AVS Historical Persons | Don Santeler - 1986

Don Santeler - 1986

Oral History Interview with Don Santeler

[The Albert Nerken Award was presented to Don Santeler in 1986]
Interviewed by Collin Alexander, February 3, 1992

ALEXANDER: Hello. I'm Collin Alexander, a founding member of the Committee on Vacuum Techniques, which is now the American Vacuum Society. As part of the Society's Historical Archives Series, today I will be talking with Dr. Don Santeler, who also is a founding member of the Committee on Vacuum Techniques. Presently it is February 3, 1992, and we're at the Clearwater Beach meeting of the Florida Chapter of the AVS. I'm sure most of you who have been concerned with vacuum are well aware of Dr. Santeler's work. But we're going to cover some of these. To start with, Don, what was your educational background that got you into this business?

santeler.jpgSANTELER: Like most of us, it wasn't the educational background that got me into it. My education, however, was from Ohio State University with a degree of Bachelor of Engineering in Engineering Physics. But mostly what got me into it was the early first job that I ended up with at General Electric Company in the Instrument Laboratory. The very first assignment was involved in making some special instrumentation and equipment for the hydrogen enrichment program, the tritium enrichment program. In that particular aspect, we had to develop new instrumentation. We developed some new ionization gauges back at a period of time when new ionization gauges were not sort of a popular thing. We also developed some mercury diffusion pumps, both Toepler pumps and Sprengel pumps. 

The unique thing about this particular first system that I was involved in was it was all made out of stainless steel. Everything was remotely operated, so we had to have coils that could sense the presence of mercury inside of stainless steel tubing in order to measure the level of mercury in a monometer and measure and operate a regular McLeod gauge and operate the Toepler pumps. This got us involved in some of the early days of welding in a vacuum, the ideas of tungsten inert-gas welding and the problems of fits, temperatures, cleanliness, powers-the same sort of problems that you went through in those same early days of welding. So we developed our own particular unique techniques for welding. 

As a part of this period of time, it became not just a matter of finding new ways to solve the instrumentation problems that all of us were working on sort of in parallel, but it was also a period of development of a lot of interesting personal relationships with people throughout the American Vacuum Society going to the technical meetings. So in essence, this was a period of my beginning learning. At General Electric Company, the very, very first thing that I got involved in after being involved in this hydrogen-enrichment program was I received a promotion to take over the vacuum and hermetics systems engineering unit. The very first assignment I got in that was essentially to set up a laboratory of engineers, technicians, and to advance the state of the art in vacuum so it would be universally usable to the other people in the General Electric Company.

ALEXANDER: Was this the phase which many people called the Black Art, and you tried to make a science of it? Or how did this work?

SANTELER: It was black art when we all were in it in those early days. But essentially the assignment that I was given was to try to reduce this black art to something that made engineering sense. To take the art, put it into something that could be represented in mathematics or in physics, and then to communicate it. In those days, I think the biggest function that I had was really that of communication. I would go to different operating departments of General Electric Company and find out what they were doing, pick their brains, and then go to another part of the company and spread my brains and what I'd learned from them all around so the people were sharing it.

ALEXANDER: So you're telling me this wasn't just a technical problem, it was a people problem?

SANTELER: It was definitely a people problem in the early days because nobody really-- everybody had a little bit of knowledge about many things, and very few people had that many books around. Very few people had the complete background that most people have today that are working in the vacuum. So communications was a very serious problem that we all had to face. My particular method of communication or the way that I was signed into the project was to go and travel around the country to different operating departments of General Electric Company. At that time, General Electric Company was probably the world's largest user of vacuum, excluding the military and the government agencies. They were involved in cellulose dehydration, worrying about capacitors, transformers. They were worrying about lamps, radio tubes, receiving tubes, the manufacture of these things, little tiny components of relays and resistors. Anything at all that could involve a vacuum, GE had some degree of interest in it. 

So as I say, my function was to communicate, to pick the brains of all the good vacuum people that existed at General Electric at that time, learn from them, and then try to communicate. We would hold symposiums at our central laboratory and invite people from all around. Sometimes we would just bring out problems at a particular operating department. If it had a problem, I'd bring it back home to my group of engineers and assign it to somebody to solve. So we got involved in such things as developing advanced helium lab mass spectrometer leak detectors. There was a threat of a helium shortage, so we developed an argon mass spectrometer for leak detection. This was part of the kinds of work that we were involved in, to develop new techniques to solve engineering problems.

ALEXANDER: How long did this type of operation of yours in communicating and bringing back information last?

SANTELER: This was a period of about 13 years, which was really a liberal education. Right at the very end, one of the most important jobs I was involved in was the development of space simulation techniques. We needed methods to pump, so we developed cryogenic pumps, large panel areas. GE was interested in having a space chamber that they could put an entire vehicle in. This vehicle had tremendous outgassing, as everybody in vacuum today is well aware. The problem was to how to handle it. There are two ways to get high vacuum. You either get everything outgassed, or you go in and just overwhelm it by pumping with very, very high pumping speeds. The space simulation business was not one of ultra-high vacuum by getting things outgassed, because we had to deal with men wandering around in space suits that were outgassing. We had to worry about almost unbelievable amounts of contamination and dirt that are evolving gasses out into the vacuum system. 

So the solution was gross pump it with large area liquid nitrogen panels. Then we developed the techniques to have what we called hidden-panel pumping. You would have a liquid nitrogen panel that would be looking at the very dirty, high thermal radiating-on item. And behind these liquid nitrogen panels-which were fairly cheap refrigeration-we would hide 20-degree K cryogenic panels. These 20-degree K panels produced millions of liters per second of pumping speed for things like nitrogen, oxygen-in fact, everything but hydrogen, helium, and neon. We still had to worry about pumping these-hydrogen, helium, and neon-but the fortunate thing was there's a very small quantity of these three gases, and we could pick those up with good old common, ancient oil diffusion pumps. So the technology of that period of time was oil diffusion pumps and lots and lots of liquid nitrogen panel pumping water, because water is by far our biggest gas source. 

ALEXANDER: After you got all these pumping problems taken care of, you had to first design the system and corporately have it manufactured and then set it up and get it in operation, I gather. 

SANTELER: That's right. It was not just the theory of the thing. It was the practical experience of getting the pump and the entire chambers built. GE is an example. It was only one of the many people in the field at that time. We had 339-foot diameter chambers. We had this one 35-foot diameter by 54-foot high vacuum chamber.

ALEXANDER: That's a pretty good size. 

SANTELER: They're really big. 

ALEXANDER: That's a piece of hardware!

SANTELER: And millions and millions of liters per second of pumping, both with 20-degree K panels and with liquid nitrogen, which even had higher pumping speeds. 

ALEXANDER: So with this as your modus operandi, you developed this for the space program and then after that was over, what did you get into?

SANTELER: Sometime in the early days with GE, I got involved with the American Vacuum Society. With them, it was a matter of-we got involved in the Standards Committee work for a while. I was Chairman of the Standards Committee. We also got involved in teaching. This was interesting. I enjoyed teaching, so I found it fun to work with the American Vacuum Society as one of the many, many lecturers they have on various courses. 

In a spin-off, I guess what happened to me, really, was the contacts and people that I met with the GE leading into Aerovac Corporation and the space chamber business led us into starting this company called Aerovac Corporation, in which we manufactured-became, instead of a resource-type of a man, I got involved in manufacturing. I operated as manager of engineering and then later as manager of manufacturing. We built various hardware, ultra-high vacuum chambers, gauge calibration systems. This was an additional kind of experience. Instead of being a consumer or user of vacuum equipment, I became a fabricator of vacuum equipment. This lasted another ten years or so.

ALEXANDER: And this type of equipment is rather clean equipment compared to your space simulation, which was, may I quote, "dirty."

SANTELER: It's just exactly the opposite. The space innovation chambers were dirty, and we got good vacuum by just gross pumping, pumping like mad to overwhelm the high amount of outgassing. But the ultra-high vacuum business, this was building stainless steel chambers for various research applications. People wanted cheap vacuums down to the level of -12, -13, and -14 [Torr]. Surprisingly, we built these kinds of chambers using oil diffusion pumps, but extremely well trapped oil diffusion pumps, because we didn't want the hydrocarbons and the other gas sources that are prevailing in the presence of an oil diffusion pumps. So we had high temperature bake-out, all stainless steel, polished stainless steel vessels. 
This was sort of a different field, again. Again, it involved not just knowing the technology-and I think this is one of the most important things to this whole development phase-it was the knowledge and the understanding of the technology so it could be brought to practical reality. We had to worry about developing new techniques and also communicating these techniques. This was both within GE and then also when we were running Aerovac Corporation, it became a problem of worrying about educating the customers. Many of our customers were the government agencies. 

ALEXANDER: Was the education of the customers considerably different than the educational problems you had at GE when you were dealing with all these other plants?

SANTELER: Mostly it was just a different group of people and a change in what we were trying to educate. In the earliest days, it was just trying to make people realize that outgassing is a major problem, that there are limitations on different kinds of pumps. Then the education moved over to trying to find out the limitations of things like gauges. What can you do to advance the ultimate vacuum of the level of the vacuum chamber? We worried about how do you trap the oil out of the diffusion pumps? And we tried experimenting with-like many of the other people in all the new modern techniques of gauging and instrumentation, we'd play with ion pumps and cryogenic pumps. 

But I found, essentially, that if you know the limitation of whatever pump you have or are forced to use or whatever the customer wants, you can get the same good ultra-high vacuum with almost any kind of pump. The problem, again, is understanding the limitations, knowing why you have difficulty. What are the limitations of the system? And then overcoming those limitations, either by bake-out or gross pumping.

ALEXANDER: That depends on what you're trying to pump, to a certain extent. 

SANTELER: It depends an awful lot upon why you want to get to some low pressure. Everybody has a different idea. People start out thinking they want a very ultra-high vacuum, but when the practicality of it comes down, they really don't need it. And after they find out that it costs money to get the ultra-high vacuum, they're not willing to pay for it. Today's technology says you can have almost any pressure level that you want if you're willing to pay for it. And you can do it with almost any kind of pump. There's nothing sacred about the cryogenic pumps or turbomolecular pumps, although an awful lot of the education I see that's missing is today's new engineers just coming on the scene. 

ALEXANDER: Since General Electric was deeply involved in the early days with vacuum and its use, you would suspect that they might go into the equipment manufacturing business. Did they do that?

SANTELER: Well, they sure did. They sort of went into it two different times. First of all, they thought that there was a market for it, particularly during the space simulation business. They had built their own big space chamber, and they thought there may be a need for other big, large space chambers. So GE was selling their services, in a manner of speaking, to try to get involved in the space simulation business. There were actually several operating departments in GE that had expressed an interest in this particular business. GE, at the headquarters, decided that maybe this is a future. So they set up a study team to try to find out should GE go into the vacuum business? The answer came back from the study team, "Yes. That's a good business opportunity and GE should enter into it." 

About that time, after the study team reported favorably, then they started thinking about how they would do it. All of a sudden, things got very, very cool. While we had spent this time trying to get them involved in it, we suddenly found out that they weren't going to put up any money. There was no more money available from headquarters in New York. Hence, if somebody can get into it for free, easy, then GE would go ahead and approach it that way. But there wasn't enough driving motivation. There wasn't an immediate financial return. In those days, the vacuum business wasn't that big a total sales volume, and it's not the sort of thing that a large company is prepared to risk a lot of money into. In fact, several companies looked at it at the same time. 

That was the time that myself and my partner, the guy that I was working with, decided that, gee, if it's not big enough for GE, maybe it's big enough for us. So we decided we'd have our own little study team. We went home and broke up the prospects of studying, deciding whether to get in the vacuum business, into two pieces. He looked at the marketing aspects and the business aspects, and I looked at the engineering, the technology, the people that were available, what we could hire, what would it take to put us in business. After a few weeks of study, we decided to get together and we reported back to each other favorably: this is a business opportunity for the two of us. 

So we started out. We said, well the first thing we've got to do is to tell GE that we're resigning. The next day we went down and informed our common manager that we were quitting and were giving them two weeks notice because we were leaving General Electric Company and starting our own vacuum business. At that point, we had no employees. We didn't even have a name for the company. We had no contracts. All we had was being out of work, the two of us. From that point on, it was an exciting period of time because we learned right away that with a big company no longer shielding us, if you simply needed a pencil you had to go down to the store to buy it. You couldn't go down to the Piggly Wiggly at GE. If we wanted to turn in a patent application, we couldn't just call in a patent attorney; we had to go and hire a patent attorney. So it was the beginning of a very educational period of time of learning how to run a company and cope with these little tiny problems like where do you get pencils and where do you get patent attorneys.

ALEXANDER: Now you've covered what the changes were between working for a large corporation and working for a small one, of which you were a major owner. How does the American Vacuum Society compare today with what it was like when you were president in 1962-63, some 30 years ago almost?

SANTELER: That was really an evolutionary process, as those of us that have lived in it are well familiar with it. Back in those days, we were a very small society. A meeting would only be a few hundred people. You got to know everybody that was in the AVS, essentially. They'd be all personal friends. At first we had no divisions. The first division was the Thin Film Division1. And I remember in the early days, one of the concerns of the Board of Directors when we decided should we or should we not open up a door for the Thin Film, to take them under our wing so that they could have their own society, the concern was looking at how big vacuum technology was and how big the potential for thin films was. The concern was is the tail going to wag the dog? I think, as you know from the history that has gone by, it not only wagged the dog, it shook it all over the place. Now thin films are far, far bigger than the vacuum technology per se in the American Vacuum Society. 

But the interesting thing is that the thin film business was just sort of first in the spin-off of a bunch of divisions. We had the vacuum furnace division. We got involved in surface sciences. Essentially, the American Vacuum Society, which started out at a pure technology society for just vacuum technology-we were worried about pumps and gauges and outgassing and instrumentation-all of a sudden we became a general catchall society for almost any kind of a physical area that you can think of. If anybody had a need to start a society, they could come to the AVS and they could become an operating division. So today we have numerous operating divisions who are far bigger. We have larger symposiums. But I still yearn for the days when we were just a vacuum society. I'm a purist I'm afraid, Collin! 

ALEXANDER: But nevertheless, even though these seem to be oddballs, they all involve a high vacuum or an ultra-high vacuum of some form, shape, or manner.

SANTELER: Well, at least they have connection with high vacuum in some shape or manner. But some of the technologies and some of the operating divisions that we have really have very, very little connection with vacuum. I read the Journal2 and when I read their papers, I don't find very much in vacuum. Sometimes I can't even understand what they're talking about. We've grown up to become almost a physical society.

ALEXANDER: Now that you've told us about the American Vacuum Society, let's talk about yourself. You are now, I understand, in the consulting business?


ALEXANDER: Tell us about that. 

SANTELER: After leaving GE and forming Aerovac Corporation, Aerovac grew up to a period of time that somebody else decided they wanted us more than we wanted ourselves, so they offered to buy us out. This was High Voltage Engineering Corporation. I'm not sure exactly what they bought, but they seemed to be happy with the purchase. In any event, it left me free to do what I pleased, and I went out and decided I'd finish my education and got my doctorate degree. Then I needed to make a living. You can't live on what you've done in the past, and believe me, there wasn't that much profit involved in the sales. 

ALEXANDER: Especially if there's nothing there. You're trying to do-- 

SANTELER: That's right. We're working in vacuum, as you know. The one nice thing about vacuum, I think, is that if you're working for customers, the less they want, the more you charge them. Of course, that doesn't always quite work that way. But it's an attempt. 

In any event, while the whole development led to Aerovac and then Aerovac was sold, it left me free to pursue my education. And I came out, and I had nothing to do. So I'm looking at a way to make some money. I started a little small family business making some electronic devices, a thing called duplicore and a quadricore. You may not have ever heard about that; it has very little to do-nothing to do with vacuum, really. But also there was an opportunity to sell my services as a consultant. So I started working for a variety of many companies that you would know-instrument companies and pump companies-and was essentially peddling my brains to sell these services. 

In the course of that, it became essentially an operating business. I continued to work at home; I had my own office there. We would work on a contract basis to work on one of the large contracts. Very frequently, the contracts were involved in government agencies. One of the big things involved in that was the uranium enrichment business. We got involved there in consulting on new methods of leak detection, problems of how do you pump. We're talking one of the largest systems that would ever have been built, with 50,000 two-inch diameter diffusion pumps would have been involved in it, with millions of wells, tens of millions of O-rings, a vacuum system that would have been fantastic to have built. But we had a lot of fun researching it and developing the new techniques for it. 

A lot of this also led over into teaching at the American Vacuum Society. I think one of the most fascinating periods of that time was what got me involved in what I'm doing today, really, is moving away from the hardware aspects, and I got involved in gas-flow measurements. There was a big need for knowing what was going on in molecular flow and viscous flow and transition flow, and could we really solve these problems? So I spent a fair amount of my time developing new approaches to molecular flow and viscous flow. I wrote several papers. In fact, my current intent to put all these papers together and publish a book dealing with something like About Gas Flow in Vacuum Systems or some such title-wide-open to suggestions for new titles. 

ALEXANDER: Could I buy this from you?

SANTELER: Well, if I ever get the darn thing finished. But a part of this also, the development of this technique, was we developed some computer programs that essentially solved the problems. Because it's not that the problems can't be solved by a man, it's just that they're too damn large. The calculations are too long. If you want to calculate an entire vacuum system, you can spend hundreds and hundreds of hours calculating the flow through the system. So it's much easier to put these mundane sort of tasks to a computer and let it grind out all the answers.

ALEXANDER: But some of the old formulas are still good, but they're only good within 20-30%.

SANTELER: There's some limitations on the old formulas. So part of the problem of this period of time was developing corrected equations, corrected approaches to it, and trying to solidify it from an art. We're really back to the art technology area. Way back in the beginning, things were an art. It was an art fairly well understood by a small group of people, and a lot larger group thought they understood it. We're still at that same stage today. We still have a lot of art and we're still in the process of trying to develop that art into technology.

ALEXANDER: But what you have done in your computer programs is you've made it science with numbers on it that can describe it.

SANTELER: Something that any technician or engineer can plug numbers into a typical computer like working a word processor, and out comes the answers that you would like to have in terms of how do I design a vacuum system? How big should the pipes be? How much pumping speed do I have available? What's going to happen to the outgassing? How good a vacuum level can I get out of a particular system design?

ALEXANDER: You'd be willing to sell that to me if I would pay you?

SANTELER: Yes, but that's sort of a different application. Yes, we do sell it, but usually mostly what I'm selling is my engineering services and applying the consulting background that I have. 

ALEXANDER: Well, thank you ever so much. I think this is the conclusion of an outstanding gentleman that we've had an opportunity to know over these years and who has contributed greatly to vacuum and all the other processes that go with it. 

SANTELER: Thank you, Collin.
1. Vacuum Metallurgy was actually the first Division, followed by the Thin Film Division. Vacuum Metallurgy later changed its name to Surface Engineering Division.
2. Journal of Vacuum Science and Technology

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