Oral-History:Norman F. Ramsey (1991)
About Norman F. Ramsey
About the Interview
NORMAN F. RAMSEY: An Interview Conducted by John Bryant, IEEE History Center, 20 June 1991
Interview # 105 for the IEEE History Center, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.,and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Norman F. Ramsey, Electrical Engineer, an oral history conducted in 1991 by John Bryant, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.
Interview: Norman F. Ramsey
Interviewer: John Bryant
Date: 20 June 1991
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Bryant: This is an interview with Norman F. Ramsey on the 20th of June 1991, in Dr. Ramsey's office in the physics department of Harvard University. The interviewer is John H. Bryant. Could I open by asking for some background, your family, your father and why you chose to become a scientist?
Ramsey: My father was an Army Officer. I think he is the only person who served in the Spanish/American War, World War I, and all of World War II. I think it is unique because he was sixteen as an enlisted man in the Spanish/American War and he was about to retire before World War II came and then was kept on. During most of World War II he was Commanding General at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. Where I got interested in physics, it's hard to say. In fact it wasn't until I graduated from college that I realized I wanted to major in physics and do graduate work in physics. But I was interested in physics at an early age. One of the first things I found interesting in that area was in one of my father's books on chemical engineering. I know it was before age eleven. (I have a good way of guessing my ages because we moved every four years and I know the location and that puts a limit on the age.)
I was reading through one of his chemical engineering books which had a brief account of the Bohr theory of the atom, which was about all there was at that time, the Rutherford-Bohr model. I found it fascinating, and I guess on that basis, assumed it was engineering so I went into engineering. Or I thought that when I went to college I would go into engineering. Actually, my parents always expected me, wanted me to go to West Point and I guess I was thinking that was probably what I would do. But every time my father moved we went from a better school to a worse school, so each time I skipped a year and was therefore too young to go to West Point, and too young to be admitted to MIT, although I learned later they probably would have made exceptions. But my parents felt that if they had a rule we ought to follow it. There probably was a reason.
We had been in Fort Leavenworth up to the time, and I graduated from Fort Leavenworth High School. I had won a scholarship to Kansas University, but at that point, in the summer, my parents were moved to Governor's Island in New York City and it seemed a little bit foolish to go all the way back to Kansas. They were thinking about a preparatory school to kill a little time. Trinity School is what they had in mind. We went and visited. The head of that school decided I would probably be a real troublemaker in the sense that I had had a fair fraction of what they had to teach, and had done very well in my course work, and he recommended that I go up to Columbia. So I applied to Columbia after the term was two or three weeks underway. That was in 1931, the middle of the depression. Anybody who had a prospect of paying a fee they were happy to have, so they admitted me right away. We quickly went to buy some books and I entered Columbia as a freshman, initially as a pre-engineer. They had a rather dullish course, I regret to say, for pre-engineers which didn't appeal to me. Basically, it emphasized that all you should do is use tables, and you shouldn't worry about where the tables came from. I'm sure it has changed now. I made the opposite switch, but went too far in the other extreme. I shifted in my freshman year to mathematics and was actually a mathematics concentrator. They had a competitive prize each year which I managed to win, and through the mathematics department I was offered their best traveling fellowship. It was a two-year scholarship to Cambridge University in England, and that being a good center at that time, probably the greatest center for physics, I told them I would be happy to accept but only if I converted. I wanted to use the fellowship to convert from math to physics which disappointed them. But they let me have it so I spent two years at Cambridge.
There was always a problem going from the U.S. to Cambridge. In Cambridge, it's a three year course exclusively in physics, if you're a physics concentrator, and no general education. Of course you were supposed to have had all of that in the public schools that preceded the university. So the problem was that in order to enter I had two options. I could have been either a graduate student, starting immediately on research in which case I never would have learned any basic courses or an undergraduate. Probably the most advanced thing I had had in quantum mechanics is what I received before age eleven because they didn't teach much quantum mechanics to any of the undergraduates at Columbia at that time. So, I opted to take their tripos, which included the last two years of the regular three year undergraduate education. So I had the anomaly. I have two B.A. degrees. A lot of my friends have multiple doctorates including myself, but I'm one of the few who has multiple bachelor's degrees. This worked out very well because Maurice Goldhaber, who was later Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, was there. He was a refugee from Germany, and attached to one of the colleges. One of the term papers I had to write for him was on nuclear magnetic moments. This meant that I read some of I. I. Rabi's papers on nuclear moments. I found it a really fascinating thing with which I wanted to work.
So I finished at Cambridge, came back and entered graduate school at Columbia, and immediately began research. I just took exams. I never took any of the graduate courses at Columbia. Then in two years I got my Ph.D. from Columbia. So that was a total of only four years. At the time I was there Cambridge was a very fascinating place. They had a stellar array of people. Rutherford was still a very active Director of the Lab.
Bryant: In the Cavendish Lab?
Ramsey: The Cavendish Lab. The one that went back furthest in history was J.J. Thompson. He goes back to the stage of really finding out what an electron was. He made the first atom model, a so-called `plum pudding model' which assumed the atom was like a pudding with electrons stuck in it. He was still active, and I took one of his courses. He used to be Cavendish Professor. He gave that up so Rutherford could come in. Then he was master of Trinity College and was still lecturing though he was pretty old at that time. He was 79. Since I'm now 75 I shouldn't complain about that. His teeth used to fall out occasionally while he was lecturing. It was very interesting to hear him. But then there was also Cockcroft, Appleton, Oliphant, Dee, Dirac, R. H. Fowler, and Eddington; an absolutely stellar array of people. So that is the route by which I became interested in physics.
Then I worked with I.I. Rabi at Columbia. That had an interesting aspect also. I said I wanted to work with him on molecular beam measurements and Rabi was a little discouraged with me. He was happy to have me work with him, but he really felt the field of molecular beams was somewhat unpromising and washed-up, because they had measured the magnetic moment of the proton and the deuteron, with about 4 percent accuracy. Since the measurement depended upon measuring the magnitude of a highly inhomogeneous magnetic field, he wasn't optimistic it could done much better, and other nuclei were too complicated to understand so there wasn't much more of interest. Three or four months after I arrived he invented the magnetic resonance method and that field was off to a great start. For the next decade it was probably the most productive research method available despite the fact that much of the time was wiped out by World War II. So I had the good fortune of writing the first Ph.D. thesis on magnetic resonance of any kind, preceding NMR. We also discovered the quadripole moment of the deuteron, and measured the magnetic moment of the proton and the deuteron. It was a very lucky break, coming in at the very beginning of what was a very fruitful field. I did my Ph.D. in essentially two years.
Bryant: Finished in 1939?
Ramsey: I basically got it in 1939, but Columbia had a rule that to get your thesis you had to have some thousand copies of your thesis delivered which meant it had to wait until it was published in a scientific journal unless you had the financial resources to publish it privately. There were no xerox machines then. Usually it was a lag of about a year. I went to work in the Carnegie Institution of Washington in July of 1939, with my work all done, but I didn't actually get my degree awarded until June of 1940. I was on a two-year post-doctoral fellowship. (There weren't very many post docs in those days.) I worked with Merle Tuve and Larry Hafstad. It was a nuclear physics lab, although that same group had been involved in some of the earliest work that preceded radar in this country.
Bryant: Echo sounding of the ionosphere?
Ramsey: Echo sounding. They were doing some things with search light control in different forms. That was not the group I was involved in, but I saw it a couple of times when they set search lights out on the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.
At the time I was there, two of the scientists were post docs. The second was Jim Van Allen, later known for the Van Allen belts in outer space. The two of us joined together with a third part to buy an automobile. For $50 each, we each owned a third of a sixteen cylinder Cadillac. It cost $150 and was designed in the middle of prosperity up to 1929. It hit the market in 1929 and practically nobody bought it. I don't know how many were made.
Bryant: Of course gas only cost $.10 a gallon!
Ramsey: Oh, gas cost only $.10 a gallon, but for that car you measured gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon. We should have held on to that car because it's now worth about half a million dollars. But the idea of antique cars had not yet been invented. Being a unique one it was obviously going to be an antique. We then shifted to each owning half of a Buick. Unfortunately, we didn't keep it either so nobody made as much money as we would have if we had kept it for another ten years.
Although I had a two year scholarship the depression was still on and getting a job with prospects for tenure were pretty dull. The fellowship support was going to run out in a year. I was getting married in June of 1940 and really felt that it would be nice to have something that would have a prospect of continuing beyond one more year. So I applied for, and Rabi recommended me for, a position at the University of Illinois which started in September. I was at Illinois only six weeks or so when Rabi recommended me for the MIT Radiation Lab. Wheeler Loomis, who was then chairman of the physics department at Illinois, really encouraged me to go to the Radiation Lab. He thought I would probably be drafted if I stayed there, and he was very sympathetic to the work planned at MIT. He had been brought in on what it was going to be. As you know, he later became the Deputy Director of the MIT Radiation Lab.
Bryant: Before that you had a trip to the West Coast?
Ramsey: Yes, thank you, that's a good point. I mentioned I was married on June 3, 1940. Jerrold R. Zacharias was one of my collaborators on our very interesting experiments at Columbia. We had this good break of making major discoveries, and we were invited to give papers at the Seattle meeting of the American Physical Society in June 1940. He had a car, and he also had a wife but his wife couldn't join us at the beginning. She was going to join us during the trip. It was also very clear that the war was very imminent and this might be our last chance for a good trip. He provided the car and I jokingly say the three of us went on a honeymoon.
My wife and I had a two day honeymoon for ourselves in Connecticut and then we set off with Zacharias across the country. We gave our papers at Seattle. There were two dramatic things showing what was happening. In the first place, as we crossed the country, the news was terrible in Europe. The Nazis advanced across France at about the same speed as we advanced across the United States. It was pretty discouraging. Also, a fairly dramatic event showed that things were different. For the Seattle meeting of the American Physical Society, Hansen and the Varian Brothers had submitted a research paper on klystrons, but it was withdrawn. No one said why but the strong suspicion was security classification reasons.
At the end of that meeting Robert Oppenheimer drove with us to Berkeley. He was then teaching half time at Berkeley and half time in Pasadena at Cal Tech. He rode with us from Seattle to Berkeley, and we stayed at Robert's house in Berkeley. When we got down there, and I think that Zacharias stimulated this, we made a visit to the Sperry research laboratory at San Carlos. It was not much bigger than a couple of rooms, a pretty small place as I remember.
Bryant: Did you also go down to Stanford?
Ramsey: I think we also went to Stanford, but not necessarily on that trip. I don't remember much. I remember explicitly the visit at San Carlos.
Bryant: Yes, the Sperry plant was in San Carlos.
Ramsey: San Carlos, yes.
Bryant: Did anyone tell you that Charles Litton was trying to manufacture klystrons at the same time?
Ramsey: I did not hear about that. It was pretty peripheral to my own activities. I was along as a curious bystander, and they happily showed me around. Then we came back somewhat slowly. We stopped at Glacier National Park, and Jerrold Zacharias's wife, who is a medical research scientist, joined us at Glacier. We came back along Jasper Highway, which was a great way to go. It was brand new, just opened that year, a wholly gravel road, beautiful mountains. Because Leona Zacharias tended to get car sick, they had an open Ford touring car, after open cars were almost obsolete and before convertibles were invented. We had a marvelous view of the mountains, probably got an extra sunburn and a few other things. But in any case it was a very fine trip.
When we got back my wife and I went and visited my father for a short while at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. Then went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana. We settled down expecting to spend our lives there. We bought our furniture, much of which I still have, and a piano which one of my daughters now has. Within a very short time we found a pleasant small apartment in Urbana, Illinois. We liked it there very much, but then I was drafted to go to the Radiation Lab. I was on leave from the University of Illinois during the time I was at the Radiation Lab. Somewhere in the middle of the war, either when I was in Washington after the Radiation Lab, or maybe when I was in Los Alamos, I shifted from being on leave from the University of Illinois to being on leave from Columbia. At the end of the War I came back to Columbia.
Bryant: How did you come to work at the Radiation Lab?
Ramsey: I had advice to do so from Rabi, and from Wheeler Loomis, chairman of the department.
Bryant: The records show that Wheeler Loomis became an employee of the Radiation Lab in January of 1941.
Ramsey: Yes, that's right.
Bryant: He was already committed?
Ramsey: Wheeler Loomis certainly believed in it. When we first went to the Radiation Lab the expectation was that all of us from the universities would go there to work for about three months. We would learn the art of microwaves and radar and then come back to our own institution to do the further developments. But after the Radiation Lab was a month or so underway, before Loomis came out, it was clear that that was pointless. We really couldn't do it that way. It was obviously a highly integrated program and we couldn't fragment it that way. I think that within a few weeks it became obvious that that was the case. At that stage Loomis came out, but I think that at the time I left for RL it was a firm expectation that I would bring radar work back to the University of Illinois.
Bryant: When were you first made aware of the then secret subject of radar?
Ramsey: I can't remember exactly whether Wheeler Loomis told me about it before I went to the Radiation Lab or when I first arrived in Cambridge. I think I may have agreed to go out with just being assured by friends that it was a very important project. I may have actually been told what it was about to some extent.
I remember that I came very early. My impression is that I had badge #14. I found my badge for this last meeting,1 and it says S39. I think that the S represented that I went to Bowles' staff in Washington. I gave back my old badge and got a new one, the S standing for special, but I don't know, maybe I'm exaggerating. In any case it was very early in the game. I know that my wife was the first wife from out of town to join the Lab, and this meant that we could rent an apartment up along Mass. Avenue, just a little way up from Harvard. I remember also that we were eager to get going. On the day of arrival we found an apartment and arranged for some rental furniture. Then I went down to MIT, somewhere around three in the afternoon, telling my wife it was just to tell them I'm here and that I'd be back soon. It may have been at that time I was told what it was about. In any case, I can remember my wife being a little unhappy when I finally got back about seven or eight at night, in total darkness. The electric power hadn't come on and the furniture hadn't been delivered. She was sitting on the toilet seat with a flashlight trying to read the New Yorker magazine, and wasn't very happy I might add. From that point on we had many instances of late arrivals home. At that time we were still fairly newly married, only for a few months. The date I'd say was definitely before the November 11th meeting, the one that is mentioned in Guerlac's book.
Bryant: Probably the first staff meeting, was it?.
Ramsey: I think November 11th was the first staff meeting, according to Guerlac. The first group meeting, the whole group, was November 11 according to Guerlac's book, and it fits fairly well, but I would've thought that I was at one meeting even earlier. We had a couple of amusing things at that meeting, and made a couple of major mistakes. One was that we thought we needed a name for the laboratory. The word for us at that time was not radar. I didn't even hear the word radar. It was radio location. It was started by the British. The British word for radar was radio location. Intriguingly enough, Guerlac's book never uses the word radio location. By the time he wrote his book, it was called radar. I checked this with Ed Purcell before my talk to make sure I was right. Obviously we couldn't call the Lab the radio location laboratory. That secret was too super to give away. Then we had the following bright idea, which in the long run was not so bright. Ernest Lawrence had been very instrumental in recruiting people for the laboratory, and was Director of the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley working on nuclear physics, so we could honor him with the name Radiation Laboratory, which would be technically correct since we were working with electromagnetic radiation. A lot of our people had been nuclear physicists so we thought the name would mislead the Germans to thinking that we were working on something totally useless like a nuclear bomb.
Bryant: Were any members of the Microwave Committee present?
Ramsey: There may have been, I do not know. I really do not remember.
Bryant: E. G. Bowen?
Ramsey: Bowen was in very early, but I don't think he was in that very first meeting. I think it was really our staff.
Bryant: Was he a good lecturer?
Ramsey: Yes, a very stimulating lecturer, a very interesting person, delightful, and very, very smart. I saw lots of him in that early period.
The second sort of goof in that first meeting is when we organized ourselves in groups according to the tasks we needed to do. There was a magnetron group that Rabi was going to head. I think Purcell and I were the only ones available to be in that group at that time. There was a modulator group which Milt White had, and an indicator group under Bacher, I believe. Our goof is that we never thought to have a microwave or RF group. We just didn't realize there was a need. Lester C. Van Atta was in charge of the antenna group. He was probably there from MIT. Nobody worried about how you connect one thing to another. I think we just didn't realize there was a problem. Most of us had had some radio experience, but it was mostly in the tens of megacycles, maybe a little higher than that. I don't think any of us had any real microwave experience.
Our early microwave inexperience is illustrated by the first microwave device built for the laboratory, and designed by Rabi and myself. I wish it were around. It would have been a marvelous historic exhibit to show the low level at which we started. The device was to measure the power of the magnetron. Bell Labs had made a model of the original British magnetron and we had one and wanted to measure it. We thought we knew enough to know that there ought to be two adjustments, for the real and imaginary parts of the impedance--resistance and reactance. But we really didn't know much about waveguides, or anything of that kind. In this period the Radiation Lab wasn't using waveguides. It was using coax transmission lines with plastic bead supports for the center conductor, which gave us awful trouble because at higher frequency you got reflection from them. But actually we did all right on our power matching. The transmission lines were short enough that we didn't have to use bead supports. But we did feel that we should have two tuners, which had slide adjustments off to the side. In a short while we got it going, and it worked quite well. We got a good measurement of the power, and the magnetron was working fairly well.
Bryant: Was this a water load?
Ramsey: This was a water load. We matched into essentially a water cooled resistor. That part worked fine. But we found what seemed like an interesting discovery. We only needed one adjustment, because wherever we adjusted one stub tuner we could always compensate with the other. That was a very interesting observation we felt, but really one adjustment was all that was needed. It was a week or so later before we realized that by pure accident we had designed it with the two stubs a half wavelength apart, so obviously one compensated for the other. That shows the low level at which we started. Another goof is that for a surprisingly long time we just never had what might be called a transmission line group. Transmission lines were worried about a little by the magnetron people, a little by the TR box people, and a little by the antenna people. Transmission lines later were recognized as one of the key things. Later, a month or so later, when we started developing the 3 centimeter magnetron, we figured that we couldn't use coax transmission lines. So we started working right away on waveguides, which was the right thing to do.
Bryant: Did you visit Bell Labs?
Ramsey: We had visits to Bell Labs. Rabi had a fairly early visit to Bell Labs, and I had a number of visits there. I'm not sure how early the first one was; certainly not within the first month. We designed our first parts without any benefits of such visits. But Jim Fisk, who was in charge of magnetron work at Bell Labs, would get up to Cambridge to visit. I had a fairly early visit to Bell Labs, but I think I had been at the Radiation Lab for at least a month or two. Probably this was just as well because I was learning a lot during that first month or two, partly by making mistakes. This enabled me to get more out of the trip when I did visit Bell Labs. We had a close relationship with Bell Labs. In fact, it was being contemplated that Western Electric would be the manufacturer of the first AI radar set.
Bryant: At the risk of interrupting your discussion, the Microwave Committee, from E. G. Bowen's design, had ordered from various companies not only magnetrons from Bell Labs, but subsystem to make a complete radar: receivers from two or three places, indicators from RCA, scanner antennas from Sperry perhaps. Those were starting to come in I suppose?
Ramsey: Those were starting to come in. The Lab began taking them over and modifying them and getting additional ones. But we were trying to get a number of the things contracted out.
Bryant: Who was coordinating these orders that had already been placed and were coming in?
Ramsey: It wasn't being very well coordinated.
Bryant: Was Frank Lewis there?
Ramsey: Frank Lewis I knew very well, and he had been working with General Radio and certainly was one of the more knowledgeable people.
Bryant: I think he had been at Loomis Lab.
Ramsey: He'd been at General Radio and then at Loomis Lab, or maybe it was the opposite way around. Yes, he'd been at Loomis Labs.
Bryant: He tells me that the Air Corps had an aircraft in development that would carry the Airborne Intercept radar.
Ramsey: That's right.
Bryant: The P-61, at Northrop, but I don't find it reported in Guerlac's book or anywhere else.
Ramsey: Yes, it was a night fighter plane. As I remember, it was a twin-tailed night fighter. It was to have a radar, with a radar dome, and that was being started. I had little to do with that because in the early stage, in the first month or so, I was in the magnetron group. Then Rabi became a Division Head, and for a short period of time I became head of the magnetron group. During that period, although trying to develop better magnetrons at ten centimeters, we also started doing things at three centimeters.
Then we set up a so-called advanced development group of which I was initially in charge. As our major project we chose work at three centimeters, and at that stage I had little to do with ten centimeter work. We concentrated on developing hardware, the plumbing. The 10 cm work began by impedance matching with too many adjustments. At each place where there was a transition there would be a triple stub tuner, and then another triple stub tuner, and this was a disaster because it was very difficult to adjust. All of these were independent adjustments. Initially the laboratory didn't make much use of slotted line sections to measure standing waves, except in the development of basic components. It was possible to match a huge reflection at a precise frequency, but a frequency shift just a little bit made it...
Ramsey: Very unmatched. Eventually we learned the art. That's one of the things we were learning. Initially, most of the laboratory waveguide work was being done by the three centimeter group because the ten centimeter group was still dominantly working with the coax lines. The initial work leading the SCR 584 was starting, and some of that soon went with waveguides. I think most of the later waveguide developments were to a fair degree taken over from the three centimeter work, and improved. I remember for example just one of the problems. When one just wanted to fasten two waveguides together, one either butted them together and hoped they wouldn't spark, but you could see those little sparks at the joint. Or, else one had fingers inside where you put them together, but these tended to spark and destroy the impedance matching.
Bryant: Spring fingers?
Ramsey: Spring fingers, yes. Then we tried the trick of using a butt joint with a choke, which worked quite well. So we shifted over to that. As far as I know that was my invention, although Shep Roberts in the Radiation Lab joined in that work.
The main work of our group after it became the advanced development group in Rabi's division and I was head of that group, was to develop the hardware that would be suitable for X-Band, or the three centimeter radar. We felt we would have to go to waveguides because there were already troubles at ten centimeters with the beaded lines, and it would just be that much worse in our case. So we started immediately working exclusively on waveguides. Not much work had been done on waveguides. We got a little bit of help at the start from [MIT Professor] W. L. "Zike" Barrow. Shep Roberts may have worked with Barrow earlier. We set out developing various things. One problem we had was connecting/disconnecting the waveguide sections, for which I suggested the choke joint. Shep Roberts did a lot of the testing and developing of the dimensions of it. By that time we knew a little bit more about tuners although we erred for awhile as we did at ten centimeters of tending to put tuners every place. If you have too many independent tuners you have real trouble.
Bryant: You have a very narrow band system.
Ramsey: Exactly, and you probably don't get it all tuned right because you don't maximize it the right way. Then fairly early in our group we began using a slotted line with a crystal pickup to look for standing waves and with that we could do very much better.
As the advanced development group, we were separate from the main airborne group working on ten centimeters. For our airborne system tests we had a JRB, a Beachcraft assigned to us. In fact we had two of them, one of which was for development of night fighter apparatus and the other for sea-search. The first one of these we had going was the sea-search one. Luebke was working with me. The pilots of course really wanted to be off to the war, and not ferrying scientists around, but they were doing their bit. On our very first flight with the three centimeter gear we wanted to see the equivalent of a submarine conning tower. First we just looked for trash in the harbor. We asked the pilot to find floating cans, which we didn't see. Then we asked him to pick a boat which we didn't see. Then we asked him to pick a bigger boat which we didn't see and finally we asked him to pick us a still bigger boat and he said, in a disgusted voice, "that was the Queen Mary we just flew over!" What had happened is that we had too many adjustments which really blocked the signal completely. In another week or so we were getting really nice signals, which showed the (system) to be very effective at picking up the equivalent of conning towers. Then we did some trips over Cape Cod and Nantucket, which really showed beautiful resolution; showed that there was real possibility of using this X-Band (system) for navigation. This is described in final report number 3.
Bryant: I would like to explore a side issue. Do you believe there is any likelihood that American-built radar detected an enemy craft of any kind before Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941?
Ramsey: The answer is yes, but you would have to look up the history. There was a lot of concern about the submarine menace as I remember at a very early stage. We had a problem that caused a bit of trouble. As I mentioned, these pilots were eager, wished they were fighting the War. Instead, they were ferrying scientists around. One of the days out on tests they picked up a signal like a conning tower, and it was a German submarine. There were no depth charges or anything like that, so the pilot threw a couple of wrenches at the submarine. For a while that was a disaster for the test program, because for the next month or so pilots insisted on carrying depth bombs as well as the test gear and that of course delayed the flights and the testing. Now I don't know the date of that, and I wouldn't quite guarantee whether it was three centimeter or ten centimeter (equipment) being tested. I was not involved in that flight. I think it could have been before the War [started, but] I just don't know.
Bryant: Changing the subject, in the magnetron group at Radiation Laboratory, were there no vacuum systems or facilities for making experimental tubes?
Ramsey: No, we decided at a fairly early stage, I think very wisely, almost in our first meeting, that it would be pretty complicated to develop a tube shop with all of the equipment. We decided we would see if Raytheon Company could not make the magnetrons for us. We would design and they would then construct. They had a very good man, Percy Spencer, who undertook the work. He was very good and very quick. We designed the first one pretty much duplicating the ten centimeter design. They did most of the three centimeter ones that we designed. We made no effort to develop our own tube shop, at least while I was in the group. For testing the principles, I remember that we made some large-scale magnetron cavities just out of copper. Then we did mode tests. It was something like this big around, as I remember, so we had a correspondingly greater wavelength. We would couple in, and see what the Q the circuit was with that arrangement. We did that kind of thing. But the principle thing we did was to design and test the magnetrons.
This early phase, particularly the magnetron and the three centimeter group, is totally missing from Guerlac's book, for a very understandable reason. He wasn't there then. I left, and the people who did most of the work left before he got to the lab, so he didn't have anyone to talk with about it. For example, the whole development of the three centimeter magnetrons is summarized in his book in one sentence: "emerged from Raytheon." Well, they did indeed emerge from Raytheon, but after a lot of design and discussion by our group. Percy Spencer also contributed many good things.
Bryant: What kind of drawings or direction did you give them?
Ramsey: We would make essentially a design of what the arrangement of the cavity would look like, a cross-sectional view, almost like the figure on the books. We would do that in different forms, with the bigger cylinders, smaller cylinders, trying to see what the Q on this model was, and then adapt from that.
Bryant: You had some empirical design data?
Ramsey: We developed some empirical design data, by seeing what things worked, how they worked.
Bryant: Was John Slater involved in any of this?
Ramsey: We had a number of conversations with John Slater about the principles, but he was not personally involved in the design. Basically, what we had was the Oliphant design and then we tried to improve it. We knew what Fisk at Bell Labs was doing. If one of us made an advance we would tell the other. One of the reasons we concentrated more on 3 cm is that Bell Labs were really doing pretty well on the 10 cm work. We first tried to just scale down, and then we got into problems with things being too small. So then we'd try a design in which there weren't any cylindrical holes, just blades. That's not far from what later became the rising sun style magnetron. That was typical. I don't know how many designs were tried. In some respects it was a slow process. After we had the design it had to be built at Raytheon.
Bryant: Raytheon must have had a good-turn around time.
Ramsey: They had a very good turn around, and we were very pleased with the way they worked. One joking comment I might make shows how fast things moved. Thanksgiving is not all that long after November 11, and Luis Alvarez had arrived during that time. He was assigned to my group because he'd arrived after it was too late to get a group of his own. But he soon went on to other things.
At just that stage the local Cambridge people thought it would be very nice for different people in the Cambridge area to invite all of the out of town people to Thanksgiving dinner. Rabi, Luis Alvarez, and I, and our wives, were invited to the Marshall's for dinner. Lawrence K. Marshall was President of Raytheon. We had a very nice Thanksgiving, a very pleasant time. In the course of it he said what a great thing it (The RL) was going to be for Raytheon and MIT and the vicinity. We had already gotten them started making some tubes for us. He also commented they were expanding. and were going to make a big issue of stock and so on. I realized afterward it was probably a good time to buy Raytheon stock because people who did it, which did not include any of us at dinner, made a mint. There are several companies which got founded with the money made on Raytheon, on an investment like $2,000 worth of Raytheon stock. We probably didn't have $2,000 anyway.
Bryant: Very interesting. I think that the British were also interested in X-band, and had built some X-band magnetrons before 1940 was over, but your efforts were totally independent?
Bryant: I just wanted to establish that.
Ramsey: I was sent to England in 1941 to report on what we had done on three centimeters because it was a general agreement that we were well ahead.
Bryant: That was after Bainbridge went?
Ramsey: Bainbridge had the very first trip from the Radiation Lab to England and I think mine was the next.
Bryant: You must have been there in the summer of 1941.
Ramsey: That's right. I was there as the Germans invaded Russia instead of invading England. When I went I thought they were going to invade England. Instead, they invaded Russia. I was primarily reporting on what we had done on three centimeters to their various groups, and they didn't show much in the way of competing tubes.
Bryant: Do you recall who you talked with?
Ramsey: I talked to a lot of people. I talked to Oliphant. I went up to his lab at Birmingham. I talked to the people at TRE Swanage, where Rowe was the Director, and the people in the lab. I visited all of their main installations. I also went to one of the night fighter control stations. I was there close to a month.
There was another mission which was sent over at about the same time, maybe a little later, but we overlapped. That was Dale Corson, and I think Jim Lawson. His trip may have been independent, but I think they were together. They brought with them the best American radar that we had developed at MIT.
Bryant: Airborne intercept?
Ramsey: It wasn't a full control interception device. It was essentially the best roof system we had by that time, and we were very proud of it.
Bryant: It had a single antenna?
Ramsey: It had a single antenna but I don't think it rotated or anything like that. In any case it was set up at TRE. To the great disappointment of Corson and his group, when they tuned it up the best they knew how, although they seemed to get echoes back about as well as in the United States, the British were getting them two or three times further away. Since signals vary as the fourth power of range, that's a very big difference. I helped them a bit. We jointly shifted components around, and when we put a British TR box and a British crystal detector in our set we got about the same signal as the British.
At the MIT Lab, the first thing tried was a TR box and a crystal, but when the TR box and a grounded grid triode were used the signals were bigger. So, the U.S. people had shifted to the grounded grid triode pretty exclusively. When we got to England we found that we got signals as well as the British when we used the British TR box and crystal. It was then apparent that what had actually been done at MIT was to show that a grounded grid triode is better than a burned out crystal, and that our TR box was not effective.
I was the first one of the group to come back, and I was given two or so TR boxes and maybe half a dozen crystals by the British. I brought them back in my pouch. That was the period of the neutrality act, and American planes were not allowed to land on the shore of a nation at war. The way you went to and from England was to take a Pan American flying boat to Bermuda, Azores, etc., and then to Lisbon, and in Lisbon you changed planes to England. On the way back, I had these TR boxes and crystals in my pouch around my waist and noting that the plane on the next gate was Lufthansa to Berlin, I decided I'd be a little careful not to get on the wrong airplane by mistake.
On my return the first thing I did at MIT was talk about what I had learned. It was one of the best colloquia I had ever given. I kept telling them what we'd learned, and my real punch line was how much better we could do with a really good TR box and a crystal over what we had done, and ended dramatically by pulling three TR boxes and half a dozen crystals out of my pouch and handing them to the Lee DuBridge. Then I had to go and give the same lecture, mainly to Bell Labs, and I was away for the next couple weeks. When I came back I asked "how is it going, are you getting bigger signals?" It turned out that the Lab was so busy with its programs that the TR box and the crystals were still in the safe and hadn't been tried at all. In fact the Lab didn't pay much attention until about the time I got back and Lawson and maybe Corson came back. I helped Lawson with adapting one of the American sets on the roof at MIT to the British crystal, and only after we were receiving signals on that system from airplanes several times further away than the best MIT set, was this work really taken seriously. It was then taken very seriously, and something was finally done about it. I learned from this a little about how organizations function, even a first rate Lab of which there are no better than the Radiation Lab. When you have a big program it's hard to change when you should because it takes the time of busy people. You have to be really convinced that you should drop something to do that. Then, they went very vigorously into it. That really started things, and as far as the U.S. was concerned the use of solid state devices really starting going strong.
Bryant: Interesting case of technology transfer.
Ramsey: Yes, that's a very interesting case and that clearly came from the British. In fact, as far as I know, at one time I possessed all of the useful solid state devices in the United States.
Bryant: In your pouch.
Ramsey: In my pouch, from the British.
Bryant: That was the purpose of their Tizard Mission to North America.
Ramsey: Yes, that interchange worked very, very well.
Bryant: No holds barred.
Ramsey: It was quite clear that at that stage, the flow of information from us to the British at three centimeters far exceeded that in the opposite direction. I don't really remember any significant new thing I learned from them that we hadn't already worked out for ourselves on three centimeters. I don't even remember at this time what they had been doing on the three centimeters. Whereas, inversely, it is very clear that we learned a lot more from the British on ten centimeters than they learned from us. After that we were really pretty well caught up.
Bryant: Bowen represented the British Mission at RL, and presumably he was getting memos from the British Labs regularly. Did you have a library of these or a file somewhere?
Ramsey: Yes, those were available all of the time.
Bryant: Did you read them regularly?
Ramsey: It was a busy Lab. You don't read as much as you ought to read, but we had one thing that was very good about the Lab. They did have a more or less open weekly colloquium for this kind of work, and that kept most of us up-to-date.
Bryant: Are you talking about the Monday lectures?
Bryant: Was attendance highly encouraged?
Ramsey: There were two different meetings, so I've got to keep them straight. There was a sort of general colloquium where you reported what you were doing, and then there was one for which there was a desire to keep it restricted. This is a little later in the period, although not much later, when we began getting some combat reports on radar from the British because they had it in use. It was decided that since what was actually happening in combat was highly classified, the meetings really should be kept down to a small size. On the other hand, they wanted the key people around the Lab to know about it. It's always a problem whether you're a key person or you're not a key person. The idea was to call that meeting the coaxial plug standardization committee. That was selected because it was the dullest operation we could think of around there. Nobody was going to compete and say he wants to be a member of it. It later became known as the plug committee.
Bryant: When did it start?
Ramsey: I don't remember the exact date. It started while I was still at the lab so it was probably 1941.
Bryant: What about the Hansen lectures, when did they start?
Ramsey: They were fairly early. There were two sets of lectures that were informative: by Hansen and E. U. Condon. I'm pretty sure there were notes by E. U. Condon on a few things about standing waves, really an electromagnetic theory course, but with standing wave theory. I think that's where I first began appreciating the [subject]. And then Hansen came in with a sort of a higher level course with engineering applications. Condon's was more of a fundamental mathematical nature.
Bryant: Was that a regular time of week?
Ramsey: What I remember more clearly than the time of week is the notes. It's even conceivable in the case of Condon that it wasn't lectures, but notes. [Note that the interviewer committed an error by boring in on Hansen instead of listening and learning more about the Hansen and Condon lectures].
Bryant: I've seen the Hansen papers. They're on record.
Ramsey: Yes. They were very useful notes.
Bryant: Hansen had one of the first badges, but I guess he never really spent much time there.
Ramsey: Yes, I think he had one of the first badges. I think he gave some of the very first lectures. I believe it was from his notes that I discovered what a goof we had made on our first tuning device. Before we learned about the Smith chart we had this other rectangular version of the same thing. I learned how to use that before I learned how to use the Smith chart. In fact most of our early three centimeter development was done with a rectangular impedance chart, rather than a Smith chart.
Bryant: In the beginning, the projects at RL were pretty much already in mind, but at some stage the military started putting in some of their requirements.
Ramsey: Yes, I can say something about that. At the very beginning there was primarily one project. It was AI (Airborne Intercept radar) at ten centimeters. That was the whole thing in a certain sense. Then fairly early we started working in separate groups, so I don't know exactly the history on what led to the SCR-584. And then ASV (Air to Surface Vessel). One thing that branched off all on its own was LORAN, which went to a different building. They chose a longer wavelength, it wasn't microwave, and we had very little to do with them. For awhile we didn't realize it was under the Radiation Lab. I had forgotten what it was. So these were the initial projects.
The development on three centimeters was solely at our own initiative. Nobody asked for it, but it was just a feeling between Rabi and myself, that we ought to look at something for the future like shorter wavelength. If somewhat shorter is good, then even shorter should be even better and a factor of three is a good factor. But more than that gets hard. So on that basis we started on three centimeters, and I think that the British probably did the same thing. They had similar reasons.
But then as the magnetrons were coming out, we began talking systems. The Naval Air people, Lloyd Berkner among others were very eager and they very quickly said they wanted ASV, and 3 cm ASV was our initiative. But they wanted an airplane version of sea-search, and were also interested in the three centimeter for night fighters. They had the problem on the carriers that this P-61, the fighter that was commissioned right at the beginning of the War, could not land on a carrier. It was a big plane. As I remember it had two fuselages and a middle fuselage with two tails, I don't remember exactly the size. But in any case, to go on an aircraft carrier, you had to have wings that folded, so the Navy very quickly put a request for an F4U. This became the AIA and the ASD projects, and then picked up various other names. The ASD was one. And AIA I think was the terminology used for the first of the 3 cm airborne night fighter interception system.
Ramsey: Navy, at three centimeters.
Bryant: How much coordination was there with the industrial manufacturers?
Ramsey: There was a lot. Most of this was going to be manufactured by industries. The original plan on the first AI was that the Radiation Lab would develop and Western Electric would manufacture. Then there was a problem that developed. The normal Western Electric style is for Bell Labs to do development and design for them, so Bell Labs was a little unhappy. It looked as if the Radiation Lab design would go to Bell Labs, which would re-develop, and then it would go to Western Electric. Therefore, we began branching out a little bit, having some things made directly by other industrial organizations.
They did very good things. But from the Radiation Lab's point of view it was a bit disappointing to see things take that much longer by going back to almost the beginning. That cooperation worked very well but it did mean a greater desire on the part of the Radiation Lab to get some of the things started and ready. In the case of three centimeters, we didn't have that intermediate link. We did later actually have things developed. I mean the APQ-13 and what not. I think it was a Bell Labs, or a Western Electric product, I can't remember for sure. But I know we worked with several different companies. On the antenna, for example, we worked with Submarine Signal Company.
Bryant: This was a pretty early stage for the partnership between a civilian laboratory like Radiation Lab and industry.
Ramsey: I'll give you an example. The TR box used waxed seals, and therefore could not be outgassed during manufacture which greatly limited their life. Glass sealed ones were being developed by Sperry Gyroscope Company and Hygrade Sylvania. That was for three centimeter TR.
Bryant: You probably hosted engineering and manufacturing people from industry at your establishment.
Ramsey: That's right, and we'd show them what we had and give them drawings and then they would start. I remember fairly early in the case of AIA and the ASV we made the first units and the follow-on units were pretty much made by various companies. It was one of the fairly well known companies like Philco, which did that. We also produced one of the AI sets and the H2X, a follow-on from the ASV.
Bryant: The H2X, did it have a continuous circular scan?
Ramsey: That had a continuous circular scan.
Bryant: So it had to be placed underneath the aircraft?
Ramsey: That's right, the aircraft was a JRB. We had two JRBs for the early phase of development. It had a central nose, and one radar used a spiral scan because it eventually had to fit in a fairly small space. Everything had to be done by the pilot. The other JRB was modified to accommodate a three centimeter scanner underneath the nose. That gave 360 degrees scan.
Bryant: Can you identify that document, the second one that you referred to?
Ramsey: Yes, this is report 93-2 dated October 27, 1942. This was some time after we had actually done the work. It was signed by me as group leader, so that helps confirm the date when I left. I was at Radiation Laboratory at least until October of 1942.
Bryant: I understand that the British had an H2S, S-band.
Ramsey: The British had an H2S, that's right. They had the H2S before we had the H2X for X-band ASV. I flew with Luebke on a rather jokingly disastrous flight where we couldn't even see the Queen Mary. Then we got it going well. Then we got these very spectacular pictures of Cape Cod and Nantucket. Of course these are just water/land marks, but it looked so good that we tried various things. On one flight with just an ordinary map, we went over land [to see what we could pick up]. I think our conclusion was that radar mapping over land was promising but difficult. You really had to have well-developed maps and better coordination with the pilot than we had. It would probably work if you could identify occasional clear objects like rivers in the right place. It was clearly very much better at X-band than at ten centimeters, and promising, but not easy.
Bryant: It went on to be used extensively for navigation and blind bombing?
Ramsey: Navigation, blind bombing both of these. For example, it was used at Nagasaki. The bombing run was done on radar and then the bombardier was able to take over at the last fifteen seconds.
Bryant: So then you went to Washington, D.C.?
Ramsey: Yes. That was in conjunction with the Radiation Lab activities. As I mentioned earlier, the Navy was really doing well with our interrelations. They were interacting particularly well with the three centimeter group, and they were extremely good. We would have meetings with them with people like Berkner, and they would come visit, look, and make decisions. They really did want to have a sea-search anti-submarine, three centimeter device. Their ability to make decisive decisions probably came with their experience running ships or something similar. Berkner would speak with authority and say, "All right, we'll provide an airplane, you do that, we'll do that," and then it would happen. They were following through very well. They got their training programs going.
The Air Force, it was the Army Air Corps at that time, was different. We really had a fair amount of trouble with them. They more-or-less felt that they had some radar, the long wavelengths radar. It was very hard to get new programs into use, and it takes lots of signatures. You had to have fifty signatures to get new projects under way, and basically not much was happening. People would come down and say, "we'll try" and then nothing would happen. Then, Edward. L. Bowles' office was set up under the Secretary of War, Stimson.
I was asked, because of the relationships between the Navy and our three centimeter group, to go down as expert consultant to the Secretary of War, and see if we couldn't do something about the Army Air Corps too. I became an expert consultant to the Secretary of War, and worked out of Stimson's office, but actually was assigned to the so-called requirements branch. They were the ones who determined the requirements: what the military requirements were, how many of each thing they should get, what they should get, what the nature of it was. A particularly effective person there was Colonel Maxwell.
Bryant: Now this was not Bowles' group?
Ramsey: No, I was employed by Bowles' group, but my office was with the requirements group.
Bryant: That must have been quite a concession to bring in a civilian?
Ramsey: It probably was. Colonel Maxwell is probably largely responsible because one of the things I learned working even for less than a year in the Pentagon building during the war, was that there were some people who were extremely effective and there were some people who were just bottlenecks. I had a feeling that if 80 percent of the people I got to know were removed from their jobs the war effort would go better. The other 20 percent were absolutely indispensable. It was also clear, although I could name the 80 percent that you could get rid of, if I were Secretary of War I wouldn't know how to do it. The ones that weren't doing very much were the ones that spent their time writing reports about how wonderful the things they were doing were whereas the ones like Maxwell were so busy doing valuable things that they had no time to write self-protecting reports. He probably ended the war as a full Colonel. He was so busy getting things done and did so much that he probably also made some mistakes which got him into trouble. The other people were so busy protecting themselves from making mistakes they didn't do anything useful at all.
Bryant: Did your background with growing up with the Army help?
Ramsey: I think it probably did help. I felt very comfortable with Army officers. I had to deal with them a lot, although I'm not a military man. Either you can be overly awed by them, or underly respectful. I also recognize their virtues. A lot of them are very good.
Bryant: But it also helped the military people accept you.
Ramsey: I think it probably did.
Bryant: You understood their life.
Ramsey: Yes, I think that's right. I think we always got along well. I didn't complain about some of the trivial things that you could complain about. Actually, one of the most useful things I did at that stage (and it is a good example of how things are actually done) is the following. Late one Friday afternoon after I'd been there a few months, I got a call from a Second Lieutenant, maybe it was First Lieutenant, in one of the other divisions. He had been told by his superior to write a five-year radar procurement program for the Army Air Corps and have it ready by Monday morning. He didn't even know much about what radar was. Obviously what had happened was that the Secretary of War said 'get a radar program', the next person down said 'get a radar program' and finally it ended up on the desk of this poor Lieutenant.
Bryant: He would have been from Wright Field?
Ramsey: No, he was in Washington.
Bryant: But it was the Wright Field people who would have been concerned with airborne radar.
Ramsey: No, they would have been concerned with actually getting it, but the deciding of what to get was Washington. It was closely related to the requirements branch, but was more on numbers. As I remember, we defined what the military requirements were of the equipment they should get: should have a certain range, should do this and should do that. This was another, slightly parallel branch that had to determine how many you get. This had been bounced from a high ranking General finally down to a Lieutenant who had to prepare the first draft. So the two of us went into his office. I had a list of all the possible radars that were available or were hoped to be available. He had a list of how many airplanes were going to be bought of every kind. Then the two of us sat with our feet up on the desk practically day and night, from Friday evening to some time Sunday to get the job completed and get a secretary in to type it. He would say, "You know, we're going to get, oh, five thousand B-29s," and I would say, "Well, we ought to have an H2X on every one, we ought to have a tail warning device on every one, and one in ten should have Eagle." We then multiplied these together, added them all up, and it was about a two million dollar program by the time we got through.
To the best of my knowledge, the paper had his signature on it. It certainly didn't have my signature, my name wasn't even on it. Eventually, this program bounced up the line in the system. This program went through the system I would say with no more than 5 to 10 percent adjustments. It went up the line, and that's what almost all of the procurement of radar was based on during World War II; things that were actually ordered. As I remember, it was a several billion dollar program--a lot of money at that time. This was probably one of the most useful things I did.
Somewhere around March or April of 1943, Robert Oppenheimer approached me to see if I would go to Los Alamos. This was just when the lab there was getting set up. Bob Bacher was still working at the Radiation Lab, but he had been recruited by Oppenheimer and was fully in the know of the subject. He and Oppenheimer met with Ken Bainbridge and myself at the Watergate restaurant. This was before the construction of the Watergate apartments, the infamous Watergate Hotel. There was a Watergate restaurant, sort of a Howard Johnson's or something like that in the Watergate area. Oppenheimer told us a fair amount about the progress. We felt yes, we should go there.
Incidentally, I have always felt that one thing that Oppenheimer did was a bit cute. This was in the days with gasoline rationing, and Bainbridge was worried about recreation. New Mexico sounded far away and he loves fishing so he asked Oppenheimer, "How is the fishing at Los Alamos?" Oppenheimer said "It's great, the Rio Grande is near there." Well, Bainbridge said "How easily can you get from Los Alamos to the Rio Grande by bicycle?" Oppenheimer said, "Very easily, it's about a twenty minute trip by bicycle." He didn't say, and fortunately Bainbridge didn't ask "How is it to get back to Los Alamos?" because there's a couple of thousand feet difference in altitude, easy to go down, not so easy to get back.
But, in any case, I indicated, yes, I would accept a transfer to Los Alamos. I was working for Bowles in the Secretary of Defense's office. Oppenheimer said I should not talk about this and that he would tell Groves to get my release. In the meantime, they wanted me to do some supervising of tests. They wanted to build some dummy bomb shapes at the Dahlgren Proving Grounds on a reduced scale. It was called a sewer pipe bomb, an early gun model. I said, yes, I would be glad to do that. It would only take a couple of afternoons. Well, then time went on and I didn't hear from them. In fact, from March until August I didn't hear. I then learned from Bowles what had happened. Bowles and Groves reported directly to the Secretary of War. Both of them had extremely high priority, and neither of them had ever lost a battle with the Secretary. Once you're in that level you can't afford to lose a battle or you'll lose another battle. It turned out I had become a test of strength between the two organizations. Groves would say I should be assigned to his organization, and Stimson would pass it on to Bowles, who'd say I can't release him and he'd pass it back to Stimson. Stimson would be reviewing the troops in Africa or something like that and then a month later it would get passed back.
This was going on and nothing happened and finally Bowles called me up, just as we were leaving for a three day vacation in the Shenandoah Valley area. He asked if I would take a strong stand in favor of staying in Washington. I told him I really had thought by then I should leave. I felt like I had been there a year or so. Although I got a lot of things done, a lot of things improved, I was getting stale in that position. A group from the Radiation Lab had come to me and said, "look, we've got this new radar that's really much better." I overheard myself saying, "but you know, it takes about fifty-two signatures to get this kind of thing approved. You have to set up a training program, and it's probably not worth the effort." I had heard that before, that's what these stick-in-the-muds were saying when I arrived. I decided maybe I could only survive that environment for a year, or else I would become like the rest of them.
I told Bowles that I felt its what I really should do. This was obviously very disappointing to him, but he then invented a lovely face-saving device. He said that I should stay on the Secretary of War's payroll, so I was an expert consultant to the Secretary of War all the time I was at Los Alamos. I was a regular group member, and only Oppenheimer knew I was not on that payroll. It had some advantage for the work I was doing, because I made frequent trips and could write my own travel orders to go back and forth. I had these little books for travel requests that I could exchange for air tickets. That had some advantages, and in principle I could complain to the Secretary of War if things weren't being done well. It had one amusing characteristic. At the end of the war, the War Department gave an award of excellence to the employees of many organizations. Everybody at Los Alamos got one except myself because officially I wasn't working for Los Alamos.
Bryant: While you were in D.C., had you relocated your family there?
Ramsey: Yes. Earlier, we had relocated our family to Cambridge. We were initially on Forest Street, and when our first child was born we moved to Farrer Street, which was right near here. Then we went to D.C. and again it was early enough in the war period that we were able to rent a house in Arlington. It was 1233 North Taylor Street. Then at Los Alamos they provided housing. In one sense, I had bad luck. We felt we were very lucky because each time we moved we were able to rent houses. Some of the people who arrived here in Cambridge later, and in Washington, had to buy houses and it was kind of tough for them to do that. But the ones who did so made a mint of money, the houses being worth lots more after the war than before. We didn't get in on that.
Bryant: There must've been quite a contrast between the operating styles and regulations at Los Alamos compared to the Radiation Lab.
Ramsey: Both yes and no. I would say the similarities were greater than the contrasts. There were differences. Oppenheimer is clearly a more dynamic director. I think both Oppenheimer and DuBridge were great directors, but in quite different ways. DuBridge was more the organization man, getting very good people, taking their advice and giving them lots of responsibility, but typically directing the lab and not emphasizing his own individual input. I think in Oppenheimer's case he was more individually involved, and that had some advantages but it also had some disadvantages. But in most respects the laboratories were rather similar. After all, Bainbridge, Bacher, Alvarez, myself, and several other people were from the Radiation Lab. All of us had fairly major responsibilities there. We had key positions, so if we really felt that Oppenheimer was going off in the wrong way of managing we would have objected.
Bryant: So each of you from the Radiation Lab had at least an equivalent position or higher.
Ramsey: Yes. It's hard to define higher, but I would say it was very comparable. Both places grew as time went on. I had more people working for me at Los Alamos than I did when I was doing our first things on magnetrons. I think both were fairly equal responsibilities, with equal access to the director. But it was a bit different. I think in the case of going to DuBridge for what we were planning to do, we'd get very good advice from him but he wouldn't be insisting. In general he listened very carefully to what we were saying and used good judgement but in a rather low key form. Oppenheimer was more persuasive, more active in his feeling. He might not agree as quickly to what we wanted to do. We'd have more of an argument with him. In fact, I initially had a problem that I soon overcame. Oppenheimer is very eloquent, one of the most eloquent people I know. I found the first couple of times I went and said, "look, I need certain things for all of the work I'm doing," I would have a fine meeting with him and come home convinced what a great guy he is and then suddenly realize I hadn't gotten what I had asked for. I was initially somewhat overwhelmed by him. So I started writing down a list. When I went to see him I'd always write down a list of what I wanted to get out of him. Before I left, I would read my list to be sure I was getting what I needed. There was a difference in style, but I would say that the labs ran very similarly. Of course they had a very different security problems. The style of the directors were quite different. But both were very good.
Bryant: You'd say that DuBridge did not get into details, whereas Oppenheimer probably knew more of the details?
Ramsey: DuBridge didn't push his way I guess if three key people in the lab came to DuBridge and said, "don't you think we ought to do such-and-such." He would probably agree fairly readily and without much discussing. If three key people at the lab in Los Alamos came to Oppenheimer he might argue very effectively and sometimes he'd be right. But sometimes he would be wrong.
Bryant: DuBridge was not often going from one department to another, but Oppenheimer apparently put his head into all the major things.
Ramsey: Yes, Oppenheimer knew all the major things that were going on, and each Director had his virtues.
Bryant: What about the support facilities?
Ramsey: The support facilities at both places were very good. In the initial phase, at the time of that infamous tuner that I was describing, there were no support facilities at the Radiation Lab. We had it made at Harvard. On the other hand, later, there were very good shop facilities with the model shops etc. I didn't have much connection with the Radiation Laboratory shops because by the time the support facilities were getting pretty good we were having things done by outside contractors. The support facilities, shops or what not, were very good at Los Alamos. On the other hand, we had locally generated electricity, diesel generation, and the voltage and frequency fluctuated up and down. There was a power committee, one of the strong committees. They finally found the answer to our trouble when they complained to the manager of the power plant that the frequency was varying all over. Instead of sixty cycles it was really going up and down from 50 to 70 and he indignantly said the frequency was leaving his generator at exactly 60 cycles, but the frequency dropped in the line. At that point the laboratory decided they needed a new manager at the power plant.
Bryant: Would it be fair to ask you what you regard as your most important work at the Rad Lab and the Pentagon and Los Alamos?
Ramsey: At the Radiation Lab it was the development of the three centimeter magnetron, the plumbing done in conjunction with Shep Roberts (including the quarter-wave choke coupling) and the airborne systems at three centimeters. I guess I'd put as a separate thing the demonstration of what really beautiful patterns we could get, including its use in navigation and three centimeter Air-to-Surface-Vessel (ASV) radar used against submarines. I think the Navy issued it.
Bryant: Was that the forerunner to H2X radar?
Ramsey: Yes. It was primarily a forerunner to two things. It was indeed a forerunner to what became a very extensively used Navy sea search device. It also got H2X started, because of the superior patterns which are shown in this report.
Bryant: Those are very impressive.
Ramsey: The quality of the reproduction is very poor. There's a very good copy of the Cape Cod one in the Five Years booklet. It doesn't have as good a one for Nantucket.
Bryant: It's also the motif on the Rad Lab technical book series.
Ramsey: That's right, and I think very justifiably. I would say those are the main things from me at Rad Lab.
I guess the primary thing out of the Washington DC part was getting this big Air Corps procurement program started. I'm sure you'll never find any record of my contribution in any Pentagon document. You'll just find a procurement program with high-ranking signatures. The other things that I did in requirements were also fairly useful.
At Los Alamos, I guess it's a little hard to pick out a single thing. There's a funny one that I could mention having to do with my very early stay. Bombs were going to be dropped from fairly high altitude, and we wanted to have them not drop head over heels. One of the shapes was particularly awkward and in fact the first models did fall head-over-heels. We put drag plates across the fins of the bomb and that was the end of that problem. It came right down. On that I do have a patent, but not many of them were made. In the process of testing, we went up to the Muroc Dry Lake to do some needed calibrating. It rained a foot of water in Dry Lake. We were photographing airplanes dropping test bombs. To calibrate things, we took standard sand-filled five hundred pound bombs. This was the dominant bomb being used at that time in Europe. But we were just testing our setups. We had very high speed, high quality Mitchell cameras focused on the airplane and we tested to see how well they hit the target. We were underneath, and the cameras were looking up at it. Two things emerged. One was that the bombs were splattered all over the countryside. Then we observed when we looked at the Mitchell cameras that for bombs dropped from a high altitude--and it was at high altitude they were being used extensively in Europe--the tail fins crunched from the air pressure, and about half the bombs didn't have working fins at all when they landed.
Bryant: They didn't have the needed aerodynamics.
Ramsey: They didn't have the aerodynamics at all. This was probably earlier than 1944, 1943 maybe. We reported this through our Army liaison. I know that Parsons, who was head of the Los Alamos Ordnance division, felt that the one useful thing he was contributing at that time to the war effort was to keep these bombs working properly. It turned out that the Security people stopped the message. They felt it was too secret a subject to report that Los Alamos was doing anything like this. That discovery was independently made in Europe in combat about six or eight months later. It was one of the reasons for such poor accuracy in bombing with a large number of European 800, 250, 500 pound bombs.
Bryant: What effects did your Radiation Lab experience have on your subsequent career?
Ramsey: It had quite a few, some good and some bad. In the first place it had the following very bad effect age-wise. What should have been in some respects my most productive period was all devoted to war effort. Everybody was very conscientious during that period. That's really all we thought about, with the one exception being one trip I made from Los Alamos back to the Radiation Lab, when I was staying with Rabi. One evening we decided we would take off and do post-war planning. We planned experiments to do at Columbia after the war, and it turned out that we invented two very good experiments. With that exception, I think we probably missed some major discoveries. I would guess that I probably was missing my best chances for a Nobel Prize by being engaged so long on war related research. On the other hand, we learned a lot about technology, general know-how, and the general availability of useful equipment. Certainly much of the later work I did that led to my Nobel Prize was based in part on knowledge of RF and what-not. We certainly would have had much greater difficultly doing our molecular beam experiments without the microwave developments that had been made. Also, I think one of the key things was just getting to know a large number of people. If I had a question, I knew people well enough that I felt free to ask them. I never was very good at noise in systems. So I would ask how do I improve the signal to noise? The education at the lab was valuable, especially the Radiation Lab series. There's no question of the enormous contribution to all science of the Radiation Laboratory development. But it was an interruption.
Bryant: An interruption of your career. Years you can't replace. You returned to Columbia?
Ramsey: I returned to Columbia very promptly after the war, and things went well for me.
Bryant: Did you actually spend time out at Brookhaven?
Ramsey: Yes, Brookhaven owes its existence in part to the Radiation Lab. When I got back to Columbia, almost immediately Rabi and I were wondering what the plans for the department should be. As you know, good things frequently come from not such good motives. We were really rather annoyed and feeling we had been put upon because, when the war started, Enrico Fermi was a Professor at Columbia. The initial work on graphite and nuclear reactors and fission that Fermi was doing was done at Columbia. Then during the war, Arthur Compton, the brother of Karl Compton at MIT, who was a professor at the University of Chicago, was appointed in charge of the nuclear weapons project in one of the phases of the NDRC. He moved the Columbia activity and therefore Fermi to Chicago. So at the end of the war, the University of Chicago had both the Argonne Lab and Fermi and we had neither. We were jealous and felt we should try to get something similar around Columbia. So the two of us together wrote letters and at our request Dean Pegram signed them. Initially, we invited a small group from New York City, including Bell Labs. We felt that to have a reactor of our own at Columbia was going to be too big a project for our small-sized department, and it would stop other things we wanted to do, molecular beam work for example. But we did want to have facilities available close by. We had a meeting and at that meeting it was decided we should make a proposal to the Manhattan District. Shortly after that, Zacharias, our former collaborator at MIT, heard what we were doing so he organized a similar proposal from the Cambridge area.
Bryant: He had switched to MIT.
Ramsey: He switched to MIT at the end of the War. Before the War, he was at Hunter College, a women's college in New York, near Columbia. He worked with Rabi, but basically he was an unpaid post-doc, or an unpaid visiting scientist working directly in the lab. Zacharias prepared a proposal between Harvard and MIT. General Groves called the two of us together and said that if we could get together on a single proposal he would support it. But these were the dying days of the Manhattan District, and he could not see himself starting two new labs. He also gave us the advice that he felt the new Atomic Energy Commission would take at least a couple of years to get started on a new lab. If we could get together on a single proposal he would probably support it. If we couldn't, don't bother him, he's a busy man. So we got together in some difficult and rough meetings because each wanted a lab in its own area. But we did get together. I was appointed the Executive Secretary of the so-called Initiatory University Group and we submitted a single proposal. I was also chairman of the site committee. Our first choice was actually in Fort Slocum, off New Rochelle. It would be very convenient to access, but then the Manhattan District worried that it was too close to the city. Sandy Hook was a possibility engineering-wise. Long Island was much better, and we chose that, which has worked out very well.
Bryant: So were you able to get an East Coast location?
Ramsey: Yes. The specification was that it was supposed to be within an hour's travel from Grand Central terminal. In those days, people traveled mostly by train. I picked up my first speeding ticket as chairman of the Site Committee trying to prove that a particular site in New Jersey was within one hour's drive of Grand Central terminal. But we relaxed on that requirement. Then, for about six months, I was half-time the head of the physics department at Brookhaven and half-time a professor at Columbia. Then in 1947 I came here [to Harvard].
Bryant: I was wondering how you came to relocate to Harvard.
Ramsey: Van Vleck had been working with us some at the Radiation Lab. One of the good things from the Radiation Lab and also Los Alamos was getting to know lots of people. I was offered a job at Harvard with the hope that I would take on the construction of the Harvard cyclotron because Bob Wilson, who was hired right after the War by Harvard partly to design and build the Harvard cyclotron resigned, was lured off to Cornell.
Bryant: Robert R. Wilson.
Ramsey: Yes. For about sixteen years I was president of the University Research Associates (URA). Now it's about 65 universities. So for about sixteen years Bob and I worked together building the Fermilab accelerator, but only after we worked together on that for about a year or so we realized that Fermilab wasn't the first time we cooperated on building an accelerator. At that time we were cooperating in parallel positions. But the other time was at the Harvard cyclotron, where we collaborated in succession. Namely, he designed it and I and my associates built it. He's a very good designer, which is fortunate. That cyclotron, I believe, is now the oldest major operating cyclotron in the world. It's still being used. About twenty years ago there was a big party to celebrate its closing down. It was supposed to close down three days later, but the National Institutes of Health decided they were so interested in the cancer research done there that they would pay for running it. It had proven to be very, very effective in treating brain cancer, and now machines like it are being built elsewhere. There's one they just finished in the last six months in California.
Bryant: When you were at Columbia, did you get back into molecular beam research?
Bryant: Did you continue that?
Ramsey: Yes. When I got back to Columbia that's all I did initially. Then, on the side, Rabi and I had the discussions about needing a lab like what became Brookhaven. Then two things made me reduce my molecular beam research a bit more. One was that Rabi and I were very anxious to hire Polycarp Kusch. We had worked with him earlier, and knew that he was a very good man. He was at Bell Labs, and the rest of our department felt that two full-time people in molecular beams was more than the department of our size could afford. Having two tenured people, or three tenured people in one area they felt was too much. But Rabi and I were very eager to get him, so I agreed that I would only count as half a person, that I would work half the time on molecular beams and the other half I would work on particle physics, particularly on getting Brookhaven started. I've since worked somewhat between the two, but most of my major personal research has been in low energy physics with molecular beams. I guess that most of my major administrative work is with high energy physics at Brookhaven and the Fermilab. I also did policy and planning work with NATO in Paris.
Bryant: Can you point to organizations that were patterned on or influenced by the Radiation Lab?
Ramsey: Yes, there are lots. It's very clear that Brookhaven was modeled on that because Rabi and I both were there and that's certainly what we had in mind. The initial group that got it going included Rabi and myself, and Bacher who had been at the Radiation Lab and Los Alamos. DuBridge was on the committee, before he went to Cal Tech. I'd say we got more ideas on forming the lab from the Radiation Lab than Los Alamos. It is thoroughly agreed that CERN, this great successful international laboratory in Geneva, was modeled after the Radiation Lab. Rabi and I, through Brookhaven, are jointly the grandparents of the CERN, but Rabi was also a parent. Rabi was on UNESCO, and he pushed the Europeans into really pulling themselves together for a joint lab. One of the very effective things about Rabi is that people who worked with him really did things. At the National Academy meeting in honor of Rabi, I remarked that there were different reasons for which associates of Rabi worked so hard and effectively: sometimes because we loved him and sometimes he had such good ideas and sometimes because he so annoyed us. Well I think the start of CERN to a considerable degree was the latter. I know that for about a year after that UNESCO meeting, my European friends (they knew I was a very good friend of Rabi's) would complain "Well, what about this guy, Rabi, he's just an American chauvinist. He's putting us down." The Europeans were complaining that they couldn't keep up with us because Brookhaven was started and there was no way they could catch up. Rabi said, in effect: It's your own fault. It's a lot easier to get fourteen nations to cooperate with each other than to get nine universities to do it. If we can do it, you ought to be able to do it. It was in that general tone, but now the same people who complained agree that that's what got them started. In fact, I had to give a talk at CERN six months or so after Rabi died. UNESCO and CERN had a joint memorial session on Rabi in recognition of his having been the starter of CERN. So those two alone are major successors to the Radiation Laboratory.
There's no question but that Fermilab and University's Research Association (URA) are modeled after Brookhaven and AUI, which in turn were modeled after the Radiation Laboratory. AUI and URA are the organizations that run the two labs. Brookhaven is operated by a group of nine universities, Associated Universities Incorporated. Fermilab is clearly modeled on that. I was heavily involved with Fermilab. The construction was done by, and the operation was by Universities Research Associates. At the time I started being president of URA, it was a group of thirty five universities. That expanded to something like a group of sixty five--all major research universities who do anything in particle physics. It is an operating organization. It's the group that selects the director, it approves the main projects. The president is the one that signs the contracts with the Department of Energy. I had that job for sixteen years, from its start until I retired.
Bryant: Was that extra-curricular?
Ramsey: No, that was not completely extra-curricular. My work at Brookhaven was completely extra-curricular, I don't know that I even got paid by them. I was probably half-time there. In the case of URA I was half-time on Harvard payroll and half-time on the URA payroll. But I had a full teaching load and my research labs. In that respect it was an add-on. In fact for some peculiar reason I've had two jobs most of my life. Even during the War I was on leave from a university while doing war research. I was on leave from Illinois or Columbia, but I was also at the Radiation Lab and Los Alamos.
Bryant: The university was intellectually rewarding to you.
Ramsey: Yes, that's right. I like the university very much.
Bryant: Not just a varied menu.
Ramsey: No, in fact I didn't want to have a lighter teaching load. When I was President of URA, I never asked for less teaching while on a half-time leave from Harvard.
Bryant: I find this very interesting. I enjoyed it. I'd like to go back if I could to ask you just one thing about the Cavendish. You were there in 1935-1937?
Ramsey: Yes. I was in the Cavendish and taking course work, but I was an undergraduate student.
Bryant: Interesting the number of those Cavendish people who were in radar work during World War II. So you were networking with a lot of people there?
Ramsey: Yes, and we knew it. When I had my trip to England for example in 1941, I saw P. I. Dee who had been my instructor at the Cavendish. I visited Oliphant, and they had been on my examining committee. Cockcroft was a very good friend of mine.
Bryant: As an undergraduate, you were that well-acquainted?
Ramsey: No, Cockcroft became a better friend later. I got acquainted with him further on radar when I went to England, and then after the war we were both concerned with accelerators, and we knew each other that way.
Bryant: It's interesting how your paths cross.
Ramsey: It's amazing to the extent which they do. One of the nice things is that almost any place I go I see people that I know.
Bryant: Well, thank you very much.