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Oral-History:Earl Steele

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About Earl Steele

Steele was raised in Nephi, Utah, went to the University of Utah in physics 1941-45, then to Cornell University for a PhD in Physics (1952). He worked for General Electric at their Electronics Park (1951-56), working on how to make semiconductor transistors; for Motorola (1956-60), working on germanium transistors, and their jump to silicon integrated circuits; Hughes Aircraft, their Autonetics division of North American Aviation (1960—ca. 1970?), working on their shift from diodes to transistors, lasers, and simulating the effect of radiation on circuits in charge of Minuteman missiles’ guidance and control; and then to the University of Kentucky as a professor in their Electrical Engineering Department, working on hybrid micro-electronic circuits, until he retired in 1991.

Steele also worked as an editor of the Transactions of Electron Devices in the 60s, where he was mentored by Elwood “Woody” Gannett, a previous editor of The Proceedings. He notes the value of the MIT Rad Lab book on crystal rectifiers, on the working of the diode, for transistor research. He also notes that for much of the 1950s it was unclear whether transistors would fully replace vacuum tubes—that it was the silicon transistor, cheap and mass produced, that finally made tubes obsolescent. He notes the value of the IEEE annual Electron Device Conference as a way to keep people abreast of the field’s technology. Two special events he remembers were a special IEEE proceedings issue in 1952 devoted to transistors and semiconductors, and a Bell Labs symposium in the early to mid 1950s that brought together most researchers in the field. When working on lasers in the 1960s, he wrote a book on pulse lasers. He did not notice much in the way of overt security restrictions on research and publication: security and business secrets occasionally impeded information flow, but not too much. Steele has generally valued the IEEE for its role as an information clearinghouse.


About the Interview

EARL STEELE: An Interview Conducted by David Morton, Ph.D., IEEE History Center, 19 July 2000


Interview # 402 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Inc., and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey



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, Rutgers - the State University, 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:
Earl L. Steele, an oral history conducted in 2000 by David Morton, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

NOTE: Dr. Steele was not able to edit this transcript.

Interview

Interview: Earl Steele
Interviewer: David Morton
Date: 19 July 2000
Place: Telephone

Involvement with the Electron Devices Society

Morton:
Why don’t we start with getting some information about your involvement Electron Devices Society and its predecessor groups? Now I don’t know much about your involvement, but I looked up your Fellow’s biography in the IEEE directory, and that gives me a little bit of information. It says that you were Editor of the IRE Transactions on Electron Devices and also a member of the AdCom at approximately the same time.


Steele:
That’s right. As the editor I also met with the board whenever they met.


Morton:
Did you have any involvement in the group before becoming editor?


Steele:
No. Well, I was a member of it. The dates are a little rusty but I joined the IRE sometime in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. I went to Cornell for a Ph.D. and got a Ph.D. in physics. About that time I also joined the IRE because it was along the lines I was interested in. As you probably remember, the IRE and the AIEE were two electrical organizations. The AIEE was more in the power generation transmission business. The IRE came along to help us electronicors feel like real engineers. My degree is actually in physics, but I worked all of my career in engineering. It was a nice combination as it turns out.



I went to work for General Electric at the Electronics Park at that time in 1951. The Electron Devices Group then was just kind of getting organized. The Group had been organized for a little while. A fellow that I worked with there invited me to become editor of the Transactions on Electron Devices at that time.


Morton:
It’s funny that you sort of just stepped into that. Were you interested in editing before that?


Steele:
No. I really hadn’t done very much of that kind of thing. I was mostly on the reading end rather than on the active participation end.


Morton:
Do you think this guy asked you because they needed somebody to do it and nobody wanted to do it?


Steele:
I never knew. His name was John Sabe who had been in graduate school with me at Cornell. He went to work at GE, and I also went to work at GE. And so he got involved with the Devices Society, or “The Group” as it was called then. I don’t know what transpired that actually encouraged him to invite me to become editor, but I guess I was involved with that. It was kind of an interesting operation at that time because I was the editor. I had this scope of associates generally in the semiconductor business who I had as script readers for editing and recommending on the papers we published. They were basically just sort of informal associates that I had. So it really started out on a very informal basis, but I did have a chance to work with Woody Gannett in that era. It was IRE then.


Morton:
I don’t know who Woody Gannett is.


Steele:
He was the previous editor of The Proceedings way back in IRE times. Then later on he also introduced The Spectrum, and The Proceedings then took more of a technical bent. Elwood K. Gannett was his name. He was really the guy that ran the publishing business for the IRE and IEEE later on. He retired maybe three or four years ago and I think he died within the last year or two. He was a real mentor for me in that era because he’d had a lot of experience in that.



So I did that editorship for four or five years. During the same time I was having my regular job, but the places I worked, which included GE and Motorola and Hughes later on, all gave me the secretarial support I needed to continue on with that. It was a very pleasant association I had with the professional group at that time.


Semiconductors, vacuum tubes, and transistors research

Morton:
In those days I guess semiconductors were just starting to be important commercially.


Steele:
That’s right.


Morton:
But vacuum tubes were still making progress.


Steele:
They were still on the rise.


Morton:
Was there any rivalry between people working vacuum tubes versus the semiconductors?


Steele:
I never felt that. I was not really aware of it. The transistor was invented in 1948, and I fortunately did my graduate work on solid state stuff having to do with calculating some properties of barium oxide because barium oxide was the material used in the cathodes of the radio tubes. So I got into solid state physics, which then logically merged into the semiconductor business. I was really blessed with having chosen a field that jibed right in. And, as the companies then were evolving, such as GE, Bell Labs, Western Electric, Sylvania Corporation, and Velco Corporation. there was a group at Purdue University under Lark-Horovitz that was doing semiconductor stuff. All of these companies were really in the vacuum tube business, so they started up efforts to get into the semiconductor business, primarily the transistor business. At that time the series of books that had come out of MIT on the radiation laboratory work were going to war.


Morton:
A very famous series.


Steele:
And there was one of those books; it was on crystal rectifiers. It had a lot of information about the basic workings of a diode, which was a piece of metal whisker sitting on top of silicon. That was really the first semiconductor device that led then into the transistor. That crystal rectifier book was kind of a Bible for a lot of us at that time. It was the only thing that was written on semiconductors. That was kind of a starting point, but as these companies started to evolve into semiconductors it was just another area to grow. But it was still very small compared to the vacuum tube business. The writing was on the wall. And of course, there was the whole evolution of klystron and magnetrons and wave guides, which was a different way of conducting electricity or sending signals. So that whole thing kind of merged together and eventually most of the leaders in that business kind of fell away and other breakup companies picked up and carried it off.


Morton:
You say the writing was on the wall. Was it obvious to people in the late ‘50s that vacuum tubes were going to decline as much as they did or was it still kind of unclear whether the transistor would ever really be able to match the performances.


Steele:
My feeling was that it was still a questionable thing. Vacuum tubes were getting a lot smaller. They became these little thumb size tubes with the same kind of functions. They kept making the dimensions smaller and smaller so it would go to higher frequencies. So I think it was sort of a toss up. My feeling was that the thing that really changed it was that we just simply changed the whole way of building transistors. Most of them originally were in germanium, both the diode and transistor, and there was a lot of work going on in silicon to get single crystal silicon to do the same things. But that was much harder to grow those crystals and grow them so you can get good single crystal material. Once they discovered the properties of the silicon oxide, which then allowed a masking material to be put down on the surface, then that just revolutionized the whole way of making transistors. You could make thousands of them at one time, so to speak. I think that’s when the evolution really started, probably around the early ‘60s. Then it finally evolved into this whole business of integrated circuits. I think the technology that allowed silicon to be used in a reasonable manufacturing way is really what turned the table.

Publications, symposia, and conferences on semiconductors and transistors

Morton:
Looking back again at your stint as editor, was there ever a really controversial paper or any big interesting flap or any good stories like that you can think of?


Steele:
Well, I think it was about 1952 when the IEEE came out with a special transistor issue of the IEEE Proceedings all devoted to transistors, semiconductors, what have you. The reason I recall that one is that that was the first semiconductor papers I ever wrote was in there—a theory about how transistors work. That was sort of a seminal time in which people suddenly sat up and said that this semiconductor business might really be up to something. Then of course, William Shockley came out with his book on Electrons and Holes. That was just a boon.



Another big thing that happened about that time, early ‘50s or mid ‘50s is that Bell Labs had a symposium in which they invited a lot of people who were interested in semiconductors to come there and learn what Bell Labs could do and how to do a transistor process. So everybody who was interested in semiconductors sent representatives there. I didn’t happen to be that far into it at that moment, but those people fanned out and that was sort of a seed. It was a big undertaking that had a gigantic affect on the development of the field. That was certainly one of the things that was happening in the early or mid ‘50s sometime.


Morton:
Were you involved in any of the conferences at that time in terms of organizing them?


Steele:
No, I was more of a participant. But there was a research conference every summer around July sometime called the Electron Device Conference. It wasn’t highly advertised except amongst those in the field, but it turned out to be basically a semiconductor technology conference on what’s going on and who’s doing what, what’s working and what isn’t working.


Morton:
Was that one held at the same place every year?


Steele:
They tend to move around but they sure like to concentrate on the University of Colorado because that was in the mountains, a beautiful location. It was held at various places. Another place it was held was Penn State University in 1953. The reason I remember that is that I had just gotten married and my wife and I went down there on sort of an extended honeymoon.


Morton:
To the conference?


Steele:
We were on a trip West, so that was one of our stopping points. That was at Penn State. That was a seminal conference every year in which people would come and a lot of the same people kept coming back. It got to be a good fellowshipping conference as well as a good one for transferring information. My association is always involved with the semiconductor end of things. The fellow who ran our group there at General Electric always said, “Hey, our whole group is going to go down there to that conference this year because we want to know what’s going on.” There was about a dozen of us working in that group at the Electronic Park. Around the 4th of July whenever that conference was in town we were all there. That was a good experience.


Morton:
I noticed that you left your editor position and the AdCom about the same time.


Steele:
Yes.


Morton:
Was there a reason for that?


Steele:
They essentially went together. I was basically on the AdCom because I was editor. It was sort of an expected association.


Morton:
Do you remember who your replacement was as editor?


Steele:
I don’t remember now.


Childhood, family, and educational background

Morton:
Why don’t we back up a little bit and talk about the other aspects of your life? One of the things I always like to ask interviewees is to tell me a little bit about their childhood and their education and maybe give me some insights as to how they decided to pursue a career in engineering. It sounds like you started off in physics, so maybe you could tell me how you got interested in science.


Steele:
Well, I grew up in Central Utah in a small community.


Morton:
Is it correct that you were born in Denver?


Steele:
Yes.


Morton:
But you must have moved.


Steele:
When I was very young my parents moved back to Salt Lake. Then my father took over the operation of a movie theater down in a little town called Nephi, Utah. It’s about a hundred miles south of Salt Lake City and that’s where I grew up. I went through high school there. For some reason or other, which I could never really ascertain, my objective all through that era was to go to the University of Utah. I’d never seen the University of Utah. I didn’t know anybody there. I’d had no relatives go there. It was just one of these things that was an objective without any real good basis except that that was the big blooming frontier, so to speak. So I started there in 1941 and was there through the War years because I had a heart murmur and couldn’t get into the military.



I had a couple of mentors there who were very highly regarded in the physics field. One’s name was Tom Parmleigh  and the other one’s name was Jay Irvin Swaggert. They encouraged me to pursue physics, and we had very small classes then because the war had depleted them so. Parmley had been to Cornell, and he said, “Well, that’s a good place to go.” And I said, “Do you think I should go to graduate school?” He said, “Of course you should go to graduate school.” So I did. He had been highly regarded there. He had gone there himself. I went there and studied solid state physics.

Graduate studies at Cornell

Morton:
That must’ve been quite a shock to move east.


Steele:
Oh, it was! It was the first time I’d ever been out of Utah except for family vacations and so forth.


Morton:
It must be quite a different culture.


Steele:
Yes. And I came across the country on a bus because it was war time and it was beginning of the summer of ’45. I had never been to a big city like Chicago or places like that. I got up to Ithaca and wandered around a little bit and finally found a place to live. That was quite an experience for somebody from a little farming kind of community. I feel it was just a great experience. I had some good mentors along the way. Anyway, I did my graduate work at Cornell.


Morton:
What was your thesis topic?


Steele:
I think this project was on the band structure of barium oxide. It was a calculation based on some fundamental principles that had been developed along the way. There was quite a research program at Cornell on improving barium oxide to where you could get higher electronic emissions from them because they were used in filaments in vacuum tubes.


Morton:
Was the laboratory you worked in externally funded? What was the driving force behind this?


Steele:
My work was not funded. I had a teaching assistantship there all the time I was there. I don’t know if they had much funded research at that time because they had a lot of faculty who had been away. They were coming back and just getting things organized. The big emphasis then was going toward nuclear physics because a lot of the people who are on the faculty at Cornell had been at Los Alamos. So there were a few people who had stayed at Cornell and the areas of electronics and such so they kind of got left behind so to speak with all this influx of expertise from Los Alamos and funding for nuclear stuff.



My research itself was not funded, but I supported myself there with a teaching assistantship all the time I was there. I finished all the requirements for a degree in 1951 and went to work, but then I didn’t get the degree until ’52.


General Electric employment; device development group, germanium research

Morton:
And you went straight into General Electric?


Steele:
Yes, I then went to General Electric in the electronics lab there.


Morton:
Were there connections between Cornell and General Electric? How did you manage to get that job?


Steele:
No. There had been quite a stream of people from Cornell to General Electric over the years, mostly going to the central research lab up in Poughkeepsie. They had started up this electronics park to get GE more into the electronics business in terms of FM radio production and transmission and also in the television business.


Morton:
Where was the Electronics Park?


Steele:
In Syracuse, New York. There was a fellow by the name of Baker who was very aggressive about setting up this electronics operation there. One of the parts that went with it was this whole new semiconductor thing that was coming along and he wanted to see about exploiting it, so I was fortunate to be able to get into this group of about ten people there who were doing device research on how to make semiconductor transistors and diodes.


Morton:
Now was John Sabe with you at that time?


Steele:
John Sabe was in that group also, yes.


Morton:
Who else was in that group? Do you remember any other people?


Steele:
Arnie Lesk  was in that group. Paul Jordan was the head of the group. I’m trying to think.


Morton:
I know this stuff is tough trying to dredge these names up.


Steele:
We were in what we called the device development group. There was another group which had to do with designing circuits using transistors and that was run by a fellow by the name of Dick Shea. One of the things that came out of that in about 1954 was a book on transistor circuits and design, or something like that. It was authored by about nine people from the GE lab there. I was not one of them as it turned out. But that was sort of one of the next Shockley’s books. It was about the first one to come out really on this circuitry involving transistors. We worked very closely with that group there also.


Morton:
What did they have you working on to start off?


Steele:
I started off developing techniques for making transistors. Basically the technique was to take a piece of germanium at that time and put a little blob of indium solder on each side of it, melt it in, and build a mechanical structure of the indium with impurities in it and then the silicon and then indium on the other side.


Morton:
So by this time they’d given up on the point contacts and had gone to--


Steele:
Oh yes, yes. We didn’t do any point contact work at all there. We were doing the alloy, what they called alloy transistors. And it was a mechanical system basically. It was like soldering really. But to control the dimensions was very tricky because here are two big blobs sitting on each side of a very thin membrane.


Morton:
How was that actually done? Was that all done by hand or with magnifying glasses or something?


Steele:
Yes. It was all done by hand under a microscope.


Morton:
Even in regular production they had to be made by hand?


Steele:
Basically, yes. Most of the production of devices at that time was done this way, but it was not very cost effective. What happened is it really got superceded within a short time by this whole diffusion process. There was one other step in there though before that and that was something that was developed by Philco, which was an etching process in which they basically etched in from both sides of the germanium to make this very thin layer. They’d just spray a fine jet of acid in and chew away the germanium. Then there’d be this little layer in between and they’d make a contact to it.


Morton:
I’ve heard of that. I guess it didn’t last very long.


Steele:
No. That was a way that looked like they could get the higher frequencies, but it was mechanically so fragile that it wasn’t really practical.

Germanium transistors work at Motorola

Steele:

About 1956 I left GE and went to Motorola and worked on germanium transistors there, which were done by this alloying process for Motorola to use in building their car radios. That was a germanium process also. They had pretty well recognized it. They had to sit down so it was a pretty good manufacturing process. It was jumping to the limitations of temperature, which germanium was. Lots of times you get out in the middle of the summer in Arizona, for instance, and your car radio wouldn’t work.


Morton:
I understand these were the actual final products. The radios where sort of hybrid devices weren’t they?


Steele:
That’s right, but not totally. They used the transistors for the lower frequency things but they still used the tubes for the upper one.


Morton:
And the transistors were in the output stage weren’t they?


Steele:
Yes, that’s right.


Morton:
If I hadn’t looked into this I would’ve expected it to be in the low power section of the radio I guess, but I guess they must have come up with some pretty high power devices by that time.


Steele:
That mostly involved the heat sinking problem. But Motorola advanced pretty well with the manufacturing of their transistors. But then once they got silicon coming on to where they can build things out of silicon, then the whole industry changed. It took on a different perspective. In the first place it would bring higher temperatures. Also, the business of being able to build an insulating surface on top of this silicon with the silicon oxide, then cut holes in that insulator so that you can diffuse and tier these in, just changed the whole technique to where it wasn’t a mechanical thing anymore but more of an electrical imbedding thing. You had the strength there, you had the frequency control, and you had manufacturing procedures that could make thousands of them at a time. That was a real breakthrough that led to the real development of transistors in a big way.


Morton:
So that sort of changeover came when you were still at Motorola.


Steele:
Yes.


Morton:
Were they pretty quick to adopt that?


Steele:
Well, they stayed with germanium for quite a while but they did eventually shift over to the silicon. They really made more of a jump from germanium transistors into silicon integrated circuits. They kind of just jumped over this silicon transistor business.


Morton:
Now how long were you there at Motorola?


Steele:
I was there about four years.


Morton:
Were you working on the same project the whole time or did you do some other stuff?


Steele:
Yes. I was in device development there.


Morton:
What happened after that?

Hughes Aircraft employment, transistor development

Steele:
Then I went to Hughes Aircraft in Southern California. Hughes had been a big company in making a silicon diode that was really a premium diode in the industry then. It was a little tiny glass jar that looked like a resistor, but it was really a glass enclosed diode. They were then trying to move out of the diode business and, in addition, get into the transistor business too. So I was involved with that aspect of it.



In the lab that I was managing there we had a little pilot line for actually doing manufacturing. We were developing the transistors for use in Hughes military operations. They didn’t really get so much into the commercial end of things as they were simply wanting them to be able to be used in their own products. But the Hughes Diode was such a success that it permeated every place.


Morton:
Was that sort of a high frequency device or what was it used for?


Steele:
Yes.


Morton:
So, it used in microwave systems or whatever.


Steele:
Yes. It was a modified point contact diode but it was very stable and very reliable.


Morton:
That’s interesting. That’s sort of a survivor as a product if it’s still being made in the, you said the early ‘60s.


Steele:
Yes.


Morton:
It’s pretty remarkable that something resembling a point contact device stuck around that long.


Steele:
Well it was a modified point. It was actually a little welded point so it wasn’t as flimsy as the original point contact so it had been stabilized.


Morton:
We’re sort of zipping through this. How long were you at Hughes?

North American Aviation, Autonetics division; laser development and publication

Steele:
I was there about five years I guess. Then I joined what was the North American Aviation. I was in the Autonetics division of North American Aviation, which eventually became Rockville Corporation.



But when it was Autonetics I did two things. First I went there to work on lasers. That was sort of a modification of the new solid state type of things or new electronic kind of things anyway and mostly involved with pulse lasers generating these very large light pulses using ruby crystals. We developed lasers there for whatever you wanted to use lasers for in terms of a pulse mode. You sent out a burst of light and then another burst of light and so forth.


Morton:
Let me interrupt you there. By chance did you get into that laser work when you were at Hughes or was it something new you took on after you went to Autonetics?


Steele:
It was something I took on when I went to Autonetics. They were starting up the laser group there. There was a fellow by the name of Ted Maiman, who was with the North American Central Research Labs, and they’d been working on getting lasers going as an interesting gadget. Then down at Autonetics they were trying to get them to the point where they could be really useful some applications.


Morton:
It seems like Maimen was at Hughes, wasn’t he? Was there a connection there?


Steele:
I’m sorry. He was at Hughes. He was at the Hughes Research Lab, that’s right.


Morton:
Are you saying he went to North American?


Steele:
No. I personally got acquainted with him there at Hughes and then I went over to North American to work. They were separate. You’re right.


Morton:
It’s an interesting sort of a major career shift.


Steele:
That’s right, it was.


Morton:
It was an interesting change you made from semiconductors to lasers. Although they’re related I suppose but they’re still quite different.


Steele:
It was early enough in the game that I actually wrote a book on lasers, primarily a pulse laser kind of thing.


Morton:
That came out in the late ‘60s?


Steele:
That’s right.


Morton:
I’ve seen that around. Evidently it’s a very famous book.


Steele:
Yes. I have editions of it written in German and Russian and either Danish or Swedish, none of which can I read. John Wiley did that one.


Morton:
Was that so successful because it got picked up as a textbook?


Steele:
It was certainly written so that it could be used as a textbook. It really kind of spelled things out one step at a time. It was the way I had learned it so I felt very comfortable about doing that. That was done while I was there at North American Aviation.


Morton:
Was this sort of a side project of yours or was this something they asked you to do?


Steele:
No, it was done on my own. Basically what I did was keep very careful notes as I was going through that work. Then I just transcribed those over in terms that I could explain to someone else. I had a good friend who was a book representative for John Wiley then. He said, “Hey, why don’t you put that in a book form?” So I did.


Publications and security

Morton:
Did you feel like you had to watch what you said in the book because of security issues?


Steele:
No. I did submit it to the publications group there at Autonetics for their review to make sure what I was writing was not at odds with policies or whatever.


Morton:
For patent purposes.


Steele:
That’s right.


Morton:
Was there any concern about national security, that kind of thing?


Steele:
Not that I remember at that time. I don’t remember that ever being an issue on that.


Morton:
I actually meant to ask you about that. I’m sort of jumping back to our earlier conversation about your editorship. Were there security issues floating around at that time? Or by the time you saw stuff had it already been sort of cleared?


Steele:
When I saw it, it had always been cleared by whoever was sending it, their company or the security office of their company. I did hold security clearance during all this period. I wasn’t up to Q clearance, but I was whatever the next one down is. I was working in defense related things, but anything that I published or discussed in conference of it was always basically approved by the security office or the publications office in the company. That didn’t go for the transactions because that was really extras in the company and most of the material was coming from outside the company. I assumed that the people who were involved with that would already have taken care of their clearance.


Morton:
Was there ever a period before or after this where it became less of an issue? I’m a little bit in the dark about how much of this technical information had to be, in a sense, censored.


Steele:
My feeling along the way was that it was not very much at that phase. I never felt that it interfered with what I was doing with the IRE nor in what we wanted to publish from whatever companies I was with.


Morton:
Do you think it should have been more closely watched?


Steele:
Well, now that you mention it, I don’t know. During the regular conference, like this Device Research conference that I mentioned in the summers, that material was always previewed by whatever security groups were at the various companies, not only from a military security standpoint but also for the company’s secrets. They were always very conscious about that. There were times when things would come up and they’d say, “How did you do this or how did you do that?” and I’d say, “I really can’t talk about that because that’s advanced and we shouldn’t go into that.” But that was never really a very big issue as I remember it during those times. I guess it never seemed to make very much difference on what we did or didn’t do. But we were always careful to take steps first to get it squared away.


Computer codes and simulation; TRAC, Transient Radiation Analysis by Computer

Morton:
I sort of got you off on a sidetrack there but we were sort of going through your years at North American Aviation.


Steele:
Right. After I had been there a couple of years working on lasers, because of my semiconductor background relating to transistors and semiconductor technology I transferred out of the group that was working on lasers and into a group that was developing computer codes for doing computer simulation of electronic circuits, particularly semiconductor circuits.


Morton:
That’s quite a change, too. Did you pick up a background in programming or was this more of a theoretical approach?


Steele:
I formulated some of the models for the electronic components taking into account radiation affects on the components. What we were looking at basically was the use of solid state devices in such applications for instance as the Minute Man guidance and control system. They wanted those to be radiation hardened so that if somebody has a bomb going off nearby with radiation in it, it wouldn’t destroy the capability of this one. So we were developing computer codes to simulate the action of electronic circuits under radiation conditions. I worked on that for about three years developing models and evaluating circuits and testing some of the components to see what the radiation mechanisms were that made them change. I found that to be very interesting also.


Morton:
In terms of the results of that research, I’ve heard that that was a major concern from other people, but I’ve never really learned what the outcome of it was. Did that really change the way electronics was done or what happened to that?


Steele:
I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know.


Morton:
Nobody seems to know. I think that’s a conspiracy or something.


Steele:
I do know that almost invariably it came to the result that those darn transistors were going to be damaged some way or other with a nuclear blast that might occur nearby. We were working on a program similar to what IBM was also working on at that time. The one we were working on was called TRAC, Transient Radiation Analysis by Computer. We’d take these and basically build up an electronic circuit with all of these little triggers built into it, which would be signals developed by radiation effects, and then see what would happen to the behavior of the circuit. From our point of view we found what happened to the circuits, but I never really quite found out how that reflected on manufacturing methods that would provide better hardening of the devices or what have you. There was an effort to try to do other materials for instance like gallium arsenide and so forth that might have been more radiation resistant. But there was just nothing as good as silicon. I don’t really know what’s happened in that area. I got it away from it and kind of lost track of it.


Morton:
It’s an interesting issue.


Steele:
Yes it is.


Electrical engineering professorship at University of Kentucky; hybrid circuits lab

Morton:
What did you work on after that?


Steele:
I left North American and came back and joined the University of Kentucky as a Professor of Electrical Engineering.


Morton:
Once again another career shift. How did that happen?


Steele:
That’s right. I’ll tell you, it’s kind of at the end of a long series of things. As I said I had a teaching assistant at Cornell all the time I was there. When I went to GE, in addition to the regular technical work I also taught in the engineering training courses that they had for new engineers coming into the company. Transistor electronics was so new then that they tried to incorporate some of that in the training courses for their new engineers. I participated in that and taught in the GE Advanced Engineering courses for the new engineers coming in.



Then when I left GE and went to Motorola, I taught as an adjunct professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, which was just down the road from Motorola, in their engineering program which was just being developed at that time. I taught in that engineering program as well as giving courses within Motorola for people on the subject of how transistors worked. Then when I went to Hughes, I taught portions of UCLA extension courses relating to transistors and transistor circuits. I was also on the affiliated faculty when they established an engineering program at the University of California at Irvine. They set up that Irvine campus while I was there at Hughes. I went over and taught some courses there to get them started. I also helped a little Christian college out there set up a science program so that they could better train some of the students in science, particularly chemistry and physics. So I kind of kept my hand in all along the way. Then I had an opportunity to come to the university, so I took that. We bundled up our family and moved to Kentucky from Southern California. That was quite a change.


Morton:
I bet it was. I’ve never actually been there. Is that in the mountains of Kentucky or where is that exactly?


Steele:
No, it’s in Lexington. It’s quite metropolitan, the center of the horse country. It’s really central Kentucky. It’s ninety miles from there to Cincinnati up in the north and then it’s about seventy miles to Louisville to the west and about 100 miles south to Knoxville, Tennessee. We’re kind of right in the middle of things. It’s a nice metropolitan area. It’s a nice place to have children grow up.


Morton:
Is there a EE department there, or is it a general engineering program?


Steele:
It was an electrical engineering department. I joined the electrical engineering department here and introduced several courses in transistor design and transistor electronics, solid state materials, what have you. Eventually I established a laboratory here for making what you call hybrid micro-electronic circuits because they’re circuits in which you take a piece of a tile kind of material and coat the conductors on it and leave spots, paste transistor devices onto it or integrated circuit devices onto it.


Morton:
That almost sounds like the film technology they were using years before that.


Steele:
It was very much like that.


Morton:
Is it still ongoing?


Steele:
It’s still ongoing. Hybrid circuits are still very much in existence now.


Morton:
What are their advantages?


Steele:
I’m not sure the advantages over integrated circuits and such except you can make them in smaller batches for specialized purposes. If you’re doing private integrated circuits you’re usually making thousands at a time. This allows you to pick specific components and sort of customize the circuit for maybe a few hundred or a few thousand of them instead of by the zillions.


Morton:
I see. That’s interesting.


Steele:
But they are larger and so you also have better heat dissipation properties. You can build in heat radiators and so forth.


Morton:
How much larger are they typically?


Steele:
A typical sheet in which we’d build a circuit would be about two inches square.


Morton:
That is quite a bit bigger.


Steele:
It’s a big piece of ceramic and then you just put those conductors on it, put connectors on the side so it’ll slide in and make a sliding contact to the thing, and off you go. It’s basically like an updated old printed circuit board, except it’s ceramic instead of the…not cardboard but…


Morton:
Phenolic or whatever they call it?


Steele:
Yes. Of course you can put all the conductors on the surface and just solder down the element you want all at once by putting it through a furnace.


Morton:
Are you still actively working?


Steele:
No I retired in 1991.


Morton:
Did they give you emeritus status?


Steele:
Yes. I got emeritus here at UK.


Morton:
You got to keep your office. That’s the best part of emeritus status.


Steele:
But I eventually found that I was using it so much and they needed more lab space, so I kind of just gave up on that also. I’ve been pretty much away from it for three or four years now. My wife and I go to Florida every winter to spend the winter down there and then come back here for the summer. We have a nice combination of both worlds.

IEEE

Morton:
This is another one of my standard questions. I’m always interested to hear people’s general impressions of the value of their IEEE membership. What has being in the IEEE done for you or not done for you?


Steele:
First, I’ve always enjoyed going to the conferences, particularly those that were rather specialized conferences for two reasons. One was the technical information, and the other one was the fellowship that developed out of it. As they became more specialized I kind of like that because you knew you were going to see a lot of the same people there every year and it became a real fellowship thing. That’s one thing I got out of it. The other one is I always felt that I got a lot of information from the technical publications. They were always very helpful to me. There weren’t very many times that I would get a Transactions, although I signed up for several “Transactions” along the way, but Electron Devices was always closer to my heart. Between that one and The Proceedings, I don’t know if there was ever an issue in which I didn’t get something from it that I felt helped me in my technical career.


Morton:
Was there anything you felt like the organization should have done over the years that it didn’t do?


Steele:
I really haven’t thought very much along that line. I have always felt though that the major role was that of being a technical society to help disperse technical information. That I think they’ve done a very good job on. I’ve been a little out of touch in recent times because I don’t take a lot of the publications now. Being a fellow with my twenty-five years, about the only thing I get now is Spectrum. I still enjoy that and the paper that goes with it.



But I feel very much out of touch with the technical things. But then, I’m not active technically any more. From my point of view, I think IEEE served me very well over the years. It was a good technical forum for me. To be very honest, I feel very blessed to have been in the places I was at the appropriate times as things were evolving in those areas. I was just very lucky to be in those eras when things were blooming and blossoming so. It was so exciting.


Morton:
Was it the kind of thing where if you’d come on a few years later you might not have had the opportunities?


Steele:
That’s my feeling. Transistors were invented in ’48 and I got out of school in ’51. Well gosh here was this whole business growing now and I lived through all of it right up into the integrated circuit business. Of course, it’s so much more refined now that it’s out of my class, but to have lived through that era and see it develop the way it did, plus the whole business of lasers and integrated circuits, I just feel so blessed to be able to have participated in it and been right in the middle of it. I keep telling myself, “Well gee, you were really judicious in making your choices,” so you think a lot of it was good luck.


Morton:
Maybe, or maybe you have a great sense of timing, or maybe it’s both.


Steele:
I feel that my technical work in the industry was always very fruitful and very productive. I was glad to be able to apply it within a university environment and bring that to a lot of other people as well.


Morton:
I hate to shut it off there but I’ve got to wrap this up. Thanks very much.


Steele:
You bet‘cha.