AVS Historical Persons | James M. Lafferty - 2003

James M. Lafferty - 2003

Oral History Interview by James M. Lafferty

April 27, 2003
lafferty2.jpgI'm Jim Lafferty. I'm in my study in Schenectady, New York. The date is April the 27th, which incidentally happens to be my 87th birthday. The purpose of this video is to review my activities with the American Vacuum Society.

I first became actively involved with the AVS in 1962 when Don Santeler was President and asked me to fill the unexpired term of a member of the Board of Directors. I guess he thought I had an interest in vacuum because I had just finished revising a new edition of Sol Dushman's classic book "Scientific Foundations of Vacuum Technique," Incidentally, over 13,000 copies of this book were sold until it went out of print in the early1990s.

I found the AVS a young, interesting, aggressive organization and I stayed on the Board of Directors for three more years, serving as chairman of a number of committees. Then, in 1965, Will Matheson1 retired as the Secretary-Clerk of AVS and I became the new Secretary. 

By 1967, the AVS had grown to where it had over 3000 members and taking care of the membership activities had become a full time job. For this reason, I took my car and went over to Boston and picked up two file cabinets of Will Matheson's and took them to New York to the headquarters of the American Institute of Physics. We had become an affiliate of AIP by this time and they provided us with a full time secretary, Nancy Hammond. Later, she went back to Boston, to Will Matheson's house, and picked up some additional papers which she found under the bed and in the basement and various places in his house. 

In 1968, I was elected President2 of AVS. The 1960's were formative years for the society. If the Board of Directors had insisted on limiting the activities of the society to the production & measurement of vacuum, as some members wanted to do, it is doubtful if the society would be in existence today. At best it would have a greatly diminished level of activity. Fortunately, the Board of Directors formed new divisions to provide a home and support for these new disciplines which had benefited most from improved vacuum technology. These included3 the Vacuum Metallurgy Division, the Thin Film Division, the Surface Science Division, the Electronic Materials and Processing Division and a Fusion Technology Division. To keep the tail from wagging the dog that started all of this, the vacuum technologists, in self defense, formed their own Vacuum Technology Division. Three of these divisions were started during my administration.

Lafferty.JPGWhile President, it occurred to me that the AVS should establish an award to recognize and encourage outstanding theoretical and experimental research in vacuum science and related fields of interest to the divisions, I had in mind that the award would consist of a gold medal, a certificate and a monetary prize and that it would be called the Sol Dushman award in honor of the grand old man who, in 1949, published the classic book "Scientific Foundations of Vacuum Technique." But it turned out that financial support was not forthcoming from his institution. So I turned to the ARIES Institution for financial help through my friend Luther Preuss, a close friend of the Welch family. This approach was more successful and the institute provided funds to get the award started and the AVS later subsidized the fund with an endowment to ensure that the award would be given in perpetuity. The award was called the Medard W. Welch Award because Welch had been a close friend of the AVS, participating in its formation and later as its President. The first Welch award was given in 1970.

In 1972, when I was the Chairman of the Awards, Grants & Scholarships committee, I had the pleasure of presenting the third Welch Award to Kenneth Hickman. Not long after receiving the award, he approached me on establishing another major award for the AVS but he did not want to distract from the Welch Award. After long discussions on the subject, he decided that his award would be called a prize, the Gaede-Langmuir Prize, to distinguish it from the Welch Award. 

In addition to a $2,000 cash prize, there would be an antique silver plaque with the busts of Gaede & Langmuir facing each other from opposite sides. With tongue in cheek and a smile, he said "at last we have got these two great gentlemen together." What he was referring to, of course, was the feuding that went on between Gaede and Langmuir concerning the principles of operation of their vapor pumps; the Gaede diffusion pump and the Langmuir condensation pump. Hickman stipulated that his prize should be given only for single discoveries or inventions in the fields of interest to AVS and only when an outstanding candidate appeared, and in no case more often than once every two years. The first Prize was awarded in 1978. 

In 1970, when Ron Bunshah was AVS President, he asked me if I would serve as AVS counsellor to the IUVSTA, the International Union for Vacuum Science, Technique and Applications. I agreed to do this and served two terms as counsellor until 1977 when I was elected President-elect. This was the beginning of a nine year stint, three years as President-elect, three years as President, and three years as Immediate Past President.

When I became President, the Union was in deep financial trouble and on the verge of going bankrupt. At this time, the secretariat, that is the headquarters of the Union, was in London at the British Institute of Physics and a Mr. Walter had assumed the post of Executive Secretary. He had become carried away with his position and it got to the point where he had practically run the whole organization. With the additional help he had hired, he was setting agendas, recording and publishing minutes of practically all of the Union's activities. 

This we could not afford nor was it good for the Union. So, I closed the London secretariat at the end of 1980. I devised a decentralized structure for the secretariat, in which the President and the chairman of each standing committee, with the help of a secretary of their own choosing. would set the agenda of their meetings, and record, publish and distribute the minutes, This decentralized structure of the secretariat allowed the Union to operate within the budget based on the income that they received from the national member societies. The money it received from the triennial Congresses could be permanently invested and the income used for various projects.

Another thing I did when I was still President of the Union was to settle a complaint about the programming of the International Congresses. Prior to 1983, the organization of the International Vacuum Congress, including the agenda of papers presented, was almost entirely the responsibility of the host national society. The Union divisions were very unhappy about this and wanted a part in the selection of the papers to be presented. I asked Dr. de Segovia to devise a plan where the Union and the host national society would work together to organize the Congress and program. He and his committee devised a two-pillar structure involving the Union and the host national society that has worked well to this very day. 

When I was immediate Past President of the Union, the current President, Professor Antal, asked me if I would write a history of IUVSTA because it would be celebrating its 30th anniversary during its ninth triennium, in 1986.

I also edited a history of vacuum equipment as a part of their Visual Aids project. The thing that was unique about this publication, was that I got those people who were still living to write up a history of their invention, written in the first person over their signatures.

I wrote a history of the AVS and the IUVSTA in 1984 and presented a paper on the history of the AVS at its 40th anniversary in 1993.

Like many old members, I eventually wound up becoming a member of the History Committee. About 1990, the committee became interested in recording, and saving for posterity, video interviews of prominent personnel active in vacuum and associated technologies of interest to the society. This turned out to be a very expensive thing to do by professional photographers. Since I had a video camera, I offered to try taking some video interviews, So in 1990, I started taking interviews of past AVS Presidents, award winners, and prominent keynote speakers, including a future Nobel prizewinner of physics, Jack Kilby. Over the past 10 years, I have taken over 50 interviews. I now plan to put these on DVD disks for permanent storage and I hope that copies will be made for general viewing.

John Wiley & Sons, and others, had been after me for some time to publish a new edition of Dushman's book. I undertook this task and edited a 728 page book called "Foundations of Vacuum Science and Technology." This was published in 1998. So far, nearly 2000 copies have been sold. This new book had contributors, experts in their fields, from Europe, Canada, and the United States.

One of the most enjoyable activities that I got involved with was the People to People Citizens Ambassador program, founded by President Eisenhower. I was asked to be a delegation leader for several groups of vacuum scientists and engineers interested in vacuum science and technology. We made four trips in all: to Europe, New Zealand and Australia, Japan and China, and the Soviet Union, This was over a six year period, from 1984 to 1990. We visited laboratories all over the world. It was a very enjoyable experience.

In conclusion, I should say that vacuum technology was not really my main field of interest. I was a user of vacuum. My main field of interest was physical electronics. I did research in vacuum tubes, thermionic emission and gas discharge devices. Out of my laboratory at General Electric in Schenectady came such products as electrometer tubes, microwave oscillators, high power vacuum switches, triggered vacuum gaps, lanthanum hexaboride cathodes, multi vapor lamps and sinoidal electrical field electrodeless fluorescent lamps, 

However, at one point, I did become interested in measuring extreme ultra-high vacuum. I used a hot cathode magnetron configuration because it provided a long path for the electrons to travel before having ionizing collisions with the gas molecules. I quote from one of my papers.

"What I discovered was that it was possible to operate a hot cathode magnetron ionization gauge at low pressures in a low electron emission current mode, hitherto unexplored, and obtain stable operation with a linear relationship between ion current and gas pressure. By using emission currents in the micro-amp range or less rather than in the milli-amp range it was possible to obtain stable ion current outputs of the same order of magnitude as the Bayard-Alpert gauge and linear with gas pressures down to 10-14 Torr, 3 or 4 orders of magnitude below the operation range of the Bayard -Alpert gauge. Having electrons available for ionization of the gas from an independent thermionic source provided stable operation and instant start even down to the lowest pressures."

Well, this completes my story of my interactions with the American Vacuum Society. It has been a fun organization and I have enjoyed every moment of it. Thank you very much for listening.

1. Wilfrid G. Matheson was Clerk from 1961-1969
2. James Lafferty was President 1968-9
3. Vacuum Metallurgy Division was formed in 1961; Thin Film Division in 1964; Surface Science Division in 1969; Electronic Materials & Processing Division in 1978; the Fusion Technology Division was formed in 1980 and became the Plasma Science & Technology Division in 1987.

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