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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

James A. Schoke’s Interview (2013)

Manhattan Project Locations:

James A. Schoke was selected to be part of the Special Engineer Detachment that worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago on the Manhattan Project. He worked for the instrument group, inventing instruments to detect uranium, alpha rays, and more. He went on to a successful career in nucleonics and instruments, and was featured in a 1949 Popular Mechanics article, “The Million-Dollar Baby of the Nuclear Age.” He recalls playing tennis with Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer asking him to call him “Oppie.”

Date of Interview:
March 24, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. And today is Sunday, March 24th, 2013. And we are interviewing James A. Schoke. But first I want him to tell us his name in full and spell it. 

James Schoke: James Asher Schoke, J-A-M-E-S A-S-H-E-R S-C-H-O-K-E.

Cindy Kelly: Great. Now next hard questions, are what is your birthday and where were you born? 

Schoke: I was born at 11:32 PM, they told me, in Chicago on April 29th, 1924. 

Kelly: Great, I have no way to refute that so it must be right. [Laughter.] Sounds good. All right, we are here to talk about your experiences in the Manhattan Project. But first I want you to tell us a little bit about what happened after April 29, 1924. Fill in what you did between then and the time you joined the Manhattan Project. 

Schoke: Well, my mother and I and my father, of course, lived together until I was four years old. And then they got divorced. So my mother and I then lived with various of her sisters and their husbands and families at various times until—actually until I went into the Army. I of course went to grammar school, went to high school in Chicago, which had 4500 students. And at the time about seventy percent went to college. 

And my interests were in science right from the outset. In fact, when I was five or six years old I got some kind of science set, a chemistry set, and that is when my interest got triggered. Later when I was a—when I became about eleven or twelve, I started a laboratory in the basement of our apartment building in which I did biological and chemical experiments—kid stuff, not grown-up stuff. 

And then in high school I majored in science because I intended to go to—further my education in science. I graduated high school in February of ‘42 and went to Illinois Institute of Technology majoring in chemical engineering, to begin with. And then after a year of chemical engineering I decided I wanted to major in physics. So I changed my major. In that sophomore year at IIT—by the way, I might have said—I was there on a full scholarship from a competitive exam. You can leave that in or take it out. [Laughter.] 

And I was classified 1AS in 1943 as a sophomore, nineteen years old. And then I was told that I would—the student deferment would run out shortly. So I started to look for opportunities in the military to continue my education in one way or another. I was not able to get into the V-5 or V-12 programs because of a bad elbow, and so I enlisted in the Signal Corps in a program designed to teach you radio electronics and ultra-high frequency electronics, which was new at the time. And that program ended up in twenty weeks at the University of Chicago. And by the way, I was put in reserve. I was not in uniform when I was going to school. I was in the enlisted reserve of the Signal Corps. 

The twenty weeks at the University of Chicago was at senior and graduate level. And I was the youngest in the class. There were engineers, physicists, mathematicians in the same class. And I was very fortunate to get into it. I graduated second in the class. And then I went to active duty. Before I went to active duty I was interviewed. I had two interviews by people from outside of my program. One of them, it turned out, was—the people who went into that program in the military, were stationed in mountains in Europe to man communications equipment. I was glad that I did not choose to go into that one. The other one—I did not know what I was being interviewed for, but so I went to active duty then. And basic training in Miami Beach, Signal Corps attached to the Air Corps. They were going to send me to radar school sooner or later. 

By the way, we were supposed to go to—have an opportunity to go to OCS [Officer Candidate School] from this twenty-week program. That of course did not happen. [Laughter.] That disappeared when we graduated. We went Miami Beach and there it was an eight-week basic training. 

Schoke: In the third week—I might say, in the fourth week I was scheduled for kitchen duty, “KP,” they called it. But in the third week, at reveille one morning, my one-eyed corporal from Georgia, who was kind of mad at the world because he could not be over in Europe fighting, called out, “Schoke, you SOB Jew, come forward.” 

So I went forward and saluted him, went to attention. And he said, “At ease.” Which I did. And he said, “Who the F do you know in Congress?” 

And I said, “I don’t know anybody, sir.” 

He says, “Well, you must know somebody. The captain’s got secret orders for you.” 

It was news to me. I had no knowledge this was happening. And so I went to the captain, got my secret orders. And what they did is—they were orders to come to Chicago and report to an armory on the South Side, and it had a train ticket in there for that purpose. So that is what I did. 

And when I got to Chicago, of course I went home first. And I was in uniform, of course. And then I went to report to the armory. It was on Cottage Grove on the South Side of Chicago, a couple of miles from the University of Chicago campus. And I reported there and they took me to the University of Chicago campus, to the Ryerson Physics Building, and took me in and introduced me to the section. This was the—turned out to be the—where I was going was the instrument section of the Metallurgical Laboratory of the Manhattan Project, which was at the University of Chicago. And I was of course introduced to the section director/manager. And he was from General Electric Company, he told me. And of course they were all much older than I. And then I was introduced to my group leader. I was in the instrument laboratory group. Or—I am sorry—laboratory instrument group, I got it backwards. 

And my group leader, Wendell Bradley, was an extremely competent electronics man and a good man to work for. There were about twelve people in that group. And some were civilians and some were military. I was told to report out of uniform and find a place to live, which I did. And I got a room at a fraternity on the campus. They were looking for boarders because they—so many of their people were in the military. [Laughter.] 

I was in that instrument group. And my first job was to—I was told that they were pilfering uranium, which was called “T metal” at the time, from Site B, which was another site on campus where they were machining uranium and cladding it in aluminum for the X-10 reactor at Oak Ridge in order to produce plutonium. 

Of course I learned all of this only because I was going to work on an instrument to detect uranium, because people were walking out with it through the security gate. There was a good reason for that. Uranium was very heavy. It was very valuable, they were led to believe by the way it was handled and treated. When it was machined it gave very large sparks, fiery sparks. And so it was a great souvenir, paperweight. [Laughter.] However, the people working on it did not know it was radioactive. And they were—they had to change clothes when they came. And then change clothes again back to their civvies when they left in order that they—they did not know why, but it was to prevent them from taking radioactivity home. And so I was to make an instrument which would detect the chunks of uranium when they were walking out with them. And I did develop that, and it was installed and it worked. 

There was one story, though; there was one man who kept setting off the alarm. And they searched him and he had no uranium on him. They had him change clothes and he still turned the—set off the alarm when he walked through the gate. Well then, we finally got him to change clothes one piece at a time. And it turned out that his belt was radioactive and he was using the same belt with his civvies and with his work clothes. And the radioactive belt was setting off the alarm. And so that was the end of that. 

Here is a picture of some of my people in my group at the time. This gentleman’s name was Gerald Landsman. He is still alive in 2013. He lives on the west coast. He went on to have—from the project, went on to have a very successful career with Motorola, I believe. I believe it was Motorola and some other companies. This is me. And this is my group leader, Wendell Bradley. This gentleman, Tom Mitchell, became my partner later, which we will talk about later. And the other gentlemen were in various positions in the group. 

I went on the project in October of ‘43. And somebody at the Army headquarters, at the armory, ran across my Army folder and saw that I had done magic in high school. And so I got a phone call in November that said—asked me, the gentleman said, “Do you still do magic?” 

I said, “Well, I haven’t for a while, but I’m sure I could.” 

He said, “Well, would you come to our Army Christmas party at the armory and do a magic show for us as part of the entertainment?” 

Well, you do not say no to [laughter] an officer that is above you. So I agreed to do it. And I went to the Christmas party. And there were about, I would guess, a hundred people at the party. And many, about half of them or a third of them, were officers in the military there. 

The magic show went well. And the following year I was asked again to give a magic show, and I went and there were about half the people there, or two-thirds of the people there, and I could not understand why. The magic show went OK. And about two weeks later a rumor came around that the Army had gotten a rumor from Washington that the Germans had an A bomb and they were going to drop it on Chicago on Christmas Day. So that is where—why the officers were not there at the Christmas party. [Laughter] They all left town. 

In ‘44, 1944, there was a truck driver strike of some kind in Chicago. And I looked it up online, but I saw no mention of it any place as one of the strikes during the war. But at any rate, there was this strike and the drivers of the trucks for the project, who ran all kinds of errands getting materials for the project, for example, liquid air and liquid oxygen in everyday new supply. And I got a call. I was ordered to drive a truck with the—it was a pretty good size truck, not a trailer, but it was a pretty good size truck. And I was given a .45 [caliber handgun]. I had never had a gun or shot a gun. But I had the .45 and the drive went with me, he showed me how to drive the truck. The shifting was a little different than an automobile. It had four gears. 

And one of the places we went was air products company in Chicago. That is where we got the liquid air and the liquid oxygen. When we came to the plant, there was a big bunch of people, union people, with signs standing in front of the gate. And we drove up and I opened the window and I said—oh by the way, for this purpose I had to get back into uniform. And I said, “You know, I’m a military man. We’re on a military errand. And we have to go in.” And they swore at us and threatened us and waved bats. But they finally let us go in. And that was my experience with the union. 

Kelly: So you got in. Did you get out?

Schoke: One moment. 

Kelly: Did you get out? 

Schoke: Pardon me?

Kelly: You got in, did you get out?

Schoke: Oh yes, we got out. [Laughter.] 

Let us see. My assignments, I got another assignment to make a special filtered amplifier for Dr. Allison, Sam Allison, or one of the upper physicists. I did not know what it was for. But I knew what I was supposed to do. It was supposed to be a tuned amplifier for sixty cycles, which is the frequency of our power lines. And it is a very low frequency, so the electronic items that were used, that could be used to make it the way my group leader suggested I make it, were very large. The inductor would have weighed fifteen or twenty pounds. And capacitors would have similarly been very heavy and big, large. 

So I thought about it and suddenly remembered that we had learned about it, what was called a twin-T bridge, which was a bridge made only with resisters and capacitors that could be used to—in an amplifier, a feedback amplifier, to amplify its Q. The Q was a measure of how narrow the filter was. The higher the Q, the narrower the filter, and that was desirable. At any rate, so I asked my group leader if it was OK if I tried this twin-T bridge in the amplifier, and he said, “Sure.” Well, it worked. The resisters and capacitors were much smaller because it was a more complicated circuit. 

And then I was given a laboratory with another draftsman, my own laboratory, as a result of that development. And I was asked to make improvements in alpha detectors. Alpha rays are one type of radioactive ray. 

And I worked on that for several months and did make substantial improvements by inventing a new way to use a vacuum tube in the device. As a result of those inventions, the patent department of the project sent a colonel to file patents on behalf of the project in my name. And he would come looking for me. And it got to be—everybody would joke about “Schoke’s colonel,” because he would come looking for me and then—any rate. They did file, and it was my understanding the patents were granted, although I never saw them because they belonged to the government. 

Kelly: So were you unique among your group in being so inventive? 

Schoke: No, I was not unique. The people who were brought to the Manhattan Project were very high-caliber people, and there were many others who were inventing new things all the time in my group and in other groups around the project. 

Kelly: What do you attribute—I do not know—maybe you could say something along the lines of, “The Manhattan Project was on the frontier of many new developments in science. And you needed to be very inventive in order to be successful.” Can you just—if you agree with that, could you say something like that? 

Schoke: Well, I think it is certainly true. To produce plutonium, they had to be very creative. And there were actually three processes for producing a—U-238, which could be made into a bomb—U-235, I am sorry, which could be made into a bomb. And plutonium—there were three different processes built, very large plants, each one of them at Oak Ridge. And it was all new. The type of equipment had to be designed and tested before it could be built. So there were all kinds of inventions as a result of the Manhattan Project, and after the war as well. 

Having developed this new alpha or improved alpha counter, we had a production group in our instrument section. And we actually produced instruments for other sites of the project, including Los Alamos, Monsanto, and Dayton, Ohio, and I cannot remember the uranium producer in St. Louis. But any rate—

Kelly: Mallinckrodt?

Schoke: Mallinckrodt, thank you very much. [Laughter] As a result of having this improved counter, I was the appointed liaison for that instrument and other instruments from our section. And so I started to make trips to different sites to show them how to use the instruments, how to maintain them, and how to service them. 

One of the trips was to Los Alamos and well, I had several trips to Los Alamos. But my first trip to Los Alamos, I boarded the train at 3 PM in the afternoon, and it left for Los Alamos. Actually it was a Sante Fe Railroad. And I was sitting in the club car reading a book, and about 4 PM a gentleman—I heard somebody say, “Mr. Schoke?” And I looked up and there was a gentleman standing over me and I was amazed. How did he know who I was and on this train? I am on a secret mission. 

Any rate, it turned out to be Robert Oppenheimer’s assistant, whose name escapes me right now. But he invited me for wine, cheese, and conversation at Robert Oppenheimer’s cabin, compartment, right, at the—I do not know, 5:30 PM or 6 o’clock, which of course—here I am, a twenty year old at this point, and it was very exciting. So I went, and apparently it was Oppenheimer’s practice to do this on the train regularly. And there were, oh, five to seven people, men, standing around his compartment and talking and drinking. And of course there was no talk about the project or what we were doing or where were we going or where we [laughter]. But there was conversation about the war. And Oppenheimer liked to recite poetry, and he recited some poetry, and he invited me to call him Oppie when I was introduced to him. He said, “You can call me Oppie.” 

I was just absolutely amazed. This erudite man, who was so humble and willing to have a young twenty year old nobody as his guest, it really was a great experience. And it happened one more time during my career on the project. 

July 16th of 1945, the first atomic bomb was set off at Alamogordo, New Mexico. It was called the Trinity experiment, and it went off successfully. I was not there. There were a few people from our instrument section who were there. But a few—I do not know, it was one or two days later we were invited, all of the people in our instrument section and other sections at Met Lab were invited to watch a color movie of the bomb going off. And of course we were all very excited by it. And then on August 5th or 6th the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. And on the 9th another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. And at this point we knew the war was going to be over pretty soon. So people started to think about what is next, what do I do after I leave the Met Lab? 

Of course I had an education to finish, which I intended to do at night. But I also had got this idea that radioactivity and radioactive isotopes of the elements were going to be used by these people who went back to their universities, professors, and that there was going to be a market for some of the instruments that my group had produced. So I told my idea to my group leader and I told him I was thinking about starting a company. And he said, “Gee, that’s a good idea. I’ll join you.” And there were two other fellows in the SED, which was what the military—Special Engineering Detachment of the Corps of Engineers we were in. Tom Mitchell and John Kuranz were two of my friends that I had worked with in building some amplifiers for my wife’s uncle, who had an electronics business. 

And of course electronics were in very short supply, other than for military purposes. But he happened to run across some phonograph motors that were available, fifty of them. And he decided that he was going to make fifty phonographs for sale. They needed an amplifier to amplify the signal from the arm of the player. And he asked me if we would be willing to do it, if I would be willing to do it. And I asked these two friends if they would join me and if they were interested in building these things. And they were, so we built these things. And so when it came time to think about what to do after the war and my thoughts about starting a business I included them. And they were interested as well. 

So when the war ended I was the first, fortunately, the first one out of the military. Somebody made a mistake and gave me six months’ worth of points that I did not earn. [Laughter] But I accepted them and got out early. So I went and rented a storefront on 55th Street, which was a main drag near the campus. And we each borrowed four thousand dollars from a bank under the G.I. bill. And so we—with twelve thousand dollars, we started our business, and it was called Instrument Development Laboratory.  And we started by making— of course it took a little time to build the benches and get all the materials we needed to actually make products for sale. But we started with making an instrument that had— we had been building for the project. 

I started that company in February of ‘46. And my two partners joined me three months later, when they got out of the Army. Our first order came from Dr. Sugarman at the University of Chicago. He wanted to order one of our instruments. But the purchasing department at the University of Chicago checked on us and saw that we were a brand new company with very little capital, and they said no to him. And this was very disappointing to us. So I asked him if he could arrange a meeting with the purchasing agent, Dr. Sugarman. And he did. And he went with me and we had this meeting. And we explained to him where we came from and what we were doing. And he agreed to buy the instrument from us. So that was the first. And then we mailed sheets around to various universities, to people— we bought a mailing list of physicists and chemists and so forth. And business started to develop. And after a year—this was in—several years later, 1949. This article was written. This was just one page of the article that was written in Popular Mechanics. Can you see it? Does not matter. And we were very fortunate to get that publicity because that brought us more business. And in–

Kelly: Can you just tell—what was the—the title of that article is, “Million Dollar Baby of the Atom Age.”

Schoke: Yes. 

Kelly: So who is the million dollar baby? 

Schoke: The company. [Laughter.]

Kelly: And the picture of this handsome man here, who is the handsome man in the photograph? 

Schoke: I believe that is me. 

Kelly: What do you have?

Schoke: That is an apparatus, a vacuum system for making Geiger counters. That is what that is. 

Kelly: So it looks very complicated. Is that something you recreated from memory from what you had done during the war? 

Schoke: Yes. Yes we—

Kelly: Want to say that in a sentence? 

Schoke: We hired people who had made Geiger counters on the project. So they knew how to make them and how to get the apparatus built for making them. And similarly, as our business grew and as we added product lines, we added radioactive chemicals. And we hired a radioactive chemist that had been on the project to head up our chemistry, and manufacture chemicals with radioactive isotopes that were acquired from the Atomic Energy Commission. The X-10 reactor was used for producing these radioactive isotopes. And we incorporated—well, we sold the isotopes as we bought them in smaller quantities to people. And then we also incorporated the isotopes into various chemicals for experimentation. For example, digitalis. We made radioactive digitalis for heart research. 

And then as we grew we needed more capital. So we went to family and friends for thirty thousand dollars. Each one of us had the job of getting ten thousand dollars from family and friends. And we sold five hundred dollar units. Interestingly, the only one of my uncles—

[Tape switch.]

Kelly: Rolling. Good, you were talking about raising money from family and friends. 

Schoke: Yes, my wife’s father was very helpful in that regard. He himself invested in us and he got friends to invest in us. My mother had— I had five uncles who were married to my mother’s sisters in Chicago. And none of them invested in my company except for the poorest one. He actually took from under his mattress— because people after the Depression and the bank failures, some people kept their money under the mattress [laughter]—he took two hundred and fifty dollars. We agreed to sell him a half share, a half interest, and he did. I am very happy to— he was able to retire on the money he made later in life. 

So any rate, we successfully raised the thirty thousand dollars. And then a year and a half later we needed more capital. And we had competitors at this time. One of them was called Tracer Lab. Another was called Atomic Instrument Company. And they were in the Boston area, both of them. Tracer Lab was financed by one of the first venture capital companies, called American Research and Development Corporation, and it was headed by a former professor in the Harvard Business School, General George Doriot, who had come from France originally. He had a French accent. Tracer Lab had a public offering about six months earlier of a million dollars. We went out for three hundred thousand dollars, which was the—there were certain benefits and less paperwork if you stayed at three hundred thousand dollars. So we stayed at three hundred thousand dollars. 

And had a successful sale of our stock. And we were sold over the counter, bought and sold over the counter, our stock. Oh, earlier, a couple years before that, I had started Atomic Instruments Manufacturing Association, which included our competition and which was gradually growing. And there were other companies making, not the same products, but different products that were needed for measuring radioactivity or using it. And they all joined this association. I was its first president. And we had an exhibition in Washington, our first exhibition—I am sorry, in New York at the Commodore Hotel. And it was in a ballroom of the hotel. And on Sunday morning—our exhibition went on for three or four days in this ballroom. And people came from all over the country to see the instruments and various products that were available. 

On Sunday morning before the exhibition opened, I was there along with others preparing our booth for the opening. And all of a sudden there were—at one end of the hall there was activity. There were lights. There were cameramen and there was a little set of a chair and so I went over to see what was going on. And Mrs. Roosevelt walked in. She was being interviewed. She had a program apparently every week at that time. Her son James was there, and Faye Emerson was also there. And I got to meet all of them. And Mrs. Roosevelt asked me to—after she was done with her interview—if she could come and see the exhibition, so she did with her son and Faye Emerson. And I conducted them through the exhibition. That was a very pleasant endeavor. One moment. 

Some of the notable accomplishments of—I might say, that the name was changed. I should say the name was changed from Instrument Development Laboratories to Nuclear Instrument and Chemical Corporation about a year after we started, because another company had prior rights to the name Instrument Development Laboratory and they informed us. So we had to change our name. And subsequently we changed our name to Nuclear Chicago. And the reason was that companies were shortening their names at that time. That was the beginning of companies condensing their names. And so we joined the movement. Nuclear Chicago became our name. 

Some of the notable accomplishments—if you do not mind, I would like to read them. I negotiated worldwide distribution of radioactive isotopes for Amersham in England, which was a Queen’s company that was the equivalent of the Atomic Energy Commission in the US. And we had the exclusive distributorship rights, first in North and South America and then worldwide. 

Kelly: Could you explain—so they were the equivalent of the AEC, or the Atomic Energy Commission? 

Schoke: Atomic Energy Commission was making and selling radioactive isotopes. Amersham did the same thing for England, for the British atomic energy program. And selling them to industry and so forth. And we got the exclusive distributorship for that. We made the first commercial instrument for thyroid uptake studies, which was a medical diagnostic technique that was developed by at least one doctor at the University of Chicago. And we worked with him as he developed the procedure. And then we designed special instruments for commercial sale for that procedure. 

Kelly: I think there is a photo of that in this article in Popular Mechanics.

Schoke: Might be. 

Kelly: Some little girl with a tube that you put in her throat? 

Schoke: Yes. 

Kelly: Can you describe that because we could show the—?

Schoke: Well, iodine-131 is a radioactive form of iodine. And iodine of course is secreted by the thyroid. And the rate of uptake of the iodine into the thyroid is a measure of whether you are hypothyroid, normal, or hyperthyroid. And that is how—what was done. 

We made the first portable neutron monitor for the Nautilus. which was the first atomic submarine. And for Sears & Roebuck, we made a mass-produced Geiger counter for looking for uranium, which they sold in great quantities. And it actually could find uranium. There was a big—like a gold rush during this period, when all kinds of people were buying equipment and going on their vacations to look for uranium in various places in the US where it was known to exist, and in Canada as well. 

Kelly: So what created the demand? 

Schoke: For uranium? All of the reactors that were being built for power after the war. For a while, there was a big powerful movement to go to atomic power, which unfortunately was blown up by the Three Mile Island disaster near Pittsburgh, I think it was, where there was an overheating of a reactor and some radioactivity was thrown into the atmosphere. And I do not know if anybody died, but they probably—those people who were exposed may have gotten cancer early in their life if they—I do not think they were exposed to a deadly amount of radiation at the time. 

We also made a special Geiger counter for A. C. Gilbert & Company that was known for Erector Sets and other mechanical and scientific-type things. They came out with an atomic energy kit, which had a Geiger counter in it and some radioactive—encapsulated radioactive material so that you could do experiments with—showing how to measure radioactivity. 

Kelly: Would such a toy—it was for children, right? 

Schoke: Yes, for children, right. Yes. 

Kelly: Would that have been allowed today? Would you be able to have—?

Schoke: Yes. The amount of radioactivity was not in any way dangerous. And it was completely encapsulated in plastic. But the Geiger counters are very sensitive, so they can pick up small amounts of radiation. 

We were involved in the development of the first PET scanner for brain tumor diagnosis. 

Kelly: Maybe you want to say what PET scan is, or people will think it is for small animals. 

Schoke: [Laughter.] No. Oh, Positive Emitting—something. Positive—I cannot remember what the T is for [topography], but the positive emitting radioactive isotope was injected in a form that was attracted—that would be absorbed by brain tumors. So then the brain tumor would become radioactive. And they could first of all determine that there was one, and secondly even be located by proper use of detectors. 

We were the first ones to make a large—what was called the gamma source, source of gamma radiation, which is the most penetrating radiation. And it was used for radiography, x-rays, only for thicker and heavier objects. 

We made the first commercial carbon-14 detector. Radioactive carbon-14 occurs in nature. And also is produced—can be produced in a reactor. And it can be used—well, chemicals, organic chemicals, can be made with carbon-14 so that they can be traced in chemical reactions and also in body reactions. So it was a research tool to be able to use carbon-14.

And this detector had to be very special because carbon-14—the emissions, radioactive emissions of carbon-14 were very low energy. So the carbon-14 had to be introduced inside the detector in order to be detected, because even the thinnest wall would block the carbon-14 radiation. So this was a special detector. I have that here. 

One of the applications that came out of the work that—the ability to measure carbon-14 and other radioactive isotopes was archaeological and geological dating of materials, because the amount of carbon-14 in a material showed how long it was dead. If it had been dead for thousands of years, you could determine when it existed alive or when it died, from the remaining carbon-14 in the item. Because radioactive substances degrade. They have a half-life. And they gradually—every half-life, the amount of radioactivity goes in half. 

And that is why, if you measured the remaining amount of—carbon-14 in living things interchanges with the atmosphere so that it maintains a steady level of carbon-14 in the substance, whether it is a human being, an animal, or a plant. And so when it dies, it no longer exchanges carbon-14, carbon with the atmosphere. And so the carbon-14 does not get replenished and it gradually disappears. And by measuring how much is left you can determine when it died. 

Kelly: And your device. 

Schoke: Pardon me? 

Kelly: And your device was one of the first to be able—

Schoke: To measure carbon-14, yes. 

Kelly: Did someone order that, or did you just think, “Oh, this would be a good thing to measure?” 

Schoke: Oh no. Dr. [Willard] Libby at the University of Chicago had started experiments on geological dating. And he was the first one to do it, as far as I know. And he would make a detector and put the carbon-14 inside the detector as a gas, as CO2, carbon dioxide. And make it so that he put it inside the detector and then—but that was a very difficult procedure to have to go through to measure a carbon-14 sample. You had to convert it to carbon dioxide and you had to make sure you collected all the carbon dioxide and then were able to put it inside a detector. So it was a very laborious procedure. But he developed the first carbon dating, Dr. Libby, Willard Libby, if I remember correctly. 

There were all kinds of research using radioactively tagged chemicals to follow reactions and test their efficacy. For example, you could test the efficacy of a washing machine with radioactive—by putting radioactive dirt or its equivalent in whatever you were trying to—and then after the washing determine how much was left. So in other words, measure it before and after, you could tell the efficacy of the washing. 

Nuclear Chicago was not involved in it, but one of the early industrial applications of radioactivity were beta and gamma gauges for measuring and controlling the thickness of plastic, paper, and metal as it is being produced. Sheets or rolls, continuous rolls, were produced—could be controlled, measured and controlled with beta gauges that measured the absorption of beta rays, one of the radioactive—forms of radioactivity by the material. 

And the last application that I think of—and we were not involved in that one either—was smoke detectors. Smoke detectors used a radioactive isotope to—that when the smoke came in the detector, it absorbed the radioactivity and the alarm would go off as a result. 

I left Nuclear Chicago. At some point we agreed to disagree as partners. And I decided to leave. And later, Nuclear Chicago was later sold to G. D. Searle, which was a pharmaceutical company that later was sold itself to Monsanto Chemical Company. And then later Searle, before it was sold to Monsanto, disposed of many of its acquisitions. When a new president came in, he decided he did not want all these little companies. And he sold Nuclear Chicago to Siemens, so it became a part of a very large company, a German company, but very big in the United States as well. 

A banker friend of mine that we were doing business with heard that I left Nuclear Chicago. And he called me on the phone and he said, “I would like you to meet my father-in-law.” And so he arranged it, and I went to meet this gentleman. His name was, oh my goodness, excuse me, Champ Carry. I will say it again. His name was Champ Carry. And he was the president and chairman of the board of Pullman Company, which was the—a company that made freight cars. They no longer made Pullman Sleeping Cars, but they made freight cars and they also had a company called Kelly—no, sorry, not Kelly. I cannot think of the name of the company. Kellogg Company, which was a big engineering firm in the petrochemical, oil and petrochemical business designing and building plants in that field of endeavor. 

When I visited Champ Carry, I visited—he invited me to his home, which was not too far away from where I lived in a Chicago suburb. And he said that Pullman had a lot of excess capital and he wanted to do some acquisitions. And his director of research was already looking into possibility of acquisitions for him. But because I was familiar with new fields of endeavor like atomic energy and instrumentation, measurement instrumentation, he thought I might be able to help his director of research examine some of the new company possibilities, newer industries. So he asked me to come to work for him as a consultant, which I did. Interestingly, Champ Carry’s office in the building Pullman, Inc. was in, downtown office in Chicago, had been the office of Robert Lincoln, who at one time was with the Pullman Company, was the president of the Pullman Company. [Laughter] So his office was the same office.

I was welcomed at Pullman by everybody except the guy I was supposed to work with. And he was a very, very bright intelligent man, but he did not want to give ground to a young whippersnapper at all. So in effect I had to do—whatever acquisitions I might find for Champ Carry I had to do myself without his advice and report separately from him. That is how it turned out. I did find some acquisitions for Champ Carry. And I wrote a report. And the director of research wrote his report on what he thought the company should acquire. My report—I thought that Kellogg was an ideal company to put—to acquire instrument companies because they used many instruments in their plants, plants that they designed for controlling the processes and so forth. So my companies that I suggested were such companies. 

My report was presented to the board. But Champ Carry—I was surprised—he did not have an opinion. He left it entirely to the board members. And I thought that was a mistake. If the president does not have an opinion, then you have to say no, right? If he is not going to sell it.  And that is what they did. They said no to those acquisitions, and instead they acquired the company that the director of research had recommended, which was a small earthmoving machinery company out on the west coast that went bankrupt four years after they bought it, that they closed. [Laughter] So any rate, that is the way it goes. You do not win them all. [Laughter]

While I was at Pullman I was introduced to the director of manufacturing. And he took me to some of their plants—to visit some of their plants. And I saw opportunities for automation. Automation was the big word at that time. It was the beginning of so-called “automation in industry.” And I saw some possibilities for automation in their plants and actually designed one piece of equipment for one of the operations in their freight car manufacturing plant, which they had built and put into effect. 

And then I decided it was time for me to go back into my own business. And a friend, family friend, was retiring and he had a small business that he wanted to sell. And he invited me to come and I went and decided it was not going to be a lot of money and it looked like it might have possibilities. So I resigned from my consultancy at Pullman, and Champ Carry was very disappointed. He said he wanted me to become a permanent employee of the company. And I thanked him and I said this is my route. [Laughter] And he was understanding and remained a friend. 

So I bought this company, which was called Zeleny Thermometer Company. It made multi-point temperature measurement instruments for grain elevators to measure so-called hot spots in the grain bins. Hot spots developed when there was infestation in the bin. In other words, insects that started multiplying developed heat. And by having cables with temperature measurement devices in them, hanging in the bins, you could—and taking measurements regularly, you could determine when these hot spots were occurring and take measures to kill the insects one way or another. Unfortunately for me, when I went to a grain elevator to sell my product I got an asthma attack. So I was [laughter]—a serious asthma attack every time. I had the company for two years and developed an automatic scanning system. The ones that my company made and the competition made at that time were manual. You went from detector to detector and wrote down the temperature. My device was automatic. It scanned the temperatures and had a typewriter printout. 

And as a result of that, I was approached by my chief competitor, that was owned by a New York Stock Exchange company, and they wanted to buy me out. And because of the asthma attacks I was willing to sell. [Laughter] And so I sold out that company after two years. In that company I also made an electronic scale for a meat packer that weighed the carcasses as they were going down a—what do you call it? A belt. And I would have tried to pursue that further if I had stayed with the company. 

When I sold the company to Neptune Meter Company—I sold Zeleny to the Neptune Meter Company. They first asked me to come to Des Moines, to move to Des Moines to help them integrate it with the company they had. So we moved to Des Moines, Iowa at the time. And I was there for a year. And then they asked me, Neptune Meter Company, asked me to move east to Connecticut to head up—to become their director of R&D, research and development, for their instrument division. They had a number of instrument companies, and they wanted to try to consolidate them and get a research and development—new products developed for it. 

So I went east. And I could have officed in New York, but I chose to office at one of the plants in Connecticut where we were living. And I was with them for, I do not know, two or three years. And we developed some new instruments. But I was not happy there. I did not feel comfortable. So we decided to leave and look for something else. At that time my neighbor, who was also a tennis partner of mine and had been a mechanical engineer, heard about a company in Stamford, Connecticut not too—twenty minutes away from where we live, that was for sale. It made tachometers and electric motors. So he and I looked into it and we bought it. And we were partners for five years. 

And then I would—I became unhappy with the business. I felt that we were not able to grow it the way I would have liked. And so I started to look for another opportunity. And I sold out to him and bought a company of a gentleman who was retiring who had started the company. It was called Voltarc Tubes. And it was in Fairfield, Connecticut, which was a neighboring town to where we lived in Westport. 

He had about fifty-five employees and it was a very profitable company. And I bought it and was there—had it for twenty-two years. And we went from fifty-five employees to a little over four hundred employees, and profitable in that time. We developed a lot of new products. We made specialized fluorescent lamps and ultraviolet lamps and materials and lamps for electric signs. We made the raw materials for neon signs, for example. And we made specialized fluorescent lamps for plastic, so-called plastic signs, that had fluorescent lamps inside the plastic. We made fluorescent lamps, by the way, we made them for applications worldwide. 

We made lamps that the large fluorescent lamp companies were not interested in making because the quantities were not large enough and they required special engineering and it just was not worthwhile. In fact, even though their policies did not permit it, their salesmen [laughter] used to send customers to us when they could not—when they heard of an application that they could not fulfill. 

So that is the—that was my last business. And in 1989 I sold it and retired. End of story. [Laughter.]

Kelly: Wow. Goodness me, that is remarkable. That is a great long—

Schoke: Fun. 

Kelly: —history of innovation and change and looking for new challenges. 

Schoke: Yes, it was. It was a lot of fun. 

Kelly: So how much of your—what you became over the last seventy years was formed by your experience in the Manhattan Project? What did you learn from that that you—that informed what you did later? 

Schoke: Well, the first thing that I learned on the Manhattan Project was that I had some ability to solve problems with new means. And that was of course paramount in all of the positions and companies that was involved with. Other than that I am not sure. Well, of course I learned some electronics while i worked on the Manhattan Project that I did not— electronics that I did not know. And I also learned—for Nuclear Chicago, I learned a lot of about reactors and radioreactive isotopes on the project. So that was an absolute necessity for Nuclear Chicago. 

Kelly: So knowing of your competition, knowing of other companies that were getting involved in nucleonics, if you like, how many of those companies do you think were spawned by people who actually worked on the Manhattan Project, or maybe learned from Manhattan Project veterans who—like Sam Allison, you mentioned—or others who were also professors? 

Schoke: I would say about two-thirds of them. 

Kelly: Can you make that in a sentence so we can—

Schoke: I would say about two-thirds of the companies that I knew about when I was in the atomic instrument industry were started by people who had been on the project or who were coached by somebody who had been on the project. I do not know about Tracer Lab, which was of course the largest company until they went bust, in effect went bust. They had to sell out to another company because they bought a white elephant. With their million dollars that they got in their public offering, they bought a company called Kelley-Koett X-Ray Company, which was going downhill fast and in effect took Tracer Lab down with it. It was bigger than Tracer Lab when they bought it. And it was a big mistake. Tracer Lab sold out to a company called Laboratory for Electronics, I think was the name of it, which was a large company. We became the dominant company in the field, otherwise they would have been, probably. 

But I do not know where their starters, where the starting people from—at Tracer Lab came from. The president and the guy who started the company, one of them was named Bill Barbour and he did not come from the Manhattan Project. How he decided to get into it I never found out. Fred Henriques, Dr. Fred Henriques, who was his main technical man, did have some—I do not know exactly what, but he did have some experience with the Manhattan Project at MIT. But there were others who—smaller companies, that came from the people who came from the Manhattan Project. 

Kelly: Trying to think how to make this a question. Maybe you could just talk about the importance of science and engineering and technology and innovation to the well-being of our society through the many applications it has. 

Schoke: Well, I think that it is—that you mentioned—that STEM, which is an acronym for what, science, what is it? 

Kelly: Science, technology, engineering, mathematics. 

Schoke: STEM, which is a currently in-use acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is right on. We have been derelict here in the US in developing the talent we have, particularly people who cannot afford to go to college. Most highly developed countries send anybody who is capable to college. They make sure they get to go. And so they get that—develop that talent and get the use of it. And we have not done that in this country, unfortunately. We have not encouraged talented minority by giving them scholarships. And now we are dependent upon bringing scientists in from other countries, importing them. And a lot of people come here, young people come here, for their scientific education in our colleges. But now, like from India, they used to stay here, they used—now they go back because there is so much need for them back in their home country. The same for China. 

A lot of Chinese came here or come here for their education, their scientific education or engineering education. Now most of them go back to China because they have opportunities there. So we have to do it with our own talent. We have to develop our talent, and STEM is a good idea if Congress does something to develop it and make it a going enterprise. 

Kelly: That was good. You mentioned just looking at your own personal history about having an Erector Set or chemistry set when you were a very young boy. Can you remember other aspects about your childhood that encouraged you to go into science? That maybe—the things we could learn from. 

Schoke: The main thrust, aside from my own interest as a young man, came from high school. I had two high school teachers that made physics and chemistry very exciting and encouraged my best friend and I to go into one or the other. And my best friend in high school became Dr. Burt [Burton] Fried, a physicist who got his PhD at the University of Chicago and then became a professor at UCLA and also a consultant to industry. And so we both were encouraged and felt that we really desired to do that. And then when we both got scholarships to IIT, Illinois Institute of Technology. Our first chemistry professor continued that encouragement. And we worked for him part-time in his research laboratory. He asked us to. And paid us a small amount. And that encouraged us to pursue it further. 

Kelly: That is interesting. There are programs that the national laboratories have had that give high school students a chance to have internships in the summer, and those kinds of things. 

Schoke: That is great. That is great, yes. 

Kelly: They are of course in jeopardy.

Schoke: Not in my time. [Laughter.]

Kelly: I can see that is important. Let us see. What about security and secrecy? You seem to have been in the know about—or were you? Did you feel you knew what the purpose of the Manhattan Project was? Did you have the big picture? 

Schoke: I had a Q clearance, which was at that time the highest clearance you could get. But information was available only on a need-to-know basis. That was the policy. That does not mean that you did not hear things that you should not have heard, because you did in the course of relationships with other people on the project. But my work, my assignments, made me have to learn about things that—uranium, polonium, which was an alpha emitter—when I was developing improvements in the alpha detector, and other alpha emitters, which were involved in the—polonium was part of the trigger for the bomb. And so that is how I happened to learn. Plus [Enrico] Fermi and his assistant, Dr. [Philip] Morrison, young man, gave lectures on—which we were invited to—on pile theory and radioactivity. So that we learned about by the lectures. 

Kelly: Were you aware that there were spies? Were there counter-spies or was there—at the Met Lab, were you aware of a lot of—?

Schoke: The only incident that I can think of that is an answer to that question is that I was living at the graduate fraternity called Gamma Alpha. And of course I was not a graduate, but I was with mostly graduate chemists, physicists, and engineers who were on the project mostly. There were also some Navy medical students who were living at Gamma Alpha. But they had parties. And there was one very attractive young lady who came to these parties, was invited by somebody, and one day she disappeared from campus. And the rumor was—she did not work on the Manhattan Project. The rumor was that she had been spying and getting information from the people she was dating. I do not know if it is true or not. That is the only knowledge I had of any one possible spy. 

Kelly: Following up the attractive women [laughter] theory here, or not a theory, did you ever run across Leona Woods Marshall while you were at—?

Schoke: Yes. Yes, I did. 

Kelly: Could you tell us about her? And use her name. 

Schoke: I cannot say I really knew her but yes, she was there and I knew of her. I knew who she was, yes. But I did not—I cannot say I knew her well, because I did not. 

Kelly: I think one of her husbands was Libby, but I am not sure it is the same—

Schoke: Dr. Libby? Oh really? Could be.* 

Kelly: But she turned out to be Fermi’s right hand man.

Schoke: Yes, yes she was. 

Kelly: How many—

Schoke: I played tennis doubles with Fermi once. I was a pretty good tennis player, and he heard that and he invited me to play against a couple of University of Chicago tennis players. 

Kelly: So you were partners?

Schoke: Yes, we were partners. We got beaten. [Laughter] Like Oppenheimer, he was a humble man. He was a very nice man, Dr. Fermi. Tough to understand when he lectured because of his heavy accent. 

Kelly: I read the other day that what he was working on, the Chicago Pile-1, that he was also trying to teach himself English. And was reading Winnie-the-Pooh. And that he named various parts of the Chicago Pile-1 Eeyore and Piglet and Tigger. 

Schoke: Could be, I was not aware. I of course was not involved with that. 

Dr. Fermi after the war was on the staff of the University of Chicago. And he specifically requested, among other classes, that he be permitted to teach sophomore physics. And to me that showed what kind of a real man he was, to want to encourage young students. 

Kelly: That is excellent. I did not know that about him. 

Schoke: Hmm?

Kelly: I did not know that about him. I have read a lot about Arthur Holly Compton. Do you have any—?

Schoke: Did not know him.

Kelly: And when you mentioned General Electric—[Dr. Zay] Jeffries—did you mention earlier you were talking about someone who headed up a committee? 

Schoke: No, the head of the—when I arrived in the instrument section, the head of it was Volney Wilson who had—Dr. Volney Wilson, who had come from General Electric Company. 

Kelly: So in your experience then, they recruited not only people like yourself out of the Army but also from industry? 

Schoke: Yes. The Met Lab task was—originally was to develop processes using nuclear reactors, or piles as they were called then, for producing plutonium. That is really what Met Lab was about. And DuPont was the main contractor for the X-10 reactor. And so there were DuPont people at Met Lab, and also coming and going to work with us and learn what they had to learn in order to design X-10 reactor and the chemical processes required to separate plutonium. 

Kelly: Did you ever hear of Crawford Greenewalt? Crawford Greenwald, did you—?

Schoke: Yes, he was—I think he was DuPont president at the time. I never met him. I did not know him. 

Kelly: Actually he became president after the war, and at the time he was sort of the liaison between DuPont and Fermi and trying to get the reactor designs for Hanford, primarily. I am not sure you worked much on—

Schoke: That came later, yes. 

Kelly: So tell me how you met your wife? 

Schoke: [Laughter] My wife and I grew up together from—we were neighbors from about eleven or twelve years old. She moved into the building where I was living with—my mother and I were living with an aunt and uncle. And that is how we met. [Laughter] So we were high school sweethearts. [Laughter]

Kelly: And how old were you when you were married? 

Schoke: I was married a month before my twenty-first birthday. 

Kelly: Did your mother think, this is a rather tender age to get married or—?

Schoke: She—no. If she did, she did not tell me. [Laughter] She had to sign for me in order to get married because at that time the marriage age was twenty-one, or the voting age was twenty-one. 

Kelly: So did your wife enjoy all the living in Chicago? I guess she is from Chicago, so there was no change. 

Schoke: Right, right. Yes. When we first got married, we lived on a fourth floor walkup on campus and that—right? [Laughter] 

Nucleonics was—I do not know who invented it. But it was the term used for the new industry that derived from the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project, that involved radiation, radioactive isotopes and the necessary instruments and other devices that were required to apply them to industry medicine and research of all kinds. And so that was the term for that industry. 

Kelly: So looking back it, it started in this cradle of the Manhattan Project, how would you describe the industry today? 

Schoke: I have to say, I really do not know what the industry is today. I have lost touch with it. So I honestly do not know what it is like. McGraw-Hill published a magazine called Nucleonics for some years, but then they dropped it. I do not know why. And I was out of the industry by that time so I did not know why they dropped it, whether the industry got too big or too small [laughter]. 

Kelly: Right after the war there was a lot of effort—there was a lot of effort early on to try to explain to the American public what all of this was about, and some people remember seeing cartoons, “My Friend the Atom,” and things like that. 

Schoke: Oh yes, there were actually cartoon magazines that talked about the atom and things like that, at least one I remember seeing. 

Kelly: How do you think—you have been in touch, all these years, with the American public and their attitudes towards things nuclear. How do you think it has changed over the last seventy years? 

Schoke: Well, I do not think the American public knows—for the most part, the American public, I do not think—does not know of all of the wonderful applications that have come from the nucleonics industry. I do not think they are aware for the most part of what—they know a few things that—and they may not even tie it to the atom bomb or to the Manhattan Project. For example, the PET scanner, I am not sure people know that that is a result really of the Manhattan Project, down the road of course, but if we had not had a Manhattan Project I do not think we would have had PET scanners. 

Kelly: There seems to be an effort by the nuclear energy industry anyway to disassociate itself from the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. 

Schoke: Really? I am not aware of that. 

Kelly: Yes. You have been—you are aware of any—

Schoke: Of the power industry? Well, I can understand why. The accident at Three Mile Island just scuttled the atomic power industry and nuclear power industry. Recently I have read that there may be some new power reactors on the drawing boards. But whether they are going to get through the regulations and approved, it is hard to know. And yet in France, I think it is about eighty percent of their power comes from nuclear reactors, their electric power, yes. 

Kelly: So as a member of the Manhattan Project, we have not talked very much about the bomb. How do you feel about having contributed to the first atomic bombs? 

Schoke: I have ambivalent feelings about it. And I am very proud to have worked on the project and gotten—and helped to get a weapon that ended the war. On the other hand, at the time I was a signer of a petition but somehow it did not—I think the sheet that I signed never got back to the—to Dr. Szilard because it did not appear in the hundred—my name does not appear in the hundred and fifty-three names that were shown. But I signed a petition, which in effect suggested that the bomb not be dropped on a city in Japan but rather be used—a bomb be used in a demonstration. 

Now I myself, I did not believe in the demonstration that was in the Szilard—he wanted a demonstration on an unpopulated island, as I recall. My feeling was that we should use it on a totally military target island of some kind. And I do not know, maybe there were not any left at that time. Because we had pretty much taken most of the islands leading to Japan. But that would have been my first wish, is that it be dropped on a military target, not involving civilians. 

But I do not think President Truman was wrong in his decision. The bombing of Tokyo, which did not involve atomic bombs, destroyed Tokyo in effect and killed hundreds of thousands of people, or at least a hundred thousand. I mean, the same kinds of numbers that one atomic bomb killed. 

But nevertheless, it was the same result. Multiple bombings, and burnt the city out in essence, just like Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb. And there is no doubt that it saved many, many American lives. It is estimated that there would be a half a million casualties if we had to invade Japan, not half a million deaths but half a million casualties, and that is a lot of casualties. So I think Truman was correct. I agree with his decision. 


* Leona Woods Marshall was in fact married to Dr. Willard Libby, mentioned earlier in the interview.

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