Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 14
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  • JOSEPH E. BURKE 1914–2000


    DR. JOSEPH E. BURKE, a key innovator in the “science of ceramic materials” died in Schenectady, New York, on February 29, 2000. Joe’s remarkable life began in Berkeley, California, where he was born on September 1, 1914, to Charles Eldrid and Ruth Enid (Hancock) Burke. He lived his early years in Canada and was a 1938 graduate of McMaster University. He received his doctorate in ceramic science from Cornell University and worked for the International Nickel Company and the Norton Company until being handpicked in 1943 to join the world-famous Oppenheimer-led Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos.

    During World War II, 1943–1946, Dr. Burke worked at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, National Laboratory, where he helped design, build, and manage the first large-scale facility for the preparation of plutonium nitrate and its conversion to bomb cores. Dr. Burke’s contributions to the development of the first atomic weapon were eventually detailed in “Recollections of Wartime Los Alamos: Uranium Hydride Preparation and Plutonium Processing” (Journal of Nuclear Materials, volume 100, November 16, 1981).

    When wartime restrictions were later eased, Joe and his wife, Mary, collaborated on a fascinating report of life in Los Alamos, including Mary’s role in the birth and upbringing of the Burke children and her development of longtime friendships with key scientists of the Manhattan Project and their wives. (Mary triumphed over Mrs. Hans Bethe in securing a prized Los Alamos apartment just in time for an addition to the Burke family. This was while Joe’s reputation for expertise in the development and processing of uranium-based ceramic materials was growing rapidly and steadily among members of the Los Alamos Manhattan Project’s technical community.)

    Together with his wife Mary, Joe also wrote and published “Recollections of Wartime Los Alamos” (August 1995), a book- let that has since become “favorite and absolutely fascinating reading” for countless friends and former associates. (Contact the NAE Membership Office for a copy of the booklet.)

    In a separate paper, Joe said: “Finally plutonium (being produced at Hanford) was introduced at our plant, and the processes operated without a hitch. One difficulty was encountered, however; our plutonium assay did not agree with the amount Hanford said they were shipping to us. I was most grateful for a good accountability system, and we merely kept two sets of books until the difficulty was straightened out nearly six months later. The cause of the discrepancy was that during shipping a very insoluble precipitate formed in each shipping canister, and we were simply not getting out all the plutonium which had been shipped. . . . Once our laboratory- plant was fully operational, we had many visitors. One of the first was Robert Oppenheimer. Since he was a physicist, I did not expect him to understand these chemical and metallurgical operations very well, but he asked good questions. . . . A couple of weeks later he brought David Lilienthal of TVA out to see the new installation and we prepared ourselves to show the pair through our lab. However, Oppenheimer himself took Lilienthal around the whole place, describing it in at least as much detail as we had presented him. He certainly had a fabulous capacity for absorbing information.”

    Joe’s memories of Los Alamos included his great admiration for the talents and dedication of the technical team that had been assembled there; the “almost universal” agreement that the job they were doing was “patriotic and the right thing to do”; and, finally, an absolutely intriguing description of the famous Trinity Test in Alamagordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. (Japan surrendered 45 days later, on September 1, 1945.)

    After the war, Dr. Burke became a faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Metals at the University of Chicago, where he worked on the origins of microstructure in metals and the kinetics of grain growth. (In a note to the Alumni Office, he later wrote, “Through the golden years of Metals Science, I was a metallurgist. . . . I now usually call myself a ceramist or materials scientist.”)

    In 1949 he joined the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL), operated by General Electric for the Atomic Energy Commission in Schenectady, first as a research associate, later as manager of metallurgy. At KAPL Joe was responsible for directing a remarkably successful group of metallurgical and ceramic scientists, but subsequently—after the arrival of a new KAPL director, famous for his insistence on “real engineering” as opposed to “non-pertinent” science—Joe and several other new and longtime associates at KAPL were convinced in 1954 to “move up the hill” to Niskayuna, New York, to what by then was the General Electric Research and Development Laboratory—and is now GE’s Global Research Center.

    Joe soon formed a new group to develop “advanced ceramics.” His research teams made many fundamental contributions to the understanding of this new class of materials; observed and interpreted the microstructure of ceramics on polished surfaces; and invented “Lucalox,” a pore- free alumina, making possible the high-pressure sodium lamps that now dominate much of the world’s lighting products. They also made important progress on the processing of uranium oxide for nuclear fuel and made many advanced ceramics for electronic and electrical purposes.

    From 1972 to 1979, Dr. Burke had assignments in program planning and other special activities at the GE R&D Center. Later he resigned to become a consultant in materials science and engineering. He also served as adjunct professor of ceramics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and as a consultant to GE, the Cabot Corporation, the Gillette Company, TPV Energy Systems, Ind., and several other organizations.

    The principal speaker at Joe’s retirement dinner in May 1979 was Dr. Roland W. Schmitt, GE vice president and director of the GE R&D Center. He had succeeded Drs. Willis R. Whitney, William D. Coolidge, C. Guy Suits, and Arthur M. Bueche as GE’s research director and top technical officer. Dr. Schmitt promptly demonstrated the sense of humor that proved so useful in his subsequent position as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

    Dr. Schmitt: “I remember back in 1954, when I was a physicist working at the bench in the Metallurgy and Ceramics Lab of the Research Laboratory that a metallurgist named Joe Burke joined our organization. Within a month, Herb Hollomon had asked him to form a new Ceramics group. Now you might ask the question that Joe himself has asked in one of his papers, ‘Why should a metallurgist look at ceramics?’ Well, the answer was, of course, that we solid-state physicists had already solved all the problems of metallurgy, so Herb had to find something for the metallurgists to do. But, more seriously, there was a tremendous opportunity to take the remarkable advances in metallurgy in the preceding decades and apply them to ceramics. This was just the charter that Herb Hollomon gave Joe Burke. Ceramics clearly played a large role in the life of an electrical manufacturing company. Metallurgists had developed exciting new tools for examining and understanding materials. There was high optimism that when these tools were applied to ceramics, great things would result. Well, thanks to Joe Burke and his colleagues, the optimists were proven right. Ceramics have scored a number of outstanding successes in such fields as dielectrics, glasses, cutting tools, optical materials, and graphites. But tonight we’d like to concentrate on one area in particular—a story that turned out to be exciting, beautiful, and ‘illuminating’ for Joe Burke, for General Electric, and for the world.”

    There were additional comments (and compliments) about the evening’s guest-of-honor retiree, Dr. Joseph E. Burke: “We have spoken about ‘new tools’ for a ‘new look’ at ceramics. Well, Joe didn’t forget how to also make good use of the ‘old tools’—his eyes—and his microscope. To many of us, what he was looking at would have seemed just like some complicated mess. But to Joe’s trained eye, it was a significant, complicated— and highly useful—mess. The significance was in small regions that were just a little clearer than their surroundings. That told Joe that if you took powder grains of alumina ceramic, pressed them together, and then heated them up, you could observe very small regions that were transparent. Well, not transparent exactly, but a least translucent. The thought then popped into Joe’s mind: ‘If you could do this in very small regions, why couldn’t you do it over the whole piece? And if you did that, then maybe—just maybe—you would have the material the GE Lamp Division needed for a whole new line of remarkable electric lamps.’”

    Also heard during the evening: “We can’t guarantee that Joe used those exact words—but within three years, that’s exactly what happened. A young scientist Joe hired from MIT, Bob Coble, went to work and discovered procedures that, for the first time, resulted in optical-grade polycrystalline alumina. A new material was born—and it needed a new name. The word ‘lucid’—meaning ‘clear’— was put together with the suffix ‘alox’—meaning ‘aluminum oxide’—to form the word ‘loose-alox.’ But somehow that pronunciation never caught on. Perhaps it sounded too much like a laxative. What many rate as ceramic science’s greatest gift to the lamp industry has gone through life mispronounced ‘luke-a-lox’ by millions of satisfied customers.”

    Comments about the guest of honor continued: “Thus, in short, Dr. Burke and his associate not only produced what was often called ‘bendable pottery’ but had even shown new ways to make it light transmitting and even optically transparent, as well as readily formed and suitable for many, many industrial applications. The result of this long and intensive laboratory effort—Lucalox—was licensed and sold for many uses by General Electric but soon became of special interest to GE’s Lamp Division, where Lucalox lamps have had a very extensive impact on the world’s lighting business—and the conservation of energy. The key patents, developed and secured under Joe Burke’s leadership, do not bear his name as one of the inventors, although as his associates invariably say, ‘Joe was the key inventor; he just had a modest policy of not wishing to detract any credit from the scientists who worked for him.’ ”

    Dr. Schmitt himself concluded Joe Burke’s retirement dinner with these carefully selected words: “I want to add that Dr. Joseph E. Burke has also always been an invaluable inspiration and guide to a generation of industrial researchers. His career stands as a model of the type of contribution that can be made by a single individual who brings to his job not only skills and knowledge but also optimism, enthusiasm, and wisdom. In my years at the R&D Center, I can recall no individual who embodied those qualities more completely than Joe Burke.”

    Dr. Burke was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1976. He had been active in the American Ceramic Society (ACS), of which he was a fellow, for many years, and was made a distinguished lecturer in 1972, president in 1974, and a distinguished life member from 1982. From the ACS, he received the John Jeppson Medal in 1981 and the W. David Kingery Award in 1999. He also was a fellow of the American Nuclear Society and the American Society for Metals (ASM) and a member of the British Ceramic Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also was a fellow of the American Nuclear Society and ASM International. Results of his work are documented in six patents and more than 40 technical papers. He was co-author, with A. U. Seybolt, of the book Procedures in Experimental Metallurgy (Wiley, 1953) and co-editor, with D. W. White, of The Metal Beryllium (American Society of Metals, 1955). He also served as editor of a review series, “Progress in Ceramic Science.”

    Joseph E. Burke, by his gentle, likeable, and modest nature, would never have approved of any efforts by friends to describe themselves as members of “the greatest generation.” But his co-workers, cognizant of his truly remarkable career— from key contributions at Los Alamos leading to the end of World War II, to his return to teaching at the University of Chicago, to his managerial leadership at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, to his subsequent reputation at the General Electric Research Laboratory as a key innovator in the “science of ceramic materials” that led to one of the most important revolutions in electric lighting since Thomas Edison’s original invention—surely his friends would have been quick and proud to agree about Joe Burke’s greatness.

    Was he truly part of the greatest generation? Joe could have reluctantly admitted that “perhaps we might have been.” But his friends and associates would have insisted that theirs indeed was the greatest generation, while emphasizing the significant contributions of both Joe and Mary Burke.

    Joe’s survivors include his second wife, Marjorie Ridgway Burke, of Eskaton Village in Carmichael, California; his son Charles Robert Burke of Concord, Massachusetts; his daughter Margaret (“Molly”) Burke VanDecar of Guilderland, New York; and four grandchildren. Kathleen Mary Wilson, his first wife, died in 1996.

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