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Interview: John Helmer

1997 Albert Nerken Award Recipient
Interviewed by Jim Lafferty, Oct 21, 1997

LAFFERTY: This is October 21, 1997. We're in San Jose, California. It's my pleasure to introduce the recipient of the 1997 Albert Nerken Award, John C. Helmer. John was also elected a Fellow of the American Vacuum Society this year. So John, I'll get back behind the camera and maybe you could tell us how you got started in this vacuum business.

HELMER: Thank you, Jim. How did I become a vacuum scientist? In my graduate work, I wanted to construct an ammonia maser. The ammonia line was connected with swagelock fittings, a number of them connected together. The swage-locks leaked, so there was ammonia leaking into the laboratory over time. I had a constant headache. I worked with that all day long, and I had a constant headache from the ammonia. So I thought, well, I'm going to damage myself if I don't get these things tight. That's the way I learned how to make a leak-tight swage-lock fitting. 
Maybe this sounds trivial, but the fact is you can't learn how to connect vacuum fittings from a book. It requires a certain feeling of hands. All vacuum scientists developed this feeling without which you cannot put together a vacuum system. So you see, I take a very operational view of what it means to be a scientist.

LAFFERTY: John, how was the American Vacuum Society important to you in your career?

HELMER: The Vacuum Society has been important to me, centrally important for a long time, and the people that are here. For example, in regard to the recipients of the Nerken Award, many of these people have been important to me. I've mentioned just a number of them. First, the most recent recipient is Bill Wheeler of Varian for his—well, he taught me the vacuum system design and control. Then Pete Hobson for his UHV work at NRC Canada leading the field. Chuck Wagoner, I worked with for many years, collaborating with him in his work with the Varian LEED system. And Mars Hablanian has been helpful to me in everything for many years. And finally, Dan Santeler for his work on the theory of molecular flow, which has been the basis of much of my work. And many other people in the American Vacuum Society. I mentioned in particular of following ones in the science of sputtering. It's Gottfried Wehner, Bill Westwood, John Thornton, and David Hoffman. In the field of vacuum electronics, I would mention Bob Jepsen and Paul Redhead. All of these people are and were giants of vacuum science in the AVS. It was their work upon which I've drawn in my own research.

LAFFERTY: Do you have any advice for young engineers, being as successful as you have over the years?

HELMER: Yes, strangely I do have some advice. I've thought about this. The first idea would be to find an important problem to work on. At Varian in the old days, you had many divisions with hundreds of products which I could study. From these, I could find, I could extract important problems. I developed a very sensitive nose for “windows of opportunity”. Later on, when the law of diminishing returns would set it, I would jump to another area. So I always also made sure I had a number of projects going at a lower level in the hope that one would take off and give me a new horse to ride, and it usually did. 

The second advice I would have is learning to perceive what the experts do not understand. Because when you find something that is not understood, that is a major opportunity. You might think that these things would be obvious, but it is not true. The experts tend to protect their turf, and engineering groups tend to accept the status quo. They're working within their own database. They know that nature is too complicated and there's no time to understand. Time-tested approaches to extend the database with incremental experiments, that which is then of course supported by Kukuchi methods. But much of this is subconscious. It's easy to find the important problems that cannot be solved. But to find the important problems that can be solved, these are usually hidden, and that is why it's difficult to find them.

The third item is consciously identify and develop many abilities within yourself. You can develop areas in which you had talent through introspection and persistence. Everyone is most talented in a particular direction. Introspection is very important over a long period of time because you can develop small talents into major talents that give you a competitive edge. In my case, I developed a high talent for simply modeling of physical processes. Initially, I was not so good at this. But I felt it was something I could do. It was something other people could not do, and I could see the need for it. Eventually, I built a great deal of success on it. 

The next point is to read the original literature. The textbooks and review articles miss important information. For example, I read with difficulty the 1913 article by Wolfgang Gaede, in German, on molecular drag pumping, and found from his early words that his model did not work. Nevertheless, for the last 80 years, this model has been repeated as gospel. You also find lovely surprises, such as the work of C. H. Townes on sputtering, the sputtering work of Gottfried Wehner. At the same time, when I have a new problem, I often avoid the literature so I will not get locked into a dead-end way of thinking. But eventually, when I have taken my thoughts to some conclusion or impasse, I go back and read the basic literature. 

LAFFERTY: You've talked quite a bit about modeling. But what is your view on experimental work?

HELMER: I'm a good experimenter, and I have a good feeling in my hands. That's the way I began. It's just that other people are good too, and I feel that I do not have an advantage in this area. I like handy-work and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. For example, one time I invented and built a UHV gas analyzer based on an ion source from a Bayard-Alpert gauge. Its sensitivity was sensational, and I got a great pitch on it from the NRC Labs in Canada. It used the standard permanent magnet as an analyzer from the eight-liter per second Vacion pump, and it's very cheap to make.
However, it was something new, and management told me that they had not planned for this product, and they did not have the resources to put into manufacturing. But if I would do the manufacturing engineering, then they would put it into production. So being self-confident—about this particular matter anyway—I rashly said yes. So they proceeded to build six identical units as a pre-production run. Then I found that the sensitivity and resolution of these units varied all over and I couldn't control that. So I worked late for several weeks and the General Manager was laughing at my discomfort, no doubt feeling that I deserved to be in that position.

One Friday night I came to the conclusion that I was not going to be able to make reproducible analyzers. So on Saturday morning I came in to straighten up the lab. I walked down town for lunch. I walked into a hardware store, and they had a bin of little bar magnets, which were used for sticking notes onto the refrigerator. I bought a few of these, and I made a hose clamp harness out of hose clamps to hold the magnet on the outside of the ion source. I then found that all six analyzers could be optimized with high performance and identical specifications. When the analyzer did go into production, the manufacturing engineers bought a bin of these little magnets and used an identical harness to attach them to the ion source. I was very lucky to escape making a fool of myself. But as a matter of fact, the manufacturing manager has often been a good friend of mine. I have always appreciated the kind of work done in manufacturing.

LAFFERTY: You have spent quite a bit of your professional life in engineering research. What is your view of work in the modern corporation?

HELMER: [Chuckles] I'm annoyed at the professional corporation bashers. The modern corporation is actually the only viable socio-economic institution that we have. But the corporation is only as good as its people, and its people on average are no better than you or I. You can talk about the evil of exceptional people, but the progress of society is due to the efforts of exceptional people. We would go back to the Stone Age without them. I think we tend to get what we deserve. 

The corporation has given me a wealth of opportunities of all different kinds so that I could reach my maximum potential as a person. This has been a wonderful life. However, that being said, the corporation must constantly experiment with successful or unsuccessful strategies. Successful strategies are of limited duration, but it is difficult to change before it is too late to avoid a crisis because nobody knows what else will be successful. In my company, the time came when the stockholders put in a new CEO who converted the organization into a commune with everybody watching each other. The fellows were disbanded and told not to meet again. The government auditors were prowling around trying to catch people who would make mistakes on their time cards. All of this is very destructive to a creative people, and I don't think you can build a company around the system.

My friends told me to stick it out, and pretty soon the pendulum would swing. Pretty soon the pendulum would swing to the other way. But my time had run out; after 37 years, not even a gold watch. This is happening in many corporations and the social contract is breaking down. Still, there's a critical need for jobs, and the modern corporation has these in abundance for the benefit of society. It is not clear to me how all of this will shake out. I think the excitements and rewards of life may now be found in the smaller companies run by dedicated and exceptional managers who are founders of the business. The large corporations may survive by decentralization if they can find exceptional people.

LAFFERTY: All of this is pretty heavy material. How would you summarize your advice to a new young engineer?

HELMER: Only in the following way. First, try to perceive that which is not known or understood by others. Second, try to understand yourself. Third, be creative. Fourth, don't accept the status quo. If you follow these rules, you may not stay out of trouble, but you will have a wonderful life. 

LAFFERTY: You've certainly had a very interesting career, John. I appreciate you being here to contribute to our AVS video archives, which the History Committee has started. So thank you very much.

HELMER: Thank you, Jim. It's a privilege for me to be here.