Cynthia Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it is Wednesday, August 24th, 2016. I am in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and with me is Dr. Baldwin Sawyer. My first question for him is to say his name and spell it.
Baldwin Sawyer: Baldwin Sawyer, B-a-l-d-w-i-n S-a-w-y-e-r. My initials are B.S, and in case anybody is wondering, that stands for Boy Scout.
Kelly: Well, that’s interesting. [Laughs] Can you tell us when and where you were born?
Sawyer: July 21st, 1922. I was born in Narragansett, Rhode Island, in a shore cottage on the edge of the ocean with a view across the bay toward Newport, Rhode Island. It was a place I loved because I liked being near the ocean. A little bit north of Narragansett, there was a club called the Dunes Club, and I loved to go up to the Dunes Club. They had two pools, a saltwater pool and a freshwater pool, and I liked to use both of them. The fresh water to rinse off the salt.
So, summers I would come to Narragansett, and the winters were in Cleveland. Cleveland Heights, to be exact.
Kelly: Tell us a little bit about your childhood and where you went to school.
Sawyer: I’m trying to remember exactly. My mother had two children: me and my sister, Peggy. At some time after Peggy was born, she traveled, left my father, took both her children to New Haven, where her parents were living in Irving Fisher’s house. Then from there she went for a visit to a psychologist in England, and the only clue I have to that is the British accent was strangely attractive to me in some of the television programs. But that was much later.
Well, this psychologist, whom I never met, referred my mother to Carl Jung in Zurich, and thereupon, Mother moved and spent most of the rest of her life working with Carl Jung. I did get to meet him much later and was fascinated to talk with him. He was the grandest wise old man I ever met in my life, Carl Jung.
Sawyer: Certainly, it was after Peggy was born, so I was either late five years old or early six years old. I don’t know exactly.
My first two years in school were in Zurich, and the language spoken there was German. I didn’t know much more German than the eins, zwei, drei [one, two, three]. So I could do arithmetic in the third grade. All the grades were in one room and this was a place called Kinderspital. I was definitely handicapped in the first grade and second grade. It was a relief to me coming back to the States, to return to English.
Kelly: So then at age seven or eight, you moved back to the United States?
Sawyer: The really big thing was to be back with my father. I don’t know. I guess I felt as though I was a boy who had the privilege of knowing who his father was, and I really felt badly for the many children who never knew their father. I felt I was lucky to be able to. So, it was a very big issue for me to be able to be with my father.
Kelly: Tell us what your father’s and mother’s names were.
Sawyer: My father was Dr. Charles Baldwin Sawyer, and my mother, Carolyn Fisher.
Kelly: What did your father do? What was his business?
Sawyer: He was a student at MIT. His advisor showed him a periodic table of the elements and he came to the second element, which is beryllium, and asked, “What is that?”
His advisor said, “That’s beryllium.”
He asked, “What do you know about that?”
He said, “Not very much.”
Immediately, my father said, “That’s what I want to work on for my life.” To find out about a new element.
So, most of his life was devoted to finding out about beryllium. He hired a Swedish chemist, whose name was Bengt Kjellgren, and they worked on beryllium, extracting beryllium from its ore, which is beryl. That’s why its name is beryllium. Then they had to find out what it was good for, and it turned out there were many special uses. It was very lightweight and strong. This is not famous with the public, but there are a lot of specialty uses in industry for beryllium and its alloys.
Now, what’s the next thing to talk about?
Kelly: So, he was a curious man and a scientist.
Sawyer: Very definitely, yes.
Kelly: Yes. In what respects did you follow his footsteps?
Sawyer: It wasn’t deliberately. Just because my interests were very similar to my father’s, just following those interests led me to follow in his footsteps as much as I could.
Kelly: Where did you go for your education? For college?
Sawyer: Yale was the main college. I was accepted at both Yale and MIT. I had good grades and it was no problem with being accepted. My father gave me a hint. He said, “Well, if you go to Yale, you’ll also have more of the humanities than you would if you went to MIT.” My father had gone to both, so I followed his inclination and went to Yale.
It turned out I went to Yale during World War II. In a way, it was cut short. I did have one vacation after my freshmen year, but then we had wartime acceleration, so there was no more vacation time. It was like an endurance race to get through everything, which I did. But I was pretty exhausted when I finished at Yale. Then, I immediately started work on the Manhattan Project.
At the end of World War II, suddenly I was free to do what I wanted, and I had a girlfriend by that time. We discussed it, and I said, “What I really want to do is to get to work as fast as I can on my graduate studies.” So we waited a year. I remember an advisor that I had was Frederick Seitz, who soon was head of the American Physical Society. I said, “I want to major in physics.”
He said, “Oh, you’re going to have to have a lot more math than what you’ve got in the metallurgy training.”
I’m not sure, but I suspect he thought that would scare me off to have a lot more math. But I said, “Well, so I’ll get it.”
I spent a year at the University of Pennsylvania just studying partial differential equations, differential vectors, and a lot of higher math. Then, I was ready. By that time, Frederick Seitz had become head of the physics department at Carnegie Tech, so I promptly applied to Carnegie Tech and ended up qualifying for my doctor’s degree.
As it turned out I never went to any graduation ceremony. There was always some need for the next place. It’s curious that for high school, for college and for graduate work, I never went to a graduation ceremony. But I qualified for a doctor’s degree.
Kelly: So, you had a full year, freshman year and the vacation, but then it accelerated.
Sawyer: No vacations, yeah.
Charles Sawyer: He graduated from University School in 1940 and then started attending Yale in the fall of 1940.
Sawyer: That’s it.
Kelly: Oh, I see. ’40, and then you finished your undergraduate work in ’43?
Kelly: Yeah. So, what was your major?
Sawyer: The first part of my studies, I was a metallurgist. I remember choosing the metallurgy because it contained both physics and chemistry, and I wanted them both. So, metallurgy was my initial choice for a major, but when push came to shove, I wanted physics more than chemistry, I guess. So that’s what I majored in.
Kelly: Maybe you can tell us the difference between metallurgy and chemistry.
Sawyer: Metallurgy is probably the oldest scientific study there is. Some of the most ancient writings about metallurgy are how to prepare a splendid sword like Excalibur, as it was famous. The best swords, of course, had behind them the metallurgy and a lot of the swords were hardened by hammering them. They were given special names like Excalibur, and with a good sword you could whack through some armor.
So, metallurgy has very, very old roots. Before there was the Steel Age, there was the Bronze Age, which was another form of metallurgy, bronze. In modern years, they made brass. Brass was very useful, because it could be machined more easily than bronze, so a lot of modern machined parts are made of brass. Well, there’s a considerable amount of history, but I think some of the high, important considerations I’ve just touched on.
Kelly: So, what attracted you to that study? Metallurgy?
Sawyer: Well, the first attraction was simply I could not choose between chemistry and physics, and I could get them both if I studied metallurgy. That was really the argument for my entry. But, my interests were widespread in technology, so I was covering a lot of territory any time I was working.
Kelly: What happened when you graduated? How did you get to the Manhattan Project?
Sawyer: That was my father’s doing, really. I remember when I was free, I interviewed at DuPont and Union Carbide. Then at one point, my dad sort of interfered a little and he said, “Here, come on with me, I want you to meet somebody.” It turned out to be John Chipman, who had been his thesis advisor at MIT. John Chipman learned about what I’d been studying a little and what I was doing, and then he called up somebody who later become my first boss.
His name was Frank Foote. He said, “There’s somebody here that you ought to meet.” So I met Frank Foote, and right away I had a job on the Manhattan Project. I was pretty much guided there with gentle tactics, but effective.
Kelly: Where were you assigned? Where did you work?
Sawyer: In Chicago, that’s where Frank Foote was. I remember when I first met him, I said to myself, “This man is going to say, ‘This is my right-hand man.’ Anything he wants done, I will do.” It worked out that way. I was determined.
Kelly: That’s great. Were you part of what they call the Metallurgical Laboratory?
Sawyer: Yes. That was just a name; it was used quite a bit. All of this that I knew about was in Chicago, but of course there were connections all across the United States. The parts of the Manhattan Project were in Los Alamos, in Chicago, in New York and many other locations across the United States. And people did communicate.
Oak Ridge was a big one. There were specialties in Oak Ridge. That was sort of an interesting beginning. There were probably a thousand women in Appalachia who were given assignments, a certain amount of chemicals to separate. They would spend an entire morning separating this thing, which was really separating out fissionable material. They didn’t know what, where or why and what was going to be done, but they knew that if a certain amount of this isotope was separated, they would get paid for separating it. But, that’s how the first bomb material was collected. The bomb that burst over Hiroshima was from a lot of parts separated by Appalachian women on consignment, you might say. So this was how things got done.
During the war effort, the policy was a person would be able to know what he needed to know to do his job and a minimum of more than that. This went for the women, it went for the men, and it didn’t matter. I only learned gradually what this thing that I was working on would mean. I knew rather early in the game there would be a lot of energy released when this was finally done, but I didn’t know where or why or how. But, as time went on, as needed, I learned what I needed to know and more and more.
Kelly: What did they ask you to do? What were the projects that you worked on?
Sawyer: I guess there were steps. First steps, I needed to separate out what was fissionable, and from what kind of fissionable material. So it was bit by bit that I learned more and more. I never was given a whole sweeping view of the field, but it was pretty much meted out to me bit by bit, as I needed to know.
After the war was over, there was a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication that we all read and sometimes contributed to, sort of to spread the information. So a lot of us that were working got to know more and more and more perspective. But it overall was planned in an orderly way, and as I said, we got to learn more and more bit by bit, but never, never a sweeping, broad perspective.
Kelly: When we talked on the phone, you mentioned the laboratory where you were working, at least at one point. Can you tell us about that? I think you had an address, if I can find my notes. Let’s see. 6111 South University Avenue.
Sawyer: That was in Chicago, and was sort of cute in a way. We called the place Site B, because the floor was a concrete floor, was the bottom of a brewery. Site X was in Oak Ridge and Site Y was in Los Alamos. Then, our place was Site B, because it was located where a brewery used to be. Sort of our own whimsy a little bit.
I remember sometimes in Chicago there was heavy snow, and I remember once somebody said, “Oh, this piece of”—I don’t know what it was, probably uranium—“is not useful,” and said, “We don’t want it. Throw it away.” Somebody threw it out the window into a snowbank. Suddenly, there was some hydrogen released, and a flame came up out of the snowbank. It sank down into just a solution. That was kind of a spectacular scene. I guess we learned be careful what you spit out. Don’t start any fires that you don’t want to have.
Kelly: Was that part of your work to study the properties of uranium?
Sawyer: Yes, or to work with it and see what you could do. A lot of the uranium that I worked with was in bars that were one inch in diameter and about six or seven inches long. When there were working in a pile, in a nuclear reactor, they were releasing heat energy, and they needed to be cooled. The arrangement that we made was that every one of these bars had to be canned in an aluminum can, and with a good thermal bond between the slug in the middle and the can. It was figured out if we had something that was about an eighth of an inch in diameter obstructing the flow of heat, this might be enough to melt the uranium and start many reactions with the water that one would not want to have.
It turned out the bond between the uranium and the aluminum had to be pretty perfect to be safe. There was a whole year spent in developing methods of getting that bond safely. The final solution was, I remember, we had a molten bath of aluminum silicone, which was a bonding material when it hardened, and we would sink a can held in a heavy container into that molten aluminum silicone, so that the can was filled. Then the slug was pushed into the can so that there were no bubbles, which we wanted to avoid. The whole thing was lifted out and allowed to cool, and we had a nicely bonded slug that was suitable for putting into the Hanford pile for the nuclear reaction.
Hanford was the first pile that really made the reactions and generated fissionable material that we could use. It was the pacesetter for how to do these things. Now, all of this was very secret at the time.
Kelly: The canning process was almost the Achilles heel of that reactor out at Hanford, because that was so difficult to get that right.
Sawyer: Well, I never thought of it exactly—I guess I never felt totally defeated, just we had more work to do and more work to do to get it right.
Kelly: Did you feel an urgency, a pressure to solve the problem? I mean, what kind of mood was there?
Sawyer: Well, a lot of us had a mood that, by God, we knew this was important work and we were going to get it done and done right, too. I remember once when some task I was working on took time, so I worked two shifts in a row, straight through the 16 hours without stopping in order to get that thing done that day. Then I went home and I slept at night soundly. The mood was not in a panic; it’s just we’re going to get our job done each day, whatever it takes to get it done. And that was that.
Kelly: What about your colleagues? You were a very young, newly minted graduate of 20, 21 years old.
Sawyer: Yes. My general mood was be careful, time’s a-wasting, get that done, you know, the next step. I was after myself. Nobody was standing over me with a whip to work hard, except me.
Kelly: Do you find that your colleagues had the same kind of dedication and commitment to working quickly?
Sawyer: I don’t know. We joked around a lot. One of my colleagues was Jewish, and we joked quite a bit about Jewishness. He would joke right back. We were bouncing like a Ping-Pong ball between us or something. Whatever differences we had, we accepted and worked with. Getting on with the main work was the task, not magnifying the differences between us, but minimizing them, I would say. So I never had any trouble getting along with Jewish people.
Kelly: Were there many who were refugees, whose families had left Europe in the ‘30s or even more recently that you knew?
Sawyer: Well, I’m sure there were a number of refugee parents, but I don’t know. I think the children of those parents, they were born here in America, they’re Americans now and they didn’t cling onto the past. They were almost go-for-broke getting their American jobs done.
Kelly: Do you remember where you lived? Did you live in a house? Or in Hyde Park? Or were you in a dormitory?
Sawyer: Once I lived in Mr. Patowski’s house, and he was a rather—I don’t know if you read some of my stuff—he was a rather strange landlord. I had a roommate who was Wilfrid Rall. He was born of Swiss parents, and born near Washington, D.C. His parents were Swiss. We became fast friends, and here’s sort of a record that indicates my feeling about Swiss people.
Will Rall and I shared one bank account, and we saved money by writing—both of us wrote checks against that account. We never had any problem keeping that line in the middle of what was Will’s, what was mine, no problem. He was one person – his honesty was absolute, and I think mine was, too. We had no problems between us.
In Patowski’s house, we were both in one room that we rented, and we had double-decker beds. Mr. Patowski, I think, was of Russian descent, anyhow, Eastern Europe descent. He was very careful, more or less, to treat us like men, the men he knew. I remember once my girlfriend called up and said she would be over in about an hour and a half. He came up and told me, “Your friend’s going to be here in an hour and a half.” He didn’t want any present woman to know about this, in case there was some problem. There was no problem, but he was protecting me, keeping out of problems.
So things happened, and sometimes I would entertain. I know Will and I would give a party and thank you to our two girlfriends for the party. One time there was a half a bottle of wine leftover, and I noticed that every day about another inch was gone of that wine in the bottle. I pointed that out to Will and, well, he noticed, too. We agreed, and said, “That’s pretty fast evaporation, this one inch a day.”
When the bottle was empty, he said, “You know, should we try the evaporation rate of vinegar?” And so, we filled that same bottle, half full of vinegar. The next day, Mr. Patowski said to me, “What is that?”
I said, “Well, that’s the wine bottle.”
He said, “That wine, that is too sour.” [Laughter] He didn’t know how I could stand that wine. But, I let him figure it out himself. I never enlightened him.
Across the hall, there was a girl whose name was Jackie Zilbach. She had been a labor organizer in New York for the Garment Workers Union that had a big problem getting authorized or going. And boy, once in a while, she would start singing “Solidarity Forever,” and you could hear the urge to organize coming out of her. I just sort of said, “Peace. I’m not trying to organize or disorganize, just I’m not participating.” But Jackie was there. I know it was a strange thing.
I guess this is sort of private, but I don’t think it hurts to tell anything. Her room was one floor above, over mine. The problem was that the radiator in her room leaked. She would put a pan, a low pan such as you could fit underneath the radiator, so the radiator leaking would drip, drip, drip until the pan was full. Then the drips would come right over onto the floor and pretty soon they were dripping out of our ceiling. I would hear this drip, drip, drip in the middle of the night and go up. There wasn’t anything, and Jackie was asleep, so I would try to empty the—but, with the radiator dripping so much, it was terribly cold, and I was in just my pajamas trying to get some peace from the drips. Sometimes I had to wake Jackie up.
In Patowski’s house, you never knew. The maintenance was not really up to snuff all the time, and the radiators dripped and different things went wrong. But you had to make your best of the situation.
Across the hall from Jackie, that means one floor up, there was a man. Jackie always called him “the man with the guns.” He had a whole collection of guns in his room. Jackie couldn’t fail to miss that, and I guess several of us wondered. But I don’t think the guns were ever armed. Just this man had a collection of guns. Sort of a disquieting situation, you might say. But we survived.
Now Patowski’s house was near 55th Street, South 55th. From the loop south, in south Chicago, and where I worked was near South 61st Street. So there was quite a distance that I walked to work. In good weather, I rode my bicycle and in the tougher weather I walked. We lived with the situation we had on our hands and made it work somehow.
Kelly: When we spoke on the phone, you said you remembered Enrico Fermi.
Sawyer: Oh, yeah. Yeah. His picture was in this thing that you showed me. He was the scientist in the Chicago area. He was a lovely guy. He was Italian, but he spoke eloquently and clearly, and I thought very highly of him. In the area of physics, one never questions an accent. You live and you communicate as best you can. He sometimes would lecture to a group as big as 200 people about some aspect of the program in physics, and he was always very clear in his explanations. We had few questions to ask, and he was so clear. He was certainly a man I admired a lot.
But, the other thing I can tell you is, if you have any trouble with handling accents from different languages, don’t go into physics. [Laughs] You’re going to encounter a lot of them. Life goes on and you manage as best you can with the accents.
Kelly: So, there were lots of other different accents.
Sawyer: Oh, yeah. You never would know when you met a stranger whether you’d have a new accent or not.
Kelly: Leo Szilard, was he part of this?
Sawyer: Yes, Szilard was part of it and he had more of an accent. There was a curious thing there. I don’t know why exactly it was. But my dad knew some of these people better than I did. I think it was because beryllium was a unique metal that was especially important in physics, and so Dad, being the producer of beryllium, met a wider range of people than I had met. And knew some of them better.
Kelly: So, he continued to work on beryllium at MIT during the war?
Sawyer: No, when he had to choose his thesis project, he chose beryllium. It was not continuing; it was an initial choice. As he worked, and he learned more and more, he partnered with Bengt Kjellgren for the chemical separations that were needed. Some of that was before my time, but I learned about these things afterwards. That was a connection he had earlier, and just by my knowing of it, I became a participant in the beryllium business, too. It was not my initial choice, but it was part of the technology that we were all developing.
Kelly: So, do you remember anything else about your experiences at Chicago? Were there many women there? Women scientists?
Sawyer: Well, I met the girl I married there, but she—
Kelly: Which girl? Did you ever meet Leona Woods Marshall who worked with Fermi?
Sawyer: No, no, no. Any rate, I remember one girl applied to work as a nurse during wartime, and the next day I saw her, she said, “I had to attend somebody who died last night.” This was an extreme shock to her. I guess nobody had planned this was going to happen. When people die, it’s often 2:00 a.m. or something, and she was up late with him. For the first overnight that a new nurse is working, to be the one to be present while somebody is dying is quite a shock.
But it was wartime and you don’t argue with a situation that you’re handed. You just deal with it. That’s what nurses have to learn, I guess. It’s not always a picnic. But I was impressed, too. Best I could do was say, “I think it sounds like you did a good job. You did what you needed to do. So God bless you,” something like that.
Kelly: Talking about health, were there any precautions to be sure that people working on these metals and doing experiments with different bonding materials, to keep you from harm?
Sawyer: I don’t think of any, but if there were precautions, we certainly were educated not to go beyond the boundaries. You don’t question the boundaries that were set for us. We were told, “Just believe there’s good reason and don’t mess with it.” So, I’m sure there were some things, but I’m not thinking of anything. Certainly, I can be rebellious sometimes, but about rules like that I’m not rebellious.
Kelly: How many people do you have the impression were working on the project at the University of Chicago?
Sawyer: Mostly my impression was, it was over the entire United States, but the University of Chicago, I could only guess. A couple of hundred. I never took a census, you know. Just the people I encountered.
They were both women and men. I guess the women were more, how should I say, medically educated than the men, a little more of the nursing kind. But, my Lord, they were real people. Every one of us was a real person. No question about real participation in what we were doing.
Kelly: Do you remember when you found out about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima?
Sawyer: I guess, yeah. That’s an interesting question. I guess I knew matters were coming to a head. Something was brewing. Something was going to happen. I knew it was just about the time that Franklin Roosevelt died and Harry Truman had to take over. There were advisors who had been advising President Roosevelt about developments in the project, and they were almost ready to have a bomb ready to use. But Roosevelt died and Truman was given the advice that had been given to Roosevelt. He was the actual one who said, “Yeah, we go ahead.”
Kelly: You were talking about when you kind of realized that the bomb might be used. At that point, in the spring of ’45, were you aware by then that the objective of all of your work and the work at the laboratory was to create a bomb? When did you realize that?
Sawyer: Well, it was somewhere along in there. What I felt was that there was a developing situation with some tension in it that our nation as a whole did not want to use the bomb. But, if the tension continued—how do I express what the tension was. I don’t remember what our enemies were doing—but in other words, if the tension gets high enough we would have to use the bomb. So, I knew there was some kind of developing situation, and it could be used at any time. But, I didn’t know what would be the trigger, what would be the piece de resistance. I knew something was afoot all right, but I didn’t know how it would—
Kelly: Were you aware that there was a petition that Szilard had a large hand in developing, to tell the president that he should think about the moral consequences of being the first to drop a bomb and that there ought to be a demonstration or some other alternative?
Sawyer: No, I was not aware of that much. I know there were discussions going on, but it’s like there was no one voice that was really taking control. There were a number of arguments expressed, but nothing was directly settled. It was also the pressure that expressed the need to be used. Increasingly, it was, but I didn’t know what set the exact breaking point or tension-breaking point. But, I was aware that these issues were happening.
Kelly: How did you feel when you learned that the bombs were dropped, or the first was dropped anyway? How did you feel about this?
Sawyer: I knew that tension was rising and so I felt, well there, it’s finally reached the breaking point, that first one. I was a little surprised that there was a second one, too, but I realized the significance of the second one was “Hey, you, we ain’t kidding, you know.” We also kind of expressed the opinion there are more where that’s coming from, although it was never released how long it would be before a third bomb was created, something like six months, I think. But that was definitely secret information. We just wanted that tension to be known and that we would have more. I guess maybe we wanted it known that we weren’t bluffing. In that sense, I think we who worked on it were glad when we expressed this thing: “We ain’t kidding, you know.” We were all behind our leadership. We weren’t kidding.
Kelly: Did you have relatives that were involved, or would have been involved in the invasion [of Japan], or know of other people that had family members?
Sawyer: I have it written down. I collected three different people who all personally thanked me that they did not have to go into the war. One of them was Ray Kelsey, who lives in – I guess he’s not living anymore – so lived in Cleveland Heights. He was the closest person. Then there was a man from Japan who was not a particularly willing member of the Japanese Army. He expressed how relieved he was that he didn’t have to fight to the death in defense of Japan.
There was a third man, who was in our United States Army, saying he would’ve been in the attacking force if it had become necessary to invade Japan. He was relieved it never became necessary. He probably would’ve lost his life. So, among these three, I certainly got the message that this was very meaningful for a lot of people.
Kelly: What did you do after the war?
Sawyer: I guess my priority was I wanted to go on with my education to get a doctor’s degree. I indicated a little bit that I learned that in order to get a doctor’s degree in physics, I would have to learn a lot more mathematics. So, that was the first thing I did. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for a year and brushed up on quite a bit of additional math, not all of which I ever used, but I guess partly it’s just the perspective of understanding how the relationships worked. So, one year at the University of Pennsylvania, and after that, I don’t even remember exactly what, but it was working toward getting a doctor’s degree. That was my direction.
I and my girlfriend wanted to get married; but, she had a year’s more work to do for her degree in music, and I had more work to do to learn a year of math, so we agreed to not get married, but she would finish her degree and I would get my math done. Then we would get married.
I remember my dad tried something on me. He was sorry he tried it. I told him I had decided to do a year of math at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dad said to me, a little bit severely, “Well, you know if you do that, a year of waiting starts after you come back from the University of Pennsylvania.”
I stood right up to him and said, “I never agreed to anything like that.”
He sort of proudly talked about me to his adviser, who was a lawyer, “Boy, he really told me,” and it was quite true. You know, I didn’t feel that I owed him obedience or anything. Just, I was living my life and I would keep the agreements I had made. I would do that, but I wasn’t going to have any more restrictions beyond that. I guess Dad not only respected that, I think he was kind of proud. That means I was now an adult.
Kelly: But you got your degree, right?
Kelly: From where?
Sawyer: I qualified for a doctor’s degree at Carnegie Tech, but I never got—I guess, I got a promise that there would be a certificate mailed, but I don’t even have a certificate. I think I just behaved as though I had a degree, and everybody believed me. And so I went on with my life. If I hadn’t had no argument about it, nobody else was going to bring up an argument about it. Partly, I guess it was because I had learned my lessons well and I could operate as a mature-enough physicist. I guess they felt that if I felt secure to do what I was doing, that was all right with them. I would do it.
Kelly: So, the first person, or the first organization you worked for after you got your degree was Bell Labs, is that right?
Kelly: What did you do with them? Or what were you working on?
Sawyer: I guess it was largely I was defining what I needed to do in their spirit. I was outlining my own job. It was all the crew by the Bell Labs. It was almost like I was a surveyor coming into a new territory—the one I know who actually did that was George Washington. He surveyed a lot of the land in Ohio, starting in the southeast corner and moving up from there—so I felt somewhat like a surveyor in deciding what should be done. It’s like my bosses were saying, “Well, that’s fine, son, go right ahead, and if you do something we don’t like we’ll let you know.” They were pretty thrilled. It was new territory in physics. I didn’t bite off more than I could chew, and I did some laying out of some of the next steps and there were no objections.
Kelly: It’s a wonderful situation. Really empowered to use your curiosity and creativity, yeah.
Sawyer: Yeah. In retrospect, the more I think about it, the more that’s what I think, yeah.
Kelly: You’d mentioned that they were working on transistors, is that what you were working on, too?
Sawyer: Yes, that was really a switch for me. I learned about transistors while I was at Carnegie Tech, and there were new things being discovered almost weekly. I think what happened was I knew full well that I always had been the most thrilled to be working on exploratory work. When I learned that the area of transistors was largely being, how should I say, surveyed, and laid out by first workers and that was exploratory work, I just was sort of thrilled and said, “Here, what do you want me to do?” I wanted to get involved and do it, and there were people who were delighted that I did.
Kelly: You also mentioned something about silicon.
Sawyer: Oh, yes. That was a big transition. The first transistor was made with germanium, and the very first device was simple diode. If you pressed a wire against a piece of germanium and melted it, you could have what was called an NP junction, a negative positive, and two kinds of germanium that would be a rectifier.
The way the game got interesting was if you put a second wire near that, you could in some timed ways feed electrons in to make something conductive, or withhold the electrons so that it would not be conductive. Such a device with the two wires in one base was called a transistor. The first ones were with germanium. Somebody said, and I was close to that somebody, "Silicon has a much lower reverse current, so silicon ought to make an even better rectifier, better transistor if you can make it with more swing from on to off.”
Sure enough, they made some silicon and it looked good. The first silicon device was made in the research department at Bell, and the second one was made in the exploratory research department by me. Just starting on what we could do with silicon, which turns out a great deal, and that has evolved and become the big field in electronics.
Kelly: That must’ve been very exciting.
Sawyer: Oh, yes. It was. Almost every time one tried to do something new with silicon, it worked! It worked great. It was like, “Well, let’s see what more we can do.” For most of the public, it’s kind of taken for granted. We can do all these things that the new technology can do. A large amount of that is because silicon does what we want it to do so readily. It has gone way beyond what I can do myself now, but I was in on some of the early victories with silicon. That was certainly a thrill.
Kelly: After you left Bell Lab, the other sort of innovative field you found yourself in was working with quartz.
Sawyer: Oh, yes. Actually I’ve spent more of my life working with quartz. You know, somebody used to pun, “Well, how about pints?” No, I never drank many pints, in case you wanted to know.
Kelly: Okay. We’re almost done. I would love to have you talk a minute about your work irradiating quartz crystals.
Kelly: And make them pure.
Sawyer: It’s not exactly right. But I have sometimes irradiated a whole ton of quartz crystals as they came from the ground in Brazil, or mostly Brazil. Quartz is also mined in Angola, which is part of Africa. If you put the continents back together the way they were at one time, Angola fits right against where the quartz region of Brazil is. So, the quartz that can be found in Angola is directly related to the quartz that came from Brazil.
In any case, I tried irradiating quartz with cobalt-60 gamma rays, and that would bring out the colors that could be brought out from impurities. The most famous color is the lavender purple, which is called amethyst. Quartz with that certain impurity, if you have an old amethyst that has gotten pale, you can probably irradiate it and bring back the full color again, if you take the trouble.
So, amethyst is one of the colors, and then the more common color is called smoky quartz. That’s from aluminum that’s in the quartz lattice. So if you take a whole ton of quartz, it’ll turn many colors. You can sort out the smoky colors and know that it will probably have more aluminum in it. The amethyst is rarer, and the rarest of all is a piece that does not color at all under irradiation. A friend of mine found a piece in among the tons that had been irradiated, and said, “Here’s one that has no color at all. That should be important.”
So I had it tested. By that time the Brush Laboratories people had purchased Sawyer Research, and Bob Biggs was the chairman. And it tested to be the purest quartz ever found, and by this radiation, we had found something that had virtually no impurities in it. This set a record. Later I was able to get a lot of pieces that were very pale and not quite perfect, but very pale. I was able to get enough to grow one run, which means about 100 pounds in the bottom of an autoclave, of high purity quartz. I sent a piece of that to Bliley Electric Company to test. I got a call back from John Wolfskill, who worked for Bliley, saying, “Baldie, what have you done?” This had turned out to be the highest purity they’d ever tested. Anyhow, it was really something.
I was never able to get a whole run of that quality, but it certainly showed what was possible if you found a quartz that won’t color. That’s from some years ago now, but it was exciting certainly then. That it does work if you can find it.
Kelly: Looking back, would you say you chose well in being a scientist and pursuing these various interests?
Sawyer: I have no complaints, yeah.
Kelly: Great. Do you have anything else that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to share, either about your Manhattan Project experiences or your life as a scientist afterwards?
Sawyer: I guess I’m resigned to accept that some of my best friends have died, my wife, and I know our lives all come to an end. None of us lives forever. If I could be granted a wish, I would wish that some of the people who are gone were still able to say what’s been possible to be accomplished and so on. I know it’s not possible.
Sawyer: That adds up to I’d love to share the joy and the excitement of some of the things that happened.
I guess the first girl I really fell for was a musician, and eventually I married her. So it’s really Dorothy, my wife, who introduced me to music. The more I learned, the more I loved it. It is strange. In my case, I’ve kind of mixed up music and love together, because of the circumstances. So I feel it and I don’t always express it very well, but it’s all there.