National Academies Press: OpenBook

Memorial Tributes: Volume 1 (1979)

Chapter: Richard William Roberts

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Suggested Citation:"Richard William Roberts." National Academy of Engineering. 1979. Memorial Tributes: Volume 1. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/578.
Page 239
Suggested Citation:"Richard William Roberts." National Academy of Engineering. 1979. Memorial Tributes: Volume 1. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/578.
Page 240
Suggested Citation:"Richard William Roberts." National Academy of Engineering. 1979. Memorial Tributes: Volume 1. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/578.
Page 241
Suggested Citation:"Richard William Roberts." National Academy of Engineering. 1979. Memorial Tributes: Volume 1. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/578.
Page 242

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RICHARD WILLIAM ROBERTS 1935-1978 BY ARTHUR M. BUECHE R ICHARD W. ROBERTS, Staff Executive of the General Electric Company, died suddenly at his home in Wilton, Connecticut, on January 17, 1978. Dr. Roberts had gained a reputation as an outstanding administrator of research and development, both in private industry and the Federal Government. At the time of his death, he was carrying out a comprehensive study of technology in the General Electric Company. Dr. Roberts was born on January 12, 1935, in Buffalo, New York. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry, with distinc- tion, from the University of Rochester in 1956 and his doctorate in physical chemistry from Brown University in 1959, with a thesis on the scattering of atomic and molecular beams. He served as a National Academy of Sciences Postdoctora] Fellow at the Bureau of Standards in 1959-60 and then joined the staff of the Genera] Electric Research Laboratory (now the GE Research and Development Center) as a physical chemist. His initial work was in chemical kinetics and surface chemistry. He quickly also became an internationally recognized authority in ultrahigh- vacuum science and technology and on the properties of atomically clean metals. Among his outstanding research achievements was his discovery of iodine-based lubricants for difficult-to-lubricate metals. His high-vacuum research indicated that thin film compounds of iodine and metal would significantly reduce friction. He and 239

Robert S. Owens went on to show that iodine dissolved in certain organic liquids performed far better than any other known lubri- cant in rotating equipment and metalworking applications involv- ing titanium, stainless steels, and superalloys. In 1965, Dr. Roberts received the first of several successive management positions at the General Electric Research and De- velopment Center. Within three years, he had become Research and Development Manager of Materials Science and Engineering, directing the efforts of 250 scientists and engineers. "Dick Roberts' achievements as a manager," a close associate has written, "grew out of his ability to motivate People." Another has r - - r noted, "He never started a conversation by telling me what he was doing; he always told me, with understandable pride, what his people were doing." Among his people's achievements during his five years' tenure were the first laboratory production of gem quality diamonds; unique cutting tools for machining space-age materials; new polymers and composites; a wide variety of medical diagnostic devices; and (anticipating the emergence of the energy crisis) the launching of major programs in coal gasification, improved turbine efficiency, and energy storage. In February 1973, Dr. Roberts was named Director of the National Bureau of Standards. He led that organization through a challenging period, when in addition to maintaining its outstand- ing programs in the physical sciences, product testing, and en- vironmental areas, the Bureau also underwent a fivefold increase in its energy-related work. In June 1975 he accepted the challenging assignment of Assis- tant Administrator for Nuclear Energy in the newly created Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). His respon- sibilities ranged over such areas as technical work on civilian nuclear reactors, research and development on the proposed breeder reactor, and application of nuclear propulsion to naval 1' uses. In this job he displayed extraordinary talent for communicat- ing with people on all levels, and he earned the respect of long- established leaders in the nation's nuclear programs. In 1977 he accepted a position on the Corporate Staft of General . , , . Hi, 240

Electric, with the special assignment of directing a comprehensive Corporate Technology Study, aimed at formulating policies for the management, generation, and use of technology. Dr. Roberts was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1977. He was a 1975 recipient of the Arthur S. Fleming Award as one of the ten outstanding young men in the Federal Govern- ment, and he was a 1965 winner of an "I-R 100" Award from Industrial Research magazine for his work on iodine lubricants. He was a member of numerous scientific and honorary societies, including Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. His scientific and techni- cal work resulted in over 70 papers and 3 U.S. patents. He was coauthor with Thomas A. Vanderslice of the book Ultrahigh Vac- uum and its Applications (19631. He became an effective spokesman on technology policy, presenting his views in more than forty general addresses and papers. Dick Roberts' rapid ascent into important positions of business and government responsibility evidenced his drive, toughness, and productivity. But these qualities were tempered by realism about what people and technologies could accomplish, graceful cordial- ity, and empathy with others. "He was attuned to the feelings of others," a friend has said. "He could always come up with a note or notion that was personal and special, for secretaries and Nobel laureates alike." He further balanced his immersion in the pres- sures of Government and industrial bureaucracy by a love of nature, as expressed through camping in the Adirondack Moun- tains and through collecting a library of the history and tradition of that region. In all, Richard W Roberts possessed a rare combination of scientific talent, managerial ability, and personal qualities. The nation has few young leaders of his caliber, making his death all the more tragic. 241

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