MEMOIR OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
by Guy Suits
Director of the General Electric Research Laboratory
Rodney Whitney once compared scientific research to
a bridge being constructed by a builder who was fascinated
by the construction of the problems involved. Basic
research, he suggested, is such a bridge built wherever
it strikes the builder's fancywherever the construction
problems seem to him to be most challenging. Applied
research, on the other hand, is a bridge built where
people are waiting to get across the river. The challenge
to the builder's ingenuity and skill, Whitney pointed
out, can be as great in one case as the other.
The metaphor could be applied to Whitney's own career.
There surely was never a builder more stimulated by
the problems of his craft. As the "father of
basic research in industry," Whitney was living
proof of the fact that the essential qualities that
mark the great builders are the same wherever the
"bridges" may happen to be built.
In one sense, the whole endeavor that we know as modern
industrial researchwith its heavy emphasis on
basic scienceis a bridge that was largely built
by Whitney at a time when there was precious little
demand for it. The people at the water's edge, by
and large, could hardly see the river, much less any
necessity for crossing it. To Whitney, however, the
need was clear.
When the opportunity presented itself, Whitney was
teaching theoretical chemistry at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. He had been born on August
22, 1868, at Jamestown, N.Y., the son of a furniture
manufacturer, and had first looked into the world
of science through a neighbor's microscope while he
was in high school. He had gone to the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology intending to major in biology,
but after some consideration he decided that he was
more interested in chemistry. In 1890 he received
his bachelor of science degree in this subject, after
which he served as an instructor for four years. In
1896 he received his doctorate in chemistry from the
University of Leipzig, and before returning to the
United States he added six months' study at the Sorbonne.
circa 1890, as a young MIT faculty member.
then returned to the faculty of M.I.T. where he soon
established a reputation by his work in electrochemistry,
proposing the now universally accepted electrochemical
theory of corrosion. At this time, working with Professor
A. A. Noyes, he also contributed to the development
of the modern theory of solution. Academic life, with
its combination of research and teaching, was so congenial
to Whitney that he once declared that he would rather
teach than be president. It was to this thirty-two-year-old
teacher and experimenter that the General Electric
Company turned in 1900 in search of a man who could
establish and direct the first laboratory in American
industry to be devoted primarily to basic research.
The proposal was not one calculated to win instant
acceptance. There was a long-standing prejudice in
academic circles against industrial scientific work.
The whole project, since it was an experiment, had
an element of risk in it. In addition, Whitney had
his doubts as to whether there would be enough challenging
problems in the General Electric Company to hold his
interest for a long period of time. In order to resolve
these difficulties, it was agreed that Whitney would
begin the project on a part-time basis, spending half
of his time at M.I.T. and the remainder with General
Electric. Under this arrangement Whitney came to Schenectady,
N.Y., in 1900 and set up shop, working with the great
Dr. Charles Steinmetz in an old barn behind Steinmetz's
home, where they shared an assistant. A short time
later the barn burned down and the new laboratory
was moved to one of the buildings in the General Electric
plant. After three years Whitney was ready to put
an end to the part-time schedule and devote all his
time and energy to directing the work of the growing
As Whitney remarked later, his decision to make research
in industry his career was prompted by "a desire
to take part in more extensive research than could
be accomplished by my personal efforts alone. I would
have been glad to have been one of a large group of
cooperators in colloid research [in academic life]
but the greater rate of possible accomplishment in
industry decided the case for me."
Coolidge explains to Edison how tungsten is made
ductile by the apparatus in the foreground.
difference between scientists working alone and in
concert was discussed at greater length by Whitney
in a speech delivered at the fiftieth anniversary
of the granting of M.I.T.'s charter.
"The mathematics of cooperation of men and tools
is interesting" said Whitney. "Separated
men trying their individual experiments contribute
in proportion to their numbers and their work may
be called mathematically additive. The effect of a
single piece of apparatus given to one man is also
additive only, but when a group of men are cooperating,
as distinct from merely operating, their work raises
with some higher power of the number than the first
power. It approaches the square for two men and the
cube for three. Two men cooperating with two different
pieces of apparatus, say a special furnace and a pyrometer
or a hydraulic press and new chemical substances,
are more powerful than their arithmetical sum. These
facts doubtless assist as assets of a research laboratory:"
Aware as Whitney was of the benefits that were to
be gained from men working together, he was just as
aware that the essential ingredient in any major scientific
achievement must be the exceptional individual. Whitney
was notably successful in attracting such talent to
the Research Laboratory at General Electric. Such
men as Langmuir, Coolidge, Hull, and Dushman, among
the many who joined his staff, need no introduction.
In 1946, when Whitney was being presented with the
Industrial Research Institute Medal award, Irving
Langmuir spoke on "Whitney, the Man and Leader."
In the course of his remarks he described the manner
in which he came to join the laboratory's staff.
"The way men were found for the laboratory is
rather interesting. It was the custom to have a colloquium
at the laboratory each Saturday afternoon. Generally
a speaker was invited to spend the day at the laboratory,
which brought the laboratory men into contact with
a great many well-known scientists. Also at times
it was the policy to invite young men to come to the
laboratory who later might join the staff. I had been
teaching qualitative and quantitative analysis at
Stevens Institute for three years, giving lectures
and taking charge of the laboratory work. Although
I had gone to Stevens with the intention of devoting
my life to scientific research, I had found no opportunity
to get startedthere was no time for any research
work. During a meeting of the Electrochemical Society
in Schenectady in the fall of 1908, the members were
shown through the laboratory, and I was asked to lead
one of the future colloquia. After the colloquium,
arrangements were made for me to spend the summer
vacation at the laboratory.
Irving Langmuir (l.) shows Whitney one of his
inventions, the Pliotron tube. ca. 1920
me that summer vacation was a wonderful eye opener.
The first day I asked Dr. Whitney what I should do.
He had not even thought about it and suggested that
I spend a few days getting acquainted with every man
in the laboratorytalking with each and watching
what he was doing. Two things I saw particularly interested
me: First, the techniques used in making good vacuum
were far better than any I had seen in Germany or
had heard about in any university; and second, I was
curious about the tungsten filaments which could be
heated to over 3,000 degrees, as compared with platinum
that would stand only much lower temperatures. Here
was a possibility of getting familiar with very-high-temperature
phenomena. So the work I did for my three months'
vacation was along those lines. At no time was pressure
brought to bear on me, even to steer me along certain
lines. Every day Dr. Whitney was with me long enough
to find out what I was doing and on each day he would
make interesting observations and stimulating suggestions.
He usually came in and said, `Well, having fun today?"
Of course I was having fun. That was his spirit. He
was having fun talking to me and I was having fun
listening to him, but the main thing we were interested
in was what we were finding from day to day."
Some members of the staff came to the laboratory with
the same mental reservations that Whitney himself
had had when contemplating the change from the academic
to the industrial science. It is an interesting comment
on the nature of the laboratory that Whitney had established,
and on Whitney's own genius for administration, that
these men soon lost their initial hesitancy and began
to participate wholeheartedly in the unique experiment.
Dr. Whitney wrote at one time that when Dr. Coolidge
had joined the laboratory staff, he had experienced
this sense of what might be called divided loyalties.
[Coolidge] joined our research corps on the condition
that half of his time should be devoted to research
on the electrical conductivity of aqueous solutions
at high temperatures and pressures, a subject upon
which he had already done excellent work with A. A.
Noyes," wrote Whitney. "For a while he devoted
himself religiously to perfecting his resistance bomb,
but ultimately presented it to the Institute of Technology,
because he wanted to devote all his time to other
research. What Dr. Coolidge might have done with the
resistance of electrolytes is unknown, but what he
has accomplished by the application of extensive efforts
and with many assistants to a forced research on ductile
tungsten is well known. In practically every city,
village, and residence in the world where electric
wiring has found its way, the work of Dr. Coolidge
has helped contribute the lamp."
Whitney's success in attracting men of Coolidge's
caliber was of course due in large part to his policy
of allowing them as much freedom as possible. After
Langmuir had been hired in 1909, and had spent several
years on one line of investigation or another that
had caught his interest, he one day remarked to Whitney,
"I'm having a lot of fun, but I really don't
know what good this is to the General Electric Company."
Whitney replied, "that's not your worry, that's
mine. As long as you are doing something, finding
out about high vacuum and tungsten filaments, and
things that are related to work the Company is doing,
why, we want to see that work go on." Whitney
assured Langmuir that somebody would make out a budget
for the work, and that he need worry about it no longer.
This policy of freedom for the investigator was, of
course, not appropriate for all members of the staff
in the same degree, as Whitney and his colleagues
realized, but it did insure that, for the exceptional
talent who required and could make the most of freedom,
freedom would be available. Both Whitney and Langmuir
were fond of relating this policy to "serendipity":
the habitual experience of making happy or interesting
discoveries, unexpectedly or by accident. Langmuir
once said that, in Whitney's case, he would prefer
to define it as "the art of profiting from unexpected
giants of technology in 1923. L-R, front, William
D. Coolidge, Willis R. Whitney, Thomas A. Edison,
Charles Proteus Steinmitz, Irving Langmuir. In
the second row, second from right, is the president
of GE, Gerard Swope
"When you do things in that way you get unexpected
results," Langmuir observed. "Then you do
something else and you get unexpected results in another
line, and you do that on a third line and then all
of a sudden you see that one of these lines has something
to do with the other. Then you make a discovery that
you never could have made by going on a direct road."
"Many of the things that have happened in the
laboratory have happened in ways it would have been
impossible to foresee, but not impossible to plan
for in a sense. I do not think Dr. Whitney deliberately
plans his serendipity but he is built that way; he
has the artan instinctive way of preparing himself
by his curiosity and by his interest in people and
in all kinds of things and in nature, so that the
things he learns react on one another and thereby
accomplish things that would he impossible to foresee
interest in providing his staff with the maximum amount
of freedom included not only a willingness to allow
them to devote themselves to problems of their own
choice, in the expectation of "happy or interesting
discoveries," but also a desire to spare them
the administrative formalities that so often accumulate
in businessand, for that matter, in government
and academic life.
"When I first came to our laboratory," Langmuir
said once, "there was practically no organization.
We never had any conferences on our work, that is,
formal conferences. No reports were written. For years
I never wrote a report on anything. And right up to
today I have never yet attended a conference in the
laboratory that had anything to do with expenses or
budgeting. I do not know anything about how much my
work has cost and I do not care to know. I have no
executive responsibilities. Dr. Whitney took all that
off the shoulders of any man who did not like that
kind of thing. There are some men that do like it
and they do it well. Others do not like it and can
do something else better. He did the dirty work and
would smooth things out so that we would not have
to worry about it."
at age 80 in the study of his home in Nisayuna,
New York, 1948.
devotion to the principle of freedom of inquiry, like
his impatience with time-consuming administrative
details, was not based simply on a desire to provide
his staff with a congenial atmosphere. It was, rather,
based on his conviction that research unhampered by
the exigencies of day-to-day crises was the surest
path to major benefits for the sponsoring corporation.
Whitney was convinced that, while relatively small
gains could be achieved by attacking small problems,
the real breakthroughs in science would come from
the large-scaleand relatively unspecificapproach
to the boundaries of man's ignorance.
"The regularity with which we conclude that further
advances in a particular field are impossible seems
equaled only by the regularity with which events prove
that we are of too limited vision," he wrote
at another time. "And it always seems to be those
who have the fullest opportunity to know who are the
most limited in view. What then, is the trouble? I
think that one answer should be: we do not realize
sufficiently that the unknown is absolutely infinite,
and that new knowledge is always being produced."
Whitney, the production of new knowledge was synonymous
with experimentation. "I happen to be a kind
of monkey," he once said. "I have a monkey
like curiosity that makes me want to feel, smell,
and taste things which arouse my curiosity, then to
take them apart. It was born in me. Not everybody
is like that, but a scientific researchist should
stories of Whitney's love for experimenting are legion.
At one time he received a letter asking if insects
could live in a vacuum. Finally Whitney set to work.
He placed a fly and a cockroach in a bell jar and
removed the air. The two insects promptly keeled over.
After approximately two hours, however, when he gradually
admitted air again, the cockroach waved its feelers
and staggered to its feet. Before long, both the cockroach
and the fly were back in action.
that other men would have noted only with the most casual
interest became for Whitney exciting opportunities to
carriage house behind the rooming house of GE
chief engineer Charles Steinmitz was the first
home of GE's research laboratory.
The Research Laboratory under Whitney addressed itself
vigorously to the problem of producing new knowledge,
whether "basic" or "applied," and
it did so with notable success. During the time Whitney
headed General Electric research, a great many important
scientific and practical achievements were attained.
Fundamental studies of vacuum phenomena and incandescent
solids provided important foundation stones for improved
electric lighting and for the important new field of
electronics. The same basic science made possible Coolidge's
development of the modern x-ray tube, and much later,
Langmuir's concept of atomic hydrogen welding. Whitney
himself developed high-frequency heating for therapy,
embodied in the device known as the Inductotherm, and
was very active in the laboratory-wide submarine detection
project of the First World War that led to the famous
"C"-tube detector. It can be truthfully said
that the many important accomplishments of Whitney and
his associates in industrial scientific research have
had a profound and beneficial effect on the lives of
nearly all civilized people.
Whitney was the director of the laboratory from its
founding in 1900 until 1932. During the last four
years of this period he also served as vice-president
in charge of research for the entire company. In 1932
he retired from directorship of the laboratory and
was named an honorary vice-president of the company.
The roll call of the honors that were given him is impressive,
but Willis Whitney himself knew that the greatest prize
that he could attain was the feeling that he had contributed
to man's understanding of the world around him.
Abridged from Biographical Memoirs, Volume
34, published for the National Academy of Sciences
by Columbia University Press, 1960.