Awards > Awardee Interviews > Interview

Interview: John O'Hanlon

1993 Albert Nerken Award Recipient
Interviewed By Don McClure, 17 October, 1993

McCLURE: I'm Don McClure. I work at 3M Company in their Corporate Research Laboratory. It's November 1993 at the 40th National Symposium of the American Vacuum Society. We're here on the occasion of the award of the Albert Nerken Award to John O'Hanlon, who is here with us. We just wanted to talk to John a little bit tonight and get a record of this great event. One of the first things I wanted to ask John is in the citation. We read that the award is "for outstanding contributions to vacuum technology and the education of its practitioners, and for significant contributions to arrange a semiconductor display in microcontamination problems". I'm particularly interested in John's early years, when he came to IBM, which is the place where I met him and worked with him. John came into IBM as a technician, and left IBM for a while to go back to school. I'd like to hear some of John's reflections on that.

O'HANLON: I started off at IBM as a technician in 1957. I had gone through a two-year tech in Long Island at Farmingdale, and came to the research lab, which was then in Poughkeepsie, New York, and worked there on some vacuum problems almost from the start in areas of building large vacuum systems to make superconductors - the old tin-lead cryotrons. We built great big chambers, and sometimes I don't think we knew very much about what we were doing, but we had a lot of fun. Then stayed there for two years, and my manager, John Lentz, convinced me that I ought to go back to school and do something more than just be a technician. So at that point, we came out to University of Arizona and spent three years and did a bachelor's degree. Went back to work at IBM. I was sort of happy to stay there, but then, after a while, you find that everybody there except you has a Ph.D. So then you go back to school and get a master's degree and come back, and you find everybody else still has a Ph.D. So then you decide, well, I'll keep going 'til somebody beats me over the head with a stick and says, "You're too stupid to go any farther." So we just kept going back and back to school until finally, we got done. Then came back in 1967, ten years later, finally, as staff member in Yorktown and still working on a number of vacuum problems.

McCLURE: What kind of problems were those in the late '60s that you were working on?

O'HANLON: When we came back from school, they were germanium transistors. We were trying to make transistors that were faster than silicon, and we knew that, because of the mobility of germanium being 2.3 times faster than that of silicon, if we could make a germanium planar technology, then it would be faster by 2.3 than a silicon technology. But germanium doesn't have a good native oxide, so therefore we had to develop all kinds of things. I was working on putting down aluminum films and oxidizing them by plasma anodization in an oxygen plasma. From then on, it went into a series of display problems: zinc sulfide, electroluminescent displays, and then, finally, plasma display panels, and so on.

McCLURE: That's about the time when I came into the lab and got to know John. He was also, by this time in the late '70s, widely recognized in the laboratory as an expert in vacuum technology. It was also the time in which he began writing his book1 that many of us have come to love and use faithfully. Tell us about that experience, John.

O'HANLON: Well, I guess what happens is that I'm not really a very competitive guy. What I found within the lab was that there were a large number of people that were really competitive and after very, very glamorous topics - typically, processes using vacuum. And not being a very competitive guy but still liking to work, I found that there was this interesting topic called vacuum that nobody seemed to be interested in. They were interested in etching and growing films and doing all kinds of things, but nobody was interested in vacuum, so I said, "A-ha, now there's something I can go do that nobody else in the lab is working on, and I won't have to compete with anybody. I can learn a lot about nothing." So that's sort of how I got started in it. My kids always had a great deal of humor in school, and when their teachers would ask them what their father did, they say, "My father knows nothing."

McCLURE: How much work was it, putting that book together?

O'HANLON: That was a little bit of work. I think it averaged about four hours a work each evening over four years, so it came out to be something like two years full time, if you wish.

McCLURE: And that was supported by the IBM management at the time?

O'HANLON: You had to go to your manager and get permission to write a book, but the support was in specific areas. The time was all my own in the evening, but yet they would give graphics support. They photocomposed both the first and second edition very kindly on the computer; did the final pages that got sent to the publisher.

McCLURE: What were some of your memorable remembrances in the display area that you'd like to talk about?

O'HANLON: The most interesting one, again, from a historical perspective, was re-learning how to make cathode ray tubes. There were a number of people before me that had started making a multi-gun cathode ray tube that had 16 cathodes and a four-by-four array, very small, on a sapphire chip with tungsten electrodes. We had to re-learn how to make electron guns and how to put them in bottles and drop-seal them and pump them out and tip them off. Our only database was a pirated copy of the 1955 RCA tube manual. So in a sense, we were relearning everything that people already knew from before, but no one working in the field now knows it because it's a technology that's a dinosaur. There are a few people at Thomas Electronics in Clyde, NY, a few people at Clinton Electronics Corporation in Illinois, and a lot in Japan, but few in the US knows this technology now because it is not that widely needed; just a very few CRT makers. So that was kind of fun in re-learning a lot of really fascinating vacuum material that I never would have known existed.

McCLURE: What led to your leaving IBM and going to the University of Arizona?

O'HANLON: I think it was probably a mid-life crisis in the sense that I was getting on in my mid-40s and realizing at that point I'd been there 28 years and saying, now this is really neat and interesting and I love it, but I'm kind of like the person who perpetually wants to keep moving west. Just got tired of sitting still and wanted to go do something else. I thought teaching would be good. It would be very relaxing. You'd have time to think and just teach courses and enjoy it, but that isn't what it's turning out to be. [Chuckles]

McCLURE: Tell me what kind of problems you were working on out in Arizona. Quite different from what you were doing in Yorktown.

O'HANLON: Well, that's true. I thought, when I came to Arizona, I was leaving vacuum technology and joining a new area called contamination control and making semiconductors. What I found, after we got there, was I was not leaving vacuum technology, but that's the leading edge of where vacuum technology was going to go. So, I was still back with old favorite subject again, and now we're working on a variety of topics - some that are new, some that are old. Things like pumping out a chamber and watching aerosol droplets form. Things like looking inside a plasma and finding particles that are charged and suspended over the wafer, and we're trying to find how to use fluid forces to blow them out. So, again, it's been very, very exciting and stimulating. It's nothing that I ever thought I would be doing. The topics are nothing I ever thought I would be working on, but they're fascinating, and they're all very, very vacuum-related. So it's been really a challenge, and exciting in the sense that I've been able to work with a large number of colleagues from a number of different industries, not just IBM, and be really challenged and stimulated by a lot of their concerns and ideas and really great creative thinking - people to sit and talk and bounce ideas off.

McCLURE: In this 40th anniversary meeting of the AVS, we've had a lot of history talks. Many of the talks have emphasized how it seems we've been re-inventing things, and I think your textbook of vacuum technology is one way in which the next generation can avoid having to relearn everything by their own mistakes, and we have a great gift in that from you to the rest of us. Would you like to have any other reflections on your experience?

O'HANLON: Well, I guess the only other reflection that might be good to end with is that when I got out of high school, my father wanted me to become a plumber. He was a plumber and a steamfitter, and had done some very interesting work himself. In fact, he helped build the first atomic research laboratory - General Electric's Knowles Laboratory, in Schenectady, New York. He was the plumbing supervisor of 200 plumbers building that for three years, and he really wanted me to be a plumber. My grandfather was a plumber and he wanted me to be a plumber. And so I said no, it was the Sputnik era, I want to go college, I want to learn all this stuff and be a physicist. And then at some time in the '70s, after I was at Yorktown, my father came down and looked through my laboratory. I heard later on from my brother that he went back home and told his World War I buddies that I was nothing but a high-class plumber working with stainless steel, and then I was sort of accepted back into the family!

McCLURE: Very good. I think that's it. Did you want to add anything more?

1. Users Guide to Vacuum Technology, John F. O'Hanlon, 1st Ed. Wiley (1980), 2nd Ed. Wiley (1989), 3rd Ed. Wiley-Interscience (2003)
For a listing of this and other textbooks on related topics, see the AVS web site