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A profile of John Trump, Donald’s oft-mentioned scientist uncle

19 October 2018

The president’s uncle was an MIT physicist and engineer who made his mark in the development of high-voltage generators, World War II radar, and cancer therapies.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article that was published during the 2016 presidential campaign.

President Trump doesn’t talk much about science. But when he does, there is an excellent chance he will bring up his late uncle John.

Asked about climate change in a 16 October 2018 interview, Trump said the climate is warming but is apt to cool down again in the future. Confronted with the contrary opinion of scientists, Trump replied that scientists disagree about the issue. Pointing out that his uncle John was “a great professor at MIT for many years,” he assured his interviewer, “I have a natural instinct for science.”

John Trump
John Trump. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

During his run for the presidency, Trump invoked his uncle as evidence of his genetic predisposition for intelligence. He has also said that conversations with his uncle made him appreciate the complex politics of nuclear weapons.

Princeton University physicist William Happer, a senior staff member with the National Security Council, told E&E News that when he was being considered to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Trump spoke to him about his uncle’s work on Van de Graaff generators. “That really floored me,” recalled Happer, who knew Trump’s uncle.

Who was this uncle to whom the world of science is so inextricably tied in the president’s mind?

John George Trump was born in New York City in 1907. He was the younger brother of Donald’s father, Fred, who went into real estate before he finished high school. With financial assistance from his older brother, John enrolled in the Polytechnic Institution of Brooklyn, intending to become an architect and go into business with Fred. However, he switched to electrical engineering and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1929. He went on to Columbia University and received a master’s degree in physics in 1931.

John Trump then left New York for MIT and earned his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1933, working under physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff (see Physics Today, February 1967, page 49). Trump continued on at MIT as a research associate before receiving an appointment there as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 1936.

Van de Graaff generators
John Trump helped redesign these 12-meter-high Van de Graaff generators, seen here in an airship hangar at Round Hill, Massachusetts. The generators are now at Boston’s Museum of Science. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

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 about 100 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. Medical applications of high-voltage radiation ultimately became a major focus of Trump’s work. Circa 1960 he was one of the pioneers of rotational radiation therapy, which limits the dose delivered to healthy tissue. (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 during 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.

Lee DuBridge and John Trump
John Trump (right) rides in a military jeep with Lee DuBridge, director of the MIT Radiation Lab, in Paris during World War II. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

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.

Robert Van de Graaff, Denis Robinson, and John Trump
John Trump (right) founded the High Voltage Engineering Corporation with Robert Van de Graaff (left) and Denis Robinson. AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection, courtesy Nancy Sirkus

A unifying theme of Trump’s career was his facility in moving back and forth between research and the search for practical applications. 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.”

That was not the same drive animating Trump’s by-then-famous nephew’s pursuit of real estate glory. Describing John Trump’s personality, Robinson wrote, “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.”

Those characteristics ultimately made John Trump more of a scientist and engineer than a businessman. According to Robinson, “He cared very little for money and the trappings of money.” But without mentioning Trump’s family relations, Robinson slipped in as an aside that “he did understand land.” The property Trump persuaded HVE to purchase in Burlington, on Boston’s famed technology corridor, Route 128—“turned out to be worth as much as many years of the company’s profitable output.”

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, 1940–1960published last year by MIT Press.

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