Part II : 1950 -1957

4. Hydrogen Technology from Thermonuclear Research



Johnston's New Career


[64] The announcement that the U.S. would proceed with the H-bomb had special interest for Professor Johnston; he saw it as a golden opportunity to capitalize on his position as an authority on large-scale hydrogen liquefaction and associated equipment.2


Whether Johnston realized that this new opportunity would eventually take him completely away from his academic career is a matter of conjecture. His colleagues knew that he harbored a long-time disappointment over what he considered a lack of sufficient recognition in the scientific community.3 Perhaps some of this feeling was associated with his earlier work on deuterium. His preceptor, William Giauque, had been awarded the 1949 Nobel chemistry prize for his achievements in low-temperature physics, and Giauque had generously credited Johnston with significant contributions in the description of the prize-winning work.4 Whatever his reasoning, Johnston resolved to seek greater compensation for his expert knowledge of cryogenics. The hydrogen bomb development provided this opportunity and he seized it. From then on, Johnston gave less attention to science and education and more to developing a business in cryogenics equipment. By 1954 the metamorphosis was complete, but during the crucial 1950-1954 period, he simultaneously pursued three careers-scientist, educator, and businessman-all involved liquid hydrogen.


Johnston was colorful, unconventional, controversial; it was difficult for those who came in contact with him to remain neutral about him. To aspiring undergraduates, he was a person who made or broke them, for a good grade in his tough thermodynamics course was required for continuing a career in chemistry.5 To graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and his peers, Johnston was a first-class preceptor and scholar, a man of great inspiration and integrity.6 To university officials, he was a mixed blessing; his contracts brought equipment, staff, and prestige; but his utter disregard for normal operating procedures brought endless problems.7 To employees, he was a paternalistic and high-handed autocrat, impatient and demanding, who would, and did, fire a person at the slightest provocation.8 To business associates, he was a formidable competitor, capable of quick responses, low bids, and early delivery of his products.9


To Johnston, there was no problem that could not be solved and solved quickly. He demanded and got the best in equipment and services for himself and his people. He disdained normal administrative procedures and anything resembling bureaucracy infuriated him. He was often at odds with one official or another and never hesitated to go over their heads to appeal to higher authority. An unsung hero and loyal supporter of Johnston was Edward Mack, Jr., chairman of the department of chemistry at Ohio State from 1941 to 1955, who spent long hours sorting out and solving the endless problems that always seemed to surround the fast-moving Johnston and his activities.10 In spite of the problems, Johnston's work was internationally recognized and many of his graduate students and assistants became prominent in the scientific community.*


Herrick Lee Johnston

[65] Fig.11. Herrick Lee Johnston (1898-1965) scientist, educator, entrepreneur, and a pioneer in the science and technology of liquid hydrogen. (Courtesy of the Photo Archives. Ohio State University.)


[66] In the 1950-1951 period, Johnston supplied the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory with two hydrogen liquefiers. When the decision was made to conduct thermonuclear tests at Eniwetok, he was given the contract to reassemble the old Aerojet liquefier and add a second one. He chose Gwynne Wright to head the team to do this and the next two years became a period of swiftly moving activity for all of them. In May 1951, the first thermonuclear test, Operation Greenhouse, was successful and not long after it, preparations began for the next test. By late 1951, Johnston was so involved that he wrote to the president of Ohio State University requesting that: (1) his services to the university be reduced to 25 percent of full load, effective 1 January 1952, (2) selected members of the cryogenics laboratory be given leaves of absence; (3) OSU shop facilities be allowed to continue their work for Los Alamos; and (4) air and hydrogen liquefiers be made available for an essential training program. Johnston ended by assuring President Bevis that the university would be recompensed for its expenses and services. He was off and running again, doing very high priority work for the government, and the university had little choice but to go along with his wishes.11


In 1952, Johnston set himself up in business as the H. L. Johnston Company, Inc., and lured some of the key people from the OSU cryogenics laboratory. In May, the graduate school notified Mack that Johnston's name would be removed from the list of faculty approved to advise graduate students for masters and doctoral degrees. Mack protested vigorously, and in December he was joined by seven students who petitioned to retain Johnston as their preceptor. During this period, and working against odds, Johnston and his men delivered on their promise to produce deuterium on Eniwetok for the Mike Event of Project Ivy (fig. 12). On I November 1952, the event took place and was the first test of a thermonuclear "device"-a device that wiped out the islet where it had been set up. It was the most powerful explosion man had devised up to that time. 12


* One graduate was Clyde Allen Hutchinson, professor of chemistry at the Unilverstiy of Chicago: a key assistant was David A White, now chairman of the department of chemistry of the University of Pennslyvania antoher assistant was Thor Rubin, professor of chemilstry at O SU. The old War Research Building at OSU is now named the Johnston Building in his honor.