Vincent Schaefer - Professional Career - General Electric

General Electric

In 1922, Schaefer's parents asked him to leave high school and go to work to supplement the family income. On the advice of his maternal uncles, Schaefer joined a four-year apprentice machinist course at General Electric. During the second year of his apprenticeship, Schaefer was granted a one-month leave to accompany Dr. Arthur C. Parker, New York State Archaeologist, on an expedition to central New York. As Schaefer was concluding the apprentice course in 1926 he was assigned to work at the machine shop at the General Electric Research Laboratory, where he worked for a year as a journeyman toolmaker.

Somewhat discouraged by the work of a toolmaker, Schaefer sought to satisfy a desire to work outdoors and to travel by joining, initially through a correspondence course, the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery in Kent, Ohio, in 1927. After a brief period working in Michigan, Schaefer asked to be transferred back to the Schenectady area and for a while worked as an independent landscape gardener. Upon the advice of Robert Palmer, Superintendent of the GE Research Laboratory, in 1929 Schaefer declined an opportunity to enter into a partnership for a plant nursery and instead rejoined the machine shop at the Research Laboratory, this time as a model maker.

At the Research Laboratory machine shop, Schaefer built equipment for Langmuir and his research associate, Katharine B. Blodgett. In 1932 Langmuir asked Schaefer to become his research assistant. Schaefer accepted and in 1933 began his research work with Langmuir, Blodgett, Whitney, and others at the Research Lab and throughout the General Electric organization. With Langmuir, Blodgett and others as well as by himself, Schaefer published many reports on the areas he studied, which included surface chemistry techniques, electron microscope techniques, polarization, the affinity of ice for various surfaces, protein and other monolayers, studies of protein films, television tube brightness, and submicroscopic particulates. After his promotion to research associate in 1938, Schaefer continued to work closely with Langmuir on the many projects Langmuir obtained through his involvement on national advisory committees, particularly related to military matters in the years immediately before and during the Second World War. This work included research on gas mask filtration of smokes, submarine detection with binaural sound, and the formation of artificial fogs using smoke generators—a project which reached fruition at Vrooman's Nose in the Schoharie Valley with a demonstration for military observers.

During his years as Langmuir's assistant, Langmuir allowed and encouraged Schaefer to carry on his own research projects. As an example of this, in 1940 Schaefer became known in his own right for the development of a method to make replicas of individual snowflakes using a thin plastic coating. This discovery brought him national publicity in popular magazines and an abundance of correspondence from individuals, including many students, seeking to replicate his procedure.

In 1943, the focus of Schaefer's and Langmuir's research shifted to precipitation static, aircraft icing, ice nuclei, and cloud physics, and many of their experiments were carried out at Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire. In the summer of 1946 Schaefer found his experimental "cold box" too warm for some laboratory tests he wanted to perform. Determined to get on with his work, he located some "dry ice" (solid Co2) and placed it into the bottom of the "cold box." Creating a cloud with his breath he observed a sudden and heretofore unseen bluish haze that suddenly turned into millions of microscopic ice crystals that dazzled him in the strobe lit chamber. He had stumbled onto the very principle that was hidden in all previous experiments—the stimulating effect of a sudden change in heat/cold, humidity, in supercooled water spontaneously producing billions of ice nuclei. Through scores of repeated experiments he quickly developed a method to "seed" supercooled clouds with dry ice. In November 1946 he conducted a successful field test seeding a natural cloud by airplane—with dramatic ice and snow effect. The resulting publicity brought an abundance of new correspondence, this time from people and businesses making requests for snow and water as well as scientists around the world also working on weather modification to change local weather conditions for the better. Schaefer's discovery also led to debates over the appropriateness of tampering with nature through cloud seeding. In addition, the successful field test enabled Langmuir to obtain federal funding to support additional research in cloud seeding and weather modification by the GE Research Laboratory. Schaefer was coordinator of the laboratory portion of Project Cirrus while the Air Force and Navy supplied the aircraft and pilots to carry out field tests and to collect the data used at the Research Laboratory. Field tests were conducted in the Schenectady area as well as in Puerto Rico and New Mexico.

When the military pilots working on Project Cirrus were assigned to duties in connection with the Korean War, GE recommended that Project Cirrus be discontinued after comprehensive reports were prepared of the project and the discoveries made. The final Project Cirrus report was issued in March 1953.

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