Professor Emeritus of Physics
Interviewed on May 7, 1978
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions]
HWH: This is Horace Hewlett interviewing Theodore Soller, Professor of Physics Emeritus, in Room 25, Grosvenor House, on Wednesday, May 17, 1978.
I’ve jotted down, Ted, that you came to Amherst in 1928. You were here, golly, 39 years. That must be a record in the Physics Department.
SOLLER: I don’t know about that.
HWH: Except for Ebenezer Strong Snell.
SOLLER: Well I came here in the fall of twenty-eight, as you say, on a one-year appointment to fill in for Sam Williams who was off in England for a sabbatical. I was just fresh out of graduate school and hadn’t quite completed my degree, but Nina and I thought we ought to come to New England at least for one year before going out west or some place in that area.
HWH: As I recall you did your graduate work at Wisconsin.
SOLLER: That’s right. I did it out there and met Nina out there. She was a physical education major and had to take physics and she was in one of my lab sections, so it developed after that. So it turned out, as you say, to be 39 years before we left these parts. It was a good time all the way. I’m certainly grateful and very happy to have had all these good years in Amherst.
HWH: It’s a great place to bring up kids, too. Ted, when you came, the other members of the Department, as I recall, were William Warren Stifler and Samuel Robinson Williams and, I think, Warren Kimball Green taught a course.
HWH: But Williams was away for the year so it was just really you and Warren Stifler.
SOLLER: Right, that was it. And we mustn’t forget old J. Osgood Thompson. Toggles was retired but he was still very much around and we used to go down and visit with him and his wife, Lulu, on Lincoln Avenue, I guess it was. He was a great character.
HWH: I didn’t know him well.
SOLLER: There are a lot of stories about J.O. He never could finish what he had to say and the students would always get sort of anxious about getting up to Chapel. The story goes that they’d finally get up and leave and start up past the, where the Frost Library is now-- Walker Hall-- past that and he’d continue his lecture and chase them up the street as they were going to Chapel. Great character.
HWH: At that time, too, I checked in the catalog, there were only six courses offered and in your first year here there were just four.
SOLLER: That could be because there were just two of us really in the Department. It was great fun, though.
HWH: Well, right now I’m sure you’re aware that there are six members of the Physics faculty and sixteen courses offered, Of course they’re half-year courses.
SOLLER: That’s right. Yes, in the old days they used to be full-year courses.
HWH: You were involved in your first year in such things as mechanics and heat and magnetism, sound and light, simple harmonic motion, kinetic theory of matter.
SOLLER: (Laugh) Those are the old-fashioned descriptions of what we used to teach then. One of my students then was William Ross, William H. Ross, who for many years after that was in the Physics Department at the University of Massachusetts and for many years he and Hills Skillings were the tellers for the Alumni Election, Unfortunately he died a few years ago. But he was one of my star students then.
HWH: I’m sure you knew he won the University Award of being the teacher of the year.
SOLLER: Yes, right, I heard about that.
HWH: He was a fine guy, Class of ‘29. Can you remember other students...
SOLLER: Well I can remember in particular John Hall, who was the Class of ‘30, I think. He was in my Electricity and Magnetism course then, as I remember. And then there were the Parkers-- Parker at Worcester who had two sons who went here later on. Bob and [Peter].
SOLLER: Yes. Parker twins. Was his name Charlie? [Allan E. Parker ‘29] I’ve forgotten what his first name is-- he was teaching at Worcester Tech and although he had graduated, he used to come back a lot; I remember seeing him quite a bit.
HWH: Seems to me one of the twins went into the NASA.
SOLLER: That’s right. He’s been one of the astronauts. I don’t know if he ever got to fly, but he’s been in that program.
HWH: I don’t think he did. Do you remember the twins as students?
SOLLER: Oh sure, sure. They were both physics-- oh I guess one of them was an astronomy major, but he took a lot of courses in physics. I don’t know which of the two became the astronaut eventually.
HWH: I’ll have to check that. [Bob]
SOLLER: Yes, but they were very good students.
HWH: You were involved during the war down at M.I.T. at the Radiation Lab, I believe. Were you there the whole five years, ‘41 to ‘46?
SOLLER: Yes. One of my graduate school roommates, Lee Dubridge, was head of the Radiation Lab. We didn’t know what the radiation lab was-- it was all hush secret business-- but it turned out to be the development of radar in this country. He asked whether I could get leave of absence to come down and work on that and so I got leave to go in February of ‘41, which was long before we got into the War. The British were having a lot of trouble with Nazi planes bombing England and they had a new tube called a Magnetron. Oliphant, who was Professor of Physics at Birmingham, had invented this. It was an electronic tube which enabled one to develop fairly high powers of very high-frequency radio waves, the point being that the higher the frequency, the sharper the image you could get on the reflection of the radiation from an airplane or anything. In the old days, in the early days of radar, if you sent a signal out that hit an object, let’s say a plane, the signal would come back as a bright “blob” subtending an arc of maybe 45 to 90 degrees instead of being a pin point. And the higher the frequency you can develop, the shorter will be the arc subtended by the signal. That’s why they were pushing to get higher frequency. We worked on that and developed quite a bit of it in this country. I worked down there through the whole of the War, and then the powers that be prevailed upon the government to release all the information that we had developed and publish it. McGraw Hill got the publication rights for it and several of us who had been associated with various aspects of this sat down and wrote up what had happened in the last five-and-a-half years. And so it came out to be the Radiation Lab Series; I think there were a total of maybe 26 volumes before we got through with it. And so it’s been the electronics textbook for many years after the war.
HWH: Was this an area of specialty for you before the war?
SOLLER: No, I hadn’t known anything about it. Bob Whitney was down there from the College, too, he came down a little later; and John Hall was let go from the Astronomy Department to come down. I think that’s probably all from the College here.
HWH: Well, the College during the War years was certainly operating on a minimal basis.
SOLLER: King Turgeon was teaching calculus, I think, and various crazy things like that. It must have been a great time. Then Warren Green was running his navigation course for the sailors.
HWH: And I think Roger Holmes came over from Mount Holyoke too to give a course in Cryptography.
SOLLER: I guess that’s right. I’d forgotten about that. Warren Green was a great character, really. He regaled us with a lot of stories about all the way from Davy Todd to A. L. Kimball, whose assistant he was here in the early ‘twenties. Arthur L. Kimball was THE physics department, here, for quite a few years. I remember that the basic college physics textbook was Kimball’s College Physics. It went through many editions, but in the early ‘twenties he was very ill-- I guess he finally died on his feet teaching, but Warren was his chief assistant, I think, in those days.
HWH: Then I guess Kimball must have also brought in Bill Stifler and Sam Williams.
SOLLER: Well, Sam Williams, let’s see, how did Sam get here? I don’t know how Sam got here. I think Georgie Olds got wind of Sam, though, and he came from Oberlin.
HWH: Which was your school.
SOLLER: Yes, that’s how I happened to come here, because Sam remembered me and actually if I had had my degree earlier, I would have probably preceded Stifler, here; but I was a little slow in getting my degree and he wanted somebody with a Ph.D. for the department. So when it came time for him to go on sabbatical, he asked whether I’d come for one year.
HWH: Sam was a wonderful person.
SOLLER: He really was. Oh my!
HWH: He wrote an article, or I think it was a speech he gave at a meeting of the Alumni Council, on the importance of continuing research by teachers-- that you couldn’t teach as well if you weren’t down in the field. I read the article, as a matter of fact I think it’s in that issue, [pointing to a book] which seemed to be a fairly new idea at that time for a liberal arts college.
SOLLER: Well I think that’s right. Even when I was an undergraduate at Oberlin, any physics major, for example, would get involved in a thesis project, an experimental or a theoretical project, and this was his basic tenet, that the way to do it was to do independent work on it, figure out your own problems and how to solve them. So he was an early pioneer in undergraduate research I would say.
HWH: Do you recall the area of his research?
SOLLER: Yes, he was always in the field of magnetism and most of it had to do with what was called magneto-striction-- the fact that if you put a magnetic substance such as iron or nickel or cobalt or some alloys of these in the form of a rod, let us say, into a magnetic field, it would change its length. He was interested in the fundamentals of the connection between magnetism and the elastic properties of substances.
HWH: I remember having him as a teacher in Physics 1-- I think all of us enjoyed the course as much from his personality as we did what he taught.
SOLLER: Well, he was very strong on personality. He was a wonderful human being and I think that he was ahead of his eminence as a scientist. He did interesting and basic work, but his forte was certainly on the human side of things.
HWH: I think that’s a fair statement. And I think the areas of research at that time were somewhat limited.
SOLLER: Right, oh yes, and there were absolutely no funds for doing anything like this. It was only after the War that you really would be able to get some help from foundations and the government to foster and encourage your research.
HWH: I was trying to pinpoint when modern research really began at Amherst and it seems to be 1915-16, around in there. There wasn’t any profound or serious research prior to that.
SOLLER: Well I don’t know anything about it even as early as that. Sam was certainly working on his magnetic experiments when I came here in ‘28, but a lot of the apparatus I remember he brought from Oberlin, with big coils and things like that, that he worked with. And I worked with him a little bit on it in the early years.
HWH: I know the earliest outside grants for research at the College seem to have come under Stanley King for Harold Plough in Biology from the Rockefeller Foundation.
SOLLER: I don’t think there was anything in Physics until after the War.
HWH: That was ‘36, I’m quite sure, and Ralph Beebe got a grant from the American Philosophic Society for work in chemistry.
SOLLER: But I don’t think there was any grant in Physics. I got a grant from the Research Corporation of America.
HWH: I think you brought the first outside grant to Physics.
SOLLER: Yes, I think I did. They gave me a grant of $4,000 for some research work that I planned to do on secondary electron emission, which I got interested in at the Radiation Lab, and then when I came back and was recruiting additional staff, I went down to Yale, among other places, and got acquainted there with Bill Fairbank and Bruce Benson, who were just finishing their degrees. We engaged both of them to come to Amherst in the fall of ‘48, I think it was. They were interested in continuing research. Bruce had been in nuclear physics down there, and Bill Fairbank in low-temperature physics, and I was going to work in electronics, and we thought it was crazy for us to go off in three different directions so we put our heads together and asked how we could pool our resources-- if there was a common field that we might be interested in. To make a long story short, we decided that the field of low-temperature physics was a non-competitive field. There were very few other places in the country that were making liquid helium in those days-- Yale was one of them, and M.I.T. was another one. There was one outfit out in Chicago and another at Cal Tech, I think. It was quite a problem to make liquid helium in those days.
HWH: I remember your equipment and the hours you spent.
SOLLER: Oh yes. We thought we could build our own liquefier and once we got it going we thought it wouldn’t cost much to operate. Also the field was not so hot that we couldn’t keep up with the competition. From the start we were aided greatly by Sam Collins, who was a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T. who had built a machine a few years earlier, and Sam was very helpful to us. He gave us complete drawings, loaned us some of his own machines for winding coils, and much sympathetic advice. The three of us went down to the Research Corporation in New York and set our case before them, wondered whether we could change the grant they had made to me to a grant to foster our low-temperature business. They finally said o.k. and they gave us $10,000 instead of the four that they had given me. So I learned many years later from some of the people there that they felt that the College should be encouraged to do research but they were kissing the money goodbye, they thought nothing would ever come of it. So I think we sort of made a record for them in low-temperature research. An interesting follow-up on that, is that in those days we finally got our liquefier going and we did some fairly substantial research. Then, later on, Bob Romer came back after his graduate work-- he had done some research with us as an undergraduate-- he came back and various other people in the meantime in low-temperature physics, Jim Nichol was here for a while and we had an international conference of low-temperature physics at M.I.T. and quite a few of the physicists from Europe came to see what we were doing here at Amherst, which was sort of unheard of in those days.
HWH: Wasn’t it fairly unusual for a liberal arts college to have such a program?
SOLLER: Oh sure, it certainly was. I think we were unique in that respect. After the War we got help from the Office of Naval Research. For quite a few years they supported us and were still supporting us, I think, when I left here in ‘67-- in a modest way but it was very helpful and very encouraging. One of the physicists who came out here at that time and whom I later visited at Oxford, in England, is going to be here, year after next, for the first semester as visiting professor. That’s Nicholas Kurti. He’s a very famous English physicist; and he’s retired now, but President Ward has found some money and has been writing to him and Nicholas is going to come here.
HWH: Is this partly at your suggestion?
SOLLER: No. I didn’t know about it, I just heard about it this morning.
HWH: Just coincidence.
SOLLER: Joel Gordon, I guess, and Bob Romer told me about this, this morning. And a few years back, in 1969, they gave me a reprint of a paper, “The Physicist in the Kitchen,” and he gave a lecture before the Royal Society on this. I haven’t read the whole thing, but they’ve got a Xerox copy of it. He’s a very charming man. So that’s a sort of spin-off from the middle ‘fifties.
HWH: I think it’s interesting that the group you were involved with in this original low-temperature research, that Bill Fairbank has gone on to do research exclusively.
SOLLER: Oh yes, he is very very imaginative, resourceful and a very high-powered researcher. He wasn’t cut out to be an undergraduate teacher.
HWH: This was good; you complemented each other.
SOLLER: Yes, yes. And he is still a very great friend of ours; in fact last year when they were in Western Australia, in Perth, we were having dinner with an Amherst graduate, Dolph Zink and his family, and Dolph’s older daughter was an architecture major at the University of Western Australia. They had the “Weekly Bulletin” of the University there, and in the evening we were sitting down there, Nina was looking over it, and here among things for the coming week was ”Professor William Fairbank of Stanford University is going to be lecturing here” and so and so. A great coincidence. We ran into them and we had lunch with them a few days, took Jane out with us. Bill was busy in the Lab all the time. We had a great time.
HWH: As you know, he got an honorary degree here four years ago.
SOLLER: Yes. I think it’s well deserved. He’s a great man.
HWH: Bob Whitney commented that he would not be surprised if Bill were to win the Nobel Prize at some point.
SOLLER: I would think that this would be very possible.
HWH: I think it’s interesting, too, that you started out in low-temperature physics, then you left and Bill left, Bruce continued research, but I believe the mass spectrometer that you had a hand in building is now being used for oceanographic work.
SOLLER: Yes, that’s right. Bruce started off with us to build this mass spectrometer because we were interested at that time in separating what was then a very rare isotope of helium, helium 3. We thought that one way of detecting how much of the helium 3 we had separated would be by mass spectrometric means. We were getting along pretty well on that, and then the whole tenor of our research shifted very drastically when the Oak Ridge people, with their nuclear reactors, were able to manufacture helium 3 by nuclear disintegrations, many millionfold times greater than we could. So immediately, within a year or so, they had got enough helium 3, which is so very rare-- it was available in natural helium only to one part in ten million, for example. In order to collect enough helium 3 to even begin to find out what its properties were, we were struggling away and had collected a few cc’s of the stuff at very low pressure, but as soon as the Oak Ridge people developed their process, we just said it’s hopeless for us to go on on that tack. So we started working on other properties of substances at low temperatures and Bruce had his mass spectrometer. It was no longer needed for what we were doing so that he got interested in the oceanographic end of it. It was a split-off.
HWH: Did you exchange information with Oak Ridge in the earlier days?
SOLLER: No, this was all hush-hush secret at that time, and finally when it was published, we got out of the field as fast as we could.
HWH: I seem to recall more than one occasion when there was power failure and your experiment which had been going for many hours had to be started all over again.
SOLLER: That was doing it the hard way in those days, but the old liquefier that we built kept functioning; it was still going when I left, but soon after that the department got tired of tinkering with it and got some funds and bought a new one-- a modern one.
HWH: Did Warren Witt get involved at all?
SOLLER: Yes, he was involved in it but more than Warren it was George Smith who was. He was our backbone on that-- a very fine gentleman, too.
HWH: I always had a high regard for Warren.
SOLLER: Yes, Warren was, well I guess all that you could say he was a real gentleman. He was superb and very faithful and loyal to the College and I’m sorry that he’s gone now. Then we were back about five years ago, he was in the Kane Nursing Home. We went to visit him there and it was, (I think it must have been) fifteen minutes before he could remember who we were. So it was very sad. But he was a great man. And you didn’t need to have any drawings if you wanted him to make something for you-- you’d give him the idea and he’d start scratching away. He used to work for the hat factory in the early days, the old Burnett hat factory, here. He kept most of their machinery going over there.
HWH: Did you get any National Science Foundation Grants-- I believe they succeeded the ONR?
SOLLER: Right. No, I think Bob Romer and Bill Fairbank might have gotten some grants from them, but I think my connection was only with the Office of Naval Research. George May was recalling it this morning. He said it was a good organization, all right.
HWH: On to something else, Ted. Shortly after you came back to Amherst in ‘46, I believe it was, the New Curriculum came in the following year. I’d like to get into Arnold Arons a little later, but I believe the program was adopted in your absence, I think it was adopted in ‘45, ‘46 though it may have been ‘46, ‘47.
SOLLER: I think that’s right. And it was the outgrowth of the Long Range Policy Committee that was working on it through the war.
HWH: Yes, with Gail Kennedy.
SOLLER: Yes, with Gail. Also Bailey Brown was on the Committee. Who else? My recollection is a little fuzzy as to how we got started on it, but I know Ralph Beebe and I, together, gave a course, a combination course in physics and chemistry. I don’t have any college catalogs, I don’t know just when we did that-- it might have been ‘48 when we did it.
HWH: I think it was. I talked with Ralph of this series and he mentioned that, too. What I was going to lead up to was areas of collaboration among different departments of the College and the ‘47 Curriculum changed all that. But I wondered if you noticed any difference in teaching physics brought about by the requirements of the New Curriculum-- that is, more students were exposed to physics, it was required of them, every student at that time, where in the past physics could be elected.
SOLLER: Right. Well I think that what Ralph and I tried to do in the early days was to stress the general usefulness of physical concepts, not only in physics and chemistry but in everyday life, for example; to me it wasn’t simply a course in physics facts and chemistry facts, but the broader aspects of it.
HWH: Application of physical and chemical principles to everyday life.
SOLLER: To everyday life. And as I remember it, we tried to change our experiments and things of this sort to make them a little less professional and make them a little more qualitative rather than quantitative. Then we realized that each of us had our limitations on this thing, and as the curriculum developed I kept looking for someone to head up the course. I think we entertained over night and over weekends about every possible physicist in the Eastern half of the country looking for someone who had a spark, whom we thought might really make this course go.
HWH: Well I recall, we were here then, too, the first two years of Science 1-2 were a little shaky.
SOLLER: That’s right. We were trying to feel our way and none of us was really competent in this. Someone was asking me, was it you, this morning that asked me how we got hold of Arnold Arons?
HWH: Yes, I think I’d like to get that down.
SOLLER: Well I’m not positive how this happened, but I know that the thing that really got me going on trying to investigate Arnold Arons was a remark made by Mel Kranzberg and his wife, Nancy. Nancy had been a student at Stevens Tech and Arnold was teaching a course there, and apparently his methods of teaching were such as to fire the imagination of a lot of people, and Nancy among them. She told me about Arnold and his approach to things and I thought this was very interesting and got hold of him immediately, and managed to have a few minutes with him at a Physical Society meeting at Columbia University at the end of January. Arnold listened patiently for a while and was polite about things and said he would consider it, but he wasn’t at all, didn’t seem to be at all interested. His wife, Jane, had been a student at Mount Holyoke and a graduate there. I think she probably put in some good words for Massachusetts, and so in a month or so I was able to get him to come for an interview with Charlie Cole.
HWH: I would like to have been able to sit in on that one.
SOLLER: Yes. I wish we’d had tape recorders then. But to make a long story short, Arnold came up and he was certainly dynamic and forceful and a very good teacher. I think he made a wonderful success of that course.
HWH: Probably at the same time one of the most hated, yet one of the most successful, and for former students one of the most remembered teachers.
SOLLER: That’s right. He certainly was. I remember they used to have “hate Arons” silence of two minutes on November 11th. But in retrospect I think he was a great asset to the College and to that curriculum, and I think there are only a few of the students who hated him at the time who still hate him.
HWH: To me, it was remarkable that Science 1-2 and English 1-2 had complemented each other so greatly.
SOLLER: Oh yes, it was certainly an integrated curriculum as far as English and physics and chemistry and mathematics were concerned in those days. Arnold was very sure about himself and very blunt in his approach, and I know that some of the people who were cooperating in the teaching sort of cringed at some of his ideas and methods of expressing them, but it was a good course and Arnold was a great man. Still is.
HWH: I’m sure that the staff teaching Science 1-2 held periodic meetings to discuss the course and assignments and so on; some of those must have been interesting sessions.
SOLLER: Well they were and they were certainly dominated by Arnold. In other words, he was so positive in the way he thought things ought to go and the way to do it that it was pretty hard to prevail otherwise on him. He wouldn’t listen very well. Most of the time I think he was right, too.
HWH: I would suspect, too, that many of the decisions were far from unanimous.
SOLLER: Oh that’s right. That’s right. And I think eventually the cooperation would have had to break down, as it did for the whole curriculum, you know, in the mid ‘sixties. It was about time for a change when it happened.
HWH: I never did know whether Arnold left here happily and I expect there was some bitterness.
SOLLER: I don’t think he was too happy. I think he was very unhappy about the changes that were occurring in the curriculum and the attitude of the staff toward education and the way to achieve a good curriculum. I think he was glad to leave, really, when he had an opportunity, and I think he’s very happy now and he’s doing something similar to this but on a much more limited scale. He was a very effective teacher.
HWH: Did he get involved in research at all?
SOLLER: Yes, he was very interested in oceanographic research. He was on the staff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
HWH: I remember that, he had a place down on Naushon Island.
SOLLER: That’s right, he spent all his summers down there. He still is a member of the Board down there and goes to Annual Meetings, at any rate.
HWH: Was there any connection between his interest and Bruce Benson’s later interest in oceanography?
SOLLER: Yes, and actually he also got Dudley Towne interested in doing some theoretical work in oceanography for a while and published a paper or two, but I don’t think that continued after Arnold left.
HWH: I don’t know whether you knew Prosser Gifford is now Chairman of the Board down at Woods Hole, at the Oceanographic Institute.
SOLLER: Oh he is? No I didn’t know that.
HWH: Ted, do you remember anything about Ebenezer Strong Snell’s collection of physical apparatus? You were curator, it seems to me.
SOLLER: Sam Williams was very interested in that, of course, and he had collected a lot of these things, and for a while they were in one of the small rooms up in Fayerweather, up on the second floor. We had a small room there with physical experiments and things of this sort.
HWH: I remember, the southwest corner.
SOLLER: Right. Well after a while, when the chemists moved over to their new building, we inherited the other half of the building and in the middle ‘thirties it was this corner right down here, nearest Fayerweather, which is now...
HWH: That would be northwest.
SOLLER: Whatever this corner is, over here, that whole room was the Snell Museum of Physics. He had gotten a lot of the things together-- a lot of the things had nothing to do with Snell, however; it was just a sort of working museum where you could go and you could look at things and also you could turn cranks and perform experiments. After Sam retired, I guess there was still a museum and they needed to have somebody who would answer letters and acquire additional pieces of apparatus and things, so I inherited the title for a few years.
HWH: I remember in the catalog you were listed “Curator of the Snell Museum.”
SOLLER: I don’t have the faintest idea of what’s happened to it now.
HWH: I was going to ask you that, because no one seems to know.
SOLLER: I think it just evaporated. After Sam retired and then died, I think we moved part of it back into a small room upstairs. There was some correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution, I believe, and a few items may have been shipped to them. There wasn’t enough real interest in the thing to use up a big laboratory space such as that, so we moved the E and M Lab into that room.
HWH: I guess you know what’s happened to Fayerweather now.
SOLLER: A few years ago I came back and was wandering around there in the building by myself, wandered through the old labs and came out of an apparatus room into this room that had been a lab and found a young lady in the nude, posing in there. So I gather that was part of the Art Department now. As well as a snack bar and a theater, and all sorts of things.
HWH: Well now it is...
SOLLER: A students’ center, is it?
HWH: Snack bar and students’ social center. What used to be your laboratories are now slinging hotdogs and hamburgs.
SOLLER: What’s happened to the big lecture hall that Laurence Packard used to use, upstairs above, you know on the second floor back end. Is that still a lecture room up there or not?
HWH: No it’s not, that’s been changed and all the space on the first floor back is now part of the social center and down below there are pool and billiard tables. It’s really very nice. There was such a flap between the Fine Arts department and the College of taking over this space, real arguments got stirred up, and one of the leaders was Professor Sweeney, so the students have named the new social center or the new snack bar “Sweeney’s.”
SOLLER: They’ve got a sign up on it? Have they?
HWH: They will have. You presided over the dedication of the Merrill Center, it seems to me. Did you ever have your office in there?
SOLLER: No, it was still under construction. I came back; Cal invited Nina and me to come back as guests of the College on the day that they dedicated it. I guess I had a few remarks to make, then, but I was not involved directly; all the arrangements were made by Cal and whatever committee was doing it.
HWH: We had that ceremony out on the porch, the terrace.
SOLLER: I don’t know what they call it now. In the fall as I remember.
HWH: Did you ever feel inhibited in research that you wanted to undertake for lack of proper facilities?
SOLLER: Oh no, no. I think that...
HWH: Of course you built your own.
SOLLER: Sure, that’s right. It was much more a do-it-yourself business then and you just couldn’t go out and buy what you wanted. But I don’t think that we felt that we couldn’t do something because we didn’t have the money. I think we had the attitude, well what is it possible for us to do with what we can put together and what we have available? The ideas of unlimited grants were far distant in those days. Certainly the facilities in the new building are superb.
HWH: I would think it would make it easier for the Department to attract new faculty, too, as well as to conduct their own research.
SOLLER: Oh, sure. I think it’s a very elegant building and I never, I wouldn’t dream of the College’s being able to afford a building such as that. I don’t think they should have, really. I think they put far too much money in it. It’s an elegant building and it will be there for a good many years and it’s very adaptable-- it can be used for anything you want to. That aspect of it is good, but I think it was very expensive.
HWH: I recall that after the first design, they sent it back to the architects with the admonition to reduce the cost and when it came back it was even higher.
SOLLER: I wrote a note to Cal after the first presentation from this firm, with the recommendation that they pay them off and start off with some other firm. I said, “I don’t think these people got the idea at all.” And Cal said, “Oh I think they’re a fine firm of architects.” He was all for this firm. When they came back with the next set of plans, I remember being in Minot Grose’s office when we had a meeting with the architect up there and Mr. Aldrich came up with a figure of three and a half million dollars for the building. I said, “I don’t think you can build it for three and a half million dollars.” He said, “Do you mean to tell me that I don’t know my business?” I said, “Well, no, I don’t, but I think what you mean by three and a half million dollars and what I mean by it are not the same thing. What I mean is what’s going to be the total cost to the College when the building is ready for us to move in and get to work.” He thought he was still right about it, but when the building was under construction we were down in his office one day and he finally said, “Ted, you were so right and I was so wrong.”
HWH: That’s a nice thing. Well, you worked very closely with the firm and Nat Grose, too.
SOLLER: Yes, I was in on the whole dirty work of the building and Bruce Benson took over when I left. He was very interested; of the Department he was the most interested in the details about it and he really carried the ball after I left. It was a crazy idea, but it’s a beautiful building.
HWH: It certainly is handsome.
SOLLER: I’ve never seen another science building in this country that’s as elegant as that building. You just walk into it and it’s so different from anything else I’ve seen that it’s unbelievable.
HWH: Was there any difficulty in getting the departments together to move into that building? Was everyone happy to leave what they had?
SOLLER: Oh sure-- the only thing was that-- I’m a little fuzzy on this thing now, but astronomy wanted more room than they got, I think, in the end. I don’t know who finally made the decision of what departments were to go in it. At first, it was to be physics and chemistry and the first idea was that we would build it down behind Fayerweather in the parking lot below, right behind the Heidrich house and have an overpass that would join that building to Moore Chemistry Lab. And that was to be the new science building. You probably will find in the files somewhere a photograph of a board, a poster that was set up, a sign-board, saying this was the site of the new science building; estimated cost, $2,185,000!
HWH: Can you recall some stories or conversations you might have had with some of Amherst’s more colorful teachers, colleagues? There comes to my mind, of course, Warren Kimball Green whom they used to call “The Globe.” I recall as a student, I think it was my senior year, ‘36, that there was a great effort on campus for a Peace Rally. We invited Warren to come into Johnson Chapel to speak on behalf of the cause and it turned out that Warren was a very proud member of the American Legion and he ended up giving all of us HELL-- you know, who do we think we are? But you did mention Toggles Thompson.
SOLLER: Toggles was a real character. He was a bachelor until he was fairly well along and finally got married to Lulu. They lived on Lincoln Avenue and in due course of time they had a daughter, Rebecca, who, when she was a little tot, used to be hauled up to the College by her father in the winter time on a sled. She’d be all bundled up and he’d walk to the College (I think Ralph Beebe may have told this story; I didn’t get it first hand from Toggles), but one day he was walking down the street explaining some physical principle to a student when the student said, “Well, Professor Thompson, you’ve lost your daughter.” It turns out that when he’d rounded the corner at the Beta House, the sled had tipped over and she had got off into the snow, but he was so busy explaining this business that he hadn’t missed her at all until he got down at the front of the next fraternity house. So he walked back slowly and when he got to Rebecca he said, “Well you SEE,” he says, “the center of gravity was just a little too high.” That’s one of the stories.
HWH: Do you have any memories of Davy Todd?
SOLLER: No, I don’t have any of Davy Todd. But Warren Green used to have a wild tale, most of which I’ve forgotten. Warren thought that Davy Todd really got away with murder here at the College.
HWH: Quite a few thought that.
SOLLER: I think it’s probably true.
HWH: Was B. K. around?
SOLLER: B. K. Emerson was around. Our children used to call him Santa Claus because he had this great big long white beard. I remember one time or another there was a reception at the President’s House. I don’t know if it was Arthur Stanley Pease-- or was it in the first year of Stanley King’s-- there was a big faculty reception at the house, the President’s House. It was in the wintertime. Emerson was very absentminded and, when he was going home, had taken Bill Clark’s overcoat and worn it home. Bill Clark was about 6’3” and Emerson was not nearly that tall. When Bill came to go home he couldn’t find his coat at all and the last one left was a short little thing which I guess had the name of B. K. Emerson in it so he went home with that and finally retrieved his coat. Emmy was a great character. Freddie Loomis used to tell stories about B.K., about one night when the Emersons were over at his house, I think for dinner, and a big snow storm had come up, and they prevailed on them to stay the night. A little while later B. K. walked in the door again; he’d gone home to get his pajamas!
HWH: Do you have any recollection, Ted, of differences among administrations-- any one president more disposed toward the physics program than another?
SOLLER: We knew Georgie Olds of course, but he was no longer president when we came; but Arthur Stanley Pease was President when we came, and he was a very distinguished scholar and I think was a good president, but he didn’t enjoy presiding over the College. Then Stanley King came and I think Stanley King was the best thing for Amherst College in those days, because he really worked miracles as far as we on the faculty were concerned, because I can think of no other liberal arts institution where the faculty were not forced to accept big cuts in salary through the Depression and Amherst College didn’t cut a salary in that time. We didn’t get advances, but we didn’t get any cutbacks at all. And I think that was wizardry on the part of Stanley King.
HWH: Someone has commented that Stanley really rescued the College twice-- once during the Depression that you’re mentioning, the other during the War when practically all the academic students left.
SOLLER: Yes, that’s right. I wasn’t here at that time so I’m not so conscious of that, but I am grateful to Stanley King for being here at the time when he was. He was an autocrat, though.
HWH: Yes, he was that.
SOLLER: But I think he was good for Amherst College at the time he was here. And I also think that Charlie Cole was a very great president at the time when he was here. I think he was responsive and very intelligent, very astute about a lot of things.
HWH: Do you know the circumstances of Charlie’s death?
HWH: Did you know that there happened to be on the same ship, and that he had met at cocktails prior to the time he died at dinner, an Amherst graduate in the Class of ‘29? They didn’t know each other, or didn’t know they were Amherst and he was just about the last person he talked to.
SOLLER: Do you know who it was?
HWH: I don’t remember it off hand, but you’d probably remember him.
SOLLER: I probably would remember him.
HWH: That’s Bill Wilson’s Class. Bill was the one that told us. Well, Cal being a scientist, himself, did you notice any difference in the way science was conducted in his presidency-- or handled?
SOLLER: No, I don’t think so. I think by the time that Cal came, we were all pretty well involved in the programs that were going on at the time, so we didn’t, as far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to approach him for a big inordinate demand for equipment or money or anything of that sort.
HWH: And after all, the decision to build the Merrill Center was made during his presidency.
SOLLER: Right. And I never could understand the philosophy of how the building of this building was to proceed, or what the financial limitations were to be. I just know that whenever I inquired about what is the ceiling, what are we aiming for here?, all the answers I could get out of Callahan, and who was it before? Was it Longsworth? .
HWH: Chuck Longsworth
SOLLER: Chuck. Apparently Cal had said don’t worry about the money-- you just design what you think is the best building, and we’ll worry about the money. That was very foreign to me, I thought there ought to be a ceiling on the thing and we’ll do what we can from the money that’s available. Somehow or other this didn’t turn out.
HWH: I think you could have built a complete annex with what has been spent on that roof since then.
SOLLER: Well that was one of the things that I remonstrated about even in the design stages. You know, it was the architects who wanted to have that flat area out there. And I said, “You’re going to have trouble with that,” from the very beginning, but I was no architect so--. Did the College finally sue the architects for this?
HWH: I believe they did. I don’t think it’s resolved yet.
SOLLER: Well, one of the senior members of the firm whose name is still in the firm, I met, just two or three years ago in New Hampshire where he is retired, and he had a cocktail party at his home and he remarked that he was being sued for the costs of repairing this building. And he said he hadn’t been in the firm for years!
HWH: Ted, were you close to any trustees, any one more than another? Do you have any thoughts on trustee relationships to the College in your experience?
SOLLER: My earliest experience was very early in my career here when there still used to be Morrow Cafeteria. The Trustees at their semi-annual meetings would have a luncheon for the faculty and one of these was to take place in Morrow Dormitory. We were all gathered in a group, across the hall was Morrow Library, and we were having a conversation there, and finally in walked Cal Coolidge with his hat on and a cigar in his face, and he walked in and walked around the library,-- the trustees and faculty were thick in there-- and he just walked around the groups, said nothing to anybody, and walked out. So that was my first experience with Cal Coolidge as a trustee. He was the same way at faculty receptions in the President’s House; he was very non-commital but his wife was certainly vivacious and lovely. She always came to all the baseball games and would cheer and sit on the bleachers, in the early days.
HWH: While he was trustee?
SOLLER: Yes. So that’s my recollection of Cal Coolidge. But of course I knew most of the other trustees, but not intimately.
HWH: You probably knew Seelye Bixler very well. He was a remarkable man.
SOLLER: Oh yes. Right.
HWH: There’s always been a Plimpton around, too.
SOLLER: That’s right. F.T.P. I remember very, very well.
HWH: Do you remember his father?
SOLLER: Yes, I did. Yes, he was on the Board when I came here in ‘28. I don’t know how long he was still there, but...
HWH: Well he was far from through. He served from 1907 to 1936 and retired when Stanley King was president-- George Arthur Plimpton.
SOLLER: He was an imposing figure, too. Quite a man.
HWH: Were you much aware of the Trustees’ presence? I don’t mean physically on campus.
SOLLER: No, no. I think we were all very aware that this was a sort of a driving force for the College.
HWH: It seems to me that Amherst Trustees, certainly for the most part, have been very responsible and closer to the College than the Trustees of many institutions.
SOLLER: I think that’s true undoubtedly, and the same way with the alumni. I don’t think I know of any institution where the alumni have the loyalty to the College that exists here. It’s remarkable really. I’ve had occasion to consult one or two of the alumni on little personal problems and I found them very warm and helpful. Olie Colgan, among others-- wonderful person. And Spike Beitzel, when he was a student, was having trouble writing his senior thesis and so we had a room at our house where he wrote his senior paper. We had quite a gang down there, you know; we sort of fostered the seniors who wanted to do some work, and so we remember Spike from his student days. I haven’t seen him since. And Carington, Bob Carington, used to be around, of course, with the D.Q. and the people like that. I’d like to see Bob very much. Apparently he’s a great person.
HWH: Yes he is. As you know, an election is coming up. I guess you vote with your honorary degree. Can you think of some comments that I haven’t touched on, that would be nice to put down?
SOLLER: I don’t think of it now, but if such occur to me in the near future I’ll try to jot them down and send them to you. I haven’t been thinking too sharply on this.
HWH: No, this was too sudden.
SOLLER: One other person who has always been high in my estimation and who is loyal to the College is Preston Bassett. In the old days we used to have alumni visiting committees and we had a good one for the Physics Department. Preston Bassett was on that for a good many years. This was in the early days when Sam Williams was Chairman of the Department and we used to meet in the little library we had and have these meetings with interested alumni. Preston was always one of the leading persons and he’s been a great benefactor to the College, too.
HWH: He certainly has. Did you enjoy those visiting committee meetings?
SOLLER: Yes, we had a very interested group. I’m trying to think of the names of some of the other people in the old days. All the minutes are somewhere in the Alumni files I’m sure. They used to have minutes of all these meetings. Somebody would have to write them up. There was a Dr. Delatour (Beeckman 1911) and he for some reason or other was on our physics committee. He was always very vocal about ideas that he had about how things should be done.
HWH: These men took their membership seriously.
SOLLER: Oh, they really did. And another one was Louis Eaton. Was he from Pawtucket, Rhode Island or somewhere?
HWH: In the eastern part of the state. He had several sons go to the College here.
SOLLER: Louis Eaton and Delatour and Bassett I remember now. I can’t think of anybody else. But we always took great pains in preparing for these alumni visiting committees, I remember. Sort of shined up everything and got ready to show them everything that was going on and they were always very interested, as I remember.
HWH: It’s being discussed now of resurrecting visiting committees and some members of the faculty are quite up in arms about it. They feel that this is an imposition and a trespass on their private preserves, but they don’t realize this is something that used to be annual and I think quite productive.
SOLLER: Well, this probably should be off the record, but I have the feeling that in the days when we were younger here, there was more of a loyalty to the College among the faculty than there is at the present time. It seems to me that a good many of the younger people are more interested in their own advancement and prestige than they are in the well-being of the College. I may be entirely wrong and probably an old fogey on this, but this is the way it appears to me, at this point.
HWH: If I can get a hold of a copy, I’ll send down to you the latest issue of the Student which has a very extensive summary of faculty attitude toward the College and administration and vice versa.
SOLLER: Oh you think it’s a...
HWH: I think it’s well done and I think it’s quite true. It’s pointed out that Amherst, which wants to be and prides itself on being a teaching college, is not the right place for a man who wants to go into research in science or into historiography or anthropology or whatever it might be.
SOLLER: Well, it all depends on where your emphasis lies and I think if your primary emphasis for you as an individual is research and pre-eminence in your field, it’s probably a mistake for you to try to do it at a place like Amherst. I think teaching is a vital part of what should be going on here; and if you’re not interested in the teaching, you shouldn’t be here. You should do it somewhere else, be at a University. However, I think the opportunity for research should be here; I think it’s sterile to think that you can do good teaching if you’re not being creative at the same time.
HWH: The very point I started quoting Sam Williams on. Incidentally, when did you decide that you wanted to make physics a career?
SOLLER: I think when I was in high school.
HWH: That long ago.
SOLLER: I had a very good teacher in high school physics.
HWH: It was Randville?
SOLLER: It was The Rayen School in Youngstown, Ohio. It was called The Rayen School, it wasn’t Rand High School.
HWH: Capital T
SOLLER: It was founded by a Judge Rayen in the town, in the ‘sixties or something like that.
HWH: Was there any particular incident?
SOLLER: No, except that I was just interested in physical principles and the way things work, I guess. It struck my fancy and I enjoyed it.
HWH: Did you ever have to come to a decision as to whether you would go into research or teaching exclusively, one or the other?
SOLLER: No, no. I think I was more interested in teaching than I was in the research, really. But it was a good combination and, particularly after the war, I think we had a very good thing going here in the department. It was a congenial department. We got things done, we worked well together, and it was a very happy time.
HWH: I remember that. Bill Stifler-- I recall when he had had a heart ailment, he was president of the Faculty Club-- you remember that?
SOLLER: No. I remember he had had a heart ailment, but I don’t remember he was president of the Faculty Club at that time?
HWH: Yes, and the doctors had urged him to take a little bit of whiskey. Do you recall that one year he wanted to give a party for the Faculty Club and I think Susan Stifler would not have liquor in the house, so he had it across the street down here at George Funnell’s and he was not used to whiskey himself, and he had a whale of a time? Do you remember that?
SOLLER: No. I’m afraid I don’t.
HWH: Well it was great. I never saw him so happy as he was then.
Ted, if I think of anything that we haven’t gone on-- it will be after I’ve gone through the transcript-- but if anything occurs to you and you have access to a tape recorder, rather than writing it down, you might just want to talk to a cassette.
SOLLER: O.K., sure, I could do that. I don’t have one, but I could probably get access to one.
HWH: These things are standard.
SOLLER: Yes, I know they are.
HWH: I’m sure I’ve missed some things. I hadn’t given it enough thought in advance.
SOLLER: There may be some things that occur to me later on. If I think they may be of interest, I’ll be glad to communicate then to you. I think it’s a great idea to try. It’s too bad that we don’t remember to ask each other a lot of questions earlier on, while the memories are still fresh. I remember a lot of things I should have asked my father, about my family, before, but I never thought of doing it. There’s always time to do it, and eventually things go by and you’re too late.
HWH: It hasn’t occurred to me, your name is of German origin and your mother’s name, it seems to me, was von Zellen?
SOLLER: No. Zum Mallen. It turns out that both my mother’s and my father’s family were farmers within five miles of one another in Germany, right south of Bremen, in very fertile farmland and on the map of the village area around there, there is a meadow that’s called Mallen, and what the origin of that name is I’m not sure. But I’m sure that this name has been associated with that area for hundreds of years and the way I put it together, I have no way of knowing whether this is correct or not, is that this family lived near this meadow so they called it Zum Mallen-- you see, to this area, or belonging to the area, something like that.
HWH: That’s a far cry from Flagstaff, Arizona. Looks to me as though you’re wearing a symbolic firebird.
SOLLER: That’s a thunderbird.
HWH: During the war, I was in a carrier fighter squadron that had the thunderbird as its symbol. I noticed that when you came in.
SOLLER: Yes, well there’s still a Thunderbird Club in Phoenix at the present time. I don’t know whether it had its origins in your fighter squadron or not.
HWH: Is that at the top of one of the tall buildings?
SOLLER: They probably have their club headquarters up there somewhere. The thunderbirds; they always run a big golf tournament out there, too.
HWH: Well, Ted, I thank you.
[End of transcript.
Final transcript made October, 1978]