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Alfred O.C. Nier

Alfred O.C. Nier

Alfred O. C. Nier at the Control Panel of Minnesota 180 and 60 degrees mass spectrometers, 1938-1941; COPYRIGHTED:  University of Minnesota Archives

  • Born: May 28, 1911, St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Died: May 16, 1994

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0112
Interview Date: 7-10 April 1989
Location: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Interviewers: Michael A. Grayson and Thomas Krick
No. of pages: 356
Minutes: 658
Sponsor: American Society for Mass Spectrometry
American Society for Mass Spectrometry

  Abstract of Interview

Alfred O. C. Nier was born in Minnesota in 1911 to parents who had emigrated from Germany. After a brief dispute over his name, Nier was baptized Alfred instead of Hans, since his mother believed Hans sounded too German.  However, his two middle initials proved problematic during World War II when the government was researching publications by Alfred O. Nier and Alfred O. C. Nier for security clearances.  Consequently, the majority of Nier’s publications are without his second middle initial.

Having been interested in radios during high school, Nier decided to study electrical engineering when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1927.  When he graduated in 1931 he pursued engineering jobs; however, few firms were hiring due to the Depression.  Luckily, during his undergraduate career Nier had been involved in physics research with his mechanics professor Henry A. Erikson.  This physics experience led him to a research position and teaching assistantship with University of Minnesota professor Henry Hartig.  Nier earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering, though most of his research experience was in physics; he began his doctoral research at a time when quantum mechanics and x-rays were burgeoning fields of study.  After much deliberation Nier chose to work with John Tate, head of the physics department and editor of the Physical Review.  Subsequently, Tate assigned Nier to work on mass spectrometry. In the mid-1930s Nier built his first mass spectrometer and quickly obtained the first spectrum of benzene, though he never published it.  Instead his first publication was in Review of Scientific Instruments in 1935 on feedback control for magnets.

Nier spent the majority of his doctoral research obtaining a precise understanding of how mass spectrometers worked and how he could improve the instruments to enhance his isotopic abundance studies.  It was in the area of isotopic abundance where Nier encountered his scientific hurdle: a nuclear physics controversy over the mass abundance of potassium-40.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1936, Nier was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship. He elected to work with Kenneth T. Bainbridge at Harvard University. After working for General Electric over the summer, Nier began his work on 180° mass spectrometers in the fall.  Fortunately, Bainbridge, who had excellent funding despite the Depression, had been able to build a large electromagnet over the summer.  By December Nier completed a mercury spectrum and, through stabilizing the power supply and maximizing the accelerating potential, was on his way to establishing more precise isotopic abundances than the ones F. W. Aston produced in 1915.   While at Harvard, Nier was introduced to geochronology and geochemistry through studying the atomic weight of common lead and uranium-lead.

Nier returned to the University of Minnesota after completing his postdoctoral research in 1938 instead of staying on as an instructor at Harvard or becoming a researcher at Westinghouse.   Despite teaching a heavy course load Nier was able to begin building a magnet for his mass spectrometer and a thermal diffusion column to provide carbon-13 for stable isotope tracer studies.  However, he had a diverse range of projects to complete on his 180° mass spectrometer with the help of students and his machinist R. B. Thorness.

In the fall of 1939 Nier became involved in work related to uranium-235 and UF6/UBr4 (Nier refers to UF6 in the interview but references UBr4 in some publications).  Nier, with E.T. Booth, J.R. Dunning, and A.V. Grosse, demonstrated conclusively via mass spectrometry that uranium-235 was the isotope that underwent slow neutron fission.  As his research group at Minnesota was the only one capable of analyzing uranium he was ordered to begin separating uranium-235 on his 180° mass spectrometer.  After Pearl Harbor and the official entry of the United States into World War II, Nier and his research team worked under the command of Harold C. Urey as part of the Manhattan Project. Nier’s mass spectrometry expertise would prove invaluable to the war effort; Nier initially built four instruments for isotope analyses and ten instruments specifically for hydrogen-deuterium analyses.  Nier taught many how to use and build these machines and allowed General Electric to produce his mass spectrometers.  One such instrument that GE built was the Nier designed leak detector for the K-25 diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Nier worked with the Kellex Corporation to support gaseous diffusion processes to make line recorders, which were mass spectrometers monitoring the process stream. 

After World War II, Nier returned to the University of Minnesota where he remained as a professor.  Nier’s post-war mass spectrometry research touched on many areas including electrical detection, atmospheric studies and mass spectrometers for rockets, geochemistry, and precise masses.  Nier participated in the upper atmosphere Aerobee flights throughout the 1960s, the Viking Project in the 1970s, and the Pioneer Venus project.  During this atmospheric work Nier became friends and a collaborator with Klaus Biemann. 

Throughout his oral history Nier discusses his many publications, the instrument details of many mass spectrometers, his awards, and his interesting career.  Nier explained that his short attention span and unique education in physics and electrical engineering allowed him to capitalize on the new field of mass spectrometry when the country needed his expertise most.



1931 B.S.E.E., Electrical Engineering, University of Minnesota
1933 M.S.E.E., Electrical Engineering, University of Minnesota
1936 Ph.D., Physics, University of Minnesota

  Professional Experience

Harvard University

1936 - 1938

Post-Doctoral Fellow

University of Minnesota

1938 - 1940

Assistant Professor of Physics

University of Minnesota

1940 - 1944

Associate Professor of Physics

University of Minnesota

1944 - 1966

Professor of Physics

University of Minnesota

1953 - 1965

Chair, Physics Department

University of Minnesota

1966 - 1980

Regents Professor of Physics

University of Minnesota

1980 - 1994

Regents Professor of Physics, Emeritus



Elected to National Academy of Sciences


Elected to American Philosophical Society


Arthur L. Day Medal, Geological Society of America


Elected as Foreign Scientific Member of the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry


Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Award

1965 - 1966

National Lecturer, Sigma Xi


Atomic Energy Commission Award for Contributions to Development and Use of Atomic Energy


NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement


Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Elected to Royal Swedish Academy of Science


Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Minnesota


Distinguished Service Award, University of Minnesota Chapter, Sigma Xi


Elected to Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame


Victor Goldschmidt Medal of the Geochemistry Society


Field and Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, American Chemical Society


Thomson Medal, International Mass Spectrometry Conference, Swansea, Wales


William Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Life and College Years 1

Family background.  Growing up in Minnesota.  Early interests in science, radio, shop, and drawing.  Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Difficulty finding a job.  Master’s degree and assistantship in physics.  Teaching background in instrumentation.

Graduate Years 9

Emergence of quantum mechanics, electron impact studies, and x-rays.  Influence of Walter Bleakney, P. T. Smith, and Wally Lozier.  Choosing John Tate, chair of University of Minnesota Physics Department as a research advisor.  Introduction to mass spectrometers. Building his first instrument. Benzene spectrum.  Isotope ratios of argon and potassium.  Understanding and creating experimental techniques for new instruments. Earned PhD in 1936.

Postdoctoral Years 39

Summer position with General Electric. National Research Council Fellowship.  Choosing Kenneth T. Bainbridge at Harvard University.  Building 180-degree instrument.  Obtaining mercury spectrum in December 1936.  Introduction to geochronology and Alfred Lane.  Interests in geochronology.  Relative abundance of lead isotopes.

Uranium Isotope Work and Pre-war Years at University of Minnesota 61

Two uranium series. Obtaining UF6/UBr4.  Isotopic abundances.  Reasons for returning to the University of Minnesota.  Teaching. Building 180-degree instruments.  Isotope separation work.  Carbon-13.  Meeting Enrico Fermi.  Friendly competition with George Glockler.

Manhattan Project Uranium Work 79

Thermal diffusion studies.  E.T. Booth, J.R. Dunning, and A.V. Grosse.  Determining uranium-235 underwent slow neutron fission.  Development of 60-degree instruments.  Lighter, smaller instrumentation.  R. B. Thorness.  Building instruments for other researchers.  Contract to separate uranium-235 on 180-degree instrument.  Harold C. Urey.  Instruments for hydrogen-deuterium analysis.  Building leak detectors for gaseous diffusion plants in Oak Ridge.

Manhattan Project and Kellex Corporation 105

New York City.   Managing engineering problems through mass spectrometry.  Line recorder instrumentation to monitor process stream.  Working with General Electric, Union Carbide, and DuPont. Returning to University of Minnesota after the War.

Post-war Years 124

Starting research program at Minnesota.  Building instruments.  Nier-Johnson geometry for double-focusing instruments.  Carbon-12 standard and the Atomic Weight Commission. Germany.  Netherlands.  Potassium research. Publications and conferences. National Bureau of Standards meeting in 1951. 

Instrumentation 177

Leak detector.  Line recorder. Schematics.  Evolving instrumentation.  Miniaturized instruments.  Donations to the Smithsonian Institution.  Hoke and Kellex. Allocating resources. 

Atmospheric Studies and Meteorites 215

GCMS Probe for Titan Mission.  Gaseous studies in the deep ocean.  Mattauch-Herzog geometry versus Nier-Johnson geometry.  Atmospheric Explorer satellites.  Viking Mission entering atmosphere on 20 July 1976.  Beginning meteorite work in the 1950s with helium-3 and argon-40 studies.  Collaborations with Peter Signer.  Aerobee Flights in the 1960s. Viking Entry Science Team. Klaus Biemann.

Geochemistry and History of Mass Spectrometry 240

Collaboration with Samuel S. Goldich in the 1950s.  Don Brownlee.  Helium-3 and helium-4 ratios.  Active for almost sixty years.  Walter Bleakney.  More on the 1951 National Bureau of Standards meeting.  American Society for Mass Spectrometry. 

Publishing, Honors, and General Reflections 251

Discussing specific publications.  Work with Thorness.  Election to National Academy of Sciences.  Sigma Xi Lecturer.  Lead isotope research. Leak detectors.  Travelling. Hiking.  Evolution of mass spectrometry.  Transistors.  Basic science.  Writing grants.  Short attention span and diverse research. Rapid scientific changes.

Figures 279

Index 335

  About the Interviewers

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.

Thomas Krick

Brief biography for Thomas Krick currently unavailable.

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