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Oral-History:Helen Thomas

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About Helen L. Thomas

Thomas got her A.B. from Radcliffe College in astronomy and government; then worked at the Harvard Astronomical Observatory and the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard. She transferred to the MIT Rad Lab in 1942. She worked under Dr. Henri Guerlac preparing a history of the Rad Lab — the project had been initiated at the very beginning by James Baxter, historian for the OSRD. She collected documentation, indexed notebooks, wrote down interviews conducted by Guerlac, etc. Unfortunately, a certain amount of the material was scattered and/or lost after the war. She got her PhD in the History of Science after the war, worked for Raytheon for nine years, then returned to MIT to the Research Laboratory of Electronics as Editor of Publications.

About the Interview

HELEN L. THOMAS: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, 13 June 1991

Interview # 097 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:

Helen L. Thomas, an oral history conducted in year by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Helen L. Thomas

Interviewer: William Aspray

Date: 13 June 1991

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Educational Background

Aspray:

This is an interview on the 13th of June, 1991 with Dr. Helen L. Thomas. The interviewer is William Aspray. The interview is being held in Boston, Massachusetts as part of the MIT Radiation Laboratory Oral History Project. Let me begin by asking you what your education and background were before you came to the Radiation Laboratory.

Thomas:

I had an A.B. from Radcliffe College, and I was at the Harvard Astronomical Observatory. I was drafted for the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard, which was radar countermeasures. [Laughter] Then I transferred to Radiation Laboratory.

Aspray:

What were your responsibilities at RRL?

Thomas:

I was at the Harvard Astronomical Observatory to set up a cardex system. But that wasn't quite what I wanted. I was a fellow student of Henry Guerlac, who was the historian of the Radiation Laboratory. He knew that I wanted to make a change. So I went to the Radiation Laboratory in 1942.

Aspray:

Had you studied history of science?

Thomas:

Oh, yes. After the war, I got a Ph.D. in the history of science.

Aspray:

You must have been one of the first Ph.D.'s in the United States?

Thomas:

Harvard was the first university that offered the graduate degree. I was the first woman and the second American to get the degree in the United States.

Aspray:

I know that my good friend Bernard Cohen was one of the very earliest students also.

Thomas:

Why, yes. He was my fellow student. We were all students of Dr. Sarton. But Henry Guerlac got his degree in French history because jobs were not available at that time for historians of science. I was told that I would never get a job in the history of science because I was a woman. [Chuckling] But I started right out with Henry Guerlac.

Aspray:

What had your undergraduate training been in?

Thomas:

I studied astronomy and government.

Aspray:

An interesting combination.

Thomas:

Yes. I was idealistic. I wanted to study government because I didn't know too much about my own government, and I was wondering if our form of government was applicable to the whole world. [Chuckling] I wrote my thesis for distinction on international law among the Greek city states.

Transfer to Radiation Laboratory

Aspray:

When did you go to the Radiation Laboratory?

Thomas:

It was in 1942.

Aspray:

Was it your choice to transfer there?

Thomas:

Oh, yes.

Aspray:

You weren't satisfied with the work that you were doing at RRL?

Thomas:

No, I was not. They were paying me a mere pittance and I was losing money. [Chuckling] I was anxious to transfer, and this opportunity came up.

Work with Dr. Guerlac

Aspray:

Tell me about your duties at the Radiation Laboratory.

Thomas:

Dr. Guerlac was accumulating a history of the Lab. I set up a filing system for this. I kept a list of the projects of the Lab, and this was published in the five-year book. Although my name is not in this first five-year book, they published my list, redrawn of course. It was a rather haphazard sort of thing and the Newtons redrew it. We set up a file system so that after the war in 1946, when other people transferred into our group, if they were assigned to write up something, they could take information they needed out of our file system.

Aspray:

Yes. Your file system contained notes on each of the projects, people and key events?

Thomas:

Yes.

Aspray:

Did you also collect documentation on the course of people's work at the Laboratory?

Thomas:

No. The document room kept that kind of thing. In 1945 Dr. Guerlac sent me to the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics to write up carrier warfare in the Pacific. After reading it over, I noticed that not all that I wrote is in there. [Laughter]

Aspray:

How was it decided that when Dr. Guerlac joined the group there was going to be historical documentation of the Radiation Laboratory project?

Thomas:

It was decided right from the beginning.

Aspray:

Who was responsible for this decision?

Thomas:

Well, I think James Phinney Baxter. He was the overall historian of OSRD. He oversaw our project. Dr. Guerlac didn't care too much for the Navy because when Dr. Baxter and Dr. Guerlac went to the Naval Research Laboratory, they were given short shrift there. The director read them something or other that he had written, and they were not given any hospitality at all. Dr. Baxter had letters from Secretaries Knox and Stimson. Well, anyway, he didn't want to use these letters right away. We were supposed to have access to anything pertinent to our subject.

Aspray:

Including the most confidential or the highest-level correspondence?

Thomas:

Oh, yes. We were bombarded with top secret material after other labs got started. At the end of the war, I had a wonderful knowledge of material.

Aspray:

How did you pull together the material for your index system for the Radiation Laboratory? Did you do it by talking to people in the Laboratory, or by reading documents. What method did you use?

Thomas:

Dr. Guerlac had interviews with everybody, even Watson-Watt.

Aspray:

Were these interviews taped?

Thomas:

Very often I was present, and I took down the interview. [Chuckling]

Aspray:

I see. There wasn't any taping of these interviews at the time?

Thomas:

Oh, no!

Aspray:

You would prepare notes that would then go into the files? Or would you just abstract the information for cards?

Thomas:

Oh, yes. I read all of the notebooks of the principals — 1100 notebooks — and indexed them.

Aspray:

What happened to your indexing system in the end? Does it still exist?

Thomas:

I don't think so because everything was transferred to Washington, as far as we knew. Some things were stored in Pennsylvania. When the American Institute of Physics came to write the history of radar in World War II, the manuscript that they recovered was very poor. It was hectographed. David Trigg, then a physicist, was able to figure out most of the things. When he found out that I was the assistant historian, he asked me about various things that he couldn't figure out. In that way, I received a complimentary copy of the books; [Chuckling] two volumes. Jerome Wiesner, ex-president of MIT and a member of the Radiation Laboratory, succeeded in getting the documents transferred to Waltham. When this new facility for government records was opened I went out there and examined various things. For instance, one figure in the early part of the transcript was missing. So I was given the job of finding out where that figure was. I was not able to do it because although I had the records of the photographic department, there was no record of what figures had been drawn and photographed for Dr. Guerlac. Or for anybody, for that matter. So I wasn't able to find that figure. They had to leave it out and renumber the figures.

Records and Documents

Aspray:

The documents that are in Waltham now, are they the same documents that were in the document room during the war?

Thomas:

No. We had our own documents. [Chuckling] But, no. Their documents were declassified, and they are available in other places. Well, of course, anything that was secret after the war is stored somewhere else. I don't know where.

Aspray:

What advice can you give (the next generation of historians) about what records they should be looking for, and where they should be looking for them? Do you have any comments along those lines to make?

Thomas:

Well, I think records should be in charge of the government if they have competent people. When I went to the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, it was just marvelous because, well, Dr. Dater, [Chuckling] a marvelous name for a historian — he had been an assistant professor of history at some university. And another man had been a state archivist. So they had everything beautifully organized. Great stuff. But each went back to his own institution after the war. I went to Raytheon Company for nine years after the war. Dr. Edlefsen hired me, and we were studying guidance and control. I had to go to Washington to get documents and so forth. The people I talked to didn't know anything about documents. Really!

Aspray:

During the war years, in addition to your — or as part of — your work, did you actually take a look at the documents that were in the document room? Did you use those for building up your own files?

Thomas:

Oh, yes.

Aspray:

What can you tell me about the kinds of records that were most valuable to you? Were there regular progress reports? Were there minutes of meetings? Just what kinds of records were produced?

Thomas:

We had all kinds of minutes of meetings, and the director's file. We did not use the different division files, but the director's file was supposed to have a carbon copy of everything. So I don't know where the director's file is. [Chuckling] I don't really know. Well, for instance, Dr. Getting told me at the end of the war when I was writing up the SCR-584, from his notebook I found out about the Signal Corps project that preceded the 584. It was a gunlaying system. I was talking to Dr. Getting after this. He told me that it was absolutely useless to write the history of everything because you could not see into all people's minds. [chuckling] Well, I could see into his mind very well. I had found from his notebook something on the SCR 268 with which he did not agree. He said, "You've got me there!" Suppose I had made a mistake and copied something wrong? I said, "Well, I can check this and show it to you, if you like." He said, "Oh, no, no." Well, then from the director's file I learned that the members of his group had had a series of meetings with the General Electric Company, and I said, "Well, according to this, you made a decision" and so what...? He said, "We made no decisions at all. We merely went there and... Pay no attention to the things in these director's file. We made a trip, and we had to write up something or other." He said, "No decisions were made." I said, "Well, you must have made some form of agreement, didn't you?" He said, "Oh, yes. But we went back and did what we agreed, and they did the same."

The reason why Dr. Guerlac had me approach Dr. Getting was because they both had been Junior Fellows at Harvard. Professor L.J. Henderson was the director of the Junior Fellows, and he made a pet of Dr. Guerlac — well, he wasn't Dr. Guerlac then, he was Henry E. Guerlac. Henry was bicultural. His father was of French descent although his father was born in this country in St. Louis. He had been to France many times, and he was just like a Frenchman. Of course L.J. Henderson was a Francophile. Well, I don't know who said, "Every man has two countries: his own and France." But I feel that way myself. [Chuckling] So it was natural that Henderson would have cared more for Dr. Guerlac than he did for the other fellows.

Organizational Structure of Rad Lab

Aspray:

Yes. Tell me about your experiences at the Laboratory. What can you tell me, say, about its organizational structure? The way that research was conducted. You were at Raytheon after the war. Could you contrast what went on at the Rad Lab with what went on Raytheon?

Thomas:

Well, it's quite different. In the first place, these were the finest physicists in the country. They brought in some of their students. Now, with a few blessed exceptions, most of the men were young. Dr. DuBridge was a young man. He was in his forties. So people were allowed to go ahead and experiment. And there was some rivalry within the divisions, but not much. Not much. Now, at Raytheon, where the profit motive intervenes, you had great rivalry between groups, and engineers had to produce something right away. So, they couldn't experiment.

Aspray:

I see. What about formality or informality at the Radiation Laboratory? Was there a vertical structure of command, and was that upheld strictly? Was there formal reporting procedures that were abided by? Or was it a rather informal arrangement?

Thomas:

There were reports that had to be made every so often. And there was a definite command. Dr. DuBridge was really in charge. But he was a very kindly person. So he was firm, but kindly. Wheeler Loomis, who was the director of personnel, kept on everybody. But there was a certain amount of informality. Of course there was a lot of secrecy. I couldn't tell my own son what I was doing at all. He didn't find out until after the war what I'd been doing at all.

Writing Rad Lab's History

Aspray:

If you were to look back at Dr. Guerlac's and your work now and look at the printed record, what would you do differently? What do you think might you change? Or what might you add to the records that were produced?

Thomas:

I think Dr. Guerlac was extraordinary in a way. When I joined the Lab, he had already written up the foundation of the Laboratory. He had written the section on how radar works and that sort of thing. Of course all of these physicists, you see, didn't know very much about microwaves. So they all had to have instruction. I had to have instruction. [Laughter] And so forth. And Henry did, too. If you had anyone as remarkable as Dr. Guerlac was, it would be all right to let it go until after the war with just two people, plus secretaries, typists, and so forth. I think it would have been better if we'd had more people. It was a large undertaking for both of us.

Aspray:

How long did it take to produce the volumes, the manuscript?

Thomas:

Well, the greater part of two years. Dr. Guerlac left in June of '46. He went back to Cornell, and I was left to finish up the typing of the manuscript until September. I couldn't go to Raytheon until October because my first examination for Ph.D. came up at the end of September. Then I came back to MIT to the Research Laboratory of Electronics as Editor of Publications. Now if I hadn't had practical experience, I wouldn't have been so valuable at RLE. It was very interesting at Raytheon, but I got tired of classified work. [Chuckling]

Work and Social Life at Rad Lab

Aspray:

Would you like to make some observations or tell some stories that you think are indicative of the way work or life went on at the Radiation Laboratory that we wouldn't find in the manuscripts? Or add emphasis to something that's already there. Things that you think are particularly important.

Thomas:

The British liaison officer two years after the war said, "What are you going to do in the way of blackmailing people?" I haven't any stories to tell. No. But of course I knew various things that were going on. Well, one thing that I would like to mention was that Dr. Robert Watson-Watt — later Sir Robert — came to the United States. And Alfred Loomis also was associated with the Radiation Lab. He was a stockbroker, but he was an MIT graduate. He opened a private laboratory and had MIT students down there experimenting with microwaves. Alfred Loomis was one of the people who was invited to serve on the NDRC committee right away. There was a meeting at which Dr. Watson-Watt spoke at the Algonquin Club in Boston, and Karl Compton was going to introduce him. Well, he forgot what his name was. [Laughter] And so finally he stumbled along and introduced him as Robert Scott-Watson. [Laughter] So that's the only story I ever tell.

Aspray:

The manuscripts mainly record the official story of what went on in the laboratory. What can you tell me about the social working conditions, the social life, outside life of people at the Laboratory?

Thomas:

We had a very gay social life. [Laughter] We had musical evenings. There was even a show written. There was a great deal of theatrical talent there. So it was very nice. There were picnics and so forth.

Aspray:

I see. Yet people worked very long hours?

Thomas:

Oh, yes. Tremendously long hours.

Aspray:

Okay. Well, are there any last words that you'd like to say? Any topics we haven't talked about that you think we should?

Thomas:

No, I think not. I think it's been very well covered.

Aspray:

Okay. Very good. Thank you very much.

Secrecy and "Red Tape"

Thomas:

I have two favorite stories about World War II. At the General Electric Company there was a Naval officer who was in charge of classifying. He received one page that was a description of Ohm's Law. He did not know what to do with it so he classified it "Confidential." How could Ohm's Law be kept confidential?

Then in 1943-44, Dr. Guerlac asked group leaders to discard from their files material that was no longer needed. He got only responses from the machine shop in the form of large job cards. There were hundreds of them and no good for us. Dr. Guerlac was leaving for a trip to France and he wanted to put this stuff in storage. He asked me to go to the purchasing department and order tape to tie them up. He said "black or navy blue to avoid dust, but we will take white if we have to." I went to Mr. Sayers [later Business Manager of RLE, MIT] and placed an order. We did not hear anything for a month so I asked Mr. Sayers about this. He said "You should have ordered red tape, not black or navy blue." I told Dr. Guerlac this. He said "Mr. Sayers must be crazy. We are almost strangled in red tape and he wants us to ask for more.”