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ITT fusor team tid-bits...The team was marginally a team.

Posted: Thu Dec 21, 2006 8:14 pm
by Richard Hull
With the passing of Gene Meeks, there are very few team members left alive today. Only three remain. Fred Haak, Steven Blaising and Robert Hirsch.
Update 2016: Fred Haak passed away in 2010. Only Steve and Bob now remain.

I remember when I first got busy on locating the team members. I figured that the moment I found one, I would find them all, but that was not the case. It seems that even though three or four of the team members still lived in Fort Wayne and its suburbs, none knew the others whereabouts!

My quest for team member's names was not difficult, as some of the primary researchers are mentioned in Pem Farnsworth's book "Distant Visions". Other team member's names were picked up as I met one or two team members who usually readily remembered all the names. However, none could help in locating any of the others beyond vague references to past whereabouts.

I was rather floored by this, especially for those still in Fort Wayne. As I would come to find out, there were deep divisions and cliques within the small band of never more than 8 people. These divisions existed right out to the end of the fusor effort and continued to dwell in the psyches of many. However, my big job was re-uniting them and with that, a lot of the petty divisions of the past melted away, though some apprehensions remained in a couple.

I have stated this before, but there were as many as three separate projects and little sub-teams in full flower within the tiny group over the span of the ITT fusor research. Egos, ideals, and modus operandi would clash from time to time. In order to avoid this on a daily basis and its negative effect on the effort, small 2-3 person groups who did mesh well would separate off. The bulk of the team would only join together for a test or meetings or group discussions. While rarely becoming noisy, and almost never visceral, this estrangement existed, nonetheless.

If I were forced to discuss this in a cold fashion I would look at things like this.......................

The "Admiral" (Rear Admiral Fredrick R. Furth, USN Retired) and Phil were kindred spirits in many ways. They shared the dream and hope of fusion together.

The Admiral spoke from Mount Olympus and all within earshot instantly became elbows and assholes doing precisely what he said. This was mostly out of respect, but certainly out of fear as well. "He be da' man". The Admiral was there in Fort Wayne regularly, but mostly, he was in and out of the New York ITT corporate office. Furth was a V.P. at ITT corporate. He had been the head of the Naval Research Laboratory, (NRL), the most prestigious of all the nation's military defense research labs.

Everyone on the Fort Wayne team were Phil Farnsworth's little adoring chicks and he, their mother hen. All dealt with Phil from a point of extreme respect, though most realized that Phil was somewhat disconnected and distant at times. Some noted that Phil could really "go hair-brained" at times and ask for the most bizarre actions. Indeed, a few noted that once they undertook Phil's task, he would most often either forget he had tasked them thus or would later tell them that his idea to have them do "such-and-so" was no longer viable. Phil had moved on in his head while ITT paid his chicks to do things he had already discarded, mentally. Still, to the man, they thought highly of Phil.

Gene Meeks summed it up best when he told me one time, "Hell, I knew that what Phil often asked of me was worthless and wouldn't go anywhere, but, hey, he was the boss and to take a chance he would forget, as he often did, was not worth a reprimand and, in general, not an option."

Likewise, Steve Blaising told me that Phil tasked him over a week and a half to make a special high voltage condenser. He had to secure silver sheeting and other difficult materials. Once assembled and tested, Steve delivered it to Phil's office and was thanked for the effort. The condenser sat right where he left it until Phil retired two years later. A bit frustrating, but, again, everyone loved Phil.

Phil's ideas on how to make a fusor were mostly tended to by George Bain, the project's director of engineering and Fred Haak. Fred was an engineer in the "tube lab" and a friend of George. Fred had become disenchanted with his work in the tube lab and was about to leave ITT, when in 1962, he agreed to allow George to go to Phil and ask that Fred be brought onto the fusion team as an expert in vacuum systems. Phil and the Admiral approved the lateral move in ITT for Fred. Fred noted that he enjoyed his time on the team as the work was always challenging and interesting.

In the early days, Gene Meeks was a general purpose technician for this effort. He got so good that once Robert Hirsch came to the effort as a fresh Phd, Gene sided with Hirsch as his assistant and technician. Hirsch would say to me in an interview that despite Gene's lack of a formal degree, he could design ion guns and wire up anything needed and was "the best pair of hands I have ever worked with". This is the finest complement you can give a master lab technician. Gene turned a lot of ideas into hardware.

By contrast, Gene Meeks and George Bain were like oil and water. George was a bit "tight-assed" having been raised up in the hard nosed, all business RCA labs in New Jersey, he came over to ITT in the 50's. Gene was taught a less formal style in dealing with management, having worked one-on-one with Phil at his State Street home and at the more family-like, Pontiac street facility in Fort Wayne.

George told me that he was somewhat relieved to see Gene move over to Bob Hirsch's effort in the "cave" fusor area. Still, Gene was of such value that he was not locked into any one project and worked when and where needed. Admittedly, and by Gene's own words, once he saw how George squirmed under his disdain, he just had to take light jabs from time to time. George noted to me that Gene was so "tight" with Phil that when he once reprimanded him in Phil's presence, Phil came to Gene's rescue. Once this happened, George said he was a little shy of playing the " Me, engineer-master - You, technicain-slave" role with Gene.

George did concede that Gene was the best tech there and could make most anything happen in spite of his obstinate way and disdain for properly constituted authority. George and Gene never saw each other after 1968 with the collapse of the Farnsworth fusor effort and, to my determination, didn't mind having it stay that way. They were just different people. Each was capable and could do their job well, just not all that well, together.

A couple of floating techs of marginal value were also part of the team, but didn't last even two years between them.

One splendid tech, Steven Blaising, was part time on the fusor team, being officially assigned to the instrument lab. Steve was soon found to be so valuable, he was soon re-assigned permanently to the team in 1965 when Phil allowed Gene to have his own personal fusor station and experimental area. Steve became Bob Hirsch's main, assigned technician by 1966. Again, all techs did what was asked and, in a crunch, might work on other projects within the group for short periods.

I would have to say that Steve and Gene supplied the most candid and free-wheeling of recollections. While my interviews with Bob Hirsch and George Bain, were very informative in a technical venue, they were somewhat guarded as related to personalities and such events that might not look favorable in the grand scheme of their past work. Fred Haak had had a stroke two years prior to my visit to Fort Wayne, but appeared in good spirits and fully recovered. However some of the memories he had were either gone or foggy, but he noted some were returning. Over the next 6 years Gene, Steve, and Fred talked with me in numerous phone interviews. Fred, especially, would call me when a memory of something unique popped back into his head. I, naturally, cross verified much of what was told to me by all by mentioning such instances to others who confirmed what was told and often added interesting side notes.

Thus, in the end there was................

1. The Admiral was the head of the whole shootin' match. He was the Overlord and money bringer due to his connections at ITT corporate HQ and had scientific knowledge and clout.

2. Phil worked very much alone by this time, up in his office. He was rarely involved with the day-to-day, in-the-lab grunt work, but still titular head of the team's scientific effort and always present at tests and conclaves of the team members.

3. George Bain and Fred Haak, turned Phil's ideas into testable devices in "The Pit" along with one or two less than stellar, though able, techs.

4. Bob Hirsch worked with a combination in and out of Gene and Steve to asisst him with the cave fusor.

5. Gene had his "Mark II prime" unit, near the end. He was allowed to perform independently as his spare time allowed during and after business hours.

There were others on the team such as the Phd mathematician that few could understand or justify ( a year or two at most), etc.

You can see it was a flexible, capable, yet cliquish team effort, at best.

Richard Hull

Re: ITT fusor team tid-bits...The team was marginally a team.

Posted: Fri Dec 22, 2006 1:19 pm
by Starfire
Thanks Richard for this remarkable and astitue insight to the human forces at play in the team. It is obvious that there must have been a unifying hand at the helm and ' people skills ' to maximise and coordinate the team output from such diverse personalities. A most interesting aspect not recorded elsewhere.

Perhaps there is hope for the forum group effort yet, but it just lacks leadership. :))

Re: ITT fusor team tid-bits...The team was marginally a team

Posted: Fri Dec 22, 2006 2:57 pm
by Richard Hull
Leadership! ....... Here?!........... Not needed, I would say.

The last thing a bunch of lone wolf science freaks are looking for is leadership........ Guidance and assistance?... Maybe. ......... A jump start?...Sure.

Teams that function well are in business and engineering. The reason the Farnsworth team splintered into little cliques was that it was a low man-count combinational scientific and engineering effort with a passive director, (Phil Farnsworth). Farnsworth knew that he already had good people. He just wound them up and let them go do their thing. The one thing you just can't control is personalities and, wisely, he never tried.

Sometimes in and among clever people a modified "Jeffersonian principle" works best. He who leads best, leads least.

The best such groups might need is a shepherd whose only job is to tend the flock and point them in a general direction. Never let the flock know you think of them as sheep, though.

Recognize and focus on the best of the lot, but congratulate all who accomplish by shining a light on them for others to see with each success.

Scientific people don't herd well using forceful intimidation. If they have had much psychology, they will recognize and spurn efforts at petty steering and obvious flattery. They know when they have done good and expect and accept recognition only to the point of an ego boost. They are always watchful for those seeking to push them. Some are so hyper-sensitized, that they can sense and recoil from the most gentle of nudges.

Let these guys alone. They'll do their thing no matter what and you might be pleasantly surprised with the result as they often realize that they must produce a real coup by being such an outsider.

Richard Hull

Re: ITT fusor team tid-bits...The team was marginally a team.

Posted: Fri Dec 22, 2006 9:44 pm
by DaveC
Yup, I agree, Richard. You are right on in your analysis.

That IS the way virtually all true R & D "teams" function. It is this way at the universities as well. The Advisor, guides the grad student, has him do chores for his own areas of research, expects his loyalty and support of the whole group, but his research sinks or swims based on its own soundness... and in the end the grad student himself is personally responsible for defending his Thesis.

So... this generally describes the fusion crew at ITT.. Probably, the real limitation, was in ITT expecting results too quickly. Which was probably Phil's doing initially, and then later the Admiral's work. They actually were now where near where they thought they were, at the edge of real sustainable fusion.

It is quite likely that more money and people at that time, would have produced more diversity, not greater progress.

The fracture of a main thrust in splinter groups, is normally the condition that indicates (to me) that a project is "information-limited", rather than "resource-limited". That is: The key information is not yet in hand.

I think this condition still remains at virtually every level of the fusion effort. The key, unifying experiment,,, whatever that might be, at any level or scale of activity - Govt, Industrial or amateur - has yet to be conceived and performed.

That should be an encouragment, and a Green Light to all. The successful, blend of creative thought and experiment is still awaiting someone's hand.

Dave Cooper

Re: ITT fusor team tid-bits...& "Shermans Law"

Posted: Sat Dec 23, 2006 3:33 pm
by Paul_Schatzkin
Richard Hull writes:

>>>Sometimes in and among clever people a modified "Jeffersonian principle" works best. He who leads best, leads least.<<<

...and after reading his account of the ITT Fusion effort (very excellent account, Richard, thanks for all the juicy details), I'm reminded of a business principal that I learned long ago from a fellow named Bary (yes, one "r") Sherman, who made the t-shirts I stocked for my sailing charter business on Maui in the 1980s.

I call it "Sherman's Law of Exponentional Employee Relations," and it goes like this:

If you have one employee, you have two problems.

If you have two employees, you have four problems.

If you have three employees, you have nine problems.

...and so on, right up the exponential scale.

I have found that principal to be true in all of my businessed endeavors. It does make you wonder how a large organization -- anything from GM to Microsoft or Google -- ever gets anything done.

Let alone perfect nuclear fusion...


Re: ITT fusor team tid-bits...The team was marginally a team

Posted: Thu Jun 09, 2016 5:47 am
by Richard Hull
I cleaned up my original post and added to it only slightly for clarification and better content. It would be cool for the newbies to read a bit of this thread to ground them in the historionics of the fusor effort back in the 60's when it was just a germ of an idea in Farnsworth's head and how our fusor was genisised by Hirsch and Meeks.

Richard Hull