Oral-History:MIT Radiation Laboratory



The number that follows the interviewee's name is the interview's oral history code number, which uniquely identifies the interview in the IEEE History Center's archive. Please use this number when referring to an oral history.

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 in the 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 assistants, 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

Posted interviews

  • Henry Abajian (#074) - An electrical engineer who worked mainly on the SCR-584 anti-aircraft radar system.
  • Royal Allaire (#075) - A physicist who helped bring Magnetron and Cathode tubes from design to production readiness.
  • Kenneth Bainbridge (#073) - Performed administrative tasks such as arranging housing for incoming scientists, recruiting scientists, and his main responsibility, which was heading up the modulator group.
  • Edythe Baker (#123) - Worked as an assistant to Dr. Lee A. Dubridge, director of the Radiation Laboratory.
  • Milton Chaffee (#091) - Worked on power supply for Microwave Early Warnings (MEW).
  • Britton Chance (#090) - Head of the Precision Instruments Group and member of the steering committee. He was also a sailing Olympic gold medalist.
  • Lee Davenport (#089) - Worked on anti-aircraft radar, serving as a project manager for the SCR-584 also involved in getting equipment to the field quickly and training troops how to use it.
  • Howard Doolittle (#076) - His most important work was on the 584 microwave radar and on developing pulse transformers and pulse networks.
  • Art Fong (#092) - Worked in the test equipment group on a high-speed oscilloscope, signal generators, thermistor mounts, attenuators, and spectrum analyzers.
  • Kathryn and Charles Fowler (#104) - Charles worked on the Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) system and Kathryn assisted mathematicians on the Marchand mechanical calculating machines.
  • Virginia Gerdes (#103) - Worked as a bench technician, did calculations and worked on the Rad Lab books.
  • Ivan Getting (#077) - A physicist and electrical engineer, he worked on radar fire control at the Rad Lab and was an IEEE president.
  • Dorothy Gillette (#093) - Worked in the experimental system group doing signal threshold studies.
  • Fred Heath (#078) - Did collaborative work with RAD transferring British radar technology to Canadian research and production.
  • Joan Leamy James (#072) - Secretary for Dr. Britton Chance.
  • Lawrence Johnston (#094) - Worked for Luis Alvarez in the RAD Lab as a project engineer for the blind-landing GCA project.
  • Robert L. Kyhl (#095) - Worked in the magnetron group and the test equipment group.
  • Benjamin Lax (#096) - Worked on the L’il Abner radar, AN/TPS-10, and X-band height-finder.
  • Frank Lewis (#088) - Worked as a liaison between the Radiation Lab crew and various government labs.
  • Louis Moose (#071) - Worked for the magnetron group on X-band and/or 3-cm magnetron areas, and did application work for magnetrons and all X-band systems.
  • Russell O’Neal (#070) - Worked for the test equipment group on X-band radar, oscilloscopes, and microwave corner reflectors.
  • Ernest Pollard (#079) - Worked in indicator's group and on the Steering Committee and was able to convince the Navy that navigational microwave radar was possible.
  • Robert Pound (#102) - A section chief of microwave mixers and converters in the RF group who developed broadband stub support for coaxial transmission lines.
  • Edward M. Purcell (#101) - Worked on RF and systems research and on a counter-mortar radar and was head of the Fundamental Developments group.
  • Norman F. Ramsey (#105) - He worked on magnetrons under Rabi and on developing hardware suitable for X-band or 3 cm radar in the advanced development group.
  • Randal Robertson (#087) - Worked on Luis Alvarez’s bombing systems and later edited a volume of the Rad Lab technical series.
  • Denis Robinson (#069) - Worked as the British liaison at the Rad Lab.
  • Nathaniel Rochester (#080) - Worked in the RF components group and was in charge of diodes.
  • Ragnar Rollefson (#086) - Worked in R&D on anti-jamming/countermeasures and on what became the Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEWACS). He later served as the Army Chief Scientist.
  • Theodore Saad (#067) - Began in the theoretical division and switched to the microwave components division.
  • Catherine Scott (#085) - Worked as a secretary for Kenneth Bainbridge and later for Glen Giddings in the Directors Office.
  • Samuel Seely (#081) - Worked as a project manager of the SCR-582, as head of a mission to Australia and as the person who prepared the Hansen lectures for print.
  • Chalmers Sherwin (#082) - Worked in the indicators group and then in the circuits section after it split.
  • H.Guyford Stever (#150) - He taught radar school for the U.S. armed forces and became the radar liaison officer to London. Later served as the President of Carnegie-Mellon University, Director of the National Science Foundation and as Science Advisor to the President of the United States.
  • Virginia Powell Strong (#084) - Worked on high burn-out crystals and was one of a small number of female technical staff at RAD lab.
  • Leo Sullivan (#100) - Worked in the fire-control division, focusing on the SCR-584 (XT-1 originally). He also did maintenance and operations training for the device.
  • Gerald Tape (#068) - Worked on radar information display, relay radar, and synthetic trainers at MIT RAD lab. He then transferred to the British branch of the Rad Lab, where he worked on integrating radar and bombing systems and on devising a recognition microwave radar system.
  • Helen L. Thomas (#097) - Worked on preparing a history of the Rad Lab. She would later work as Editor of Publications at the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics.
  • Herbert G. Weiss (#099) - Worked in the receiver group, where he made a lightweight, stable receiver. He also did systems programs work, helped assemble an American version of the British Oboe navigational system and worked on Project Cadillac.
  • Jerome Wiesner (#084) - Worked to make a transmit-receive switch for X-band and later became project engineer for System Cadillac.