AVS Historical Persons | Mars Hablanian - 1991

Mars Hablanian - 1991

Oral History Interview with Mars Hablanian

Albert Nerken Award, 1987
Interviewed by Paul Redhead, Feb 11, 1991

PAUL REDHEAD: I'm Paul Redhead, and I have with me Mars Hablanian, who is going to talk about some of his past activities as part of the History Committee's project with the American Vacuum Society. Today is, I believe, the 11th of February, 1991. We're here in sunny Clearwater, avoiding the snows of the winter in the north. 

Mars Hablanian has been with the National Research Corporation, which then later became part of the Varian Company, I believe since you left college. Is that right, Mars?

hablanian.JPGMARS HABLANIAN: Yes, that was immediately from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1957. It was February, I think. It was immediately after I got my Master's degree in mechanical engineering. 

REDHEAD: Would you like to tell us something about the history of the National Research Corporation and what's happened to it since that day?

HABLANIAN: Many things have happened. The reason I chose National Research Corporation rather than some other company that I interviewed with was because I thought I would maintain my friends and connections at MIT, because the main building was right in the same area where the MIT campus was. So it happened that they interviewed me there, but sent me to a plant ten miles away in Newton. It was a bit of a disappointment, but they sent me to the equipment division. Later, that division was sold to Norton Company in 1963, I believe, and about six or seven years later to Varian Associates. 

REDHEAD: And you've been there all those years?

HABLANIAN: I've been with the basic company for 34 years, although it changed hands twice. 

REDHEAD: You at least must be familiar with many different styles of management by now.

HABLANIAN: Yes. Well, I got my management school in the company. It may be a terrible thing to say, but I saw management at very close quarters because I was sometimes part of it. What came to my mind occasionally thinking about the management in the old National Research Corporation as well as later is that when I was a youngster living in the Soviet Union, I was always puzzled about why certain things were happening in that country, particularly during the bad years of Stalin's regime. It took me observing the managers in our company to understand the mechanisms that create that kind of thing. So it was a lesson. It was almost a life lesson in addition to technology.

REDHEAD: I guess in the vacuum technology field, you were best known for your basic work on diffusion pumps. Would you like to tell us about how you got started?

HABLANIAN: It had an interesting beginning. Richard Morris, who was the founder of National Research Corporation, had connections to the American government in Washington. He was, I think, part of the Scientific Advisory Group that occasionally used to go there in various conferences, which were closed conferences. At one of them, he got advanced notice that space business was beginning. In other words, he got advance notice of the plans to send an American satellite into orbit. 

REDHEAD: What date would this have been, roughly?

HABLANIAN: This must have been in the summer of 1957. Yes, in the summertime. Probably in the middle of the summer. He was very quick about putting things together. When he returned from that conference—this was just before Russians sent the satellite into orbit—he immediately called the engineering department manager, or the R&D department manager, who was Andy Steinherz, who later became president of the American Vacuum Society. He demanded from him in one month a prototype of a 32-inch diffusion pump. This scared everybody, of course, in the engineering department because one month was too short a time. National Research Corporation had stopped making large pumps since the war was stopped because there was no demand for them. Some of the old-timers in the engineering department, in order to keep themselves away from this embarrassing project, refused to do it. So Steinherz, in desperation, called me into his office and made me the project engineer for this thing, and I'd never known anything about diffusion pumps. I had to learn quickly. 

We did have drawings of Leybold Company's large pumps because we had at the time an agreement with Leybold with some mutual product selling in Europe and here. So we had access to drawings. I looked at these drawings. I made some changes because I felt that that pump was rather anaemic in the sense of high throughput and high-pressure tolerance. So we changed some values. My involvement was not from knowledge of diffusion pumps but some peripheral knowledge of fluid mechanics, if you wish. 

We put the pump together in one month. We even gave up our vacation time. It was in July, I think. The pump performed reasonably well. There were a few faults, which were corrected later. This put our company into the space simulation business, because Morris was fast on his feet to demand that thing.
That was my first involvement. Ever since that project, I often thought how diffusion pumps should be designed. My real contribution, I think, to the art of the design, was this special pump that had a non-cylindrical body. In other words, it had a bulge in the top of the pump. 

REDHEAD: What led you to that concept?

HABLANIAN: It's very simple. I didn't think of it as an invention. I simply thought of it as a better design because it was quite obvious to me that the initial conductance limitation at the inlet of the pump—in other words, until the molecules had reached the jet where some sort of an interruption occurs, there's some distance from the top flange, so there's a conductance limit there of some sort. The bulge simply increased the conductance as well as elongated the engagement length between the jet and the incoming molecules. So it just looked like a better design.

REDHEAD: How much improvement did it give?

HABLANIAN: It depends on the design, but roughly it was 50% additional pumping speed. What was interesting, incidentally—which is probably a good lesson in history—is that nobody liked that design. Steinherz made fun of it because it had a funny shape. Some people immediately called it the "pregnant pump" and sort of made light of it. Art Landfors, who was our diffusion pump engineer designer, didn't like it because he said you really don't gain all that much. You increase the speed, but the cost will be probably higher because of that additional bulge. He didn't like it. Our product manager, who was a man who has been in the company a long time, his name was Sherwood Burnett (we used to call him Joe Burnett) didn't like it because I think he was afraid of the novelty and strangeness of it. Marketing departments are surprisingly conservative sometimes. They don't like new things, even though they should.

So the thing was abandoned. It was abandoned for that year. It was abandoned the next year when I proposed it again. It was not put on the program for three years. The way it ended up to be actually executed is that we had hired a new marketing manager whose name was Hamilton Binkherd from Harvard Business School experience, incidentally, and some other things he had done in his life. He was new to the vacuum business, didn't know much about it at all. He came to my office and said, "Mars, do you have any ideas for new products?" So I showed him that thing, which I had made in a beautiful three-dimensional sketch in an artistic sort of manner. He liked it instantly because he perceived product differentiation since he was a marketer. He went downstairs and demanded that it be put on the program. It was really an accidental involvement of Binkherd that realized that project. 

As a result of that project, we, I understand—I don't have precise numbers—ended up capturing two-thirds of the diffusion pump business in the United States. 

REDHEAD: Who had most of the rest of the business?

HABLANIAN: At the beginning, it was almost all CVC from Rochester. They're still of course in the business. But they have suffered greatly, I think, from that particular kind of advanced design that we came up with. We, of course, modernized the entire line of pumps. 

REDHEAD: At this meeting, Mars, you've been talking about turbo-molecular pumps. I know that you've had an interest and some involvement since your very early days in vacuum technology. Would you like to tell us about that?

HABLANIAN: That's another interesting story. That first week when I was in the company—and interestingly enough, I of course didn't know anything about vacuum technology. My specialty in school was totally different. I was educated formally in the business of metals processing for a variety of reasons, not because it was my primary love. As I came to the company, they had—apparently by Mr. Morris' involvement again—purchased from a small company in Florida whose name was Mr. Latham, a ten-stage axial flow compressor, which was designed for automotive supercharging purposes. It was $300 at the time, I remember. It was very nicely made. It was made of separate slices that were put together by four long bolts and had ten stages similar to things you see in front of aircraft jet engines, but small. It was about six-inches in diameter. 

The idea was simply to try it in vacuum and see what it will do. Of course, it leaks at every seal, and it was terrible as a vacuum device. But we ended up putting so much glyptal on the outside that most of the leaks were taken care of. We had some sort of a seal device on the driving side of the thing, which was okay for a few hours of running. It was driven by a belt at about 15,000-16,000 RPM. I was assigned the project of testing this. Because our transmission was so terribly bad, it really didn't last more than half a day. But we managed to produce a few points. 

Then what happened next is that Andy Steinherz came to me one day and said that there is an international meeting in Namur (it was 1958) and he wanted to publish his paper on it. I said, "You can't publish a paper with only four data points. It's embarrassing. What will my friends at MIT think of that?" I refused to do it. But he insisted that it should be written because the company should be represented at that meeting and so on. He twisted my arm, and he was my boss. So I ended up writing that paper. Ever since I thought of turbo-molecular pumps simply as a class of equipment. Again, my interest and my understanding of the device was not at all based on the molecular pumps as such as invented by Gaede and afterwards by other people, but simply as a turbo machinery that was simply moved from high pressure work to a lower pressure regime.

Interestingly enough, we quickly discovered without any theory whatsoever that in the molecular flow, it had very, very high pressure ratios compared to the normal high pressure work, by a factor of ten, perhaps. At the time, I had a vision, if you wish, of trying to design a pump that would go all the way to atmosphere, even then.

REDHEAD: Could you remind us whether the pump that was developed at Pfeiffer had been developed at this point? 

HABLANIAN: Becker at Pfeiffer introduced his pump in Germany, I believe, a few months before that. But he introduced the international sort of disclosure at the same meeting in Namur. Of course, he thought we were going into the pump business. But then I saw we had nothing of the kind prepared and we quickly abandoned that project because it was an expensive project and there was no commitment to it. So we designed a vacuum pump and simply didn't even try to put it into production. It just remained as a drawing.

But when I wrote a paper, I had a chapter at the end of it which had a schematic, kind of a conceptual display, how to go all the way to atmospheric pressure. What happened is that the reviewer—whoever he is, God rest his soul; I don't have any idea who he is—refused to accept that chapter because he said this was in the realm of the fantastic. So we removed that chapter. Interestingly enough, 20 years later Maurice at Alcatel actually designed a pump that went all the way to atmosphere. Today I think it's an entirely feasible thing to do. 

That's roughly the involvement that I have. Since our company has acquired turbo-molecular pump business in Italy, about five years ago, I think, from Elletrorava, I got involved in it again. 

REDHEAD: If memory serves me right, at some stage you were also involved in electron beam welding. How did that come about?

HABLANIAN: That was, again, originated by Andy Steinherz because he had heard about it in some magazine. He was a very quick sort of energetic person. You probably remember him very well about this. He ran into my office one day and said we're going to try electron beam welding. I said to him, "I don't even know what an electron is. I'm a mechanical engineer. I have no idea what you do with electrons." He said in a typical manner, "You're a smart fellow. Why don't you read a book?" [Laughs] So in despair, I went into the Pierce's book on electron optics, which I happened to have in the library, and tried to understand a little bit about physical electronics as to which way the ions move and which way the electrons move.

REDHEAD: This would have been the early ‘60s?

HABLANIAN: Probably. I'm not sure. Yes. Then I designed a simple gun using a filament for an emission inside of a large ceramic insulator, which we bought from U.S. Stoneware Company in Ohio. It did produce a beam. We did make some electronic beam welds and we sold a few machines for operation in welding. Then the business was again abandoned because at that time, Hamilton Standards acquired Zeiss Technology. They were so much ahead of us and had almost 60 employees from the very beginning. We just couldn't compete. 

REDHEAD: You've been involved in all sorts of operations with the American Vacuum Society and standards committees and so on. Maybe you might like to talk about some of the people you've been involved with and maybe some of the people that you were involved with in MIT, like Wayne Nottingham. Did you actually work with Wayne Nottingham when you were at MIT?

HABLANIAN: No. I knew Nottingham simply because he consulted for us for a short time with his version of the Alpert gauge. I traveled to MIT together with Andy, which I understand I always enjoyed because this was back in the school I was in. We visited his office. We met Chuck Crawford there, who subsequently started Kimball Physics Company. We wanted, actually, to hire Chuck on the spot, but he smiled very wisely and said no, he had other plans. I think he was smarter than we were at the time. 

But Nottingham was a very interesting person. One thing I remember about him that in the electron physical electronic conference that he used to run originally at MIT, he was absolutely vicious in questioning people. If he perceived a weakness in a man's presentation or knowledge as he presented his paper, Nottingham was absolutely without mercy. He would get up there on the stage and simply cut the man down; it was embarrassing to watch. I don't know whether he did it because of sincere passion of demonstrating the truth, or whether he actually disliked people who talked about something that he didn't know enough about. I'm not sure. But that's how I remember him. He occasionally appeared almost humorless because he was so deeply, passionately involved in the discussion. He was also a wine fancier. He used to come to France and buy wine almost every season.

REDHEAD: He also had a ski resort, didn't he? 

HABLANIAN: I'm not sure, but it's possible. I don't know. 

REDHEAD: Any other acquaintances and colleagues of yours over the years that you would like to comment on? 

HABLANIAN: Well, I got involved in the Vacuum Society again because of Andy Steinherz, because he was Chairman of the Standards Committee for a while. I think after him, it was Albert Nerken for a while. When Nerken wanted to retire, Andy urged me to get involved. I remember traveling and seeing Nerken in his office in the New York area. I think it was in the days of Dorothy Hoffman that I took over the Standards Committee, when she was the President; yes. She asked me first to do the advertising business, but I didn't feel comfortable with that, so I took the Standards Committee. I met Al Nerken. At the time, I didn't know him well then. I learned about him much more when we went together to the Peoples to People program of the American Vacuum Delegation that traveled in Europe.

REDHEAD: When was that?

HABLANIAN: Oh, about four years ago, I would say it was. I found Nerken to be a rather interesting person that had some interesting philanthropic ideas as well as real involvement, in addition to that.in technology. It was interesting that three years later, I think I was given the Nerken Award. I acknowledged that during receiving of the award. 

REDHEAD: Another name that you've mentioned several times, and which personally we both knew very well, was Andy Steinherz. 

HABLANIAN: I mentioned Andy several times, yes, because he was my supervisor for a number of years. I have to give Andy a credit in retrospect for two things. One is that he was a very technologically minded manager. In other words, he took care of the library personally. He almost single-handedly established the technical library in the Equipment Division, not in the Research Division that was in Cambridge, NRC. He read every magazine and every paper and designated the particular articles for reprint files under certain subject classifications. He brought into the company some technically minded people and established an R&D Department in the Equipment Division independent from the Research Division of the company. 

Another thing I would give him credit for is that he was a very energetic manager, administrator, if you wish, who was very good in following up in creating a sort of a lively atmosphere so that people actually worked for the project because they got involved in it, and not because they were expecting some sort of an increase during the management review. I think it was a sort of a lively, vivacious sort of way Andy had about him. 

He was not terribly popular, actually, particularly with draftsmen and technicians. But I think he did inspire engineers to do some work. That was a contribution. 

REDHEAD: Thank you very much, Mars. I think we greatly appreciate your taking this time to touch on some of the areas that you've made contributions to vacuum technology. 

HABLANIAN: Thank you too for your patience and Mr. Lafferty for his photography. I enjoyed my involvement with American Vacuum Society, and one of this is this one.

return to top