WILLIAM DAVID COOLIDGE:
INVENTOR, PHYSICIST, RESEARCH DIRECTOR 1873-1975
only person ever elected in his lifetime to the National
Inventor's Hall of Fame lived for 102 years.
Academy of Sciences Memorial Biography
By C. G. SUITS Director of General Electric
X-rays, and Coolidge form a trinity that has left
an indelible impression upon our life and times.
The key word in this triad is Coolidge, for his
work brought the element tungsten from laboratory
obscurity to the center of the industrial stage
and gave the X-ray a central role in the progress
of medicine throughout the world.
William David Coolidge was born in Hudson, Massachusetts,
near Boston, on October 23,1873, and he died on
February 3, 1975 in Schenectady, New York. His
father, Albert Edward, was a shoemaker by occupation,
but he supplemented his income by running a farm
of seven acres. His mother, Martha Alice, was
a dressmaker in her spare time.
Will attended a grade school about a mile from
town, where one teacher presided over the six
grades. He was a good student and was liked by
his classmates. After school each day, as an only
child of his parents, he had a regular routine
of farm chores. This, however, left room for fishing
(summer and winter), baseball, hiking, skating,
and primitive skiing. Photography became a lifelong
hobby, and during this period he built a basement
darkroom and constructed his own camera, including
grade school Will attended Hudson High School
where, in due time, he graduated valedictorian
in his class of thirteen. En route, he quit school
for a while and took a job in a local factory
manufacturing rubber garments. After a few months
he decided that this was not a very good idea,
and he went back to school, where he caught up
with his class without difficulty. He had assumed
that, with very limited family financial resources,
he would not be going to college at the end of
the school year. His plans changed when a friend
who had been impressed by his scholastic record
and his mechanical and electrical aptitudes suggested
that he might be able to obtain a state scholarship
to MIT. He applied, the grant was awarded, and
in the fall of 1891 he went to Boston to continue
left to right, Irving Langmuir, Willis R.
Whitney, and William D. Coolidge, 1909
the time MIT was "Boston Tech" and consisted
of three buildings that accommodated 1,200 students.
The period was one of growing interest in science
and engineering, and the opportunities for engineering
graduates were numerous in industry. Except for
the Military Academy at West Point, MIT was the
only institution of learning then offering an
Will enrolled in electrical engineering, which
included some chemistry and mathematics and a
modicum of literature, modern languages, and philosophy,
in addition to professional engineering courses.
In the chemistry course he came under the instruction
of Professor Willis R. Whitney, which turned out
to be the start of a long and happy relationship.
Will was an excellent student, especially in his
laboratory assignments and in his practical shop
work, and the shops at Boston Tech were better
than anything he had ever seen before. To see
what industry was like, he spent the summer between
his junior and senior years at the East Pittsburgh
plant of Westinghouse Electric. Illness kept him
out of school for a year, so he graduated with
the class of 1896.
this time he sensed that engineering practice
was not exactly what he wanted; he had a greater
interest in his science studies and the research
orientation of his laboratory work. He therefore
took a position as an assistant in physics at
MIT. During the year he became aware of the possibility
of obtaining a fellowship that would permit graduate
study in Europe. He applied and obtained a grant
for the following year, and he selected Leipzig
for graduate work, influenced by the counsel of
Professor Whitney, who had done graduate work
there, and by the presence of Professor Paul Drude
at that institution. The scholarship would not
cover all of the costs of European graduate study,
but Will was able to obtain a loan from a friend.
Will arrived in Liepzig well in advance of the
fall term, and he audited the physics lectures
of Professor Gustav Wiedmann, who advised him
not to formally register until the fall term in
October. In the interim, he set out to improve
his German by talking to German students at every
opportunity by avoiding contacts with English
and American students, and even by attending German
church services. He lived with a German family
who gave him a constant opportunity to talk in
German. All of thisboard and roomcost
$20.00 a month!
D. Coolidge examining his hot cathode, high
vacuum X-ray tube, 1913
the October term started, Will developed close
relationships with Drude and Wiedemann. Both were
interested in his research and often dropped in
to see him and to discuss their progress. During
vacations Will took short trips to Italy and Bavaria,
where he covered every tourist opportunity at
very low cost, taking photographs that he developed
in an improvised darkroom in Leipzig.
In Will's second year at Leipzig, he became lecture
assistant to Drude, which helped his finances
and provided a new experience. Looking ahead to
the time when he might finish his doctorate, he
wrote to MIT concerning a teaching position there.
Meanwhile his research had progressed well, and
he started to assemble his dissertation, which
was published later in Annalen der Physik.
day during that winter, the celebrated Professor
Wilhelm C. Roentgen visited Leipzig and the Physikalishes
Institute. Drude's assistant, Coolidge, had a
chance to talk with Roentgen and was much impressed
by the experience. Will didn't know it at the
time, but his later research would serve to provide
the major embodiment for the practical usefulness
of Roentgen's X-ray discovery.
Later in the second school year, Will decided
that, with luck, he might complete his dissertation
and tackle his doctoral examinations, the basic
requirements for a degree, by late summer. In
July he received high marks in all of his examinations
and was awarded the doctorate summa cum laude.
Coolidge in his lab
application for an MIT teaching position coincided
with an opening in the Physics Department, so
Will Coolidge was back in Boston for the fall
term in 1899. The following year he became a research
assistant to Professor Arthur A. Noyes of the
Chemistry Department, where, to his surprise,
he remained for five years. In an adjacent laboratory.
He became reacquainted with Dr. Whitney, who was
then commuting to Schenectady during the formative
years of the new General Electric Research Laboratory
there. To Coolidge's complete surprise, Whitney
offered him a job. He visited GE and accepted
the offer in 1905.
The new Research Laboratory was located in an
ancient building in the Schenectady plant, and
at that time the total employment was about thirty,
including several MIT graduates. The new laboratory's
growth rate was limited by the availability of
people of the quality Whitney wanted. At that
early period, persuading a university scientist
that he might have a career in industrial research
was not accomplished easily nor often. Whitney,
however, was developing an academic atmosphere,
including weekly research meetings where members
reported upon their work and occasionally heard
talks by invited scientists. The laboratory was
also achieving a modicum of credibility and prestige
in its industrial trial setting because of the
success of its early work. Dr. Whitney's improvements
in the lamp filament were coming to market at
about the time Dr. Coolidge joined the laboratory.
This lamp called the GEM lampwas about three
times more efficient than Edison's lamp, and it
alone more than paid for the company's investment
in the Research Laboratory up to that time.
Dr. Coolidge was devoted to his research work,
but not to the exclusion of social contacts. Letters
to his parents at that time made it clear that
he was enjoying his friendships with Dr. and Mrs.
Whitney and numerous colleagues in the Research
Laboratory, and that he had met a number of young
ladies. One of these ladies was especially attractive,
and on December 30, 1908 he married Ethel Woodward,
the daughter of the president of a local bank,
in Granville. A daughter, Elizabeth, and a son,
Lawrence, were born to this marriage. Early in
1915 Ethel became seriously ill and died at the
hospital in February of that year. Dorothy Elizabeth
MacHaffie, a graduate nurse from Ellis Hospital,
was engaged by Will to help his mother with the
two children at home. Dorothy was a charming person
and, about a year later, she and Will were married.
the GE research lab with a two-miilion volt
research and experimentation were proceeding apace
in the U.S. and in Europe during that period,
and it is not surprising that Coolidge caught
some of the excitement. Welsbach, of gas mantle
fame, produced a lamp with a filament of osmium.
The powdered metal was extruded with a binder,
then sintered and mounted in the bulb. The resulting
lamp was extremely fragile. The same process was
used with tantalum powder with similar results.
Just and Hanaman, in Vienna, used the same process
to produce a tungsten filament. The resulting
lamp showed greatly improved light production,
but the problem of brittleness remained.
Dr. Coolidge first got into the lamp filament
problem by way of tantalum, but he quickly switched
to tungsten. Meanwhile, General Electric purchased
rights under the Just and Hanaman patent, and
Dr. Whitney himself started making tungsten filaments
by that method. Coolidge found that these sintered
filaments would lose some of their extreme brittleness
if they were passed through a rolling mill with
heated rolls. This was the first clue that suggested
that tungsten was not necessarily brittle under
all physical circumstances. Coolidge's observation
was a very important "foot in the door."
After three more years of painstaking research
on this intractable metal, a process was developed
by means of which tungsten was made sufficiency
ductile at room temperatures to permit drawing
through diamond dies. Close control of working
temperatures, of tungsten powder grain size, and
of trace metal additions, particularly thorium,
contributed to the final successful result.
Lamps made with ductile tungsten filaments appeared
on the market in 1911, and they have dominated
the lighting industry ever since. All of the numerous
alternative lamp filament processes were abandoned.
to say, Whitney, Coolidge, and the new Research
laboratory gained great stature as a result of
Another very important happening at about this
time was the occasion, in 1909, when Irving Langmuir
joined the new laboratory. He came from Gottingen
by way of the Stevens Institute, and his doctoral
thesis had concerned heat transfer in gases at
high temperatures. The lamp filament involved
such processes, and Langmuir soon set up experiments
that showed that the light output of Coolidge's
new lamp could be doubled if inert gas replaced
the high vacuum. This gas-filled lamp with a ductile
filament was about ten times more efficient than
Edison's lamp, and it soon became the standard
of the world for indoor lighting. At about this
time, Coolidge was appointed assistant director
of the Research Laboratory. In 1914 he was awarded
the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences, the first of a long series of medals
and honors that marked his career.
Coolidge shown in his laboratory working
with his X-ray tube.
availability of tungsten as a workable metal was
a new fact of industrial life that came from Coolidge's
work, and the application to the incandescent
filament was only the first use of this remarkable
metal. Tungsten exhibits the highest melting point
in the periodic table, extremely low vapor pressure,
great mechanical strength, and many other unusual
properties. Its application to a great variety
of industrial uses proceeded apace. Because of
its high melting point and good electrical conductivity,
Coolidge explored its use as an electrical contact
for switching devices. At that time plantinum
was a favored material for electric contacts in
telegraph keys, relays, and small control equipment.
It was questionable whether tungsten would be
suitable for this purpose because, unlike platinum,
it oxidizes readily at high temperatures. For
many types of contacts, however, tungsten performed
very well and showed much greater contact life
than platinum. Coolidge made a trip to Dayton
to show the new contacts to Charles Kettering,
who became very enthusiastic about tungsten for
auto ignition contacts. Ever since, tungsten has
been the material of choice for this application.
Roentgen had announced his discovery of X-rays
in 1895, and this important event created worldwide
interest, especially among medical men who saw
the X-ray as a possible diagnostic tool. While
Coolidge was still at Boston Tech, he worked with
Dr. F. H. Williams, one of the pioneers in the
medical application of the new tube, and Coolidge
retained an interest in X-rays when he came to
Schenectady in 1905. Perhaps it was the success
of the replacement of platinum with tungsten in
contacts that kindled a new interest in the X-ray
tube, which then employed a platinum anode.
early X-ray tube was full of gas and its operation
was very erratic, even in the hands of a skilled
practitioner. As Coolidge got into the X-ray tube
study, he found that the three principal partsthe
cathode, the anode, and the "vacuum"
environmentwere all sources of erratic performance.
The gas was required to produce ions, which produced
electrons by bombardment of a cold aluminum cathode.
Langmuir was then in the midst of a comprehensive
study of electron thermionic emission, and he
found that he could get controllable electron
emission from one of Coolidge's hot tungsten filaments
in the complete absence of gas, in other words
at high vacuum. Coolidge immediately installed
a heated tungsten filament in an X-ray tube with
a tungsten disk anode. This tube was heated and
outgassed until all evidence of gas ionization
disappeared. The tube became the first stable
and controllable X-ray generator for medical and
dental use, and it rapidly replaced the gas-filled
tubes in this country and throughout the world.
Coolidge was in touch with many physicians and
radiologists during the progress of his X-ray
studies, and one of them, Dr. Lewis C. Cole of
New York, was the first to have his office equipped
with the new tube. He was extremely enthusiastic
about the performance of this tube, and he soon
sponsored a dinner in a New York hotel where Coolidge
demonstrated the new tube to a large group of
prominent radiologists. At this dinner, Dr. Cole
christened the new generator the "Coolidge
Tube," which was later adopted by the General
Electric Company as the product name, and it has
since been used widely by the medical and dental
The success of the Coolidge Tube brought much
recognition and many new honors to its inventor.
It greatly expanded the use of X-rays, not only
in dentistry and medicine, where therapeutic as
well as diagnostic applications grew, but in industry,
where they were being used increasingly for non-destructive
testing. For many years following the introduction
of the Coolidge Tube, Coolidge himself was the
midst of continuing refinement of this generator:
to very high voltages for deep therapy applications,
to higher power for industrial use, and to finer
definition for improved diagnostics. To the end
of his career he retained an intense interest
in X-rays and their applications.
1917 it became evident that the involvement in
World War I by the U.S. was unavoidable. The GE
Research Laboratory and Dr. Whitney became increasingly
concerned with the possible role they could play
in such an event, and development of a submarine
detection system was an obvious challenge. Allied
shipping was being sunk at a far greater rate
than it could be replaced, and some solution of
this problem was urgently needed. The depth bomb
was an effective weapon if the submarine could
be located, which was the key problem.
to the entry of the U.S. into the war, the GE
Research Laboratory became involved in war work
through the Naval Consulting Board, on which Dr.
Whitney served. A joint attack on the problem
of submarine detection was planned involving GE,
the Submarine Signalling Company, and Western
Electric. An experimental station was set up on
the Mohawk River, near where the GE Research and
Development Center was located years later. Coolidge
soon found that sealed rubber binaural listening
tubes provided excellent range of about two miles
with an azimuth sensitivity of about five degrees.
This device went into service on U.S. and British
vessels as the "C" Tubefor Coolidge.
A later version, the "K" tube, developed
a range of ten miles with an azimuth sensitivity
of ten degrees. These devices permitted submarine
chasers to clear the Mediterranean of submarines
in the spring and summer of 1918 and were an important
factor in the final outcome of the war. The Coolidge
tube was adapted to a field X-ray unit for use
in World War I, and it became a major medical
tool in field hospitals, where many practitioners
became acquainted with it for the first time.
the period following World War I, the Research
Laboratory under Whitney grew in stature and influence,
both within the company and in the scientific
community. Langmnir's work on electron emission
and surface chemistry found many important applications,
including radio broadcasting and reception. Albert
Hull was one of three scientists (with Debye and
Scherrer) to develop X-ray diffraction in crystalline
materials. His studies of gas-filled electron
tubes helped open up the field of industrial electronics.
Coolidge continued to expand the usefulness of
X-rays by the development of million-volt, high-power
generators for medical therapeutic work and multiple
industrial uses. The year 1932 was an important
year for the laboratory, for Coolidge became director
upon the retirement of Whitney, and in the same
year Langmuir became the first American industrial
scientist to win the Nobel Prize.
the time World War II broke out, the appreciation
of the role of science and technology in the national
defense establishment was well developed, and
through the leadership of Dr. Vannevar Bush, a
massive national research and development program
was mounted to aid the war effort. The Office
of Scientific Research and Development identified
the areas of opportunity; organized the effort
in university, industrial, and government laboratories;
and provided the necessary financial backing.
Coolidge became involved in the atomic bomb investigation
from the beginning as a member of President Roosevelt's
Advisory Committee on Uranium. In 1940 Dr. A.
O. Nier of the University of Minnesota and Drs.
K. H. Kingdon and H. C. Pollock of the GE Research
Laboratory isolated U235 for the first time, and
showed that it was the fissionable isotope. This
author became a member of Division 13 of the NDRC
(microwave radar) and chairman of Division 15
(radio and radar countermeasures), and both subjects
became active areas for the participation of the
GE Research Laboratory in the war effort.
had planned to retire about the time World War
II began in Europe, but because of the pressure
of wartime work he agreed to stay on beyond his
normal retirement. At the war's conclusion he
resumed his plans for retirement, and he proposed
that I succeed to his position, which I did on
January 1, 1945. In retirement, Coolidge retained
an active interest in X-ray research. He continued
to receive recognition in the form of awards and
medals for the impressive work of his career,
even through his one-hundreth birthday, and he
continued the photography hobby that dated from
his boyhood in Massachusetts.
some of the milestones in Will Coolidge's remarkable
career have been suggested above, this biography
would be incomplete without words of appreciation
for his personal qualities, which were equally
impressive. Kindness and thoughtfulness in dealing
with friends and associates were attributes that
were deeply imbedded in his nature. I doubt if
anyone ever heard him raise his voice in anger.
His modesty was almost embarrassing, and he always
viewed the accomplishments of his associates more
generously than they themselves. He was greatly
beloved by everyone who was privileged to be associated
with him, and in the world of science, including
medical science, he was regarded with deep reverence,
as evidenced by the unprecedented award from the
University of Zurich of a Doctorate of Medicine.
Will Coolidge was blessed with remarkable health
throughout his very active lifetime, and he retained
a keen mind into his late nineties. He died on
February 3, 1975, at the age of one-hundred-and-one.
We revere his memory.
David Coolidge was born in Hudson, Massachusetts,
on 23 October 1873. He excelled in his one-room
elementary school and small high school, and in
1891 he enrolled in a nine-year-old electrical engineering
program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
in Cambridge. William David Coolidge received a
bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in 1896. A fellowship permitted him
to go on to the famed University of Leipzig to earn
a Ph.D. in physics in 1899. He then returned to
Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an assistant
to the prominent physical chemist, Arthur A. Noyes.
Coolidge had been working with Professor Noyes for
five years on research into the electrical conductivity
of aqueous solutions at high temperatures when the
founder of General Electric Research Laboratory,
Willis R. Whitney, surprised him with an offer to
join the laboratory in 1900. As described
in the company's annual report of 1902, the laboratory
was "to be devoted exclusively to original
research," and, the report added, "It
is hoped by this means that many profitable fields
may be discovered." Whitney understood
very well that this meant commercial products as
well as the pursuit of fundamental knowledge.
Coolidge's first assignment was to investigate why
tantalum lamp filaments quickly broke when operated
on alternating current, and there began a six-year
struggle that Coolidge later compared to lock-smithing:
"Imagine then a man wishing to open a door
locked with a combination lock and bolted on the
inside. Assume that he does not know a single number
of the combination and has not a chance to open
the door until he finds the whole combination, and
not a chance to do so even then unless the bolt
on the inside is open. Also bear in mind that he
cannot tell whether a single number of the combination
is right until he knows the combination complete.
When we started to make tungsten ductile, our situation
was like that."
work led him into the hunt for a metal filament
lamp to replace the carbon filament developed by
Edison. Though practical, carbon lamps was not very
energy-efficient (about 3 lumens per watt), and
European inventors had been especially active in
searching for better filaments. Lamps using tantalum
had been devised in Europe and gave 5 lumens per
watt (lpw), but worked well only on direct current.
1904 several European inventors almost simultaneously
developed filaments from the metal tungsten. These
worked well on both AC and DC, and gave 8 lpw. However,
tungsten was difficult to workfilaments were
made with a pressing technique called "sintering."
The filaments were brittle and could not be bent
once formed, so they were referred to as "non-ductile"
filaments. They required a complex mounting structure
with several filaments placed in electrical series.
Coolidge began investigating how he might improve
tungsten lamps by making a bendable or "ductile"
wire. In 1909 he came up with the answer. Coolidge
succeeded in preparing a ductile tungsten wire by
doping tungsten oxide before reduction. The resulting
metal powder was pressed, sintered and forged to
thin rods. Very thin wire was then drawn from these
was the beginning of tungsten powder metallurgy,
which was instrumental in the rapid development
of the lamp industry. The production of ductile
tungsten was the crowning achievement of his early
work (conducted with his lifelong colleague, Colin
G. Fink). The ductile tungsten was able to replace
carbon as the preferred filament of incandescent
light bulbs, and is still used as such today. General
Electric sold Coolidge's lamp under the trade name
"Mazda" beginning in 1910. Giving 10 lpw,
Coolidge's lamp returned General Electric to a position
of market strength that had been in question since
Edison's patents had started to expire in the previous
By early 1911, General Electric had scrapped all
its previous lamp-making equipment and was selling
tungsten-filament Mazda C light bulbs. In the previous
five years it had spent over $100,000 on the ductile-
tungsten research, but the patent that Coolidge
received in 1912 amply repaid the investment.
In 1927 the patent was invalidated on the grounds
that ductility was a property inherent in metallic
tungsten and that "Coolidge metal" was
therefore a discovery but not a patentable invention.
Tungsten lamps are still made essentially the same
way Coolidge made them 70 years ago.
demonstrates the ductile tungsten process to
Thomas Edison, 1908.
tungsten has many favorable properties such as a
high melting point: 3,410°C / 6,170°F,
low evaporation rate at high temperatures: 10-4
torr at 2,757 oC / 4,995 oF, tensile strength greater
than steel. Because of its strength, ductility and
workability, tungsten can readily be formed into
the filament coils, used to enhance performance
in modern incandescent bulbs. Due to its high melting
point, tungsten can be heated to 3000oC / 5,432
oF, where it glows white hot providing very good
brightness. However, the early tungsten filaments
still sublimed too quickly at such high temperatures.
As they sublimed, they also coated the bulbs with
a thin black tungsten film, reducing their light
output. Inert gases such as nitrogen and argon were
later added to bulbs to reduce tungsten evaporation,
or sublimation. While these gases reduced evaporation
and increased filament life, they also carried heat
away from the filament, reducing its temperature
and brightness. Winding the wires into fine coils,
as used in modern incandescent filaments, reduced
convective heat loss, allowing the filament to operate
at the desired temperatures.
innovations covered a broad spectrum: he worked
on high-quality magnetized steel, improved ventilating
fans, and creature comfort devices like the electric
blanket. During World War II he contributed research
to projects involving radar and radar countermeasures.
However, Coolidge's greatest moment was yet to come.
Coolidge's second major invention, the X-ray tube,
is also essentially the same today as it was then.
Coolidge had been fascinated by William Roentgen's
discovery of X-rays in 1895 and had experimented
with them on his own. Thus, it was a natural step
from the ductile-tungsten work to experimenting
with tungsten as a target material. A theoretical
assist from the brilliant Irving Langmuir, hired
by Whitney in 1909, gave Coolidge an important lead,
and the tube was introduced to the world at a radiologist's
dinner in 1913. During the next 15 years he
made many further technical contributions to X-ray
applications. Coolidge's machine allowed X-ray waves
to be easily produced by the impact of high-energy
electrons on a tungsten anode within a vacuum tube,
and then to be directed through a substance and
onto a photographic plate. He took Roentgen's discovery
of X-rays a few steps further by creating this vacuum
tube in which the rays could be generated.
bulbs, 500 Watts at 110 to 120 volts, were produced
between 1911 and 1913.
has been immortalized for his invention of a vacuum
tube for generating X-rays (often still called the
"Coolidge tube"). This device (patent
#1,203,495, granted in 1913) made the use of X-rays
for medical diagnosis safe and convenient: Coolidge
even invented a portable model for use during World
War I. Despite subsequent advances, Coolidge's basic
design has never been superseded.
X-rays are a form of energy that travels in waves
much smaller than those of visible light. Coolidge's
machine allowed these waves easily to be produced
by the impact of high-energy electrons on a tungsten
anode within a vacuum tube, and then to be directed
through a substance onto a photographic plate. Denser
materials within the substance being scanned absorb
more X-rays, and thus produce a brighter photographic
image on the plate. It is impossible to estimate
the number of lives that have been saved thanks
to Coolidge's greatest achievementto say nothing
of its applications in scientific research (for
example, in analyzing the structure of crystals).
The "Coolidge tube" stands as a classic
example of an inventive mind harnessing a phenomenon
of nature and putting it to use for the good of
was awarded the AIEE Edison Medal in 1926, "for
the origination of ductile tungsten and the fundamental
improvement of the X-ray tube." In an
example of the integrity for which Coolidge is still
remembered, he shortly after declined the award
on the basis that his ductile tungsten patent was
invalid.The AIEE committee got Coolidge to accept
the 1927 Edison Medal, by awarding it "for
his contributions to the incandescent electric lighting
and the X-rays art."
By April 1932, the strain of steering the laboratory
through the economic storms that followed the 1929
stockmarket crash were proving too much for Coolidge's
mentor, Whitney, and he had to step down. Coolidge
was named director on 1 November 1932, a day when
the newspapers were headlining Franklin D. Roosevelt's
presidential campaign plea in Boston for a five-day
work week, Federal aid for the unemployed, and a
commitment to the premise that "this nation
owes a positive duty that no one should be permitted
to starve." As General Electric's sales
tumbled (by 1935 they were one half of their 1930
peak of $396 million), Coolidge was faced with the
immediate challenge of ensuring the Laboratory's
survival, which he met this in several ways.
The laboratory was put on a four-day workweek, expenses
were slashed by one third, and the work force was
cut from the 1929 high of 555 people to 270. However,
in sharp contrast with some other laboratories,
there were no panicky wholesale layoffs, but rather
careful pruning. With the full backing of General
Electric's president, Gerard Swope, Coolidge accomplished
the reduction largely by moving support people to
light bulb with tungsten filament.
possible, professional staff reductions were accomplished
by finding academic positions for the scientists.
To maintain morale, the highest priority under such
circumstances, Coolidge conveyed the message that
no more drastic changes were in store and that research
would continue. A man remembered by former associates
for his kindness, modesty, integrity, and sobriety,
the 60-year-old research director got this message
across through his own business-as-usual demeanor,
as well as by encouraging Whitney to continue doing
research at the laboratory and visiting with other
The strategies for survival clearly succeeded. As
early as December 1933, Swope was able to urge Coolidge
to "add four or five chemists to our staff
to develop new products." This was a significant
increase in a doctoral level staff of perhaps 20,
and the enlarged group did come up with significant
chemical-based products, notably the silicones,
that would lead General Electric into some of its
biggest and most profitable businesses in the years
Coolidge was unusual because he was both a major
technical contributor and a successful research
leader during a trying time in General Electric's
historythe Depression of the 1930s. Few people
have been able to combine these roles as successfully
as Coolidge, who lived to the respectable age of
102. He was awarded 83 patents during his lifetime.
In 1973 at age 100, William David Coolidge was elected
to the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. He died
on 4 February 1975.