Oral History Interview with H. Angus Macleod (HAM)
Conducted by Donald Mattox (DM), April 2002
Angus Macleod (left) and Don Mattox (right) at the
45th Society of Vacuum Coaters Annual Technical Conference
DM: Today we’re interviewing Angus Macleod, who is a well-known investigator and educator in the field of optical coatings. We want to find out the nitty-gritty of his background and how he got into this. Angus, welcome—and thank you so much for coming. Could you tell us something about how your education and how you got into the optical coating business?
HAM: Sure. I was born and brought up in Scotland, and most of the time lived near Glasgow, where I was actually born. Went to school at a little school called Lenzie Academy, which is not really all that well known except to those of us who went there. And then did natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Nowadays they’ve started calling it physics and astronomy, but in those days it was natural philosophy – in Kelvin’s day, also. It was a four-year honors course, and having finished that, there really wasn’t much science-based industry in Scotland to join. So I headed south, much to the dismay of my relatives who thought that going to England was very much going to a foreign country—and one that wasn’t perhaps quite as good as Scotland.
So down in London I joined Sperry Gyroscope Company, did a graduate apprenticeship—which involved running lathes and milling machines and all these things—which I knew nothing about beforehand. Worked on gyroscopes for quite a while—one of the few people in the company, actually to work on gyroscopes. Discovered that most of the other people didn’t really understand rigid-body dynamics, and so I got all the problems that involved nutation and vibration and things like that.
Left there and joined a little company—left there, in fact, when it looked as though Blue Streak (a British ICBM for which Sperry was building an inertial guidance system) was about to collapse, which it probably did after I left. I don’t think the two events were connected. But I went to a company called Williamson Manufacturing Company, well-known for high-altitude reconnaissance cameras, survey cameras. And they were also getting into the photography business. So, that was a bit of optics. Up until then, I hadn’t really done much optics. I suddenly found myself designing optical systems, and came across something called an interference filter, and a book written by Oliver Heavens (The Optical Properties of Thin Solid Films).
After a couple of years with Williamson, I was persuaded to join a little company that called themselves Manufacturing Physicists, Mervyn Instruments. And the name ‘Manufacturing Physicists’ really attracted me, because I thought I would like to be one. They were a very interesting little company that would do anything—it didn’t matter what—they would take it on. And one of the things that they had taken on was a leak detector for the military, which was to test the sealing of electronic instruments in some front-line situation. After a little while, they realized they needed some interference filters in the infrared for this thing. It was really, essentially, a nitrous oxide gas analyzer. So one morning I turned up and they said, ‘Right, you’re going to make interference filters.’ Well, there was a 12-inch machine, an Edwards, one of these little lab things with nothing in it. A pump, of course—but that was it. And down the road was Royal Holloway College, where Oliver Heavens was the—I think he was a Reader at that time, but he ran a research group which was primarily lasers, but had quite a bit of thin-film work going on there. Heather Liddell (who wrote the book Computer-Aided Techniques for the Design of Multilayer Filters) was there at that time doing her PhD. So I legged it down the road, saw Ollie Heavens, formed a relationship with him which has continued ever since, and learned quite a bit from him, drew up some plans for this 12-inch infrared coating machine, and we actually made some multiple-cavity filters for the nitrous oxide line in the infrared. But Mervyn Instruments—there was no way they could continue to exist like that. They were run by a very interesting fellow called A.J. Peacock, who had been Secretary of SIRA, the Scientific Instruments Research Association. And under A.J. Peacock was Jack Peakin, who was a very colorful character, who also was a close friend of mine until he died a few years ago. They were really adventurous types. And the company wasn’t owned by them, of course—they ran it. The owners decided that they got tired of living dangerously and sold out to an American company called Gulton. Gradually the company started to be dismantled. I recognized phrases like, ‘We’re down to the muscle,’ and ‘We’re down to the sinews,’ and so on.
By the time they got down to the bone, I had found another job up in the northeast at Grubb-Parsons, whose full name is Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Company, Ltd. By chance they were looking for somebody to run their thin-film division, which had a big bias toward astronomy and astronomical needs and so on, because this company was really an astronomy company. It was (originally) a plaything of Charlie Parsons, whose father was the third Earl of Rosse, who built the big telescope in Ireland. Charles Parsons had been educated by a series of tutors who were chosen for their ability to help his father with his observing. So he was brought up in astronomy right from the beginning. Thomas Grubb was a company in Dublin of instrument makers, and they got involved in telescopes and optics and Howard Grubb was the son who finally ran the company. They made, amongst other things, periscopes, which the Admiralty bought in large quantities for their submarines. During World War I, a shipload of periscopes was torpedoed in the Irish Sea. The Admiralty was so worried about this that they moved the company over to St. Albans, where it was called Howard Grubb. When Grubb retired in the mid 1920s—from memory; not from memory, because I wasn’t alive then, but from memory of what I’ve been told—the company was bought by Charlie Parsons, moved up to Newcastle Upon Tyne, and established as his own private company. And the name was changed to Sir Howard Grubb—he had been knighted by that time—Parsons (for Charlie Parsons) and Company. They made a series of very large telescopes for observatories all over the world—74-inch, 75-inch. When I was there, they produced the first Sir Isaac Newton telescope, it was a 98-inch made with a blank that had been the test blank for the Palomar 200-inch, and that had been presented to Britain by the Americans. The rumor was that it was 98 inches because they didn’t want Britain to have a 100-inch telescope! Anyway, that was polished and the telescope was made. That all happened while I was there.
DM: So what year was this? What time period?
HAM: Well I went there…the end of 1963 or the beginning of 1964 was when I went there. And they were well-established; they had been doing a lot of work for the Admiralty during World War II, and they were in the telescope business. They existed, of course, before the war as an optical company, and it was quite a small company at that stage. By the time I joined, it had grown quite a bit. There were three main thrusts. One was the scientific instruments side, mainly gas analyzers and spectrometers. They were probably the first company to use the gratings that were produced by what was called the Merton Nut process at NPL. The "Merton Nut" process was a way in which a very precise screw was used to cut a groove in a cylindrical piece of metal, which then had a plastic pellicle deposited from solution on it. Then that was cut off and flattened, and that was then a master infrared grating. (The nut referred to the special nut that engaged with the lead screw. It contained pith that averaged out the remaining errors in the very accurate screw.) It was probably the first time gratings for the infrared were mass produced very cheaply. One or two companies rushed into production with infrared spectrometers, which were needed by the chemical industry because of the enormous increase in plastics and so on. I’m not sure if Grubb’s were completely the first; Mervyn Instruments, the company I’d just come from, actually made a single-beam infrared spectrometer, a very early one. But it wasn’t really—it was a delightful instrument from the point of view of scientific achievement, but for the practicing chemist it was probably pretty useless. And the Grubb-Parsons one had been devised by Dr. Martin, who was a well-known spectroscopist who had worked for the government during the war and was a real, usable, practical instrument. So the gas analyzers and the infrared spectrometers were one area. Optical telescopes was another, and thin films was the third. And that was the bit that I ran for all of my career at Grubb’s. But I also ran, at the very end, the scientific instruments side of the business, also. And that was good fun. We made narrow-band filters, lots of narrow-band filters, especially for astronomers for looking at hydrogen emission, nebulae, and things like that.
And the laser came along. We were the first people—in Europe, certainly—to produce a real, hard-coated, helium-neon laser mirror. Balzers tried to produce one, but they weren’t using, I think, the right materials and their films were very porous and not very strong, and they suffered from moisture absorption, which gave them a sort of measly look. Ours were hard-oxide materials—very, very tough. We had the good fortune to get in touch with Paul Cooke, who had a company called Scientifica & Cooke. But he’s now a professor at one of the Oxbridge Universities, very well-known. We got this curious inquiry from this physicist who was working for one of the hospitals, asking if we’d send a quote to his home address. And the company was really very, very dubious about this. The Managing Director called me in and said, ‘Now you know, you want to be careful about this fellow.’ But I sent him a nice quote, got in touch with him, and we really supplied Scientifica & Cooke with all their laser mirrors for some years. And they really were the best instrument helium-neon laser manufacturer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So it was a very, very productive relationship.
DM: So you really had a grounding in the production problems and marketing and all that?
HAM: All that stuff. Filled a couple of machines with water. First time we didn’t know it was full of water. Second time we knew better. Things like that, all that stuff. It’s great fun, but there were several management problems created not by ourselves, but…Charlie Parsons had died, of course, before I joined the company and it had become part of the Parsons organization, which was a large electrical turbine generator manufacturer in the northeast. They really didn’t understand instruments. And they got one of these management companies to come in and look at the whole organization. And this company said, ‘Look, it doesn’t make any sense to have this company, Grubb-Parsons, attached to you. You must either let it go or find some partner for it or something like that.
So a lot of negotiation resulted in our being taken over, not entirely, but almost entirely by a company called Hilger and Watts, which was a scientific instrument company in the south of England with a tremendous pedigree. At Hilger and Watts there was a thin films department run by Constance Arregger, who was one of the few women—there were one or two in America, as well—but in really technical optics, and especially thin film optics at that time. She was a very interesting person. She ran a very good department. She was always known as Mrs. Arregger—nobody seemed to call her Constance. Very upright lady, very nice lady. Got to know her quite well. Well, we ran with Hilger and Watts for a little while, and that seemed to be working fine. But then the Rank Organization, which had been founded by J. Arthur Rank, the film producer and so on, who had decided that the future lay in the leisure industry, and had established bowling alleys and various other leisure activities in England (bought Hilger and Watts). Leisure didn’t really pay awfully well, and so he was looking for something else to put money into. One of the things he did put money into was a company called Rank Xerox. Rank Xerox made the most incredible profit, and actually I think probably saved the organization. But he also put money into some scientific instrument companies—Taylor and Hobson, for instance, became Rank Taylor Hobson. And he took over Hilger and Watts, which became Rank Hilger. And here we are now, an appendage of Rank. Well, that didn’t work awfully well, and in the end Parsons bought us back. So we’re back with Parsons again. But in all of this, the management was shuttled round, the company suffered. It looked to me like it was going downhill. I was pretty sure I recognized the symptoms of a company going downhill by that time, and when to leave.
Just purely by chance, there was a readership in thin film physics which came up at Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic. Now, a polytechnic is a bit like a university—in fact, from inside, it really looks, from all the things you do, exactly like a university. It grants degrees and all those sorts of things. But the polytechnics had just been created by Harold Wilson [the labor Prime Minister]. And Harold Wilson felt that he had to do something about universities, because he couldn’t control them. And he wasn’t going to create any more universities. He was going to create an institution that he could keep his finger on, or his thumb on. So he created the polytechnics, made them exactly like universities, but made them subject to the local authority. I gather something like that is happening in Florida at the moment—I’m not sure.
DM: Sounds more like a vocational institute or something.
HAM: Well, it wasn’t vocational in that it granted degrees and the whole range of degrees. It was supposed to be more responsive to industry—these little keywords that get bandied around. But what it did was subject to control by an organization called the Council for National Academic Awards, which was a council set up under the patronage of the Royal Family, which administered the degrees which were awarded by the colleges. By that time the University of London had stopped the external degree, so in fact the external degrees disappeared and what took their place were the CNAA degrees, which were also awarded through the polytechnics. And the polytechnics got this similar structure to the universities, the staffing structure was a little bit different.
But they did have something in common with the universities which was the position of Reader. Reader is a very good position. It’s a kind of research professor. You get all the privileges and everything of a professor, but you don’t do so much teaching. Your job is to administer the research activities. And so I had a lighter teaching load than my colleagues, and I had a chance to do the kind of research I wanted. And the funding arrangement at that time was that the salaries of the staff were all fixed, they were all guaranteed. If you wanted a grant to do research, what you were looking for was support for students, support for buying equipment. And that’s a lot less costly than trying to find support also for your own salary. So it was a pretty good deal, and it worked very well. Of course, when I went there, there wasn’t anything. There was a spectrometer, one or two bits and pieces lying around. But my first job was to try to find some money. So I wrote some proposals, but in between writing proposals, I was able to spend some time on the computer.
Now, it’s a laughable piece of equipment compared with today’s desktop. This occupied a room about two-thirds the size of this room, and was one of these IBM computers. It’s probably equivalent to today’s hand calculator. But I could spend hours on this thing with my decks of punched cards and so on. And I thought I would investigate the problems of monitoring narrow-band filters, because that was something we’d never been able to do properly at Grubb-Parsons. We indulged in chasing our tail, it seemed—you would make an alteration in the wavelength of the monitoring system, and you would find that the filter didn’t move in the way you expected. Then you’d make another adjustment, and it would move off somewhere. It was a slippery beast. I thought I would show that the accuracy of monitoring was the problem. So I devised a model—a kind of Monte Carlo model—of the process, fairly simple, and noise on the monitoring signal, and so on, and set out to show that these errors were responsible for the problems with narrow-band filters. And the first time I ran this model, I put in quite sizable errors. About an hour later, out come the results in the form of a plot. And I have to wait until tomorrow until I can do any more calculations—somebody else has the machine for the rest of the afternoon. So I go back to my office and I look at these plots. And they’re all exactly one on top of each other. Of course, my immediate thought was, ‘Oh, I have to go back and re-do the software.’ So I plowed through the software, trying to find the mistake. I couldn’t find one. I convinced myself in the end that the results of the calculation were correct. That started me off on the theory of errors in narrow-band filters. It turns out, of course, that there is this compensation process that means that if you make a mistake in one layer, the next one makes a compensating mistake, and so on, and so on. I wrote this thing up for Optica Acta and got it published.
Not long after it was published, I got a letter from Emile Pelletier in Marseille, who had been working on some similar ideas, and actually was about to publish a paper, but mine actually got out (in print) first. But (the work was simultaneous). We got together, put our heads together, and decided to use what Pelletier called ‘The Scottish Method’—economize your efforts, work together, rather than working separately. So that really started a very long, fruitful collaboration with the Marseille laboratory. I first of all met him at a conference in South Hampton. A lot of the French were there. We were there. I brought him up to Newcastle. He still has photographs of the two of us on the beach at North Shields, bent double against the wind and the rain. He calls this weather ‘typical.’ He’s not far wrong, at certain times of the year. Rouard was the great Dean at the [Marseille] university. It was Aix-Marseille 3, part of the university, part of the Aix-Marseilles complex of universities. And the Center for Thin Film Studies was under the Dean. It was the campus of St. Jerome, and also he had some thin-film activity at the St. Charles campus. It was a very big, big group. Part of this group was the École de Physique, which was run by Paul Bousquet, which was another big name in the early thin films in France. Bousquet had been one of Rouard’s students. Rouard was one of the thin-film pioneers. His first papers were in ‘33 or ‘34, I forget which, but he had done a lot of work on thin metals. He’d been the first person to observe that if you put a thin metal on the surface of a glass, that if you look at it internally, you see the reflectance is actually lower than the reflectance of the uncoated glass surface. So in a sense, he’s one of the early anti-reflection people. He didn’t have an application for this; it was an observation, more. And it was thought at the time to be possibly an anomalous behavior of metals. But of course, it’s not; it’s absolutely predictable, it’s not anomalous at all. It was very difficult to do the calculations to show it at that time. Rouard had been through the war—he told me a story once. He had been teaching a class. Suddenly, he looked at the door and there’s a big German soldier in field gray with a machine gun. The German just said to him, " ‘raus" and out they went. That was the end of his teaching at that particular institute. I think they moved him to another one and he spent the war years [there]. He managed to write a few little papers and so on, do a bit of teaching. But it must have been a tough time. He was a French academician, with very precise French. My first experience of being a member of the jury at a French dissertation defense was where Rouard was the president of the jury. And the first awkward thing was that I really didn’t know what was expected of me. After the student had given his presentation, Rouard turned to me and said that they were honored to have me there, and would I please like to start the questioning. Well, I’d never been at one of these things before, and I wasn’t quite sure what sort of questions I was supposed to ask. So I asked a few questions, and the student answered. And it was interesting.
DM: Did you ask the questions in French?
HAM: Oh, yes, this was all in French. Rouard corrected the student’s French, but didn’t try to correct mine. He was a very precise, polite gentleman. And it seems I must have asked the right questions. I got the reputation for asking very difficult questions in France—I don’t know why. I find it very difficult to ask questions at all at these things. The student is the expert. The student has spent X years on this subject and knows much more about the details of something than I do, than anybody who is present does. And we’re expected to ask penetrating questions. Well, what I tend to do is ask a question in hope that the student will start talking and perhaps a little outside the subject and so on. So the questions were not usually ones that have a definite answer. ‘The rest mass of an electron in an electron volts please?’—nothing like that. It’s, ‘What do you think of…’ or ‘What might be…’ or ‘Is there any possible application for this…’ or something like that. And my experience has been that this frequently strikes the student absolutely dumb. I really don’t intend to do this.
DM: They haven’t really been taught to think on their feet.
HAM: Exactly. I did several dissertation defenses with Rouard after that, and it was always an experience. He was a very, very fine gentleman. Always wore a hat, frequently carried a raincoat—even in Marseille, he always seemed to have a raincoat. Very sort of middle-of the-century style. Marseille, like Glasgow, is a working city; it has been established for a very, very long time, but not a lot of very old stuff still remains. They just knock it down and rebuild it. So it’s a city where people are interested in commerce and work. And they also speak a beautiful form of French which has a very pronounced accent, which I love listening to but I cannot imitate. Very difficult. It’s a bit like the French equivalent of Geordie that we have in the northeast of England.
DM: So where did you go then—or what did you do? How long were you a Professor or a Reader?
HAM: I was a Reader in thin-film physics and I had a group that had some pretty good students and we did these things. And I also spent some time in France as what they call Professeur Associé so I taught a little bit in France from time to time, always in Marseille. Then one day I was working on the computer—we had a better computer by this time, I think it was an IBM 360. We had lots of terminals, but you had to go to the lab where the terminals were to use them. I’d been working away. I came back to the office and somebody said, ‘There was some American on the phone who wanted to speak to you, but we explained you wouldn’t be back for an hour. He said he’d call back later.’ In a little while the phone rang, and I answered it. He introduced himself. He said, ‘I’m Peter Franken and I’m the Director of Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. If we were to offer you a Professorship in Optical Sciences, would you consider it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’d consider it.’ I mean, a question like that to a Scotsman, a Scotsman will consider anything. ‘We have this university at the South Pole. Would you consider it?’ ‘Of course I’d consider it.’ Anyway, I’d heard of Optical Sciences—in fact, I exchanged a certain amount of correspondence with Francis Turner, who was by then a Professor of Optical Sciences, he’d left Bausch & Lomb, retired from that, and was running a small thin-film group there. What I didn’t know was that Francis had said, ‘Look, I’m getting too old for this; I will continue to do something, but you need to get somebody else. We have to build it up.’ And they’d been looking for somebody for a while and hadn’t found anybody. So Peter had gone the rounds—Joe Apfel at OCLI and Alfred Thelen who was at OCLI at the time, and various other people. And most of them had given them a list of names, and he said that my name was on pretty well all of the lists. Not always necessarily at the very top, but it was there on all the lists. And they looked at it and thought, ‘Well, we really ought to look at this chap.’ And so that was the purpose of the phone call.
After I said that I’d consider it, he said, ‘Thank you very much. That’s all I wanted to know at this stage. I’ll probably be in touch.’ So that was that. That took about a year, and during that year I made my first visit to the United States. My first American city was San Francisco, which to me was typical America, because that was all I knew. I visited also OCLI and visited Optical Sciences. I arrived in Tucson in the most heavy shower of rain. There was a couple of days of driving rain and wind. Peter said, ‘If you can keep doing this, you’ll make a fortune.’ So I rather liked Arizona. And I had to give a talk. I hadn’t expected to give a talk, but I’d been giving some talks at OCLI and so on. Peter met me in San Francisco, because the OSA meeting was there, and we had decided to meet up at that meeting, and said, ‘You have to give a talk. I want a title.’ We were having breakfast together. He said, ‘I want a catchy title, none of this scientific stuff—catchy title.’ I thought for a minute. And by that time we had looked at narrow-band filters and so I had come to the conclusion that it was moisture absorption that was the problem, not monitoring at all. We’d done a lot of work in moisture absorption and isotherms—all sorts of things—and had come to the conclusion that we had to do something about the process to remove the moisture absorption. I was just getting into the energetic process. In fact, I used your [Don Mattox’s] process of ion plating, high-voltage ion plating, to produce some zinc-sulfide films for the infrared. And these were the toughest zinc-sulfide films I have ever seen. You could take a screwdriver—you couldn’t make a mark on them. But somebody else had found the amorphous carbon-hydrogen coatings, and that was even tougher. And also they called them ‘diamond-like’—they were very fond of this diamond-like. It wasn’t really diamond-like, but that also was a rather catchy name. So, scientifically very, very satisfying and it showed that the energetic processes really had something to offer. So I was busy trying to get money to get a decent ion gun, to get some ion-assisted deposition. It seemed to me that was probably the way ahead, the simple way ahead. But the high-voltage ion plating was very successful. It just was a process that was very difficult to understand. A lot of parameters involved in it. And that was when I met you the first time. Do you remember the meeting in London, the IPAT, 1979 or something down in London? You were giving an invited paper; I think I was giving an invited paper also. But anyway, it took about a year, and I had to give this talk while I was in America. And I thought of the title. I thought, what on earth? There’s an effect in British houses that involves damp which rises up the wall and is inhibited by something called a ‘damp course.’ You can’t build a house in Britain without a damp course. If the damp course fails, you get this dampness up the wall, and it’s called ‘rising damp.’ It forms patterns, and the patterns don’t look unlike the patterns that I have in my thin films. So I said, ‘How about, A Bad Case of Rising Damp?’ Peter said, ‘Wonderful!’ But what I hadn’t realized was that nobody in Arizona knew what ‘rising damp’ was. So there’s this visiting scientist who’s going to give a talk on ‘A Bad Case of Rising Damp,’ and the theories going around this place about what this could possibly be. So I couldn’t have chosen a better title. But I felt it was a very poor title. If I’d thought about it for much longer I could have got a much better title. So it’s just as well I hadn’t thought about it for longer. So I gave this talk to this great crowd in there. I started off, ‘I’d better explain what rising damp is,’ then explained it. Bill Wolfe said, ‘Oh, well that’s fine; I can go now.’ He pretended to get up and leave. Peter, I discovered, liked to interrupt these kinds of occasions when a possible candidate is giving a talk. I think not to show off, but to see how the candidate handles this kind of thing. I’d seemed to handle that quite well, so that was okay. So in the few days I was there they offered me the job. So I said I was very, very interested. They said, ‘Don’t worry; think about it, get back home, talk to you wife,’ and so on and so forth. ‘Think about it.’ Nick George, who was the Director at the Institute of Optics at Rochester, had invited me to go up and see him there. So I popped up to Rochester and Nick said, ‘Whatever they offer you, I’ll give you more.’
DM: Oh, that’s a good way to start a conversation.
HAM: I don’t know—Arizona seemed the place for me. I sort of hit it off with the people there better, I thought. The Optical Sciences Center seemed to be doing more my kind of thing. And also they got to me first. Obviously I went there for less money, because whatever they offered me, Nick would have given me more. So I went to Arizona.
DM: When was that?
HAM: That was 1979, late 1979. I went through the experience that almost everybody who goes to settle in Tucson goes through. The first Winter is just so warm, you go around in shirtsleeves and it’s just wonderful. The second Winter you’re looking for that pullover that you used to have, the one you must have somewhere.
DM: Your blood got thin, as they used to say at our company.
HAM: It was a great place. Francis Turner was still active at that time, although he didn’t come in every day. But you could tell when he was in because you would smell the cigar smoke coming through the air conditioning system. You’d know Francis was in his office. He had a very dry sense of humor. He would always have a joke, but he always told it with a straight face. Somebody asked him once to a meeting. It was one of these breakfast meetings or something, but it was at some awful hour—six o’clock in the morning. And they said to Francis, ‘Now, the meeting’s at six o’clock in the morning.’ And Francis said, ‘You mean there are two six o’clocks in the day?’ That was what he was like.
Also I’d run into Ivan Epstein, who had worked for Francis and was the one who really put symmetrical periods in our set of design tools. They had been discovered by Herpin in France, but the paper didn’t really treat them in any way as a design tool. It just looked at them and said, ‘Look, here’s a mathematical relationship. Isn’t this interesting?’ But Ivan had seen the possibility of using this as a design tool. And he’d worked with Francis at that time. Now, they couldn’t get hold of a computer for the Thin Film Department at Bausch & Lomb, so at the weekend Ivan would borrow the one they used for payroll. And this really upset the payroll department. So he did all his early calculations on the payroll computer. Then he left thin films and had got into optics of the eye. He was at a university in Virginia. I had chanced to meet him in an elevator on my first visit to San Francisco. I was at the OSA meeting and this fellow gets into the elevator and has ‘Ivan Epstein’ on his badge. ‘Heavens!’ I said, ‘you’re the one who started it all!’ And we got talking, and it turned out he wasn’t in the field of optical thin films anymore. He said, ‘I never really finished that series of papers.’ There was paper 1 and paper 2—this was back in the 1950s—now we’re in 1979. ‘Do you think it would be worthwhile just writing up the rest of that and publishing it?’ I said, ‘Please, that would be great!’ So duly there appeared in JOSA a paper which is the third in the series with a gap of 25 or something years between. People sometimes say, ‘That’s really amusing.’ They wonder how it happened. Well, that’s how it happened. When he retired, Ivan came to Green Valley, which is just south of Tucson, and became an Associate Professor or Adjunct Professor or something at the university. So we had Ivan also in our group for a while.
DM: So how long were you at the university? Did you achieve your research goals or whatever you wanted to do?
HAM: The first ten years were good years. The funding was pretty reasonable, and we did a lot of work. We managed to get a great deal of ion-assisted deposition done, characterization. We were very fortunate in that they had a beam line that they could do Rutherford backscattering spectroscopy with, and there was a very keen professor in physics who wanted applications for this. So we did a lot of work together. I think in a lot of ways he made the Rutherford backscattering spectroscopy more popular for optical thin film people. It had been used a lot by semiconductor people and so on, but optical thin film people had the idea that you couldn’t really do anything in optical thin films with RBS. Anyway, they were dielectric materials and there would be charging problems and all this stuff. So it was one of these things where people had sort of rejected it for reasons that weren’t valid. We did a lot of work on that. I remember talking to the people at OCLI who claimed that it wouldn’t work. But nevertheless, they were very good to us—in fact, OCLI gave us a grant for one of the students who actually worked on that. OCLI after that actually bought their own RBS machine.
DM: It’s good for reverse engineering, too.
HAM: Absolutely. And it’s the only real way to get a good handle on stoichiometry and so on. With ion-assisted deposition, that turned out to be very important and we could also look at things like argon in materials and so on. So that research worked very, very well and we were a very, very active research group. We were lucky also that the Chinese were coming out of the cultural revolution period and were suddenly realizing that maybe science was a good thing to be in after all. They had a very strong optics leader in China who was quite high in the government, Wang Da Heng, whom I think pushed optics a lot. Suddenly, they’re having to do optics and they have a lot of people whose education was cut short. But they didn’t want to release them to do PhDs and so on; they couldn’t let them go for long enough. So they would let them go for one or two years as what we call visiting scholars. So I had a whole lot of visiting scholars who came to my lab. That was very good, for a number of reasons. They were very good workers. They were people who were mature in years, but had this gap in their scientific background, and they were very, very keen to work with; all the drive and enthusiasm, and so on.
The other thing was, I had a number of people in my group from Taiwan at the same time. And this was at a time when relations were—let’s say strained between the two. It was really nice the way they worked together and got to know each other. I really feel that education and educational institutions have got a very important role to play in bringing countries together and sorting out problems and so on. Now if you know the other fellow really well and are friendly with him, you’re much less likely to go to war with him or something like that. So I got lots and lots of contacts in both China and Taiwan, people who’ve worked with me, students who did PhDs or people who did visiting scholar periods. There were many people from pretty well all over the world—Europe, India, South America, New Zealand, and so on—think of a country, we had somebody from there. So there’s a network of people all around the world who worked with us, and that’s very useful when you go to another country.
DM: Is that one thing that sort of convinced you that you could strike out on your own?
HAM: No, what convinced me that I could strike out on my own was suddenly the funding went away.
DM: Well, that too.
HAM: It happened in two stages. The university reorganized the salary structure in optical sciences. Optical sciences is a graduate school, and graduate schools work on ‘soft’ money. Even faculty salaries have to have a certain ‘soft’ money content. So all of a sudden I find that my ‘soft’ money content has gone up, and my ‘hard’ money content has gone down. Which means I have to find money out of my contracts. So I have a choice of saying to some of my students, ‘Look, I’m sorry—my need is greater than yours, and you will be on half pay from now on, because I’m going to take the other half.’ Or something else. I thought something else would be better. I didn’t take any soft money and said to the university, ‘Look, I’ll just take hard money, a bit of it, and I’ll do something else in the hours that I’m not covered.’ The university said, ‘Great,’ and rewrote my contract. So I had to do something in a bit of a hurry. We had this little company. [At that time] it was just a kind of partnership between my wife and myself, which allowed me to buy a computer for myself at home and pay for it and pay for some of my conferences by operating on doing a little bit of software and selling. In fact, my first sale was to the people at Los Alamos [National Laboratory], Brian Newnam—he was my first customer; he bought the first commercial piece of software produced. That was 1985 or 1986. It was called ‘Thin Film Center’ because when you register with the IRS, they ask, ‘What’s the company name? My wife had called them up and hadn’t thought of a company name. She thought, ‘Heavens! Thin Film Center.’ And they wrote it down.
When I went on half-pay and half-time, we incorporated it—we began Thin Film Center, Inc.—and I became the President. We worked with me doing it half-time for about five years. The funding continued to get worse in the university, and the company continued to do better and better. It became very clear it wasn’t much of a decision, that that was where I should be—not at the university. So as soon as I’d done 16 years—which allows you to keep the title Professor and keep all the benefits and so on—they don’t take it back. So as soon as 16 years were up, I said, ‘I’m going to retire.’ So I retired, became Professor Emeritus, and I’m President of Thin Film Center. Thin Film Center is what pays me and keeps me going.
DM: Somewhere along in there you wrote the first edition of your book, though.
HAM: Yes, that goes back to my time at Grubb-Parsons and the time when Grubb’s became owned by Adam Hilger. Hilger and Watts had a publishing company called Adam Hilger. And Adam Hilger was a very small little outfit, three people. But Neville Goodman was the Managing Director of Adam Hilger. Neville came up to Newcastle and said he wanted a book on filters. He’d dreamt of a book on filters and he wanted a book on filters, and would I write a book on filters. I said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m not a filter person—I’m an optical coatings person. I could write a book on optical coatings and filters, but not on absorption filters and absorption glasses and things like that, because that’s not my area.’ He said, ‘Wonderful!’ He was one of these really enthusiastic people who have boundless enthusiasm and just inspired everybody who had contact with him. So he said, ‘Wonderful! Just what I want.’ It wasn’t what he had said he had wanted, but it became just what he wanted. So I started writing the book. In any subject you collect a lot of things that you write down from time to time and so on. So I had a basis for a book, because I’d sort of written a book almost for myself and notes, just to remind me of thin films and of my thoughts on problems and so on. So I started writing. I would go down to London quite frequently on business, and I’d always go and see Neville. I’d present him with my latest miserable effort, and Neville would look and say, ‘Beautiful!’ And I would go back, inspired to write another ten or twelve miserable pages. And so it went on for about eighteen months, and the book got published. It turned out—and it wasn’t intentional—it turned out to be exactly at the right time, because the field was expanding, the laser had come and been established, and one thing and another. Optical coatings were ‘in,’ and there wasn’t a book—there was Anders’ book, which was pretty good, but Anders’ book didn’t go very far. It was a very, very good introduction. But mine just seemed to hit the spot. And I learned later that this had been translated into Chinese. Something like 3,000 or 4,000 copies in English were sold in the first edition. 15,000 in Chinese!
DM: For which you didn’t get any royalties.
HAM: Of course not, of course not—but it meant that my first visit to China, people knew who I was. It took a while for them to admit they had the book. They didn’t know how I would take it. But at last I met the person who translated it, and then it was confided to me that he’d actually translated the book. And we’ve been friends ever since.
DM: Yes, that used to be a big thing—you could get books pretty cheaply. So you’re now in, what, your third edition of the book?
HAM: The third edition came out last year. It’s still Adam Hilger, except that Adam Hilger has really disappeared. Adam Hilger was taken over by the Institute of Physics in Britain, so my contract with Adam Hilger was sort of absorbed into that. Neville worked for a while with IOP, then he retired, and sadly he died last year. But the Adam Hilger still exists, but seems to have largely vanished from the books, because mine—the third edition—is now IOP Publishing, and I think maybe inside it says, ‘Adam Hilger Series,’ or something.
DM: You certainly have a lot of educational courses, too, from your Thin Film Center. Is that what you’re concentrating on?
HAM: I suppose our major product—the number-one income, if we define products in terms of income—is probably the software. But the next, a very close second, is the training. Because the universities aren’t really doing it, we’re doing it. Long may that situation continue. I’m not about to try to persuade the universities to get back into the business.
DM: So your software programs are a big hit—the Chinese translated that, too.
HAM: Yes, there are quite a few copies in China. We haven’t translated the software. We’ve sort of started, but the trouble is, software is a fluid thing and it’s difficult to keep track of it. So we haven’t really as much as we should do in Chinese. There’s a Japanese manual which the Chinese can read. It mainly circulates in Japan. But we do have to deal with problems that occur in Chinese Windows and so on.
DM: So that pretty much brings you up to the present, doesn’t it?
HAM: Pretty much up to the present. That’s what we do. I teach more than ten times as many hours as I did at the university. I very occasionally go back to the university and teach a course as a kind of pro bono exercise. But it’s difficult, because I travel so much.
Thin films have been very good to me. A funny field which really is not that well-known to people outside the field and doesn’t have this glamorous appearance that other subjects seem to have. But once you get inside it, it has the best community in the world and it’s one of the most interesting subjects in the world. I can’t imagine a better place to be.