million went to medicine and public health and $5 million to research in natural sciences; in 1934 the same number could manage only $34 million, of which $9 million went to medicine and public health and $2 million to the natural sciences. Even in 1940, with a third again as many foundations, giving fell considerably short of the levels of 1930/31. Throughout, however, one thing stayed constant: medical science received four times as much as all the natural sciences combined, and the amount given directly for research in physics (as opposed to fellowships) was a small fraction of the amount available for the biological and physical sciences. In 1937, for example, cancer research received ten times the money (some $17,000!) classified by the foundations as their total direct contribution to research in physics. Lawrence eventually looked to medicine to cure his chronic budgetary ills, and to the Rockefeller Foundation, the largest philanthropy during the 1930s in both outlay and book value. His first patron, the Research Corporation, small and not medical, suffered grievously during the depths of the Depression. Its income sank in 1932, and, as its president wrote Lawrence that August urging the expenditure of more ingenuity and fewer dollars, the outlook was "quite
discouraging." By the following June, with the University and the Research Corporation crying poor, Lawrence had to acknowledge the chief current bar to research initiatives: "Money is considerably scarcer now than it was three years ago."
The drop in available capital was offset, from the standpoint of the academic research entrepreneur, by a pool of cheap trained labor. "The main result of the depression," Birge wrote in the fall of 1932, "has been that we have more graduate students than ever before and about a dozen visiting fellows. . . . We are suffering, as it were, from a superfluity of riches." By then there were no jobs in universities, industries, and government research agencies. Fresh Ph.D.'s remained at their home institutions, continuing their work and "living on I know not what." They came begging to work, to stay in their fields, to keep up to date until jobs opened again. The situation at the very depth of the Depression, when researchers were less than a dime a dozen, emerges from an exchange in the autumn of 1932 between Lawrence and his then recent Ph.D. Laurence Loveridge, who had worked on alkali spectra. Ill, depressed, with no prospects, Loveridge had fished in all the agencies and got not a single nibble. "It looks as if my only chance is to go to one of the larger universities [to] do some research and try to get enough tutoring or reading on the side to live on." Could he return to Berkeley as an unpaid research associate? Lawrence would not advise it: he already had a half-dozen Ph.D.'s working gratis in the Radiation Laboratory and trying to peck a living from the barren academic landscape. Other research universities experienced a like glut of volunteers.
Berkeley was particularly well placed to profit from this grim rush. Its low cost of living compared with most other major university centers sank even lower as the consumer price index fell to three-fourths of its value in 1929/30. Since in 1930 a graduate
student could obtain a room at $12 to $15 a month, and board at a dollar a day, his minimal needs in 1933/34 could be met for under $40 a month. Anyone lucky enough to find a half-time job at the going rate of 50 cents an hour could just make do; a fellowship holder or teaching assistant with $600 a year could afford to treat his less fortunate fellow students to lunch. The sight of the brigade of volunteer Ph.D.'s did not deter graduate students from finishing their programs or recruits from entering; and, with an almost imperceptible stutter, the number of new doctors of physics in the country kept rising through the 1930s at the same rate as it had during the 1920s, doubling each decade to almost 200 in 1940.
By 1935 many of these fledglings were finding jobs as soon as they found their wings. In 1936 MIT had more calls from industry for its graduates in physics than it could hope to fill. The cycle, in which, as A.W. Hull explained in a talk at the University of Pittsburgh, the industrial physicist is "a luxury indulged in as a speculation during prosperity and dropped when adversity threatens," had turned quickly. It is doubtful that many more than a dozen Ph.D.'s in physics created in the 1930s were permanently lost to the profession because of the Depression. The improvement in the prospects of the graduates reflected a general recovery of the research universities, which by 1935/36 had faculties larger than ever before and rising research budgets. Here the great state universities had a better time than the private ones, since state revenues went up faster than return on endowments.
More Science or Less?
"The prevalent feeling is that of imminent perdition and extinction." These are the words not of a depressed observer of the Great Depression but of Max Nordau, a physician and literary critic, who thus characterized European civilization in the 1890s. He and his fellow doctors of degeneracy traced many of the social ills
of the fin de siècle to rampant science and uncontrolled technology: to science for removing mystery, spirit, poetry, and choice from the world, for undermining religion and the family and breeding socialism; to technology for encouraging the growth of cities, with their bad air, poor public hygiene, adulterated food, and, worst of all, their frantic pace, driven by the factory and aggravated by the daily press. It occurred to some that society would do well to clamp down on its scientists and engineers, to enact a moratorium on research: "Progress . . . may be too fast for endurance." This mood evaporated with the multiplication of comforts by electricity and the inauguration of the arms race in Europe preceding the Great War. As we know, the war so raised the stock of physical science and its applications that, in the opinion of lobbyists like the NRC, a progressive country could not have enough of it.
Sed contra , nothing could be plainer than that the uncontrolled exploitation of scientific knowledge did not always net an increase in human happiness. Had not science enriched the slaughter on the battlefield? And was it not still claiming victims in the 1920s, like the telephone operators thrown out of work by the geniuses who invented direct dialing? Since destruction and dislocation attended the deployment of science-based technology, said the bishop of Ripon, setting out some themes from the fin de siècle before an unpromising audience at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1927, "the sum of human happiness, outside of scientific circles, would not necessarily be reduced if for, say ten years, every physical and chemical laboratory were closed and the patient and resourceful energy displayed in them transferred to recovering the lost art of getting together and finding a formula for making the ends meet in the scale of human life." The bishop's half-serious remark excited only the slightest flurry in the United States, where the eagles of science repeated, with George Ellery Hale, that "our place in the intellectual world, the advance of our industries and our commerce, the health of our people, the production of our farms . . . , and the
prosperity and security of the nation depend upon our cultivation of pure science," and where the general public was preparing to choose a mining engineer as its president. Millikan inveighed (his usual mode of debate) against a moratorium as an "unpardonable sin." The New York Times answered the bishop in a metaphor that summed up the experience of the century: "A ten-year truce on the battle fields of science . . . is absolutely unthinkable."
It became thinkable in the Great Depression. In 1934 the Times recalled that "even before the depression the world was puffing in its efforts to keep pace with science" and challenged scientists to explain why the industrial machine had stopped. Many influential people confused science with its applications and blamed both for the collapse. Raymond Fosdick, trustee and future president of the Rockefeller Foundation: "Science has exposed the paleolithic savage, masquerading in modern dress, to a sudden shift of environment which theatens to unbalance his brain." Hoover's Committee on Recent Social Trends: "Unless there is a speeding up of social invention or a slowing down of mechanical invention, grave maladjustments are certain to result." Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago: "Science and the free intelligence of men . . . have failed us." Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture: "[Scientists and engineers] have turned loose upon the world new productive power without regard to the social implications." The brutal curtailment of research at the National Bureau of Standards and other federal agencies was a matter of mood as well as of money. Similar considerations affected the states. As W.W. Campbell summed it up from his new eminence as president of the National Academy of Sciences: "The attitude of many, perhaps nearly all, of the legislatures toward research at public expense may fairly be
described as unsympathetic and, in some cases . . . , as severely hostile."
This time prominent scientists tried to listen. Frank Jewett, vicepresident of AT&T and president of Bell Telephone Laboratories, allowed in 1932, at the dedication of the Hall of Science at the Century of Progress Exposition, that science and technology had had adverse effects. He proposed as cure, in addition to more science, the education of scientists to take into account the social problems their work might create. In 1934 the same sour note sounded at the Nobel prize ceremonies, and, in a lesser venue, at the American Physical Society, whose president told its members that "a thorough investigation of the sociological aspects of physics" was one of the two most important matters before them. The other was "organized propaganda for physics."
The members of Roosevelt's Science Advisory Board, set up in 1933, also acknowledged the need for a scientific analysis of social and economic problems, although they could enlist no one to undertake it. Henry Wallace, speaking for the new administration, urged attention to social engineering and to the humanizing of the engineer by courses in philosophy and poetry. It was a desperate remedy, to be sure, since literature might sap the vigor of an engineer, but then the situation was desperate: "I would be tempted to solve [the difficulty] by saying that probably no great harm would be done if a certain amount of technical efficiency in engineering were traded for a somewhat broader base in general culture." Roosevelt himself called attention to declarations by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in favor of serious study of the social relations of science and asked whether American engineering schools had introduced economics and social science into their curricula. He addressed this question in the fall of 1936 to the former head of his defunct Science Advisory Board, Karl T. Compton, president of MIT, the eastern and better behaved counterpart of Caltech's Millikan. Compton
returned the opinion shared by the leadership of the NAS and the NRC: the country does not need engineers and scientists distracted by literature and sociology, but more, better, and costlier science.
This hard line was the theme of a symposium held in February 1934 under the auspices of the American Institute of Physics and the New York Electrical Society. Karl Compton led off: "The idea that science takes away jobs, or in general is at the root of our economic and social ills, is contrary to fact, is based on ignorance or misconception, [and] is vicious in its possible social consequences." And popular. "The spread of this idea is threatening to reduce public support of scientific work . . . , to stifle further technical improvements . . . , [to bring] economic disadvantage in respect to foreign countries . . . , [to precipitate] a national calamity." At this Compton, as head of the Science Advisory Board, hoped to draw $5 million annually from the U.S. Treasury for support of scientific research outside of government agencies. In Compton's "best science" vision, the NAS and NRC would supervise the spending: only they could direct fire at the right targets (as he later said, in the common metaphor), and, without political or regional considerations, extract silk from wood, rubber from weeds, gasohol from corn, and, into the bargain, complete the electrification of the country. Roosevelt's social engineers would have nothing of the scheme and postponed eager federal support of physical science to the next shooting war. The president threw a small bone to the hunting dogs of science: in 1935 he qualified scientific research for support by the Works Progress Administration. Since the WPA could only assist people who had lost their jobs, and since, in science, these were often the least qualified, its program detractors sometimes labelled it "worst science" support.
Where then to find the money for scientific research that the Comptons and Millikans and Jewetts thought necessary to national recovery? A startling answer was given by Hull, Lawrence's sometime patron at GE's laboratories. Hull took it for granted that physics would lose the privileged position that break-throughs in electronics had given it since the war. He did not expect much help from government, and nothing in the near term from foundations or industry. "We should face the problem of carrying forward the torch of physical science with not only unabated, but accelerated speed, without additional facilities." How then? By enlisting high-school teachers in research, certainly not a "best science" approach, and, as Hull acknowledged, not an easy one either, since most teachers were already overworked. But, on reflection, that might be an inducement: "If happiness is proportional to accomplishment . . . , [and accomplishment to effort,] then more, not less, overwork should be our goal."
A more practical goal was to prepare the physicists that industry might absorb when business improved. It was agreed that the United States had not progressed so rapidly in industrial as in academic physics. It was further agreed that fresh Ph.D.'s did not enter industry with the tools needed to succeed there: an ability to work in groups and to attack problems en masse, the imagination to disregard "the imaginary boundaries between different branches of science and technology," and, above all, a knowledge of chemistry and "the realization that there is a field in physics outside of atomic structure and wave mechanics."
The American Way
American physicists worked and spent their way out of the Depression. There were close approximations to Sinclair Lewis's Doctor Arrowsmith among them—men eager to maximize overwork, rough around the edges (Arrowsmith did not know "a symphony from a savory"), thoroughly dedicated to their science,
their careers, and, at second remove, their neighbors. Harold C. Urey, a student of G.N. Lewis's, was one of the most successful of these men. His great discovery of heavy water, made in 1932 after much hard work by himself and selfless colleagues, immediately found application in physics and chemistry, and, what had greater social value, biology; it also lifted the spirits of beleaguered scientists and won Urey a Nobel prize. In 1937, in an address at the dedication of a new building at the Mellon Institute for Technological Research, Urey voiced Arrowsmith's creed: "We wish to abolish drudgery, discomfort and want from the lives of men and bring them pleasure, comfort, leisure and beauty. . . . The results of our work completely outdistance our dreams. . . . You may bury our bodies where you will, our epitaphs are written in our scientific journals, our monuments are the industries which we build, which without our magic touch would never be."
One of Lawrence's most brilliant students of the Depression years, Robert Wilson, a midwesterner like Arrowsmith (and Lawrence), fed his fancy with the heroics of Lewis's doctor when riding the range in Wyoming. Arrived at Berkeley, he dismounted to find his ideal in charge of a radiation laboratory. During his early years at Berkeley, Lawrence did have many of Arrowsmith's qualities. Like the doctor, he had two passions, one science, the other the daughter of a physician on the faculty at Yale. "I have two consuming loves," he wrote his great friend Donald Cooksey in the summer of 1931, "Molly and research!" "I am so badly (or goodly) in love that at times it is positively painful." And, like Arrowsmith, Lawrence was boyish and unsophisticated, open in his enthusiasms, in a word—the word was Oppenheimer's—"unspoiled." He believed that to start work was to begin to improve, and that more science, not less, would liberate from psychological as well as economic depression. He labored hard on these principles, so hard that he often fell a victim to severe colds, which increased in frequency in step with the growth of his laboratory. As Arrowsmith discovered, fulfilling one's scientific
ambitions according to the highest standards while running a large research institution constantly in need of money may not be possible. Lewis's doctor hero cleared his conscience by an unrealistic escape to a small workplace in the wilderness; Berkeley's Lawrence cut corners, lost innocence, and built the largest laboratory for nuclear science in the world.
Arrowsmith's ferocious pace in pursuit of truth, his almost athletic performances in the laboratory, were characteristically American. The "feverish exploration for the secrets of matter's composition" (as Science Service described research in nuclear physics in 1934) impressed European observers of science in the United States. Would you care to think more about it, Rudolf Peierls wrote Hans Bethe about a joint paper, "or do you insist on publishing in American tempo?" Haste makes waste. Bethe had become almost a legend for his error-free calculations. But in a recent paper he had made two numerical mistakes in one single table. "Is that America," Peierls asked, "or the automobile?"
As American as the fast pace was the big machine. Already before the war, the size and variety of equipment in American physics institutes "made [a European's] mouth water." It appeared to Franz Simon, who surveyed facilities for low-temperature research in the United States in 1932, that "Americans seem to work very well, only they obviously insist on making everything as big as possible." A few years later, Paul Capron of the University of Louvain expressed perfectly the standard impression made on Continentals by the research facilities in the United States: "In Princeton as in Columbia University, I was most amazed by the richness of the laboratory. . . . [At MIT] I saw the most extraordinary technics [i.e., instrumentation]." He returned to Belgium, inspired by the American spirit, the "constructive civilization of 'go ahead.'" From machine worship
there is but a step to materialism, the last and heaviest ingredient in the European depreciation of American culture. A good American answer to this stale charge came from an immigrant inventor, Michael Pupin, who accepted it, played with it, gloried in it. What we do in America, he said, results from close study of nature, which enhances the spirit; and nature happens to be a machine. "The [artificial] machine is the visible evidence of the close union between man and the spirit of the eternal truth which guides the subtle hand of nature."
The American physicist projected his image at home with the willing help of the press. The collaboration, which was first struck just after the war with Science Service and with the coverage of the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1922, entered a new stage in April 1934, with the formation of the National Association of Science Writers and the call from the podium of the American Physical Society for propaganda for physics. One of the leaders of the writers' association was David Dietz, the science editor for the Scripps-Howard newspapers. Dietz volunteered the help of his organization in "selling physics to the public," when, at a conference on applied science held late in 1934, Saul Dushman of GE expressed the hope that the selling "would be done without impairing the dignity of science." In 1935, at a conference on industrial physics in Pittsburgh, Dietz observed that the only way to get $50 million a year from the government—$50 million being the loss in research money owing to the Depression, according to the American Institute of Physics—was to work on public opinion. "Your best allies in creating public support for science are the newspapers," Dietz said. "There is a new understanding today between the world of science and the newspaper world." The director of Science Service , Watson Davis, took the same line. Nowadays, he said, in a speech in February 1936, science writers follow science with the same attentiveness and understanding that sports reporters lavish on football. Their relation is symbiotic: the scientist reveals, the
reporter "detechnicalizes." "These essentially changed attitudes on the part of the press and the world of science are among the most encouraging signs of our times." No fewer than sixteen reporters showed up at the AAAS meeting in December 1935. That suited the science lobby perfectly. Austin Clark, the press director of the AAAS echoed Dietz: "We must all work together in order that the press may have an abundance of suitable material to present to the public." It remained only to take the step, which would have been anathema to Arrowsmith, of fusing business with research. This Maurice Holland, the director of the Division of Engineering and Industrial Research of the NRC, did not disdain to do. "There seems to be some connection between selling and science—I, for one, believe they are brothers under the skin."
At first Arrowsmith-Lawrence drew back from selling, in public at least. "We are not interested in publicity," he wrote a would-be reporter in 1934. In this policy he had been encouraged by a newspaper report that he was trying to transmute base metal into gold and by Molly, who thought it "unfortunate that the Research Council [i.e., Corporation] etc. have demanded so much publicity on your work." But Lawrence could not long affect this other-wordly attitude. When the president of the University asked him to talk to the Rotary Club of Berkeley, and to furnish a copy "in order that we may use it for publicity in the newspapers of the state," Lawrence could only reply that he would be "more than glad to do so." He became expert in dealing with Dietz and company; and his benefactors came to request that he write press releases to satisfy the curiosity of the newspapers. An example of his handiwork, anent a grant from the National Advisory Cancer Council, which dispensed federal money: "[The] strikingly rapid
development of these powerful new weapons in the war on cancer [he meant cyclotrons] is a splendid example of the fruitfulness of the active interest and support of the government in medical research [the government had had nothing directly to do with financing cyclotrons], for it may be truly said that the National Advisory Cancer Council has greatly accelerated the day in our generation when countless cancer sufferers may be benefitted by these new radiations." The fallen Doctor Arrowsmith himself became a journalistic object, attaining the frontispiece of Time in 1937 and the insides of Scientific American in 1940.
An enduring feature of "science" reporting during the 1930s was atomic energy. Scientists had raised the possibility from the time of the discovery of radioactive decay among the natural elements in 1902. The measurement of the masses of hydrogen and helium to unusual precision in 1922 by Francis Aston of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, gave perhaps the first substantial ground for hope or fear that civilization might run or destroy itself by exploiting the atom. Aston found that four atoms of hydrogen have a greater mass than one of helium; should it be possible to synthesize helium from hydrogen, Einstein's law of equivalency between mass and energy promised that something noteworthy would ensue. According to his calculations, Aston said, the hydrogen in a pint of water could yield enough energy to drive a steamship across the ocean and back; or "the transmutation might be beyond control and result in the detonation of all the water on the earth," a possibility he considered "interesting" but remote. If all went well, "there would be literally no limit to the material achievements of the human race."
Most reputable physicists, Max Planck for example, wrote of the need, desirability, and eventual practicality of "the liberation
of atomic energy." Scientists who thought practical atomic energy farfetched or impossible found it awkward to protest, since they would open themselves to the difficult duty of proving an impossibility. Millikan was one of the few physicists who then talked regularly with the Creator and could know the impossibility of the release of useful or destructive atomic energy. One of the favorite arguments of those who favored a moratorium in physical research turned on the likelihood that unsupervised physicists might discover a way and unprepared society might blow itself to bits. No chance, said Millikan. His observations of cosmic rays, which showed that the sort of synthesis Aston contemplated could not occur on earth, and his calculations about radioactive decay, which showed that atomic disintegration could not power a popcorn machine, demonstrated sufficiently that God had made the universe proof against destruction by inquisitive physicists. "There is not even a remote likelihood that man can ever tap this source of energy at all."
Millikan was gainsaid by the Compton brothers: by Arthur, who discredited Caltech's conception of cosmic rays, and by Karl, who, in January 1933, predicted the arrival of useful atomic energy—or, at least, of "the most exciting and far-reaching developments in the whole history of science"—within a generation. The venue for this utterance could not have been more public or more appropriate: the Century of Progress Exposition, whose centerpiece was a huge robot, signifying science, pushing a man and a woman into the future. The high-tech razzle-dazzle of the exposition incorporated a "philosophy of showmanship for the contributions of science and their applications" developed by a committee headed by Frank Jewett in cooperation with the NRC. No mundane signal like the radio call that activated the Diesel at the San Francisco fair would do for Chicago: the Century of
Progress Exposition came to life at the command of forty-year-old light from the star Arcturus collected at several observatories and forwarded by Western Union. As F.K. Richtmeyer, dean of the Graduate School of Cornell, said in celebration, "Scientific research pays large dividends." Would the study of the atom do so? When? "There is no telling," according to the dean, "when a scientific Columbus is going to discover another America."
Compton's prediction and others even less responsible excited what Lawrence called a "newspaper ballyhoo." That was too much for the great proprietor of the nucleus, Lord Rutherford, who thundered before the British Association in the fall of 1933 that "anyone who says that with the means at present at our disposal and with our present knowledge we can utilize atomic energy is talking moonshine." The thunder made the front page of the New York Herald Tribune , with some echoes by American physicists. The editors of Scientific American applauded Rutherford's statement, although, they said, it was hardly scientific to rule out the possibility. Against them stood Lawrence, who by then was shooting at nuclei with projectiles from his cyclotron. To him, according to the Tribune , release of useful energy is "purely a matter of marksmanship." This view of the matter appears to have attracted the attention of Einstein. At a conference arranged by the new National Association of Science Writers, he disparaged the efficacy of Lawrence's artillery. "'You see,' he said, with his characteristic sense of humor and picturesque expression, 'it is like shooting birds in the dark in a country where there are only a few birds.'"
Against the public declarations of Rutherford and Einstein, and within an environment not favorable to an economic transformation of the sort that atomic power was expected to bring ("It appears doubtful . . . whether coal mining or oil production could survive after a couple of years"), Lawrence thought it prudent
to blunt his many hints that nuclear physicists might open the atom for business. In the early 1930s these hints came primarily in direct connection with victualling his laboratory. In a memorandum of accomplishments written in 1933, for example, he pointed to data indicating the release of energy in disintegration, and hinted, "This is a matter of great scientific interest and eventually may have a practical application." In asking for the renewal of a student's fellowship, he wrote that the experiments it supported "have the possibility of contributing knowledge which may ultimately lead to utilization of [the] vast store of atomic energy." Nor did he disdain to make the same point when requesting the loan of a pound of beryllium from an industrial supplier: "If a means can be found for stimulating on a large scale the explosion of beryllium nuclei, a practically unlimited store of energy is thereby made available."
By the mid 1930s Lawrence was in great demand as a speaker. He often took the opportunity to hint at practical atomic energy. The "University Explorer," a radio show originating at the University of California and carried by the networks, asked him in 1936 what the future might hold. "I'm almost afraid to guess," he replied. "Speaking officially, as one scientist, I can only say that we are going to continue our studies." And unofficially? "Certainly we are much closer to [the release of subatomic energy] than we were a few years ago. . . . If we can discover a method of starting chain reactions . . . the problem would be solved." Again, speaking officially, at commencement exercises at the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1937: "It is only of interest [here, at this engineering school, where speculation has no place] to indicate the present state of knowledge with proper humility." Current knowledge made the release of atomic energy appear "fantastic;" no one had any idea how to do it and the second law of thermodynamics might forbid it. And yet, unofficially: "It is conceivable that in our lifetime this great principle [the transformation of mass into energy] will play a vital role in technical developments which at
the moment are beyond our dreams—for such has been the history of science."
By this time, 1937, the nucleus had become the enduring fad of physics. A marginal topic before the crash, it was absorbing 10 percent of the efforts of physical scientists, as reported in Science Abstracts , during the depths of the Depression. The increase of interest and labor, as expressed by the content of the the Physical Review , was so sharp that even the numbers that represent it are dramatic: in 1932, 8 percent of its articles, letters, and abstracts concerned nuclear physics; in 1933, 18 percent; in 1937, 32 percent. Men beginning their careers in physics in the early 1930s saw the nucleus as (to quote one of them) an unstudied frontier, a research land of opportunity, a gold field. The young Otto Robert Frisch, a Viennese who had studied all over Europe, wrote of the nucleus—the unerforschtes Neuland , the Goldfelder —like a Forty-niner. The metaphor was most apt. Although several of the key discoveries that excited interest in the nucleus during the Depression were not made in the United States, the Americans, with their big machines and high pressure, very quickly dominated the field. And the field dominated them. A physicist inexpert in nuclear physics in 1937 was, according to one of them, Arnold Sommerfeld, who had taught atomic theory to all of Europe, "completely uneducated by American standards."
At the head of the American expeditionary force against the nuclear citadel stood Ernest Lawrence. He was the quintessential American leader, active, youthful, optimistic. He had built while others idled, sustained while others retrenched, inspired while others doubted. "The trade of a 'cyclotroneer,'" wrote one of his students in an unintended double entendre, "is one which has experienced no depression."
Was the cyclotron "a product of the land of the Golden Gate"? The question was put to Donald Cooksey, then Lawrence's alter ego, by a reporter at the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. Cooksey was standing in the exposition's Hall of Science, before a full-scale model of the latest cyclotron. The model used steel balls accelerated by gravity to knock apart a representation of a lithium atom, "which is unable to defend itself against such vigorous attack, and is blown to bits." But is it Californian? "It literally and truly is," Cooksey replied. "Practically coincident with the opening of this marvelous Exposition [on San Francisco Bay] is the culmination of years of development [at Berkeley] of the world's largest cyclotron." Attempting to reduce its capacity to his audience's, Cooksey estimated that it would shoot more "atomic bullets" in one second than all the real bullets that all the machine guns in the world could fire off during the entire life of the exposition. "Or more than one gun could fire in three million years." How this machine and its predecessors came to be created in California, how their sizes and uses grew, how they and their makers spread throughout the land, and how the machines and the men went off to war, are the main subjects of this book.