Edwin A. Chandross

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Inventor of the Lightstick and contributor to fiber optics

Biography: Edwin Chandross

“There was an awful amount of luck involved, and some was of the ‘plain dumb’ variety.” When asked a few years ago, Ed Chandross chose these words to modestly sum up his very successful career. Through happenstance, he asserted, he fell upon the chemical reaction behind the now ubiquitous Lightstick, as if it was as accidental as opening a Wonka Bar and finding the Golden Ticket. And his development of a highly efficient method of purifying the silicon of fiber optics (which greatly accelerated this technology’s path to application) – this he would credit to a fortuitous stroke of insight, one of those in-the-shower moments. Although this maybe true, it masks the decades of research and study that went into these innovations.

Ed Chandross spent the greater part of his career in the organic materials research AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, where he eventually rose to the position of Director. Bell Labs was a natural and coveted position for a recent graduate MIT and Harvard, although, as he would explain, as a specialist in organic chemistry, it was not at all obvious why a telephone company would be keen on his skills. But during the post-war boom, AT&T had a cozy relationship with the Pentagon, and as a monopoly (and a federally sanctioned one) it was motivated to pursue very long-term research. The transistor had just been invented, the first computers were seeing the light of day, and the complexity of the new electronics was requiring new kinds of conducting and non-conducting materials. So in 1959, twenty-five years after being born in Brooklyn, Chandross crossed the great Hudson River, and settled into Murray Hill, New Jersey.

The Lightstick was one of Chandross’s early creations. It was not perhaps the most intentional invention, if by intentional we mean that the product fully existed in the mind before it did in reality. After all, as Chandross himself puts it, how the chemical reaction produces light “is not yet fully understood, some forty-five years later.” Thus, like many discoveries, the Lightstick was the product of a hunch and an experiment, and this one happened to work. But the hunch, it should be noted, was a long developed one, the product of a decade of study in chemiluminescence through undergraduate, graduate and professional research. If we imagine children playing with pink and green glowing tubes as the summer sun sets, then invention-by-serendipity seems an appropriately lighthearted explanation for where this space-age thing came from. But the other big customer has always the military, and considering this usage it becomes clear there was a lot of interest in this little invention, which might be thought of as a development rather than an accident.

Later, in the 1970s, AT&T was trying to get a foot into the emerging market for fiber optics. The problem holding up the technology, however, was that the cables were inefficient to the point of being useless unless they were perfectly clear and the process of producing the silica left traces of Trichlorosilane (HSiCl3). When a scientist from the fiber department explained to the situation to Chandross, he proposed a chemical solution: that adding chlorine would produce Hydrogen chlorine, which could be evaporated off. This proved to be the trick, and before long this process was implemented in company factories.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, AT&T was finally broken up by an anti-trust suit, and this put Bell Labs into a state of limbo for a while. Eventually much of it (though not all) was kept together as Bellcore, which supported the consortium of companies created out of the former monopoly. Chandross and his Organic materials department survived relatively unscathed compared to other divisions, but by 1989, when it was clear that more rounds of reorganization were yet in the works, Chandross accepted an offer of early retirement. Since then he was worked as an industry consultant and has received numerous rewards for his contributions to the field of electronic engineering, including membership in the National Academy of Engineering and American Chemical Society’s National Award in Industrial Research.

Further Reading

Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation