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Jimmy Vale’s Interview

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Jimmy Vale joined the Manhattan Project in 1943, where he helped operate calutrons as part of Ernest O. Lawrence’s particle accelerator team. Vale shares his recollections about Lawrence and discusses their time traveling together and the quirks of Lawrence’s personality.

Date of Interview:
June 7, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: This is Jimmy Vale, the cyclotron of Berkeley, about Dr. Lawrence.

Jimmy Vale: I told these stories to Mr. Herbert Childs, who is writing a biography of Lawrence.

Groueff: Oh, yeah. I have heard about it, but my book will just have a paragraph on Lawrence.

Vale: This story about Lawrence, it happened out at Danville [CA], when we were out there with the color television tube. Occasionally, we would all try to relax, because we worked pretty hard. We would work here full-time and go out there. So some of the times, like on weekends, we would play Ping-Pong, table tennis. And, he would come out and play, too.

Well, one day there were three of us: he, Ernest Lawrence, and another guy, Joe McMorrow, and myself. We would play Ping-Pong, I would play Joe, and I would beat him. I played fair Ping-Pong; I would beat Joe pretty bad. And, Joe would play Ernest, and he would beat Ernest by a reasonable score, not very bad.

Then I would play Ernest, and of course, I would let up, and I would still beat him pretty easily, you see, but still not as bad as I beat Joe. He would get a few more points. Well, he would get mad. He says, “Now, wait a minute, Jimmy. Look, you played Joe and you skunked him. Joe plays me and he beats me pretty easily. You play me, and you didn’t skunk me. Now, you weren’t trying your hardest!”

Well, what could I say? He expected you, no matter what you were doing, that you would do your utmost. There is no point in relaxing and taking it easy. He felt that by golly, even in a game where you are trying to relax—I was not trying to beat him, I was trying to have a little relaxation. But he felt that this was not the thing to do. He felt, by gum, you should do your darndest at all times. And this is typical of the way he was. No matter what he was doing, he felt that you should go all out; you should do your utmost. Like in this Ping-Pong, where he should have been relaxing and not worrying about how badly I would beat him, just enjoy it.

Groueff: He never relaxed.

Vale: He could not. He could not.

Groueff: And between work, for instance, during the war when the work was so tense and hard, what did he do for lunch or in the evening? Did he relax?

Vale: I do not think he ever relaxed. There is another story in connection with this color television when we went back to New York. We got all through, we were back there about three weeks, and it was time then to return to Berkeley. I do not like planes; they frighten me. So I went back on a train and I was going to return on the train. So I told him because I do not like planes, I am going to return on a train but it’s going to take three days or so.

And, he says, “You know what, that’s a good idea. I could come back on the train, and then I will have three days to relax.”

I said, “That’s fine, Ernest.”

There was another guy—I forget his name. I say, “We can all kind of relax.”

He says, “Fine, I’ll go back on the train.”

So he goes away and he comes back a little bit later and he says, “I can’t. I haven’t got the time. I got to get back to Berkeley. I better fly back.”

And, so I tried to talk to him. I said, “Well, come on, for once, come back on the train relax.”

He says, “Well I’d sure like too, maybe I will, doggone it! Okay, you’ve convinced me.”

So, he would leave and come back a little bit later and he says, “I can’t. I’ve got to get back. I haven’t got the time. I’ve got to fly back.”

But, here is something I could see. He wanted more than anything else to come back on the train, just a couple of days extra, and he felt he could not do it.

Groueff: Too busy.

Vale: Too busy. And it would have done him good, but he just could not do it.

Groueff: I understand the only relaxation he had during the war was some tennis. He used to play tennis.

Vale: He used to play tennis, and he played golf also, he played a little golf. When we were out at Danville he played golf and he painted, he painted. And, if he had done more of it, it would have—

Groueff: It would be good.

Vale: It would have been good for him. But, he would go out there for a few minutes and hit the ball, thinking about something else. And, it just did not work. He started painting and he would drop it and start doing something else. He finished some of the paintings. And driving, driving an automobile, boy!

Groueff: He was a bad driver?

Vale: Oh, he was an atrocious driver. It just scared me to ride with him. We were going over to San Francisco one day, and he was driving across the bridge and he was talking. He would turn around and talk to me, and here he was going full blast. Here is a truck, a slow truck; I thought he was going to crash into it.

“Hey, wait, look at the…”

He would jump and slow down, but that is the way he was doing. He would be driving, but thinking about something else, always. Well, after that, then he would get people to drive him. Whenever we would go any place, I would do the driving, let him talk and look at me.

Groueff: And, General Groves gave him also a guy to drive him.

Vale: Oh, yes, this was after the war. During the war, he had a driver that Manhattan Project furnished him.

Groueff: General Groves was scared to death. He was driven one day.

Vale: Was he?

Groueff: Yeah.

Vale: Oh, I can appreciate why. I can appreciate why because he was concentrating on something else. But, this was after the war. During the war, he did have a driver, and after the war, he did drive himself for a while, but then he gave it up.

Groueff: And, during the war with the Calutron did he come every day here, or he worked mostly in his office?

Vale: Oh, no, he was here all the time.

Groueff: All the time.

Vale: And, he would be in his office.

Groueff: Where was his office during the war?

Vale: I think it was in the building here that burned down. I believe it was in the building, at least he had an office here.

Groueff: Quite near the calutron, yeah.

Vale: Well see there were not any other buildings here during the war. There was that one, there was a building here, which burned down. There was one right down below here, 29, there was 130, and the ones up above the hill. That is all.

Groueff: That was all.

Vale: That is all. So, they are all clustered right around this building.

Groueff: In other words, he was not doing his work only from the desk and calculations and the blackboard, but he was personally with you and with the other people?

Vale: He was there to see how things were. He would come in and sit down at the control desk and run these Calutrons himself, but everybody shuddered whenever this happened because he would come in and it would not be working quite right or putting out as much of the uranium as you would like and he would sit there and he would turn all the knobs all the way up

And, he says, “Look, see it works.”

And, momentarily, the meters would be real high.

He would say, “See, it’s good.”

So, he would walk out. Bang! Everything would collapse. He had strained everything. So, then, we would fight this darn thing all day long to get it back again. But, this was the way he was; pushing everything to the limit. So, he was demanding not only of himself, but all the instruments the same way. Everything to the limit; always everything to the limit.

Groueff: And, when some job was not done well, how did he react? Somebody forgot something or did not work enough?

Vale: Well, he got mad at me once, only once in his life. He really got mad and bawled the hell out of me. But, you know, he came back a little while later and apologized for it? He did. He did not quite understand the circumstances. But, he was busy always, he would always be going somewhere and coming back.

And, at that time, the operating crew—the people who run the machine—were doing a physics experiment for him. So, he would come in and say, “Well, let’s do this,” and he would outline the program. And, we would take measurements, make the calculations, and when he came back he would look at the sheets and see what had happened, and he would decide what else to do.

So, he called in one day from some place and said, “Let’s do this.”

And, I said, “Okay.”

And, he said, “Well, I’m going to be in town such and such a time, 10 o’clock. I’d like to have the figures by then.”

Fine. So, he came in and he says, “I have to catch a plane in middle of the afternoon, 3:00, 4:00 in the afternoon. Can you have these figures?”

I said, “I think so, sure we can.”

So, he left, went down to his office. Meantime, the machine had trouble. And of course his word was that if the machine is not working, you work on it and get it fixed. So he left, we had trouble. So, instead of doing these calculations for him, I was tied up getting the machine running. And, it took three or four hours. We had just gotten the machine and had just sat down for a minute in the control room and he walks in. He did not know any of this had happened.

So, he says, “You got those figures?”

I say “No.”

He did not give me a chance to explain. Boy, he just—

Groueff: He blew up?

Vale: He started to leave the control room, so I left and started to talk with him. And tried to explain. He would not give me a chance to explain. He was mad, because he wanted these figures. He was going to leave on a plane. He went off in a huff. [laughs] He was really mad. About a half hour later he comes around again and he apologized in very nice way. He had gotten over his being mad.

He had cooled down and he says, “Jimmy, look, I don’t have much time for this. I have a lot of other things to do and I have to catch a plane now, and I wanted to see these figures.”

I said, “Yeah, I got tied up with the machine, because it wasn’t running. It was broken down, I had to fix it.”

He said, “I know, but in the future if you can’t do it, get somebody else to do it.”

And, so everything was smooth.

He said, “But, that’s my problem; I just don’t have enough time to do these things I have to do.”

And, you could appreciate it. But, he had completely calmed down and apologized.

Groueff: So, that was an exception, being mad and shouting.

Vale: Yeah. He was not really shouting, he was just mad.

Groueff: Mad, yeah.

Vale: Just mad. And as I said, he has never gotten mad at me before or since. That was the only time in his life. We have always gotten along fine. But, that time, he was really mad.

Groueff: But, if some guy did not do the jobs satisfactory, you think he would fire him?

Vale: I think so. He was pretty fair about it. I think he would give the man plenty of chances, because, I say he is one of the fairest guys I have ever known, very fair.

Groueff: And, everybody here in the lab considered him as the leader. He was the man who had all the answers.

Vale: He was the boss. He was the boss.

Groueff: And, at the same time, your teacher of all of you, because he invented the machine and he knew more than anybody about cyclotrons.

Vale: See, Lawrence did not have time to sit down and calculate all day. He would leave this leave it to the theoretical people. But, the feeling that the physicists had was that this guy, Ernest Lawrence, had an insight to these experiments, how the physics worked. And, even though he had not sat down and calculated these things, when he said that, “Let’s do this experiment. Maybe this will happen.” You know, they respected this even though he had never done any calculations on it.

Groueff: And, it usually happened.

Vale: And, a lot of the times, it happened. And, so he was held in high respect for this reason, too.

Groueff: So, he had more of a feeling about how things work. So, he would not go into the detailed work, the calculations?

Vale: He did not have the time, really.

Groueff: But, he would give the ideas.

Vale: Give the ideas and let other people go into the details. It takes a lot of time for that.

Groueff: And he would commission people to do this and that, he would give the assignments.

Vale: Yeah. And he would say it a nice sort of way and people just assumed, you know, they would do it. They would just do it.

Groueff: Were people a little bit afraid of him?

Vale: I do not know. I suppose there is always that, yes, there must have been. He was quite an impressive man, and certainly there must have been an element of fear. But, I think the high respect one had for him kind of overcame this fear.

Groueff: It was not like a military sort of discipline?

Vale: No, no, no. Before I knew him very well, I mean, I was quite frightened of the man. But, after I got to know him, I was not frightened by him because he was quite a human person. A lot of times, when we were going places and I would be driving, we would chat about families and the kids, very human.

Groueff: He had this human side.

Vale: Oh, yes. Busy as he was, and having so little time to devote to his family, he would come home, he would take his children out for rides. He would go down to his mother and his father. He would go out and take them for rides, or he would take them some place and spend time with them. When the guy did not have enough time to do anything that he wanted to do, hardly, he would still find time to take his children to the movies. He was quite a family man is this respect, very human, very human.

Groueff: He had six children, no? Do you recall any other anecdotes or story about him that you think would be amusing?

Vale: I might say about the color television, again, which is typical of the man; he did exactly the same thing at the lab. But, he would, he would want us to build a certain thing to test, a certain structure. And, so he would call on the phone, and answer the phone out there.

Okay. And, he said, “Well, I’ll be out this evening, can you get it built by then?”

“Oh, I think so, it’s pretty simple.”

So, we would build it to see how things would work, you see. And, we would build it long before he came out there and we would try it and we would look at it. Oh, gee, this is a pile of junk, terrible.

He would come out there, he would look at it, and, he said, “That isn’t bad. It’s pretty good.”

We would look at each other, and we had made up our minds that it was not any good previously.

He would come, and he would look, “It isn’t bad.”

He would look at it, and he would concentrate on this thing. He would look at it for half an hour. He would just sit there. You know, he would walk around and he would look at it from all directions.

Groueff: Without saying anything?

Vale: And as time went on, he would say, “Boy, that’s pretty good.”

And, then a little bit later, “That’s darn good!”

And, he would kind of jump and show enthusiasm and we would look at each other and we, pretty soon he had us convinced, “Boy, it’s great!”

And, he would be jumping up and down on the floor and saying, “Oh, it’s great, it’s marvelous!”

Groueff: And, you could not see the point.

Vale: Well, yeah.

Groueff: At the end you were convinced.

Vale: Yeah, at the end he convinces you, and this enthusiasm that he had kind of works into you. But that was typical. It was the same thing on all these Calutrons.

He would come into the control room and things were not working right. The amount of uranium transport was low and he would look at it and he says, “Well, that’s pretty good for this equipment. Why, if we build such and such, why we would get a lot. That’s great.”

And we would turn the knob up and things go up and he would say, “Look at that, it’s marvelous.”

And, he would start jumping up and down, and he did it exactly the same way. Pretty soon, everybody would be convinced this is the greatest invention since the wheel. But, this is the sort of thing that he used to do.

Groueff: He was never discouraged or pessimistic, or low?

Vale: Oh, if things did not work, well, we try something else. But, if you become discouraged, you stop thinking, and he was never this way. And, you try something and it did not work, well maybe we ought to do this, let’s do this. So, then you would do something else. And, so he was not discouraged in this sense. The idea was do not give up, keep working on it. And, so in this sense I do not think he was ever discouraged.

Groueff: When people in the lab talk about him, how did you refer to him?

Vale: EOL.

Groueff: EOL, the initials.

Vale: EOL.

Groueff: EOL. And, talking to him, Professor Lawrence?

Vale: Professor Lawrence, or Ernest.

Groueff: Or, Ernest.

Vale: Ernest. If you knew him well, well, you would call him Ernest.

Groueff: But, no formality? And, I see a lot of the pictures like this one you have here that he is in shirtsleeves. He worked like that very often in the lab?

Vale: He was a little bit clumsy with his hands, because he had not done it for a long time. He would try to do things and it did not work.

Groueff: So he was not one of those guys with great dexterity?

Vale: He may have been when he was younger. I didn’t know him then. But, by this time he had been out of practice for years and years. He hadn’t done much of it. And, he tried to get back into this.  He liked to do things with his hands, but somehow things did not quite work out.

And I think again the reason is that he was thinking of something else. He had so many things to think about. And, if you are doing something with your hands, if you are trying to build something intricate, you cannot be thinking of something else. You have got to concentrate on that, and he did not have the time to do this.

Groueff: Was [Donald] Cooksey good with his hands?

Vale: I do not know. I never knew Cooksey.

Groueff: He was mostly the machine shop.

Vale: Well, yeah, I never knew Cooksey as well as I knew Ernest.

Groueff: But, Lawrence was not the guy who would do it himself, but he would give the ideas and tell the right people how to do the right things?

Vale: Yes.

Groueff: But he would love to do it himself if he had time?

Vale: Oh, yeah. He used to tell me lots of times. Down in his office in ’50, he had a little cubby hole—a room behind the office. And, he would buy all kinds of equipment. He had ovens and he had a meter and all kinds of stuff that he wanted to go in there, to have this as a little lab where he could putter around with his hands.

Groueff: Like a hobby, do it yourself.

Vale: And, he used to putter around in there.

Groueff: He had no time.

Vale: No.

Groueff: But, with the Calutron, he would turn himself, some of the knobs?

Vale: Just the knobs in the control.

Groueff: And, always to the full blast?

Vale: Always full blast, always [laugh].

We went down to Southern California once on a trip, he and I and Don Gow. We flew down to Los Angeles and rented a car, and then we drove down to Oceanside. And, so he drove. This was early ’50 or ’51, when he was still driving. And we rent this car and started going down to Oceanside.

So, we were driving along pretty fast. You know, I cringed whenever he drove.

He said, “I wonder how fast this car will go.”

And, he chomped on the throttle, all the way down, and he held it there and he got the speedometer up to ninety-five or something. Meanwhile, I was just cringing all over the place.

And, he said, “Oh, ninety-five, well.” And, he slows down again. Everything to the limit, got to find out what it does, you see. Another example of it.

Groueff: Quite an extraordinary guy?

Vale: Oh, very, very extraordinary.

Groueff: And, he had a whole laboratory and everybody at Berkeley, I see that his influence has been enormous. Now, everybody talks about him and everything bears some traits of his work.

Vale: Yes, oh yeah. He was a fantastic man. He was a fantastic man. 

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Richard Rhodes. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.