Oral-History:MIT Radiation Laboratory


One of the most important episodes in the history of twentieth century science and technology is the operation of the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from November 1940 until the end of 1945. In these years the Rad Lab made great contributions to radar technique and microwave theory. Military hardware, methods of air-traffic control, industrial production and management techniques, modern electronics theory, and consumer products are all part of its legacy. Moreover, the story of Rad Lab is an important part of any full account of the development of the present relations between scientists, engineers, government officials, and the military. The success of the Rad Lab contributed to the great increase in the postwar decades of sponsored and mission-oriented research, and the Rad Lab itself has served as a prototype of an institution for achieving rapid technological advance. Many of the Rad Lab alumni went on to careers in industry and academia and profoundly affected industrial research and technical education in America.

The IEEE-Rutgers Center for the History of Electrical Engineering aims to document and disseminate information about such key events in electrical history and the development of the modern world. A special opportunity presented itself when the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Rad Lab with a reunion for Rad Lab alumni and special historical sessions at its annual meeting, held in Boston on June 11-14, 1991. The staff of the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, with guidance and direct assistance from the IEEE History Committee, decided to conduct oral history interviews with a cross-section of the people who worked at the Rad Lab.

These oral histories represent the end result of that project. Contained are interviews with forty-one people who worked at the Rad Lab. Most of the interviews were conducted at the time of the fiftieth reunion, but a few additional interviews were completed later to fill in some gaps. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. The transcripts were edited by Center staff and, in most cases, also by the interview subjects themselves. As finding aids, we have added abstracts and a person index.

The people chosen to be interviewed represent a cross-section of the employees of the Rad Lab. They are people who worked as top administrators, team leaders, engineers, scientists, computers, technicians, and secretaries. A common set of questions were asked in all interviews, about background and education before Rad Lab, how they came to work at Rad Lab, what responsibilities they held there, when and why they left the laboratory, and what effects this wartime experience had on their subsequent careers.

Oral history is not the most effective tool for learning certain kinds of technical and other information, and we largely avoided asking questions we knew could be better answered from technical publications, existing archival collections, and the published historical literature. We identified six major issues that we believe have interested to engineers, historians, and sociologists alike, and chose our interview subjects according to their ability to answer questions from one or more of these areas. These issues were (1) the management and social organization of the Rad Lab, (2) the experiences of women at the lab, (3) the establishment of the lab, (4) the relations to the military, (5) the relations to industry, and (6) the interactions between science and technology (considered int he particular case of the magnetron group).

The memories and insights of our key electrical engineers and scientists are precious to us, and they offer a great enrichment to the archival and artifactual sources traditionally used by historical scholars; but we must also remember that oral histories are source materials, not finished histories. The accounts one finds here are not highly polished, nor are they the product of long-term reflection or careful consideration of the existing body of archival and published historical material. Thus this report should be regarded not as a regular publication, but as a convenient mechanism for distributing these historical sources widely and economically.

Producing such a volume as this one is a big task. Every hour of interview requires over ten hours for the transcription, editing, abstracting, indexing and general administration. Many people and organizations have provided important assistance. John Bryant was directly involved in almost every stage of the project -- as organizer, advisor, interviewer, and editor. My colleagues at the Center, Andrew Goldstein and Frederik Nebeker, and I organized the project, conducted interviews, edited transcripts, and managed production. Our graduate research assistance, Jill Cooper, Colleen O'Neill, and Christine Skwiot, edited most of the transcripts; and Ms. Cooper was primarily responsible for the indexing and final formatting of the report. My assistant, Michael Ann Ellis, conscientously helped with almost all aspects of production and administration. Some early preparatory work was carried out by another of our graduate research assistants, Diane Sommervile. Our work-study student, Jon Gulden, assisted with transcript corrections. Other members of the IEEE History Committee, especially James Brittain, Stephen Johnston, Theodore Saad, and the late Frank Voltaggio, helped to conceive the project and provided valuable guidance along the way. The Microwaves Theory and Techniques Society generously provided partial support from the revenues of its annual meeting, which partially defrayed the interviewing and transcribing costs. Peter Staecker and Theodore Saad were extremely helpful in accommodating our needs at the Rad Lab reunion. Our contract transcriber, Liz Roach, did her customary outstanding job, and, last but not least, JoAnn Brittain kindly volunteered to do some transcribing for us as well.

William Aspray, 1993

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