Many years ago, even before Lou was born, a group of blind men were each asked to describe an elephant after having touched the animal in one place only. The blind man who grabbed the elephant’s tail had an entirely different impression of the appearance of the whole animal than the one who felt its ears. And so it was for all the other blind men encountering different parts of the elephant’s anatomy. None of their impressions was wrong. Each was correct but incomplete. By adding up all the different impressions a good and true picture of the noble animal was formed.
So it is when it comes to trying to assess the career and accomplishments of Lou Costrell. Over his long and productive career Lou was involved in many grand enterprises, often in a ground-breaking, leadership role. The products of these enterprises have certainly changed in profound ways how most of us go about carrying out our jobs in electronics and physics. Without these products our experiments would have become prohibitively expensive, excessively time-consuming and, in many cases, impossible.
Of course, Lou did not do all this alone. Lou put together like-minded, capable and motivated electrical engineers (with the odd physicist thrown in!) who shared his goals and were thankful for his initiative and leadership. He ran us into the ground, and we enjoyed every moment of it!
An article on Lou’s engineering career that does not mention his concern for his fellow man would be a disservice both to Lou and the high principles he stood for. Lou did not impose his views on others but his strong social conscience showed through in both conversation and action. He was passionately upset about justice being subverted by money; about nations, including his own, rushing to war with needless killing of innocents rather than using diplomatic skills to avoid bloodshed; and about the injustices of racial, religious and political persecution. He and Esther along with two of their sons joined the famous August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which was followed almost immediately by the terrible dark years of the assassinations of JFK, of Reverend King four years later, and of Bobby Kennedy just two months after King. Happily Lou lived to see great progress in civil and human rights, but he also realized it is a fight that has no end. His example was a model to his many friends who admired his studied awareness of the important issues of the times and willingness to speak out and, if necessary, take to the streets in a show of solidarity and force for human justice.
After this important excursion, on to Lou’s long and productive engineering career.
Lou’s first job after graduating in 1939 with a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maine was at the Ridgeway Company, a manufacturer of electric motors and generators. Within a few months after starting there he received an offer from Westinghouse Corporation in Pittsburg which he accepted with some guilt because he enjoyed the job and liked his boss. However the small town of Ridgeway was not much to his liking and Pittsburgh beckoned, so he went. There he was assigned to the department that designed large direct current motors and generators. Initially he was involved in testing this equipment then, according to plan, six months later he was assigned to the design group.
By early 1941 the United States was making preparations for possibly being heavily involved, either directly or indirectly, in the war in Europe. As a consequence, and consequential for Lou, the Navy Department made an urgent request to Westinghouse for engineers to work in the Electrical Department of the Navy Department of Ships in Washington, D.C. Lou was told that he would be welcomed back whenever his services were no longer needed by the Navy. Washington was certainly a more attractive place than Pittsburgh so Lou went to find out what the job was all about.
He was interviewed by Commander H.G. Rickover and was offered a position in the Electrical Section which Lou found interesting. So, on March 15, 1941 Lou became a civilian employee of the Bureau of Ships. His first assignment was not with motors and generators where his experience lay, but with signal and fire-control searchlights.
Rickover was not the easiest of bosses. Lou’s descriptions of his actions reminds me of a cross between the Queen of Hearts, “Off with his head!”, and Admiral Ernest King, also of the U.S. Navy, whose daughter said, “He is the most even-tempered man in the Navy. He is always in a rage.” Fortunately, Lou was well down the chain of command so was well insulated – Lou’s bosses bore the brunt. Except once.
After receiving his draft questionnaire from the Pittsburgh draft board Lou went to the Washington Naval Office recruitment center, took the physical, and was handed some enlistment papers to sign and return. Next day, when Lou told Rickover what he had done, Rickover blew his top. Lou was informed in no uncertain terms that even if he filed his enlistment papers Rickover would ensure that he would stay exactly where he now was. Upon reflection, Lou was not surprised as he had recently noted that another employee who had enlisted in the Army without Rickover’s knowledge was back at his desk within a week in a GI uniform and at the much lower GI pay. Other than this chap who defied Rickover’s wishes, not one of his 600 staff members was drafted. Lou remained with the Bureau of Ships until the end of the war and a bit beyond.
EARLY NBS YEARS
Lou joined the National Bureau of Standards in the fall of 1946, becoming a member of the Radioactivity Section of the Optics Division. This division was headed by Dr. Leon F. Curtis whom Lou and many others rightly admired both as an outstanding scientist and as a great person. It was he who mentored Lou in the fine points of radioactivity and its measurement for which Lou remained eternally grateful. Lou’s first assignment was in nuclear instrumentation where he worked on a variety of detectors: Geiger-Mueller tubes, thin-window proportional counters, and 2π and 4π-counters. Concurrently Lou did a lot of independent studying which included getting his master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland. He also took physics courses there on topics such as x-rays and nuclear physics. In addition he taught a nuclear instrumentation course at NBS and one on electronics at Howard University. At the same time Lou was helping the love of his life, Esther, raise a small and growing family. He was, as he wrote of that time, “a pretty busy guy.” Lou was not prone to exaggeration.
Circumstances prevented Lou from continuing, as he had planned, to a PhD. For a very practical reason Lou intended to get this degree in Physics, not Electrical Engineering. Physics would require less class time because of the courses he had taken, his work at NBS and his independent studying. Among the circumstances was a six-month assignment to the Nevada Test Site where he headed a crew that installed, calibrated, and tested detector systems. Then there were the major reorganizations (Lou called them shenanigans) taking place at NBS. Lou, astute as ever in such goings-on, was able to continue doing his work and finally obtained official recognition in 1949 for what he had been doing for some time by being named Chief of the Instrument Section.
In 1955 Lou was asked by the Atomic Energy Commission to be a delegate to the upcoming Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva. He was given responsibility for some of the U.S. Exhibits there. Lou’s activity on the exhibit hall floor was nothing compared to his activity outside it.
The number of delegates attending the conference far exceeded the ability of Geneva hotels to accommodate them, even with two assigned to a room. Some delegates had to be bussed in on a daily basis from nearby hotels in France. Lou’s first room, which he shared with an AEC staff person, was noisy, being near the railroad station and the bathroom was down the hall. Luckily for Lou, but not for his roommate, the roommate got sick and had to be moved. Rather than finding another roommate for Lou, the powers that be moved him to a room in the luxurious Hôtel du Rhône on the floor reserved for AEC and other top brass. Now he had a private bath, a companionable roommate, and limousine service to and from the conference site.
But there were clouds on the horizon. A Washington VIP and his wife were expected at the conference. Of course a suitable room had to be found for the distinguished visitors and Lou’s was chosen. On the day of the VIP visitor’s planned arrival Lou went into action. First he went to the AEC desk at the hotel since they controlled the room assignments on Lou’s floor. On telling them that nothing in his room was to be moved no matter what, they replied that, like it or not, he would be moved. Next he went to the hotel registration desk and told them that under no circumstances was anything to be moved out of his room. To complete his actions that morning he had signs printed in English and, with the help of a bellboy, French saying that nothing was to be moved from the room and placed them prominently on the room door. Insouciantly Lou then left for a day in the mountains.
On his return from his jaunt in the mountains, Lou found that the Washington VIP had arrived. He also found, on going up to his room, that his roommate was sound asleep and everything just as he had left it. Later Lou learned that his stubbornness had resulted in the AEC Assistant General Manager losing his room. Not long after Lou met the evicted gentleman who said, “I admire your guts, but I was more vulnerable.” Lou was not an AEC employee, but an NBS one who could better, and successfully, resist AEC diktats.
To me, this story encapsulates better than any other, how Lou went about solving problems and why it was both rewarding and fun to work with him. At the right time he acted quickly and decisively, covering all possible angles, making it difficult, if not impossible, for any outcome other than the one he desired.
Now on to some of the projects in which Lou got involved, and got us involved.
Instrumentation designs changed relatively infrequently in the vacuum tube days. Each instrument was large and power hungry. All that was required in the form of standardization was that the instruments be mountable in the standard 19” rack and be powered from the mains. There was no difficulty in designing systems that consisted of instruments from different manufacturers. The advent of transistors radically changed this state of affairs.
Instruments now became much smaller and less power hungry, and design changes became more frequent as newer and better transistors became available. Many instrumentation manufacturers and national laboratories quickly realized that the economical way to go was to have a number of instrumentation modules all obtaining their power from one power supply. Modules could then be constructed to slide into slots in a crate. At the back of the crate was a set of identical connectors, one to each slot supplying the power to the plugged-in modules. Manufacturers and national laboratories on both sides of the Atlantic started building such systems.
For many there was a great disadvantage in this. Module specifications for the different systems differed; hence, modules were not interchangeable between systems. For others this was an advantage. Once a particular system was chosen users were stuck with only the modules from that vendor, some good and some bad.
Lou clearly was unhappy with the situation and in late 1963 he acted. He wrote to the AEC suggesting they start a standard module program so that the national labs would have the advantage of interchangeable modules thus reducing both the design effort and overall cost to AEC. Less than three months later the AEC Committee on Nuclear Instrumentation Modules was formed with Lou as its chairman. Lou was fortunate to have a group of highly able, cooperative, and strongly motivated electrical engineers from the major U.S. national labs on his committee. (This was a characteristic of all Lou’s committees; I continually marvelled at how he managed to do it.) In another four months the committee had produced a prototype of the system to make sure that the specification worked and in July 1964 issued the first version of the specification, AEC Report TID-208943. Two years later over 70% of the total modular nuclear instrumentation produced in the U.S. used the NIM system. Talk about a roaring success, and the system is still in use today.
By late in the 1960s digital computers were playing an increasingly important role in nuclear instrumentation. Harry Bisby’s group at Harwell started developing a modular, computer-oriented, instrumentation system, CAMAC. Many European laboratories were interested in the system so Bisby turned its development and specification over to the ESONE Committee of the European Laboratories with the recommendation that they collaborate with the NIM Committee who knew how to make things happen.
It was at this juncture that I met Lou. TRIUMF, the 500 MeV isochronous, negative-ion cyclotron in Vancouver, had just been funded. The director had found out about the existence of CAMAC and had phoned Lou to learn more and was impressed by what Lou told him. He also named me as the person for Lou to get in touch with. The next day I was phoned by Lou (he’s a man of action, remember) and invited to attend the NIM meeting which was to take place in a few weeks’ time where the proposal for NIM to join with ESONE in developing the CAMAC specifications was to be made, debated, and voted upon.
On arrival at the hotel I got in touch with Lou who immediately invited me to supper with the representatives from Harwell, CERN, Hahn Meitner Institute and Saclay. There Lou outlined some concerns that the NIM committee might have so that when the ESONE people made their pitch the following day they would be prepared. At the meeting next day the presentations were made, all questions answered satisfactorily, and CAMAC unanimously became a joint NIM-ESONE effort. And I found myself, a bit to my bewilderment, an official member of the NIM committee. Need I say that Lou could be very persuasive!
CAMAC went on to be another roaring success. Like the NIM system it is still in use.
By the mid-1980s Fermilab and SLAC were constructing new, higher energy accelerators which would produce experimental data at rates and amounts far exceeding the capabilities of CAMAC. Lou was approached by representatives from these laboratories and from the AEC and asked if NIM would devise a new standard instrumentation system that would satisfy their needs. Initially NIM committee members concluded that there were ways to cope with the problem without devising a whole new scheme. However further meetings with physicists at these laboratories gave a much better understanding of the magnitude of the problem. NIM then agreed to proceed with devising an appropriate standard.
The first action Lou took was to ask ESONE to participate in the project. Together NIM and ESONE produced in 1986 the complex instrumentation system called FASTBUS which satisfied the needs of the new round of experiments. This system did not become widespread simply because only high energy particle physics experiments, such as those carried out at CERN, Fermilab and SLAC, required its capabilities. But its use in these environments was essential to the success of experiments.
Our frequent meetings were multi-day affairs. Each evening a group of us would head out for supper at a restaurant. When the single bill came Lou would ask our waiter for a menu and take out one of the many crinkled blank pieces of paper he always had in his coat pocket. On the paper he drew a spreadsheet with the number of columns equal to the number at the table. He would then ask each of us what we had. Lou would look up the price on the menu and enter the amount under our names. When his data taking was complete Lou would add things up to make sure that everything on the bill had been accounted for. After adding in an appropriate percentage to each of our totals for the tip Lou would tell us what we owed. He wanted to make sure that, for example, those who drank only water did not subsidize those who had several glasses of wine. Lou was showing another aspect of his character. He wanted to be fair to everybody and he acted accordingly.
The IEEE was formed in 1963 by the merger of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Institute of Radio Engineers. Both Institutes contained groups specializing in nuclear science. The AIEE had several including the Nucleonics Committee and the Committee on Nucleonic and Radiation Instrumentation, while the IRE had its Professional Group on Nuclear Science. Lou was a member of the IRE group, becoming its president in 1960. As such he was heavily involved in the discussions that led to the formation of the IEEE Nuclear Science Group in late 1963. In 1972 the group’s scope was widened to include plasma science and the group was given society status becoming the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society. Hence Lou was one of the founders of our society.
In 1963 Robert Livingston of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who was then president
of the IEEE Nuclear Science Group, phoned Lou to discuss the feasibility of initiating an IEEE/NSS series of conferences on particle accelerator engineering. They concluded that it was indeed feasible and proceeded to organize the first Particle Accelerator Conference which took place in 1965 in Washington. Lou’s role in initiating this highly successful series and his important role in the organizing of subsequent PACs has been recognized by naming the PAC conference session in which awards are distributed “The Louis Costrell Honorary Session.”
Prior to 1972 there were two annual conferences of great interest to society members. The Scintillation and Semiconductor Counter Symposia which started in 1948, initially without Semiconductors, and the society’s annual meeting which included technical sessions. Lou noted the large overlap between the two and in 1972 proposed that they merge. This merger, which Lou helped engineer, led to what we now know as the Nuclear Science Symposium.
Lou was the long-time, almost eternal, secretary of the NPSS NIDCOM, the Nuclear Instruments and Detectors Committee, which proposed many standards which later became IEEE, ANSI, and IEC ones. A large portion of these standards specified testing procedures for nuclear devices. When manufacturers followed these procedures for characterizing their devices, potential purchasers knew exactly what each manufacturer measured and could confidently compare specifications from different manufacturers.
Lou was involved in many other NPSS activities and his beneficial influence is still being felt despite the fact that he ceased active involvement in Society affairs in 1992.
AND THAT'S NOT ALL!
There are several other standards committees on which Lou played a major role. Lou was the long-term chairman of the American National Standards Institute Committee on Nuclear Instruments. He also played a prominent role in the International Electrotechnical Commission where he was Chief U.S. delegate to Technical Committee 45 (Committee on Nuclear Instrumentation) and chair of its Working Group on Nuclear Radiation Detectors. His contributions to the IEC were recognized about two years ago when the IEC Immediate Past President, Renzo Tani, presented Lou with a commemorative certificate of appreciation for his valuable contributions over four decades. I was not a member of either of these committees hence my information is rather sketchy.
One of Lou’s hobbies was a life-long study of polar exploration. He could talk almost endlessly and entertainingly about the famous explorers and the not so famous ones. Our conversations (monologues, really, with my encouraging interjections) on the topic were supplemented by many letters and notes. Once I pointed out to Lou that the St Roch was in the maritime museum in Vancouver. This was the ship, captained by Sergeant Henry Larsen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which made the first west to east traversal of the Northwest Passage in 1940–1942. Lou responded with a 5-page hand-written letter, written somewhere over the Atlantic, about previous attempts by, among others, Franklin who failed and Amundsen who succeeded in 1903–1905 making the traversal in the opposite direction.
The role of lies in determining the course of polar exploration was a topic that interested Lou greatly. Claims of reaching either the north or south pole were impossible to verify independently. Only the assertions of the explorers were available. They, like their backers, were motivated by money and prestige – a poisonous combination that often led to lying. Lou believed that had Peary not lied about reaching the north pole, Scott would have succeeded in returning from the south pole. He backed up this assertion with solid logic. I found it very interesting, and perhaps revealing, that somebody as straightforward as Lou was so deeply interested in such a topic.
Lou was the one who made all the pieces hang together for us. Who else but Lou, the connector expert, could make square-pin committee members fit into round sockets yet still make lasting, low-resistance connections. Or Lou, the equipment cooling expert, who was able to transform the heat and chaos of highly animated discussions into cool, logical conclusions of which we were all proud. Or Lou, the power supply expert, who always had a new adaptable filter algorithm to reduce the noise and ripple of electric discussions. Or Lou, the mentor, who showed us all that in order to lead one had to work harder than anybody else – which he did.
Above all Lou was a good friend. His phone calls and emails asking me to do something new will be missed. His phone calls and email messages asking why I hadn’t yet done something will be missed. His insistence that I use more commas will be missed. His occasional refurbishment of the comma supply will be missed. His scary car driving will be missed. His wry sense of humour will be missed. His infectious chuckle will be missed. His guidance will be missed. There’s a lot to be missed.
This remembrance was prepared by Lou’s good friend and long-time colleague, Ken Dawson (with moral support from Ray Larsen). Ken can be reached at TRIUMF, 4004 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, BC, CANADA, V6T 2A3; Phone: +1 604-222-7455; Fax: +1 604-222-7309; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
1Editorial note: This special issue of the newsletter commemorates one of NPSS’s founding fathers. Conference information starts a few pages on, and the next issue will return to the familiar format.