Materials Research Laboratories: The Early Years

ROBERT L.SPROULL

In examining the origins of the Materials Research Laboratories program in 1960, my purpose is not to evoke nostalgia for that time but to derive lessons for the present and the future by revisiting the program and its antecedents. I shall adopt the point of view that since we are looking back on events of 25 years ago, the proper unit of time is 25 years. Thus, my story starts on the science side, two “time constants” before 1960, in 1910.

THE SCIENTIFIC SETTING

By 1910, chemistry and metallurgy had already hailed many centuries of contributions to the understanding of materials and a transition from art to science that had recently been accelerated by the discovery of x rays. But the contribution from physics had been nearly zero; some descriptive “laws” like Dulong and Petit’s law of specific heats and the Wiedemann-Franz ratio of thermal to electrical conductivity in metals were well known, but they papered over and concealed real understanding. Planck’s introduction of the quantum theory in 1900 and Einstein’s brilliant paper on the photoelectric effect in 1905 were only a gleam in the eye.

By one time constant later, in 1935, the seeds had been sown for a complete revolution in the understanding of matter. The clock really started running only in 1923, and, only four years later, the quantum mechanics developed by the giants Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and others was being successfully and widely applied. Heitler and London used wave mechanics to describe the hydrogen molecule in 1927; Pauling extended the theory to molecules generally in the next eight years. Von Neumann introduced mathematical elegance at the same time. Sommerfeld and Bethe’s monumental



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Advancing Materials Research Materials Research Laboratories: The Early Years ROBERT L.SPROULL In examining the origins of the Materials Research Laboratories program in 1960, my purpose is not to evoke nostalgia for that time but to derive lessons for the present and the future by revisiting the program and its antecedents. I shall adopt the point of view that since we are looking back on events of 25 years ago, the proper unit of time is 25 years. Thus, my story starts on the science side, two “time constants” before 1960, in 1910. THE SCIENTIFIC SETTING By 1910, chemistry and metallurgy had already hailed many centuries of contributions to the understanding of materials and a transition from art to science that had recently been accelerated by the discovery of x rays. But the contribution from physics had been nearly zero; some descriptive “laws” like Dulong and Petit’s law of specific heats and the Wiedemann-Franz ratio of thermal to electrical conductivity in metals were well known, but they papered over and concealed real understanding. Planck’s introduction of the quantum theory in 1900 and Einstein’s brilliant paper on the photoelectric effect in 1905 were only a gleam in the eye. By one time constant later, in 1935, the seeds had been sown for a complete revolution in the understanding of matter. The clock really started running only in 1923, and, only four years later, the quantum mechanics developed by the giants Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and others was being successfully and widely applied. Heitler and London used wave mechanics to describe the hydrogen molecule in 1927; Pauling extended the theory to molecules generally in the next eight years. Von Neumann introduced mathematical elegance at the same time. Sommerfeld and Bethe’s monumental

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Advancing Materials Research Volume 24, Number 2, of the Handbuch der Physik appeared in 1933, full of rich ore that is still being mined. William Hume-Rothery’s The Metallic State came out in 1931, and his seminal The Structure of Metals and Alloys was in manuscript by the end of our first period. A.H.Wilson, R.Peierls, Neville Mott, and many others rapidly advanced the science of the solid state. I must recount two anecdotes from that period, both with profound implications for the rest of my story. The first concerns Robert Wichert Pohl, the Göttingen giant of experimental solid-state physics. He had borrowed a large diamond from a Berlin bank to measure the Hall effect in photoelectrons. But he, or more likely an assistant, had failed to secure the magnet pole pieces, and when the current was turned on, North and South made instant love at the expense of the brittle diamond. From this experience flowed his concentration on alkali halide crystals. The second story concerns a very young 1932 graduate of Stanford University, Frederick Seitz. He went to Princeton to do graduate work with E.U.Condon. But Condon, who was then preparing the famous Condon and Shortley Theory of Atomic Spectra, advised him to work with Eugene Wigner instead; Condon remarked, “Solid-state physics is coming, and if you stay with me you’ll just do calculations for my book.” I need spend little time on the second time constant, since the flowering of understanding and prediction during the period from 1935 to 1960 is well known. Chemistry adopted quantum mechanics with great effectiveness. Metallurgists were beginning to go far beyond their venerable concentration on the austenite-martensite transition. Even geologists were dusting off their hogbacks and cuestas and conducting synthetic mineralogy. Seitz’s The Modern Theory of Solids in 1940 brought understanding to new heights and provided a common language for all workers in materials. William Shockley’s theory of the p-n junction in 1949 and the realization of the junction transistor in 1951 produced immediate visions of a fantastic future for solid-state electronic devices. The complexity of so-called point defects was beginning to be appreciated, and dislocation theory was well advanced. New polymers and new alloys and metals like ductile titanium were being developed. Thus, by 1960 the stage was set for spectacular advances in materials that would have profound effects on society. Physics was at last bringing something to the party, and metallurgists and chemists needed physicists, if only physicists would rise above their snobbery. Physicists needed chemists and metallurgists, since increasingly sophisticated experiments required detailed knowledge of chemical and physical imperfections and structures. Of even more consequence was the conviction that the design and creation of new materials, such as composites, high-temperature coatings, or catalysts, would require true collaboration among chemists, physicists, and engineers.

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Advancing Materials Research THE PROGRAM TAKES SHAPE I now turn to the second element of the setting for 1960, the currents in and around Washington, and here I shall go back only one time constant, to 1935. The prewar defense establishment had been interested in mechanical properties of solids and in corrosion and coatings, and the Signal Corps contracted for work in vacuum-tube electronics, including work on that enduring mystery, the oxide-coated cathode. But our story really begins with three decisions reached in the months immediately following the war: Science and technology had much to contribute to national defense and prosperity and therefore could appropriately be supported by the federal government; The preparation of a new generation of scientists and engineers and much of federally supported research should be done in the same institutions, the research universities; The federal apparatus and process for this support through contracts (and later, grants) should be quite unlike the prewar “buying brooms” systems and should provide much more scope for the contractor’s imagination and discovery and more harvesting by informal agency-contractor interactions rather than by fulfilling specifications. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) was the immediate consequence, in late 1945 and early 1946, of these decisions, and it set the pattern for all the later agencies. Two elements of this pattern were especially important: (1) program managers who might be (and occasionally were) principal investigators, and principal investigators who might equally well be (and occasionally were) program managers; and (2) task statements in general terms, with maximum opportunity for creation and discovery. The other defense agencies, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) warmly embraced this tradition. Another consequence of the war was the Washington realization that the field of materials was far more complex and open-ended than it had appeared in 1935. The AEC had to contend with radiation-produced embrittlement and the Wigner disease (with the Szilard complications). The Department of Defense (DOD) had to contend with nose cones and a fascinating array of materials covered up by the nose cones, as well as the burgeoning opportunities in electronic and optical materials. There were several Washington rays that converged in 1959–1960, but to begin with they were essentially independent, coming from AEC, ONR, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the White House, and DOD. One of the most important was the ray from AEC. The 1945 euphoria concerning

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Advancing Materials Research the peaceful uses of atomic energy brought forth the innocent suggestion that electricity produced by fission reactors would soon be so cheap that it would not pay to meter it. (This suggestion, grossly uninformed about materials problems and their implication for Carnot efficiency, was on a par with the insertion by nuclear physicists of an anthracene crystal into one of the early synchrotrons to locate the beam by its fluorescence; it took weeks to clean up the gunk so that a reasonable vacuum could be maintained.) This extreme position was never seriously maintained by AEC, but realization of the compelling influence of materials limitations on nuclear reactor cost, efficiency, and safety was, let us say, slow to develop. John von Neumann, who brought Hilbert space to bear on quantum mechanics, was especially upset that time and time again what he wanted to do was prevented by an inadequate science of materials. When he asked what limited the growth of that science, he was told, “Lack of people.” And why not produce more capable people? “Lack of university facilities.” He thus began pushing in the AEC General Advisory Committee (GAC) for a substantial program in sponsoring university facilities for materials research and graduate education. By the time he became ill and died in early 1957, Willard Libby had already effectively taken up the torch in the GAC. The AEC Metallurgy and Materials Branch Advisory Panel, of which Seitz was chairman, in its first report in 1956 called for new buildings and research facilities in universities for materials research and education. Although Edward Epremian, who was chief of AEC’s Metallurgy and Materials Branch, recommended to the GAC that the AEC establish “Materials Research Institutes” at universities, the GAC would not commit the funds. After the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, however, this ray was revitalized by Donald K.Stevens, who succeeded Epremian in December 1957. Another ray came from ONR with its Solid State Sciences Advisory Panel, a group affectionately known as the Navy’s “chowder and marching society.” Under the leadership of Seitz and Harvey Brooks, it had been studying Navy materials problems and helpfully visiting Navy laboratories since 1950. Its report on opportunities in solid-state science research appeared so soon before Sputnik that its authors were accused (jocularly, I hope) of being privy to Soviet secrets. Julius Harwood and others in ONR urged more materials work in universities. A third ray was a National Academy of Sciences study sponsored by the Air Force in 1957.1 This study, led by J.Herbert Hollomon, recommended in 1958 and 1959 the creation of a National Materials Laboratory. Opposition was quick and nearly universal, mostly because of the realization that such a move would only reassign people already in the field and would do nothing to enlarge the supply of trained scientists and engineers. It did, however, reinforce the need for action in materials research, and it documented advantages of interdisciplinary approaches.

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Advancing Materials Research A fourth ray emanated from the White House. James Killian was appointed Science Advisor to the President on 7 November 1957 and quickly organized the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC). Killian and PSAC member William O.Baker identified materials research and training as matters of top priority in the post-Sputnik environment. The Federal Council for Science and Technology, consisting of the heads of all the agencies involved in science and technology, was created as the administrative counterpart to PSAC. Its first and highly effective instrument was the Coordinating Committee on Materials Research and Development, made up of the materials heads in each agency, initially chaired by John H.Williams of AEC and later by Stevens. A fifth ray started in the Department of Defense, encouraged by the White House interest. Herbert York, director of Defense Research and Engineering, Roy Johnson, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) until November 1959, and John F.Kincaid of ARPA participated. The focusing of these rays began in late 1958. A key meeting occurred when Libby, accompanied by Stevens, descended on York, buttressed by Kincaid. Stevens convinced York that his AEC investigations documented a great opportunity for the creation of interdisciplinary materials laboratories in universities and the universities’ need for support for buildings. York asked Kincaid to evaluate Stevens’s findings; Kincaid quickly agreed they were sound. In the late winter and spring of 1959, Kincaid, Stevens, and others visited a number of research universities at which DOD and AEC work showed promise for development of interdisciplinary laboratories. This team again verified the need for space and modern research equipment and central facilities and the willingness on the part of the universities to take the risks of expansion if appropriate contracts could be worked out. By early June of 1959, AEC had decided that its one-year contracting authority would not be sufficient for universities to commit space and borrow money to create facilities and to justify expansion by tenure-track professorial appointments. York agreed to DOD’s taking the prime responsibility and assigned it to ARPA on 8 June 1959. DOD had the authority to write five-year contracts; the contracts were for four years, but an additional year was negotiated each year, so there were always at least three years ahead under the contracts. AEC never really left the program, however, and participated positively in the creation of facilities at Berkeley and Urbana and through individual research grants at what became ARPA Interdisciplinary Laboratories (IDLs). NASA joined later. The selection of the first three laboratories proceeded through the academic year 1959–1960. Assisting Kincaid in ARPA was a group of consultants, including Morris Tanenbaum, G.J.Dienes, M.E.Hebb, J.Herbert Hollomon, and J.P.Howe. Charles Yost in the Air Force Office of Scientific

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Advancing Materials Research Research, Harwood, and others from the armed services also participated. All of the recent accomplishments of research and experience in educating Ph.D. students were considered, but the selection was not a prize for past performance; rather it was a judgment of the promise of a university for a significant expansion and a truly joint, cooperative attack on materials research across disciplines. All of the rays finally came into focus with the first contracts in July 1960. (Coincidentally, 1960 was the year the most monumental real-light focusing of all time occurred in the first demonstration of the laser.) The three universities chosen by ARPA in 1960 were joined in later years by nine more ARPA contracts, three AEC contracts, and two NASA contracts. After a thoroughgoing review in 1971, the program, now called the Materials Research Laboratories program, was transferred to NSF in 1972. Was this program a success? I believe it was a spectacular success, but I am probably one of the poorest possible evaluators. There is a theorem that says: “All education experiments are successful.” The proof is simple: All education experiments are evaluated by their promoters. So, others must be asked for a dispassionate judgment. I do suggest, however, the way that the question “Success compared to what?” should be answered. The comparison should be with spending the same amounts on materials research by federal agencies through routine individual grants and contracts. ASSESSING THE EXPERIENCE Up to this point, I have given a quick look at the early history of the materials laboratories, announced their success, and acknowledged my negative credentials for making that announcement credible. There remains only to give my view as to why the program was successful and to draw any lessons we can from the experience. There is now renewed interest in Washington in “hyphenated” science, as evidenced by a recent report on new interdisciplinary research arrangements by the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable and the Academy Industry Program of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.2 I believe the materials laboratories have much to teach us. I will therefore describe briefly what I believe to be the important features of this program, dividing them into features of the field of materials research, those at the universities, and those in Washington. Of course, the latter two are intimately connected and in many cases (e.g., building support) require looking at the same feature from two perspectives. The important features of the field of materials research were, first, its immense variety and open-endedness. The preceding description of the situation in 1960 shows how intellectually auspicious it was. The second feature

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Advancing Materials Research was the richness of connections among the disciplines, including not just chemistry, physics, and metallurgy, but mathematics, geology, and nearly all branches of engineering; and, of course, the connection throughout between theory and experiment. The third feature was the richness of applications across the vast area from consumer products to national defense. The Ph.D.s educated in the program had a marvelous choice of jobs, as near to or as far from immediately useful products as they chose. Since all product-oriented development is necessarily interdisciplinary, these young people were especially in demand for work, with direct benefits to society. The fourth feature was that most research projects in materials are of human scale, not requiring the huge team efforts associated with particle physics. Of course, cooperation and collaboration were essential. In later work in industry, exstudents might be part of sizable teams (on alloy development, for example), but Ph.D. research projects were naturally of human size, with maximum opportunity for individual initiative, for an individual’s learning just how capable a scientist or engineer he could be. The important features at each university were, first, that an umbrella contract provided for continuity of support and for the ability to buy large quanta of equipment and facilities. Second, a local director committed a substantial fraction of his career to making the program succeed. He could use the longevity of support to extract concessions from the university and departmental administrations. Third, the contract provided, in most cases, reimbursement over 10 years for the new construction required to do modern experimentation on materials. Fourth, the longevity of the contract induced the university to allocate to the project scarce and prime space in the middle of the campus, thereby establishing the maximum informal connections among disciplines. Fifth, central experimental facilities (such as those for electron microscopy or crystal growth) could have state-of-the-art equipment, even if it was very expensive, and they served as a mixing ground for students and faculty from several disciplines. Sixth, an executive committee composed of people with power and influence in the individual disciplines but oriented toward the success of the program helped the director over the rough spots with department chairmen, people who often were overly protective of their bishoprics and palatinates. Seventh, a contract was not given to an institution unless it had a strong disciplinary base on which to build. Interdisciplinary programs perched on weak disciplines are dangerous; interdisciplinary work already had a bad name on many campuses because of programs alleged to be interdisciplinary but without disciplines (on many campuses home economics was the example cited). Eighth, individual grants and contracts with federal agencies continued; most well-established principal investigators received the majority of their support from some other agency and might enjoy help from the program only in the central facilities or the building space. Thus, when the executive committee and director found that they had to say

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Advancing Materials Research “No” to a local high priest, it was not really “No” but only “No with the umbrella contract’s money,” and that made life easier. This list may be incomplete, but perhaps more importantly it does not quite capture the flavor of the informal interaction among young and old, among electrical engineers and chemists, among administrators and bench scientists that was fostered by the umbrella contracts and was, in my view, at the heart of the success of the program. That ambience would have been different if research institutes had been built. I might illustrate this important point by mentioning Morris Tanenbaum’s history of the development of hard superconductors, described in a report by the National Research Council’s Materials Advisory Board at about the time of the birth of these laboratories.3 Although Tanenbaum explained how the formal interdisciplinary nature of Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) “produced” this development, his text permits the conclusion that the most important part of BTL was the lunchroom! The unplanned interactions in various materials facilities in the midst of other campus activities played a key role in the success of the laboratories. The important features of the program related to Washington were, first, in 1959–1960 and for a few years afterward, Washington was in an expansionist mood; initiatives were welcomed. Second, the flowing together of currents and conviction from NAS, PSAC, the Federal Council for Science and Technology, the Coordinating Committee on Materials Research and Development, and from AEC, DOD, and other agencies gave a solid, joint base to the program. Third, ARPA was a young agency with little doctrine and almost a passion for innovation; it held the profound conviction that the United States should never be only second best in any consequential technology. Fourth, ARPA was willing to write four-year contracts with a four-year renewal each year, thereby getting much more for the taxpayers’ money than if it had insisted on year-by-year contracting. Further, ARPA gave convincing evidence that the program would last at least 10 years, and thereby induced universities to take the risks of borrowing money and building new facilities with a 10-year payback. Although several university presidents were very nervous about placing such confidence in the federal government, in the end all commitments were honored. Fifth, ARPA and other agencies exercised exemplary self-restraint in eschewing micromanagement; they left the allocation of funds to the local management, which resulted in enormous enhancement of efficiency and effectiveness. The work statement was extremely broad, speaking only to “the properties of materials,” “fundamental relationships,” and “theoretical and experimental studies in such fields as metallurgy, ceramic science, solid-state physics, chemistry, solid-state mechanics, surface phenomena, and polymer sciences.” Sixth, the Bureau of the Budget and Capitol Hill were not as concerned about the details of programs as they are now. Seventh, the continuation of individual project

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Advancing Materials Research support by the other agencies permitted these agencies to take justifiable pride in their part of the program and to connect it to agency missions. These features of the Materials Research Laboratories program outlined above helped the program overcome oppositions and concerns, of which there were many. There was, of course, envy on the part of nonparticipating universities; only 3 of the 45 proposals in the first round were funded in 1960. The negative consequences were, of course, mitigated by subsequent rounds of ARPA, AEC, and NASA contracts and by a $6-million ARPA equipment grant program in 1960 and 1961, the funds going to the unsuccessful competitors. In Washington there was nervousness that the whole program was a packaging gimmick, getting wholesale what would not have been possible to get retail. On campuses, there was nervousness that “interdisciplinary” would become a buzzword that would dominate Washington allocation practice. Later, the Mansfield amendment (114 Cong. Rec. 29332 [1968]), which limited indirect costs that could be added to the base cost of a defense research grant on contract, played into the hands of those who equate “relevance” with “immediate applicability.” The intended intimidation of program managers never quite came off, and only the most timid of universities gave credence to those who would have had one believe that the ARPA contracts were helping to napalm the Vietnamese. The program and its leaders were strong enough to shrug off these irritants. Of course, not all of the features of the MRLs, especially the benign budgetary oversight by Congress and the executive branch, can be re-created for any program proposed today. However, the Materials Research Laboratories tell us that to the extent that these features can be adopted, a new program will be more auspicious. Since the first Materials Research Laboratories were established, a generation of scientists and engineers has done its work. Some of these individuals have spent nearly their entire professional lives in these laboratories and have led spectacular careers in research and in the guidance of Ph.D. students. I am sure many would give a good deal of the credit to the early support from the ARPA program, to the central facilities, to the fine building, library, and connections with chemistry and metallurgy nourished by the program, and to the colleagues provided in part by the program. Of course, much is also due to their own imagination, energy, physical insight, drive, and generosity of spirit. Thus, although I do not suggest that I am competent to evaluate the materials laboratories, I do claim some part of the success of individuals as a success of the program. ACKNOWLEDGMENT I should like to thank D.K.Hess, R.E.Hughes, and D.K.Stevens for help in the preparation of this chapter.

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Advancing Materials Research NOTES 1.   A Report by the Committee on Materials Relating to Long-Range Scientific and Technical Trends of Interest to the Air Force (National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1958). 2.   Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable and the Academy Industry Program, New Alliances and Partnerships in American Science and Engineering (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1986). 3.   M.Tanenbaum, in Report of Ad Hoc Committee on Principles of Research-Engineering Interaction, Materials Advisory Board, National Research Council, publication MAB-222-M (National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1966), pp. J-1-J-59.