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Oral-History:Benjamin Lax

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== About Benjamin Lax  ==
 
== About Benjamin Lax  ==
  
Lax got his degree in mechanical engineering from Cooper Union, was starting a PhD in applied math at Brown in 1942, when he got drafted into the Army. A self-directive individual, he managed to get himself into the Signal Corps, into radio school, into OCS to qualify as a military math teacher, into radar school, and finally assigned on extended detached duty to the [[Milestones:MIT Radiation Laboratory, 1940-1945|MIT Rad Lab]]. He worked there from March 1944, essentially on the L’il Abner [[Radar|radar]], AN/TPS-10, an X-band height-finder. He went from building a breadboard model to integrating the various parts and demonstrating it for the military. L’il Abner was in production by Nov. 1944 and in the field in time for Okinawa. Essentially he acted as a civilian scientist in uniform. After the war he got his PhD in Physics from MIT, and went on to a career largely in solid-state physics.  
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Lax got his degree in mechanical engineering from Cooper Union, was starting a PhD in applied math at Brown in 1942, when he got drafted into the Army. A self-directive individual, he managed to get himself into the Signal Corps, into radio school, into OCS to qualify as a military math teacher, into radar school, and finally assigned on extended detached duty to the [[MIT Rad Lab|MIT Rad Lab]]. He worked there from March 1944, essentially on the L’il Abner [[Radar|radar]], AN/TPS-10, an X-band height-finder. He went from building a breadboard model to integrating the various parts and demonstrating it for the military. L’il Abner was in production by Nov. 1944 and in the field in time for Okinawa. Essentially he acted as a civilian scientist in uniform. After the war he got his PhD in Physics from MIT, and went on to a career largely in solid-state physics.  
  
 
== About the Interview  ==
 
== About the Interview  ==
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== Interview  ==
 
== Interview  ==
  
Interview: Benjamin Lax
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Interview: Benjamin Lax  
  
Interviewer: Frederik Nebeker
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Interviewer: Frederik Nebeker  
  
Date: 13 June 1991
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Date: 13 June 1991  
  
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
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Location: Boston, Massachusetts  
  
 
=== Educational and Military Background  ===
 
=== Educational and Military Background  ===
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'''Nebeker:'''  
 
'''Nebeker:'''  
  
I'm talking with Benjamin Lax in Boston on the 13th of June 1991. This is Rik Nebeker. I'd like to ask first about your education and experience before you went to [[Milestones:MIT Radiation Laboratory, 1940-1945|Rad Lab]].  
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I'm talking with Benjamin Lax in Boston on the 13th of June 1991. This is Rik Nebeker. I'd like to ask first about your education and experience before you went to [[MIT Rad Lab|Rad Lab]].  
  
 
'''Lax:'''  
 
'''Lax:'''  
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'''Nebeker:'''  
 
'''Nebeker:'''  
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<p><flashmp3>096 - lax - clip 1.mp3</flashmp3></p>
  
 
Can you explain the group you were working with?  
 
Can you explain the group you were working with?  
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'''Nebeker:'''  
 
'''Nebeker:'''  
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<p><flashmp3>096 - lax - clip 2.mp3</flashmp3></p>
  
 
If you had to compare the style of work at Rad Lab with industry research or academic research or some other setting, what is the best comparison?  
 
If you had to compare the style of work at Rad Lab with industry research or academic research or some other setting, what is the best comparison?  
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When I heard about the Rad Lab radar school, I told them that's where I want to go when I was in OCS. And they sent me. [Chuckling] You know, you can't ignore the environment.  
 
When I heard about the Rad Lab radar school, I told them that's where I want to go when I was in OCS. And they sent me. [Chuckling] You know, you can't ignore the environment.  
  
[[Category:People_and_organizations|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Engineers|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Inventors|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Research_and_development_labs|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Culture_and_society|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Defense_&_security|Category:Defense_&amp;_security]] [[Category:Signals|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Signal_detection|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Radar_detection|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:World_War_II|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Environment,_geoscience_&_remote_sensing|Category:Environment,_geoscience_&amp;_remote_sensing]] [[Category:Radar|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Fields,_waves_&_electromagnetics|Category:Fields,_waves_&amp;_electromagnetics]] [[Category:Microwave_technology|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Engineering_profession|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Engineering_disciplines|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:Research_and_development|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]] [[Category:News|Oral-History:Benjamin Lax]]
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[[Category:People and organizations|Lax]] [[Category:Engineers|Lax]] [[Category:Inventors|Lax]] [[Category:Research and development labs|Lax]] [[Category:Culture and society|Lax]] [[Category:Defense & security|Lax]] [[Category:Signals|Lax]] [[Category:Signal detection|Lax]] [[Category:Radar detection|Lax]] [[Category:World War II|Lax]] [[Category:Environment, geoscience & remote sensing|Lax]] [[Category:Radar|Lax]] [[Category:Fields, waves & electromagnetics|Lax]] [[Category:Microwave technology|Lax]] [[Category:Engineering profession|Lax]] [[Category:Engineering disciplines|Lax]] [[Category:Research and development|Lax]] [[Category:News|Lax]]

Revision as of 17:46, 26 March 2012

Contents

About Benjamin Lax

Lax got his degree in mechanical engineering from Cooper Union, was starting a PhD in applied math at Brown in 1942, when he got drafted into the Army. A self-directive individual, he managed to get himself into the Signal Corps, into radio school, into OCS to qualify as a military math teacher, into radar school, and finally assigned on extended detached duty to the MIT Rad Lab. He worked there from March 1944, essentially on the L’il Abner radar, AN/TPS-10, an X-band height-finder. He went from building a breadboard model to integrating the various parts and demonstrating it for the military. L’il Abner was in production by Nov. 1944 and in the field in time for Okinawa. Essentially he acted as a civilian scientist in uniform. After the war he got his PhD in Physics from MIT, and went on to a career largely in solid-state physics.

About the Interview

BENJAMIN LAX: An Interview Conducted by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 13 June 1991

Interview # 096 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Benjamin Lax, an oral history conducted in 1991 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Benjamin Lax

Interviewer: Frederik Nebeker

Date: 13 June 1991

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Educational and Military Background

Nebeker:

I'm talking with Benjamin Lax in Boston on the 13th of June 1991. This is Rik Nebeker. I'd like to ask first about your education and experience before you went to Rad Lab.

Lax:

Well, actually I got my degree in mechanical engineering at Cooper Union in New York. Then I worked for a year, and I had a fellowship at Brown in 1942. I started studying there when they drafted me into the Army. I was going to be an applied mathematician. Anyway, I got into the Army. Apparently I did very well on the exam and they decided to put me in radio school. I breezed through that. I went to my commanding officer and told him: I'm a very good mathematician. Why don't you let me teach?

Nebeker:

Had you already completed radio school in the Army?

Lax:

Yes. I was almost going to complete it. I didn't know where I was going to go, so I told him, "Look, Officers' Candidate School needs teachers of math." I said, "I'm qualified." He looked up my record, and said "You're going to OCS." In OCS I heard about the Harvard/ MIT radar school, and I told them that's where I want to go, and they sent me.

Recruitment to Radiation Laboratory

Nebeker:

[Chuckling] So you just decided what assignments you would get in the Army.

Lax:

That's right. It turned out that by the end of that six months, particularly at MIT, I came out to be No. 1 in the class. They decided to send me to the Radiation Laboratory. But I was born in Hungary, and it took six months for them to clear me again. During that time I taught at Harvard. I taught in the electronics laboratory. After six months I was qualified to teach electronics. I went to the Radiation Lab in March of 1944 and immediately started working on what's called the Li'l Abner radar, AN/TPS-10 is what the Air Force called it. This was an X-band height-finder. There were four GIs around doing nothing. I immediately organized them, and we put together the breadboard model and tested it. I worked with the components group at Radiation Laboratory, and we got it working. I was right in it.

L'il Abner Radar

Nebeker:

What was your formal assignment?

Lax:

I was on detached duty with the Air Corps, but once I got to working there, Ernie Pollard, the division head, decided not to let them take me out of there. I made myself very useful. I worked very hard, and I picked up the stuff very quickly. Anyway, I got that breadboard working. We took it out for a test at Asheville, North Carolina, during the summer. It worked.

Nebeker:

This is the height-finder?

Lax:

It's the height-finder. I came back from that test and decided to take over the integration of the systems because nobody was doing it. The group leader wasn't well organized. Without being designated — I was that kind of a guy — I took charge. I ordered millions of dollars' worth of equipment and integrated work with the components group. We got the radar from breadboard model to production by November of 1944. With my GIs, I assembled, tested, and shipped the first prototype to Orlando.

Nebeker:

Can you explain the group you were working with?

Lax:

There were four enlisted men also on detached duty. I directed them. I just commandeered them to work with me. [Laughter] I'll tell you a funny story about what Ernie Pollard said about me as we get along on this one. So anyway, we got this prototype working, and it was working very well. We shipped it to Orlando, with one of the assistant group leaders, Tom Moore. In a week it wasn't working anymore. So Ernie Pollard and the Air Force said, "Send Ben Lax down to get it to work." So they sent me down, presumably with orders, for ten days to Orlando. I went there. I fixed it in one day. I knew what was wrong. The assistant group leader didn't know how it worked. I had assembled this with my own hands, and it worked. I was waiting to get back. They didn't do anything for ten weeks. Apparently the Air Corps and Ernie Pollard were at odd ends about me. The Air Corps wanted me to work for them, but Ernie Pollard wouldn't let them take me out of Radiation Laboratory. Anyway, at the end of ten weeks, DuBridge and Ernie Pollard came and saw me there. Ernie Pollard got so upset, he says, "Ben, what are you doing? You had all these things going, and it's all in a mess without you. Come back." Next day I got my orders.

I came back. I got back into the routine. I really put my four GIs to work. We integrated, and we ordered all the cables, and the connectors. I was sort of the intermediary between the systems and the components groups. In fact, I drew the circuits for all the components together. We were going to build a hundred of these. The components started coming in. So we formed a production line in a garage at the Logan Airport. We used the same GIs to test the equipment. Each of them assembled his own test under my supervision. We had something like six sets, with six of these sets at a time being assembled. It worked.

Well, the story: each package was supposed to weigh 150 pounds, which they could carry up a hill. That's why they called it Li'l Abner. Things got a little heavier, and there were more components. They had a little 400-cycle put-put that was supposed to supply all these components. At a meeting I said it wouldn't work because the height-finder went back and forth, and when the cam at the shaft got on dead center, the motor couldn't turn over because it couldn't get enough power from the power supply. I said there was another 400-cycle power supply in the field that we could use, which had lots more power. But the major who was in charge of the project from Washington said, "No! It's Li'l Abner. It's got to be this little. It has to be." Well, I decided to argue with him. [Chuckling] I did this on my own. I picked the connectors for the components. I picked one that was exactly compatible with this larger thing. I told my crews when they got there, if they found they were having trouble, to throw this little one overboard and requisition the other. [Chuckling] Several of them wrote that they did just that. It went into the Japanese Theater. We missed the European Theater. Anyway, it was a very successful operation. We went from breadboard model to production in a year. In June of 1945 these sets were ready to go out. Of course by then we had won the European Theater. So they went out to Okinawa.

Nebeker:

How were those used in the field?

Lax:

They were height-finders, and they could go out to 60, 70 miles. They could detect an airplane and tell you the range and the height. They were very primitive by today's standards, but they worked. They were credited with shooting down some kamikaze subs and some kamikaze planes. But the height-finder was developed toward the end of the war, so it didn't see much service. But right after the war it was used for atmospheric sensing. At X-band you could see the clouds, and you could see a downpour. I remember during the time we were testing the breadboard model, all of a sudden a storm appeared like a sheet on the oscilloscope, and we decided a squall was coming right at us. We let down the canvas flap. Sure enough, by the time we let it down, that thunderstorm hit us.

Nebeker:

So you independently discovered radar meteorology?

Lax:

Well, for meteorological purposes. I mean, we realized what it was. That radar was sitting up in Building 6 at MIT after the war. They subsequently built better ones. That was my role at MIT. I stayed there for the duration.

Nebeker:

What was Ernie Pollard's position?

Lax:

He was a division head. I was in one of the groups. He was head or assistant head of a division. I worked for him.

Nebeker:

He had pull with the Air Corps?

Lax:

Oh, he was a very strong character.

Military Assignment and Career

Nebeker:

The radio school that you went to originally was in the Air Corps?

Lax:

No, that was the Signal Corps. The Air Corps was part of the Signal Corps. I was transferred to the Air Corps because I worked on this radar; it was an Air Corps radar. But it was part of the Signal Corps at that time. So I was part of the Army. I came out as a captain.

Nebeker:

You completed OCS. I suppose you were a second lieutenant at that point.

Lax:

That's right.

Nebeker:

You were a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps?

Lax:

In the Signal Corps, and I was assigned to go to Harvard and MIT. I was also newly married. I got an apartment here in Boston. I've never left.

Nebeker:

Who was your commanding officer?

Lax:

At the radar school it was Colonel Philip Fox. He was an astronomer from Chicago, a very intelligent man whom I got to know when I was at teaching Harvard. He sort of cottoned to me. He was a big impressive man. Very, very fine gentleman.

Nebeker:

What was his position?

Lax:

He was the head of that radar school. He was the one who made the decision that I be assigned to Radiation Lab. But as I said, in the interim while I was waiting to get the clearance, I taught at Harvard and made myself useful there.

Nebeker:

He remained your commanding officer?

Lax:

Well, he wasn't my commanding officer once I was transferred. I was transferred to Rad Lab, and somebody out in Fort Monmouth was my commanding officer. I never met him. [Laughter] I was on detached duty.

Nebeker:

You didn't report to your commanding officer?

Lax:

No, never reported. The orders always came from there. I may have visited once, but I don't think I ever met him.

Nebeker:

I see. Was that fairly common?

Lax:

No. I think there were two of us. The other was a "Big Cheese," my wife's brother-in-law. He had seen service in Panama. He came up to the Rad Lab, and the two of us worked together very closely.

Nebeker:

What's his name?

Lax:

Sam Levine.

Nebeker:

Can you tell me how these four GIs came to be assigned?

Lax:

They were there!

Nebeker:

At some point, I suppose, they'd been asked, "can you give us some technical help?" So the army assigned them to you?

Lax:

Well, these people were trained in electronics. I guess they were part of the Signal Corps. I just merely put them to work. They weren't even assigned to me.

Nebeker:

Right. [Chuckling]

Lax:

It was very informal. For example, even though I was in uniform, and didn't have the highest priority. I was a skinny little guy. I looked like a kid and I guess they thought, How is this little boy doing all this? By being let's say charming, I got all the people to do all sorts of things for my project. You just got friendly with people, and you got them to do things. We got things done. I think we accomplished more than some of the bigger projects that had a lot higher priority and a lot more support. We owed our success to the fact that there were a number of young people there including myself — who worked like dogs. In fact, at one meeting I remember, I said to Ernie Pollard, "Well, we can't do that." He got very angry. He says, "No, the boys are fighting out in the field, we're going to do everything." Some of us worked like dogs to get things out under his leadership. He was an inspiring man. I was very fond of him. At first he didn't cotton to me because I was an outspoken young fellow. But then he recognized that I backed up my statements by working and getting things done. And so he became a very good friend of mine. In fact, he helped me — he endorsed me — for graduate school. Not that he had to; I had a good record. But we got to be good friends.

And that's the way it worked. I want to tell you that funny story. We were at this meeting where this major I forget his name. Said he didn't want to change it. I spoke up, and I objected vehemently. You know, I wasn't an Army type that respected rank. I mean, if I thought a man didn't know what the hell he was talking about, I would say my piece, and I've been like that all my life. Sometimes it wasn't propitious to do that. So Ernie Pollard says, "Don't mind Ben. He's one of us. He's wearing the wrong uniform." [Laughter]

Nebeker:

I'm sure the major didn't like that.

Lax:

I think that cost me a promotion. In fact, Ernie Pollard had to intercede to get me my first lieutenancy. Here I was working so hard, and I was on detached duty. They didn't know what the hell I was doing. Finally he insisted that I get a promotion. When I was transferred from the Signal Corps to the Air Corps, I was about ready for a promotion and dropped through the cracks. So Ernie Pollard made sure that I got it. But, I didn't care. The money and nothing mattered. What mattered was that I was getting wonderful experience, working with some of the best people and picking their brains and learning a great deal. In fact, that's when I decided to become a physicist instead of an applied mathematician. I'm both now. [Laughter]

Nebeker:

A physicist and an applied mathematician?

Lax:

Yes. I use my mathematics. I do a lot of theoretical work. In fact, I gave a paper this morning on some nice theoretical work — stuff I'd written a book on many years ago.

Nebeker:

How long did you stay in the Army?

Move to Physics

Lax:

Well, I got in there August of '42, and I was officially discharged in May of '46, although I had months coming to me. I was physically discharged in February, and I started working as a consultant for Sylvania. Six months later I went back to school to get my Ph.D.

Nebeker:

In physics?

Lax:

In physics at MIT.

Nebeker:

Was that facilitated by your Rad Lab acquaintances?

Lax:

Not necessarily, because I was accepted at Harvard first. But I got such a good deal from the Air Force. I turned Harvard down after I had accepted and went to MIT. I was supported by the Air Force and the GI Bill while I went through MIT.

Nebeker:

What kind of Air Force support was that?

Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory

Lax:

AFCRL. While I was still in uniform in 1945, after Rad Lab, I helped to organize AFCRL.

Nebeker:

What is AFCRL?

Lax:

Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. Now it's a part of the command here at Hanscom. But at that time we were located right near MIT. From the fall, I guess (October or November) until the end of February — about four or five months, I was in uniform working for them, heading the radar group.

Nebeker:

I see. I don't quite understand why the Air Force would support a civilian. They came to me, and said, "We've got a contract with MIT. We need a liaison man." You know Al Hill, you've probably heard of him. He was one of the Rad Lab people. Al Hill doesn't want anybody who can't be accepted to MIT as a student. Here I had already been accepted to Harvard, and I was going to go to Harvard. So they came to me and said, "Ben, can you get into MIT?" I said, "I'll try." In two weeks I was accepted. Stratton told me later, "If they hadn't supported you, I would have supported you." So anyway, I had good credentials and a very good record. I was on a full-time scholarship at Cooper Union before the war and was a real good student. I did very well at the radar school and had good endorsements from people, Ernie Pollard and others at Rad Lab, so I had no problem. I went through MIT in three years.

Nebeker:

Did you continue your work in electronics?

Lax:

Oh, yes. I used my microwave experience in my thesis.

Nebeker:

And in research after that?

Lax:

Oh, yes. My microwave experience slanted me toward the kind of physicist I wanted to be. I took all the electromagnetic courses and sat in on some of the microwave courses while I was a student at MIT. In fact, I wrote a book that involved a lot of this. Although I've worked in other areas the kind of work I'm doing now relates to microwaves. I became a better-known solid-state physicist.

Rad Lab's Relationship with Military

Nebeker:

Tell me about the military-Rad Lab relations.

Lax:

Well, the military had these liaison officers. They were supposed to interface between the military and the civilian. Although I must say during World War II it was a one-way street. The civilians decided what they needed. And just between you and me, I think it worked out better that way. Because we had some brilliant people there from all over — the Purcells, the Dickes, Pollard, and others. As I said, they recruited good people. If they found somebody in the service whom they thought was very useful and productive at the Radiation Lab, they'd hold onto him. So I think we knew our business then, and the field was new. Radar was new. The military would give us the requirements. But I think the civilians understood this.

Nebeker:

They had enough knowledge of equipment and military operations?

Lax:

No, they learned it on the spot. You know, the funny thing is, here I was in the Army. I spent all the time here, and there were civilians who went overseas. In fact, we've got a friend of mine, Leo Sullivan, with whom I'm working now, who spent most of his time in the theater close to the firing line. Here I was in uniform working hard in the lab like a civilian. Many of the military people were engineers, of course. Some of my commanding officers were knowledgeable people. An officer at the MIT radar school was one of my teachers. So apparently they recruited experienced people, and, you know, it wasn't as formal.

Nebeker:

But it clearly wouldn't do just to have physicists dreaming up radar devices.

Lax:

But they did! In fact, Ridenour was the one who conceived the radar I worked on.

Nebeker:

But they had to have enough knowledge of field conditions and military operations so that it would fit in and be useful.

Lax:

Yes. We built this radar set. I don't think the radar set we built today would pass some of the tests we require today for military field operations. Don't forget, we were doing things in a hurry and had to get things done. I mean, you can't build a radar within a year from breadboard model and send it out into the field. And besides, today it's more sophisticated. First of all, you can't do that. We worked very closely with industry that built some of the components. We wrote the specifications, and so on. We had to tie the components groups together since we were responsible for entire systems. But look. Bright people can do anything. That's what was remarkable about Rad Lab. We felt we could do anything. We had the energy, the motivation, and the urgency. I mean, we were in a war that we were committed to win. Consequently all of us really worked. I mean, we worked six days a week, and if we had to, we came in on Sundays, too. I mean, people don't work that way except some of us graduate students did. [Laughter] Some of my graduate students occasionally work that hard now.

Nebeker:

Who was the liaison officer at Rad Lab for the Army when you were there?

Lax:

I've forgotten their names, but their pictures are here. I'll tell you. I mean if not my commanding officer, the officer I was responsible to was here. Now where is that picture? This one. Signal Corps — Dodge, Col. Dodge.

Nebeker:

So when you were assigned to detached duty, you would report to him?

Lax:

Yes. Every so often they used to take us on Saturdays to shoot a pistol or something. [Laughter] God knows! We weren't military. We were civilians in uniform, as Ernie Pollard said.

Nebeker:

Who?

Lax:

Nonnemaker, from New York. The four of us were all good friends. We were young. Sam Levine isn't here. He came from some other command. This was the Air Corps office. Then there was a Signal Corps office Lt. Col. MacDuff had something to do with that. There was also a Navy liaison office.

Nebeker:

What dealings did you have with Dodge?

Lax:

I hardly ever saw him since I was working in the Lab.

Nebeker:

He didn't have any input into what you were doing there?

Lax:

No, except I guess I must have gotten his blessing. I presume there must have been some communication between Dodge and Ernie Pollard. Ernie Pollard probably told him, "Ben likes his work, and don't bother him." [Laughter]

Nebeker:

Was that the case with these other military personnel at Rad Lab?

Lax:

No, not necessarily. Most of them stayed there a much shorter time than I did. As I said, my situation was quite unique because I was an integral part of that radar project. When Ernie Pollard found out I was missing, he was pretty angry. It was funny. I left my wife in New York. She could have been with me for ten weeks in Florida. After I fixed the radar set, all I did was learn how to bowl dig in the sand, and pick the oranges.

Nebeker:

Why hadn't you received orders to return?

Lax:

I think the Air Corps was at odds with Ernie Pollard. Ernie Pollard had gone to Europe. So, at first, he wasn't aware that I had gone to Florida.

Nebeker:

The Air Corps consciously let you stay there?

Lax:

Or they forgot me. I don't know which. But, originally, I was to go for ten days.

Nebeker:

Were the orders cut that way, for ten days?

Lax:

The orders were cut to go. Then you have to have orders to come back. So I was doing very little over there, just having a good time, getting the sun.

Nebeker:

Your orders could have come any day, but you didn't know how long you would be there?

Lax:

I was wondering what was going on. But in the Army you don't ask. I didn't even know who to write to, who to ask. [Chuckling] It was a funny situation.

Nebeker:

[Chuckling] I'm still curious about these four GIs. Were they assigned to Pollard's group.

Lax:

I don't know where they came from. [Laughter] To be honest with you, I have no idea. There they were, and I simply said, "I'm an officer, you're a GI. You're doing nothing. You're going to work for me." They were in the Signal Corps. One of them was named Stehlin. I've forgotten the others' names. I don't see their pictures here.

Nebeker:

Did your position in the Army give you access to Army work in radar that the Signal Corps was doing?

Lax:

Well, I went to Fort Monmouth once or twice. On one occasion I saw the UHF (Wurzburg) radar that they captured from the Germans. I knew about it. I was in uniform, but essentially acting like a member of Radiation Laboratory. So I had very little to do. I was happy and active there. You know, in the Army you go where you're told and you don't ask any questions. [Chuckling]

Nebeker:

You said that the relatively small military input, at least in the conceptual and design stages at Rad Lab, wasn't detrimental.

Lax:

Oh, no. I'm sure at a higher level there were probably communications. But as I said, my impression was the civilians essentially made the key decisions. After all, radar was new. How much would the Army personnel know? When you've got a good technical man who knows, somebody grabbed him — either to teach or to work in the field. Some of these people may have had technical backgrounds and worked as liaisons.

Nebeker:

I've heard that there are Army standards of electronics once something reaches the production stage.

Lax:

Well, I don't think there was time for that. Where would they get people with experience in the Army during that time? Very few people had radar experience. That's why they sent people like me to school. The Signal Corps didn't care what your background was. If you had a good technical background, they sent you to radar school. We even had lawyers working at Radiation Laboratory. I remember one guy who worked in there. Wolff was his name. I suppose he was an amateur radio ham or something. He was working at Radiation Laboratory designing test equipment. I remember there were people at radar school with me that had no engineering background, but they were bright. They took the same course that I did. We learned on the job, and we learned fast. I mean, that six months' course was probably the equivalent to two years. It was like a graduate course. You didn't take anything else. But you studied from morning to night. The courses were intense, so you learned a great deal, and you had some of the best teachers from Harvard and MIT teaching you. Some of them I later worked for.

Selling L'il Abner

Nebeker:

Was there a need to sell the military on this Li'l Abner radar?

Lax:

The radar projects, I'm sure, were conceived by the civilians here at Radiation Lab. I'm sure they interacted with the military, and the military could tell them what was needed. But the conception of radar and what it could do, was being invented right on the spot. In other words, it's not like today where the military, has trained people, in addition to civilians working. The Signal Corps had a laboratory. A small number had radar experience at Signal Corps and Naval Research Laboratory. But certainly the caliber of people that they recruited at Rad Lab made up for what was lacking in experience. Some of them were Nobel Laureates. These were the brightest people there were. It's hard to be telling them what's to be done. They were intelligent enough to figure it out for themselves. A six months' course qualified me to do what I did. We were just enthusiastic. It was exciting. We felt it was important. So we used our energy and our common sense.

Nebeker:

I was curious, though, about this matter of getting a new device adopted by the military.

Lax:

Who made the decisions? Zacharias was a big operator. I guess he picked one of the Rf heads; that was a package deal built for another radar. He insisted we put this on top of the antenna to nutate with it. Being a mechanical engineer and having common sense, I said, "This is assinine. You can't do that. Don't do it. It doesn't make sense. Furthermore that little, fractional horsepower motor, couldn't handle that." So I said, "Let's put it down on the frame and build a rotating joint." He wouldn't have it. So when I went down to Orlando, that was one of the things that we accomplished. Sam Levine and I schemed independently. In other words, we decided to order rotating joints and microwave components. We didn't pay any attention. This was stupid, and I showed it worked. After that we built it that way. We didn't ask the military. We made the decisions. I'm sure there were other decisions that I had no part of that were made by the civilians. Well, as I said, there were a few requirements. First of all, it had to be 150 pounds. The military decided that it was to be a portable set. It got out of hand because we had added more components, and this Rf head was heavy. The power supply couldn't handle all the components, and I didn't want it. But on that one, I didn't win. Except what I told you. [Laughter]

Nebeker:

I've heard from at least one person this week that civilians didn't have much decision making power, on one project even though they thought it was successful, the military decided not to adopt it, and it ended right there. Now was there any question of that with Li'l Abner?

Lax:

Not as far as I know. It went out into the field. The point was we had that test in Orlando. After I got there, it was very successful. We ran the targets off the scope, after I tweaked it up. I mean, I tweaked it up before it left. So that's when the military stepped in and said "Ben Lax has to go to find out what's wrong." And as I said, it took me a day. The answer was simple because I had the experience of operating it, and I taught that to the GIs who were assembling. I wrote some of the instruction books. Although I had written some of that for this civilian who took it down there, I don't think he understood. But the cadre that went out were trained in radar in various schools. The officers were trained while they assembled it. They knew how to tweak it, and how to operate it. It was a simple radar.

Nebeker:

You wrote an instruction manual for that.

Lax:

Not alone. I had some input about the test equipment. If the magnetron sparked, it was likely the TR (transmit-receive) box wouldn't fire, and it would burn out the crystal. That's what happened down in Orlando. So what you do? I provided a crystal tester. You test it, and if the crystal's no good, you just simply replace it. It was a silicon cat's whisker. Then it worked again. You had to tune the TR, but we had all the IF strips in the receiver tweaked up. I personally tweaked just about every radar that went through. We made sure before we shipped them out that it worked. Certain things they weren't supposed to touch. In fact I saw the magnetron we used there in the museum.

Nebeker:

Okay. Did you have any dealings with the Navy when you were in the Rad Lab?

Lax:

No.

Nebeker:

Did you have any sense that the Army was reluctant to adopt new technologies? People have told me that the Navy seemed more ready to adopt new technologies than the Army.

Lax:

Well, I can't say because I wouldn't know first-hand. Certainly on our project we had no problem. I think some of the other projects and divisions went through smoothly. I'm sure they were also conceived by civilians. I presume people such as Pollard and others talked it over with the service people and sold it to them.

Nebeker:

Did you feel like any other physicist or engineer at Rad Lab, even though you were not civilian?

Lax:

Yes, I felt like one of those people, always.

Nebeker:

You were in uniform normally? Is that right?

Lax:

I was a civilian who was drafted. [Laughter] Who was happy to work at the Radiation Lab.

Nebeker:

You weren't treated differently by the people you were working with?

Lax:

No. I don't think they cared I had a uniform. They knew I had responsibilities. As I said, I ordered millions of dollars' worth of cables, connectors, and integrated the rest of the system. I worked with the test equipment group on what we needed. In other words, as I said, I was like one of the staff people.

Success of Rad Lab

Nebeker:

Is there anything you'd like to comment on that I haven't asked about concerning your time at Rad Lab?

Lax:

Well, I think too much direction comes from Washington now. I don't know whether the military is to blame. The civilian part is just as bad. These days ideas are conceived in Washington. The scientific work should be conceived by the scientists here. I'm working and consulting for Lincoln Laboratory. I think we can do better. I do believe that there's too much direction from Washington.

Nebeker:

What about the success of Rad Lab?

Lax:

Some of the large projects that are conceived are cockamamie.

Nebeker:

Was the success of Rad Lab in part due to the fact that the people working there could decide?

Lax:

They were very good. Don't forget they were very good. And of course, the enterprise is much bigger today. In other words, you can't get that many good people working all over. So there aren't that many good people working in some critical places particularly. Who are the people who work in Washington who give out the research funds? Well, maybe I shouldn't bring this up. I was the founder and director of the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory. The politicians decided to take it down to Florida. It was, I think, one of the most asinine decisions I ever heard of.

We were in a hurry, and we took some shortcuts. I don't know if all the projects were as successful as Li'l Abner. Somehow we had the right chemistry. It was a smaller project than, let's say, Project Cadillac or others, which were high priority. I think we started later, and we got there in time. It was a different kind of enterprise, and there was less red tape and complications, which sometimes are counterproductive. And certainly very little — much less — politics.

Rad Lab Compared to Other Research Labs

Nebeker:

If you had to compare the style of work at Rad Lab with industry research or academic research or some other setting, what is the best comparison?

Lax:

Well, of course, I've consulted for industry since I worked in the academic environment. Our objectives and missions are different. But let's say Lincoln Laboratory comes closer to Radiation Laboratory. In the early days of Lincoln Laboratory, we had a lot more freedom. I don't think we do today. I'd say during the 'fifties and the early 'sixties, at Lincoln Laboratory where I headed a large solid-state group, we may have had similar amounts of freedom. But I think there was more input from Washington than from the military. There was more input from there, much more consultation. Don't forget we weren't in as much rush, except we did develop the DEW Line. For a year I was put on a crash program. It was very similar to the Rad Lab days. I worked for Herb Weiss for a little while. We did things the same way. Normally Lincoln Laboratory would set a somewhat slower pace. Although we recently worked on a laser radar where we had to meet deadlines, and it also was a very successful project.

But now there are many more meetings, much more waste of time. A lot of people sitting in meetings and talking. Some of the people who sit at the meetings shouldn't even be there. But there is much more direction from Washington than there was. I don't think that's necessarily the best thing. Look, let's take Desert Storm. Who in hell invented those things that worked? Not the military. They were civilians: good engineers, good scientists. And they worked. I invent things. You don't invent them in Washington. They came out of the mind of a creative individual. We had lots of creative people during World War II who otherwise might have been worrying about how the black hole works instead of developing military technology. You know, many of the scientists today wouldn't touch military projects. Some of them criticize Lincoln Laboratory. My answer to that was, not enough of us, certainly in our young generation, are working at a critical position in the military science. Military science and technology by far exceeds the civilian sector. I mean, the NSF supports very little. And yet we don't have the same caliber of people working on that large enterprise. If defense is important and we're going to decide to spend a lot of money, it's important for some of the talented people, even from academia, to have an input. We have less influence. We had more influence in Washington during the early days of Lincoln Laboratory than we do today.

Nebeker:

I certainly understand that point. Anything else about Rad Lab that you'd care to say?

Lax:

Well, it was an exciting place. We felt we were making an important contribution, and we did. Just as I said, it's very reminiscent of what's happened with the Desert Storm. We made the difference. I mean, the ability to bomb, to detect airplanes. The microwave radar was a revolution. Look at what a big enterprise it was. I went around the exhibit. What a proliferation of technology has transpired here. It's very impressive. Certainly some of the things we did during the Rad Lab had a civilian spin-off, much more so I think than some of the military things we're doing today. But that's because the situation has changed.

Nebeker:

Maybe as technology has become more sophisticated...

Lax:

It's more sophisticated. Money was no limitation during World War II, we certainly didn't worry about the cost effectiveness of our research and certain projects in the military. In other words, the counterpart in the civilian sector just would be too expensive. Certain things you can't do on a civilian research project. You can build an expensive solid-state phased-array for the military, but I don't think you can sell that commercially. So, as I said, it has changed. As you said, it's more sophisticated, more complicated, and more expensive. But in the civilian component it has to be competitive because if you don't do it, the Japanese will do it.

I started the semiconductor laser effort at Lincoln Laboratory, and we were the pioneers in it. We invented it there, and GE and IBM beat us to the punch, but we were the innovators there. Now the Japanese are producing it. For fiber optics, for the compact discs, and all that. We're buying it. We have some spin-offs from Lincoln Laboratory that are making it, but not on a competitive basis. So, as I said, sure you can develop a semiconductor laser at a military- or quasi-military-sponsored laboratory such as Lincoln Laboratory, but you've got to produce it economically. In other words, the two are different kinds of enterprises. On the other hand, academic science today is undernourished, maybe starving. I've worked in all of these places. And certainly there's much more equipment in the military laboratories, military-sponsored laboratories, and Lincoln Laboratory, than there is in academia. But you don't have the freedom. Times have changed so much.

Nebeker:

Do you agree with the generalization that's been made that Rad Lab showed the government and others that academic scientists and industry scientists and engineers and the military could effectively work together?

Lax:

Of course. As I said, everything has become more of a political game, and politics and technical decisions don't mix too well.

Nebeker:

You were saying that there's too much direction from Washington.

Lax:

Washington looks on some of these projects as pork barrel. I think that's very, very counterproductive. We built the best magnet laboratory in the world. Now they're going to start from scratch with nothing in Florida. It's crazy! Florida wants the staff that built the magnets. If they can't build the magnets, why give it to them? That's the kind of decisions we're making. I'm sure we do much more of this on the military, which is such a big project. How much pork barrel? God knows what you'd find if you looked into it. The military sometimes writes specifications that are not realistic or sensible. Then some irresponsible industrial outfit will bid on it anyway. I'm old enough and been around long enough to be cynical and realize, without having dug into this, that some of the working systems aren't right. I mean, like the decision that the shuttle is going to be militarily useful. It is useful for nothing. It has handicapped the space program and has set us back. In fact, the best thing would be to keep man out of space and let disposable rockets perform the scientific military, and commercial tasks without him up there. But, these are political decisions made at the highest levels by people who don't know a damned thing about research or science. Conceivably similar situations exist in the military science and technology. That's why I said it was better off when it was in the hands of the scientists. Some of us scientists are not in ivory towers. They're down-to-earth. Many of them formed very good companies: Hewlett Packard and Raytheon are perfect examples. Now I'm not saying that the military, of course, should not participate in this. But as you said, they have to work together. Washington spends our money. We're the customer. You do as we tell you. But I don't think that's the best thing for the country.

Well, anyway, let me say my experience at Rad Lab was one of the most exciting and satisfying things that I ever experienced, and I was very fortunate after being drafted to have that opportunity. It certainly changed my life.

Nebeker:

It's a very interesting story, how you got there and what you did.

Lax:

When I heard about the Rad Lab radar school, I told them that's where I want to go when I was in OCS. And they sent me. [Chuckling] You know, you can't ignore the environment.