Bettis Laboratory

It’s been three months since I’ve posted. The gap has been simple: I’m drafting new words at the moment, putting chapters down, and during this phase, no discards or leftovers pop up. Everything I deal with, I need, so nothing for this blog…

Well, now I’m sorting out data and items of interest do reveal themselves. Take this book, Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space by pioneering nuclear engineer John Simpson.

John Simpson book

The book is out of print, nearly thirty years old, and never mentioned, but it is a treasure trove of technical stuff but also historical and commercial insights. For example (p. 22):

In November 1949, Rickover wanted Westinghouse to transfer me to Bettis from the switchgear division at East Pittsburgh. But division manager John MacNeil objected and offered me a two-level promotion as an inducement to stay. I was uncertain about what to do. I knew Westinghouse had the nuclear submarine contract, but I also knew that major funding was required and that it was far from a sure thing. … That made my decision easy. Top management wanted me to go to Bettis and, when put that way, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Furthermore, the move obviously would be in my best interest from a career standpoint if, that was, if we were successful. So in December 1949, the transfer was made. At Bettis, my job was assistant engineering manager – a staff job, but approximately equivalent to the one I was offered at the switchgear division. The difference was that switchgear was mainline Westinghouse and one of the most profitable divisions. Bettis was a developmental gamble with uncertain funding. There was a strong effort by some in the Navy Department to kill the program, even after a successful operation of the prototype in the Idaho desert.

What is of interest to me is his comment that Westinghouse’s Bettis laboratory was a “gamble,” far riskier than the “switchgear department.” Bettis ended up as a revolutionary nuclear energy laboratory. What’s more, the Atomic Energy Commission funded its establishment! Viewed from 2022, the Bettis laboratory was obviously an easy business decision for the firm. But that’s completely wrong, it was a risky allocation of capital, a “gamble.” This is something I’d never have realized from recent historical commentaries, it needed to be recalled by an actual participant in history.