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This is the first volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.
BY ARTHUR M. BUECHE
Richard W. Roberts, Staff Executive of the General Electric Company, died suddenly at his home in Wilton, Connecticut, on January 17, 1978. Dr. Roberts had gained a reputation as an outstanding administrator of research and development, both in private industry and the Federal Government. At the time of his death, he was carrying out a comprehensive study of technology in the General Electric Company.
Dr. Roberts was born on January 12, 1935, in Buffalo, New York. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry, with distinction, from the University of Rochester in 1956 and his doctorate in physical chemistry from Brown University in 1959, with a thesis on the scattering of atomic and molecular beams.
He served as a National Academy of Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow at the Bureau of Standards in 1959-60 and then joined the staff of the General Electric Research Laboratory (now the GE Research and Development Center) as a physical chemist. His initial work was in chemical kinetics and surface chemistry. He quickly also became an internationally recognized authority in ultrahigh-vacuum science and technology and on the properties of atomically clean metals.
Among his outstanding research achievements was his discovery of iodine- based lubricants for difficult-to-lubricate metals. His high-vacuum research indicated that thin film compounds of iodine and metal would significantly reduce friction. He and Robert S. Owens went on to show that iodine dissolved in certain organic liquids performed far better than any other known lubricant in rotating equipment and metalworking applications involving titanium, stainless steels, and superalloys.
In 1965, Dr. Roberts received the first of several successive management positions at the General Electric Research and Development Center. Within three years, he had become Research and Development Manager of Materials Science and Engineering, directing the efforts of 250 scientists and engineers. ''Dick Roberts' achievements as a manager," a close associate has written, "grew out of his ability to motivate people." Another has noted, "He never started a conversation by telling me what he was doing; he always told me, with understandable pride, what his people were doing."
Among his people's achievements during his five years' tenure were the first laboratory production of gem quality diamonds; unique cutting tools for machining space-age materials; new polymers and composites; a wide variety of medical diagnostic devices; and (anticipating the emergence of the energy crisis) the launching of major programs in coal gasification, improved turbine efficiency, and energy storage.
In February 1973, Dr. Roberts was named Director of the National Bureau of Standards. He led that organization through a challenging period, when in addition to maintaining its outstanding programs in the physical sciences, product testing, and environmental areas, the Bureau also underwent a fivefold increase in its energy-related work.
In June 1975 he accepted the challenging assignment of Assistant Administrator for Nuclear Energy in the newly created Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). His responsibilities ranged over such areas as technical work on civilian nuclear reactors, research and development on the proposed breeder reactor, and application of nuclear propulsion to naval uses. In this job he displayed extraordinary talent for communicating with people on all levels, and he earned the respect of long-established leaders in the nation's nuclear programs.
In 1977 he accepted a position on the Corporate Staff of General Electric, with the special assignment of directing a comprehensive Corporate Technology Study, aimed at formulating policies for the management, generation, and use of technology.
Dr. Roberts was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1977. He was a 1975 recipient of the Arthur S. Fleming Award as one of the ten outstanding young men in the Federal Government, and he was a 1965 winner of an "I-R 100" Award from Industrial Research magazine for his work on iodine lubricants. He was a member of numerous scientific and honorary societies, including Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. His scientific and technical work resulted in over 70 papers and 3 U.S. patents. He was coauthor with Thomas A. Vanderslice of the book Ultrahigh Vacuum and its Applications (1963). He became an effective spokesman on technology policy, presenting his views in more than forty general addresses and papers.
Dick Roberts' rapid ascent into important positions of business and government responsibility evidenced his drive, toughness, and productivity. But these qualities were tempered by realism about what people and technologies could accomplish, graceful cordiality, and empathy with others. "He was attuned to the feelings of others," a friend has said. "He could always come up with a note or notion that was personal and special, for secretaries and Nobel laureates alike." He further balanced his immersion in the pressures of Government and industrial bureaucracy by a love of nature, as expressed through camping in the Adirondack Mountains and through collecting a library of the history and tradition of that region.
In all, Richard W. Roberts possessed a rare combination of scientific talent, managerial ability, and personal qualities. The nation has few young leaders of his caliber, making his death all the more tragic.