Awards > Awardee Interviews > Interview

Interview: John Coburn

John A. Thornton Award Recipient (1993)
Interviewed by Paul Holloway, October 25, 1994

HOLLOWAY: Good morning. My name is Paul Holloway, and I'm here this morning to interview the Past-President of the Society, John Coburn. He was the President of the Vacuum Society in 1988. Beyond being a past president of the Vacuum Society, I'd like to put it on record that John is also an Honorary Member of the Vacuum Society, being elected in 1991, and receiving the Thornton Award along with Harold Winters in 1993. So he is not only a person that has served the Society, but also one that has distinguished himself in terms of his scientific and research record, as well. It's a special pleasure for me to be interviewing him here today, October 25th, at the Denver Convention Center, coincident with the 41st National Symposium of the Society. John currently is retired from IBM Almaden Research Center, and he is now a research fellow in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. 
With that introduction, John, let me say it's a pleasure to be here with you today. I'm privileged to do this interview with you.

COBURN: Thank you, Paul.

HOLLOWAY: As you pointed out earlier today, it's a special privilege because you and I were colleagues in terms of the times that our presidencies occurred here. Let me start off by asking you how you first became involved with the AVS.

COBURN: I first attended an AVS meeting, believe it or not, in 1959. This was in Philadelphia. I was still a graduate student, and my adviser said, "Go. Learn something about vacuum and ion pumps and things like that." I did, and I enjoyed the meeting very much. There was a long hiatus while I got out of school, and eventually joined IBM. At that time, my manager at IBM, Eric Kay, was very active in the Society. Again, the interests of the Society coincided with my own interests, so I began to regularly attend the AVS meetings and was able to participate at the chapter level in Northern California, although it wasn't very active in those days compared to what it's doing now. I also was able to participate in the Thin Film Divisional area, and eventually was asked to run for national office. It was one of the best experiences of my life, so certainly, being part of the AVS has really been a highlight for me of my technical career and personal career.

HOLLOWAY: I think that that's a uniform feeling that's shared by a large majority of the people, that it really is a privilege and pleasure, and it helps both your professional career as well as your personal development.

COBURN: Very definitely so.

HOLLOWAY: AVS is certainly very good in that respect. Let me ask you what you considered or what comes to mind in terms of the most significant events that occurred during your presidency.

COBURN: Well, it's quite easy for me to answer that one. Unlike you, I didn't have to deal with the AIP move. You dealt with Ken Ford, and he disappeared for the whole year that I was there. We did have him come to our meeting once, or possibly twice, and give us a talk, but it was very noncontentious and very friendly. 
What really was the toughest and most significant job that I had to deal with was the reorganization of the office. You'll remember, for many years, we had the office with management only from the President, who was not there. We had this very, very capable staff of Nancy Hammond, our Executive Secretary, who had been with us for 20 years at the time I was President; Marion Churchill, a very capable Meetings Manager, who had joined us some five or six years prior; and two younger people, Marcia Schlissel, who was just about the most capable working person I have run into, and the recent hire of Margaret Banks. But there was no management, and you had-- I think it was you, Paul. I don't remember. Were you the one who instigated the John Vossen supervision of the office?

HOLLOWAY: Yes, that was something that happened right at the beginning, but it actually was carried over from Jack Singleton's and Don Mattox's earlier era, when they started considering this to be a problem, and then started trying to understand how we might set up a structure to evolve. So I was really a conduit that continued that process of flow, trying to implement it. It largely fell in your lap at that point.

COBURN: That's right. But you can take a fair amount of credit for that, because in your role as Long Range Planning Manager of that committee, you made a very, very strong pitch and presented a case for hiring a technical director for the Society. I very much remember you made that at the meeting in Atlanta. In fact, as an attempt to communicate to the employees, we actually told them about that proposal, and that wasn't well received.

HOLLOWAY: No, it was not well received. It was an idea, perhaps, before its time. [Laughter] I think it's healthy, in fact, if I might interject a comment. I think it shows that there is a healthy debate quite often in the Society. There are many avenues that the Society can take, and there are probably many successful avenues, but you have to try to select those that are successful and not. So we did have a very good debate, a very open debate, about those issues. As I remember, it wound up not being accepted by the Society in that time.

COBURN: That was extremely hard because you made a very strong and convincing case for that, and it really demanded that something be done. It made just all the sense in the world because having a group of employees working without on-site management just didn't make sense. Having absorbed that thinking of yours, and having talked to the staff people, I was in a bit of a dilemma. I was quite nervous about the technical director idea because I had been very familiar with SPIE, and I had seen what had happened there. And I'd heard what had happened in the Optical Society, where you get a technical director who really takes the Society over. That bothered me. The second thing that bothered me, of course, was the office staff morale. They were quite worried about this. They didn't like the idea of having someone come in over them. The third factor was we, at that point, had two junior people who had to do a lot of the work, and we already had two senior people. Bringing in a third one made me nervous. So, in my discussions with the office staff, I became aware of the fact that Nancy Hammond would not consider being the office manager. She didn't want that. Marion Churchill was very interested in being the office manager, and the two younger employees were quite willing to accept Marion in that role. So I took it upon myself to present a case, and we did this, I remember, at the December Board meeting. I asked you to present the case for the technical director, and you did a very good job of that. I presented the case for promoting Marion to be the office manager. Eventually, after a lot of discussion, I touched base with, I think, eight or so prior presidents and got a total draw. There was no consensus whatsoever, and so it was really a tough thing to do. But as you say, here we had a contentious problem, and we discussed it and thrashed it through and came up with a decision, and promoted Marion to be the office manager. Looking back on that, I think it was a reasonable interim solution.

HOLLOWAY: Yes, I agree.

COBURN: Because now we have an excellent situation in the office with Rey Whetten, who's just the perfect person to be a Technical Director. At that time, Rey wasn't available, so we-- 

HOLLOWAY: Right. He wouldn't fill that role at that time.

COBURN: That's right. So from that point of view, it worked out extremely well. The only thing that I had some regrets about is I think it probably accelerated Nancy's retirement. She might have stayed with us a year or two longer had that not happened, and that was very distressing to me. But it was, without question, the most difficult and troubled time that I had during my presidency.

HOLLOWAY: Again, going back to the fact that we had a very open and healthy debate, I think that that's really the only way to try to fix the situation.

COBURN: I think so. Definitely. No autocratic ruling. Just a healthy discussion on the board.

HOLLOWAY: You mentioned earlier that there was a discussion of that at the Atlanta meeting, which you were President at.

COBURN: That's right.

HOLLOWAY: But there were other issues at that meeting, I believe.

COBURN: Yes. We did two things at the Atlanta meeting, which were different. Prior to that time, the awards from the Society were presented at a luncheon. It became known to me-- Marion had said, "I have real trouble selling enough tickets for this luncheon to make it respectable." And that bothered me. I thought our awardees needed more recognition. At that time, we were also developing quite an impressive reception. I remember the one at your meeting was really good.

HOLLOWAY: All arranged by Local Arrangement.

COBURN: That's right. Those people do a tremendous job. And so the thought occurred: "Let's merge those two." So we did that in Atlanta, and Marion did a marvelous job of orchestrating that. I thought it worked beautifully, and I had no negative feedback at all whatsoever, and it persists to this day. So this was a change which I feel has worked, and it gives our awardees now a much greater exposure during that.

HOLLOWAY: I agree. There was another event that occurred there, and that was the International Laser Association.

COBURN: That's right. Just coincidentally, the International Laser Spectroscopy—ILS Group—had a meeting just across the street in the hotel. I don't remember who originated the idea that we somehow overlap a little bit with that meeting. And we did that, having joint sessions with them, because lasers play a major part of our work in the AVS. That meeting was really two together, and with access to both for both attendees. I think people appreciated that. It was something that hasn't followed up, but it was just a once-in-a-lifetime occasion; anyway, it just happened that it worked out that way. 
Let me take a moment, commenting on the Atlanta meeting, one of the better things I think I had done during my presidency was corral John Noonan to be the Program Chairman, and he's now, of course this year, our President. John Wendelken, as the Local Arrangements, did a marvelous job. So that meeting to me, aside from the damage control needed for the technical director issue with our staff, was a very, very nice and enjoyable meeting.

HOLLOWAY: It certainly was. It was a real highlight. Unfortunately, I recall something that culminated in your presidency that wasn't such a nice highlight, and that was the untimely death of John Thornton.

COBURN: That was a big loss to the Society. I guess he died within a few days of your meeting in Anaheim, and that was a tragedy. In fact, John Thornton was a major factor in my being involved in the American Vacuum Society, as it was. When he was the Chairman of the Nominations Committee, he asked me to run for Board of Directors, which really got me started in the national organization. So that was a very, very sad thing. During my year, the Thornton Award was endowed by Joy Thornton and supplemented by other AVS organizations and the national. Dave Hoffman did a really nice job of setting up the protocol for that, so I think it's very fitting that Dave Hoffman is this year's winner of the Thornton Award. I think that's really great. But that was such a loss to lose John at that time so suddenly.

HOLLOWAY: There had been a number of very strong leaders. Our Peter Mark Award was endowed under similar situations. It's certainly a loss to the Society, but I'm pleased that the Society is able to respond somehow and try to set up something that would bring these people back to mind on a regular basis. They do contribute a lot. You know, in my presidency, we talked a little bit earlier about the foreign interactions, but there were some subsequent consequences of foreign interactions in your presidency, or follow-on.

COBURN: Follow-on, yes. During my year as President, nothing major happened. I think we had our usual interactions with the Brazilians and the Mexican Vacuum Society, but not with the Chinese. But in 1989, we initiated a return visit to China. That was the year I was the Past-President, but I was the host for their visit in California. We gave them the opportunity to attend the Northern California meeting in March or the International Conference on Metallurgical Coatings. They chose to come to California, so we arranged a week for them, partly with a joint meeting and partly with visits of some of the places in the Bay Area—University of California at Berkeley, the IBM Almaden Research Center, and Stanford Linear Accelerator. I thought it worked very well, and again, with great help from Marion Churchill arranging the transportation. We set up visits. I thought, quite appropriately, they had lunch with Y.T. Lee, the Nobel laureate. They had dinner with John Polanyi, who happened to be a speaker at the Almaden Research Center. He was a Nobel laureate with Y.T. Lee. So it all worked very well. 
One amusing thing happened in that. We had a small bus that carried the 12 delegates and myself and the others that were with them, and we went to Berkeley. Parking in Berkeley is really a major issue, so I had made arrangements to have a spot with my name on it so that we could put this bus there near the chemistry department. Well, it turns out that the spot they chose was next to five parking spots reserved for Nobel laureates. There's N1, 2, up to 5. And then right next to that was 6, Coburn. When I told the Chinese the significance of this: "That is the Nobel laureate 1, 2, 3, 4, 5," and then I pointed at my own name, "6." They immediately understood that, and they just cracked up. I really got a big laugh from them. Even though their English was limited, they did understand that. I thought that reciprocal visit worked quite well.

HOLLOWAY: What, you didn't give them a ride in your notorious car?

COBURN: No. [Laughter] They didn't even see my car.

HOLLOWAY: John has one of the oldest cars. It's reputed to be still alive and being driven by him.

COBURN: Still going well. Not many people have the same car in graduate school and in retirement. [Laughter] 

HOLLOWAY: Are you going to retire this car, finally?

COBURN: Oh, I don't know. It'll probably make the decision for me.

HOLLOWAY: If it could, keep running and running and running.


HOLLOWAY: See, another thing that I think started, or incubated at least during your presidency, was the Surface Science Spectra concept.

COBURN: That's true. That came up. Ron Lee had that idea, and he came to me with that. Ron really had to work around the Board of Directors to make the presentation, and it then grew to be a major concern for subsequent presidents. 
Another thing that did happen during my presidency was something that you helped me a great deal with, and that was, we had previously always had the chair of the Long Range Planning Committee be the Past-President. He had a one-year tenure at this, and that didn't seem right. It just didn't seem we had enough time to do anything, so I sweet-talked you into taking a second year at that with the idea of not only to get out of the job myself, but you were doing such a good job of pushing what needed to be done, particularly in the technical director issue. That was something that had to be done, and was done so far. And that notion of keeping the Long Range Planning under one person for a longer time has persisted, and I think it's a good one. It gives a person time to really do something there.

HOLLOWAY: Well, that's true, and I think it conveys accurately the idea that the President receives all these inputs from a number of people. From Ron Lee…you know, from whomever. And that then is mixed and meshed, and you try to formulate something that you believe is going to be good for the Society, present it for an open debate, and then the Board of Directors is actually very proactive in terms of deciding which of these we're actually going to follow. That's certainly a characteristic of our Society. 
But your year was certainly a very fine year. You were a steady hand on the helm, assembling and dispersing these ideas back out again. I wondered if you had any final thoughts about the Society.

COBURN: Nothing major. You deal with a lot of details. I distinctly remember having so many issues come up, and I'm thinking, "I don't have a clue." So I would call you and any other of the Past-Presidents or Officers. I feel so friendly with so many of them. It's so easy to get inputs and to get some assistance on these decisions. This whole Society, to me, it's really great, and I have really enjoyed it. The volunteer aspect, the work that the people do, and how hard they keep at it. It's just great, and I think it was a wonderful experience for me. I know it was for you.

HOLLOWAY: Well, it was certainly a wonderful experience for me. John, I must say that it was a real pleasure. I characterize the people in the Vacuum Society as being not only good scientists and engineers, but I tell my wife they're wonderful people.

COBURN: They're great people. There are great people.

HOLLOWAY: And you're certainly premier amongst those.

COBURN: It goes double. We did have that special relationship, which I hope continues for a long time.

HOLLOWAY: I'm sure it will. Thank you very much.