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Richard E. Honig

  • Born: 1917, Göttingen, Germany

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0678
Interview Date: April 27, 1996
Location: The Quadrangle, Haverford, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: Michael A. Grayson
No. of pages: 71
Minutes: 190
Sponsor: American Society for Mass Spectrometry
American Society for Mass Spectrometry

  Abstract of Interview

Richard E. Honig was born in Göttingen, Germany, the eldest of three boys.  His father, a professor of law at the University of Göttingen, was among the first group of professors dismissed from the university by the Nazi regime in 1933.  The family subsequently relocated to Istanbul, Turkey, where Honig’s father had been asked to help westernize the Turkish educational system.  Honig spent his last two years of high school at a German school in Istanbul, where he augmented the classical education he received in Germany with a math and science curriculum.  He went on to attend Robert College, an American college in Istanbul, from which he was graduated with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering.

In 1938, Honig moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Through a course in nuclear physics, he became interested in the nature of atoms, molecules and particularly isotopes, and eventually built his own mass spectrometer to study the effects of deuterium and cyclotron radiation on methane.  Because there was little activity in mass spectrometry at MIT at the time, Honig immersed himself in the literature and visited several commercial laboratories involved in mass spectrometry, notably John Hipple’s lab at Westinghouse Corporation and a commercial lab in New England that owned a Consolidated Engineering Company (CEC) mass spectrometer.  His thesis on the nature of gas flow in that mass spectrometer, which was written under the direction of Clark Goodman, an MIT geologist with good knowledge of nuclear physics, grew out of observations he made on the gas inlet system of the CEC instrument.  While still a student at MIT, Honig taught for a year at Bluffton College in Ohio and then, following the completion of his Ph.D., taught for several years at MIT.  He became a U.S. citizen in the early 1940’s.

In 1946, Honig accepted a position at Socony-Vacuum Labs in Paulsboro, New Jersey, where he was able to continue the pursuit of his interest in the study of small hydrocarbon molecules with mass spectrometry.  Honig joined the research staff at the Radio Corporation of America Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1950, where he remained for the rest of his long career.  His work began in Don North’s group, studying materials used in hot cathodes.  He designed and built a two-stage mass spectrometer, which led a few years later to the development of a secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS).  He spent a year during the mid-1950’s at the University of Brussels helping to start a  mass spectrometry laboratory with Jean Drowart.  He traveled extensively in Germany and England, observing the post-War recoveries of the two countries while participating in mass spectrometry conferences that were beginning to spring up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Honig’s career at RCA focused on materials characterization, particularly impurities in semiconductor materials, first with mass spectrometry and then later with a variety of surface analysis techniques when he became head of the newly formed Materials Characterization Research Group there in the mid-1960’s.  He reported coupling a laser to a mass spectrometer, demonstrating that the chemical nature of metal, semiconductor, and insulator surfaces could be probed by laser desorption followed by mass analysis.  He and his group built a number of mass spectrometers, including several within ultrahigh vacuum systems to facilitate surface analysis.  His long-time interest in cluster formation led to his measurement of elemental vapor pressures as a function of temperature and the evaluation of previously reported values for these quantities. The so-called vapor pressure curves he generated, initially hand-drawn in the days before computer-aided graphics, were first published in 1957 and updated in 1962 and 1969.  

Honig stepped down from his managerial position in 1982 and spent the next several years back in the laboratory helping to design and build a new mass spectrometer to study the organic materials on surfaces.  When RCA was purchased by General Electric in the mid-1980’s, the nature of research in the laboratories changed, and Honig elected to retire in 1987, just short of his seventieth birthday.

During the interview Honig describes some of his collaborations with colleagues and his papers, of which there are many.  He talks about the growth of mass spectrometry technology and its organizations, the American Society for Testing and Materials and the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, of which he was the second president.  He suggests that his work in the development of SIMS started in the “Stone Age” of mass spectrometry, where available electronics limited progress, and finished with the flowering of the technology which was made possible in part by the advent of solid-state devices.


1938 B.S.E.E. Robert College, Istanbul, Turkey
1939 M.S., Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1944 Ph.D., Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  Professional Experience

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

1939 - 1940

Lecturer, Physics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

1941 - 1946

Researcher, Radiation Laboratory

Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio

1940 - 1941

Lecturer, Mathematics & Physics

Socony-Vacuum Research Laboratories, Paulsboro, New Jersey

1946 - 1950

Researcher, Mass Spectrometry

RCA Laboratories, Princeton, New Jersey

1950 - 1966


RCA Laboratories, Princeton, New Jersey

1966 - 1982

Head, Materials Characterization Group

RCA Laboratories, Princeton, New Jersey

1982 - 1987

Staff Scientist

Brussels University, Brussels, Belgium

1955 - 1956

Visiting Researcher


1964 - 1968

Chairman of Subcommittee VII on Solids Studies of ASTM E-14 Committee on Mass Spectrometry

1968 - 1970

Vice President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry

1970 - 1972

President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry

1972 - 1974

Past President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry

Fellow, American Physical Society

Adjunct Research Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (while still at RCA Laboratories)


Awarded The Science Medal from the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels

Member, Böhmische Physical Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Born in Göttingen, Germany.  Family.  Father’s profession;  law professor.  Dismissal from the University by Nazi movement.  Moving to Istanbul.  High school classes and teachers.  Julius Stern.  Interest in physics and math.  Robert College.

Moving to United States of America and Graduate School 2

Moving to United States.  Entering graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Developing interest in mass spectrometry.  A year teaching at Bluffton College in Ohio.  Clark Goodman, geologist, thesis advisor.  Building accelerating potential mass spectrometer from whatever hardware he could find.  Visiting John Hipple’s lab at Westinghouse Electric Corporation.  PhD in physics.

Socony-Vacuum Labs and Life in America 13

Part-time job at Socony-Vacuum Labs (later Mobil), while teaching at MIT.  Experiences as a resident alien.  Learns much at Socony, but leaves after four years.  Colleagues and papers.

Working at the Radio Corporation of America Labs and Travel Abroad 17

Takes job at RCA Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey.  Studying hot cathodes in Don North’s group.  Excellent facilities at lab; “aboriginal” computer.  Building two-stage mass spectrometer; beginning of secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS).  Observation of carbon clusters.  Carbon vaporization value.  Spending a year at University of Brussels working with Jean Drowart.  Traveling in Germany and England.  Quadrupole mass spectrometer in Wolfgang Paul’s lab.

Lasers and Technological Changes in Mass Spectrometers 29

Contracts with United States Air Force.  Spark source mass spectrometry.  Gets interested in lasers coupled to mass spectrometers.  Moves into materials characterization.  Builds research group, calls them “fine” and “happy.”   Develops interest in vapor pressure of the elements; revises, constructs and draws curves without use of computer.  Designs ultrahigh vacuum system with built-in mass spectrometer.  Moving into semiconductor characterization.

Last Years at RCA and Retirement 41

RCA sold to GE.  RCA Labs now redundant; handed over to SRI International; becomes completely different place.  Retirement at age 70, as his lab is winding down.  American Society for Testing and Materials.  Second president of American Society for Mass Spectrometry.  Living through “Stone Age” of mass spectrometry; history of SIMS.  Solid state devices important technology.

Bibliography 52

Index 58

  About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his B.S. degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his M.S. in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.

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