Obituaries

Robert Hall, 96; his inventions ubiquitous, but his death largely unnoticed

A photo provided by G.E. of Robert N. Hall, whose discoveries led to microwave ovens and supermarket scanners, at work at a General Electric laboratory in Niskayuna, N.Y., in the early 1960s. For all the widespread familiarity of what Hall wrought as a remarkably inventive physicist, his death, at 96, on Nov. 7, 2016, gained little notice. (G.E. via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY OBIT HALL BY DON R. HECKER OF MAY 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
G.E. VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
Dr. Hall at work in a General Electric laboratory in Niskayuna, N.Y., in the early 1960s.

NEW YORK — Robert N. Hall’s legacy can be found at almost every checkout counter — that little red blinking laser scanner that reads bar codes on milk cartons, boxes of light bulbs, price tags dangling from a new jacket and just about everything else that can be bought in a store.

A product of his inventive labor can also be found in most kitchens nowadays: the microwave oven.

Yet for all the widespread familiarity of what Dr. Hall wrought as a remarkably ingenious physicist, his death, at 96, on Nov. 7, 2016, gained little notice. An announcement paid for by his family appeared in two upstate New York newspapers — The Times Union of Albany and The Daily Gazette of Schenectady — and General Electric, in a company publication, published a remembrance a month later. But otherwise the news of Dr. Hall’s death did not travel very far.

Advertisement

His daughter, Elaine Schulz, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that besides buying the newspaper notices, the family had alerted some organizations with which Dr. Hall had been connected. He died of complications of pneumonia in a hospital near his home in Schenectady, she said.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The New York Times learned of Dr. Hall’s death while editing an obituary about him that had been prepared in advance in 2012.

Dr. Hall left his fingerprints far and wide. He built the first solid-state laser in 1962. Nearly 20 years earlier, during World War II, he designed a magnetron to jam enemy radar that, thanks to a melting candy bar, was adapted to create the microwave oven.

Another of his inventions makes it possible to control the high-voltage DC current that runs things such as electric locomotives. His gamma ray detector is used in nuclear research. And his laser not only promotes faster checkouts, channel surfing and pointers, it also enables fiber optics to carry data.

It’s probably fair to say, however, that when he invented his laser in the fall of 1962, Dr. Hall could never have imagined the uses to which it would one day be put, for he was not a consumer product developer. He was an experimenter who spent his entire career at what is now GE Global Research, a General Electric research laboratory, in Niskayuna, N.Y., outside Schenectady.

Advertisement

Lasers had been invented in 1960, but they were bulky, complex affairs built around simulated rubies or chambers full of a gas that could be “excited” into giving off light, the rays of which bounced between mirrors until they were concentrated into a single beam.

Dr. Hall’s laser device, by contrast, was a single, small solid-state semiconductor piece that had to be cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen — more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero — making it an unlikely candidate for consumer uses. Once the principle of a tiny, solid laser was established, however, others refined it.

By Dr. Hall’s account, in a videotaped 2010 interview, the laser had its origins in a fellow scientist’s teasing. Since Dr. Hall had “invented all kinds of things,” he recalled his colleague saying, “Why didn’t I invent a semiconductor laser?” His earlier inventions, after all, had earned him the freedom to do what he wanted at the GE laboratory and a small team to help him do it.

Dr. Hall was skeptical at first that he could build a semiconductor laser, but after reading others’ research, he concluded that it was possible. Based on published experiments, he settled on gallium arsenide as the most promising medium.

Using semiconductors the size of “a grain of salt,” he said, he polished their parallel faces to mimic the mirrors used in existing lasers. Current was introduced at the ends of the semiconductors. In only a few months, he and his team had produced a working solid laser.

Advertisement

Dr. Hall began working at the GE lab after graduating from the California Institute of Technology in 1942. With World War II in progress, he soon designed a type of magnetron that could jam enemy radar. Shortly afterward, an engineer at Raytheon standing near one of the devices noticed that it had melted a candy bar in his pocket. Raytheon engineers used the discovery to develop the microwave oven.

After the war, Dr. Hall returned to Caltech for a doctorate. With the encouragement of his advisers, who were excited by the atomic age, he began studying nuclear physics. He received his doctorate in 1948.

Dr. Hall would never enter the field professionally. But though he never did nuclear research, a classmate did, and it was through him that Dr. Hall learned that nuclear physicists were bedeviled by a problem with the germanium used in devices that detected the gamma rays given off by radioactive activity — rays that are deadly at high exposures.

Dr. Hall reasoned that he could solve the problem by purifying germanium to the point where no more than one-millionth of a millionth part would be impure — an unheard-of level. Few believed that that was possible, but Dr. Hall succeeded, creating the detector that is used worldwide today.

Dr. Hall held more than 40 patents in the United States. He was awarded the Marconi Prize in 1989 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994. He retired from the GE lab in 1987.

Robert Noel Hall was born on Dec. 25, 1919, in New Haven, Conn., the youngest of two sons of Harry and Clara (Kommers) Hall. (They gave him the middle name Noel because he was born on Christmas Day.)

Besides his daughter, Dr. Hall is survived by a son, Richard.