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The Man Who Lived a Thousand Lives

There is a subtle kind of fame that comes to scientists whose names have been decapitalized, and appear in print as humble, utilitarian watt, ampere, ohm or angstrom. In industrial plants throughout the world, engineers often point out to visitors an indispensable device called a cottrell. It is a kind of box-shaped annex with protruding smokestacks from which little or no smoke ever emerges. Within its walls there is an ingenious electrical device that cleanses the factory’s exhaust of dust and chemicals that otherwise would pollute the air and poison streams and crops. The sum this device has saved American industry and agriculture runs into a long line of triple ciphers, and it is of priceless value in the war on pollution.

As a nuisance preventer alone, the cottrell is a boon to mankind, but it does a double job. A generous plan established by its inventor yields funds which enable scientists to go ahead with their research projects. The plan has been operating for more than six decades, and it is hard to mention any important field of scientific endeavor that has not been forwarded by it. The whole project stemmed from the scientific zeal and selfless social vision of the inventor—Frederick Gardner Cottrell.

Young Dr. Cottrell, a teacher of physics and chemistry at the University of California in the early 1900s, knew that he had a tremendously lucrative thing on his hands when he built his first electrostatic precipitator. He also realized that he had to choose between a business career with the promise of millions and the comparatively modest life of a teacher and scientist. His laboratory won out, and his invention went on and reaped a rich harvest to aid other scientists. Contributions have been added to our national store that he could not have made by himself in many lifetimes, and which others could not have made without his help. Thus, he was able, in effect, to multiply his career a thousandfold, and at the age of thirty-five, to erect a lasting memorial for the advancement of human progress. 

Yet there was nothing offensively noble about this benefactor when I sat in his study in Palo Alto, California, some years ago as he reviewed his long career. At seventy-one, tall, bony, agile, with intense, sparkling dark eyes, he ranged back over the years, recreating a life spent in the vanguard of engineering and scientific developments. All day he relived the decades from the fringed surrey to the jet plane, one subject suggested another; now and then he leaped up to produce a paper from a file. We ate lunch, still talking. . . The sun dipped toward the Pacific. Mrs. Cottrell came in with tea. She shook her head in warning. “He’ll wear you out,” she said.

Frederick Gardner Cottrell was born in 1877 in an ample tree-shaded middle-class house in Oakland, California. The Cottrells were a Rhode Island shipbuilding family of colonial ancestry, whose fortunes fluctuated. His father, a placid man who worked at various clerical jobs, had a passion for photography, and the boy was fascinated with darkroom procedures. With money earned from odd chores he bought a small printing press and printed business cards announcing himself as “F. G. Cottrell, Landscape Photographer.” Other cards presented him as an “Artistic Job Printer,” and “Electrician.” He installed electric doorbells, then a novelty, in neighbors’ houses. Later, in partnership with a friend, he opened a chemical factory in a barn, but an explosion liquidated the venture. With another friend he formed the “Occidental Telegraph Company.” Among other things, this firm published a small book, written by Cottrell, about electrical devices. Then he started a magazine called The Boy’s Workshop, which contained news about the progress of science. One of his items, published when he was thirteen, discussed “The deposition of dust by electrical aid.” Years later, he remembered this suggestion.

By this time, it was clear that Fred Cottrell was a highly talented boy, but he was no pale, withdrawn intellectual. He had a rugged physique, liked climbing mountains, talked like a streak to anyone who would listen, and made friends readily. He studied long hours, sometimes all night, relaxing now and then with a lathe, a microscope, or his printing press. His Aunt Mame thought the boy was working too hard, and sometimes made him sit still while she read to him from the Scientific American.

After only two years of high school, Cottrell passed entrance exams and enrolled at the University of California. He hit the University—then rather mediocre—like a whirlwind. Impatient with liberal arts courses, he plunged into hard science, once taking five chemistry courses simultaneously and getting top grades in all. He often made his own instruments. When his laboratory needed an oscillograph—a device used to detect and record electrical oscillations—he and a classmate built one as good as and much cheaper than the device shown in the catalog.

When the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen announced his discovery of X-rays in 1895, scientists throughout the world built and tested X-ray machines. Cottrell and two colleagues joined the parade, building the instrument from scrounged parts. No one understood radiation hazards in those days, and today experts shudder at some of the sins committed by various pioneers. When Cottrell and his colleagues were asked to use the device to locate a bullet in a wounded boy, they gave him a two-hour exposure. The sequel was never reported. When an industrial show opened in Oakland, they gave a public X-ray demonstration. For ten cents, a customer could insert his hand and see its skeleton on a screen. Finally, trouble caught up with him. They gave a man’s innards a ninety-minute exposure to locate foreign objects. The patient was burned severely and brought suit. By that time, warnings about the mysterious X-rays were flying fast, and Cottrell and his friends dismantled their instrument.

It was to be expected that Cottrell would earn his B.S. diploma in three years. In his final year he was made assistant to the professor of chemistry, and after graduation he took a job teaching science at the Oakland High School, where many students were to remember his warning that textbooks were sometimes wrong. Afraid of getting into a rut, he lived at home frugally and prepared for a great adventure. To amplify his $1,200-a-year salary, he worked weekends at the University as a paid laboratory assistant. In three years he had saved enough to do postgraduate work in German universities, then outstanding leaders in chemistry.

The gaunt six-foot-two Californian at once impressed his masters at the universities of Berlin and Leipzig with his quick perceptions and his tremendous drive. Choosing a difficult chemical problem that other students had shunned, he carried it through to great success, often working eighteen hours a day, skipping regular meals and munching sausages and cheese that accumulated on a laboratory shelf. To please his family, he went to an opera now and then, but to him only the laboratory was real. Dressed in the traditional tails and a borrowed top hat, he took his examination and won his Ph.D. summa cum laude. What he valued more, as he sailed home, was the respect of the world’s leading chemists.

Soon after coming home, Dr. Cottrell accepted a teaching appointment at Berkeley and married Jessie May Fulton, to whom he had been attached ever since they met in a high school botany class. Then his father died, and he had a number of relatives to support on his meager instructor’s salary. With no definite notion of what he was getting into, he plunged into research, hoping to knock off a quick invention to balance the budget.

One of his schemes was the artificial formation of genuine diamonds. He regretfully shelved the plan, and many years later, real diamonds were made from carbonaceous materials in a laboratory of the General Electric Company. Then an idea came to mind from the problems reported back by classmates who had gone into mining. They, as well as manufacturers of cement, explosives, and chemicals, found that smoke, dust and vapor from kilns, smelting works and furnaces were killing forests and field crops all over the West Coast. There were big damage suits, and firms were spending millions in settling claims and buying up surrounding lands to stop complaints. Ordinary filters were ineffective, and Cottrell set to work to devise some new method of ending the nuisance.

He tried whirling the smoke around through a centrifuge. This removed the heavier particles, and similar devices have found wide use, but it would not do the job at hand. Then he remembered reading of an experiment which the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge had made in England around the turn of the century, attempting to dispel fog and smoke by means of electrical precipitation. Lodge had not succeeded, nor had others who tried his plan, but Cottrell believed that he could make it work. Repeating early experiments, he hung an electrically charged wire in a glass jar, filled the jar with smoke, and watched while the tiny black particles clustered on the inside of the jar, leaving a clear, transparent gas. The electrified particles clung to the oppositely charged electrode.

Applying this principle, Dr. Cottrell set out to devise a far more complicated machine that would handle vast volumes of smoke. It took five years and an investment of $20,000, supplied by three interested colleagues. One of them, Dr. Henry East Miller, provided a laboratory which was located over the San Francisco stock exchange. Cottrell made such a din that the brokers complained that they could not hear the bids. He had no sooner placated the neighbors than the 1906 earthquake and fire wrecked the building, with all his equipment. But he had already built a small precipitator which would make a flowing pipeful of smoke magically invisible, taking out more than 98 percent of the dust.

A large lead-smelting company then heard of Cottrell’s invention and called him in. Stopping the fumes from the stacks was a matter of company life or death, since neighboring farmers had applied for an injunction. In a few months the first cottrells were built and installed. They worked as planned, and to this day are not only protecting the countryside but have paid for themselves many times over by reclaiming valuable chemicals. Smelting firms everywhere were interested, and a number of other uses for the precipitator were soon discovered. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which operated oil pipelines, was trying to find a method of removing the emulsifying water from petroleum. Dr. Cottrell was consulted.

Certain that it was the same problem as taking dust out of smoke, he filled a beaker with emulsified oil and ran a current through it. The water separated from the oil, and billions of barrels of petroleum have been saved by this method. Later when orange growers threatened to close a cement plant at Riverside, California, precipitators solved this problem too by daily recovery of 100 tons of cement particles which fell to the bottoms of the stacks and were conveyed into bins. Potash was also recovered, and during World War I the company made more money from reclaimed potash than from cement.

Since then, many central power plants have installed cottrells, enabling them to burn pulverized coal without creating illegal smoke emission; government mints use them to reclaim large amounts of gold and silver; the process is used in applying sand to an adhesive surface in making sandpaper and in attracting flock to a rubber base in the manufacture of carpeting. Companies manufacturing cottrells have operated in Canada, England, Germany and Japan, and year by year the demand has increased.

In the middle of his early success, Dr. Cottrell had appendicitis with complications, and for a time his life was in danger. After his recovery, the doctor ordered a long rest, and he had time to think things over. The great future of his invention was now clear. He had only to control its development and there was little limit to the money he could make.

Dr. Cottrell always shrugged off the praise that came to him because he passed up the chance of a fortune in order to help other scientists. “For me it was the only sensible choice,” he told me. “I decided that I didn’t want to be a businessman. I have seen scientists leave their laboratories for business ventures, and they never come back. Too many men neglect their real interests to pursue a fortune. I belonged in a laboratory, and I was determined to stay there.”

Giving away a lucrative business in such a way that it could not make a profit turned out to be one of the hardest jobs of his life. To begin with, certain development and legal costs had to be met to tidy up the gift. He disposed of a small part of his patent rights for a lump sum to defray these expenses, leaving him in possession of the greater part. This he tried to give to the University of California, but the University’s charter did not allow it to accept a gift of this sort. The American Chemical Society, two national engineering societies, and the Smithsonian Institution replied that, for this reason or that, they could not own and run a manufacturing business. So Dr. Cottrell decided to set up a nonprofit corporation, unique of its kind, to make and sell precipitators and spend the proceeds in backing research projects in colleges and scientific institutions. The Smithsonian Institution helped bring about the new venture.

A little capital was needed for current expenses, so Dr. Cottrell and Dr. Charles D. Walcott, then secretary of the Smithsonian, called on a list of leading businessmen and scientists for contributions. One man, Dr. Cottrell told me, could not believe that they were trying to sell him stock in a corporation which would give away its profits. “He told us that if we didn’t have the best of credentials, he would have us thrown out as bunco steerers,” Cottrell recalled. “But when we explained, he reached for his checkbook.

Soon a group of seventeen enthusiasts, including industrial chemist Arthur D. Little, scientist and inventor Elihu Thomson, Dr. Walcott, Charles A. Stone of Stone and Webster, the firm of engineering consultants, and T. Coleman du Pont subscribed a total of $10,100. Dr. Cottrell told how one of the backers proposed that they raise the amount to $200,000.

“I tol dthem,” he said with a chuckle, “that if they raised all that money, they’d hire someone to do the work and forget about it. With a small capitalization, they’d all be on their toes.” So with zeal and shortage of cash to spur them on, some of the ablest men in the country put their shoulders to the wheel.

The Research Corporation, as it is named, has provided timely, if sometimes modest, aid to able scientists, often keeping a promise of an idea from being shelved for lack of funds. For instance, in 1931, a young physicist at the University of Berkeley wanted to build a machine which he called a “cyclotron.” He said it would split atoms. He had demonstrated the principle with a 4-inch model put together from pieces of window glass and scraps of brass. Now he wanted to build one 10 inches in diameter. Many physicists thought Ernest Orlando Lawrence had a smart idea, but they did not think it would work.

Lawrence’s research had been done on a meager budget, and he was scouting for funds. He told Dr. Cottrell that he really wanted to build a much larger cyclotron, but he would be lucky to get a few hundred dollars. Dr. Cottrell consulted his colleagues, and the Research Corporation gave the University a grant of $5,500 for Lawrence’s work. A big electromagnet was needed, and by good fortune Lawrence found a discarded 85-ton magnet in the backyard of a Palo Alto wireless plant. The Chinese Government had ordered it but had been unable to keep its contract. So with $5,500 to work with, Lawrence built the famous 37-inch cyclotron. This helped lay the foundation of atom-smashing, opened up the whole field of producing radioactive materials for medical use, and brought its builder the Nobel Prize. Year after year the Research Corporation renewed the grant. As interest in nuclear research increased, large sums came from the Rockefeller Foundation and other sources. Lawrence went on to build a 60-inch cyclotron, and finally the 184-inch giant, then the world’s largest, which now dominates the hills above Berkeley. As a result, the world’s first plutonium was produced, and the first substantial amount of U-235 was separated from ordinary uranium.

Over a period of years the Corporation has advanced nearly $250,000 to the Smithsonian Institution to use as it saw fit in aiding research. In the early 1920s, the late R.H. Goddard, then a professor at Clark University, asked the Smithsonian for help in building rockets. Rocketeers were considered a bit in those days, and there was a popular notion that Goddard believed that a man would some day fly to the moon. Dr. Walcott asked Cottrell’s advice about using the Research Corporation’s money for such a long shot.

“That’s what the money is for—to back long shots,” said Cottrell, so Goddard got money to build a new rocket. On March 16, 1926, residents of Auburn, Massachusetts, saw a streak of fire in the sky. Years later they learned that they had witnessed the flight of the first liquid-fuel rocket, dispatched by Professor Goddard. He was laying an experimental foundation for the military rockets used in World War II, and for today’s spacecraft. Later, Goddard received substantial aid from the Guggenheim Foundation, and then he and his work were taken over by the Navy, but the initial boost came from Research Corporation funds and Dr. Cottrell’s venturesome spirit. When at the close of the war United States experts asked German scientists how the V-2 rocket operated, they said that no one could explain that better than Goddard.

In 1928, Research Corporation funds were useful in establishing a laboratory for the study of solar radiation in relation to life, under the guidance of the American astrophysicist Charles G. Abbot, then secretary of the Smithsonian. For many years, workers in this laboratory have studied such problems as the direct conversion of sunlight into power, the trapping of the sun’s rays to heat houses, the effect of sunlight on animal and plant life, and the mysterious process of photosynthesis by which plants utilize sunlight to produce the sugars, starches, and proteins essential to human life. Another grant was made to the University of Florida, where physicists were trying to harness solar energy to run refrigerators and heat houses.

One invention added by the Corporation’s early backing was a heat-sensitive “eye” that can clearly detect warm objects such as people, animals, cars, and planes many miles away in the dark. Such devices are now widely used by the military and in the aerial detection of forest fires. Three-dimensional motion pictures, searches for new paints and plastics, studies of germicidal compounds, and research in airborne infections have also been pushed ahead a little faster because of the Corporation’s timely help.

Although Dr. Cottrell gave away a fortune, in effect, to help other scientists, he was a firm believer in the patent system, which enables inventors to profit from their discoveries. An important part of the Research Corporation’s work is aiding inventors in academic and scientific institutions by evaluating, patenting, and licensing their work—a field in which teachers and scientists are seldom competent. At first some academic people criticized this plan as smacking of selfish motives. They asked why inventions could not be made freely available to all manufacturers. Dr. Cottrell’s reply has become something of a maxim.

“A certain minimum amount of protection is usually felt necessary by any manufacturing concern before it will invest in the machinery or other equipment . . . to put a new invention on the market. Thus a number of meritorious patents given to the public absolutely freely by their inventors have never come upon the market chiefly because ‘What’s everybody’s business is nobody’s busines.’”1

The Corporation’s first agreement for invention evaluation was made with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today this service is enjoyed by more than 250 institutions, including many major universities, small colleges, research organizations, and medical groups, freeing scores of scientists of business routine and assuring them that their discoveries would be protected.

When the American chemist Robert R. Williams and his colleagues perfected their process for the volume production of vitamin B1, it was clear to them that a development so important to health should be carefully directed in the public interest. In 1935 Dr. Williams turned the patents over to the Research Corporation, under whose management the price of the vitamin was reduced in a decade from ten dollars a gram to a few cents. This made possible its present widespread use. Half the royalties are administered under a special fund to combat dietary diseases, and most of the balance is used by the Corporation to aid other scientists.

Since the Corporation opened shop in 1912, more than 10,000 new inventions have been evaluated. They cover a wide range, including a plastic bone that may replace damaged bones and teeth; a chemical treatment to preserve ancient monuments from corrosion by industrial gases; a humane method for freeze-branding cattle; a device for the mechanized transplantation of plants to save hand labor; the testing of platinum compounds for the treatment of cancer; a new plan for the permanent pressing of textiles.

All patents are rigidly screened for originality, usefulness, and estimated economic value. Many are rejected. In 1971, of 442 inventions evaluated, only 54 passed the tests. Among the handful of finalists there may be a Xerox, a Polaroid, or a transistor of tomorrow.

Other funds have gone to promote science education. When small colleges had trouble finding science teachers after World War II, the Corporation conceived a plan to help scholars interested in science. A fund of $2,500,000, named for Dr. Cottrell, was set aside to be spent for whatever equipment and supplies the applicants needed for part-time research work. This appealed to many teachers, since the Corporation has no interest in the commercial future of their projects, asking only that they show promise of increasing basic scientific knowledge.

One of these small grants went to purchase equipment for James A. Van Allen of the State University of Iowa, an unknown young physicist who was curious about radiation surrounding the earth. Today, all the world knows about the Van Allen radiation belts which he discovered. The program he launched with a Research Corporation grant produced eleven Ph.D.s and nineteen master’s degrees in a few years, and these graduates have exerted a strong influence in the space sciences.

Sometime in the mid-1930s Dr. Vannevar Bush, the electrical engineer who was then vice-president of M.I.T., began to wonder why certain small colleges were turning out more than their quota of able scientists. The Research Corporation investigated the matter. It was suspected that in each of these colleges there was a brilliant teacher who had somehow escaped wide recognition. A few such teachers have been found, and they have been presented with checks for $1,000 and scrolls citing their achievement.

After getting rid of his “gold mine,” Dr. Cottrell left its guidance to the Research Corporation and went on with his life in science. He sought out jobs that interested him, rather than distinguished positions, yet the demand for scientists of his rank assured him of an adequate income. He had a brilliant career in the Bureau of Mines as chief chemist, chief metallurgist, and director, and in the Department of Agriculture, where he worked in the chemistry of soils, fertilizers, and plant growth. During World War I he was in charge of the government’s production of helium for use in military dirigibles, and later he served on the National Research Council. One of his lifetime hobbies was the promotion of Esperanto as an auxiliary international language.

Many who were buoyed up during these years by Dr. Cottrell’s far-ranging optimistic zest knew nothing of the many tribulations that had hounded his life. Mrs. Cottrell was not strong and their two children died in infancy. The couple were once severely injured in a traffic crash. Late in life he suffered painful infirmities but refused to slow down. Once, after a bout with Washington bureaucracy, he spent weeks in a Massachusetts sanitarium to calm his ragged nerves. One recalls the words of the late Dean LeBaron Russell Briggs of Harvard when a student told him that he had not finished an assignment because he was not feeling very well. The Dean replied, “I think that in time you may perhaps find that most of the work of the world is done by people who aren’t feeling very well.”2 

Today, the Research Corporation is one of the twenty-five largest United States foundation in terms of annual grants. The precipitator which gave it its start is now being produced by a separate commercial firm, and the foundation derives the greater part of its income from investments and from royalties on patents donated by public-spirited inventors who followed Dr. Cottrell’s example. In the sixty years since it was established, the foundation has distributed sums totaling $46,000,000 to promote the advance of scientific research. It is now clear that Dr. Cottrell’s greatest invention was not his precipitator but his unique foundation.

During his final years of impatient retirement at his palm-shaded house in Palo Alto, fellow scientists rang his bell bringing problems ranging from metallurgy to orchid culture. For forty years, people had been telling stymied research men to talk to Cottrell—that even if he did not know the subject, he would quickly come up with an idea. Said a long-time colleague: “Cot sees ahead into that field which most of us do not see. He has to have an army behind him to rake up the things he uncovers.”

Not long after I last saw Dr. Cottrell, he walked up a steep hill at Berkeley to attend a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. Before the first paper was finished, he had lapsed into a coma from which he did not recover.

It was once said of Frederick Gardner Cottrell: “He lives a thousand lives.”3 That is still true, and his army of followers is growing.

1 Frederick Gardner Cottrell, “The Research Corporation, an Experiment in Public Administration of Patent Rights,” Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, December 1912.

2 Frederick Lewis Allen, “Words to Live By,” This Week, condensed in Reader’s Digest, March 1953.

3 J.W. Barker, Research Corporation, pamphlet, The Newcomen Society in North America, 1952.

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