Humble Oil Lecture Series

Chemists initially had a difficult time seeing the value of mass spectrometry to their standard, everyday work. Though mass spectrometers had proven very useful during World War II, when doing everything faster became a top scientific priority, the investment in such devices for regular laboratory research seemed unnecessary; the fact that engineers were needed to run and maintain the complicated machinery only compounded scientists’ skepticism. But there were some scientists, impressed by what they saw during the war, who perceived the potential in spectrometry and pursued its development starting in the late 1940s. A community of mass spectrometrists at Humble Oil and Refining Company in Baytown, Texas, focused on the basic science surrounding mass spectrometry and contributed to the formation of a new field of chemical inquiry. Although, at first, they were an insular-seeming group engaged in their research, they ultimately became a significant nexus in the larger community of scientists pursuing mass spectrometry.

Installation of the first Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) Mass Spectrometer 9 (MS 9)  at the Humble Oil and Refining Company, Fall 1963. From the left: Earl Lumpkin (Humble), Nigel Bean (AEI), Joe Daniels (Humble), Peter Dammers (AEI). CHF Collections.

Humble was one of the earliest petroleum companies to be interested in the possibilities of analysis and separation offered by mass spectrometry. Listed as one of Standard Oil of New Jersey’s “principal affiliates” in the United States, Humble enjoyed a “special” relationship with Standard Oil, in the words of Bennett H. Wall, author of Growth in a Changing Environment. Until 1959 Humble was often left to its own devices, free of Standard Oil corporate control. Joe L. Franklin ran the mass-spectrometry group at Humble; key people also included Frank H. Field, Burnaby Munson, and Earl Lumpkin. From the outset Franklin and his group set out to answer a number of questions for Humble and Standard Oil—like what could be done with this relatively new instrument, how it worked, and how it could be improved—reaching to the heart of so-called basic research in mass spectrometry and gaseous-ion chemistry.

At Humble the research in Franklin’s group could be divided into basic and analytical, with the analytical side undertaking research that directly applied and related to the day-to-day function of Humble’s petroleum-refinery needs. Though industry historically had proven hostile or at best uncertain regarding basic research, this attitude was certainly not the case at Humble. Lumpkin recalled that

Franklin was respected and didn’t have any trouble [from Humble] with the program. Actually, higher-up administrative people realized the value of scientific research. They wouldn’t have bought a mass spectrometer in the first place if they hadn’t realized that we’d come out ahead. (19)

While companies and researchers hoped that their basic research would prove scientifically interesting and provide the company long-term dividends, there was often no way to know early on whether that would be the case. When Burnaby Munson was asked if his mass-spectrometry research had practical applications for the analysis and separation of petroleum hydrocarbons Humble and other petroleum companies required, he replied, “This was just an experiment to see what was going on” (21). Munson, Field, and others in Joe Franklin’s group were simply focused on understanding the basic chemistry of mass spectrometry.

In his oral history Munson explained how the research at Humble fit into the “continuous spectrum of scientific activity,” which ranged from 100 percent applied research to 100 percent basic research with as yet no foreseeable practicality:

A lot of the research in the research center was associated with projects in the refinery, obviously. But at that time Humble, and I suspect most companies, were doing different kinds of research. I didn’t know anything about it when I went there, but Joe [L.] Franklin and a small group were doing really basic research in ion chemistry. The other projects were what we called long-range research, in which there was no immediate goal. And then there were projects that were basically associated with things that were happening: “We need something, an answer right now.” And I think that the policy was generally that when somebody came in with a Ph.D., you would put them in a long-range project, and then get them to convert to doing something for the immediate benefit of the company. (12)

Humble—and Joe Franklin—clearly recognized the importance of both types of research. Field believed that any push toward basic research and academic themes was a result of Franklin’s doing. Joe “pushed and pushed and pushed for the petroleum industry to become—or for the Humble Oil and Refining Company—to be more interested in basic research and in academic concepts” (21).

            One of the unique aspects of the Humble mass-spectrometry group that helped them form bonds with each other, broaden their scientific views beyond the confines of mass spectrometry, and become distinct within the growing community of mass spectrometry was the group’s devotion to learning and basic chemical research. Lumpkin explained the difference between the Humble group and other similar groups within the petroleum industry:

I think an important thing about Humble was that they had a program for personal development, called the Humble Lectures in Science Series. It was one of Joe Franklin’s ideas. Every year or so he would set up a series of courses. He would contact people from all over the world who were the tops of their fields to teach graduate courses that Humble’s technical people could sign up for. Instead of lasting an entire semester, the courses were condensed into two or three weeks of intensive work at the graduate level. While employees took these courses, they were relieved of all other duties. (16)

The Lecture Series was, in the simplest of terms, “continuing education,” and these graduate-level seminar courses were taught by some of the most illustrious chemists in the country and abroad, required textbooks, and even had exams with grades. Guest lecturers were often from academia and were usually some of the brightest minds in the field. They included Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and Ilya Prigogine, as well as other well-known chemists like Henry Eyring, Christopher K. Ingold, and Michael J. S. Dewar. As Lumpkin noted and Munson emphasized in his oral history, “These were two weeks. And you weren’t doing anything else. You were doing that all day” (14). The lectures introduced Humble chemists to cutting-edge topics from all areas of chemistry. And they did so in intimate settings: small classes, lunches, and dinners. Lumpkin claimed, “About half of my technical library is made up with books from those courses” (18).

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