Condon, Edward Uhler, 1902-1974

Alternative names
Birth 1902-03-02
Death 1974-03-26

Biographical notes:

Physicist. Major affiliations include: Princeton University, 1930-1937; Westinghouse Co., Pittsburgh, PA, 1937-1945; National Bureau of Standards, Washington, DC, 1945-1951; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1956-1963; and Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, Boulder, CO from 1963.

From the description of Public relations file on Condon, mostly pertaining to the attack on his loyalty by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1948-1974. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 84244064

Edward Uhler Condon was a physicist who served as director of the National Bureau of Standards (1945-1951). He also was the director of research and development (1951-1954) and consulting phsicist (1954-1974) at Corning Glass Works.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1920-1974. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 86165445

Edward Uhler Condon was a physicist who served as director of the National Bureau of Standards (1945-1951). In 1966, the Air Force urged and sponsored his research on unidentified flying objects and in 1968 he presented his Condon Report.

From the description of UFO collection, ca. 1947-1969. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122578925

Theoretical physicist Edward Uhler Condon served as director of the National Bureau of Standards (1945-1951).

From the guide to the Address presented at the 25th anniversary of the atomic time-keeper at Boulder laboratory, Colorado, 22 February 1974, February 22, 1974, (American Philosophical Society)

Edward Uhler Condon was a physicist who served as director of the National Bureau of Standards (1945-1951).

From the description of Address, 1974 Feb. 22, presented at the 25th anniversary of the atomic time-keeper at Boulder laboratory, Colorado. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 154298177

Born in Alamagordo, New Mexico, on March 2, 1902, E. U. Condon spent a life in theoretical physics that brought him into many of the major developments in the field, from the quantum revolution of the 1920s to the nuclear and electronic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Making substantial contributions as a scientist and administrator in academia, industry, and in service to the government, Condon also tasted his fair share of controversy.

After high school, Condon initially set his sights a career in journalism, working at the Oakland Tribune during the summer of 1918 to gain experience, and continuing work on the side when he entered the University of California, Berkeley. While enrolling, dropping out, and re-enrolling from college, however, Condon discovered physics and set off on a different course. Receiving a bachelors degree with highest honors in 1924, he entered into doctoral studies at Berkeley under James Franck, and two years later, after a fevered weekend of work, produced a landmark dissertation. In this dissertation, Condon quantified the effect of light on molecular transitions and established the separability of electronic and vibrational motions in molecules which became known as the Franck-Condon principle.

Following the standard rite of passage for an American student of physics in the early 20th century, Condon accepted a National Research Council fellowship to study in Germany during the fall of 1926 and spring of 1927. Under Max Born and Arnold Sommerfeld at GC6ttingen and Munich, respectively, he applied himself to quantum theory, and after his return to the United States in 1927, took a position in public relations with Bell Telephone Laboratories.

In the spring of 1928, Condon's academic career began in earnest when he was hired as lecturer for two graduate courses at Columbia University (in quantum mechanics and the electromagnetic theory of light). His skill in interpreting the new developments in these areas earned him offers for a permanent position from six different institutions, of which he chose Princeton. He later considered the year 1928-1929 as the most productive of his academic life, capped by his work with R. W. Gurney in the development of the barrier leakage picture of alpha-particle radioactivity and quantum mechanical tunneling. Condon's and Gurney's ideas, which had been brewing simultaneously in the mind of George Gamow, represented the first application of quantum mechanics to the details of atomic structure. At Princeton, he and Philip M. Morse also produced the first English language book on quantum mechanics, Quantum Mechanics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1929).

Thus by the age of 27, Condon had earned a sufficient academic reputation to merit appointment as full professor at the University of Minnesota, though he almost immediately returned to Princeton. In this second stint at Princeton, Condon expanded his research interests to work with Gregory Breit and Richard Present on proton-proton scattering, demonstrating charge independence in the strong nuclear interaction and to early work in mass spectroscopy. His Theory of Atomic Spectra (with G.H. Shortley, 1936) is a classic in the field.

In 1937, Condon left Princeton to begin a new phase in his career -- industry -- when he accepted a position as associate director of research at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, where he steered the corporation toward work in nuclear energy, and toward a greater emphasis on primary research. With the war looming in 1940, however, Condon moved to the Radiation Laboratory at MIT to work on air-borne radar, and in the winter 1942, was chosen by Robert Oppenheimer to help organize the secret Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, with the hopes that he would apply his experience in mass spectroscopy to the separation of uranium isotopes. Struggling with Leslie Groves, the military head of the laboratory, to maintain his civilian status, Condon returned to Westinghouse to work on microwave radar in 1943 and to the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley to work on uranium separation.

After the war, Condon was appointed director of the National Bureau of Standards, where he created new divisions in applied mathematics and electronics which collaborated in the development of the first automatically-sequenced high-speed digital computers, and at the same time acted as science advisor to Senator Brian McMahon, chair of the special committee on atomic energy in the Senate. Condon's influence with McMahon was instrumental in the formulation of the McMahon-Douglas bill of August 1946, which established the Atomic Energy Commission, which safeguarded a civilian role in overseeing the development of nuclear energy and weaponry. His public activities drew the unwanted attention of the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC), which publicly accused Condon of being a liability for national security.

With the zealous prosecution of Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, head of HUAC, Condon was accused in 1952 of being "one of the weakest links in our atomic security." Condon's security clearance was questioned repeatedly, and exonerated equally often, but HUAC refused to retract its allegations. Despite the absence of evidence against him, Condon was compromised in his ability to perform at the National Bureau of Standards, and therefore resigned to become head of research at Corning Glass Works. Even this, however, did not end his troubles with HUAC. In October 1954, the Secretary of the Navy intervened to have Condon's security clearance revoked in connection with naval research being conducted at Corning. Vice President Richard Nixon hinted in campaign speeches that he had been personally involved in the suspension.

As a result of his on-going struggle with the government, Condon returned to academia, teaching at Oberlin for two years and at Washington University for seven before moving to the University of Colorado as professor of physics and fellow of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics.

At Colorado, Condon's security clearance was restored, and he was once again consulted by the government. From 1966 to 1968, he headed a project, "the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects," undertaken at Colorado by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to investigate claims of Unidentified Flying Objects. The "Condon Report," issued in 1968, confirmed Condon's prior skepticism with regard to UFOs, although Condon (given sole responsibility for the content of the report) and his researchers were not always in complete agreement. Nevertheless, the negative conclusion was quickly supported by the National Academy of Sciences and contributed to the decision of the Air Force to suspend Project Blue Book.

Even in the most turbulent periods of his career, Condon received the accolades of his peers. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1953 when he was most beleaguered by HUAC, was president of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (1968-1969), and chair of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (1970), and he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1944), the American Physical Society (President, 1946), and the American Philosophical Society (1949). He died in Boulder in 1974, leaving his wife, Emilie Honzik, and three children.

From the guide to the Edward U. Condon Papers, Circa 1920-1974, (American Philosophical Society)

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  • Bikini Atoll (Pacific Islands)
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