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Robert E. Finnigan

  • Born: May 27, 1927, Buffalo, New York

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0227
Interview Date: December 4, 2001
Location: Los Altos, California
Interviewer: David C. Brock
No. of pages: 115

  Abstract of Interview

Robert E. Finnigan begins the interview with a description of his family and childhood years in Snyder, New York. Finnigan developed an interest in military service and science while reading The Dave Darrin Series about a new recruit at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) and while building World War II model airplane replicas as a young boy. After entering the USNA in 1945, Finnigan became fascinated with electronics and realized that he wanted to continue his electrical engineering (EE) education at a graduate level, so he enrolled in an Air Force Institute of Technology program, which allowed qualified officers to enter graduate school after three years of service. While in the AFIT program, Finnigan met and married Bette E. Finnigan. In 1952, Finnigan became a "student officer" in EE at the University of Illinois at Urbana. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1957, Finnigan joined the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), formerly the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory. While at LLNL, Finnigan worked on the development and application of nuclear ramjet reactors such as the TORY II-A and TORY II-C. Subsequent to working on ramjet reactors for five years, Finnigan decided to pursue process controls research at SRI (Stanford Research Institute). At SRI, Finnigan became interested in the prospects for the quadrupole mass spectrometer as an advanced instrument for process control. As awareness of the quadrupole grew, Finnigan and his division were persuaded by EAI (Electronic Associates Incorporated) to leave SRI in order to start a process-systems group and quadrupole development. Finnigan remained at EAI, in the Scientific Instruments Division producing quadrupoles for academic and industrial use, for four years. In 1967, Finnigan resigned after EAI's attempt to sell the Scientific Instruments Division failed and EAI rejected his idea to venture into the GC-MS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) market. Later that same year, Finnigan formed Finnigan Corporation with assistance from Roger Sant and T. Z. Chu. Via Finnigan Corporation, Finnigan continued to research and develop quadrupoles and GC-MS. Finnigan concludes the interview with a discussion of his hobbies and family, reflections on Thermo Instrument Systems' acquisition of Finnigan Corporation, and thoughts on the Finnigan Corporation of today.


1949 B.S. United States Naval Academy
1954 M.S., Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois
1957 Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois

  Professional Experience

United States Air Force

1949 - 1954 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant with assignments to strategic Air Command, University of Illinois (student officer), U. S. Air Force Institute of Technology (Instructor), Ph.D. Special Student

United States Air Force

1954 - 1959 Captain

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

1957 - 1959 Head, Nuclear Reactor Control Group

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

1959 - 1962 Senior Scientist

Stanford Research Institute

1962 - 1963 Senior Research Engineer

Stanford Research Institute

1992 - 1993 Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Electronic Associates, Inc.

1963 - 1967 Director, Scientific Instruments Division, Palo Alto, California

Finnigan Corporation

1967 - 1990 Founder, President, Vice Chairman, Senior Vice President

Finnigan Corporation

1990 Vice Chairman Emeritus, Consultant


1975 Distinguished Alumnus Award, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois
1980 Alumni Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering, College of Engineering, University of Illinois
1994 Pioneer in Analytical Instrumentation-Mass Spectrometry, Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry
1999 Winston Churchill Medal of Wisdom
1999 Wisdom Hall of Fame
1999 Instrumentation Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry Society
2002 Robert E. Finnigan Professorship established at Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, Clairmont, California, by outside donors to Keck

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Early Education 1

Growing up in Snyder, New York. Parents. Siblings. Extracurricular activities. Early interest in science and military service. Effect of World War II. Decision to attend the United States Naval Academy.

United States Naval Academy 15

Preparatory school. Curriculum. V-5 and V-12 programs. Hazing. Sports. Decision to join the United States Air Force.

United States Air Force 19

Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). Air Tactical School. Strategic Air Command at March Air Force Base. Applying to graduate school for electrical engineering (EE).

University of Illinois at Urbana 22

EE curriculum. Meeting and marriage to Bette E. Finnigan. ILLIAC I. General Swofford's Special Ph.D. Program. AFIT. Ph.D. thesis on non-linear servomechanism theory. Teaching antenna theory at AFIT.

Career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) 29

Herbert York. Ramjet nuclear engine. TORY II-A. TORY II-C. P. Michael Uthe Jr. Herbert York and Harold Brown. LLNL work ethic. Coors Porcelain Company. Decision to move to SRI (Stanford Research Institute).

Career at SRI 41

P. Michael Uthe Jr. Quadrupole mass spectrometry. Allan E. Lee. Market research survey. IBM Corporation. Phill Wadsworth. EAI (Electronic Associates Incorporated).

Career at EAI 46

Scientific Instruments Division. Aerojet General Corporation. NERVA Project. Beckman Instruments, Inc. Joseph Lewis. Market research survey. Development of quadrupole for process instruments via SRI funding. Kenneth R. Shoulders. Thomas R. Conklin. Michael S. Story. Richard Greenan. Loren Wright. Ultek System International. Quadrupole's wide acceptance and use. EAI's decision to sell. Hewlett-Packard Company. Syntex Corporation. Roger Sant. P. Michael Uthe Jr., Richard Greenan, and Loren Wright form Uthe Technology Incorporated. Interest in the GC-MS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) market. EAI's rejection of GC-MS. Resignation.

Career at Finnigan Corporation 69

Decision to create Finnigan with financial assistance from Roger Sant and T. Z. Chu. EAI's disapproval. Reflections on P. Michael Uthe's departure. Fate of EAI. Michael S. Story. William Fies. Jonathan W. Amy. GC-MS development. Walter E. Reynolds. Acquisition of Disc Instruments. Model 1015 GC-MS. Evan C. Horning. Systems Industries. Acquisition of Quantamatrix Corporation. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Model 1015/System 150. EPA Consent Decree Program. Reasoning for taking Finnigan public in 1972. The "culture" of Finnigan. Roger Sant's departure.

Conclusion 92

Hobbies and interests. Family. American Electronics Association (AEA). Organization Internationale Metrology Legale (OIML). AEA and the environment. Acquisition of MAT GmbH. T. Z. Chu. Thermo Instruments Systems, Inc. George N. Hatsopolous. Thermo Electron Corporation. Arvin Smith. Gratification from serving on the boards of various small companies. Thermo Instrument Systems' acquisition of Finnigan Corporation. Ian Jardine. The Finnigan Corporation of today.

Notes 103

Index 104

  About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

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