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RTI Stories

Microelectronics, Civil Defense, and a Cafeteria: RTI starts the 1960s

"We had a softball league, which is how I got to know the guys in the Solid State Laboratory"

At the start of the 1960s, RTI could tout four chief areas of contract research–statistics, polymers, radioisotopes, and natural products chemistry. Although the $500,000 in initial startup money had been exhausted by 1962, the Institute tallied more than $1.4 million in research revenue that year to break even. Confident of a bright future for RTI, North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges included a line item of $200,000 in the state's budget for laboratory equipment. This gesture was duplicated by Hodges' successor, Terry Sanford, who earmarked $300,000 toward additional equipment and instruments in 1963.

The funding didn't stop there. In 1961, Grover M. Hermann, chairman of the Martin Marietta Corporation, pledged $100,000 toward a 20,000-square-foot laboratory named for the late William Trent Ragland, the former president of Marietta subsidiary Superior Stone. Hermann joined the RTI Board of Governors and made additional bequests to the Institute over the years, including a $60,000 Bunker Ramo computer nicknamed "Bunky" by RTI's statisticians. In 1967, to alleviate overcrowding at the Bacon Street Annex, Hermann donated $335,000 for a new chemistry and life sciences building, named in his honor on its completion in 1971.

The Cold War offered new research opportunities. Civil-defense research became a national priority following the downing of an American U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union and the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. RTI formed an Operations Research and Economics Division that won research contracts from the federal Office of Civil Defense and undertook no less than 60 research projects (ranging from analyses of fallout shelters to estimations of nuclear casualties in the event of war) for the U.S. Public Health Service, the Federal Power Commission, and other government agencies.

Another burgeoning area of research was microelectronics. With the assistance of Duke University's electrical engineering department, RTI conducted research on thin-film capacitor technology for Corning GlassWorks, a project led by Robert M. Burger, formerly of Westinghouse and the chief of RTI's first solid-state laboratory. This lab was in the forefront of revolutionary developments in integrated circuitry–the complex chips that paved the way over the ensuing decades to modern smartphones and computers.

By 1966, RTI's annual revenues had grown to $4.2 million, with a staff of nearly 300 people. "Everyone knew everyone else, which helped when we needed to collaborate on an interdisciplinary basis," says James Chromy, who joined the statistics division in 1966. "We had a softball league, which is how I got to know the guys from the Solid State Laboratory." An on-campus cafeteria contributed to the camaraderie; previously, most of the staff brown-bagged it, since the closest place to eat off-campus was located halfway to Durham.