AVS Historical Persons | Daniel G. Bills - 1996

Daniel G. Bills - 1996

Oral History Interview with Daniel G. Bills

Interviewed by Jim Lafferty, October 16, 1996

LAFFERTY: I'm Jim Lafferty. Today I'm pinch-hitting as interviewer and as cameraman. This is Wednesday, October 16, 1996. We're in Philadelphia for the 43rd National AVS Symposium, and it's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Daniel G. Bills. Dan was Treasurer of the American Vacuum Society from 1967-1970, and he was President of the AVS in 1971 and 1972. Dan, do you want to tell us how you got started in vacuum while I go back and man the camera?
: All right, Jim. I was a research assistant for Professor Paul Anderson, beginning in the late 1940s at Washington State University. Professor Anderson, along with Professor Nottingham at MIT and Dr. Apgar at General Electric, are widely recognized as having achieved ultra-high vacuum pressures beginning as early as 1935, long before it became possible to make measurements down that low. I recall having to tend very fragile, all-glass systems, on which Professor Anderson was doing his work function work. I had to keep the acetone and dry ice traps filled, and I have often wondered, if I had broken one of those fragile systems, whether I would have perished in the acetone-fed flash fire or whether Anderson would have strangled me! I worked my way through school with jobs that involved one aspect of vacuum or another, so it was only natural that I went into vacuum work.

LAFFERTY: Dan, would you tell us something about your activities with the American Vacuum Society? I remember when I was President in 1967, you were Treasurer at that time, and you really completely reorganized the financial system of the society. I was thankful to have you there at that time to straighten out that mess. [Laughter]

BILLS: Yes, I set up the basis for the first accounting system that AVS had, and I understand parts of it are still in use. I reorganized the work of the AVS Standards Committee while I was Chairman, and I noted the other day that some of these standards still have the preamble that I wrote to precede each standard. Perhaps my biggest accomplishment was I won the argument to continue publishing the proceedings of the Annual Meeting such as we're having here. There were several very prominent AVS members and Officers who were very much opposed to continuing publishing these proceedings, and I argued that there was a great deal of very useful information that should be preserved, and fortunately I won the argument. I proposed hiring an executive secretary, which resulted in AVS hiring its first full-time employee, Nancy Hammond.

LAFFERTY: Well, when you were President, was there anything outstanding that happened that you remember during that period? Or did these things that you did occur before you were President? A lot of them did, I think.

BILLS: Yes. My year as President is kind of a blur; I don't remember accomplishing very much.

LAFFERTY: You taught physics for a while. Would you tell us a little bit about your experience as a teacher?

BILLS: Yes. I received an offer of $4,400 a year to teach physics at Washington State University. You can't refuse money like that. I'd obtained my B.S. and M.S. degrees there, and I taught physics for five years. The last year I received a dollar for my efforts. I think they finally recognized my true worth! Dr. Harold Winters, now retired from IBM Almaden Research Center, was one of my better graduate students. AVS recognized his accomplishments along with John Coburn two or three years ago1. I'm proud of Harold.

LAFFERTY: How did you come to establish Granville-Phillips, and how did that get started?

BILLS: Well, that's a good story. I was a research assistant for Professor Otto Oldenberg at Harvard University. He was chairman of the Department of Physics, and he had an Air Force contract that involved doing research with very pure gases. We bought several all-metal Alpert-type valves from Westinghouse and I put them on this very pure gas system and discovered that they actually met the specified leak rate, but the leak rate was way too high for our purposes. So I went on to develop what we called a type C valve (C for "confined") which sealed 10,000 times better than the Alpert valve. I had invaluable assistance from Professor Percy Bridgeman, who put me on to the secret of leak-tight sealing. He had used the same type of technique in achieving extremely high pressures in solids, for which he received the Nobel Prize2
Graduate students Daniel Granville Bills and Nathaniel Phillips Carlton pooled their wives' savings, $1450, and started Granville-Phillips to manufacture and market this type C valve. We had a number of close calls in the beginning. I recall my partner took the first ten valves we ever manufactured for commercial sale - he took them to Tracer Lab in Boston. Tracer Lab had the only leak detector we knew of in the area, and when he returned late that evening, I knew something was wrong by the look on his face. He told me all ten valves leaked, and there went our life savings, and how could I tell my wife that I'd blown it on the first go around? Well, the next day, I suggested he retest the valves because, on the basis of the few valves we'd made one at a time, it seemed inconceivable that all ten of them would leak. So he took them back down to Tracer Lab in Boston and leak tested them again, and fortunately all ten of them were leak-free. What happened was that it was summer time, and when the breezes came through the open window and blew the helium away from the big leak in the leak detector, everything passed, leakers or no, and when the breezes came the other way, the helium was sucked in through this large hole in the leak detector and they were rejecting all the day's production of Geiger-Mueller tubes, so they got their act together. They repaired the leak in the leak detector, and all of our ten valves passed leak test. That was a close call.

LAFFERTY: Was your company always in Boulder, or where did it start?

BILLS: No, we started under a walnut tree in Harvard Yard. We were out there brown-bagging it one day, and I said to my friend, Nat Carlton, Nathaniel Phillips Carlton, "Nat, we ought to sell these valves. They're much better than the Westinghouse valve." One thing led to another; we started to build the business in Cambridge and, when I graduated, I got this teaching job in Pullman, Washington and Carlton was only able to produce leakers, real leakers, after I left. So I was fortunate in buying the business very cheaply from him. [Chuckles] I moved it to Pullman and we started out there in an old theater building, an outdoor theater building. Then we decided the zoning laws in Pullman were not to our liking, and we moved to Boulder, Colorado.

LAFFERTY: Dan, in all of your experience, what are you most proud of, of all the things you've done?

BILLS: Well, I was a student of the late Dr. Shigeo Shingo. Shingo was a co-developer of the Toyota production system, which almost brought the U.S. auto industry to its knees for relatively poor quality. He taught us just-in-time production, stop the production line if a defect occurs, and eliminate all waste. As a result of his teachings, every employee, myself included, has enjoyed a bonus of at least 25% of base pay every payday for the past several years. And last winter for several months, it was about 32% of base pay. I'm proud of that.
LAFFERTY: That's great.

BILLS: I might mention that GPC [Granville-Phillips Company] would not exist today were it not for several books. One by Dushman and Lafferty3 - thank you Jim, for your contribution to Granville-Phillips.

LAFFERTY: Well, Dan, we have a third edition coming out next year. I'm just about ready to send in the manuscript for that. I'm looking forward to some time when I'll be part of this as well. So I hope the next edition will be as good as the last one.

BILLS: That's amazing that you're able to do that at this stage in your life. One of the books was by Paul Redhead4and another by Fred Rosebury5 of the MIT laboratory, and I've told others truthfully that it's easy to appear to be very tall when you can stand on the shoulders of a giant.

LAFFERTY: What do you consider to be the most important technical accomplishment, in addition to your business success?

BILLS: Well, I developed the first all-metal valve that sealed mass-spectrometer leak-tight after bake out. It's quite important that you add that "after bake out" because it's easy to make a metal seal that seals before bake out, relatively easy. I developed the first all-metal variable leak that sealed mass-spectrometer leak-tight and the first automatic pressure controller that sealed leak-tight. I conceived of and helped develop the first Browning gauge that had a range up to atmosphere. I conceived the first constant temperature liquid nitrogen trap that didn't regurgitate its trap contents as soon as the liquid nitrogen level began to fall. I conceived an electrostatic ion pump with very high pumping speed. I helped develop the first commercially available all-metal capacitance manometer. And I conceived of the first all-metal gate valve that actually worked. Predecessors, say those developed at Lawrence Livermore Labs for example, seized on bake-out and never worked after that. I helped develop a Bayard Alpert-type gauge with ten times better accuracy over the long term than any other gauge, and a bunch of smaller accomplishments.

LAFFERTY: Well, you know, things don't always go right. Sometimes we have our disappointments. What was your biggest disappointment?

BILLS: Well, as I said, I had helped conceive and develop this electrostatic ion pump, and it failed miserably. We had tested something over 100 of these units before we released it for sale, with good success, and when we put them out on the field, they failed in a 100 hours or so, much to our dismay, one after the other. They failed for exactly the same reason that shut down the U.S. receiving tube industry during World War II for two months. You can read about this in Kohl's book6. It took the receiving tube engineers two months to discover that, when the cathode was hooked up this way, with this polarity with respect to the heater, that the tubes worked well, and when they used the reverse polarity in the circuit, the tubes failed in a very short period of time. It took us two years to discover the same effect was troubling our electrostatic ion pump. We had made the test with the polarity between the heater and the sublimation material hooked up one way, and inadvertently the engineers, when they went to develop the commercial circuit, had reversed the polarity for no good reason. It was oxygen ion migration through the hot ceramic that was doing us in, and by then it was too late to recover and a huge disappointment. We'd invested many years in that. You can't win them all!

LAFFERTY: And what's the most exciting thing that's happened in your life so far?

BILLS: Well, one that I recall vividly is I flew 35 missions in B-17s - bomber missions - in World War II, and we were shot down on the seventh mission. As it turned out, that was the day we had to change planes. The original plane we were assigned to, the good old work horse, wasn't flying, so I got in another one, and that was the day I forgot my parachute. Fortunately, there was a spare parachute on board, or we wouldn't be having this conversation today, Jim!

LAFFERTY: Well, that's true. That was certainly exciting! I want to thank you for this interview and contributing to the AVS archives. I'm sure as time goes on, these things will become more valuable as the younger people read about the great men of the past. So thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

BILLS: Thanks, Jim. I appreciate it.

1. John Coburn & Harold Winters received the John A Thornton Award in 1993
2. Percy Bridgeman, Nobel Prize, 1946
3. Scientific Foundations of Vacuum Technique, 2nd ed. Saul Dushman, J.M. Lafferty (Ed), John Wiley & Sons, New York (1961)
4. The Physical Basis of Ultrahigh Vacuum , P.A. Redhead, J.P. Hobson & E.V. Kornelsen, Originally published by Chapman & Hall (London) (1968); AVS Classics, AIP Publication 1993
5. Handbook of Electron Tube and Vacuum Techniques , Fred Rosebury, Originally published by Addison-Wesley (1964); AVS Classics, AIP Publication 1993
6. Handbook of Materials and Techniques for Vacuum Devices, Walter H. Kohl, Originally published by Van Nostrand Reinhold (1967); AVS Classics, AIP Publication: 1993

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