Oral History Interview with Richard A. Denton (RAD) 1915 – 2003
Conducted by Frank T. Zimone (FTZ) on April 17, 2002
Richard Denton (left) and Frank Zimone (right) at the
45th Annual Society of Vacuum Coaters Technical Conference
FTZ: I’d like to have the pleasure of introducing Mr. Richard Denton, the founder of Denton Vacuum. I have to say it’s certainly an honor for me to be given the opportunity to interview Mr. Denton and talk about some of the significant events and personalities in his life. What I’d like to do, Richard, is make this somewhat personal. A lot of the facts are pretty well known about your accomplishments, and here we have an opportunity to focus on what it was like for you to kind of live as one of the pioneers in vacuum coating in the USA. Maybe we can have you share with us your impressions, your experiences, and talk a little bit about the personalities that you’ve encountered over your career. What I’ve tried to do is put together a list of questions that I thought folks might be interested in hearing you talking first person to. And for me, I’m going to take the opportunity to be biased here, because these are questions I think I’m interested in as well. The first question is, what led you to get into the business? Can you talk a little bit about when you made the decision to become an entrepreneur and some of the factors that resulted in you starting up your own business?
RAD: I guess I should go back a little bit. I’m not going to go into my birth, because I don’t remember that, but I will mention that I went to high school and did pretty well, took college boards a couple of times, and went to MIT. My marks through MIT were right in the middle of my class. In my junior year, I was kind of sick for a while. I flunked one course and had to take it over. The last year, in EEE—I was a chemical engineer, you know—EEE, elementary electrical engineering, I got an ‘H’, which is the most you can get. We had one guy who lived down the road from us in Melrose, Mass. (I came from Wakefield) who got all ‘H’s’ and had a ‘5’ average because of that, although I don’t know if he ever capitalized on these marks because this guy got a job with Carbide and Carbon and worked for them his whole life (I think he’s still alive). I don’t think he made as much money as I did, but he was and is a credit to MIT.
Anyhow, I always was interested in starting my own business. My father used to tell me, ‘Well, you started a lot of little businesses around mowing lawns, etc. because we all did that—you didn’t, because there weren’t enough lawns there, I guess. I tried various things. I think the biggest mistake we made in that is one summer we went into the root beer business. We got root beer stuff and banged the tops onto the bottles and all that and so forth. We sold it at around ten cents per bottle, twelve bottles for a dollar. That was all right. Then I went up to Boy Scout camp. So I used to write letters back and forth—it was only twelve miles away—‘Bring me a bottle of my root beer when you come up.’ Well, they did. Somehow or other I had diarrhea for two days thereafter. May not be a suitable subject for this interview, I don’t know. That was an entrepreneurship.
FTZ: So you knew early on you were going to be in business on your own.
RAD: Yes, I always wanted to, but when I got out of college—that was in 1937, which was a little bit better year than the two previous, but for getting a job it wasn’t great. To my amazement, somewhere around before Christmas, the Professors came around and said, "Look, any of you guys who are going to graduate, we are having some people in who want to interview prospective graduates." So I went to a couple of meetings, and one of the groups that came was from General Printing Ink. I was majoring in colloid and surface chemistry, little particles and that sort of thing. That’s up their alley. And they’d even sent one of their best men, someone older than me, of course, to take a summer course in the Colloid Chemical Department at MIT. So I went down, at their expense—let’s see, yes, they invited me down and offered to pay my expenses. I went down and interviewed with them for a couple of days and went home. A week later, I had an offer of a job. It amounted to $35 per week, come June or July. So I took it. At the end of my college career, I owed $750 that I had borrowed from MIT—I think it was at 2% interest. That sort of weighed on my shoulders a little bit, to have that much debt! So anyhow, I went down there and found a place to live and at the time, the first job was a pilot plant job. We wore dungarees and everything. I rented a room from an Episcopal minister in Irvington, which is a suburb of Newark. They were a little unhappy that I had colors on my clothes. It was good during the summer. Actually during the summer I played tennis in the evening, whenever I could. Anyhow, come the fall, my buddy from high school and from Wakefield, Mass. had a job in New Jersey a little farther south. So we got an apartment together in Irvington, NJ. That’s where we lived for two years until I got married. At that point I moved over near the George Washington Bridge. My wife worked in Times Square and I worked at the printing ink company then at Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. We had to go over and park the car—it cost us a quarter a day to park the car by the George Washington Bridge—then over the bridge, then down on the subway.
Concerning to have my own business, I always thought I would like to do that. But I had no capital, nor any way really start at that point. So I worked at the printing ink company—the last three years it was in New York City—between four and five years altogether, until December 7, 1941—when they bombed Pearl Harbor. So I said to the wife, I said, "We’re not going to beat the Germans throwing ink at them." So I wrote to the placement bureau at MIT and sent them a résumé and said I really should help the war effort; where should I apply? So they gave me three names. One of them was General Electric, another was another big company, and the third was Frankford Arsenal In Philadelphia. So I updated my résumé and sent a brief note to all these people. I said to the wife, ‘These two big companies, I will be lucky if I would hear from them in five or six months.’ By the time they replied, I was already working at the Frankford Arsenal since the first of March, 1942.
So in the printing ink business, I think I developed some inks and worked in the lab. A couple of patents that have my name on them were a result of that work. So I was somewhat successful and in fact, at the end of the war, I had a very good boss there. He would have been glad to have me back. But instead of that, I told him I wanted to go into business for myself and borrowed $1,000 from him. My parents didn’t have that much extra money. And he lent it to me!!
FTZ: So you borrowed money from your previous boss before you left…he financed your startup?
RAD: A little of it, yes. At the Frankford Arsenal they offered a free night course in optics for the people working in the shop where I worked in the instrument department, specifically the optical shop where they ground and polished lenses and prisms. At the beginning of the war, we had two places that the Army had to use its weapons and instruments. One of them was Guadal Canal, and the other was North Africa. The only place that at that point was set up to make the Army optics was at the Frankford Arsenal. Later in the war, when they got many contractors, there were large companies that just set up the optical instrument business and also some existing optical companies—Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Bell & Howell, etc., also got contracts for making instruments. In March, 1942, the Frankford Arsenal was the only place making any, so when I got there, the first thing I found was that their materials were not specified properly, and they weren’t as good as they should be. But they had a core of about 14 experienced people. These people had all been there for 20 or more years. To a man, they were intelligent people and they could grind and polish optics on the machines that they had, which were pretty good machines, but the technical knowledge among them was close to zero. You couldn’t find it; they didn’t know anything modern. So I got there and it took me a few weeks to talk to people and see what they were doing and what the problems were.
I realized early that I could do a lot of things there, as soon as I got the confidence of my boss, which took me maybe a month. Because during the war, you could get anything that could be available, and although we didn’t have the highest priorities–they were the Navy, or the Army Air Force–we had the next one. And so you could get stuff in front of anybody else. Money was not a problem at that time. So I started off and used an old process that they had been using occasionally to make iron oxide rouge. I won’t describe it; it’s too discouraging. They didn’t know how to do it right. I made up some right and got some very fast, well-polishing iron oxide. So I used their process. The fact that I could take that process and make it better, I think was a big political thing. It got me good rapport with a lot of the people at the Arsenal.
There were a lot of other problems that were chemical in nature. One of them was that plaster blocking was used for prisms that had flat surfaces. Several operations were needed to grind and polish each block. They threw a certain amount of plaster-of-paris in a container and they added a rusty tomato can full of Portland cement because it kept the dental cement from setting too fast . . .big jokes about guys losing their arm in the fast-setting plaster.
I visited some of our contractors whenever I could go. I decided to go down to the Bureau of Standards for some information and somebody said, ‘That’s a dirty old place; you’re not going to like that.’ That was before they moved out to where they are now. So I found very great help from some people down there. They knew their stuff. One of them was a guy named Irvine Gardiner, and he was a very famous man. He was the head of the optical section of the Bureau of Standards at that time. I used to see him after the war at Optical Society meetings. But at that time I was 27, and he was probably over 60. Anyhow, they gave me assistance and I set up methods to test everything that we used in the way of chemicals. I set up not only the tests, but I trained people to do them. One of the things that I did there was a very good feather in my cap. At the Frankford Arsenal at that time all optical polishing was done with the iron oxide rouge, which was red, as you know. But some French guy named Devé had written a book on precision optical procedures. I translated some of it in my only other language, French. The author had come to the U.S. and sold the Arsenal on his process a couple of years before. This process was to grind and polish the lenses and all in one machine, saving all the intermediate stages, but his system was unsuccessful. But I did get a copy of his book. There was some pretty good stuff in his book that I did use.
Anyhow, I started at the F.A. on the 2nd of March, 1943, and I was processed through. I can remember pushing my way through the entrance room. The room I walked into was about 25 feet wide by 15 feet deep, with a counter at the far end. The room was clumped with people. I had on my best top coat, that I had bought at a sale in New York. This new coat was spread out between the crowd behind me, and the crowd was pushing and hauling to get up to the counter so they could get a job. I had to fight my way there. Once I got there, they realized that I was a priority person and they got me through pretty fast.
Fortunately they had started a new optical shop building. The old building was all right, but very overcrowded. I found and watched the use of grinding and polishing equipment and the things that they were doing. I couldn’t get much to work with at first. They had plenty of microscopes around, if you wanted to look at something. So I did my studying in there for a month, and got to order what I would need to take care of what I had to do. Then they moved in September into a nice, big new building. By Thanksgiving or so I had 40 people working for me, and had set up all the operations for testing and everything else that had to be done.
Most of the time I got along with the old employees. Some of them tended to be a little jealous, but the fact was that I was getting stuff done, I couldn’t help that; I had to help win the war, you know. The bottom line was that by 6 months after March 2, I had the equipment I needed. My 40 employees and all their problems with chemical and other materials were solved. Of course, all production in any field required constant vigilance.
So then one day my boss comes in and he says, ‘****, you have to go over and see the colonel and lieutenant colonel’. The colonel ran the instrument division. I said, ‘What about?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, they wanted to see you.’ I wrote a monthly report—I don’t know that I had to, but I just insisted so the boss knew what I was doing. I had a secretary starting September. Before that I had to beg for secretarial help. And I wrote a monthly report for my boss from the day I got there, because I figured that it was so new to all the people, just the fact that I might produce a better material or fix something wasn’t enough. They’d better know why. And so I wrote reports. I went over to see the two colonels. Colonel Welch, who was the head of the Instrument Division. He was a West Point man; he was maybe 60 at the time. I remember his wife came from Toronto, which is another story. But then the other colonel, Mitchell, was one of these younger, brighter types that they had sent to MIT for a masters degree. So they said very simply, ‘What do you know about these anti-reflection coatings for optics?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about them except I’ve read a little bit about them, and apparently, they’re very good.’ They said, ‘Go and find out all you can about them as soon as possible, and write us a recommendation to what we should do.’ And that was the end of that interview.
So I did. I never flew during the war; they never flew me anywhere. They only talked about it a couple of times so I went to Chicago and I went to Rochester by overnight train to see people who were already doing anti-reflective coatings. When I got to Rochester (I had been there once before) and knew the chief chemist at Bausch & Lomb. So I told him, ‘You know, I have to do vacuum coating now. Do you know anything about it?’ He said, ‘All I know about it is, there’s a bunch of wild men over there in our Coating Dept.’ As a bunch of wild men, they used high voltages and everything. As far as I can determine,’ he said, ‘the equipment works, but it works about three-quarters or two-thirds of the time only.’
FTZ: Then suddenly you need to set up anti-reflection lens coatings, a new field. How did you get this going and how quickly?
RAD: First others had started doing this, but no one in the U.S. was really in production, that is, coating most of the glass optical elements they produced. The one exception was a U.S. Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C. Here Dr. Dean Lyon had been hired a year or two before the U.S. was in the war and had developed coating process of vaporizing in high vacuum very pure magnesium fluoride onto the polished surfaces of the optical lenses and prisms in the instruments. This reduced the light reflection from the surfaces and increased the transmission by 30 – 40%. It also reduced multiple (out of focus) internal reflections. The result was to allow the instruments to be used about 1/2 hour longer in lower light levels near dawn and dusk.
My report of early January, 1943, recommended using the Navy process developed by Dr. Lyon. It also listed the equipment to be purchased from the only two vendors available in the United States. The cost of equipment and set-up included the ancillary items needed in addition to the high vacuum evaporation systems. Based on written quotes from the vacuum equipment suppliers, it was estimated that using the priorities available to the Frankford Arsenal that with immediate approval and action that the Frankford Arsenal optical shop could be in production of coatings, on all or most of its production by April 15, 1943. My recommendations were approved, the project expedited and production started about April 15, 1943. It is not the purpose of this write-up to detail every nuance of the high vacuum coating process, suffice it to state that this was a totally new operation for the optical shop of the Frankford Arsenal. Not only was it necessary to clean the glass surface very well, but since the vacuum pumps used oil in pumping, it was necessary to prevent the oil from contaminating the glass surfaces to be coated.
FTZ: How did you select the personnel you required to operate a new optical coating department?
RAD: I had selected Tom Scatchard to run this operation while we awaited our equipment, and he and I tried to see that all personnel who were employed by the coating operation are at least partially responsible for the results, understood its importance to the men in the field and the war effort. We did get tremendous cooperation at all levels of the Frankford Arsenal. At the end of World War II, the Frankford Arsenal had high vacuum operation second to none for its size, and superior to many. In addition to installing and running our own coating operation, we were able to assist many Army contractors in producing the quality of coated optics we required.
FTZ: So you can remember making your first thin-film coating?
RAD: Oh, yes, that’s right. Actually, I think it was probably Tom Scatchard that did it, but I was there. Anyhow, so I got that operation set up. But I got information in Rochester that there were only two companies where you could buy high vacuum coating equipment. I figured that probably from the amount the shop could turn out, particularly the larger shop that we moved into, I needed three units to do it. So I ordered four. At that time, as I mentioned, they had given a little optical course in the evenings. I went on top of my 60-hour week and everything. I went down there for half a dozen or ten of these meetings. They had a pretty good optics man lecturing. So I was sitting next to this skinny guy in the meeting, and he seemed to be pretty bright. He seemed to know something about this and that, and I talked to him a few times, and I found he worked in the assembly department for the precision assembly of instruments. I don’t think I saw him or his wife socially at that point. When I had to start up the coating, I said to my boss, ‘We have this equipment in and now I have to get people.’ ‘Do you want to take one of our Assistant Foremen to run the thing for you?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve got a guy.’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Tom Scatchard ‘Him?’ I think he may be a personnel problem. Tom never pulled any punches. He said it like it was, regardless of the circumstances. He could run any machine tool, he had learned the assembly of the instruments, he knew more optics really, than I did, he’d been playing with telescopes and stuff at the Franklin Institute. In fact, my wife was mentioning the other day that he had helped set up a big telescope when he was 17 years old (he was exactly the same age as I was). Then I got another very good man. I had to have someone who could run the polishing stuff. I talked to people, and I found a guy named Jim Leonetti working there. I talked to him off and on—lunch hours and times like that I would fraternize with the people when I could. I found that this guy had a pre-med education and he had gotten into the arsenal because actually he had over half of a technical college education. But the war came along, and I guess he thought it would be better to work for the government than using a gun for which I couldn’t blame him.
So now I had my own polishing setup, and then I had to get more personnel. Because it turns out that the book that this Swiss guy, Devé, mentioned that to use his machine you had to use cerium oxide, which was much better than iron oxide. Of course, I knew such a thing as cerium oxide existed because it was in the chemistry books; but I had never done anything with it at that point. I had to do another set of testing in order to see what we could do with that. The pH of the coating suspension, I suspected was important. It was in the F.A. operation, they had a rotating spindle, with the prisms mounted so that all the flat surfaces to be processed were in the same plane. Then you had another flat plate that was movable that you put on top. Then you could put weights on it. The bottom one rotated it and the top one precessed, and was allowed to rotate with the bottom by friction, and so on. Jim Leonell turned out to be very good. So for the last half of the first year I was there, I had him doing experimental polishing. He became somewhat of an artist and he became quite good at it. In the meantime, during this period we got into cerium oxide, because it polishes faster and, among other things, it doesn’t make such a mess because it’s almost white. It turns out there was a company out in Illinois and that had a contract with the government to develop this. I think it had to do with the Swiss machine or something. They had to give up on that machine, but they had gotten into cerium oxide, and they thought maybe they could make a product they could sell. So then they had to have it tested. Of course, they finally came to the Frankford Arsenal. Anybody like that was sent to me. So we used our standard polishing set-ups and we did all their testing for them. These polishing materials have to be heated and baked in incinerators at some high temperature. If you don’t do that, they’re not hard enough to polish. If you heat them too hot, they’ll scratch. You have to work out things like that, which with our help, they did. So that was really quite an achievement, because that stuff is still used today, called Barnesite.
FTZ: So the war ended, and at that time did you decide that that’s what you wanted to do—to pursue this in the commercial marketplace?
RAD: After I got Tom Scatchard to run the coating department for me, I became technically a supervisor. It was a funny situation. Tom had his personality, and so on. But what he was—here’s a man my age, lawyer going broke in 1930, not only his own debts, but his clients’ debts. Tom never had a formal education other than beyond high school, excepting some night courses, there was no money to send him to four years of college. But he was widely read in optics and mechanics. I think, basically, I don’t know how you would rate it, but I think on a lot of this mechanical stuff, considering the education he didn’t have, he had a little of the genius quality in him. He was really very good. Shop problems, things like that, mechanical problems, he could run any machine tool, not maybe as good as some of the guys who had been running them for 20 years and so forth, but good enough. He was an absolute big assistance in that. We had gotten talking after he was assigned to me and he got the coating going. At that point we had to train a lot of people. I was sent out sometimes; Tom Scatchard was sent out quite a few times to fix up people’s coating equipment and teach them how to run it. And we got talking about when the war was over, this was a new field. At that time we estimated—maybe incorrectly—there might be 200 people in the country who knew as much as he and I did about vacuum coating of optics. There were a lot of people who knew part of the job, but the people who were capable of setting the thing up and running it, fixing things that went wrong and so forth, 200 of them at the most in the country. Because I got into big companies—like Bausch & Lomb, Kodak, Bell & Howell, etc., frequently, and I could see they had good people, but not very many of them at that time.
So Tom and I discussed, well, maybe when the war was over, we’ll be able to start up a coating business of some sort. In the meantime, I had been buying war bonds, and so for the first time in my life I had a little money in the bank, other than the daily and monthly expenses. And Tom did, too. In the meantime at the end of the war I had three children. I only had one when the war started. So I had more responsibilities. We thought we ought to try this and see if we could make a go of it. My wife was not enthusiastic about this. She was used to seeing a paycheck. But she actually went along. So most of the business at first was cash business. We put ads in the paper and in photographic magazines, that we could coat people’s lenses. Coating had become very popular in the photography business then, because of being advertised by the war, more or less, by the fact that it was used on the military stuff. So the place that we had down on Cherry Street, between 20th and 21st, at that time was not the best-looking place for people to bring their fancy cameras, some didn’t—a lot of them did. And we advertised in photographic magazines, and we got stuff through the mail. There were problems with it, but we knew a guy who set up vacuum coatings in New York. He had been a major in the Army at the Arsenal. He found some insurance company that would sell you an insurance policy if you broke someone’s lens, they would pay for it. So we bought one. It cost $300, which was a lot of money. But the thing is that we never intended to use it. We told customers we had the policy—I think one or two customers really wanted to look at it—but we knew damn well we weren’t going to try to use it. We were in good walking distance—at my age then—to the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia, so if we broke a lens either he or I walked up to Broad Street, get on the New York train, get off at 34th Street, went over to Willoughby’s, or one of three or four other camera places, and just bought another camera and took the lens that we had broken out of it and used it. This happened only 2 or 3 times. We had rigged up a little lens bench so we could see if we were hurting the lens focus. A lot of, these lenses were made in Germany, and there was a lot of talk going around about that they had these wonderful old German technicians that could make them just right, and every one was a little bit different because they did special corrections. We found out it was a lot of baloney. We coated a lot of lenses and we tested them out, because we knew—because we had worked at the arsenal—that they were similar to telescope lenses, even though they were in cameras. All lenses are similar—and they’d better be, and so on. We got through a lot of that. It was a very happy time. In the meantime we built more equipment, so we had expanded from one 18-inch bell jar to three.
Then the Korean War came along. Do you want me to stop and ask me some questions now?
FTZ: Well, if I could squeeze one in edgewise, it might be very, very nice. Your career has spanned essentially the period of modern vacuum coating, and you clearly have had the opportunity to meet just about everyone who has been a major technical contributor. I was just curious. Is there anybody who really stands out in your mind, that you’ve had a chance to work with and collaborate, in terms of how they’ve interacted with your career?
RAD: That’s easy. Unfortunately, he was not an American but a German scientist. He was working in Danzig at the start of World War II. His name is George Hass, and he’s still alive, but he’s pretty sick. Now, after the war, they brought him over on the same boat with Werner von Braun and about 10 other very good German scientists. Hass never got a lot of publicity in this country before the war. When he came to the U.S.A., they set him up at Ft. Belvoir, VA., where he worked until they wouldn’t let him stay any longer because he already had gone 10 years beyond his normal retirement time. In 1948, we came across somehow—I remember the photostatic pages of some of his stuff he’d written. I don’t remember how much of that I had to translate or not; I couldn’t translate German too fast. I’ll tell you one thing, though: If somebody speaks to me in German and I know the word, I understand it; but if somebody speaks to me in French, which I had four years of in high school, I don’t understand because of the way they pronounce it. They never learned how to pronounce it! But anyhow, so we went down there to see him. I became very friendly with Dr. Hass and we collaborated sometimes. At that time, of course I wasn’t working for the government anymore, but a lot of people were acquainted with me. I used to say many times over the years while he was still working at Ft. Belvoir, that if every government laboratory that the U.S. pays for produced as much good stuff as George Hass’s laboratory, we’d be so far ahead of the Russians that they’d never catch us. Well, later we found out we were ahead of the Russians but we didn’t know it earlier. He got some pretty good people, and they had respect for him, and he headed up a couple dozen of them and the equipment there. We sold him one or two pieces of equipment. But our relationship was not based on the fact that we wanted to sell him equipment.
But for sometime in the first half of the 1950s, I thought, well, we need some other high-index material to evaporate. I think we could use cerium oxide. Well, I got some and I started playing with it. But we did not have a research department in our company. I used to say, ‘Anything we want to develop, we’d better get it developed where we can sell it in a year, because we can’t afford long-term research; we don’t’ have enough money.’ So one time I told him I was testing cerium oxide. He started laughing. He said, ‘You know, I’ve been working on that for a year or two.’ So he told me what he knew about it, and I didn’t have to do anything else. At that point, he was ready to publish it, it might have been on the way to somewhere, but I did start with it before, I think, anybody else. But I didn’t know how many friends he had that he might have told about it. But he was pretty good. I became very friendly with him, and he came up to see us once in a while. When he did that, we paid his expenses. He wasn’t looking for money from us. I think he was just happy to have someone who was going to take the things that he had developed and use them. That was about it. And we trusted each other.
FTZ: You talk a little bit about Dr. Hass. How about, could you talk a little bit about Virginia, then? To me, Virginia is the synonymous other half of yourself, and clearly the modern representation of Denton Vacuum was incorporated in 1964, and that was quite some time ago, and I think she’s had a pretty significant role in helping you with the business. Can you talk a little bit about that?
RAD: Absolutely, absolutely. She came from a family of five redheads, but you never saw when she was a redhead. She was the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a builder and he did pretty well in the 1920s. Then he started building down on Long Beach Island. In the late 1920s, almost the 1930s, real estate depressed. You can still see the houses he built. We go down there occasionally, and how much better built they are, standing there, than the ones they’ve built since. But anyhow, all of a sudden he went broke and he did the only thing he could, put the kids with the wife in a home he had down there. So she went down there; the whole family went down there. Well, she had a paper route and stuff like that. Then they came up to Irvington, near Newark, sometime in the early 1930s and she went through high school there. That high school was about the size, maybe a little bigger than the high school I went to in Wakefield, Mass., where we graduated about 350-400 each year. She missed being valedictorian by—you know, when you look at a couple of teams who are both vying for first place, in the American or the National League, and they have different wins and losses so they have to go to the fourth place to pick the winner—that’s how she missed being valedictorian of her high school, by the fourth place. So, what did she do? Well, she was offered scholarships, one was down south at Franklin & Marshall for four years, but they had a friend who worked for the public service. And their family was destitute, frankly, destitute. The second girl was going to Montclair Teacher’s and how they financed that, I don’t know. She had just graduated when I first met her. But this friend down in Public Service of New Jersey was just a family friend. I met him, he was a nice guy, but due to his intervention, she got out of school one week and the next week she went to work for Public Service in Newark, New Jersey, for $16 per week. Shameful! But she did all right there, and I know she took some accounting courses and whether she took much of anything in costing or whether she just developed it, I don’t know. George Robinson—my friend from Wakefield and classmate at MIT —and I had rented a place in Irvington on a corner where the front door at this house was on one street and the side door on another. You could go in the back door and go upstairs and each floor shared a bathroom between the two apartments. So we moved in to the first floor "front", and a guy and his wife were in the back. We didn’t get along with them too well but they left, and one Saturday I saw two redheaded girls marching down the street and Virginia and her sister moved in. That’s how I met them. It turned out, at that time—you wouldn’t believe it seeing me now, at that time I used to sing at the choir of the Congregational Church, and I had seen her once or twice sitting there in the church. She had a job at Public Service—I don’t know how long she worked there all together, maybe five years. Then she had taken an accounting course. She got a job in a place in Times Square called Soundmasters. These were the people who owned the Newsreel Theaters, but they had a 16-mm film group there. She got in there and she had this idiot supervisor, some 55-year-old woman that didn’t know much, to tell you the truth, and my wife developed a system to get the costs for them, and I guess there were a couple of confrontations because this woman was bad-mouthing her to the Vice President, but he was smart enough to see who was producing the costs. Anyhow, by that time we were married. A few months later she was pregnant and that was the end of her career at Soundmasters. But when we started the business she laughed at me and Tom Scatchard —"Oh, you really want to start your business."
FTZ: So Virginia was not encouraging to start the business?
RAD: She was worried. That’s right. She said, ‘Well, I guess you guys want to play. You have quite a few war bonds sitting around from the war, you can afford to do that if you want to.’ That was about what she said. So most of the business at first was cash business, so we didn’t have to do much in the way of bookkeeping, because people would come in with a lens, we’d take it and coat it, and get $15 or $25 or whatever and so forth. As time went on, we did develop, of course, some industrial business. Six months later she said, ‘Honey, we’ve got to keep some books here. I’ll fix up a set of books for you.’ So she did and she wrote the stuff down in the books and so on; she knew what she was doing. We were able to look at her numbers and see how we were doing. I had courses in accounting when I was in college and I was not, by any matter or means, stupid about the fact that the business had to make money. Then we got this accountant. I felt we needed an outside accountant. At that time we were doing a lot of coating work for Norman Edmund, who is still a friend, at Edmund Scientific over there. S o I talked to him one day and he said, ‘Here’s the accountant I have; why don’t you talk to him.’ So I did, and so he set us up and looked at our slum located place and shook his head. ‘These guys are making money, so what the hell’. And he set up an accounting system. He said, ‘You’ve got to get a decent bank. This bank you’ve been playing with is not treating you right.’ So he got us into Philadelphia National Bank. We used them for many years. I don’t know if the company does now or not, but we also had our personal account there. When the company really got going, she did all the bookkeeping and stuff for at least two years. Then when we got big enough, we had to have another accountant so Virginia didn’t have to do it all anymore. To get a girl that was good enough to come in and just do the recording of the books and everything correctly was very difficult. I remember one time we hired this girl dressed like she’d just come out of Saks Fifth Avenue; she had a wealthy father. She came in and horsed around. I said to Virginia, ‘You know, we have this new girl for a week or two now. I don’t really think she knows accounting, but she looks 100%. Will you come in and interview her?’ So she interviewed this girl who just didn’t pass. So that night I gave her a week’s salary and sent her home. But mostly Virginia was always interested and always looking at what was going on and giving some good advice. I can remember just looking over the books she said, ‘You’re using so much water there, you should do something about it.’ Well, we went out and paid $700 to put a thing on the roof to cool the water. And it re-circulated and cooled the water that was used to cool the pumps. That’s one thing I remember. I never would have realized that we could save several hundred dollars per month by doing that.
FTZ: Of all the technical accomplishments that you’ve had the opportunity to make in your career, what do you consider was or is the most significant—that people at this point would really be interested in, in your view on that?
RAD: That’s hard. That’s hard. I think that our various contributions that the company has made over the years to the field of electron microscopy has been, as much as anything, the—to give you an example, I went to a meeting in Milwaukee. We found out that the field existed only because Tom’s house was only a five or ten-minute walk from the Franklin Institute. Tom had belonged to that since he was in high school. They had some kind of a meeting there—and I went up there and I met a guy named Robley Williams, who’s dead now. But he was a Professor at Cornell. He had set up a vacuum system to aluminize, (he was a physics professor), his astronomical mirror. That was you know, like, maybe 1932 or 1933, way back then he’d done that. I didn’t know all about it then, but I did meet him. He and a guy named Joel Ufford had married sisters. And Joel and Robley Williams, while he was still a professor, at one time he was at the University of Michigan, were horsing around and talking to each other and he said, ‘You know, this business of aluminizing these mirrors is getting to be a bigger business,’ so Joel said, ‘Well, I think it is and they decided to go into it. So they started Evaporated Metal Films, EMF, which is a very well known company that’s still operating. I have supplied them with equipment at times during the years. We also competed with them in coating. As far as I’m concerned, and them too, it has been a fairly friendly competition over the years.
At that time, I found out that specimen properties for electron microscopy required a small high vacuum and with help from some RCA electron microscope people, we developed a system for this field, which still supplies a substantial part of Denton Vacuum’s equipment business.
FTZ: Would you do anything different now, looking back on your career?
RAD: It’s hard to say that I would.
FTZ: Any disappointments?
RAD: Oh, yes, yes.
FTZ: I guess one question that comes to my mind is, clearly at some point in your career you needed to transition, and you transitioned to your son. Was that—how did you handle that? That must have been a very touchy thing.
RAD: It is, it was, because—we got along well, so he wanted to come and work for us at one point, he wanted to come. I said, ‘You can come, and maybe you’ll inherit the business someday. But you just come and you work, and we’ll pay you as you work. You can buy some stock and if it works out well, we’ll give you some stock. And I promise you nothing more.’ That’s about—whatever words I used then, I don’t remember. But he was happy to do that. And we got along pretty well. I don’t remember what we had him doing at first. He had attended MIT and then he went to Harvard Business School. I can remember when we had literally a four- or five-hour collect phone call he made from Cambridge, wanting to go to Harvard Business School. It took that long to talk me into it—this is 40 years ago or so now—anyhow, he talked me into this. At that time, it cost $3,000 per year. Well, as it turned out, it came up about the time of the Korean War.
FTZ: But as the father/son transition, I mean certainly Peter was very, very successful with the company.
RAD: He had more differences with his mother than with me because he thought that her accounting methods were old-fashioned and she didn’t like it. She did always have good books and could give me accurate costs, something I had never had before. We all got along reasonably well; whether we did things as well as we should have, I don’t know, of course. It wasn’t a big problem. But I knew when it came time and I was going to turn the company over to him,’ I knew that I couldn’t turn it over to him and sit at his elbow and nag him. I knew that wouldn’t work with him, and it would be stupid. So I didn’t do it until I was ready, pretty much, to retire. When I did, it was the safe way, and he has done all right; he’s done very well. I think that was a good decision, to recognize that.
FTZ: You know what I find so fascinating? I have to share it with you. You look at a company like Edmund Scientific, and there’s Denton Vacuum, and you’re talking about your relationship with the founders of these companies, and you guys were just kind of working together. It just puts it personal for me. Absolutely! They’re just guys. Trying to scratch out a living. So, anyway, thank you, Mr. Denton.