The Manhattan Project

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William K. Coors's Interview

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William K. Coors's Interview (2018)

William “Bill” K. Coors helped construct high-quality ceramic insulators that would be used for the calutrons in the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge, TN, during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Coors discusses his upbringing, including feeling homesick while away at Philips Exeter Academy. After graduating from Princeton, he took over the Coors Porcelain Company. One day, he received a mysterious phone call from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, recruiting Coors to quickly provide insulators that would withstand the electric voltage produced by calutrons. He explains why his insulators were the only kind able to withstand the voltage. Lastly, Coors elaborates on the revolutionary practice of using recyclable aluminum cans to hold beer, a process which he helped pioneer in the 1960s.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 17, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Colorado
Transcript: 

Coors: I was born here in Golden, Colorado, and I can’t recall any particular fascination as a child that I had in science.

Kelly:  How about who was your grandfather, and what was his business?

Coors: My grandfather was Adolph Coors, Sr. He had a small brewery in Golden, Colorado.

Kelly:  Did your father work for your grandfather on the brewery? Was your father part of the business?

Coors: My father ran the business. He was in total charge.

Kelly:  Did your family expect that you might join, and be a brewer?

Coors: I think it was assumed so. I never gave it a second thought.

Kelly:  Did you want to be a brewer?

Coors: Not particularly.

Kelly:  What did you want to be?

Coors: A doctor.

Kelly:  A doctor. Would your family say, “Okay, go to medical school?" 

Coors: I know my father wanted me to be an engineer, chemical engineer. That’s what I became.

Kelly:  Where did you study? Where did you go to college? 

Coors: Princeton University.

Kelly: What year did you graduate? 

Coors: 1938.  

Margo Hamilton: Bill, why don’t you tell her a little bit about going to Phillips Exeter Academy? 

Coors: I didn’t have a pair of long pants. My father gave me a check when I left for prep school, $1,000. It was to house me, feed me, pay my tuition, and buy my clothes.

First thing I had to do with it was buy myself a pair of long pants. I couldn’t see me walking around the Exeter campus as the only kid in a pair of knickers. 

Hamilton: Do you want to tell her about your insecurities going to Exeter, and meeting John Ferguson? 

Coors: I was not mature emotionally. Very lonely, very homesick, and had a lot of trouble associating with the boys who were friendly. I was actually a member of the campus nerd group, joined the chess club.

Kelly:  Did you like it better then, when you had the chess club and felt more a part of the school?

Coors: I had an interesting experience. Probably it did more for me than anything that’s ever happened.

At Exeter, to graduate, you had to have at least one year of Latin, and a second year of either Latin or Greek. I chose second year Latin and found myself in advanced class, studying Julius Caesar, the conquest of Gaul. Still remember the opening: “Omnis Gallia in tres partes divisa est” [Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres; All Gaul is divided into three parts].

My instructor in that class was to me a monster. Was abusive, if nothing else. He’d refer to me as “a crow among swans.” One day I’d been told by a couple of classmates, whom I was trying desperately to cultivate, and they told me to get lost. They didn’t want me around anymore. I was crushed.

I was in my Latin teacher’s class. Name was Norman Hatch. His nickname on the campus was [inaudible]. He was particularly rough on me, and I couldn’t stop it. Stared at my feet, welled up this wave of grief he brought up. I just broke out bawling in the classroom. Terribly embarrassing. I just sobbed most of the class, rest of the class.

When it was over, I was on my way down a little pathway from the main building, to the grill to get a cup of tea. Somebody was coming down behind me. They put an arm around my shoulders. It was Norman Hatch.

I had spent hours trying to devise the perfect crime to get him off the campus, one way or another. I just hated him with a passion. That arm went around me, and it just left like that. I realized he couldn’t be doing a better thing for me. He was giving me compassion and support. Changed my whole outlook on life. One of my greatest regrets is never getting back to the school to tell him that I appreciated what he had done for me.

I carried that message all the way through. All I ever wanted from my father was my father’s arm around me. I never got it.

I did a remarkable job in the fifty years that I worked for the company. It had a lot to do with my relationship with the employees of the company. 

Hamilton: You want to share how your father expected you to go to Cornell and how you ended up at Princeton, due to Norm Carter?

Coors: I was entered in Cornell. Cornell was the alma mater for most of the males in the family. My father, my two uncles went there, three uncles.

Exeter, I was there for three years before I even knew that they had fraternities on campus. I was asked to join one. I felt success, great success, recognition.

I had two brothers at Cornell at the time. By the end of my senior year at Exeter, I had had enough of fraternities. I didn’t like having my friends’ picture of me. I didn’t like the standards that they used. You’re an athlete, you were automatic.

Senior year, delegations from my father’s fraternity at Cornell and my brother’s fraternity from Cornell showed up on the campus of Exeter to sign me up for membership. I just rebelled. 

My roommate at Exeter, who still survives at 102, name was Norm Carter. His father was a very prominent Princetonian, and Norm suggested we go down to Princeton, see if Princeton would take me in, which we did. They took me in. I roomed with Norm for four years down there at Princeton.

Hamilton: You want to tell them how you met Albert Einstein at Princeton?

Coors: That was casual. He looked like a wild man, with his hair in all directions. He was in the school there of advanced studies [the Institute for Advanced Study]. He lived off-campus, ate his meals in the lunch hall.

One day, as I was going into the hall, he was coming out. He looked at me with this fond look on his face and asked, in very broken English, if I could tell him where he was going. He didn’t know whether he was coming or going to lunch. I told him, and we shook hands. That was my acquaintance with him. Einstein.

Kelly:  Did he have a strong handshake?

Coors: Yeah.

Kelly:  You graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, and then what was your choice? Did you want to go back to being part of the brewery, or what were your thoughts?

Coors: It was at the height of the Depression. Jobs were very hard to find. The maximum salary for any college graduate was $100 a month. I had a job waiting for me in Golden, and had an advantage. Everybody didn’t have a job.

The chemical engineering school at Princeton was originally run by DuPont, and they hired me when I graduated. I went back to Golden, couldn’t face my father. DuPont’s probably still looking for me.

Kelly:  What was your first job at the brewery?

Coors: One of the family properties, at that point, was the Coors Porcelain Company. I remember my father saying, when I went into his office to ask for a job assignment—he offered me $200 a month. He said, “I want you to go over to the bottlery, and do something about those losses. Fifty percent of everything we started to make over there, ended up on the dump [inaudible], discarded. I want you to do something about those losses, but you are not to change a thing.” Over two years, I just wandered around, didn’t change a thing.

Hamilton: What changed everything, with the phone call? What was the phone call that changed everything?

Coors: First important, is the fact that we had one competitor, who was porcelain, and that was the Champion spark plug people. 

The war was heating up, and Champion had more than they could handle. There was a demand for aviation spark plugs. They wanted to get out of their porcelain business. We bought the whole thing from them for $10,000, including the secret process they had developed for the formulation of ceramic items.

They had one customer, for whom they made a highly specialized insulator—the only insulator that they were making, only customer they had. They turned that over to us, and about, I would say, close to $500,000 worth of tooling that they put into it. This is a special insulator they were making for Allis-Chalmers.

I was looking for something to do to make myself useful, instead of just walking around not changing anything. I grabbed on to the insulator, began making them, and having a field day.

About one year later, I got a message—I didn’t even have a desk or a telephone when I was working. The receptionist at the Coors Porcelain found me at work on an insulator. She said, “There is a phone call for you. They won’t speak to anybody else.”

I followed her into the office, got on the phone. A voice introduced himself as Rick Condit, working for Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. He said, “We need insulators.” He told me this story of grief, how all the main insulator companies, such as General Electric and Westinghouse, all quoted them in terms of months’ delivery. He said, “We couldn’t wait that long. We have several of the Allis-Chalmers electrical people consulting with us. They know about your insulators, said maybe you could make them. 

I said, “Well, my delivery, if we can make it, it’s just the five days it takes to get the item through the tunnel kiln.”

He said, “I’ll send you a drawing. You’re not supposed to copy it, show it to anybody, or talk to anybody about this. It’s a very secret project.” 

I got a drawing in the mail. Fortunately, it was an easy item to make. Champion had been supplying us with the material that we needed to make the Allis-Chalmers insulators. It was the only material I had, so I just used it to provide Lawrence Radiation with their insulators. I had them on the way in five days. 

Kelly:  That’s amazing.

Coors: Those insulators made the development of the isotope separators, or a concentration, if you want to call it. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.

What had happened—our insulators worked for Lawrence Radiation. They had developed the isotope separator [the calutron], turned it over to people like General Electric or Westinghouse. They supplied their insulators. Their insulators wouldn’t work.

Coors: The insulating companies in the insulator business are General Electric and Westinghouse, probably Ohio Brass.

Kelly:  What were your insulators made from? 

Coors: Material supplied to us by Champion. They had licensed us to a secret development, where they took a ceramic slurry known as slip, sprayed around it, came out with a tiny little piece. Would pour like water. 

They shared with me their specifications for a spray dryer, which I made mostly from scrap metal that I found in a local tin shop in Golden. Didn’t work very well. Third rebuild worked well enough.

Kelly:  How many of these insulators did you make in five days?

Coors: I haven’t any idea.

Kelly:  Thousands, a thousand or more?

Coors: Eventually, yes. There are thousands of them still at Oak Ridge.

Hamilton: When you’re talking about the spray dryer, you didn’t mention it was the isostatic spray dryer. Did you want to mention that as being part of the process, to put that name on it?

Coors: They sprayed red material, put it in a rubber sack, and then set the [inaudible] to about 10,000 pounds per square inch, compressed. It came out a block, it was machinable. We made the insulators from that.

The question I have yet to be asked, which amazes me—why did our insulators work?

Kelly:  That’s a good question.

Coors: The other insulators didn’t work. The answer lies in, “Why was Champion making insulators for Allis-Chalmers?” Nothing about Allis-Chalmers insulators was a challenge to any of the insulator manufacturers.

It dawned on me. Everything was so secret, there were no specifications. They weren’t allowed to keep the blueprint, anything like a blueprint that might identify it. I don’t know exactly what constituted the material that Champion was supplying us. They’re known in the industry as “bodies,” ceramic bodies.

I am making an assumption that Allis-Chalmers used their insulators, their mercury-arc rectifier, alternating into direct current, to the aluminum industry. They had tried—this is all speculation--but they had tried various insulator manufacturers unsuccessfully.

I did not know at that time that the insulators supplied by General Electric wouldn’t work. Nobody was talking. Nobody said anything.

You take a regular porcelain insulator, you get it hot enough, and put a heavy enough voltage across it, it will eventually fail.

Porcelain, as made by General Electric, Westinghouse, is very much a slam-bang thing. The main ingredients are kaolin. They were so porous, and they’re [inaudible], to get a glassy interior.

For that purpose, they use a very common mineral known as feldspar. There are two varieties. Orthoclase is primarily potassium-based, and the other, plagioclase, is sodium-based. Either one of those things are not good for insulators, because the electricity will find its way from atom to atom. The other thing they need is something to make it look like clay, act like clay. They call it ball clay.

I’ve had this weird feeling, realization, that that little insulator shop that I was in charge of [inaudible] making no changes, except my own, was the only facility in the whole western world that could manufacture insulators that could withstand all required of them by the isotope separation. I am probably the only man in the world who knows that story.   

Kelly:  When did you first know how important your work was?

Coors: When Lawrence Radiation’s design was taken over by one of the insulation companies, they supplied their own insulators, and they didn’t work. They sort of relied on us.

Kelly:  You went more than seventy years before the Department of Energy recognized your work?

Coors: Yeah.

Kelly:  That’s a long time.

Coors: Yeah.

Kelly:  Goodness.

Coors: Well, for me, the years go by awfully fast.

Kelly: When did the people in Oak Ridge, did they call and say “They work!” You delivered them in five days. When did they let you know they worked?

Coors: They didn’t.

Kelly:  They didn’t. Oh, my goodness. You didn’t hear from them again?

Coors: We just got orders for insulators. We had the entire Coors Porcelain facility converted to insulator development, manufacturing. Just to keep up to date, keep pace with Oak Ridge demand.

Kelly: Have you seen an insulator? Have they sent you pictures, or did you send all the insulators off, so you don’t have any left?

Coors: That’s right.

Kelly: You have accomplished a lot. That was just 1943, but you also went on in your career to be very inventive. Can you tell us about your work on the aluminum can? 

Coors: Yeah. Golden Brewery was a shipping brewery. Our average customer lived more than a thousand miles away from us. Eighty-three percent of our beer was in cans. The only thing we could replace the cans with were returnable bottles. They weighed so much, they were so heavy, that the freight on them, to get them to and from the marketplace, was just too oppressive. You look back, there were cans strewn all over the place.

The soft drink industry, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and the like, and the brewing industry were definitely opposed to taking any responsibility for their containers. The green people got into the act and began trying to get legislation passed state-by-state, called “Ban the can.” It would have been disastrous to us. We were economically forced us to find an alternative. It was the aluminum can.

Kelly: You came up with the idea of the refund?

Coors: Of the what?

Kelly: You came up with the idea of recycling, of offering a penny for each can brought back.

Coors: Yeah. We took it even one step further. We developed a continuous casting machine called the block caster. We built a mill in San Antonio. It was quite a thrill for the aluminum companies like Alcoa, as we could convert re-melted aluminum cans into sheet material cheaper than they could.

Hamilton: He’s something, isn’t he? 

Kelly: Yes. Yeah. Wow. Yeah. Do you still enjoy beer?

Coors: Oh, sure.

Kelly: That’s great. Well, it must be good for you, because not many people live to 101.

Coors: I’m very fortunate.