Oral-History:Richard J. Thome

About Richard J. Thome

Richard J. Thome was born in Buffalo, New York on 17 September 1940. He grew up in Buffalo and graduated from Hutchinson Central Technical High School. Thome continued his education at Syracuse University, earning a B.M.E. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. He is a member of the IEEE Council on Superconductivity; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honors society. He has spent his career working in both industry and academia.

Thome started his career working with ZJT Stekly on the development of theories of stability in superconducting magnets and on trade studies for various potential applications for superconductors then under development at Avco Everett Research Laboratory in Everett, Massachusetts (1966 to 1967). Then he was responsible for the design and fabrication of superconducting and conventional magnetic systems at Magnetic Corporation of America, first as Senior Research Engineer, 1969 to 1973 and then as Vice President, 1978 to 1978. After spending more than ten years in industry, Thome started employment at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he devoted his time to research, but shared teaching graduate and external courses on various facets of electromagnetic systems design. One assignment took him to Japan for approximately five years as Head of Superconducting Coils and Structures Division for the ITER Project. He was responsible for the ITER division charged with the design of the superconducting coil systems and associated structures and with the coordination of the $225M R&D program among the four parties (European Union, Japan, Russian Federation, and United States). Thome returned to industry as the Senior Technical Advisor at General Atomics, Inc. from 2000 to 2012 where he provided technical and management review of superconductivity projects. Most recently, Thome founded RJ Thome Consulting Services, providing advice on research, management, and the business development in superconducting and conventional electromechanical systems for applications and in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Professionally active, Thome authored a textbook, MHD and Fusion Magnets: Field & Force Design Concepts, which has been translated into Russian and published more than ninety papers on various aspects of the design, construction, and special applications for superconducting and conventional magnetic systems. In October 2015, he received the IEEE Council on Superconductivity Award for Continuing and Significant Contributions in the Field of Applied Superconductivity.

In this interview, Richard J. Thome discusses growing up in Buffalo, New York as well as his family, education, employment in academia and industry, and the science, technology and economic developments in the field of superconductivity.

About the Interview

Richard J. Thome, An interview conducted by Mary Ann Hellrigel, IEEE History Center, 7 September 2016.

Interview #774, for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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It is suggested that you cite this oral history as follows:

Richard J. Thome, an oral history conducted in 2016 by Mary Ann Hellrigel, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE:

Richard J. Thome

INTERVIEWER:

Mary Ann Hellrigel

DATE:

7 September 2016

PLACE:

Applied Superconductivity Conference, Denver, CO

Introduction

Hellrigel:

Today's Wednesday, September 7th, 2016. This is Mary Ann Hellrigel from the IEEE History Center and I'm with Dr. Richard J. Thome at the Applied Superconductivity Conference in Denver, Colorado. Thank you for agreeing to sit down with me, sir.

Thome:

Thank you for inviting me to do this.

It's really too bad that you couldn't interview the people that were five and six and maybe ten years older than I am. I suggest that Carl Rosner should be interviewed. He is one of the early entrepreneurs and was probably the most successful among the early four to six US companies. Many of the others are gone now. At some point you should also interview David Larbalestier and Peter Lee because they have been key in materials development. They entered on the front end of all of large-scale applications.

I'm not quite sure who else, there are so many contributions. As part of this I might forget to name somebody who certainly deserves to be named, but I apologize for that.

Family and Early Years

Hellrigel:

We can add it. We usually start by asking when and where you were born.

Thome:

I was born on 17 September 1940, in Buffalo, New York. I lived in Buffalo through high school.

Hellrigel:

Please tell us a bit about your parents, your mom and dad.

Thome:

I'd be happy to. My mother was born in the United States. Her parents were born in Poland in Gdansk or Dansig depending on where you come from.

Hellrigel:

Sure, the city has been called Gdansk in Polish and Dansig in German.

Thome:

My mother’s parents came here in the late 1800s or early 1900s. My father was born outside Budapest. It was Austria-Hungary at that time. He had a sister there and his mother. His father, my grandfather, came first and I do not know why he ended up in Buffalo. He scraped together enough money as a tailor and a bartender to send for my grandmother and my father and his sister.

Hellrigel:

Yes, the family immigrated to the United States.

Thome:

When they ended up here, my grandmother had three more children, so my father had another brother and two sisters. One of them passed away as a baby. Neither my mother nor my father finished high school. They both ended up leaving school to help the family. My grandfather on my father's side passed away and my father was the eldest, so he left school and started work. The only one of the grandparents I ever knew was my grandfather on my mother's side because her mother also passed away early. My mother was the eldest child in that family.

Hellrigel:

Your mother had to help take care of the kids, her siblings.

Thome:

She took care of the kids and her father, my grandfather on that side, was a butcher. Somehow my parents met in Buffalo. My father spoke Hungarian, Polish, German, and English. My mother spoke Polish and English. They were very hard-working, hard-playing people, in that order. They liked to play hard, but you had to work hard first.

Hellrigel:

What was your father's name?

Thome:

That's a story. The name on his birth certificate is Bela, but when he got here they were going to live in a Polish neighborhood and they figured Bela wasn't going to work, so they called him Boleslaus, which is Polish. However, after working a couple of jobs, he ended up working for a shoe retailer and they started calling him Ben.

Hellrigel:

Sure, the transformation from Bela to Ben.

Thome:

So, he became Benjamin and he was Benjamin forever after that. Never with any legal change, but certainly over that many years.

Hellrigel:

Yes, and at that point it was quite common to either change or modify your name.

Thome:

Exactly.

Hellrigel:

Yes, it was quite common to anglicize and make changes.

Thome:

Right. It's like the name Thome. It had an umlaut over the E originally.

Hellrigel:

Oh.

Thome:

If I go to Europe and I say Thomé people automatically know how to spell it. If I say Thome, using the “h,” they sort of hesitate and wonder what's going on. But nevertheless, we use Thome here.

Hellrigel:

I understand.

Thome:

Is this too detailed?

Hellrigel:

No, no. Thomé was what I was going to start with because I remember a player on the Cleveland Indians baseball team named Jim Thome, pronounced “towmay.”

Thome:

I think that baseball player does really well. To the best of my knowledge he's not a relative, but who knows?

Hellrigel:

He could be a distant relative.

Thome:

Yes, he could be.

Hellrigel:

What was your mom's name?

Thome:

My mom's name was Martha and her birth name was Zazynski. But there's a part of the family that still uses the original formulation, which has an R before each Z, so it's R-Z-A-R-Z-Y-N-S-K-I.

Hellrigel:

Sure, the spelling varies between branches of the family.

Thome:

As the saying goes, things changed when you got here.

Hellrigel:

Your dad was a shoe retailer.

Thome:

He became a shoe retailer. He and my mother had a family shoe store and ran it together. As soon as I was old enough to read sizes on boxes, I worked in the store, too.

Hellrigel:

Certainly, it was a family business, so you helped your parents and they kept an eye on you. The store was open six days per week.

Thome:

It varied all over the place. When I was a little kid, they had already been in business for quite some time. It was a family store. It was never a very big store and malls were not popular at the time.

Hellrigel:

Right.

Thome:

This was in the 1940s. Malls didn't start coming in until say the mid-1950s or maybe even later. But, at that time, when I was a little kid and World War II was going on, the store was open six days a week and two nights at least until 9 o'clock p.m.

Hellrigel:

Sure, war-time production schedules meant people worked late and on weekends, so the stores had extended hours for workers to shop.

Do you have siblings?

Thome:

Yes, I had a brother named Benjamin Thome, Jr. He graduated from high school in 1943 and went into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was a tail gunner in a B-24. He survived the war and came home.

Hellrigel:

Oh, that is good.

Thome:

His wartime experience was exciting. On his fifth mission out of Bari, Italy, the plane was shot up so badly the crew bailed out. He was captured and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He spent about a year in the camp and was liberated by the Russians. He came home, married his high school sweetheart, and had two children and several grandchildren. He passed away in 1993. He was sixty-eight years old.

Hellrigel:

Oh, sorry to hear.

Thome:

My sister-in-law is still alive and I call her periodically. She's a very fine lady.

Hellrigel:

Does she still live in Buffalo?

Thome:

Right. She is in Buffalo.

Hellrigel:

Did your parents expect either or both of their children to take over the shoe store?

Thome:

I don't think so. After my brother returned from the war, he started working for Ford or Chevy. He worked himself up to be a tool and die maker. He took correspondence courses in drafting and whatever else he needed to be a tool and die maker. He basically retired from Ford when he was old enough. He was always very inquisitive as far as taking things apart and figuring out how they worked. Both he and my father were big on do-it-yourself projects around the house. Between helping my father and helping my brother, when he got back, there wasn't anything that we wouldn’t tackle around the house. Incidentally, I have nothing but the greatest respect for that generation.

Hellrigel:

That must be how you got your mechanical interest.

Thome:

Probably.

Hellrigel:

Yes.

Thome:

I'll still do almost anything. Well, that's not quite true anymore. Now that I'm this old, I don't do anything heavy around the house.

Hellrigel:

No more roof repairs for you.

Thome:

No, but I had a summer job as a roofer and I used to do roof repairs. My uncle was a roofer.

Hellrigel:

When you were a child did you have erector sets, train sets, and those types of toys?

Thome:

Oh, yes. Absolutely. The erector set I inherited was from my brother, so it was really an old one. I remember it was in a wooden box. I also had train sets.

Hellrigel:

Train sets were very popular.

Thome:

I had the old standard gauge train until I talked my father into trading it in for an O-gauge train.

Hellrigel:

Did you have a chemistry set and things like that, too?

Thome:

No, I didn't have a chemistry set. My mother was against smoke and flames.

Hellrigel:

Sure, starting a fire in the house would be a problem. Legend has it, Thomas Edison started a fire with chemical experiments in a railroad car.

Some people I've been talking to this week also mentioned having had ham radios.

Thome:

I did not, but I had friends who did. In fact, I probably can't do the entire code now, but I could give you a few letters of the Morse code.

Hellrigel:

Yes, the ham radio operators communicated via Morse code.

What were your favorite subjects in grade school?

Thome:

I was a fairly good student. Even before I went to school, my mother insisted I learn to partially read and do something with numbers.

Hellrigel:

She started you on your educational journey early.

Thome:

Yes, and with that sort of attention I didn't go to kindergarten. My mother didn't believe in kindergarten, so I started in the first grade and I was always a pretty good student.

Hellrigel:

I think in the State of Massachusetts it's still legal to start in the first grade. Kindergarten is not mandatory. Is there any school subject you disliked?

Thome:

I always did what needed to be done. English composition was never one of my favorites in grade school or high school or for that matter, college. Yet I found that in my professional life, what I've probably done more than anything else, is write.

Hellrigel:

Yes, that’s what we tell the students. Learn how to write because you will use that skill in your personal and professional life. Your first job was at the family shoe store, so you established a work ethic, too.

Thome:

I also always had a summer job somewhere. I worked on a roof for two summers, once on gabled roofs and once on flat roofs. I had a job with Nabisco weighing out the contents for fruitcake.

Hellrigel:

Oh my, the famous fruit cake.

Thome:

That was actually a pretty interesting job. Then I actually had an engineering job once. It was probably my junior year in college when I worked for Niagara Mohawk Power and that was a real engineering job. The other couple of summers I had a janitor’s job and I can’t remember what else. I've done a lot of things.

Hellrigel:

Did your family take vacations?

Thome:

Yes, they did. When I was a kid they would typically close the store for a week or so and we'd all go on a vacation for a week. I think it was in eighth grade or ninth grade, one or the other, but for two years in a row, I had basically told my folks that I didn't really want to go on vacation with them. I got to that age. My father said that's fine, but you're not going to sit around the house. You're going to keep the store open. So, when I was in eighth grade/ninth grade, I ran the shoe store for a week in the summer.

Thome:

Is this the sort of thing that you want?

Hellrigel:

Yes, this is part of your history. It is your background and the context for your life. If you look at some of the other oral histories, all too often, they start with these grand accomplishments, but you don't know anything about the person. There is no context. I want to delve into your formative years, your non-IEEE adventures, your career, and your connection with IEEE.

Thome:

You're never going to get any grand accomplishments with me, so we might as well work on this.

Education

Hellrigel:

In high school were you interested in science and/or technology?

Thome:

I grew up in Buffalo. I'm not sure how they work it in Buffalo now, but the high school I went to still exists. It's Hutchinson Central Technical High School. I went to its website and one thing I noticed, now it is co-ed. It wasn’t co-ed when I attended. At the time I went to high school, there were really three different types of high schools in Buffalo. One was the standard academic high school, and that was the most common type to attend. You did all the usual reading, writing, arithmetic, and study halls. Then there was a class of schools called vocational schools.

Hellrigel:

Sure, my city has a high school and the county has a vocational and technical high school.

Thome:

The vocational schools tended to specialize. For example, there was one that turned out apprentice electricians.

Hellrigel:

It offered a trade school curriculum.

Thome:

There was another for carpentry and yet another for automotive repair.

Hellrigel:

Perhaps Buffalo had a school for metal working or something of that sort, too?

Thome:

Yes, something like that. The specialized school I attended graduated boys expected to go to an engineering college. If they didn’t go to college, they would get a job as a draftsman because we ended up having four concentrated years of drafting. At that time, drafting was not the same as it is today. Drafting meant T squares on big tables with paper and pencils and figuring data planes, tolerances, etc. At that time, there were still blueprint machines.

Hellrigel:

Exactly, the art of drafting before computerization. In my high school drafting course we were taught how to read and draw blue prints.

Thome:

If you were going to make a bunch of copies, you had to take a piece of vellum and make an ink tracing on vellum of your drawing.

Hellrigel:

Then you could run copies?

Thome:

Yes, you did this if you wanted to have a bunch of copies.

Hellrigel:

Yes, you did it by hand. Indeed, drafting was also called mechanical drawing.

Thome:

There were almost no study periods. In fact, I can't remember having a study period until my senior year because when you weren't drafting or doing the reading, writing, and arithmetic, you had shop courses. For example, you'd have a couple of years of machine shop. You'd learn what machines looked like and how they worked. There was a materials shop where you did a little materials testing on some samples to learn about stress and strain. There was a forge and heat treatment shop where you actually did a little bit of welding.

If you were more electrically-oriented than mechanically-oriented, which is what I've just described, there were shops that went more into circuitry. You learned about circuits and what a resistor and an inductor looked like.

Hellrigel:

Yes, those courses were oriented toward electrical engineering.

Thome:

Yes. You also really learned how a motor worked. I didn't realize it at the time because I always went along with the flow and said, oh yes, this is interesting, I can do this, and it's a good grade, but it was really a good education.

You had to pass an entrance exam. I passed the exam and I did select that high school. It was not convenient because it was a 45-minute bus ride away from home.

Hellrigel:

At times it may have been less than convenient, especially during the winter.

Thome:

Yes, but you know when you grow up in Buffalo, you deal with the winter.

Hellrigel:

True. I went to graduate school in Cleveland, and lived on the east side of Lake Erie, so I got used to the climate and weather pattern.

Thome:

You just don't know anything else. You think that's what life is like. Your mother sends you out to shovel snow three times a day, you figure, okay, everybody's doing this.

Hellrigel:

When you were in that high school, did you figure you were going to go to engineering college or did you have a different plan?

Thome:

Probably. However, so many things in my life just kind of happened and I went along with it. Going to that technical high school was one of those things. I went to that school because my principal in grade school said, "You ought to think about engineering." I said “okay, I've got nothing else to do, right?” So that's how I got there.

During my last couple of years in high school, I went out for crew. I rowed and Buffalo at the time was one of the few towns around with high school crew programs. It just so happened that the high school principal was an alumnus of Syracuse University and he said, "Why don't you think about going to Syracuse?" I applied to two places. One was Michigan State and the other was Syracuse. I ended up getting a scholarship to both, but I went to Syracuse because I could row.

Hellrigel:

You had academic scholarships to both colleges, but the chance to be on the crew team brought you across the state to Syracuse. What did the scholarship cover?

Thome:

Tuition.

Hellrigel:

This was an academic award, not a rowing scholarship.

Thome:

It wasn’t a rowing scholarship. I went there because I liked to row. I could row at Syracuse, but I couldn't row at Michigan State at the time. That's how I ended up at Syracuse.

Hellrigel:

You were a member of the university’s crew team.

Thome:

Yes, I was on the team all four years.

Hellrigel:

What did your folks think about your decision to attend Syracuse?

Thome:

They were in favor of education and they were in favor of my going somewhere. They were also in favor of the fact that I had a scholarship.

Hellrigel:

In addition, going to Syracuse meant you were not too far from home. You could get home by taking a train trip, or a bus trip, across the state.

Thome:

I either bussed or hitchhiked. I didn't have a car until the end of my junior year in college. At the end of my junior year I got my first car. My folks gave it to me as a present. It was a 1961 VW bug.

Hellrigel:

Cool a bug. You probably could do your own repairs.

Thome:

Oh, in fact, I could, but I didn't.

Hellrigel:

Really?

Thome:

Actually, that's not quite right. I did the simple stuff such as change the oil and change the points. At that time, cars had points. Now if you go under the hood of your car you're lucky if you can find the dipstick.

Hellrigel:

Yes. My first car was a 1968 Chevy. Did you enjoy Syracuse?

Thome:

Yes, it was good.

Hellrigel:

Did you decide on mechanical engineering from the very beginning?

Thome:

Yes, that's because I came out of high school with mostly a mechanical background, so I applied to the mechanical engineering department. This was the next fork in the road; I decided to attend Syracuse and then I selected mechanical engineering.

Hellrigel:

Did you have any mentors in the mechanical engineering department?

Thome:

Yes, my advisor was a Polish immigrant. His name was Ross M. Evan-Iwanowski. I'm sure he's gone. There was another fellow, a Russian immigrant named Vladimir Korolenko. They were just very good, so what else can I say? The other professors were good too, but these guys were really outstanding. When it came to talking about what to do next, what courses to take, or whatever, I always felt that their advice was good.

Hellrigel:

At what point did you decide you were going to continue to graduate school?

Thome:

Yes, that's what I meant about the next fork. I was in ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corp]. After receiving my undergraduate degree, I was going to go into the U.S. Army for two years. It came time to think about graduate school and my grades were pretty good, in fact, so my advisor said, "You really ought to think about a master's program."

I filled a form out and sent it to the U.S. Army. I probably did that in the fall of my senior year, but I didn't hear back until something like February or March. The Army said no, you cannot have a deferment. There was some crisis going on at the time. However, a couple of months went by and I received another envelope in the mail and all of a sudden I had a deferment. I had a deferment, but I had no place to go because I hadn't applied anywhere.

Hellrigel:

Oh my, that was an unexpected development.

Thome:

I went to see the head of the department of mechanical engineering at Syracuse. He said, "Don't worry about it. We'll get you in here." So, that's how I ended up working on a master's degree at Syracuse.

Hellrigel:

Did you get funding for your master's?

Thome:

I did. I had a fellowship from Tau Beta Pi [the national engineering honor society]. The Tau Beta Pi fellowship payed tuition plus an $1,800 stipend, which at that time was a lot of money. I also worked for room and board because I was a resident advisor in one of the dormitories. I did that my senior year when I was at Syracuse, too.

Hellrigel:

Great, this way you covered the cost of housing and meals and you already had the fellowship covering tuition. You had a whole financial game plan.

Thome:

I was in good shape with the $1,800 fellowship for expenses, plus the fellowship paid the tuition, and my room and board was covered because I worked in the dorm. Besides, I had a VW bug.

Hellrigel:

You also earned money with summer jobs.

Thome:

Right, I had summer jobs, too.

Hellrigel:

Your folks must've been thrilled.

Thome:

They were starting to wonder when I was going to get a job. However, they were thrilled. They were always very supportive, but I could tell that they weren't quite sure where all this was going.

Hellrigel:

Yes, they must have thought about your employment prospects, too. Maybe they wondered if you were going to be a professional student.

Thome:

Yes.

Hellrigel:

When you worked on your master’s degree did you study with the same two professors?

Thome:

Yes, for some courses, but my thesis advisor at Syracuse was Drucker [Eugene E. Drucker], another really good guy. During the fall of 1962 and spring of 1963, I completed all the coursework, so then I needed a summer job and a thesis. Do you really want this kind of detail?

Hellrigel:

Yes, I want to know how you completed your education, found employment, and those sort of details. These details flesh out your story and professional development.

Career

Thome:

Sometime during the spring of 1963, my advisor started saying “you have to start thinking about what you're going to do for a thesis.” I said, “I also have to think about what I am going to do for a summer job because this Tau Beta Pi funding was only one year.” Somehow, I found out that the Argonne National Laboratory had a group directed by Dr. Michael Petrick, who had a group of students, mostly working on their doctorates, but occasionally he took a master's student. The students came from the Associated Midwestern Universities and they worked in areas of interest to Argonne.

At the time, the Argonne National Lab was very interested in two-phase flow. This is flow like boiling water in pipes or a mixture of gas and liquid flowing in a pipe. Argonne were also very nuclear oriented. Somehow, and I don't remember how, I applied for a summer job at the Argonne National Laboratory and got it. When I finished my coursework I went out to Argonne, presumably for the summer of 1963.

Actually, I must've gone out there for an interview, too. Now it's coming back to me. When I got there Petrick handed me a paper, a recent paper out of the Jet Propulsion Lab [JPL], having to do with two-phase flow in an MHD [magnetohydrodyamic] cycle. MHD was growing in interest at that time. I didn’t know anything about two-phase flow or anything about MHD. The only electromagnetics I had was in a basic physics course. Petrick asked if I wanted to work on it and I said, sure, so I got two books by John Arthur Shercliff. One was Electromagnetic Flow Measurement and the other one was something about magnetohydrodynamics. I also went to the library and got a few papers on MHD. That's how I learned a little bit about Maxwell's equations so that I could start doing electromagnetic work.

That summer I basically studied, and somewhere around the middle of the summer Petrick said, “you have to think about doing something in the lab here because that's the way we work.” I said “okay, what do you want me to do?” He said “nobody knows what the impact is going to be of a transverse magnetic field on two-phase flow in a pipe the way they want to do it in the Jet Propulsion Lab paper. There's no data.” I said “let's do it.”

I had good support out there. There was an engineer in the group, who worked with the students in the lab to help do design and get items through procurement. This engineer helped with all the stuff that you have no idea how to do when you first walk into a place, and he also worked with the technicians. We ended up putting together a flow loop that had fifty gallons of NaK [sodium-potassium alloy]. NaK is eutectic. It's an electrically conducting liquid at room temperature. It's also very nasty stuff to work with because if it comes in contact with water or hydrogen you can have fires and it can explode. It can be nasty stuff, but in any case, we built a flow loop.

By the end of the summer we pretty much had it together. The way it worked is the pump circulated the NaK around and then we injected dry nitrogen into the NaK to make a bubbly flow. Then we ran it up through a transverse magnetic field and we had a gamma ray source and a detector on the other side that measured the volume fraction of liquid so you could tell.

What the magnetic field was doing relative to the pressure drop and you could determine whether it was accelerating the gas or retarding the gas. At the time, and even today, the more standard way to try to do MHD is to start with a hot gas and then seed it with something to get the conductivity up. However, seeding with something like cesium was really kind of nasty if released to the atmosphere.

Now to make a long story short, this loop was coming together and two things happened at the time. One, I needed a thesis topic, so I got hold of my thesis advisor at Syracuse and said “look, I've got this loop going, and can we turn this into a thesis?” He said “I'll come out, we'll look at it, and we'll see if it qualifies.

Hellrigel:

Yes, he wanted to make sure it was a legitimate project and a doable project.

Thome:

He came out and he said “sure, why not. You get the data. You write it up. You tell us how it works. Do the job.” I said “fine.”

Hellrigel:

Excellent, now you had your project.

Thome:

At the same time, Petrick hired a consultant from MIT. This MIT professor was Bill Jackson, a MHD expert. Bill Jackson started coming out and he became interested. It was coming together. However, I didn't start getting any data until somewhere around September. Then, the crunch was on because I needed to finish at Syracuse.

Hellrigel:

After the summer ended, you stayed at the lab working on the project.

Thome:

I stayed because I turned it into a project. When I first went to the Argonne Lab in the summer, I didn't know that I was going to do a thesis there. If it didn’t pan out, I didn't know what I was going to do, but all of a sudden it started to look like a master's thesis project. Not only that, Bill Jackson said, “look, when you're done with this, why don't you come to MIT and I'll give you a research assistantship?” I said, “sure when can I start.” He said, “when can you finish?” Being a fairly optimistic guy, I said, “I can be ready for the spring 1964 semester.” So I got it done, written, and approved. I did my thesis defense at Syracuse. The defense was a requirement so I got it done. I packed up my VW with my wife, at the time, and drove to Boston. I started at MIT in February of 1964.

Hellrigel:

Then in between you had time to get married in the fall of 1963.

Thome:

Yes, that fall I got married.

Hellrigel:

Did your folks still wonder when you were going to get a job?

Thome:

They were probably wondering more at this time than ever. I hadn't intended to go into this level of detail.

Hellrigel:

This detail is essential because the IEEE History Center intends to post the written transcripts on ETHW [Engineering and Technology History Wiki], our Wikipedia site. Then people will read about engineers' early careers. What did they do? How did they become an engineer? What made them tick?

Thome:

It was just totally fortuitous.

Hellrigel:

Now you are at MIT working with Bill Jackson.

Thome:

Jackson was my dissertation advisor. They gave me enough credit for math toward a minor because I took a lot of math at Syracuse. They gave me enough credit for that, but there were other restrictions or other things that you had to fulfil, so I had to deal with all the other courses and requirements.

Hellrigel:

Sure, you had language requirements.

Thome:

Exactly. At that time, you still had to translate a document.

Hellrigel:

Yes, French or German or something like that.

Thome:

You could choose two out of three languages: French, German, or Russian. Of course, I didn't speak any of them, so when the time came, which was probably a year and a half later, I just loaded my head full of vocabulary, got a couple of sentence structure books, and then went in there and just did it. I remember very little of it, but I got it out of the way.

Hellrigel:

You had to prove you could read literature in your field.

Thome:

Yes, that was the goal. At that time, language skills were important because you couldn't just get the translation on your computer. I got the coursework out of the way and I did a dissertation with Jackson. Then it came time to look for a job, and this again is one of those fortuitous things that just sort of happens. I arrived at MIT in February 1964 and by now it is the spring of 1966. In the spring of 1966, I started looking for a job and I went to a couple of places. I also went to see a professor at MIT by the name of Herb Woodson. He was teaching a course in MHD at the time and I had taken the course. For whatever reason, I always got along well with him, so I walked into his office one day and said “I've had a couple of job interviews. They're okay, but it's just not my cup of tea.” He said, “why don't you go to the Avco Everett Research Laboratory and talk to John Stekly [Z.J.J. Stekly]?”

Hellrigel:

Now you have the connection to Stekly.

Thome:

I said “what do they do?” He said, “Stekly is interested in applications of superconductivity.” Then I said, “what’s superconductivity?” At that point, at least I knew something about electromagnetics because I had been studying MHD.

Hellrigel:

This is a fascinating story describing your career path.

Thome:

I had taken a couple more courses in electromechanical interactions at MIT. There were some really good people there at the time and there still are good people there. I said, “I don't know what superconductivity is.” He said, “go talk to him and you'll find out.” So, I went out to Avco and Stekly was THE guy. It's too bad he has passed

Hellrigel:

Yes, it would have been interesting to meet him. I've heard from other people that he helped many of them with their careers and he explained superconductivity to them. They were making the transition from graduate school just like you.

Thome:

I probably started at Avco in the summer of 1966. The interview was probably in May or June of 1966 because my degree came in September of 1966. This stage of the game was just before officially graduating, so I was waiting for people to read my thesis and dot the Is and cross the Ts, etc.

Hellrigel:

Yes, you defended the dissertation and you were waiting for the diploma.

Thome:

Right, so I went in to see Stekly. He was a heck of a guy. He was a Czech immigrant, but he spoke flawless English. He had four degrees from MIT, three in mechanical engineering and a master's in EE [electrical engineering]. I never checked, but the story was he never had anything but an A. I believe it. He was that good. He was really that good. I arrived at Avco and just hit it off with the guy. In fact, I think Woodson had mentioned “go see Stekly. Your algebra's pretty good. He needs somebody to crank the math.”

Hellrigel:

These interrelationships are fascinating. Little pieces keeping falling in place.

Thome:

It wasn't like today. Today, when you want a solution for a differential equation, you go to the computer, you type in the equation, and you get the solution.

Hellrigel:

At that time, you needed a pen or pencil as well as paper to calculate.

Thome:

You had to put pen on paper. That's the other thing about Stekly. He always did his work in ink.

Hellrigel:

In ink?

Thome:

Stekly had a Parker pen, a fountain pen, and all his work was ink on paper. It was crossed off occasionally and he frequently did things two or three or four times on different occasions just to get it right. Anyway, I really hit it off with him.

The year before at Avco they tested the first large-scale, non-solenoidal superconducting magnet that really worked. This was the big problem ever since 1902, that is, trying to make magnets work. In the early to mid-1960s people started to get them to work in the solenoidal form and small form. However, when they tried to scale it up or if it was non-solenoidal, things would start to go bad --if it's a solenoid, the structural character is quite well-defined because of the axial symmetry---and the support for it is well defined. But if you tried to make it bigger and bigger and tried to make it into something that's shaped like what they call a dipole then your structure has to be more complex and multi-dimensional. There are all kinds of structural interactions, not just flaws. Even if it's designed carefully, it didn’t work until Stekly came up with what is really the simplest possible idea you can think of to make it work if you can afford it. And that was his key. He said look, if you really must have it work, this is what you have to do. And of course in my opinion--people may disagree, but in my opinion--half the world and half the community that was ever involved in this did a head slap and said well, of course that’s what you have to do.

Hellrigel:

That's what I've heard from other people. They said what he developed was fundamentally earthshaking.

Thome:

That was Stekly.

In 1964, the first couple of papers of that type were by either Stekly or Stekly and A. R. Kantrowitz [Arthur Robert Kantrowitz]. Kantrowitz was the head of the Avco Everett lab. There's also a paper by Stekly and Jacob L. Zar. It's the only paper I can ever remember by Jack Zar, a physicist that worked with Stekly. Zar was a character; he used to knit his own ties. They came up with this and it was really an invention born of necessity.

Hellrigel:

Why was it of necessity?

Thome:

At the time, Avco Everett was very interested in MHD power generation. They had a large plasma physics department. Stekly was supposed to build the large, non-solenoidal magnet that was going to go on an MHD generator, which was then going to be Avco proprietary. Some of those words are mine. I'm not quite sure of the legality.

If you buy a piece of superconductor today and you take a cross section of it, even if it's really small, a fraction of a millimeter, what you'll see is a perfect pattern of superconducting filaments, an absolutely perfect pattern. At the time when Stekly was building the largest non-solenoidal magnet ever up to that time, they were using a different material, in this case, it was Niobium Zirconium. The state of the art was such that if you tried to put it in a billet and draw it down, half the time the rods on the inside would come squirting out the side. You couldn’t get a decent piece of composite wire out of it. Therefore, they designed the conductor to be a half-inch wide copper that had nine parallel Niobium Zirconium wires that were pushed into grooves in the copper.

Today, if you want 5 km of wire, you can get a single piece of wire 5 km long. At that time, you were lucky to get a couple of hundred meters. When they pushed the Niobium zirconium wire into the grooves, every once in a while it would break. If the NbZr breaks, it is not continuous, so what happens to the current when it operates?

It's got to be cooled. There's got to be enough copper and it's got to be cooled well enough so that the whole thing stays at a low temperature. It's really that simple. Even if your wire is that bad and it's got a break in it, if you use this criterion, it still works. If the wire is not that bad, say it's maybe a little bit bad because it's not processed properly, you can make it work, if you use this criterion. It really was THE criterion that opened the future of applications and he was very active in trying to come up with different applications.

At that time Stekly started getting contracts and doing studies and investigating other possible applications like rotating machinery. That, incidentally, is one of the places Woodson came in. Woodson had written books on rotating machinery, so they were working together on how might you build a superconducting motor and energy storage. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I really got into the area. Over fifty years I've worked on all kinds of different projects and all of them have been some kind of application of conventional or superconducting magnets. It's always been different and interesting.

I enjoyed working with Stekly; he was good. I would go away for a day or two and come back with twelve pages of algebra. I'd say look, I'm over here, and I'm stuck. He'd say okay, let me have it, and he'd take it home that night. He'd come back the next day with a page with a little bit more stuff on it. We would trade it back and forth. Remember, this is at a time when there were no handheld calculators

Hellrigel:

No, calculators. You had the slide rule.

Thome:

I used the slide rule until I got to MIT. The analytical part of my dissertation was punched on IBM cards several feet long. I had a stack of IBM cards. You would leave a box of punch cards at the computer center and they would try to run it overnight. You went back the next morning for the results. Sometimes, it didn't run because there was a chad or typo or format error. You would lose a whole day.

Hellrigel:

Yes, those chads in the punch cards.

Thome:

When I got to Avco, man, that was a big step because they had time sharing. The only place that could have big computers was the national labs or some universities. Avco bought time sharing on a remote computer.

Hellrigel:

Sure, you bought time to run your work on a computer.

Thome:

You punched out your program on paper tape. Then you'd feed in a paper tape and the terminal would transmit at fifteen characters a second. Today it's a joke. You got back a page of numbers because there was no such things as graphics where you could get your plots back. When you take a look at the drawings in those days or at the graphs and contour plots in those days, those things were all done by hand. They're done on graph paper or if you want a contour plot. Somebody sits there and puts numbers on a grid, sketches in where the contours lie, and then takes a French curve to complete the graphic.

Hellrigel:

You were very excited about that job.

Thome:

It was really good. I was there about a year. Then I had to give the U.S. Army two years.

Hellrigel:

I wondered about the gaps in your work history. You were in the army.

Thome:

We started a lot of things. It turns out that the criterion that Stekly came up with in 1964, 1965 or whenever it was, is what I would call zero dimensional. It's like a blob of material, but there's no geometric character to it. It has temperature and it interfaces with the world, but it doesn’t have any dimensions or geometry.

It exists, and it's a way to model the global process. What Stekly needed to do next and what he wanted me to do was to get started on the one-dimensional model because a wire is effectively one-dimensional. Now instead of treating it as if it's just a blob that's going to go normal, that is resistive, you now have to think about a wire. You have to say: this part's going to go normal, this part is almost normal, but it's not normal, and this part is superconducting. Now those interfaces start moving along the wire with a certain velocity. So, we did a one-dimensional model and it was all basically algebra. Turn the crank and paper tapes and make plots.

A lot of that stuff ended up in some research reports at Avco, which were proprietary. Some of it was probably never published. Some of it was published subsequently. There's a 1969 paper by Z. J. J. Stekly, R. Thome, and B. Strauss. In addition, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory there was a Brookhaven summer study in 1968, which is sort of classic. Some people call it Woodstock for superconductivity. It has a Stekly, Thome, and Strauss paper in it in which some of these graphs and models appeared.

The advances started to appear here and there and we started to develop a one-dimensional quench code. In fact, we started on a two- and a three-dimensional quench code, but I'm sure none of that was ever published until some years later. By that time, other people had done it too, which is okay. That's the way it was.

Hellrigel:

Some of the other people I've been speaking with worked at national labs, too. They mentioned their work then was open, public I guess. It wasn't proprietary.

Thome:

One of the papers by Stekly (1965) is his first paper at an Applied Superconductivity Conference. I believe this is his first paper at a Magnet Technology Conference.

[Thome displayed an array of publications and reports] This was the proceedings of International Symposium on Magnet Technology, that is MT-1 in 1965. This is a paper by Stekly. In this one, Stekly had a statement at the end of it. This research was supported by Avco under its company-sponsored independent research and development programs. Some companies do that today too. They ploughed internal funding into a project. The entire MHD magnet may not have been internally funded, but a lot of his work at the time, was internally funded by Avco.

Hellrigel:

At the time, were these national labs cooperating or competing with you and Avco to try to develop it first?

Thome:

Yes, and no. Everybody's in competition with everybody with this type of effort. People were making magnets out of other materials or other forms of the materials. The one that Stekly used at the time was Niobium Zirconium because that's what he could get. After that, Niobium Titanium was starting to come online as something that you could get without having some funny pattern in the cross section. At that time, if you had a piece of Niobium Titanium wire that had 27 or 54 strands in it, you were really doing something. Most of this material was 13, 27, 54. There's a certain pattern in a certain sequence of numbers. That may not be the sequence, but it's of that order, like 50 or less at that time.

Today, if you want 4,000 filaments, 8,000 filaments in a wire, you just go and buy it. That's the way it is. The other form is Niobium Tin. I don’t think Stekly was using Niobium Tin at the time. However, other people were making big advances in how to manufacture Niobium Tin tape because it has a lot of big advantages, but it has some disadvantages even to this day. At that stage of the game, we had a lab. We had technicians.

Hellrigel:

You worked on Avco projects and then you spent two years in the U.S. Army?

Thome:

Right, I was in the army for two years.

Hellrigel:

Did you get stationed abroad? Were you scheduled to be shipped to Vietnam?

Thome:

They almost shipped me abroad, but they didn’t. It was only by the grace of God that I didn't go to Vietnam because my first few months were in the summer of 1967. I was at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and it was one of those last-minute things again. I had orders to go to another place and the orders had a statement on the back, at the bottom noting "for ultimate assignment to an unaccompanied short-tour area." This meant I was supposed to go to Vietnam. About three weeks before I was going to leave Fort Gordon, a new set of orders came in that said go to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

Hellrigel:

What did you do at Fort Monmouth? Did you work on the signaling projects?

Thome:

It turns out that they had a small group working on superconductivity. In order to make a few extra bucks I taught in the evenings at what was then Monmouth College. It's now Monmouth University.

Hellrigel:

Did you teach physics, or maybe electrophysics?

Thome:

All these stories are yes and no. I did teach part of a physics course once, but two or three times I taught a course that was physics and science for non-science majors.

Hellrigel:

Sure, science for students majoring in other disciplines.

Thome:

I used a pretty good book with a little bit of everything. It had a little bit of mechanics, physics, and chemistry. As it turned out, it was a really interesting experience because you walk in and you've got thirty kids out there and you look at the expression on their faces. You have the immediate feeling that they don't want to be there.

Hellrigel:

They may have seemed frightened of science as non-science majors.

Thome:

They don’t want to be there, so the big challenge in that kind of a course is just getting some of them to get the picture. That's all there is to it, so have fun. I said look, you're not going to pass this course just by coming in here and filling a chair. You're going to have to do some work and I really want you to try to understand this stuff. Sometimes I presented something two or three different ways on the board and every once in a while you could stare out there and you'd see the light go on in one person's face. By the end of the semester, out of about thirty students, if I had twelve or fifteen that were really paying attention, I figured, man, that was really good. Then the rest of them did the best they could. I think it's still a problem frankly. The kids come in and they have the idea that they can't do it. Somehow or another, along the line, in getting to that place, they have become convinced internally that they can't do it. Now for some of them, maybe it is beyond them, but for the level of material that I was teaching in that course everybody in that room should've been able to get at least half of it.

Hellrigel:

Yes, some may have lacked confidence and other students may have focused on either sports and other activities in high school.

Hellrigel:

Did you like teaching?

Thome:

It's all right. I like working on projects more than teaching. I taught at Monmouth College because I needed the bucks and I didn't mind doing it. It was fine. While working at MIT years later, I taught the magnet parts of a grad fusion course. When I first worked at MIT we also put together a two-week summer course and taught it about three times. At that time, the whole business of superconducting magnets was starting to grow. This course attracted good people from industry as well as national labs. Generally, we would get thirty to fifty people for a two-week summer course.

Hellrigel:

Then you had another job or two before you got to work at MIT.

Thome:

Yes, I did. About the time I was getting out of the U.S. Army, Stekly and two others from Avco were starting a company. It was John Stekly, whose name incidentally is Z.J.J Stekly. The Z is for Zdenek, but he always went by John, except on papers and legal documents. So, Stekly, a fellow named Ed Lucas [Edward J. Lucas], and another fellow named Theo de Winter started Magnetic Corporation of America [MCA].

Hellrigel:

I see. I was curious about your decision not to return to Stekly and Avco. That is how I read your resume. Now I see that Stekly left Avco and you went with him.

Thome:

Yes, that's correct. They left Avco and started Magnetic Corporation of America and I was the fourth or fifth person in the door at the new company. I worked there close to ten years.

When I first started at MCA, they had an office, literally just an office. Then shortly thereafter we were on Binney Street in Cambridge, Mass. and we had about 2,000 square feet, a little bit of lab space, a bunch of offices, and we started to grow people.

We expanded and needed more room, so we moved out on Bear Hill Road in Waltham, Mass. to a place with about 44,000 square feet. At that site we made conventional and superconducting magnets. At the time we had become affiliated with Airco, a company that had a division making wire, Niobium titanium wire. So we had a group that was making wire and…

Hellrigel:

That must've been expensive to set up.

Thome:

Yes, but I didn’t worry about that.

Hellrigel:

That was Stekly's problem?

Thome:

It was actually Lucas' problem and Stekly's problem, but not my problem.

Hellrigel:

Yes, they had to finance starting a company from scratch.

Thome:

Right.

Hellrigel:

Did you enjoy working there?

Thome:

Yes, I did. Why did I leave is the question, right? That's the real question underlying this. Somewhere along the line, say after five, six, seven or so years, we had a separate group that was getting into electronics. They started making Pong games. Do you remember Pong?

Hellrigel:

Yes, the Pong video game.

Thome:

They were making Pong under contract. One of their big contracts was with Bally, a company that made games. Some of the powers in the company felt that Pong was going to really make our company. So, we ended up having an enormous inventory of parts to make Pong for Bally, but then the contract folded and we were stuck.

Hellrigel:

Oh no, you were stuck with the inventory.

Thome:

Without getting into a lot of detail, that I don't remember very well, we ended up going into chapter eleven. Chapter eleven is a part of the bankruptcy law where the court allows a company to continue operating, but it's got to be on a cash-in, cash-out basis. You don't have to fold and sell your assets.

Hellrigel:

You're not taking any loans, right. Business is conducted on a cash basis.

Thome:

Right, you can't take any loans. If you have a plan to get out of bankruptcy, you may be allowed to choose the chapter eleven option. Eventually, the company became solvent again and it was sold to Johnson & Johnson [J & J], who had a medical products division. Although I think this is the story, some of the details may not be exactly correct.

Hellrigel:

I heard a similar version from another person, but details always need verification.

Thome:

Yes.

Thome:

J&J wanted the company to totally concentrate on MRI magnets. This was different from the earlier philosophy of the Magnetic Corporation of America, where we tried new areas. We weren't initially planning to concentrate on only MRI magnets.

The MRI magnets business started to grow in that direction and the company got better and better, healthier and healthier. Then GE Medical Products bought out the J&J division. GE Medical Products had become, and probably still is, the big dog in MRI magnets. They bought out J&J and decided to concentrate on MRI magnets in Florence, South Carolina.

Before this occurred, my thought process was something like this: we were doing very well. Then we hit this pong business. We had a dip. Then we worked very hard and we were in with J&J. I I felt that I had been through an up, a down and an up and I didn't want to go through a down again. So I think I actually left while it was still J&J.

Hellrigel:

I understand.

Thome:

That is when I went to work at MIT.

Hellrigel:

Sure, moving to MIT was good for you.

Thome:

Yes, it was a good move because I was there for twenty-two years and I worked primarily for Bruce Montgomery, another one of the stalwarts in the field. Incidentally, he is another person you should interview.

Hellrigel:

Now you had the chance to return to your alma mater.

Thome:

Yes, and the work was more like what I did with Stekly. I worked many different projects. We moved from the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory to the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, but it was still under the MIT umbrella. I never really worked 100 percent for Fusion until 1998. The group was encouraged to go out, find some funding, support the group, and grow. That's the name of the game and that's what we did. Then the ITER project [an international project to design and build an experimental fusion reactor] came along. Actually, I started on the grandfather of ITER, a project called INTOR [International Tokamak Reactor]. At some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, an international group met in Vienna about three times a year for two weeks.

They were doing what might be considered pre-conceptual trade studies to determine what the next big fusion machine should look like. Fusion machines need magnets and Montgomery could not go every time, so he sent me. I started attending the meetings and an interesting lesson came out of those meetings. That is when I learned an important component of a workshop. Bill Stacey, an MIT graduate and professor at Georgia Tech, ran the U.S. end of the group and the workshop together with a Japanese professor name Mori. In addition, there was an advisory group that involved the Europeans, the Russians, the Japanese, and the U.S. This was a fairly good-sized group that got together periodically in Vienna. The group worked like this: you presented what you had analyzed and then you tried to work up homework assignments focused on what you really needed to know for the next meeting.

Hellrigel:

It was an international think tank.

Thome:

The component that made it work was the homework.

Hellrigel:

Sure, the preparation and planning for the next gathering gave purpose to the meetings.

Thome:

It worked because even though you may not have had enough funding at home to do the homework, you had a commitment when you showed up. You didn’t want to show up with a blank piece of paper.

This is again a side track, but when many workshops get together you end up with many people doing a lot of heavy listening. The workshop will start with a mandate that says come and do some work, but what really happens is many come to listen. Stacey got around this because toward the end of each workshop, each group made up a homework assignment. Then it went up the ladder to the Stacy/Mori advisory group and they indicated the changes that should be made in view of their vision of the other subsystems. Then they sent it back down to us. You'd leave with an assignment for the next workshop.

People came back and they really did the work. It was a really, really good interaction among parties. Anyway, that's how I got into the international fusion program. Then INTOR became the ITER CDA, which was the conceptual design activity. I didn't participate in that phase because of other project commitments.

In the CDA phase, people had said, okay, we think we're really going to build a big machine. Now let's start getting serious about conceptual design as a follow on to the INTOR trade studies. Following the CDA, there was enough interest in the project that it became the ITER engineering design activity, the EDA.

Hellrigel:

I see. The project is moving along and now it sort of has a new name.

Thome:

The ITER EDA project opened on three sites: one outside Munich at Garching, one in Japan, and one in San Diego. There were nine subsystems. They put three different subsystems at each site and the overall activity for coordinating the EDA was based San Diego. They put together a team and I ended up going to Japan for six years because I was head of the magnet work. I went to Japan because the engineering design and the R&D organization for the magnet systems was going to be done in Japan.

Hellrigel:

Fascinating, you spent six years in Japan managing projects.

Thome:

There were two other subsystems in Japan. One had to do with tritium and remote handling and the other one had to do with power supply and conversion. A head was assigned to each of the three subsystems, and there was a head of the EDA site in Japan. A French fellow named Michel Huguet was head of the site.

Again, this is a case of God's good grace giving me another super guy to work for. I had Stekly; I had Montgomery; and now, I had Huguet. I still worked for Montgomery and my paycheck came from MIT, but I really worked for Huguet. He was head of the site and he reported to the director of the project, who was a fellow named Rebut. Paul-Henri Rebut, a physicist, who's well-known. Rebut is an extraordinary person.

The group included Europeans, Japanese, Russians, and Americans. I believe there were forty-four non-Japanese families that came to Japan, roughly a third in each division. In addition there were, approximately, an equal number of Japanese who worked on the project. There were probably seventy people working on site. Roughly the same number worked in Garching, Germany and San Diego, too.

Hellrigel:

Did you all live in the same community in Japan?

Thome:

Pretty much. When we first arrived, it was only Huguet and his right-hand man, a fellow named Barry Greene, a really good physicist/administrator type. Huguet is just an outstanding manager and technical guy. I arrived shortly thereafter along with another person. In any case, there were only three or four of us when we got started and the workload was just crazy. It was crazy because you're trying to build some momentum and you just don't have the people to do it, but we moved as fast as we could to build the team.

Hellrigel:

Where did the funding come from?

Thome:

The U.S. funding came from the Department of Energy. My paycheck came from MIT, but the funding came from the Department of Energy.

Hellrigel:

Sure, federal funding.

Thome:

It was just an outstanding job. Each division was able to hand pick its people from an international pool. The people wanted to come and they really wanted to work. It was just an outstanding group.

Hellrigel:

Does that project continue?

Thome:

Yes. It's being built now in Cadarache, France. A lot of the magnet people that I had working with me or that were in Japan are now the people that are heading it up and building it in France. If you go online to Iter.org, you will see it's an enormous project. To give you an idea for the superconducting magnets, there's 18 of one kind of coil weighing 550 tonnes a piece. There's 7 of another kind of a coil at 110 tonnes a piece. There's 6 other coils, of which 4 are so big and so heavy they have to be built on site.

Hellrigel:

I can't even imagine the size of the building to house the equipment.

Thome:

It's huge. That's why if you go to the website you're going to see many buildings. All the magnets go into the main experimental building, but there is also a power supply building, which is enormous, and a cryogenic building, which is enormous, too.

Hellrigel:

It's so massive, it is mind-boggling.

Thome:

It was terrific fun. At the time, I took the job I told my boss, Montgomery, “I don't know if I can do this job. This job is just on the edge of being crazy.” He said, “you're right, but you have the right attitude and I think you can do it. But you're right. It's on the edge.”

Hellrigel:

Did you ever get any pushback from the U.S. Congress about how much money you were spending and questions about what are we getting out of it?

Thome:

I didn’t have to worry about it. That was all handled at the Department of Energy level and at the international level.

Hellrigel:

At this point, there has been a more than twenty-five-year commitment to the project.

Thome:

Except that they would probably argue that those first couple of phases were not the same project. They would probably argue that it's different in the sense that it was evolving. We had a lot of fun because the EDA was no longer a paper study. It involved the coordination among all three sites, and once you get the hang of it, that in itself is very satisfying. There was somebody working every hour all day. You could send a list of questions to somebody in Garching or San Diego and come back the next morning and the answers would be on your computer. We also had to coordinate the R&D money to build some prototype magnets. We built two big prototype magnets. One is part of a test facility in Japan that is still the largest 13 Tesla-pulsed single magnet facility in the world. It was a good project.

In about 1998, the U.S. decided to disengage from the project because the ITER site hadn’t been chosen yet. I think I came back in December of 1998 to MIT and stayed at MIT until 2000, which is when the 13T magnet in Japan began operating. At that stage I needed to do something else. It was a good time to retire from MIT and I knew some people at General Atomics [GA], I retired from MIT on October 31st of 2000 and I started at GA in San Diego on November 1st.

My wife and I were fairly familiar with San Diego because part of the ITER EDA project was there and we used to come to San Diego every eight to twelve weeks, roughly.

Hellrigel:

Sure, you were familiar with the area.

Thome:

One of the most rewarding things about the three activities that we've just talked about, first, Magnetic Corporation of America with Stekly; secondly, MIT with Montgomery; and thirdly, Japan with Huguet, was that each time we were able to put together a really, really good team of people for analyzing and building magnets. They were outstanding and each team was better than the last.

Hellrigel:

Yesterday, I spoke with Jack Ekin.

Thome:

I know Jack.

Hellrigel:

He also said it's all about the people.

Thome:

It's always all about the people.

Hellrigel:

You get a good team going.

Thome:

It's so obvious. I’ve said this a couple of times, but I'm going to say it here, too. If a project is going smoothly, anybody can run it. However, if you have a big project, it's very likely that some facet of the project is not going to be running smoothly. There are going to be times when maybe the whole project is really in dire jeopardy for whatever reason, either technical or financial. When those rough spots come along, that's when you need that team to pull together like a family.

Hellrigel:

Right. Teamwork, commitment, and loyalty, just like a solid family.

Thome:

It's always about the people. If people start bailing out, just because the going gets a little rough, it's never going to survive. Oh, well.

Hellrigel:

Did you ever have a prima donna on a team member you had to get rid of? Perhaps someone who was disruptive?

Thome:

That's a hard one to answer. If you're asking me if I ever encouraged someone to leave, the answer is yes, because as lucky as I think I have been in putting together teams and working with people, I wasn't perfect.

Hellrigel:

It is the same for history projects, research projects, and all sorts of projects. You need a great team. Sometimes the team breaks apart because someone is so twisted up about some particular issue. The situation just bugs them and they cannot get past it.

Thome:

It's tough. That's why the analogy with a family is pretty good because in a family sometimes you can stand toe to toe with your brother or sibling and fight it out, but you're still the family, so you walk away and you make it work. Right? The team has got to be the same way. If somebody on the team says I just can't do this anymore, you need to try to find another slot for that person. If you can't find another slot for that person or if you do and it doesn't work there either, then you've got to have a heart to heart talk that says this just isn't going to work out. It is not going to work out, so start thinking about it.

Hellrigel:

Were these teams composed mostly of male engineers?

Thome:

No, not always. In the beginning, engineering was much more of a male profession, but not anymore. In Japan, in my division, we had one woman that was just outstanding. She was Russian. Some of the people that worked on the project were the people that were in your group. You also interfaced with a home team. The Russians had a home team, the U.S. had a home team, the Europeans had a home team and the Japanese had a home team. Some of those home teams included female and male engineers.

Hellrigel:

Yes, because the profession became more diverse at a different pace in different countries.

Thome:

Right. It did.

Hellrigel:

In General Atomics, when they're working on projects did they sell any products to keep money coming in?

Thome:

General Atomics is an unusual place all the way around and I really enjoyed it there. Again, I fell into working for a really top-notch guy. His name is Mike Reed [Michael Reed]. He's not there anymore. He now works for L3Com and he's also retired from the U.S. Navy. He has a master's degree from MIT. He was very instrumental in getting the U.S. Navy to start getting serious about the all-electric ship. He was instrumental in bringing in a couple of really big programs to General Atomics that had to do with the modernization of today's Navy. I didn't do a lot of detailed work on any of those, but, on the other hand, with my background, I was able to do a lot of review work and put my two cents in here or there. Reed is just an outstanding person to work for. I have been so blessed with always working for really terrific people. Indeed, as Jack Ekin told you, it's always the people.

It was very interesting at GA. Mike Reed occasionally made trips to look for mergers and acquisitions. I would go along at times and give him my opinion. I've always felt, even as a consultant now because I retired from GA in 2012, that you pay me to give you my opinion. You may not like my opinion and it’s up to you whether you follow my advice. It's my opinion and that's what I think I should tell you. Then you decide and we'll do it your way.

Hellrigel:

Right, and so that’s what you do now as a consultant.

Thome:

Yes, that’s pretty much what I do.

Hellrigel:

Do you work solo or do you have employees?

Thome:

I am solo. I started out in 2012. It may have been half-time in the beginning, but it's been kind of dwindling away. I still do a little bit.

Hellrigel:

You're getting more time to see family and relax.

Thome:

This is a soft entry into retirement and it has extended for many years now.

Hellrigel:

I haven't heard that term before, soft entry into retirement, but it makes sense because it is a transition.

Thome:

Actually, the last six months or so at GA I worked half-time. Somebody advised me that if you're going to retire, you better figure out what you're going to do with all your time, because it'll just make the transition that much easier and softer. I went to half-time at GA for about six months and then I retired. I opened up an LLC and got a couple of contracts. Now I have two open contracts and I may have a third one opening up again this fall. It's interesting and it's not heavy work. It's not like I put in fifty to sixty hours a week anymore.

Hellrigel:

Do you spend your time with other activities such as golf, travel, or…?

Thome:

I don't play golf because I would find it very frustrating, so I've decided not to play golf. I used to ski a lot and I played handball, racquetball, and squash, but I'm just wearing out.

Hellrigel:

Oh no, slowing down is not much fun.

Thome:

I play a lot of bridge, hike, and I read a lot.

Hellrigel:

Perhaps travelling is an option, too.

Thome:

I like to travel and so does my wife. Yes, we travel a lot.

Hellrigel:

Do you have any children that have become either engineers or scientists?

Thome:

Maybe.

Hellrigel:

Maybe? They're too young to tell?

Thome:

No. There’s four children and ten grandchildren, so it’s a work in process. The eldest daughter is a nurse. The second daughter is a lawyer. My son is a graphic artist. My other son is a detective on the Charlotte Police Force. They are all married. There’s ten grandkids. Two of the grandkids are through college and working. Two of the grandkids are in college now.

Hellrigel:

Okay, so maybe there is an engineer in the pipeline?

Thome:

The maybe is the one that didn’t go to college yet. I have one grandson that's unusual in the sense that he's very good at writing code. He's been making money at it since he was a freshman in high school. He told his father look, if he wants to go to college, he’d pay for it. So, that that is a work in progress.Let's see. That's one, two, three, four, five. There's five more to go in the grandkids, so you never know. Somebody might pop up as an engineer. Our grandkids go from twenty-four years old to seven-years-old.

Hellrigel:

Oh, wow. There is a wide age spread. The erector sets of the early to mid-twentieth century were more mechanical. I've used the history of erector sets for my college course, Technology and Society in America. Watson’s book, “The Man Who Changed How Boys and Their Toys Were Made,” was about A.C. Gilbert, the erector set, and Christmas sales. The students really liked the book. I told them, yes, they're the precursor to Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and Legos. So their next question, "Tinker what?"

Thome:

I know. I think about my last thesis student when I was at MIT. She was in the office one time and I opened up my drawer. I had my slide rule in there and I said do you have any idea what this is? She says no, what is it? It was my slide rule or one of them.

There were no handheld calculators until the 1970s. In the mid to late 1970s I can remember somebody walking into my office with a Bowmar Brain. It was a company that doesn't exist anymore, but all it did was add, subtract, multiply, and divide. When I left MCA in 1978 they gave me a TI-59. This is one that's got the little magnetic strips that you can program and put in. It's had 400 steps of programming.

Yes, at the time it was the state of the art. Programming was much different, you did not write Fortran or Basic or anything you have now. It was the old style. Put in a number, store it in register A; Put in a number, store it in register B; Pull back A; add it to B; Store the result in C. It was really painful.

Hellrigel:

It is time for us to move on to another topic, professional societies and associations. I notice that you are a member of some organizations.

Thome:

I've been with the ASME ever since I was in college. I don’t think I've ever been a member of the IEEE. I am also a member of Tau Beta Pi.

Hellrigel:

Have you been attending the Applied Superconductivity Conference since its first meeting fifty years ago?

Thome:

I've never had time to go to everyone, but I went to the first one in 1966.

Hellrigel:

Yes, and what was that meeting like?

Thome:

I hardly remember anything about it because it was so long ago. I attended because Stekly had a paper. I was just getting into the business, and I needed to learn something.

Publications

Hellrigel:

In regard to the ASME, how important is that organization to your professional development? Did you publish papers, attend conferences, attend local meetings…?

Thome:

I don’t pay much attention to the organization that's sponsoring the conference. I pay attention to the conference topics and the content of the papers. I go to the Applied Superconductivity Conferences because of the papers and to interface with others in the field. I don't mean this in a negative fashion, but I don't go because it's IEEE. I go because it's applied superconductivity and it is the same with the International Conference on Magnet Technology. I go to that for the same reason. I also attend the Symposium on Fusion Energy and meetings by the Armed Forces occasionally. If you look at my publications, they're all over the place and I don't pay a lot of attention to the sponsoring society or organization.

Hellrigel:

Sure, you published in a variety of journals and then in 1982 you published the book.

Thome:

I'm finding out that it's becoming more popular because there seems to be some sort of an undercurrent growing toward fusion magnets lately.

Hellrigel:

I noticed it is translated into Russian?

Thome:

It was published in Russian, but I no longer have a copy. I had three copies and I gave two to Russian friends because I don't speak Russian and the third one is somewhere on someone’s shelf. It was Wiley's decision to publish the Russian translation. I wrote the book in 1982. It was probably the last book that was written without a word processor. It was done the old way with typewriters, galley proofs, and ink-on-vellum drawings.

Hellrigel:

Yes, that was the pre-computer publishing world.

Thome:

I wrote it on nights and weekends. John Tarrh is the co-author. He is just an outstanding guy, another one of my kids. There are so many people that I've worked with that were really good.

Hellrigel:

During your career, have you been a good mentor?

Thome:

Let's just say I've influenced a few people and some of them have done extremely well in spite of my influence.

Hellrigel:

I'm sure it is because of your influence. Do you have any patents?

Thome:

None. There was some pressure when I worked for Magnetic Corporation with Stekly and we got things started in a few areas. Then we found out that the legal fees were just ridiculous.

Hellrigel:

Other people I have spoken with at the conference also said it was so expensive to protect your intellectual property with a patent. Once you file the U.S. patent you had to think about patenting in other countries.

Thome:

Yes. It is just ridiculous. Of course, MIT and GA are very patent-oriented also, but I just don't think I'm clever enough and I just didn't want to bother. I read patents occasionally for work, but it is just painful.

Hellrigel:

Sure, a very detailed read and the patent process is very expensive.

Thome:

It is just painful, so I don't do it. That's it. I figure it all belongs to God. Let him sort it out.

Awards

Hellrigel:

Then you received the 2015 IEEE Award for Continued and Significant Contributions to the Field of Applied Superconductivity (Large Scale Applications).

Thome:

I did. Surprised me too.

Hellrigel:

Did you receive the award at an Applied Superconductivity conference?

Thome:

I received it at MT-24 [24th International Conference on Magnetic Technology] which was held in Seoul, Korea.

Hellrigel:

When you were notified was it a shock? The proverbial question, what were you doing when you got the call or letter, or e-mail?

Thome:

Yes, it was a bit of a shock. When I first got the notice, I said what the heck is this? Did they send it to the wrong guy? I don't think I shock easily, so “shock” is a little strong. I've seen so many things go wrong in the lab that I try not to be shocked by anything.

Hellrigel:

Yes, steady at the helm.

Thome:

I was very surprised. I really appreciate it. I think it's very nice.

Hellrigel:

Did they send you a real letter to let you know or did they do email? I'm just curious. Today, so much is not communicated on paper via the U.S. Postal Service.

Thome:

I believe I received both.

Hellrigel:

Switching gears again, what do you think the future holds for your field, superconductivity?

Thome:

I wish I was young enough to be tackling some of these issues now because I think it's going to be really, really interesting.

In a lot of businesses everything is materials-oriented and applications-oriented. In order for the applications to take hold, the materials have got to become inexpensive enough so that you can afford to develop the application and you can afford to sell the product at a reasonable price. That is true for bread as well as superconductors.

Today, if you want to build something with Niobium titanium, which is one of the key materials, it's almost a commodity. If you need higher magnetic field properties, Niobium Tin is available, but it's not so easy to work with, so you avoid it if you can. If you need to use NbSn, you use it and make it work. Now there is a whole spectrum of medium-temperature and higher-temperature superconductors and they are expensive. That's all there is to it, the material expense means it's hard to develop and sell applications. It's hard for a small company to build prototypes using those materials because they can't afford it. If you are a small company, you probably can't afford to make twenty large prototypes out of something that costs so much, so you must wait. You must wait for the national labs to do it or for somebody who can afford it. Now there are some military applications where the cost is an issue, but it's not as much of an issue because they will develop the application if they need it.

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Hellrigel:

I always ask people what the future holds and if they have been content with their career.

Thome:

I've been content with my career. I am where the good Lord intended me to be. If I had it to do over again, well, I think I was just bloody lucky and fortunate to have ended up along this track and I worked with extraordinary people all the while. Now that doesn't mean it was always a bed of roses. There were times when it was a little rough, but it's been really good.

Hellrigel:

Right. Indeed, you had aspirations to be an engineer when you were younger and you have been very successful. Any last words?

Thome:

Just to repeat the discussion about the teams, the family, and the people that you work with. It is absolutely key. If you can't get along with the team, either change yourself or change the team because you're not going to make it.

Hellrigel:

Right. Too much fighting wastes time and energy. It is a distraction.

Thome:

Right. I’d also like to express my appreciation to the many excellent people I’ve worked with over the years. I’m sorry for not including more names, but the list would be very long and I would have inadvertently missed someone.

Hellrigel:

Thank you, sir.

Thome:

More fun that I thought.

Hellrigel:

So far that's what people have said.

Thome:

Good. Then you're doing a good job.