Oral-History:George E. Valley


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About George E. Valley, Jr.

Andrew Goldstein conducted an oral history of George E. Valley, Jr. (1913-1999), on June 13, 1991. Following Dr. Valley’s wishes, the transcript has never been published. Dr. Valley instead requested that the  IEEE History Center retain a file copy of the interview.

George E. Valley, Jr., studied at MIT (B.S., 1935) and at the University of Rochester (Ph.D., 1939), where Lee A. DuBridge served as his thesis advisor. In 1941 Valley left his position as a National Research Fellow at Harvard to contribute to the war effort at MIT’s Radiation Lab. He initially worked on anti-aircraft and the SCR-584 radar, subsequently investigating the use of radar for bombsights. He put the H2X system into production — more a political and administrative triumph than a technical one, in Valley’s estimation. The H2X did not improve bombing accuracy because Air Force planes were forced to fly in unwieldy formations to defend against the Germans, but it did allow for bombing through cloud-cover. In the late 1940s, Valley helped document the Radiation Lab’s wartime work as an editor of the MIT Radiation Lab series.

Dr. Valley joined the faculty of MIT as a professor of physics in 1946. His work on the use of digital computers for air defense led to the formation of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, of which Valley was a leader from 1949 to 1957. Valley then served as Chief Scientist of the Air Force, 1957-58. In 1969 he established the Experimental Study Group, a residential community for beginning MIT students which celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2009.

Valley was selected a fellow of the American Physical Society and of the IEEE. Governmental recognition for his work included the President’s Certificate of Merit, the Air Force Association of Science Award, the U.S. Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Medal, and the U.S. Army Certificate of Appreciation.

For links to other interviews on the Rad Lab, see the MIT Radiation Laboratory Oral History Project.

About the Interview

GEORGE E. VALLEY, JR.: An interview conducted by Andrew Goldstein, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, June 13, 1991.

Oral History #98: M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory Oral History Project sponsored by the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Copyright Statement

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

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

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
George E. Valley, an oral history conducted in 1991 by Andrew Goldstein, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, IEEE, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview Summary

INTERVIEW: George E. Valley, Jr.
INTERVIEWED BY: Andy Goldstein
PLACE: Dr. Valley's home in Concord, Massachusetts
DATE: June 13, 1991

Valley begins this interview by detailing the operation of World War II bombsights and anti-aircraft, considering the effects of climate on precision. He analyzes the military strategies behind American and British bombings, paying particular attention to Sperry bombsights, Norden bombsights, and B-17 bombers. Valley provides personal anecdotes of a wartime visit to London, where the damage caused by bombs and shrapnel convinced him to switch his research focus from anti-aircraft to bombing. Returning to the U.S., Valley joined the like-minded Louis Ridenour on navigation and bombing work for the Airborne Radar Division.

The next section of the interview shifts back in time to Valley’s initial decision to join the Radiation Lab, and to Lee DuBridge’s effect on Valley’s early career. Here Valley describes his anti-aircraft and SCR-584 work. He details his mechanical engineering contributions to the SCR-584 and his efforts to prevent jamming. In spite of the SCR-584’s technical success, Valley left this project after his decision that anti-aircraft technology could not counteract bombing damages.

With his transition to bombsight work, Valley became a group leader and collaborated closely with his immediate supervisor, Louis Ridenour. Valley describes the Rad Lab project to detect submarines by radar from B-18s, which now came under his direction. He applied this technology to his own work on bomb navigation, using H2S to see cities for bombing. Air Force films made available to group leaders and Luis Alvarez’s Eagle bombsight convinced Valley to switch to X-band technology. Collaboration with Rad Lab component groups shaped development of antenna, compass, receiver, and computer technology for the H2X. The design of the B-17s supplied for this project presented challenges for placement of the bombsight.

Valley identifies infighting of policy makers as an obstacle in H2X development. The resistance of Jerrold Zacharias limited access to rf components, and the Air Force objected to Valley’s use of Philco-produced Navy equipment to construct H2X. The interview also describes difficulties in the Rad Lab's efforts to collaborate with Bell Labs on H2X; while Rad Lab built nonlinear circuits, Bell Labs favored more unwieldy linear circuits that could be calculated. While this approach supported Bell Labs’ high performing telephone systems, it was incompatible with Valley’s vision for the H2X.

In 1944 Valley visited England, where the twelve airplanes he had equipped with H2X technology led wings of bombing aircraft. Valley recounts Eighth Air Force missions, describing the damage he witnessed and the repairs he made to returning aircraft. He recalls his grief after H2X pilot casualties. The bombing damage to Hamburg, Germany, provided another memorable image of the war’s destruction.

After completing his work on H2X in 1944, Valley worked with K-band sets to produce an analagous H2K system. Valley operated this successfully only on clear days, determining that atmospheric water vapor interfered with the system. Rad Lab leadership removed him from K-band work, and he chose to join Britton Chance’s electronics group. There, Valley worked independently to study electronics while following Air Force developments. During this period, he determined to organize the Lab’s wartime work for publication.

Valley then narrates his post-World War II work as an editor and co-writer on the Radiation Laboratory Series books. He describes his collaborations with Brit Chance, Lee DuBridge, I. I. Rabi, Louis Ridenour, and Henry Wallman on these volumes. The vacuum tube amplifier book that Valley wrote with Wallman remained a keystone text in the electronics industry throughout the 1950s and the 1960s.

Valley next describes his teaching career as a professor of physics at MIT, where he created the Experimental Study Group, a residential program designed to meet the needs of beginning students. Valley provides the rationale for this Study Group’s 1969 formation. The program, still in operation, allows students to structure their studies independently through experimentation and consultation with professors.

Valley’s discussion of his teaching strategies leads to description of his own studies at the University of Rochester and of his early employment with Bausch & Lomb in Rochester. Valley analyzes the workplace culture at Bausch & Lomb in the late 1930s and the challenges of lens production he experienced there.

Valley then describes the research group he formed at MIT in the late 1940s, inspired by his concern for the safety of his Massachusetts home from Cold War bombs. Valley’s idea of linking up radar and digital computers contributed to U.S. air defense strategy. With funding from the Air Force and the support of John Marchetti’s Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, Valley used the Whirlwind computer to implement his ideas. He describes the challenges of working with early digital computers.

The interview concludes as Valley explains some items in his personal document collection, including issues of the magazine series on radar that the Rad Lab published beginning in 1944.