AVS Historical Persons | Lewis T. Hull - 1992

Lewis T. Hull - 1992

Oral History Interview with Lewis T. Hull

Interviewed by Dick Denton, February 4, 1992
DENTON: Here we are on February 4, 1992. I am Dick Denton. I am a member and former officer of the American Vacuum Society. I'm sitting here with Lew Hull, who has even greater credentials at the AVS than I do. I might say that Lew and I both went to MIT and took chemical engineering. I was two years ahead of him. I think the first time I saw him was when I was getting 50 cents an hour in my junior year to monitor and help the people in the lab to do experiments. If I saw him then, I didn't really know who he was going to be, so obviously I didn't have too much to do with him. But then the next time I met him was back around 1951 when he was working in the vacuum division of the Stokes Corporation. I guess at that time I was in business in vacuum myself. So how did you get from MIT to the vacuum industry?

hull.JPGHULL: Well, I think MIT was a good background for both of us. At MIT, perhaps you were involved in the selection of favorite professors and having dinner with them?

DENTON: No, I never - I took a Master's degree in economics and engineering. Freeman, a very famous economist, used to take this little group in their graduate year to dinner. But that was the only meal I ever received from an MIT professor (laughs). But you were apparently involved in something like this.

HULL: Yes. We had a scheme where a group of fellows could get together and invite one of the teachers who was appealing and kind of pick their brains. There was a fellow named Vannevar Bush that we all thought was pretty good.

DENTON: Oh, yes, I remember him!

HULL: We had several dinners with him. I thought he was a great guy. I remember at one of the dinners, I asked him what his ambition in life was. He said, "Well, I want to retire to Vermont and raise turkeys." So of course, he went on and headed MIT after a while and also became the head of the science division for the U.S. government in Washington.

DENTON: During World War II, wasn't that?

HULL: During World War II, exactly. Anyway, I thought he was great. But when I got through college, I managed to get a job with the Stokes Company.

DENTON: Right out of college in '38?

HULL: Right out of college in '38. They were doing some interesting things in vacuum-not the 10-10 or -12 [Torr], but ordinary vacuum things, vacuum drying and vacuum impregnating and all kinds of vacuum things which were intriguing. We made a lot of equipment. I was there for 14 years while working with them and wound up as head of the vacuum equipment division. 

It seemed to me we were doing things in a very difficult way. We had kind of a fancy factory and we made a lot of elaborate drawings, but then we'd only ship one or two machines and then make a new design. So I said to my boss, who was the vice-president, "I think we ought to move out in the country, get a dirt floor, and don't make elaborate drawings, just sketches. We'll build the things and they'll last for 30 years anyway. So if somebody needs a part, we'll manage that somehow." But he didn't think that was good, and I thought it was good. He checked with the president and the president didn't think it was good. So finally I said, "I still think it's good." My boss said, "Well, why don't you try it then?" I said, "All right. I quit." 
I went home and told my wife that I had quit my job [laughs], and she said, "What are we going to do now?" I said, "Well, let's start something." So we started a thing called Hull Corporation. We had a lot of struggles. I found after we got started that you needed a fancy floor and no dirt floor, and you needed a lot of drawings. So I was wrong on both counts, but I never told the Stokes Company that. 

DENTON: [Laughs] I'll keep it secret.

HULL: Anyway, it worked out okay and we've had a lot of fun over the years. But while at Stokes, we had World War II, of course. I was working with the War Production Board. Arthur Beach and I and Arthur's uncle, who I think ran Beach at the time, were meeting with the War Production Board regularly and allocating vacuum pumps to different projects-magnesium and various things. That was a lot of fun to see how the mechanism worked in Washington. It was fairly good, I thought. 

But at Stokes, we launched a vacuum pump program and developed a line of vacuum pumps while I was there and stopped selling our Type-K vacuum pump, which was really the Kinney vacuum pump. It got promoted as Type-K. No, the design that we came up with was quite different and worked all right. 

But during the War Production Board effort, there was something about a Manhattan Project. Nobody knew what it was, but it seemed important. So we got involved in that, and they ordered a bunch of vacuum pumps. But the problem was they wanted to have an inorganic lubricant for the pump because they said there were some gasses that might react with the oil. We set up pumps and we were trying things. Then they shipped in some inorganic oil. We began to feel it might be important because the oil arrived in a pickup truck with two armed guards with pistols on their hips and unloaded one 55-gallon drum! They said it was worth $10,000 a gallon, which impressed us in those days. One of them lived, then, at the plant while we were doing the testing. So we knew it was fairly important!

About that time, I was drafted into the Army. I was ready to go for my induction the next morning, and I got a phone call the evening before, and the voice said, "This is General Hershey," who was in charge of all drafting, I guess. I said, "Okay, who is it really?" He said, "This is General Hershey." He said, "You're not to be drafted." I said, "Well, it's a little late for that. I'm going to be at the induction office at eight in the morning." He said, "You're not to be drafted. You go there. Stand outside the room and wait till the phone rings, and then go in." So I did that, and sure enough he called, and they sent me home. I didn't know what it was all about. 

Later on, we were installing these pumps down in Tennessee at a place called Oak Ridge, which didn't mean anything to me. I was commuting down there. I'd go down Sunday night by train, and we'd fuss around in building Y-12, which was just an enormous thing, and always had an escort to get down to Y-12. So I was walking down one morning with a young Army man, a guide and escort, and suddenly we heard a loud "Halt!" I stopped and looked around, and I was looking into the muzzle of a rifle. He said, "Didn't you hear me yell 'halt' before?" We said, "No. We didn't hear you." He said, "One more step and you'd have had a hole in you." Which was impressive!

Anyway, we worked on that project. I couldn't figure out what was going on. On one trip back to Philadelphia on a Friday night on the train, it suddenly dawned on me what they were doing. The next morning they set off the first atomic bomb at White Sands, New Mexico. Then of course it was all-it shortened the war somewhat. But that was a lot of fun.

DENTON: You didn't know about that going off at that time did you? 

HULL: No, indeed. 

DENTON: It was not until after Tokyo or after Hiroshima, I guess.

HULL: But on that Friday when I was down there and it dawned on me, there were a bunch of high-ranking military people with the ham and eggs and things. I knew something must be happening. But no, that was a very well-kept secret and involved a lot of people.

DENTON: I made some trips to the arsenal, not to Oak Ridge, but down south. It used to absolutely kill me because I'm allergic to sulfur dioxide. These trains were burning soft coal and you would get the sulfur dioxide all over the place and the rotten egg smell always in the upper berth because that's all the government could afford so far [laughs]. So I feel for your traveling problems. I didn't go that often, you know, maybe every six months. But you probably went every week or something.

HULL: I went every other week and spent the week there. But at Stokes, we had a lot of fun. We were involved in the early days of freeze-drying for pharmaceuticals and biologicals. We had a fellow named Dr. Earl Flossdorf who worked with us. He was a real character. 

DENTON: He was very bright.

HULL: Very bright. He did a lot of good work and wrote books and things. One day we discussed the possibility of freeze-drying the King of England, who had just died. So we wrote to the British government and said that we would be glad to freeze-dry him for nothing if they would ship him over. But they took a dim view of that. They didn't really think that would be good! 

We were involved in the preparation of magnesium by sublimation and supplied several hundred vacuum pumps for that work. 

DENTON: Was that some place up in Connecticut that you were doing that?

HULL: Well, they had about a dozen plants around the country doing it. This was before the bomber wings and things like that. 
Having left Stokes and starting Hull Corporation, I found there was a little more to a business than just engineering and such things. I didn't know what a balance sheet was or what a profit and loss statement meant. I learned fairly quickly on that while we were eating beans at home. But that went well. 

I did have the privilege of getting to know von Braun, the German rocket man that came over here after the war. He really, I guess, left before he should have, according to the Germans. But he was a wonderful asset for us in this country. He did a super job.

DENTON: Oh yes. Dr. Hass came at the same time. Never the publicity, but in a different field. He did a lot for us too.

HULL: Yes. We really owe a lot to the Germans for their work. But I think having started a business, just as you did, Dick, I think that it's good to encourage young people to get out and try something. Don't be afraid to take a chance. It'll be a lot of trouble, but it'll be worth it. I think you would concur with that.

DENTON: Do it while you're young, particularly. If it does fail, and a lot of them do-we didn't, fortunately-but if you're young enough, you can do something else.

HULL: Do it three or four times if you want to.

DENTON: One question I wanted to ask you. The Hull Corporation, besides vacuum, also makes molding presses. I don't know if you still do, but I know one little electronics company I've invested very profitably in, way back in the 1960s some time bought one of them to mold their little resistors in. Did that come after, or did you do that earlier? Did you do vacuum freeze-drying first in the company?

HULL: We did vacuum freeze-drying and other vacuum processes at first. We did anything where we could get an order. For many years we built fiberglass radomes for the South Pole. We built Arctic sleds in 1957 for hauling oil drums across the South Pole area-most anything. But in the early ‘60s, my brother, really, came up with the idea of encapsulating electronic parts in epoxy. The industry said that was stupid, that wouldn't work and moisture would get through, and it's just no good. But some crazy customer finally bought one, and it became the industry standard. We made several thousand encapsulation presses for Motorola and TRW and all the big companies. 

DENTON: I realize that's not exactly vacuum, but it is interesting, I think, that you have this other line of equipment. But we have four things, and it's very nice. They were all going well, but they're usually never all going bad, so one went down and the other went up.

HULL: I think that's a very good thing. If you're starting a business, try to get into more than one line before it's too late.

DENTON: Now, the first time I met you after MIT, I think I remember that was the 1951 meeting. I may have seen you around, but we didn't have AVS meetings then. But you became active, I think before I did, in the AVS. I believe that-though I'm not sure of that-but I believe that you had something to do with the 1959 AVS meeting in Philadelphia1. This, of course, was later than the organization meeting in 1953 in New York there. But when did you get mixed up with the Committee on Vacuum Techniques and so forth? It was after that meeting, obviously.

HULL: Yes. Well, I was one of the founding members of the Committee on Vacuum Techniques, which evolved into the American Vacuum Society, as you well know. So I really have had a long association with what is now the AVS. I think it's a wonderful organization and has done a lot to take ideas and move them into something useful. I think you have certainly shared in that in a big way. I think if that same procedure and philosophy can be picked up by the young people today, we can move ahead a long way and quickly. 

DENTON: I still remember something. Let's see, I got to be elected to the Director in 1959. But I have a feeling that somewhere-I don't remember who the chairmen of that meeting in Philadelphia were, but I thought you were quite active in setting it up. 

HULL: Yes. We organized that meeting and put it on. That was an experience in itself. But all of the work of the AVS has been a lot of fun. I believe I was a Director2 for ten years, at least, and then President in 1975 and have continued my association since then, but not as intensely. Jim Lafferty has been an inspiration to all of us. There were a lot of really wonderful people with whom we became associated. 

Ken Hickman, I'm sure all of us remember fondly. I remember he developed what he called a vapor booster pump. I remember sitting with him in his office up in Rochester. He had Distillation Products Incorporated, as I recall, which was sort of a part of Eastman Kodak. But he had a vine that went up one wall of his office and all the way across the ceiling and down. I said, "Why do you have that?" And he said, "Well, life is basically horizontal in nature. When we die, we fall over and we're horizontal." So he developed his vapor booster pumps horizontally. There were jets going horizontally, which seemed a little strange to me, but they worked very well [laughs]. Anyway, he was a lot of fun. 

I also did some work with Dr Urchin3 of Leybold. I think that he was certainly active here for some years.

DENTON: Even some of his work was in degassing metals and stuff like that.

HULL: Yes. He was in charge of Leybold's process equipment-not the pumps, but the systems-and did very well. He spent a lot of time in the U.S. At one time, we were his manufacturing licensee for their processor equipment, but we never did a lot with that. But we worked with Edwards closely. I think the whole international cooperation is well exemplified in the vacuum field. There's a lot of cross-pollination.

DENTON: Yes. There are a lot of patents in anything, but I think there's a lot less secrecy than there is in many other industries. Of course, if you design a new piece of equipment you have to sell it, and then people can see it. But there does seem to be a great deal of information released by the large companies at the various AVS and international meetings. More so than some people, I think.

HULL: Yes. Well, I think the AVS and the IUVSTA both encourage cooperation between industrial companies, academia, and individual scientists, both nationally and internationally. I think that's a very good feature of the organization. 

DENTON: I remember Tom Scatchard, that I interviewed yesterday, laughing about 1959. We got something from Russia and it was pretty Cold War; you know, you didn't get much. They came out with some kind of article in which they-this was describing, I think, vacuum gauges, they mentioned-- Well they had a gamut of about the same vacuum gauges; maybe not an Alphatron, but that we use in this country. And each vacuum gauge told what the accuracy they felt the vacuum gauge had, which was plus or minus 35-50%. And Tom Scatchard saw that and laughed. He said, "Well, the Russians, they just make them and use them. It's all run by the government. They don't have to lie about them like manufacturers in the United States have to do." [Laughs]

HULL: A very good point. Oh, that's interesting! Well, I think the international part of the vacuum work has been very interesting to me. We started a subsidiary in Scotland in 1968, so that's been going now 24 years. We'd manufacture certain equipment there for Europe. Then we also started a joint venture in Tokyo. We have Whole Japan Limited, and we do some manufacturing over there. It has been a good excuse to wander around and see what the other countries are doing.

DENTON: You mentioned that this handles freeze-dry type of equipment? These other-- 

HULL: In Japan it's basically for freeze-drying. In Scotland, we have done some freeze-drying work, but most of it was in the presses and the molds. But I think that if I were starting a business today, I would want to see it become interested in reaching out into the foreign markets, the export markets, early in the game. I think you're doing quite a lot of work in other countries, aren't you, Dick?

DENTON: Well, we don't sell as much, but we do get some business from abroad. I set up a lot of reps for electron microscopes and little vacuum shadow casters years ago. The thing that kept us from doing more is that our line wasn't big enough to support anybody. So it all was tacked on to somebody selling an electron microscope or selling some expensive item like a centrifuge and multi-centrifuge. Over a number of years, all these guys lost their little line and then they couldn't afford to have the sales and technician people. That was an odd experience. But we do get a certain amount of business, and always have, from students in this country who come over-and more of them are staying now than used to-but they would go back and then buy our equipment for wherever they went to all over the world. So we've put stuff in a lot of places, as I imagine you have probably seen similar stuff. Your line goes from almost laboratory-size on up to pretty big?

HULL: Yes. We concentrate on the larger systems. And in the freeze-drying field, I believe that if you're anywhere in the world and you get an injection of a vaccine which has been freeze-dried, that you have a 50-50 chance of it having been processed on a Hull machine. We have more than half of the production systems that are installed in Japan and quite a bit more than half in the U.S.-maybe 60-70%. But in Europe, we're probably 10-20% because we have strong competition. We have done vacuum furnaces, some metallizing some time ago. We have not been active in that recently. 

But we're doing some interesting work now, which Jim Lafferty really got us involved in by taking us to China on a People-to-People excursion.

DENTON: I signed up for that, but I was not very well at that time. When I saw the schedule, I backed out of it. I didn't think I could start at seven in the morning and go on in Chinese until ten or eleven o'clock at night for a period of time.

HULL: It was a wonderful trip, but Jim got us up at four a.m., not seven. But we worked hard and made a lot of interesting contacts. This was 1986. Over there, I met some people in some of the factories that we went to and got talking with them about the possibility of exporting some of their vacuum pumps or doing a joint development in the vacuum pump field. We pursued that over the next few years with the help of one of the graduate student guides that Jim provided for us in China. He has remained a good friend for the last six years. We have contracts now with three Chinese vacuum pump manufacturers where we are the exclusive importer of their pumps. They have broad lines of pumps in anywhere from water-ring pumps up to vane pumps, rotary pumps. And they have pretty good diffusion pumps and some turbomolecular pumps available.

DENTON: I know you were selling some mechanical pumps. What's the biggest capacity? Do they go up to 500 CFM?

HULL: They have them available up to 1200 CFM. 

DENTON: Just the oil-seal pumps ?

HULL: The rotary pistons are oil-sealed and go up to the 1200. But then they also have a pretty good line of the blowers. And we've been working with them to make a few modifications, and we hope to have those on the market actively later this year. In China, it's interesting to me. They have become quite interested in freeze-drying. We put a couple of units in there through the United Nations about five years ago. Now they are buying bigger systems. In 1991, I think we shipped them five medium production systems totaling about three million dollars. They paid promptly, and everything was fine. We have a number of bigger ones that are in the process for '92. 

It was interesting to me that-We've had several delegations of the Chinese come over, and they have a problem with childhood deaths. That's a very common thing. They're losing a million children a year to measles, which is, of course, a disease that we have eliminated in this country. I think it's great that one of their goals nationally is to reduce childhood mortality. But I said to one of the delegation leaders, "I think that's a wonderful thing. But one of your biggest problems, I understand, is overpopulation. With 1.2 billion people, you're adding to the population by saving children, which is great from a humanitarian standpoint." He said, "Well, it's not really a humanitarian effort. It's economic." I said, "How's that?" He said, "Well, when a woman has a child, she's out of the workforce for a year or two. If that child dies and she has another one, then she's out for another year or two. So we're keeping people working by saving the children, since they can only have one anyway," one total. Anyway, that was an interesting insight into the Chinese thinking.

But I think China will take over the Far East leadership and displace Japan. Japan is being displaced now by Korea. I think China will take it away from Korea and others. But I think the vacuum field has been a wonderful area to work in for many years, and I'm delighted to have been able to work with people like you, Dick. 

DENTON: Likewise. I've certainly been happy with you and the others I've been able to associate with in the vacuum field, too. It's certainly changed from the 1953 meeting. Now we have like 6,000 people, a very well-regarded journal, which I think is still refereed by volunteer work, I believe. Isn't it?

HULL: I believe that's true.

DENTON: It's getting to be quite a tome! Vacuum fingers reach out in so many directions, it's getting like the electron microscope society when there were so many biological and physical fields there that literally they have a lot of small groups and all that talk there because it's all held together by the instrument. But many groups don't know what the other ones are talking about. And I think that we're held together by the vacuum and the pumps and so forth, but then you get into surface science and then you get into the semiconductor field. Why, it really is amazing, and yet it's very rewarding, I think, to think we had a part in it and they still need us [laughs]. They still need the equipment. 

HULL: Yes. That's good. I remember being concerned at one stage about having the organization called the American Vacuum Society. It seemed too broad, too generic. It would be like having the American Temperature Society, the American Pressure Society. I was promoting some kind of a change in name or something, but I think that has simmered down-in my mind, anyway-and I'm very happy with the American Vacuum Society. 
The applications continue to broaden, and I was interested in the article posted on the bulletin board downstairs where they're using vacuum to pull prairie dogs out of their holes in the West. Did you see that?

DENTON: No, I didn't see it. But my wife saw it and told me about it.

HULL: They apparently put some kind of a cup over the hole and pump the prairie dogs up through a four-inch tube and into a holding chamber, and then they can take them away so they're not hurt. And the fields are then available for farming or whatever other uses they may have without damaging the prairie dog. 

DENTON: In the report I heard, did you know that he converted an existing piece of apparatus to do that? According to my wife. 

HULL: Yes. It included a septic tank, I think, as the holding chamber.

DENTON: Well, it was something that was used to clean out septic tanks. [Laughs] Very unique.

HULL: Very ingenious. Well, I hope we'll have another 40 years of association, Dick, or 50 years. I think with the AVS, we will have a continuing thread of association or a rope of association as we go along. 

1 Hull chaired the Local Arrangements Committee for the 6th AVS National Symposium, in Philadelphia, in 1959
2. Hull was a Director for 1956-8 and 1969-70
3. Spelling of name is uncertain

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