Editor’s note: An updated version of this article was published on 19 October 2018, after President Trump brought up his uncle again in an interview with the Associated Press.
Science journalists have struggled to find angles on Donald Trump during the current extraordinary election season. Trump has denied the reality of climate change, and he has occasionally weighed in on a few other controversial science-related issues. Yet, as Nature pointed out in July, the Trump campaign’s lack of interest in detailed policy questions hinders any traditional analysis of his views on science and science policy.
Reporters have noticed that Trump does from time to time speak highly of his uncle, physicist and engineer John Trump. Articles in the Boston Globe and New Yorker note that Donald Trump claims his uncle’s scientific success demonstrates his family’s genetic predisposition for intelligence, and that John once advised him about the importance of “nuclear.” Both pieces confirm that John Trump was highly successful and respected, and offer a few glimpses into his career.
Readers of Physics Today may appreciate a fuller portrait.
John George Trump was born in 1907 and received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1929. In 1931 he received a master’s degree in physics from Columbia University and in 1933 a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT, where he worked under physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff (see Physics Today, February 1967, page 49). Trump then worked as a research associate at MIT before receiving an appointment there as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 1936.
During the 1930s Trump built an enduring partnership with Van de Graaff developing high-voltage electrostatic generators. In 1933 Van de Graaff completed a spectacular 12-meter-high generator that was capable of producing a potential difference of 5 million V and had to be housed in an airship hangar at Round Hill in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, about 110 km south of Boston. Trump later contributed to the redesign of the generator when it was relocated to the Theater of Electricity at Boston’s Museum of Science, where it is still demonstrated. Trump became a life trustee of the museum.
Van de Graaff originally designed his generator to be a particle accelerator, but he and his collaborators quickly found applications in high-voltage x-ray generation as well. In 1937 a 1 MV x-ray generator was installed at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Boston, where it supplemented radium in cancer therapies. Trump became an expert in medical applications of high-voltage radiation and later taught courses for hospital physicists. Circa 1960 Trump was one of the pioneers of rotational radiation therapy. (You can watch him describe his work in a video at MIT’s Infinite History website.)
In 1939 Trump and Boston Navy Yard engineer Carlton Lutts found that the Huntington Memorial generator could also produce a radiographic image of thick steel in 100 seconds, whereas using radium it took about 65 hours. That capability would soon substantially improve manufacturers’ ability to inspect for defects, and it played an important role in US shipbuilding and aircraft construction efforts in World War II.
Trump concentrated his own wartime work on the new technology of radar. In 1940 a technical mission from the UK introduced US researchers to the cavity magnetron, which enabled radar to operate using centimeter wavelengths, greatly expanding its efficacy and range of applications (see Physics Today, July 1985, page 60). The new National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) established a microwave committee, which initiated a radar research and development program at MIT. Trump was among the first to join. The effort soon grew into the MIT Radiation Laboratory, or “Rad Lab,” which by 1945 was employing some 4000 people.
Trump became the secretary of the microwave committee in 1942 after its first secretary, MIT electrical engineer Edward Bowles, left to advise the secretary of war on radar implementation. Trump also spent the first part of the war as a liaison from NDRC to the Rad Lab and served as an adviser and assistant to MIT president Karl Compton. In 1943, after the enigmatic Nikola Tesla’s death, the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked Trump to examine Tesla’s papers to determine whether he had been working on anything that might have relevance to the war. Trump found he had not.
Meanwhile, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Rad Lab had begun receiving requests for prototype radar units to be sent directly to the field before the equipment could be thoroughly tested and standardized. Developing equipment on such a “crash” basis soon became routine. Researchers and engineers started to accompany units to the field to glean performance data under combat conditions. During that work, they also troubleshot new equipment and helped develop methods for integrating it into operations.
Initially, much of that fieldwork was done by “operations research” groups and teams of expert consultants working for Bowles. However, in 1943 the Rad Lab established a British Branch (BBRL), which created a direct channel between the lab and the European Theater. Trump became the head of BBRL in February 1944. By November he had begun shuttling back and forth between Great Britain and forward military positions on the continent, serving a dual role with BBRL and with Bowles’s contingent working for the US Army Air Forces in Europe.
By mid-April 1945, Trump was in Germany, interviewing enemy radar engineers. Those encounters gave Trump the opportunity to compare the US and UK radar effort with that of the Germans. He was impressed by the differences in organization. As he recorded in his war diary, “Just as there was a gap between German scientists and industrialists, there was also an even greater gap between both of these and the military. It was virtually impossible for a scientist or engineer to accompany radar equipment into combat areas to observe its performance or to assist in training.”
After the war Trump became the director of MIT’s High-Voltage Research Laboratory, a position he held from 1946 until his retirement in 1980. In 1946 Trump cofounded the High Voltage Engineering Corporation (HVE) with Van de Graaff and British electrical engineer Denis Robinson, who had been a liaison to the Rad Lab during the war. Trump became the company’s chairman and technical director, and he took an active role in developing its accelerator business and several subsidiary companies. Trump was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1983 for his lifetime of path-breaking work.
In his obituary of Trump (see Physics Today, September 1985, page 90), Robinson recalled that his business partner had “an obstinate optimism that could fly in the face of all results and facts available to him and his coworkers. He cared very little for money and the trappings of money, but he did understand land; the land that he persuaded HVE to purchase in Burlington [on Route 128, Boston’s famed technology corridor] turned out to be worth as much as many years of the company’s profitable output.”
Perhaps John Trump’s knowledge of land had something to do with his brother Fred’s work in real estate development. But we ought to be careful in speculating as to what traits did and did not run in the Trump family. Robinson recalled John Trump’s personality:
“He was remarkably even-tempered, with kindness and consideration to all, never threatening or arrogant in manner, even when under high stress. He was outwardly and in appearance the mildest of men, with a convincing persuasiveness, carefully marshalling all his facts.”
Whatever one’s political leanings this year, it is difficult to imagine such a description being applied to John Trump’s famous nephew.
William Thomas is a science policy analyst for FYI at the American Institute of Physics, which also publishes Physics Today. The portions of this piece relating to World War II derive from the author’s book, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960, published last year by MIT Press.