P. Thomas Carroll
P. Thomas Carroll
P. Thomas Carroll
Cultural Historian of American Science and Technology
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
December 15, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Thursday, December 15th, 2022. It is great to be here with Dr. P. Thomas Carroll. Tom, it is great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
P. THOMAS CARROLL: Thank you, David. Happy to be here. Rather, flattered and honored to be here.
ZIERLER: Oh, that's great. Tom, first things first. You go by your middle name, I take it. What is your first name, and why do you go by Tom?
CARROLL: Oh, well! How many hours have you got?
CARROLL: I'll tell you the brief version. My real full name is Philip Thomas Carroll IV. Obviously, my family didn't have much imagination when it came to names. There have been four Philip Carrolls in a row. When I was born in 1949, my father's name was Philip T. Carroll III, and my mother's name was Marcella Pierre Carroll. Their first child was a girl, and they named her Marcy after my mother. About two years later, they had a second child, and she was another girl, and they named her Phylis after my father. Seven years later, to the day—I have the same birthday as Phylis—I was born in 1949, when my mother was 39 years old, so I was a big surprise. They didn't expect me. When I turned out to be a boy, of course my father wanted me to be Philip Thomas Carroll IV, after him. My mother put her foot down and said, "This is crazy. We already have a Philip and a Phylis in the house. We've had three Philips in a row. We're not going to have another Phil or Junior or something in the house and confuse everything and make us look really boring." My father was upset about that. They compromised, so my birth certificate says I'm Philip T. Carroll Jr., but from birth, I've been called Tom—Tommy, actually, as a little kid, of course, which was my mother's idea. That sort of worked. I preferred being a Tom. I don't know quite why, but I just enjoyed it. It made me think of myself as unique more than I probably would have been if I was Philip IV.
But it has been a complication in several ways. One was that my sister Phylis never forgave me. She said I stole her name, I stole her birthday, I stole our mother's affections, because I obviously became my mother's favorite and Phylis had been her favorite before that. And, I got the blonde hair and the blue eyes—I was a towhead as a kid—and she didn't. She was of course the girl, and she was the one who, she claimed, had to be pretty and attract a guy. I've pointed out to Phylis for over 70 years now that I had nothing to do with any of that, but she still [laughs] holds it against me. The other thing is, if you know anything about computer systems and record-keeping and so on, being a P. Thomas and using your middle name is a disaster. [laughs] On my Amazon account, for example, they wouldn't let me use P. Thomas as my first name, so I had to be P. for my first name and Thomas for my middle name, which means every time I log on to my account, it says, "Hello, P." [laughs] That kind of thing happens all the time.
The real disaster happened when my wife retired in 2018, because all that time before that, I had been P. Thomas Carroll. It worked fine for my adult career. All of a sudden, when Social Security kicked in and we went on Medicare, Social Security said I had to use what was on my birth certificate and my Social Security card, which is Philip T. Carroll, Jr. So all of a sudden, all of my medical records and everything had to be cut over to Philip T., Jr. Just around that time, I had had major surgery, and I had to go back to the emergency room at Albany Med the following week for a minor adjustment, and they had two entries for me in their computer system, so they put a P. Thomas Carroll wristband on one wrist, and a Philip T. Carroll Jr. wristband on the other wrist, before they would admit me [laughs] to the emergency room. So, it has not been the greatest thing in the world, but I enjoyed being a Tom. And, as you probably found out by now, I'm one of only two P. Thomas Carrolls I know of that comes up in the United States in a Google search, if you put me in double quotes, which gets rid of all the other Thomas Carrolls. I'm the only one in the author database for the Library of Congress, so that makes me more easily searchable.
ZIERLER: Tom, on a more official level, what is your title and institutional affiliation?
CARROLL: Right now, my title is retired. Boy, I've gone through several different titles. My last one, before I retired at the end of 2019, was Senior Scholar of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, which is the official name of the penniless, starving, not-for-profit heritage organization I swan-dived into when I left the academic world. Before that, I was the executive director. I had the board bump me upstairs to this sort of honorific title in 2013. I was also the executive director simultaneously of the Hudson Mohawk Urban Cultural Park Commission, more popularly known as RiverSpark, which was the first state heritage area in the State of New York, and I ran that as well as the Gateway for, I don't remember, a couple decades. Before that, when I was an academic, I was a history professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, starting out as actually an instructor, until I got my PhD two years after I got there. Then I was assistant professor, and then associate professor, of history, at RPI. I had been a Mellon Fellow at the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. I had been an Exxon Research Fellow at the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT for a year in the mid 1980s, and a couple of other things.
ZIERLER: In retirement, what kinds of scholarship are you pursuing now?
CARROLL: [laughs] Well, not a whole lot, yet [laughs], because there's 25 years of deferred maintenance on our house, during the time that my wife and I both worked 80-hour weeks and didn't have time to do anything on the house. We're trying to fix that up and move to Tucson, Arizona, where my newfound half-brother lives. But I'm just starting back in on catching back up with some old things that I left hanging when I left the academic world, and adding some new stuff. As I told you in some of the handouts I gave you, it took me a long time to figure out what it was that I wanted to do [laughs] with my career as a historian [laughs]. I sort of stumbled around, but over time it became increasingly clear to me that the primary focus I have is science, technology, class, and community. I think that derives mostly from my having been a townie from Princeton, New Jersey, fifth generation. I thought it was fourth, but I've learned my great, great grandfather and his wife came over from Ireland, and I didn't know that. A townie in Princeton is supposed to have an IQ of 50 and drag his knuckles on the ground [laughs]. I've never really stopped identifying with the street people in Princeton, who I can assure you were not highly regarded [laughs] on the Princeton campus. It's a very snooty campus; I could tell you some stories about that.
As I began to study how science, technology, and society interacted, I became increasingly concerned with the ways that science and technology can greatly exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have-nots, how it can obviously disrupt employment patterns, and so on. And, there have been of course major cultural shifts. Probably the biggest one historically in the United States, not counting the one we're going through right now, is the shift from a rural, agrarian way of life to an urban industrial way of life in the late 1800s. You have background in history, so you know a bit about that. Probably the single article I'm happiest about of all my publications focuses directly on that. We are now going through quite a similar one, where we're going from an urban industrial and mostly nation-state or continental-based political economy to a global political economy. Everybody knows about globalism and so on. It's similarly disruptive as we go through those cultural transformations. Basically, the crucial element here is the ways in which human beings are interconnected and interdependent. That obviously has to do a lot with technological systems of communication and transportation. Once we developed digital electronic global communications, and banking, that has changed the way we are interconnected in terms of communication.
Of course, containerized shipping, which got started really in earnest in the 1950s, and now, as we all know, from supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, is critical for the shipping of things all around the world and our dependence on people all around the world for each other and material goods—I really want to do something about that more centrally now, and I've been working almost 20 years, off and on, on a book that I tentatively entitled Leaving Kansas, which is based on the quip by Dorothy to Toto in The Wizard of Oz—"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto." It's not going to be scholarly. I'm not going to have it with lots of footnotes and so on. It's not going to be a monograph for the scholarly community. I want it to be a more popular book that talks about how people can understand the ways in which they can transition from being part of an urban industrial society, say, in a manufacturing city in Ohio, and adapt themselves to the new global economy. Often when those transformations happen, the people who get left behind, like the ones who are very disgruntled right now in the United States about the way the world has been going, end up doing a lot of scapegoating and so on.
There's a wonderful article by a late medieval historian named Lynn White, jr., about the witch-hunts between the 1300s and the 1600s in Europe and in the colonies here in Salem, Massachusetts, and how people scapegoated witches, as they depicted women, as the sinister external forces who disrupted their way of life, and disrupted all the order and normalcy in their lives and made it impossible for them to live. All they could see was things falling apart, the society collapsing. They could not see a new sociocultural, economic system taking the place of the old one, into which they had to fit if they wanted to survive. Because of the various and sundry angles of my career, I really sort of got a handle on that. I've taught it, in little bits and pieces, in my career, as an instructor, and I want to turn that into a popular book. My wife doesn't like the title Leaving Kanas, so I may have to come up with a new title.
CARROLL: But that's the basic thesis. I did a book as a graduate student on the history of American chemistry, which was very quantitative based on the Science Indicators movement at the National Science Foundation. As a spinoff from that, in my doctoral dissertation, I have been working for years, and have it pretty polished but never published, on an analysis of the shift in the career assumptions that people with PhDs in chemistry and chemical engineering have. There was a time, long ago now, when if you were going to become a researcher and do real cutting-edge work in a chemical field, you would identify a lifelong series of investigations that you could personally investigate, and you would do that. T.W. Richards, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for example, devoted his whole life to atomic weight determinations. But long about World War I, the Great War as they called it then, for a variety of reasons, people started switching, and instead of thinking of themselves as sort of lone-wolf researchers on a lifelong course of investigations about something or another, they started thinking of themselves as members of a team, working on a project, and when that project finished, they would then change and adopt some other project, and move on to something else. This started with the research schools, like Liebig at Giessen in Germany in the mid 1800s, but it caught fire in the United States around the time of World War I, when everybody started working on poison gases and so on, as part of the war effort, and other things, and then the craze for corporations to put together corporate R&D labs in the 1920s, when all of a sudden the in-thing to do was to be part of somebody's research group.
The schools that produced the most PhDs in chemistry and chemical engineering, first Johns Hopkins, then Columbia, Harvard, University of Illinois, et cetera, started building new chemistry laboratories, and some of them redesigned their chem labs so that a whole wing of the chem lab would be part of so-and-so's group. Professor So-and-so would have their research team in that space. They actually redesigned the buildings to imply to everybody that this was a new way you should pursue your career. I have been trying to document that for decades, never quite finishing it. What I have been using as evidence that in fact people shifted is to look at the entries of PhD chemists and chemical engineers in American Men of Science; or American Men & Women of Science, later in subsequent editions. For the traditional people like Richards, they all had to declare what their research interests were at the end of their entry. Richards would say, over and over again, "atomic weight determinations," and that's all he would have. But if you looked at somebody from the University of Illinois, which pioneered in this research team thing, they would start with two or three subjects when they were just out of grad school, and the next edition they'd have maybe three or four subjects, and they had dropped one and added one or two more. That would continue on through their career, and they'd end up with three or four or five at any given time, and they would evolve over time in their careers, as their team went on to different projects. There were also imperialists, like Linus Pauling, who never let go of anything, so he started with one or two subjects, and by the time he retired, there were like 20. [laughs] He just grew and grew and grew. So, there were different variants of careers, but the basic career paths shifted from solo lifelong investigations of one's subject to team-based project-oriented subject research. I've got that semi-documented, and if I live long enough—it's probably going to take me another ten years—I really want to publish that. I've done a little bit of that already in public. Bill Leslie [official name Stuart W. Leslie], who is at Johns Hopkins, and I have both done things on the design of laboratories on college campuses, and he and I did a joint paper at the Society of Architectural Historians' annual meeting about 10 or 15 years ago on this very subject. But I've never published it, and I really want to do that.
Long ago, on the side, I did a history of the origins of the Industrial Research Institute, which I've got pretty much in the can but never published. It turns out the IRI was a spinoff of a committee in the National Academy of Engineering. The public story was that industrial research was growing so fast that they decided to go off on their own and leave the NAS or the NAE, et cetera. But I went and looked in the archives, and if you know anything about Vannevar Bush, who was the sort of mastermind behind science policy during World War II, et cetera—an extremely canny fellow, mostly connected with MIT—Bush was behind the scenes at the National Academy of Engineering, finagling to move them all out of the National Academy of Engineering because he thought they were all too applied and not interested in the kind of work that they wanted to do. It's a very, very interesting example of the politics of science and technology policy between the two World Wars. I really want to publish that someday.
There's lots of little things; a little Darwin thing here and there. The other thing is, Henry Burden, here in Troy, was an immigrant from Scotland. He became extremely successful, the first person in the world to make railroad spikes by machine, the first person in the world to make horseshoes by machine. He provided 90% of all the horseshoes for the Union Army during the Civil War. He became fabulously wealthy, and his descendants have intermarried with the Vanderbilts, the Biddles, the Auchinclosses, the Fricks. It goes on and on and on and on and on. I know quite a bit about that story now, and I know a lot of members of the family, and it's an untold story which is a perfect window into a sort of typical American saga. A guy comes as an immigrant, makes good, makes money, family heads off in all directions, et cetera. They have done all kinds of very prominent things. A few members of the family have really been egging me on to write a Burden saga book, where I tell the story not just of Henry as an entrepreneur and an inventor and all that, but the story of the family coming to America and playing out the standard story of success in an American family. I might do that, I might not; it depends on how much time I've got.
And now that I suddenly have a brother, who I didn't know I had—a half-brother, actually—I always thought I was the baby in the family, and the only son, [laughs] but my father had an affair when I was four months old back in 1949, and my newfound brother is the result. His mother was on the other side of town, in another townie family. Anyway, we've hit it off. We've really had a great time. So we're toying with a book that not only tells this amazing story of us discovering each other, but the story of our lives as townies. We're calling it Tiger Townies: Brotherhood, Identity, Achievement, and Status in an Ivy League Town. We're blocking that out right now. I think that one will probably be the best selling [laughs] book ever. My most cited thing ever in my entire career, oddly enough, is my first publication, which was a history of the Sergeant missile rocket power plant at JPL, which I did while I was an undergrad. [laughs] It has been cited all over the world. Anyway, that sort of tells you what my research interests are.
ZIERLER: Plenty to keep you busy in retirement, for sure!
CARROLL: I'd have to live to be about 120 to do all those things.
ZIERLER: More generally, between your educational training, the places you've worked, the kinds of things you've studied, what would you say is your home sub-discipline in history?
CARROLL: I consider myself an American cultural historian. I don't make any claims to be a historian of any other cultural system than in the United States, even though I had to learn some of that to pass my qualifying exams. Within that, I specialize in the history of American science and technology, particularly not the usual—traditionally, the history of science was an intellectual history of people, what we call—the people at Penn, that we all call ourselves contextualists—we call it the study of disembodied minds. You study Isaac Newton, and it didn't make any difference that Isaac Newton lived through the interregnum when they beheaded Charles I and put Charles II back on the throne again, and he created the Royal Society of London, in cahoots with Isaac Newton, and Newton was the chancellor of the Exchequer and so on. The traditional stories are Newton's sitting under a tree, and an apple falls on his head, and he writes The Principia, and it doesn't have anything to do with politics or religion or the economy that he's in or anything else. The place where I got my PhD, the Penn program, is well-known for being what is called contextualists, where you study all those kinds of things as well. You just heard me talk about them—the politics of creating the IRI. My senior thesis under Dan Kevles at Caltech was a history of the creation of the National Science Foundation as World War II drew to a close. Normally those kinds of things—institutional history, history of values in the larger culture and so on—wouldn't be studied at all.
My top mentor in the history of technology was Thomas Parke Hughes, and he studied technological systems a lot, the development of the automobile production and use system, and how much momentum you get behind that, and trying to undo that is very difficult. [laughs] Et cetera. All those kinds of things have profoundly affected the nature of American society, much more fundamentally than most people think. I hesitate to say this because it's so controversial, of course, but it makes us a little bit materialist. It says that the material conditions of our existence, which are modified and shaped, at least in part, by the scientific and engineering and technological enterprises, impose themselves powerfully on our values and our political systems, and so on and so forth. It makes us sound a little Marxist, although most of us aren't Marxist.
If you look at William Ogburn, the reasonably prominent sociologist from the early 20th century, he stressed the difference between what he called cultural lag and technological lag. That plays a role in all of this. Technological lag, a simple example—you've got automobiles, you're in Southern California in the L.A. Basin, and surprise, surprise, you get all this smog. [laughs] Nobody knew where it came from. Haagen-Smit at Caltech was sort of the key focal point for figuring out that it was the oxides of nitrogen from car exhaust. The technological lag was they didn't have any fix for it. They came up, of course, with the catalytic converter and cleaner-burning engines. You may still have smog there, but I can assure you it wasn't as bad [laughs] as the first week I was in Pasadena back in the fall of 1967, when it was so bad you couldn't see the San Gabriel Mountains at all from the campus. [laughs] It was nothing but brown. Cultural lag is the other way around, and that's what we've got in spades right now. You introduce something like the internet and social media of various sorts, and you don't have any laws to regulate how it's done; it's like the wild, wild west. Everybody moves into something. There's all this stuff around, and nobody knows how to regulate it, or the sheriff hasn't come to town yet. It's those kinds of things that are of primary interest to me. You get them all day long watching television, reading the paper.
ZIERLER: Let's go back and establish some family background. How many generations back does your family go in Princeton?
CARROLL: Five. I thought it was four up until very recently. That's because I originally was looking for what my family calls Philip I, to find out who my ancestor was, who I was named after. And actually, I'm not wearing it right now, but I wear the ring that he wore. All four Philip Carrolls have worn the Carroll family ring.
CARROLL: So, I really wanted to know about him, and I went to give a paper, a talk, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, years ago. While I was there, I stayed an extra several days so I could go to the Family History Center that the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, have there. It's their central place for doing family history. It's a big deal for them. They believe you can baptize people after they've died, so they want to know everybody who has ever lived so they can baptize them all. I went and found my great grandfather in the 1880 U.S. Census, working as a farmhand on somebody else's potato farm, appropriately enough for a 19-year-old Irish kid, right on the fringes of Princeton. I thought from then on that I was a fourth-generation townie, and that he had come over from Ireland with nothing but the shirt on his back, and got to work at a potato farm. I couldn't find any information about where he came from in Ireland, when he came over, et cetera. Well, then this guy popped up, Pepper Provenzano, and the analysis of his DNA showed that he was somehow connected to my niece in Rochester, New York. Even though he thought he was 100% Italian, it said he was only half Italian, and half Irish. He got ahold of my cousin Linda Carroll, and Linda, my niece, and I all started to connect with each other, and we tried to figure out where he came from, and who the "culprit" was, meaning his biological father. It turned out to be my biological father, Philip III. Took us almost a year. As a result of that, I got into the Ancestry database and started digging, and to my shock, I found out that in 1880, when Philip I was over on one side of Princeton, working on a potato farm, his parents were on the other side of Princeton, Anthony Carroll and Julia White, and they were the ones who came over from Ireland. Philip I was born in Ireland and came over with his brothers Michael and John as little babies, and then Anthony and Julia had four more children when they came to Princeton, and I had never heard of any of these people until Pepper came along. It turns out Anthony and Julia were my first ancestors on either side of my family who came to America, in 1852, on two separate ships. I know a bit now about where they came from and so on.
So, I'm a fifth-generation townie [laughs]. As of not too many years ago, none of us continues to be a resident in Princeton. For over four generations, most of us lived right in Princeton. Of course, Princeton is a very different place now than it was 25 years ago. [laughs] We've all moved out. I don't think any of us could afford to live in Princeton anymore [laughs]. Anyway, I've learned a lot more now, but when I grew up, in the 1950s and early 1960s, my family was plunked right on Nassau Street. My parents had bought a house which was sort of run-down, but right on the main street in Princeton. It was great. My father ran his own insurance business, and my mother helped out with that. He also got himself appointed the clerk of the county legislature in Trenton, and eventually the purchasing agent for the county and the personnel manager for the county courthouse. He held all three of those jobs, plus ran the insurance agency with my mom. We were raised Catholic. I went to Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school, first in Princeton and then in Trenton.
Probably one of the most significant things about my upbringing—first of all, of course, it was the Cold War, so if you were good in math and science, it was your patriotic duty to beat the Russians and become a rocket scientist, right? But in addition to that, a little coincidence was a very important thing in my life; I happened to have been born on Albert Einstein's 70th birthday, March 14th, 1949. Of course, this meant nothing [laughs], especially since my mom had a C-section and she had to choose between the 14th and the 17th of March, so she picked that date. But from as far back as I can remember, my mom thought this was a sign from God that I was going to be the next Einstein. [laughs] I loved science, and I was good in science and math. I was first in my class from kindergarten through high school. I was student council president. I got really good SAT scores and so on and so forth. So, I aspired to be the next Einstein. [laughs] I didn't know really better than that what I was going to do. I had a chemistry set, and I had a little electronics radio set. I read Popular Science every week. My freshman year in high school, we had a physical science teacher, and we all had to write a paper for it, and I wrote one on the origins of the universe based on the Big Bang, which [laughs] my high school teacher—this was the Fall of 1963—went bananas over. I had read about George Gamow, the Big Bang, way back then. (Later in my life, I became good friends with Ralph Alpher, the REAL first source of the Big Bang Theory. He and I served on the board of the Dudley Observatory together. Great guy.) I even knew a little bit about black holes before I got to Caltech, although my very first Beckman Lecture, which was about two weeks after I got there, was Kip Thorne, doing his first Beckman Lecture, on black holes. [laughs] So, I got it from the horse's mouth, the first week or so that I was in Pasadena. All of that steered me in that direction. But I didn't really know what I really wanted to do.
I had terrible guidance in high school. In our freshman year in high school, after we got our first grades, the guidance counselor bought all of the frosh down, one at a time, to his office. He brought me down to his office, and he said, "Master Carroll, I see you've got straight A's. I think you could probably go to college." I looked at him and I said, "Of course I'm going to go to college." He said, "Your grades look pretty good, and your admission tests were very good. You could probably get into a good college." I said, "I hope so. I want to go to Caltech." I don't know where I got the idea to go to Caltech, by the way. Somehow I found out it was the best place to go. He said, "Well, why would you want to do that? I mean, you could go—" Then he started rattling off Catholic places, like Catholic U and Georgetown and Notre Dame. I said, "Well, I want to go to an institute of technology, a place that focuses on technology and science." He said, "In that case, if you really want to go to the best, why don't you go to MIT?" I said, "Because Caltech is better than MIT." [laughs] He sort of looked at me funny and he said, "Well, I don't know about that." He said, "I'm not so sure of that. You'd better look into MIT. It's an awfully good school." I said, "I already did. Caltech is better than MIT." He sort of patted me on the head and said, "Go back to class. Just keep studying, get your A's, you'll be okay." About three weeks later, he brought me back down into his office [laughs] and he said, "Master Carroll, I've looked up this Caltech place that you're talking about, and you're right, it's a very good school. You're going to have to be very, very good to get in there. But you just keep working on it, and we'll see what we can do about making you smart enough to pass all the tests and get into Caltech." So, there I was; that's the guidance I got for my career.
About the same time, something else completely extraneous to being a research scientist came along, which if you've read that oral history of me by the high school history class, you heard a little bit about it. About that same time—I was in my early teens—my buddy Dave Guerzini, who was in school with me, and I, went with his father, who was an immigrant from the same part of Italy that Mario Andretti came from, to the Trenton Speedway at the Trenton Fairgrounds for the 100-mile oval IndyCar race there. I don't know whether you've ever been to a car race before, but if you're a 12-year-old boy and you go to this place, and 33 unmufflered Offenhauser engines come by at 120 miles an hour for a flying start, and you're there in the grandstands about 30 feet away from them, it alters your DNA for the rest of your life. [laughs] I became totally hooked on auto racing, open-wheel racing. I don't care about NASCAR, but Formula One and IndyCar, and a bit of the high-end sports car racing, like the stuff that used to happen at Riverside when I was at Caltech, and Le Mans, and that kind of thing. I got totally hooked on it, followed it every day. All of a sudden, I wanted to be a race car driver and a race car designer. The coolest guy in race car design at the time was Jim Hall, from Midland, Texas, an aerospace engineering graduate from the California Institute of Technology. He was the guy who put the upside-down wing on his car, the Chaparral, that revolutionized auto racing because of the upside-down dynamics of holding a car down to the ground through upside-down lift, downforce. So, one of the reasons I could tack on to my going to Caltech was that I wanted to race cars. [laughs] I had no idea what I was doing. When I had to declare my first major at Caltech, I chose mechanical engineering. That was something that I thought would help me design racecars. I have since learned, of course, that the primary thing you do in mechanical engineering is design equipment for factories—it has nothing to do with racecars—but I didn't know what I was doing. During my freshman year, I drafted a letter to Jim Hall, asking him if he would hire me for the summer after my freshman year. I never sent the letter. My life might have been very different if I had sent that letter. I might have ended up racing cars; I don't know.
So, I was really floundering intellectually in terms of my career guidance when I got there, but loving the subject and the place. I mean, the place just blew me away. I was really good in chemistry. I had a great chemistry teacher in high school, Sister Raymond, and she used CHEMStudy, the new NSF-supported chemistry text. There was one for physics, and one for biology, and we used the one for biology, and we used the one for chemistry. Unfortunately, we did not use the one for physics. Anyway, I was really good in chemistry. I loved it. I aced it. In fact, they singled out three of us in freshman year at Caltech to be taken out of the regular lab and to be the guinea pigs on a new series of experiments. We went off and we got rat tails from rats that had been used in other labs somewhere else on the campus, and we extracted the collagen from the rat tails and used an old electron microscope to scope them and we had to determine the size of them or something. I don't remember the details, but there were three of us who got picked to do that. So I was flying along in chemistry, and almost did chemistry. But I was awful in math and physics. My high school didn't have any calculus, so when I got to be a senior, they took five or six of us and put us in an empty classroom by ourselves, with a self-taught tutor text in calculus. I didn't get very far in it, mostly because the other five kids spent the whole time talking to each other. So all I knew when I got there was a little bit of derivative calculus, and no integral calculus at all. I was totally lost in Apostol's calculus. In physics, we had a 70-year-old guy who loved doing colorful experiments up on his lab desk in physics, and regaling us with interesting stories, but our physics text was terrible and we never got much past F = ma, and GMm/r2, so I was way behind in physics and math and just about flunked out when I got there.
However, much to my surprise—I never had any ambitions in this direction at all—the year I was a frosh, 1967-1968, all the frosh, as far as I know, were required to take U.S. history as their humanities and social sciences requirement. You could either take a survey course, or if you were AP in history, you could take what was called I think a special topics course. The prof, the instructor, could pick a topic, whatever they wanted, and you would study that in seminar style all year long. My professor for that advanced topics course was a guy named Byrd L. Jones, and he picked the title, which was appropriate at the time—nobody would ever use it today—of the History of the Negro in America. Nine of us sat around a table in Dabney Hall every week and studied that subject for three hours a week. We did everything from the original Dutch slave trader arriving in Jamestown in 1619—that is the incident that now is this controversial thing about the 1619 Project, The New York Times and everything—right up to the contemporary issue in Pasadena. The Pasadena School Board had recently voted to integrate the schools in Pasadena by busing the kids all around Pasadena. The citizens of Pasadena who weren't happy about that decided to launch a recall election and recall all of the school board members who had voted in favor of it. There was a neighborhood center run by the American Friends Service Committee, the public service pacifist arm of the Quakers, way up on Lake, way up North Lake, somewhere near John Muir, which was the primarily Black school before they integrated everybody. One of the things we did in that course was go on a field trip, a couple of times, up to that center, and watch people working on the campaign about the recall election. And we did everything in between. I read a book a week, easy, sometimes two books a week. I had never done that before. I never had a professor who sat people around and Socratically said, "So, what's your critique of the readings from the week?" I went to schools where they said, "This is what the Church teaches you, and this is what you will parrot back to us on the test." It was all indoctrination and dogma in the Catholic Church, and all of a sudden, I've got this guy saying, "Well, we have an open inquiry. We don't know the answers. We have to figure them out." I had never heard that before, and it blew me away. And of course, that was the ethos on the whole campus. It was just wonderful. It just opened me up.
There was a particular day—I hope I don't get too emotional here—there was one class, and we were all talking away, and all of a sudden, Byrd Jones sat back and he folded his arms, and he said, "I know what you guys are thinking." We all went, "Uh-oh." He said, "You're all in engineering and science and everything, and you think all of us over here in Humanities and Social Sciences got here by flunking out of calculus, and that we don't really know how to do anything rigorous. All we do is sit around and BS all day long. Whereas you go into a lab, and you get hard evidence, and you do experiments, and you come up with the truth, and so on and so forth, and you study how cause and effect works in nature." He said, "That's the same thing we do in history. If you're a good historian, what you are doing is studying causation, cause and effect, in human societies. It's the same subject. And like certain of the scientific disciplines, like paleontology or cosmology, you're studying change over a long period of time. You can't put it all in the lab, and you don't have access to all the evidence. You have to reconstruct things with your hypotheses based on scant evidence from the past, and you're going to come up with hypotheses about how change occurs over time. But if you're a historian, you throw human beings into the equation, which makes it even more complicated." And he said, "That's why doing history is so cool." And I remember saying, "Damn! That's great!" [laughs] That one class changed my life.
So, simultaneously, I was right on the verge of flunking out of Caltech because my math and physics were both terrible. I can't remember exactly when it was, but for one of my terms, I had to be reinstated because my GPA was like one tenth of a point lower than you were allowed to have and you stayed in. But they reinstated me right away. I had rapidly come to the conclusion that, unlike what my mother thought, I was not going to be the next Einstein. Although I still loved science and technology—and you know, I got a job at JPL, loved being at JPL and all the stuff there, et cetera—I suddenly was taken by doing history. So, I changed my major to history. Dan Kevles became my advisor. I think he despaired when he found out he had to be my advisor [laughs]. The first time I was in his office, which was in Baxter Hall, I sat down across the desk from him, and he said, "So, you want to be a historian, huh? You want to do American history? Something in the history of science and technology?" I said, "That's right." And he said, "Well, do you know who John Wesley Powell was?" I said, "No." He said, "Have you ever heard of the National Academy of Sciences?" I said, "No." And he went on like that, with about 10 or 12 more things. He shook his head and he said, "Well, son, you've got a lot to learn. But we'll see what you can do." So, I was really starting from the ground up, becoming a historian. I didn't know how to do any of it. But I learned a lot.
ZIERLER: Speaking of from the ground up, did you have a sense that the division of HHS was really in development at this point?
CARROLL: Yes and no. I knew some of it. I knew that there were tensions in the place, and that it was still trying to come up with what its identity was and what its reputation was across the campus. It clearly was changing from being just a service teaching arm of the school to trying to have its own independent reputation in its disciplines. The bachelor's that I got, a BS in History, didn't exist for very long before I got there. I was one of only a couple people who had gotten it, and one of the first ones. One of the other ones was Joe Rhodes. He was the head of ASCIT, the student government, and the one who brought all these projects in. He inexplicably ended up on Nixon's enemies list. I don't know why. All he was trying to do was bring researchers to Caltech. [laughs] Joe got a major in history, and a couple of other people around me double majored in history and other subjects, but I was one of the first pure history majors, nothing else. I think I was the only one back then who aspired to a career as a historian, went on to get a PhD and so on—obviously the poster child for Humanities and Social Sciences changing its stripes and coming into being at the time was Economics. My former roommate, one of my buddies then, was Arvind Virmani. Arvind majored in economics and then went on, after Caltech, to go to Harvard and study with the economist at Harvard whose name I forget who won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Arvind went on to become chief economic advisor to the Indian government. We used to cruise around Pasadena on our Honda motorcycles together. But economics was considered much more of a hard social science, so it was more respectable on the campus than the Byrd Joneses BS-ing all day long, et cetera.
I was considered I guess slightly more respectable than the usual people in history because I was doing history of science and technology, and I had enough technical chops that I knew the subjects that I was studying. If I was studying solid propellant rocketry, I knew what a perchlorate was, as part of the fuel. For me, that was not that big an issue. I knew what I wanted to do, and I didn't much care whether or not it was respected on the other side of the campus; I cared whether or not it was good historical work. And Dan was first-rate. I mean, I tortured the poor guy. I went through seven drafts of my senior thesis. I think to this day, he still doesn't think I'm all that good. [laughs] I don't know. He has never really patted me on the back too much. But he was great. He and R. Cargill Hall, who was the historian at JPL, turned me into a historian. They taught me how to think and how to write.
ZIERLER: Of course, relative to campuses like Berkeley or Columbia, Caltech was rather staid in the 1960s and early 1970s. I wonder, though, if you can poke a hole in the stereotype that it was apolitical, that in fact there was a lot going on politically during this time when you were an undergraduate.
CARROLL: Well, there was and there wasn't. I mean, was it a big deal for most of the undergraduates or most of the faculty? Probably not. There were an awful lot of people who said, "I do my thing, and I don't care about politics. I'm investigating"—for example—"the behavior of sand dunes in deserts." That was one of the subjects that physical geology would study, for example. I got to know Andy Ingersoll a little bit, not because I had anything to do with planetary geology, but because Andy was part of a group that I sort of fell in with. We were trying to create a combined living experience. Instead of like the student houses for undergrads, and faculty living off on their own, et cetera, there was going to be combined living, which I think it ended up being—it wasn't on San Pasquale—I forget where it was, but they actually came up with a house, and they actually did this. It was undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. I don't remember everybody else involved, but Andy was in on that, so I got to know Andy a little bit through that. Andy was into his thing on planetary geology. His specialty ended up being high-temperature stuff on Venus and so on and so forth. I don't think he ever spent a whole lot of time worrying about the Vietnam War or that kind of thing, but there were others who did.
First of all, there was a core of senior people there who had been involved in the bomb project, the Manhattan District, in World War II. They went on from that to be very concerned about science and public policy, science and the military, et cetera. Lee DuBridge was the president when I got there, and I worked briefly on the Poly, on the Caltech newspaper, for Les Fishbone. I remember I met Lee DuBridge by going to his office [laughs] in Throop Hall, before it was torn down, and interviewing him about, I don't know, something that happened at the Board of Trustees, or some policy about buildings. I don't remember what it was. Les told me, "Go interview DuBridge, and write a story in the paper"—about whatever this thing was. I went and I met DuBridge, interviewed him, took lots of notes, wrote up the story. He wrote me a very nice note back and said, "That's the most accurate story about me that anybody has ever written in The Poly," which I thought was really great. I was very flattered by it. But he was the first—no, Fred Anson, I suppose, was the first. He was a chemist, and back in those days, if you got to be a finalist for admission at Caltech, they sent a senior faculty member to your high school to interview you at your high school, and Fred Anson came to Notre Dame in Trenton, New Jersey, to interview all of my profs. He sat me down and he said, "Carroll, you're good, but you only got 716 on the Math Level 2 achievement test." Out of 800. He said, "Almost everybody else we admit gets 800." He said, "So, you're weak in math. You're going to struggle some, if you get there. But we think you're an extraordinary person, because of the more rounded candidate that you are, and you're very passionate about what you want to do, and your teachers all love you. So, you might get admitted anyway." Anyway, I think Fred was involved in the Manhattan Project. Certainly DuBridge was. I can't remember who else. But I did meet four or five of them, and they were concerned about politics issues, because of their own experience with the war and the bomb, and with Oppenheimer losing his security clearance. They all had to live through the McCarthyism era. It was traumatic for all of them. So, there was that contingent.
Then, of course there was the contingent of young new professors, like Morgan Kousser, who was very, very—and Robert Rosenstone. Bob was—well, he doesn't want to be called Bob anymore—Robert—they were very involved about the war. Dan was, too. Dan, when he was a grad student at Princeton, studied with Eric Goldman, and he and Goldman ended up working for the Johnson administration for a while. So, Dan was sort of into politics, but not very actively involved in it. He wasn't marching in the streets or anything. And there were pockets of them here and there, but I wouldn't say the campus itself was all that focused on it. You didn't have sit-ins every week and that kind of thing. It was too hard to be a Caltech student and do all that kind of stuff. I did more than most of the other undergraduates, and it was hard for me just to do the little bit that I did at the Caltech Y, and so forth.
But, the war got so bad. I mean, after the 1968 elections when Nixon got elected and was inaugurated, supposedly with his secret plan to end the war, and then after that, the war got much worse—they were bombing Cambodia, and carpet-bombing Haiphong, and there were these news reports coming home with that little girl, who had been burned with napalm in the village that got completely napalmed and everything. When I went home back to Princeton and met with all my parents and relatives there, some of whom were very conservative, everybody started saying, "This war has become really immoral." By about 1969 or 1970 or 1971, an awful lot of people of conscience were saying, "This war is a mess." But then the question was, what do you do about it? That was something that they finally had to confront when Kent State happened. When Kent State happened, campuses blew up everywhere. Caltech didn't quite blow up, but there were an awful lot of people who said, "We can't just do nothing. We'd be an irresponsible institution if we didn't recognize that academic institutions are profoundly affected by this." So, they had to teach it. They closed the school for a day, and everybody gathered in front of—now I forget the name of it; what's the student union building called? Well, whatever it is. [Winnett Student Center.] There was a big plaza there, and everybody gathered there—everybody—and they had a podium, and everybody spoke. They brought in experts on the politics of Southeast Asia, and they brought in military people, and there were all kinds of speakers and stuff. I was a little bit involved with putting all of that together. Among other things, I briefly served as the Student President of the Caltech Y. So, it peaked a little bit right then.
It also got a little involved in environmental things. As I said, Joe Rhodes was president of ASCIT, and people started to talk about the environment, then. The first Earth Day was in the spring of 1970. We had an Earth Day something at Caltech that day. I don't remember the details of what we did. But they got a bunch of money. I don't know where Joe got it from, but obviously people on campus helped, and they brought in people from elsewhere to come work on the ASCIT—I forget what it was called—project. They built a solar electric car, and they did all these others things. Our best man, Jimmy Woodhead [James A. Woodhead], was involved with that, and actually the woman who became his wife, Connie Stacey, was part of this group that were brought in as visiting student fellows for this project. She came from Swarthmore. So, there were some environmentalist things that were considered a little politically controversial, I guess, a little bit.
What else? Not much about racism, despite Byrd Jones's interest and the recall election in Pasadena. Caltech was pretty white, then. We had one Black student in our class of 195 students. And no women, to start with. Women started arriving while I was an undergraduate there. Jimmy and I were both on that committee that I mentioned briefly. I don't remember what we were supposed to do, but I ended up going to Princeton and MIT and interviewing people in their admissions office about the issues involved with bringing women on campus for the first time. Of course, if you're going to talk about feminism, that was a little bit of an issue on the campus. There were some more traditional people who thought women had no place in [laughs] the research lab. An awful lot of the discussion was pulling your hair out about there being no women's rooms around, [laughs] and silly things like that. It was very difficult for the first few women who came as undergraduates. I'm sure you know all that, already. But, it worked, eventually, of course. So I guess that's where the politics was.
There was always the politics of funding for science and space research and engineering. That freshman year, right at the beginning of my time there, when I still worked for the paper and Les Fishbone, Les told me—Gene McCarthy was running for president, and he came to the campus to speak. Les said, "He's supposed to arrive at such and such a time, and he's leaving at such and such a time. I want you to tail him. Be less than ten feet away from him the entire time." [laughs] So, I followed this guy, like a parasite, and I finally got him. After he spoke, he was leaving, heading back to his car, and I stopped him. Les said, "Ask him about funding for science." So I did. I asked him, "How much do you think science should be funded in the federal budget?" He said he thought it was being funded too much, and I put that into The Poly. [laughs] That was very controversial.
Of course, when I was at JPL, everybody was of course talking about space money, and not long before I left—I don't remember when it was now—but Bruce Murray was the head of JPL, and he put together this wonderful symposium—it has since become legendary—called "Mars and the Mind of Man". You can look it up; there is now a book of everybody who was there. It was in the auditorium at Baxter Hall. It had Carl Sagan, and—what's his name? 2001 Space Odyssey; I'm blanking on his name. [Arthur C. Clarke.] Murray was there. Gene Roddenberry was there, from Star Trek. [laughs] All kinds of people. They all talked about Mars and its cultural significance and so on and so forth. This was when Murray and the people at JPL were all lobbying to get NASA funded not for more people in space, at the end of the Apollo program. They thought that the space shuttle thing was a boondoggle for Houston. They wanted all the money to go for what they called the Grand Tour, which was scientific instrument packages to tour all around the solar system, and use slingshot gravity from one place to go to the next place. It was all worked out, and they were going to have these three or four super grand things. Of course, they're the kinds of things that JPL has since done that are all these blockbuster hits with rovers on Mars and so on [laughs]. They were lobbying very hard to shift money away from humans in space, like Apollo and then the space shuttle, and into the kind of stuff that JPL specialized in, of course, arguing that it was much cheaper and made a lot more sense, and that putting people on the Moon as a political stunt didn't have too much scientific credibility. Which of course wasn't something you could say over in planetary geology because Caltech was very heavily involved in analyzing the Moon rocks [laughs]. So, that was a little controversial on campus. But mostly the idea that sending a lot of people to the Moon and then to Mars wasn't very popular at JPL. So there was the politics of that, of science and technology policy as well.
ZIERLER: When you graduated, were you set on pursuing a PhD in history, right at that point?
CARROLL: Absolutely! First of all, as soon as I started, I really started to cotton to it. I got very excited about doing it. I just took to it, like a fish to water. But the thing that really sank the hook was going to JPL, getting this job with Cargill. Hall wanted a student assistant to help him with various things, including doing some research. He was working on a book on the history of Project Ranger, and he wanted sort of a research assistant, and he wanted a couple of other things that I'll talk about in a second. I guess he just went to the dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which I think then was Bob Huttenback, and asked him if there were any students, Caltech undergraduates, who would be candidates for this. Somebody suggested me, because I was a history major. One of the courses I had taken was a wonderful course from John Benton. John was the medievalist and Renaissance historian, and he did a whole term—we had a quarter system, so he had a 10-week term—on the Florentine Renaissance, during the quattrocento, the 1400s. We did ten whole weeks on Florence around the 1400s. I knew nothing about it, and it was fabulous. [laughs] We would go to his office—it was all lined with medieval stuff; it was great—and had a wonderful course. He had us write a term paper, of course, and I wrote a paper called, "The Distribution of Florentine Political Power during the Quattrocento," which I aced [laughs], much to my surprise. Cargill had come to the campus and asked if there was anybody who was a likely candidate to be his assistant. He met me, and he said, "Have you got a writing sample?" I gave him that paper. The next morning, he called me up and he said, "If you want it, you've got the job." [laughs]
I'm not sure it was true when I first got there, but by that time, mostly because of Dan, I had learned how to write. Actually, even when I was a frosh, the Humanities and Social Sciences professors said I could write better than most of the other students, thanks mostly to the Sisters of Mercy when I was a little boy. So, I went to work for Cargill at JPL. He said, "I want you to do this book research for me, and I also want you to computerize the archives for JPL." They were all just in file cabinets. He said, "We really want to have a database of them so people can search the database and know what's in there." So I designed it. I wrote a computer program and we came up with a database, and we put every document on punch cards, and we made the JPL archives, computerized archives. But he also said, "I want you to do a paper. I need you to work on something." He suggested the topic, which was a great topic. He said, "Solid propellant rockets were transformed right after World War II from being little cordite, un-steerable barrage rockets—you just fired a ton of them at the beach at Iwo Jima, and it just softened the beach up before the Marines landed—to the kinds of things that we have now, like the solid rocket boosters on the Space Shuttle, which came from Morton Thiokol. Thiokol got into the business of rocket propellants because of the work that was done at JPL. Chuck Bartley at JPL ended up connecting with Walter Boswell from Thiokol. They had a polymer, which was polysulfide material, which was then used to line the fuel tanks of aircraft, and somebody said, "This will make a great fuel for a rocket. You just put an oxidizer in it. You can shape it any way you want." It's a long story. Cargill said, "Why don't you write that up? It's a good story."
I really got into it. I ended up interviewing all the principals, both the ones who were still at JPL, the ones who were retired. I did telephone interviews with lots of people. They decided not to get me a security clearance, because if I got a security clearance and I used classified documents, then my final product, the paper that I wrote, would have to get security clearance before we could make it public. He said if I didn't get a security clearance, then what they would do is they would review the classified documents up front before I got them. They were all from like 1947, so, because there was a security classification document person at JPL; we just sent them all off to that office, and they all said, "declassified, declassified, declassified," so I could produce a paper that was unclassified at the end and publish it. Well, that was the first time I had ever done primary source research in history. It was the first time I had interviewed the principals. It was the first time I had ever looked at original sources instead of secondary sources. I was totally hooked! I loved doing the paper, and it has been cited all over the world a million times. It really was a big breakthrough with rocketry. By the time I graduated in June of 1972, I was bound and determined to become a historian of science and technology, and American science and technology. I knew that much already.
ZIERLER: What graduate programs were you looking at?
CARROLL: There were a bunch, and Dan knew them all, and knew the people at them all, so he was a big help. There was one at Berkeley, and there was one at Harvard. There was one at Johns Hopkins. There was one at Princeton. There was one at Northwestern that just was starting up, and there was one at Penn. Most of them, like Princeton and Harvard, were very traditional. They studied great men, like Newton and Darwin and that kind of thing. They studied disembodied minds. It was all intellectual history. I really wasn't that interested in that. I was already interested in the larger issues of science and technology in society. Dan said, "You can apply around to all of those, but they're really not going to be all that good." He said, "There's this weird one at Penn that is just starting up, and they're doing exactly—" They had just started the department in 1970. This was 1972 when I was graduating. He said, "They're really interested in the kind of thing that you're doing. Russ McCormmach, who is there, is a historian of physics like me, and Russ is on the ball. He knows what kind of things you're interested in. So you ought to apply there."
He said, "You ought to try Northwestern, too." I forget the name of the guy who was there, but there was this new guy there who was sort of a rising star in the history of American science. He had just published a book. Everybody thought it was a really good book. Anyway, I applied to both, and they both accepted me. The guy at Northwestern offered me a full fellowship for the whole graduate program. Free, the whole trip. But just before I had to make the decision, I went into Dan's office one day, and he said, "I've got some news for you." I said, "What's that?" He said—whatever the guy's name was, and I forget the guy's name now—he had just published a new book. He said, "It just got reviewed in Science magazine." He said, "Here's the review." He handed me the issue of Science and said, "Read the review." I read the review, and the review said, "This book is rampant with plagiarism."
ZIERLER: Ooh. Ow.
CARROLL: [laughs] The author from Northwestern claimed that he had a photographic memory and he didn't realize he was plagiarizing. I don't think anybody believed him. But he ended up resigning from his position, and that whole thing imploded. Fortunately, I hadn't agreed to go there. I agreed to go to Penn, which was a good thing. I already was attracted by their orientation. Also, as sort of a side thing, it was good because my parents were living in Princeton. My older sister Marcy had drowned on Monhegan Island, Maine, in 1968 at age 28. My parents really were completely flattened by that. Then my father got emphysema, so they were sort of floundering in Princeton with nobody to attend to them. My other sister Phylis had six kids and was in upstate New York in Penn Yan. You might know where it is, since you're from Utica. So, they were sort of really in need of help, so going to Penn instead of Northwestern meant I could be a little close and maybe help them out a little bit. Turns out I helped them out a lot.
But then I agreed to go, and in the middle of summer of 1972, as Nan and I were packing to go and trying to figure out when we were going to move and everything, I had a phone call from Russ McCormmach, the professor at Penn [laughs], that said, "Tom, I'm really glad you're coming to Penn, but I have some news for you. When you get here, I won't be here, because I've just accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University. But I'm sure that you'll be able to thrive here at Penn. There is plenty for you to do and lots of other good professors." [laughs] Russ McCormmach disappeared from Penn, wasn't there when I got there, and he didn't offer to take me with him to Johns Hopkins, so I went to Penn with nobody in particular that I thought [laughs] I was going to go study with. I was back again to floundering with my career. But it turned out that I fell in with Arnold Thackray, who was the chair of the department then, and his primary interest was the history of chemistry, and I knew chemistry inside out, so that worked for me. Then, I got a TA-ship for the first semester, the fall of 1972. That paid for my tuition and expenses and stuff. The department was broke; they didn't have anything. I didn't have any support for the second semester in the beginning of 1973. I went into Thackray, who was the department chair, and I said, "I'm going to have to take a leave of absence and go work as a construction worker or something. I don't have enough money to go to grad school." I said, "My father is dying. I don't have any money." He said, "Hold on, hold on. Let me see what's going on." As it turns out, I got a call the next day, I think, from Whit Bell—Whitfield Bell—who was the librarian at the Library of the American Philosophical Society, down by Independence Hall, and he said, "Why don't you come down and interview with me? We just got a bunch of money from the Mellon Foundation to help facilitate researchers using our library, and we want to do a Darwin book, which will be a finding aid, sort of, for people. Maybe you'd be interested in it." So I went down the next day. I knew very little about Darwin, but he gave me the job. [laughs] I went on half-time coursework—instead of four courses a semester, I took two—and I worked half-time at the APS Library doing what is called a calendar of their 700 or so Darwin letters. That's how I became a Darwin scholar, which was a great adventure, and an entirely different story. That's how I ended up at Penn, doing two things that weren't really all that central to my interest, but it was a living. I got to work on history of chemistry with Thackray who became my default advisor, and I got to work on Darwin at the APS Library.
ZIERLER: Was the history of chemistry project ultimately what became your thesis?
CARROLL: Sort of. It was a spinoff. The project was called the Chemical Indicators Project, and it was based on a great big NSF grant that Thackray got, with all of us chipping in on writing the proposal. "All of us" means three of his graduate students. What happened was that in I think the 1974 History of Science Society meeting, which was held in Norwalk, Connecticut, at the library of Bern Dibner, the manufacturer who was crazy about the history of science—look him up; there's now a Dibner room at the Huntington at Pasadena which you can rush over and see. He was a wonderful guy, very fascinating. Anyway, we were all at Dibner's place for the HHS meeting. It was the first time I met Tom Kuhn, which is sort of funny, because he lived over the back fence of my house in Princeton. But the three of us—Jeff Sturchio, Robert Bud, and I—I don't know whether we were all in the same room or we were in adjoining rooms, but anyhow, we were all in a hotel room there, gossiping about everything in the history of science, and we got into a discussion about what the department needed. I said to them, "I think what the department needs is for the graduate students to do more apprenticeships, like the thing I got to do at JPL where I got to do hands-on research while I was still a student, with guidance. So I think when we go back to Penn after the meeting, we should go to Thackray, and we should call in a couple of other profs, most notably Robert Kohler, and tell them we want to do a joint seminar, independent study, for the three of us plus whatever faculty wanted to be involved, where we would spend at least a whole semester if not a whole year collectively doing research on a subject, exploring a subject in this research seminar, kind of research group." We all thought that was a great idea. We took it to Thackray and Kohler, and they said, "Yeah, good idea, let's do it."
We decided to do the history of chemistry in the United States, England, and Germany. Jeff took the U.S., Rob took England because he was from England, and I did Germany, partly because that's where the German chemical companies were, and the German universities and so on, and partly because I could supposedly speak a little German, which was a joke, but it was true, a little bit. We did that for a while. Then in the middle of that, Thackray said, "There's this Science Indicators thing happening at the National Science Foundation. The National Science Board is all for it. I think we could put together something and really do this, as a research project, and continue on." We all said, "Great, what do we do?" He said, "Let's write the proposal. So, the four of us really plunged in on the side, in addition to the research, and wrote a proposal for this, and we got the money. So, just about the time I was about to take my prelims, my qualifying exams, which was I guess Thanksgiving or so of 1975, we started in on this project, and we all worked on it for three or four years, and we produced a book called Chemistry in America, 1876-1976: Historical Indicators. We did a quantitative analysis of the health of chemistry in America for a century. Fun project. We all had a great time. We all got paid [laughs], so we had jobs, et cetera. That really focused me.
Actually, it was very controversial, because my work at the APS Library on Darwin turned me into an expert on Darwin's handwriting. In addition to that, I got to be pretty knowledgeable about Darwin's career, because when you put stuff into a calendar, what you are doing is arranging the correspondence in chronological order. Essentially, I ended up peeking over Darwin's shoulder every day, as his life unfolded. You learn all kinds of things as a result of that, that you wouldn't learn if you didn't do the chronology. Plus, I learned how to read Darwin's handwriting. I can read Darwin's handwriting like it's my own, which is very difficult, because most people can't read Darwin's handwriting. As it turned out, Fred Burkhardt, who had been president of Bennington College, the editor of the papers of William James, the pragmatism guy, and then he became the head of the American Council of Learned Societies, decided in his retirement that he was going to do what he called The Collected Letters of Charles Darwin, and he was going to publish all of the letters to and from Darwin that survived in the world. He found out about me, came down to Philadelphia, interviewed me, and said, "I want you to work for me." [laughs]
So, I worked for him. I had just finished up the Darwin calendar for the APS Library, so I didn't have a job, and I hadn't started with Arnold Thackray yet on the Chemical Indicators Project, so I was perfect. He hired me. I was the first paid employee of the Collected Letters of Charles Darwin. I spent a month in the summer of 1975, July and August, in Cambridge, England, with Fred, and we launched the project there. We did an inventory of everything they had there, put together a style manual. We got the first look of anybody at the Robin Darwin deposit, which was new material, Darwin material, that had just been released, et cetera. It's a long story. I had a wonderful time. He's the best boss I ever had in terms of treating me well. I didn't make a lot of money, but I had a ball. I got to do some really significant things. I got to take a day off, one day, and Peter Gautrey, who was the deputy keeper for manuscripts, from Cambridge University, drove me down to Darwin's house, Down House, in Kent, outside of London, and the curator there at Down House said, "Do whatever you want." So we went into Darwin's study, which was off-limits to the general public, and we got to take down the barrier and go all around, and I went and looked up his copy of Das Kapital, and found—because he had only cut open the pages with a paper knife to about page six or ten—that he'd never read the book, which led to one of my most significant published research notes. and I got to sit in Darwin's chair, the chair that he sat in when he wrote On the Origin of Species. So, it was an incredible adventure, plus it was intellectually substantive.
Then we got the grant for the Chemical Indicators Project, and Arnold sat me down in his office and he said, "Tom, you have a choice to make. Do you want to be a Darwin scholar? Fred Burkhardt will hire you forever. You'll probably take his place as the editor in chief and spend the rest of your life doing Darwin. Great career, if you want it. Or you can come work on the Chemical Indicators Project. But you have to make a choice between the two." As much as I loved the Darwin stuff, I didn't want to be a one-trick pony. I think Darwin is terrific. There's a whole hour-long YouTube of my lecture about Darwin. Go look at it. I'm really into Darwin. I could publish ten things about Darwin that other people don't know, et cetera. But I didn't want to be a one-trick pony. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in Cambridge, England, editing Darwin's letters. So I had to tell Fred that I was going to quit. [laughs] It was not a pleasant experience. Fred was very upset. Until the day he died, he never quite forgave me for that, although we were always friends.
I ended up doing the Chemical Indicators Project, and that got me through the rest of my graduate school. My dissertation grew out of that, but it wasn't exactly that. When we switched to Chemical Indicators, instead of doing United States, England, and Germany, we were doing only the United States, and Rob and Jeff and I split up the work. I did the academic part of it, Jeff did the industrial part of it, and Rob did the government part of it. I ended up cribbing together a dissertation called "Academic Chemistry in America, 1876-1976: Diversification, Growth, and Change." Part of it is lifted from the various chunks that I did in the Chemical Indicators book on the academic components. Part of it is other chapters that I did myself. I did a whole chapter on the history of the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, which became the largest producer of PhDs in chemistry and chemical engineering in the United States, ever, and very important for the development of organic chemistry in the United States. That's where I developed the idea of the laboratory design focusing on research schools, et cetera, so that's in there as a chapter.
Then, as I said to you in something I sent you before this Zoom, out of the blue, while I was still a grad student struggling around doing Chemical Indicators and stuff, I got a phone call from Nate Reingold, who was the editor of the Joseph Henry Papers at the Smithsonian, and a fan of mine, and he said, "The Smithsonian is going to do a multi-day symposium in honor of Einstein's 100th birthday. It is going to be called ‘The Muses Flee Hitler.'" It was all these people who were muses, who were intellectually something or another, who all fled the Nazis and came to America. He said, "I want you to do one on chemistry." I said, "No shit!" Pardon my French, but I couldn't help myself! [laughs] "You want me to do that, for the Einstein Symposium?" He said, "Yeah!" I said, "Okay!" He said, "You got any ideas?" I said, "Well, let me think on it for 24 hours. I'll call you back." And I said, "What I want to do"—Arnold Thackray was very keen in those days on a thing called prosopography, where you did collective biography of a whole bunch of people. I said, "What I want to do is try to find everybody who became a practicing chemist or chemical engineer in America, who was an immigrant, who was born elsewhere, and I want to do an analysis over time of what they were like." I then plunged in and I found about 700 or 750 people, I think it was. I coded them all up on computer cards and I did this computer analysis of them. The paper was called "Immigrants in American Chemistry." It was published in the book from the symposium. I reproduced it as one of the chapters of my dissertation. They said, "Just put all this stuff in here, and get out of here. We don't want you to write another one. You've already done enough."
It's I think one of the more significant findings I've ever had—everybody else who was studying scientists who fled Hitler, that whole phenomenon, always talked about the prominent ones. I'm blanking on all of them of course, but you know who I mean. What I found out is that there was another sub-population who also scrambled to get out of the Nazi dominion in Europe and came to America, but they were younger recent PhDs. They weren't the established professors already. At the most, they were privat docent [very junior German faculty types], but most of them were just getting their PhDs. When they came to America, first of all, a lot of them had to go to stopover places like London for a while. I don't know what they did—sell pencils on the corner or wait tables—but it took them a while to even get into the United States. But when they did get into the United States, there weren't any academic positions open to them. If there was an entry level position for a professor of chemistry in the United States at that time, it went to new PhDs from Hopkins or Harvard or Illinois or whatever. It did not go to these youngsters—all guys, I think; I don't think there were any women—who could barely speak any English, and they were doing subjects that were interesting in Germany and not here, and so on. So, an awful lot of them went into industrial research labs.
I named three or four of them towards the end of the article, by name, and said, "I'm speculating that this was the experience for these people. Here's what they did with their careers once they got here." And I don't know how he found out, but one of them wrote to me. He spent the whole rest of his life on Long Island, worked for some industrial research lab on flavors or fragrances or something. He wrote to me and he said, "That's exactly right." He said, "All of us youngsters, we escaped with our lives, and we got to America, we got jobs, and we've had happy lives, raised families, and so on, done interesting things, but none of us had an academic career. We all had to go into industry. You got it exactly right." I thought that was a pretty cool discovery on my part. So, that's the dissertation. The dissertation is cribbed together from University of Illinois, immigrants in American chemistry from the Einstein Symposium, and the other bits and pieces, most of them coming out of the Chemical Indicators Project.
ZIERLER: Did you focus on academic positions exclusively? Did you think about institutional history from the beginning after you graduated, for a job?
CARROLL: Good question. I did, I think. There was a point, I think it was about 1979—we were still working on Chemical Indicators, and we had produced a big, thick typed version of it that we submitted as the final report to the NSF, but we hadn't published it yet as a book. Rob had already left and gone back to London, which is where he was from. Well, he's from Manchester and London. He was doing his own dissertation and getting himself a job at the Science Museum. He was supposedly still on the Chemical Indicators Project, but he wasn't doing anything—not getting paid—and Arnold was off doing other stuff. So the whole project sort of ended up in the laps of Jeff Sturchio and me, down in our little office in the basement of Smith Hall where the department was. We still had to do all the proofreading of all of the tables, and finish up the grant, et cetera. We were just finishing it all up, and we both looked at each other, I think after playing squash one day, and we said, "We gotta get out of this place." [laughs] I had been saying to Arnold for a year or so, as I told him, "I didn't have any gray hair when I got here, and I don't want to have any gray hair when I leave." Because I had been there for almost eight years.
We both started applying all over the place. I don't remember all the places I applied, but both of us applied to two different places. One was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for the job I got, and the other was for a one-year fellowship at the Smithsonian. I forget the guy who was the curator for chemistry and chemical technology there, but he had a position there at the Smithsonian. Jeff and I applied to both. Twist of fate—there was a deadline for applying to the RPI position, and both of us found out about the job and applied for it really, really late, and I took the trouble to go to the post office by 30th Street Station and sent mine express mail overnight to make it by the deadline. Jeff concluded that that deadline didn't really matter and they'd take him anyway. It turns out they didn't accept his application, never considered it, because it didn't arrive on time. [laughs] I'm not convinced that they would have taken me instead of him if we were competing for the job, but I ended up getting the job, and Jeff didn't. The guy at the Smithsonian—I've forgotten his name, but a great guy, and he was very nice to both of us—he had already decided that of all the applicants for the fellowship, he was going to give it to either Jeff or me, whichever one of us didn't get any other job. So Jeff went to the Smithsonian for a year, and I went to RPI, and we both escaped, finally, from Penn. I was still ABD—I hadn't finished my dissertation yet—so I had to scramble to finish it after I got to RPI, which was a nightmare. It took a year and a half. Anyway, I often think back on that, because my academic career at RPI pretty much derailed me as a research scholar, which was really my first love. I'm good at teaching, and so on, and mentoring people, but my real first love is doing research.
ZIERLER: The issue at RPI, primarily was that just the teaching load was too heavy?
CARROLL: Yes. When I got there, it's the same thing as the transition we were talking about in Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech. They were just starting to try to figure out how to arrange the Humanities and Social Sciences so they could have their own graduate programs, instead of it just having a service teaching school. They didn't have any teaching assistant infrastructure, and they were just beginning to try to figure out how to go out and get grants to do things. They created this thing—as Thackray said, "They can't be serious with that name"—but they had created a unit called the Center for the Study of the Human Dimensions of Science and Technology. It was on top of the departments, and we were all supposed to go there and help them figure out how to get grants for the study of the human dimensions of science and technology. It was pretty Mickey Mouse.
But we finally—they wanted to reconfigure the humanities and social sciences, I think mostly to save money. But we wanted to reconfigure it because we thought a much better way to do it would be not having a department of history and political science and a department of anthropology and a sociology department, philosophy, and so on, but to take all the people who were working on science and technology in society, and put them all in a single department. So when the outgoing provost announced that he thought the School of Humanities and Social Sciences should consider restructuring itself, the dean asked all of us to submit our suggestions. I sent a big four- or five-page memo, single spaced, up to the dean. As I put it in the mailbox to him, I thought, "There goes my tenure," because the senior history professor considered it apostasy for me to say, "Do away with the History Department." What I said was, "You can combine all these people and create a department called Science and Technology Studies."
I stole the name from Edinburgh University which had a program called the Science Studies Unit. David Edge, great guy, astrophysicist turned STS person, one of my favorite people. He's now gone. I got ahold of David and I said, "David, I'm going to steal your name. Is that all right? But I'm going to add ‘technology' to it, so we're going to be Department of Science and Technology Studies." He said, "Go right ahead! Go right ahead! You don't even have to give me credit." I said, "Okay." So we created this Department of Science and Technology Studies, the first one in the world with that name. At the beginning, they were all for it, and thought it was wonderful. We said, "We want to have a bachelor's degree. We want to do a PhD." They said, "Terrific, terrific, terrific." But they didn't give us any more resources. For the PhD, they said, "Here's the deal. We'll agree to go with you and apply to the State of New York for you to get accreditation to confer a PhD in Science and Technology Studies, but you have to take it out of your own hides for the first five years. You have to teach overloads to run all the graduate courses, and you're not going to get any extra help. But if in the fifth year, you've got enough paid tuition enrollments in the graduate program, et cetera"—I forget what other achievements we had to do—"then we will then give you more faculty lines, and we'll give you so many TAships and so on, and we'll flesh out the department properly so that you can do this."
And, you know what happened—we did the five years, we far exceeded all of our expectations at the end of our five years, we were sending students to give papers all over the world, et cetera. It was really, really successful. The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) had their annual meeting at our department, and so on. We got to the fifth year, and they said, "Well, our budget is a little tight right now. I'm sorry, but we can't give you any of the money we promised, or the faculty lines." At which point all of us said, "We've had it. We're out of here." I guess I was the first—I don't know who was the first to leave, but there was a huge exodus. I left. Rick Worthington left. Susan Cozzens left. Deb Johnson left. Ray Stokes left. I don't even remember them all, but two thirds, three quarters of the faculty, all went elsewhere. There were weeks when I was working 80, 90 hours a week. I was teaching three different courses. Each of them had over 70 students. They were all supposed to be writing-intensive. I had no TA. So I was running all the classes, I was doing all the recitation sections, I was grading all the papers. I was up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning once or twice a week, every single week, trying to keep up with the student papers. It was insane. Plus, my salary had dropped, so then it was below the median for all associate professors of history at all the institutions of higher education in the entire country. I said, "I'm sorry. I was first in my class from kindergarten through high school. I went to Caltech. I went to Penn. I was a coauthor of a lead article in the centennial issue of Science. Chemistry in America was an extremely well-received book"—yadda, yadda, yadda—"and I got here, and I've gone straight done the tubes since I've gotten here, and you're paying me crummy wages. I'm sorry. I'm outta here." So, I took a faculty buyout and left.
ZIERLER: Did you think about other faculty positions, or did you specifically want to branch out into alternate career paths?
CARROLL: By that time, I had decided that being in a faculty position anywhere in the country was a mistake. I thought, if I had been Jeff back there in 1979 and 1980, and I had gone to the Smithsonian, I may have stayed out of the academic world. I love museums and libraries like the APS Library. Working at the APS Library was heaven. [laughs] It was a wonderful place to work. I've always loved the Smithsonian, known lots of the curators there, and so on. I should have done that. I should have not gone for a professorship. But, becoming a professor was a prestigious thing to do, and supposedly you get tenure and then you could do research on whatever you wanted. Didn't work out that way. By the time I was disillusioned at RPI, all my colleagues were disillusioned at institutions of higher education everyplace else. They were all being replaced by adjuncts who were being paid $1,500 or $2,000 a course, and none of them were getting raises, and they were eliminating people's pensions, and they were closing down departments. The academic world, particularly in a field like ours, which is a little softer, has not been a pleasant place in the last quarter century. It really hasn't. So, no. In fact, when Tom Phelan, our dean, died, he left in his will enough money to endow a professorship in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at RPI, which was in the subject of—I don't remember what it was called, but science, technology, and the community, or something—and several people begged me to apply for the job and come back, and I said, "Over my dead body I'll do that. [laughs] Even if it's a chaired professorship and they pay me a lot of money, and I don't have any course load, I do not want to be on that campus." So I did this crazy thing with the rest of my career.
ZIERLER: What jobs were you thinking about at that point, being a historian but not in academia?
CARROLL: Oh! Well, [laughs] it dropped into my lap. All I was doing was coming home and grousing, and my wife Nan was saying, "This job is killing you. Why don't you stop grousing and get the hell out of there?" [laughs] I said, "Well, what am I going to do? I don't know what I'm going to do." As it turns out, this organization had been formed back in 1972 called the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Terrible name. But it was an organization, not-for-profit, to educate the public about the internationally significant industrial and commercial heritage of this region around Troy, and to put that past to good use to revitalize the struggling economy here. You know Utica, you know what it's like—Rust Belt cities in upstate New York. They had done some pretty significant things, and they were chugging along, and they had acquired this building, which was the office building for the Burden Iron Company, but then they had fallen on hard times. They were so disorganized and so poorly supported by the community that they ran out of money. They had to lay off their only employee, who was a poorly paid director, because they didn't have any money to give her a paycheck. [laughs]
Nan and I went to the annual fundraiser for the Historic Albany Foundation. It was called A Moveable Feast. What they did was have everybody start at a cocktail party at some prestigious place, and then everybody went out to people's homes and had nice dinners, and then came back for dessert someplace else, all of it to promote historic preservation in Albany. We gathered at the Governor's Mansion in Albany. We were all standing there with our glasses of chardonnay and our cheese, and I was talking to Alane Hohenberg, who was the wife of Paul Hohenberg, my colleague in the Economics Department. He's an economic historian. He wrote a book called Chemicals in Western Europe when he was young, at MIT. I knew him really well before I got to RPI. Paul and I have been friends for a long time. I was talking to Alane, and I said, "Alane, how are you doing?" She said, "Oh, Tom, I'm the president of the board of the Gateway, and we just had to lay off the director because we have no money. I don't know what we're going to do. The place is falling apart, and I don't know what's going to happen." This faculty buyout had just been offered at RPI. I was just about to say to her, "Well, I might be interested in trying to rescue that organization," [laughs] at which point some bigwig came by and whisked her away [laughs] and I didn't get to talk to her. That was like on Thursday or Friday night. By Sunday, I had mulled this over, and I turned to Nan, and I said, "Nan, Alane Hohenberg says that nobody is running the Gateway. They need somebody to come and rescue the Gateway. What would you think if I took the faculty buyout and tried to do that, even though they're totally broke there?" She immediately said, "Do it! Do it! You hate your job. It's killing you. You're going to have a heart attack. You're staying up until 2:00 in the morning, drinking ten cups of coffee at night. It's just horrible. That's a waste of your life to sit there and correct undergraduate grammar all day long. Get the hell out of there, and do something else. If the Gateway doesn't work out, at least it's a place for you to land while we think of something else to do. We're not broke. We'll find jobs."
So, I called Alane back up a couple days—oh!—right after that, there was a department meeting, and we had a new dean, and she came into the department, and we were all sitting there, and she was talking about, "Well, this is what we're going to do" and "This is what we're going to do. We're going to change all these things." She said, "If you don't get good enrollments, we're going to eliminate your courses." One of my colleagues, Dave Ellison, who's a sociologist, said, "Well, for example, what about the American history courses? We've always had the students do American history. It's part of their fulfillment as a distribution requirement for the school." She said, "Well, if the enrollments aren't good enough, then we're not going to have American history courses." That was right at the end of the meeting. I walked out of that meeting, I went back into my office, [laughs] closed the door, and I stared out the window for about five minutes, I called Alane and said, "Alane, what would you think of me becoming the director of the Gateway?"
CARROLL: It was all very quick. I had to submit the paperwork for the buyout by, I don't know, two Thursdays after that, or something. It was in October of 1996. I had to have all this paperwork filled out. We went to our lawyer and asked about the legal implications. We looked at our finances and tried to figure out if we could do this, et cetera. I had to rush around to get everything all done. We did get everything all done, and I submitted it. Whatever that day was, it was locked in, and I couldn't reverse it, and I had given up my tenured professorship at RPI, which ended on December 31st, 1996. Nan and I were in the office still packing boxes at 10:30 or 11:00 at night on December 31st [laughs] to get out of my office, by midnight. When I started up at the Gateway six days later, on January 6th, 1997, they had under $6,000 in the bank, they had no endowment. The roof of the building leaked in about ten places, and they had no plans whatsoever to raise money to fix the roof or to finish restoring the building, et cetera. They didn't even have a membership brochure. [laughs] There were six people on the board, and they didn't know what they were doing. So I really was sort of digging this place out of a hole. But I was very passionate about the subject. First of all, I believe that this area is really internationally significant in industrial history. Second of all, I identified with those poor kids in South Troy. As far as I'm concerned, kids shouldn't grow up ashamed of their hometown, and those kids were, and it was my job to see that that stopped. So I devoted the rest of my career until I retired on doing that.
ZIERLER: What were some of the challenges in getting it on the right track?
CARROLL: [laughs] Well, of course, finding enough money to pay the electric bill. [laughs] They had a fuel oil-based heating system, and they owed the fuel company something like $18,000 in unpaid bills, so the first thing I had to do was convince them not to turn the heat off. [laughs] Related to that—if you want some colorful little stories—if you look up Burden Iron Works Museum, you can see it—there's this beautiful cupola on top of the building. It was designed by Robert Robertson, a prominent architect of the day, in 1882. The cupola is meant to ventilate the building in the summertime, and it has a great big damper, right inside of it, that you close in the winter, and then you open in the summer. In the summer, the heat all goes out, and it cools the building. In the winter, it's closed, so you keep the heat in the building. Well, I got there, and it was freezing cold in the building, and they were paying a fortune to heat the place. So I climbed all around the building. I climbed up in the attic, in the superstructure, in the cupola, and I found out that there was this damper. This was January, and it was like 10 degrees out, and the damper was wide open, [laughs] I closed the damper. I had to manually close it because the ropes were broken. Of course immediately the temperature went up 20 degrees and 30 degrees in the main hall. So their heating bill dropped to nothing. But, four days later, because I had closed the damper, the heat didn't come up as often anymore, and as a result, no heat got to the abandoned library room way over in the far corner, so the pipes froze underneath the two radiators in there, and exploded, and flooded all over the place. So I spent the first weekend on the job flat on my back in a freezing cold building, re-sweating the copper pipes leading to the radiators in the library. They were so broke they didn't have the money to hire a plumber, so I had to do it. [laughs] So, that was my first challenge in the first week. [laughs]
But, the challenge was I had to convince people that an organization that obviously was not performing very well and was in a completely dilapidated, ransacked building, between the freight railroad tracks and the county jail, in industrial South Troy, was an organization worth supporting. [laughs] It took me a while. By March, I had gotten my first gig to speak to anybody who could possibly be patrons, and that was the rather tiny Troy Rotary Club. I put together a slide show, and that was where I came up with the phrase "the Silicon Valley of the 19th Century." It didn't take me very long to put together a storyline. The history here is just ripe for the picking. It's like taking candy from babies, to tell a good story about this place. So, I started to do that. I started reaching out every place I could. I talked the mayor into letting us staff the visitor center for the city, so I got a little bit of money on the side so we could run the visitor center in downtown Troy. I went from there.
When I first went to the board, I said, "Look, I'm not going to do this unless you'll let me shoot the Moon here. My idea is to make this the best regional industrial heritage program in the country, full stop." I said, "The first thing we've got to do is we've got to focus on this building. We're the stewards of this building. You've owned it since 1974. The roof leaks in 10 or 20 places, and it hasn't been restored yet. You've got a credibility problem here, so we've got to focus on the building." They said, "Well, okay." We submitted our first grant to the state, and they gave us $112,000. [laughs] It was a matching grant. I went to the board the next board meeting and I said, "Guess what?" They all got photocopies of the letter. I said, "We got $112,000 to do the roof," And there was—silence. One of them finally said, "What happens if we don't make the whole $112,000 match? Will they still give us part of the money?" I cut him off in mid-sentence, and I said, "We're not even going to think about that. There is no chance that we're not going to raise the $112,000. We are going to raise that money, we're going to have $240,000 and we're going to fix the roof." [laughs] They all sort of shuddered and thought, "How in the world are we going to raise $112,000?" [laughs] But we did. It took until 2008, so it took a long time, but in 2008, we did $980,000 worth of work on the building. Still not finished, but it included a whole bunch of grants and stuff from all over the place.
Shortly after we did that, we got about $200,000 from various sources, most notably Brookfield Renewable Energy gave us $100,000 to redo the lighting in the place. We restored all of the missing chandeliers, and we made them all dimmable LEDs. It was the first all-dimmable commercial LED installation in the country. The Department of Energy put it on their website as a model for LED lighting designers to use, because dimming LEDs, back at that time, was a bit of a challenge. More recently, just before I retired, I managed to submit for them a proposal that got another $500,000 from the state, and I got a bequest of $150,000 from a colleague at RPI. They have almost a million dollars now to do the next round, which will pretty much finish off the building.
ZIERLER: What do you see as your achievements in the realm of public history, of bringing in a larger audience to appreciate the regional and even larger American history of the institute?
CARROLL: Of RPI? Forget it. But of my little institution of Troy?
CARROLL: Well, probably the biggest coup [laughs] was that we got a call—we got endless calls every week; we couldn't even return all the phone calls—from people asking us research questions. We got one, one week, from somebody who was researching—I forget his name now—a famous photographer who took these beautiful pictures of the Adirondacks [Seneca Ray Stoddard]. They wanted to know about his early employment in the railroad parlor car manufacturing company over across the river from Troy, on Green Island. I didn't know too much about it—a little bit—but I looked it up for them, and answered their question. But I said, "Who is this for? What is this about?" They said, "Bill Moyers is doing a TV program on the history of the Hudson River, and they want to do a segment on this guy and his photography of the Adirondacks, and they want to document that, for a while, he colored the interiors of parlor cars on the railroads, to make a living, as his day job." I said, "Can you tell me, are they doing anything with Troy?" They said, "Not that we know of, no. Why would they want to do that?" [laughs] I said, "Well, tell me who they are." I finally extracted from them the name of one of the two producers and directors for Bill Moyers. Her name is Monica Lange, now one of my best buddies. Monica lives, curiously enough, just outside of Princeton, in Rocky Hill, NJ. I called her up and I said, "I understand you're doing a Bill Moyers thing. How about including Troy?" She said, "Why would we want to include Troy?" I gave her the elevator speech. I said, "We'll send you stuff." She gave me an address. She gave me a post office box. I said, "We'll send you stuff." I said, "I'm going to Italy for a vacation for two or three weeks. I'll put it in the mail to you. I get back on such and such a date in January, and I'll get ahold of you as soon as I get back, to see what you think." So, we put together a packet that was about two inches thick, and we mailed it off to Monica, for their consideration, and when I came back—I told her what day I was going to be back in the office—and the phone rang at 10:00 in the morning, and she said, "Tom, this is Monica Lange from the Bill Moyers project. I want to come up to Troy." [laughs] Long story short, not only did she come up to Troy, but they ended up shooting about 12 hours of footage in Troy, with a lot of help from us, and Moyers did his thing. It was called America's First River: Bill Moyers on the Hudson. They conned all their sponsors, PBS and everybody, into turning it into a two-segment program, one on the history of the Hudson River, and then the other one on cleaning it up, which was the original idea. The one on the history of the Hudson River had 18 minutes on the history of Troy in it [laughs], because of us. So, that put us on the national map; that's for sure.
What else did we put on the national map? Well, not quite national, but it turns out Troy has a huge endowment of Tiffany windows and other Tiffany appointments—mosaics, lamps, chandeliers, altars—which nobody knew anything about. Why would there be Tiffany windows in crummy old Troy? But it turns out back at the time of the 1840 Census, Troy was the fourth wealthiest city in the United States, per capita, so they had tons of money. It wasn't a very big city, but the people who were here were all filthy rich. So they put all these Tiffany things into their churches and everything, back in the late 1800s. In 1997, my first year, we started doing a Troy's Tiffany Treasures tour every fall. It got bigger and bigger and bigger. One year, we had 180 people on the tour. It has really grown all over the place. We ended up getting that picked up by newspapers all over the place. Long Island's Newsday did a whole big story on it, and everybody came up from Long Island to go on our tour.
Then, there's this institution here, federally funded, called the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area. It's part of the National Park Service. They decided they were going to do a thing called the Hudson River Valley Ramble, where they were going to get people to do walking tours all up and down the Hudson Valley, and then they were going to use their money to advertise them. We threw in our Tiffany tour for that, along with 40 other places for the first year, and they advertised it in Hudson Valley Magazine and The New York Times. That was the year we got 180 people coming on the tour. Our Tiffany tour was the best-attended tour of the entire Hudson River Valley Ramble. So we got written up all over the place. Then, the National Park Service decided to add a bunch of sites in the Hudson River Valley through this national heritage area, to the National Park Service's Passport Program, where tourists get this little passport and they get a stamp from every place. The Burden Iron Works Museum got included in the 40 or so sites along the Hudson River. I immediately got a phone call from this wonderfully enthusiastic woman in Irvine, California, who was the president of the national society of tourists who do passports through the Park Service. She said, "My husband and I will be in the Hudson Valley next week, and I want to be the first one to get stamps from all 43 of the new places." [laughs] I said, "Okay." They showed up, and I spent like three hours showing them around the Museum, giving them the spiel and everything. She ended up going to all but one of them. One of them stood her up, and she slimed them in her review. But she went home and wrote up a blog about her experience with all of this stuff, and she said, "And the best one of them all was the Burden Iron Works Museum in South Troy." [laughs] All of a sudden, we started getting all these tourists with their little passport books, wanting to get our museum stamp in their passport.
And, Congressman Maurice Hinchey was the representative in the House for one of the congressional districts, right in the middle of the whole Hudson River Valley. He got a bunch of money for us to do a great, big conference at Hyde Park, the FDR site, to review everything that was being done, and to propose what should be done next. They had themes for this, that, and the other thing. They invited me to come down for this big conference—it was 400 or 500 people—to give the talk about the Hudson River Valley as a corridor of commerce, which was one of the themes for the park. I knew that would be a big deal, so I put a lot of work into it. I went down and I gave the talk. It's on C-SPAN; you can look it up. You can see it if you want. Brought the house down. [laughs] We got people coming out of the woodwork, saying, "That was the greatest talk." Winthrop Aldrich, who was an Aldrich as in Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, wonderful guy, he was the deputy commissioner for Parks and Recreation for the State of New York. Still alive, good friend. He was in the audience, and when it finished, everybody was applauding, and he rushed up to me, and he said, "Tom, I want to be your agent." [laughs] After that, he started promoting us all over New York, in all the parks and everything. So, we sort of got ourselves on the national map. When we finished the museum restoration project, the million bucks in 2008, the State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation chose us to be the winner of the best historic preservation project of the entire state of New York in 2008. [laughs] There was a time when people would say, "Why in the world do you want to fix up that stupid building in South Troy? It's hopeless." Now, they're all completely convinced that it's going to be finished, and that it's a great idea, and so on. So, we turned a corner. I've raised probably $3 million or $4 million total, maybe more, for the place. Never paid myself a lot of money. [laughs] Less than I was making at RPI, that's for sure. But I guess it's a success.
ZIERLER: When it was time to think about retiring, what satisfaction did you have in terms of a sense of accomplishment? What you had come there to do, what you had achieved as a result?
CARROLL: I think I was both a failure and a success. The failure still haunts me. That organization, especially since it's the steward of a National Register property that needs ongoing maintenance in perpetuity, really needs to have, if it is to be an established institution, an adequate endowment, minimum a million dollars, and probably minimum five million dollars. Took me years—I don't remember how many, but it was a frustratingly large number—to even convince the board that we should have an endowment, and that it should be a permanently restricted endowment where you can't touch the principal, because that needs to be put aside to protect the organization and the building. They finally did. By the time I had left, they still hadn't even reached $100,000, and it really needs to be bigger than that. My wife Nan and I were chosen as the honorees for the annual fundraising gala for the organization, for 2021, in October. We went, and we accepted the award, and we gave our acceptance address. We titled our talk, "We Enjoyed It." We started actually by playing a little clip from Lawrence of Arabia, which was the first movie I ever watched multiple times when I was a little boy. There was this great scene in it, where Peter O'Toole plays T.E. Lawrence, and he had just finished the battle for Aqaba. He goes back to report to his supervisors, and he tells them the story, and he says, "But there's a problem." They're all saying, "Great job, great job, you saved Aqaba." He says, "But there's a problem." They said, "Well, what's that?" He said, "Well, there's something else." They said, "Well, what is it?" He said, "Well, in the process of all this, I killed somebody." All the soldiers look at each other around the room and they look at him and they go, "Lawrence, you're a soldier. That's what you're trained to do. You're supposed to kill people in a battle." And he said, "Well, yes, I understand that, yes." They're saying, "It's okay. You kill people in a battle. You're a soldier." Then he said, "No, there's something else." They said, "What's that?" And he says, "I enjoyed it." [laughs] Right?
So we called our talk "We enjoyed it." We said that most people in the position I was in at the Gateway, as the executive director, of course spend their whole time with their hands out, fundraising. Everybody I know who ran all the not-for-profits all around Troy hated fundraising. It was the thing they liked least to do. Frankly, I love it. I love talking to people with money. That means they take the money out of their wallets and give it to South Troy and our building, which really needs it, and deserves it, because it's so significant. I told everybody that. I got to the end and I said, "And here we are, one last time, as I fade off into retirement, with all of my easy marks in the same room [laughs] at our gala." I said, "We can't pass this up." So I took a $5,000 check out of my pocket, and I said, "Nan and I"—which have called ourselves sort of laughingly the Carroll Foundation all along, all of this—said "The Carroll Foundation is going to start this. Here's $5,000 more towards the endowment. We need to get it up to a million and maybe five million, and we want all of you to match our money." [laughs] That's how we finished the talk. So, apparently there is more money going in. But that's my disappointment. I think I'm a failure, and if they don't get their act together in that, the whole thing is going to shrink back down and fade away.
But the success? I'll give you a good example of the success. When we were running the visitor center, we were asked—there's a fundraiser every year in the Capital Region called the Capital District Garden and Flower Show. They do this fancy flower show in the spring, and it raises money for a not-for-profit place that treats people with disabilities. They had been thrown out of the major place to do their flower show in the middle of downtown Albany. They said they weren't going to sponsor it anymore. So they got to move to the auditorium in Hudson Valley Community College in South Troy. They were all freaked out that nobody would come, because they wouldn't be caught dead in Troy, New York, for the flower show. They came to us at the visitor center and said, "Could you please do a booth there to help promote the city and help us put together a packet to give to people and help us with the advertising?" We did all that. We had this big booth, and all these flower show people came by, and it said, "Visit downtown Troy." They all walked by, and they looked at it, and they said, "Why?" and they walked on, and nobody stopped.
So we went back and we scratched our heads, and said, "Well, what do we do different next year?" The next year, we changed the design a little bit, but we also put together a thing called the Troy Know-It-All Quiz. It was a little 10-question quiz, funny questions about the history of Troy. We had a little red sticker that said, "I'm a Troy Know-It-All." The idea was, you came to our booth, you took the quiz, you put your name in, you could win a door prize from one of the stores downtown, and you got a Troy Know-It-All sticker. Pretty soon, people all around would see other people with this Troy Know-It-All sticker on them and say, "Where'd you get that?" We were jammed with people, wanting to take the Troy Know-It-All quiz, who wanted to take it home to give to their husband, because he was a Troy history buff or whatever. Then the next year, they announced that they were going to do the Troy Waterfront Farmer's Market, which we brought to Troy.
Everybody got wind of it, and that booth was just overrun with people. So, not only did they start coming to there, but as it turns out, before that Farmer's Market came, you wouldn't be caught dead in downtown Troy on a Saturday morning. Now, it's overrun with people, including people from the upscale suburbs like Niskayuna and Bethlehem and Delmar and so on, even Saratoga Springs. And the copycats—Saratoga Springs now has a farmer's market. Schenectady has a green market. There are farmer's markets all over the place, all of them copycatting our Farmers Market. Downtown Troy used to be the armpit of the Capital Region. We couldn't get people there for love or money. Now, it's what one person calls the Georgetown of the Capital Region. Other people call it the new Brooklyn. Now, if you don't make it to the Farmers Market on Saturday morning, and you're in the Capital Region, you're nobody. Everybody who is anybody, if they want to have any respect for themselves, has to be at the Troy Farmers Market. It's the place to be. So, yeah, we have indicators of success. Troy has definitely turned a corner. Even with the pandemic, which was a big setback for the city, it's still much more alive than it was. I have a lot more optimism about Troy recovering from its Rust Belt nadir in the 1900s.
ZIERLER: Now that we've worked up to the retirement stage, we'll circle right back to the beginning of our talk. For the last part, I want to ask a few retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. In all, if you had to do it over again, are you happy that you had this duality in your career, that you were in academia and then you went into public history? Did being a professor add to what you were able to accomplish? Did it give you a sense of perspective or know-how in doing what you needed to do?
CARROLL: Geez, what did I take away from my academic career? Well, I've always thought of myself as at least moderately capable of holding an audience, for a public presentation. When I did that thing at the Smithsonian for the Einstein Centennial, I think there were a thousand people in the room. I walked in and I practically fainted. But it worked. They all loved it. Part of it was, the first thing I said when I got up to the microphone was, "I can't resist telling you a little personal bit of my life, before we start this. I was born on Einstein's 70th birthday." I told them the story about my mom thinking I was going to be the next Einstein, and of course it wasn't true, but Einstein unwittingly played a role in my career, and I want to dedicate this talk to Einstein. They all loved it. Brought the house down. After that, I could babble in Sanskrit; they wouldn't have known the difference. But lecturing and running discussions with undergraduates who have been up until 3:00 in the morning either playing video games or doing their homework or drinking or whatever they were doing, and then coming into my classroom at 9:00 in the morning, [laughs] gave me a lot of practice in knowing how to structure a presentation so that it works for an audience. That's for sure.
My successes with the good students of course made me think of my career as actually worthwhile. I had a lot of students say that they really liked me as a prof, but the most interesting one was this young woman—I forget her name now—but they had just graduated. I think commencement had just happened, or the end of finals, or whatever. I was in my office, and this kid comes running into my office. She said, "Professor Carroll, I'm going home, my parents are in the car out front, we're all going to head back home, but before I did, I had to come tell you, you're the best professor I ever had." [tearful] That goes a long way. When I took the buyout, they had a reception for all of us who decided to take our swan-dive out of academe. They asked us all to say something. I said I was lecturing in this terrible, one-semester American history lecture course, survey course, that was on the books back then, which I got rid of, and we were doing our one-hour lecture on the Depression and the New Deal.
I was explaining to the students that FDR's strategy was that there was a lot of inequity in American society, in the economy, and what he was going to do was gather up all the cards again and reshuffle the deck, and give everybody a new deal, so that everybody would be treated equally in the economy. There was a woman named Mary—last name starts with an "E" but maybe it's better if I don't make it public—sitting right in the front. She was a pretty good student. She was like a B+ student. She wasn't an absolutely outstanding A+ student, but she was very attentive, and she always paid attention to everything I did, really liked it. When I said that about dealing out the cards and it was a new deal, she went, "Ohhhhhhhh!" [laughs] And all the other students laughed at her. They thought it was very funny that she did that. She was very embarrassed. When the class broke up, I went over to her and I said, "Don't worry. They didn't know that, either, but they didn't say anything. It's okay for you to be expressive." When we had the reception, when I took the buyout, I said, "Until the day she dies, that kid is going to think of my class [tearful] whenever she hears the term ‘New Deal'."
What else did I take from it? Well, I certainly took [laughs] from it that people in administrative positions aren't going to have your best interests at heart, and you have to pursue your own course to get what you want. I learned that the hard way. Of course, it expanded me. I read a lot. At Penn, I read a book a day for two and a half or three years, before my qualifying exams. At RPI, I kept that up and read maybe a book a week or two, just to keep up with the coursework and the students and whatever else was going on. That greatly broadened my perspective on things. It greatly broadened my knowledge of U.S. history generally, instead of the history of science and technology. I have a couple of students who went on—I have a student, Stuart McCook, who was my master's student for a while, he has just now stepped down as dean at the University of Guelph, Ontario. He's Canadian. He has published a couple of really, really well-received books. Colleen Feltmate, one of my favorite students ever, is a very prominent laparoscopic surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and teaches minimally invasive surgery at Harvard. She has saved lots of lives.
If I had it to do over, and I was introspective enough there in the 1970s to realize how much I loved working at the APS Library and working in museums and dealing with artifacts and primary documents and so on, I don't think I ever would have pursued an academic career. But, the non-academic stuff I did after I left RPI, which in lots of ways was a ridiculous thing to do—I mean, it was very risky, it ruined my research career, it cost Nan and me well over a million dollars in lifetime income, easily, yadda, yadda, yadda—was actually a pretty good way for me to pursue my interest in science, technology, class, and community. If I could get on the lecture circuit, maybe now a little bit, or become an advisor to other places that worry about that, I guess I wouldn't mind doing that. But not much. Most of what I want to do is [laughs] work on that stuff I mentioned before.
ZIERLER: It's such a different mission in public history. What are some of the real pleasures that you have experienced in bringing history to that wider audience, beyond the classroom, beyond your fellow professors, beyond the specialists who read academic papers?
CARROLL: I still have a lot of respect for rigorous academic work, where you publish a paper, and it starts with a very thorough literature search, and it develops a thesis, and it's got lots of footnotes and bibliography, et cetera, but I long ago decided that that's not really my burning concern. I'd rather publish things that address a thoughtful lay audience. They don't have to be a complete lay audience, but a broader, thoughtful audience. The old idea of a public intellectual. What's the most satisfying part of that? Well, I've done a lot of tours. We cajoled—we conned—two out-of-state cruise boat lines into stopping at Troy on their way up and down the Hudson River. It took some work to convince them to let the passengers off, to visit Troy on foot, but they finally did. I used to do three-hour tours of downtown Troy for those passengers. My wife Nan has often been along with me on lots of tours and helped me in lots of ways, besides the way that she has covered our financial needs much better than I have. She pointed out one day, somewhere along the line, when we were doing these tours, that the four words that come out of the mouths of the people who go on all these tours most often were, "I had no idea."
An awful lot of people think they can do history simply because they're interested in it, and they can just look up the past and tell you the story of what happened back in the past. Professional historians simultaneously cringe and snicker when they hear that, because most of it is hagiography or chronology or—there's a whole bunch of terms for stupid ways to do history [laughs]. I guess one of the strategies that I used most often to get beyond that and to bring people around in ways that they otherwise wouldn't have understood the past, or the present, was the thing I did in my signature lecture. My standard lecture is "The Hudson Mohawk Region: Silicon Valley of the Nineteenth Century," and I tell that story. When I get to the end, I say that the most important thing about the transformation of the city of Troy and its environs, as this story of theirs unfolded in the 1800s, wasn't the production of detachable collars and cuffs, or Arrow shirts, or Meneely bells, or all the other things that happened here, or the horseshoes, or the railroad spikes, and yadayadayada. It was the realization that people here had that the industrialization and commercialization in the United States wasn't just going to put a sort of overlay on the way people lived. Leo Marx—wonderful guy, unfortunately he has just recently died, at a ripe old age—on the faculty at the program in STS at MIT, wrote a beautiful book called The Machine in the Garden. I don't know whether you've ever read it. Do you know what I'm talking about?
CARROLL: People originally thought that when the railroads came, all they were going to do was sort of put this cute little steam locomotive into their rural agrarian way of life. They didn't realize that it was going to turn everything completely upside down. I say to people that one of the most significant things that happened in Troy in that era was that they, sort of like the enthusiasts in Silicon Valley in our lifetimes, became sort of proselytizers about the wonderful new world that was unfolding. That we were leaving the old crummy, urban, industrial way behind, and we were going to be post-industrial, and post-modern. We didn't know what that meant, except that of course, it was going to be wonderful. It's like when people first started talking about Wikipedia and the internet. Everybody was going to have access to all knowledge, and it was going to be the best thing since sliced bread, et cetera. They had the same idea about moving to the city from the farm, in Troy, very early on, before most people did. It would make no sense to make a million horseshoes a week in South Troy if the cost of shipping those horseshoes from here to, say, Illinois, was so high that any moron in Illinois could make horseshoes locally and beat them at retail. Part of the reason why Troy took off the way it did was because people realized that they were this wonderful transportation hub here, and that in fact, you could centralize production for a huge distribution network and make people dependent upon you on farms in Idaho, and that people in Idaho would be shoeing their horses with horseshoes made in Troy, New York. I think getting people to appreciate that kind of cultural significance for science and technology and what it did was probably the thing I'm happiest to have done in public history.
ZIERLER: Tom, last question, looking to the future. Going all the way back to the beginning, you listed so many things that would take you to 120 to accomplish. If you had to prioritize, either by what's most exciting to you, what you want to leave for your research legacy, or what you feel is most important for history, what would you put at the top of the list?
CARROLL: Leaving Kansas. I've got 85 pages of that sort of incoherently scribbled out already, and I figure it's about a 300-page book. That's probably the thing I am most eager to do. I'd love to say that I know how to steer fate in the direction I want it to go, and make the resources and the time available and so on and so forth come to my agenda, but I haven't been very good at that, through my whole career. I'm too accommodating to other people. I think that's going to happen again. If in fact we do move to Tucson, to be near my newfound half-brother, who is wonderful—he's like my twin brother who I've never met until I was 72 years old—I may switch to Tiger Townies pretty quickly before I do the Burden saga. I don't know. I also want to do a few essays on things that don't have anything particularly to do with science, technology, and society. I'm not sure I want to go on the record too much here, but I have—like that Carroll fellow, Sean Carroll, who at least used to be, and I think he's now left, but he was on the faculty—
ZIERLER: He's at Hopkins now.
CARROLL: He's at Hopkins, yeah. We're not related, except maybe back in the mists of Irish history somewhere. But like him, I have some unorthodox beliefs about religion and things. Not quite the same as him, but I think I'm going to write an essay for publication somewhere about how I went from being a devout Catholic little boy to what kind of goofy ideas I have now, and what significance that has for other people trying to struggle with what to believe in this crazy world of ours today. I've got a dozen little things like that. I like to write poetry. I might publish a poem here or there. Who knows. I'm not driven enough by my need to focus on the scholarship to make that the only thing I do. Who knows what I'll do.
ZIERLER: You'll keep it interesting, for sure.
CARROLL: But I am getting much more fired up about it. There's a woman at Northeastern, in the Boston area, who has just published something else that relates to the immigrants in American chemistry thing that I talked about that I did for the Einstein Symposium. After I read the review of her book, which was very similar to what I was doing, I sent her an email, and I said, "Do you know about this article that I did? It's very related to you." She wrote back right away and said, "Oh, of course I know about that article of yours! It's great! And I'm trying to put together a bigger database than you have. Would you like to collaborate?" I said, "Sure." So, one of the things I'm doing right now is I've got that database from that article on my desktop of my Mac here, and I'm editing it into a format that she can use, so we're doing a little collaboration with that.
ZIERLER: You'll be busy, no doubt!
CARROLL: Oh, I've never had a problem with being bored. [laughs]
ZIERLER: Tom, this has been a great conversation. I'm so glad that we connected through Paul [Schechter], and this is just great for Caltech history and history in general. I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me.
CARROLL: You're very welcome, David.