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Oral History Interview with Merrill Groom by Matthew Crawford
October 10th, 2022
Liquid Crystal Oral History Project
Department of History
Kent State University
Transcript produced by Sharp Copy Transcription
MATTHEW CRAWFORD: My name is Matthew Crawford. I'm a Historian of Science in the Department of History at Kent State University. Today, I am interviewing Merrill Groom, Research Engineer at the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University. Today is October 10th, 2022, and we are conducting this interview in his office at the Liquid Crystal Institute on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Merrill, thanks for agreeing to speak with me today.
MERRILL GROOM: Sure.
CRAWFORD: I want to start off with a few questions about your early life. I wonder if you could tell us when you were born, where you grew up, and what your early childhood was like.
GROOM: I was born December 26th, the day after Christmas, 1946, in a little crossroads town called Sherman. It was in Summit County. It is now considered Norton. Norton Township. It was just a rural crossroads town—two grocery stores, three churches, and that was about it. My father worked in Barberton, which was quite an industrial town at the time. Then we moved to Norton proper, close to Norton Center, some years later, bought a new house there. I went to Norton High School and graduated out of Norton High School.
CRAWFORD: In 1965?
GROOM: ’65, yeah.
CRAWFORD: What kind of work did your father do?
GROOM: He was a pipefitter. He worked in a chemical plant, PPG—Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. At the time, it was called Columbia-Southern Chemical Corporation. They made soda ash for glass. In those days, the whole family—all five of his brothers worked there, or at one of the other facilities, so there was probably 200 man-years of Groom family working in the PPG. I was fortunate in the sense that my dad was kind of a jack of all trades. He could do plumbing for people. He would help people out with household plumbing. Again, he was a pipefitter at the plant, so we always had pieces, parts, leftover bits of pipe. He built our first house by hand, with the help of my grandfather and uncle, so was a bit of a carpenter. I kind of picked up those trades. I always had tools to play with. I always had that sort of thing to occupy my time.
CRAWFORD: Is that something you did a lot as a kid, playing with the tools?
GROOM: Oh, yeah. And we had a large yard. Again, it was kind of rural, so you could ride your bicycle anywhere, play in the woods, climb trees, that kind of thing. It was a fun environment.
CRAWFORD: At what age did you develop an interest in science or engineering?
GROOM: Oh, ever since I was a kid, for whatever reason, probably because of my father’s influence and the plant that he worked at, and stuff like that. I always had Christmas lights to play with, and little knife switches and batteries, so I was always—I'd follow the power line company around. Wherever the power line company or the phone company was working locally, I was underfoot, and they'd chase me away. For safety reasons, primarily. So, I was always interested in that kind of thing.
CRAWFORD: Do you have a sense of what drew you to it? What was the interest for you?
GROOM: Oh, I don’t know. Probably my father, and his work. He always talked about it. He’d always tell me what he did that day at the plant. Yeah, it was just something I always wanted to do.
CRAWFORD: Was it an interest in figuring out how things worked, or building things?
GROOM: Building things, primarily, yeah. Always, how does it work? It’s almost a curse in some sense. I have to know how things work.
CRAWFORD: [laughs] I think I probably know the answer to this question, but did the people in your early life encourage your interest in science and engineering and you working with things?
GROOM: For the most part, yeah. Except for being a pain to my mom, [laughs] messing up the house and setting off fireworks in the basement, that kind of thing. Stinkin’ up the house with what I was burning in the basement.
CRAWFORD: [laughs] Did you have the opportunity to study science or engineering in high school?
GROOM: In high school, I took college prep courses, so it included biology, chemistry, general science, physics; one of those science courses each year. Math. I was not a good student. I was probably a C student, just an average student, nothing special. College was not appealing to me at that time. I just couldn't see myself going to college. I'm a terribly poor reader. That was primarily why I didn’t do well in school. I just can’t hardly read. I'm terribly dyslexic. I say I have a GUI interface; I have a graphical user interface, not a text-based interface.
CRAWFORD: I see. Do you think that influenced the decisions you made about the kind of work that you do?
GROOM: Oh, sure, yeah. I could do drawings, I could do schematics, but I didn’t do well with story problems, for example.
CRAWFORD: At the time, when you were in high school and thinking about going to college, your sense was that most of the science education was going to be mostly text-based?
GROOM: No, it was hands-on. In those days, you went into chemistry class and you worked with big, giant beakers and stuff like that. I think it was a rather good science education. Probably not as good as some of the more wealthy school districts.
CRAWFORD: But fairly hands-on?
GROOM: Yeah, it was very hands on, and I enjoyed that. it was practical. It related to what I would play with at home. I was always building something at home. I built walkie-talkies. I built a big Tesla coil. I can remember my high school science teacher, the physics teacher, brought me components so I could build this big Tesla coil, this high-voltage thing. The neighbors didn’t like it; it messed up their TV set. Always something like that.
CRAWFORD: Was that a unique thing that your high school physics teacher did, or did that person encourage your interest?
GROOM: I don’t really know that he did it with other people. Probably not so much. I was such a pain. I was always bringing in some project to tinker with. Fortunately, a friend of mine from down the road was quite a genius. He would encourage me a lot. I learned some electronics from him. He and I would build all kinds of electronic projects. We were always building amplifiers and speakers and rigging up a flashlight so you could transmit voice with a light beam. It’s basically real crude fiber optics. There was no fiber; it was just a flashlight aiming at a receiver. Their family had a little bit more money, and they bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and so we would spend summers making fireworks, because you had all the formulae in the Encyclopedia Britannica, every kind of firework you could make. We’d get them shipped in from Arizona. You couldn't just buy chemicals, so we’d get them shipped in from Arizona and then make fireworks all summer, and then shoot off come Fourth—from Labor Day, before school started. So I had peers that were also geeky like me and did that kind of thing.
CRAWFORD: Did you keep in touch with that friend?
GROOM: Not so much anymore. Actually, the one fellow died, and the other one has moved away, quite far.
CRAWFORD: You said you were in the college prep track but college wasn’t appealing to you?
CRAWFORD: Is that why you decided to join the Marine Corps?
GROOM: Actually, I got a job, again at PPG, at that same chemical factory. I worked in the lab there, and I liked the lab. It was just right down my alley. I would test samples. I took an interest in how the machines worked. I got the manuals out. They encouraged me to maybe go to electronics school, so I actually signed up for an electronics school. I can’t think of the name of it. That lasted about maybe three or four lessons? And then I got—I don’t know if you’d call it a draft notice. I was going to be drafted. I had to go for my physical. I guess that wasn’t a draft notice at that point; it was just a call for your physical. I had my physical and they said, “Well, you can volunteer today, or in two weeks you're probably going to get drafted, so make up your mind.” I got a call from Sergeant Fisher of the Marine Corps, and he says, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “Actually, if I'm going to have to go into the service, I'd like to go in the Navy.” He says, “Why do you want to go in the Navy?” I said, “My understanding is they have the best electronics schools.” He says, “Well, did you know the Marine Corps is a department of the Navy, and we have this aviation guarantee program? If you sign up for four years, you'll go to some kind of school related to aviation.” So, I signed up for four years and went in the Marine Corps. Did the boot camp thing. Went to Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis, Tennessee, for eight months for electronics. When I graduated from that electronics school, I went to a squadron in Buford, South Carolina, and I was an air intercept radar technician. We basically maintained the missiles that an aircraft would carry for self-protection—the Sidewinder missile, the Phoenix missile. What was the other one? The Sparrow missile.
CRAWFORD: I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about the electronics training that you got in the Marines. Was it mostly focused on the specific technologies that you would be working with, or was it a broader education?
GROOM: It was basic electronics. I think one of the first things we did was build a radio, just a standard radio. I enjoyed it. As it got more advanced and we started studying radar, I actually approached one of the officers and I just started questioning him. He says, “Oh, here, I'll give you a book.” He gave me a book on radar. It was the first time that—I can actually remember the moment that I decided, “Well, if college is like this, this is something that I could do.” Because it was something I enjoyed, something down my alley. It wasn’t just these obscure—well, to me obscure—subjects. So I just decided when I got out of the Marine Corps I would come to college. Plus, I had the GI Bill, which made it possible.
CRAWFORD: Just to be clear, you're saying with this book that you got on radar and stuff, you liked it because you could see the application of the science? Would that be fair to say?
GROOM: Sure. It was something tangible. It was something useful. It was applicable.
CRAWFORD: You mentioned that when this sergeant from the Marine Corps—
GROOM: He was an officer. He was a captain, actually.
CRAWFORD: —officer from the Marine Corps called you to—
GROOM: Yeah, that was the sergeant [Fisher]. He was a grunt. He was a recruiter.
CRAWFORD: —encouraged you to enlist, you said he mentioned the aviation program. Was that something you expressed interest in at the time?
GROOM: When I was a kid growing up, the fellow right on the other side of the cornfield from me had a Piper Cub in his backyard, and he was an aircraft and power plants mechanic. As a little kid, I'd go over and hold the wrench for him. I always had this interest in aviation, so it kind of all came together. Working on jets and stuff, being around the Air Wing of the Marine Corps was—special.
CRAWFORD: Just to go back to your childhood for a minute, you're sharing this story about the aircraft mechanic or engineer—it sounds like you were really, in a way, surrounded by machines and technology, or like it was a big part of your life throughout.
GROOM: Yeah. My father, he got an old Model-A or Model-T engine; he built a shredder for peat moss. He built this peat moss shredding machine. His plan was to buy this peat moss bog and bag this stuff up and sell it. Of course, nowadays, it’s ubiquitous, right? You go to every store, and they’ve got mulch out front. Well, my mom didn’t like that idea, so it didn’t go over, so he sold the peat moss machine he built.
CRAWFORD: Just one additional question about your time in the military—at the time you were in the Marines and especially as an electronics technician, what was your sense of the thinking about the role of technology in the military? Was there a sense that it was the wave of the future, or just it had always been part of the kind of work that the military did? Did they use the possibility of a technological career as a real selling point, that sort of thing?
GROOM: Well, yeah. There was always an emphasis on, “When you get out, you have this skill set.” It was a good thing, those years in the military, in terms of learning, personal growth, technical growth. There was also downsides to it. In some sense, I felt like I was in jail for four years. My fellows from high school that didn’t go in, they went on, got jobs, already purchased houses. When I got out, I was like four years behind, financially, so it was a little while to catch up. Then going to college for four years, so there was an eight-year period where there was poor finances. What was interesting about the military was you find out how sophisticated things are that you don’t—you’d come across things that you’d never have access to otherwise.
CRAWFORD: Why do you think that's the case, or that was the case?
GROOM: You're always trying to kill the other guy, aren’t you? You're trying to do a better job of killing him than getting killed yourself. There's always a bigger, better, faster bomb; a bigger bomb; a faster plane; a faster or sleeker missile, an evasive system. It’s the arms race, I guess; I don’t know.
CRAWFORD: Certainly, you need to have the technology that matches or exceeds the other guy, at the very least.
GROOM: Exactly. But then again, I guess in theory or in practice, the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam to people that didn’t have quite access to the sophistication that we did, and still—I came to realize it isn’t all technology that's going to win a war.
CRAWFORD: Right, there's more to it, for sure. You said after you left the military, you decided to go to college.
GROOM: Yeah. I thought college was something I could do. I thought if I could go into physics or electrical engineering—my original plan was electrical engineering. But there was a branch campus with Kent State, right down the road from me. It was in Wadsworth at the time. It was about three miles up the road, so I just thought, “Well, I'll start Kent.” Like I said, I had the GI Bill. I started taking basic courses. I took English. Actually, just before I got out of the military, I signed up and took a couple English classes, because it was my weak point—reading, writing, composition—so I thought I'd better go that way. So I took two classes before I got out. It was just night school. The instructor came on the base and gave the classes. When I came to Kent, at the branch, I started with math, and I started the English over. I just kind of doubled up on English because I was so poor at reading and that kind of thing.
CRAWFORD: Did you feel like the English courses helped?
GROOM: Oh, sure.
CRAWFORD: Why did you decide to go to Kent State?
GROOM: Oh, just it was convenient. My older sister went to Kent so I was a little bit familiar with it. It was just convenient. Like I said, it was just down the road. I had an uncle that had a shrubbery nursery, and I worked for him during the summers part-time. So it just all came together. I could live at home, go to school, and work a little bit, too, all right there.
CRAWFORD: Your intention from the beginning was to major in electrical engineering?
GROOM: Electrical engineering. But Kent didn’t have an electrical engineering program. I thought, “Well, I'll transfer to Akron U.” But as it turned out, I actually came to the main campus of Kent. I found a room in a house off-campus and I rented that, and lived there, and took more courses—my basic physics courses, and your liberal arts requirements. Then I started running low on money. It was hard to maintain an apartment, a car, and tuition all at the same time. So I took a job up in East Cleveland, at Clevite. Electronics, again. I was a technician there. We worked on the Mark 48 torpedo system. I signed up for Cleveland State at night, in their engineering program, but at that time, I didn’t take any engineering at all. I was still doing kind of the liberal arts stuff. And that was terrible. It was just a full-time demanding job, had to drive downtown during the winter, at night. It was just too much. Had a little crummy apartment. So I decided the best and the quickest way to get a degree in something I liked would be to concentrate on physics, so I came back to Kent State and finished my degree in physics.
CRAWFORD: The company you were working for in Cleveland at the time, just so we have it for the record, what was the name of it?
GROOM: It was Clevite. Originally it was called Clevite, and then Gould bought them up. It was called Clevite Ocean Systems. Or was it Gould Ocean Systems? I can’t remember.
CRAWFORD: Then you come back to Kent State. And now is the majority of your coursework focused on science courses?
GROOM: Yeah, math and physics.
CRAWFORD: What was that like?
GROOM: It was good. The math courses, I took a little bit of exception to, because they changed books, changed curriculum. It got changed a little bit towards the middle, so there was a chunk of math that I missed, that when I went on, I had a hard time, because that little piece was missing. It’s a progressive thing; the math courses build on one another.
CRAWFORD: What kind of math was that? Do you remember?
GROOM: Don’t ask me! [laughs] Linear math. I think it was linear algebra.
CRAWFORD: What was your experience like in the science courses?
GROOM: Good. I enjoyed it. Pretty good teachers all the way through. There was one teacher that I didn’t think was very good. A real nice guy, he and I got along just fine, but I had a hard time with a heat and thermodynamics class. I just don’t think his heart was in that class. It was part me and part him, I believe. But other than that, I had good teachers all the way through.
CRAWFORD: Were there any professors in particular that had an influence on you?
GROOM: Oh, Dr. Will Hubin. He was a pilot. He taught aerobatics. He taught the aerodynamics course. He also taught the electronics course. When I came to Kent, they allowed me to take, or encouraged me to take for that matter, courses that pertained to microprocessors. It was early on when microprocessors were available to the masses. I took several courses from him with the electronics stuff.
CRAWFORD: Did you, as part of the education, get to do hands-on stuff, labs?
GROOM: There was always labs, yeah. There was lots of labs, lots of hours of labs.
CRAWFORD: Did you have opportunities to participate in research as an undergraduate, outside of the coursework?
GROOM: Yeah, you did a senior research project, and I worked with Dr. Gould on that. What was it called? It was an impedance spectrometer? I can’t quite remember what it was. It was my first introduction to working with liquid crystals.
CRAWFORD: Oh, really! Do you recall what kind of work you were doing with the liquid crystals?
GROOM: Oh, boy!
GROOM: There was what you call a boat. It was a rectangular piece of I think quartz, with the ends cut at a specific angle, with a transducer on the ends. You’d put liquid crystal film on the top of the boat, and you would excite one of the transducers on the end of the boat. The wave would pass through the quartz, hit the liquid crystal at a particular angle, and be reflected back down to the other end of the quartz boat, and you would make this measurement. I can’t remember if it was an alignment measurement. What was it? I can’t remember.
CRAWFORD: You worked with Dr. Gould?
GROOM: Mmhmm, that was my senior project.
CRAWFORD: Did you have any interaction with the Liquid Crystal Institute at that time?
GROOM: No, other than I did stop in and talk to Dr. Brown and got some papers. It was a paper from Dr. Saupe, actually. So, I was aware of it. There was some other researchers in the Physics Department that were doing experiments on liquid crystals. I didn’t participate in any of that, but I was aware of it.
CRAWFORD: I think about a year before you came to Kent State, there were some student protests about the Liquid Crystal Institute because it received Department of Defense funding and things like that. Actually, the old building over on Lincoln Street, I believe they chained it shut one day and locked a few people in.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, there was an article in The Kent Stater about it.
CRAWFORD: I wonder if you have any recollection of that dynamic on campus, or were you aware of it or engaged with it in any way?
GROOM: Well, not that particular event. My third year in the Marine Corps, I was in Vietnam. I was at the air base at Da Nang, and I worked on the aircraft. Of course, it was a war zone, and we had our share of excitement. Our squadron took some damage, and they pulled us out and sent us to Japan for kind of a refit, repair the plane, so I spent four months in Japan before I came home. Then I spent another eight or nine months with a training squadron in El Toro, California. Southern California. I took courses there. I took training in the Phoenix missile, which was a new missile system for aircraft, so there was a little more training along that, that was specific to that particular missile. Then I got an early out. The war was winding down at that point. They were actually withdrawing troops. So they had this early out program. If you were going to go to college, you could get an early out. So, I got a three-month early out. Of course I was already thinking about going to Kent, so when this came up, I said, “Okay, here’s my opportunity.” I signed up. I applied for Kent. That was hard to do from California, because you had to use a pay phone, and there was 3,000 people in the barracks, and you're trying to communicate with Kent over the pay phone. No internet in those days! Anyway, I got discharged December the 30th, 1969, and I came to the branch campus, then, and I started that January, in 1970. Of course then they had the shootings in May of that spring. [May 5th]. That was tough, because you know, you're getting shot at in Vietnam, then you come home and they're shooting at you here.
When I literally came back from Vietnam and flew home, there were people that were protesting. I was clueless. I didn’t know. “What’s going on here?” I had other people that were extremely kind. Several businessmen gave me first-class seating on the plane coming home. I had a couple times when I was traveling in uniform, the businessmen would let you sit in first class. You always got super treatment from the stewardesses. But on the same time, people were protesting it, and calling you a baby killer, and all this kind of stuff. So, that was a tough time emotionally. Again, I was at the branch campus. They didn’t shut the branch campus down. We stayed open and finished the quarter. But of course everybody was talking about the protests and the shootings and stuff. Then I guess things died down until they were going to build the rec center up here, the gym annex. Then there were protests there. I can remember coming onto campus, and the State Police in uniforms with their tear gas dispensers. Kind of like a giant leaf blower, they'd blow tear gas out of there. They were on campus, and the kids were protesting on Blanket Hill. They were camped out on the site where they were going to build the gym annex. Sometime around that period—I can’t remember if it was 1970, 1971, maybe even 1972—the truckers were on strike, and they had National Guard posts at the various bridges, because there were people sniping at the truckers who didn’t go on strike. So, people were getting shot at again.
GROOM: Then you've got family members that—“Oh, they should have killed more kids at Kent State.” Actually, the joke was, “What’s the score at Kent?”; “National Guard, four, students, zero.”
GROOM: You got that crap from your family. And, “I'm a student here. I came back from the war. What the hell is that?” So, to this day, I just have a hard time with that. I was disappointed they had the May 4th memorial here, last May 4th, and I was surprised they didn’t—as I recall, I didn’t hear one word about the [58,000] servicemen that died over there, why the protests occurred. I was disappointed in that. Because a lot of those guys didn’t want to be there.
CRAWFORD: And those are [58,000] servicemen who—
GROOM: Anyway, after I graduated, I was moping around, thinking about, “Do I want to try to get a master’s degree?” Probably not.
CRAWFORD: Why didn’t you consider graduate school or a research career?
GROOM: Oh, at that point, I was kind of tired of school. I was just tired of studying. I was older then. I was, what, 23 or 24, I think? I can’t remember. Dr. Gould, the guy that I did my senior research with, he said, “Hey, there's an opportunity to work in the Chemistry Department. They need a lab guy.” They offered me the job, and I took it. It was a contract thing. It was I think for one year. I went over there, to the Chemistry Department, worked for about a year until that contract was up. It might have been a year and a half; I can’t remember. What did I do? I got a job doing something; I can’t remember what. I left there for a while. Oh, I went to a place called Addressograph-Multigraph. I worked on copy machines, basically. It was toner transfer. How do you transfer toner from this photosensitive drum—you know, you’d feed your paper in, the light would shine on your paper, the photosensitive drum would be exposed to your copy, it would acquire a charge on the photosensitive drum, which would then pick up the toner, and when you stick your piece of paper in there, it would then be deposited on your paper. So that's how you made a copy. That was copy machines in those days, one of the types of copy machines in those days. It was the beginning of the technology that we have nowadays with these really nice laser copies. The toner transfer mechanism was a bit different. More crude. And of course you didn’t have lasers then; you just had a bright UV light of some type.
CRAWFORD: Were you involved in refining these machines, doing research to help improve them?
GROOM: Yeah, doing research. I measured the transfer capabilities from these rollers, that kind of thing. Built some electronics drivers to illuminate the photosensitive materials. Spent time in the darkroom listening to this little machine go, “Ch—ch—ch—chk” in the dark and trying to stay awake! [laughs] That was hard. I worked on different instruments. They had a scanning electron microscope I got to tinker with a little bit. We built a fill system for that. There was a magnetometer. We measured magnetic susceptibility of different materials. I got to play with that instrument. I did those measurements. So, it was good schooling. It was more hands-on, actually applications for this stuff.
CRAWFORD: Was this a place that did research and manufacturing?
GROOM: No, it was strictly research. It was the research facility on South Miles. Addressograph-Multigraph was one of the big companies at that time into—what would you call that? It was copy machines, transfer. You’d stick your credit card in there—“chk—chk!” I can’t remember what those things were called. It was all that early technology.
CRAWFORD: Carbon copy paper and things like that?
GROOM: Yeah, they built all those kind of machines. It was sort of a smaller version of IBM. Then the fellow that purchased the company was in government, and when he got out of government, he got his money—what do you call it, when you go into government, you basically put all your holdings into some kind of a blind account?
CRAWFORD: Right, to prevent conflict of interest.
GROOM: So you can’t say the government is—it’s not like today, but back in those days, you would sign over all your financial holdings or stocks or whatever to a trustee until you got out. Anyway, when he got out, he got access to his money, he bought up Addressograph-Multigraph and really downsized the company. He closed that whole division. So I worked there six months, and then I was out of a job again. I came back to Kent when I was trying to find a job, and I went back to the Chemistry Department. I worked there another six months, I believe. Then I got a job at American Beverage Control. They made computerized liquor dispensers, of all things.
CRAWFORD: Really! Wow.
GROOM: Yes. It was a microprocessor-based system. There was a console, kind of like a large cash register. It was all microprocessor-based. It was all chip-based, with a microprocessor controller. So it was all individual integrated circuits, several boards in these consoles that kind of looked like a cash register. But rather than dollars on it, it would have drinks on there. So if you wanted a margarita, or you wanted a rum punch, you wanted a—I don’t know what—jack and something or other—you’d hit the button, and this would then send a signal down a massive bundle of wires to a dispenser room that had racks of liquor bottles. Each liquor bottle had a solenoid on it at the discharge, and when you hit the button, the solenoid would open for some particular period of time and pressurize this hose that contained the liquor, and it would shoot it back up to the dispensing station next to the cash register thing, and the various components of the drink would squirt into your drink glass. So you would get a shot of rum and you’d get a shot of Coke and whatever it is. These were primarily sold to high-volume places like maybe Caesar’s Palace, where if they were going to do a show, you had to get your drink and food before the show began, so you were going to serve maybe 300 tables with drinks, real quick. It was interesting because it was electromechanical; it was electronics.
I started out doing service there. You’d go off to these various restaurants and bars and stuff, mostly bigger places, and service this equipment. You were changing out circuit boards, you were changing out solenoids, that kind of stuff. I hated service. I hated being on the road. I really didn’t like that at all. I wanted to be home, planting my garden in the evening. I didn’t want to be sitting in some hotel room somewhere in god knows here, traveling, driving, flying. The flying part was fun, but not ever being [laughs] able to be home, that was hard. So when the opportunity came up to stay in-house and do repair, I did that. I would repair the circuit boards, the printers, test the systems before they went into the field. That lasted five years. Again, it was a learning experience. I got a lot more practical information about how all this electronic and electromechanical stuff works. Then, one day, the vice president of the company invited me in and he says, “Well, how would you like to work under this manager?” And this manager was a nice guy but I thought he was a terrible manager. He was this kind of guy that’d come in and he’d say, “I want you to fix this, and don’t do it wrong.” It was like, “Oh! Gee! I thought I was supposed to do it wrong!” Anyway, again, he was a nice guy, but he was a terrible manager. I says, “Well, what are my other choices?” The VP said, “That's your choice.” [laughs] I says, “Well, okay, I'll quit.” He says, “Well, if you quit, we'll give you unemployment.” So they gave me unemployment, and I quit.
Then I immediately called the company that did the original design on the liquor dispenser, and they gave me a job, so I immediately went to work for this company called Comtec. Comtec is still in business. They're up on Enterprise Parkway up in Twinsburg. Nice, nice people. That was a wonderful place to work. It was all family. We were just like family there. They made computer-controlled testing systems for Timken. The bearing race would come down the conveyer, the plug would go into the bearing race, you use pressure transducers to measure the pressure release as this plug came into the bearing race, and the differential in pressure between atmospheric and what you were putting in would tell you how accurately this thing was ground to size. You could make very precise measurements like that.
They did bearing races, and they did bearing cups, a lot of varied testing systems for Timken. We did actually grinding wheel testing systems. Again, you could blow air through a grinding wheel that Timken would use to grind their ball bearings, and you could actually measure the density of the grinding wheel so that you could get a quality control on that. We made—what would you call it?—a hardness tester machine, where you would actually put an indentation into metal and measure the hardness. At the time, they actually made audiometers for the military. I didn’t work on those at all. They made life test racks for General Electric. You’d have a rack of 50 headlamps, and you’d just test them, see how long they lasted. Made the racks, did the wiring on those. Built a photometry cabinet for General Electric up in Nela Park, which had a photosensor array, your headlight would go into the fixture, the photosensor array would tell you where the bright spot was on the headlight, and that would give information so you could grand the three little [nibs], glass [nibs], on the headlight that would allow it to—so when it went into the mounting bracket in your car, it would aim the right way, the best way. Golly, what else did we do? We did ballast testers for General Electric for the ballasts that went into fluorescent lamps. Did a high-voltage test on those. Oh, golly. Built a bowling ball balancing machine, for—AFM, is that the bowling ball company?
GROOM: You’d stick the bowling balls on this machine, it would rotate it in certain ways, and it would find the heavy—basically it would find the center of mass and then put a little indentation on the bowling ball so their machine would know where to grind the holes, drill the holes for your fingers to go in.
Built check-weight systems. That was another interesting project. This was early on. Avon. We did work for Avon. The Avon product would come down the conveyor, it would hit our scale, it would take the weight, and our little microprocessor or cabinet would take the weight, transmit that information back to the main computer, the main computer would check that [weight] against the order. So, if you sent a tube of lipstick down there, it would weigh it. If it was not within specification, it would reject that tube of lipstick and say, “No, that's not what it’s supposed to be.” They built these check-weight systems. Now, this is ubiquitous. That's how Amazon works. Everything is check-weight systems. But that was back in the mid 1980s. We did Avon, and then what was the other catalog order system? There was another big company we did the check-weight systems for.
Then, I was kind of doing traveling. At that time, I was traveling to do these different installations and stuff. I was back traveling again, and I didn’t like that. Our company slowed down. There was a financial downturn, and the company slowed down, so we were somewhat desperate for work. We had an opportunity to building a manufacturing monitoring system for General Electric, so I went down to Jackson, Mississippi on and off over the course of about six months, and we installed this system that would monitor each step of the manufacturing process of fluorescent lamps. That was fun. That was really interesting. I used what were called PCs at the time, which was a programmable controller. We had a big cabinet, a rack of devices that you would wire your various sensors into, and then you would program this PC—not a personal computer; again, a programmable controller—and you would take data from all these different input devices, basically switch closers or a photo cell. You would then gather up this data and again, send it off to the main computer, so if there was a failure of a part, you could tell where the failure was. If there were too many failures, you would alert the operator of the machine that there was a problem. There was a light tree—the green, good; orange, something’s going on; red, shut it down, kind of thing. That was a fun project. Again, I worked on that about six months.
That was just about the time that the Liquid Crystal Institute came into its own and they built the LCM building. Once again, I was traveling again, out of necessity, because the company was taking jobs where they could get jobs, taking work where they could get it. I figured they would need some technicians [at the LCI], so I went and I talked to the people that I knew from [KSU] from before, and they said, yeah, they were going to hire somebody. I applied, and I left Comtec and came to Kent.
CRAWFORD: This was in 1986?
GROOM: ’86, yeah. They offered me more money and stuff to stay, and like I said, it was just a family environment. They were the nicest people in the world.. It was great. I kept in contact with them for years, but slowly, they—actually passed away.
CRAWFORD: They offered you money to stay at Comtec, but you decided not to because of the traveling component?
GROOM: I didn’t want to travel anymore, and I was close to home here. I was just a couple miles from home. I had a house. I lived over on Route 43 there, just south of Brimfield. Junky little place; it was terrible. I spent five years rebuilding that [pile of junk].
CRAWFORD: I want to talk of course about your time at the Liquid Crystal Institute, but just thinking about this period of these different jobs that you had, first of all I want to ask, the Comtec job that you had, what were you doing for them? It sounds like from what you're telling me that these companies like [GE] or Avon or whatever would come to them and say, “We need this.”
CRAWFORD: What was your involvement in the process?
GROOM: The two owners were both engineers. Then there was—I guess there were three, four engineers there. I guess they were all electrical engineers. There was one—there was Pete, Bill. Ralph was an engineer; John was an engineer. There was another fellow. There were five engineers there. I didn’t have an engineering degree; I had a physics degree. I'm talking about electrical engineering. They primarily did the electronics design and layout. At the time, when I first came there, primarily what I was doing was troubleshooting, testing new equipment or troubleshooting old stuff. Then as time went on, I started doing more design. Like I said, I started designing that photometer cabinet system and that kind of thing.
CRAWFORD: Thinking about your previous experiences both learning about electronics in the Marines and then your undergraduate degree, do you think your undergraduate degree and your military experience really prepared you well for these jobs?
GROOM: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. When it came to the Institute, again it was primarily—I think they were thinking of instrument repair. Which I did; I'd repair the instruments. But then it was also, like I said—because I knew plumbing, I did plumbing. I installed air lines and water lines. For example, Peter had electromagnets, so it was a cooling system.
CRAWFORD: Peter Palffy?
CRAWFORD: Here at the Liquid Crystal Institute?
GROOM: Yeah. I installed water lines for his magnet cooling, and air lines for whatever. It was just quicker than turning in a work order to have the university do it. It was more specific to the instrumentation, too. The ray machines needed water cooling and that kind of stuff, so I'd work on the water coolers, on the chillers for the water systems, and the pumps, the vacuum pumps. Because I could do electronics and electrical work, I would connect up the power to the various equipment. So it was everything. You name it. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: Jack of all trades, a little bit.
GROOM: Yeah, pretty much!
CRAWFORD: Again, I want to continue to talk about the Liquid Crystal Institute but I just have another small question. You said working on the manufacturing monitoring system for GM, which it sounds like—
GROOM: General Electric, GE.
CRAWFORD: Oh, sorry, GE. Let me get that right! For GE. It sounds like this was more when you were involved in the design and development of these things. You described it as a fun project. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about what made the project fun.
GROOM: I was in the factory. I liked being in the factories, around all the machines that made lightbulbs! [laughs] Some of those machines were pretty old, they were from the ‘40s, but they also had some newer equipment that they bought from Philips, and had these big systems, big machines that made the fluorescent lamps. It was just interesting work. It was interesting to see, for example, the machine that made the filaments for a fluorescent lamp, how it coiled the wire. How they would take a whole bin of these things, a whole bucket full of these filaments, dump them in this sorting machine, which would then vibrate and shake and go up a conveyer and down a chute and somehow orient these individual filaments such that they would pop into the right spot on a glass tube before the glass tube was fired and made molten and clamped on the filament, and then how that particular piece of glass with the filament got stuck on another piece of glass that was shaped like a funnel. It was just interesting, all the different mechanical stuff. That was another thing; these machines were very mechanical-oriented, so it was a mechanical engineer’s dream. It would pick up this part, grasp it, rotate it, move it, shove it over here just the right amount so it met up with another piece of molten glass just at the right time at the right temperature so that it would adhere, and then you could draw a vacuum on it and fill the tube with some kind of a gas, whatever they put in there, at the right pressure, and then seal off the ends. It was just all interesting.
CRAWFORD: I just want to make sure I'm understanding. It wasn’t so much about the project, the Comtec project that you were doing, but more about the opportunity to see how these different industrial processes are working.
GROOM: Oh, yeah. It was always new and different. That's kind of what was nice about the Institute when I first came here. There's always something new and different. It was not the same thing every day. Probably in this whole career of mine, it was not the same thing every day. Every day was almost something new and different. It made it exciting. I would hesitate to work at a factory where you put this bolt on that hole, and put the nut on the other side, for eight hours a day. I could certainly see how people would get bored with that. Some people, I suppose, love it. They don’t want to think about it. Some days you want to just mow the lawn and go around in the circle and not think about anything, right?
CRAWFORD: Sure. [laughs] But you liked the problem-solving element, the new challenges?
GROOM: Yeah. There was always something new and different, right.
CRAWFORD: Something new to design, and so forth.
GROOM: You know, “How does this thing work?” or “How should it work?” Like I said, Doug and I formed that little company, our little company LC Technologies, where we started making some of these various low-end devices. It was like, how do you design this so it’s useful? How do you design it so it’s inexpensive, somebody can afford to buy it? It’s repairable. It’s going to last a long time. It’s not going to hurt anybody. That kind of thing.
CRAWFORD: That was Doug Bryant you're talking about?
GROOM: Yeah, Doug and I formed this little company.
CRAWFORD: We've been talking for a little over an hour, I think. Do you want to take a break for a few minutes, or would you like to keep going?
GROOM: Yeah, let’s take a break.
[Break in audio]
CRAWFORD: We are resuming the interview after a nice tour of the LCI and a cup of coffee, and a snack. [laughs] We were just starting to talk about the move you made from Comtec to the Liquid Crystal Institute in 1986. You talked a little bit about wanting to come to the Liquid Crystal Institute, or wanting to move positions because you were traveling more for the Comtec position, and you wanted something that would keep you closer to home and so forth. Were there other reasons why you decided to come to the Liquid Crystal Institute? You had said you noticed they were building the new building. Surely, there could have been other places that you could have moved to.
GROOM: Again, I like the fact that it’s something different every day. Having worked a little bit in the Chemistry Department, I knew that it was a low-pressure environment, and I wasn’t going to have to travel, probably. When I applied for the job, I knew, and I included this—no, I didn’t include it in my application, but I did include it in my interview—and I says, “I know you're going to pay about a third less than industry, but the advantage is I don’t have to travel. I can eat on campus; it’s going to be a little cheaper. I'm only a couple miles from home.” So financially, it was about a wash.
CRAWFORD: You were hired initially as an instrument technician?
CRAWFORD: Became an instrument engineer in 1993 and then a research engineer in 1999. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about—and again, you talked a little bit about this before we took our break—but your main duties and responsibilities when you first started at the LCI.
GROOM: When I first started, it was primarily repairing instruments—power supplies, oscilloscopes, printers, keyboard, anything electronic. The instrumentation is electrical and electromechanical, so I did both. For example, there was a spectrometer that we had, and I really wish I could have kept it as a teaching tool and as a museum piece, because it had a light source, a big old lightbulb; it had mirrors; it had gratings, it had a color wheel with different filters. The color wheel ran from a motor. The grating ran from a motor. There were relays in there. There were photosensors, photodetectors. Every component has to do with electronics and mechanical to make this thing run. I mean, it had one of everything in there. It was just a good demonstration of everything that you might find in a research building, in terms of equipment that you're going to have to work on.
Fortunately, in those days, typically they had a decent manual with it, so you could read the manual, you had schematics, you could understand how it works. Nowadays, there's none of that. If you get even a description of what the heck it’s called, you're doin’ good. So, it’s really difficult to do repairs nowadays. You throw it away and you buy a new one. You know, it’s a disposable society. Fortunately, I've had enough experience that I can open these things up and kind of know how they work, and in some cases I can actually fix them. A lot of times they have—I shouldn't say proprietary components, but components purchased from one particular company, and only that particular size, type, manufacturer will work. So, often, you can’t repair it just because you can’t get that one simple part.
CRAWFORD: You're saying the kind of technologies and devices currently that are being used at the LCI, they're more difficult to repair, because of these features?
GROOM: Oh, yeah. For example, that oscilloscope, I wouldn't even attempt to repair that thing. You send it back to the company within a year or two years of when it was purchased, and they can fix it for you. For a lot of money. Three or four years, you might as well throw it away and buy a new one. It’s cheaper to buy a new one than to—it’s kind of shame, but that's just the way it is.
CRAWFORD: Right. So, for the audio, you just gestured to this Tektronix oscilloscope here.
CRAWFORD: When you started off, you were doing mainly instrument maintenance and so forth?
GROOM: Yeah, and then a little bit of stringing wires. For example, I strung some of the wires that brought the first internet into our building. It was called BITNET. It was just one big, giant, fat cable, and I made the [taps] to run another big, fat cable into one or two or three labs, and we had BITNET. I think BITNET was sort of the second generation. ARPANET was the first version of the internet, and then BITNET was our version. That's kind of where I came in, in about 1988 or 1990, somewhere around there.
CRAWFORD: Over time—because you've worked at the LCI for a long time—has your position pretty much remained the same, or has it changed over time?
GROOM: Well, it changed. Since the display industry has matured and stabilized—in other words, even though somebody invented a newer mousetrap, it’s not economically feasible to remanufacture, to change your factory to build your better mousetrap, so it’s sort of cast in concrete now. Since that has stabilized, the LCI has kind of moved more off into biology. I think there's two reasons for that. One is—I always said that when the Republicans were in favor, they funneled money through DARPA, the Defense Department. When the Democrats were in favor, they funneled money through the National Institute of Health. So it was either health-related or defense-related, and that's kind of how the grants would swing. Of course certainly the pendulum swung way out of phase with the administrations, so there were always quite a few years before one phase or another, one swing of the pendulum or another. But that's kind of my theory.
When I came into this building, there was a lot of setup. I was involved with the architects when we built the building. I met with the architects and told them what I wanted in the way of an electronics shop. I told them what I needed in the way of a machine shop. I was given a little bit of money to purchase machines for our machine shop. With that machine shop really came more work, in the way of machining. Before, if a researcher wanted a new holder for liquid crystal, maybe a boat or something to dip cells in, you’d have to go to the Physics Department and get on the waiting list at their machine shop. This way, I would just make it. Just a lot of repair kind of stuff. Somebody would break a screw off in a device, and I could extract the screw, retap it, now that I had a machine shop here. It was almost instant repair, you know what I mean? Repair on call. You didn’t have to wait any longer. I actually migrated more and more into that, at the same time as instrumentation and electronics became more compact and less repairable.
CRAWFORD: So a kind of ironic development?
GROOM: I morphed into more of a machinist than an electronics guy.
CRAWFORD: I see. You say that you were involved in the design of this new building, the building that we are currently in, and they were intending to put an electronics shop and a machine shop in. Is that to say that the Institute was making more of an investment in having staff onsite such as yourself, to repair their—?
CRAWFORD: What about designing and building things for the investigators and researchers? In other words, things that don’t exist yet that they need.
GROOM: Typically the grad students would come to you and say, “I need a fixture that will do this”; “I need an electronics device that will do that”; I need—.” I would typically question them, get to the point where they might draw out or at least designate what they wanted this thing to do, try to get some hard data on what they expected and what they wanted, and then I would design it and go back to them. Usually, you know, first pass—“Is this what you've got in mind?”; “What has to be different?”—and then I would build it. Typically it involved some kind of either a hand sketch—well, either way it was a hand sketch, either a schematic or a mechanical drawing. Then eventually it was a computer version of the mechanical drawing or the schematic. Then it was actually to build it—build the circuit board, get a piece of circuit board. For a while there, I would manufacture my own boards. We had a photolith for electronic boards, and I would lay them out, drill them, drill the holes, mount the components, solder everything up, wire it up, build a box, purchase a box to put it in, mount the switches, the controls, the plugs, the gizins, the gizouts, mount the circuit boards inside and whatever it took, purchase the components.
CRAWFORD: In designing these things, how much did you use or did you need knowledge of the physics of what they were trying to do?
GROOM: Oh yeah, all the time. Fortunately—because like I told you earlier, I built I can’t tell you how many different temperature controllers—well, you kind of figure out what they want the first time around, and then everybody wants some similar version of this. It might be a large oven, it might be a small oven, it might be a microscope hot-stage oven, but they all involved heating, measuring the temperature, and control. Some kind of input, some kind of output, some kind of feedback, and some kind of human interface. After you've done this so long, you kind of know. And you can coach the students, because they don’t always know. They look in a textbook, they see a simplified drawing, and then you go from there.
CRAWFORD: Let’s say a grad student comes to you and says they want a temperature sensor or something like that. You're mentioning this process of making schematics and then going back to them. How long generally would it take to—?
GROOM: It kind of depended. Parts were an issue back in the day, so you would make your parts list, you would order the parts, it might be two weeks before the parts came in and you could actually start working on it and building it, and maybe another couple of days to build it. Certainly a couple of days to figure out why the damn thing wouldn't work! So, some of it was pretty quick; some, not so much. Some of the stuff was repetitive, so I just maintained a supply of parts. Some of the stuff, it got to the point where I'd just build ahead, little tiny devices, so they were here. I'd just reach in my drawer and, “Okay, here. Here’s the thing you need.” That kind of thing. Sometimes it was, “Hey, this really works good. Can you have one for my lab?”; “I borrowed this from lab A. I'm in lab B. Can you make lab B one of these?” So I'd just make another one. Then I kept a supply of parts for—for example, that chair you're sitting in, the spring underneath it would always go bad. I bought springs and I just have some in the cupboard, and when the chair fails, I—it’s not electronics-related, but it’s something I did, because I knew how to fix it.
CRAWFORD: When we did this little tour, I think maybe it was a graduate student or a postdoc handed you a soldering iron that had some kind of—
GROOM: Burnt the line cord.
CRAWFORD: You're doing basically anything from fixing office chairs to designing the devices that are going to be used in these very high-tech experiments and so forth.
GROOM: Yeah. One of my techniques—a lot of time, the graduate students come to you with a request—and again, they're working out of a textbook, so they don’t know what it involves. If they heard that gold is a better conductor than copper, they're going to want gold, and you're going to have to talk them out of using gold. My technique was to ask so many questions that they go away in bewilderment, and if they really want it, they come back. And then I bombard them with questions again. Usually the second or third time they come back, I'm convinced they actually want it, they actually know what they're talking about, they actually have a concept of what they're trying to do, and then it’s worth spending your time doing it.
For example, a guy wanted me to write a computer program that could generate a voltage pattern for his special liquid crystal cell. He came back enough times that it convinced me that I should really do the project, and so I did. I wrote the software—it’s on that computer right there—to generate these various signal patterns. But because it took me about three weeks to do it, he went away, and he either found a different way to do it, or he decided not to do it. So there's a bit of that, too, where you just waste your time. I consider it a waste of time.
CRAWFORD: He didn’t leave the Institute; he just pursued a different project?
GROOM: Yeah, he proceeded a different way, or something. I've got a project in there—a fellow came, and he wants a high-voltage power supply to excite a cell, [7,000] volts or something. Which is abnormal. Typically you don’t use voltages that high, first of all because they're dangerous, and secondly, there's little application for common use. Certainly for research, but not for common use, so there's not very many power supplies that will deliver [7,000] volts that are controllable, and the ones that are there are quite expensive. He found one that will do [4,000] volts and now I'm going to repair that thing so he can use it and make the necessary wiring connections so he can use that. Hopefully, the [4,000] volts will be enough for his experiment. He maybe can modify his experiment and make his cell a little thinner so he doesn't need that high voltage. Or, he might find that, “Hey, this really looks promising with the [4,000] volts; let’s go ahead and spend the $30,000 for the [7,000] -volt power supply.”
CRAWFORD: Would you say you worked mostly with graduate students in your career here?
GROOM: Yeah. You're always working for—I say everybody in the building is my boss. All the senior research fellows are my boss. I basically work for them. They just send their graduate students in with various projects. Sometimes I go directly to the PI to find out what this kid is really—I shouldn't say “kid”—what the graduate student is really trying to do. I call them all kids. They're all younger than me, so they're kids.
GROOM: They’re 35, 40 years old. Sometimes I go to the principal investigator just to run some interference for me. But typically not. Also, I have to go to the PI to get money, right? They're the ones that are going to buy the parts, so I have to make sure they're willing to spend the money for these various things I'm building or machining or buying.
CRAWFORD: In part, it sounds like what you're doing in addition to the technical aspects of the design and so forth is negotiating between the graduate students and the senior research fellow or the primary investigator.
GROOM: Yeah, it’s a lot of interaction. I consider myself an instructor in the sense of the graduate students, showing how this stuff works, what it takes to make it work.
CRAWFORD: Is that part of this—I'm going to use the term “ritual” but—
CRAWFORD: —I think it’s more than that—this ritual of asking them so many questions and so forth?
GROOM: Yes. “What are you trying to do? Know what you're really trying to do!”
CRAWFORD: Do you have a sense that the students recognize that as an educational experience? Did any of them express any, “Hey”—?
GROOM: Yeah, I get thank-you cards all the time.
CRAWFORD: Do you think these kind of conversations that you’ve had with grad students with devices they want to build and so forth guided the direction of their research at all?
GROOM: Well, whether or not they know it, or can recognize it, I can’t say, but certainly it does. If you make them think about what they're trying to do—“Does it really need to be gold? Can you get by with copper? Do you want to spend for the gold, and spend the amount of money it’s going to cost for the gold versus the copper piece?” That kind of thing.
CRAWFORD: The gold and copper—because you mentioned that before—that's really about just the cost of the materials?
GROOM: Yeah, the cost. Again, the graduate student looks in a textbook and he might see this particular material or approach is the best approach. Well, we're not sending a spaceship to Mars, Voyager or something or other. It doesn't need to be that high-tech. A lot of times, I'll say, “Well, let’s just do it simple. Let’s do it out of aluminum. Let’s do cheap materials. Let’s use the parts I have. Just try it. Let’s see what happens. Is this going to work for you? If not, we can make a better version.” The classic example is, Peter, I made that centrifuge for him, and over the years he has modified it and we have improved it a little bit. Well, now, “Hey, this is a good technique; let’s make another one.” So, we're making another one.
CRAWFORD: You're mentioning this centrifuge. We ran into Dr. Palffy out in the hallway during our break. This centrifuge that you built for him, could you say a little bit more about what that device is? We know what a centrifuge is, but I just wonder if you could talk more about it.
GROOM: It’s basically a cup that we put on the end of a router, like a woodworker’s router. In other words, he spins this thing about two or three thousand RPMs. It’s a little cup. He puts his liquid crystal material in there. I built a little oven that goes over top so it can be heated. As this liquid crystal material is heated, it polymerizes or the liquid crystal does whatever it is going to do in there. He opens the lid, takes this little—it almost looks like a piece of snotty material, for lack of a better phrase—and then he would probably size it, clean it up, cut the edges down so it’s nice, puts it in a fixture, and he might stretch this. Or he might put a load cell on it, and put it under tension with a load cell, shine a laser on it, see how it contracts or expands, sort of like a muscle. It might be like muscle material that's light-sensitive. You can activate it. Rather than with some of a chemical change, it’s a thermal—maybe heat, infrared, or various—maybe ultraviolet. Different frequencies might make the liquid crystal material, the cholesteric materials, respond differently.
CRAWFORD: Was that a device that was built, to put it in very layman’s terms, kind of, “We want to see what happens to the materials if we build a device like this,” and—
GROOM: Yes, it was definitely, “Let’s see what happens with this.” But that was a long time ago. Rajib’s gonna kinda want in here, and—can we go in the electronics shop?
CRAWFORD: Yeah, sure.
[Break in audio]
CRAWFORD: You were just telling us about this centrifuge that you built for Dr. Peter Palffy and how it was used to really explore the properties of liquid crystals and an interesting example of the work that you're doing. Just a couple more questions about this design and development process. What would you say was the most challenging part of the process, thinking about all the technical aspects, negotiating with the grad students and the PIs?
GROOM: Certainly, without a doubt, the most challenging part is, what do they want to do? What are they trying to accomplish? And then trying to meet those goals. Then in meeting those goals, probably the next most challenging part was, where can I get the components to build this thing?
CRAWFORD: I'm sure you've built many different kinds of devices over your career here at the Liquid Crystal Institute. What would you say were some of the most common things that you were building?
GROOM: Something we called a clicker box. This is an example of a little clicker box, where it would [clicking sound] click. Clicker box. We call it a clicker box because they click. But it would be a little circuit board like that, and it would generate a controllable AC voltage. Not a particularly stable voltage, not a particularly stable frequency, not a particularly high frequency, but it was enough to make a liquid crystal cell—I don’t want to say just go clear, because they didn’t always go clear—to make a liquid crystal cell respond. It was primarily used for two things. One is a demonstration—“Hey, look at my liquid crystal cell go clear and opaque.” Or just to see whether or not there's any response of the liquid crystal material that you're working on. So it would be a little test cell, these little one-inch-square cells that people made. I probably have made a hundred of those, different versions of those little boxes over here, a couple hundred maybe, something like that. That was one of the most common. Real simple, real easy, real inexpensive kind of thing.
Probably the second thing was high-voltage amplifiers. I call them audio frequency amplifiers. They'd go up to maybe one megahertz, at a couple of hundred volts. Then the third thing would probably be either a hot-stage for a microscope, or an oven, to put a liquid crystal sample in it. So, temperature controllers I guess would be the general—that's part of the next thing that I made the most of, over the years, different versions of it. That's probably it. Those encompass most of what I've done.
CRAWFORD: The temperature controllers and the hot-stage devices, that's to manipulate the temperature of a liquid crystal sample?
GROOM: Yeah, while you're watching it under the microscope, you can heat it or cool it. The ovens might be to make something respond thermally.
CRAWFORD: Would you say that with those temperature-related devices, let’s call them, you've been making them pretty consistently throughout your career here?
GROOM: Yeah. Probably up until the last couple years. Not so much anymore, because again, the liquid crystal industry has sort of stabilized. The display industry has stabilized. Nowadays, there's so many—I shouldn't say there's so many; there are several—companies that make really good hot-stage controllers. I mean, really professional units, not like the garage job stuff that we started out doing. There's two or three companies that make really nice hot-stage controllers, so you can just buy them. Even though they're $35,000 or $40,000, and hopefully the graduate students don’t dismantle them and destroy them. Nowadays, I spend more time repairing them because the kids take them apart and try to modify it.
CRAWFORD: I see. And by kids, you mean the grad students.
GROOM: Graduate students. I call them kids in the sense that they shouldn't break a $30,000 piece of instrumentation. You know what I mean?
CRAWFORD: It sounds to me, like especially when you were talking about the clicker boxes, for example, you're building devices for researchers to use in their labs, for their experiments and so forth, but you were also doing work to help them build prototypes, right? I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that type of work. Was that any different?
GROOM: No, it’s about the same thing. It was all sort of the graduate student would make some kind of a liquid crystal cell, and they were trying to make the cell respond in a particular way. Typically, the liquid crystals are going to respond by the application of an electric field which involves some kind of amplifier or something like that. They're going to make the cell respond thermally by changing the temperature of it, or they're going to make it respond mechanically by pushing, pulling, something like that. And I guess a fourth way would be in a magnetic field, which we never did too much with the magnetic fields for some reason. There wasn’t a lot of research done in that. We did have some big electromagnets that they would do research in.
A lot of research kind of in the 2000s involved characterization of materials, so they would put a liquid crystal material in a magnetic field, and they would see if it was affected by the magnetic field, or it would make it align in a particular way. For example, it would be, they've got a big electromagnet over there, you’d stick the sample in it, and then you would shine a laser through it, and you would rotate the cell in the magnetic field to see how the magnetic field would affect the alignment. You could also apply an electric field too, so the interaction between the electric field on the cell and the magnetic field. Then we stuck it in an oven, to boot, to see how the temperature had an effect on it. So, there was a lot going off. Those are kind of fun projects. They really involved a lot of time, though, primarily trying to get the positioning motors programmed so they would move the thing, change the current of the electromagnet to change the field, measure the intensity of the light going through the cell. Then you're changing your temperature controller, and then you're measuring some of the electrical properties of the cell. So, there was a lot going on.
They were fun projects. They usually took a long time because you're trying to coordinate all this control. There was one company that made the power supply for the magnet. You had to talk to them in a particular way. There was another company that [manufactured] the motor controller, so you had to talk to that motor controller in its favorite way. Again, the temperature controller, maybe there would be a Hall probe to measure the magnetic field intensity you're taking readings off. You wanted to take those readings. It wanted to be spoken to in a particular manner, or addressed in a certain manner. So there was a lot of that coordination.
CRAWFORD: When you say these controllers want to be spoken to in a particular way, what do you mean by that?
GROOM: For example, if I wanted to interface my computer with that—what is this thing?—function generator or something like that, it might want commands in ASCII code, and it might run over a RS-232 link, an old two-wire link. Or it might operate over a GPIB—General Interface Bus Controller? GPIB? I don’t know what it’s called. Hewlett-Packard. It’s this Hewlett-Packard standard. Many wires. It was a parallel. You were taking data on eight bits or sixteen bits at a time, much faster, much more control. But it’s a protocol, so it was either an RS-232 protocol or a 488 protocol. Nowadays, everything is USB. Yeah, USB protocol.
CRAWFORD: It sounds like the work that you were doing at various points was a mixture of actually working with physical materials and building physical devices, but also doing some programming.
CRAWFORD: Has the balance of those activities changed over time? In other words, is it more programming now, and less physical materials type work?
GROOM: Right now, things have really changed, so I really shouldn't even talk about the past let’s say two years. Things have really slowed down here, in terms of what I do, since I retired. But prior to that, you’d build a device, and then you had to operate it somehow. Typically, when for example I built this amplifier, there was no programming involved in that. But, for example, the Botanical Garden project where you were taking data, that was almost all software once we installed the sensors. So it was, install the sensors, which was wiring and brackets and holders for the cells, plug everything together, get the communication link to work, and then write code to take the data. Once the mechanical part was done, there was a lot of programming involved in that. It was pretty extensive programming.
Some of the experiments, like I said about taking the measurements within the magnetic field, maybe make the fixtures—I made the fixture that held the cell, I made the oven that went around the cell that controlled the temperature, and I made the temperature controller that controlled the heater for the cell. Then I wrote the program that talked to the various instruments that we purchased—the Gauss meter, the motor controller, the power supply for the magnet. Then we had a—oh, what’s it called?—the device that measured the capacitance, dissipation factor, that kind of stuff, at various frequencies. You would program that device—it was called a—Schlumberger was the manufacturer. Hewlett-Packard made them too. But they would apply a voltage to the cell of a particular frequency and amplitude, and then it would measure the dissipation and the capacitance. LCR meter typically was a short expression for them. You’d write the code that would take that data; change the voltage, take another measurement; change the voltage, take another measurement; then do the same thing again at a different frequency.
CRAWFORD: This discussion of coordinating all of these different devices and stuff, this was all for this Cleveland Botanical Garden project?
GROOM: No, that particular one was just some experiment that was trying to measure the surface anchoring energy, the way the liquid crystal would attach to the surface of the cell. And the alignment angle, I think. As you rotate this thing, and then you get a preferred angle, see where the alignment was at different frequencies or different voltages. Put them at different voltages.
CRAWFORD: It’s a good example of the kind of programming elements?
GROOM: Yeah, it included a little bit of everything.
CRAWFORD: Are there any projects that you've been involved in at the LCI or elsewhere that were especially significant or important?
GROOM: No. [laughs] I don’t know. We didn’t do much out of house. I can’t recall offhand—I especially liked the Botanical Garden project. Like I said, when I was a kid, I worked in my uncle’s nursery, so I was always around horticulture, so the Botanical Garden was just a fun place to be. A beautiful place.
CRAWFORD: Could you tell us a little bit about the Botanical Garden project that you did for the LCI?
GROOM: The idea was, could a liquid crystal window help grow plants more rapidly or efficiency or whatever. The Botanical Garden folks approached us about whether or not liquid crystal panels might be used somehow in their business, in their botanical field. The Cleveland Botanical Garden built two small test greenhouses, and they built them out front. I think they were about maybe ten foot by eight foot. There were two identical houses. One had just regular glass windows like a regular greenhouse might have. Then the other one had liquid crystal glass on the roof and the upper sides. Each had trays in there with plants. We instrumented both houses. We put in instruments—photodetectors—to measure the light intensity, and we had of course temperature sensors, humidity sensors. They were going to put a CO2 sensor, but then that never came about.
We would take data from these three different inputs and then we would control the fan—the cooling fans—and we would control the liquid crystal window, whether or not they were opaque or clear. We made an effort to make the windows adjustable so they weren’t either opaque or clear, that you could make them in between. We never accomplished that, because to make an amplifier that would control those—it was a rather large area; I think they were like two foot by three foot, each panel—so it was just not a trivial thing to do. There was an electronics box on the inside of the greenhouse that gathered up all this data. There were modules that all the sensors would plug into, and then it would Wi-Fi into the building where we had a computer set up that I wrote the program on—I wrote it in LabVIEW—that would take the data and it would control the fan, control the liquid crystal shutters, either on or off. We just watched these things over the course of several months. Then there was a biologist, a botanical—what would a botanic…?
CRAWFORD: A botanist?
GROOM: Botanist, thank you! [laughs] The botanist, she kept track of what the plants were doing, how fast they would grow, the leaf size, how much they would transpire. Then she wrote up a report.
CRAWFORD: Were there actually two separate greenhouses?
GROOM: Yes, two separate little—
CRAWFORD: You said there's one with the liquid crystal panels, and one with none.
GROOM: Mmhmm. It was interesting because when you looked at the data, and you might look at the data from one particular sensor, and you're looking at this data, and it’s measuring some value, let’s say it measured—you would read a value of three volts. Three volts corresponded to so much sunlight or something. There was a conversion factor. All of a sudden, it would just go away. It would go to zero. And then it would come back again. It’s like, “What the heck is this about?” We found that as the Earth rotated in the Sun’s field, you’d cast a shadow from some of the supports that held a window. After we figured that out, sometimes everything would get dim and everything would get bright; well, there's clouds going overhead. It was interesting trying to figure out what is happening. “Is this real data? Is it really happening?”
CRAWFORD: Would you characterize the project as a success?
GROOM: It was a success in the sense that liquid crystal shutters for greenhouse applications was a total failure.
CRAWFORD: So that's what we learned!
GROOM: We know it wouldn't work, yes.
CRAWFORD: We know it wouldn't work. [laughs] Well—
GROOM: The biggest thing that they were trying to do was control the plants transpiring, how much water they would lose on a hot day with direct sun. The type of liquid crystal materials we had in the shutters would not do that. There are liquid crystal materials that can do that, though. I think they’re called maybe electrochromics? If you were to coat your greenhouse glass with these electrochromics, if the Sun got too hot, they actually reflect the sun. They would work, and they're totally—you don’t have to control them; they just do it on their own.
CRAWFORD: Are there any other projects that stand out? I know before you said no, but I wonder if there is anything—?
GROOM: Those are the two big ones. I like doing the LabVIEW stuff. It’s kind of fun. To me, I suppose it would be like a kid playing a Nintendo.
CRAWFORD: Could you explain to us what LabVIEW is?
GROOM: National Instruments built a variety of instrumentation that allows you to connect sensors and do control works. They have a circuit board that plugs into the back of your computer that would put out a voltage or had a particular frequency. Or you could turn this thing on or off, so you could use it as a control maybe to control a bigger relay, to turn on and off the lights. You could use it to make a temperature control. You could turn the heater on. You could turn the heater off. You could take the sensor from that oven and run it into the LabVIEW circuit board and it would measure the voltage of the sensor, which would then translate into a temperature, so now you can read the temperature, and you can control the heater on and off. LabVIEW is a graphical user interface for doing that kind of data acquisition and control. So it fits me, because I can’t read. Like I said, I have a GUI interface so it’s really nice. I can just click on a little box that shows a picture of a heater and I know that I'm talking to that, and write the code appropriate to control that thing. Or, you click on the picture of the temperature thermometer, and that thermometer picture is representative of the temperature you're getting from that sensor. It’s fun; I like it. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: When did you start using LabVIEW? When did it come into use for you?
GROOM: I can remember back just around the turn of the century. [laughs] Oh my god! About 2000, , I started seeing National Instruments pop up more and more. At first, I really, really disliked them, because [they had] poor documentation. I thought they documented stuff poorly. It was just, “What are they talking about here?” You’d read the products. But over time, they really polished everything up and made the programs work really well. I actually took a couple of courses. I went to their training program on a couple of programs to learn how to do it more efficiently, and that was fun.
CRAWFORD: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you find out about the sorts of things that you use in your work, like LabVIEW, or if there's other softwares that you use, or instrument suppliers and things like that.
GROOM: More often than not, some graduate student would find these various things and introduce it, or introduce me to it, and I would look into it and go from there. Other principal investigators knew what I did; if they found some interesting device, they might alert me to it, or kind of turn you on to what's available and what you might check into. There was a lot of interaction back in those days. Not so much today; I don’t know why.
CRAWFORD: A lot of interaction—?
GROOM: Between the students and myself, and the principal investigators, there seemed to be. Then the principal investigators would help one another. I think I mentioned before that it seems to be, the old Institute, everybody had their door open, the lab doors were open, and you could walk in anybody’s lab and ask them what they were doing. Everybody kind of interacted. Nowadays, everybody has their own project, all the doors are closed, everybody’s got their doors locked up. You can’t walk in the lab hardly anymore without unlocking some door somewhere. Very much less collaboration, I believe.
CRAWFORD: Do you have a sense of when that started to shift? When did the old Institute become the old Institute? [laughs]
GROOM: Probably about the time that the industry matured, and we no longer did development work.
CRAWFORD: Could you put a rough date on that?
GROOM: Probably around 2010, I would say. I think it started to change about then.
CRAWFORD: You're saying that the culture of the LCI feeling more open and collaborative and interactive, that was your sense of the organization and the culture?
GROOM: That's my opinion of it.
CRAWFORD: Prior to 2010.
CRAWFORD: Do you have any sense of why that has changed since then?
GROOM: Back then, we were developing liquid crystal materials for the flat panel industry. They were making flat panels for television screens, for oscilloscopes, for gas pump meters, for glasses, for your glasses—trying to figure out if you could make a liquid crystal controllable for your bifocals or whatever. You were dealing with liquid crystal materials and how they would respond, materials that would hold up in the environment, that wouldn't degrade with oxygen, with temperature, with sunlight. You were dealing with how to apply coatings onto glass so that you have a conductive surface on there. You were working with materials that you could apply over the conductive layer that would act as a barrier, that would act as an alignment layer. We did a lot of work and research on different materials for alignment layers, how you would treat the alignment layer such that it would give a preferred alignment to the liquid crystal, how the liquid crystal would attach to the alignment layer, or not attach, for that matter. So there was a lot of research amongst the various groups to bring those things [about]. The view angle: how do you improve the view angle on a liquid crystal flat panel? Back when laptops first started coming out, you had to look at it straight on, otherwise you couldn’t see. Just, they were terrible. I can remember somebody making a joke of, “Oh, no, that's not a bug; that's a feature. So nobody can look over your shoulder and see what—” [laughs]
CRAWFORD: That's an interesting point, right?
GROOM: “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.”
CRAWFORD: It depends on how you think about it. So, just to be clear, you're suggesting that before 2010, when the Institute was really working on displays, the nature of the problems and questions that the LCI and its researchers were trying to address sort of required collaboration?
GROOM: Yes, precisely. Exactly.
CRAWFORD: Now it seems more like each investigator is following their own line of research?
GROOM: Their own line of research, right. I would say it’s more fundamental research. You're not trying to develop a product anymore. It’s not this product you're going to sell on the market. Financially, there's no financial incentive or not very much financial incentive to do this. Now it’s fundamental research. How do these liquid crystals work? What’s going on? Again, it’s the job of the university to train students to prepare them to go out into industry, not just to develop products for sale, right? That kind of comes with the advanced research.
CRAWFORD: You're suggesting that after 2010, the kinds of questions were different.
GROOM: It certainly wasn’t an abrupt change, but it was just gradual. I think if you talk to some people that went to the SID, Society for Information Displays, if you talked to some of those people, they would probably have a real good chronology of how things have changed over the years. It went from projection TVs to flat-panel TVs to—I don’t know what they're working on nowadays. It would be interesting to know. Certainly along with the liquid crystal display was the fabrication technology, to build the machines to build these things. That's a whole other ball of wax that I know nothing about, other than in the sense that we've got some of the old machines from the startup companies, and I was able to dismantle them and salvage parts from. Just about the time—1997, 1998—a lot of the small liquid crystal startup companies either went out of business or were absorbed into the big companies, so we got a lot of equipment donated to us. Most was obsolete; there was just junk, and I had to scrap it out.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, but you cannibalized some of that stuff for parts?
GROOM: Yeah, I got the parts out of some of it. Occasionally you could use various parts and stuff. The other thing is you take these things apart; you learn how it is made. I could even see the mechanical aspect of how this stuff was assembled and made to work. Why did they do this? Well, because—for example, a rub machine, why do they put a housing over it? Well, the rub cloth probably threw off particles, and you wanted to vacuum those particles so they didn’t go into your clean room. What’s this bar on here with the little needle points? Oh, that's a high-voltage static electric field that keeps the particles from floating all over the place. Or it would discharge the electric field that came in on the plate you're trying to coat, or buff, or rub. You learn. “Why is this on here?” Well, you learn all that stuff. It helps you to learn what it’s about. Like I say, it was a gradual thing over the years, just as the industry moved offshore.
CRAWFORD: That shift, did it have an effect in the type of work that you were doing for the Institute?
GROOM: Not really. I still did the same kinds of things. I still did instrument repairs, still making fixtures to hold cells, still doing mechanical repairs: “Repair my microscope.” They'd strip the gear on the microscope. The lightbulb on the microscope doesn't work. The light control on the microscope doesn't work. Still doing that kind of work. Yeah, that kind of stayed the same. Again, probably the biggest thing was the instrumentation was not repairable anymore. You sent it back. Like I said, if after six months or two years—warrantee—you could send it back and get repaired. At that point, they moved on to a different instrument, and you just threw it away. Plus a lot of the companies got bought up. For example, Tektronix got bought up, and I think Keysight Technologies—a holding company—they probably have bought up ten different instrument manufacturers. These things are all made offshore. They're all made disposable. “Throw it away.”
CRAWFORD: I wanted to ask a quick question just to place things. The Cleveland Botanical Garden project, do you remember roughly when that happened?
GROOM: I could look it up on the file [~ 2007].
CRAWFORD: It’s okay; we can add it as a footnote to the transcript. I know in 1997, you started a company with Doug Bryant. LC Technologies, I believe it was called.
CRAWFORD: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that company, where it came from, what it was doing.
GROOM: It kind of started out with the glass scriber. We bought what was called a short-run cutterhead from the company called Billco. Billco Manufacturing did primarily glass for the auto industry. They had this—what’s it called?—the pantograph that would follow—it keeps your cutterhead in the one plane, but you can move it in xy direction and maybe follow a pattern. It was just clunky and cumbersome to slice glass. Because all we needed to do was make little one-inch-square cells or maybe a four-inch-square cell, cut four-inch-square pieces of glass to make liquid crystal cells.
I think one of the other technicians, I would say, that was hired in, he decided to build a glass scriber. We took the cutterhead off of the Billco model, and our machinist in the Physics Department made up a frame, a couple of shafts and some ball bearings so this cutterhead could slide back and forth. It seemed to work pretty well. That person moved on to bigger and better things. When some of the graduate students move off into industry to do—this is early on in the research of liquid crystal [displays], so there's a whole bunch of liquid crystal [display] startup companies out there. So, our various graduate students would come out of the Liquid Crystal Institute, and they went into these startup companies, and they would say, “Can you make me one of these glass scribers?” I went off to a machine shop here at Kent, and I did some drawings and said, “Make me these pieces, parts” and I kind of modeled it after that original glass scriber and assembled this thing, and sold it. I think I sold maybe two of these. Then Doug said, “Hey, I'll start a company, and we can make more of this stuff.”
So he and I kind of formed a little company. He went through the formal process of incorporation. We got a lawyer, incorporated. As the graduate students would move off into industry, they wanted the various things. Those little clicker boxes that I mentioned earlier—“Make me clicker—” I made clicker boxes. [laughs] Made them on my kitchen table [laughs] at home. The glass scribers, we’d farm out all the machining to Steinert Industries here in Kent. He made the majority of them. Then we went off with different machines over the years. Then Phil Bos, when he came from Tektronix, he brought with him a big, giant block of aluminum that had been cut out, machined out, and it had a lid on it, and there was a vacuum chamber. He could look through the lid of this vacuum chamber and he had little manipulators in the side of the vacuum chamber so that he could fill liquid crystal cells. That was something that Doug and I thought would be useful in industry. So I went to a model shop, and they made us a mold, and then went to my machinist, and he went off to an aluminum foundry, and we had castings made of this thing. It was quite a bit cheaper than hogging out a big block of aluminum. So we started making these vacuum fill chambers, and I think Doug is still selling them today. That was a hot item.
Then I made some high-voltage amplifiers for people in industry, though I didn’t like to do that, because I thought there was too much liability involved. So my approach to that was just make it so damn foolproof that nobody is going to hurt themselves on it. I also made a couple little different kind of displays with microprocessors for demonstrations for different companies. Again, I didn’t like to do that, because it just took too much time, and you couldn't charge them enough to make any money in it.
We made bell jar vacuum fill chambers. It was just a bell jar and the little device to raise and lower the cell. You’d put your liquid crystal in a trough, you’d put the bell jar over top, you’d clamp your little glass cell to the clip, pump it down, little motor would lower the cell into the liquid crystal filled trough, you would release the vacuum, the atmospheric pressure would cause the liquid crystal to go up inside the cell, fill the cell, and—a little bell jar fill chamber. Made a couple of those.
Made photodetector cans. One of the guys that was a graduate student—he did engineering—he wanted me to make him a photodetector of some type. Because they were rather expensive, if you bought them from Thorlabs or one of the other companies. So I made these little photodetectors, and they turned out pretty good, and he liked them. When he graduated and moved—he was a postdoc, actually—when he went off to 3M in Chicago, he calls me up and says, “Hey, make me five of these photodetector cans.” I went back to the machinist and had him make the cans, and I did my own circuit board layout and once again built these things on the kitchen table. So, I was selling photodetector cans. They weren’t a hot-selling item. I didn’t sell very many of them. And that was about it. I think we made a couple of other oddball things.
CRAWFORD: What was or is Doug’s role here at the Liquid Crystal Institute?
GROOM: At the Institute, he’s the Clean Room Manager. At least he was, at the time. I'm not sure of his title right now. Doug was the salesman. He knew about all kinds of liquid crystal filling processes, so a lot of people would call Doug for advice on how to do various things. He was sort of the salesman, in the sense that he knew what was going on in the industry. He had his finger on the pulse of the design, development industry, of all these little startup companies, so he knew what was coming and what people needed, and we went from there. I was kind of the designer, builder, shipper guy, and he took care of all the interface with what would be our customers. I mean, it wasn’t a big company. Like I said, on a good year, we might have made $2,000 profit, you know? [laughs] On a bad year, we made $500. It was just enough to cause a lot of problems with the IRS.
CRAWFORD: Given that it sounds like many of the customers for the things you were making were actually industries, and you mentioned startup companies and stuff, I wonder if you could say a little bit about your sense of the interactions between the Liquid Crystal Institute and industries, and how it has changed, or what that was like.
GROOM: Early on, it was constant interaction. They were constantly getting requests from companies for specialized liquid crystal materials. I think we talked about Dr. Mary Neubert, who supplied the whole world—all over the world, everybody that was involved in liquid crystal research was coming to Mary Neubert for custom liquid crystal materials. She was the source. There were groups in Slovenia. There were groups in Italy, Hungary, China, Russia, I think even Brazil, certainly Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China. All of those different groups were in contact with Dr. Neubert for liquid crystal materials. Then there were a bunch of startups. I believe a lot of the people that graduated from these various institutes, and ours, who were familiar with liquid crystals, had little startup companies. I mentioned Noel Clark. He had this little startup company where he was making these hot-stage ovens, and his graduate student took it over and started a company, and has a full-fledged company still in business today, selling liquid crystal related instrumentation and control stuff.
CRAWFORD: Noel Clark is at the University of Colorado?
GROOM: He’s at Boulder. He’s probably long-retired now, but he was there.
CRAWFORD: So, there is this kind of interaction in the sense that there is, at least in the late 1990s, early 2000s, these startup companies—
CRAWFORD: —and the Liquid Crystal Institute is providing materials, and in some cases other services for these companies.
GROOM: Development. We were doing development. For example, there were a couple of folks who came here from Slovenia, the Jožef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana. One fellow there started the company who made—I'm not sure what they were called; welding helmet visors— using liquid crystal materials to switch on and off or go transparent and opaque, for welders, so you didn’t have to have this real thick smoked glass helmet thing. That you would flip your head down when you started your arc. You just look at it, and as soon as there was an arc, the liquid crystal shutter would immediately go opaque or translucent, to cut down the [flash]. Then there was a UV coating on it, or a UV plate on that, to cut out the ultraviolet. He was doing research in that. He started a little company to make these helmets in Europe. Probably got bought up [laughs] by one of the bigger companies. That seemed to be the thing.
The graduate students would go off, start a little startup company, focus on a niche product, develop a [product]. If it was saleable, a bigger company would buy them out, or if it wasn’t saleable, they would just go out of business. It was one or the other. So, these little companies kind of got winnowed out, and went away, and then the industry matured, and everything went—like I said, even if you invented a newer, bigger, better, faster, liquid crystal material, some company overseas is not going to invest $10 billion in a manufacturing line and change their process just because you came up with a little bit better material or process. That's all stabilized now.
CRAWFORD: Because of that and what you were saying earlier about how things shifted after 2010, have these kind of interactions with industry dwindled?
GROOM: Yeah, I think they've waned. Don’t take my word for it, because I don’t have the contacts like I used to. Again, I'm semi-retired. I'm not here as often. I don’t interact with the people as much as I used to. I really don’t know what’s going on. So I probably shouldn't [laughs] speculate at this point.
CRAWFORD: You mentioned earlier that you retired, or you're semi-retired. When did you make that shift?
GROOM: I think four years ago.
CRAWFORD: Any particular reason why?
GROOM: Just trying to back away, spend a little bit more time out in the garden. There was actually less work to do, too. There was less work, because we weren’t as active as we used to be. Again, the instrumentation repair went away. You didn’t repair it; you just threw it away or sent it off to be repaired by the company, so there was way less work that way. You didn’t build high-voltage amplifiers anymore; you could just purchase them. They had been developed. The photodetector prices from Thorlabs came down to a more reasonable price, because there were several other companies making them, so I didn’t have to build that stuff anymore.
CRAWFORD: I know we were talking about this a little bit on the break; do you think that the Institute would hire somebody to replace you in the kind of activities that you’re doing?
GROOM: I think there should be somebody here that has my skill set. I think I'm a valuable resource in that sense. I don’t think this little Institute or little department can financially support somebody full-time, five days a week. I think it would be foolish and unnecessary.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. But somebody at least on a part-time basis, maybe.
GROOM: Yeah, or from a different department. For example, like the machinist in the Physics Department, he serves the AMLCI, he serves Physics, he serves Biology, and he serves Chemistry. Those other departments—Physics and AMLCI were probably his two biggest I would say customers. The other departments are primarily, I'm going to say, repair work, or some custom stuff. But he was one guy serving those four departments. He does a good job. Keeps everybody happy. Up to the point where, for example, if you broke your knob on your microscope, do you want to wait two weeks for this guy to put a screw in it? That's what’s nice about somebody like me, who can just come in part-time, and I can put a screw in it tomorrow, and you're down one day, not two weeks.
Also, there was an electronics guy in the Physics Department, Dr. Baldwin. Al has been there for many, many years longer than I had been here, and he served all of their equipment needs. Well, he’s retired now, too, so there's really nobody around anymore that does this kind of stuff. For example, Jack Dauphars is our computer guy. He has come in with a new generation of computers where you don’t really build up computers like we used to. Jim Francl the computer guy before, he would actually build up the computers. Now, you don’t build them up; you just buy them. When the software has matured or changed to the point where your computer will no longer run that software, you just throw it away and you buy a new one. Then you have to load the various programs on the software. Jack is really good at that, and he fills that niche. I can’t do his job; he can’t do my job. So you need somebody like that. Jack works for the AMLCI but he also works for—what’s it called?—Computer Information Services?
CRAWFORD: Yeah, basically our IT Department.
GROOM: Computer Services, or whatever it’s called. He works for them, and he works for us, and it works out good that way. It keeps him busy. It’s a full-time job. They need somebody like me, or Al Baldwin, to be able to service these departments. Occasionally, I would do a little bit of repair work for Biology and Chemistry. Again, nowadays, you throw it away and you buy a new one. You don’t need to repair anything.
CRAWFORD: What would you say is your particular skill set that they need? Let’s say they ask you to hire someone to take your place. What would you be looking for in that person?
GROOM: Electromechanical, computer—you've got to be able to do electronics. You've got to be able to understand the mechanics of it and do it. And you have to be able to program. Something like that. And I'm not even going to say “program” anymore, because nowadays, when you buy an instrument, it’s already programmed, and the most thing you might have to do is reload the program. I guess maybe I'm obsolete. Maybe that's it. Just—I wouldn't hire anybody like me anymore! Yeah!
CRAWFORD: You have a knowledge of physics and stuff. What about scientific knowledge?
GROOM: I think if you were trying to get any kind of job in a place like this, the AMLCI or the Physics Department, you should have a physics degree. Without a doubt, physics gives you the best background of how the world works, and how everything mechanical, electrical—how the world works. So when somebody says it’s an optical bench and you're shining this laser through this filter, you have an idea of what they're talking about.
CRAWFORD: What about chemistry? Because I know they do a lot of chemical work here as well.
GROOM: Not so much. Not in our department. Not for my position. I did literally no chemistry. Other than I had a couple courses in chemistry when I did my undergraduate degree, and when somebody would talk about a polymer, I had a clue what they were talking about. A friend of mine called it either you're singly dumb, or doubly dumb. If you're doubly dumb, you don’t know you don’t know anything. If you're singly dumb, you know just enough to know you don’t know nothin’.
GROOM: That's kind of where I am with chemistry. I just know I don’t know nothin’ about it. I just know enough about it to know I don’t know anything, can’t make those decisions. “Go to somebody who is knowledgeable.”
CRAWFORD: So you haven’t had as much interaction with the folks on the second floor that do a lot of chemistry work?
GROOM: No. What I would do up there is I would repair a rotovap—rotary evaporation equipment. I would repair an oven. I would repair a centrifuge. A faucet [laughs]. The hood. Something like that. That's the other thing; there wasn’t enough work just repairing electronics for one person to justify, so I did all these other jobs. I ran air lines for the Chemistry Department. I put gas bottle holder clamps on the wall, safety chains. When somebody had an accident and busted one of the glass shutters in one of the hoods, I repaired the glass there. Repaired leaky faucets if we couldn't get the university in there in time. I installed plugs for various instruments that needed something a little bit different. Holders over the chromatography fume hood, for example. Just kind of filled in with that kind of stuff when there wasn’t electronics to do or there wasn’t design work to do, or there wasn’t machining to do.
CRAWFORD: It sounds a little bit like your trajectory, from going to the factory with your dad when you were a kid, to being an electronics technician in the military, to your experience in industry working with Comtec and having experience working in industrial settings where you were installing the sensors for GE, but then also your experience in academia, getting your physics degree—you have, it sounds like, a unique combination of both an understanding of physics and high technology and things like that, but also the ability to do plumbing and stuff like that.
GROOM: I would think it’s somewhat unique. I don’t think many people have this opportunity. Perhaps if you went to a really wealthy school district, you might have some opportunity to have a little bit of introduction to electronics, machining, lumber work. I don’t know; it’s a little bit of everything. It kind of depends on if you have that opportunity. The thing is, you get into college, and you typically focus on one field. You don’t have all these other related fields that I really have been fortunate to have contact with.
CRAWFORD: I wonder, if you were to give advice to someone who was, say, wanting to pursue a career in science or engineering—it doesn't necessarily have to be the career that you had—what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about pursuing that?
GROOM: The more exposure to the different areas you have, the better off you're going to be. If you could go into industry a little bit, if you could shadow a researcher or shadow a machinist or shadow a plumber, or just the more interaction you have with the various trades, the various fields, you're going to pick up stuff. You're just going to pick up why these various things work, and how they work.
CRAWFORD: So, not just an array of scientific disciplines, but also actual hands-on trades and things like that.
GROOM: Yeah. Like I said, when I was a kid and I had my knife switches and batteries and light bulbs, it related to circuits. I could remember when I wired up my playhouse with—the first time I tried to wire into something 110 [volts], put lightbulbs on there, and I put two lightbulbs, and they were dim for some reason, and I learned the difference between a parallel circuit and a series circuit. [laughs] There's an accumulation over a loooooong time; again, if you just have any kind of contact in different fields. That's why I like to see young—I think it’s got to be hard, nowadays, for young people, who grow up in an apartment, and have no garden, no garage full of plumbing fixtures and broken lightbulbs. [laughs] On the other hand, nowadays you just YouTube and they tell you how to do everything!
CRAWFORD: [laughs] That's true.
GROOM: You don’t need all that! You just turn on YouTube!
CRAWFORD: [laughs] Right.
GROOM: Oh, no, I'm serious. I mean, there was a girl upstairs, a young girl from—I think she was from China, and she needed a—a deposition system of some kind. She got on the internet, looked at YouTube, and figured out a way to use a microwave to create a plasma, bought a cheap microwave, and I plumbed in some I think nitrogen—I'm not quite sure what she had in there—and she would generate this plasma in a microwave, and made a little deposition system out of it. Just from watching YouTube.
CRAWFORD: What is a deposition system?
GROOM: For example, if you have a piece of glass that you're going to make a cell, you clean it somehow, which is a whole ‘nother ball of—it’s a whole ‘nother industry, how do you clean this. You can wash it with water. You can bombard it with high energy to knock off the dirt particles. Let’s say you get this piece of glass that's clean and now you want to put a conductive layer on this of indium tin oxide, or gold, or nickel, or something like that. There's a couple of ways you can deposit that. You can stick it in a vacuum; hopefully, in a real clean environment. You can stick it in a vacuum oven. You heat up the material that want to deposit it; let’s say nickel—and the nickel just boils off and creates this vapor, and it just deposits on there. That's how you might coat the cell. You might also put it in a vacuum chamber, and you might also have this high-energy beam hitting the nickel target, causing the nickel to sputter off, and it sticks to your—actually it would be like this. You would shoot the beam down at your nickel target; the nickel ions would fly off and jam itself on the surface of that cell. That's how you would deposit this conductive layer on the cell.
CRAWFORD: I have a couple questions about the COVID pandemic, but before we get to that, and the end of the interview, is there anything else you’d like to discuss before we wrap up?
GROOM: No. Well, I have complaints. I would like to see more interaction between the various research folks. I wouldn't know how you would foster interaction with them because they're not working on the same things anymore. Also, because I'm not privy to the meetings, maybe they’re doing that and I just don’t know about it. So, this is a bad time to ask me those kind of questions because I don’t know what I'm talking about.
CRAWFORD: Well, but it does seem like—because you said you became semi-retired four years ago—before that, it seemed like you noticed that the culture of the institution was shifting.
GROOM: No, I don’t think folks were interacting like they should. I also heard complaints from—“Why are they having these meetings all the time? Nothing gets accomplished in these meetings! We have these meetings and nothing gets accomplished!” I just think that, no, you need to be in the meetings, and you need to do these interactions. I think it has to do perhaps more so with your department head, your leaders who control things a little bit more. I don’t know.
CRAWFORD: Why do you think interaction is important?
GROOM: You share ideas. It’s more efficient. Somebody needs this device; rather than come to me and have me build this device and waste two or three or four weeks or god knows how much money, that guy has one in his lab that hasn’t been used for three years; go borrow it. Loan it to him! But there has to be some kind of interaction so that when that kid is done using it, that student is done using it, he gets it back. There's not that basic interaction there. The other thing is, a lot of times you have a graduate student who is in a lab a long time—three, four, five years. He has a lot of experience with everything in the lab, how it all works. If there's a new graduate student coming in wanting to do something, that older graduate student, he’s a massive source of information. He has accumulated a lot of info, a lot of knowledge over the years. Interact with them more.
One thing we've always done at the Institute is try to bring the graduate students together. We've had a Christmas party or a holiday party. We've done the Halloween pumpkin carving contest every year. Occasionally we used to do actually picnics, but primarily just the graduate students organize that nowadays. We used to interact a lot more. The senior research fellows used to attend these; nowadays, not so much. It’s like, “I don’t have time”; “I've got a meeting”; “I've got to go here”; “I've got a seminar there”; “I'm flying to this country.”
CRAWFORD: Not the same kind of interactions.
GROOM: No. [laughs] It’s not the family atmosphere that I liked years ago.
CRAWFORD: Is there anything else you’d like to ask before we end?
GROOM: No, I think that's my life story.
CRAWFORD: Like I said, I wanted to just, because we're still dealing with the tail end of this pandemic—I mean, I'm wearing a KN95 mask right now, although I’m one of the holdouts, I would say. Just thinking about the pandemic over the last couple of years, what was your experience of it? What challenges did it present to you?
GROOM: Well, it kind of shut down the university and the Institute, and we were sort of working from home on the computer. There wasn’t really very much for me to do because nobody was coming into the lab, so I just stayed out of the labs. My activity went almost to zero. It’s almost zero now, but it was really, really zero, then. As people came back, there was a little catchup work to do. Not much. It was more fear among the students. I don’t think that was a good thing. Over time, it seems as though everybody here caught the COVID at one point or another. I caught it. Not from here; from my hunting buddies. I had my shots, so I had a mild case, and it lasted not even a week. But I stayed away for about two weeks. That seemed to be the course that went through the Institute. That's why I'm more lax about [it] right now.
CRAWFORD: Aside from not coming in to work, did it change things for you in any other ways, living through the pandemic?
GROOM: Well, I think it did, in the sense that it split us up even more, even less interaction than we had before.
CRAWFORD: Things are hopefully going to come back soon. Hopefully. I think we've covered a lot of ground, and I just want to thank you so much for your time in doing this interview, and for sharing your experience with us.
GROOM: Well, you made it real easy by prompting me with questions and stuff. I think you made it really easy, and it was very relaxed and easy to do. I really didn’t know quite what to expect at first, but you made it a pleasure.
CRAWFORD: Great. Again, I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
Liquid Crystal Oral History: Groom, Merrill
Crawford, Matthew James
An oral history interview with Merrill Groom, Research Engineer at the Liquid Crystal Institute (LCI) at Kent State University. This interview is part of the Liquid Crystal Oral History Project. Groom shares of the development of his educational and professional careers. Born and raised in Norton, Ohio, Groom went into the Marine Corps where he spent a few months in Vietnam and California during the Vietnam War. After leaving the Marine Corps, he attended Kent State, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics. Groom’s interest in science started from a young age and became the focus of his career after graduation. Throughout his career, Groom worked at companies such as Clevite (1971-1972), Addressograph-Multigraph (1976-1977), and Comtec (1980-1986). Beginning as an instrument technician (1986-1993) at the Liquid Crystal Institute, he later became an instrument engineer (1993-1999) then a research engineer (1999-2022). Groom’s work in repairing and installing instruments proved vital to conducting research at the LCI, with improvements such as installing wires to connect the LCI to the internet through BITNET or building devices for graduate students' use. He has experienced many transitional changes at the LCI, but continued to create projects that assisted research, both with students and faculty members.
Sponsors: The Liquid Crystal Oral History Project is funded in part by the Ohio History Fund, a grant program of the Ohio History Connection. Your donations to the Ohio History Fund make this program possible.
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